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Restoration Project 

At "Rxehab," there's sure to be a cure for whatever ails you

Wednesday, May 5 2004
It is a gorgeous Sunday morning in lower Polk Gulch. I squint into the dazzling sunlight, absent-mindedly scraping last night's blue greasepaint residue from behind my ears, and try to reasonably assess the situation across the street. I am quite sure there is a giant laughing key dancing around with a mimosa in one hand and a picket sign in the other.

"Do you see the key?" I ask my companions. They nod reassuringly. "Good," I say.

We make our way across the street as the key, whose sign reads, "Keys are for doors, Whitney you need rehab!" is joined by a giant Ziploc baggie of cocaine.

"The names are interchangeable," says the key, demonstrating how Whitney's name might be traded for that of any rehab retread, or for a more generic appellation like "weekend warrior" or "party bottom." The walk-around baggie -- whose nose, mouth, and chin are covered in white powder -- giggles and bounces nervously from foot to foot. His T-shirt reads, "Cocaine's not for quitters."

"Rehab's that way," he says, pointing toward the entrance of the Temple Bar & Bistro.

We round the corner to find a number of men in medical scrubs standing on the sidewalk cheerfully smoking cigarettes in the sunlight. Inside, Danya Winterman, a "nurse" stationed behind a desk next to a large Red Cross symbol, asks us to fill out a simple intake form and provides us each with a "Rxehab" badge and a packet of two Chaser caplets.

"Please take the medication with your first drink," yells Winterman over the vintage disco music being pumped through the establishment by Bus Station John. A completely frazzled hostess wearing a "Rehab is for quitters" T-shirt takes my name and scurries off to tend to one of the 25 full tables already swilling pitchers of cheap mimosas and Bloody Marys.

"You got to get here early if you want a table, honey. We're already on Step 3," says a tall, well-built man in a black shirt and tie, referring to the installments of the monthly brunch and disco.

With time to kill, I peruse the information table, finding glossy, full-color flashcards created by DanceSafe on a dozen popular drugs -- everything from the relatively mundane poppers, nitrous, marijuana, and tobacco to old-school standbys like speed, cocaine, mushrooms, acid, and heroin to slightly more recent recreations like Ecstasy, ketamine, and GHB -- and a book by Frank B. Slaughter called The Healer. "Doctor" Donovan Thompson arrives at my side pushing the "Club Meds" cart, which offers packets of aspirin, vitamins, Altoids, chewing gum, and Emer'gen-C as well as beakers of blue raspberry-flavored vodka (the new gangsta fave) and red Cosmopolitans, and "Intervention Cards" that might be filled out on behalf of friends in need.

"If you're just starting out, remember red means stop. Start with the blue," Thompson sagely advises as he continues on his rounds.

We are seated next to Anthony Pino and Norbert Scully, who are dressed as a nurse and patient, respectively.

"It's convenient, because I really am a nurse," says Pino, with an oxygen tube in his nose, a stethoscope around his neck, and a pack of Marlboro reds in the breast pocket of his maroon scrubs. "Cigarettes and pure oxygen can be an explosive combination. Guaranteed job security if it takes off."

"He works as my private nurse in his off time," explains Scully, who holds a bag over his head feeding the IV drip taped to the vein in the top of his hand. "Hazelden wouldn't let us in, and I can't go back to Betty Ford."

Noticing a subtle change in Scully's speech patterns, Pino quickly places a small vacuum tube in the back of Scully's mouth, then shows me an oropharyngeal airway device, which becomes necessary when Scully is areflexic. Scully smiles broadly.

Impressed, I ask Scully what finally made him hit bottom.

"OxyContin," he admits.

Scully, like so many of "Rxehab"'s regulars, is a friend of Marcia Gagliardi.

"Everybody knows Marcia," says Scully.

Like "Rxehab" co-producer Ryan Robles, Gagliardi is a regular on the "circuit" that currently includes "The Tubesteak Connection" at Aunt Charlie's Lounge on Thursdays; "Guilty" at the Stud on Fridays; "Macho" at the Rendezvous on Saturdays; and "Unisexy" at the Make-Out Room on the last Thursday of the month.

"But Sundays have always been a problem," says Robles.

"What do we have?" poses Gagliardi. "The Endup? El Rio? The Eagle?"

Gagliardi and Robles both shudder imperceptibly.

"None of those places are about food or fashion or creativity," says Robles.

"'Rxehab' is about all those things," says Gagliardi. "And it's in the Polk Street Gulch. It's not pretentious. It's not about any scene. No more hanging out in the Castro for bad brunch. No more $6 mimosas. The economy sucks. My friends are broke. We should be having $2 mimosas and having fun."

The crowd erupts with applause as the first of half a dozen models makes his way down the center of the restaurant, showing off smash-up T-shirts created by local designer KillerTee. I take my seat under a photograph of Rick James, just one of the many famous rehab denizens adorning the walls, and fiddle with the complimentary bottle of pills at our table marked, "They're Tums, people!" Videos of Elvis Presley and James Brown play silently on the big-screen TV as Bus Station John pumps up the volume. My brunch -- a combination of the Robert Downey Jr. and the Nick Nolte -- arrives a bit greasy, but exactly as the doctor ordered, as the fashion show concludes. Drag hostess Anaconda, dressed flawlessly as the cocaine-and-champagne-inhaling Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, distributes bingo cards redone as "REHAB" cards. (I note with pleasure that the columns are carefully labeled "Roofies," "Exstacy," "Heroin," "Acid," and "Booze.") Of course, with all the music and the laughing, the room is too boisterous to call bingo even with a megaphone, so Anaconda, assisted by the key (Darwin Bell) and the baggie (Waleed Anbar), walks from table to table with numbers written on pieces of 8.5-by-11 paper. We use Tums as markers when we're not throwing them across the table into each other's drinks. Prizes include "Tequila" body fragrance and mutilated Dana Scully action figures. People begin dancing between the tables.

"Now, this is what I call a San Francisco brunch," says 48-year-old George Bennington, a longtime resident of the Polk.

"It's rehab for the city," says Gagliardi.

I decide to make it a habit.

"Rxehab" is held on the first Sunday of the month. Step 4 will take place on June 6 at 11 a.m. Visit for more information.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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