You shift uncomfortably from foot to foot, queued on the sidewalk adjacent to a steamy Italian cafe. Quickly losing patience, which you’ve arguably never had, you’re inundated with idle conversations in a quagmire of unified strangers. Ostensibly waiting for comedy, truthfully you’re here for a single comedian, whom, is actually your charismatic co-worker, or your drug dealer, or your unhinged grandmother with a new lease on life. The Purple Onion straddles the coasts of the jostling Chinatown and North Beach’s unchecked vitality. Slinky couples clutch and shuffle through the habitat of urban smear mired in San Francisco’s classic, cellophane gray. As the proxy collective pulses forward, around and down a cumbersome staircase (very safe), and each individual is tolled by the ticket taker, the night’s makeup couldn’t be more smeared.
It’s innately impossible to forget where you are. The yawning domicile of laughter holds an ethereal nostalgia and husky atmosphere. The Purple Onion declares its eponymous existence with motley, amethyst typeface enveloped by a glazed, blazed facet. Trinkets and tchotchkes line the bricks, pictures of legends hang up in tribute, an altar of humor. Seems legit. You’ve been told whispers of the venue’s lore, hyperbole and hearsay, but it means little to you, in this transient city of awkward technophiles, transplants and gentrification.
Your eyes strain through the cellar’s twilight for a landing place. Huge, circular, leather-bound booths piked with tables, a fort for fornication and covert texting, are filled, aptly, with voluminous parties. Cutsey couples and cluster seep into the middle arrangement of islandesque tables and chairs. An intimidatingly exclusive bench, abut to a wall, spreads to the bar with high chairs. Such an angle seems disadvantageous to comedy. Note the disc jockey working in the wings. Apologies if there is no DJ. You dread sitting up front, in the light, in the “splash zone”, in the crosshairs. Fret not, the Purple Onion’s perfectly tuned intimacy, lighting, layout and width provides an equal opportunity for ribbing or vitriol.
Upon seating you’re approached by a black-garbed, elfin, Eastern European hostess; equally aloof and genial, she requires your desires (i.e. food and drinks). You stall, skim the menu and wonder, “what the fuck is soju?” It’s alcohol, that’s all that matters. The piercingly beautiful waitress whisks away with your order and you hurriedly wait. You catch a glance of the charismatic co-worker, drug dealer, or unhinged grandmother with a new lease on glance, but only for a moment. You’ll encounter them after the show, for now, the lights dim and an omnipresent voice introduces…
The host is unfamiliar, probably African American, energetic and alluring, igniting the room and orchestrating a pre-flight ritual demonstrating the audience-appropriate activities (laughing, paying attention, etc.). Hosts are the embodiment of dedication, despair, sacrifice, loathing and necessary self-deception forged from a rough road shaving years off their life and forming calluses over their ego. The host is integral to the delicate wetlands of San Francisco’s comedy community, not that you’re aware. You’re only present for the charismatic co-worker, or the drug dealer, or the unhinged grandmother with a new lease on life, whom you cheer for with extra gumption (because you’re a good person). Other than [your] main attraction, the rest of the show is an amorphous parade of passable upstarts giving their all.
Chuckling politely, guffawing appropriately, you notice a nether call of nature. If expelling one’s pants was socially viable, you’d continue enjoying the comedy, but, you’re forced to rest in the restroom. Scurry from your perch, glide below the collective field of vision, and float through the partition of ominous drapes. It’s a den of of ill-lit, hollowed-eyed comedians, nestled on the stairway proceeding a chain-locked exit (very safe). Don’t make eye-contact, don’t make any sudden movements, don’t be a hero. Rest assure, if they stare while whispering jokester jargon, there’s only a 32% chance they’re verbally eviscerating you specifically. Take solace in that.
Approaching the restrooms, you veer to the right, because, unfortunately, you are a male. Winding upward on a pivot to meet a dilemma: How much do you have to use the bathroom? Two rustic stalls, one permanently open, wet wood with warpaint, eroded ceiling, pipes lacquered with paint and grime, viscus soap (if you’re lucky), and a lazy motion controlled paper towel dispenser (full, if you’re lucky). The entire diarrhea-rama serves as a homage to the Onion’s history of 1970s phlegmy film, 1980s cocainery and 1990s punkery. A gentleman’s agreement to forgo more forlorn excretions is implicit, haste is a lauded virtue.
Return to your headliner, an equally ambiguous, ambitious, unfamous young soul with a swell of words, ideas and anxiety. You “politely” glance at your watch; regardless of performer proficiency, the sooner the show is over, the better. Even in mirth, you’re running low on patience; you never had any to begin with. “Let me leave with this,” says the budding comic, years from prestige, potential, or opus. Sigh, happy sigh. After the rousing climax the host bookends the night, a postmortem, ushering out the herd to make space for the ensuing flock. After a brief rendezvous with your charismatic co-worker, drug dealer, or unhinged grandmother with a new lease on life, you lumber up the Onion’s steps into the open air, into relief, comedic or otherwise. The day is darker, a new crowd waits, and you wonder, for a moment, who they are all here to see.
[Photo via Jabari Davis]