I was still feeling kind of blue and decided to drag myself out around town: dancing, dim sum, and jazz pianist Don Asher were all on my list of therapeutic things to do. I did not believe it was going to make me feel any better but anything was worth a try. Winter gets me down. So does a certain lady I know.
At the corner of Polk and Clay they were lined up at the Red Devil's Lounge to hear the Cheese Balls . Know the place? Black and red outside, mostly black inside with red lights and a balcony around three sides facing the stage at the far end. The crowd is "in" European-American youths with a lot of expensive leather, careful tattoos, and heads shaved close on the sides. It is packed and only a few are dancing up front by the stage. At the bar people order their drinks by shouting to the frenzied bartenders. It is a kind of stand-and-watch or listen or whatever event. Up in the balcony by the rails are little groups of women standing together like high school cliques. I spot one slightly overweight young women who seems to be by herself. She sways slightly with the music as though she would like to dance. But she only watches with that remote look that all here seem to wear. Now I spot one African-American guy in the crowd. He is large and dressed in a tux. He appears to be enjoying himself. He is so bold as to openly wear a broad smile and laugh. I think he may have even slapped his thigh when he laughed. Outside on the corner, away from the line to the left of the door, are those mavericks, the smokers. The no-smoking rule is enforced inside. I have seen enough.
Down the street at Pine and Polk is Kimo's. It is a hard-drinking bar. Upstairs is the music. But there are only a few people. The Ken Phlow band apparently does not draw, or does not draw tonight. The Cheese Balls are getting it all. I talk with Philip, the bartender, who tells me where the other dance spots are on Polk or nearby. Further on down the street is the Hemlock, which tonight features The Pirate Dad, and, over on Geary, Edinburg Castle. Hemlock is packed, Edinburg is empty. The Pirate Dad draws. Edinbug, unbooked, doesn't even try. I listen for a few minutes, then leave. I have heard it before. And no one is dancing.
I head on down Geary to a little Asian bar called Hanaro. I've been there before. It's one of those places where they have extra bartenders to drink with you. Hanaro is almost empty when I come in. There are three Arab guys at the bar. They are drunk and arrogant and the bartenders stay as far away from them as possible. (Now do not write the editor. I am not anti-Arab. They might have been three drunk Eskimos. Think of them that way if you want.) The cops call the extra bartenders "B" girls. They get a percentage of every drink they get you to buy them. I motion to one girl and she comes over. I buy her a drink. She is sweet and not at all aggressive, drinking slowly and asking me where I live and what I do. She tells me she lives in South City and has only been at Hanaro about three months. We put some money in the juke box and the place comes alive. The Arab guys are getting louder. Another girl comes over and the three of us dance. I am now enjoying myself. The other girl now remembers me from six months ago when I was last in. "You look different," she says. It is beginning to be fun. And I did not need to stand in a line for this, pay a cover, and shout for a drink. Out of breath, I go back over to the bar with the new girl and we have one more drink. Then I tell her I have to go. "I dance with you any time you come," she says. I look at the reflection of all the bottles of liquor in the mirror in back of the bar and the rainbow colors of the juke box and put Hanaro on my list of "hot" dance spots in the City.
I have been trying to liberalize my musical tastes but it has not been easy. What I am alluding to is that genre of music called "rock." You see, I am a jazz man and have never really gotten into rock. I like music with a semblance of harmony, melody, and detectable rhythmthe basic elements. Music that lacks all three of those elements played by musicians who jump into the air while playing and occasionally destroy their instruments for special effect does not generally please me. Call me prejudged if you like. Jazz does it for me; rock generally does not. Nevertheless I went back to Kimo's a few days later and was pleasantly surprised. The group was called Vacuum Tree and the audience appeared to be mostly fellow musicians. Maybe it was just a special evening that will never be repeated but the place was charged with energy, most of it good and playful.
