San Francisco has been alternating between beautiful sunny days that make it easy to be alive, and dismal, windy, overcast days that take the life out of living. The day I went to True Laurel was a dismal day. The sun had left a note saying it was closing our open relationship. The wind was hissing a constant chorus of, “I told you so.”
It didn’t matter: The outdoor seating at True Laurel was packed. “Terrence” and I grabbed the only outdoor seats left. Indoors, of course, it was even more crowded. The whole point of opening up all this outdoor seating was to give us options that could reduce the spread of the pandemic. Now it’s just one more way to make a buck.
Even so, the outdoor seating is a great addition to True Laurel, located at Alabama and 20th streets. They do it well, and it probably doubles their seating capacity. Like most outdoor seating areas at bars, it doesn’t really feel like a bar; it feels more like a restaurant with food options. But then, there’s a way in which True Laurel never felt quite like a bar to me.
The problem isn’t the drinks; the drinks are absolutely first-rate, among the best in the city, and inventive, too. We ordered some of the more vegetative items on the menu: I had a “Raisin the Bar” (raisin rum, local amaro, pu-erh tea, oloroso, honey), and Terrence had a “Root of it All” (carrot vodka, cilantro rye, ginger, honey, citrus, soda) (all cocktails $16), and they were delightful.
The problem isn’t the food, which is superb: I didn’t order anything on this visit, but I’ve never had a dish at True Laurel that I haven’t liked. The problem, which al fresco seating did nothing to fix, is the sense that you’re on a conveyor belt. Rather than lingering with friends over drinks, or even meeting new people and having a night of discovery, drinking at True Laurel feels like they’re trying to get you in and out and move on to other customers. Everything is great, except the time.
Terrence and I had been bar-hopping a bit And while we were sitting outside, yes, because that was literally the only table available anywhere, we were also doing it because I was having a pandemic crisis of conscience and was trying not to do things with a bunch of unmasked people indoors if at all possible.
Which … is kind of a problem for bars.
Let’s pull back from this scene for a moment. A scene where, let’s be honest, nothing really happened, except good drinks in a cold wind. There was no cross-talk with other tables, not even the realistic possibility of meeting other people. We sat outside and were waited on, drank our drinks, talked to each other, and left. Which is fine, but let’s pull back.
We’ve been through so many phases of nightlife since the pandemic started over two years ago.
First there was nothing. Everything closed, and we huddled in our social distance. It was horrifying.
Then there were underground activities: A few house parties here and there, underground raves, a few bars that opened anyway and tried to keep it quiet. It felt like risking your life, because it was, and most people didn’t participate in that. Honestly, if you did, it was fair to ask: “What’s wrong with you? What’s going on in your head?”
Then … then … we had very limited re-openings. Bars that were only allowing outdoor seating, under very limited conditions. Conditions that shifted, sometimes gradually, sometimes quickly. Then, when the vaccines came out, we started filling bars again.
Bars were pretty sad and depressing at this point, but it was fascinating to go out and visit them, because what going to a bar meant was being redefined on an almost weekly basis. Up until this point, at least in my life, it had been so obvious what a “bar” is and does that it had never even needed discussion. Now it was up for grabs, changing all the time.
But we were in it together. At least in San Francisco. We had a strong consensus on vaccination and masks and safety. The rules changed, but we ourselves were unified, and we paid attention to what conditions were. Through delta, and the new year, and into omicron.
Now … now … bars are bars again. They’re fully back, only with QR code menus and a lot more outdoor seating, and the occasional vax-card check, a rule more listed on signs than observed in practice. Our nightlife is fully returned and restored. As if the pandemic were over.
But the pandemic is not over. On the contrary; it’s lashing through our community. We’ve been in the midst of one of the largest peaks since this began, it’s just not as fatal … right now. Who knows what the next variant brings. It’s already more contagious, despite vaccines, and it keeps mutating.
Which means that going to bars now has one element that it never used to have in this way: Deadly conspiracy. Each time we cross the threshold, we are winking at each other and whispering “shhhhh,” because we know there’s a good chance that people in here are actively spreading the plague, and we’re just going to ignore it and have a good time anyway. And the people most likely to go out to bars and clubs are, in many ways, the people most likely to be spreading covid, because they’re going out to indoor spaces filled with strangers.
I have to admit to you, I’m really struggling with this. Not in a moralistic, finger wagging, “how dare you people go out and have a good time,” way, but in a “what is the world right now?” way. For the last two years, writing about bars was about documenting a society in convulsions, trying to figure out how to get through. For the last two months, writing about bars has been documenting my personal breakdown. The way I have avoided indoor spaces, flinched at the idea of walking into inviting taverns, and … most painful of all … how frightened I’ve become at talking to strangers in close quarters.
Have I gone mad? Has the world? Is this a trauma reaction to pandemic conditions? Have I gotten gun-shy after my own bout with covid? I don’t know. This isn’t a rational set of beliefs that I follow carefully. A friend saying “aw, c’mon,” can easily push me past my comfort zone on some days, but not others. Some days I do the things I’m terrified of, but badly. And some days I don’t.
If we’ve learned anything from QAnon, it’s that conspiracies make us crazy.
Going to bars in San Francisco, we are living in a conspiracy, but we are not all in it together. So many of us are ignoring the reality we live in, while many others are trying to pay attention but making up their responses as they go along, and still others remain for large part in hiding … although maybe they have to take the bus, where there are no longer mask mandates.
Bars are doing what they have always done, we have them back. I’m not sure if I’ve made the journey with them, though: Each time I go out now is its own mental health check. I discover whether I can make it out the door when I do, I learn if I am up to talking to strangers when I don’t.
Terrence and I finished our conversation and didn’t linger; it was just too damn chilly. True Laurel was fine. Absolutely fine. If you’re looking for great drinks and food, you’ll find it here. Sitting outside, I was in little danger. The table was nicely spaced away from the rest. Surely the only danger there was whatever we’d brought in ourselves.