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.

Bars and their patrons have a symbiotic relationship. Bar owners need customers, and customers need their bars. These are the regulars, those folks who come in just about every day and plunk themselves down on stools. The bartenders know their names. The other patrons know their names. The bar is their other home, in every sense of the word. It is where they relax, debate, process, or just sit and stare. And, of course, it is where they drink.

The real question is: Why do people choose to go out and do this with other people every single day, instead of doing it at home? It was good enough for George "I Drink Alone" Thorogood, so why ain't it good enough for them? It is certainly cheaper to drink at home. You can play "Tuesday's Gone" by Lynyrd Skynyrd 17 times in a row and no one will pull the plug on the jukebox. And best of all, you don't have to wear pants at home.

The obvious answer is loneliness. At a bar, you can be with other people. There is a certain intimacy, even the false intimacy that happens between strangers after a few drinks. It is the third in the "Hierarchy of Need" pyramid psychologist Abraham Maslow laid out in his theory of human motivation, after our needs for physiological fulfillment (oxygen, food), and safety (shelter) are met. It is our need for belonging, or what Maslow called our social needs.

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.
Bob’s memorial at Bonanza in the Bayview.
Paul Trapani
Bob’s memorial at Bonanza in the Bayview.

A bar is a magical place that covers the three fundamental layers of this pyramid: sustenance, shelter, and companionship. It's not always easy to find the third thing, but it is easy to walk into a bar and manufacture your own family. If you have a hard time making friends, at least the bartenders will be there every day, same time, same place. They will have a smile for you. It's no wonder that hundreds of people all over this city make bars their homes away from home.

One thing I have realized in all my forays into bars, lounges, watering holes, speakeasies, taverns, gin mills, hooch huts, and gravy boats is that Cheers wasn't just a sitcom. Every bar has its Norm. Actually, most bars have several Norms. I was so sure of this fact that I decided to head to three bars in separate parts of the city in search of the Norm in each place. I found people who fit the "Everybody knows your name" mold; that was easy enough. But I also figured out that "And they're always glad you came" isn't always the, er, norm. Some regulars keep to themselves. Some regulars get kicked out once a week. But some regulars define an entire bar, and, like a good drink special, keep other people coming back.


Ringo's home away from home is the 21 Club in the Tenderloin. He said he got the name because he wears rings on all of his fingers. His real name is Carl William Ericson. He is 93 years old.

I first came across Ringo when I was hanging out at what Esquire has called one of the 100 best bars in America, which is pretty amazing considering the 21 Club is situated at Taylor and Turk on what is possibly the most fucked-up of all the corners in the 'Loin. The block is full of tranny prostitutes, destitute users, aggressive dealers, and — rather humorously — wayward European tourists who have taken a wrong turn at Union Square and have that international look of sheer panic.

Widescreen windows flank the 21 Club; you can sit at them and watch chaotic events unfold outside. Inside the club, though, there is a certain peace. The bar patrons have etched out an enclave for themselves, a protective moat of Budweiser, whiskey, and fealty. It's a small place, with an L-shaped bar decorated with Halloween masks, beer signs, and tchotchkes. Like any good dive, it doesn't appear to have changed much since the 1950s. Most of the customers are over 60. A Russian guy in his 70s spouted a whole lot of nonsense to whoever wandered in. "You eat whiskey?" he asked me. All around the bar were men in various stages of life and drunkenness. A working-class guy in his 50s greeted me with a smile and asked what the heck I was doing there.

I said I was looking for the regulars, and he told me it was my lucky day, because everyone there was a regular. This was no surprise. Most people don't head to the Tenderloin for an after-work drink with friends. I wanted to talk to a guy from Hawaii, but he waved at me dismissively.

"He doesn't say much," the working-class guy said. "If you want some good stories, you gotta go talk to that one." He gestured over by the window to a very odd-looking fellow indeed. "How are you doing today, Ringo?" he asked.

"I'm old enough to know better but don't," Ringo replied, not moving or turning his head.

I first saw him from behind. He stood only about 5 feet. He had long white hair and was wearing a flannel shirt and pointy cowboy boots. His feet were firmly placed at ten and two o'clock, splayed out from somewhat bowed legs. His arms rested on the counter that overlooked the street corner. I could see that his fingernails were long and yellow. He rested his right hand on a bottle of MGD. I pulled up a stool beside him.