While I'm standing at the bar ordering a drink, a young guy comes up and says to me, "Well, you ready for some good old rock & roll?" "Sure, why not?" I say. For a moment I think that this is a gay introduction. But it isn't. He is just rambunctious and excited about the upcoming music. He gets two drinks and goes back over to a table, sitting down with a lovely young woman. The band now starts to warm up. In fact, they spend about a half hour doing so, doodling every which way in a most thoughtful and sensitive manner. They seem to be sending each other messages, now the flute to the guitar, now the drums to the flute, now the ... The notes are distinct and clear, the musicians listening to each other and responding back and forth. Then they start playing for real-hard, rhythmic, and driving. But this too is not bad. It is precise, charged, but with a little sense of humor about it. They do not jump into the air, they do not break their instruments. They have promise. Now if it were only possible to have them warm up a little longersay a half hour morethen hook them off stage just before they start playing for real, I'm sure they would go on to be the latest rock sensation. Maybe on the order of the Beetles or the Grateful Dead.
My energy is higher nowI seem to be chasing away the blues. But damned if I'm not hungry, and I've not had anything to smoke. Swear it, dude!
The House of Dim Sum on Jackson, just up from Grant, is one of those small steamy places with a few tables, so that you feel like you are eating in the kitchen. At three in the afternoon when I come in, the chef is sitting at one of the tables. A mostly-gray-haired older guy, he has a commanding voice, almost that of a military man. Here you go over and pick out what you want, the trays don't come around to you. I pick three har gau (shrimp dumplings) and two tsun guen (real spring rolls). I sit at the table sipping oolong tea from a styrofoam cup and watching the street outside where it is now drizzling.
Outside there are two small kids, one in a blue raincoats, swinging around a parking meter. I watch them through the open restaurant door, which brings in a constant supply of fresh air but which does not chill the place because of the heat from the kitchen. Hot and cold seemed to be perfectly balanced. The tea, though not fancy, brings clarity to my mind. I feel whole and in balance.
At New Asia restaurant on Pacific near Stockton the style is elegant, courtly. The room is high with chandeliers and the carts of delicacies come and go constantly. Again I had har gau. I also had batter-fried shrimp on a stick and lo mai gaisticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves with pork. For desert I chose black bean cake, which comes in thin rolled layers. While I don't object to elegance and variety, I think I prefer the experience of the small kitchen-restaurant back on Jackson. Rather than seeing kids having fun playing on a parking meter, here, just before I came in, I watched a man and a women tussling on the street. She was trying to get away, he was trying to hold her. A small crowd of people had formed around them. The woman is ordinary looking, a little overweight with short frizzy hair. She looks afraid and at the same time a little defiant. Finally she gets away, but not before a woman comes up and shoots her picture. I ask a Chinese guy what is going on. "Thief," he says. "She steel all shops."
Lichee Garden is over in North Beach on Powell Street. Here I am surprised. At 1:30 it is packed. It is not your home kitchen, yet it is warm and comfortable inside; and it is not your imperial palace, though it is spacious and tasteful, with low ceiling and clean white walls with paintings all around. The clientele is mostly well-dressed Chinese, but there is a scattering of people, like myself, of European descent. At the table in front of me is a father, his daughter, and a friend of his daughter. The father is a large, imposing manhandsome, perhaps egotistical, and surely intelligent. His daughter and her friend appear to be university students. The friend of the daughter is of European descent. The two young women have their backs to me. I see that the Chinese girl has a tattoo low on her back near her buttockher pants and sweater don't quite meetand I see the thin blue strap of extremely skimpy underwear. When she turns to get up, I see that she is very well endowed. Away from home her life has no doubt blossomed.
I should be eating and paying attention to the food but my attention now turns to the women in the restaurant. They seem to be either quite beautiful or quite ugly or at least uncaring of their appearance. The servers pushing carts are of the latter type, with rounded faces and short frizzy hair. They are the "worker bees", whereas the cashier and the hostess are quite lovely, with long hair and well cared for skin. I don't think I see quite this sharp division among women of European descent in San Francisco or California. Some women care a lot, others less, a few not at all; but it is not an either-or type of thing as it seems to be with the Chinese. I look around the restaurant. Almost all the young women are beautifulbeautiful in most cases, I think, until they get their man. After that it probably depends on kids, professional status ... Well, you figure it out.
