Bellingham by the Bay

People, get ready, there’s a train a’comin’

January was a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. … I’m only quoting Scripture to seek the evangelical vote. Yes, I’m getting on the political campaign train. Fascinating, no? The New Abnormal. I can’t help but watch what certainly resembles a train wreck. The only problem is that we’re on the train.

You may have heard that David Bowie died last month. Robert Hemphill, who owns the Monkey on Chestnut jewelry store in the Marina, remembers Bowie when the iconic fellow was a customer at Robert’s former tribal art shop in North Beach, The Dreaming Room. Bowie apparently heard about the store from regular customer Nicolas Cage, or some other luminary. Robert says Bowie was interested in “outsider art,” the creations of the untrained, since he was a kid. That’s why Bowie was fascinated by Robert’s collection of tribal artifacts. Bowie “ommmmmed” over each piece as he inspected it. He explained he was meditating to achieve a connection with the soul that inhabited the bones. Then he bought a few. Bowie returned to Robert’s shop for several consecutive days, invited Robert and two friends to his sold-out show at the Warfield, invited all backstage, and introduced Robert to the audience as “a new friend I found in San Francisco.” … Carole Vernier, Herb Caen’s longtime assistant, recalls a David Bowie impersonator who pestered her and Herb many years ago. The fellow was all over town, going to clubs, bars, and restaurants, throwing C-notes all over the place. Bowie was constantly changing yet he was far beyond any imitators. Not even Tina Fey. … San Francisco’s most famous clothier, Wilkes Bashford, died last month. Le Central is still mourning. Wilkes used to join Herb, Willie Brown, and Harry de Wildt religiously at the front table overlooking Bush Street every Friday for lunch. … Ernie Beyl recalls: “There was a time when Wilkes and I were on the same charge account page. I had a couple of Brionis and a Zegna. We parted company when the suits went into upper four figures. So I started patronizing Bernie, the North Beach street haberdasher who sells shirts, pants, and socks out of a roll-on airline bag.” … At the risk of being too funereal, Al Hart, a man who deserved the “iconic” moniker, has died. The great broadcaster was 88. I was Al’s writer for years at KCBS, some of the best years of my life. People often asked me if Al was as nice as he sounded on the radio. It’s rare in that biz, but he even transcended niceness. … One day, I think it was my 30th birthday, a package arrived for me at the radio station. It was all the LPs Rosemary Clooney had recorded for the Concord Jazz label. Al had called Carl Jefferson, the president of the company, and requested the sides. “Bruce loves Rosemary Clooney almost as much as I do.” Al loved to sing. While quite young, he made an album in Nashville, Tears Are Only Rain to Make Love Grow. A 19-year old Ray Stevens played the piano on the session. … Lois Melkonian, who worked with Al on the air, has written a terrific memoir, Hybrid. She includes a beautiful homage to Al Hart ­— with a photo. Hybrid is the kind of life story that makes you turn the page to see what’s going to happen to Lois next. Oh, Hybrid is not about an automobile. It refers to Lois’s heritage — born in India to an Armenian father and a Danish mom. They had a great daughter in any language.

Metropolitan Opera star Patricia Racette was honored by the Merola Opera Program, a San Francisco treasure. Ms. Racette praised Merola for getting her her big break. She charmed everyone in the room at Herbst Theatre. It’s easy to see why she’s a star. The Merola has produced some of the most famous singers and musicians in the world, such as Deborah Voigt … Thomas Hampson … Carol Vaness … Susan Graham … and Anna Netrebko. … Among the supporters in the room at the Herbst was David Stull, president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. We exchanged music school stories. I was a voice major; Mr. Stull played the tuba. “I can tell you a tuba joke,” he whispered. “I can assure you they are rare.” … I’ll bet. … Bobby “Bobcat” Goldthwait and British comic genius Noel Fielding tore it up at The Social Club on Sutter one rainy Sunday last month. Fielding will be the biggest thing to hit the states since Monty Python. “Someone said I’ve been calling Bill Cosby a rapist for 20 years,” said Bobcat. “I had no idea I was right.” Noel observed, “All comedy is mental rape.” I remember Bobby from his days at Cobb’s Comedy Club when it was on Chestnut Street. Now, the site houses a Wells Fargo branch. So much for laughing all the way to the bank. … “But that was back in the day,” murmurs the sweet, sagacious Nicole Huebner. She monitors me for telltale signs of nostalgia. … Yes, it was back in the day. Bobcat muses, “Back in the ’80s, I accepted any gig. I know it’s un-American, but I learned how to quit. Quitting is the way to happiness.” It seems comedians have taken over the jobs that journalists once held. Jody Powell said to me: “The definition of a columnist is someone who hides in the hills during the battle, then comes down afterward to finish off the wounded.”

I was surprised to see the name of Roger Boas, who was reading from his World War II memoir at Books Inc. on Van Ness. What came to mind when I saw his name in the store was not his service to his country (he won the Silver Star); it was the scandal that surrounded a vice squad raid on a house in the Mission in the 1980s where he, the chief administrative officer of San Francisco, was taken into custody for purchasing sex from underage girls. Boas had lost a mayoral bid to Art Agnos. I’m reminded of a 1951 James Cagney film where he portrays an alcoholic newspaperman (gee, what will they think of next?), Lou Marsh. “You pay, and you pay, and you pay,” Marsh repeats under his breath through the movie. … Ah, but that was back in the day.

Now we take you downtown, to Wings Plus on Jones Street. The sidewalk sign reads: “Here’s Today’s Special: Order Two Burgers — Pay for Both!” On the other side: “Come In and Try the Worst Chicken Wings A Yelp Reviewer Ever Had In His Life.'” … In the Marina the other day: two strapping Kids accosting the locals for contributions “to keep kids away from the violence of drugs and from gangs. “The only gangs I see in the Marina are the property owners,” smirked Cosmo Sostenuto. … Now, that’s not nice. Where’s Al Hart, now that we need him? … There was a message on Al’s home answering machine, “Tell us what we missed.” … We miss you, Al. …

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. Tell him what he missed at [email protected].