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Life After Last Call

Soon, if local lawmakers get their way, some San Francisco bars may get to sell alcohol after 2am. Is this a much-needed reform, or a really bad idea? A voyage into the abyss that follows last call.

 

This is one of many stories from San Francisco's February 2018 Bars & Nightlife issue. Check them all out here.


Downtown San Francisco at night is prettier the farther away you get from it, and the lights are looking positively cinematic on this particular Friday at 2 a.m. as we cross the Bay Bridge. I’m watching the city recede from the back seat of a friend’s station wagon, full flask of Bulleit in my purse.

We were at a kind of psychedelic funk show at Madrone on Divisadero Street until closing time, but sometimes to find the next thing, you have to leave the city altogether. The friend who owns the car is a musician, so we’re headed to an after-hours jazz jam at a small warehouse in Oakland that’s normally an art gallery. The party is a regular one, organized weekly by a local producer who’s seen some national success but keeps the East Bay jazz scene close. It starts after 1 a.m. and goes until the musicians get tired.

We enter a nondescript door on a quiet Oakland street, pay $5 to a smiling guy who asks if it’s our first time, and round the corner into a long, smoky, red-tinted room with a concrete floor, a small stage at the front end, and a tiny bar at the back. Card tables, folding chairs, and couches are scattered about. Art hangs from the walls; surfaces are draped with decorative cloth or people or both. They’re selling bottles of Red Stripe in the back, but no one seems to mind if you bring your own booze, as long as you’re prepared to share. It’s chaos with an order to it, which is also, I suppose, one definition of jazz.

The crowd morphs as the night goes on, parting as folks arrive fresh from other gigs, find their friends, say hellos. A few people play dominoes during set breaks, but otherwise the room’s attention is fixed on the stage, where a scrum of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B musicians—both local and out-of-town artists, serious cats who performed tonight on both sides of the bay—take turns making mayhem. The nonverbal communication is a high-wire act: They dip in and out of D’Angelo, Bob Marley, Outkast, and their own original arrangements, then return to a groove in perfect cohesion. Two musicians jump off stage and two others jump on. I make small talk. Every person I meet plays music.

At around 4:15, with the crowd starting to thin, my friend packs up his sax and signals that it’s time to go. I’m exhausted and exhilarated as we cross the bridge and the city skyline grows brighter. Then we’re in the streets of the Mission again and all is quiet, and the whole thing might as well have been a dream— a soft-focus vision of bohemia underground.

That is, for now. Come this time next year, having one last drink while listening to some live music in a bar at 3:30 a.m. might feel pretty damn standard. If a group of San Francisco politicians, club owners, and tourism industry folks get their way, the whole thing would be perfectly aboveboard. Then, at the very least, I could tell you the venue’s name.

 

On January 16, 1920, the night before the 18th Amendment took effect, “the streets of San Francisco were jammed,” Daniel Okrent writes in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. “Porches, staircase landings, and sidewalks were piled high with boxes and crates delivered on the last possible day before transporting their contents would become illegal.” The next morning’s Chronicle would report that people whose booze hadn’t arrived by midnight could be seen standing forlornly in doorways, looking out at the city “with haggard faces and glittering eyes.”

They needn’t have worried. San Francisco was a committed drinker’s town, and, thanks to a robust network of speakeasies, it was going to take more than a constitutional amendment to change that. Five months later, when the city hosted the Democratic National Convention, Mayor James Rolph welcomed each delegate with a bottle of high-quality bourbon.

In the 85 years after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, the city’s bar scene flourished. But there’s one aspect of our drinking culture that has never changed: the hours during which Californians can legally imbibe in bars and restaurants. That window has been 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. since 1935. In a city sometimes called the Paris of the West—renowned for its live music, its culinary scene, its LGBT community, and its antiestablishment spirit—last call is a hard line drawn at 1:30 a.m. By 2 a.m., well, you know the joke: You don’t have to go home, but you sure as hell can’t stay here.

