24 Hour Party People
declares the rough-hewn woman as she slides into a molded-plastic booth at Sparky's. Part hippie, part hesher, she’s packing a hefty load below the belt and a mousy-brown mullet above the neck, and she could have easily stepped out of Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” rather than the darkening streets of San Francisco. The J Church lumbers by outside. “It’s not a judgment,” she adds. “I’m just saying.”
It’s 10:30 p.m. at the Castro’s number one 24-hour diner, strategically positioned between old-school hipster venues like Cafe Du Nord, newbie hideaways like the Blackbird, and queer nightlife standbys like the Pilsner Inn. And every night, 24/7, since the heyday of Ray-Gun and Dynasty, Sparky's has done its best to satisfy the hunger of those forever “Hungry Like the Wolf” – ravenous for fat burgers, front-loadable carbs, and of late, pizzas that call out the names of rock stars like Keith Richards.
The soundtrack being piped in over the restaurant’s speakers shape-shifts from indie rock to throwback dance-pop – but Sparky's gives off an aura of ’80s hedonism particularly at 3 a.m. when its lime and sienna walls harbor local night owls not quite ready to roost. We’re all just passing through, hotfooting it, high-stepping it, or 12-stepping it on our way home from clubs, bars, or AA meetings. And I’m here to do the seeming impossible: 12 hours and three late-night semi-square meals in the diner that never sleeps, from 5 p.m. Happy Hour to 5 a.m. “Hello Sunday Morning.”
It’s Saturday night and all’s far too quiet for any restaurateur to be happy. Two solemn, solo bear-ish fellows are the only customers, munching thoughtfully as the sun glints off the discreet mirrors lining the walls. All the better to check out the hottie entering, and the passing parade of fresh-from-the-Midwest young gay men, Latino sk8ter bois, and curly-haired disco dollies. Sparky's isn’t quite the church of Church Street: That dubious achievement still belongs to the late, great Church Street Station. Still, Sparky's has managed to hold its own as ground zero of the city’s late-night burger joints.
I place the order for my first meal: a green salad and bowl of chili.
And coffee, lots of it.
“Awesome!” my sweet-faced server whispers happily in response. Though he’s blonde with a tweezer-sized ponytail, he’s a dead ringer for a Sparky's menu cartoon cover boy. He’s a cute redhead – a sexually ambiguous Archie Andrews.
But wait. He pauses for fear of offending. “Would you like cream with that?” he asks ever so delicately.
“Can I have some milk?”
His left hand shoots to a spot directly over his heart. “Awesome!”
My next order – the $2.50 hefeweizen Happy Hour special – has him nearly levitating as a couple enters. The would-be gay blade with a military crop with his straight lady friend model one notable type of twosome I see often at Sparky's – the gay man and straight woman out for unthreatening fun and all-American grub.
The unabashedly romantic melodies of Air weave between the growl of motorcycles outside. My chili and salad are far from fancy but taste fresh. The food reads like home, much like the owners’ other attempts to warm up the eatery: The wood floors and deco-ish wall sconces create a bistro-ish counterpoint to sick fluorescence near the bar and the spooky pink neon in the next room. Sparky's is a diner in transition: one foot still clad in Doc Martens nursing a stone-cold new-wave hangover with Orange Dreamsicle shakes, and another foot in an aspirational European fantasy featuring nine kinds of fettuccine.
That’s my cue to check out the little girls room – a stall-sized WC with a mysteriously sticky floor and sad, entertaining graffiti. From where I’m sitting, I can see a cat grinning at an ice cream cone, and read, “Matt UR a dick for sure / Ruined my birthday / Thx / Wish U knew how much UR words hurt.”
The elegiac indie rock is slowly metamorphosing into clipped Caribbean riddims and spun-sugar disco. I order French fries and, after fielding my sizzling hot order at record speed, idly eavesdrop on a pack of ex-frat dudes who think they’re in Entourage – they rave about the food like they’ve just gotten out of prison. They’re living the dream of Peanut Butter Cup Shakes and Michael Jordan pizza slices.
