A small figure, tightly bundled in a blue parka, pushes softly through the door at the Tosca Cafe. The tiny woman, as ancient as this North Beach hoochery, moves slowly, deliberately along the high burnished wall toward the booths in the back. In her hand she holds a cane more than half her height; around her neck dangles a Polaroid camera.
“That's Millie,” the bartender says with a nod.
It's nearly 11 p.m., and Tosca is starting to jump. A crowd of North Beach hipsters, dressed in night-colored leather and Armani, presses noisily between the columnar espresso machines hissing at either end of the bar. Nobody seems to take much notice of the old woman passing from table to table with her camera held imploringly before her.
Millie stops in at Tosca every night, passing among the revelers, offering to take their picture for $5 a shot. She's been doing it for years, catching tourists and locals in various stages of inebriation with her battered instant camera. And Tosca is but one stop on Millie's nightly sojourn. She's a fixture at Vesuvio, Enrico's, Mr. Bing's — just about any neighborhood place capable of holding more than two people and a martini glass.
Millie makes her way around the red vinyl booths. There are no takers this time through. She retraces her steps along the dark wall, past the puddle of red and yellow carnival lights thrown off by the pristine jukebox, her cane held slightly aloft. What at first seems to be a stutter in her careful gait I notice is a dance step. As she pauses next to the bar, swaying to the opera coming from the old jukebox, she sings to herself. The door opens slowly again, and Millie steps out into the night.
“I've known Millie for 35 years,” the bartender says with a quick grin, “never understood a word she said.”
Most people know little about Millie. Even the North Beach aficionados know her mostly from rumors and stories swapped over a demitasse or beer mug. There was one yarn that had the diminutive shutterbug playing an eccentric millionaire slumming as a North Beach icon. Another rumor had her spending a few years in a concentration camp.
But there's only one person who knows the real story: Millie herself, and she's not talking.
Outside Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, the cozy little bar next to Tosca, Millie brushes off my inquiries and steps into the gutter, waiting for a pause in the traffic to cross the street. I step off the curb and catch her eye, wagging my finger in front of my eyes — the international sign for “photograph.”
“Oh! You want a pictcha?” Her face broadens into a wide, toothless grin.
Millie peers through the viewfinder of her weathered Polaroid and makes small talk about her rabbi's grandchildren.
“He's got four grandsons. I told him the next grandson should be a granddaughter.” Millie peeks at me over the top of the camera, her watery eyes squinting with laughter. I smile back and she snaps the picture.
“Here you are,” she says, handing me the undeveloped photograph. “That's you without your clothes on.”
I explain to Millie that I write for a paper and that I'd like to talk to her about what she does.
“Oh, maybe next time,” she says, and quicker than you can say “cheese” Millie crosses Columbus and pushes into crowded Vesuvio, leaving me alone on the steps, the ghostly yellow image of her flash dissolving on my retina.
Back in Tosca, owner Jeanette Etheredge volunteers what she knows about Millie.
“Millie's been coming in here for years. She's always telling me to quit smoking.” Jeanette laughs between drags on her cigarette. “But there are so many stories. You need to talk to Specs; he knows a lot about Millie.”
A former sheet metal worker turned barkeep, Richard “Specs” Simmons has run the eponymous tavern since 1968. Short and balding with a gruff voice and easy laugh, Specs owes his nickname to his thick eyeglasses.
“For 25 years I built things,” he explains over a drink at Tosca, “and for the past 25 years I've been wrecking people.”
“I've known [Millie] since I opened the place,” he continues. “A lot of people say things, like she's a millionaire and all that, but she ain't no millionaire.”
“She wasn't in a death camp?” Jeanette asks as she passes by.
“No, I've never heard that story. As far as I know Millie's lived here all her life. She has a place just down the street. She used to be married to this fella named Butch. He sold papers at the corner here” — Specs motions with his thumb over his shoulder toward Columbus and Broadway — “lost his arm at Pearl Harbor. He was hit by a car at Kearny and Columbus years ago.”
Millie sold flowers in the local bars and restaurants until she came by her Polaroid. “She had that goddamn camera back before anybody even knew what they were,” Specs laughs, “and I still don't think she knows how to use the fuckin' thing.”
