Saturday, November 26, 2011

Your Bay Area Dive Bar Jukebox Song of the Week:

the original album cover for the 2001 album, Party Music.
 The Oakland hip-hop group, The Coup, had the misfortune of being only days away from releasing an album with the cover depicting the bands members, Boots Riley and Pam The Funkstress, blowing up the World Trade Center buildings with a guitar tuner when September 11th, 2001 occurred.  Starting in 1993 the band's albums titles include Kill My Landlord, Genocide and Juice, and Steal This Album with lyrics that were sharply anti-capitalist, critical of police and political radical, but always funny, sardonic and deft.  The strange coincidence with the album cover incident drew the Sauron like eye of conservative pundits who obviously did not find the humor in The Coup's lyrics (these are people that actually consider Rush Limbaugh funny.  Think about it, the funniest conservative stand-up comedian is Dennis Miller.  You see my point).  However, the Fox News target audience is not the same as The Coup's and the attention probably only gave the band positive publicity.  Their next album, 2006's Pick A Bigger Weapon was their biggest seller to date, with songs in showing up in video games and movies, including Superbad.  The whole summer of 2006 I couldn't go anywhere without hearing "My Favorite Mutiny",which is an incredible song, but why I'm choosing a different track off that album, the adroit ode to the heroic shoplifters, "I Love Boosters":

Thursday, November 24, 2011

barstool historians

    The quarter is winding down and we are at an end of the regular posts that covered a different bar every week.  Now I’ll be focusing more on the analysis, but I do plan to have a few bits of new history in the next couple weeks.

    Bars are historically unique for these reasons:
    1) Their history is collective.  Each person who goes to any given bar is adding their personal story to the larger, shared story.  Bars are touchstones, each night is a snapshot of the neighborhood or community that the bar serves.  Regulars will even be able use references as in, “Were you there that night that…?” or “Remember that old bartender who used to…?”  The history of the bar is often passed down to the successive generations of patrons.
    2) Good bars stay open for a very long time.  Everybody knows serving alcohol is a recession proof business that never goes out of fashion.  Certain places are undoubtedly trendier than others, but even as bars close they always reopen, as another bar.  Bars that are able to inspire loyalty will always be able to find new patrons as the old ones phase out.
    3) People go to bars for the express purpose of socializing.  It can be everything from a source to the news of the day to where one discusses the finer points of Proust.  Also you’re much more likely to talk to people you wouldn’t have otherwise at a bar.  I’ve sat at the same table with a lawyer and drug dealer having a engaging conversation about immigration reform.  Such a cross-section of intermingling people adds to the richness of the larger history.
an example of the dumb things people do at bars
    4) Alcohol is not just a social lubricant, but it makes a person dramatic and drastic.  If patrons were just sitting around talking, not much would happen there.  Add booze into the mix and relationships are passionately spawned or hotly ended (sometimes in the same night).  Fights break out, friendships are formed, baseball is exciting, dancing happens!  I’ve seen people who dance sober on TV, but I’ve never met one of them.
    As I found out this collective history is not always easy to nail down.  In my Kingfish post (see Nov. 11th post) I realized how few people ever keep an official history of bars and, believe it or not, stories passed down from one drunk to another are not always the most accurate.  Another problem is that many of the barstool historians aren’t able to see the forest for the trees and tend to strong on gossip within their lifetime at the bar, but a little weak on historical significance.
    This does not diminish the importance of the role bars play or what they say about a community.  The Kingfish is fighting for its survival by attempting to quantify the historical significance it has played in the neighborhood.  In smaller towns, like Bolinas and Port Costa, the bar was a major focal point for the surrounding people, serving as something akin to a town square.  I witnessed people not just coming in to get a drink, but to eat lunch and chat or just find out what was going on about town.  Telling the history of the bar is telling the history of community and vise versa.
    Vesuvio and Specs, put on the map by Beat culture in North Beach, are now used to define identity.  These days the two bars share a basically interchangeable cast of regulars and there is defiantly the feeling of a proud subculture within the North Beach community based on the collective bar history.  The regulars at those bars revel in the tradition they joined by drinking alongside the ghosts of their heroes.
    Heinold’s First and Last Chance was the anomaly here.  The community of sailors, fisherman and rugged writers has long since left the marina we now call Jack London Square.  Few people live or even work in the touristy area so it is a destination bar now, a place to sit in the sun with a gimlet (my favorite sun-sitting cocktail).  But because the saloon was not able to evolve, and proprietors have been keen enough to maintain the history, it stands like a monument, preserved in amber, to a lost era.  Defining what that era is might be tricky, spanning the 1880’s to the 1960’s (when George Heinold died), but one gets the impression little changed in the bar in those 80 years (other than the floor sinking that is).
    The Last Chance is also exceptional in that it does have an official record.  Every other bar either was a challenge trying to track down written sources on its history, but George Heinold wrote down the history of his father’s saloon in the early 30’s, which was just about the time he took it over himself.  The record was then updated in the 70’s with another book by a regular named Otha Wearin.  It is likely that Johnny Heinold’s relationship with Jack London made it historically notable while the bar was still relatively young.  If the owner of Merchants Saloon (or whatever it was called in the 1890’s) three blocks away had given Jack London a dictionary, would that be the destination bar today, standing perfectly persevered, rather than walls covered in spray paint?

