It had been a rough couple of months for After Midnight, and that's how I ended up at the International House of Pancakes on Lombard. After weeks of unexpected repair bills, major car drama, and a near miss on making rent narrowly averted by a mad dash to one of those change conversion machines at Safeway, I was ready for some comfort food. And there's really no comfort food like pancakes.
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The menu made it clear that IHOP would live up to its name. There were buttermilk pancakes, chocolate chip pancakes, strawberry banana pancakes, blueberry pancakes, double blueberry pancakes, whole wheat blueberry pancakes, Cinn-a-Stack Pancakes (trademarked), red velvet pancakes, and more.
There were also waffles, chicken-and-waffles, and a whole lot of the classic meat-and-potatoes dishes, but I wasn't interested in any of that stuff. Just pancakes. I went with the whole wheat blueberry.
After the server, Quan, took my order and left me alone with the bottomless coffee pot, I let my mind wander away from my troubles. On this night, I was thinking about storytelling, and how writers decide what makes a story worth telling. I had been thinking about this ever since the announcement that Katy St. Clair's Bouncer column was being retired.
The news had unsettled me. It was one of those columns I always kept up with, something I flipped eagerly to the back of the paper each week to find. It was, in many ways, the column that inspired After Midnight.
During her last two columns, Katy St. Clair experimented with different methods for telling a story, and she wondered aloud what her next story would be. I looked around IHOP and wondered what story I would tell about this place, if I could only choose one. It would be a tough call -- some of my earliest memories in San Francisco involve this IHOP.
There was the time in the late '90s when I came here in a Volkswagen bus full of hippies and got into a hit-and-run fender bender. The driver of the bus couldn't engage the manual transmission in time to back up the incline in the parking lot on our way out, and the bus rolled forward into someone's car -- which we thought was just hysterical. A security guard posted out front simply laughed and waved us on.
A year or so after that, I stayed in the Surf Motel next door during a road trip from Kansas City. Our crew of five had been rejected from several hotels in the neighborhood, probably because of our dreadlocks, baggy corduroy pants, or the very large dog in the back of the truck. But the Surf was willing to rent us a room.
One of the people on that trip, a good friend who only went by the name "Nature," later became a drug addict and wandered the lost-soul avenues of Golden Gate Park. Even now, I can't go to IHOP without wondering whatever happened to him. When I first moved to the city I would still run into him occasionally. He always talked about drugs, being homeless, and said that he was wanted by the DEA.
Around that time I was using our old IHOP as my secret hideaway from art-scene drama in the Mission. Whenever the internal squabbling in my warehouse on Bryant Street became too much, I would hop on the 22 and ride it all the way to Lombard. In those days, the Marina was the one part of town where a dedicated Mission resident could be sure they wouldn't bump into anyone they knew.
Even after I traded in my Mission street cred for a car owner's life in the Sunset, I still used this IHOP as a place to get away without leaving town, and it always served me well -- as long as I stuck to pancakes. One time I came with my girlfriend and ordered from the meat-and-potatoes section of the menu. The food was so bad we considered sending everything back to the kitchen and demanding our money back. Hours later, we regretted not doing so.
But there were no regrets on this night.
Quan brought the pancakes and they were pretty good. Or rather, they were as good as could be expected for $8.99. There was plenty of syrup and butter, and the blueberries were fresh, tasty, and topped with whipped cream. My only regret was opting for the whole wheat version -- some things just weren't meant to be healthy.
While eating my pancakes, I looked around the room, wondering who might make a good story. There was Quan's efficient stomping back and forth to take and deliver orders, a tourist-looking family with a sullen teenager, kids with ball-caps turned sideways and pants about to fall off, a couple dressed way too nice for 12:30 a.m. at IHOP, and one very loud third wheel out with his friends. He sat across from them bragging about his office humor and repeating the phrase "shots fired" as if it were an exclamation point.
I felt like I could follow any of these people around for a week and still be fascinated. Quan had a difficult job and an immigrant's back story, the boastful third wheel might have some dark secret or insecurity that made him talk so loud, and the kids, well, they were bound to do something that would make for good copy eventually.
I decided that there really are, as they say in journalism school, stories everywhere. The real challenge is figuring out which ones to tell. And I think that's what St. Clair was getting at in her last two columns (please be assured, dear reader, that she is not sitting in the next cubicle for me to simply ask; many of us work from home).
I chewed all of this over with my pancakes until they were gone, and then headed back to my car. Coincidentally, I was parked in the same parking space where that mishap with the VW happened. There was no accident this time. I pushed down the clutch, slid into reverse, and backed out without incident.
I had no idea which story I would tell next, but I knew I had a lot of stories to tell.
IHOP is open 24 hours on Friday and Saturday, and closes at midnight during the week. It's at 2299 Lombard St., (at Pierce) S.F.