(Continued from Alley Dining at Its Finest.)
But before we discuss Thorpe, maybe you, like me, have been wondering where all the "girls" went. I mean the young Korean women who worked in the massage parlors around town. Well it seems that on June 30, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) along with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), busted them. I'm sure that you, like me, now feel much safer. Yes, these girls were quite a threat to the city, if not to the nation. True, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose but getting these girls off the streets and out of the houses is a real start in catching that bad guy. Way to go, ICE! Way to go, DHS!
The troublesome thing is that they have "disappeared" these women with little explanation: They are holding them for "questioning" at an undisclosed location. They claim some of the women were smuggled here and they say they want to determine if they came under the impression that wholesome waitress jobs awaited them or if they came as, do I dare say that ugly word, "prostitutes." Do you know what an undocumented waitress makes? Do you know what a women, willing to sell her goods for money, makes? Subtract the former from the latter and you still have a good living.
Desiring, though not lusting for, more information on this matter, I called Luke Macaulay, spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office in San Francisco. No new information was available, he told me. This was going on two weeks of the bust. Can we trust the fox with the sheep, especially when the sheep speak little English and are isolated females of considerable charm?
I called three places downtown. No answer. I decided to take a walk later in the evening. I put on a coat and hat I don't usually wear and a pair of glasses. I confirmed that all three places were closed and not just not answering the phone, as I sometimes do. This was downtown Jones Street, a bit of a rough neighborhood.
Then I saw light on at two other places: Springtime and Sunflower. I decided to pop into the Sunflower and see how they were doing. They have an entrances both on O'Farrell and Jones. The O'Farrell entrance is a back entrance. I decided to go in the main entrance. I pushed the buzzer, which was located so high up I didn't see it at first. The door buzzed back and I walked down the stairs into that "ugly house of sin." Would I find Osama there and make the arrest myself? Would I be some kind of local hero doing the job that the feds can't seem to do?
At the desk down below a young, rather nervous Vietnamese man asked me for fifty dollars. I asked how late they were open. Four-thirty, he said. It told him I might come back later. There were four girls there, one with light brown hair at the far end of the couch, the others with black. They all looked sweaty and nervous. Now I had my opportunity.
"Any problems," I asked, turning to go.
"Problems?" the young man asked looking startled.
"Yeah, I hear ..."
"No, no problems," he said, as though his head were going to spin off. Two of the girls who were listening also looked alarmed and swore there were no problems.
I know when I have no problems I usually have problems.
"I will try to come back later," I said and left. I walked the six or so blocks up Jones from the Tenderloin to the top of Nob Hill, where if there are problems, they are of another kind.
Now maybe we can discuss Thorpe. But before we do that, let's digress a little. Where to head? Back down to the Tenderloin and a bar called the High Tide. No idea why it's called that. Tsunami premonition while the owner-to-be was tanked up on too much of something? Possibly.
Now there is one Korean lady in this town who has not been locked up, and to me she is the queen of the Tenderloin. Name of Sue with a Buddha-like smile, dark and mysterious and glowing like the embers of a fire. She dresses like a queen too; she loves the little frilly things of royalty, all that dangles and bounces and glitters. And she is a dancer; I have never seen a body move more bodily than hers. She is an enchanting snake.
I have been teasing Sue for a long time. We went on a date about two years ago and I realized that she was deadly for me. I did not ask her out again. Also, she disappeared to Las Vegas for awhile. She has a passion for gambling. Then late one evening, wandering in search of who knows what, the meaning of something or something that had meaning, I found her washed up at the High Tide. She was tending bar.
She smiled, then looked pissed off.
"When are we going to go dancing," I asked.
"I don't dance anymore," she said and looked away.
"Do you still eat?" I asked. I had taken her to Le Central on our one-and-only date.
"I'm off Mondays and Tuesdays," she said, still not looking at me.
I took that to means she was available. I looked at her. She was a lovely snake with beautiful curves, smooth on the belly and cool to the touch. Suddenly I felt threatened and dropped the subject. Still, it was nice to know she was available.
