Hanging around, hanging
out, moving around, moving on, that is what I am doing. I am looking,
looking for something, hoping, hoping something is there; finding it,
not finding it, finding it again, losing it; moving, moving, always moving.
I am a prowler in a city of fog-muted love.
It is Thursday night and Mike Lipskin is playing the piano at Moose's. Moose himself is sitting there at the bar, full of the "presence" that San Francisco's senior jazz pianist Don Asher says he has. As usual it is a "scene" at Moose's. Maybe that is why I have been avoiding it for so long.
Heather, short reddish-brown hair and fashionably narrow, blue-rimmed glasses, talks about turning "a new page in her book." She is moving to New Zealand to be with her boyfriend. She is moving on more than I am, heading, as she is, to a whole new country. But now she sticks around and talks to me like she is sorry to go. I just met her but we are having trouble parting. Leaving San Francisco can break your heart, I know.
There is a tall gray-haired guy in a broad-rimmed hat standing at the bar now. He is singing along with one of the tunes that Lipskin is playing. He begins to walk over toward the piano, still singing. His smile is mischievous, as though he is testing the limits of tolerance at Moose's. A coupleguy in blue blazer with short business hair, woman a well-heeled blondsit down at the bar. The older guy comes over next to them and lights up a cigarette, holding it under the bar. Moose's is one of those places where one does not even think of lighting up. Then he is gone before anyone gets up the nerve to do anything. He seems to have made his point: You are all uptight.
At Tosca's I find bartender Richard in an exceptionally fine mood. He has no explanation for it. "Fake it till you make it," he says smiling.
As we are talking a stately older guy with a great gray bush of a beard walks in with a tall Asian girl in a beret. They both head for the back toward the booths, drifting slowly down the long bar like ghosts. He is wearing a long brown overcoat, she a black one. They seem to whisper only a word or so. Then they turn around and head back toward the door, saying nothing. I have the feeling now that they really are ghosts. He looks importanta poet, a philosopher, I am not sure what. It is as if the depth of his thought holds the world together. She has "presence" and behaves as though she knows she is in the company of a being of superhuman power or intelligence. Okay, I know this all sounds like nonsense. But it was all very mysterious. Afterwards I thought about Richard Brautigan. Were he alive, he would be about this gentleman's age. They were similar looking too. And the Asian woman? Wasn't Brautigan obsessed with an Asian woman who left him. Do we have ghosts in San Francisco? Sometimes I think that is all we have.
I ask Richard, who is also watching this strange apparition. "No, I have never seen them before," he says sounding a little spooked. I am tempted to run out to the street and see if they are there or have simply vanished, but I don't.
At Enrico's I find jazz singer Jenna Mammina sitting away from the crowd listing to "Fog"Brad Guethe, guitar, Brian Melvin, drums, and Peter Barshay, bass. They are new to me. I listen for awhile, then tell Jenna I like what I hear. She says she does too. One sound evolves spontaneously from another, takes on a life of its own, lives, breathes, and dies. It is fresh and alive, and unafraid of change.
This is Thursday, one of the better nights for listening at Enrico's. On weekends it is almost impossible with the size of the young "hip" crowds parading through this popular North Beach bar that has resisted going rock.
Up the street at the Hungry i there is the usual midnight crowd of young hornies. Nina buys me a drink, which is the opposite of the way it is supposed to work. She tells me she would like to find another job but does not have the time to look. She is not a stripper. She is the bartender. Now she has the body and the looks of a strippershe would be a swell one if she were into it but she is not. Dignity? Yes, I think that is part of it. Too much intelligence? Part of it too. She likes to explain the stripper mentalitysomething she has had time to study: "They are basically insecure." She also says they are manipulative. "They are always trying to get you to do something for them." I had noticed that before from my own perspective. In simple terms, they are tying to get me to take the money out of my wallet and give it to them. From Nina's perspective, it is like little personal favors they want of her. I have the impression that they like to be treated like little movie stars by the rest of the staff. The staff goes along with fantasy only so far.
But I like these girls. I'm not putting them down. I have discovered that for most of them it is just a stage they are going through, though I do not advise saying this to them. They think it is real.
I ask Ian, the manager, about former bartender Sunday. Now she was a charmer. He says he talked to her the other day. She used to be my excuse for going into the Hungry i. Over the course of about six months I got to know her pretty well. I heard about her sister, Beautiful, her brother, Casanova, and her uncle who was missing most of his teeth and called her "day day," as that was the best he could do. And I pondered the romantic state of mind of the parents of these kids. Khalil Gibran talks about kids as "arrows":
"You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth."
That's a nice metaphor but Sunday's parents must have felt like they were launching rockets when they had her, her brother, and sister.
It is Friday 8 PM at Les Joulins Jazz Bistro. "Dr." Kenny Rose is at the piano along with bassist Jean Repetto. They are playing a brief warm-up set before saxophonist Charles Unger and vocalist Valencia Hawkins join them on stage. It is playful, introspective. Then Unger steps up and the tune is Autumn Leaves, that old-time heart breaker. With each note he plays I hear the words:
It's all about having something and losing something. The song never seems to die. Then Valencia walks on stage and the room comes alive. In my wanderings I have now found something. Warmth and heart-felt feeling if only for awhile.
