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My father is what you would call a Renaissance man. He is a physicist who specializes in quarks, which are parts of atoms. The more you try to pull the quarks apart, the harder the force solidifies between them. In short, they are inseparable. This may be a good metaphor for why my father hasn't retired, even though he is about to turn 70. The further into advanced age he gets, the greater the force seems to be that keeps him at the University of Illinois as a professor. He is the only one left from his original crew, everyone else having bought land elsewhere and settled into retirement.
But my dad is a Renaissance man because he is interested in way more than physics. He likes art, and history, and railroads, and politics, and pop culture. He's a voracious reader, and will never resell a book. This was great when I was a kid, because we always had something to read around the house. There weren't too many other sixth graders reading Barbara Tuchman's medieval history A Distant Mirror or William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but hey, it gave me the pub trivia chops I have today.
So when my dad got shingles a few years ago, I wasn't surprised to hear that he spent his time laid up reading James Joyce's Ulysses. No one actually reads that book except my dad and English grad students. It's supremely boring, the stream-of-consciousness narrative speckled with allusions and wordplay.
I suppose I should give Ulysses some props, because this column is often a stream of consciousness narrative speckled with allusions and wordplay. I just don't make you guys sit through 1,264 pages.
For some reason, James Joyce keeps coming up lately. One guy I met was talking about Ulysses, and I told him that my dad read it when he had shingles. We agreed that could only add to his misery. Then the other night at the Nag's Head on Geary, I ended up sitting next to the onetime co-owner of Finnegans Wake in Cole Valley. "Yeah," he said, chuckling, "we were an Italian and a Jew, and we ran an Irish pub. Go figure."
The guy's name was Mike, and he was in his sixties, nearing retirement. He has already bought his plot of land and a house in Tahoe. But he isn't ready to go. Something is keeping him here in San Francisco, where he grew up.
Mike is part of the regular crew at the Nag's Head, all of whom are friends with the owner. They regularly go on vacations together. On this day, they had just gotten back from a fishing trip.
The Nag's Head has year-round Christmas lights — the decor of every great bar. The place also has a wall of books, a "lending library" left by people who hope their old novels will find new homes. The best part of the bar, though, is the awning that hangs over the door. It's low and black, a bit dingy and weathered, but it juts out and curves down in such a way that it reminds me of Mr. Burns' overbite. Excellent. It's the only thing sinister about the place, which by day is a watering hole for neighborhood residents and working-class stiffs and by night a meeting place for young, hip Asians.
Mike bought me a Sierra and we talked about his life. He said his daughter's name was Katy, too. Yeah, I suppose this was very Ulysses: Two people just sitting there, talking. Modernists like Joyce saw a story in everything.
When Mike was a kid, he ran errands for the dockworkers in San Francisco for tips. He'd pick up dry cleaning or a sandwich, and sometimes even pay bookies for the workers. Hearing this, my inner dialogue (which Joyce would've stretched out over an entire section) was marveling at the idea that no parent would let their child run around the city now, let alone to do favors for grown men that they hardly knew. The world is just too "unsafe" for such activity.
I asked Mike if there was a heavy gay presence in the city in the '50s. "Sure," he said, noting that it was a tolerant place even back then. His family had gay neighbors who regularly came to parties at his house with their partners. "But the really interesting people were the beatniks," he said. I asked him if they really wore all black and carried bongos, calling people "Daddio" and stuff. (My beatnik information has obviously come from old Dobie Gillis reruns.) "Sort of," was his reply, noting that the real beatniks were tough, manly dudes who took no shit, rather than the passive, beret-wearing weirdos they have been portrayed as. They were just the "different" people who didn't want to work in offices all day.
The bartender, who was fantastic, saw me eat my last pretzel and promptly refilled the bowl. Servers who pay attention to detail are among the little pleasures of going out.
Mike and I sat in silence for a bit, after which our conversation picked up and went in another interesting direction. I could tell that he had planned on leaving a few drinks earlier, but our chat was holding him there. We talked about his time in Vietnam, and he got that same mixture of wistfulness and pain vets have when they talk about war. "Those are the best friends you will ever have," he said, referring to his platoon mates. His buddies who survived the war are all dead now, from suicide, drugs, or illness. We also talked briefly about the swiftboating of vets like John Kerry, and the heroic service of John McCain. "I'm an Obama man, though," Mike said, finishing off his screwdriver. I noted that no one drinks screwdrivers anymore. "Yep," he said, "and not in the little glasses like this one." His glass was indeed little. "It's how we used to do it."
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