Chronicle of my Last Days in San Francisco, Part II

(I apologize for the delay in getting this post up. I just flew back in to Michigan on June 1, and it has been somewhat hectic getting settled back in.)

At the corner of Jones and O’Farrell Street in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, there stands a rather unassuming-looking residential building. Perhaps it’s a little strange that there is no visible storefront, unlike many buildings around it, and that the outside is painted black at the street level, with simply a couple of plain, wooden doors, but it’s sufficiently quiet during the day and not noticeable enough that you could go past it without giving it a second thought. Located inside the building, though, is Bourbon and Branch, a pretty fancy speakeasy-themed bar, which I visited the previous Thursday during my last evening outing in San Francisco I would have for a while. I didn’t take any pictures due to a “No Photography” house rule, which I was not sure if people followed or if it was enforced, but I didn’t want to push my luck and get kicked out of a bar for a stupid reason. A couple of photos can be found here for those interested.

To replicate the Prohibition-era experience, a reservation and password were required to gain entrance. Though nowadays, you just had to make a reservation for an hour and half period through the Bourbon and Branch web site (I suppose it’s also possible by phone, though I didn’t try, but I should have to make it feel more authentic), and the password would be emailed to you. I made a same-day reservation, and by that time, the main bar was full. The Wilson & Wilson Bar within the building had spaces open still, so I went with that.

By the time I’d arrived, it was just past 6pm, when the bar opened. There was a line forming outside, which seemed a bit off to me since I doubt that during the Prohibition people lined up outside of the speakeasy, but it wasn’t a big deal and realistically speaking probably logistically difficult to handle a large number of patrons otherwise anyway. In spite of that, I’m sure I have walked by the building before and had no idea it was a bar. There was simply a—very likely ironically placed—sign that read, “Anti-Saloon League” (the major lobbying group that pushed for the banning of alcohol nationwide, ushering in Prohibition via the 18th Amendment).

A dark-haired hostess in a black dress came out and asked to see our IDs and the password before leading us inside in small groups into the very dimly lit main bar. She then verified that we were on the guest list and checked our names off. I was led up a tiny flight of stairs, through a door that I would later discover I could not open from the inside, and into the Wilson room.

The atmosphere throughout the building was relatively subdued and quiet, but the moment I stepped through the door going from the main area into the back room, there was a noticeable rise in volume in music, and the conversation by association, louder relatively speaking, but never loud like bars usually are. It was a lot brighter too, allowing me get a clear look at the retro décor, from the wallpaper to the vintage-looking furniture. It all really felt like stepping into the past or a scene from a period piece film.

I didn’t think to ask where the bar’s name came from, but it was pretty easy to guess—and verify with the internet—that it was the name of a drink (bourbon whiskey and water, fyi). I did learn from my very friendly bartender the story behind why the back room was named the Wilson room and associated with a web page for a “Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency.” Unfortunately, it was not, as I had believed, that a detective by that name actually operated next to the speakeasy that had been there historically, and not only turned a blind eye but even used the drunken patrons for information, which would have been pretty cool to be honest. The idea for the name instead came from the discovery of belongings of a woman named Lorraine Wilson in the walls between the main bar and what would become the Wilson room. Other items found included including books, which are now displayed throughout in the bar, and a pair of bloodied gloves. Yes, bloodied gloves. It’s pretty spooky.

As for the drinks, they were a bit on the pricier side, but they were strong, tasty, elaborate, and expertly prepared. Most were $12 at least, though I saw some items on the menu that were $80 (!) or more. There is a “three course” drinks option for $30, and I went with that. The drinks’ names sounded appropriately Prohibition-era, and some like they came straight out of 1930s pulp fiction stories, which I wasn’t quite sure if that’s what they were historically called or so named fit the fictionalized period atmosphere. To begin, I started with an “appetizer” called a Red Scarab, followed by a heavier, main drink called the Skull Island Sour. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what went into the drinks because of the complex ingredients, but the third and last one, the Pinkerton, was like an Old Fashioned with hints of coffee and orange flavor. Those were probably some of the finest tasting drinks I’ve had, and with the atmosphere, the trip was well worth the price. I didn’t study the menu or think to get all the information down, but this post from the Minty does have a pretty good run down of the cocktails available for me to choose from in the three-course option.

