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The Alternative Universe of 19th Street Station

Where everybody knows your name.



The people of 19th Street Station are, I'm sure, good at many things, but they excel at shooting the shit. Topics discussed on a recent Monday evening, for example: the implausibility of a recent sci-fi movie (something about the plasma); San Antonio's offense (apparently they shoulda went with Robinson); the song "Every Breath You Take," (only good in a karaoke context and nowhere else, it is decided); the pronunciation of Zach Galifianakis' last name (phonetically, goes the final call). The regulars, who are everyone, argue and laugh and patter about everything and nothing; sometimes, they stop talking altogether, no questions asked, if someone's doing something exceptionally exciting on one of the TV screens. People ask each other about their families and pipe into arguments from across the room and generally interact in a way that transcends the kind of temperate appreciation you have for someone with whom you share oxygen and a bartender's attention. And that's about when you realize that this bar is very different from all other bars.

19th Street Station has only ever had one bartender. Roy Mejia bought the place for $500 in 1982, and in two decades, he says he has never been sick, nor has he ever taken a vacation. (Take that, Cal Ripken Jr.) He's never advertised, either, and actually prefers to call the place a hangout or a social club rather than a bar: He likes to think that he's serving friends rather than customers.

There are two rules at 19th Street Station: no cussing and no trouble. There's never been a fight in the bar's history, according to Mejia, nor has he ever seen graffiti in the bathroom. You can smoke, completely legally — the codes have an exemption for establishments that are owned and operated by the same person — but the place is surprisingly hospitable, odor-wise, even to non-smokers. Mejia is the kind of person who will ask you to pardon his language before using the word "sucks" and, who, as a matter of policy, will consult with a woman first if a man wants to buy her a drink ("most bars, they just want to make money, so they'll sell to whoever. I don't care about that," he said, proudly), so you get the sense that the relative orderliness of the place is less a result of Mejia's running a tight ship than it is of the fact that the people of 19th Street Station know each other very, very well.

Mejia's a Luddite and only has a Beta video player at home; when Dong, one of the regulars, found a copy of his favorite movie, Beaches, on Beta, Roy traded him a week's tab for it. When a customer's car breaks down, Roy has been known to help him do his errands in his forty-year-old truck. Everyone who's been more than a couple times has a nickname. The whole setup feels a lot more like a place you'd find in a tiny town off the highway — or, more accurately, television — than you would sandwiched between a shoe-repair place and a perpetually-blinded-up storefront a couple blocks away from BART in downtown Oakland, but here it is. The walls are cluttered with sports memorabilia, what appears to be every piece of schwag any liquor company has ever produced, and pictures — lots of pictures, of customers old and new, of former Giants manager Dusty Baker (a friend of Mejia's), of a much-younger Mejia smiling wide in a much-younger 19th Street Station. A big sign at the bar says "NO SNIVELING" — perhaps a third rule, or a subsection of the "no trouble" dictum. The register is aging and decidedly analog; the phone is rotary. A big, foamy, overflowing Hefeweizen is $4. It feels a little like an alternative universe, to be honest.

By virtue of the one-bartender thing or the not-caring-about-money thing, 19th Street Station has spectacularly weird hours, a schedule that's essentially a complete mirror-image of that of every other bar on the planet: Monday through Friday, and until 8 p.m. only. But if someone has just ordered a drink or is having a bad day, Mejia will stay open later, still chatting as he sponges off the bar and checks the bathrooms for messes, which there never are. Finally, at 8:15 or 8:20, Dong and Wendy and Dre and everyone else will file out, exchanging high-fives and offers for rides home and kisses on the cheek as they do. If you're a reporter or just a newcomer who's been asking questions, Mejia might pluck a green cotton T-shirt off a pile sent to him free by a liquor company and hand it to you, wordlessly. Then he'll look you in the eye and say, as if in response to a question you never asked, "Yeah, I wouldn't trade this for anything." You'll have no choice but to agree with him.