By Omar Mamoon
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"Hello," he said, in a somewhat tired but friendly way. When Ringo turned toward me, I realized that he was completely blind. One eye was enclosed in the milky layers of a cataract. The other was covered by an eye patch. He reminded me of some creature from Middle Earth, a wise soothsayer who has lost his vision yet still can see all. His face was mottled with whiskers. His hands were adorned with clunky turquoise and gold rings.
He started talking to me as if we had been conversing earlier and had somehow gotten cut off. Now that I was "back," he jumped right in where he had left off.
"They messed up this eye, so I have to go back and see what's going to happen on Thursday," he said. "You think the doctors are going to help you, but you can't trust any of them." He said that he had had surgery on his remaining good eye, the one with the patch, but that something had gone thoroughly wrong. Ringo was waiting to find out whether he would ever see again.
98 Turk St.
San Francisco, CA 94102-2808
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
"See that metal phone box?" he asked, pointing out the window to the right. "That's where they buy the crack. And over there," he gestured to the left, "is where the cops sit and watch." My instincts were right. Even though he couldn't physically see, Ringo knew every square inch of this corner. He stands and drinks at this window and can replay everything in his mind's eye.
He lives in a nearby SRO hotel and has a friend walk him down to the 21 Club every day. If he's lucky, he can get someone to walk him home in time for Jeopardy! every evening. I realized that Jeopardy! is a show you don't need to actually see to appreciate. (Though Ringo says he "watches" Wheel of Fortune after that, which is surely frustrating to follow for a blind person.) If he isn't lucky at the end of the day, he has to order a cab. Even though he lives only a few blocks away, sometimes the cabbies drive extra blocks to jack up the fare. He is living on an extremely fixed income — $900 a month in pension and veterans' benefits.
I asked Ringo why he doesn't just stay home and drink. He can't see, and he doesn't like to interact with the other bar patrons, so what's the point?
"I don't want to just sit at home," he said, without explaining. There is something about being surrounded by people, even if he seemingly rejects their company, that he needs. It's Maslow's theory of companionship, which says that people need to feel as though they belong somewhere in order to stave off loneliness.
I asked him about his nickname. "I used to wear horseshoe nails wrapped around my fingers," he said. "People started to call me 'Rings' ... then one day a guy said, 'Where'd Rings go?' and that turned into Ringo."
Ringo told me his life story in the first 10 minutes of our meeting. He says he fathered five children, but that his wife and three daughters were killed in a car crash in the 1950s. "My sons blamed me for it," he said, not going into it further: "They hated me. A lot of people don't like me." They were killed in Vietnam.
Ringo claimed to be a veteran of three wars himself: WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. "I was in the 82nd Airborne when we flew into North Africa," he said. He also said he was a retired sheriff from Fairfield. The other patrons warned me not to "buy his bullshit."
Like most of the patrons of the 21 Club, Ringo comes here because all of the other bars they used to go to have closed. They refer to this golden era as when the Tenderloin was a "nice" place, full of — I guess — families, stickball, and jolly grocers named Sam. Most people went to a bar called Grady's, but after that closed, everyone headed to the 21.
I asked Ringo why he didn't hang out across the way at Aunt Charlie's, where the music is more his speed (oldies) and the vibe is more mellow. "Too many faggots," he responded. "Not that I care. I like the gays. It's just that I don't want to hear it from all the other guys."
Herein lies the hierarchy of the Tenderloin: You can be down and out, but you can't be a down-and-out homosexual. He had the same attitude about "the blacks."
"I have some good black friends," he said (right after he referred to them as "jigaboos," of course). "But not like the trash that comes in here."
Ringo is the sort of guy who will just stop talking when he wants you to get out of his space. When this happened, I would say goodbye and promise to come back. "All right, Kate," he would say. "Katy, bar the door!" he would add. Or he would sing, "K-k-k-katy, beautiful Katy ..." from the old song. His moods varied. Some days he was plucky and sociable, other days dark and brooding. On my second visit, I asked him to remind me where he lived again. He told me the name of the hotel, adding with some growly contempt, "It's not that hard to remember."