“It means I’m getting old,” Peter said. “But I like that this bar hasn’t changed. I’m glad that it has absolutely refused to gentrify, sell out, or keep up with the times in any way. The drinks are still cheap, and it’s exactly what it was.”
We’re sitting in Uptown at Capp and 17th streets, a bar that was founded by San Francisco Cacophonist Scott Ellsworth decades ago. When Ellsworth died, he left it to his employees, and this has led Uptown to be true to itself. It is a vision of San Francisco that is often defended by people who weren’t here to live it, but rarely preserved by those of us who are here now.
Peter introduced me to Uptown a long time ago, and when he’s in town it’s where we go to catch up. Peter knew Ellsworth, back in the real old days before I came along. Back when it sometimes seemed like gangs of roving anti-artists could run this city, instead of being the last loyal opposition against macro-economic trends, part of a culture vanishing like the fog.
Peter was drinking a beer when I arrived. I ordered a gin and tonic: $7. Can you believe it? He bought me a drink. He’s been wanting to do that for months, but the truth is, I owed him big. The last time we saw each other was at Burning Man, and I’d pushed myself too hard on a day that was as hot as December is dark. I’d needed to collapse, and he’d taken me in.
“You were a step away from the med tent,” he said as I toasted to his hospitality. He toasted to “old friends.”
We were drinking at the end of the afternoon, but it was already getting dark outside, and even in the brightest days, Uptown resembles a dimly lit rec room with a bar in the middle. The bartender had on a mix of old-time classics; I can’t remember what a damn one of them was, but they were tear jerkers. Those ladies sure could sing sad songs. There were only a couple of other patrons who sat around, minding their own business. It’s often a social bar, but the mood tonight was solitude and old memories.
We have a lot of old times to reminisce about, but that’s not what we ended up doing. The past felt safe and secure where it was. Instead, we talked almost exclusively about the near present, catching up on new things we didn’t know about each other. This is a pleasant change from the depths of the pandemic, when it seemed like old capers and auld lang syne were all we could offer one another, bones of a shared past to be picked clean again and again and again.
So we didn’t reminisce about the moment when we locked eyes after we found out a kid we knew died, and both of us said, “we should have been nicer to him.” We hardly talked about the old friend who died, but when we did, it was like he was still here. We didn’t talk about that beautiful time on the cliffs overlooking the ocean … and it was wonderful that we didn’t have to. Instead, we talked about Peter’s new house in Mexico, where he’s going to move soon. He showed me pictures. It has a pool. He invited me to visit when it’s done; of course I’m going. This is what having a future feels like.
Peter ordered a whiskey sour while I finished up my gin. “I haven’t had one of those in ages,” he said while the Uptown bartender made it. “I was planning to sell my house in California when we moved to Mexico, but I guess I’ll be holding on to it for a while — the state of the real estate market means that I’m underwater on it now. If you know anyone who wants to rent a great house out in the ‘burbs, point them my way.”
It’s strange to me: So many people I know who have or had houses in the Bay Area, who worked so hard to get them, are now among the people most eager to get out, if they can. Is it that we renters just don’t talk about it as much because if we want to leave we just leave? Or are the kinds of people who can’t buy homes in the city also more likely to want to live here until the end?
I gestured to the bartender. “I’ll have a whiskey sour too,” I said. Peter made a noise, started to say something, but then stopped and shrugged. Only when the drink was in front of me and the bartender had walked away did Peter whisper: “It’s not that good.” But of course, it was too late.
He was right. But the drinks at Uptown have never been so good; in a city globally famous for its mixology, they’re fit for a dive bar. They’re generally fine, often adequate, and occasionally meh, like this one was. But it cost me $7. That’s so not the point.
“Did I tell you,” I asked, “that I recently had an artistic comeuppance?”
“No!” he said, laughing. “What happened?”
“I was asked to perform at the Exit Theatre’s last show. They wanted everyone to read or perform something they’d written during the pandemic. During the early part of the pandemic — you may remember this — I was writing these public diaries that were really angry and rough, because I was isolated and in rough shape and was kind of trying to scream through the void as a survival strategy. And as soon as they asked me to read something I’d written during the pandemic, I grabbed on to one of those pieces — the angriest, most jagged, most aggressive, one of them all — but also probably the best-written, the most compelling. So I showed it to them, they said, ‘great!’ and the other week I got up on stage and performed the thing. And …”
I shook my head with wonder.
“ … I absolutely inhabited the role of my own pandemic suffering. I mean, I can put on a good show generally but this … this … was next-level. All that jagged anger and bitter loneliness was rushing through me like an exploding volcano, but I was conducting it. It went into the performance. And … oh man … I felt like a god. An absolute god. I went home and all night I felt like I’d touched the divine. I said to myself, ‘Art can do that!’ But then the next morning, I woke up in a state of complete panic. Full blown panic attack. Desperate anxiety, emotional dysregulation … and I gradually realized that, by inhabiting that moment in time, having all those emotions course through me, now that I wasn’t conducting them, I’d retraumatized myself with the pandemic. I was back in the same emotional place that I was when I wrote it. I was lonely and scared and panicked and angry, so angry, at everyone and everything I’d been angry at back in the early pandemic when I had no human contact at all. It … it took me all day to get myself to calm the fuck down again, it was literally around midnight when I thought, ‘I might be okay now.’ And I told myself, ‘I guess Art can do that.’”
I had expected Peter to laugh a lot, but he only did a little. “Yeah,” he said. “I can see how you would.”
“I’m thinking now that there are a couple things I’ve written that I should only ever read if the moment specifically calls for them.”
“But you’re okay now?”
“Yeah. Yeah, much better. Doing fine. In pretty good spirits, actually.”
“Good,” he nodded. “Good. I … you know, talking with you, I’m realizing that I think I sometimes forget to be happy.”
“I get so caught up in the house … the house always needs something … and projects at work, even when I tell myself I need to do less, it’s so that I’ll free up more time to do something else I have to do. You leave space to be happy.”
“I’m usually not …”
“But you leave space for it. If it happens, you have time for it.”
“That … that is true.”
He raised his glass. “Cheers,” and we clinked meh drinks.
Read previous Distillations here.