Here’s an opinion I espouse now that wasn’t even on my radar 20 years ago this week when I wrote this column: Drinking is a stupid waste of time, especially in lowlife bars.
My 20-years-younger self would be shocked to read that, but my skin, hair, liver, and general health thank me now. Ladies, it’s not cute after a certain age, that’s all.
Outer Limits: Drinking farther down Mission Street
by Summer Burkes, 08.25.98
ON ANY GIVEN weekend night a mere 10 to 20 blocks past the crowded bars, drooling junkies, frat-boy whoops, and vintage fashion shows of the Valencia Street corridor lies another world. Some Inner Mission denizens actively participate in the bohemian, super-hip, artist- and drifter-friendly Mission scene; some complain about gentrification and the displacement of minority families by itinerant punks and trustafarians (and of said itinerant punks and trustafarians by live-work yuppies).
Either way, most forget that only about half of the Mission is currently being “revitalized.” Venture outwards on Mission Street itself, past the vague border of Cesar Chavez, and you’ll find that hearty nth-generation San Franciscans and American newcomers are still spending their weekends drinking in low-key bars in relative peace.
Mission Street toward the Excelsior District looks like a ghost town at night: iron-gated rows of closed storefronts punctuate long, still stretches of track housing. On a recent evening two friends and I wander into Alex’s Other Place, a regular-guy bar with regular-guy decor, a retractable open-air window, and vintage Triple Play pinball-ish machines.
The yellowed strips of flypaper hanging from the ceiling have obviously been working efficiently for years, and the bar’s patrons have probably been coming around far longer than some of the unlucky flies have been disintegrating.
An episode of Cops beams silently from the television overhead; classic rock plays on the jukebox. The ratio of men to women in the place is about 10 to 1. Upon exploration, the bathroom walls prove to be refreshingly graffiti-free, and the only sign on the door says “One person at a time. No exceptions.”
The friendly, quizzical bartender cards us immediately, serves us, and asks us tentatively where we’re from. We hedge the question, feeling like we’re crashing a party, and gladly pay a mere $7.50 for three cocktails. A timid, drunk man, presumably off work from the florist down the street, gives us a bouquet of flowers. We like Alex’s.
Across the street El Padrino (Spanish for “the godfather’) hints at the Latin and Italian makeup of the neighborhood. Although, from the name, we wish for the bar to be all chin-pulling and whispered backroom deals, the bar sports sparse, fake-Mexican decor and a loud mariachi band. We are again carded, the bathroom again has no graffiti, there is again 1 woman for every 10 men in the bar, and the three cocktails are again $7.50.
A swarthy, gray-mustachioed man makes a beeline for us upon entry and slurs to us not to order a drink. He’s either warning us about something or, in his Playboy-channel mind, trying to get us to go somewhere with him.
We sit and drink Coronas, and Mustache stumbles over to us, pulls up a chair, and murmurs various incoherent phrases about being Italian before finally and clearly stating, “I just wanted to warn you about all the Mexicans.” Yes, the ones he’s been drinking with. He’s not joking, and we leave.
A few blocks down the road at Cotter’s Corner a B-movie about Vietnam plays as three lone wolves sip beers at the end of the long, polished bar. The jukebox is playing “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and everyone’s hypnotized by the jungle-fu on television.
We put together some common elements of bars in the Outer Mission: 49ers decor, beer posters with scantily clad women in fake states of sexual arousal, minimal conversation, Budweiser, and Triple Play machines. Another man with a furrowed brow comes in, sits down, orders a Bud, and silently, almost angrily stares at the TV.
The 3300 Club, at the corner of 29th Street and Mission, has a fantastic jukebox for barflies, with Nina Simone and Bessie Smith singing songs of love and woe. The enthusiastic barkeep is just as interested in keeping the soundtrack going as he is in pouring drinks: flitting from jukebox to tap, he leads us in a sing-along of “I Don’t Like Mondays.”
The inviting view of the bustling corner through the plate glass windows fails to engage an aging couple at the edge of the bar: the man stares into the bottom of his glass and rolls his eyes as the woman watches a mute television. “You can watch TV at home, dear,” he says to her. “Hmm?” “We have TV at home.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. The bartender sings on, and we do too.
El Mariachi, between Cesar Chavez and 26th Street, is an authentic Mexican bar, complete with live merengue/banda/quebradita/etc. band and disco ball. An ebullient woman who seems to be running the place welcomes us inside, but the bartender speaks to us only in Spanish and seems disappointed that we’re able to answer. The sign near the door says “No drugs or firearms allowed in this establishment.”
We quickly realize we’re back in a land of more pronounced cultural differences, and we go to the Tip Top across the way, where punk rockers have forced the old-school Mission men on to other watering holes. A thrash band plays as disheveled young drunks like us shout and stumble over one another. We’re home, and it’s too late to catch the bus back to Alex’s Other Place.
This is the 22nd entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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