San Francisco Noir: Wandering the City’s Night
Around the glitzy tourist hotels and fancy eateries of downtown San Francisco the Tenderloin district wraps itself. This smarmy sea laps up against the shores and flows into the bays and inlets of the central city wherever high priced real estate is lacking. Its currents run round the islands of prosperity and its waves slam smack into the breakwaters of Hilton and Renaissance. From the towers of those two hotels you can look straight down into the Tenderloin’s depths, and if you open a window you can smell it. So next night you’re sitting in the rarefied air of the Grand Cafe (in the Hotel Monaco at 505 Geary) sipping a cognac and contemplating a rich fat cigar, just take a walk south. In two minutes you’ll be at ground zero.
I had arrived on the scene early, having left some friends complaisant at the aforementioned Grand Cafe. They had no stomach for where I was going. I decided that I should ease myself into the depths to which I would find myself this night, so I began with a light dinner at Original Joe’s (Since moved to 601 Union Street). OJ’s and Glide Memorial Church together form the only real point of transition between the creamy head of The City and its dregs. I took a booth facing the wide windows so I could watch the parade of humanity passing by, but found it much more interesting within. For in here I could see the transition. Truckers and laborers tucking into a protein and carb rich dinner after a hard day; middle-aged regulars of long years standing having their usuals; couples out on a date; a sixtyish woman at the booth next to me rambling on quite audibly to no one in particular about her affair with the head of the Secret Service. She does not say when, nor does she name names. The waiters in faux tuxedos with pocket protectors scurry about with huge loads of meat and potatoes. Two whores in from the cold for a cup of hot coffee talk shop. One of them gives me a come-hither look, her eyes aglow with dollar signs. But I look the other way. Where I am going she cannot come. Where I am going her charms will gain her nothing; she’ll find not wealth, but want.
I have an omelet, good bread, fried potatoes, a half liter of very decent house wine. And it’s more than I can consume. $16.00 with tax. I am ready to go forth. But it’s still early. Where I am going the goings-on do not go on until 10:00 PM. So I take a walk. I cross Taylor onto Ellis, and I am in a heartbeat in the heart of “the loin.” Street denizens in this part of town do not sleep so much in doorways or other niches. They roll out their bedding square on the sidewalk, and you can take a census of them in the course of an evening’s stroll. And the streets are well lit, so they pose no hazard to navigation. Somewhere I turn onto Turk Street.
There must be a language in which “Turk Street” means “public urinal.” Making my way through the ammonia clouds of Turk I was reminded of King David who once pronounced the death of all the men of Nabal. “All those that pisseth against the wall,” said he, “shall die.” If the king’s awful doom should be carried to these shores it would imperil as well half the female population, for they, too, live and relieve themselves here. The first one I passed this night had assumed the ancient and customary position. I walked on, eyes resolutely forward. But the next one I saw was on feet and she pisseth against the wall in manly fashion. She was using one of those small clever devices that allow a woman to “stand to” as a man. I found this very cheering. And as I passed she looked at me and smiled. I couldn’t resist:
“How’s it hangin” I asked.
“Hey, baby,” she replied. “Bet I could write your name with this thing.”
“They call me Dick,” I said. “Don’t forget to dot the I.”
At 133 Turk Street I reached my destination: Aunt Charlie’s, a garish and gay anti-oasis. The lighting is so red it”s almost as red as The Red Room (827 Sutter; more on that in the future). Christmas tree lights flicker on the ceiling, pinball machines boing and blast near the door, and the dark, pitted bar is accoutered not with ashtrays but with plastic party cups half full of water. As time goes by each one becomes a cup of cigarette soup. But the music is good: an eclectic mix of big bands, classical, even country (but not the kind wherein they sing through their noses about Mama and trucks and prison).