    So these bars tell us something about the history of the Bay Area, what is that?  If these bars were in Chicago with similar opening dates it is likely they would have been centers for industrial labor strife for immigrate populations.  If I was writing in Philadelphia I’d be visiting Revolutionary era taverns, probably many that claim Ben Franklin as a patron.  In New Orleans… man, that would be a rich area for historical bars, somebody should do that.
    My point is the story of our bars is nothing short of the history of the West.  Of California itself.  I’ve spanned the entirety of this state’s history since it joined the Union (and even some time before) and I’ve been able to see some of the great moments in the Bay Area’s past play out in the stories of five different buildings.  The history of each of these bars are tales of reinvention and of seizing possibilities.  Let’s go through chronologically:
    Smiley’s Schooner Saloon (c. 1851), constructed in the boom time of new California, on the land of a Mexican Ranchero, by a sea captain who carefully danced around the temperance leagues of the ranchers.  Through many names, owners and incarnations the place as stood on the edge of the Pacific for 150 years in a town so hippie that this guy leads parades:

    The First and Last Chance Saloon (1884), built by a man who came from back east as a dock worker to start his own bar, then a new one because he couldn’t bare to be far from the sea water.  Even the name is a reference to turn-of-the-century Oakland’s status as a world class urban port.  The home away from home to Jack London, who went from being an illiterate scavenger to one of the most famous men in the world with his stories of life in the West.  I mean, really, is there anybody more California than Jack London, other than maybe Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”?
    The Kingfish Pub (1922), a bait shop serving booze on the sly turned a neighborhood institution, that is now repeated threatened by developers looking to build condos.  There are no celebrities at the Kingfish, whatever winning team you happen to be pitching for, you’re going to have to put your name up on the shuffle board and wait like everybody else.
    Vesuvius (1948), the favorite watering hole of the Beats, who were only part of a long line of bohemian romancers of the West, leaving all points East in seeking freedom of body, mind and soul on the world’s last coast.  The 60’s liberal, free-thinking reputation of San Francisco arguably grew out of the 50’s artistic Beat movement, which drew thousands of young On The Road readers to the Bay.   And conversely, the counter part to Vesuvio, Specs Twelve Adler Museum Café (1968), became so because as every good scene gets watered down once the word gets out to all the Johnny-come-latelies (hippies), truly hip are compelled to relocate somewhere ever darker and weirder.
    Finally, my personal favorite, The Warehouse Café (c. 1967), a bar in the 1886 warehouse built by a man who fostered a town out of desolate and isolated grasslands with sheer ambition, innovation and can-do American grit.  Every iconic image of the Wild West played out in Port Costa, from the raucous lawlessness of a boomtown to the nearly abandoned ghost town.  And then only to be rescued in the modern age on the hopes of another man who could not find personal, artistic and sexual freedom anywhere else, so he decided to make a community of his own.  The Warehouse in this era has been a gay bar, a cowboy bar, a biker bar and now it’s a bar for anybody whose idea of fun could be sleeping in a 19th century whorehouse.

    I had gotten so comfortable with bars I like as a places of enjoyment, that I thought of their history as mere pieces of trivia, not tying their microscopic narratives into the larger history of the Bay Area.  If these bars were people they would have valuable oral histories.  There are few places one can go to that are able to span so many generations are still open and functioning business.     
    I began this project with a cynical opinion of how Americans publicly venerate and the willful inaccuracy of collective memory, but over the coarse of this blog I’ve been come into new thinking of what history can be.  Next week’s post will be about the possibilities and aspects of how this project applies to field of Public History.

