I did a search of "azalea" on the Net and found a familiar name, Frederick Law Olmsted. He was the father of landscape architecture, having designed Central Park, the grounds of Stanford, and Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. He also greened up the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, installing a massive native azalea thingy. But what leapt out at me wasn't the fact that someone had successfully raised azaleas. Nope, what leapt out at me was the word "Biltmore," part of the Vanderbilt railroad empire.
Last week I went to Nob Hill to see the remains of that era in S.F. What I found were expensive tourist traps. Mansions have been converted into museums and government offices. The whole time I was there, though, a question was nagging at me: Where exactly do real rich people go in San Francisco? The "old money" types? Sure, there are plenty o' places for your basic hip rich person to chill, but what about your conservative, martini-and-tennis-club types? Where do well-heeled snobs go when they need watering? It would have to be a place that is part of the action yet still hidden enough to preserve an exclusive shtick. It should be dark and shady, dappled with tinkly piano music.
One second through the door, and I knew I'd found it: the Big 4 restaurant and bar adjacent to the Huntington Hotel on California Street. The Big 4 refers to the four biggest railroad barons in S.F.: Whatshisface, Whogivesashit, HowthefuckshouldIknow, and Deadwhiteguy. On the outside of the building, you can't really tell if it's a bar. There are two stately wooden doors that rise up saying "The Big 4" and nothing else. You can't hear anything going on inside. Same goes for the Huntington Hotel itself. It is a big stone elephant trying to hide in a circus. Maybe that's why all the rich rock stars who want to remain incognito stay here.
"Michael Stipe stays here when he's in town," said the bartender. It seemed he mixed each drink with a tall pint glass and a long spoon, jerking the concoction precisely and then pouring it into a frosted glass. He was what you would expect to find here: affable, handsome, impeccably dressed, middle-aged.
The bar sits to the right of a series of cozy, dark wooden rooms, like the bottom of a very expensive Bavarian mansion. When you first enter, your eyes have to adjust to the dimness. As I walked toward the bar area, elderly women in furs and businessmen in pinstripes slowly appeared before me, like a developing sepia-tone photograph of wealth. Generous round booths were hosting couples dwarfed by expensive cuts of meat and fresh flowers.
It didn't take long to realize that not only had I found S.F.'s dusty elite, but also that I loved this place.
I ordered a gimlet and tried to stick to my original plan, which was for once in my life not to strike up a conversation with a total stranger sitting next to me at a bar. Why did I have this plan? Probably because I wanted these people to remain an enigma to me, a myth. My plan lasted about three minutes.
"Excuse me," I said to the guy to my left. He had a shaved head, manicured nails, eyeglasses from France, and an accent. "What part of England are you from?"
He laughed. Good sign.
"London?" I asked.
"No, love," he chuckled, taking a sip of his whiskey. "About 19,000 miles away from there."
"Ah," I answered. "Wales?"
He tried to keep a straight face. "Nineteen thousand miles away, love." Hmm ... OK, I pictured a globe in my head, and an arrow from Britain moving over, over, over the ocean to ... aha!
"Australia!" I shouted out proudly.
"Aye," he said back.
God I felt stupid. I needed to somehow redeem myself as a not-so-ditsy, albeit impoverished, American. "Wow, yeah," I continued, stammering a bit, wholly out of my element. "You guys have really been hit hard with azalea lace bugs this year."
He squinted at me and then threw out, "Nasty buggers," obviously not giving a toss. A woman dining alone behind us was glaring at me. When I returned her gaze she didn't even blink. They don't want me here. Just when I was kicking myself for breaking my rule about talking, he softened up and asked me playfully, "How the hell do you know that? About the bugs?"
I didn't have a good answer as to how I knew it, except that I had read it somewhere in my azalea travails. It was either that or mention Olivia Newton-John. No, don't mention her, Katy. No ... don't --
"So how is Olivia Newton-John these days?" I blurted out. Jesus. Why don't I just ask him if he owns a koala while I'm at it. There was a missed connection between what I intended to happen in this bar and what actually occurred. He told me that she was doing fine and then he moved his legs ever so slightly to the left, away from me.
"Another drink?" asked the bartender. I wished Michael Stipe were sitting next to me. Now that's one bald guy in French eyeglasses I can relate to.