For $2.75 Joe the barman serves a generous gin and tonic. Leather boys cuddle in a corner; the blond woman next to me slowly sinks into her cups; gay old men nurse their long neck buds and think of other days; and Miss Mona (full name Mona Lot) introduces me to her new boyfriend before she does her bit for the little Saturday night drag show. If you drink coffee in the Financial district you may very well know Miss Mona in her work-a-day guise at a well known chain. But you can ask her about that yourself when you come here. She’ll be glad to tell you.
Aunt Charlie’s began 40 years ago as a regular neighborhood joint. Then for a while it was called Queen Mary’s. For the last 16 years it’s been AC’s, with Joe behind the bar for 13. I always make it a habit to tip the bartender, but when Joe is on duty he tips better than I. Not to customers, of course. But to the drag queens, all of whom are just neighborhood folk. As they sing their Saturday way through the boozy crowd, patting heads here, squeezing bits there, taking a Tyson bite out of some one’s ear, they pick up little rewards from some of the patrons. Sometimes a few, sometimes fewer. But Joe makes sure they always get something. It’s a long way from the Grand Cafe.
The rain is falling in the San Francisco night, but not heavily. It’s a misty, moisty drizzle that lands quietly on the asphalt of the deep, deep Mission, the Mission of old that clings stubbornly to its roots. While that stretch of the Irish cum Spanish cum dot.com neighborhood; that street of dives-now-hot spots; that land of blue collar-now-T shirt and Gold Card lies in ferment several blocks to the north. For now. Up there, in the new Mission, an old place that has for years called itself “Your Dive” stations its bouncer at the door while a long line of well dressed people waits in respectful order. They’ve come from all over town to render unto Caesar for their chance to sip a thimble sized drink served by a bored scullion too hip to care. They’ll endure the wait outside, then the crush within, perhaps get something spilled on them, shout to be heard above the din, then go home in the satisfied delusion that they have imbibed the essence of one of The City’s great and famous neighborhoods. Poor little innocents abroad.
But down here on the 3800 block it’s still alive. For now. Hat pulled low against the steadily falling rain I make my way towards Saint Mary’s Pub at 3841 Mission, at the corner of College. A clutch of tough looking Latin men with buzz cuts and heavy footwear stand outside the door, seemingly oblivious to the weather, regarding me as I approach. Each holds a dark object in his hand, though in the rainy night I cannot see what it is. I slow my pace, and they subtly fan out as though to cut off any escape I may have in mind. I note an alley way to my left that offers egress, and continue toward my destiny. The dark objects the men hold come into view. They are bibles. The Elder of the tribe greets me, “Buenos noches, senor.” His congregation smile benignly as he invites me to come to their church with them tonight rather than enter the bar. I try to make a joke about communing with a different kind of spirit, but my kitchen Spanish fails me. “Via con Dios,” they all say warmly. “Igualmente,” says I. And I duck in to take refuge from the elements in the bosom of “the Virgin.”
Saint Mary’s Pub has been dispensing comfort and cheer in this working class neighborhood for 55 years. This was an Irish pub back then, welcoming home the Hibernian veterans of WWII. About half the clientele are still such people. The other half Hispanic, mostly Mexican and Salvadoran. They mix easily with each other, and the bubble of conversation is English, Spanish and “Spanglish.” For a mere $2.50 Jay the barman pours me a very very ginny gin & tonic. I slip a dollar into the jukebox and punch in Dino, the Chairman of the Board, a few legends of Rock and Soul. I eschew the one Barry Manilow selection. Three Latinas of a certain age seated at one of the little round tables applaud my choices, and one compliments me on my hat. Later, when they leave to go dancing to the Latin jukebox of Galon’s, one block to the north at 3775, they invite me to go with them.
