Fourteen Years Ago she was married to a doctor. Then came the divorce. She is Korean, and I can't quite guess her age. When she dresses and fixes her hair, she is still good looking. Before the divorce she had never worked before; she had no training, no special skills. So she became a bartender and began working the Tenderloin bars. It was kind of exciting in the beginningguys, dates, boyfriendsbut now I think it is not. She seems burned out.
We are eating at Le Central on a Thursday when it is full of the business crowd. There is a light drizzle outside. Even the mayor is there at his usual window seat. She orders prawns, which are large and beautiful; I order halibut, which comes in a cream sauce. She is a bit nervous but does not order a drink. Two days earlier we had been sitting in the Tenderloin bar where she works. There were only two customers other than myself. One was a black guy in a stocking cap who was mumbling to himself. The other customer said nothing at all. From a bartender's perspective, it was not an exciting place to meet people. Another black guy came through the door and asked if she would change a bag of quarters. She told him no.
"The drug dealers won't accept quarters," she told me. He has probably gotten the quarters from breaking a parking meter. His eyes shone when he came into the bar; he looked hopeful. His smile faded on the way out.
She said when she started working the Tenderloin bars she figured it was only for awhile, but now the years have gone by and she is still there. She is no longer young. Once, she said, she had a bad gambling problem. It was part of the reason for the divorce. But now she said she has it "98% under control now." Her ex had a problem too: drinking. He did not know when to stop.
Now at Le Central I ask her about the gambling problem but she says she does not want to talk about it. The owner of her bar has warned her that I am a writer. Then she gives in a little and says, "It feels like a fever. You forget about everything else."
This is our second "date." The first one never happened because we met at two different places. She went to the St. Francis on Union Square; I went to the Sir Francis Drake. She waited about 25 minutes then left. However, it occurred to me after waiting 20 minutes that there were two "Francis" hotels on Powell but I did not arrive at the St. Francis before she had left. People in the hotel business know the problem.
On this our second date, she forgot it until 30 minutes before and showed up 10 minutes late with wet hair and no makeup. She had been taking a shower when she remembered. Nothing seemed very propitious about our relationship, if there was one. At Le Central she confessed to me that she no longer has boyfriends. She just goes out to have a "good time" but sleeps with no one. She seems to consider it an either/or proposition: You can have a boyfriend, or you can go out with a lot of guys and have a good time. I guess a good time is better than a dubious boyfriend. I have heard the words "good time" a lot recently and have grown dubious of them. I have nothing against a good time, but it is beginning to sound shallow and the people who say it sound depressed.
I'm not totally surprised with this. I have seen a similar pattern with strippers. Few have boyfriends. It does not work well with the job. Put another way, you can have hundreds of admirers of your body; or you can have a single intimate admirer. But it does not seem to work to have both. The boyfriend has a problem with the admirers. And the same pattern holds true, or even more true, for prostitutes. What is interesting to me is how many prostitutes hold to the idea that they are someday going to get married. Some of them are very nice girls but marriage does not seem likely.
Now most of the Tenderloin bartenders drink with the customers as a way of increasing business. Not bad if you like to drink. And if you're young and pretty, working bars is an easy way to get a date. But long-term it has its drawbacks: too many guys with the same idea in mind and little focus. The result for the girls who do this work is burnout. Life loses it meaning. And when that happens there is nothing to look forward to. The sparkle is gone.
Even worse, if you work in a bar with an aggressive owner who pushes the girls to drink with customers, you become an alcoholic.
Sounds depressing? My "date" has an absolutely lovely smile; it is huge. But when it is gone, it is really gone. Then you are looking at the opposite of a smile: a plain face that reflects a troubled life.
On a lighter note, or so I
hope: When I took the cab down to Le Central, I told the driver about
the mix-up that had occurred over where to meet. He was a handsome fellow
of about 40. He said he was from Tehran, Iran, and a similar thing happened
to him when he was in college. "I met a girl, a student. She was
from a good family, I adored her." So he made a date to meet her
at the movies. But, due to a misunderstanding, they ended up at two different
theatres. He said he waited a whole hour for her. "I knew she would
not stand me up," he says. But she did not come. Later they met and
discovered the problem. "She was the love of my life," he said.
"There has never been anyone like her since." They lived together
for about four years. Then something happened that broke up their relationship.
I did not ask what. I felt like telling this good fellow to pull over,
we could get a half pint of something, a box of Kleenex and weep at the
corner of O'Farrell and Jones. My "date" was not like his "date";
she was not the love of my life. In fact, this was probably our last date.
But life, anyway you look at it, is not easy. Especially in matters of
BeauCoup was packed on Friday, and the only way I could explain it was that it was Valentine's Day and BeauCoup has an excellent location, being across the street from both the Fairmont Hotel and the Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill. In other respects it seems to be falling apart, as predicted. Not too long ago, the two topnotch bartenders, Marco Dionysus and Maximillian Francois, walked out due to insults from one of the owners and bar supplies not showing up. This was just about the time that BeauCoup finally got a topnotch chef: Bruno Davaillon. First you could drink but not eat; then you can eat but not drink.
