I was up with the sun on Saturday #11 (September 13) and after a free hostel carb-fest of bagels and jam and a fun-filled hour of laundry and re-lacing my hiking boots, I ventured into the streets of San Francisco for my last day and night on the town. I had no idea where I would go or what I would do. My only rule was that I wasn’t allowed to say ‘no’ for the entire day. If anyone should ask me something that could be answered with yes or no, my only option was to reply, “absolutely, I’d love to.”
Within steps of the hostel I came upon a block-long line of people camped on the sidewalk. Some were sitting on ice chests while others carried large Tupperware containers. One woman cradled a Kitchen Aid mixer. I called it “hot pink” and she corrected me; “Raspberry ice, honey.”
Another woman who strongly resembled Lucille Ball was passing out her homemade Ooey Gooey Taffy Tart Squares. When I got to the front of the line I introduced myself to Rachel and her daughter Sam. They had secured a ‘number’ online and had driven in from Escondido to audition for Master Chef. Remembering my self-imposed rule, I decided to move on before they asked me to join their cheering section.
At Post and Mason I hopped on a cable car and proceeded about 3 blocks south to the terminus at Market Street. The non-profit Market Street Railway operates a fleet of vintage streetcars from all over the world on the F-line and one of the cars, painted in a familiar cream-and-red scheme, had been in the Toronto fleet from 1938 to 1996. Apparently aging pachyderms aren’t the only Torontonians who retire to California. But after 30 minutes and no sign of the red rocket, I gave up and hopped aboard a green and white car from Chicago. Or was it Boston? I forget, but it was not the vintage TTC car I had been hoping for.
About eight hours later, while strolling along Market Street in the late afternoon sun I came across what appeared to be a deranged man riding a commandeered Meter Maid’s cart. I followed him on foot for a block or two and watched as he pulled over at the corner of Haight and Laguna, climbed out of the driver’s seat and began setting up a sandwich board sign. A crowd quickly formed as about 10 people had apparently been waiting for the man known as ‘King Kobbler’.
Once the crowd had been served I introduced myself to ‘King’ and asked if he’d tell me his story. Being a rather flamboyant extrovert, he didn’t need much coaxing.
“Every Friday I go to the market and buy me a big bunch of apples, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, peaches… whatever’s in season. Then I go to bed real early. I get up at 3 on Saturday morning and spend all day making cobbler. I pack it into individual and family-size boxes and then have a nap while it cools. Around 6 p.m. I get up, put on my suit and start my rounds.”
King Kobbler follows a circuit through several downtown neighbourhoods, often stopping outside bars and in places where locals and tourists might congregate. A single serving of his warm cobbler sells for $5. He generally sells out well before midnight.
King explained that he developed his passion for baking at a young age. When he was about 13 his grandmother told him that she wasn’t expecting any more grandchildren, and since there were no girls in the family, he’d have to learn how to make her recipes or the family tradition would be lost. The fruit, sugar and butter industries are no doubt thankful that King is carrying on his grandmother’s tradition.
Time flies when you’re having fun and I definitely had fun on my last day in San Francisco. After nine hours of walking, shopping, gallery-browsing, perusing, photographing, chatting and quaffing at various locations in Union Square, The Mission, The Tenderloin, Nob Hill, “Tender-Nob”, SoMa and The Castro, I began to think about dinner. There were two obvious options: I could return to the hostel for a $5 pasta dinner with wine or stay in The Castro and eat at a proper restaurant.
Dozens of young backpackers travelling the world on student loans would be lined up for pasta n’ plonk. My budget allows a little more luxury on occasion, so I opted for a Castro standby called Harvey’s. Readers north of the 49th shouldn’t confuse this Harvey’s with the chain that “makes the hamburger a beautiful thing.” The San Francisco Harvey’s is a one-off bar and restaurant at the corner of 18th and Castro.
“The Castro was considered a quiet neighborhood in the 1960s with The Missouri Mule as its only gay bar. In 1974, its present gay owner purchased the building on the corner of 18th and Castro. On November 27, 1974 (which coincidentally is the same date that Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1976) Fred Rogers and David Manducca opened the Elephant Walk (bar and restaurant) in the space formerly occupied by Andersen’s Pharmacy. During that time, Castro merchant Harvey Milk owned and operated a camera shop a few doors down the street. He praised the bar and hailed it as a place where the gay community could meet, feel safe and secure while at the same time be visible to the whole world. Milk soon became known for his passion and was dubbed “Mayor of the Castro” – a title that suited him well and permitted him to be a voice and heart for the community.
The bar began to thrive as people within the community embraced their sexuality. The Elephant Walk brought the community together and in the 1970s became a venue for internationally renowned singer and performer Sylvester. As gay culture grew and the neighborhood took shape, Milk became increasingly inspired and motivated by his community’s support. It wasn’t long before he progressed from the Mayor of the Castro to becoming the first openly gay member elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Harvey took office on January 8, 1978 and his new role on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was not without controversy. Tragically, on November 27th, 1978, both Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed in their City Hall offices by fellow board member Dan White.