The dark old wood panelled walls exhude warmth, as does the the art-deco bar with its glass columns emitting pastel light, befitting an old time movie palace. The ancient pinball machine at one wall, and the equally ancient gumball machine that takes only nickles at another, bespeak older, better times. The linoleum tile floor is well kept. And pictures of family, and of course the Virgin, adorn the mirror behind the bar. The crowd usually thins out early, and Jay often closes by midnight, as he does tonight. “You should go on and dance with those ladies at Galon’s,” he says as he stacks up the ancient wooden barstools. “You know how to do the Latin. It’s a nice place, too.” I knock back the last of the generous G&T.
Outside in the gentle rain, this little branch of the great tree of the Mission dangles, far from the mother trunk. Four little restaurants, two bars, and one mini mart make up the remnants of the nightscape here. Across the street a windchime composed of a single bell tinkles in the slipstreams of passing busses. I can hear it four lanes away.
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 microbrew 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 lable 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 distain.
I grew up in the rural wine country, far from any town. My grandmother’s highschool boyfriend was a guy by the name of Martini. Maybe you knew 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 de luxe 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.
San Francisco is a jigsaw puzzle, or perhaps a geometric mosaic, one puzzle piece or porcelain tile abutting the next. And each a different character and hue, conveying a different mood, hiding a different soul. Seldom do you see any transition piece to lead the eye gently from one character to another. Each piece in the greater picture is its own, belonging to the greater picture by virtue of its being locked into its neighbors. The puzzle master, it would seem, had no particular pattern in mind. “Let the pieces fall where they may,” the master might have said. “And I’ll make of it a pretty picture still.” At Union Square stand in the midst of modern western sophistication, the heart of a great and famous city. Then with one step through the Grant Street gate be transported into China Town and a wholly different soul. Carry on through this tile of the mosaic till you reach Broadway, then cross the street and be delivered into North Beach. Or approach from the Financial District. Along Kearny Street, the China Town tile sidles up to the money tile, the world of suits and BMWs, of steel and glass power towers. There in the after hours darkness and emptiness of Moneyland, where the Pyramid glowers, twinkle the little lights of Grassland
I have walked through the sepulchral quiet from Battery street. In the clear, cold night I followed, like some profane magus, the come-hither red-light glow emanating from the door of the Grassland cocktail lounge at 905 Kearny. The green awning above the door announces that this is the place “Where good friends and girls meet.” Beside the door I read the roll of the US navy ships that the Grassland has welcomed of late. But only those of late, for Grassland has been here for 55 years and the full roll would roll on to the bay. The word grassland refers to a Chinese version of the Elysian Fields. I go in to see if there are any Greek heroes.
Dianne, who has managed the place for the last 11 years, serves me a Tsing Tao beer, and though I’ve only been here once before remembers my name. I relax and “admire” the decor. It’s almost as red as the Red Room, lights, walls, hangings etc. In a space the size of a two car garage they’ve crammed every Chinese doo-dad, gew-gaw, knick-knack and brick-a-brack imaginable. It screams at you. No dragons are in evidence, but you think you might have been swallowed by one. Or perhaps you’ve stumbled into the lair of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu. Or the set of a Kung Fu movie. The joint also accommodates three old fashioned pinball machines, a giant gumball machine that could have been a Jetsons robot maid, and a clutch of regulars at the bar, 3 white men and 2 Chinese women. No “cool” people, no hipsters or bohemians, nobody willing to stand in line to await the bouncer’s blessing.
A troupe of conventioneers from New Orleans is letting off steam. They’ve grown tired of the stiff and formal confines of more “regular” places of entertainment. They’ve found the human scale here. Over the course of the evening games of dice will be played, the cups slamming down on Formica tables near the pinball machines. A few more regulars will come in and the conventioneers will try to romance them. One of them gets a dance when he agrees to play her favorite tune on the jukebox. Nothing, really, of note happens here. Just Diane’s welcome, a cold beer or a generously poured drink, a game, a dance, a chat. All in an easy comfort that belies the decor, as the emptiness yawns across the street in that other tile of the mosaic.
