"I was there..."
By Jerry Schimmel
The Ribeltad Vorden, 300 Precita Avenue, and Doyle McGowan, 23 Mirabel Street: The Ribeltad was the place to go in Bernal Heights during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Peter Cancilla bartending at the Ribeltad Vorden, late 1960s.
Photo: Jerry Schimmel
At the end of the sixties Peter Cancilla was the latest heir to and manager of Cancilla's Grocery at the corner of Bessie and Folsom streets (3216 Folsom). Around 1968 he acquired the early 20th Century building across the way at 300 Precita Avenue which housed a moribund pinball machine company and the apartments upstairs. He converted the pinball corner into the bar with a curious name.
Courtesy Jerry Schimmel
Among the odds and ends he acquired was a medium sized cloth or banner bearing an applique version of the Colombia national arms. The amusing thing was its completely garbled motto, apparently perpetrated by a Japanese seamstress. The normal spelling of the Colombian Spanish motto is Libertad y Orden (Liberty and Order) which somehow became Ribeltad Vorden. At any rate probably in a mindwarp session the bungled phrase inspired the name of his new watering hole. Where the flag came from is anybody's guess, though some say it was made to order for a homesick sailor. Doyle McGowan now has the framed cloth on his apartment wall after tracking it down through a circuitous trail of ownerships.
Peter Cancilla sold out to Doyle in 1971. Doyle had a wild youth in L.A. resulting in time behind bars, a fact of which he is not proud. By the time we knew him he was established locally in neighborhood real estate and was becoming involved with the Bernal Heights Association. My recollection is he was well-known and admired by everyone in the BHA, though Doyle thinks I'm exaggerating. For sure some of his former tenants would disagree and he wants to be sure I'm clear on that point. When the association sponsored the hilltop park-naming party in 1973 Doyle generously opened the Ribeltad for its gathering. He also let photographer Mark Green run the Nanny Goat Hill Gallery rent-free in a tiny one room building behind the the bar (3205 Folsom Street). Doyle sold out in 1974.
As Doyle will readily admit he bought a truckload of problems. Drugs were being sold surreptitiously and sometimes openly (I remember being approached in the men's room by a kid offering a small baggie of unidentified green somethings) and the cops were eyeing Doyle because of his past. Doyle says I went downtown and spoke up for him at a court hearing of some kind when I was BHA President though I don't remember it.
However, as he told me, there are certain perks to being a saloonkeeper. He quickly learned it was a position that carries a kind of social magnetism and people become attracted to you. One time a customer out of the blue brought Doyle a gift of a rug and large pillows to fill his tiny rooms above the bar, just for the hell of it, no strings attached. A bigger surprise was a few nights later when the same fellow came upstairs arm-in-arm with two good-looking women, one a dancer who proceeded to perform on the spot and the other who seduced him for the rest of the night. Not a bad life, Doyle.
A few of Doyle's friends could be worse than enemies. He came to the Ribeltad one evening with a new lady intent on impressing her with his proprietorship of a popular and colorful bar. In the middle of a round of introductions another compatriot, Roberto Gonzales, set off a string of firecrackers in the crowded room just behind Doyle and his escort—to the accompaniment of ribald laughter. Doyle didn't say what happened next.
Bob Gettle was bartender and manager for the RV, not a very good one though well-liked, according to Doyle. One of Bob's peccadilloes was flirting with women visitors often to the exclusion of customers furiously gesticulating at empty glasses. This night Gettle was outside talking to his pals ensconced between two cars parked in the perpendicular spaces on Folsom Street. Doyle was standing inside at the cash register when he noticed a wisp of plaster dust puff out of the opposite wall. Afterward there was a small hole he hadn't seen before. He thought it was just the old structure deteriorating in its peculiar way, slowly falling apart. On closer examination it turned out to be a bullet hole. Gettle had been examining a gun when it went off and the slug plowed through the building's side, luckily without hitting anyone.