1. taken by Ami Colbert Messina of author at the Kingfish Pub.
2. taken from Smiley's website.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Your Bay Area Dive Bar Jukebox Song of the Week:

Like Rodger Collins, Jesse James was part of the WWII era migration of African-Americans to the East Bay.  James McClelland was born in 1943 in Eldorado, AR, but his father was a longshoreman who brought the family to Richmond, CA.  As a young man he would work in one of the local chemical plants by day and sing in clubs by night.  He was given the name Jesse James by a MC who couldn’t pronounce his name correctly.  Under the new moniker he had a string of small hits in the 60’s, but his biggest hit by far came in 1967 with “Believe In Me Baby Part 1” which hit number one on the R & B charts.
That’s about all I know about James other than this is one damn good song.

"pretty civilized,"- Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and Hotel, Bolinas

    This week we’re going way out: geographically, culturally and chronologically.  From the popular day trip destination of  Stinson Beach in West Marin you can hardly see the town of Bolinas that hugs the north side of the lagoon, stashed away in the trees.  The road from Highway 101 to Bolinas is a long, curvy trek over the mountain that leads into the lush valley of Muir Woods; then along the coast, with the drive no less winding and a view of the vast expanse of the Pacific I so rarely see regardless of daily proximity to it.  Since I had to navigate the switchbacks and keep an eye out for hardly existent signage, I was only able to appreciate the scenery in momentary glances.  But what really had me ill at ease was the knowledge that I was going to have to make this return trip after however many drinks Smiley’s Schooner Saloon required of me to get my story.  It didn’t help that I made enough wrong turns or what I thought were wrong turns that required me to double back that I made about half a dozen u-turns.  All the while I could see the sun slipping lower toward the ocean. I cursed myself for my late start and damned the entire concept of Daylight Savings and its recent arbitrary lapse.  Winter hours are the bane of all people who sleep until noon then spend a hour watching the Daily Show and checking email before doing school assignments that involve drinking alcohol at remote bars on the other side of national parks at the furthest edge of the North American continent, at the end of the fucking earth itself.  By the time I reached Smiley’s my stress over the drive ironically lead me to a point where I was ready to skip the beer and get a scotch.
Could this bay be the same as...

...this bay?  Elia says no.
    The Bolinas Bay has been at the end of the earth since Europeans went as far West as they could go before they met the East.  I’m sure the Coast Milwok Indians who had occupied the area for about 3000 years1 would have said they were right in the middle of it all before these smelly white guys on huge boats showed up and started holding freaky religious services.  I am, of course, referencing the arrival of Sir Francis Drake arriving in 1579 somewhere along the coastline we now know as Marin County (ahead of the Spanish this far north), declaring land for the English crown and naming it “Nove Albionis” (roughly meaning New Britain).  When he arrived he buried an English sixpence in the new soil and held an Anglican service for his men (suck on that, Spain!).  I found a book from 1974 that makes the case that Drake had landed and built his fort in the Bolinas Bay, just above of the lagoon, rather than in the bay slightly north that holds the title of Drakes Bay.2  Later in the day when I met Elia from the Bolinas Museum she assured me that “that dear man” had never been to there and all the leads that indicated otherwise came up dry over the past few decades.  I can assume that if there would be anyone making the case for Drake’s landing there, it would be a person who spends their life studying the history of the town.  Still, evidence has not been found to definitively say exactly where Drake built his fort (some argue that it was in the San Francisco Bay where San Quentin now stands), but I believe the greater mystery is to why Elia refers to Francis Drake as “that dear man”.3

    Fast forward a few hundred years to when California was part of Mexico, but just before the Anglo-Saxon people were about to make their dramatic and enduring return.  In 1837, a decorated Mexican soldier by the name of Gregorio Briones was given a immense land grant that comprised pretty much the entire bay, lagoon and all surrounding land.  He named it Rancho Baulenes.4 
    His peaceful retirement was short lived though because in 1846 John Fremont would start raising some hell in nearby Sonoma, an event commonly referred to now as the Bear Flag Revolt, and other events conspired to ignite the Mexican-American War, the conclusion of which see California join the United States as its 31st state.  Gregorio Briones was not too keen on Americans (refusing to let his daughters marry any of the newcomers), but times were changing and because of the Gold Rush they were changing very, very fast, so he contracted much of his land to foresters to make use of the redwood lumber.  San Francisco was ballooning at a staggering pace, and every few years the city would burn down, hence requiring ever more wood.  The lagoon was also a terrific place to build and repair schooners for the flourishing trade industry.  In 1852, the first census of Marin recorded 323 adults in the county, two-thirds of which lived in Bolinas Township.5
    Enter into this the enigmatic Captain Isaac Morgan (as far as I know there is no relation to Captain Henry Morgan, the 17th century pirate of the Caribbean and namesake for the spiced rum favored by “woo-woo” girls at bachelorette parties everywhere) who built a number of buildings in Bolinas and Stinson, ran an apple orchard, invested in many of the towns’ business and aided in the building of the road I had just drove over to Sausalito.  His legacy that I’m interested in was the construction of the Schooner Saloon in 1851 (maybe ‘52) near the docks in Bolinas.  At the time the area of town was called Jugville because of the six saloons in close proximity.
    I laugh a bit when Elia tells me this and say, “If a small town has that many bars, I guess that says something about the people living here at the time.”
    Elia isn’t as amused as me and responds with local pride, “Well, two of them, I think, we’re pretty civilized.”6
    I was merely referring to the fact that a town of mostly men, sailors and lumberjacks at that, aren’t exactly known for their temperance, but it turns out the town has had a long and complicated relationship with alcohol.

