Inner Clement Street wears a multitude of faces. You could call it the other Chinatown, Little Saigon, New Bohemia, or the place where people of every description go to browse books at Green Apple, cure their ills at the herbalist, or buy one of the finest brunches for two $9 can buy at Good Luck Dim Sum. It's a bustling, everyday kind of street, as difficult to label as the city as a whole. At night, the sidewalks clear, and a new street emerges, a drinking kind of thoroughfare where you meet as many types as anyplace north of Geary, a block over.
For example, at the Plough & Stars, a well-sauced Irishman greets arrivals with a high-five, giving his name as “Devil,” “OJ,” then “”P' for Peace” before ending with a heartfelt “God bless you.” College students have brought their parents, and a bagpiping Berkeleyan named David has worn his kilt following an afternoon wedding gig. He calls the Plough & Stars “the center of gravity for traditional Celtic music in western North America,” although Austin's Bluegrass Drive-By doesn't sound Gaelic until the second Irish coffee.
Smokin' Grass is likewise twanging it up at the Last Day Saloon. Upstairs, the house is packed as young blonde women shake their shoulders amid a sea of nodding heads. Downstairs, the pool tables have been commandeered by members of the Baseball Cap Nation — like Casey, who says, “This is like my home,” then asks, “Am I gonna get paid for this?” Out front, a Canadian named Dean has co-opted a wandering minstrel's guitar. “Instead of paying to listen to him, I figured I'd pay him to listen to me,” Dean says. “So let's do it, eh?”
He sounds pretty good, but not as good as the jukebox next door at the Other Place (there is no Original Place). Here you can listen to the Melvins, the Pogues, and the Velvet Underground; the vibe is mellow and old-school young bohemian. Becky, Jim, and Klaus play blackjack on a raised dais that ranks with Li Po's back room as one of the finest drinking spots in the city.
Though someone predicts a trip to Club Hong Kong will yield an ass-kicking, it's a suit-wearing kind of crowd. Still, within seconds a bartender states that restrooms are for customers and a beer costs $8.50, then transmits an unmistakable, if unspoken, message of Go away. Fair enough. Across the street is Max's 540 Club, a homey dive where you can play pingpong or foosball, or kick it with Chelsea, Toby, and Tina, who've come for the quiet and the Fernet Branca. A pair of old-timers reminisce about the days when comedians from the Holy City Zoo (now the Other Place) dropped by Max's to work on their material.
“I hope you come back here and enjoy yourself,” says one, even though no one's leaving. In that case, “I hope you enjoy the people here. That's all I can say.”