The Nite Owl: The Grubstake
The San Bruno Owl winds its way through the mists South of Market as we head towards Van Ness. There aren’t many people on the northbound motor coach at this hour, with the exception of a few stragglers and a nattily dressed older woman who is harping on a teenager who smiles with bemusement. I look up from my book and try to gauge exactly which stop I’m looking for through the fuzzy paned bus windows.
I disembark at California and do my best to negotiate the rain-slick sidewalk. It’s the first rain we’ve had in a while and I’m still a little rattled by a violent motorcycle accident I saw earlier. I tread carefully on the newly resurrected film of automotive oil, piss and soot that shimmers on every step of concrete.
As I round on to the Polkstrasse, I pass a group of buns and beards haplessly trying to articulate their shit-canned “brahs” in a way that only makes me grateful that I’m a homosexual. At the corner of Pine I pause, and there she is, sturdy above the sidewalk, the Key Car-turned- diner, The Grubstake.
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Many moons ago I tended bar a couple of doors down at what is now Playland, but then was a charming little firetrap called Kimo’s Bar & Penthouse Lounge. Once a divine discotheque, by the time I arrived it had turned down market just a tad. My short time there I affectionately used to refer to as the darkest period of my life. Working the morning shift at a Skid Row dive isn’t the cutest place to be in your mid-twenties, still the tales of the Polk’s gay glory years that pensioners would dribble to me between sips of their 8 a.m. scotch and sodas were worth the occasional amphetamine-fueled charges at the door and the literal pocket change I walked with. I wonder why I always forget that the Grubstake is on the same block and realize it’s probably because I never made enough money to eat there. I peer in through the plate glass windows of Playland. Still a horror show, but this time in the form of eighty-pound women being spoon fed shots likes Toulouse geese.
The Grubstake, all these years later, glows like a night light on the gulch, providing amber-tinted warmth in the dark hours of a wet night, reminiscent of Hammett or Goodis, as the deco towers of Nob Hill loom in the dripping east.
While I’m being shoe horned into a table at the end of the counter, I notice that the Portuguese guy that’s been running the place for the past twenty odd years is still working the dining room just as he always has and for a moment I think, “Maybe the sale didn’t do through after all!!” My waiter and the yellow placard outside, however, confirm otherwise.
In July, the city’s zombies and barflies found out that the Grubstake was the latest local icon to get sold. Initially, though, all was not lost- the new owners, like the rest of us were ardent fans who wanted to change not one menu item or light bulb. The Grubstake would remain the same as it always had. Then the other caboose dropped in the form of demo permits and condo plans submitted to the planning department in August.
Every time I come to the Grubstake, I’m presented with the quandary of Portuguese or “American”. Now that I very well may be eating here for the last time, I feel as though I’m wrestling with an SAT question. Ultimately I acquiesce to comfort. The caldo verde is the only thing to order on such a night!…. and maybe some chicken wings on the side..and a root beer..or two.
If the demo goes through, it will be just another instance symptomatic of a city in the throws of a disingenuous fever, I suppose. Decades long transplants and native children are hardly strangers to the bait and switch nowadays. Like so many selfies, many seem to have the right smile and presentation but curiously absent fine print. But is this a casting call or are we actually auditing the people we’re willing to hand the keys over to, whether it be to a diner or City Hall for that matter? Indeed, even in this neighbourhood, will they vote for the progressive super that fought the machine for years or the incumbent that made that cool KitchenAid and always appears as put together as her designs?
It’s coming up on two and it would appear I beat the crowd. As I gnaw on chicken bones and slurp my delicious bowl of potato, kale, linguica and picante I take stock of the Polk of 2015. Folks hunker down under the renderings of steamboats in the bayou and moonlit desertscapes, shaking off the damp while a raucous trio of women blow in from the bars and plop down fittingly between two lamps bearing the names of Grand Rapids and Usulután, as it seems they may very well end up in either by the end of the night. One of them launches into a tirade on how she hates how her girlfriends take advantage of her pocketbook, and then proceeds to order for the whole table. Another has seen better hours, sitting bowlegged in her gingham frock, but is just this side of puking enough to work her state for emotional effect, rolling her eyes and decrying, “The woooorst night ever!!!”. Her friends vacillate between concern and annoyance as she eventually tries to take nap in her pillowy hamburger. The button-downed gentlemen at the bar initially show interest in the ladies, but their brains atrophy at the approach of their own sandwiches and are soon consumed by a silence that only monasticism and eating while intoxicated can provide.
Two rather dramatically attired women soon join our early morning jamboree and one gets the sense that they strongly feel that they did not sign up for this, especially when hamburger girl makes a break for the door and, one assumes, the cool sidewalk outside awaiting her fountain of bile.
I sip the last of my root beer and try to extract my napkin from my collagen-covered fingers. I feel warm, content and fat and ready to face the murky streets and puddles which will saturate my shoes.
Outside the air is a bracing foil to my cozily sated stomach and Polk Street twinkles under it’s pretty multicoloured strands, while more beards and buns bob and weave over the slippery asphalt, a street gay or down-and-out no more. To the south below, the city glows in its orange, sodium vapour starlight, first the bowels of Market and then homeward to the flats of the Mission where my mildewing apartment awaits, it too, full of well-liquored, barely intelligible brahs and beards.
1525 Pine Street (@Polk)
Wednesday- Sunday 5:00 a.m.- 4:00 a.m.
Photo from the Grubstake.