The Raw Meat Handshake*

Location: Sam’s

Sandwich: Double Cheeseburger

McManwich first asked me if I wanted to write on this blog a few weeks ago. It was the moment I had been waiting for. As two budding young sandwich journalists, we went to Sam’s Burgers and Pizza in North Beach. I had an idea for a story I was going to write: something about how weird San Francisco billboards are, and I was going to tangentially relate that to some burger place near a bunch of strip clubs. This is not that story because a) that story would suck, and b) the story of Sam’s is so much different.

The first thing to know about Sam’s Burgers and Pizza is that there is no pizza. Scrolling through the Yelp images of the place, you see burger after burger. There’s a picture of fried chicken, and I remember witnessing a corn dog go by, but everyone besides Google calls it Sam’s Burgers. Google calls it Sam’s Pizza. Again, there’s no pizza.

Sam’s burger is the kind of thing that tastes better when drunk, so McManwich and I drank several beers before walking in to the utterly unventilated restaurant. The interior is drenched with smoke damage and calcification. There was a stack of raw burgers sitting out on the counter (which I think I accidentally dipped my elbow in at some point– I’ll note that point later on in another parenthetical). To a certain group of people this sort of ramshacklery is disturbing, though to me it is reminiscent of singers like Jack White and Tom Waits, whose voices are by no means nice to listen to but instead are open, honest, and kind of fucked up. Sam’s burger is like the Bob Dylan of burgers.**

Sam’s is right on the corner of Broadway and Columbus where Chinatown and North Beach collide like bicyclists and Uber cars. Above, there’s a network of electrical wires that hum the city buses along and provide pit stops for flocks of swarming pigeons, and just on the other side of the intersection, you have the Barbary Coast staples like the Condor, Sweet Darlings, Centerfolds, and the Hustler. Across the street is the Chinese video shop that advertises to children with its Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z logos, yet contains some of the oddest porn imaginable in the back. Just a few blocks down, you’ll find Jack Kerouac alley, City Lights Bookstore, and Vesuvio, where Jack, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan used to drink and smoke cigarettes.

Sam’s is unabashed in its purpose: to serve drunk people burgers really late at night. Omar, the cook and apparent runner of the show, shows up around 3:30 in the afternoon and doesn’t leave until 3:30 at night, and he does so every day of the week.

There are eight cushioned seats up at the bar and a row of the anchored plastic tables normally reserved for donut shops. The bar counter is covered in wood-themed formica and the menu is faded yellow plastic that looks so old and battered by smoke, you can feel its atomic decay. There is no ventilation hood and all of the burger smoke hangs by the light fixtures, diffusing the fluorescence so that everything looks like a scene from Fight Club. It’s something you wouldn’t expect to exist in San Francisco, and that’s what makes it wonderful.

McManwich and I both ordered the double cheeseburger with fries and an Anchor Steam (This, right here, is where I dipped my elbow into the raw meat patties directly to my left.) The burger arrived on a paper plate and reminded me of how I would eat a burger from a beach barbeque, minus wind blown bits of sand. It tasted that way, too. I always found it strange how restaurant burgers never tasted the same as home cooked burgers, but Sam’s, true to its interior, has no formality to it whatsoever. The patties are hand-flattened and fresh, adorned with strips of lettuce, tomatoes, raw red onions, and slapped down slices of American cheese– exactly the way you would eat a burger if you were cooking with a bunch of friends at the beach.

McManwich and I took our first bite, and I mentioned something about how Gandhi got his start lawyering against Apartheid in South Africa before he went back to India to fight British Imperialism. I told you I was drunk. We, and when I say we, I mean I, started discussing the controversy around Gandhi. He resisted Imperialism by organizing movements showing Indians how to make their own salt from the sea. Thousands of Indians no longer relied on British salt, but the British added Iodine to their salt because, without Iodine in the diet, a significantly greater amount of children are born with mental retardation in addition to several other health issues– like goiters. So, while Gandhi acted in the name of freedom, he also had a big hand in a national health crisis. There’s a Radiolab about the topic, and it asks the question: was there a net-positive result from Gandhi’s actions?

The guy behind me started mumbling something to me, and I think I mumbled something back. McManwich, at this point, was tucked fully into his burger. He was listening to the conversation, but he wouldn’t show it. He showed focus.

Omar, the cook who runs the place, told us what Gandhi rumors he knows. We both nodded and ate the burger.

We finished the burger and started eating the fries. There’s nothing special about the fries other than that they’re frozen and in a giant plastic bag, which, when you think about it, represents the stunning uninspirational complexity of modernity. Just think of how much labor, science, and logistics go into getting that bag of chopped potatoes to San Francisco, whence I order and eat, thinking, hmm, it’s kind of mealy.

