I'm thinking about handwritten communication, and why people don't write anymore. Denise, a fellow art historian, is interested in exploring this topic, and possibly doing an exhibition about it. I'm thinking about it because I heard somewhere that the US postal service might close in next 5 years because people get nothing but junk mail and bills, and no one sends personal mail anymore. I think I'm guilty myself. I've spent so much time typing that my own handwriting has even become illegible to me. Yet North Beach, home of the great Beat poets & novelists, is still fertile ground for the written word. I sip my (very strong) drink, and get out my notebook, needing to perform the physical activity of writing.
|View in front of Specs.|
Photo by Kim
The history on the walls at Specs picks up in about 1940. There are signs and posters from World War Two, paintings and framed poems by neighborhood artists, and autographed photos of strippers that used to work upstairs at the Garden of Eden nightclub (in the 1960’s Specs and the Garden had a hidden adjoining door). Specs connection to the maritime industries is evident in its “décor;” over the years Merchant Marines and Longshoremen brought strange artifacts from all over the world, which cover the walls and ceiling and fill the display cases to overflowing. Hanging in front of me over the bar is a somewhat faded IWW banner (“One Big Union”), a subtle reminder that Specs was the first union bar in North Beach. Over my head, I can see the Welsh flag, the jawbones of a great white shark, a stuffed pufferfish with about 6 inches of dust, and a sign that says “all dogs will be eaten.”
It’s quiet today, so the dogs and dust mites are safe. There are two people murmuring to each other about movies at the end of the bar, a trio of tourists behind me squinting at a guide book, and a couple of guys that work at Vesuvio’s taking a break at one of the back tables. In the corner a businessman in a rumpled suit is absorbed in his beer and the Wall Street Journal.
As I’ve been nursing my drink, writing, and reading the New Yorker, I’ve been thinking about Lefebvre’s concept of “spacial practice.” I’ve been dropping into Specs occasionally since I moved to San Francisco in the late 1980’s. Aside from being an interesting place for a drink and conversation, for decades the space has hosted figure drawing groups, open mic poetry readings, and is completely given over to the neighborhood once a year for a community pot luck. Having observed how the community uses the space over the years, it’s clear that the employees and patrons at Specs have a tacit code of conduct. Specs has become more than a bar, it’s a community space, and the people that share the space expect you to mind the rules.
People get really drunk at Specs, yet they will be “86’ed” (thrown out) if they get loud or do anything obnoxious. My favorite bartender back in the 90’s, Kent McCarthy, was a gentle giant, an ex-Hells Angel who loved a good time but got deeply offended by bad behavior in “his” bar. This paternal attitude has continued. I have never seen any type of waitress or server at Specs; the bartender’s judgment is final (like they are the Captains of the ship). They are supplied with a selection of cards saying things like “Sir, the lady is not interested in your company…,” “Madam, the gentleman prefers to sulk in silence …,” or the “unfit to drink” sign, which appears if the drink you order seems too frilly (or too “girly,” a lot of this code is still based in 1950’s male working class ideals). The bartenders are also the first to chat the customers up, providing the initial clues to the expected code of social behavior. Kent’s place is taken today by Lucy, a strong and wonderful woman who is generous with both the Vodka and her good humor.
|Photo from SF Bar Experiment Blog|
The patrons sitting at the bar seem to form a separate community from the table-sitters. The bar-sitters usually want to talk about politics, the neighborhood, art or some of the eccentric characters we remember. For example, in the early 1990’s there was a hippy-ish lady that used come in almost every day and hit up the customers for handwriting analysis. She was never an employee, yet later she billed the owner for thousands of dollars in “back wages.” Another regular I remember would come in with a backpack containing his two pet bunnies, which would hop around in the inset of the small front window while he talked politics and drank his beer. Various radical political groups used the back tables as their weekly meeting spot, getting so heated at times that everyone in the bar would stop their other conversations and listen. These might be thought of as transgressive behaviors in other places, but at Specs this was everyday life.
A different view of community life was apparent on Sunday afternoons, when Specs hosted the figure drawing group. Although the group seems to be “taking a break” at the moment, Specs donated space to a figure drawing class for decades. No alcohol is served and the bar itself is closed to the public. A place would be cleared and lit for the model, while 5 to 10 earnest artists (mostly recent SFAI grads) gamely tried to capture her pose. Drawing at Specs was fun, yet it’s a challenging environment. There were no easels or equipment of any type supplied, except for the tables used in the bar, and it’s was really dark in the room – an odd environment for a drawing class. The only lighting aside from the spot on the model was dim and yellow, so it’s hard to see your work. Nobody seemed to mind this. We all seemed very content, feverishly drawing away in the dark while listening to blues or jazz on the stereo. Eventually, we would stand outside blinking in the sunlight, shocked whenever whatever we drew in that dark cave came out looking like a human figure.
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The ways that all these people and their individual narratives interact in the space of Specs has always fascinated me. It’s just a bar, yet it’s not. The owner, the employees and the patrons have managed to cultivate a very specific type of culture (which greatly values Lefebvre’s “representational spaces”). Casual, Bohemian, traditional, artistic, seedy, yet somehow respectful, and oddly confident that everyone is capable of good behavior (or else... the dreaded 86), Specs is one of those spaces that make San Francisco unique.
|The Language of Birds. Photo by Kim.|
More about Specs: Specs birthday | SF Chronicle profile | bartenders & postcards. More about the Language of Birds: SFAC | SF Chronicle