I lay on my back in the San Francisco sun, admiring the creampuff-colored spires of Sts. Peter & Paul Church set against a deep-blue late July sky. The occasional white seagull wheeled elegantly past the spires, and wisps of fog - or was it smoke from the three different booths offering nearly-identical Thai food? - snaked by on the wind. It was the North Beach Jazz Festival, although the music pounding the speakers wasn't jazz (As if you'd expect a guy named 'DJ Tom Thump' to play jazz.)
I always forget how cool - and tourist-laden - North Beach is. The interior away from the main drag of Columbus and Broadway reminds me a bit of the French Quarter in New Orleans - small streets, crammed-together apartment buildings, little shops, quaint architecture in various states of dereliction, and plenty of bars. It's taken me years to get my head around how things are situated in North Beach, although I still wouldn't suggest asking me for directions.
Today, Sunday, I had gone there to meet a group of people who were not where they said they'd be. Since I don't have a cell phone and forgot to bring the number with me anyway, I couldn't find them. So I had a sausage from the one non-Thai food booth and a sangria poured by a man in a Porn Star t-shirt. Socializing attempts that weekend (and the previous one, come to think of it) had basically fallen on their faces. I was alone (surprise), and had hours to kill before dark. I was in North Beach, and I didn't feel like going home in defeat as I had the day before. I also didn't particularly feel like drinking alcohol or coffee, eating anything further, buying expensive trendy clothes, or browsing in City Lights., which is really all North Beach has to offer.
I compromised. I found a bar with a window open to the unseasonally nice July day, ordered a glass of wine, doctored it with ice and water, and sat down in the window to nurse it. As generations of Italians know, having a glass of wine isn't really 'drinking.'
For some reason, there were two watermelon slices sharing that counter with me that were there before I arrived. I didn't dare touch them, just looked at them furtively as I sipped. At one point I saw a lady walk by with a basket of watermelon slices, and she seemed to silently acknowledge those lone slices on the counter beside me, like familiar acquaintances.
The day was quite pleasant, and it was a perfect place for people-watching. I saw tourists, hipsters, drunkards, SUV drivers squeezing their behemoths through the narrow street, musicians, more tourists, more hipsters, and even two horse-drawn carriages. If they had been mules, I would have had full-blown New Orleans deja vu. I could see the top of the Transamerica Pyramid peeking out from behind the quintessential San Francisco-style buildings, and if I leaned out of the window, I could see 580 California Street, with its weird (in its true original meaning) statues of wraiths on all four sides of the roof.
Across the street was a little market, and as I watched, a true San Francisco character came out. He was a skinny middle-aged gentleman, wearing a mismatched blue suit, an old-style blue frilly tuxedo shirt, and a lime-green scarf knotted around his neck. He had a cloud of grey hair standing out all around his head. I laughed at the image, and before I knew it, he had disappeared from my view, and then reappeared opposite me at the window of the bar. He greeted me, introduced himself, and invited me to the bar down the street, where his band was about to go on.
Of course I decided this was the adventure I'd been waiting for, so after about half an hour (can't seem too eager, you know) I headed down to the bar, which is the oldest saloon in San Francisco - all sloping floor, musty wood, a tall, carved, wooden bar from the 1900's, and mirrors. It was a true character's bar. Not a yuppie or hipster in the crowd, but plenty of old hippies and beats, and mainly just a bunch of crusty characters. Ahhhh. At last, I was home.
The frizzy-headed guy was named John, and he very graciously bought me a drink, (And the drinks in this place were cheap, too! if I could only airlift it across the bay to my neck of the woods...) then went off to play the bass in the blues band that was crammed onto the tiny stage in the back of the bar. The guitarist looked disturbingly like William Burroughs, and I realized who the bass player John reminded me of: Mel Brooks!
Around the same time the band started, a guy in the crowd caught my eye. He was tall and his eyes were hidden by shooting glasses. He looked liked Sam Shepard. A few minutes later - what sort of vibes had I been throwing off that day, anyway? - he was behind me and handed me a small charm that was a red-and-green rose in clear plastic. Then he let me try on his glasses, which were very cool, with purplish lenses. After about two minutes of talking to him, I realized that he was absolutely nuttier than a bag of squirrels. Stark raving. His eyes were wacko, and he kept talking about how the charm he had given me would save my life one day. Plus he mumbled a lot about his dead wife and Jesus. Too bad, because he was cute.
The band was very entertaining. William Burroughs roamed around, with some kind of wireless device on his belt that let him wander the bar without being tied down with electrical cords or cables. He went outside, while the two sax players followed him. He sat on the bar. At one point (actually, two points) he got up on the bar and walked the length of it, still playing, then jumped off and did a bit of a Jimi Hendrix lying-on-the-floor bit, still playing.
The drunk fat man next to me gave the girl next to him a $5 bill to put in William Burroughs' proverbial G-string while he was standing above her on the bar, but she was too embarrassed. Later, slurring his words, the man asked me what was really important to me, and at one point an old hippie-type came over to tell me I looked like Sheryl Crow, which is a crock, but still entertaining. I was starting to think young women didn't go into that bar very often. Sam Shepard left, saying something about how he was "too old for this shit," but not before he asked me if I wanted to spend the night at his apartment "just to sleep." I danced a bit, including with an Indian-looking fellow who always seemed about to break into laughter.
The band stopped playing early, about 8:30, and I walked back down to BART, laughing and sort of bemused at the night's events. I'm not even sure why I'm writing this story down, except that I think it's significant, somehow. I wonder if John was supposed to come into my life as some kind of wise, kooky teacher. He had that energy. Or if I'm supposed to realize that among the freaks and outcasts is where I truly belong. Whatever it is, it felt like something out of a movie. one starring Sam Shepard, Mel Brooks, William Burroughs, and Sheryl Crow. Or not.