It’s dark inside. Antique speckled mirrors line the wall behind the taps. A wooden bar, red vinyl booths and live music keep new customers comfortable and locals returning night after night. There’s one seat left at the bar and I sit down in it, waiting for my friend to get off work. His restaurant is packed, dishes clanking, voices raising in a crescendo one on top of the other, old acquaintances catching up over Italian food and glasses of wine. Laughter. Lots of laughter.
I stare blankly at the flat-screen T.V. on the other side of the bartender. It looks like I’m watching the flashing images, a show about ghosts and UFOs, but it’s only my cover for eavesdropping and writing notes about every character in the place. Each person in the bar has a story, a unique voice that many others in here know, or at least know a little bit.
There’s the tale to be told about the elderly couple sitting next to me, finishing their meal and toasting their glasses. She drinks whiskey. He drinks the house red. They came on their first date here in the 1950s. Or a tale about the two artists hosting a friend from Argentina, anointing him in the bask of their beautiful world. Or another story about the bartender, and her girlfriend sitting at the other end of the bar looking around the room jealously. And finally, the 20-something couple, making their rounds, toasting everyone by name. They’re celebrating Friday night.
Frankly, I’m a little startled by the sense of community and camaraderie in the heart of L.A., a city supposedly notorious for its shallow and narcissistic inhabitants. But if our great effort in life is to be known, to stand slightly above the masses, to be recognized as an individual, spots with such familiarity as this locals’ restaurant, offer a win in our fight against anonymity. People need their very own Cheers.
This is the reason that we like the old, the familiar, the well-traveled spaces, those locations with sentimental moods and qualities of nostalgia. At this restaurant, it’s the regular Osso Bucco special, local craft beer, homemade grape juice, fresh baked bread, and childhood memories of eating at that very table. These are common things. These are known things. This is what we call home.
But I am not home. I’m a stranger to all these particular details, having just flown in from Denver on business. My anonymity enables me to quietly host witness to the brilliant lives of my fellow human beings, people I will never see again.
Nobody knows my name at this bar in L.A. And that’s fine with me. Hell, it’s one of the reasons why I wander . . . to take a moment to see the world with fresh, quiet eyes.