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Mark Twain would never have settled for the suburbs 

Wednesday, May 30 2007
For a guy who wrote a lot about Midwestern riverboats, injuns, and whitewashin' fences on hot Missouri afternoons, Mark Twain actually spent much of his life in Northern California. Being a brilliant, hilarious writer transplanted from the Midwest to the gentle Frisco shores myself, I can understand the lure. You can canoe down the Illinois River for only so long — restin' on the banks at night, your feet hangin' over the side, your fatback sammich wrapped in a bandana, just waitin' to be et fer supper — before you feel the pull West. Sourdough comes a callin', you have an achin' in yer bones fer overpriced, house-made vodka, and dangit! If you kin jest pay $2,000 fer a studio smaller than a porcupine's pecker, you'd be happier than a pig in shit.

Twain is known for his tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, but he also wrote tons of other things. One story was even immortalized by Bugs Bunny, so you know it was great: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It's a story about a fish outta water. The Connecticut Yankee is also, conveniently, a 100-year-old bar and restaurant in San Francisco. Take my hand as we laze down this metaphorical river, cleverly disguised as a sports bar and family festival of fried food and fun. Come 'n' git it!

When you mosey into the Yankee, the first thing that hits you is the smell. Not bad, mind you, but lived-in, sort of like your grandma's muumuu, spattered with the remains of bacon grease, Jean Naté, and cinnamon. When a restaurant does this much volume — it's always packed — the traces of every meal can't help but linger. The bar itself, which takes up about a third of the big room, is usually elbow-to-elbow with working-class guys watching the game. The décor is indeed East Coast, with lots of wood and stuff that looks like it would be in the den of a less-fortunate Kennedy. The best thing about the Yankee is its proximity. It is on Connecticut and 17th, in the industrial area over by the Bottom of the Hill and Thee Parkside. There's really not a whole lot else happening over that way, so when you walk into this place and see big tables full of families with chubby kids, longshoremen tipping back pints of beer, and waitresses with '80s haircuts, well, you can really fantasize that you are in an establishment east of the Mississip'.

I pulled up a stool and sat down. I got the feeling that newbies didn't sit at the bar much, as the fellas around me didn't seem to take too kindly to the interruption. Or maybe they were mad at the Giants. There was a lot of fussin' and cussin' about the game. The bartender was running his ass off, getting drinks for the waiters and those like me who were waiting at the bar. There was a cartoon drawing of the bartender hanging up behind him. He had to be a fixture in the place. He didn't look like you would expect, like all jovial and ruddy. He was slim and kind of '70s rockerish, like the long lost bassist for Poco or something. I asked him what he had on tap and he seemed annoyed at the time it took to have to answer a question, but nonetheless he was pleasant enough. I'm sure for the regulars he had an innate way of knowing when they needed a refill, and few words needed to be exchanged.

I settled in and tried to look interested in the game. Finally, a woman came in and sat next to me. I had seen her a bit earlier at Thee Parkside. She was easy to spot, being in her late 40s, blond, and dressed for a board meeting. People like that don't walk into Thee Parkside unless they are serving someone with papers. She smiled really big at me, like I do when I am alone in a bar and really want to talk to someone ... anyone. We got to chatting. "I haven't been out this way in years," she said wistfully. "The Bottom of the Hill was my old stomping ground." She went on to say that she had been in Thee Parkside to see if any of the old gang were still there — they were — and she wanted to have one last drink before she headed back to Benicia. She was a transplanted, ex-San Francisco rocker chick who now had a husband and a child and a nice house. Upon further digging, it became apparent that she was miserable.

"Oh, I love my son," she said, mustering up perkiness, but underneath, with just a few words and mannerisms, I could tell that she didn't marry for love. How we got this deep this fast can only be chalked up to being female. She had settled, something I am fighting against. I don't want to feel out of place in my own life. I told her as much.

"It's a trade-off," she said, stating the obvious but nonetheless making a good point. She picked up my Vice and thumbed through it. "Whoa," she said in startled intervals. I wasn't sure if it was the fashion Do's and Don'ts, or the cartoon of the Great Pyramids doing each other up the ass, but she gamely tried to take it all in.

"Another one?" the bartender asked me in passing, on his way to the ice machine or to grab more napkins or to make a Manhattan. I actually had to go. The woman, whose name had already left me, seemed to have an urgency about her. An urgency that wanted me to stay and talk all night. I could see the two of us ending up at some Financial District disco, doing Jell-O shots and trying to pick up 22 year olds until 2 a.m. She would end up crying on my shoulder out in the street, waiting for her cab, lamenting her suburban angst, and feeling guilty for making out with a kid whose day job involved making lattes at the airport.

I bid her farewell. In an ironic twist, and one that replays over and over for me when I am in Potrero Hill, I got lost trying to get to the Bay Bridge. I ended up on Missouri Street, flanked between old tenements and new contempo-monstrosities, like Huck trapped on that river, between the constraints of society and his own internal voice of right and wrong. Yep, it was jist like 'at. Then I finally found a way to Bryant Street.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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