John Barleycorn Must Die
It was a cold and drizzly night in the City. Fog hung in the air like Spanish moss, not necessarily an oppressive presence, but enough to drive people off the streets and inside to a warm fire. The streets belonged to me, for ten or so hours per night anyway. Of course, I didn't really own the streets in any legal sense but like the open range of the historical West, I claimed them. If I didn't own them by deed, then by default, as I seemed to be the only one on them at this hour. I could claim ownership of the very night itself, but I was not greedy: I would share it with any passing citizens who too were out in it. I'd even offer them a ride, as that was the lot I had chosen in life; to give those lost on my range transportation off of it. At night they were like a cattleman's strays and I was the wrangler. My name is Whalen. I am a cab driver.
Not spotting any strays and seeing the hearth fires glowing from within the abodes of those I served but who had too much sense to be out in this weather, I decided to take a break and gather around a fire for a while, too. I didn't have a fireplace in my crib but I knew a place that did. It's door was always open (well, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.) and everyone was welcome. I headed up Larkin Street from Market, leaving perhaps the heart of the City, passing through its bowels, the Tenderloin, headed for Nob Hill. I don't know what anatomic metaphor to use for Nob Hill. It was more of the City's wallet, the traditional home and hangout of the San Francisco's wealthy. Some of the greatest corporate thieves in American history (people who would embarrass Enron or Halliburton CEOs) had made their headquarters and homes there since 1850.
Although I suppose technically on Nob Hill, Larkin Street was closer to the bottom of this mountain and being one block off of Polk Street would probably be regarded by some as being Polk Gulch. Not surprisingly, residents of Larkin preferred to call the neighborhood Lower Nob Hill, Polk Gulch having a more infamous reputation. Actually Polk Gulch, a San Francisco term passing into obscurity, was once the home of working-class Irish and other immigrants staking their claim to the American dream before it became the hub of gay activity which has since moved to the Castro. I guess there is no stopping change.
I pulled up to the red signal at the corner of California and Larkin. All was silent. The cable cars had gone to bed for the night and there was no activity at the 24-hour Cala, the only late night market at the time, one block uphill at Hyde. The Front Room pizzeria on the northwest corner was closed for the evening; even the hustlers one block down on Polk Street were not visible and the homeless, always active with their shopping carts collecting cans at this hour, were mysteriously absent. The light changed green and I pulled across the intersection into my parking spot next to the fire hydrant, safe in the belief that no San Francisco police officer would exit their cruiser in this weather to bother ticketing it. Besides, they were probably all indoors too.
Like so many in the working class I lived in a small studio unit. I had no living room or hearth to warm myself by. Not to belabor the Wild West metaphor, another's campfire was as good as any so I hobbled my "horse" and walked across the street to the John Barleycorn pub, known simply as the JB. I don't know what year it was, somewhere between 1978 and 1988. I don't recall who was behind the bar serving. It may have been Steve Sullivan, Dan Healy or the owner, Larry Ayre. I made this stop so many times that I've confused the dates, times and characters. I think it was Steve. I took off my badge, placed it in my pocket and produced my wallet.
Most bartenders know a patron's drink and pour it as they walk in but I was an enigma to them. Some nights it was Irish or Canadian whiskey, others gin or lager. If a place had Guinness on tap (a rarity back then) I might order that or maybe a Black and Tan version of it.
"Whad da ya have, Johnny?" asked Sullivan in his New England accent.
I stared blankly into thin air past his face as I considered it. Sullivan was the quintessential barman and a genuine son of Ireland. His deep blue eyes shot out from a thick shock of prematurely white hair and his infectious smile had a sense of welcoming that you might find only in a pub in Dublin or the John Barleycorn.
"Come on, Johnny, I don't have all night!"
"Oh uh ... uh ... I guess an Irish coffee, with a floater." (It was an Irish coffee kind of night.)
