Heart of the City

A peculiar night on the seamy side of Sixth Street

Be warned: When someone borrows your lighter on Sixth Street, she's not necessarily looking to fire up a Camel. At the corner of Sixth and Minna, a woman steps into a doorway, whips out a glass pipe, then takes a long, deep hit of crack cocaine. She returns the lighter and heads up Sixth, where the questions become relentless: "What's up, G?" "What's up, dog?" "You want something?" "What's up?" It's an open-air crack market, in other words, but ignore it if you can, because Sixth Street is also home to a wonderful little bar called Club Charleston.

Step through the door and the scene out front becomes a memory, replaced by the clack of pool balls and the mellow, soulful tunes of Peter Tosh. The enticements are many: The Grateful Dead used to hang out here, management tolerates no funny business, Sunday is hot dog day, and well drinks cost a mere $2.50. "I can relax here," says Yuka, a student from Tokyo. "I feel safe. I'm doing, like, drawing and reading, with beers." Her boyfriend Troy buys a round of drinks, then accepts a friendly back rub from a passing female. He surprises no one when he declares Club Charleston "the best bar in San Francisco."

"Hey, put this on record, son," adds a nearby old-timer, taking his turn addressing the press. Everyone listens to him. "The only way Sixth Street is ever going to be cleaned up is if the Hell's Angels come back and ..."

A chorus of objections drowns him out. Still, everyone who conducts legal business on Sixth makes the same point: Someone (preferably the police) ought to do something to drive away the entrepreneurs. Across the street at Ginger's Too, normally a gay bar, the crowd is a bit more sparse than at Club Charleston -- one regular (Monica), one bartender (Ookie), and five patrons who probably aren't gay and who dress just like Sixth Street crack dealers. To be fair, they're doing nothing more sinful than perusing the wares of an amateur door-to-door porn salesman. One customer, a woman, turns to a door-to-door bar columnist, holds up a video box, then asks, "Is she attractive to you with that dick in her mouth?"

It's a peculiar moment, but not nearly as strange as a brief stopover at Gina's, a Filipino bar. Here a tiny, wizened man in a jacket embossed with the American flag says, "The second I like you I meet you. You like me? I like you, too. No problem." Then comes Pow!, an anime/video game bar complete with disco balls, house music, a Candy Land-themed men's room, and a young couple clutching one another with a feverishness that will surely carry late into the night. Looking fine in a faux fur coat and glittering tiara, Evette announces that today is her 30th birthday. "It's no big deal," she says, giggling with a remarkable exuberance as she offers a handful of Jolly Ranchers and Laffy Taffy. Terry the doorman smiles like a man who's seen it all, and then there's Lawrence, a grizzled local with a camouflage bandanna over his head, who claims a trip to Pow! landed him tickets to the symphony.

"I walked in here and a nice lady hands me two tickets," he explains. "She's going, "You've gotta get there in 15 minutes.' I'm going, "Taxi!'"

He sold the other ticket, which paid for cab fare and a beer, and the performance was "pretty good," he says. Now, he's back at Pow!, snapping his fingers to the beat. "One-stop shopping," he exclaims. "Fucking cool!"

 
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