Shipwrecked with San Francisco's Best Bartending Storyteller

I've been thinking a lot about the Cosco Busan ship that hit the Bay Bridge, causing that terrible oil spill. I imagine a vessel the size of a city block moving soundlessly through the fog and then pressing itself into the bridge. It really had to be more of a “press” than a “slam,” as the ship couldn't have been moving that fast. They say it takes a tragedy to put things in perspective.

While I have been caught up in my own stupid emotional crap, cute little birdies and fishies met their doom. The ecosystem of the bay, which I already thought was pretty tore up from pollution, got considerably more tore up in the span of an hour.

I think there is some Native American philosophy that reality is only what you see right in front of you. The rest of the world is a construct and doesn't really exist. It occurred to me that this, basically, is what it is like to be depressed; it's self-centered tunnel vision. But then a ship hits a bridge and destroys things, and you realize that you have been very foolish to feel sorry for yourself. There are cute little birdies and fishies out there that need your help.

I was looking at a particularly cute school of fishies this week at Harry Harrington's Pub at Turk and Larkin. They have a fish tank there, and it's murky. It needs to be cleaned. But those creatures are faring better than the fish in the bay. Anyway, what's worse, I wondered: living free and easy in the open sea but having to deal with oil spills, or living in a smallish, brackish tank in the Tenderloin and being regularly fed and cared for? I'd opt for the tank.

Chuck was the bartender on duty. He greeted me like an old friend, hurriedly ending a phone call to serve me. People just don't do that anymore. I ordered a Jameson, and was flabbergasted to be charged only $4. “This is a neighborhood bar,” he said with a smile. “With neighborhood prices.” I'll drink to that.

He carded me, and I handed over my passport. They put your birthday in an odd place on passports, smack in the middle of a set of other numbers. I helped him out. “'69,” I said.

“You're 69?!” he joked. “You look great!” From there he instantly began reminiscing about the late '60s, and I knew I had found one of the greatest bartenders in the city. I love a storyteller. “In '68, I had just gotten out of the service,” he began. Then someone else walked in and Chuck had to travel to the other end of the bar to help them. It's a long bar.

The room at Harrington's is huge. The walls are filled with boxing memorabilia, put up by an old bartender named Little Jimmy, who died this year in his eighties. I never realized how many Irish boxers there have been. I sat in the corner, and to my right there was an odd jumble of walkers and crutches, all tied together with a big iron chain. Weird. What the fuck? Chuck chalked them up to the healing properties of booze. People shuffle in, lame and compromised, take a nip, and then fling off their yokes. “It's like a revival!” I offered. We laughed.

Using my brilliant skills of deduction, I figured that Chuck had to have been a Vietnam vet. The news had just come out about the many suicides among veterans of 'Nam and Iraq. I wanted to ask him about it. It turns out that Chuck was a lucky guy. While everyone else was drowning in the massive “oil spill” that was Vietnam, Chuck was living it up in a Tenderloin fish tank called Turkey. He was stationed in the Black Sea doing top-secret stuff, spying on the Russians and their ICBM tests. He was still forced to open himself up to strange customs, disease, and loneliness, but he didn't have to deal with being ambushed.

Chuck was drinking Jägermeister, and he wasn't even in a heavy-metal band. It turns out he hurt his back, and the “herbs” in 'Meister have “healing properties,” as he put it. I glanced at the jumble of hospital supplies again.

I asked him if he felt guilty to have been stationed in Turkey, while so many of his comrades were meeting a worse fate. “You go where they send you,” he replied. “I have no guilt.”

Then my date showed up. We ended up going to a hoopty-ass Indian restaurant and talking about former Chief Justice Earl Warren — arguing, really, about the Constitution and its interpretation. It occurred to me that this was a uniquely American evening: talking to a veteran, arguing about laws, and eating at a hoopty-ass Indian restaurant in the Tenderloin.

On the way home I listened to the news, which said that more than 600 birdies and countless fishies had died. I passed over the Bay Bridge and looked out. You couldn't tell that anything bad had happened. In fact, I realized that if I tried hard enough, then nothing bad had happened. It was just a construct.

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