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Bouncer Ponders the N Word at the Mark Twain Hotel 

Wednesday, Apr 6 2011

Don't get me wrong: I don't mind the fact that San Franciscans love to associate themselves with Mark Twain, even though he was just passing through town in the 1860s. It's just that, seein' as I am from an area bordering the Mississippi River known as Illinois, us folks tend to claim him more as our own than y'all have a right to. Now, folks from Missouri have an even bigger stake in his claim. (Sorry, I just lapsed into Tom Sawyer narration.) Point is, everyone wants a piece of this guy for some reason. It's the same with Abraham Lincoln, who we were told from kindergarten on was the father of Illinois. We learned that he was tall and honest, and there was nary a bed big enough to contain his lengthy, forthright limbs. Later in life I realized that Kentucky also claimed him, since he was born there. But Kentuckians have Colonel Sanders, so I don't see why they have to go and steal our one maverick to their two.

When you are from an area that is basically dull, you tend to latch on to any and all big personalities who spring from it. To his credit, Mark Twain seemed to make the Midwest sound beautiful, mysterious, and downright habitable — enough that an entire tourism trade has been built around it. I remember visiting his boyhood home of Hannibal, Mo., which is now frozen in the mid-19th century for effect. There are also cave tours around those parts that are hyped up as being the same caves where Injun Joe hid out.

As for S.F., there are smatterings of Twain lore and locale strewn about, but my favorite is the bizarre Mark Twain Hotel in the Tenderloin. It is bizarre because when you walk in you see two paintings behind the check-in desk: one of Mark Twain and one of Billie Holiday. What do they have in common, you may ask, besides both adopting pseudonyms? Not much, really, except that Holiday was arrested for opiate possession at the hotel in 1949, and she is famous. Folks planning vacations to S.F. are drawn by the name of the hotel, its association with two great Americans, and its location (near Union Square, as it is hyped, though the reality is that it is smack-dab in the center of the Tenderloin). All that being said, I have a tender spot for this hotel, and warm fuzzy feelings for the tiny little bar that sits in the back of its lobby.

Boy howdy, it is indeed little and tiny. There are about six stools facing a short counter. The wood is rich and polished, and there is one TV screen. The menu board was hyping some drink made with artichoke liqueur (no thanks). The place has "nightcap" written all over it, because it is the perfect place to sit by yourself before you retire upstairs for the evening. It might also be a good place for a rendezvous with a fellow cheatee, because the bar is tucked away enough so as not to draw attention to its inhabitants. Lest you think that I am focusing on the negative, let me say that hotels always remind me of infidelity, prostitution, or opiate possession. That is why I love them so.

It was a quiet night at the bar, despite the fact that it was generally spring break week across the country, and from the looks of things, several hundred American tourists had invaded our fair town. But nope, it was just me and some people speaking Portuguese. I zoned out with some college basketball and thought about Twain. Nothing gets me more worked up than the people who want to remove the word "nigger" from Huckleberry Finn. I won't go into it here, but suffice it to say that I believe the book is one of the 10 best ever written, and that its use of the N word is an integral part of its theme and message.

That doesn't mean I like the N word. For now, I want to talk about the N word and its use in San Francisco, principally on Muni. On my way to the bar, I took the 38 Geary.

I still flinch when I hear young African-Americans call themselves "nigga," but I also know that it's a black thing, and I wouldn't understand. It is the equivalent to people like me overusing "dude," as in, "Dude, give me a quarter so I can buy a Hot Pocket." Or, "Dude, lay off my girlfriend." When dumbasses see the N word in Huck Finn and want to ban it, it is the same as some white girl like myself trying to tell black youths what they can and cannot say.

Lately, however, I have heard people using the N word to refer to themselves or their friends, and these people are not black. They are high school kids who are Hispanic, Asian, or white, and they call their friends "my nigga" or "my niggas." I have never seen them do this when there are African-American kids on the same bus, which leads me to wonder what African-American kids think when they see a bad word they co-opted for themselves get co-opted by other kids. The word is so sensitive that I have not had the nerve to ask anyone about it. But when I see some pimply-faced white kid talking like that, I am filled with an instant righteous anger.

"You want another?" said the bartender, snapping me out of mid-disgust. Like almost everyone who works at the Mark Twain, he was a jolly good fellow. I said yes, please, and tried to reroute my thought pattern back to where it was. Ah yes, the N word. It doesn't matter how I feel about it; what matters is how black people feel about it. Maybe the fact that all urban high school kids use it to refer to themselves means it has finally lost all its awful power, which is a good thing, right?

My brain was starting to hurt, and I pretended that the Portuguese people were providing commentary for the basketball game so I could start thinking about something else.

After I paid my tab, I walked past the Holiday painting in the lobby. She was a woman who was targeted for her drug use because she was black. And there was no way in hell that the members of her band jokingly referred to each other as "My nigga!" No, call me old-fashioned, but I will never get used to the liberal use of that word.

Like "Katy St.Clair’s Bouncer column" on 
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Katy St. Clair

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