I went barhopping with my friend Floyd the other night, and we started talking about The Guinness Book of World Records. According to him, the tome was started by a guy who wanted to be able to settle bar fights — something that would put an end to discussions like, "Oh yeah? You think that Armenians eat more chickpeas per capita than Turks, punk? Are you freakin' kidding me?"
The real story involves a grouse and a golden plover, both of which are birds. In 1951, Guinness breweries businessman Sir Hugh Beaver was part of a shooting party in Ireland when an argument began about which bird could fly faster. The discussion became quite heated, though reportedly not as tense as his tit-vs.-booby kerfuffle in 1949. At any rate, the Beav came upon the idea of collecting all the world record data in one book, thus putting an end to bar fights and giving precocious fifth graders something to look forward to every Christmas.
I was just such a fifth grader, and images from The Guinness Book of World Records are forever etched in my mind: the dude with fistfuls of cigarettes stuffed into his mouth, the woman with the tiniest waist, the swami with the long curly fingernails, and, of course, the two fat guys on motorcycles. Whenever I see a morbidly obese person next to a Kawasaki, I am forever thrown back into elementary school.
San Franciscans in the know will understand where I am going with this: Eddie Rickenbacker's on Second Street. Loads of vintage motorcycles flank the ceilings and walls, and one fat guy lies in the corner, holding court. I do mean "lies": When you walk into the bar, you will immediately see him on your right, usually sleeping on his side with his belly hanging out under his T-shirt. A few couches and a chaise lounge serve as his bed, and he is hooked up to an oxygen machine. The area around him is unkempt and full of all the things a person would have on his bedside table. I was fascinated.
Until a couple of months ago, there was even another oddity added to the mix of this place: Mr. Higgins, an incredibly fat, three-legged tabby cat (rumored to be 30 pounds). He has sadly passed away.
I came to Rickenbacker's with a big group of work friends to celebrate our annual fall bonus. We were the only ones in the place at 4 o'clock on a Friday, which seemed odd for a SOMA establishment. It took a while for our waitress to come over. She reminded me of a Mormon wife who had been stuck in a compound all her life. Her young face was careworn and drawn. While taking our order, she gazed wistfully out of the window, lost in fantasies of one day, Lord willing, getting out of this place and starting a new life at an Applebee's.
She never did bring our drinks, and another gal had to do it. I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and proceeded to wait 30 minutes for it to arrive, cold. It took so long that I figured that they had forgotten, which was actually okay with me, because the more I looked at the proprietor, the less interested I was in dining. He had awoken and was sitting upright, but only after he had beckoned over one of the young women to fluff up his pillows and move the table out a little bit. It seems if you work here you have to also serve as a nursing assistant. Another of them brought him some clam chowder, which he proceeded to drink.
Something about this guy reminded me of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. She was jilted at the altar, and forever wears her filthy wedding dress and stares at her uneaten, cobwebbed wedding cake. The only difference would be that this guy had definitely eaten the cake before it went bad. Maybe he got jilted at the racetrack, and now he surrounds himself with antique scooters to trap himself in time. Actually, though, he is doing what other people are doing all over the city, just in the privacy of their own homes. I bet it started slowly, with him telling himself that he would just like to recline a little but still oversee his staff. From there he added more and more throw pillows, and then, what the heck, a few naps here and there. At some point he gave up moving entirely. I am not sure how he goes to the bathroom, but I would not be surprised to learn he has a chamber pot.
I looked at him with compassion mixed with revulsion. He was wearing glasses and looking at some papers through a gigantic magnifying glass. Occasionally he would stop and jot something down. Judging by the extensive and somewhat jaunty notes written next to every vintage motorcycle in the place, describing their worth and provenance, I took him to be an interesting person with a strong intellectual curiosity. Maybe he had just completely surrendered to his favorite things: reading, eating, and smoking cigars. There are plenty of bar owners who play out their late-stage alcoholism or dementia for everyone to see, so why are we so surprised to see someone in this guy's condition?
Like a fat, three-legged cat, this fellow will not be around forever, and after he is gone, this place will be just another amalgamation of motorbikes and nacho platters. As it stands, of all the bars that I have been to in S.F., Eddie Rickenbacker's is indeed the most eccentric, hands down. That alone makes it worthy for Guinness. A pint of Guinness, that is. Carpe diem.
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