Monday, January 17, 2011

Specs & Literary North Beach

It’s 5:30 on a weekday, shortly after the holidays, and I’m sitting at the bar at Specs Twelve Adler Museum Café, which is situated on an odd mini-cul-de-sac in North Beach, about half a block off Columbus between Broadway and Kearny.  Specs is one of those urban landmarks that has transcended its primary purpose as a dive bar due to its history and constituency, becoming a nexus of interrelated social structures and narratives.  Crammed from floor to ceiling with signs and memorabilia, Specs Bar is part of a “rectangle” of businesses that have retained their Bohemian/artist-poet/anarchist roots.  Across the small courtyard is the more upscale Tosca Restaurant. The venerable City Lights bookstore and the Vesuvio Café, directly across Columbus Avenue, complete the rectangle. About 2 blocks away is the Beat Museum, with its own bookstore, another commemoration of the history of “Literary North Beach.”

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
A block to the East and a world away, the residents of Chinatown are closing their shops for the day.  Although the stories of Italian immigrants, Longshoremen and Beat poets live on at Specs, you’d never know that blood-drenched race riots happened in this neighborhood during the late 1800’s.  Unemployed white and immigrant workers, blaming (usually horribly exploited) Chinese labor for stealing their jobs, frequently ran violently amok, killing many.  While Kearney Street is said by some sources to be named for someone other than Dennis Kearny, it still seems a strange coincidence that Kearny Street is the Southern boundary line of Chinatown. Dennis Kearney, as the leader of the Workingman’s Party, led many of the afore mentioned riots and gained a brief hold on political power in the 1870’s.  He was instrumental in the enactment of much anti-Chinese labor legislation.  There are still economic border skirmishes in the neighborhood, but these days the behavior between factions is non-violent and politically correct.

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
I’ve also noticed that there’s a sort of a hierarchy of space that governs where people sit.  Neighborhood locals usually sit at the bar or the two back tables.  Semi-regulars from the financial district tend to be in groups of three or four and sit at the tables closest to the door.  The “Bridge and Tunnel” people and tourists gradually fill out the middle of the space.  No one hands out a seating chart at the door, yet people instinctively have sat this way for as long as I can remember.

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.

Is the "Dream" in Pittsburgh?
Getting back to the idea of handwritten communication, when you sit at the bar at Specs you can look though plastic baskets filled with postcards that bar patrons have sent in from all over the world.  This has been going on since the bar opened in 1968, and thousands of random dog-eared postcards that range in sentiment from deep philosophy to “wish you were here” are there to be pondered. One regular patron who traveled the US widely used to send a card on the theme of “looking for the American Dream” from everywhere he went.  Alas, it was always elusive. It was never where it was supposed to be (perhaps in Pittsburgh, in the example to the left). The Dream would be rumored to be in the next town or the next state.  Eventually other “dreamers” started to mimic this patron, sending cards of their own, but none of them seemed to have the same style or philosophical bent.  How interesting it is, that even now, when people are really out of the habit of sending postcards (or handwritten communication of any kind), people still send postcards to Specs.

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.
A block away, in front of the Jazz mural at Columbus and Broadway, is a public art installation by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn that also references “Literary North Beach.” The Language of Birds uses the metaphor of a flock of flying books to explore the literary history of the neighborhood.  The artists note that mythologically, birds were thought to speak a divine language that was understood by the initiated (I’m pretty sure the birds in my neighborhood are simply obsessed with peanuts and bird seed, but who knows). The piece is very striking when lit in the evening, and it’s fun to read the phrases on the sidewalk below.

More about Specs:  Specs birthday | SF Chronicle profile | bartenders & postcards. More about the Language of Birds: SFAC | SF Chronicle