That’s not for lack of trying. In September 2017, state legislators rejected San Francisco senator Scott Wiener’s LOCAL (Let Our Communities Adjust Late-night) Act, which would have given California cities the option to extend last call until 4 a.m. It was the third failed attempt in the last decade and a half to leave San Francisco’s light on later. Wiener’s 2017 bill made it farther than either of his predecessor Mark Leno’s doomed efforts, in 2004 and 2013, before being gutted in the assembly’s Appropriations Committee following, insiders say, pressure from law enforcement. In November, Wiener announced that he was trying again.

In its new iteration, yet to be introduced to the legislature as of press time, the bill would affect only six cities—San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, West Hollywood, and Long Beach—whose mayors have expressed interest. (Candidates to replace San Francisco’s late mayor Ed Lee will undoubtedly be asked to weigh in soon.) New, too, is a five-year “sunset” clause, making the expansion a trial run. As with the previous bill, venues that want to make use of the new hours will have to go through a public application process and solicit community input. A city can also opt to extend hours just one day per week, or even just on special occasions—say, the next time it hosts the Super Bowl.

The legislation this go-round might look a little different from previous efforts, but the arguments in its favor remain the same. For Nate Allbee, a political strategist responsible for many of the legacy-business protections that San Francisco has granted to bars and music venues over the past half decade, the reasons for expanding sales hours go beyond politics. “We’re a world-class city on par with New York, Paris, Tokyo. And the fact that we’re the only major city that at 2 a.m. says, ‘OK, turn off the music, chug your drink, and get out of here’—it’s not just silly that we’re not on a fair playing field. It’s hurting our culture,” he says.

That said, Allbee’s got a vested interest in extending drinking hours. He’s a cofounder of the Stud Collective, a group of avid nightlifers who bought the famed gay bar in 2016 to save it from closure. It’s places like the Stud—known for all manner of drag shows, DJ nights, and genre-defying performance art—that keep the city from surrendering to normalcy, Allbee believes. And for the Stud to thrive, it needs to stay open later. “The fact that San Francisco closes at 2 a.m.,” he says, “has always been ridiculous.”

There are those in the public health community who beg to differ, as do some police officers and advocacy organizations like the Marin-based Alcohol Justice, who’ve long argued that expanded hours can only lead to more DUIs, more violence, more liver disease, and more taxpayers picking up the tab. The slope, some say, is a slippery one. “The drive for these 4 a.m. bills has come from club owners thinking of ways to improve the party atmosphere,” says Alcohol Justice’s executive director, Bruce Lee Livingston. “And [in the future] that could be possibly sex clubs, strip clubs, pot clubs late at night. They want a 24-7 nightlife in San Francisco, and it’s the investors making more money out of nightlife facilities that are driving this.”

Livingston has counterarguments for all the pro– 4 a.m. arguments, but in particular he seems irritated by the suggestion that any of what’s happening late at night in bars might be considered “culture.” “Senator Wiener is using the argument of personal freedom: ‘People come here to express themselves and find themselves.’ You don’t find yourself in a pint of beer at two to four in the morning,” he says. “That isn’t where we are going to find ourselves, or our personal expression, or the meaning of our life.

“Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.” But as Prohibition proved, San Franciscans don’t like being told the party’s over—and last call certainly doesn’t mean we all head home. So what, exactly, are we currently doing between the early-morning hours of two and four? Is any of it…good?

 

Say what you will about the sea lions at the wharf: The best nature show in San Francisco is the one that takes place just after the bars close. It screens on Sundays at 2 a.m. all over town, starring gaggles of girls clutching poorly chosen shoes outside clubs; thirtysomething couples arguing in front of bar-restaurants; tattooed friends quietly sharing cigarettes outside neighborhood dives. None of them tired, exactly. All of them, in unison, deciding: Where to next?

“The naughty if not-so-well-kept secret is of course you can find a drink in San Francisco after 2 a.m., just like you can find pretty much every other substance on earth,” says former state senator and now mayoral candidate Mark Leno. “It’s just going to be in an unregulated place.”