If you are in the Wilson room, do not try to exit the way you came in. Instead, go out through the exit that opens into the street. There was an awkward moment when one of the bartenders who didn’t serve me thought I had snuck in and wasn’t “supposed to be there” while I was trying to open that door, until I clarified that I’d been there for about an hour and half and was trying to leave, at which point he pointed me in the other direction.

Shortly afterward, I proceeded to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The museum’s last day open was June 2, and it would be closed until 2016 to undergo renovation and expansion, so free general admission was offered in the days leading up to that starting on Thursday. I didn’t stay for very long because it was getting late, but I ran into a couple of classmates from law school, and there was a rooftop party that was winding down by the time I’d gotten there. I did end up coming back again on Friday during the day, and over the two trips I had an opportunity to look at most a lot of the exhibits.

The most popular attraction was Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a video montage edited together using scenes from films that feature a timepiece of some kind. What’s fascinating about this is that the completed work is 24 hours long and is intended to be played in “real time,” in synchronicity with the clock out in “the real world.” It sounds like a very cool idea on paper, and I am honestly in awe at the ambition and effort that must have gone into the endeavor. I didn’t get to check out The Clock either time I was there recently. Admittance inside is on a “first come, first serve” basis, and the lines were very, very long. On Thursday, there was a long line even as it was nearing closing time for the museum, and I was feeling pretty tired from the trip I made during the day with my luggage, so I just wanted to take the train back to the motel. When I got to the museum on Friday around noon, according to the museum staff, the wait was between three to four hours (this had been the average from their experience). The line went from the fourth floor where the installation was located down the stairs to the third floor.

Both times I was there, I ended up going through the museum, seeing some exhibits for the first time and revisiting others. It would have been nice to see The Clock again, but I have seen about 30 minutes of it back in April, so I wasn’t too disappointed. It was an awe-inspiring thing to watch, somewhat disorienting and intense at first, but it became hypnotic and entrancing. It really was like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I was happy to see that there was such a strong interest in it, so I’d rather not take away a spot or time from someone for whom it would be the first time.

I also took a couple of pictures of this particular photograph, because I found it somewhat relevant, relatable, funny, and a bit distressing… so basically, what good art should do.

"New York Street Scene," Otto Hagel, 1938

“New York Street Scene,” Otto Hagel, 1938

This is from 1938, titled “New York Street Scene.” The photographer was Otto Hagel. I have thought about doing this in my ongoing job search, funnily enough.

Stray observations:

  • Modernist, abstract art is so awesome when you’ve had some drinks beforehand. I’m not talking about like going to a museum wasted, but when you’re a little tipsy, and you open up to the works instead of trying to analyze them, the abstract pieces almost seem to open themselves up to you in turn.
  • I felt bad when I realized I had just walked in front of people who were staring intently at particularly abstract paintings, or who were trying to take pictures.
  • The Caltrain system is great. I have used it in the past two days, and the trains have been reliable and on time (I have only encountered at most a 3-minute delay); they are fast, spacious, clean, and comfortable. This is a huge contrast from the slow, often delayed Amtrak trains with interior design that look like it hasn’t been updated since the ‘70s that I’ve ridden from Ann Arbor back to suburban Metro Detroit during college when I made trips home to visit my parents. I’d love to see something like that for the whole country, but that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. The U.S. seems to treat mass transit by trains as a relic of the 19th century, which is a shame, since in my experience, riding in a train is far more relaxing than flying, and there’s usually some scenery to look at outside, kind of like taking a road trip, but you don’t have to worry about the driving.

I guess that’s it for now for my San Francisco adventures. It’s been fun, but some flight delays and a couple of overpriced, mediocre airport meals later, I have returned home to the Midwest. I wish I could have stayed in the Bay Area longer, but at least things are a lot cheaper, and I won’t have to worry about rent. I’m kind of sad that in my two years there, I never got to go to the Outside Lands music festival, especially this year, when the National and Vampire Weekend will both be there. Maybe I should have a Kickstarter for me to travel back to San Francisco to attend. That’s how that works, right?



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