The Life Aquatic

Feb 25, 2010 at 7am

Hipster bashing is to the 2000-oughts what yuppie bashing was to the 1980s, and the stereotype of Mission-dwellers (though rapidly digressing into self-parody) is a shiftless and jaded hipster. The average Marina-dweller, by contrast, is seen as a vapid and materialistic yuppie. And ne'er the twain shall meet, correct? You'd think so, but you'd be wrong. Given a good decade of gentrification, many residents of the Marina have become intimately acquainted with the various parts of the Mission that have been designated Marina Green Zones on weekends.

But Mission folk make much less frequent excursions into the Marina, so I was curious about the well of mutual contempt shared by inhabitants of the Mission and the Marina. Did the rivalry actually point out fundamental divergences in weltanschauung?

I decided to confront my own stereotypes about the neighborhood by enlisting the help of a local. The idea was to secure a Marina-based Virgil for my Mission Dante, if you'll forgive me the clumsy comparison. This wasn't meant to be some undercover exposé or ethnography; at best I'd be a tourist.

Walking through the Marina, the late-afternoon sun catching the remnants of an earlier rain in the still-leafy trees, I got a sense of a deep calm in the folks I passed. I hesitate to draw conclusions based on something so intangible, but there seemed to be a sort of Panglossian self-assurance in the air. The snippets of conversation I overheard betrayed an easy contentment.

I was for sure the most shabbily dressed man on Chestnut Street. I felt a growing sense of defiant smugness: in a sea of pleated khaki, I was the freethinking outsider. I was instantly taken back to high school when my hood rat friends and I decried the jocks and the rich kids, priding ourselves on non-conformity. Except now I wasn't sure how much of that I believed and how much I simply wanted to believe. Still, feeling a tinge of bohemian condescension, I noted the conspicuous racial homogeneity. But then, I'm as white as they come.

It was an hour or so before bar-going time, so I strolled around the Palace of Fine Arts taking in the Mediterranean splendor. The words bucolic and idyllic came to mind as I sipped furtively from my flask.

I wondered how it would go. How did they socialize in the Marina? Would I be stymied, overwhelmed, overcharged, and repulsed? I felt suddenly unprepared. Checking my phone for a message from Virgil, needing reassurance, I discovered instead that he was flaking. Panic. Should I try to reschedule or make a go of it sans guide, against all odds and common sense? Remembering dispiriting encounters with Marina residents in my own neighborhood, I called my friend Henry and proposed that we return the favor.

We headed over to Bar None, which, given its reputation as a fraternity holdover, seemed to be the bar most readily identified with the Marina. Bouncers in the Mission are usually the opposite of intimidating; the bouncers at Bar None, however, were the no-nonsense type – dudes I've feared my entire life. I won't pretend to be unbiased, and the appearance of several beefy bouncers never portends anything fun and pain-free for me.

Inside, Bar None held few surprises: commercial hip hop, scantily clad barmaids, beer pong, and SportsCenter. But judging a bar based on personal taste is shortsighted – don't we all want the same things? A relaxing drink, to shoot the shit with friends, and maybe to get laid? These things are as near to a universal law as I can imagine. I prefer to judge bars based on whether or not the patrons are enjoying themselves. And from the Tap Out bros to the Appletini girls, everyone seemed to be having a ball.

Putting on our coats with an eye on the door, a heavily made-up girl approached and handed us flyers advocating marijuana legalization. "Isn't that a moot point in San Francisco?" I asked her. "Legalize it!" she said with a blinding smile. Henry asked her name and she was surprisingly receptive. I asked if advocating for drug reform was her regular job. "What?" she asked, so I repeated myself. "I don't get it," she said. "You know," I explained, "do you advocate for the repeal of marijuana laws?" She seemed to understand and nodded enthusiastically before saying, doe-eyed, "What's 'advocate' mean?"

