Ralph George

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Time well spent, or not, during the post-punk days in San Francisco.

Submitted: December 30, 2012

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Submitted: December 30, 2012



Ralph George

Sunshine and the bluest skies I had ever seen welcomed me to Northern California. Growing up in South Florida I was no stranger to blue skies but there was something different about traversing those specific hills and valleys. Looking up from the jagged landscape, it seemed as if you were much closer to the deeper hues of the stratosphere than the reality of being just a few hundred feet above sea level. I had never experienced the sight of a crevasse wall descending below the edge of the road and rising only to terminate abruptly from green and brown to deep blue. It was a sense of space I never got from the flat, sandy plains of Florida sand that had made up most of my childhood. Northern Florida had hills but they all appeared as gently sloping arches trailing into the distance. Or, you could simply stand on an overpass and take in the view.

I was fresh out of the US Navy’s Fire Control Technician School at the Great Lakes Training Center, just north of Chicago and was en route to radar training at the Mare Island Naval Station in Vallejo, California, an hour North of San Francisco. For me, the Navy motto was ringing true: Join and See the World. I had spent the previous four months exploring Chicago and Milwaukee where I had the pleasure of seeing the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and Violent Femmes among others. Having experienced the music scene in New York and Boston on the East Coast, and having spent a bit of time in the Midwest, I was poised to take on some West Coast action. Or what was left of it. The punk movement around the world was a short lived exciting time for those few who happened to be in the right place at the right time. I came into it about two years too late and was left to follow the trail of debris left behind by the pioneers. And, thanks to the US Navy, I would get some highly technical electronics training at the same time. The Navy was the best way to see all of the bands I would have never had the chance to see back home while, hopefully, staying out of jail.

The early 1980s was an odd time for punk music everywhere, and California was still reeling from the initial flurry of activity that died as quickly as it had risen. Classic bands like The Avengers and The Dils had long since disbanded and there was no one left to fill the void. The remaining bands, like the Misfits and Social Distortion, obtained something more aligned to a cult following than a fan base. Bands like X and the Red Hot Chili Peppers opted for the mainstream path. I was extremely anxious to get into the City to discover the secrets to some of the places that had made up the hub for much of the activity during that time. It was to be a very interesting and educational experience, one that would influence my view of cities and the world for the rest of my life.

I walked the streets of Vallejo during the first couple of evenings and found nothing special about the town - one small record shop with the typical new releases and a few tattoo parlors are all that really stay with me. Not having personal transportation, one of the first items on the agenda was to procure and learn the bus schedule into San Francisco. Greyhound was the only option as the transit system did not extend that far.

I woke up early my first Saturday morning on the base, jumped on the first available bus, and was deposited onto the empty streets in the South of Market District of the City. Technically, South of Market is not the same as the Mission District but the homeless got their shopping carts from the same place. This was really the first city I made a goal of seeing as much as I could on foot. Unlike Los Angeles, San Francisco is contained on a peninsula, providing natural boundaries that force you to turn around and head back the way you came unless of course, you go south in which case you will eventually end up in LA. Each street corner held new wonders and excitement. Small book and record shops provided endless hours of window-shopping, and the architecture was nothing like I had seen back East. One of the first things I noticed was how friendly everyone seemed. That feeling was vastly unfamiliar and uncomfortable compared to my familiarity with the “Fuck You!” attitude of New York that I had grown to love so much.

My weekend treks took me to most of the common tourist areas - Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Haight Ashbury (which had been essentially cleansed of hippies by that time), and the Castro District, but I eventually migrated to the vicinity of Columbus Ave and Broadway. This was home to City Lights Bookstore which, at the time, I did not understand the cultural significance of. I just knew they had all the unusual books I had heard about but could never find; most notably, they had everything ever written by William S. Burroughs. Broadway was also home to the punk clubs Mabuhay Gardens and On Broadway, as well as the Stone Toad, where many of the more well-known bands played.

