Bellingham by the Bay

Keep on with the keep-on

San Franciscans detest change. There’s a constant drive for things nostalgic. I suppose I am one of the worst offenders with my nattering on about how San Francisco was a sparkling clean city in the 1970s with plenty of parking spaces and great French restaurants. When it was safe to hitchhike. When people would pay the fare for the car behind them at the toll plaza on the Golden Gate Bridge. When there were street musicians who were as good as any in New Orleans. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘the good old days,'” Vernon Alley once said. “Do you consider a time when blacks were not allowed to cross Van Ness Avenue from the Western Addition the good old days?”

When Lawrence Ferlinghetti pushed to have streets renamed for writers, such as Jack Kerouac, Frank Norris and Alice B. Toklas, I shamelessly supported his effort on KQED radio. Obviously, Lawrence succeeded, to the chagrin of old-time San Franciscans, who are more traditional and conservative than people might imagine. The natives were unhappy. Whatever happened to Army Street? Lawrence also asserted that all cars should be banned from the city, and the streets should be turned into canals like Venice. I like it. Here today, gondola tomorrow. … A young woman, full of idealism who does charitable works in the Tenderloin, asked me the other day about changes I had witnessed over the past 44 years in San Francisco. The most egregious is how the cost of living has skyrocketed in recent times, forcing the rents up and the locals out. Yet, it amuses me to see broken-down hotels in the downtown area bearing National Register of Historic Places plaques, preserving these hovels for posterity. That’s right. A hovel and a hotel are only separated by one letter.

But let’s not give up. That’s the passionate message from Norris Song, owner of the warm and wonderful Japanese restaurant on Polk Street called Sushi Rock, who never gives up, since he and his mother barely survived a bus accident in China when Norris was 8 years old. “The bus was hanging over a ravine,” recalls Norris. “My mother and I were the last to get off the bus just before it went over the cliff. Later, as a teenager, I found myself in the middle of a gang fight. I felt the bullets whiz past my head. I now know that we have to hang in there, that survival depends on having the drive to continue.” As the old jazz number goes, “Keeping On with the Keep-On.” … Portrait artist Jack Keating keeps on. Jack is a fixed point in an ever-changing world. His portraits of literary figures hang in the Hotel Rex, an establishment dedicated to writers and artists. Though nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, some nostalgia is good.

Dr. Harvey Caplan, a real Marina luminary and humanitarian, is recovering from a nasty fight with pneumonia at CPMC, formerly Davies Medical Center. He likes visitors. “He sure gets visitors,” says a hospital staffer. “I think he’s had 333 of them.” … Speaking of popularity, Henry Tang has reopened his Little Henry’s Restaurant in Polk Gulch after a serious fire a few days before Thanksgiving. The locals are delirious with joy. “It broke my heart because Thanksgiving is our biggest day of the year,” says Henry, who started his Little Henry’s in the Marina in 1989. “But it’s great to be back.” Welcome back, Henry. Now we can have escargot for breakfast again. … If you’ve visited Joey’s cafe on O’Farrell and Jones, you may wonder where Rusty, the pterodactyl with a 10-foot wingspan hanging from the ceiling, may have gone. Not to worry. Rusty is being cleaned and is in storage while the cafe undergoes a renovation. That’s a good change. Drea Ford will address any questions about Rusty. She’s the local barista and paleontologist.

I assumed it would always be there, the Big Apple Discount Center on Polk and Clay. But it’s gone now. After decades of serving Russian Hill and mid-Polk residents, the Big Apple owners have called it a day and have retired. After selling the produce and a wide array of comestibles to clear the store, all that was left at the end was a pile of mousetraps. … That’s not all. Across the street, the Red Devil Lounge, a great little nightclub that offered top pop acts from around the world, has also shut down for good. The owner wants to “seek other interests.” That usually means these days that the lease expired. I will miss both of these venerable places. Yes, the days of wine and roses are laughing and running away.

Friends of Parker Ralph, a true San Francisco character and Nob Hill fixture, are gathering at the Holiday Inn on Van Ness on March 5. Parker, who was a sniper in Vietnam, was always on target with a witty line or a scathing assessment. He was a terrific guitar player. As a kid, he was a session player in Detroit. He even let me sit in from time to time at Cresta’s Bar on Polk Street. Parker was only 64 when died from cancer. He’s missed on the hill, and the town is a bit poorer without him. His death is one change for San Francisco that’s not good at all. …

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. Yeah, we know, we know. He can be reached at [email protected]