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A small figure, tightly bundled in a blue parka, pushes softly through the door at the Tosca Cafe. The tiny woman, as ancient as this North Beach hoochery, moves slowly, deliberately along the high burnished wall toward the booths in the back. In her hand she holds a cane more than half her height; around her neck dangles a Polaroid camera.
"That's Millie," the bartender says with a nod.
It's nearly 11 p.m., and Tosca is starting to jump. A crowd of North Beach hipsters, dressed in night-colored leather and Armani, presses noisily between the columnar espresso machines hissing at either end of the bar. Nobody seems to take much notice of the old woman passing from table to table with her camera held imploringly before her.
Millie stops in at Tosca every night, passing among the revelers, offering to take their picture for $5 a shot. She's been doing it for years, catching tourists and locals in various stages of inebriation with her battered instant camera. And Tosca is but one stop on Millie's nightly sojourn. She's a fixture at Vesuvio, Enrico's, Mr. Bing's -- just about any neighborhood place capable of holding more than two people and a martini glass.
Millie makes her way around the red vinyl booths. There are no takers this time through. She retraces her steps along the dark wall, past the puddle of red and yellow carnival lights thrown off by the pristine jukebox, her cane held slightly aloft. What at first seems to be a stutter in her careful gait I notice is a dance step. As she pauses next to the bar, swaying to the opera coming from the old jukebox, she sings to herself. The door opens slowly again, and Millie steps out into the night.
"I've known Millie for 35 years," the bartender says with a quick grin, "never understood a word she said."
Most people know little about Millie. Even the North Beach aficionados know her mostly from rumors and stories swapped over a demitasse or beer mug. There was one yarn that had the diminutive shutterbug playing an eccentric millionaire slumming as a North Beach icon. Another rumor had her spending a few years in a concentration camp.
But there's only one person who knows the real story: Millie herself, and she's not talking.
Outside Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, the cozy little bar next to Tosca, Millie brushes off my inquiries and steps into the gutter, waiting for a pause in the traffic to cross the street. I step off the curb and catch her eye, wagging my finger in front of my eyes -- the international sign for "photograph."
"Oh! You want a pictcha?" Her face broadens into a wide, toothless grin.
Millie peers through the viewfinder of her weathered Polaroid and makes small talk about her rabbi's grandchildren.
"He's got four grandsons. I told him the next grandson should be a granddaughter." Millie peeks at me over the top of the camera, her watery eyes squinting with laughter. I smile back and she snaps the picture.
"Here you are," she says, handing me the undeveloped photograph. "That's you without your clothes on."
I explain to Millie that I write for a paper and that I'd like to talk to her about what she does.
"Oh, maybe next time," she says, and quicker than you can say "cheese" Millie crosses Columbus and pushes into crowded Vesuvio, leaving me alone on the steps, the ghostly yellow image of her flash dissolving on my retina.
Back in Tosca, owner Jeanette Etheredge volunteers what she knows about Millie.
"Millie's been coming in here for years. She's always telling me to quit smoking." Jeanette laughs between drags on her cigarette. "But there are so many stories. You need to talk to Specs; he knows a lot about Millie."
A former sheet metal worker turned barkeep, Richard "Specs" Simmons has run the eponymous tavern since 1968. Short and balding with a gruff voice and easy laugh, Specs owes his nickname to his thick eyeglasses.
"For 25 years I built things," he explains over a drink at Tosca, "and for the past 25 years I've been wrecking people."
"I've known [Millie] since I opened the place," he continues. "A lot of people say things, like she's a millionaire and all that, but she ain't no millionaire."
"She wasn't in a death camp?" Jeanette asks as she passes by.
"No, I've never heard that story. As far as I know Millie's lived here all her life. She has a place just down the street. She used to be married to this fella named Butch. He sold papers at the corner here" -- Specs motions with his thumb over his shoulder toward Columbus and Broadway -- "lost his arm at Pearl Harbor. He was hit by a car at Kearny and Columbus years ago."
Millie sold flowers in the local bars and restaurants until she came by her Polaroid. "She had that goddamn camera back before anybody even knew what they were," Specs laughs, "and I still don't think she knows how to use the fuckin' thing."
Specs tells me that Millie is a practicing Jew, a faith she shares with him in name only. He gets cards from her on all the holidays.