It’s 10 a.m. on a weekday morning and I am not at work. In fact, on this particular day I don’t plan on going to work at all. It’s not a holiday, I’m not sick, it’s just a free guiltless day I get to spend doing whatever I choose. I love these days, when the weekend crowds are behind their respective desks and I’m free to tool around the city by myself.
Some days get rigorous planning, some are dictated by neighborhood errands and puttering. This particular day is getting off to a very slow start, as I’m still under the covers with a spinster’s grip on the cat, watching my breath hang on the air in little white puffs.
Winter does not make me want to get out of bed. It does, though, give parts of the city a nostalgic air, the sidewalks washed dark and clean by the rain, pedestrians bundled in overcoats and, by putting on a set of blinders if you will, walking certain beats is like taking a holiday back to the San Francisco of old.
The F-line brings me across town to the North Beach Library. In a paradoxical twist, I’ve found that what must be the tiniest branch of the public library almost always has what I’m looking for. I easily lose an hour just browsing the fiction stacks, picking up interesting looking books at random and becoming half-engrossed until I hit Diane di Prima’s “Memoirs of a Beatnik” and find myself three pages into what reads like unabashed porn.
I’m momentarily stunned at what I’ve stumbled upon and stand, mesmerized, until I realize my mouth is hanging open and if any of the library patrons eyeing me from time to time have actually read it (and this being Beat central I assume at least one of them must have) I’m inviting either a round of laughter or a date with a trenchcoat. “Memoirs” snaps shut and I’m six blocks away with a wholesome book of short stories before I remember why I’d gone to the library in the first place.
A lone church bell peals and my stomach echoes in response. Lunch is a difficult time in many neighborhoods, offering either shuttered restaurants open only for breakfast and dinner, the ubiquitous burrito, or rushes of suits and black nylons thronging toward hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops. North Beach, however has never given up the gentility of the afternoon and you can always find a good, hot, sit-down lunch if you have the time.
I’ve got nothing but, and head for Capp’s Corner on Powell and Green. Twelve bucks lands you a family-style helping of minestrone, a beet and garbanzo laden salad, and a choice between linguini with clams, spaghetti with meatballs, cannelloni or any other delicious Italian plate your heart might desire. A push on the swinging doors and I’m in; though I’m not the only one, I’m most definitely the only female.
A short peek at the back table gives the impression that I’ve stumbled into the tail end of a meeting of the North Beach Merchants Association circa 1975. Eight pairs of eyes register a look insinuating that my entry has just halted the pulling of shades and passing of cigars. In such company a glass of wine seems almost mandatory. It also makes me feel less square and in fact, after a few minutes I’m feeling quite the lady: a sophisticate lunching alone in perfect contentment.
I pull out my book, settle against the cushioning backboard and prepare to launch into the joys of reading. And here I should segue with what I consider to be life saving advice: When going it alone, always carry a good book.
An interesting book will keep you from chain smoking at bus stops, blacking your fingers with free newspapers or making an ass of yourself trying to start conversations with strangers in bars. It will keep you company during meals, make you unattainable to random panhandlers (who, for some reason respect the written word more than headphones) and almost invariably give someone of the opposite sex an excuse to talk to you.
“What are you reading?” may well be the most innocuous way to start a flirtation and always gives you the chance to look over your pursuer before marking your page and setting Miss Markham aside or giving a polite “Yes, it’s so fascinating I can’t tear myself away,” sending the gold-plated saints reclining in coils of ebony chest hair off to a better suited victim. Books are good.
Leaving Capp’s with a warm buzz,I head towards 101 Music, which for most of my time here I referred to as “Records,” reading the sign over the door as its literal name. In actuality, 101 is two shops around the corner from each other, one packed floor to ceiling with vinyl, tapes, record players, amps and musical instruments, as well as a basement jammed with crates of records each priced at $5. The other is filled with more vinyl and a bit more order.
Just next door sits Old Vogue, a great little vintage store that, though lacking in much for the ladies, carries a fantastic assortment of men’s garb. Skinny-lapeled suits, 1950’s car coats, straw fedoras and a huge assortment of used Levi’s make it a good place to dress a well-dressed man. I single out a few ties and Pendleton’s before heading back out into the cold.
A few doors down, I’m mesmerized by a window display of maps and old books at Schein & Schein. Its warm inside and the room glows like an antique parlor with shelves of hardbound books and old wooden fruit boxes full of lithographs and prints. Beautiful wooden flat files house thousands of maps, all organized by region in a system that appears as complex as the Dewey decimal.
One woman comes in looking for an atlas of Germany around 1849, another man wants to see San Mateo in the 50’s. Each new request is met by a friendly introduction from proprietor Jimmie Schein, who wastes no time in producing an array of maps for each. He knows his shop and he knows his stuff.
Stepping outside, I’m faced again with a blast of foggy ice. The sun has set and the only positive way I can describe the air is (in my mother’s words) bracing. I’ve bundled up, but even after living here over a decade I’m still caught off guard every time winter finally hits. I’ve also been standing for the last few hours and the moccasins are crying out for a rest. More precisely, for a rest and a cocktail.
Down Columbus only a few other folks have taken up residence inside Tosca. The bar’s lined with their signature “House Cappuccinos” and after a confusing interchange with the bartender regarding what to drink that would be warm, contain whiskey, not contain caffeine and be more exciting than just whiskey and hot water, he explains that the cappuccinos are actually hot chocolate and brandy. It’s warm and alcoholic and perfect.
The bartender announces ”that’ll be sev—ah, six dollars, please” and I wonder if he’s noticed my library books and given me a locals discount.
It’s still early enough and I’ve no intention of calling it a night after just one. I do need to economize the drinking, though, and happen to be standing next to my most favorite watering hole in all the city, the mouthful that is Specs 12 Adler Museum Café – Specs to those who can find it. Calling it a museum is no idle boast as it’s filled with tin signs, display cases of nautical ephemera, photos of the earthquake and fire and mug shots of hoodlums.
A taxidermied battle between a mongoose and snake hold a place in my heart rivaled only by Port Costa’s polar bear. Men who appear too old and frail to stand, let alone fight, shout threats at each other down the length of the bar. It’s the closest I’ve found to a Barbary Coast saloon and I love it. Five dollars gets me a glass of wine that’s nearly running over and I’m nose deep in “The Great Gatsby” once again.
It’s a book I’ve read a handful of times, and an undeniably sorrowful tale. By the second glass of wine my throat’s tight and little rivulets are coming down my cheeks. A lady alone, crying in a bar. Without a book this would look terrible. As it is, the bartendress has slipped by, filling my glass again with a little wink, as if we’re in cahoots against any Elizabeth Cady Stantons out there who might find us demoralizing to our sex.
As I pack up my things the gentleman next to me leans over with the first “What are you reading ?” I’ve gotten all day, his intonation implying that whatever’s caused me to bawl my eyes out for the last hour has got to be pretty damn good. We start in on fiction and he’s persistently inquisitive, not in an invasive way but like he’s really interested in the answer.
It’s a solid conversation, covering the grounds of local history, personal experiences and off-the-cuff truisms. It’s also a fitting way to end my solo flight, high in the clouds and full of ideas. Before there’s a chance for an uncomfortable grounding, I say my goodnight and slink out to the strains of “The Pink Panther.”
Photos: Mariah Gardner