Now, the first rule of writing about underground parties is: Fuck, please don’t write about underground parties—unless you’re ready to take the blame when the cops show up. So I’m not going to identify the warehouse in SoMa where I find myself standing around on a recent Sunday at 4:30 a.m., gripping a $12 vodka–Red Bull, listening to DJs spin house and techno music whose bass frequencies register more as a stomach sensation than a sound, and watching hundreds of people—young and old, gay and straight, clearly on drugs and possibly not on drugs—dance the dance of sweet, early-morning liberation. But I will say this: The nature show is top-shelf.

“There should be one line for people to do drugs and one for people who actually have to pee,” announces a girl in line for the bathroom. She’s here with a few old housemates from college. She doesn’t usually go out this late anymore, but her friends wanted to and she knows one of the DJs, so—she shrugs. “It’s not like there are that many other places to go.”

The dance floor is a solar system: At the perimeter are solo guys, some scanning the room for dance partners. The middle orbit consists of groups of friends, then couples, many engaged in various stages of foreplay. Near the center are the most animated dancers, the people who look like they’re communing with God right through the amps. They form a radius out from the DJ decks, their energy generating as much heat as the track lights. Watching them, I’m transfixed—and a little jealous.

“There’s a euphoria that occurs when you push past the boundaries of good sense,” says Chris Zaldua, a local nightlife writer and DJ. Zaldua spins at clubs around San Francisco, and he’s adamant that extending last call would drastically shift not just nightclubs’ bottom lines but also the breadth of programming across the city. “The vast majority of sales happen between midnight and 1:30 a.m.,” he says. “From the perspective of a nightclub owner, if you have to make X amount of dollars in a short amount of time to just break even, that profit motive is the only thing driving your booking. If clubs were able to serve alcohol until 4 a.m., I think a lot of the weirder music that’s presented at these underground after-parties might find a home at legitimate venues.”

Rhia Shumway, the general manager at Halcyon, echoes that sentiment: “We’d be able to promote more talent, different types of talent, without a doubt.” The barely year-old SoMa club inherited one of San Francisco’s coveted extended-hours licenses in 2016; it could conceivably be open 24 hours a day, as long as the liquor stopped fl owing at two. “It’s been a blessing and a curse, honestly,” Shumway says. “We let our DJs play until they’re tired—our motto is ‘We never kick a DJ off the decks.’ But I would certainly like to monetize more hours of that set.”

Her headliners go on around midnight, which means the club only gets full at 11:30. On a given night, she estimates, 25 percent of her patrons leave at 2 a.m. because they want to keep drinking. But there’s an influx after last call as well, as people depart other bars: “They’re not going to one of the illegal after-hours,” Shumway says. “We’re a safe, legal haven for people who want to stay out past two.”

The worst part of San Francisco’s last call, Shumway says, is when she has to disappoint DJs visiting from other markets, especially Europeans. “They’re used to going on at 2 a.m., and I have to be like, ‘No, absolutely not. Sorry, this isn’t Barcelona,’” she says with a slight laugh. “Yeah, I wish it were too.”

 

Even the most devoutly loyal San Francisco native will tell you that, compared with New York or London or Chicago, S.F. has never been a great late-night city. It’s not in the culture, and we’ve never had the infrastructure (reliable 24-hour transportation, widespread all-night food options), though attempting to parse the chicken and the egg might be futile.

Suffice it to say, closing early is part of our civic personality, a trait baked into the streets along with the weed smell and the fog. It’s one reason San Francisco can often feel both endearingly and frustratingly provincial, a small town that likes to think it’s a metropolis. If New York is the city that never sleeps, San Francisco is a city that goes pretty hard until 2 a.m., then gets a burrito and heads home. Tomorrow there’s likely a pop-up brunch thrown by one of your chef friends, or a 30-mile bike ride in the Headlands for charity. You’re going to want a good night’s rest.

