Saturday morning I had coffee at my neighborhood, Russian Hill bistro, The Left Bank, known affectionately as TLB among the neighborhood residents.
I occasionally go there to catch up on the local gossip, usually the focus of conversation over a cup of french press coffee, sipped these days, due to my burgeoning waistline, without croissant or brioche.
As early as 7:00 a.m., the bistro welcomes the first wave of its habitués: singles, or retired people like me, with sufficient incomes and friends to maintain a certain quality of life, followed by the divorced and abandoned, the unemployed and the long term unemployed, the depressed and the clinically depressed who have not quite reached the end of their social resources or bank accounts, and for whom suicide has not surfaced as an option, yet. We recognize each other, but seldom engage in conversation.
Next to arrive, circa 7:30 a.m., are the hip, young singles and couples, who stand in line, tightly gripping their empty travel mugs, eagerly waiting to exchange three dollars for morning coffee (for a brew, not blended, but crafted) then spend an additional forty-five dollars to fill their gas tanks to abandon the city, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge north to Stinson Beach or the wine country, or perhaps head south, down the peninsula, to Moss Beach or Santa Cruz for the day or the weekend.
As this group waits in line for coffee, young married couples with new babies arrive. Prior to the births, these couples almost never arrived before 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., exhausted from their rounds of marathon Saturday morning sex, thirsty and famished for food and drink. However, since the birth of their first or second child (one of one or two of two), they awaken early, change diapers as needed, do a load of wash, empty the dishwasher, put the baby in the stroller, and roll into the Left Bank for their morning coffee between 8 and 8:30 a.m., filled with unexpressed fears of exhibiting the outward signs, the visible evidence of domestication that would expose them as objects of ridicule for entry into the bourgeoisie landscape.
Next to arrive are the young married couples who still hold hands beneath the tables, oblivious to the solid statistics regarding marriage longevity, and believe their unions will last forever.
As soon as the fog lifts and the sky clears, allowing sunshine to bestow its morning brightness, the narcissists fill the empty chairs and tables placed outside on the sidewalk in the still chilly, early morning air. The handsome young men expose their bare, upper torsos (maintained by lifting weights three times a week) and the equally good looking young women wear shorts to display their shapely legs (developed and maintained by lower body pilates).
Best of all, the recent arrivals to the neighborhood, the new residents, who have come to see and be seen, present themselves for inspection, then take careful inventory and make a sharpshooter’s evaluation of those already seated: the men look at which wedding ring fingers remain empty while the women subtly scan for concealed erections. These persons comprise the penultimate group of Saturday morning habitués, followed by the last group: lost, foreign tourists desperately searching for a bathroom.
Unlike other patrons in a nearby Starbucks or Peete’s coffee house, most patrons of TLB arrive with their electronic devices turned off, eager for a break from their normal, steady 24/7 connection. Their iPhones or Androids are strapped to a belt or clipped to a pocket. Other devices stick out of backpacks and handbags, accessible if needed, but mostly silent except for the occasional sound of a vibration.
A father and his four year old son are seated at the table next to me and wear matching Giants’ baseball caps. The single father opens a streaming download of Saturday morning cartoons on his tablet for his son to watch, and while fondly remembering his pre-progeny period, he flirts with the woman sitting at the adjacent table.
This morning, it must be stated for the record, that an exceptionally high level of bonhomie dominated the air as much as the smell of freshly baked bread and pastry.
On this particular Saturday morning, April 21, 2013, I expected that conversations would be dominated by the alleged Boston bomber suspects; (the death of the first and the capture and hospitalization of the second), followed, perhaps, by the latest Yahoo stock tips (buy Ford Motors! Buy Caterpillar!).
However, today’s hot topic, the subject on practically everyone’s tongue… was the arrival and set-up of new dryers in the local Laundromat three blocks away.
Though the subject might sound mundane, even insensitive to an outsider, those of us who have lived in the neighborhood for any length of time understand the significance. The facts are simple.
The same set of commercial washers and dryers had been in use by Russian Hill Wash & Dry since 1985. The new lessee, having just negotiated a 15 year lease, replaced the old washers with new machines.
