It’s always a pleasure to write about friends, and that’s what I’m doing in this column — friends like John Coppola, Bernard Quintana and Fook Fook. I’m also taking this opportunity to display my cranky side. See below in Changing with the Times and New and Improved. Columnists are expected to be cranky aren’t they?
A talented youngster who grew up in Oakland in the 1930s wanted to be a clarinet player. When he was 10, his mother went to a music store to buy him one, but trumpets were on sale for $14. That’s how John Coppola developed his trumpet chops in San Francisco’s Fillmore nightclubs when he was still in his teens. Later, he went on the road with Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Billy May, but always returned to San Francisco where he still lives — and plays his trumpet. A North Beach fixture, John is a founding member of the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band. Recently, he recalled that in 1962 he ran into the prodigiously talented Charlie “Bird” Parker at the musician’s union hall here and took him to Jimbo’s Bop City, a nightclub in the then-swarming Fillmore neighborhood. In those days we called it the Harlem of the West. It was a happening scene, before it was hip to use phrases like “happening scene.”
“When Bop City closed the following morning, I took Bird home with me to Oakland and my Italian-American father made us breakfast — salami, tomatoes, hot peppers, hard bread, and red wine,” John Coppola remembers. John will be 84 on May 11. Happy Birthday, young man.
FIRST CAT OF NORTH BEACH
I have a neighborhood buddy named Fook Fook. He’s a shop cat at the S&S Grocery on Upper Grant. He owns the street, and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Fook Fook is deaf, as are many white, blue-eyed male felines. So don’t sneak up on him. He uses his front paws like a boxer and has a good left jab. He’s the First Cat of North Beach, and he knows it.
NORTH BEACH HABERDASHER
My North Beach haberdasher is Bernardo Quintana, a Hollywood handsome, San Francisco native son who played football at Polytech. He’s been an actor, model and boxer. These days he’s a street philosopher and can be found wheeling a large airline, carry-on bag around North Beach. Inside are shirts, pants, socks, sweaters, and other menswear. Bernie sells right out of the bag. And I buy, standing right on the street corner trying on stuff. The price is right and Bernie is a good storyteller. Check in Bernie. I need socks.
THE SIDEWALK POET
One of the most imaginative North Beach poets — Elvis Christ — uses neighborhood sidewalks to communicate his poetic concepts. When he gets a brilliant idea, he scrawls it on masking tape with a Magic Marker and sticks it down. Try these:
Fame is nothing but an ego trip
for those with enormous inferiority complexes.
While the best men wrestle with the immense complexities,
the worst yearn for power and prominence.
So in North Beach keep your head down and follow your shoes, and you’ll run into some of Elvis’s work like this: Wear your heart on your sleeve and tape your brains to the sidewalk.
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
I don’t like the phrase “changing with the times.” It usually means changing for the worse. To me it means you have failed with what you were trying to do in the first place and are now abandoning it and going for something even worse. Why change with the times when it isn’t necessary? Recently, the Golden Gate Bridge introduced an all-electronic toll system. It’s changing with the times. Who cares? I have visions of some tech ace sitting around trying to come up with yet another use for an electronic widget. Don’t we have enough widgets right now? Finally — “Ah, I’ve got it. We’ll ‘fix’ the Golden Gate Bridge. We’ll introduce an all-electronic toll system.” Splendid! Human beings may be quaint but they are high tech enough for me.
NEW AND IMPROVED
Another one is “new and improved.” What’s new about it? And what has been improved? Does this mean that all these years I have been using a second-class, or worse yet, a defective product? And now you’ve made it new and improved.
Where can you find me on most Tuesdays? U.S. Restaurant on Columbus. That’s be-cause roast shoulder of lamb and lima beans are on the Tuesday specials. Be sure and ask for some chopped raw onion for the lima beans. Best Tuesday meal in North Beach.
OVERHEARD FROM A BAR STOOL IN CAPP’S
“I’m of the old school of California cuisine. Whatever it is I smear it with mayonnaise. It makes everything better.” Especially artichokes.