Update: The situation seems to have changed. Two solid bartenders have been added to the staff. They are not Marco Dionysus and Maximillian Francois but they know what they are doing. Once again you can eat and drink at BeauCoup.
Down on Ellis Street at Les Joulins Jazz Bistro I got mildly insulted by Greer Rockett, the trumpet player. He is a fine musician but needs to learn how to use words in a more harmonious manner: After an introduction by jazz saxophonist Charles Unger, Rockett says, "Hey, I don't mean to be insulting but I came here to listen to the music. I been talking with people all day." I buttoned my lip and turned my attention elsewhere.
Over at High Tide on Jones I talk with a guy named Chris who is out on the town, his wife being out of the country. His wife is Chinese, and he met her in a Tenderloin bar down the street. They now live in San Jose, which he says is pretty dull. High Tide is packed, unlike most of the other Tenderloin bars, and Kim, the Asian bartender, tosses her hair with a jerky movement of her head as she moves swiftly along the bar. She is the only bartender, which is surprising considering the number of customers. Here, I suppose, the owner's model for profitability is keeping costs down.
At Hanaro there are only a
couple of customers, and Jinna, the owner, looks surprisingly calm. We
talk about the Sports Bar down the street, which as usual is packed. She
tells me she tried to hire one of the girls from the Sports Bar. That
girl is good looking and packs the place by drinking with customers. But
the girl wasn't interested in making the switch. She figured there were
more customers at the Sports Bar and more money to be made. The problems
is she gets drunk almost every night. Says Jinna, "I wouldn't do
what she does to make money." Indeed, I know the girl and it is sad
to see. She's only been in the business three years but it is already
taking its toll. She was once married to a restaurateur in China. She
has no special skills other than talking with guys and drinking.
On Saturday I stop by L'Amour on Jackson Street. It is an underground karoke bar with a lot of girls. It was once a "house." Now if you want that you make your own deal with one of the girls. I go to the bar to talk with my friend Simon, and almost immediately Xiao Hong is at my side waiting for me to buy her a drink. It is not really what I had in mind. Drinks for the girls are $12half of that goes to the girlbut I go ahead and buy her one. I talk to Simon, who buys me a drink, then Co-co shows up. Yes, she would like a drink too. She looks like a thirsty puppy with its tongue hanging out. I buy her a drink and give her the change. She looks happier than the last time, when I asked the manager to ask her to leave me alone. I guess the economy is bad and the money is not trickling down to underground bars like it used to. "I miss you," says Co-co. I buy her another drink. She looks like she needs the money.
I have spent enough time in bars. I'm beginning to feel burned out. I head for Bix over on Gold street, where there is food and music as well as booze, but pass by Cafe Prague on the way. I am surprised to see musicians inside, including Greer Rockett. It looks like there is a jam session happening. I forget Bix and walk inside, ignoring Rockett. They are taking a short break now and a guy comes over and introduces himself: He is keyboardist B.J. Papa, who is the organizer of the session. I think that Rockett might take a lesson or two from Papa on graciousness. It could further his career. I head to the counter by the open kitchen in the back and order wine and a shrimp sandwich from a young, red-haired waitress with a heavy accent. I ask her where she is from, and she tells me Slovakia. She has been here just a few months. Her features are angular and strong, as though they have been chiseled out of stone. Nothing suggests burnout in this young lady. Quite the opposite: She is vigorous and strong. Life seems fresh in her. She brings me a large glass of white wineLa Boca Chardonnay from Argentina. It is cold and refreshing. I am amused with the idea that I do not need to buy her a drink to increase business at Cafe Prague.
Now I hear a walking bass line, then keyboard and drums. The jam session is back in progress. There is a young trumpet player named Henry Huang (top photo, left) and an older saxophone player whom I have heard of but never met: Bishop Norman Williams (top photo, right). Huang has a subtle style of playing almost between the lines in quick little phrases that dart in an out between the strong beats. The older Williams has the sound of experience.
Cafe Prague is full of decorative stuff. I look at a mask on the wall. The expression is neither tragic nor comic. I try to place it. Skeptical, perhaps. The mouth is a straight horizontal line, neither turned up in the corners as a smile, nor turned down in tragic expression. Nevertheless it is intense. It is the expression, perhaps, of someone trying to maintain a balance. There are a couple of large potted plants, a blue umbrella at the corner of the kitchen by the cash register, and little Christmas lights adding sparkle. Up front by the windows the dinner tables have been pushed out of the way to make room for the musicians.
My sandwich arrives as Vicki Burns begins to sing Night in Tunisa by Dizzy Gillespie.
I don't think I've heard this sung before. It is not one of the easiest melodies to sing, with it rapid arpeggios and twisting line that turns back upon itself. But she turns her voice into a musical instrument and does it with all the ease of the alto saxophone.
Outside on Montgomery Street in the early morning drizzle I flag down a cab. I get in and the driver floors it. Heading up the hill on Pacific, watching the wet street with shops speed by, I no longer feel bummed. The cares of the day have vanished.