Traditionally, Irish Coffee is a kind of foo-foo drink, allegedly invented by San Francisco columnist Stanton De La Plane and made popular as the drink de jour at the once world-famous Buena Vista near the end of the Hyde Street Cable Car line. It was supposed to be served in a pedestal glass, something like a small brandy snifter, with real whipped cream on top. No self-respecting cabbie or any blue-collar type would be seen dead drinking it that way, so Steve returned with a plain mug of coffee with half and half. The first sip told me that he had dutifully put some of the whiskey on top without stirring.
"Ah, that's a gooda coffee". I said, making a bad impression of a once-popular expression from a '70s TV commercial.
The other patrons, bar rats one and all, smiled in acknowledgment. For a moment, at least, we were on common ground.
They came from different walks of life but were largely blue collar, service industry workers, artists and secretaries. There were other professions and cultures represented, too, but these were the backbone of this haunt. They were a largely educated lot. I read that at the time, about 50 percent of all SF cabbies were college graduates. The same was true of the City's other workers. San Francisco once attracted this type, but now they've largely been replaced by techno geeks and yuppies.
I retreated to the hearth, a big old cobblestone thing with two wooden church pews and what I thought was a hand-made hippie-type coffee table, not unlike one that I had in my college days. It wasn't until years later that I learned it was a sailing ship's hatch cover. So many ships were abandoned in San Francisco during the Gold Rush by crews deserting for the gold fields that much of the City is built of their timbers or on top of those that were used for landfill. The other furnishings were a combination of old chairs and mismatched tables (some made from former sewing machine tables) and more church pews. At the time I didn't think of them as chic antiques, I just figured that the owner, Larry, got them cheap.
I wasn't always a sociable person, except in my cab. I was here to have a warm drink and escape the dreariness of the street. I often didn't take part in the conversations or just plain banter of the bar rats. Though intelligent people, the rats' discussions tended to revolve around sports and off-beat philosophies involving either cartoon characters, writers or the Pope. Still, like a voyeur, I listened in.
"The Sun will burn out some day and we will all freeze to death!"
"No no no! Long before that happens we will drown as the ice caps melt. The world is getting warmer, ya know?"
"What? Who told you that?"
"I read it in 'Future Shock' by Eric Toffler."
"What the Hell does some egghead know about it?"
"Yeah, he says that all of the exhaust from cars and power plants hold the heat in and ..."
"Jeez, whad da you smokin'?"
"Hey, how 'bout them Giants?" somebody piped up.
The subjects changed as fast as the elbows bent.
I contemplated the world a while longer and went on my way.
"Night Johnny!" Steve shouted as I snaked around the half barrier (whose purpose I never understood) that blocked the entrance.
"Nice talkin' to ya!"
It was Steve and Larry's standard remark when I left.
(Little did I know that a few years later I would be bunking with Steve in a cold flat on Grosvenor Road, lucky No. 13 as I recall, in Rathmines, Dublin City, Ireland. I'll save that story for another day, though.)
I said nothing, but just waved without turning my head.
The night was so quiet I could hear them commenting even from outside.
"Doesn't say much, does he?" one of the rats remarked to Sullivan. (Bar regulars are often suspicious of quiet types).
"Ach! Jocko is okay." Steve said in my defense. "Ya just need ta understand 'im."
I returned on my night off, where I allowed myself to drink a little more, the safety of the driving public not being my responsibility a couple of times a week. I usually began at the Rose and Thistle down the block as that crowd started earlier and were, well, more convivial. It was a place loaded with hippies, ex-hippies and wannabe hippies, though that short-lived culture was long gone. It was also the watering hole of visiting and immigrant Englishmen and women. Englishwomen are God's gift to guys who love big breasts but who otherwise couldn't get laid if they were in a Thai whorehouse with hundred dollar bills hanging out of all their pockets. I was saved many a time from a night of loneliness by the company of an Englishwoman.
After having a good time at the Rose, if I wasn't otherwise engaged I would walk on up to the JB where the crowd was a bit better behaved and the girls, well, also a bit more reserved but, thank God, not by much. I remember those girls, some of them well but most of their names have escaped me with age. Two in particular were Janet and her roommate Judy. I loved Janet but wouldn't let on. I was too ... well ... scared of the consequences of a real girlfriend. I learned from other guys that they expected you to be home at a particular time and had peculiar habits and rules such as replacing the caps on toothpaste tubes and putting the toilet seat down. It sounded too much like Fascism to me and, besides, my mother had tried those rules and in eighteen years had not succeeded in enforcing them. However, looking back, if Janet had asked me to marry her (of course there's no evidence that she ever entertained such a crazy thought) I would have been wise to accept. She eventually married one of the other rats, though he has since passed.
