This month’s North Beach Sketches includes a bit of this and a bit of that — Mormons, vigilantes, escaped convicts, some recollections of a rock ‘n’ roll jam band, some memories about a jazz icon, and a restaurant update. Come on in, the water’s fine.
A STREET NAMED BRANNAN
Here in San Francisco many of our streets are named for notables who were around in the early days of the city. For example, Brannan Street was named for Samuel Brannan, a hotheaded Mormon who arrived in the tiny village of Yerba Buena in 1846 with 200 followers. He wanted to start a Mormon enclave here in what soon would become San Francisco. Brigham Young and his followers beat Brannan to the religious settlement idea when Young found the Great Salt Lake. Brannan instead went on to publish the first newspaper in the tiny bayside community and became the father of San Francisco journalism. When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill on Jan. 24, 1848, Brannan not only published the startling news but also took off for the gold fields himself. Later, he was a prominent member and spokesman for San Francisco’s Committee for Vigilance that lynched some bad guys. Think about this next time you drive down Brannan Street.
A STREET NAMED GREEN
In North Beach, one of our prominent streets is named for a notable as well. Consider Green Street. It was named for T.H. Green, a successful early San Francisco merchant — or so the story goes. But T.H. Green’s name was an alias. His real name was Paul Geddes, and he had escaped from a Pennsylvania prison and made his way west to San Francisco.
These days in the single block of Green Street, between Grant and Columbus avenues, there are no fewer than a dozen restaurants and saloons like Gigi’s Sotto Mare and Gino & Carlo. Check ’em out.
TRIPE WITH POLENTA
Well, another North Beach landmark has bit the dust. But it may return. One of my favorite restaurants in North Beach has closed. It’s the U.S. Restaurant over at 515 Columbus. Plumbing problems, landlord problems, and just plain problems! My favorites there were the lamb shoulder with lima beans and the tripe with polenta. Arthur Bloomfield, one-time San Francisco Examiner classical music critic, and a trencherman of major proportions, ate at U.S. Restaurant daily. I ate there once or twice a week, sitting at the counter where I could watch my lunch being prepared in those hot sauté pans. The proprietors, host Gaspare Giudice and chief cook Benjamin Ruiz, are planning to reopen — in North Beach, of course. What space are they looking at? Over on Green Street, in the spot formerly occupied by HRD Smokin Grill, a Korean barbecue joint.
LINDA FROM ORINDA
If you ever thought about being a Deadhead — following Jerry Garcia’s jam band, the Grateful Dead, around the country for fun and games — you will like this anecdote. If you never thought about it, you may like this anyway. The other day I was sitting at the counter in Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe having my afternoon espresso. You never know whom you will run into at Mario’s. On this particular day, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned to face a woman.
“Hi, I’m Linda from Orinda, and you should write about me in your column,” she said.
Turns out she — Linda Kelly — was a Deadhead and wrote a book about it. Or rather, she recorded the oral histories of many Grateful Dead, roadies, musicians, record producers, hangers-on, and true Deadheads. The book was published in 1995 but Linda updated it a few months ago, and there’s a new edition out. Sensibly enough, it’s called Deadheads: Stories from Fellow Artists, Friends and Followers of the Grateful Dead.
As Linda proceeded to convince me to write about her, I felt like I had stepped into that great movie Almost Famous about Cameron Crowe, a teenage journalist on his first assignment from Rolling Stone, who in 2000 won an Oscar for the semi-autobiographical screenplay.
In the original book, Linda said she was not a Deadhead. “I’m more of an anthropologist.” In the updated book she says: “To this day I don’t know if I would call myself a Deadhead. I’ve never worn tie-dye.” That’s how it was truckin’ with Linda from Orinda.
REMEMBERING ORNETTE COLEMAN
As I write this column, news comes that Ornette Coleman has died at 85. He was an iconic figure in jazz. The first time I heard him was in 1959 at the Monterey Jazz Festival. He played a white plastic alto saxophone and his music was baffling, strange to my ears. He played his song “Lonely Woman,” and I thought it sounded like a lonely woman. It was bluesy, but dissonant and atonal, with shifting tempos, or maybe with no tempo at all. Last time I heard him was a few years ago, again at the Monterey Jazz Festival. That time he didn’t sound so strange. Ornette Coleman hadn’t changed, but my ears had.
Many years ago, he dropped into my tiny North Beach office in the Belli Building on Montgomery. Someone told him I was a good publicist and that I loved his music. Well, part of that was true. Coleman knew his music was revolutionary, but he believed in it and wanted more people to hear it. Specifically, he wanted me to arrange a concert for him at the San Francisco Opera House. I tried but couldn’t bring it off. If he were alive today, that chore would be easy.