Animal magnetism: The undeniable pull of underground SF
Sometimes opportunity knocks. Other times, you inadvertently stumble through its door. That’s what storyteller Steve Pepple discovered, when an unmarked door at a SoMa diner turned out to be a portal to a mysterious underground scene.
A designer at OpenGov, Steve works toward making cities (including our favorite one) more livable, whether he’s working on a budget or a bus. Podcast listeners, here’s Steve’s story:
Since we expanded our storytelling lens in August, you’ve submitted amazing stories like a day in the life of a Nob Hill employee, the secret history behind the Transamerica building, and how a Bernal shopkeeper survived losing her lease. Remember to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss an episode!
You can also catch Steve telling a new story live at Muni Diaries Live on Nov. 4; tickets are on sale now.
For your reading pleasure, here’s a transcript of Steve’s story:
When I moved to San Francisco more than 5 years ago, I knew that at some point I’d come across a secret door to a mysterious and extraordinary place.
San Francisco is full of possibility: If you pay attention and look in the right places, you never know what room you might encounter or who’ll you’ll meet.
My friends would tell you that I’m always looking for hidden alleys or indirect paths. I like to follow a trail of people from an evening show or special event to discover a new cafe or sneak into a late-night hotspot. I also admit that I sometimes test the handles on unmarked doors in public spaces, to see if they are open.
On more of a geek-as-voyeur level, I’ve written software to scan social media and watch where people go and what they do or talk about. I do this when I visit a new city, I follow breadcrumbs from cyberspace to physical spaces as a way explore how people live. So I’m fascinated by the hidden logic and codes of society, but I also just like the dives themselves.
A couple of years ago, I found an unexpected passage way.
Of course, you don’t have to search far in the foggy noir of San Francisco’s streets, hills, and stairways to uncover mysteries. The edges of the city are wild with parks where you discover spires, snaking landscape architecture, mosaic memorials, and not-so-ancient ruins. And within each neighborhood lies other curiosities, such as the Audium sound experience, the Mission owl man, a museum of retro erotic machines, underground Beat bars, the sound of ghost trains. I could go on.
In not just places, of course, but ways of being. Perhaps theirs less art and merry pranksterism than there used to be in this city, but their’s still plenty to seek out. I’d watched a documentary about the Jenjue Institute around the time of this story, which I highly recommend, and it reoriented my outlook to the city around. E. I started looking for cultural undercurrents and alternate realities.
Which leads me to a delightful, small dinner just South of Market.There’s was small dinner that I’d been scoping out for a number of weeks. After a casual afternoon of work on a Friday, I decided to stop in the quiet of that dinner to eat dinner and read.
The restaurant was a tad upscale but had all the same qualities of any classic American diner. I sat at the counter and ordered fried chicken, greens, and glass of wine from Sonoma County.
I cannot remember exactly what I reading but it was something about labyrinths and other maze-like patterns that can be generated with computer code. Basically, how you can make an M.C. Escher drawing with a computer and what does that illustrate about math and the patterns of our minds.
The artist and filmmaker David Lynch talks about diners as locations where one can travel to a place of their mind as dark as the black coffee, but then always return to safety.
I was finishing dinner and had plans to head elsewhere, but I lingered and enjoyed the environment. I decided I’d use the bathroom and wash up before the next thing. I walked across the tile floor and noticed that the bathroom had a keypad lock. I asked the waitress for the code. She said *69.
I chuckled and stepped towards the door. I entered the passcode, *69, and opened the door to what I expected would be a small, tidy room with a toilet and sink.
To my surprise, When I opened that door, I entered an other-human world of lights, music, and people in animal costumes. A tall fox was sauntering before me towards the DJ. booth and its tail seemed to move with the electronic pulse of the music.
The bartender made contact with my wide eyes and aware of my bewilderment she pointed me towards the back of the room. I tried not to gawk, while also taking in every part of the scene. Less interesting than the half dozen upright animals, was a long table of ordinary looking men, masculine and hirsute but without fur coats. They had art supplies and were drawing the scene on sketch paper. It occurs to me now that a couple of these men and their drawn creatures we’re not unlike the PBS art show with Mark Kistler. You know the “draw, draw, draw” guy? I loved the show as a child, it was an escape into three-dimensional of my own imagination.
I’ve always been curious growing up, but I was raised in a rather conservative, Protestant environment in the Midwest. So it was worlds away from any bar in the Bay Area, let alone an underground one with sensual, anthropomorphic costumes. That is for one exception: one of my favorite books as a child was CS Lewi’s Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from the Chronicles of Narnia. The wardrobe was a passageway to a world of fawns, witches, talking animals, and handsome, Christ-like Lions and it was a rite of passage that came back to me.
Maybe that why I always searched for open doors. And it also may explain part of me that was yearning to have found this place like this long before I moved to San Francisco.
As I walk amongst the furred group, I saw the restroom and next to it was a large horse with its arms crossed. The horse was motionless as I walk towards him carefully studying it features and pondering who was beneath the fur. It appeared to look back at me with dead cartoon eyes for what felt like a long time.
I went into the restroom and gather myself. I saw ads for upcoming sex parties on the wall.
As I emerged back into the party, I thought about having a drink and integrating with the group. But I also felt slightly awkward and alone here, like times in middle school when I scanned around the cafeteria for a friend or at least a place to sit without the shame of not fitting in.
I’ve grown up to feel comfortable in most places and with most people, but even though I’d stumbled into this world, I was still on the outside of the costumes— for sure— but more so the customs. Could I just make small talk? Do you need to bring your own sketch pad or tail? I was at a loss.
I also just could quite feel the vibe of this room. The group of artists felt rather quiet, closed, and serious and the animals faces were static and impossible to read. It was not a place for me, so I exited back to the known world.
I sat back down in the diner as if I’d never discovered the other side of that door. But the waitress looking at me with a knowing smile. I thanked her for the meal and the key to that other side. I knew that I’d not return or that if I did it would just seem normal. Still, I found something of myself in that room and I’m still looking for open doors.
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Photo by Loc0 on Flickr