CitiApartments, CitiBombardments, Skyline Realty, Flytrap Reality, CitiSuites, CitiCrimes, CitiCiti, CitiTitti, CitiWealth, CitiFilth ... and out of this dank maze of aliases, like primitive man poking his head from the cave, one name emerges ... Lembi.
Name makes you cringe? Okay, let's reverse it before we go on and discuss his Brother In Greed: Ibmel.
relies on your fear. Ibmel counts on it.
Ibmel would like to rob and murder you but he knows that's risky. He'd also like to rob the bank but that would take guts. So instead Ibmel buys your apartment, cuts what services you had, turns off your water, then, by various obscene gestures, tells you to get out. If you're a poor immigrant down in the Tenderloin he sends in his private army with assault weapons. If you live at the top of Nob Hill he adjusts his strategy to the elevation: He sends you letters stating that you failed to pay the rent; he's "pretexting" your eviction. More on Ibmel later on....
Every Saturday night at 12 o'clock I take a walk down to the land of the dispossessed. There I discover unexpected bits and pieces of humanity. Broken, bruised, torn, smudged to be sure, but the real stuff. And what a relief. I do not see Ibmel there.
I head down to Club 21 at Turk and Taylor in the heart of the Tenderloin. We'll come to that. But I also stop at the nearby Donut World on Market. I get a couple of plain croissants and a chocolate twist. I use this later for energy when I stay up late working. With a couple of black coffee and a croissant I can do almost anything.
Donut World fuels the night workers of the City. It's an honest place with an honest, if not high-class, product. And it gives the homeless hope, some of whom trail me there on the last stage of my journey down Jones or Taylor. One, Moria, occasionally even latches onto my coat.
"Let go," I say trying to sound commanding.
"You help me, give me money," she pleads.
"I help no one," I say. I pretend for a moment that I'm Ibmel, totally indifferent and uncaring of people's needs.
It doesn't stop her. She follows me right into Donut World clinging to the sleeve of my coat.
A young black girl comes into the shop and says, "Now Moria, you let him go." To me she says, "She doesn't mean anything." I say I know. That is why I've been letting her hold onto the sleeve of my coat. Still, for some reason I don't feel like giving her any money tonight. Usually I would.
The young black girl has a kind, understanding voice.
The young Chinese guy working the shop does not look like he appreciates Moria being there—I guess he has been through this before—but he lets the black girl handle the situation.
He bags up my croissants and donut with about a dozen napkins. I don't know why so many napkins. It is like this in every donut shop in the City. I don't look like a particularly sloppy person. Sometimes I think it is the way donut shop employees get even with their jerky bosses.
Hang Ah Tea Room is a kind of refuge for me. It is a place of comfort, familiarity, and healthy green light. I go there as much to meditate and feel good as to eat. You will not find Ibmel there either.
Nancy Cai (shown below with Combo Chow Mein with Hong Kong style fried noodles) is the owner and she works there seven days a week. She has two young daughters, Christine and Emily, and she always looks a little sleepy. She reminds me of a Snoopy cartoon character, warm, friendly, and human.
I like her because she moves slowly, always takes her time, and inspires me to do the same. But she always brings me a glass of cold white wine, filled to the brim, as soon as I come in. With that I am content. If only some of the fast-paced, trendy restaurants in San Francisco knew this trick!
Hang Ah is not a three-star restaurant. In most people's book, it probably has no stars at all. It is a "slow-eating" restaurant where you can take your time and enjoy the food. It is not on the cutting edge of anything other than providing comfort and food that you would actually enjoy eating every single day of the week. Which is not to say it is dull. It is not. Like a lot of Chinese restaurants, it has so much stuff on the menu that I will probably never try everything. Nevertheless, I have tried quite a few items, such Law Bock Gow, or turnip cake.
This is one item that you would probably bypass after reading the description on the menu. But I asked Nancy about it one day and she said it was very good. I tried it. It is made from white turnips, bacon, and mushrooms, making it taste a little like a Spanish torte or a French quiche. I found it quite tasty.
