Ruthless Inefficiency

(This story first appeared at the SF Weekly)

distillationsSitting at the bar, nursing a glass of absinthe, Lapo tells me that as a Berkeley student he’d wanted to design his own interdisciplinary major. Then he discovered that if you declared as such, you were forced to take a bunch of classes on “new media” theorists.

“And I said, ‘Fuck that,'” he tells me. “I’d rather get a classical education.”

This is the moment I knew we’d be friends.

We are sitting in North Beach’s Comstock Saloon, a wonderful bar in which to appreciate the timeless virtues of classicism. A pitch-perfect replica of a turn-of-the-century cocktail joint, it’s all elegantly shaped wood and glass and stone. Jazz musicians perform live from a nook above the main room whose ceiling contains a kinetic metal sculpture that I’m told was installed to fan customers — an early form of air conditioning. If true, this is the secret of what makes the Comstock great: It does the functional aspects of tending bar so well that they come out aesthetically pleasing.

Take the menu. The success of Trick Dog has led corporate consultants to think that if you want to be a hip San Francisco bar you need an artsy menu. Countless trees are butchered to create documents that are terrible as art and worse as menu, and all for the sake of some artificially contrived notion of cleverness developed by people who make fun of art majors. Comstock goes the other way: Its menu is a sheaf of thick paper solidly bound by two flaps of gentle leather. It’s perfectly functional, utterly basic, worn through constant use, and still lovely. If form follows function well enough, it doesn’t need to pretend to be art.

Comstock is what a tech bar should be but never is.

I order the “Barkeep’s Whimsy” — the house term for “let the bartender make you something tasty” — and receive a combination of bourbon, bitters, citrus, and artichoke liquor. Lapo is telling the story of how he got out of the tech industry to start an art gallery — but that now, after four award-winning years, his rent is increasing sharply and the gallery will probably close down.

“I’m financially worse off. I’m worse off in so many ways,” he says. “But when I think of going back, making money coding — I think I’d rather work in the service industry, which is something I never thought I’d say. But it’s so much more human to spend your nights talking with people than sitting in front of a computer screen on Adderall and cocaine. And what do the techies do with all their money? They end up at bars. It seems to me a better idea to skip all the tedious work coding, and just get a job at the bar in the first place.”

At the very moment Lapo is telling me this, I know that thousands of people across the bay are having conversations just like it. Talented people whose only mistake was not throwing everything aside to cash in are asking themselves, “What do I do now?” Lapo and I clink glasses. By now I’m drinking a “Moonraker” (cognac, quinquina, peach, absinthe), which is strangely sweet for a cognac drink, but it works.

“I was bullied for being a nerd,” Lapo says. “But the truth? I think it may be a terrible thing if the nerds are in charge — for the people who appreciate the fewest aspects of life to make decisions over the lives of others.”

Suddenly I am very glad we’re having this conversation at Comstock Saloon. It is a testament to the fact that efficiency doesn’t have to be cruel or brutal. It can be beautiful, it can be joyful; it won’t necessarily be artistic, but it can encourage our humanity rather than chain us to machines. Or worse, turn us into them. Competence, done properly, enriches the dignity of everyone around you.

The problem isn’t tech. It’s that we’re doing tech wrong. Technologists used to be pioneers, and humanists in their own right. They used to hang out in coffee shops with poets. Now they’re venture capitalists.

Fuck that. I’d rather be classical.