A Tale of Two Bars

Happy toasts -- and sad -- after the latest skirmishes in the Mission's culture wars

When Nolan died, he left the bar to his nephew, John Cassady, and bartender Brian McElhatton, who is none too pleased about the predicament.

"It was a kick in the face for me, the last thing I expected," McElhatton says. "I'm willing to do whatever they want, put in an espresso machine, put in a window so it's more open. Women can come in and have a proper coffee or whatever here."

"They wouldn't have been able to do this if Paddy were still alive," adds Terry Dowd, a patron of two decades. "They'd have to carry him out."

But the matter is not subject to debate. McElhatton tried to meet with the board and was turned down. There is nothing to discuss, according to Macias. The organization doesn't want a bar there -- and it happens to own the building.

The Dovre community is saying it's bad form to evict Nolan's bar so shortly after his death. Macias says the move was done as painlessly as possible.

"Paddy Nolan would have been evicted much sooner were we ready to go into construction sooner," says Macias. "We also didn't want to give an eviction notice to someone who was very ill. We didn't feel like that was a very compassionate way to do things."

The Women's Building organization wrote a letter to the city in support of changing the name of Lapidge Street (in front of the Dovre Club) to Nolan Avenue, and plans to hang a plaque honoring Nolan in the new cafe. It just doesn't want his bar.

The renovated building will include a child-care center, expanded meeting space, a new auditorium, and more offices for nonprofit organizations.

Meanwhile, the Dovre Club is seeking a new home. And the Women's Building is seeking an operator for its new cafe -- preferably a women-owned small business. Neither community will be the same.

-- L.D.

A Phoenix Rises From the Formica
Lila Thirkield has been a bar owner for less than a month, and already she feels bone tired. On this recent January morning, her puffy face announces as much. Walking down 19th Street toward Lexington and her newly purchased Lexington Club, she lights a smoke and talks about misplaced expectations. "I thought, 'Great, owning a bar will mean I won't have to get up before 10 a.m. ever again,' " the 25-year-old says. "Then after a while I wouldn't ever have to get up until noon."

She pauses. "Bullshit," she adds. "I'm up every morning before 7 a.m."
Thirkield kicks at the Lexington Club's door, which is under renovation prior to reopening, and two carpenters let her in. She passes through the haze of sawdust, attended by a spectral presence of mold, to the actual bar, now stripped of finish and looking forlorn.

Her face lights up and she spits. Rubbing up the wood, she smiles: "Mahogany."

It pleases Thirkield to no end to have discovered the quintessential bar wood under the horrific yellow-flecked Formica.

This is just one of many archaeological finds Thirkield has made as she scrapes away 17 years of neglect and ekes out a gathering place for lesbians and women in the Mission. (She is still puzzling over an ancient bottle of unidentifiable liquor with two labels, one in French and another showing an angry-looking Soviet bear and Cyrillic script.)

"There were days when I was so overwhelmed with the slime and the mess that I didn't think I'd ever see the space I wanted," Thirkield says.

What Thirkield wants is a women's space that doesn't announce itself as such too loudly. Its gender politics won't be incidental, but she doesn't want to distract patrons from the fact that the Lexington Club is a bar, where people "hang," drink, and play pool. "I want a down-home place with a lesbian theme," she says.

She's still navigating the bar's old clientele -- mostly older Latino men -- through the cultural crosscurrents of the Lexington's changeover. "They're asking me if I'm going to have some mariachi on the jukebox, and I tell them, 'A little,' " she says, holding her index finger and thumb about an inch apart.

"And they say, 'A little,' and they hold their hands like this," she says as she holds the same fingers three inches apart.

Somewhere in between, an accommodation will be made. The goodwill is apparently there. "I told a few of the old regulars that it was going to be a women's bar and they said, 'Cool,' " she says happily.

But the importance of Thirkield's new bar extends beyond her sexual orientation and the intended gender balance of her customers. On another level, it's a story about San Francisco as a point of pilgrimage, and how the city welcomes the imprint of newcomers -- even rushes to facilitate it.

Thirkield grew up in New York City, but she developed all her ideas about bars as a liberal arts undergraduate at Grinnell University in Grinnell, Iowa. "The only thing to do, really, is hang out in bars," she says.

She honed her "bar hermit" ways at the Links Tavern. "It was a place where they could tell you were a city person by the way you walked. And they'd let you know it." Links opened at 7 a.m. to let the third shift at the nearby plastics factory drop by for a post-work whistle-wetter.

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