“If my boss leaves, then in another six months I’ll probably try to find a new job,” says “Jamee” — and I’m glad we’re having this conversation in the 500 Club, because it’s the kind of open-all-day neighborhood dive where I can easily imagine generations of San Francisco workers saying “they don’t deserve me!”
A Mission fixture for almost 70 years now, the 500 Club has resisted every wave of gentrification since San Francisco became cool, and it shows. It’s a well cared-for place, but not the least upscale. It has a two-sided bar in the middle of the space, dividing the room into separate halves. I counted two TVs, one for each side.
“This place has art like they’re afraid of wall space,” Jamee said.
The 500 Club isn’t packed at four in the afternoon, but nearly every seat is taken after we sit down at the far side of the bar. The bartender was right there, however, putting napkins down and asking what we wanted to drink. It’s not the kind of place where they have drink menus, or a top shelf, and Jamee looked confused.
“Well,” the bartender said, “what kind of flavors do you like?”
“I like fruity, sweet, girly drinks,” she said.
It’s not really that kind of place either, but he rallied. “I can make you what we call a fruit punch,” he said. “It’s basically all the juices we have, mixed together with rum.” ($7)
“I’ll take it,” she said.
“Make it two,” I said, trying to be supportive.
He got them out to us fast, and then was off to serve other customers.
We clinked glasses and drank.
“How is it?” I asked.
She made a face and took a long time to answer. “Needs more pineapple juice,” she said. “There’s grapefruit juice in it, and there really shouldn’t be. But you can’t deny it has rum.”
Suddenly the bartender was back. Had he seen the face she made? “If you don’t like it,” he said, “I’ll make you something else, no problem. You just say the word.”
She hesitated. “No, it’s okay,” she said. “I just haven’t had a drink in 10 years, so I’m easing my way back into it. This is good.”
“Oh, yeah, that’ll do it, that’s a process,” he said. “Ease into it. and if you do want something different, I’m here, just tell me.”
“Thank you,” she said, and then he was off to talk to other people.
“You … you haven’t had a drink in 10 years?” I asked when he was gone.
She shrugged. “I wanted to make him feel good,” she said. “Plus they’re playing REM, which is my favorite band.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I took another sip.
The 500 Club was almost packed when we came in at 4. By 4:15, it had almost cleared out. Not empty, but plenty of space. The people who were left seemed to be regulars, the kind the bartender said, “I haven’t seen you in a while” to, and who shouted at each other across the room about mutual friends who are in bands that will be playing nearby tomorrow night.
Fifteen minutes later, it would be hard to find an open seat again. People seem to come to this place in waves, a rolling cascade of neighborhood people.
“Hey,” I said to Jamee, “you’ve lived in the Midwest for almost your entire life … ” she rolled her eyes. But it’s true, and that’s where we met a long time ago. “What kind of presence was San Francisco to you then?”
She blinked at me. “What do you mean?”
“Well, was it a place you thought about a lot? A beacon of progressivism? A leading city? Or was it just one more place you’d heard of, like Tulsa or Fort Wayne?”
She considered the question for a moment. “Well, it sounded like an interesting place, but it wasn’t a big deal. What are you asking?”
“It’s interesting, because when I came here there was this pervasive sense — I heard it all the time — that San Francisco was an example that the rest of America was looking up to. Progressive activists here seemed to think that they were moral leaders, setting the bar for others to follow. And … I kept wondering ‘where does this come from? Who do you think you are?’”
“No, nothing like that ever came up. I never heard anybody suggest that we should be looking to San Francisco for anything.”
“I never heard it before I got here, and haven’t heard anybody here say that in a while. I think the idea got gentrified out. People really did used to come here because they wanted to be part of an art scene, or a political scene, or because we were an unusual haven for gay rights. Now people mostly come here because they want a Silicon Valley job, and I imagine that has an impact on civic pride.”
“Yeah.” She took another sip of her punch. “Okay, this is miserable,” she said. “I really want to be done now.”
“He offered to make it right without even being asked! You told him a story about not drinking for a decade! He did his job well! At this point I think you have only yourself to blame.”
She nodded. “I do see that.”
“Damn right.” I took another sip, and considered. “You haven’t traveled much. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?”
“A hot spring in Japan,” she said immediately.
“Really? Okay, why a hot spring?”
“I’m a lover of comfort,” she said. “And they’re beautiful.”
“Fair. And why in Japan?”
“I’ve seen them in anime,” she said. “It looks like the good ones are forbidden to women and foreigners, though. They have ones for women and foreigners, but I want to go to the ones where I’d be forbidden.”
I nodded. “Are you a doer of forbidden things?”
She hesitated. “I’m a person who does forbidden things safely,” she said. “I’m the good kid who makes friends she’s not supposed to, but they’re always nice people. I’m the person who habitually speeds when she’s sure there’s no cops around.”
I nodded and considered this as the 500 Club bartender came back. “How’re you doing?” he asked. I’d been watching him, and he seemed to know everybody here by name except us. I was really starting to like him.
“I should have something else,” Jamee said. “I …” she paused.
I jumped in, because either she really didn’t know what she was doing or because I wanted to avoid another series of lies. “Let’s get her a cosmo, I’ll take a Manhattan.”
“You got it,” he said.
“I’ve heard of a cosmo, but I don’t actually know what’s in it,” she told me as he worked.
“It’s vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice, and I think lime,” I said. “A Manhattan is a whiskey drink, but they’ll come in the same kind of glass.”
“Okay. You think I’ll like it?”
“I think it’s as good a choice as any. Now, okay, I get hot springs. But why the hot springs in Japan? Why not California or Mexico?”
She gave me a stunned look. “There are hot springs in California and Mexico?”
Honest-to-God I wasn’t sure in that moment if she really didn’t know, or if she was fucking with me the way she had with the bartender. She can walk that line between “naive Midwestern girl” and “mind fuck” so well.
I decided to play it straight. “Ah, yeah … ”
She shook her head. “If I’d known that, I’d probably be there now.”
How could it be possible, I wondered, for someone not to know that there were hot springs elsewhere in the world? On the other hand, how was it possible that so many urban sophisticates used to think that people around the world were looking to San Francisco as a beacon … and also coming here to jump off our bridge? To me, not knowing that California has hot springs is just a curious fact you don’t know. Thinking that the world was looking to San Francisco for leadership … that was a delusion.
The bartender set Jamee’s cosmo down and started working on my Manhattan. She gingerly took a sip, and then smiled. “I see the appeal,” she said. Both were good examples of the form, and our four-drink bar tab would be under $40. Pretty damn good.
“Where would you go?” she asked me. “If you could go anywhere?”
I sighed. “I don’t know. I mean, I have a whole list of places in the world I think would be amazing to visit, but … since the pandemic, I’ve developed a kind of travel anxiety. I don’t go many places anymore, especially not just to go someplace the way I used to. Instead, I think about people I know, and what kind of things I could do with them if I visited. It’s a lot less adventure travel and more ‘Hey, friends, let’s put on a show!’”
Maybe, in some ways, I’m looking for the qualities in a trip that you get in a good neighborhood bar. I’m glad the 500 Club hasn’t changed much.