On these nights I was quite a bit more talkative as I had already warmed up with the Limeys down the street. The JB was crowded enough on those occasions to find someone who had something more interesting to discuss than who was the greatest third basemen of all time or whether Sgt. Joe Friday was ever promoted to lieutenant.
Larry, the owner, worked the weekend crowd as much for the tips as anything. Larry came from a Scottish heritage and had a keen eye for ... well…money. I once heard that America's greatest natural wonder, the Grand Canyon, was actually dug by two Scotsman looking for the nickel they dropped. Not that he wasn't good at his job; indeed, he was a master, but besides being a mixologist he had a knack of introducing people in the pub to one another without them knowing it. He would see a person being ignored or otherwise unoccupied and would interrupt one of the many conversations (which he somehow was able to follow simultaneously while serving drinks and of course counting his money) and say something like, "Well, Bill down here knows something about that. Don't you work at Tadich's, Bill?"
To which Bill would look up in surprise and nod yes.
"Frank down here doesn't know the difference between a Croat and a Serb. Isn't your boss a Croatian?"
The next thing you know Bill and Frank, previously strangers, have moved closer together and are then engaged in conversation. Naturally good talk leads to more happiness, more happiness leads to more drinking and more drinking means more money in the till. Not to mention the most important fact; Larry was just a good host. If this had been his own living room rather than a business, he'd have done the same.
I think I was a conundrum to Larry. I wasn't a heavy drinker, and therefore perhaps not his favorite patron, and I didn't tip him for years! I tipped the others, but not him. In fact, sometimes he'd serve me and I'd tip the waitress instead. It took years before his curiosity got the best of him and he quietly asked me why a cab driver didn't tip a bartender.
"I don't tip owners Larry. That's in the tipping rules."
I explained further.
"The owner makes his living off the product, in this case booze, the hired help make their money off the gratuity. I would no more tip you than I would the owner of a fancy restaurant who also doubled as the maitre d'."
Actually my philosophy was sound and Larry wasn't soliciting but merely curious. After some years, though, I realized that I tipped barbers even when they owned their own shops and even counter help had jars out that said "Tips Appreciated" (actually a form of extortion as they'd spit in your food if you didn't). So one night, I surprised him with a tip. He looked at me oddly and thought I wanted coins for the jukebox, though I don't know why as I was too cheap to play it. I just came to realize that rules change with time and decided the time was now. I also hoped that he would pour a bit heavier but, evidently, some things don't change.
I enjoyed so many nights there in ten or more years that I couldn't possibly chronicle even a small portion of it. Naturally, it was the characters, those whom I spoke with often and those whom I barely knew. Some I never talked to at all, though I did enjoy overhearing many of their remarks.
Characters they were, too. There was one guy who wore an eye patch but would switch it from one eye to the other from time to time. There was Billy, a chef from Hawaii. Paul Mayo who, in a gender role reversal, once dumped a full drink on his current girlfriend's head (I think she may have deserved it). Andrew Hawk, the English hairdresser and involuntary hero of a previous column.
My favorite Barleycorn bartender and the one who got me hooked on the place was Steve Sullivan. A barman can make or break any bar. After all, a pub is just four walls with a flat piece of wood, some stools and booze for sale. An owner can spend a million dollars in TVs, games, signage, furniture and so on, but will fail if he doesn't have a likable bartender. Perhaps Steve's only drawback was that he came in on his nights off when, uh, he didn't always behave well. Of course, he only lived a short distance away (as so many in there did) so it wasn't that much trouble to carry him home. I only had to be helped out of there once and then only to the nearest patron's flat where I promptly threw up on his prized oriental carpet and ripped his antique print off the wall as I reached out for something to steady myself on. I think someone must've spiked my drink that night. Did I say that only happened once? Oops, I mean a couple of times. Okay three, but the other two had happier endings as I awoke in a lady's bed. Well, one was a lady, the other was Anne, a long-standing regular. She still reminds me to this day of that night. I think she is the one that spiked my drinks. She had means and motive. (I was something of a hunk then, that is, if you like rugged good looks, boyish charm and uncommon wit.)
