Wake Up Call
at 6:00 a.m.
I wake up confused and stumble across my bedroom to slap the alarm clock. At this time of morning at this time of year the sun isn't even yet a twinkle in the horizon's eye, but there's drinking to be done. And besides, Clooney's Pub, the first stop on my tour of first calls, is downhill from my house. Simple physics means that I will eventually wind up there anyway. Whether out of some blood-deep aversion to sobriety or simply the desire to extend last night into this morning, I'm guessing many of us have at some point seen the sun rise from atop a bar stool. For good or for ill, some bars just open early. I see no shame in that.
By the time the sky has turned from black to reddish-gray, I've bellied up to the horse shoe-shaped bar at Clooney's Pub and ordered a Makers Mark and a Budweiser. Hutch, the bartender, wears a Proud to Be an American t-shirt, which, coupled with the dive-y sports bar atmosphere, makes me think I am anywhere but San Francisco. His gray hair is slicked down and when he hands me my change I can smell the talc on him, as though he's just left the barbershop.
To my right are an old man with oversize headphones nursing a pint while filling in the Jumble and a silent, very drunk man. To my left there are two others; one a dignified-looking older man who's drinking coffee and chatting familiarly with Hutch, the other is in his 30s and dressed in a blazer and khakis with a crisp white shirt. His hair is slicked back in the manner of 1980s Wall Street brokers and he is shitfaced. A middle-aged woman enters in an explosion of cussing and flailing arms. She sits at the end of the bar and begins talking to Hutch. Her shirt reads God, Guns, & Guts. Hutch gives her a coffee as Warren Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" comes on the jukebox and the Wall Street broker spills his drink and sings exuberantly along.
Clooney's Pub could well be conducive to early morning partying, but not today. Instead we all sit and watch the Early Show. After two beers and a bourbon I get up to leave. Buzzed this early in the morning, I find significance in everything. A woman's purposeful stride, a deliveryman dropping off cases of juice, and especially the mosaic on Valencia and 23rd that reads Jesus Loves You.
at 7:00 a.m.
Waking up on the second consecutive day to get a drink comes a bit easier but finding out about a first call is still surprisingly difficult. So far, I've only been able to confirm first call at a handful of bars. I had high hopes for the Ha-Ra and the Nite Cap in the Tenderloin, North Beach's The Saloon and Specs, and Flanahan's Pub in the outer Sunset, but as I walked past these first two I was discouraged to see that they were shuttered and padlocked even as first call was already taking place elsewhere.
The Gold Dust Lounge is a throwback to San Francisco's romantic past: the Gold Rush era of saloons and working girls and the Big Come Up of finding a raw nugget the size of a baby's skull. The figure of a 49er greets you at the door and is oddly seconded by the attentive older bartender, who bears it an uncanny resemblance. I take a seat at the burnished scalloped bar, where two men already sit - a younger man drinking coffee and watching ESPN, and an older gent who's polishing off a tumbler of what looks to be whiskey.
If I were generally so inclined, I might choose the Gold Dust for my regular morning drink. It's still too early for most tourists to be up touristing, and you're able to sit and drink unmolested. The bartender, I didn't get his name, seems the model of professionalism and efficiency. While I nurse my drinks, he's arranging his bar necessities immaculately: the glasses are spotless and the garnishes are cut and arranged geometrically.
at 7:00 a.m.
Sutter Station seems to cater primarily to an after work crowd, but it's also an excellent, anonymous backdrop for an early drink. Amid the sober setting of lower Market Street, commerce running along unabated on all sides, it's remarkably easy to just slip from the sidewalk and into the dark cool of this bar.
It's cold this morning, and it takes my eyes a minute to adjust to Sutter Station's subdued lighting as I peel off my layers of flannel and sweater. An older man and woman stand behind the bar; the woman topped with a shock of bright red hair - the color of an emergency. She takes my order and quickly hands me a Bud and my change, after which I am thoroughly ignored for the duration of my stay. I'm not offended, though do I really look as though I'm in dire need of a quick, early drink? Maybe I do. Day three of first call has got my wits a bit muddled, I'm sure of it.
After I finish my beer, I leave without a word. The small group at the bar isn't the least interested in my presence, and Sutter Station has done its job to perfection: an early morning drink, no frills, no questions asked. I walk up Market Street for a bit and then turn up Geary. The breeze comes whispering through the canyons of buildings and the sun is finally up in earnest, flaring up and out as though in a dream or an explosion.
at 9 a.m.
As a sort of disclaimer, I should note that, by my narrow definition (pre-9:00am drinking), the 21 Club was not open for a first call. I arrive at the 21 Club mid-morning with the need for a drink swelling my tongue. I'd given up on going to Flanahan's and Pittsburgh's since the idea of commuting cross town, so far from my bed at such an early hour, had become repugnant over the preceding several days. I'd woken early and briefly considered getting on a bus and seeing the City bleary-eyed through a veil of fog, but I nixed the idea when I realized that I'd be taking public transportation to a bar.
The corner of Turk and Taylor seems to me about as unappealing a place as I'd like to find myself while looking about for a morning drink. And yet when I walk into the bar this morning all my apprehension is instantly washed away. The 21 Club is my choice, my wholeheartedly endorsed choice, for the finest first call in The City (if only they opened a bit earlier!). From the outside, the bar is uninviting and depressing. Parts of San Francisco are just plain shitty, but with this shittiness comes a type of broken down nobility; dignity despite all evidence to the contrary.
The collection of knickknacks, bobbleheads, and Spam cans on the walls and shelves somehow fits perfectly as the bartender shuffles towards me so slowly it looks like he's moving through a viscous fluid. The 21 Club is not the kind of bar that I'd trust for the cleanliness of its garnishes and glasses, but bottled beer is the same no matter what other hygienic conditions you find yourself in.
The 21 Club's early patrons are a collection of low-looking folks - there's no getting around that. There are two middle-aged men at the bar drinking Buds and lobbing friendly insults back and forth. A woman, I can't tell if she's 40 or 65, sits two stools over from me, working her way diligently through a box of Cheez-Its. At the back of the bar sit two sullen men drinking wine. Outside there is a fight. Then a fender bender. Then two police cars come screeching through the intersection.
Sitting at the bar on my final morning of first calls, I feel warm and insulated. But that may just be the beers. No one looks at me, but the bartender is there, with all eight of his teeth, the moment I need another bottle. I doubt I'll make a habit out of waking up and leaving the house to get a drink, but it's reassuring to know that I can.
By this point it's after 10:00 a.m. and long past anyone's definition of first call, so I finish my last beer and walk unsteadily into the day. A pretty girl smiles at me while crossing the street and this is all the reassurance I need to know that everything is right with the world.
Photography courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/foxtongue/5632071/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/raver_mikey/418208139/