(Also, mind the longest post ever written).
I sat at the bar waiting for Toby, sipping a beer and reading my book. While I’m not usually drawn to the bar at a restaurant, I found myself sitting there. For me, a very intricate (sometimes unconscious) desired seating arrangement is put into place while out to eat. First, I like a good booth. There’s nothing more comforting than a dark wood-lined booth. I like the dynamics and that most of the structure is nailed down, a wobbly table leg or a shaky chair can ruin a meal. Next, comes a table against a window or a wall. I like to lean. If the table is placed in between two other tables and inside the restaurant that table quickly drops into last place. I’d rather wait for the booth.
Then, there’s the bar. Sitting atop a wobbly metal rod padded in pleather-covered foam has its benefits. I see three reasons for sitting at the bar: One, is the speedy download you get for receiving more booze. Another reason to sit at the bar is if the restaurant is full. And lastly, it’s also the place people sit in hopes of blending in while they’re alone. The bar is the New York City of restaurant seating; busy, but not necessarily social; opportunistic but not necessarily accommodating.
Between the turning of pages I took in a bit of my surroundings. The waitress was blond. She was friendly, on the short side and a little chubby. There was a plate of watermelon set out for us bar-dwellers to snack on. They were speared with toothpicks. There was a sign on the wall asking that we help the president by drinking more beer. There were two women to the right of me. They sat down right after I did. They were in their late 30s or early 40s. One was a redhead with a nose ring, the other a brunette. There were two TV sets relieving us from the burden in figuring out where to rest our eyes.
Toby showed up about 20 minutes later. We kissed and decided to stay at the bar considering the restaurant had no booths. I ordered a cheese pizza. Toby ordered a veggie burger and fries. On top of all that, we decided to split a side of onion rings.
We continued to talk for a bit, sharing our days and the hours that made them. And then the onion rings showed up. They were huge. There were so many of them, just piled on there like a huge mountain of fat. But they smelled perfect. And then the redhead next to me began to talk a bit louder. “Maybe we should get some onion rings too. They look good.” She looked from her friend, directly to the waitress, “Do you have a half portion of those?”
I interrupted, “We have a half portion right here!” I said grabbing the basket. “You can have some of these. You’ll be doing us a favor. Trust me. Please.”
The waitress laughed. I think she must have thought I was kidding. Truthfully, there was no way we could have eaten the amount of food we ordered. I asked her to bring them two plates.
The redhead began to playfully refuse, “NO! I couldn’t. Are you sure? That’s SO NICE. You two are so nice. My god! How can you just want to give us your onion rings! That’s so nice! We can’t. Are you sure!?” I handed her the basket.
“You’ll give us another 15 minutes of life by helping us eat these.” Toby said. And so she obliged.
“Where are you two from?” Asked the redhead.
“Well, we live here now. But we’re from back east.” I answered and backed up a bit to include Toby in on the conversation. “We just moved here from DC.”
“Oh! Wow! I was from back east—but a long time ago. We thought you were european. Didn’t we?” She looks to the brunette. “Didn’t we think they were European? They look European. You look European.” She popped half an onion ring into her mouth.
“No. DC. We’re from DC.” Toby confirmed.
“Well, let me warn you about this place…” She trailed off and looked back at the brunette who was drowning her already oil-saturated onion rings in ketchup. “NO! I won’t make this negative. I will start over.” As if thinking out loud while repeating the words learned at a self-help group or once said by her shrink, she nodded her head to no one in particular. The brunette nodded too as if programmed. The redhead started over.
“Are you two married?” She asked.
I handed her the basket of rings again. “Have some more. Yes, we’re married.”
“How long have you two been married?” She questioned.
“We were married in January.” Toby answered. “We eloped on the 3rd.”
“You’re newLEEweds!” She said, pulling at the ee’s as if she wanted more from them. “I see! Well, be very careful here. San Francisco is a wonderful place. It’s a lovely city. But BE VERY CAREFUL!” She looked back at the brunette who was nodding vigorously.
“Yes. Be careful. There’s an underground scene here that you’ve never seen before. A dark underground. An underground that can suck you in….” The brunette was interrupted by the redhead.
“Yes! Believe me, there’s a REESon they say ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ there’s a REEson for that saying. Just be careful. People move here, and their marriage falls apart. San Francisco is pretty. There’s a lot to do, but the underground here is the biggest, darkest and seediest of all.”
Suddenly, the baseball game on TV set seemed unbelievably appealing. And the table in the middle of the room, surrounded by loud people, became inviting and warm. We continued to eat while she talked about the dark side of San Francisco and her brunette friend nodded in agreement to everything she said.
Somewhere below San Francisco and its fog there is a dark side of life, an underground that apparently claims, chews up, and spits out married couples in from the east. Could they have been referring to drugs? Sex? Sex and drugs? Swing scenes? C.H.U.D.? Or worse, are there Republicans making up the underground voting for Kerry, marrying gay couples, and giving their money to the poor. Maybe the underground has no carbs. Is this underground a hell? Are there MOLE PEOPLE down there like we had back in New York? What IS this underground scene that they speak of that I haven’t ever imagined or seen before? Do they have any idea what this did to my obsessive compulsive imagination?
After several days of imaging this underground we were warned about by a 40 year old redheaded devil sitting atop a barstool, I have decided what it must be. Below the streets, someplace out of site from both Toby and me, there is a restaurant without walls or windows. In its center there is a massive bar surrounded by the lonliest of bar stools. Its floor is lined with wobbly tables and rickety chairs, kept steady by sugar packets and napkins. Here everyone is a party of one and there are no TV sets to ease the discomfort of strangers. And instead of onion rings and juicy fruits, they serve up the thousands upon thousands of hearts that this city has claimed over the years. One by one they’re speared with toothpicks and brought out on watermelon plates or in baskets for each of our single human consumption.