Deep Conversations in the Heart of San Francisco
OFF MENU IS SPONSORED BY EMPEROR NORTON’S BOOZELAND THE TENDERLOIN’S NEWEST HISTORIC DIVE. HAPPY HOUR NOON – 7PM
I sit down at Café Flore, just off Market Street, and send Bryce a text. “I have arrived. Sitting outside.”
It’s really a prayer in text form. Bryce and I have been trying to sit down and have a talk for almost a year – and every time, something has come up and stopped it at the last minute. Between us we’ve lost apartments and jobs and relationships, each loss blocking any real attempt at communication. Today he had to push back our original meeting time by a half-hour, and then I had to push it back another half-hour.
It’s this city, I tell myself, as a text does not come back in reply. I never had this much trouble getting together with people in other cities.
Then Bryce walks up to my table. He’s almost exactly the way I remember him: waifishly thin, better dressed on his worst day than I’ve ever been in my life, and younger than I’ve been in a long time. The only thing that’s different is all the make-up on his face.
“Sorry I had to change the time,” he says after we marvel that this has finally happened. “I just, just, got a job today. And … it’s amazing, but, it’s also kind of incomprehensible.”
I give him a questioning look.
“I’m game designer for a hedge fund that utilizes artificial intelligence,” he explains.
I throw up my hands. “We live in an amazingly weird world.”
“We do!” he agrees. “I just came from a meeting to finalize this, and I’m still adjusting to this conceptually. I’ve never had a real gig in my life. I’m a mostly-homeless, broke, dropout who now has the most absurd job title in the world. This is very strange. I wonder how long I’m going to feel this way.”
We order coffees – he asks what a “Sea Hag” is and when he’s told that it’s essentially a latte with a shot of espresso, marvels “I love how every place has a different name for that” – and then we settle in to talk. For two people who haven’t seen each other in nearly a year, we spend almost no time catching up.
But the truth is we’ve never really gotten to know each other. We met at a party for transhumanists in Berkeley. Bryce was young even for this party, and by rights I should have ignored him as one more kid optimistic for a future that I don’t believe in at all and will never really be friends with. (I would eventually leave before a promised orgy started because I realized there was no one here I could take seriously enough to fuck.) But our eyes met across a crowded room and we walked to the back patio and launched into an unbridled, passionate, discussion about they way relativism creates a moral hierarchy based on phenomenology. It was amazingly weird.
People who can have a conversation like that, need to have a conversation like that once in a while. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal or conservative, a transhumanist trust-fund baby or a bail-jumping vitalist gutterpunk. It doesn’t even matter if you think it’s all bullshit anyway: if you can think like that at all, you will die inside if you don’t think it out loud once in a while and have someone hit it back to you with some spin.
No, we weren’t going to spend any time getting to know each other – we were just going to cling for dear life. “I assume you agree with me that we are in a very decadent period of our civilization?” Bryce asked, and we launched into a debate about whether gameification is an inadequate response to the dehumanizing power of bureaucracy.
“Most engineers I know are white males who are used to fast food menus,” he explains. “They’re used to picking out something from column A and something from column B – whether it’s food or programming languages – without any regard for the question of whether these are really the menus we want, and mixing and matching and optimizing. And optimization is efficiency, but it’s also another name for minimalism, even laziness. And that’s a completely inadequate mindset for coping with a situation that requires existential choices.”
I order chicken wings and, after I offer to pay, Bryce orders a burger. He thinks it’s kindness, but I’ve been a penniless intellectual and I appreciated every goddamn meal somebody bought me. During my flush years I bought small luxuries for some broke, brilliant, people who I like to think are the best in the city. Later that night a friend who knows I’d been having rent troubles would buy dinner, and I hope he feels the same way about me.
“I get it now,” Bryce tells me after I explain how I came to a set of conclusions (Miguel de Unamuno was so right when he said that every philosophy is really just the biography of the philosopher.) “You’ve spent your whole life chasing the shiny.”
I wince inside. I would never have put it that way. But he’s not wrong. “Yeah,” I say. “It’s actually one of the things I worry about as I get older: that I’m getting too slow, losing the ability to keep up with the interesting things I actually care about, even as I give a damn about less and less.”
Bryce gives me an incredulous look. Says something very kind. I appreciate it, but the truth is I never could have kept up with him at his age. The only reason he doesn’t realize I’m slowing down is that I started out so many years ahead: I’ve had these conversations a lot more.
But he’s learning.
“It’s really hard to chase the shiny in San Francisco, because there’s so much of it,” he says.
“It’s very atomizing,” I agree. “Our passions are supposed to bring us together, but here they pull us apart. Unless you’re part of a strong community dedicated to just one thing – I dunno, maybe recreating lesbian plays of the 1950s as sci-fi adventures – you almost never bump into anyone for long, because all the strange and wonderful stars in the sky are surprisingly far apart.”
“I had a realization just recently,” he says. “I like to create authoritarian systems in my communities, because it keeps them together. And authoritarian systems are good for me, I know how to make the despot like me.” The check comes and we reluctantly end a perfect afternoon outside talking about culture change over coffee. Somewhere else in the world it’s winter. “But I’ve also realized, just recently, that they’re not very good for the people I like. That this isn’t the same thing. And it’s hard for someone like me, who lives in a very abstracted world, to figure that out.”
“For all its impossibility,” I agree, “the world is surprisingly real.” And it is surprising, it is stunning, to sit down and hear that a world like the one Bryce lives in exists, sometimes literally just down the block.
The conversation isn’t finished, but we both have to move on. We leave Café Flore and immediately head in different directions, me towards a design firm that claims to have developed a revolutionary new research system for non-profits, him towards the final sessions of a four-month forgery project that he says he can’t talk about. I also did some forgery in my youth, but his sounds much more interesting. Neither of us looks back, but I imagine him flying up into the sky, towards the brightest virtual star.