So I'm walking down Taylor Street in the Tenderloin, gingerly passing the drugged-out and the drunken, when I see this guy walking toward me, talking with his hands to the person next to him. He's wearing a white button-down shirt and black slacks. Like the Werewolf of London, his hair is perfect. He makes eye contact with me, looks down, and then immediately looks up at me again, as if he somehow recognizes me. I get the feeling that this guy is rich, and sort of square, and for some reason I have tender feelings for him. I know this guy. Did he go to law school with my brother?
He walks past a gaggle of street people and they high-five him. "Good to see you again!" he says to a woman with no teeth. Then he continues up the street toward me. As he walks past, I finally recognize him: Gavin Newsom.
I realize how vulnerable he is, strolling around without a bodyguard. This is the guy who might one day be governor, and then maybe even president. He won't be able to casually cruise around the Tenderloin if any of that happens.
Suffice it to say, I didn't expect to run into the mayor on my way to Aunt Charlie's. I am always shocked when I come to the Tenderloin, but usually for different reasons. It is the skiddiest of the skids. It is the worst intersection on the worst day of the worst hour of The Wire. It is the Island of Dr. Moreau. I have seen lost women in their 20s with scabs up and down their arms crouch down and piss right in front of me. The only sober people seem to be the drug dealers. I usually venture through that hood alone only during the day. And, since most of the bars in the 'Loin open at or before noon, it is the ideal place to catch an interesting crew of day-drinkers.
And so it was that I ended up on a stool at Aunt Charlie's, our city's watering hole for aging trannies and other misfits. The weekend drag shows are the real draw of this place, but I have found that lunchtime is an entirely different kettle o' fish.
On this particular afternoon, every stool was taken save one, and every drinker was over 50. Three guys were having a conversation and chuckling about something on the far right, the ice in their Cape Cods slowly melting while they tore into the sandwiches they had brought. Everyone else was just sitting and staring straight ahead.
Aunt Charlie's is tiny. It's elongated and dimly lit, with a big pink neon sign with the establishment's name above the bar. This sign, god bless it, makes your skin tone look fantastic. Seriously, anyone who is 75 is made at least 65 in the twinkling of an eye. The room has an old boudoir feel to it, helped along by rich carpeting and corny lounge music. Could they actually have been playing Barbra Streisand when I walked in? "On a clear day you can see forever ..." she sang. Sweet Jesus, I thought, I have arrived.
The bartender was in his 70s (though perhaps really his 80s) and wasn't sure if they had sparkling water. I'm sure there aren't too many orders for that particular beverage in the Tenderloin. He bent down and rustled through some things, clinking bottles and thumping refrigerator doors closed. He emerged with a Calistoga and held it up for me to see as if it were a bottle of wine that needed my approval. For all I knew, it had indeed been sitting on some shelf for eternity, like a vintage Cabernet.
I tried to initiate conversation with my fellows, but they were a rather morose bunch — especially the guy at the far left end of the bar, who had deep creases in his face and beady eyes and reminded me of the serial killer Ed Gein.
The next song that came on was by the Carpenters. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a total Carpenters nut. "Rainy days and Mondays always get me down," Karen Carpenter was singing, I was joining in, and Ed Gein was frowning as if to say, "You, my dear, are indeed singin' my song." But I had a feeling that sunny days and Tuesdays were also not high on his list. Yes, what he's got they used to call the blues.
The guy I really wanted to get a rise out of was right next to me. He was a hefty black man with a ring on his pinky. I like to think his name was Bubba. I had made a few witty asides (at least, I thought they were witty) to him, and he had simply turned and stared at me and then went back to his drink. Most of the time he ignored me. I think I'd made a conscious decision to sing along with every song just to piss this guy off. Besides, I really liked the bartender, who had made the music mix and seemed flattered that I dug it enough to croon along.
The opening strains of the Captain and Tennille came on, and oh lordy, was I ever gonna make Bubba wish he had never set foot in Aunt Charlie's. Though I am very partial to "Do That to Me One More Time" and could see making Bubba very uncomfortable by inviting him to do so, the song was instead "Muskrat Love." I don't know if you've ever actually seen a muskrat, but they are hideous — large, wet rats with gigantic yellow teeth and the frazzled look of something freshly electrocuted. Why anyone would assign an ode to one of these creatures is beyond me.
The best part of the song is during the breakdown, when the Cap'n plays the keyboards like he is a randy muskrat in search of his mate, making it sound all squeaky and bubbly. I introduced said part by saying, "Cue rodent solo!" right into Bubba's ear. Ed Gein put his drink to his lips and slowly shook his head.
Well, I thought, this is kinda dull. Usually my effervescent personality wins over someone by this time, but this was an immovable stone garden of Tenderloin mopery. Perhaps this is what happens to people when they feel compelled to go out drinking on Mondays at noon. Aunt Charlie's is merely a booze delivery vessel, not a place to sit back and enjoy the company and the music. Still, did I really want it any other way? How else should a bar open in the middle of the day in the Tenderloin behave? It was perfect.
I thanked the barkeep and decided to let everyone out of their misery by letting them get back to their misery. On the corner I passed a huddle of buyers and sellers. A woman — who knows how old or young she really was — was swaying in her mismatched Skechers, her pupils shrunk to pencil points and her arms badly bruised. She nodded at me as Gavin had done. Or maybe she was just nodding. I mentally crossed myself like a good Catholic and headed farther up the street toward BART.