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Bouncer Meets the Panhandlers Outside Hobson's Choice 

Wednesday, Oct 19 2011

Hobson's Choice is a great name for a bar in this town, and not just because it's also the title to a great David Lean film. The phrase "Hobson's Choice" is a reference to Thomas Hobson, who was a postal carrier in 1500s England. When he wasn't using his horses to jam peasants' mailboxes with Olde Costco circulars, he was renting out his horses to anyone who needed a lift. According to lore, he got sick of people always asking for the same fast horses and ignoring perfectly good fillies like Molasses or Ol' Peg Leg. He developed the policy of having full say in what horse you ended up with — when you rented from Tom, you got what he gave you. This became known as "Hobson's Choice," a phrase that now conveys any "take it or leave it" choice between something and nothing. (This is not the same as "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse," or "Cake or death," which are technically choices between an offer and "death," which is something, not nothing.)

Now, why one would name their bar after this figure of speech is another story, especially when the bar makes rum punches in several flavors. Here, you actually get to choose which one you want. I suppose the bartender could say, "And we will put any liquor you want in it, as long as it's rum."

Hobson's Choice on Haight bills itself as a "Victorian punch house," so I'm guessing that the allusion is probably to the movie, which is set in the Victorian times and involves alcoholism. The movie also features Prunella Scales, which has to be the best name for an actress since Agnes Moorehead.

It is pretty Victorian up in that bitch, except for the flat-screen TVs and music that is not about bicycles built for two (Okay, gentle but nerdy readers, before you argue that "Bicycle Built For Two" is not a Victorian song, it was written in 1892, when Queen Victoria was still alive). There are gaslight-style glass chandeliers, some ceiling fans, and a big ficus. It's like being in Charles Dickens' rec room.

I sat in a window seat there, which I highly recommend. The people-watching is superb, and the banquette seating is spacious and comfy. I had a great view of a gaggle of panhandlers who seemed to work together like some debauched version of Our Gang. There was the surfer guy, the middle-aged woman who babbled incoherently, the Scatman Crothers doppelganger, two more gutter punks with puppies (It's always a puppy — what happens to these dogs once they hit adolescence?), and an incredibly short woman who seemed new to the fold. She hung back shyly, with an anxious look on her face. The surfer guy kept making a point of putting his arm around her reassuringly.

The group had a science to panhandling: They would gather on Clayton and, I suppose, compare notes. Then they would fan out and do their thing. After a bit, they would all drift back. Maybe I was reading too much into it — it's not like they were pooling their tips or anything.

My money was on the tiny lady, who, to bring up Dickens again, would make an awesome Artful Dodger. Someone needs to bring back the fine art of pickpocketing, and as she was waist-high to most people, she seemed well suited to it. The way she was working now was not effective, although she was so low to the ground that no one even seemed to notice her.

A couple came in and the guy ordered a beer; the gal was about 12 months pregnant and looked like her water could break at any time. Everyone else was enjoying punch and bobbing their heads to the music, which was a really weird mix of MC Lyte, late-era Michael Jackson, and James Taylor. In short, it sucked. Despite the excellent view, cozy seating, and nice bartender, the closer I got to the bottom of my drink the closer I got to making my exit. Steve Jobs did a lot for the computer industry, but giving bartenders the license to put their iPods on shuffle for hapless audiences is not one them.

I returned my gaze to the outside. The surfer guy came over and put something in Shorty's pocket. Then he took off again and went to stand down the block a bit, probably in front of the Dr. Martens shop, which is where I first encountered him and was annoyed. I try really hard not to be judgmental. I try really hard to keep the same liberal idealism that brought me out to California in the first place. But when ruddy-faced, intoxicated young guys like the surfer dude ask me for money, I bristle. He said, "Hey there young lady!" to me when I was walking down the street past the shoe store. I said hi back, and then he said that he was hungry, and would appreciate any change I might have. I kept walking, but as I was leaving Hobson's I decided to go and buy this guy some food. I needed to give him the benefit of the doubt and be a bigger person. Who knows what his life has been like? Would it really kill me to help him out?

I dipped into a convenience store near Shorty and got a sandwich and some pretzels, then on my way out I gave her some cash. She looked up and smiled briefly, then retreated back into herself.

I could see the surfer out there in front of the shoe store. I walked up to him and asked if he was still hungry. "Yes!" he said. I offered up the goods and his smile faded. "Oh," he said, slowly taking a deep breath in when he realized I got him some food and would not be giving him cash. "Is that meat? I'm a vegetarian." I said it was chicken. "Yeah, damn, that is really nice of you, but I can't eat meat. I could use a few dollars for a falafel, though."

"Take it or leave it," I said, waving the pretzels.

"Ah, no thanks," he said, "God bless."

His eyes were already on the next passerby.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair

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