“Donna” found me sitting at the bar at Pop’s at 24th and York streets, vacantly staring into space rather than at my phone. “How are you?” she asked as she sat on the stool next to me.
“I’m just coming out of something,” I said, shaking my head. “I was having a perfectly acceptable day, was in a decent mood, was moderately productive. But just after I left the house it got dark so early, and it started raining, and I got on a bus filled with people who made me very aware of human frailty and mortality, and I got a text from a friend saying he’s probably moving out of San Francisco … and suddenly, I lost all hope. I was sad and frightened and filled with despair, and the world seemed to be ending. But eventually, I got off the bus and I started walking and I accepted that my friend can leave if he wants, and it gradually started to pass, and I seem to be coming out the other side now. So I think I’m fine, I’m just …”
She nodded. “You just went through some intense free-floating apocalyptic anxiety, and now you’re coming up.”
“Okay. I appreciate knowing that. I …”
The bartender stepped over and put a tall drink down in front of me. The drink was mixed so that the dark liquor was floating at the top, with the clear mixers at the bottom.
“I’ve never been here,” Donna said. Neither had I. “Do they have anything …”
I shook my head. “No drink menu, so it’s whatever they have on tap or in bottles or that you can ask them to mix up. I got a Dark and Stormy, which I figured was …”
“Very appropriate! Because of the weather and the mood you just went through. Yes! Hmmm.” She looked over at the bartender. “I’ll take a cider.”
Cider is an honorable drink, but something in my expression must have suggested I was puzzled. “I don’t really drink heavily, and so I never feel the need to cut drinking out entirely and go dry for a month like some people do,” Donna said. “But I do sometimes like to cut back a bit, and so this month I’m drinking lower potency drinks. I’m ordering a cider so that, if I want to have another one, I won’t have to feel bad about it.”
A city like San Francisco has three types of bars. The first type are “destination” bars. These are bars that want to be places that the rich and powerful go, that tourists will make a beeline for, that people from all over the region and the country and the world will read about on a website or an in-flight magazine catering to their exclusive tastes, and make a point of going to when they’re in town. Destination bars tend to be high concept and high cost. And, while 10 percent of them will be the absolute best bars in San Francisco, and possibly the world, 90 percent are nothing more than branded schlock from the tips of their inadvertently hilarious mission statements to the bottom of their decor that screams “LOOK AT ME! I’VE GOT A THEME!”
The third kind of bars in San Francisco are secret bars. They don’t want you there unless you’re part of their in-crowd and, to the extent I know about them, they don’t want me writing about them, either. But secrets are damn interesting — at least for a while — as even the way they are inadequate and annoying becomes endearing when it’s part of something hidden.
But we were in the second kind of bar: neighborhood bars. And at first glance, Pop’s is a perfect example of the type. The sign outside is faded. It’s small and relatively narrow, with three televisions tuned to sporting events. It’s dark. Old tyme pictures of sports heroes and local history and booze advertisements fill the walls. There’s a photo booth that looks like it might not work, old beer taps line the walls as decoration, as do bobble-heads of the Giants … you’ve seen this a thousand times. Neighborhood bars sometimes have drink menus, and occasionally have special drinks — especially if they’re tiki bars — but often don’t.
When you’re at Pop’s, it’s obviously a neighborhood bar, and a good one. When you look at its website, though, the category blurs. Its homepage is all about merchandise: hoodies, varsity jackets, t-shirts, blankets, and bottles of booze that are available anywhere. Is it really hard to find a bottle of Jameson? Then there are hospital saline bags filled with pre-mixed cocktails.
Is this the remnant of a desperate attempt to stay afloat while the pandemic prevented them from seating and serving anyone? If so, it’s heroic and admirable. But it’s not how neighborhood bars behave. If I had seen even a glimpse of that kind of hard sell branding while I was there, I’d probably have gotten kicked out for emitting more sarcasm than city ordinances permit in a building that size.
But that wasn’t the experience we had.
Far from marketing at us, the bar staff at Pop’s got out of our way, which is exactly what neighborhood bars do. They’re not trying to be tourist destinations, they’re trying to be the best spot that the people who live near there can hang out at when they have nothing else to do. When Donna put a tin of soft ginger cookies on the bar and said I should have some because she likes to bake but no longer has roommates or an office to take food to, nobody blinked. They just sat there and let us drink and catch up on everything that’s happened in the nearly three years since we last saw each other.
We talked about how we had both needed to find new ways to be alone and new ways to reach out to people during the depths of the pandemic. We both realized we need people in ways we’d previously taken for granted. We talked about her family, half of whom are Trump supporters, and how she tries to keep the family ties strong without sacrificing her principles.
I told her, “I think we’ve all found ourselves asking, these last few years, ‘Did I miss something? Were there signs in their behavior that I could have realized meant they would turn into this? Should I have seen this coming? Or did they really change so much that they are now fundamentally different people than the ones we knew?’”
“Yes,” she said. “I ask myself that a lot. I keep going over small things, wondering ‘was that a sign? Or am I reading the future back into the past?’”
We ordered another round.
Donna is a tarot card reader. She is famous in our circles for doing drunk tarot readings. But she doesn’t so much believe that the cards have the power to see the future as she does that they have the ability to connect us more with one another. The symbols are a way that we can reach each other when we don’t know how to reach each other, something we can be inspired by when we are struggling with something and don’t know what to say.
She brought her cards, and offered me a reading. Because even though we were connecting very well without them, really getting to know each other for the first time, people are the ultimate mystery. We both believe that art and magic help us plumb depths that are hidden from ourselves.
No one knows who we are going to become, though we can look for the signs.
“Something I really appreciate about you,” Donna said after the reading, “is the way you are so honest and open about how you’re doing. I hadn’t remembered you do that until I got here and you told me about the apocalyptic feelings you’d had on the way here, and then I was grateful again. Just get the bullshit out of the way so we can be in a more honest place.”
We stayed at Pop’s later than we’d intended. Eventually, we settled up. Donna was happy to live just a few blocks away, so this really could be her neighborhood bar.
“I love the atmosphere here,” Donna said. “It’s got a great energy. I don’t necessarily want to meet people and mingle with them, but there’s something here I really like just sitting near.”
I’ve observed that during the pandemic, most bars became a lot more like restaurants: places where you sit in a defined space and are brought a menu and served by a waiter and aren’t encouraged or allowed to mix and mingle and have experiences with strangers. Pop’s made me realize the degree to which many neighborhood bars had to start acting like destination bars for a while to survive: Instead of being places where people could just go, they had to push themselves out as destination events, to constantly remind people that they exist and to come up with a pandemic schtick so that people would drop a few bucks on them at a time when neighborhood bars couldn’t be neighborhood bars.
Pop’s seems to have made the transition back. Hopefully the rest of us do, too.