Karmic Reminders

Why do I have a chronic bad back? Is it the few extra pounds I tend to carry about my middle? Or, rather, is it some sort of cosmic retribution for giving my dad mostly good-natured shit about his bad back when I was a smart-assed kid?

I believe I know the answer. In this world, what goes around, comes around, and payback is hell.

Case in point.

I saw some potentially bad news in yesterday’s paper: The Tosca Cafe, one of the places in San Francisco I love most dearly, may soon close. The reason should be very familiar to anyone paying attention. Landlords want ever-higher rents. Tosca’s North Beach landlord is a strip club that’s already made earning a living very hard for the bar’s owner.

Tosca is the kind of place you see rarely these days. A melting pot and mixing bowl of the city’s very heterogeneous population. A place to go and meet people. A place to go and run into lifelong friends. A place to feel like you’re a part of something special. Here’s the kind of place it is: on one particularly memorable night, I shit you not, my pal Fish and I sat at the bar between supermodel and actress Lauren Hutton and a cabbie named Tim. We listened to opera on the juke box. We joked. We told each other stories. And unless I’m very much mistaken, we all enjoyed each other’s company very much indeed.

Tosca is precisely the kind of place that makes San Francisco what it is.

Tosca’s precarious situation should sound familiar to San Franciscans because so many of the city’s most colorful haunts have been disappearing with increasing frequency. Last year, it was the Gold Dust Lounge, told to vacate in favor of, just what we need more of in the Union Square area, a new national-chain clothing store.

To think of North Beach without Tosca is a sad prospect. To think of it replaced by a Hooters or some other corporate girly club is beyond my comprehension.

My only solace would come from my firm belief in karma. These soulless corporate leeches will get their just payback at some point. You can’t take a place like The Tosca Cafe away from my hometown and not expect some measure of rough justice.

Better sleep with one eye open, leeches. With Tosca gone, the universe will be in no mood for mercy.

A Lesson of History

Many times and from many quarters, we San Franciscans have been derided, sometimes to humorous effect, at other times, less so, for being retrogressive, nostalgic, romantic and overly protective about our past. We can seem to want to slap an historic designation on almost any structure older than a few years, from 1950s diner mascots to winking billboards. We can seem more reverential about some of these pieces of our civic history than the Greeks about their Parthenon.

Recent case in point: the brouhaha over the Gold Dust Lounge, a kitschy bar in the touristy Union Square shopping area. [Disclosure: I love the place and hope it lives forever.] You’d think people were fighting over the fate of the Golden Gate Bridge.

That said, there are a lot of physical places I knew growing up here as a child that no longer exist. The loss of some make me sad and make San Francisco a significantly poorer place, in my opinion. We’re not, in the great scheme of things, a very old place. We don’t have bottomless stores of architectural beauty and history. We should appreciate and preserve the important things we have.

‘Stones make a wall, walls make a house, houses make streets, and streets make a city. A city is stones and a city is people; but it is not a heap of stones, and it is not just a jostle of people.’ – Jacob Bronowski

San Francisco has the character it does because of what’s here and who’s here. And we should all be conscious of that and exercise no little measure of care when we’re considering saying goodbye to either – buildings or people.

5 Things to Do on This Rainy Saturday

You planned on baseball but the weather’s not cooperating. No big deal. There are plenty of things to do on a rainy San Francisco Saturday. Here are a few suggestions (I have no personal or commercial interest in any of these places, by the way.).

Musee Mechanique

One of the world’s largest privately owned collections of (over 300) mechanically operated musical instruments, antique arcade machines, orchestrions, coin operated pianos, antique slot machines, animations. Go in. Play some. Waiting for you at Pier 45.

Morning Due Cafe

On the corner of 17th Street and Church. Wonderful coffee and great food. An absolutely beautiful family owns and runs the place. Great music (I often swing to Sinatra when I’m there.). Diverse crowd. Great vibe.

Palace of the Legion of Honor

One of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. A glorious natural setting that’s a treat in any weather but especially compelling in the rain, I think. Beautiful whether or not you’re a francophile. I highly recommend a current exhibition, The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900.

Balboa Theater

Not everyone remembers neighborhood movie theaters, so let me educate you. Most comfortable theater you’ve ever been in? Nope. Greatest variety of offerings? Not even close. Latest mega-hit? Possibly. What do you get at the Balboa? It’s run by people who LOVE movies. They program with fans in mind. Today, as is typical, they’re showing a mix of current and quirky: Hunger Games, Lorax, Iron Lady and a film of the Bolshoi Ballet. And, really, what’s better than a movie on a rainy afternoon?

Gold Dust Lounge

A singular place to meet visitors and locals sitting cheek-by-jowl. Landlords have issued eviction papers to make room for yet another national-chain retail clothing store – just what Union Square needs. Go while you can.

Looking for Real

What may seem like a short detour…

There’s one historic bar in the Union Square district of San Francisco (actually, there are hundreds, but I’m talking about one historic bar in particular), called The Gold Dust Lounge, that’s served drinks to a quintessential only-in-San Francisco crowd of sailors, businesspeople, visitors and neighbors for generations.  Its landlords have recently announced a plan to kick it out in favor of a national chain clothing store.

Now, The Gold Dust Lounge hasn’t been the city’s most popular bar for ages, but the plan pissed a lot of people off, resulting in petitions, protests, online and social media tempests, etc. The question is, why did all these people suddenly get interested in a bar few had ever been to, fewer still had been to in years?

I believe it’s because we’re in a state of national authenticity deficit. Everything we buy, eat, watch, or otherwise consume comes from some centralized corporate authority. Our cities are all filled with the same national chain stores and restaurants. We watch non-locally produced entertainment on movie and TV screens. Even amateur-generated online clips are seen by so many people and follow so few memes, they seem mass-produced.

We’re in a search for the authentic, for the real, wherever we can find it – and it seems downright offensive to shutter a real, honest-to-goodness bar so yet another national chain store that sells the same old jeans can move in.

Think about baseball – America’s self-declared pastime – for a second.

Attendance for Major League Baseball has declined for three straight years, while attendance at Spring Training has grown over the same period.

Those big, corporate-namesake stadiums, filled with untouchable millionaires, are drawing fewer of our fellow Americans.

At the same time, more people are going to Spring Training games, where a bit of baseball’s old vibe still exists. At Spring Training, it’s still possible to get close to players, talk with them before and after games, shake their hands, see them up close – the way fans used to in the majors but aren’t able to anymore.

It used to be that ballplayers would live in the town they played in. They’d be seen and known around the neighborhood. They’d stay with a team a long time. They’d be part of team (and town) identity. Whether playing at the Polo Grounds (or later, at Candlestick Park), or stickball with neighborhood kids in the street, Willie Mays was a real Giant.

If I were to advise baseball, or landlords for that matter, about growing a market in these times, I’d say, keep it real. Not that they’ve asked.