I have been heading down into the Tenderloin more often these days. I have a friend who works over at Cafe Bastille on Belden Place, that little European alleyway between Bush and Pine with all the wonderful restaurants. Frederic is the bartender there, a tall slender Frenchman of African descent with the voice of a singer. On Saturdays I drop by Cafe Bastille and we discuss his Tenderloin excursions. He has inspired and challenged me. He has been going down deeper than I have. I have been going down to Eddy and Ellis but not all the way to Turk. Frederic has been going all the way down to Turk. Turk and Taylor, to be exact. So what the hell is down there, you ask. Why do you want to go places like that?
It is a little hard to explain. Once you pass Geary on Jones, something begins to change. The lights glare, the dirt is real, and the people are not predictable. You have entered the "forest" and you have to watch out. Your senses become more alive. There is an atmosphere of everyone and everything being high and a little crazy. It is a human forest in which the owl hoots from some broken window and the lion prowls the street.
"Get you hands off me," I said sternly to a guy the other night who, eyes ablaze, had grabbed both my shoulders with his hands and had started to deliver an inspired lecture. I didn't want to hear it.
He let go and tried it with someone else.
The other days I was sitting in Jonell's and talking with Bonnie, the bartender, when a black woman in a knit cap at the far end of the bar got up and announced there had been a shooting down the street. She had some kind of walkie-talkie. She headed out the door and so did Bonnie. Deals are made across the street at Cinnabar but Jonell's is pretty clean.
When Bonnie came back I said something about drug deals and shootings, implying that there was a relationship and the rest of us were pretty safe.
"No," she said. "I think they shoot anyone these days."
"Random?" I asked.
"Yes, anyone. Bang, bang. Not too picky."
She said that a lot of the shootings occurred right down in front of the police station. I clammed up. I had just walked by the police station.
Okay, so let's get back to restaurants. Let's take a fast walk from the world of heavy, odorous air and flickering lights and signs to Rue Saint Jacques restaurant on Nob Hill. That'll brighten up the spirits. Let's talk with owners Eric Lanvert and Sylvain Bidan about their new restaurant. Eric is the chef, Sylvain the general manager. It is located at Taylor and Jackson on the top of Nob Hill. It's a different world from Taylor and Turk. Here you are so safe you may fall asleep.
Says Eric, "What we want to achieve is a neighborhood restaurant that is very comfortable in the place of business it's doing business."
It is "bistro" style, in that the menu is not elaborate and the wine list is not huge, but what they offer is thoughtful and appealing. For instance, the Noix de Saint-Jacques sautee sur coulis de poivrons jaunes et lentilles Du Pay or sauteed scallops in a bell pepper coulis with lentils; or the Filet Mignon de Boeuf, sauce Perigueux, sur lit de legumes et puree de pommes de terre, or Atkins Ranch filet mignon, roasted and served on a bed of sauteed vegetables, mash potatoes and a black truffle and Foie fras sauce.
They don't quite have it all together yet. They remodeled the dining room with a beam sealing and repainted the walls in warm peach colors, comfortable and relaxing—"We did it all with our own hands," says Sylvain—but haven't gotten around to hanging artwork yet. Still, it is nice. There is no sign outside identifying the restaurant. That is not their fault. They have the sign. The inspector has not come by yet to approve the building "facade."
They have a good start in this neighborhood restaurant on Taylor. Right down the street is Venticello and Nob Hill Cafe, both of which draw huge numbers of locals and definitely have a neighborhood feeling. If Eric and Sylvain keep it up, they should be drawing huge numbers too. Their idea is to build a base and let things grow from there. Says Eric, "We ask a lot of people, 'How did you hear of us?' They tell us, 'Oh, we have a friend who lives right around the neighborhood and told us.'" So far they have done no advertising.
That is one way to do it. One mouth tells another mouth where to go eat. That, in theory, is the best way. Others, however, hire PR agents and spend money on advertising. The big restaurants downtown tend to do the latter. This all interests me because CoastNews.com owns and operates the San Francisco Restaurant & Dining Guide and sells advertising, or at least tries to. We run into many different "mind sets" among restaurateurs.
An interesting approach is the old fashioned one taken by many of the Chinatown restaurants. That is to hand out flyers, usually the menu, on the street; or to distribute them to local residences, usually apartments. Strange thing is, it works. Sometimes people come right into the restaurant, menu in hand. Or, as in the case of Hang Ah, which is on a little alley that people have trouble finding, they are guided to the restaurant by the person handing out the flyers. You of course get a lot of tourists this way.