The next night I tried again to meet up with Virgil, but he'd left town on short notice. We'd planned on casual drinks and social anthropology, but again I found myself invading the Marina as an outsider. I managed to rope Henry into accompanying me once more, and before long we'd lost all semblance of objectivity and had become indignant and drunk.

Over beers at the Hi-Fi Lounge, I pointed out some businessmen chatting up co-eds as though it highlighted a distasteful breach of convention. Four drinks into the night and I'd become surly and my judgment was astonishingly poor. I casually lobbed attitude at the bartender, but in return I got only a polite smile and quick service. I couldn't begin to tell you what exactly my problem was, but if I'd been compelled to explain it I'd have muttered something about personal dignity. I wish I'd called it off right then, but several bars and drinks later we were walking around believing ourselves to be operatives in enemy territory.

I thought it prudent to exact some tiny and pointless revenge. Standing outside of one or another of the countless bars we patronized, I leaned on a freshly waxed BMW and smoked furiously. Two men approached and the one holding car keys said, "Hey, get the fuck off my BMW!" I flicked my cigarette at him. "Or what, asshole?" I shot back. I stepped unsteadily onto the car's fender and the two men quickly got in and locked their doors. I exhorted them to get back out so that we might discuss things, but the driver started the engine and I gracelessly leapt to the street as they turned into the street and sped away. This proved absolutely nothing and left me feeling hollow and ashamed.

Much later, after a kind bartender bought us several whiskeys, I lay on my floor trying to pawn off my drunken shame on that flaky Virgil. At the time it made perfect sense: I'd been duped into going to the Marina! Left to my own devices, I was pride-bound to act out. I'd been abandoned in a strange land not knowing the customs and civilities. I recalled the e-mail introduction to my would-be Marina guide: "a self-proclaimed hipster hater," our mutual friend claimed. In a follow-up e-mail, Virgil disavowed the description, claiming to be "just a skinny jeans hater." But that was enough to validate my own prejudices. "How closed minded those people are! How judgmental and superficial! How dare they!"

And as I moved from incoherent to semi-conscious to blacked out, I knew that any meaningful interaction between Mission and Marina crowds would fail. We were simply separate without being equal. I'd gained the moral high ground. I'd shout down their smugness and intolerance from my soapbox. I tried my best, at least I felt that I did, and come not one whit closer to understanding them.


Two nights later, I was again in the Marina. Making my way to the Horseshoe Tavern with some friends, I expected more of the same. I carried my indignation like a Roman standard. After some drinks we began concocting insulting stories about every person in the bar and felt that our crudity was well placed.

"That dude's a date rapist!" I said about a guy in a shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest. "That girl acts in upscale European porn!" my friend indicated in the direction of a spray-on tan. Nothing reinforces solidarity so much as a common object of derision; and these hapless bar-goers were stand-ins for everything we drunkenly felt was wrong with the Marina. Then the date rapist walked up to where we stood and shoved five bucks into the jukebox. After a moment he turned to us and asked if we'd like to pick out some songs, too. That single gesture of kindness and inclusivity made us feel like total dicks. We asked to hear the Rolling Stones and he replied that he loved the Stones.

Again drunk, but with waning belligerence, I reconsidered what I'd mistaken for fact. I was as guilty as anyone. For all my griping and indignation I'd played exactly to type, which was underscored by the tiniest of olive branches: a jukebox credit. The key to keeping things on an even keel is probably moderation coupled with good manners. At times I've had neither, and for those I apologize.

Regardless of where you live, you're sure to prefer some neighborhoods to others. Why not examine that bias by getting out of that comfort zone? There are bars, restaurants, parks, and a myriad other attractions all over the place. You could start by picking the furthest neighborhood from your own and planning an afternoon there. You may or may not feel uninvited and it might not be worth visiting a second time, but don't let that stop you. Don't give in to cynicism. But don't wear out your welcome either.

Images: Jill Clardy, snackfight, magerleagues, CanadaPenguin and Egan Snow

Design: Kari Stevens

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