Late 70’s, North Beach area of San Francisco. I was a regular at a bar two door doors down from another bar that was very well known via the media as a North Beach joint with ‘atmosphere’ that was relatively safe during the daytime. The clientele were mostly locals who didn’t really get going ’til about 8:00 p.m. and then that place was less safe for non-regulars. The joint I’m talking about was safe after a fashion too but way more “gritty” in that most of the regulars there had streams of income that were not visible and the Montgomery Street crowd didn’t go there for color or the experience, they could tell it was not for ‘tourists’. It had no Decor, it was just a bar. One of the bartenders was a gifted pick-pocket, that we all loved to watch when he came out from behind the bar to check something out by the entrance and then steal some stockbrokers wallet as he made his way through the after-work crowd safely bunched close to the exit.
When that bartender returned to the bar (the whole routine took about a minute), he’d set up the house (buy drinks for everybody), so nobody would have to buy their next drink (or reach for their wallet). Live theater for the regulars and a free drink too.
I could go in there anytime between 6:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. or later, and never worry. I would put down my pack of Pall Malls on the bar and come and go throughout the day and a place would usually be open were I left my cigarettes, if not, out of courtesy they would be down at the business-end of the bar with my change and I could just get back to doing whatever it was that I was doing. It was not my second home. It was home. The bartenders and owner and any regulars there knew me but not necessarily what I did. Although for a few years I worked a couple of block away at the most famous bar and restaurant in San Francisco through the 70’s and 80’s, but that was a straight job, sort of.
One morning around ten o’clock, I was standing outside with Dino and Johnny just talking. Dino was a fixture, an old school North Beach guy maybe fifteen years older than me and Johnny went all the way back to the 30’s. He was pro-boxer in the late 30′ and 40’s. A real live character and touchy tough guy whose girlfriend was a famous Roller Derby Queen. Johnny had a very raspy voice from being punched in the throat when he was a pro-boxer and probably a few times out of the ring too. Anyway, as we’re standing there yacking I watched walking towards us one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen anywhere, movies or real life. She was stunning.
As she walked past us (3 guys standing in front of a bar at 10 a.m. with no visible means of support), I couldn’t help but turn my head and follow her progress in admiration and yearning. Then I heard Johnny’s voice croaking next to me saying “Somewhere there’s a guy that’s tired of her”.
I thought that’s just not possible; I was not yet 30 and still leaning into being a great fool, so I couldn’t appreciate the worldly though not cynical truth that Johnny was expressing. He was just being a natural teacher, because that’s how things are done in certain settings, neighborhoods and cultures.
I’ve got lots of stories about this and that and hope to start telling them in a more organized way and that’s just one about Johnny; most of the other ones I know about him I can’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t, so I probably won’t.
But I have seen and been part of a lot of different things and as I get old(er), I appreciate many aspects of having been a fool who was very lucky and still likes to yack to pass the time. That bar was full of really interesting people and I drank my way down into the gutter from there and then, stumbled into a new way of life. That’s another bunch of stories.
Oh, there were lots of poets, writers, directors,
Actors and singers and publishers and real-life
Philosophers sprinkled through the hustlers and
Whores and thieves and hijackers and bookies;
Cops, snitches, stand-up guys, and
Often one person would be two or three of the above.
It just depended on the day and what time it was.
Thanks Helmut. Love your writings.