On May 21, 1979 White was convicted on a reduced charge of manslaughter. Outraged by the verdict, the community numbering in the thousands marched to City Hall in protest. During the march some isolated groups smashed windows and set fire to several police cars. In response the San Francisco Police started a riot of their own. They targeted The Elephant Walk and began breaking windows, damaging the property and beating patrons inside the bar.
The Elephant Walk was soon repaired and continued to thrive until December 2, 1988 when a fire nearly destroyed the building. It took four years to complete its restoration.
In 1996 the owner of the building reopened the bar as “Harvey’s” – in memory of the late Harvey Milk. He was known the community over as a fun loving person who would have loved the thought of a place where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people could thrive, raise gay consciousness and a sense of our history. Almost two decades after its opening, Harvey’s has remained a historical monument and pillar to the community.”
The bartender, Chris, has been attending Burning Man since 2007. He had some great advice for my planned return in 2016.
I took a seat at the bar and joined a conversation with Chris and several fellow patrons.
“You’re staying for the game,” said one of the locals. While it was more of a statement than a question, I didn’t want to renege on my personal pledge so I let on that I was there specifically to see the hometown Giants play their arch rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
After the Dodgers’ four-run second inning it dawned on me that I might be a bit of a Saturday night jinx.
I thought back to my first Saturday on the road. I landed in Winnipeg the night the Assinboine and Red Rivers crested, causing thousands to flee their homes. A few weeks later I was in Calgary when there was a major hailstorm and tornado watch.
Then there was the earthquake. Within a few hours of my arrival in San Francisco, the Bay Area was rocked by a 6.1 earthquake – the strongest in 25 years.
And of course it rained in the Black Rock Desert one day before I set out for Burning Man. It hardly ever rains in the Black Rock Desert.
Last week I booked a tour to Yosemite only to find that most of the vast park was off-limits due to an active fire that eventually destroyed about 5000 acres of forest and meadow.
But enough with the natural disasters, this Saturday night catastrophe was entirely man-made. The final tally was 17-0 for the Dodgers.
According to MLB.com, “It was the Dodgers’ largest margin of victory and most one-sided shutout against the Giants since the teams moved West in 1958, as well as the most runs scored by an opponent at AT&T Park, the most hits (24) by any team at AT&T Park and most hits against the Giants by any team since 1932.”
After a nightcap at The Rising Sun (pub and video dance bar), I decided to flag a cab rather than trudge up and down another half dozen hills on the way back to Union Square. Within seconds a yellow DeSoto cab pulled up within 10 feet of where I was standing. I hopped inside and told the driver that I was going to 711 Post.
“Call me Carl. Car with an L,” said the driver who appeared to be about 60 years old. He was obviously a chatty type so I told him that I blog about what I do on Saturday nights. “Don’t tell me anything you don’t want repeated,” I cautioned.
“No problem,” said Carl, “I got 40 years of cab driving stories. If you’ve got a phone you can record me. You ain’t the first. Some guy from Kimmel’s show recorded me last week but I ain’t got no phone call from ’em yet.” It was clear that Carl wanted to talk. I told him to take the scenic route.
“I got my picture in the Chronicle in ’83 when I pulled a lady out of a burning Volvo. She lived and a few weeks later she calls me up and says she wants to help me buy my own cab. I told her nope, I don’t want to be tied down. That was ’83 and I ain’t been past San Jose yet. Guess I should’a bought the cab.”
Carl explained that he arrived in San Francisco as a 13 year-old and was living on the street at the age of 14 when he befriended an older boy who was in a band. A few moths later that band was booked to open for Janice Joplin at the Fillmore Theatre. Carl was pressed into service as a roadie. He helped set up the drum kit.
According to Carl, Janice Joplin chatted with him backstage while several other acts performed on the other side of the curtain. When no one was looking, she dragged the 14-year-old boy into the darkened wings of the stage and gave him a long, tongue-lock of a kiss. “You never forget that, I tell ya.”
In hindsight I realize that I could have used an audio recording app but all I could think of at the time was my iPhone’s video camera. I wasn’t able to capture any video while riding in the back seat of a darkened cab but here’s a link to part of our conversation. You’ll probably have to crank the volume.
After a 30-minute ride, for which Carl charged me “a 10 spot”, I got out at the hostel and was in bed within 15 minutes. Unlike most Saturday nights when the place would be pretty lively, there wasn’t a single person in the lobby, the common room or my 8-bed dorm.
The next morning I awoke to a dorm full of extremely hung-over 20-somethings. When I asked what they had done on Saturday night, several obviously straight guys offered that they had gone on a pub crawl in The Castro.
“Gay bars back home in Boston are actually kinda fun, said one guy. “But this was bo-o-o-ring.”
Another guy added, “Somebody said the wings were good at a place called Harvey’s but it was full of old gay dudes watching the baseball game so we just ate some wings and went next door to this bar that looked kinda good from the outside. When we got in it was even older dudes watching Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode videos. So laaaaaaaame.”
I let it slide.