Most nights I stood by the waitress station. From there I could see the action in all directions and overhear the bar rats. Those who sat at tables were far less interesting. If you are not a pub person and should ever decide to go, sit at the bar. Tables are for wimps and tourists.
The bar had a collection of books as many of the patrons not only could read and write but some actually had works published. Those who hadn't written still enjoyed reading. The deal was if you took one, you brought it back or replaced it with something else. Because the rats are such sports freaks I had been bringing in obscure and outdated sports books for years. Surprisingly, a local newspaper critic found that to be one of the highlights of his Barleycorn experience.
The jukebox was old and played 45s. Naturally, as they quit making 45s it was getting less possible to keep up with the current music trends but the box had traditional Irish tunes to Frank Sinatra and everything in between. There was something for almost everyone, at least in the '70s and early '80s.
I downed my last pint of ale and worked my way through the crowd to the door. It was crowded and the smoke hung heavy. As I hadn't spoken much that night, I didn't think anyone would notice me leave but just as I hit the threshold, I heard Larry's voice shout out above the din: "Thanks for stopping by, John; nice talkin' to ya!"
Uncharacteristically, I turned back to say goodnight and much to my astonishment I saw nothing but emptiness. The bar was completely empty, not a single rat sat at his stool. The tables were likewise vacant, the glasses all washed and put in their place. No sound was audible.
"... beep ... beep ... beep ... beep ..."
I jerked up with a start, a cat leaping from her sleeping spot in the crook of my knees while I unconsciously pushed the switch on the little offending device that made this unwelcome noise. I yanked myself up and limped towards the bathroom, my gait weakened by sore feet and joints by a lifetime of driving cabs and buses and walking the long steep hills of this wonderful city. As I was relieving myself in the bluish light of dawn I caught a glimpse of a man in the bathroom mirror. He appeared to be over fifty, white hair and perhaps thirty pounds overweight. I could tell he had been a handsome strapping man in his youth. In the cloud of confusion that separates us from conscious and unconscious shortly after awaking, I was uncertain as to who he was and what he was doing in my bathroom. I shook off the excess from my early morning duty and washed my hands in the sink. I applied, as every morning, liberal amounts of water to my face and hair and came to realize, as my conscious mind took over from the one of the netherworld, that he was I. The Barleycorn had been a dream.
As everyday, I started with opening the windows and seeing mountains where a few minutes before was the unmistakable skyline of San Francisco. After putting the tea kettle on, I cleaned and refilled the cat's bowl as she won't drink water that is more than two hours old, and turned on the computer. In the old days, I would go outside and buy the paper to read over my morning coffee. Now, coffee is forbidden by my doctor (Shh! Don't tell him I cheat sometimes) and I read the paper online.
I went straight to my e-mail, and there again was a message from Nickulas in San Francisco. That's right, Nick the cabbie, Nick the doper, the archetype of Reverend Jim of the old TV hit "Taxi". Nick surprised me last year when he wrote me of the death of my nemesis, the manager of the Veteran's cab company. I say surprised, because Nick's technological experience is limited to the steering wheel of a Ford Crown Victoria. ("Turn to the right for that direction, the left for the other," I remember teaching him. I've never seen him back a cab up, because he does not know what the "R" on the gear lever means). I once saw him trying to figure out the mechanics of the 1950s toy, the "Slinky," but he was stymied. Anyway, he bombards me with e-mails now, mostly about his hero Barry Bonds, his messages filled with spelling errors, incomprehensible abbreviations and just plain craziness. I have tried blocking them, reporting them as spam and sending them to bulk, but they still arrive. Someone must be helping him.
Anyway he ended his latest nonsensical diatribe with: "... oh yeah, did ya hear the Barleycorn is closing?"