But it's not a dish that would win a prize downtown. It's not "competitive" food. If you are on a date, and your date is a "major foodie," don't take him or her to Hang Ah. He or she is not going to appreciate it. Take your date to one of those places where the food is the only subject of conversation, other than the wine, of course. Or, in some cases the cocktails if they use infused vodka.
But do take a good friend to Hang Ah. You're going to enjoy the food and the conversation. And you're always going to be discovering something new on the menu. You might, if you're lucky, develop an appreciation for Chinese food and time-tested dishes that are so tasty they don't need to be messed with that much. They just need to be made well. There are other places in Chinatown like this. Hunan's Home may not blow you away the first time you eat there unless, perhaps, you order one of the sizzling plates, say of prawns or chicken. Same for Great Eastern Restaurant, though it is a bit on the fancier side with waiters dressed in tuxedos. And some of the dishes, like the soups, are top notch. You might even consider taking your date there. He or she would at least find it "so-so."
But of course none of these places is going to get any stars when it comes around to review time. These may be great places to eat, great places to talk, great places to meet a friend regularly, and great places to hang out, chill out, and any other good kind of hang you can think of, but the reviewers could care less about that.
Let's hop over to North Beach for a moment. A couple of the finest places there are Tommaso's and North Beach Restaurant. But it's the same stuff on the menu all the time. Cooked to perfection of course, and in the case of North Beach Restaurant, delivered to your table by truly professional waiters who know that a meal is more than just the food. But these places, though good-mouthed by many, don't seem to ever catch the attention of the reviewers. They are without stars, sometimes not even listed in the restaurant guides! But maybe that is a good thing. At least you can get in without fighting for a table. Well, not exactly at Tommaso's. (Originally owned by the Cantalupe family from Naples, it was owned for awhile by Chinese chef Tommy Chin, and now by the Crotti family. Agostino Crotti is shown below.) Word of mouth is just too strong in the case of Tommaso's. But if you get there early, you can usually get a table.
But don't go bragging about these places. The foodies aren't going to be impressed. I'm sure that Michael Bower, the Marcel Proust of food reviewers in San Francisco, has been to them once. But they are not a challenge to descriptive food prose. If you want to polish your adjectives in a restaurant, then you want to be going to Michael Minna's or Gary Danko's, which is not to run those fine restaurants down. They are top-notch in their own way too. But do you eat there every day? Can you afford to? If you could, would you want to?
"Eh, Harold,what do you think this pea has been stuffed with? And it is so small, how do you think they did that? Did they use a microscope? And this puree that looks so much like hummingbird vomit? What is it all about?"
To be honest, some of the dishes at the top-end restaurant require explanation or the dinner has no idea what he or she is eating or why. I remember one time at La Folie we had a laughing fit at our table over a soup until the waiter came over and explained it to us. You see, on the surface it looked like a very thin broth with a couple of colorless peas on the bottom. I can't say whether I really liked it when it was explained but at least I understood what the cook was trying to do. I think this may explain the tradition in French restaurants, not really honored in the United States, of the chef coming out and talking with the dinners. Roland Passot at La Folie does do that and I think it is well worth his time. It is a little like getting to meet the artist at an art show. Maybe you don't like his work that much but after you meet him you at least understand his work better. Or who knows, maybe it all falls into place and you do like it. Personally, I enjoy things more that do not require elaborate explanation, especially when it come to food.
But back to Hang Ah. (It's on Padoga alley off Sacramento between Stockton and Grant if you want to go there). If I have learned one thing about Chinese food it is this: If it is good, it always has good flavor. They don't create flavors to annoy you are tease you. They make whatever it is taste good so you feel like putting it in your mouth and eating it, such as Hang Ah's crispy shrimp balls shown below. And it always has variety and balance. These qualities are not always highly evident in French or Italian food, where one dish tends to lead to the next in an unending quest to satisfy the pallet, the last attempt being the desert, and if that doesn't do it, coffee and an after dinner drink. Good Chinese food does not require this. The courses, once they start coming, arrive in rapid succession, and one does not switch to the chow mein because the sizzling prawns just don't satisfy a demanding pallet. One switches to the chow mein because one feels like it. That is before the eye notices the sweet bowl of vegetables or the Crispy Shrimp Balls (show below), and then the ... Desert? Who needs it. Maybe a slice of orange, a little cookie but no elaborate concoction of chocolate, cream ...
