Sometimes a Man Just Needs a Drink
Cocktails at the bar of the Starlight Room and a Saturday night post-Thanksgiving nosh at the ultra-hip Black Cat restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach had spilled me onto Broadway full of fine stuff. And I was still aglow from Thursday’s abundant provender and its mayonnaise laden leftovers on Friday, and all the cheery, beery company of kinfolk and friends gathering their powers for the next few weeks of indulgence. Happy crowds, mostly young, clustered and thronged along the streets as I made my way south towards Broadway. A clutch of gawky Green Tortoisites admired the well dressed line of would-be dancers waiting outside Broadway Studios across the street; men held car doors open for women; a cop politely gave a ticket for jay-walking to a repentant tourist. All seemed afloat upon the fumes of wine and no one thought of pains. There were no homeless in sight. “Enough of this,” I thought. “I can only take so much of a good thing.”
Too much of the high life will grow fat on the soul and surfeit of pleasure unmans me. Regular doses of luxury require the catharsis of hardship and danger. The torpor inducing certitudes of American life call for measures of third world officialdom to slap me back into reality. Floods of Merlot leave me longing for beer, and I don’t mean micro-brew or premium stuff from foreign countries. I’m talking suds plain and simple. With pretzels. And if not that then workaday gin with humblest tonic. Or maybe a glass of red from a jug, but nothing with a fancy label or a French or Napa pedigree. I want something that a prissy, bent-pinkie sommelier would sneer at, or resolutely ignore with his own professional bemused disdain.
I grew up in the rural wine country, far from any town. My grandmother’s high school boyfriend was a guy by the name of Martini. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Wine came to our house in jugs when I was a kid. Fine folk tended to sip Scotch whiskey, but my people guzzled Paisano. And at the age of twelve I began to drink it mixed one-to-one with water. From a shot glass. I learned from that early age both to respect wine, and not to be awed by it. I learned that wine could be an integral part of a well lived life, if you let it serve you. But not if you became servant to wine.
I never touched stemware before the age of sixteen. If I drank a varietal before eighteen I don’t know about it. Wine spilled on the table was hailed as a sign of good luck. A bad stain maybe, but good luck. Sniffing the cork? Who knew from corks? Oh, and that tedious ceremony of tasting the wine? There was a time when that had purpose. When corks and packing and shipping were less secure. But nowadays you’re more likely to get a flat Coke or a warm beer than a bad wine. Of the countless bottles of wine I’ve tasted over these decades I’ve sent back but one. And yet I could have drunk it, one-to-one with water, from a shot glass. And I would have scandalized the sommelier. But of course he must earn his keep, and show his necessary role in the pricy world that can be modern wine culture.
So on this now suddenly stultifying Saturday night, overfed deluxe and my decks awash with the best of California’s grape, I knew that only a slide into a dive or two would make me a man again. Because sometimes a man just needs a down and dirty drink. I was on the cusp of China Town, where Grant Avenue begins its plunge. The garish neon of the Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge at 1155 Grant promised redemption.
A Chinese man in a black leather jacket and an Elvis hair-do stood outside the door yammering into his cell phone and smoking copiously. He never left his station, nor his phone, nor his smoke. Through a cloud of his effluent I stepped into the deep, narrow confines. Red light suffused throughout and a certain whorehouse feel thereby obtained. A couple of red paper dragons disported themselves above the rows of liquor bottles. A clock glowed mouthwash green above the door. Dean Martin sang Volare from the ancient juke box, and two TVs showed the same football game, the volume down to zero. No tables, just a jet black bar, with wall mirrors both fore and aft. So you can look at yourself looking at yourself while you shed your vanities. The Bow Bow begs introspection.
Candy Wong has owned this place for 13 years. She matches the decor. For this I am thankful. And I am thankful for her chatting me up, which I cannot expect at the trendy, cosmo slinging, tapas touting, champagne and noise besotted establishments I hate to love. She brings me gin and tonic ($3.50) as the music changes to Sam Cook. Down the bar a 21st Century Fred Flintstone is holding forth for the benefit of Barney, Wilma and Betty. He is discoursing upon the relative merits of nuclear vs conventional powered submarines. He confesses that if he had ever seen one, or at least been in the navy, he could enlighten them further. Barney has lost interest and steals glances at the game; Wilma is either attentive or glassy eyed; Betty is stoned. Candy just wants to know if my drink is satisfactory. “You relax,” she says. “No worries here.”
The Bow Bow is a good place to start a dive crawl. It’s not the diviest, so here you can ease you way down into divedom, if it’s easing you desire. It’s within easy striking range of its sister establishments in the neighborhood, as well as a few late night eateries of low life and high repute. So I stay a while, and let the maddening crowds maddeningly throng, a mere block away, and yet so far. Another drink, another Dino croon. Italian and Chinese in comfortable incongruity, here in the confines of the bar and out there on the opposing shores of Broadway. As I look into the double mirror at me looking at me I am reminded that legend has it that Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. And in that mirror I see Candy applying new lipstick, and legends tugs at me to say that it was also Marco Polo who brought the kiss from Italy to China. She sees me watching through the red lit mirror. She winks, smiles, and blows a kiss through time and reflection all the way from China Town to Little Italy. You can’t get that at the Black Cat. Not at any price.