One of Doyle's biggest headaches was Lorraine Ammenti, a local woman who had just separated from her husband, Armando. Lorraine and Armando were well-known in Bernal Heights not only for their constructive activism and generosity but also for blazing tempers and monumental public quarrels. Lorraine was an especially attractive woman with an outwardly pleasant, very intelligent and seductive manner (especially with men). She cornered me a couple of times away from my wife but having witnessed her donnybrooks with Armando I kept my distance. Doyle said at one point she even had him on the floor although he ultimately declined her invitation. And she could be extremely vindictive.
When Doyle came to the RV Lorraine was already living on the second floor right over the bar with three and sometimes four German shepherd dogs, an inheritance from Cancilla so to speak. With her animals she ran Dog Patrol, a rental canine security service. I remember that the beasts used to defecate on the roof of 3205 Folsom Street. She would let them out the back door onto the back stairs where they had easy access to the top of next door. It took a lot of pleading and cajoling to get her to clean it up, though Doyle claims to have no memory of it.
The RV often had evening entertainment which could be rather loud into the wee hours making sleep difficult for Lorraine who lived just above. Her method of handling the noise was to go out the back and downstairs to the main electrical box and switch off the power to the bar, lights, sound, everything. Then she would perch on the steps with her dogs and a shotgun and wait for someone to come turn them back on.
She was in tight with a group of local cops who would come sit at the RV in plain clothes - also making it a point to have handcuffs dangle from their belts in full view of the patrons. Needless to say this display made a few habitues suddenly remember overdue appointments, preferably across town. Doyle always thought she was involved in the cops arriving like that because each time they came she was on a first name basis with every one. Another way of harassing Doyle and his bartender, he felt. He was already paranoid enough with uniformed officers dropping by to see if there were any drug dealers around.
On one occasion Lorraine bashed Gettle over the head with a glass beer pitcher, not seriously enough to get him to the emergency room, but enough for a good headache. It seems that she had been repeatedly demanding part or all of Gettle's bar manager job from Gettle and not getting it. To complicate matters the two had once been an item. She must have known about Gettle's courtesies to the women customers and Gettle should have known better than to dally about with Lorraine nearby. So her reasons for denting his cranium were probably double-barreled.
At first Gettle didn't want to file assault charges against Lorraine, but Doyle convinced him that this was the chance to get her out of the building. Doyle had been longing to have her go because of the dogs and general nuisance. So Bob told her if she didn't leave 302 Precita he would file charges. It was her choice, he said.
The day she moved Armando was sitting at the bar and looking up he saw water coming through the ceiling in increasingly large quantities. When Doyle went to investigate he found she had stuffed rags in the sinks and bathtub, then left all the taps running full blast.
It wasn't long after the water episode that Doyle gave up the Ribeltad and its can of worms. In his old age he's morphed into a humble property manager, sitting on a string of Bernal Heights properties the value of which can only be guessed. Now and then you find him puttering around his buildings near Cancilla's Market—when he isn't out entertaining lady friends or at a Wednesday poker game.
Courtesy Jerry Schimmmel
In my book Doyle proves that men with a troubled youth can turn themselves around and do better than the majority of us who have never been arrested. And his daughter has just graduated from Colgate University shortly to attend graduate school. Not many of us could beat what he's done against odds like that.
Jerry Schimmel was a professional social worker who moved to Bernal Heights in 1965, living first on Winfield Street and settling finally at the top of Prentiss Street. He was the director of the small community center at Precita and Alabama streets for 4 years from 1967 to 1971, and then remained active in neighborhood politics through the 1980s from whence he is now more or less retired. He has lived on Prentiss Street since December 1966. You can read more of his Bernal Heights histories here, where this was originally published.
Birthday tribute to Beat poet Bob Kaufmann at gallery next to Ribeltad Vorden.
Image: courtesy San Francisco Arts Commission