Sketches of San Francisco (episode 2)
The Rain: Russian Hill
By Talmadge Jarretee Jr.
After leaving the Hydeout in Knob Hill with a promising buzz that had finally somewhat neutralized my hangover, Rocco and I felt it was a good idea to eat, not necessarily because we were hungry, but because a binge needed to be buttressed by several mini-meals throughout the day-and-night-long siege. And although San Francisco is a prime mecca for gourmet dining, Rocco and I in the past had discovered that nothing ruins a good siege like a sit-down meal with too much food and wine.
So, after dashing under awnings in the driving rain along Polk Street, we stopped at a one-table, hole-in-the-wall pizza joint just off the corner of Broadway and Polk. While Rocco waited for our meatball sandwiches to go, I sprinted two blocks to the 11211 Cresta Club, our favorite watering hole in San Fran. The Cresta is an unassuming hallway bar, with a narrow, retractable window facing the street, no jukebox, pool table or video games of any kind, with eclectic music, piped-in tapes of blues and jazz; just a bar with a row of stools. I found one remaining and sat down to face middle-aged Irish Jimmy from Philly and ordered my Skyy rocks, which he quickly prepared with soda back, and asked about Rocco.
“Getting food,” I explained. “Fuel for the grind.”
“Of course,” Jimmy said, understanding perfectly.
There was a talk-noisy late Saturday afternoon professional drinking neighborhood crowd who were allowed to smoke. I recognized several faces from past visits with whom I’d inspired coversations, but, like most bar denizens, they had to reprogram themselves to remember who I was when I waved to them, and then of course it eventually dawned on them, and they came over, asking how I was doing, trying to recall where I was from, and then Rocco showed up with our sandwiches and they put two-and-two together and realized we were the pair of hoop/drunks making a pilgrimage to the city from Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, the Skyy was working wonders on what remained of my hangover.
A regular named Gordon waved at me. Gordon is a railroad buff. I’d purposely brought my 1898 Elgin railroad pocket watch on chain to show Gordon, who’d been all over the country on trains and had visited railroad museums throughout the world. In the past, we had discussed Paul Theroux’s travel books by rail. Gordon was originally from Detroit and his parents were Greek and Syrian. He’d recently retired as a graphic artist for ABC in San Fran. Short, bald, round, jovial, he drank only bottled beer, wore plain baggy pants and 1950-style plaid shirts. He was one of the hubs around which Cresta activity revolved.
When Gordon came over I showed him the watch and he was very enthused and impressed. I explained to Gordon how this watch had to be opened and rewound every 24 hours. I explained the reason for this: Before this model, winding was controlled by the stem atop the watch, and if the conductor accidentally bumped it the time would be thrown off by a minute or two and could cause a massive trainwreck. Gordon was impressed with my knowledge. He continued to be more than impressed when I opened the back of the watch to reveal the interior mechanism of 21 carat gold. Gordon’s friends flocked around us as Rocco showed up with the sandwiches. I put the watch back together and hung it from the chain at the belt loop of my shorts into my pocket.
Gordon shook Rocco’s hand. Knowing we were bar buffs, he began telling Rocco and me about a new bar he’d discovered in Chinatown. He described this new bar in its most eccentric, grimy detail. On a cocktail napkin he not only diagrammed how the bar was set up, but jotted down directions to find it. Then Gordon returned to his crowd a few stools over and Rocco and I ate our sandwiches, and I ordered two new drinks and sent one down to Gordon and I was feeling golden, all symptoms of hangover vanished, as if I’d been cured by a magical elixer.
After wolfing down our sandwiches, we settled in, Rocco standing beside me, conversing with a middle-aged couple, the woman broadshouldered and Irish-born, the husband bald, rotund, articulate, informative, pleasant, charming. They were chain smokers who could drink for hours and never eat and not appear drunk. While Rocco talked to them, I munched on goldfish crackers Jimmy laid out in bowls. I devoured a bowl and Jimmy refilled it and Rocco and I had another round and Jimmy told us how held gone across the bay to Yoshi’s in Oakland and seen McCoy Tyner the night before and felt all tingly when he walked out of the blues club.
