Crabs, Communists, and Cops
in his apartment near Fisherman’s Wharf. Books, photos, papers, power tools, and the paraphernalia of a life well lived are stacked and strewn in a manner that leaves pathways big enough for Specs to get his scooter through.
We’re at the countertop in his kitchen, me asking questions, him giving slow, raspy answers peppered with curse words and wit. While his 83-year-old body is in revolt from Parkinson’s or some similarly fucked-up disease, Specs’ mind and tongue are still incredibly sharp, especially when talking about his bar. “In over 40 years, I never called the cops. Not once,” he tells me, his Boston accent coming through. “But I used to see them hanging out at Tosca. One time one of them says to me about my bar, ‘That place is full of Communists and faggots,’ and I say, ‘Yup.’ I never trusted cops.”
The bar in question is officially called Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, but everyone just calls it Specs’. I don’t recall exactly when I first discovered the joint but I’ve been a regular ever since. To the uninitiated, visiting Specs’ is like walking into a Tom Waits song. It’s probably my favorite bar in the world, one of the only places on earth where you can have an 85-year-old Beat poet sitting on your left and a hot young thing on your right. It’s also the place where I often take a first date. I figure if the girl doesn’t like Specs’ it’s probably not gonna work out between us.
There are certain wild plants that secrete oils meant to keep predators from eating them and Specs’ has a similar defense mechanism; it exudes an authenticity that repels douchebags even on the worst Saturday nights. The bar looks and feels like it’s sweating out the ghosts of the Barbary Coast. The walls, the back bar, the ceiling, and even the counter space are covered in bric-a-brac. With just a quick look around the room, you’ll take in nineteenth-century scrimshaw, a staged fight between a taxidermied mongoose and cobra, photos of San Francisco burning down in 1906, tribal masks, antique signs, ancient Buddha statues, and flags from around the world. And this is just a small sampling of the wonderful oddities and curiosities that live here.
When I asked Specs if he had a favorite piece, he told me about the little cast-iron inkwell that looks like a crab. It was the first thing he put in the back bar to remind him of the girl who brought him to North Beach from Santa Monica. “She ended up kidnapping and savaging me. It was fucking lovely. She lived up here and she left me with crabs. Since she hung out in 12 Adler, which was a women’s gay bar then, I put this crab in the back bar in her honor when I bought the place 15 years later.”
Specs originally came to San Francisco from Boston in 1948 in connection with some left-wing “political crap,” and then headed down to Los Angeles for a year, where there was more opportunity in his trade, metal working. A year later, he came back up here looking for his lady of crustaceans. Though he never found her, he did find a job cooking and bartending at Vesuvio for a year before going back into metal working for 15 years.
When the bar opened, San Francisco’s waterfront was still a bustling place and North Beach was, if not the heart of the city’s bohemia, certainly its liver. So Specs’ clientele consisted of a mix of stevedores, seamen, union organizers, artists, poets, musicians, and strippers (the girls from the strip club upstairs would use a staircase that’s now closed up to patronize the bar’s bathrooms). Many of the clientele had FBI files on them, including Specs, who told me about a paper calling him a “clear and present danger to the United States” due to his involvement in left-wing politics in the ’40s and ’50s.
Although the dock work relocated long ago to the East Bay, taking its workers with it, Specs’ still attracts artists, writers, and musicians. San Francisco’s Poet Laureate, Jack Hirschman, holds court at the bar every Wednesday evening. On most nights you can find someone making art at one of the back tables, while others busk outside the bar’s doors.
Specs tells me all of this and then goes silent for a moment, as if collecting his thoughts and cursing his body at the same time. He continues, “By that time North Beach turned into this big topless thing. There were only a few spots for locals to hang out. I was sick of swinging a hammer and I figured, maybe I’d find a joint. Eventually we located 12 Adler and we’ve been there ever since. That was 1968.”
There’s another pause in Specs’ storytelling. “Damn medication…” he mutters, voice husky with the frustration of a man dismayed by the weakness of his formerly strong body. He recovers and finishes the thought with one of the finest deadpans I’ve ever heard, “… it fucks up my drinking” and then continues. “This used to be the strongest union town in the country. Now, I’ve got about the only union bar left. All my employees are covered with medical and all that. The Republicans have been trying to kill fucking unions and it started with that air traffic controller strike. Reagan, that slimy cocksucker, he broke them.”
We go on to discuss the famous writers and artists who have spent their days and nights in the bar, people getting 86’d from Vesuvio, all the changes to San Francisco that he has witnessed, and a hundred other priceless stories that won’t fit within my word count (you’ll have to ask me about them). When I get up to leave, my mind is buzzing with local folklore and my iPhone recorder is brimming with the insight and shit-talking wisdom that only a smartass pinko, who’s been bartending in San Francisco since 1948, can impart.
A few nights later I’m drinking at Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum and Cafe, flipping through the postcards that sit on the bar, and shooting some shit with the bartender. When I mention to him that I recently interviewed Specs Simmons for this piece, the old-timer on the barstool next to mine looks over and says, “Oh yeah, what kinds of lies did he tell you?” Then he smiles and says he’s been drinking at Specs’ for over 30 years, and that he loves Simmons immensely. “He’s a strong, honest, and fair man,” the regular says. “Don’t make a caricature of him.”
I hope I haven’t.
Specs’ can be a little hard to find if you're not paying attention. It's in the alcove next to Tosca, at 12 William Saroyan Place. Look for the little sandwich board with clever quips like "Enjoy the hell out of it while you can." If you’re hungry, be sure to order the cheese platter while you’re there. It's a bunch of saltines with a hunk of cheese chopped from a huge wheel. And make sure to tip the piano player if he's there. He's fantastic.
The letter from the bottle dropped into the South Pacific that was addressed to 12 Adler
Mug shots from the 1920s
A giant crab
A calendar carved in bone from New Guinea
Fake sarcophagus of Specs Simmons
A picture Jack Johnson getting knocked down in boxing match in Colma
Naked ladies pic from turn of the century
United Farm Workers flag
10th Century Celtic gilt bronze piece
The key to the old drunk tank in a SF jail