Specs tells me that Millie is a practicing Jew, a faith she shares with him in name only. He gets cards from her on all the holidays.
“She's always giving me shit about going to temple and being open on high holidays. You remember Lenny Bruce? He used to do this bit about his Jewish aunt's parrot.” Specs' voice winds into a high nasal whine. “Why don't you ever go to temple!?” he laughs. “That's just what she says to me, just like that. She's got that voice.
“One time I was out with this lady friend — this was years ago — and I mean I got all dressed up, cuff links, nice hat — a rabbi's hat, only in my family we'd call it a bookie's hat — and me and this lady friend I was running with are out in a swank restaurant, and in comes Millie. She comes over with that voice and starts laying that 'how come you don't go to temple?' shit on me. And, y'know, I got a little buzz on, and I look at her and I say, 'Excuse me, ma'am, you must have me confused with my bum brother Specs.' And she bought it!” Specs' laugh rattles over the bar. “To this day she's convinced I have a twin brother,” he says, adding, “I think it makes her feel better thinking that at least one person in the family heeded the call.”
Specs says that he heard from a reliable source that Millie once sent money to an Indian orphanage in Arizona. And how one afternoon in Chinatown she grabbed a barefoot boy by the hand and pulled him into a shoe store to buy him a pair.
“Whatever precepts she has, she lives 'em,” Specs says. “Y'know, you should talk to Vern Wells. He's known Millie since the '30s. He could tell you more about her than anybody.”
The next day I find Vern Wells walking near Washington Square. He fits Specs' description to a tee — “Old guy, 40-pound Santa beard.”
Vern says he was born the day of the Great Quake, but Specs warns that the old man's age “fuckin' varies.” He still makes the North Beach rounds, usually stopping in at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store and Little City. He claims to have raced bicycles in Nazi Germany, worked for the U.S. government in Chad (what did he do? “Can't say,” he whispers), and been a portrait painter and a photographer. His eyesight suffered some in his 70s after a nasty motorcycle accident in France.
Over a shot at the bar in Capp's Corner, Vern talks about Millie.
“She's been trying to get me to marry her for years,” he smiles. “She says, 'Two can live cheaper than one.' Sure, I say, if one starves to death. But she tells me, 'I'm a good cook.' But, y'know what I tell her?” Vern grasps my arm for emphasis. “I tell her, 'Millie, if I ever get married again, I'm gonna need more than a good cook!' “
“You use these?” he asks, offering me a filterless Pall Mall.
“Some people think Millie is a goddamn nuisance,” Vern continues. “But she's very devout. Y'know, about the only thing she does that contradicts her orthodox religion is send $500 every year to Boys Town, and she doesn't make a lot of money taking pictures.”
Vern, a Jew as well, says he sometimes teases Millie about making graven images with her Polaroid. “Oh,” he laughs, “she says, 'It's not the same!' “
And then there's Christmas. “Every year she tries to get me to dress up and play Santa Claus for the kids up at the temple. I tell her, 'Millie, we don't have any saints in Judaism. Where do you think Santa Claus came from?' But every time I see her she pulls my beard and calls me her Hanukkah Santa Claus.”
Back in the darkness at Tosca that night, Jeanette offers to introduce me to Millie.
“Maybe if I say something, she'll talk to you,” she says.
Around 9 p.m. Millie eases through the heavy door; the din of Columbus at this hour easily overwhelms the incipient crowd. After Millie makes her rounds (again no takers) Jeanette approaches her and the two exchange a few words. Millie ambles out the door. Jeanette walks up, shaking her head.
“She said she didn't have time. She said, 'I told him last night I'd talk to him later.' ” Jeanette's brow knots quizzically. “Y'know,” she says, “it's funny how people can move in and out of your life, every night, and you still not know anything about them.”
Outside I watch Millie as she lumbers slowly up Columbus, leaning heavily on her cane. The chilly night sky is thick with dirty fog. At Broadway, Millie pauses to pull the hood of her parka up over her head. Soon she is lost completely in the neon clutter.