Jimmy worked with no juice or soda guns, only bottles. I was sitting beside 83-year-old Evelyn, a longtime local widow who wore skullcap and kid gloves and sipped Dubonnet in a cocktail glass with a water back (no ice). Evelyn and I usually discussed politics and she told me that she felt President Bush had two major personal problems: one, he had missed centuries of evolution and was possibly simian, and two, he needed a good whore like Monica Lewinsky to straighten his ass out.
After about half-an-hour of talking politics and current events with Evelyn, I found myself standing a few rows down again consorting with Gordon. I don’t know why I did this. I wanted to point out a few more details about my watch, it seemed. I had the watch all apart and some new friends of Gordon who had just come in were impressed and commented on what a beautiful, unique watch it was and then Gordon and I discussed the railroad museum in York, England, which we did every time I’d come here over the past decade with Rocco, and then I went back to my stool beside Rocco and ate some more goldfish and Rocco ordered another round and was still talking to the Irish couple about his trips to Europe with his wife, Claire, and the many students they chaperoned as a way of gaining credits to maintain his tenure without having to take night classes.
Jimmy went off duty and a fetching, though not over-dressed thirtyish gal replaced him. We tipped Jimmy sawbucks and he exited with his briefcase of jazz and blues CDs and political tracts as we ordered another round from Maria and sent a brew to Gordon and another Dubonnet to Evelyn. Most of the original crowd was gone but a new one kept the bar hopping, and Gordon was now conversing with his special friend, who had just gotten off work, a small, slender fellow, and pretty soon I was down there shaking hands with him, and Gordon told him about my watch, and again I had it open and was explaining the winding device and 21 carat gold mechanism, and we all agreed they no longer constructed watches like this, and about 10 people were crowded around admiring my watch, until eventually they became distracted and I went back to sit beside Rocco who had struck up a conversation with a local pasty-faced, middle-aged cab driver with a ponytail.
This was Lawrence, who had once taught English in a local high school, but was finished teaching. Rocco and Lawrence discussed the teaching profession, agreeing there were too many bureaucrats, politicians, a hierarchy of ass-kissers, back-stabbers and petty schemers. Somehow we were all discussing literature . Lawrence had precious tastes — FitzGerald, Henry James, Sartre. I preferred Steinbeck, the Russians, and Bukowski (whom Lawrence pooh-poohed). We went back and forth. Rocco’s head swiveled. Though his wife taught English and forced him to go to “art” movies, he was an action guy, a history buff, and therefore odd man out as Lawrence and I went at it.
We had more rounds. Maria was gorgeous and built, part Italian, like Rocco — and they got along well. She was soon to be married and going to Tahiti for their honeymoon, and since Rocco and Claire had been to Tahiti, he filled her in. By this time, Rocco and I were starting to droop and yawn, slurring our words, so we had Kahlua coffees and talked to tall, rawboned, rough-hewn Jeff, a framer in torn jeans, work shirt and SF Giant ballcap (faded and sweat-stained), who had parked his battered compact truck with camper shell directly across the street and would again leave it overnight because he would again be too drunk to drive it the few miles to his apartment on the fringes of the city. Over a three-year period, Jeff had accumulated over $2,000 in parking tickets, none of which he had paid, a predicament that seemed not to bother him in the least as he drank down Dirty White Mothers (Kahlua/brandy/milk) at a synchronized pace.
“They can’t take my truck,” he informed us. “They keep sending me warnings. I just throw ‘em away. What can they do to me? Throw my ass in jail? Been there, done that, no biggy. I’ll spend a month or two in the greybar hotel to cover the fines. The food won’t kill me. Nobody’ll fuck with me. If it happens, it happens. I got jobs lined up, man. I can’t be bothered with these office jockeys. It’s not like I’m a criminal. Far as I’m concerned, that parking spot across the street, it’s mine. My name’s on it. I deserve it. I pay my goddam taxes. To save a lot of trouble and red tape, the bastards oughta designate that spot to me as my own private property. I get real possessive about it.”
“You deserve that parking spot,” Rocco told him, smacking his arm. “And you deserve another drink.”
