Owl In

Getting to the bottom of the Owl Tree and its grumpy old owner

Owls are bulbous and therefore one of the cutest animals we've got. They look like Keane paintings of birds, with huge eyes, fat, feathery feet, and a certain naughty innocence. If you could look inside their mouths, you would see that they also have big fat tongues. Big tongues on animals are adorable. In the wild, of course, owls ain't so cute, swooping down on poor little field mice, swallowing them whole, then pooping out the carcasses. This is a sad business. What if an owl picked up the papa of a field mice family? Surely his wife would begin to worry back at the den. She would nervously pull at her long periwinkle skirt, and their tiny son would sit expectantly in his chair in his bright red jodhpurs held up by suspenders. They probably had just settled down to enjoy a nice pot of stewed nettles when they heard the horrible news. My goodness, now what would they to do? The mama would have no choice but to pack up a kerchief, tie it to the end of a twig, and send the little one out on an adventure to the big city to find his uncle. He would know what to do.

But I digress.

Many people who were born before 1925 seem to enjoy owls; this is the generation that has collected all those owl figurines, drawings, and clocks that you see in thrift stores (if you're lucky). For example, my grandmother had a big owl collection that I have inherited. I add to it whenever I find something owlish.

Naturally, I knew I would one day end up at the famous Owl Tree at Post and Taylor. I've wanted to go there for quite some time, but none of my compatriots would ever set foot in the place. "The guy's a curmudgeon," they'd say, referring to Bobby, the owner and operator. He has a bad reputation for being a foul-tempered fogy. Well, I say heck, he sounds great to me. Sometimes you just ain't in the mood for convivial.

I got there around 9 p.m., and there was no one in the place except a drunken couple hunkered into the corner; Bobby; and Bobby's dog, a snuggly little terrier named Chester. I greeted Bobby warmly and received a curt "Hi" back. He placed his hands on the bar in a way that said, "What'll it be?" all the while sizing me up. I definitely felt like leaving immediately. Bobby appears to be about 75, with snowy white hair, deep creases around his mouth and nose, and a cough that sounds rooted in decades of cigarette smoking.

The real draw here is, of course, the ambience, which is old-world S.F. speckled with all sorts of owl paraphernalia. Stuffed owls, ceramic owls, plastic owls, needlepoint owls -- the entire place is covered in them, albeit tastefully, or at least as tasteful as any monomania can be. It's a cozy spot for an owl lover like myself.

My question as to whether or not Bobby served draft beer was met with detached disdain. This was obviously a guy who had been asked that question one too many times. He opened the Owl Tree in 1977. If I had to deal with drunks, tourists, and drunken tourists for nearly 30 years, I'd probably be a grumpy Gus, too.

Still, there was something more to him than just burnout. He seemed profoundly sad. When he wasn't serving drinks, he'd sit and simply look defeated. I drank my Corona and tried to figure out what had happened in his life to make him so morose. Here's what I came up with, that thing that has ruined many a man's soul: Love Lost.

I imagined Bobby in the Army, stationed in Korea as a fireman ... every day he runs through the drills with his buddies, occasionally dousing a fire or two for real and then returning to his camp to check off another box on his wall calendar. "Only 236 more days to go in this accursed war," he tells himself. At night he lies in his bunk and dreams about his lover back home, she who smells of vanilla and Ivory soap. In his dream, she's trapped in a burning building and wearing a velvet Victorian dress with a bustle. He races up a burning staircase, breaks her bedroom door open with an ax, throws her over his shoulder, then scales out the open window and down to the street below where it's safe. "Oh, Bobby," she'd say, "oh, how I love you. You have saved my life." Every evening he soothes himself with this image. But when Bobby returns from the war, he finds his beloved shacked up with his brother. His own goddamn brother! He decides to swear off love for the rest of his life, opening a bar and surrounding himself with the Japanese symbol of death: the owl.

Just then, a guy sauntered into the bar. "Hey, what's shakin'?!" he said to Bobby genially, extending his hand.

"Goodbye," said Bobby, not missing a beat and pointing to the door.

"Excuse me?" said the guy, not sure if he was hearing him right.

"I said, 'GOOD. BYE.' Leave. Go." Bobby began washing glasses.

"Hey, now," said the man sweetly, trying to smooth the situation. "What's the matter? We've never even met before. I have a friend that I have brought all the way from Australia --"

"See you, good night," Bobby repeated.

The guy, dumbfounded, retreated out the door. Yes, I thought, definitely Love Lost.

It was time for some nice music to carry me through the end of my beer. The Owl Tree has a great jukebox, with Sinatra, Merle Haggard, and '50s standards. I played Patti Page's version of "The Tennessee Waltz" and moved over onto the corner stool by the door.

I was sitting silently, and slowly it seemed that Bobby was warming up to me a bit. I had seen him talk very sweetly to his dog, so I knew that he had it in him somewhere. I sat and said nothing, and over time he became more and more open to making eye contact. He reminded me of a cat that will only sit on the lap of the person who is completely ignoring it. Eventually I got the nerve up to say something.

"Hey," I said, slowly and softly. "Can I ask you a question? I'll understand if you're tired of answering questions."

"Sure," he said, his face opening up a crack. Wow.

"So what's with the owls?" I knew that this question could very well gain me a one-way ticket out the door with a flick of his wrist, but I had to chance it.

"Oh, I just love them," he replied, a smile appearing on his face, his entire being drifting merrily into reverie. His shoulders dropped a bit, he leaned back on the bar thoughtfully, and his eyes widened. Oh my God, I had found it, the spot.

"I have loved them since I was 5 years old," he continued. He then went on to talk about owls, how mysterious they are, how beautiful, how people all over the world have sent him things for the bar, how in his home he has hundreds more. These days he has a lead on a stuffed snowy owl. The wing is broken, but he thinks he can fix that.

"I have only seen one owl in nature," he added wistfully; the look on his face was the one he must have had when he fantasized about saving his lover from the burning building. "It was in Marin. I was hiking, and there it was -- an owl! It hopped across a fence over to me. We considered each other, and then it left. It is a moment I will never forget."

I was so excited that I had broken through Bobby's tough shell. I wanted to go further. "I have my grandmother's owl collection," I said, a bit hesitantly. I didn't want to push the interaction.

"You collect owls?" he asked, genuinely interested.

Our conversation was cut short by more and more people coming into the bar, young travelers from Ireland and a few grizzled locals. Bobby immediately switched back into grumble mode, the despondency returning to his stiffening body. He helped each person with nary a smile or a word beyond "Thank you."

Two men had sat themselves to my left, ordered drinks, and proceeded to try to talk to Bobby. They didn't see me put my index finger up to get their attention and give them a look that said, "Shhhhhhh. Do not attempt to engage the barkeep."

"So," said the beefy one, "do you remember where you got all of these owls?"

Bobby shuffled over to the glasses and began polishing them. "No," he replied with finality, turning his back.

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