Parts for the old dryers were no longer available and would have to be fabricated from scratch at an alarming cost to the lessee.
Removal of the old dryers, fitted snugly into one entire wall of the building, would require demolition of the entire wall. Such demolition would probably expose some structural deficiency requiring an upgrade to meet current building codes.
According to the contract, the lessor would have to bear the cost of such an upgrade and stubbornly refused to permit the demolition. The new tenants impetuously filed a law suit, Gu Yin Hu (Lessee) vs. Zhang Wei (Lessor) in San Francisco Superior Court.
The San Francisco Span (as compared to the morning paper which chronicled the news of the day and the evening paper which examined it more closely) printed the announcement in the following day’s edition, as part of its neighborhood news section under Russian Hill Chat.
The Russian Hill neighborhood residents, incapable of remembering foreign names (nor how to pronounce them), simply referred to the action, among themselves, as China vs. China.
Immediately the neighborhood took sides, heavily favoring the lessee since a sizeable portion of the residents paid to have their clothes washed, folded and delivered (for an extra fee) or merely used the laundry, grateful that it was in walking distance of their apartments.
However, on July 18, 2011, due to state budget constraints, the San Francisco Superior Court shuttered 25 of its 51 court rooms, laid off 200 of the court’s 480 workers, plus 22 staff employees and 11 of the 12 commissioners who presided over various cases, and allowed only major, white collar crimes and big time, politically sensitive criminal cases to obtain a judge and courtroom for trial.
Ten days after filing of the suit, the Court sent all parties a Dear Litigant letter putting them on notice that, due to the previous and continued budget constraints, plus additional cuts made due to the current sequestration, the Court was unable to assign the parties with a courtroom and judge. The case was placed on a waiting list, currently estimated to take 22 months.
The following day, The San Francisco Span, in an inflammatory editorial, predicted that unless the state government found some remedy, San Francisco jurisprudence might revert to a Lord of the Flies type of justice.
Both sides consulted attorneys regarding the use of JAMS (Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services) a private service comprised of attorneys and retired judges. This service required the deposit of exorbitant fees and other-worldly expenses for the mediation prior to the hearing.
However, both parties abandoned this proposed method of settlement as soon as they realized that the cost, even after splitting expenses, would easily pass the ten thousand dollar mark for each party.
Neither party seemed willing to listen to the other and reached a stalemate.
Dame Fortune appeared in the form of the Left Bank’s owner, known only as Madame D to the public. Madame, aware of the problem, offered both sides the use of the premises, gratis, for three hours (6-9p.m.) on three consecutive nights.
The parties agreed. Immediately, TLB make an announcement on its website (and by a sign in the window), that it would be closed for three consecutive evenings (M-W) on the following week to allow for the mediation.
Like Las Vegas odds makers, neighborhood residents made bets on the outcome. Odds were posted at 7 to 5, in favor of the lessee.
Prior to the meetings, Madame D gave detailed instructions to the chef for the preparation of three classic French dinners to be served at the beginning of each session and left a message to the parties that no alcohol was to be consumed (not even wine) during the negotiations or Madame would rescind her offer to use the Bistro.
On the morning after the third evening of the mediation, the laundry posted an announcement on its website and on its front door that it would be closed for six days during demolition and renovation. On the seventh day, the laundry reopened with a set of eight new driers, a new floor, and a new sound system behind which, unseen, were new fittings and copper electrical wiring meeting the current building codes.
Details of whatever agreement the parties reached remained confidential and the neighborhood collectively heaved a sigh of relief as it paid off the winning bettors.
Thereafter, Russian Hill Wash & Dry, (now referred to by its customers as RHW) as a continuing thanks to Madame, laundered all the Left Bank’s pink and white napery, (used only during dinner service), while during weekday mornings from 8-11 a.m. Russian Hill Wash & Dry offered free coffee to its clients, supplied at no charge, (without croissant or brioche), by TLB.
A week after the successful mediation, The Left Bank replaced its former dinner menu with a revised version. At the top of the menu, in French, was printed “Ventre affamé n’a point d’oreilles” and below in parentheses the English translation: “A hungry stomach has no ears.”
William Masters is a writer and litigation paralegal living in San Francisco.