Soon Jeff’s girl friend, who lived a block away, and worked in an office in the financial district, came in, and they hugged, and wandered to the end of the bar. Rocco and I decided to eat. As the rain lashed down, we hustled back to the pizza joint and had sausage sandwiches. It was after nine and we were feeling droopy again, so returned to the Cresta, which was experiencing a lull, had a couple rounds of Kahlua coffees, felt rejuvenated and decided to try the Royal Oak, a few doors down.
A tiffany bar. Exquisitely appointed English pub motif. Both bartenders strikingly attractive, long-legged lasses — clones in cocktail shorties and strapless tops. Quick. Efficient. Impersonal. Non-stop smilers. The crew along the bar was mostly male — dressed upscale/casual/trendy; neo-yuppies and dot-commers who’d made piles of money at too early an age and moved into San Fran in droves, like an invasion, buying up properties, jacking up rents, gobbling life styles while imposing their own, flooding the streets wielding cell phones and portable computers, jamming into Starbucks where they worked their toys when they weren’t browsing the Wall Street Journal.
In the Royal Oak, conversations were a low hum — restrained, civilized, laughter a slight gurgle in the stream. Rocco and I quickly downed our weak, over-priced pours and trudged along the rain-soaked sidewalk to the Cresta, which was filling up again, Gordon and his friend entertaining a new group. I started to go join them, but Rocco had me by the shoulder. “Don’t go over there, T.J.,” he said in a reasonable, yet forceful voice. “Don’t show him the watch anymore.”
I sat down. We were back on the vodka. It seemed, at this point, that people were careful to pay us their most polite respects, but not wishing to indulge in at-length conversations. We finished our strong drinks and were soon outside in the rain, under an awning, viewing Saturday night revelers scurry in the downpour. We wandered down to the corner of Broadway and Polk and joined the soggy, hot crush in Shanghai Kelly’s, a haven for a more ribald version of the neo-yups and dot-commers. Good looking women, dressed in black, outnumbered. We swilled vodkas and went back in the rain. On Polk, we passed the Buccaneer (too many youngsters), The Royal Oak (never again), the Cresta (Gordon was gone and it was thinned out), and visited Brooklyn Dave at the cavernous sports bar down near Green Street.
There were a dozen or so (mostly men) in attendance, shooting pool or viewing recaps of games on the multiple TV sets placed in strategic locations throughout the comparmentalized bar. Rocco and I visited Dave, who knew what we drank and made it strong. Then the place suddenly filled up and Dave was hopping. Rocco and I were discussing calling a taxi to take us to Gino & Carlo’s in North Beach when we gazed up to see a very large guy in a trencoat and tie looming over us, staring directly at me.
“You wanna girl?” he asked snickering, all surly.
“Yeh, you like girls?” He cast his leer on Rocco. “What about you? YOU like girls?”
Rocco rose, fist doubled, a surge in his jugular. I joined him. A crew of trenchcoats at the door started to enter.
“YOU!” Dave shouted. “Get the fuck outta here.”
The trenchcoat pointed to himself. “Me?”
“Yeh, you! Get out! MOVE!”
“Okay, Dave. Chill, man.”
“I’m sick of your act. OUT! You’re finished here.”
Trenchcoat swaggered to the door, meeting his pals. They glared at us. Rocco and I stood, fists doubled, grinning and nodding at them.
“Sit down, fellas,” Dave said quietly. “It’s over.”
We sat down. Dave bought us a round. Then we bought another, tipped him twin sawbucks. I started eating free popcorn. Must’ve eaten five bowls, as did Rocco. We floated out, found ourselves in Shanghai’s for last call, as the Cresta had closed. We did last shots as the entire crowd was flushed into the driving, nonstop rain. Rocco and I hustled across the street and tried to order a pizza, but the place was packed, so we managed to get to the liquor store on Van Ness before two o’clock.
We purchased a loaf of white bread, a package of American cheese, a package of string cheese, lunch meat, a bottle of pickles, salsa, chips, a pint of Skyy and a six-pack of MGD and then scurried back across the street to our room at the Castle Inn, so utterly soaked through that we looked like we’d fallen into the bay. §
Talmadge Jarretee Jr. was once homeless in San Francisco and now manages a low-income housing unit in Santa Cruz.