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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Henry Africa Joins Mr. Higgins, 'Custer's Squaw' in Fern Bar in the Sky

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2011 at 10:45 AM

click to enlarge Henry Africa, seen here with Mr. Higgins, has left the building - BART MADSON, MOTORCYCLE USA.COM

In late February, patrons at Eddie Rickenbacker's in SOMA had the experience everyone who entered that bar feared they would: The establishment's ever-present patron, Henry Africa, died on the spot.

Africa, who was born Norman Hobday, was the corpulent man who sat on a couch near the bar's entrance in his bathrobe with oxygen tubes up his nose. The tubes always seemed to be entwined with the wires from the oversize headphones he wore so he could watch TV amid the din of a crowded bar. It wasn't like you were in Africa's living room -- you really were.

Was it uncomfortable to tipple socially  while a disheveled, sickly man outfitted in a ratty bathrobe punctuated lengthy naps with curt orders directed at the waitstaff? Oh yes. But he owned the place and could do as he pleased. And if waddling around in pajamas at 10 p.m. on a Friday wasn't proof enough, there was the matter of Indian teeth and a 27-pound cat named Mr. Higgins to prove it.

Africa -- who, among other feats, is credited with inventing the fern bar -- earned a measure of infamy in 2005 over an exhibit at his eclectically decorated tavern: the teeth of "Custer's squaw."

The bicuspids, Africa claimed, were knocked from the poor woman's jaw by the eventual loser of Little Bighorn in a jealous fit after she allegedly cuckolded him. Their exhibition drew the ire of left-wing zealot Ward Churchill, local Indian activists, and even the city's Human Rights Commission -- making Eddie Rickenbacker's ground zero for what must be the first instance of government involvement in a dispute over objectionable bar decor.

RIP, Mr. Higgins
  • RIP, Mr. Higgins
With characteristic bombast, Africa told SF Weekly's Matt Smith that the people who came into his bar to protest were "dirty Indians" who "didn't have jobs." He revealed that he'd tossed the offending teeth into the trash so "now they're buried in San Francisco city dump, and the Indians will be

happier, and they can pray over the debris in the city dump out there

right now."

Africa's next bit of controversial decor wasn't a box of human remains but a massive cat every bit as friendly as it was obese. A Hurricane Katrina survivor, "Mr Higgins" was a walking, purring goldmine. Large numbers of patrons wandered into the bar merely to visit with the four-legged maître d'.

Can you tote your XXXL-sized pet into a bar as if it really is your living room? No you can't. As SF Weekly wrote in 2009:

...If you're wondering, no you can't have a pet cat in a bar

in San Francisco -- but Mr. Higgins has a knack for pulling a

disappearing act when the health inspectors drop by. Africa did get

caught once -- and fined $200 -- but he doesn't have any plans to leave

the cat at home in the future. Besides, if Mr. Higgins is drawing

customers into the establishment, it may be worth risking the fine.

Incidentally, even a feel-good story about a friendly cat couldn't escape a bit of incredibly offensive language from Africa. The barman recalled how he'd been driving a big rig he owned around the country with Mr. Higgins and Maxie -- Higgins' brother -- as his companions. When he sold the truck, the buyer insisted on taking the cats. A disagreement ensued, Africa was punched out, and the two settled on a deal in which Africa kept Higgins and the buyer drove off with the truck and Maxie.

SF Weekly won't print the epithet Africa called the buyer. But let's put it this way. He deserved to get punched out.

Mr. Higgins died last year. He was loath to refuse bar patrons' offers of burgers and fries and it put him into an early grave. Africa, despite his bedraggled appearance and longtime health problems, made it to 77.

So lift a glass to Henry Africa. Toast him, insult him, do what you will. Your opinions evidently didn't matter much to him. And that's what made him a San Francisco original.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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