It didn’t take long to establish a weekend routine. I would take the bus into the City from Vallejo, walk it, go record/book shopping most of the day, and then check into the Hotel Sam Wong early in the evening. It was fifteen dollars a night and right on Broadway; definitely sparse and non-descript, no television, but it was clean and quiet. No one in the place spoke English but it didn’t seem to be a problem. I usually had a room overlooking the street with a magnificent view of The Condor Club “Starring Carol Doda.” Right next to it was Big Al’s sporting their classic sign depicting a 1920’s gangster type standing fully erect and brandishing a Tommy-gun. Remarkably, I never made it into either one of them. At the time, my priorities were collecting records and seeing bands. Sex required valuable assets not available to someone with a Seaman Apprentice salary and a serious vinyl habit. I understand that The Condor is San Francisco’s largest porn shop now and Big Al’s is vacant.

Hotel Sam Wong and the strip clubs were only about three blocks from the hub of the punk scene; fancy that. Mabuhay Gardens had been the preeminent punk hangout since the mid-1970s. I remember the excitement at seeing the piss-yellow sign with the bamboo letters hanging at street level. The sign offered Filipino food, tropical cocktails, family entertainment, and a piano bar listed next to the drawing of a swaying palm tree and a coconut drink. There was no indication of the cultural significance or the dress code of the evening clientele. Of the nights I spent there, I don’t remember any food being served. I don’t even remember tables. I believe there was a window in the back that someone would hand lumpia (a type of eggroll) through if you were hungry, and lots of beer, everywhere and on everything. It was really awkward to throw things at the stage because, being underground, the ceilings were extremely low and whatever was thrown just bounced off of the ceiling.

Punk shows started there innocently enough as a way for the restaurant to bring in extra money. Initially, there were very few acts and nowhere to play. Bands needed a place to play, the venue needed cash and Bob’s your uncle, as they say in England. Music promoter Dirk Dirksen got involved and the place soon became the West Coast CBGBs. By the time I arrived in the early 1980s the relationship between the Mabuhay owners and Dirk had cooled and I was a bit surprised to find that all of the good shows were being held by Dirk upstairs in a larger, more proper type of theater, called On Broadway. The club was a classic 1920s theater. The stage was off to the left corner rather than dead center. Long red velvet drapes hung to the sides and it had a capacity for about four hundred people. I would like to say that the presence of a theater environment subdued the raucousness of the crowd but I can only venture to say that it was a factor of not more than 0.6. There were still broken bottles on the floor that people would dance on and fall into. Things were a bit different then because if you fell into broken glass you just got stomped on. It’s a much more touchy-feely environment now in that most people look out for each other and get picked up as soon as they go down. On Broadway also had proper theater-type seats in the back for the girls and lurkers to watch the chaos. They also acted as a triage station for the wounded boys coming back from the front lines. I had a few conversations with girls in between sets and found that although they all loved the music, they hated that they had to sit in the back because it was so dangerous up front. I spent some time in the pit but I preferred to stand off to the side and observe. By the end of the night everyone’s shirt had been torn off and most kids were sweaty messes and I didn’t feel like explaining to the base guards what happened. Maybe that’s why the girls sat in the back after all.

I think the first gig I caught was The Vandals. They were opening for somebody that may or may not have been The Descendents but that’s the band that sticks in my head. I was standing out front with an arm full of records waiting for the doors to open when the lead singer came around the corner and we started bullshitting. He was pissed because they were getting screwed by the club owners. He said, “Y'know what? We're gonna play until they kick us off the stage. Fuck 'em.” I shrugged my shoulders, “Fuck ‘em.” Most punk sets are over in about 30 minutes because they usually fit in about two dozen songs in that time, and that’s normally about all they know. The Vandals were still going strong after forty-five minutes. Eventually the power was cut and the stage went dark. They continued for another minute or so without electricity but the music didn't quite have the same impact so they walked off the stage.

Other memorable gigs were 45 Grave where someone stuck a toilet plunger in the middle of the stage and screamed for the lead singer, Dinah Cancer, to sit on it. That went on for most of the show. Every time she would throw it somewhere it ended back, stuck on the floor, in the middle of the stage. I talked with John Doe from X for about twenty minutes as he smoked a cigarette before their gig. He was a pretty down to earth fellow. No attitude. We mostly talked about the band not having any money. Accessibility is one of the things I continue to love about the club environment. The band hangs out in the crowd until it’s time to play. They get up from the bar, step on stage, do their thing, jump down, and go back to the bar.

