The Rogue Voice


April 01, 2008

Sketches of San Francisco

The bar was in an uproar as I played my only card. Even the barmaid tried to calm me down by buying me a drink.

Rocco and I would not let the French Navy buy one drink. We bought them shots of vodka and gave Russian toasts as we downed them.

The French Navy

By Talmadge Jarrattee

On a foggy weeknight, after stumbling all over the city by foot and taxi, aimless and deliciously drunk, Rocco and I ended up in North Beach with the French Navy. The watering hole had most of the qualities a good saloon needs: poor lighting, a long, well-worn bar with dependable, padded stools, and a few scattered tables and chairs, a fairly decent crowd, and a stocky 30ish bartender with a walrus mustache, black eyes and an Irish brogue.
We found stools in the middle. There was a mix of young and old, various colors and accents as we looked around. Seated beside Rocco was a black woman dressed preppie. To our surprise, she spoke in a proper British accent. She was on holiday from London, had been in San Francisco a few days and loved it, loved this bar because it had an international cast. Her name was Irma. She was pleasant, conversational, owned a large-featured face with jovial smile lines and laughed easily, displaying slightly protruding front teeth.
Rocco and I noticed right off that the Irishman was stingy with the Skyy vodka, packing our undersized rock glasses like snowcones and quick-spurting in less than a shot of booze while charging us an ex-orbitant price when he should have recognized us as professional drinkers with serious needs who were willing to tip big.
Rocco tossed him a fin and we eyed him up as he snatched it off the bar with hardly a nod of thanks and immediately visited other patrons, most likely regulars. Then four young men came in dressed in dark blue coats, dark blue pants, dark blue ties and funny looking caps with red tassels hanging down. They sat to my right at the bar and or-dered pints of beer and commenced talking in French. I’d been to France.
France did not have bars and pubs like we had in the U.S.A and in the British Isles. They had quaint, smoky bistros and sidewalk cafes. Only in Cherbourg did I find a real bar, down on the waterfront, but it was well-lit, like an American diner.
I entered this bar by myself during a hitchhiking tour of Europe. Took the lone remaining stool, for the place was packed in the late spring evening. The crowd was comprised of dockworkers and fishermen wearing heavy clothes and berets, ball caps, watch caps, and they smoked and jabbered in French, though I heard some Spanish and Italian and recognized some mustachioed Turks who eyed me up with dangerous, reproving eyes.
Nobody talked to me. The barmaid was fetching, and I tried to buy her a drink. She very politely informed me in broken English she could not allow me to do so, and immediately I drew the ire of several tough mugs sitting at the middle of the bar. They gestured fiercely at me, cursing in their language. Two men beside me tried in French to explain the problem I had caused. I countered with my hacked up Italian and Spanish and realized it was against strict ritual for me to buy the barmaid a drink. I apologized profusely to her. Still, the mugs at the middle of the bar flashed me threatening looks, and growled, shaking their fists with menace, booming at me anti-American cracks. As they rose and came toward me, I trembled with fear, knowing there was only one way out: I whipped off my hooded sweatshirt and stood shaking my fist and bellowed at them to step into the street with me for mortal combat. Knowing I could be beaten to death by a mob, I foamed at the mouth and moved toward the mugs, waving my arms wildly, growling like a mad dog. The two men beside me blocked my path and, excited, concerned, begged me to sit back down, gesturing toward my vacant stool.
“BULLIES!” I roared. “I don’t know your fucking traditions! Fuck you bastards! I’m a mercenary! I’ve killed before; I’ll kill again!”
The bar was in an uproar as I played my only card. Even the barmaid tried to calm me down by buying me a drink. Now the tough-looking mugs who had threatened me were pleading with me to calm down. Everybody in the bar was squeezed into my area in an attempt to control the berserk, fulminating American psychopath. The two men to my right managed to sit me back down. There was a new beer before me, then a shot of Calvados. Strong stuff going straight to my head. I sent some Calvados over to the two mugs who had threatened me. They came over and we shook hands and they hugged me. They were Turks and managed to communicate with me in fractured Spanish. More drinks were lined up before me. I drank. I was suddenly toasted by the crowd. I toasted back. “VIVA LE FRAWN-CEE!” I yowled, and the mantra was repeated over and over.