So maybe between your visits to all those star-studded restaurants, you might consider a humble little meal at some place where there are a few free table, the price won't burn a whole in your pocket, and you can cary on a conversation while eating flavorful healthy food. You will receive fair value for your money and feel good about it. You will never feel gypped.
Turk & Taylor
So back to Turk & Taylor. What a place. On one corner you have Club 21. On the opposite corner a small market that is more liquor store than market. On the other corner a parking lot. Up the street on Turk is Aunt Charlies where on Saturday night there is female impersonation show. I'm not personally into that but somehow it is a lot of fun to watch. It also make you aware of how artificial are male-female roles. We assume a whole lot about sex without thinking much about it. Watching the show makes me aware.
The show is also interesting because it brings out sides of a person that are just not normally there. The guys become the bait, they become the attractors. For women, or at least some, this is perfectly natural. They have been brought up to do it. They don't go out of the house without some evidence of making themselves attractive, maybe not to me, maybe not to you, but at least to someone. Look at the corporate ladies at the press conference. Would they ever think of appearing without a simple necklace, an ear ring, or some emblem of sexual identification? I don't think so. Not that any of them are ever really very good looking. But they want you to know that they are female.
But at Aunt Charlie's it's all there right in front of you. After the show some of these big guys sit around on barstools looking almost depressed but I suppose that is another story. Just five minutes earlier they were glamour stars mouthing the words of famous show tunes. Now they are big-jawed guys in blond wigs that are slightly askew. What a downer.
If you haven't got anything else to do on a Saturday night, this is hard to beat for entertainment. It will stir you up in strange and refreshing ways. The drinks are cheap, the atmosphere friendly.
But the real entertainment is down on the corner of Turk & Taylor at Franks' place, Club 21. There you will see the Tenderloin and meet the people who live there. There you will meet Di Morino, the little ex-prize fighter from New York, and other characters.
"I tell 'em notin'," he says, referring to the cops.
It's a matter of survival. He's talking about witnessing crime outside the windows at Club 21. You see, just about everything that occurs in the Tenderloin occurs on the corner of Turk & Taylor. But in a way, you discover as you get to know the place, that the cops don't want to know anything either. The whole place is a drag to them; just a whole lot of trouble that they would prefer to not have to deal with.
"I tell 'em I was in the restroom, or talking with John there."
But he does see stuff. The other evening I was in fact talking with John and only slowly became aware of a scene across the street in front of the market. It was the lights of the ambulance and the squad cars that finally made me look. For the heck of it I walked across the street to have a look.
There was a young man lying in the street. He looked very still. I asked one of the cops if he was alive.
"Well, he was a little while ago. He was talking."
"What happened?" I asked.
"That is what we would like to know," said the cop.
He was a well dressed young man who did not look like he was part of the Tenderloin community. What was he doing lying in the street there?
I walked back over to Club 21.
"He snapped, that's what happened," said Di Morino," who was sitting by the Window sipping Red Label. "He was charging everyone."
But he said it was the police who smacked him and sent him to the concrete. I have seen that before.
"There are people down here who just snap," said Di Morino"It's the quiet ones who never say nothing. Suddenly they got a gun. You remember that guy who shot all them people in the building where he lived?"
"About a year ago?" I asked.
"Yeah. That was my building. I knew the guy. We was on friendly terms but he never said nothin'. Dat's the guys you got to watch out for." He stares out the big glass plate window into the street.
"You remember that Indian guy who shot the waitress at the Pinecrest?" he asks.
"He lived in my building too," said Di Morino.
