Night Crawler

A pale summer sun seems hesitant to fight the cantankerous shoal of clouds that threatens the city's Fourth of July picnicking. By noon, it has all but forsaken its civic duty, content to look like a photonegative of a solar eclipse. In disgust, the ocean wind decides to play on the wrong side too, assisting the high cloud formation rather than scattering it, whistling mischievously as it sends small children chasing balloons and paper hats across Golden Gate Park. Still, being San Franciscans, we are prepared for such eventualities — fickle weather forecasts can't overcome our desire for tangy barbecue sauce, cold beer, and loud noises. Knowing that all three are in perpetual supply at the Bottom of the Hill, the most patriotic path is soon made clear.

The indie hot spot had promised a demure “jamboree” with book signings, live music, a reading or two, and some food, but the spectacle at the foot of Potrero Hill unfolds like a scene from Cry-Baby, or maybe a Happy Days episode with a surplus of Fonzies. Greasers, gearheads, and rockabilly guys lean against their glistening cars, slicking back their glistening DAs while sucking on filterless cigarettes clenched between glistening teeth. Their girlfriends, women who were punk rockers or (god forbid) goths back in the day, stand nearby in uncomfortable shoes with telltale tattoos peeking out of their polka-dot dresses. It's Americana run amok.

“These guys have cuffs so wide they might as well be wearing their pants inside out,” says a somewhat good-humored Johnny Burton, pointing to a group of young men sporting Levi's with exaggerated 4-inch pant cuffs.

“They're just a bunch of Fonzies,” says Justin Halster, a passing indie rocker who echoes my earlier impression with a pinch more contempt. “I came for a barbecue, not a dance lesson.” The greasers can hear him, but are completely indifferent.

As a matte black '59 Dodge Phoenix glides to the front curb, several tattooed “hooligans” desert their place in line in order to move the orange traffic cones that maintain rock-star space for rock-star-worthy vehicles. A big-shouldered, square-jawed teen who only recently turned his baby fat into muscle approaches the doorman shyly and asks if food is being served inside — cool guy code for “Is this place strictly 21 and up?” The answer being less than satisfactory, the teen perches himself on a wooden staircase nearby and runs a steady hand through his sandy-blond hair. Awkward in his attempts at eye contact with the ladies, he falls short of being a father's worst nightmare — but that doesn't stop a number of gals from smiling at him as the ticket line moves past.

Inside, a still longer line of people stretches back to the pool tables, where ravenous carnivores are making the most of a sumptuous spread the Bottom of the Hill has kindly provided in honor of the nation's birthday. Mounds of ribs, chicken, beans, pasta, potatoes, hot dogs, and burgers are carried away on paper plates. Folks not able to get a seat lean against pool tables, walls, door jams, and drum kits, stuffing their mouths and toasting each other for a happy Fourth. On the patio, a festive crowd surrounds local rockabilly photographer David Perry, who has just released Hot Rod — a stylized coffee-table book that details America's obsession with speed while tipping a heavy hat to the current retro chic. Barry Gifford, the author of Wild at Heart and the screenplay for Lost Highway, is also on hand to read the short mood piece he contributed to Hot Rod.

“There's just nothing more American than fast cars,” says a tall blond woman standing under a large American flag draped over the outside wall. “Cars are sexy, opulent, and dangerous.”

“What do you think about skateboards?” asks Halster around a gob full of Oscar Mayer wiener.

“Everything sucks these days,” says Blondie, flouncing off after dispensing a pointed glare.

“Well, you know what they say,” says “Sneaky” Pete Nash — an Australian hot-rod builder who came to the States to follow his muse — “if it's got tits or pistons, it's gonna give you trouble.” Nash, along with his mate Squeek Bell, appears in Hot Rod working in a Southern California chop shop near Huntington Beach where, he says, an ordinance has just been passed prohibiting people from drinking beer in their front yards on the Fourth of July (unless they have a fence over 6 feet tall).

“The Fourth of July means fuck-all to Americans,” says Nash. “Me, on the other hand — I started out with nothin', and I still got most of it left.”

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By Silke Tudor

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