I have a young friend who does this for two hours a day. She does it with her girlfriend and it is kind of fun. They do distribution, wandering around to neighborhoods they haven't see before. Then they stop and have tea. Not a bad way to spend a couple hours. They pay these girls good money, so it must work. The Chinese are not inclined to waste money on things that don't work.
Other restaurateurs seem to just do what the other guy does. They buy ad space from some company like Citysearch that sells advertising for cities all over the U.S. Dallas, Houston, San Francisco ... they are all treated the same. Who bought the first ad, so that someone could copy this behavior, we will never know. Who writes the material for the likes of Citysearch, we will never know. Where this will all end, ditto. It is a sad trend that the internet, in its out-of-control, mindless way, seems to facilitate. Copycat is nothing new, but internet copycat has spawned a new thread, to put it in the language of the internet. You do know about multi-threaded programming languages, don't you? Your PC does.
Stopped by Jeanty Jack's the other day. Now there is a good restaurant that could probably use a little more business. They do well for lunch but not always for dinner. The little three-story brick building that made it through the '06 quake is a gem; the interior is magnificent and on the walls you will see pictures of all kinds of people who once dined there, including Ernest Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich and Alfred Hitchcock; and under Jeanty, the food is once again superb. But the location, down on Jackson near Montgomery, may not appeal to the dinner crowd. A few blocks over on Belden Place, it would probably be overwhelmed. Sam's, of the same vintage as Jack's and located on the corner of Bush and Belden, serves high-quality traditional San Francisco food—seafood, steaks, etc. Guess what? They have enough business that on Saturday and Sunday they close, handing off their excess to the younglings, or young uns, as some people like to call 'em, on the alley. Who needs all those noisy people anyhow?
So what is the solution when you need a few more customers? Our ad folks claim our own San Francisco Restaurant & Dining Guide, which is a local publication and written with care, and occasional literary flare, is a good choice. Moreover, we actually eat at the restaurants we write about. We love good food and despise bad. Food fraud is one thing up with which ...
But now I grow tired of restaurants and self promotions. Let's go back down to the Tenderloin one more time and see what's happening there, okay? We will avoid the police station and other dangerous places.
The air is heavy but I breathe it. There is the dark grime of the street, the ground in dirt. I enter the human forest, walking in it, through it, around it, on it. It does not kill me. At least right away. Not like some of the stories I read in the paper or on the net. You know what I mean? Where you see a father holding the dead body of the son and standing over the wooden casket that he has nailed together of cheap boards. On Jones street near O'Farrell I smell the sharp smells of Indian and Pakistani spices and see the steamy windows of cafes. Just across the street are the bright lights and the promise of paradise. The sign says Spa or Massage but that is the polite way of advertising sex. The poor know how to be polite too. Maybe politer, if that is a word. And there is the smell of urine. It is not a nice smell but it can be tolerated. Compare it to a fake smile. The smile, say, of an ex-marine working as a "property manager" who would really like to kill you if it were legal. The smile that is a lure to allure you to position to decommission your throat. Were your throat a boat, his job now done, you would not float, Ho, Ho. He is many murderous rhyme's with crimes. He is not the community chest, as he would have you believe. Is that a nice smile? Know those guys at CitiApartments? They don't pee on the street but their smiles are unsanitary.
Let's look into the eyes and the sores and the psychological wounds of some sad soul who has been living out on the street for a couple of years and who has no hope but hopes nevertheless. The person whose hope is not calculation and taking advantage but is a thin thread of survival and gladness of being. A person who has been paired down to nothing and is still there. You see them all around you. Stop the nonsense for one moment and they are all you will see. As the nonsense fades away a great sea of souls emerges. Or sounds to be heard if you plug your ears to the noise of this world and open your inner ear. It will guide you through sound and sight and taste and touch to new dimensions of being. And if it doesn't, implode to Shalimar (532 Jones) for lunch, which will explode your gastronomic senses, then try again.
But let's come back to our ordinary senses for a moment. Let us pretend we are in a court of law where emotion is considered commotion and anything irrational is a national disgrace and the Department of Homeland Security is moving in on us because we have money or oil or sex. In short we are desirable and what is desirable is groped by the Governor, grabbed by the Feds, or fondled by the clergy....