Later, when the bar closed, and we were all outside, I was invited by some regulars to an after-hours bar down the alley. I went. A gay bar with a floor show of gorgeous female impersonators dancing. Lots of yowling and howling and embracing. I was treated with respect and admiration reserved for celebrity. Only two Algerians who didn’t know any better tried to pick me up, but my comrades from the dockworker bar set them straight. A great night, all in all, and I loved the French.
Now I turned to these youngsters in blue uniforms. “Frawn-cee?” I asked.
“Qui. Navy. Parley-voo Frawn-cee?”
“Oh no. Parley-voo Englaise?”
“Oh no.”
“Parley-voo Espenole?”
They shrugged.
“Parley-voo Italiano?”
A wee bit, they indicated, thumb and forefingers inches apart. I tried my fractured Italian. We made some headway. I suspected they were rural types and more accommodating and friendly than Parisians, who can be abrupt and rude, but, once they get to know you, can be equally charming and warm. I managed to find out that indeed three of these kids were from the country. I related my experience in Cherbourg, and they responded with enthusiasm, nudging etch other, though I’m not sure they understood a word I said. I insisted on buying them beers when they tried to buy Rocco and me vodkas. I got my way, explaining that I, too, had been in the military and had little money.
Then I tried to explain to them how although I loved the French I had difficulty liking Parisians and found them snooty. The three hick frogs agreed with me and jostled the fourth member of their crew, who was a Parisian! He took it in good humor, lifting his mug to me.
“Viva Le Frawn-cee!”
We clinked glasses and drank. Then I introduced them to Rocco and Irma. “Rocco, this is the French Navy! Allies! Charles DeGaulle! Viva Le Frawn-cee!”
They all shook hands. Rocco bought them a round. The Irish bartender returned his change. Rocco did not tip him. When he thought we were not looking, he snatched a twenty dollar bill from Rocco’s pile and tossed it in his tip jar, I rose and yelled at him, told him to pull that twenty out of his jar. He said he thought it was a tip. Rocco who has gangster vintage from Jersey, and is a strapping man, gave him a look. The French Navy became aroused,, gesturing with menace at the Irishman, who reached in and plucked the twenty and returned it to Rocco’s pile. Both of us moved our piles closer to our bodies. Then we turned to the French Navy and implored them to cease defending us so we could continue our relationship as drinking pals. Still, they were aroused, and it took another toast to mollify them.
“Cin cin.”
“Save us from ourselves, 9/11 has made us a crazy people.”
I nudged the rural frog beside me. With my thumb I lifted the tip of my nose and cast my face in a supercilious pose. “Pareeee!” I announced, and the three rural types roared with laughter and slapped my back and imitated me, mocking their Parisian compatriot, and for some time between swigs and toasts, we repeated this gesture, until the Parisian threw up his hands in defeat and admitted he was a snob.
Somehow, Rocco found a young studious looking American college man who spoke fluent French. He came over to do some translating. By this time, of course, nobody was making much sense and I had on the Parisian’s cap with tassel and some tourists from Jersey had be-friended Rocco and the Brit and wished to buy shots for our allies and now most of the bar was crowded around us, pointing and laughing and soon joining in as the French Navy and I sung the French national anthem, which I trumpeted from atop my bar stool, so said Rocco the next day.
Rocco and I would not let the French Navy buy one drink. We bought them shots of vodka and gave Russian toasts as we downed them.
“Par-EEEE!” I shouted, turning up my nose, and my friends laughed, and laughed, and turned their roses up and yelled until two of them were passed out face down at the bar and the others were wandering in blind staggers toward the restroom to puke, and somehow we all shook hands and the next thing Rocco and I were trudging down Columbus looking ravenously for food, and ended up in some burrito place, Rocco handing me a burrito, which I gnawed on until two shore patrol sailors from the French Navy spotted me and came over to ask me in French about something, and, when I asked Rocco why they were bother-ing me he laughed and took the tasseled cap off my head and handed it to the shore patrol sailor and we went outside and pointed down Columbus to the bar, hoping they’d find the French Navy.§

Talmadge Jarrettee runs a homeless shelter in Santa Cruz and moonlights as a bartender at one of the city’s popular dive bars.


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