"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.

"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."

"You seem like you're having a bad day," I said.

"Oh?" he responded sarcastically. I knew that he had been to see the doctor again, and that he was supposed to have found out if he would ever see out of his right eye. He sighed. "Oh, I'm not ever gonna ever see again. It's over." This, I figured, was probably the real reason for his mood. We sat next to each other in silence, both of us looking out the window, he in his own way.


The Castro is full of young men who consistently dress, act, and imbibe like they are 17-year-olds on spring break in Cabo. Every day is a party. Mike Johnson is one of those guys.

He reckons that he spends at least $100 a night, five nights a week, at Toad Hall, his favorite watering hole. He's in his 20s, single, and attractive. He makes a comfortable living as a waiter at a place in Union Square, and says that he never gets a hangover, despite drinking upward of 10 mixed drinks a night. Life is good.

I first met Mike across the street from Toad Hall at the Edge, a bar some old-school folks say is the closest thing to how the Castro really used to be back in the day, when the patrons had to keep their gayness on the DL. There is no TV, or dancefloor, or even much of a sign out front. The walls are sculpted to literally look like a cave.

So anyway, there I was at the Edge, the only chick in a place with cut-'n'-paste dicks all over the walls. Mike sidled up and told me to check out the guy at the end of the bar. "Isn't he cute?" he said.

I figured out who he was talking about and nodded my assent. The cute guy's name was Kevin, and he was a bartender at Toad Hall. (Many of the bartenders in the neighborhood go to other bars to unwind after their shifts.) Mike said that Toad Hall was his regular place, but that he was such a fan of Kevin's that he had shown up here to see him during his off hours.

But "seeing" Kevin was all Mike was doing; he preferred to sit at the other end of the bar. I asked him why he didn't just approach Kevin and ask him out. "No way," he said. "I like it this way, from afar."

I warned Mike about the dangers of taking things to the next level. "Bartenders are like dudes in bands," I said, adopting my wisest, most insightful voice. "There is only heartbreak and VD awaiting you when it is over." He agreed.

"That's not to say, though," I continued with a wink, "that it ain't fun to party on the tour bus!" We clinked glasses and laughed.

Mike moved here in 2000 to escape his hometown of Los Banos. He came here for the same reason hundreds of gay people do: It is Mecca. And, like Mecca, you can turn toward it and get down on your knees five times a day (badum-bump). But seriously, folks: Imagine growing up in a town with few people you can relate to, and having to suss out who the other gay people are. Then imagine being able to immerse yourself in an entire community where everyone is just like you, sex is easily obtainable, and gay is the norm, not the exception. Maslow's third human need — to belong somewhere — is fulfilled.

"I'm a Kinsey 6," Mike informed me, meaning he is 100 percent gay with zero interest in women. He admitted frankly that he rarely spends time with straight people, that they make him uncomfortable: "I don't find them as interesting or accommodating. I'm a little more cautious of them."

"Cautious?" I asked. "What are you afraid of?"

He paused, and then said, "I'm afraid they will bore me to death."

Mike agreed to meet me the next night at Toad Hall at his usual time. The bar is named for the pioneering Castro gay bar from the 1970s, depicted in Milk. Its moniker is a literary allusion to The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame's children's novel about woodland creatures. To my knowledge, there is no gay subtext in the book, unless you really want to examine the leather-daddy relationship between Mole and Badger. Though not as obvious as Moby Dick, another watering hole down the street, I suppose the character of Mr. Toad has a foppish side that could be construed as, er, flamboyant. (Actually, the original sign for the bar had a toadstool. Once you see the similarity between the illustrated mushroom and the shaft and head of a penis, the allusion starts to make some sense.)

Mike has no idea what The Wind in the Willows is. He also doesn't know about the original Toad Hall in the '70s. All he knows is that he likes the music there, and the bartenders, and the clientele.

He rarely ventures out without his faithful sidekick, Dan, his friend of 11 years, who joined us at Toad Hall the next night. They didn't call each other by their first names. Instead, they refer to one another as "Didj," as in "digital." It's some inside joke that goes way back.

"Let's sit here, Didj," Mike said, gesturing to some seats.