I have a pork dishsmall round bones with meat on them soaking in a bowl of hot oilI have a shrimp-filled flat-noodle dish which I am not able to identifyand I have a custard desertdantad I think it is called. I also have a glass of white wine but I realize now that it is really the tea that brings things alive. I have been told that; now I am a believer.
After three days of dim sum I still feel the winter blues but I know how to dodge them for an hour or two.
But what can you do? I changed plans and caught Don at Bix on Sunday. Know Bix on Gold Alley? It too is a San Francisco tradition: huge long bar, murals on the walls, high-ceiling with a wraparound balcony and staircase leading up to it.
As it turned out the mayor was dining there on Sunday, and he had one of his "babes" with him: a blond with long strands of lovely hair falling down around her shoulders. The mayor of course is elegantly dressed, and I notice for the first time that he barely moves when he eats, his attention being quietly focused on the conversation. He is a far more thoughtful person than people give him credit for, especially when he is with the opposite sex.
During a break I ask Don what gives the mayor his knack with women. "Power," says Don. He says the mayor is one of a number of people in San Francisco who are "bigger than life," by which he means that they are of mythical stature. And yet I look at the mayor, and he is also a man holding a fork eating dinner just like the rest of us. So why do I always get beat up by the ladies and the mayor doesn't? Don says he doesn't know. He has been with the same woman, a psychologist, for 16 years now. Somehow they maintain the peace. I wish I could say the same. I'm with someone for two weeks and it is nothing but war. I observe the mayor more closely hoping to learn something.
There are other San Francisco characters who are bigger than life too, Don tell me. He names Ed Moose, a surprise to me, and Enrico Banduccino surprise there. I know Banducci. He is human but he is also a giant. He does not speak unless he is inspired, which he is most of the time. I once told him a story about William Saroyan's grandfather. Saroyan's grandmother tells him they do not make men like that any more. "When he was drunk he roared like a lion ..." and when he laughed "it was like an ocean of clear water leaping at the moon with delight." Understanding perfectly, Banducci laughed like an ocean of clear water.
I order the steak tartare but do not roar like a lion.
Don finishes his break and plays another set, finishing with "In Other Words," also known as "Fly Me to the Moon."
Got the idea? It is someone thinking big. The tune is lovely, and Don throws in occasional blues riffs and switches keys at least once. His style is flowing and lyrical but still precise. He makes the big open room at Bix sing, adding class and style to one of San Francisco's great restaurants. Then he is back over ordering dinner. We talk more while he eats a lovely lamb chop and mashed potatoes.
Don arrived in San Francisco in 1959, and played with the original Hungry i house band. The Hungry i was one of Banducci's places. The Beats had mostly left town by then, but he tells me that Kenneth Rexroth was still there doing jazz and poetry. He says that life was lovely back then in the City but the "era of Enrico" faded out by 1963 with the coming of rock & roll.
He says his first wife took him one time to hear Jimmy Hendricks and Janis Joplin. He hated it and left before the concert was over. She told him it was all about "energy and excitement." Whatever. It did not turn him on. He is picky. Music, he insists, involves "elements": harmony, melody, rhythm. Rock lacks the elements. He mentions composer, conductor, and pianist Andre Previn, who did both classical and jazz. He says Previn was once asked about rock. The famed musician, noted for his broad-minded attitude, said he found nothing in it.
Still, we agree that too much music is lumped under the label "rock." He names Paul Simon's tune, "Still Crazy After All These Years," as one he likes. The Cheese Balls can take a hike, but I might include the warm-up session of Vacuum Tree as worthy of note. Call me crazy, Paul.
As I leave, the mayor and his babe are just getting up. As I shove open the big doors at Bix and breathe the cool night air, I see the mayor's limo has pulled up. I walk over to L'Amour on Jackson to even the score with a lady I know.