The City That Was: 9/11 Didnt Kill Caffe Proust, But PG&E Did
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
Many months ago, I told you about Caffè Proust, the restaurant I started with 19 artist friends, at the corner of McAllister and Baker, in 1999. The people at the Small Business Administration couldn’t believe that we started a restaurant for $60K in San Francisco and we were still open two years later. But we were good, and I hired a staff that was absolutely charming. The neighborhood loved us.
So when I applied for an SBA loan, and went through their unbelievably nit-picky paperwork process, they offered me twice what I asked for. I left the meeting with the SBA director’s firm assurance that I would get a lovely big check three weeks later. That was at the end of August in 2001, the last days of America’s illusion of invincibility.
Of course, after that, the economy imploded, and there was no check from the SBA. “So sorry,” they said, but of course I was sorrier than they were. For three months, there was no business, as everyone stared at the same 9/11 nightmare footage on TV and wondered if they would lose their jobs.
Restaurants were caving at an alarming rate, even the deep pocket kinds. Our fans, however, wouldn’t let us go, and we raised enough money to limp along, with no cushion whatsoever. We survived the fall, winter, and spring, looking forward to our 3rd anniversary party, which would make us enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months. Weeks before the date, people were reserving tables.
One day, I came in to open the restaurant, and the lights didn’t go on. We’d had rolling blackouts for months, and I called PG&E to inquire. “Your account had been shut off for non-payment,” they said.
“What?” I sputtered. “I just paid the bill, and the check cleared.”
“It was your unpaid past due,” the PG&E functionary said. “Your check bounced a few months ago, and you never paid it. It’s the amount in the line above the ‘amount due’ line.”
“Look,” I said, “I run a restaurant. I work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. I get a bill, I look at the amount due, and I pay it. And if you’re going to shut off service, you need to send out a 2-week notice and a 2-day notice, and we never got them.”
“Our computer sends them out, so you got them.”
“Oh,” I said, “Congratulations. You have the only computer on earth that always does what you expect it to.”
She didn’t appreciate my irony and informed me that since my check bounced, they would only take cash; our monthly bill was about 2K. The economy was in tatters, and dozens of friends lost jobs. No one had a few thousand in cash sitting around to pay the PG&E overlords. But we knew that the 3rd anniversary party would get the lights back on, if only we could have it.
We sat around in the dark for days, losing money every day we remained closed; the gas was still on, miraculously. In the meanwhile, the reservations for the party poured in, and we had no idea how we were going to serve lavish dinners to hundreds of people in the dark. But then we noticed that workers were upstairs painting an empty apartment, and they had lights on up there. After they left, we climbed the back stairs, and found the apartment door unlocked.
The party was on Saturday; there were no painters. We slipped upstairs with a gigantic orange extension cord and plugged it in. We hung clip lights all over the kitchen, and brought hundreds of candles to light the dining room. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and totally illegal.
We were all positively giddy to be working again, throwing this party that would put us back in business and make up, somewhat, for what we lost being closed. People entered the restaurant and gasped at how lovely it was. Musicians came and played—a guitar quartet, a bossa nova duo, and others. Lots of people said it was the most magical night they could remember.
Days later, with the lights back on, I checked the mail. In it were two mangled, crumpled missives from PG&E, the 2-week and 2-day notices. Together. Well done, PG&E.