San Francisco is possessed of many establishments that allow the night wanderer to eat and drink history. Obvious choices include the watering holes and feeding stations of the grand old hotels such as the Palace. At the other end of the scale the Eagle Cafe and Red”s Java House allow us to imbibe San Francisco”s blue collar history. And then there is the gold rush grub of Tadich Grill; and until recently Jack’s was the oldest restaurant at a continuous location until it was ignominiously swallowed up by the new gold rush of dot.commerce. Few people know of the history on the menu at Enrico’s. At that location, 504 Broadway, lay Fior d’Italia from 1886 to 1954 when it moved up around the corner, where it still reigns as the oldest Italian restaurant in the USA. And it was upon Fior’s departure that Enrico Banducci moved in and opened a bohemian cafe. A cafe frequented by the best known characters of the beat generation. A place where much literature was born.
“It was what we’d now call a dive,” I said to Danita, my lady companion.
“You can’t be serious,” she replied, setting down her glass of cabernet sauvignon on Enrico’s polished black granite bar. The bar tender finished shaking my martini (not too dry, as per my instructions), then muddled mint leaves for the popular mojitos the joint sells so well, while on the patio, under outdoor heaters, the well coifed and shod slurped Irish coffee and talked stock options. Danita noted the bentwood bistro chairs and the elegantly set tables with a connoisseur’s eye. She commented knowledgeably on the wall posters and the modern-artsy chandeliers. Affluent people tucked into Italian inspired dishes and a musician played jazzy tunes on the grand piano. Amid the notes I strained to hear the voices of the ghosts of Kerouak and Ginsberg and company, but they had left, had been banished by another generation, and were on the road.
“The wine list is quite good,” Danita observed. “And the menu looks yummy. But where is it we’re going?”
“One block, one era and a world away,” said I. And we stepped out into the hungry night.
At 620 Broadway, Vietnam Restaurant beckons from 8:00 am to 2:00 am every day. The Bhuddist altar just inside the door, and another at the far end, beckon the spirits. And I think they answer. It’s a tiny space, deep and narrow, with a low counter and a few tables. It looks like it might have been a sushi place at the time the movie “Repo Man” was released:
“Let’s go do some crimes,” the punk says.
“Yeah. Let’s go have sushi and not pay,” his accomplice responds.
And it’s been operating since about the time “Repo Man” was released. The red tile floor is worn, the green formica tables rock a bit, the walls were once painted perhaps off white, or maybe condensed milk yellow. It’s hard to tell, they look only of age now. Old Vietnamese songs peal out from a scratchy tape deck. Along the exposed kitchen wall piles and bags of unknown things are stacked to the ceiling along with noodles and tea and bread and an old cooler full of soda and Heineken beer.
The ladies Lan and Kim are the night crew. Kim rarely leaves the stove where she performs acts of motherly love known as cookery. Lan is always perfectly coifed and acts as sou chef and waitress and everybody’s auntie. Danita is swept away by her charm as she seats us. Most of the patrons are Vietnamese, young, and dressed in that extreme hip-hop style that makes them look like trolls who live under bridges and might eat your children. Before entering they stand outside and argue, smoke, shrug their shoulders, hawking and spitting. Yet once within the sanctuary they are unfailingly polite and friendly, even to the elegant Danita in her suede trousers and I in staid navy blazer. Middle class white kids should take lessons. In both courtesy and spitting; these kids have amazing range.
The bill of fare is the same simple street food you’d get in Saigon. And it’s the closest in taste and quality I’ve found anywhere. Banh Mi (Bun Mee) is a sandwich of grilled or roasted meat on a light and crunchy Vietnamese (not French) baguette with vegetables and spices and pickles and sometimes things I never ask about. In Saigon it costs about $0.25. Here it costs about two bucks and it’s far, far superior to fast food, and it’s just as fast. Pho is the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup. But it’s beef noodle soup raised to the nth degree, served with garnishes with which to paint your own gustatory canvass. Kim prepares and Lan serves like votaries in a temple, with reverence, love and pleasure in what they do. They chatter away ceaselessly as they work, offering counterpoint to the scratchy music.
