"I was there..."
The 21 Club at 98 Turk, mid-1990s.
Photos: Dimitri Loukakos
Aging ex-servicemen tell humbling tales of wartime glory and postwar debauchery. Jaundiced, gin blossomed old drunks deliver bar stool sermons with time delayed bits of infinite wisdom. Somber, jaded queens reminisce about youth, home, and Harvey Milk. Outside, there are violent shrieks and stifled cries, but Cookie welcomes you at the door with a handshake and a smile and the contrast is blinding. A columnist for a punk rock magazine reads one too many Beat novels and writes a pretentious intro.... wouldn't you?
The Tenderloin. Nothing tender about it, pal. It's fabled that it earned its name almost a century ago, when the police who patrolled this squalid area earned extra hazard pay. These cops could therefore afford the choicer cuts of meat, the tenderloins. These days, any shmoe with fifty bucks, a hard dick and a strong stomach can afford everything he needs and hours of it.
It is our city within a city. Sober, I have never felt entirely safe in the Tenderloin; but drink by drink the TL's womblike spell has put me in a fuckin' vice grip every time.
Mike, Jerry, Darv, Antoine, and I recently set out to dispel any and all current myths circulating about this misunderstood area. Later, dim recollections, photos, and Mike's extensive notes were our only reference point to document our departure from sanity into a nether world of smoky bars, neon signs, and transvestite prostitutes. And hopefully this will serve as an indispensable travel guide to both residents and visitors to our fair city.
Our first stop was the Club Charleston (10 6th St.*****) and the bartender's name was Joe. Joe wouldn't and still won't accept tips under any circumstances. "Save it for when we raise the drink prices," he said. My hat goes off to this man.
Maybe it was the shape of the bar or its blinking neon sign, maybe the honest eyes and kind words of the bartender named Joe. Come to think of it though, it was probably the t-shirt pinned above the bar with EVERYTHING DIES emblazoned on the front. I don't know but I've grown very fond of this place in a few short visits, so I'd appreciate it if you took your dreadlocks and pierced lips somewhere else. You wouldn't understand
Next was the Peter Pan (45 Turk/Full Bar***½) which stands on the outskirts of the Tenderloin like a warning, "Come No Further -- Go Back!" it seems to say like the sign at the entrance to the Black Forest in The Wizard of Oz. Any rational, sober person would take heed, turn tail and run, but for us, the sign seemed to read, "BEER! CHEAP! DANCING ELVES!" There was no turning back.
So in we went, thinking those graffiti laden doors would open straight into Never-Never Land. The place was almost deserted, save for some loser playing video poker, and a weathered queen perched at the furthermost corner of the bar. We approached this guy, and asked a few questions. "Name's Kit," he announced, "I run this place." Kit went on to give us a brief history of the bar, telling us everything about the place, most notably that it was one of the oldest gay bars in San Francisco. Funny, but at first glance I would have thought that this was one of the oldest punk clubs in the city. I would book a Johnny Thunders show here in a minute if he were still alive.
Halfway through our beers and games of pool we were ushered out because the bartender was called away to work at the Motherlode, which was extra busy that night. Drunk?... No, but we managed to muster up the courage to move up Turk Street into the 21 Club (98 Turk/Full Bar**) This place is fucking scary. There didn't seem to be any walls, just huge plexiglass windows which left bar patrons both visible and standing still, two very compromising positions in the 'Loin. Some of the eyesores in the bar included beefcake cop calendars for sale, surreal wood carvings, and thousands of backstage passes from the Warfield proudly plastered everywhere. At one point somebody belched and the whole bar cheered. Guys with buck knives in belt sheaths, and rockers of questionable sex and integrity drove us out and across the street into the Club 65 (65 Taylor/Full Bar****½)
Wow... the contrast was overpowering. In fact there was an almost physical rush we felt entering from one of the most filthy, crime ridden streets in the city into a drunkard's paradise and the good graces of our host, Dale.
Upon entering we were greeted with a chorus of jeers from the locals at the end of the bar. "Uh-oh, here come the teeny-boppers," they shouted. At 23, I was the youngest of our group so this was pretty surprising. These guys must have been fucking ancient, gathering dust on barstools that probably had their names inscribed on the seats. After warning these dime store hecklers that "we've killed better men for less," I ordered a beer, put a couple of quarters in the pool table and got real loose. My opponent was a grizzled ex-con who muttered inaudible proverbs whenever I missed a shot. But I wasn't here to make new friends, so I quickly lost the game and joined Mike who was asking Dale about the place. Turns out a group of large Samoan semipro bowlers own the bar, and as if on cue these jokers in loud Hawaiian shirts and dress slacks burst in, from a bowling tournament I presume, and exclaimed "We're number one! We're number one!" Ex-cons, trophy wielding Samoans, and I thought I could feel a buzz creeping in. Well, I had work to do, so we bid a fond adieu to the old 65.
