Like most San Franciscans, I don't really go in for celebrity culture.
Instead, I'm partial to people who work themselves into the essential fabric of the city. I like local chefs, city politicians, and street musicians. I couldn’t care less about Hollywood. If I ever ran into someone like Lindsay Lohan, I probably wouldn’t even stop to give her directions to the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic.
Stuart Schuffman, on the other hand, is the antidote to Hollywood marquee excess. The self-described “pimp daddy of budget travel” moved to The City after graduating college and has since worked himself up to local celebrity status the DIY way – which is just the way most San Franciscans prefer it. He has gone from indie zine producer to website owner to published author. His ability to paint the town red – and on the cheap – is the stuff of legend.
And so it was with confidence that I strode into Vesuvio on a Wednesday night to meet up with the infamous Broke-Ass Stuart. I generally give North Beach a wide berth, but I figured if anybody could show me a good time there, it would be the man who once worked a minimum wage job at Z. Cioccolato “selling candy like a motherfucker.”
Stuart talks fast and (I would soon find out) walks fast,
and wasn’t content to stay in one place for too long. So after throwing back a couple, Stuart insisted that we decamp for Specs, his favorite North Beach bar. I groaned as we encountered the resident band of hippie troubadours parked in the alley out front. Stuart laughed this off. “Hey, would you rather it was a bunch of douchebags wearing too much cologne and looking to fight?” And then he was off again, telling a story about Jack Hirschman, Specs’ unofficial poet-in-residence.
Stuart’s affable joie de vivre seems to ensnare everyone he interacts with, and the bar maiden at Specs was no exception. Stuart might have known her from somewhere, but it was hard to say for sure because within moments of sitting down we were deep in conversation about the physical nature of death and extreme funeral planning. In the corner, a man in a black hat pounded out a vaguely familiar barrelhouse tune on the old upright piano. Maybe it was the cheap drinks, but I felt as though I was slipping into a Ginsberg-inspired fugue – especially when a wild-eyed old man with Einstein hair asked the bartender for some cheese.
Suddenly, it was an hour before last call. “Let’s go to Tony Nik's and drink with the off-duty servers,” Stuart suggested. “They pour strong ones and there’s usually lots of free pizza lying around.” Turns out Tony Nik's has a secretive, tucked-away feel to it, even though it has been there forever and it’s not really a secret. The bartender was a genial third generation Italian guy, and pizza boxes were indeed strewn about the empty tables. Everybody there seemed to be about two drinks into their post-shift wind down.
We killed our drinks and made for Sam's on the corner
of Broadway and Columbus. Despite being on the busiest corner of North Beach, Sam's is a place that seems untouched by both time and regular customers. Wedged in between the Chinese pet stores and the blinking neon of the neighboring strip clubs, the lunch counter sits like a pale fluorescent beacon. And contrary to appearances, the place actually serves as a crossroads for what seems like all of humanity – especially after last call.
While Stuart and I sat there eating cheeseburgers and drinking cheap beer we rubbed elbows with cabbies, hookers, club kids, frat boys, and one guy who had a very involved conversation with his hot dog and french-fry sandwich. Stuart turned on the charm, handing out stickers to promote his website and even trying to buy the personalized Sam's calendar that the fry cook had hung on the wall.
Some people responded with a funny look, but most were only too willing to accept this offer of strange camaraderie at a funky diner in the middle of the night. Before I knew it, Stuart had half the people at the counter talking shit to the tiny TV above the register, debating the merits of Geraldo versus Donahue.
A few weeks later, Stuart and I
met up at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe. This place is the perfect contrast to North Beach’s high-priced tourist traps. For seven bucks you can get a homemade meatball sandwich doused in marinara and squeezed in between two warm slices of fresh baked focaccia – which we both did. While we ate, we settled on a game plan for our postprandial stroll.
Our first destination was supposed to be a secret record shop, but along the way Stuart insisted that we stop in at the Schein & Schein map gallery. Stuart and I were buzzed into the cozy, wood paneled gallery, and the owner Jimmie Schein gladly pointed out some choice pieces and regaled us with local historical trivia. Being a history buff himself, this was right in Stuart’s wheelhouse. Before I knew it, we were deep in fascinating conversation about the bawdy history of the Barbary Coast.
As we talked, Jimmie would point out a particularly rare map, showing us handwritten notes from gold miners and castaways. I noticed the price tags and remarked on the cost of owning such an esoteric piece of San Francisco history. Schein conceded that the nice pieces went to collectors and museums, but he also pointed out his bargain racks, where smaller vintage maps can be had for less than $30.
I was glad Stuart made us stop here because it turned into one of those beautifully unexpected human interactions we had that day. I get the feeling that this sort of thing happens to Stuart all the time, but I rarely find myself in an antique map shop with late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows as a history expert regales me with stories about pirate trade routes and fallen empires. I got caught up in the moment and it was Stuart who finally dragged me out the door.
Our next stop was a place known unofficially as
101 Basement Records. As a former DJ and recovering phono-phile, I thought I had been to every record shop and dusty vinyl repository in the city, but I had never been there. Tucked into the back of a cramped vintage stereo shop on the corner of Green and Grant Streets is a tiny staircase. You would never see it walking by, and there’s a good chance you would miss it if you looked right at it.
If you descend this stairs, however, you will be rewarded with the record collector’s version of paradise. Rows upon rows of barely organized records stretch from one wall to the other. The walls are lined with countless milk crates packed tight with even more records.
Behind those crates are even more crates filled with even more records. You would have to move literally thousands of records just to get to the thousands more stacked behind them. To make things easy, every disc is marked at five dollars – regardless of whether it is a collector’s item or a scratched up copy of Barbra Streisand’s Christmas album.
Stuart and I squeezed through the compact aisles, pulling classic albums at random from the stacks. I would show him something with comically bad album art and he would counter with a one-hit wonder from the early ’90s. Occasionally someone else would make their way down the rickety stairs and we would stop and relive the moment of amazed discovery with them. I could have spent all day there without even making a dent in the jazz section, but Stuart thought we should end the day with a little dessert.
We hiked around the corner
to Z. Cioccolato, a store Stuart once worked in, where you can try anything for free. It has about six dozen varieties of fudge and I tried at least five of them, while Stuart popped handfuls of saltwater taffy into his mouth. Finally, my teeth began to tingle and Stuart agreed to leave before I went into glucose shock.
We decided to call it a day and I offered to drive Stuart home. Never one to turn down a free ride, he gladly accepted. As we walked to the car, Stuart told stories about long-gone brothels and pointed out well-known street people. I realized that the city is a lot more fun in the company of a celebrity – just as long as it’s someone famous for their ability to make the city a lot more fun.
Check out Broke-Ass Stuart’s Goddamn Website for tips and tales about living large on the cheap. The next time you’re in North Beach, check out Stuart’s favorite bars. Vesuvio is right across the alley from City Lights, and Tony Nik's is only a short stumble away.
If you can’t get your hands on any free pizza, Sam's can’t be beat for greasy burgers and weird late-night atmosphere. If you’re a collector, be sure to go to North Beach during daytime business hours. Schein & Schein has the most interesting collection of antique maps you’re likely to see outside of a museum.
101 Basement Records has, well, just a whole lot of records. If all this perusing and exploring makes you hungry, head down to Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe for one of its signature sandwiches. Dessert is free at Z. Cioccolato, but you might want to shell out for one of its cool toys, like the instant girlfriend (“just add water!”) or the condiment gun.