Bouncer: Tender hospitality at Jonell’s Cocktail Lounge

I don't know why I continue to be taken aback by the strife, crime, and misery that confront me every time I visit the Tenderloin. Still, as John Cougar said, it hurts so good. I keep going back again and again. I have some sick interest in watching the goings-on there; I also seem to take pride in the fact that I can walk through the 'Loin and not get bugged by anyone. There is something about me that is not a target, which makes me feel “street,” man (maybe it's my teardrop tattoo). Desperation also breeds loyalty, support, and friendship, and this neighborhood has those in spades. Last week, I wandered through the heart of the beast, passing blatant drug deals, a young man shooting up in his foot, and Crackheads Gone Wild. I have yet to see a cop in this neighborhood. Even when you pass the Tenderloin Police Station, you won't see one. What you will see are empty police cars parked in lanes of traffic, backing shit up. To be fair, I have seen some undercover guys, and I assure you that if I can tell they are narcs, miscreants damn sure can, too. Most of the 'hood's residents are just elderly poor people who probably worked paycheck to paycheck their entire lives, and now find themselves living in subsidized housing on skid row.

But enough social commentary. The only reason I go to the Tenderloin (besides the open-air theater, cheap Vietnamese restaurants, and patient vigil for the return of Original Joe's) is the bars. It will be a sad day when all the dives in the 'Loin are no more. As it stands, we seem to lose more and more of them every year.

There are plenty of places in the city that fall into the category of “dives,” but only bars in this neighborhood can claim the highest danger factor. There is danger in walking to them and from them, and, once inside one of them, there is a danger of being threatened, punched, spattered with infected body fluids, or having to listen to Billy Joel. Imbiber, beware.

The music playing in Jonell's Cocktail Lounge at Ellis and Jones was Creedence Clearwater Revival's cover of “I Put a Spell on You.” This pleased me. It was also nice to be warmly greeted by the bubbly bartender, a young woman with more giggles than the Pillsbury Doughboy. In fact, everyone in the place seemed to be in high spirits, alternately giving one other shit and taking gentle ribbing back.

If this place had a theme, it would be horses. There are framed pictures of horses all over the place, all viewed from the neck up as if they were equestrian family portraits. Even the bar itself is horseshoe-shaped. The ceiling is mirrored, the windows are made of glass bricks, and requisite beer signs pull it all together. Occasionally random nuts poked their heads in, and I half expected the bartender to shoo them away, but this is the 'Loin, and I forgot that everyone is welcome, even the sketchies. In fact, the sketchies are embraced, because they might be a little off, but they are paying customers — and when you get to know them, they are probably quite charming in their own way. A bedraggled woman all but stormed in and threw herself at the bar, exclaiming something incoherent. “Hello!” was what she received in return, and she retreated just as fast, promising to be back later.

What really struck my fancy was the story the bartender was telling about a wee little mouse that had run in from the street, paused to take in the ambience, and then skittered under the bar and off to who knows where. I loved the idea of a mouse who lived in the Tenderloin and scooted from bar to bar, the Stuart Little of the Barbary Coast. All he needed was one cocktail olive, and he would be set for the night. He would take it back to his home, which was constructed of an empty cardboard six-pack holder, which he had laid on its side and turned into a six-room condo. His children's beds were made out of empty American Spirit boxes stuffed with cocktail napkins. Tiny crack bags, rinsed and dried, made for nice food storage. Empty syringes had a ton of uses, not the least of which would be as weapons, should the need arise. But most importantly, he was a mouse among rats: Most people loathe rats, but don't care about mice. Mice are the least of their worries. All in all, he had a good thing going.

“I smell like a hooker,” guffawed the man in a work shirt to my right. He was sniffing his wrist, which someone (I guess) had sprayed with cheap cologne.

“Three or four beers, the guy's a riot,” said his friend, who wanted to keep discussing a mutual friend of theirs, despite his pal's prostitute joke. “But after that, ho boy …” He could very well be describing any drunk. This conversation was probably being replicated all over town as we sat there. It occurred to me that the dude they were discussing had probably sprayed the cologne on the blue-collar guy.

Probably the nicest thing about Jonell's was the giant vase of peach and yellow gladiolas behind the bar. Did it always have fresh flowers? If so, I bet Stuart Little helped himself when the lights were off and everyone was gone. You know, to further brighten up his place. Actually, the blooms were so large, they might even make a comfy easy chair.

Next up on the jukebox was “The Big Payback,” with James Brown proclaiming, “I'm a man!” I realized that this was probably a nod to the garbagemen's strike in Memphis in 1968, when the sanitation workers carried signs bearing that simple statement. Martin Luther King Jr. was in town to support the strike when he was killed.

Outside the door, old men of color, bent over canes, were shuffling back to their SROs. The bartender had a nice wave for all of them. Like I said, in the Tenderloin, amid so much seeming inhumanity, there is more acceptance and kindness than maybe any other neighborhood.

And that is probably why the mice stay, too.

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