Illustration by Molly Oleson

We’re talking about newspapers — actual, physical, newspapers — which, in this day and age, is like talking about Bigfoot. I know this guy who saw one once.

“Did I tell you that when I was living in Vermont,” Maddy said, “there was a local paper for this small city? And I subscribed. And our landlord, who was this right-wing hippie, was very unhappy, because he said it was biased. So he actually built us a separate mailbox, made it in his woodshop, for the property, so that our paper could go in there and he wouldn’t have to touch it or look at it when he got his own mail.”

We laughed, but it was gallows humor. “Right-wing hippie,” I muttered. “I can’t believe I live in a world where that’s really a thing.” 

“Oh,” said Maddy, “Vermont. It’s a thing.”

“New Hampshire,” “Teresa” agreed. “They’re everywhere.”

The three of us were at Bissap Baobab, at its new location on Mission Street between 18th and 19th streets. This was my first time at the new spot, and it felt a little more generic to me than its predecessor, but it’s also been here for so much less time. It takes a bar a while to settle into its identity. Nevertheless, it already has a lively spirit and great energy. It’s the kind of big room you need for live music you can dance to, with a long bar and lots of mostly small tables. I could do without the two TVs — who comes to a bar like this to watch TV? — but with so many great bars and restaurants in the Mission abruptly closing, it’s not a time to nitpick about televisions. Bissap Baobab has atmosphere, live world music, and West African food that I’m pleased to report is still first-rate. Thank God we still have it

Unfortunately, Bissap Baobab also has neighbors who, according to actual, physical newspapers, have been filing noise complaints. I’m assuming these neighbors are supervillains who have come to San Francisco to destroy all the art and culture that the pandemic didn’t get. Is it because their parents refused to let them play the marimba, and so they declared war on live music and now move from city to city, using the power of frivolous bureaucracy to destroy any neighborhood where people smile after dinner? I can’t confirm that. Alternatively, they could be Elon Musk. 

As a result of the complaints from people who are shocked to learn that the city’s premier culture district has culture in it, Bissap Baobab now closes at 10, staff told me, and has been having trouble getting a full liquor license. They serve beer and wine and coconut-infused rum, but all of their cocktails are currently made with soju until the issue gets resolved and the complaints may even take their beer and wine license away. 

So while we still have Bissap Baobab, we have less of it than we could. 

Los Peregrinos Cosmicos play at Bissap Baobab, October 2016.
Los Peregrinos Cosmicos play at Bissap Baobab, October, 2016.

Now, the coconut rum is milk of the gods; I could drink that all night, and probably will start doing so tomorrow. But soju cocktails that aren’t specifically made for soju are a dicey proposition. I tried the Fleur (whiskey, tamarind, ginger, $10), and am sad to report that you still can’t just replace whiskey with soju. The soju substitute drinks taste the way mocktails used to taste before people started taking them seriously. I don’t see the point of doing this to myself. 

That’s another round to you, neighbors, who I am assuming are Lex Luthor. Or Matt Gaetz. 

Maddy and Teresa have been around San Francisco for a lot longer than me — they’re the kind of people who, walking over here, would have conversations about businesses that used to be in the storefronts we passed by. Sitting at our table drinking, they started comparing notes about local artists they knew before they got big, and it’s a fairly substantial list. Of course, it was easier to meet people like that back then, when San Francisco was full of venues where people could perform and hone their acts. Culture needs places to grow, and spaces for people to practice in front of a live audience. 

affordable housing

“I rarely go to stand-up shows anymore,” Maddy said sadly. “I really enjoy the comedians, but the whole environment of the clubs has been bothering me lately.”

“I was a semi-professional stand-up before coming to San Francisco,” I told her, “and I love stand-up as an art form, it can be sublime, but the culture around it was always at least kind of toxic.  When I moved here I tried to find some places to perform, and at every spot I went to I just said ‘nope, I have better things to do,’ and so I stopped. It’s not just a San Francisco thing, I didn’t like the culture around stand-up elsewhere either, but it just seemed so much worse here. I don’t know why.”

Of course, the truth is that I was aggravated by most things in San Francisco when I first got here. I found it to be a city puffed up on its own self-importance, full of progressives who were offended if you didn’t thank them for correcting your grandparents’ politics. Some things haven’t changed. But that was before I started participating, going to the kinds of theaters and underground venues and incredible bars that are increasingly being driven out of the city. My exposure to those places and the communities they nurtured changed my life for the better in so many ways. 

If I could offer one message to the Bissap Baobab’s neighbors, it would be this: If you learn to live in the neighborhood, your life will become so much richer than if you try to force the neighborhood to live with you. 

Maddy had to go early, but Teresa and I hung out for another 40 minutes, watching the place fill up as the musicians slowly trickled in for the show that was going to start.

“It’s really good to see,” Teresa said. “When we first came in I was worried: Is it dying, too?”

Marco Senghor, owner of Bissap Baobab. Photo from Oct. 11, 2009
Marco Senghor, owner of Bissap Baobab. Photo from Oct. 11, 2009.

However much Bissap Baobab has gone through, however much it endured, however much the homeowners association of the Legion of Doom may be demanding that everyone in a nightlife center go to bed by 10, it was very much alive and standing room only.

As we went out the door, someone going in stopped and called my name. It was my neighbor in the Sunset, his girlfriend, and their friend. I have never seen them out of that neighborhood before, and it took me a very long pause to recognize them out of context. 

“How are you doing?” they asked.

“Ah, good. Good! It’s weird seeing you out here,” I told my neighbor.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Like seeing Bigfoot.”

“Are you going in?” his girlfriend asked.

“No, we just left, actually. Sorry, if we’d waited just another minute you could have had our table.”

They gave me puzzled looks. “Have we missed the show?”

“No, I think the band was just about to warm up. You haven’t missed a thing!”

They didn’t understand. Why was I leaving now, just when the show was about to start?

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  1. Correction: Bissap Baobab is open beyond 10pm! check their Instagram page and stories ✨

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  2. Live acts, dance halls and the such have been part of SF history pretty much when it began to grow – and the port attracted the world over – long live Bissap Baobob and other offerings like it

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  3. I’m sure these noise-complaining neighbors never:

    go to live performances anywhere in the city;
    travel by jet since there are people who live near airports;
    have parties in their condos;
    go to fireworks shows;
    attend or even support large gatherings like pride;
    or say anything about the Blue Angels except that they are fascist propaganda.

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  4. Like I’ve commented before, those terrible neighbors will move to Marin or Concord or Walnut Creek soon. Bissap is here to stay. The coconut rum is incredible. Overall gem.

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  5. “who comes to a bar like this to watch TV? ” Who ever comes to watch screenings of Senegal v. France from the 2002 world cup

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    1. More bars, less smug homeowners that want a suburban vibe in the middle of a lively city corridor.

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