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Drunks and bagpipes at Lefty O'Doul's are no match for "Tim," the best piano player ever

Wednesday, Nov 3 2004
Let's start at the end and move backwards. The night was drawing to a close, and I was at the end of the bar at Lefty O'Douls in Union Square.

"He was dead for nine hours before anyone even noticed," said the ruddy bartender, referring to William Frawley, the man who played Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. Frawley's last moments were on Hollywood Boulevard, the bartender said, sprawled out drunk on the pavement. Folks were so used to seeing him like that, they didn't even notice he had croaked. It sounded a bit like a myth, but it was the end of the night, and the bagpipes were still ringing in my head. I believed him.

To my left were two men dressed in kilts, sashes, hats, spats, the whole Scottish enchilada, er, haggis. I had just heard more than I ever wanted to know about Scottish history after innocently chiding one of them for ordering an "Irish" Guinness. The Scots were once Irish, you see, and if you want to go back even further, he continued, you end up in the Middle East. (I'll spare you his lecture on Oliver Cromwell.)

We had just been treated to four songs on the pipes, including, of course, "Amazing Grace" and "Danny Boy." I realized that bagpipes are like roller coasters. The first song is exhilarating, but by the fourth go-round you want to puke.

Lefty O'Douls is one of those old San Francisco joints full of big-shouldered men who look like Chicago parking attendants and remember when the Giants were the Seals. Throw in a coterie of wandering, drunken financial types and you have a recipe for some mighty interesting karaoke. It's not really karaoke per se, it's actually a piano bar with a microphone free-for-all, but it's charming in its way.

When I arrived a few hours earlier, a woman in a power suit was singing "Stormy Weather," and let me tell you, the forecast was "three sheets to the wind." My friend Jamin had invited me here so that I could witness his stirring Neil Diamond tribute, but when I showed up all I could think about was the man I had just left at the Kensington Park Hotel.

This man was the most amazing piano player I have ever seen. I sat silently behind him in the lobby for about 45 minutes, hunkered into an oversized sofa listening to him go from parts of Carmen to "Over the Rainbow" to two songs from the Willie Wonka soundtrack. The only other time that the tune "Pure Imagination" had brought me to tears like that was when I realized that I had dropped too many tabs, and Augustus Gloop hadn't even fallen in yet.

This man barely touched the keys, yet the playing was powerful and sublimely nuanced. No one dared interrupt him, and in fact most folks who wandered in and out seemed to categorically ignore him, busily chatting on their cell phones or rustling their packages with little notice of how good this guy was. But I had learned earlier that this young man was a fixture here, an unpaid regular who appeared at his own whim, and always brought a basketball.

His face was obscured by a hoodie, which he periodically pulled closer around his head between bars. He was wearing jeans and a bike messenger bag. In the reflection of an ornate mirror I could sort of make out his features (African-American?), and he was wearing a bandanna across his forehead. He seemed to have been formally trained for years, and I guessed he had gone to a school for the performing arts as a child.

I was wrong. This man, "Tim," is a self-taught piano player, claiming to have learned how to play in every lobby of every hotel in San Francisco. It was the nearby Villa Florence that first allowed him to experiment and learn, paying him to play standards culled from the four chords he had taught himself. All of the other places, he says, had kicked him out. Except for the Kensington Park Hotel. Here he has always been welcome.

When I first sat there behind him it occurred to me that perhaps I should fight my urge to learn more. He didn't seem to want to be approached, and his mystery only added to my enjoyment. But when he finished, and locked up the grand piano, I couldn't resist. At first he didn't want to talk to me, especially when he found out I was a reporter. I did what I usually do in these situations: I backed off and let the conversation flow naturally. I found out that he has been approached by documentarians, music students, and TV stations, and each time, he says, he has politely declined their attentions. He said his music is personal, that he doesn't want to make money from it or discuss it with other people, and if he didn't have such a kind, sad look in his eyes I would've rolled mine. This guy was the real deal. I asked him what he did for a living if it wasn't music, and he replied that he was a "bohemian ... 'homeless,' if you like." He held up his hands and made quotation signs when he said "homeless." No wonder people wanted to tell his story.

Tim is originally from Hawaii; his parents emigrated there from Tonga. But his family kicked him out of Hawaii, he said, and then he came here and got kicked out of every piano bar and hotel he entered. Including, he said, Lefty O'Douls. He scrapes by these days by playing the occasional gathering at the Kensington, more as a favor to the owner who has been so kind to him.

His whole story sounded a bit like a myth, but it was the beginning of the night and the sound of his keys was ringing in my head. I believed him.

Only moments before, upstairs in the Elks club, where I met up with Jamin, I had witnessed the historic end of the World Series. A cashier from the Lusty Lady had just turned in his application to the loyal brotherhood while a row of old San Francisco Elks looked up approvingly from their drinks. I had no idea that my night would take me from here, to Tonga, to Scotland, and back, or that a hammered Fred Mertz and a sad pianist named Tim would somehow be dancing in my head as I drove home.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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