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Searching for History and the Good Life at the Barbary Coast

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barbary coast

Rad signage (image from Barbary Coast FB page).

Why, I wondered, would someone as cool as Termeh throw her goodbye party at The Barbary Coast in North Beach?

Then I got to the entrance and it sucked me in again, dammit.  It gets me every time.

Because first you have to turn off the street, and then there’s this weird hallway with flowers on either side that goes deep into the heart of the building, and then you turn again to see a stone-covered area around a wooden door, and by now there’s no way you’re not thinking: “damn, I’m about to enter the inner sanctum here!” (Whatever that means.)  This place is gonna be awesome.

Then you go in…

…and it’s okay.  I mean, it’s good, sure.  It’s good.  It’s spacious and classy and polished.  But…it’s polished.  And so, so, modern.  And it has big TVs behind the bar.  And it just…it’s a really good bar, all right?  But it’s not the inner sanctum of anything, it’s more like the patio where you do brunch.  Which is fine, but…

inner sanctum

Pathway to the inner sanctum (image by Albertino M. on yelp).

Termeh was at the end of the bar, out by the windows past the TVs. The slightly elevated dining section was empty, save for a man playing flamenco guitar.  Termeh is going back to Detroit to do an artist residency. She’ll return to San Francisco, but we’re seeing less and less of her these days:  her passion is for the urban frontier of Motor City, not the pretenses of Silicon Valley.  She was surrounded by people I didn’t know, but who she quickly introduced me to.  They were all artists, though none of them wanted to admit it.

“Joe is a painter,” she said of a sprightly old-timer drinking a double-vodka.

“Don’t tell him THAT!” Joe responded.  He gave me an embarrassed look.  “I’m a retired seaman.  How’s that?”

“Much better,” I agreed.

Artists who don’t like to talk shop when they’re drinking are the best kind of artists.  Actually I’ve come to believe that all shop talk is reprehensible when you’re out drinking.  If you want to talk about work, bring booze to your office.  Don’t drag your office or your workshop to a public space and try to give strangers a tour.  Don’t form an insulated group of colleagues.  Bars are at their best when they make electric connections happen and we all have to do our part.

barbary coast patio

The patio of course (image from Barbary Coast FB page).

Joe wasn’t just a retired seaman, he was a retired ship’s captain. “I didn’t want to do anything though,” he said, “except visit girls in all the ports.  Sometimes I’d bring them back on to the ship, take them with me to the next port of call if it was down the coast, and then give them bus fare back.  And I never did anything on the ship except paperwork.  I delegated everything.  And sometimes I’d even give one of the sailors overtime to do my paperwork for me.  The first thing they filled out was the approval for their overtime.”

“Now here’s my question,” I asked him. “Did you know you were living the good life at the time?”

“Oh hell yes,” he answered. “Those were the days. But somehow I always kept coming back to San Francisco.  I was born here, and I’ve never really lived anywhere else.  And I’ve tried, too.”

The Barbary Coast’s menu of specialty cocktails is mostly named after beat poets who had a presence in the North Beach neighborhood back in the day:  the “Kerouac” is a red wine reduction with lemon, egg white, and nut meg.  The Ginsburg is vodka, lime, sugar, salt, grape juice, mint, and soda water.  These are tasty and the way to go (unless you’re drinking beer) because the spirits are weirdly overpriced.  $8 for Sky Vodka?  $12 for Tanqueray gin?   $24 for a Lagavulen (even if it is the 16 year)?  I don’t get it.

Michael and Karin arrive – the only people besides Termeh who I’ve met before.  They want to see her before she leaves, but it’s also their 19th wedding anniversary.

“19 years,” I say, marveling.  “That’s longer than I’ve ever stuck with anything in my life. Or lived in any one place. Or kept a friendship.  Or remembered something.”

“Yeah, it might be for me too,” Michael said.  “Except…no…actually, I followed the Grateful Dead for longer than this.  Actually I followed them right until Jerry died, and then people asked me: ‘what are you going to follow now?’  And then I met Karin. So..”  He grins and shrugs.

It’s different now than it was. I hand Michael the menu. “Have a beatnik.”

Back in the 50s and 60s, Joe tells me, the bar in this building was a weird space with strangely painted walls and cheap booze and crammed to the rafters with poets and philosophers and journalists and artists all getting wasted together.  Exactly the kind of place you expect to find when you walk through that exterior hallway towards the inner sanctum.  He was a regular. “Ginsburg asked me about my painting here,” he said.  “Maybe I should have tried to get somewhere with that, but, I was just painting.  I wasn’t thinking about a career.”

old spagetthi factory

Back when it was the very bohemian Old Spaghetti Factory (image from Barbary Coast FB page).

That time, he had no idea he was living the good life when it was happening.

A few years ago, Joe said, he was walking through downtown, towards an old watering hole where the sailors used to go. “It was just a few blocks off Market street,” he said. “And…I got lost. Lost! But it was worse. Because I was looking around, and everything had changed so much I didn’t recognize anything. I thought maybe this was Alzheimer’s, that I was delirious. But really, the city had changed that much, and I really just didn’t recognize anything. And it…” He stops, trying to process that. Then he orders another double vodka.

Things change too quickly these days for them to ever end the way you think they will. In a week, Termeh will be in another city that is barely recognizable from what it was not so long ago. What can we do? What can we do, except make art and recognize that this moment, just past, was the good life?

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Benjamin Wachs - Fascinating Stranger

Benjamin Wachs - Fascinating Stranger

Benjamin Wachs is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City. He tweets as @BenjaminWachs, and displays (some of) his work at