"Why why why why why ... she went a-way!"
"That hurt my testicles, going that high!" exclaims a guy in a Michigan sweat shirt. Ginger's is overflowing with white wine and garish decor tonight. A giant red star twirls from a circulation fan. Snowflakes, icicles, and garlands assault your eyes. A single forlorn crutch leans against a wall, sans its crippled owner. Two Duraflame logs are unceremoniously dumped on the floor near the restrooms.
"You know something?" slurs one barfly to his drinking companion. "She's all German, I'm only a quarter!"
Two guys with beards are tongue-kissing, mashing away at the end of the bar, right underneath the muted 49ers/Vikings game, giving Monday Night Football a strangely homoerotic flavor -- buffed-out guys with tight buns in tight pants, mincing around a field, slapping each other on the ass.
The Vikings throw a TD pass that ties the game, and as if on cue "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby kicks in from the jukebox. Some guy in a flannel shirt stumbles in clutching three long-stem roses and says hello to a friend. Another carol cranks up, and a lady in a beret and purple athletic workout suit sings a shitfaced duet with the Michigan testicle guy, both hollering along with the earsplitting jukebox: "Giddyup giddyup giddyup it's grand, just holding your hand!" Beret Woman sways drunkenly, patting your knees with insane holiday rapture, attempting to get you out on the dance floor to join their sloppy soiree. The retina-sizzling decorations and Hellfire Club atmosphere give the whole scene a Hieronymus Bosch aura. Little Timmy Testicle even knows the exact recording of the song, crooning along with every background vocal nuance, fading out exactly in sync with the record: "Lovely weather to take a sleigh ride together with you!"
This is your city, San Francisco. It's been a long day for everyone. Earlier, traffic on Geary was jammed as approximately 50 Santas trotted across the street, dodging the legless homeless in motorized wheelchairs. Cats dozed in the windows of Macy's, and shoppers sat in the basement of Nordstrom, panting and staring into space, immersed in the overwhelming duty of consumerism. It's no wonder; they've jostled through entire floors of department stores devoted to mysterious household objects with a short AC cord coming out the back. Does it heat, blow, bake, brew, steam -- what the hell is it?
It's also the end of the year. We've got a new mayor; we're about to have a new police chief. Troops are in Bosnia, and the federal government is shut down again. Fortunately the city knows exactly what to do -- people party like idiots. The Financial District may have the swank hotels and jazz bistros, but Ginger's Trois and other seedy havens prove that not everybody is swinging at the Hyatt tonight.
The bar Cuddles is located in the Transbay Terminal on Mission, just across the entrance from Bob's Shoe Service, Roy's Barber Shop, Happy Donuts, the California Highway Patrol office, and Mike Lee's Reno Express Bus. (Lee apparently no longer goes to Tahoe, as evidenced by a piece of paper taped over the neon "Tahoe," but a hasty itinerary assures commuters in cryptic English: "You are take Sierra Trail way.")
Tonight, Cuddles is packed with women in Santa hats and big dudes sipping beers, all yelling at the game. Shopping bags are strewn throughout the joint. Cuddles 20th-anniversary T-shirts are tacked up behind the bar, covered in plastic like a classy sofa in the home of a hypochondriac. A woman picking up beer bottles informs you that Fridays are really jammin'.
You leave to further investigate this odd genre of business-district tavern, and a red-faced hippie guy with an enormous backpack stops you at the door.
"Are you a cop?" No, you reply. "I want to go smoke a joint and I don't want to fuck up," says the commuter. "Anyplace you might recommend? I just want to be discreet."
You advise him just to walk around the corner, and watch out for the Highway Patrol.
"Hey, thanks, man."
Schroeders down on Front has been pouring the pints since 1893. About 12 people sit in the back, sawing obediently into pieces of meat. Two guys at the bar finish a pitcher and watch the game, which has now evolved to 27-17 Niners. The German motif hits you immediately -- dark wood throughout, oil paintings of chubby drunks and ships crashing through the seas, a 3-foot-tall stein sitting on a table. You half-expect some heinous torture going on in the basement, a dominatrix lashing the welted back of a beefy executive with a ball gag in his mouth, screaming the safe word to no avail: "Exxon ... Exxon!" Minnesota drills another field goal and it's 27-20.
After spending time in Ginger's Trois, the 7-11 bar on Market seems brutally depressing. One loner is parked on a stool, and a white-haired man with a Santa hat shuffles behind the bar. Either you're too late, or too early.
Dave's on Third Street, however, is packed with drunk sports yahoos. Your first image is of a blonde in her 40s, enjoying both cigarette and cocktail, wearing gold lam moose antlers. The bartender is resplendent in Niners colors. A suit-and-tie tells you loudly, "The Miller Lite girls just left! They're on their way to the Pierce Street Annex!"
He shows you his booty, a Miller Lite button and key ring/opener. His name is Lyon, he represents artists at the nearby Stones Gallery, and he is particularly excited the two Miller Girls actually bought him a drink, an Irish coffee split three ways among them.
The Niners are now up 30-27. Jerry Rice catches another pass, and the TV flashes his reception yardage for the game thus far: "Two hundred and fifty -- holy fuck!" screams Jerry the bartender. "Six, baby, SIX!" Another Niner touchdown, to much whooping. Two fans in little Viking hats sit silently at a table, eyes glued to the tube. A dog with a 49er vest and wacky glasses trots off the field carrying a Frisbee in its mouth. The Vikings kick a field goal and it's suddenly 37-30. A good Samaritan stops people headed into the bathroom and offers, "There's a urinal and a toilet in there, but the toilet looks pretty rough."
"All right, seal the deal, baby!" shouts the bartender. "Oh God, my heart!" There is so much tension that people have even stopped taking advantage of the 50-cent hot dogs in the back. The Niners run out the clock, the gun goes off, and the place goes nuts. The Vikings fans quietly leave. It's time to go back to Cuddles.
The crowd has thinned out, and things are quiet. Even the little hippie guy is gone. Two female bartenders are wiping up the damage. How was the game?
"It was too loud," says one. "Wish I wasn't a bartender sometimes."
You ask her to describe Cuddles in one word.
"Shit." She laughs. "No, not really."
By Jack Boulware