That was about five yeas ago. The story was in the paper for a couple of days. The Indian cook and the waitress had worked together at the Pinecrest for twenty years. She even loaned him money because he had gambling debts. Then one day a customer sent back some eggs because they were runny. She teased him about it and he pulled out a gun and shot her.
"That had been building up for a long time," said Di Morino."Dem's the kind a guys you gotta watch out for—the quiet ones."
One customer is slumped over the bar.
"Bob, wake up," says Frank. "Bob, Bob ..."
Frank doesn't want to have to call the van that hauls drunks home in the Tenderloin. The drunk van saves money. It takes drunks home; if an ambulance is called, it has to take 'em to the hospital.
I watch the parade of characters on the walk outside. Almost all are black. This is a "crack" corner, according to a report done by one of the scholarly customers of Club 21, a guy named Dave who is a retired academic. He has mapped all the key streets according to what can be purchase there, and has included notes on prostitution as well. It reads like a university report. I have not met Dave yet—I believe he is a day time customer—but Frank gave me a copy of his report, thinking I would be interested.
Strange to say but I never see any transactions taking place, just a lot of people hanging out. Most of the dealers, I'm told, are from Oakland. I do see the ladies on parade. My first experience on Turk & Taylor was witnessing two ladies fighting over territory—the corner at the market. A whole crowd formed around them, then the paddy wagon showed up. All very routine, so it seemed. The police rarely show any excitement about all this.
But now a big white guy I have seen before is standing outside making fists and beckoning to a tall black guy to come out and fight. The black guy ignores him for awhile, then slowly gets up and starts to remove his jacket.
"Don't bother with him," I say to the black guy. "He's just trash."
But I don't need to. Frank is on top of the situation and is swinging around the bar and headed outside.
He talks to the white guy and he heads off down the street. The black guy puts his jacket back on and sits down. But five minutes later the guy is back, now inside Club 21, and standing next to me. Frank is there in an instant.
"Rick, look, this isn't a good night. You need to go home."
Frank is escorting Rick to the door. But he say, "Now look, come back tomorrow and I will fix you a nice strong one, okay?." Rick doesn't say anything but goes.
Frank has the technique down. He never causes offense. In fact he treats his customers with respect no matter what. And that accounts for his business. He probably has more customers than any dive-bar in town. And they are of every kind imaginable, from the blond junkie to the black security guard to the Mexican laborer to John who works on theatre productions to even the occasional journalist.
I asked a guy a long time ago, "What is special about this place? There is practically no one at Club 65 across the street."
"It's Frank," he said, lifting his gaze above his beer for a moment.
Customer Paul is shown below. He is a retired pilot who had an accident on his bike last week. He is a soft-spoken guy who asked me to shoot his photo after Frank agreed to be photographed. He says the beard is relatively new.
One more little Frank story. I'm sitting there one time next to two large black guys, one of them in fact huge. A short slick-looking black guy in leather jacked and barrette is starting to come through the door, when the lesser-huge black guy jumps up, puts out an arm blocking the little black guy and says, "You ain't welcome here." The little guy halted.
The huge black gets up and says, "Now, Hugh, Frank runs this place. You ought to let Frank take care of this."
Frank: "Yeah, I can handle this. Let's let him in for now."
Hugh: "Okay, but you gonna be sorry."
He gestures with both arms, rasing them and spreading them as if revealing a vision of what is to be.
The little black guy enters, wearing an oily smirk. I watch my wallet, keep track of my bag.
One other Club 21 item: The "salespeople" who show up with a cheap pack of cigarettes, a pack of batteries, on sale of course, even, sometimes a steak from the deli somewhere. The cigarettes I can understand but how did they manage to get the steak out of the deli without being noticed? Some of these guys are slick! Frank throws them out, politely of course. Who says the goods don't flow around the Tenderloin?
Now the Tenderloin may wear a smudge, it may be grimy, but its crimes are mostly petty. For real crime you have to visit the corporate offices of certain real estate and apartment rental companies. Consider CitiApartments.