One of my independent discoveries, and later substantiated in book form, was that none of the kids at the clubs lived in the City. All of them drove, bussed, or trained it in from the suburbs; much like the bastard kids coming over from Jersey to wreck Philly and go home the next day. Despite the violence, cliques, morons, attitudes, I actually met some good kids. A few didn’t know what to think of me because I wasn’t a typical, or regular, fixture at the shows. They thought it was odd but I just shrugged it off, not telling them about the Navy thing until much later in the evening, if it came up at all.

Once, after a Redd Kross show I was chatting with a girl named Christine who asked if I was going to the after-show party. I told her I knew nothing about it, as I had just got into town. She said she wanted to go but not by herself. About midnight we ended up walking to an old abandoned five story building in, where else -- the Mission District. It was a rent raising party for someone the band knew and they were playing a set to help out. I don’t know how they got power to the amps because all I remember were construction work lights hung everywhere and a crusty bathroom tub cradled two silver beer kegs; no ice but there were cups. We paid our five bucks and had all the free beer, music and conversation we could handle for the evening. The morning sun eventually pierced the broken window panes as the punk-zombiefied party goers stumbled into the parking lot and spread out through the quiet city streets. Christine had to be home sometime in the morning so we decided to meet again later in the day at City Lights Book Store. Somehow I missed her in the afternoon but she left a note with the guy behind the desk saying how much fun she had. At that time there was no internet, Facebook, or Twitter, and I didn’t have a phone so I couldn’t call so I never saw her again after that morning. I still don’t know if I told her what I did for a living. I don’t remember what I told a lot of people about what I did or what my name was back then. When you are in and out of places like that so fast, rarely do you have time for lasting relationships so it can be easy, and fun, just to make shit up.


As I mentioned at the outset, the reason I was in that part of the country in the first place was to go to radar school. In all, there were about six of us. I had spent some time with about half of them elsewhere in electronics school and the others were new acquaintances. David Axton and I had been assigned together since boot camp and we were actually going from there to the same ship after school was finished. Most days consisted of a couple hours of circuit diagram review and troubleshooting tips. The instructors would then leave us alone to study the remainder of the morning and afternoon. We actually spent most of the time pitching coins. It eventually got to the point where we would all show up to class with pockets full of coins, weighing down our trousers in the morning. The winner usually bought all the beer in the evening.

After a month or so, a few of them became curious about my weekend adventures and asked if I would show them around the City. David was especially anxious to go because he grew up in Darlington, South Carolina and had never been to a city before. And how did I remember he was from Darlington, South Carolina? It’s because anytime the subject of where people were from came up, he would shout to all within ear distance, “I’m from Darlington, South Carolina! Do you know what they do in Darlington, South Carolina? They race cars. Yup. That’s what they do there. They race cars.” So, now I know, forever and always, that they race cars in Darlington, South Carolina. And I hate car racing.

David, Alex (a turtle-looking fellow with glasses), one other unmemorable bloke, and I piled on the bus the next Saturday morning for a bit of sightseeing. I had to forgo my usual ritual of dialing the gig halls and listening to the recorded message to see who was playing that weekend. It was an unmemorable event save two occurrences. I was reluctant to let others in on my secret, cheap hotel room for fear they would return and I would have to find more expensive lodging elsewhere. Upon check-in, the old Chinese man behind the desk, who I had not heard speak a word of English, looked up at us all. “You no stay here! You sailors! You have paaties!” he said rather loudly. The others looked at me. I looked at them, dumbfounded, and explained as calmly as I could to the man that I had been staying there every weekend for more than a month and I had not been trouble, right? I told him that all we wanted was a place to sleep and any “paatites” would happen outside the hotel. He eventually reluctantly relented and we paid for two rooms between the four of us.

I don’t remember what we did that night but I assume we had fun. We all awoke about ten o’clock and decided to go get breakfast before catching the bus back to the base. Alex stayed behind to shower and rest up a bit more from the previous night. Upon our return, he greeted us with a great smile and said “You guys are not going to believe what just happened!” Apparently, there was a knock on the door after we left. He was going to take a shower and thought it was one of us coming back for something. When he opened the door one of the maids was there. She entered the room like she lived there and rattled off something he did not understand. She then smiled at him, pulled his towel off, pushed him back onto the bed, and promptly proceeded to cure his hangover by giving him a blow job. When he finished, she got up and left as quickly and quietly as Batman after handing over a criminal. No money exchange, nothing. We didn’t believe him at first but he had no reason to lie or even to make up a story like that. It was a few minutes later that I got upset. I had been staying there every weekend for over a month and nada! Zip! Zilch! We leave Turtle Boy alone in the room for 30 minutes and boom! Literally. Does a bit for the old ego, eh? Anyway, I hope he has memories for a lifetime, or at least some form of incurable venereal disease.

