The Regulars

Bouncer visits bars in three very different S.F. neighborhoods and discovers people everywhere all want the same thing: companionship. Oh, and booze.

"It's hot out there today."

"Mm-hmm. And muggy."


Ringo at Club 21 in the Tenderloin.
Paul Trapani
Ringo at Club 21 in the Tenderloin.
Mike at Toad Hall in the Castro.
Paul Trapani
Mike at Toad Hall in the Castro.

"It's too bad you weren't in here a few years back," Lysa added. "Our real Norm died two years ago. He was a real character."

And so began my forensic investigation of Bob Wheeler, Bonanza's famed regular, who died in 2007, seemingly from complications of alcoholism and heavy smoking. Lysa said that the doctor had told Bob a year before he died that if he stopped doing all that stuff, he might have a chance. But Bob apparently said "Fuck it," and kept on drinking a case of Tanqueray a week.

"We kept his Bay Meadows tumbler full at all times," said Ed Estrada, who used to work at Bonanza when Bob came in. "We either topped it off with more ice or more gin, all day long. He was a real storyteller. He loved to talk."

Bob's voice was apparently froggy from all his hard living. He had a bit of a belly, though he was a rather slight man, standing at about 5-feet-6. He made his living as a kitchen appliance repairman; his shop was around the corner. He loved to organize trips for all the regulars to places like Reno or the race track.

"He was a jovial kind of guy," Ed said. "Always the first one to jump up and start singing on karaoke nights. Very old-fashioned, stuck in the '60s, but in a Republican way." Probably the only thing "hippie" about Bob was that he shaved and got a haircut only once a year.

According to Ed, after Bob died, the bar took on a dreary vibe and some folks stopped coming. "People would come in just to see him," he said. "He was the life force of the place. Right before he died and was in the hospital on his last legs, I quit. It just wasn't the same there anymore. The whole morale of the place plummeted." Apparently, Bob Wheeler was like the Dude's rug in The Big Lebowski: He really tied the place together.

I showed up at Bonanza on a Friday. I wanted to see what Lingerie Night was all about, and I also wanted to see what the post-Bob scene was. Though it was the end of the work week, there were only about seven men in the place when I arrived. A woman in her 40s sashayed by in a bra and panties. She was also wearing control-top pantyhose that extended above and below the underwear. Another young woman in a bra and panties also had nylon stockings pulled up to her bellybutton.

There was, as it turned out, a method to such madness. The women went around selling raffle tickets that could win the holders a free drink or the lingerie they were wearing. The pantyhose created a barrier between their private parts and the soon-to-be-regifted panties.

As the night went on, a few more men arrived. Everyone was very respectful. There was a certain, well, flaccidity to the whole thing. I talked to a guy who said he knew a serial killer when he was a teenager. The Mm-hmm Boys swapped musings. Mm-hmm. Men peered out of the corners of their eyes at the models' derrieres. But something was missing. I could feel it.

"Bob used to buy the lingerie, then go upstairs and put it on with a wig and come down here and crack us up," Ed said with a sigh.

That was what was missing. A ringleader. Bob had apparently been the patriarch of this particular family (albeit, perhaps the cross-dressing dad you hope the neighbors won't see), and when he died, no one else had become head of the household. He needed his pals at Bonanza, and they needed him. Good ol' Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Unfortunately, Bob also needed a few pints of gin a day, and that killed him. But it's not just the regulars who depend on the bar; it's often the bar itself that depends on its regulars. It's a sort of butterfly effect — upset one element, and the whole thing gets thrown off course. Bonanza is still trying to redefine itself.

Fear not, though, gentle reader. Eventually, a new Bob will emerge at Bonanza. That is just how these things work — new alcoholics with great personalities are born every day. When Bob started coming to Bonanza, he was the young guy amid a sea of older regulars. Eventually he became the old regular, with a plaque with his name on it on the bar to prove it.

"You want to buy a ticket, honey?" a model asked me. She had stretch marks from where she had apparently had a child. At first I was going to say no, but then I thought about it. Bob was a gamblin' man, I told myself. He lived for the moment.

I gave her the money and took my ticket.

After all my Norm-hunting was over, I of course realized that it's not only bars that have regulars. Coffee shops, book stores, restaurants, and even buses have repeat customers who have relationships with the staff and other patrons. All over the city are people who want to be noticed and remembered. But there's something about a bar, and the intimacy of inebriation, that sets it apart. Whatever their vices and faults, bars are dens of manufactured family. The relationships in them are nonetheless real, though. Very real. And I'll drink to that.

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