One catch: This schedule doesn’t work for everyone. Talk to city sanitation and transportation employees, or healthcare workers—like the nightshift nurses from San Francisco General Hospital who pile into Pop’s when it opens at the stroke of 6 a.m.—or, yes, the bartenders and waiters who put up with your harried cocktail orders at 1:30 in the morning. “I worked a catering event outside the city last Saturday with, like, 20 other bartenders and servers, and we all got back to the city at 1 a.m., we were all sober, and we wanted to get a drink,” says Gillian Fitzgerald, a longtime bartender who currently works shifts at Café du Nord and the Nite Cap. “We went to a friend’s bar, and she had to kick us out 30 minutes later. So now you have 20 service people with a bunch of cash in their pockets who wanted to spend it supporting a friend’s business, and instead we’re out on the street.”

Others in the industry say they support a change in the late-night rules for what they consider safety reasons. “I believe pretty strongly that a 4 a.m. last call would make the streets safer, because pushing everyone out onto the street at the same time is what causes problems,” says Chris Hastings, who owns the Lookout. “You’ve just put a whole bar full of people on a sidewalk while they try to figure out their plan. That’s when you’re more likely to see noise complaints, fights. I think if bars were open later, you’re going to have a trickle-out effect, where people naturally peel off one at a time.”

This theory has been tested successfully elsewhere: In an effort to reduce last-call chaos in the city center, Amsterdam recently granted 24-hour licenses to 10 venues on the outskirts of town. But there are examples closer to home, too. Hastings sees Chicago’s model, where bars close on a sort of “tiered” schedule—some at two, some at three, some later—as ideal, because the city can use it to direct the flow of late-night life away from residential and mixed-use districts.

Of course, there are bar industry folks who disagree—who think 2 a.m. is a pretty damn good time for everyone to drink up and go home. A later close “would change the cost of doing business for me in a way that wouldn’t be worth it,” says Peter Friel, who co-owns Harry Harrington’s Pub and the Irish Bank. A bartender at Elixir tells me he thinks the “shit show” that currently happens outside their door at 2 a.m. might just shift two hours later. And a bartender at Local Edition—a swank downtown bar with a Prohibitionera theme—rejects the entire premise. San Franciscans “drink like babies,” she says as she pours $14 cocktails for a group of businessmen. “I just don’t think we’re ready for it.”

Still others say it’s simply an idea whose time has come: Especially in its new incarnation, the bill underscores the needs of different cities. What works for San Francisco will not work for Walnut Creek. Barry Synoground, the general manager at DNA Lounge, hopes that the proposed law will “assuage the fears of people in quieter areas,” he says. “We’ll keep all these ne’er-do-wells in the city.”

 

The thing about ne’er-dowells, on the other hand, is that they don’t need much encouragement. Thanks to the city’s extended licenses, there are actually several legal dance clubs that run past 2 a.m. on certain nights—and at some of them, alcohol almost seems beside the point. This is certainly the case on a recent Sunday at the EndUp, where at 5:45 a.m. the party is just getting started. The air is thick and the music is thumping; the dance floor is slammed with sweaty young men in leather harnesses. Out on the patio, shirtless smokers form circles until their chiseled chests all blur together in a sort of hallucinatory pec parade, and tiny bags of powder change hands as casually as cigarettes.

Still, there’s excitement when the clock strikes six. “EndUp, the bar is open!” yells a bartender. A whoop goes up from the dance floor. There’s one guy in front of me in line for the bar. He leans in to order, then digs a small wad from his pocket and slides it over to the bartender, who inspects it before sliding it back. “That’s a condom,” the bartender says. He is firm but gentle. This is the EndUp; he has seen this before.