On to Aunt Charlie's (133 Turk/Full Bar***) How can you go wrong with a place that has a peach and pink interior? You get the impression that broken-down old queens that were exiled from the Castro and never made it on Polk Street end up here. Mike watched as two elderly gentlemen argued about who had a facelift and who didn't, but I didn't want to hear about it. I stumbled upon the jukebox and entirely by accident found Needle and the Spoon by Skynyrd and When I'm 64 from Sgt. Pepper. How could I have imagined how appropriate my musical selections would prove to be? Kit from the Peter Pan showed up wearing a new leather vest that said RAMROD in studs on the back, and generally ignored us. I know how to take a hint, and the Coral Sea (220 Turk*****) was right down the street anyway.
This is without a doubt the best bar in San Francisco. Redlights and tastefully displayed beer signs shone on spacious tables and semi-secluded booths along the wall to our right; and to our left, a fifty-foot rosewood bar stretched all the way back to the pool room. The wall-length mirror behind the bar was lovingly adorned with Christmas lights, happy hour specials, and liquor bottles, as well as witty framed proverbs about truth, alcohol, and credit here and there. Neither Cookie, the ex-Navy Admiral who opened the bar after the war, nor his beautiful wife, Betty, were present at the time of this particular visit, but old photos hanging by the door reminded us of their earlier hospitality. On hand though, were Beverly and Willie, two of the sweetest old foxes you could hope to meet. Beverly got us our drinks, and handed us all restroom tokens along with our change. I marveled at the classiness of that gesture and then decided to play myself a game of pool. While I was on the table, I vaguely heard somebody strike up a conversation with Mike, who was still at the bar. I soon forgot about it until...
"I think cars are a menace... They ought to be outlawed," I overheard Mike's new friend say. It seemed Mike had a few things to talk about, so I went back to improving my game. Soon, though, pool-fare lacking, I snuck over to see what this conversation was all about. The person admonishing Mike on the evils of automobiles was a bitter, middle-aged guy who trembled slightly when he spoke. Mike, being the publisher of Gearhead and all, tried unsuccessfully to defend car culture until he was out of breath. Mike's new buddy suddenly stared very seriously at him.
"What do you propose!" Mike asked cheerfully.
"Mass sterilization, right across the board!"
"Although I have never done it, I am capable of contaminating the water supply."
"At the reservoir!" Mike asked carefully.
"No, at the water treatment plant, silly! You see, you take the..." He was really trembling now.
"Well, we gotta go man! But, uh, hey, great talkin' to you. Maybe someday I'll introduce you to some of my friends."
"Bring a scientist, not a philosopher!" he urged, but we were already long gone to the Kokpit (301 Turk*****). The name couldn't have been more appropriate. As we took a seat at the bar, Jesse, our bartender, leaned towards me and in a whispered voice confirmed that we were, in fact, "straight."
"Well, yeah" I muttered sheepishly.
"That's OK," whispered Jesse. "You guys look like fun."
I barely touched my beer before Dingy Don introduced himself to me as the longest reigning cowboy in San Francisco. "Oh, you mean in the gay rodeo," I said (my first big mistake).
'Jeez (hic) no ... just around... you know, here and there."
"Oh." Boy, did I feel stupid, guess I set myself up for that one. Not wanting to pursue that conversation any further, I stared indifferently at the framed stained glass centerpiece behind the bar. KOK PIT -- JOIN THE MADNESS, it read. Hmmm... tempting but...
"I'm very (hic) shy, you know." It was Dingy Don again, smiling like he wanted to hog tie me to a fence post. One of the two bitter old queens hunched over the end of the bar provided me with a much needed distraction.
"Jesse! Jesse!" he screamed in drunken slurring lisps. "Another beer over here Jesse!" while his pal beside him stared despondently at the blue shag carpeting that lined the wall.
"You're cut off, Lance, stop it," Jesse responded (like he had heard it a million times). After sulking for about fifteen minutes, Lance reinstated his demands, "Jesse! Jesse!" I think Lance's shrieks will haunt me forever. "Another beer!" he wailed, undaunted by Jesse's blunt refusal. This went on and on for what seemed like hours until we left. Yes, I suppose theirs was a private hell, and I consider myself lucky to have caught even the briefest glimpse inside.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot my second big mistake. As my new friend, Dingy Don, barely stood up to stagger outside, I smiled politely and shook his hand (mistake). Cowboy Don planted his fat hairy kisser on mine and left it there for the longest ten seconds of my life. Afterwards, I took a deep breath and stoically finished my beer. I looked up to see Mike and Darv's mouths agape in disbelief. "Holy shit," they would have said if they could speak. "Holy fucking shit."
In keeping with this night of mind numbing contrasts, we decided to haul our asses from that pit of "koks" straight into that urban isle of whisky drinkin', potato eatin' macho misery: Harrington's Pub (460 Larkin***1/2) . With tables lined up in the middle of the joint like lunch time at the Stuttering County Fair, this barely lit bar appealed strangely to my barely Irish sensibilities. An ill-tempered man behind the bar wearing an IRELAND t-shirt introduced himself. "Me name's Patty!"-- oh god, here it comes-- "What? ...Paddy?" Mike asked innocently enough. "PATTY!!" our bartender bellowed. "Short fer Patrick!" After briefly lecturing Mike on Irish slurs and common responses, I ordered a whisky with a beer behind it, and quietly took stock in my surroundings. There wasn't much to distract me from my drink, so drink I did. But mid-beer I was interrupted.