A scarily tanned woman, built like a cinderblock and wearing a single-ply chartreuse polyester dress that tells the story of her multiple deposits of belly fat, stomps in and asks to use the can, explaining, “My friend is supposed to come in soon.” My sweet-faced server nods obligingly. Sparky's is a big tent: a place for all sorts to snatch sweet relief.
“Psycho killer / Qu’est-ce que c’est? / Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa better / Run, run, run, run, run, run, run away!”
A sexy, petite ballerina of a girl in a flouncy black mini slides into the booth behind me, ready to take it to town with her fellow rehab pals. “Before, when I wanted to get laid, I’d get drunk,” she confides loudly, just enough to be heard over “Our Lips Are Sealed.” “I felt like I was the most casual one-night stand ever, so after a while I had to reconcile my behavior.”
The men at the table fall into a companionable silence as the petite party girl and her hulking, mulleted gal-pal hold forth about their sexual adventures. “I know men – not all men – but enough!” She-Hulk exclaims. A loud har har gusts out of her. “Men just listen.”
Casting a wistful look my way, the sweet server signs off, practically begging to warm my coffee. It’s getting late, though not too late for She-Hulk, who claims, “I have a where’s-the-beef kind of spirituality.”
“I’m only 28,” the done-it-all queen confesses merrily. “You guys are so old.”
She’d feel right at home with the mob that takes her booth 20 minutes later, riding another swell of customers: about two dozen black and Latino high-school students fresh from their prom. Two boyz-itching-II be-men show off their Spanish fluency, till one kid in a natty brown suit announces smugly, “I think it would be nice if we spoke in English because the others feel left out.”
After a mercifully brief sing-along, they all settle down to study the massive menu: “Lord, I feel overwhelmed.”
Every booth and table is packed, and chatter pours from Sparky's open doors and windows into the fog. A floppy-haired kid in a Trivium T, who looks all of 12 years old, shows me to my new seat, where a scruffy, asymmetrically cropped server in fixie capris takes my order with a friendly, if neutral expression.
At this time of night it’s far too busy for heart palpitations at the drop of every order: Almost the entire staff has turned over. This is SF after-hours: too-cool-for-art schoolies nuzzle over burgers;
scarf-adorned gay Asian bohos see the decoratively in the corner; and three pretty blondes give everyone dirty looks from the rear. I order linguini with clams, but there’s been a run on the skinny, so I settle for spaghetti. Mmm, blackberry coke makes a decent post-boozing alternative to Chianti.
Beside me, the chummy sparring centers on the entertainment industry and slavery. In one corner, a young black woman in braids – a double for Robin Quivers – and in the other, a very drunk, older white man with a splash of snowy hair.
Believe it or not, he’s all in black – feet splayed out as he sends portions of his sizable breakfast back to the kitchen. “I’m racist,” the man in black tells his friend too insistently. “I don’t like white people too much.”
Wee-hours spaghetti hits the spot, though somehow, suddenly, I feel an urgent need to take it easy for breakfast. One coffee isn’t quite a square meal, but it’s close enough. And while the first early risers crawl in – rumpled in windbreakers – the last clumps of clubbers are still winding down.
My favorite is the stocky baby-Mayan-warrior sporting a cape, Cantinflas-esque facial hair, a headband, and major silver discs dangling from his lobes. A stylish stranger on the way to the register asks El Diablo where he bought his earrings.
“I’m embarrassed to say,” he demurs, “but I got them at Hot Topic.”
Next up, a story from our little overlord about a visit to a Krishna temple in India. Turns out he returned to the entrance to find his shoes stolen. “I’m tired of your shit,” his lady companion complains, not unkindly. “I don’t get to go to India. I don’t get to see anything.”
Oh, but, girl, you got something better to see, I want to answer. It’s right here under your nose. And I walk outside, into a Church street as silent as a chapel and emptied of all but the sleepless cabbie parked at Sparky's door. The scent of spilt pizza sauce floats out of the kitchen, the birds begin to drowsily cheep from the trees, and the neon glow bounces off low-hanging clouds, turning them a deeper shade of pink.
Got a hankering for the greasy good stuff, all night long? Be hungry, dress comfortably, and find an eagle’s perch near the door at Sparky's – perfect for studying the party people as they stumble in. Their 24 hour, 7 day a week open door policy won’t let you down – ever.