So, it’s back to the base and time is getting close for us to graduate and go out into the fleet and keep these radar systems humming (ahem!). One of our instructors, Petty Officer Sestrin, lived in on-base housing and decided to throw us all a party the weekend before we left. I had never seen any military housing outside the dormitory-like barracks I had stayed in at various locations over the previous year. I was surprised to see an entirely different side of the military life. He lived in what appeared to be a normal single-family ranch-style house on a normal street in a relatively normal looking neighborhood.

I arrived about one in the afternoon to find the barbeque full of burgers and hot dogs. He had a beer fridge in his dining room with a freshly tapped keg of Hamm’s. I was never a fan of Hamm’s but I have always been a fan of “free” so, like the others, I endeavored to keep my glass full throughout the day. Events progressed swimmingly as the day turned into evening and evening into night. I was in the dining room with the kitchen to my back about ten o’clock and was about ready to head back to the barracks for the evening. There were about five or six people in the kitchen discussing something I had no interest in and was not paying attention when suddenly the conversation grew to a cacophony and then the shouting began, followed by a sudden silence. “Oh, shit!” someone screamed as I turned toward the kitchen. The story, as I understood it from eight feet away, was that someone was talking about how to defend themselves from a kick. That led to someone saying they knew best how to defend against a kick using a knife. Then someone got kicked. Next thing, Petty Officer Sestrin somehow managed to slice the back of David’s leg from the top of his calf, down through his Achilles to his ankle.

By the time I had turned to see what had happened David was already on the floor writhing in a pool of blood. Phone calls were made and shortly thereafter Naval Investigative Services showed up to take control of the situation and interview all of the remaining revelers. David was taken to the hospital and Petty Officer Sestrin was taken to jail. Neither one showed up for class on Monday.

David had met a girl at our previous duty station in Great Lakes and she came out to help with his long recuperation. I was on a plane headed back east the following weekend. It was an interesting eight weeks. I learned a lot about a lot of things during that time but there would be plenty more adventure and intrigue to follow. I was going to a ship based out of Washington State and I knew I had not seen the last of the City I had fallen in love with.


Fast forward a year or so to early 1984. I had spent a few weeks visiting friends in London and worked my way back to the ship, the USS Camden (AOE-2), located at a submarine base in Bremerton, Washington. The ship had just pulled into port for a year of maintenance shortly before I reported for duty, so I was able to spend a great deal of time exploring Seattle, an hour away by ferry.

Once we were ship shape again, the ship spent the next few years lumbering up and down the West Coast when not on tour in the Western Pacific. In between the WesPac cruises we spent time in San Diego, Long Beach, and the Bay Area of California. The ship had a few features that put it at a slight disadvantage. At eight hundred feet long it was larger than most vessels, being about two hundred feet shorter than an aircraft carrier. Also, being a supply ship with a cargo that consisted primarily of bombs and fuel it was quite dangerous and inelegant. Subsequently, we were commonly berthed in out of the way, difficult to reach places. For most of the port visits to the Bay Area we pulled into Alameda Naval Station, just Southeast of Oakland. I thought Alameda was fantastic. You could get to the City using public transportation with the minor inconvenience of changing modes from subway to bus in Oakland. In all of my travels, the only place in the world I have ever felt a bit uncomfortable was Oakland, possibly because I had never spent time there in the daylight. I was usually stranded there at three in the morning trying to find a way back to the ship. Although it was a short cab ride away, no one was picking anyone up on the street at that time for anything.

For my first port call, while attached to the ship, we pulled into port extremely early and, as part of the deck crew, I did not have time to appreciate the landscape and skyline from the aquatic vantage point. During my first return visit I bought a copy of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. I had previously lived a very portable life until I found a home on the ship. I could never accumulate more than I could carry, or mail back home for safe keeping. One of the strangest feelings I have had was spending the day in some unknown, unexplored place, then being back in your own bed later that evening, or the next morning as the case may be.