I quickly jumped on the search engine and found a couple of articles in the Chronicle. I don't know how I missed them before, because I read it almost everyday. I surfed the Web and found more, including a site, savethebarleycorn.org. That night, I phoned Larry Ayre and spoke awhile, then he put one of his barman, "Baseball Tony" Antico, on. We talked for twenty minutes or so, my hand scribbling as fast as I could write. (Now I know why they offered short-hand in high school.)
So the story goes like this: An infamous San Francisco landlord and restaurateur bought the building that houses the John Barleycorn and another great SF place, the Front Room Pizza next door. The Front Room was apparently evicted very quickly, but the JB still has until September on their lease. The Front Room has already relocated a few doors away. The new landlord, like so many business people, has more money than brains. She has opened and closed so many restaurants that people have lost count. Her current one on Union Street never does any business and is in the quiet stretch of that yuppified neighborhood. How it stays open is a wonder. When I returned to cab driving for a year and a half in 2001 I never took anyone to or from her place. It was always quiet. Perhaps it's a tax write-off or worse. Anyways, she has given notice to Larry to vacate with no comment. She refuses to negotiate or to tell anyone of her plans for the location, though it is expected that she will attempt another restaurant. As she caters to yuppies, it too will fail as Polk Gulch is not their territory.
During the dot-com era a few years back, property values rose so dramatically that other well-known San Francisco joints fell to its pressures. The dot-coms couldn't find enough office space, so they resorted to store fronts, warehouses and even auto garages. Perhaps the biggest offense they committed was in buying the building that held the one-hundred year old Jack's Restaurant down on the edge of the financial district. If I'm not mistaken one of the employees at the time had been there about seventy years. No amount of political or public pressure could dissuade the out-of-town yuppies who bought it. They just needed the office space and cared not that they were destroying a City treasure and the livelihood of so many people. As with the new owner of the John Barleycorn building, these people had too much money as well. Sometimes I think that excessive money should be declared illegal, as it can be used as a deadly weapon. Perhaps more businesses and people have been killed over money than for any other reason. The saddest part of the "Jack's" story is that two months after the dot.com bought it they, too, failed. They hadn't even moved in yet. To my knowledge, that location was empty for at least two years. I have no idea what is located there now but it certainly isn't Jack's, that's gone for good. So due to the capricious whim of someone wielding money as a weapon, we lost a friend, a piece of history and an asset to the City.
Businesses are a lot like people, so much so that our law recognizes them as having many of the same rights. They can sue and be sued. They pay taxes (or avoid it as the case may be), they have ethics or lack them. Metaphorically, they have a heart and a soul. They breath, they live, they die. They also move from time to time.
I'm sure those involved in "Save the Barleycorn" have their hearts in the right place, but the law is against them. The very foundation of American jurisprudence is property rights and hence the expression, "possession is nine-tenths of the law." The new owner can do what she wishes (within zoning codes of course) with the property. She can even snub her neighbors and fellow citizens. She can, to an extent, be a bad citizen. This is her right and she seems to be exercising it.
Although he didn't tell me so, I am sure that Larry is under no illusions as to his rights or lack of same. The Barleycorn, unless by some quirk of human nature, is going to close at its current location. I do believe, and this is just speculation, that it will reopen in the not-too-distant future somewhere in the same neighborhood under the same proprietorship. (Larry is going to die behind that bar and die happy). Who knows? It may be better. People move without changing much, why can't a business? The Barleycorn isn't just a collection of bricks and old church pews, it's a community of friends and family. It may die but it can't be killed unless it's allowed to. The friends and family may come and go, move or pass on, but the pub as a community lives. I was a member of that community for a decade or so. Others have come and gone since. I don't know the young people who call it home now, but I do know how they feel. I am very confident in my prediction that in a short while we'll be hearing of its grand reopening. Larry or Dan will be behind the bar again. If I can get some time away from my keyboard and some money from my editor for "traveling expenses", I will be there, too. Of course I don't know what I'll order, as always it will depend on my mood, but I'm sure Larry will recommend something, probably the most expensive drink in the house.
Published June 2007