CitiApartments & Real Crime
Now would someone please explain to me why the City has not shut down CitiApartments, aka Skyline Reality, aka DE LLC, aka CitiSuites ...? If they can shut down all the massage parlors, which at least provide a real service, why can't they shut down a crime organization that harms some 7,000 San Franciscans daily? If you are going to go after thugs in Bayview Hunters Point, why not go after CitiApartments' owners and their thug managers? They have more victims, do more real harm.
Back on August 11, the City of San Francisco moved in on City Apartment like gangbusters. They showed up at Nob Hill Tower, the building where I live, in the morning with several people from the City Attorneys Office and more from the Department of Building Inspection. They went through the building noting code violations and "discovering" the illegal construction that had been going on for over a year. You see, CitiApartments does not believe in permits. They are for others to take out.
A few days later, on August 16, the City Attorneys Office changed CitiApartmens with "lawlessness, intimidation tactics, and retaliation against tenants." They termed the behavior of CitiAparment owners "egregious." I would label it even worse if there were a word for it. But egregious is good enough.
Here on Knob Hill they had us fooled us for awhile. The first year after they bought Nob Hill Tower, they dramatically lowered services, which is the reason most people live here. They shut down the office that formerly was run by three full-time workers including the honest owner. They fired the janitor, and reduced the maintenance guy to part time. In short, they let the building run down. Now most of us thought that was just to cut costs and make more money. But the plot runs deeper. There was a grand scheme to turn the building into "corporate housing", which is a relatively new real estate gimmick to get around the law and rent out properties that are zoned "residential" as temporary housing. There is nothing especially "corporate" about this. Some marketing guru apparently thought it was a good word. "Tourist housing" would be more accurate. Now the reason for all this maneuvering is this: As temporary housing you can double or triple the rate. You essentially turn the building into a hotel. In their ads, they even brag about not having to pay hotel tax.
The City Attorney's investigation took nine months. It covered CitiApartments activities on Nob Hill down to the Tenderloin. Down in the Tenderloin the tactics were a little more direct. They involved military uniforms and assault rifles to get immigrant families to cooperated with "Citi's" grand scheme.
Now you might think that the treat of the City's lawsuit and the focused attention of two city agencies would stop CitiApartments. But not so. For two weeks on Nob Hill it made them at best a little thoughtful. But that is all. After a two week period illegal construction resumed full blast. Calls to the City Attorney's office and the Building Inspections Department have had no effect whatsoever.
What is it going to take to slow these guys down? Vigilantes? An air strike? Bin Lauden?
Recently, when they were grinding away on hard wood floors, I went down to the office to ask their "manager" (Sue Kemp, shown below, who is about to slam the door in my face) if she was aware of the dust that was being created. This was my first encounter with this manager. You can see the response in the video:
I'm lucky I didn't lose an eye to the pen she grabbed from her desk, holding it like a dagger, or get crushed in the door. The non-verbal response pretty much tells the story.
I might just add that she broke into my apartment three days after the City busted them on August 11. A police report has been filed on that. And you could watch the video of her refusal to write a rent receipt. It's required by law. (This was my second and final encounter with the "manager" of Nob Hill Tower.) But as you can hear, she doesn't care.
So does arrogance and lawlessness win out? In San Francisco, that may be the case. Stay tuned.
The City recently shut down the Golden Dragon massage parlor on Mason. If they can do that, why can't they shut down CitiApartments? When they told the Golden Dragon to cease and desist, did they continue to operate? No, they shut down. Why not CitiApartments? If they don't stop when told to, why not bring in the police? Why not appoint a receivership to take over until a reputable buyer can be found?
I hear voices:
Ibmel, you will get yours. But sometimes it take time. We have got it, you have got it. Time will do what it does to those who lie and cheat and steal. Time will take its time doing it, but in the end count on iron bars, not cocktail bars. And all that great pasta? Kiss it goodbye too. Mama mia. How could this happen to a person who deserves it all?
Like a character from The Divine Comedy in a pool of filth, arms flailing, these words come:
YOURS. MINE. IT. ALL.
Flash forward: In a prison somewhere I hear a voice say, "Da guy was a joik. But mind you, I don't see notin'."