As I expected, the video was available at the first porn shop I entered. It cost about eighty dollars but I didn’t care. I had a bit of rare and slightly controversial movie memorabilia/history that I tucked away in my bag under my bunk awaiting “movie night.” At that time no one expected the film would celebrate a 25th anniversary edition readily available at the closest consumer electronics store.

I continued to wander and explore the City until the ship was underway a few days later. We left late in the morning and I was looking forward to a grand view of the City on one side of the ship and the hills of Marin County on the other. I am sure it would have been a spectacular view with one small exception: the fog was thicker than Divine’s eye shadow. I would be remiss to not include a brief moment describing the famous San Francisco fog. There is a distinct difference between the fog of London and the fog of San Francisco. In London, the fog is dark and hangs on you like a drunk at a Grateful Dead concert. In San Francisco, the cool opaque air chills you but doesn’t hold you down. You always seem to know that just a few hundred feet above you the sun is shining brightly. There is also a sense of wonder as the fog is lifting. Buildings, bridges, and communication towers pierce and retreat from the exquisitely billowed masses. In London, it just doesn’t go away. I think that city may have been in the same fog bank since about 1957.

That particular morning, the white haze surrounded the ship in all directions. I could not see the bow from the stern and vice versa. The antenna tower was visible just above the top deck and disappeared into the murkiness. I don’t even remember seeing the surface of the water from the main deck. Access to open water can only be gained via passage under the Golden Gate Bridge. I stood on deck, staring into grey nothingness. Horns mounted on the bridge sounded. The ship’s horn bellowed at regular intervals as the Captain guided the ship through the bay. Horn blasts echoed louder as the expanse of the bridge came into view momentarily, passed above the antenna tower then disappeared a moment later. I never could get used to the sight of that bridge directly overhead and always made a point to be in front of the antennas for fear that we would clip it, causing the entire assembly to come crashing down.

We all spent the first day underway comparing notes and exchanging adventure stories. I asked around and found that no one had ever heard of Pink Flamingos, so about ten of us fired up the VCR in the technician shop for an evening of celluloid entertainment. What followed was a volley of: “Oh, no they didn’t just do that!” “What the fuck?” and “Aaawwww, that shit ain’t right!” I am sure there were more creative expletives as well. We finally all, well most of us, made it to the end of the film and the final scene sealed the deal. “That’s not real! How’d they do that? No way! Aaaawwww!” It didn’t take long for word to get around the ship about this sick movie that “Fontaine in Fire Control” had. It was exactly the next day when my Division Officer stopped by my workspace. “I hear you have a rather interesting movie?” he inquired. I liked my DO and used to address him as “Gordy” when I was making my mid-watch security rounds. “All secure, Gordy!” I would snap with a salute. He asked to borrow the video to watch up in the Officers’ Quarters that evening. I didn’t see the tape returned to me for about two weeks. I have no idea who, or how many people, watched it but from the looks I was getting after the loan, I knew it made it through, at least, the Chief’s Quarters. The XO addressed me by name and smiled a few weeks later, to which I didn’t know how to respond. By the time I departed a few years later I think the film ended up being required viewing by all new shipmates. Plus, after three months straight at sea, everyone was starved for entertainment, no matter how depraved.


Shortly thereafter, I met Ed Spinoza. He was an Electronics Technician from New Mexico, slightly bigger than me, with jet black hair, a moustache, and goatee. We had equipment located in the same room together and soon found we had much in common. He was much more into British pop than punk but I had a rather large collection of Human League, Tears for Fears, and the like to carry on an intelligent conversation about the British music scene. We both also read Trouser Press. By that time the punk scene was virtually non-existent so we started to hang out and see shows together. We also shared a love of San Francisco and, as the ship entered port, once again it would be the first of many adventures, this time with a partner in crime. We ended up seeing several shows such as The Bangles, Bow Wow Wow, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Three O’Clock, and others, mostly at the Stone Toad, across the street from On Broadway.