Two decades they’ve been here. Not so long since the time Enrico’s went from dive to swank. Not so long since the time there were no Vietnamese restaurants here. Not so long in time, and yet such a long stretch of American cultural history in that tightly compressed last half of the 20th century. From 504 to 620 Broadway, from Italian to Beatnick to Yuppie, from sushi to hole-in-wall Vietnamese. The inexorable marches of American history, right in your mouth. Try the coffee.
Far down along Third Street, south of SOMA, south of Pacbell Park, and below the drawbridge the broad canyons and narrow arroyos of the Potrero district lead the night wanderer into a land of gritty quietude. Here machine shops and warehouses brood like abandoned churches. In North Beach the party goers are dining and dancing, and in the Mission the same but to a different drummer. The SOMA clubs thunder with music and throb with hormones. But the night gets steadily darker and lonelier as I make my way down deep Third. I pass the acoustic and fashion anomaly of the Snowdrift Club, with its muscular doorman and well dressed patrons constantly arriving to pony up the cover charge. The door opens as I drive by and I can hear the blast through closed windows. But I quickly leave behind this pricey outpost of trendiness in the rough industrial landscape.
I’m going to a working man’s bar this Saturday night. There no one will dance. No one will charge me for entry. And no one will judge my ability to accessorize. At 628 20th, at the corner of 3rd, I arrive. No trouble parking. Plenty of elbow room down here where by day dock workers and craftsmen still ply their ancient trades. Where they still come to the Claddagh for a pint, a chat, a game of darts or pool; a bit of respite from work and weather. The sign outside announces that the Claddagh is a “Sports Bar,” but there is no game on the TV. It’s tuned to HBO and a few patrons are watching The Sopranos. A few others are conversing, gesticulating, raising their voices now and then to make a point. They look and sound like The Sopranos.
Casky is on duty tonight, her long curly hair framing a philosophical, Celtic face. Her youth belies the age of the establishment. I order a pint of Harp, and the tab is $3.50, but I’ve got a wooden nickel given to me by the owner on a previous visit. It’s stenciled with a value of $2.75 off the price of any drink, but Casky takes it as full payment for the suds. This place is about 60 years old, and the dinged old wooden bar shows it. But the woodwork behind the bar is new and beautiful, the careful work of a cabinet maker who is also a patron of the bar. The juke box is mainly Irish, Country, Sinatra and 60s. But no one is playing it as it would intrude upon the Sopranos. Both those on TV and those here in the bar. I don’t know which are the more interesting. The floor is linoleum tile of a color one might call institutional green. Wooden booths occupy two corners, and the walls are paneled in old brown wood.
But the most compelling part of this picture is in the lighting. Of course it’s only an accident of neon, a confluence of conflicting advertising messages that just happens to cast a spell. The beer and whiskey green, red and yellow all blend harmoniously and all are laid over with the hot orange of the OPEN sign which suffuses throughout the deep, narrow room with a warm glow. Almost all the front wall is glass, and through it I can see the rough March wind torturing the US and Irish flags that hang above the door. But here inside I have warmth and calm and a cold beer. And The Sopranos.
Casky offers to recharge my glass. I opt for gin & tonic instead, and she charges me $3.00 for the very generous libation. I’m out of wooden nickels so I pay cash. A few more people come in, some old, some young. Most just order their drinks and settle into the Sopranos, comfortable and at ease in this communal living room, their gracious hostess answering when called, chatting when invited, and leaving them alone otherwise. You can do that here. You don’t have to be a party animal or a dazzling dancer. You don’t have to be cool or a drinker of Jagermeister or Jell-O shots. You can just be. Even Officer Mason of the San Francisco PD, on his coffee break, comes in just to chat with Casky and have a cup of joe. So would I, were I Officer Mason.