Done alone, a night of drinking is considered sad, unhealthy, even pathetic. Pretty fun too, if you ask me, but I once had a therapist who told me otherwise. An adventure in the company of friends, on the other hand, promises shared experience, a way to fortify and express friendship. In either case, setting means a lot. Draining a few beers on a weekday evening at a dive three blocks from my house is a pleasant, if fairly pedestrian activity. I pair it with a game I want to watch, or someone I'd like to see. It's technically going out, but too close to home to feel very exciting. If I’m making a night of it, I prefer to leave my neighborhood and go somewhere far from the places I do laundry, buy groceries, and wait for buses, a setting where I won't see anyone I don't want to see, or suffer the irritating, familiar personalities populating the Mission on weekend nights. I also like going somewhere where good eats await in the early morning hours. When I can, I go to Chinatown.
I'm aware white people have been pursuing "exotic" vice on Grant St. for a century-and-a-half. I don't feel part of this tradition. At least, I’d hate to be some obnoxious urban explorer strolling jauntily down narrow stone streets, ducking red lanterns, hoping to catch a whiff of opium sliding out from under a door as I head to Li Po Lounge or Buddha Bar to sip the same drinks I can order anywhere else. I don't fantasize about gambling dens teeming with shady characters. I've read up on the salacious criminal history of the place and seen a few movies, but the allure has little to do with Chinatown's past, and a lot more to do with its present.
At around 7:30 on Friday night, I crossed the intersection of Grant and Bush, and walked up the hill, under the Dragon Gate. As I walked north, past a parade of seafood restaurants with their dedicated hawkers trumpeting specials outside and drab shops selling cheap baubles and katana blades, a procession of tourists headed in the other direction, back toward their Union Square hotels. Families with sulking teens dragging behind, elderly couples in hiking boots and bad hats -- they were finishing up their visits to the hallowed strip. They had snapped their pictures, scarfed their expensive dim sum lunches, and purchased a few curiosities to haul home. Dusk was settling down. They were exiting the premises, relinquishing it to the locals and anyone else coming through. It felt like a reverse commute. By 8:30, the streets were nearly empty, and I was at the Buddha Bar with a friend, my hand wrapped around an extremely cold bottle of Budweiser.
Save for us and the bartender, the bar was empty too. A few hours and several drinks later, other actors had entered the scene: a strange, lurching man with gigantic headphones covering his ears and an inability to stay upright on his stool for more than a few minutes, a tall, talkative blond lady, and a waitress in a red dress from the restaurant next door. The waitress was talking shit to the bartender, singing badly and loudly along with The Righteous Brothers emanating from the petrified jukebox.
You lost that lovin’ feeling
Whoa, that lovin’ feeling.
By 11 p.m., the blond lady was playing Liar's Dice with the bartender. If she lost, he said, she would remove some clothing. If he lost, she said, he'd pour ten free drinks. She won and passed the cherry-topped cocktails out like grocery store samples. The lurching man was gone. The waitress left and came back again. She knew the blond lady; they had cigarette after cigarette outside, cackling. The blond lady had just returned from Vegas, where she'd ditched a wealthy boyfriend only after running up a monstrous tab on their luxury suite. She was drowning out the wheezy jukebox chattering on about the boyfriend and others she'd had. The bar was her stage, the customers her captive audience.