There’s no question, really, that San Franciscans will find fun—or potential for harm—no matter the law. So would two more hours of regulated alcohol consumption actually make a difference? Or to put it another way: Is drinking to excess at 4 a.m. any more dangerous than doing so at 2 a.m.? The answer involves charts. And while the hangover I experience after spending the morning at one particular Burning Man–affiliated warehouse party/light show pulls a close second, the biggest headache of my late-night research is these charts. Senator Wiener’s office has been using one produced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that shows no correlation between a state’s last-call time and the involvement of alcohol in fatal crashes. Alcohol Justice, meanwhile, has graphs that point to traffic collisions increasing in every instance of a city extending last call. As is usually the case with these things, everyone’s charts point to the conclusions they would prefer you reach. (The SFPD and the CHP both decline to comment on proposed legislation, per policy— except for one officer who offers, cheerfully, “We like arresting drunk drivers at all times of day.”)

So I call Cheryl Cherpitel, senior scientist at the Berkeley-based Alcohol Research Group and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre on Alcohol Epidemiology and Injury. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about the fact that [extending last call] would lead to more alcohol-related harm,” she says. “This idea that the bar’s a safer place than people being out on the street—it just isn’t so.”

Cherpitel is also dismissive of the trickle-out theory. “I think the reality is the longer the bar is open, the longer people are going to stay in the bar and drink, and the more they drink, the more harm is going to occur,” she says. The chart Wiener’s office is using doesn’t take into account drivers, passengers, or pedestrians injured (as opposed to killed) in alcohol-related accidents, she notes. On the other hand: “It is true that places where alcohol has been highly restricted see more harm versus places where they take a more integrated approach. People still want to drink, so they bring it home, or bootleg it out of their basements. That has led to a great deal more harm.”

The way people in Italy and France use alcohol offers a more benign model, Cherpitel continues: There, alcohol is a way of life, not a way to aggressively blow off steam. “They have a glass of wine with lunch, another two with dinner,” she says, “and they have less of a prevalence of harm and DUI.” But while we can look to other states or countries for clues on what might happen here if last call is extended, there’s nowhere quite like San Francisco. We are, as always, full of idiosyncrasies.

Take the LGBTQ community’s role in the fight for 4 a.m., a symbiosis that Wiener alluded to by holding his November press conference at the leather bar the SF Eagle. There, flanked by drag legends Heklina and Honey Mahogany (co-owners, respectively, of Oasis and the Stud), Wiener unveiled the details of his new bill. To an outsider, this might be proof that San Francisco’s gay nightlife is stronger than ever—our drag queens are political operatives, after all, ones who appear regularly on the evening news.

But look closer. The Stud’s lease expires at the end of 2018, and its owners fear it’ll soon be homeless. In August, it was reported that the Gangway, San Francisco’s oldest gay bar, had been sold; the new owners stated plans to transform it into a hip, kung fu–themed laundromat. And following the 2015 closure of the Lexington Club, “there’s no lesbian bar in the gayest city in America,” Allbee says. He believes that the Lexington “absolutely” would have been saved by two extra hours of alcohol sales. In which case the 4 a.m. law isn’t just about padding bar owners’ bottom lines—for an important segment of our population, it could be a lifeline. “We’re known for being a city of artists and musicians and poets and weirdos, and we need to take measures to protect that,” Allbee says. “Otherwise, what are we? We’re just a museum of Victorian houses.”

And lo, a new legislative cycle begins. In the coming months, Senator Wiener’s revamped LOCAL bill will travel a slow political obstacle course; if it passes through the state senate and assembly, Governor Jerry Brown will have until the beginning of October to veto or sign the bill into effect. Brown “likes to play devil’s advocate,” Wiener says, and “has a skeptical eye.” Meaning there’s no easy way for Wiener to tell where he really stands.

As for San Franciscans, we’ll spend 2018 doing what we’ve always done when those harsh lights come up but we’re not quite ready to go home: We’ll find a house party, or text around for an after-hours. We’ll head to a friend’s living room for a nightcap and a joint. Or take shelter in a taqueria or a diner booth—maybe Orphan Andy’s or Grubstake or It’s Tops, depending on our level of intoxication and preferred flavor of people watching.

One way or another, we’ll keep going.

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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