Nothing makes you want to quit Christmas quite like getting dumped in the glow of lights you and the person you had thought was your love had carefully hung together a week or so prior. After all, I had tried at the holidays for my partner. It was his favorite time of year, and my silent gift to him was to go after the whole enterprise with full-on American enthusiasm. Instead, I was left clearing the last of his t-shirts from our dresser drawers while wondering why he hauled the dead Christmas tree to his new place but forgot to pack his prized Dallas Cowboys wine glasses.
A year later, with Thanksgiving over and Christmas looming once more on the horizon, I was reluctant to dive back into the tinsel and ornaments and gaiety that had quite literally colored a miserable season. So I booked a plane ticket to San Francisco and planned to lose sight of the holidays in a comforting shroud of fog.
It was a city that had been kind to me many times, ever since a first radiant summer when I was a little girl and my parents packed us up to live in Berkeley for a few months. The Bay had been there for me in college when I booked a seedy Tenderloin hotel room and ate bad Italian food near the Wharf. It was there as my career kicked off and I caught a taste of SOMA tech glamor on a business trip. And it welcomed me with open arms a year prior when the holidays had faded into February and I flew west to process my grief.
This is all to say that I’d done the tourist track and the new school North Face circuit. I’d seen San Francisco’s charms and the place it’s changing into. And slowly, I’d started to find my way into the gritty, working class town that SF was for so long, and still is, and hasn’t stopped being quite yet. On Valentine’s Day last year, I went to the Blind Cat in the Mission at the recommendation of an old friend and drank tequila with the regulars and lonely hearts who, like me, had nowhere else to be. This time, a few days before Christmas and in a Joni Mitchell mood, I wandered the Mission with the vague idea that I’d return to an old haunt for a second major holiday.
Instead, I got lost on purpose in some back streets I hadn’t wandered yet and passed a promising Dutch door whose top half revealed a bar that looked like a giant red sequin you’d find at the bottom of somebody’s pocket. The whole place was gilt with dark holiday tinsel. A giant Santa presided over the red felted pool table, where a couple skinny girls in cropped jeans played 8 Ball and flirted. A chandelier wrapped in metallic garlands was made up, at closer inspection, of the bodies of numerous naked Barbie Dolls. This looked like a place where an aging Judy Garland would want a pre-show tipple. It screamed “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I’d stumbled into The Phone Booth.
Behind the bar: a no-nonsense woman with a clipped grey haircut and a black vest. She knew everyone else drinking that afternoon, from the pair at the pool table to the older gent at the far end of the bar. “It’s all for Christmas,” he said, pointing at a big red bamboo installation above me when he noticed I was taking it all in. “That’s not usually here.” I was struggling to picture what this place would look like without the glam. I thought I’d want to avoid anything festive, but it was hard to deny the appeal.
Everyone else who wandered in and out was on a first name basis, giving each other sweet shit, and making plans to meet in Daly City for Christmas dinner. We were joined by a woman with a cloud of salt and pepper hair who loved to ski when she was young and had a way of cutting through the bullshit. I was the only one who required introductions, the only one who had to clarify her drink order. When another patron strolled in after work, the woman next to me told me exactly where she’d sit. “It’s right in the path of the heater,” she said. Sure enough, that’s where the latest regular plopped down.
A city is nothing without its citizens, and a good bar is a portrait of its people. Phone Booth was no exception. You spend an afternoon on a barstool there sucking down palomas, and you’ll start to see a picture of San Francisco, of this corner of the Mission, defined by the hues and textures of one impressionistic, hazy conversation at a time.
The glimpse I got that day of San Francisco was one of nearby rent-controlled apartments, of commutes to Daly City and back, of never missing a drink at the old bar even after you’re pressed out of the Mission by the cost of living. The close-knit queer community that still has each other’s back. References to another off-shift bartender’s health woes. The memory of Western winters, sailing through fresh powder. The open invitation to Christmas dinner at one regular’s apartment. The lurchy thrill of an anniversary that has you by turns nervous, amazed, alert. The way you make it work in the Bay area on a Target paycheck. The stories about old loves and past tropical vacations and families formed intentionally, in lieu of those inherited.
By the time I was ready to trip back to BART, I had a kind of Get Out of Jail Free card in my wallet. At Phone Booth, instead of buying a friend a drink, you can buy them a paper card with a nurse printed on it that can be redeemed for a drink at a later date. I saved mine. I was going to be in the city for close to two weeks, and it feels better wandering on your own when you’ve got a token of friendship in tow.
Once, I tried to save an unideal love with ribbon and tinsel and eggnog. My problem with Christmas, however, was not the style, but the substance. I fled to San Francisco not just to avoid an association with one loss, but to avoid the emptiness that so often contrasts the abundance of the season, and emptiness that predated and subsumed that doomed relationship. But the thing about empty places is that they can be filled. A plain dark dive with gilt and lacquer bamboo, a vinyl Santa, reels of red garland, bar stools with strangers who, over a series of years and beers, become something more. A chilly December afternoon filled up with a feeling that a certain former cynic now knows is called the Christmas spirit.
Header image courtesy of Yelp - @Jodi A.