I didn’t need the pandemic to stop my social life, it was already dead in the water. I had not been out at night for over a decade. Trapped in Japan, being a mother, fleeing….none of these things are conducive to being able to socialize or make friends. Telling old friends where I was, or what I was doing was both unfair to them, and a risk I was never prepared to take. Loose lips sink ships, and put fleeing women and children in danger. I lived in fear that someone would be pressured by Mr. Charming and tell him where I was. The fear proved to be based in reality, when on three occasions family or friends were either pressured or inspired to do just that. In short, I withdrew from other people entirely.
I still have the most appalling social anxiety. What if someone hands me in to the authorities? What if someone tracks down my husband and tells him where I am? What if someone tracks down my adoptive family and tells them – they take any and every opportunity to fuck me over. On top of that normal, nice, kind, generous sweet people simply do not understand the severity of what has happened to me. Sometimes they talk down to me. Other times they tell me ‘how it really is’, which is not correct at all. Other times they are far too hopeful. Sometimes my wild and feral ways seep through and then….well then it does not work at all. No. I do not have friends. I do not deal with people, and sometimes that makes me very sad and lonely indeed.
So when someone who is not quite an friend, but more than an acquaintance asked me out for a drink at the Café Vesuvio in the afternoon, I trotted out in a vague sense of unease. Vesuvio is rapidly turning into my regular, my favorite haunt. From the gas lamps which are lit by the bar staff using ancient wooden lighters, to the cat that sits on top of the bar, all art deco and glowing eyes, to the faded perfection of the decoration, and the rows and rows of bottles behind the bar, to the faded bunting and bathrooms which are clean, but belong to a different era, Vesuvio has ‘it’. It is a special place. Where else can you sit knowing Jack Kerouac once sat and drank, and Neal Cassady hung out with Alan Ginsburg? The Café Vesuvio is a perfect bar.
I buy a soda that I can’t drink because the bar has no bottled water or gluten free bottled non alcoholic drinks, and I sit with it before me like an inadequate offering to the Gods and Goddesses of Beat. I am sure they would prefer a whiskey or a cocktail. So would I. My allergies shut me out of life sometimes. I long for a cup of coffee at Café Trieste that I can never risk drinking because they serve glorious pillowy pastries in there that leave glutenous traces on cups. North Beach is torture for someone with allergies, but a finely developed sense of hedonism. Fuck the diet! Forget the allergies! To hell with celiac! Give me a double cognac on the rocks, a milky coffee and a gigantic Danish pastry bubbling with fruit and almonds….then call for the ambulance: I am already in heaven!
I sat with my friend, talking writing and living in the City. She drank her martini dirty, beautifully crafted and poured into a pretty coupe glass, with a few olives speared and sitting in the drink. I stared at my coke and ice that I cannot drink.
The bar’s patrons are divided sharply into two camps: tourists and locals. I am glad to not be part of the former group. The tourists swarm like hungry locusts, demanding service and from what I can see, rarely tipping even a buck for their complicated drinks and the warm and attentive service. I was standing by the bar when a large group of Italian tourists wandered into the warm and cozy Café Vesuvio. Two men, obviously the designated English speakers, walked up to the bar and demanded coffee. I say demanded, but to be frank that is too polite a descriptor. The bartender showed them the drip-coffee machine and said that was the only coffee they had. They waved their hands, and then started to argue. The gist of it was the outside sign said ‘Café’ and so they expected coffee and things that you can find in a café. The long suffering bartender explained that it is called ‘Cafe Vesuvio’ but they serve alcohol and it is not that kind of café, it is just what the place is called. The shorter man threw up his hands, and huffed and puffed and walked off to explain to the large group that was standing just inside of the doorway waiting for their espresso. I personally would not have bothered to direct them towards Café Trieste just round the corner, which is the kind of bar that does serve coffee, but the bartender did just that, and breathed a sigh of relief when they left.
The locals sit tapping on their laptops, scribbling in notebooks and watch the sports on their smartphones. They sit at the bar shooting the breeze with the friendly bar staff. They sit upstairs staring sadly at a glass of soda they can’t drink, and wish the bar would stock just one drink in a bottle, not poured into a glass, that they could drink safely.
The walls are covered with local art and beat memorabilia. It is almost like hanging out with Burroughs and Kerouac, their presence having seeped through the bones of the buildings. Just to sit there and exist around other people feels like a danger sport in these post pandemic times, yet there is something infinitely luxurious about doing so. The new normal gets exhausting after a while. I want to sit and not worry about wearing an N95 mask.
Walking into Vesuvio is like suspending reality for a few moments. You walk through that door, and the beat up feel of the building transforms into something infinitely welcoming. The soft gas light of the lamps, the glow of the cat’s eyes, the way the flame plays off the bottles behind the bar all calls out ‘stay a while, you don’t have to go yet!’ No wonder Kerouac stayed at Cafe Vesuvio all night rather than go to a tedious meeting with Henry Miller! Just one more drink, just one more hour, just one more moment sitting wondering how the world outside moves on at triple pace, while from up on Vesuvio’s balcony everything has its own timing. It is a clock that runs slightly backwards. You can enter Vesuvio at 3pm, have three drinks and five splendid conversations, and leave at 2.59pm and thirty seconds, or so the legends say.
Every time I sit there I find myself not wanting to leave. The drinks are cheap, the music always good and not so loud that conversations are squashed under the weight of bass, and the patrons varied. I have not been in the evening, so don’t know what the night time crowd is like, but the late afternoon buzz is a sweet mix of local and tourist, hip and arty and businessmen ordering cocktails. The biggest accolade I can give Vesuvio is that it drew me in through those doors, despite the fact I have to be tee total, despite the fact that I can’t find anything my allergies allow me to drink, despite the fact that I am a hermit, despite the fact the pandemic has made me leery of human interaction, despite the fact that I have not been out and about for years and years. If it can make me want to interact with other human beings, then it must be a very special place indeed. I know it is. Where else does Burroughs peer out from a photo on the wall, looking mockingly at the patrons, as if to say ‘you poor schmucks…you have no idea what is in store for you…’ and we don’t. But if the world ends, there are worst places to toast the glory of San Francisco as it was, and as it always will be.