North Beach Journal

It’s the season of the itch

Just as The New York Times always reminds us on its front page, here’s “All the News That’s Fit to Print” this month. Actually, it’s all the news I could find — or create — on my North Beach beat.


It’s that time again. It’s the season of the itch — the itch to get into (or back into) City Hall. The candidates are coming out of the woodwork like termites — would-be spielers and spoilers, termed out, tired out, drunken midnight callers, adroit gasbags, over-age and under-whelming former occupants of big swivel chairs in big offices, now wanting to play zero-sum political games. And by the way, to my mind District 3 Supervisor Julie Christensen is doing a good job. So is Mayor Lee.


Posters are cropping up in North Beach proclaiming “We Need Aaron” — presumably for District 3 Supervisor. Not so fast. Who needs this Aaron and why is he a one-name candidate? Does he think he’s Madonna? A while back in his San Francisco Chronicle column, Willie Brown referred to this guy as a troll. Certainly we can do better here in the Marina Times and correctly identify him. He is Aaron Pester.


I YouTubed I Left My Heart in San Francisco to get a jolt of Tony Bennett’s boosterism. I made an interesting discovery. In 1963, one year after Bennett recorded his love song to our city, John Lee Hooker recorded Frisco Blues. It’s a put-on of the Bennett tune. Opening line: “I got the blues for San Francisco.” Try it. You may like it better than the Anthony Dominick Benedetto version.


A couple of days before it closed in mid-April, I dropped into Capp’s Corner to say farewell. I picked a good day. A bunch of cops were eating there. Included were some retired Central Station superstars — Gerry Calgaro, Jim Deignan, and Vince Neeson, my neighborhood buddies. These days when cops are being vilified (justly in many cases), it’s good to know “good” cops. Capp’s Corner was the kind of place where good cops gathered — along with adventurous women, Jesuit governors, poets, and columnists.


Recently I reread The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury — a must read if you are a real San Franciscan. I was reminded that most people think the old Barbary Coast covered North Beach. Not so. It was bound by the bay on the east, Stockton Street on the west, Commercial Street on the south and Broadway on the north.

Nevertheless, in the early days there were cribs (little more than rough shelters) where “sporting women” hung out, on the southern slopes of Telegraph Hill. And there was a parlor house on Telegraph Hill’s Chestnut Street as late as 1965. The CIA ran it to conduct experiments with LSD, and they really did call it Operation Midnight Climax. Now where can you get news like this?


And speaking of parlor houses: Have I told you about Belle Cora, the San Francisco parlor house madam of the 1850s? She tried to save her boyfriend, Charles Cora, from being hung after he shot and killed a U.S. Marshall who had snubbed the social-climbing Belle. But the vigilantes swung him anyway. And now, as I write this, a new restaurant named Belle Cora is opening in North Beach at 565 Green Street. It’s not far from Belle’s old parlor house on Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) and not far from Portsmouth Square where Charles Cora swung from the scaffold. Great name for a San Francisco restaurant. I will check it out and report back.


Trumpeter John Coppola is the Gabriel of North Beach. Until not too long ago, he played his horn for the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band, that estimable organization that sends the departed off to the other side. Johnny doesn’t play his horn much anymore. He’s 86. John Coppola began playing trumpet when he was nine and living in Oakland. His first professional gig came when he was 13. Over the years, he played trumpet for Charlie Barnet and his band, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and Woody Herman and his Swingin’ Herd. And did I mention that he and Lisa Pollard, director of the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band, are man and wife?


As I reported earlier in a burst of self-revelation, I have written a book. It’s called — logically enough — Sketches from a North Beach Journal and is being published by Grizzly Peak Press of Berkeley. My publisher tells me it will be released late summer, and he plans readings and book signings. Maybe I can get Johnny Coppola to blow me a fanfare. I’ll keep you posted.


The other day I dropped into Caffe Puccini for a latte. Two obvious visitors to San Francisco walked in, ordered something, and then looked at the drawings and photos of Giacomo Puccini on the walls. One visitor turned and said to the manager, Dolores, “Did Puccini really eat here?” True! Would I make up something like this? I’m tempted to add that the pair walked down Columbus to the Michelangelo restaurant and asked a new version of the same question, but my publisher insists on truth in journalism.

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