Our conversation about Gandhi got us started on other world-definers: not just people who have changed the world, but people who have created the scaffold upon which we build all of our thoughts. So we asked Omar, “Omar, who is someone who has defined our human existence today?”

Omar dipped a spoon into a Yuban coffee can filled with cold water and used it to flatten out the raw hamburger meat that was sitting at my left elbow.

“Isaac Newton,” Omar says.

Of course. Newton defined gravity for us, creating the equation for gravitation and mathematically verifying the laws of planetary motion. Newton defined light for us, not only describing part of its still elusive nature, but discovering that white light is indeed made of all visible colors. Newton defined motion for us, giving us mathematical understanding of inertia, momentum, and force. He invented the reflecting telescope. Once, when everyone around him was dying of the Plague, Newton hid in his room and created Calculus, which is taught in high schools and colleges across the globe. Rumor has it that Newton even invented the fucking doggy-door!

“Alright, Omar,” we said, almost exhausted trying to enumerate Newton’s contributions to human thought, “who else?”

Now Omar was quiet. He was wearing a black on black LA Dodgers hat with a do-rag underneath. He wore a large, black rectangular ring on his middle finger that swayed back and forth as he flattened the meat patties with the spoon. In his right hand he held the raw meat, letting it bob up and down, measuring its gravity as he thought. Dark depressions around his eyes denoted  a vivid incarnation of nocturnalism.

“I would have to say Rene Descartes,” Omar said.

Rene Descartes: the Bob Dylan of metaphysical philosophers. Of course, again!

Descartes’ contributions to human thought are much less flashy that Newton’s. For one, he didn’t invent any pet contraptions– no hamster wheel, no bunny feeder, no iguana tube. I’m not sure I can forgive him. But I argue that what he’s added to human knowledge is so fundamental that we hardly even see it as important: it’s baked in to the way we think. First, Descartes came up with the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am.” Everyone has heard that, it’s monumentally influential. It has saved the psyche of many college kids who’ve just taken one too many hits off the bong and begun to wonder if they exist, if they live in the Matrix, if they’re the Chosen One, if they should see how far they can limbo if they need to dodge bullets, if Neo from the film was like Future Jesus and if I am the Chosen One then I’m like the Present Jesus, and Jesus was the Past Jesus. So, you know, Descartes helped a lot with that.

Beyond adding a bed of sheetrock under how far our delusions can go, Descartes also formed the way we see shapes. You know the X-Y axis that you had to draw 1 squllion times in school? That was Descartes! Marketing analytics, stock performance charts, and timelines all owe a fundamental piece of their logic to Descartes, and therefore, we do, too.

“So, it seems like you’ve thought about this before, Omar,” I said.

Yes, Omar explained, yes he has. Before his 3:30 shift begins, Omar takes a few hours from each of his days and teaches himself high level Maths from YouTube videos. McManwich is a high school Math teacher and fluent in the progression that Math students need, so as Omar spread patties out (at this point, I dipped my elbow in the meat again) he asked for advice on which subject to tackle next. They lost me at higher dimensions.

Actually, to be honest, they lost me at Calculus. I’m more of an Algebra II kind of guy.

As Omar and McManwich yucked it up about dimensional analysis and indefinite integrals, I couldn’t help but wonder: how many people are like Omar? With resources like YouTube and free online university classes, how many people will decide that, rather than jump through the hoops of college applications and credits, they will just learn the skills and go on from there. How many people will reject the occupational-specialization that’s recommended to us our whole lives, and instead decide to follow their whims and passions, studying what is interesting rather than what will fill requirements? The great thinkers who have shaped human logic didn’t stop at artificial boundaries. Did Newton think up the doggy-door and say to himself, “no, pet-related appliances aren’t my expertise.” Hell no. He took a hammer and smashed out part of his door like any regular genius would. Many of the people who shape our consciousness now were largely self-taught: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Ted Turner (creator of the 24 hour news cycle, mother of talking-heads), and many (or maybe just a couple, I don’t know) more.

These people were curious and devoted, and now– more than ever– is the time for the curious and devoted.

In conclusion, I give Sam’s a 7.33 / 9.

* I never got around to explaining what the title means. If you’re wondering how, in hell, did you manage to skip the meaning of the title in that long, meandering, and largely pointless narrative of yours? you’re not alone! Basically, as we were leaving we went to shake hands with Omar, but his hands were covered in raw beef so he curled his wrist and stuck it into our hands: thus the Raw Meat Handshake was born.

**Note that I said Sam’s is like the Bob Dylan of burgers. Sam’s is not the Bob Dylan of burgers. We all, of course, already know which place is the Bob Dylan of burgers.

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