We had found ourselves getting into the habit of buying a few 40-ounce malt liquors at the end of the evening and wandering the streets, popping into whatever establishment happened to peak our interest. We would set the bottles next to a trash can, wander in, and then pick them up on the way out. During one of these walks I was convinced someone was following us. It was either that, or the guy had made the effort to frequent the same stores we had for about an hour. I confronted him and told him to quit it. He got defensive, said a few words then left. Less than two minutes later there were two police officers standing in the doorway ten feet away, arms outstretched and holding guns pointed at us. We were led outside, arms raised, and asked to place our hands on the same trash can that nestled our beer. The guy I had cheesed off had called the cops and reported an armed robbery in the place. The police found no weapons and let us go as the proprietor was yelling at us not to come back. We picked up our beer and continued walking.

Sometime closer to sunrise than midnight, we ended up on Market Street looking for the entrance to a BART station when we stumbled across a relatively attractive lone twenty-something girl standing in the middle of the sidewalk screaming that she needed to somebody to hug. We obliged and she wandered off hugging other strangers, street people, and anyone else she could wrap her arms around. Maybe I confuse friendly with drunk in this case. We ended up most times sleeping on the cold concrete in the entrance of the BART station with a few other people, usually of the homeless persuasion - they clutching all of their worldly possessions, us clutching sacks of vinyl.

I feel the need to sidetrack for a moment on the value of a good quality leather jacket. Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes the only required possession you would need while traveling is a towel. I would argue vehemently for the leather jacket. It is warm, fairly indestructible, and depending upon the circumstance, either can keep you out of trouble or make you the first one the police seek out as a suspect. The key is the type of leather jacket. A fancy Ambercrombie & Fitch jacket is more likely to get you robbed and stabbed than a black motorcycle jacket. Muggers spend less time hassling people with ratty jeans and jackets mostly because the muggers have more money than the people they are hassling. Another important point is that the jacket cannot appear to be new. Big mistake. A new black motorcycle jacket makes for a bigger target than Anne Hathaway’s crotch at a movie premier. After obtaining a new leather jacket the immediate goal is to make it look used -- very used, and do so very quickly. Sleep in it for a month, preferably outside on a concrete slab. The bushes at the San Francisco Public Library, using a six-pack for a pillow, would also work, but I do not recommend it for long term accommodations.

The terrain north of Broadway Street rises to Pioneer Park and has a fabulous view of the City. Ed and I spent many hours sitting on the sidewalk outside some unknown person’s house, contemplating life while taking in the view and drinking malt liquor. We tried to be courteous and would move on when asked. One particularly late evening, as we sat talking, 40’s in hand, we were approached by a slightly pudgy, elderly man.

“Excuse me,” he said as we rose to relocate. “Do either of you know how to use a can opener?” We looked at each other incredulously.

“Huh?” we said in unison.

“I’m watching a friend’s cat while he’s away and he has this newfangled can opener that I cannot, for the life of me, figure out,” he replied.

“Tell you what, you let us use the bathroom and we’ll show you how to use the can opener.”

“Sounds fair to me,” he said. We followed him up the stairs to the top apartment. There were a few pieces of modern art placed around the interior but nothing spectacular, with the exception of the panoramic view of the city from the oversized picture window in the living room. There was a telescope in the center of it pointing, as all telescopes do in the City, down instead of skyward.

Cat fed and bladders emptied, it was time for introductions and departures. He said his name was Ralph George and explained that the apartment belonged to an actor in the lead role of the traveling production of La Cage Aux Folles. The guy was paying four thousand dollars a month for an apartment to stand empty, with the exception of a cat that would surely have starved to death if it were not for Ed and me. Ralph asked if we wanted to come by his place for a few beers and conversation. Since Ed and I had been previously doing both we decided to continue at Ralph’s.

We walked up the street half a block to his place. He moved a dining chair that was propped underneath the handle an old Frigidaire in the dining room and pulled out three Heinekens.

“The door is broke and I never got around to fixing it,” he explained as he propped the chair at an angle under the heavy door handle. He went on to say that he was 78 years old and a retired school book salesman, and he had been in San Francisco, in that very apartment, in fact, since the 1950s. He walked us through the living room to a set of French doors on the opposite side. The doors led to an outdoor patio and up a set of stairs along the side to another rooftop deck, covered in various potted plants. I would go out on a limb to say that very few places in the world could rival the expansive view of any city than from the one at that very spot. “Incredible!” I think was the word we both used as we ascended the wooden stairway. The other amazing fact was, due to rent control, Ralph was only paying three hundred fifty dollars a month for the place. My first thought was that the landlord was probably really pissed at this guy.