"Oh, really now, Didj!" Dan said back to him, cocking his head dramatically and feigning a fake-game-show-host inflection. "Are you sure you want this option?" Actually, Dan never drops the fake-game-show-host inflection. It is how he communicates. He is sort of a mix of Jim Carrey and Monty Hall.

Toad Hall has the same ownership as Badlands across the street and has been dubbed "Badlands II," for good reason. The owner sticks to the formula of loud pop music, cheap well drinks at happy hour, and sexy bartenders. Apparently the two places are onto something, because they are consistently packed. The music they play isn't very inspiring — Cyndi Lauper's latest dance song (yes, it exists), Britney Spears' "Toxic," or the Pussycat Dolls. This is the shitty music of the young gay generation. The older gay generation's shitty music — Barbra Streisand, disco, and show tunes — is an ancient relic of a bygone era. Still, Mike has his limits. He hates Whitney Houston. "All of her songs are sung 'balls to the wall.' I mean, give it a rest," he said. "But I love Kylie Minogue."

Both places are sleek and stylized with banquette seating, high tables with stools, and dramatic bars staffed by good-looking guys. Toad Hall has backlit water running down the back of the bar, a small dancefloor, and an outdoor patio for smoking. To me, it lacks any semblance of coziness or personality. But for Mike, it is a home away from home. When he misses a day, the bartenders ask about him. "It feels nice," he says.

Like most regulars, he avoids the bar during peak hours, which means he visits only on Sunday through Thursday nights. Sometimes he comes because he is horny (he has had a few dalliances in the bathroom); sometimes he comes because he doesn't want to be alone; and sometimes he comes because it is just what he does.

Though it's hard for a hetero girl like me to see, there is a difference between Badlands and Toad Hall: the brand of gay men at each place. Dan prefers Badlands and its multitude of twinks (gay slang for young, thin, boyish dudes free of body hair), while Mike digs baby bears (smaller versions of the big, hairy, pot-bellied men known as "bears" in the gay world) and people of color. "Put this in your story, m'lady," Dan said as if he were unveiling a new car to someone on Match Game. "NASA wants 'Faster, better, cheaper.' I want 'Thinner, smoother, younger.'"

"Yecchhh," Mike said. "I hate Badlands." We all agreed that it was a good thing that they had totally different taste in men. It cut down on the competition.

I sat with them at Toad Hall and watched as man after man came in. Mike and Dan rated each one on a fuckability scale. When men do this with women, I of course find it disgusting. But when gay guys do it, heck, it's kind of charming. Still, night after night of loud music and, let's face it, a certain level of shallowness — I wondered whether gay bars ever got old.

"Why don't you ever drink at home?" I asked Mike. He looked at me as if I were nuts. "Why drink at home when I can go have fun out here?" he said. "I have the money. I might as well spend it."

In Mike's Castro, it's live fast and drink young. He's a regular, all right, but one of dozens. If he stopped coming out every night, the bar would keep hummin' along just fine.

"Tell her that you order grapefruit drinks because a certain someone hates grapefruit juice and therefore will not drink your drink," interjected Dan, staring into a fake TelePrompTer somewhere in the distance.

"Shut up, Didj," Mike said, rolling his eyes.


Some bars have such a close relationship with their regulars that the bars are never the same after they are gone.

The Bonanza is a corner dive situated in the middle of an industrial area in the Bayview. Most of its regulars are blue-collar guys who work nearby in warehouses or machine shops.

There is little or no foot traffic at the corner of Toland and Evans streets, where the bar sits, and only the 19 bus goes by. A place like this needs all the customers it can get, and has to adopt interesting business plans to keep 'em coming in. For Bonanza, this means every Friday night is Lingerie Night. A big banner across the roof advertises the weekly event.

The inside of Bonanza is much larger than the outside suggests. The main room has the feel of a Midwestern tavern, with beer signs, paneling, and the dank smell of cigarette smoke. In the back is the pool room, where spirited daily tournaments are held. Lysa, one of the main bartenders, has been here for 28 years, though she barely looks 35. She is the consummate hostess, greeting everyone like old friends. I was no exception.

I told her I was looking for the place's main regular, its "Norm from Cheers." She mused for a few minutes and told me about the Mm-hmm Boys, a group of guys who hang out at the other end of the bar and say "mm-hmm" a lot. A sample exchange:

"It's hot out there today."

"Mm-hmm. And muggy."

"Mm-hmm."

"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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