At Kim's 441 Club on Jones I talk with Kim, who is sitting down at the end of the bar. "Hanaro?" she says. "You like Hanaro?" Hanaro is an Asian bar up on Leavenworth near Polk. "I only meant to say that I had a lot more fun dancing there than I did at the Red Devil's Lounge." You know the Red Devil's lounge, which is kind of a strutting place for young, upscale twenty-something kids with expensive leather and thoughtful tattoos? She accepts my statement, and starts talking about restaurants.
"French is considered the best in the world," she says. I am surprised to hear this from someone who is Asian. I put French, Italian, and Asian food right on the same level. With me it is a matter of what I'm in the mood foror who I'm with and what they are in the mood for. She tell me her favorite place is a French restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel. Later I call the Fairmont to find out the name of the restaurant and am informed by a gracious-sounding spokesperson for the hotel, a touch of funereal sadness in her voice, that the "Squire" is no more. Too bad Kim. But things are not all that bad. Fleur de Lys has reopened following a fire that destroyed the restaurant. If you like the intense candy-flavor of reductions, Fleur de Lys cannot be beat.
"Italian," she tells me, "is too rich." Not for me, I say. Not if I'm in the mood for the big rich tangy-sweet flavor of tomatoes. For that Tommaso's and North Beach Restaurant can't be beat. I didn't tell Kim where I was headed next. I didn't want to hear another "Hanaro?"
At Hanaro Jinna, the Japanese owner, is explaining to me why she doesn't like the Sports Bar down the street: "Brenda pushes drinks with her girls too much." This I know to be sadly true, though I don't dislike Brenda, the owner of the Sports Bar. But it is true. She turns her girls into alcoholics. This is how it works. A guy comes in and buys a couple of drinks in most bars and leaves. Not so at the Sports Bar. A guy comes in and finds himself with a pretty drinking companion. So what's he do? Drinks double the number of drinks himself and buys her the same number or more. Good for business, bad for the guy's wallet and the girl, who may be somewhat alcoholic in the first place. And if you are the girl doing this six or seven nights a week you become a mess. I know. I have a friend ...
It is Saturday night at the Top of the Mark. The view is the best in the City. I'm at the end of the bar looking down at Grace Cathedral and Huntington Plaza. If you walk around the bar, you can see all of San Francisco. It's like being in an airplane. A tired-sounding band plays sentimental dance music for a well dressed crowd of tourists forcing fun out of Saturday evening. I order a gin collins, thinking for some reason that I ordered a gin and tonic, and wonder for awhile why it is so fruity tasting and why the fancy garnish.
I talk to a Londoner for awhile about the bad weather in Londonfreezingand the good weather we are having in San Francisco. "Seems like we have our best weather in Winter," I say. And I believe this is true. Bight sunny days, visibility, and no wind knifing you in the ribs or shoving you up against a wall. Then I see two guys in orange sweat suites come up to the bar. One edges up to the bar near me to order drinks while his friend goes over to the window. I make room for him and he tells me, "I came her on my 21st birthday. Today I'm 61." He is quiet, reflective. I wish him a happy birthday and mean it. They are a different couple, these two guys. They look like they have come from a meditation class or an aerobic workout. Forty years ago they would not have gotten in wearing sweat suits. Forty years ago there were no meditation classes and aerobic meant living in the presence of oxygen.
It is Chinese New Years and I stop by Lipo's on Grant. Lipo's is not my Chinatown bar; Red's Place is. Lipo's, at least on a weekend night, is not really a Chinese bar. That is, it's customers are not Chinese. They are the same upscale, fashionably quirky young folks who go to the Red Devil Lounge because everyone else does. Still, near the end of the bar I find some space and position myself.
Here the bartender is in stark contrast to the usual bartender in an Asian bar. He is not a pretty young woman who would be happy to have a drink with you, but rather an old guy in a thermal jacket that you might wear out in the woods, and he holds his sides, unsmiling and mostly looking down at the floor. He is a functional unit hired to perform a service with no frills. Fine with me. I'm only sorry that it does not discourage the Red-Devil-Lounge crowd from coming in. I leave when I hear a young woman speaking Nob Hill baby talk in back of me. She is talking to her boyfriend about something but sounds like she is asking her father for an increase in her allowance.
On the sidewalk out in front of Enrico's it's Bay City Luv. Know these cats? They're not part of the Enrico's band. They're on their own. They are three and sometimes four African American guys bobbing up and down singing a kind of Gospel music. Alex, a member of the group, calls what they do "street ministry." They are refreshing to come across on Saturday night on bawdy Broadway, and it is interesting to watch the mixed reactions of people on the street to them. Some love it and even get into the act. On this night a young woman, slightly inebriated and waving a cigarette, abandons her boyfriend and joins them; she seems to have found something. Others passing down Broadway look uncomfortable, as if these guys are a threat of some unknown type. They give them the same look that some people give the homeless: a distant cold stare. I don't join Bay City Luv myself but I feel like I have finally found somethingsomething that makes me want to smile. Among the pop pop pop of firecrackers, I finally say hello to the year of the sheep. Baaaah!