We talked, well, mostly listened to Ralph talk, late into the night and he eventually insisted that we stay the night. We didn’t need much convincing because the other option was the alley next to the gated BART station. He offered to buy us breakfast at his local diner the next morning. Ed and I knew he just wanted to show off his new sailor friends to all the queens in the place and we obliged. The blue haired women were considerably older than the blue haired punk crowd but we had a fantastic time and chatted with all his friends. We thanked him and left for the ship at midday. He gave us his number told us we had to call any time we were in town and that we always had a place to stay.

We took him up on the offer about two months later. The first thing he did when he met us at the door was gave us a key and told us not to worry, just come and go as we pleased. Many stays later we were still waiting for the catch, waking up in the middle of the night to the cast of Rosemary’s Baby or something to that effect. Some days we would come and go without seeing him. We would just leave a note thanking him for the hospitality. When we did cross paths in the morning he would always buy us breakfast and wanted to talk about what we had been up to.

Ed ended up leaving the Navy for El Paso, Texas. I participated in one final tour up and down the west coast before my departure. During that trip I was flown off of the ship in a giant twin bladed CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter for a week of training classes. The pilots offered a quick tour of San Francisco, whipping around the Transamerica Pyramid and back out over the bay. We landed at Treasure Island, a man-made land mass between San Francisco and Oakland. The school wasn’t that exciting but they did have a soda machine in the barracks that spit out beer for seventy-five cents each.

I shuttled into The City one night to say goodbye to Ralph for what ended up being the last time. We talked for a while and I gave him back the house key and thanked him for the hospitality. He gave me a great bear hug and thanked me for the company.


Years later, one of the benefits of working in the Bahamas was that I had three weeks of paid vacation every three months. Since we did not have a home in the States, my wife and I would spend our time staying with friends or family and traveling. Regina had heard the stories and wanted to see for herself what about the City had made such an impact on me.

As luck would have it, her cousin Jen was the concierge for a swanky bed and breakfast hotel in the Presidio. We arrived and found parking about eleven in the evening. It was easier for her to put us up for free in a room with a view of the Golden Gate than to figure out other accommodations.

I always admired Jen’s fierce independence. Since I have known her she has known what she wanted to work and to make it happen. Her move to San Francisco showed bigger cajónes than I had. She was living, at the time, in a Victorian house in the Castro with a couple of other people. I don’t think any of them could afford to pay attention, as everyone I know living in a city spends so much money to live there that they can rarely enjoy the environment. They graciously allowed us to crash on the spare couches.

I checked the phone book listing for Ralph but, as I had expected, the entry was missing. As was standard practice, we performed a different search to see what bands were playing while we were there. We happened to be starting our Lounge phase and found Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers playing at Café du Nord. “You’re not going there, are you?” asked one of the roommates. “That’s a vampire club.” “Even better,” as far as we were concerned. The club and the band turned out to be outstanding finds and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Sadly, the place didn’t turn into the Titty Twister in From Dusk Till Dawn and we were spared the vampires.

The next day I decided that I needed to get a haircut and we set out to find a barber. We found a place right up the street from where a guy in a curly blond wig and tutu was performing an interpretive dance on the street corner. The shop walls were covered in drawings by Tom of Finland (look it up), and a coat rack in the corner held all of the hats from the Village People. It was probably the most fun I had getting a haircut since the ancient drooling barber in New Mexico. The barber was enthralled with my curls and I think they even called people in off the street to look at the curls falling to the floor. Regina refuses to go with me for haircuts nowadays, but I guarantee she would take me there again any time.

It was good to see that time had continued to be kind to San Francisco; unlike the Disneyfied mess they turned Times Square into on the other side of the country. I’m also glad I met Ralph and hope Ed and I had made half an impression on him as he did on us. I am also glad I was able to share it with someone I love, in Regina, as it was to be one of the first of numerous adventures we would continue to accumulate.

Next time, I think we’ll resurrect the forty-ounce malt liquor tour.

© Copyright 2017 Robert Fontaine. All rights reserved.

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