"CLOSIN' TIME," shouted Paddy. What!! It wasn't even midnight! Patrick softened the blow by giving us all green dnnk chips, "Good fer a drink anytime -BUT NAY TONIGHT!" We got the picture and got up to leave. On our way out he invited us in for lunch. "WE GOT BOILED CABBAGE!" Aye.
The next place I've passed on my way home quite a few times, but never thought twice about actually entering. Anyhow, jerry boldly led us through the swinging doors of the Brown Jug Saloon (496 Eddy/Full Bar***) We landed quite by accident at a birthday party, the likes of which I had never seen. The bash was being thrown for a woman who, incidentally, once propositioned me on the street. We found a spot at the bar, ordered $1.00 glasses of Miller, and watched in quiet awe as a drunken group of people tried unsuccessfully to form a straight conga line. This lasted less than a minute until one balding gimp in a nehru jacket broke away and danced spastically by the jukebox, eventually collapsing into the arms ofthe other revelers. Fuck, I didn't know whether to feel smug or jealous.
I could have been mistaken but all eyes in the bar seemed to be staring at us, and these were more than friendly stares. The party was over, and again we had work to do.
Come no further than Jonell's (401 Ellis/Full Bar- Strong cheap drinks!****) for your last history lesson. A woman behind the bar wearing a Sturgis t-shirt enthusiastically beckoned us inside, so we sidled up to the bar and ordered our first round. The actual bar was set up like a sort of U-shaped feeding trough, which made for an interesting visual effect. John, one of the people hungrily 'feeding' there introduced himself.
"This place was once classy, I made it classy." John chose Jerry for the obligatory ear-bending. See ya Jerry. I, on the other hand, moved over to the corner which was less crowded, so drinks could be more easily ordered. Already seated there was a British woman in her mid-70s wearing a lavish bright red outfit which, she later revealed, was of her own design. She spoke with an almost aristocratic--if somewhat slurred English accent, and in a low scratchy scotch-soaked voice. My new friend Kathleen began to tell me stones from her life in Britain during the Second World War, pausing occasionally to pinch my cheeks and compliment my boyish looks. When I told her that my grandfather was a decorated General back then, some asshole sitting next to her suddenly said, "A General, huh!...What the hell happened to you!" I was caught off guard and didn't respond, so he went on with more war stones, this time from Vietnam. I had a war on either side of me.
Then suddenly, a pug-nosed drunk with a upturned baseball cap put me in a bear hug and kissed me on the cheek. "I'm a hobbies investigator," he boasted. "Wanna see my badge!" He flashed me a beat up old business card with a star and some writing on it, and then sat back down.
We sat for awhile with our new friends, and as the time new by so did the whisky and beer, and I eventually found myselfat a table with Mike, drunkenly reasserting dominance over my wife. "FROM NOW ON, I WEAR THE FUCKIN' PANTS AROUND HERE...GET IT!...ME!" Sorry, Katja.
Right in the middle of my soliloquy, Kathleen called me aside. "I want you to see how I live, young man;" she said, asking me to escort her home. I was being hit on. I politely refused, explaining that I had work to do. She kissed me goodnight, stumbled and spilled Mike's beer right into his lap. Then, regaining her composure, she strode elegantly to the door.
Back at the bar, I tried to engage the Vietnam guy in some small talk, but he just scowled disgustedly at me.
"I know you're a hustler, you know you're a hustler, and any damn fool who takes you home better watch his wallet." I couldn't believe it! First, some cretinous cowboy kisses me with his eyes closed, then I'm branded a whore by a West Point dropout! So long Jonell's, I didn't even bother denying it.
Right across the street was our last stop, the Cinnabar (397 Ellis/Way Full Bar***). Things were getting pretty cloudy by now. The bartender's name was Paula, and after we told her what we had been up to, she told us that she had worked in almost every bar we had been in. Anytime anyone's name was mentioned in the context of alcohol, she would say, "He was totaled." So being that it was 1:30 a.m., that became the big word for the rest of the evening. Everyone in the place was either shooting pool for money or playing poker machines really hard. I think I did a little of both. One thing's for sure, I don't remember going off on Middle Eastern men, until Mike played a tape of me shouting obscenities in the men's room the next day.
Well, somehow we all made it home, and I slept for the next sixteen hours. I guess it's true what some people say, "The Good Lord always watches over drunks." Hey, where's my fuckin' hazard pay!
--Spike, Manic D Press
The Tenderloin Bar Crawl was published in the Underground Guide to San Francisco.
The Underground Guide is available from Manic D Press for $12 postpaid, write to P.O. Box 410804, San Francisco, CA 94141