A Radio Story

Life — and liquor— under occupation.

On October 25, when my city was literally on fire — plumes of smoke and gas wisping up in the air, trash cans ablaze, everywhere explosions and shouting and people running — I went to Radio for a beer.

To be honest, I’d never been the hugest fan — something about the sex-club-style red lighting, coupled with the fact that I’ve literally never been able to walk into the place without getting hit on, lent it a sort of ineffable skeeviness that couldn’t be entirely saved by elsewhere-unmatched proximity to BART, a uniformly friendly bar staff, and decidedly 99 percenter-friendly drink prices. But my feet/face holes/brain/heart needed a break, and this seemed as good a place as any.

Outside, Radio is nondescript, nestled between a photography gallery and a Burger King on the south side of 13th Street just off Broadway. Inside, it’s long and narrow and dark and divey, with appropriately grafittied bathrooms, a smallish upstairs balcony space that occasionally acts as a stage for live music, surprisingly comfortable barstools (some of which even have backs; glory be!), a corner pinball machine, and an unfancy-but-solid cocktail program. The design, such as it is, is vaguely Asian, and the room’s only real light comes from eight red paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and a centipede of LEDs, also red, running along the bar.

It’s a perfectly nice place — friendly and warm and happily self-assured in its nothing-specialness — but more importantly, it’s close: a tenth of a mile from the middle of everything. And as such, it, like the rest of us, has been thrown into something completely new and not fully wrap-around-able yet: What was, three weeks ago, a low-profile civic action in a wonderful, if slightly under-the-national-radar city, is now the epicenter of a worldwide movement; what was a relatively low-stress place to live is now the kind of town where Dumpsters serve as barricades and the soporific whirr of helicopters overhead starts to sound normal — and what was a well-loved but otherwise unremarkable downtown Oakland dive bar is now, for better or for worse, ground zero. (Last week, the nationally broadcasted public-radio program “Marketplace” devoted a short segment to seeing how local businesses like Radio were doing in the wake of the protests; manager and bartender Zhiva Kirschanski is quoted, with a wonderfully sanguine sound in his voice, saying that after last Wednesday’s general strike and day of action the bar “literally ran out of every single beer in the place — that’s pretty epic, to say the least.” Good to hear.)

I’ve been told that in the weeks since I was last there, Radio has become something of an informal meeting place for occupiers and observers, but that night it was filled, as usual, with an odd and diverse mix of people, some of whom had clearly come in for escape, others who probably had no idea what was swirling around them. It was crowded — the very tail end of Radio’s (highly generous) happy hour, which runs 4-8 p.m. daily — but the skeeviness factor was low, or maybe I was just distracted. I wedged my way to the bar and got a perfectly pulled Stella (one of four beers available on tap, in addition to at least a dozen by the bottle), but had scarcely started drinking it when explosions and yells rang out outside, loud enough to hear through the walls. The bouncer immediately opened the door to let everyone on the street in, away from the gas billowing up behind them — like pure instinct, or like the most literal elucidation an earnest alcohol writer could ever ask for as to why we go to bars in the first place: for refuge, for togetherness, for a place to go when the world catches on fire.

The sound system, by the way, was playing “What’s Goin’ On” — pretty epic, to say the least.

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