Family gatherings at Grandma's

It's pretty great having a job where I get paid to go to bars and write about them. I admit that. It's a fast-paced, cosmopolitan lifestyle, full of passion and the thrill of chance, and I'm always one step away from the great glory that is the Pulitzer Prize. That said, the gig does have its downside. It's the same downside that came with being a “straight” journalist, which was my old incarnation. In both instances, I have had the opportunity to meet amazing, interesting people, bleed them dry of information and anecdotes, and then disappear completely from their lives. That sort of sucks. You meet someone really cool for an interview, someone who has some compelling thing to impart to the world. You like them, they like you, and then it's over. It's a strange micro-relationship — a one-night stand, if you will — that gets intimate quickly, burns hot, and then gets extinguished. The only other line of work that I believe it compares to would be real estate. In that field, you get to know your clients pretty well — private stuff like how much money they make, how shitty their credit is and why, how their marriage seems to work, stuff like that. You develop a blitz-relationship during a really important part of their lives. And then you disappear.

When I investigate a new bar, I walk in on kinships that have been going on for years, sit down in the middle of them, learn everything I can, bond, laugh, cry, and get hoisted up in my stool and carried around by a team of professional bodybuilders like a bride at a Jewish wedding. Then just as suddenly I leave, like Santa up a chimney. Sometimes, though, a little part of myself invariably gets left behind.

This week was one such occasion. I went to Grandma's Saloon, on Taraval Street in the Outer Sunset. First off, you can't go wrong with the words “Grandma” and “Saloon” sharing the same signage. There is actually no real “Grandma,” though, according to the regulars and the bartender on duty that night. “If there was, she's not here any more,” I was told.

“Actually,” I said, using two fingers to push up the brim of my imaginary 10-gallon hat, “I heard-tell she got runned over by a reindeer.”

Once everyone had stopped holding their sides with laughter at that one, I inquired about the owner of said premises. At first glance, one could tell he was a proud sort. The bar was bespeckled with patches of all kinds, most of which were of the police-fire agency variety, and the jukebox carried a large cache of country. As it turned out, the boss' name was Dick, and he had been running Grandma's for more than 30 years. “He's an OK guy,” said one patron. “Just don't get him started on politics or Barry Bonds.”

“I used to play Strike Out with Barry Bonds,” said a guy on my right. Apparently, Strike Out is some baseballish game that kids play. This guy grew up near Bonds' neighborhood, and he first ran into Barry on the basketball court. The two played a game of one-on-one and Bonds clobbered him. This is part of the many ironies of Barry Bonds. He is indeed an amazing athlete. His father was also an amazing athlete who would've been even better if he hadn't been a drinker. Bonds Jr. supposedly swears off all recreational drugs and booze, but is mired in an even greater scandal involving his alleged steroid use.

But my problem with Bonds is that he just seems like a big jerk. He doesn't have the personality of Yogi Berra. He's more like a Ty Cobb. The guy to my right agreed. At this point a few others chimed in, and I was knee-deep in some micro-relationship in a great bar called Grandma's. What is the old saw about never eating at a place called “Mom's”? Well, one should always drink at a place called Grandma's, methinks.

“Well, I'm off,” said the young bartender to Barry Bonds' old playmate. She meant it, too. The next day she was moving to Montana. She was wearing, in another ironic twist, a T-shirt that said “The Sunset” with the Golden Gate Bridge logo on it. She went around and hugged people.

I had already moved on to my next conversation. A 47-year-old punk rocker with pink hair and a Misfits belt was lamenting the fact that most of the Ramones are dead but that the Rolling Stones are still alive and kicking. She used to date Belinda Carlisle's brother and sell drugs to band guys to support her coke habit. Now she just smokes and has the occasional drink. “I wish I could quit cigarettes as quickly as I quit cocaine,” she sighed.

So there I was, between the punker, the amateur athlete, and a middle-aged professional woman, all of us shooting the shit and giggling. A guy playing pool was singing all twangy to a country song and his friends were throwing chips at his head to make him shut up.

I was there, for two hours, in that microcosm of an old dive bar in the western part of the city. Then I had to leave. “I'll try and make it back,” I told them. We hugged. As I walked out, I heard the professional woman mention something to the old-school punker about me. “She's a sweetheart,” she said.

Dang. Sniff.

GRANDMA'S SALOON. 1016 Taraval St. 665-7892.

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