The City That Was: Government With Cocktails
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
In recent weeks, I had an interaction with City Hall that defied all expectations of bureaucratic insanity. Also, over the last year, I have been appalled by how difficult it is to actually talk to our supervisors. While investigating city interest in my Art House project, I waited in the offices of most of the supervisors for hours, hoping to get five minutes of their time, and I submitted requests for a face-to-face meeting, apart from their limited window of opportunity—90 minutes once a month that they were open to visits from constituents—and never got an answer from any of them.
It made me think about other days and other times when our elected representatives were a lot more accessible. My first face-to-face contact with a supervisor was when I was a very small child, and the president of the board was Dr. Ertola, our family dentist. We’d climb the narrow, twisting marble staircase to his office on Columbus near Broadway, and while he was probing my mouth, my father would engage him in long talks about civic affairs.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was a much more palatable way of engaging supervisors, because they met every Monday night at Stars. Celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower opened Stars in a nondescript building in Civic Center that had no windows on the street. You walked in to a huge room that was mostly white, and had photos on the walls of every celebrity that ever dined there, lots of them. The carpet was dark green with gold stars, and a bar ran along most of the west wall, slightly elevated, overlooking the grand piano, where a really good pianist played a lot of Gershwin-style music, and the supes dined and drank nearby at a table for 12.
Stars was constantly packed, and for good reason. It is credited, along with Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, where Tower worked at his first real cooking job, as the birthplace of California cuisine. It was beautiful, stylish, classy, and lively. It was also expensive, by the standards of the time, but my friends and I didn’t care. In those days, even writers could afford a weekly night on the town. We went to Stars every Monday, religiously.
Of course we didn’t dine. We went to the bar and got bar food. The bartender, Mark, made a perfect in-and-out martini, which he got started the minute he saw me approaching the bar. My friends with jobs could get several of them, and we’d order these little thin crust pizzas or other things on the bar menu. We could stay there for hours, people watching, and leave with a tab of under $20.00 each.
We saw dozens of international celebrities on those Monday nights, including Julia Child, Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Luciano Pavarotti, and others. Mario Batali was one of the hot young chefs in the open kitchen, which we could stare into from the bar, and observe their techniques. It’s been said that about four fifths of the great American chefs in the limelight now had worked at Stars, in the days before the celebrity chef was a big deal.
While everyone was having a great time, in this bastion of civility and foodie sensation, we could also deal with whatever civic issues we had in mind. The supervisors were right there, enjoying the place as much as we did. If you were a somebody, you could just saunter up to their table for a chat, and they might pull up a chair for you to join them. For the most part, people left them to enjoy their evening out without having to discuss issues of government.
If you were an unknown with an issue, there was a much more convivial way of getting the attention of the supervisors. You could ask one of the charming wait staff what the supervisor you were interested in speaking to was drinking, and they would deliver a cocktail (on your dime) of the supervisor’s choice along with a note from you. Sometimes the supervisor would ask the server who sent the note, and come over for a brief chat.
Now that was government at its finest, in every sense of the word, in the city that was.