Every Block Tells a Story

A Mission bagel shop proves an eye-opening site for Bert Katz

Bert Katz sits at his usual table beneath the tall front window at his son's shop, Katz Bagels on 16th Street at Albion. Although he is studying the pile of loose yellow notebook paper strewn before him, he also pays close attention to the story unfolding in the conversation of two regulars.

"We should call the police," one of them says.
The bagel shop habituŽs are talking about the previous day's drama: Katz fingered a street person (resembling "the Road Warrior," one of the regulars says) who was trying to lift some Odwallas from the refrigerator at the back of the shop. Katz told Mad Max to put the drinks back and there'd be no trouble; a scene ensued regardless, and Max promised to return and break all the windows.

"Yeah, he's a big fella," the 64-year-old Katz says, only a hint of concern in his voice. He returns to the papers in front of him, part of a book of photo-portraits and monologues of the citizens of 16th Street that he is compiling.

He asks, "Do you think, when this couple on a Greek island strip off their clothes to swim in the moonlight, I should mention they were on LSD?"

Katz's book is almost finished. The photographs are stunning, just a few of the hundreds of portraits he has taken on 16th Street, some of which hang on the walls of the bagel shop. Simple color 8-by-10 portraits, head shots mostly, of street people, barmaids, and punk kids, all people Katz has come to know in the three years he's spent here. Each portrait faces a page of print -- the monologue that Katz fashions from interviews with his subjects.

"It's called The Mission," he says of his book, then he laughs, "or They Walked Past the Bagel Shop."

He opens the album to the first picture, a stubble-faced man, maybe 30 years old, in a torn felt hat and woolen scarf. "This guy, Andrew, acts as a chorus," Katz explains. "He's an intellectual who's rather Chekhovian in his style. He contradicts himself two, three times in one sentence and knows it, uses it, and entertains you with it. He has a real sense of what's going on in the area and he tells you about it, and he tells you about his own struggles -- he weaves his own life into that, and as such he becomes the chorus."

Katz refined his sense of dramatic flow as a teacher (he was Susan Sarandon's high school drama instructor) and a playwright. He worked in theater back East for several years, until the early '70s when he and his wife opened a movie house in Morrisville, Pa.

Three years ago, he came out West with his wife. The original plan was to spend a few months helping their son get the bagel shop going, then go home. Instead the Katzes stayed.

"I can't be flippant about it," Katz says of his life since resettling. "It's been a very spiritual experience. I've learned so much -- these are my teachers," he waves a hand over the photo albums filled with his pictures. "They show me God shining through. They show me the magnificence of the human creature. They show me the courage of people. They show me how infatigable they are."

The next portrait in Katz's book is of David, the night manager at a nearby residential hotel. David holds a candle before him, his graying goatee and soft eyes blurred slightly beneath a mantle of darkness. In color and composition, the picture resembles a Rembrandt, which enhances the effect of the chilling ghost stories David tells. The hotel in which he spends his nights is a very old place, "and there's a high probability," David's monologue reads, "that someone has died in every single room."

"See, this book builds, has a structure," Katz says as he flips through the pictures. "It starts with young, innocent starry-eyeds coming to San Francisco and what they experience when they come here: What goes on? Who do they meet? But it all builds to a sort of second-act climax which is that woman's murder."

He's opened the album to Shellie's picture. A worn, once beautiful woman smiles tiredly, her eyes propped open by insistent swaths of mascara.

"Shellie came in here crying one morning," Katz begins quietly, "and our relationship began." He tells me how he befriended the Capp Street prostitute, shared her troubles. "I could get her to stop crying by giving her a bagel and a cup of coffee."

"How many hearts have I broken along the way?" Shellie muses in her monologue, recalling the time her father saw her strolling the sidewalk.

She was one of the first subjects Katz interviewed for the book. That was last September. On Thanksgiving morning, Shellie was found murdered, probably killed by a john.

While most of the stories aren't as sordid as Shellie's, Katz admits to hiding some of his subjects' less pleasant aspects. "There's manipulation in this thing," he cautions. "Because I don't want this to be a book about dope addicts. In the first place, that immediately prejudices the reader; second place, it obscures other important things that might get left out. My job is just to contain."

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