I have such conflicted feelings about Manny’s. Can we talk?
Manny’s, at the corner of 16th and Valencia, is not just a good corporate citizen but probably one of the best. It’s not just a cafe, it’s a deliberately designed progressive community meeting place that supports local causes, is politically active, and has a performance space for art events. It offers that space to many groups for free. It has a small bookshop filled with relevant books like “The Children of Harvey Milk” and “Health Justice Now.”
Its food is supplied by a nonprofit that hires the formerly incarcerated. And the Manny of “Manny’s” worked like hell to get this place open and running in the face of an extra helping from the buffet of crazy that everyone who wants to build something in San Francisco is forced to wade through.
Manny’s is exactly the kind of business we want in San Francisco. Supporting it feels almost like an obligation. And that’s also my problem: I have never, not once, had an experience at Manny’s that hasn’t felt like living through an obligation.
What’s my problem?
I was wondering this as I sat outside at one of the many outdoor tables Manny’s has set up, because Manny’s is good that way. The weather was a little wretched, which is certainly not their fault: Just too damn windy. But even if the person I was waiting for was inclined to sit inside (which I doubted), there were no tables available indoors, which is also not fair of me to blame on Manny’s, even if it is a recurring problem: Manny’s is so popular that it’s often hard to get a seat, especially while the event area is shut down.
But it’s not just that. When I get a seat at Manny’s, I feel like I’ve agreed to sit through the second part of a continuing education credit.
It was the afternoon, and I was drinking coffee, not booze. I’d have a mocha and an apple turnover, and the person I was meeting would order a tahini chocolate cookie, and all of them were really good. No issues there.
My friend wants a second child, and she’s been struggling because it looks like she’s going to need medical help to get there. Just by the numbers, surrogacy seems like a much better option for her than in vitro fertilization. There are other advantages too: having a surrogate means you get to skip the painful parts of pregnancy. But that’s also one of the reasons she doesn’t want to do it. Her first pregnancy was so hard, such a trial, that she craves the potential of a do-over. She wants to reach a sense of peace with her body as it carries her child.
Having a surrogate for her next pregnancy means that the hard, often ugly, road she experienced the first time is it — what giving birth was to her, and will be for all time. Maybe that’s just something she has to come to terms with, but she craves a chance to change that, to have a different experience when she thinks of this experience for the rest of her life.
We don’t always get second chances. For all that I’ve been going out to public places a lot, I have been incredibly nervous of late, even terrified. Sometimes I’m almost paralyzed by the fear that I could infect the people I love with Covid-19. It’s a fear that has grown as many of my much more cautious friends have raised their hands on social media and told everyone “I need to quarantine now.”
I told this to a friend of mine who I went on a road trip with recently, and she reminded me that she knows this struggle intimately. Long before covid, she infected her mother with a disease she didn’t know she had, and they both had to go to the hospital. She walked out. Her mother didn’t.
“I went through the whole roller coaster of ‘I didn’t do anything wrong, but I killed my mother,’” she said. “You can’t carry that with you. I’m telling you: there’s no other way out of that. Eventually, you have to put it down. You have to accept that this is what life is. Part of accepting that is knowing just what these risks are and taking that into account, and being careful, and it sucks. But the other part is accepting how tragic life is and still living.”
She makes it sound so easy, when in fact it was one of the hardest, most terrible, experiences of her life. The woman sitting across from me outside Manny’s was on the precipice of such a decision: No matter what she chooses, she’s going to ask herself “what if?” and the best thing to do, the only thing to do, is to keep walking into whatever choice she makes, and live it fully.
“Hey,” she asked me, putting her coffee cup down, “can we go somewhere else?”
We walked a block and a half down to The Monk’s Kettle, which has plenty of outdoor seating with heaters. They’re so on their game there. She orders a Pomme Springs cider, a cider made from pineapple quince fruit, aged in a brandy barrel barrel, coming in at a very respectable 8.4 percent ABV. It tastes more like a cocktail than any cider I’ve ever had. I forwent my usual Belgian-beer-brewed-by-monks to order a Cellermaker coconut “bulletproof” porter, a beer made with coffee and toasted coconut. It is surprisingly delicious.
“Here’s to experimentation,” I said, and we clinked glasses.
After she left, I lingered at the table for a while and a friend I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic walked by. We embraced, he sat down, and we talked about how he’d quit his job not long before the pandemic and then been unexpectedly out of work for a year and a half. But he just started a new job in December, and while he may just be in the honeymoon phase, it is so far a very good honeymoon. He’s happy at the other end of that difficult transition.
After he went on with his day, I walked back over to Manny’s. I ordered a chai and found a seat inside. The chai was delicious, and the atmosphere still didn’t work for me.
Partly, I think, it’s because Manny’s is trying so hard — so self-consciously hard — to be what it actually is. I feel that effort everywhere: Manny’s won’t let you forget that it is, in the words of its website, “a community focused meeting and learning place in the heart of San Francisco.” And … doesn’t that sound more like the mission statement of a WeWork spin-off than it does a place where interesting people like to drop by and hang out?
But the tone of that mission statement fits. Everytime I come here, it’s obvious that most of the other people at Manny’s are having meetings. They’re not sitting and reading a novel, they’re not talking with someone about art or literature or physics; they’re on their laptops comparing product specs. They’re networking. They’re integrating vertical brands. I’m sure SOME people come to Manny’s to just relax and hang out, but they’re barely noticeable in the crowd of people who are chasing after ROI.
Just across the street on Valencia is Muddy Waters, where I can walk in, order a drink, sit at a table, and have a moment that exists for its own sake. Going to Manny’s makes me feel like I need to swipe my fob.
I’m in Manny’s right now, typing this review, plunging my knife into a business that is trying —with a genuine sincerity that is rare and precious — to be a place this city needs. And probably succeeding. Damn it, I resent myself for being honest about this.
Manny himself walks by me. Waves to the room. “Goodbye everybody!” he says.
The room barely notices. “Goodbye, Manny!” the woman behind the counter says.
Hey, man, thanks for doing this in spite of me. I’m really sorry. It’s obvious a lot of people like what you’ve made. I’m grateful for what you’re doing. I’m just not your customer. Maybe someday.