    The man behind the bar at Smiley’s fills my small glass to the brim with the warm, brown drink.  Is there any problem that can’t be caused and/or solved with a little bit of hard liquor?   I had arrived about 3:30 in what the locals call “downtown”, a strip of rustic wood buildings moderately clustered compared to all the houses in the area, which tend to be on generous properties, set back on hills and partially hidden behind thick trees.  Being the off season the street is quite and most of the businesses closed on a Tuesday afternoon, but Smiley’s is blaring Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” of out the dark barroom.  It’s a surprisingly small structure, but painted a glowing clean white, adorned with two versions of the American flag, it radiates with the pride of a 19th century small business man.  It could have been off the set of Blazing Saddles and owned by somebody surnamed Johnson.
    The bartender is friendly as can be and actually seems interested in my “I’m a history student doing a blah blah blah” spiel as he pours my shot.  He gives me a little bit of information that was similar to what I had read on the Smiley’s website, but says the person I really need to talk to is the owner, Don Deane.  As if on cue Don walks in the front door.  He’s a handsome older guy who reminds of John Muir, with a shorter beard, but that could be because of his brown woodman’s hat.  He gives me a little bit of information that was similar to what I had read on the Smiley’s website, but tells me the person I really need to talk to is Elia at the Bolinas Museum across the street. 
    We walk down the block a bit and into the back of another old white building that apparently also used to be a saloon.  Don introduce me to Elia and I give my spiel for the third time in twenty minutes, but now, out of the bar setting, I’m acutely aware of what the few sips of whiskey has done to my breath. 

    Close on the heals of the town’s raucous founding, Bolinas became a hotbed of temperance movement in the 1860’s.  I didn’t think to ask Elia where this sudden piety sprang from, but I can speculate by looking at old pictures and counting at least three churches and a school that were built in the 1860’s and 70’s.  Most of the new people coming to town were not the sailors and lumberjacks, but families of cattle and dairy ranchers.7  These were the rural Americans of the late 19th century, by any account a godly bunch, who would not look kindly on seediness of Jugville.  Contrast this to Port Costa (see Nov. 4th post), another small town on the water, but it didn’t developed out of it’s origins as a shipping hub until the 1940’s and kept its Barbary Coast reputation well through the Progressive era.
    Captain Isaac Morgan was not on the roles of the “Sons of Temperance”, as most of Bolinas’ prominent citizens were, but in 1872 he was titled as the Chaplain of the “Independent Order of Rechabites”, which sponsored temperance lectures.  That same year he moved back east to find a wife (apparently still not a lot of single, respectable women in California at that time) and left the Schooner Saloon to his good friend, Niles Ogdon. Ogdon also took up Morgan’s residence next door to the saloon (which still stands today) and ran the bar for the next 40 years.  The saloon weathered the temperance movement and even thrived after the 1906 earthquake as San Francisco refugees waited for the city to be rebuilt in surrounding communities.  The next century saw the saloon change ownership and names quite a few times.  Though the bar always remained, the use for other parts of the building often altered, it’s been a hotel, a barbershop, a bait store, a pizza place.  One long time owner was named Ed Knott, at which time the place was called Ed Knott’s Inn (get it? “Ed’s not in.” [I’m reminded of a line from True Blood in which Vampire Bill reminds Sookie, “You know, puns were once considered the height of comedy.”]).9
    During Prohibition the bar moved to the second floor and the windows were painted black (as they would be again in World War Two to hide the lights from any Japanese ships or bombers) except for one on the first floor that looked in on the barbershop.  Customers would enter through the barbershop and head upstairs.10 In fact, there are numerous caves along the West Marin coastline that were used by rum-runners as they snuck booze into the larger Bay Area.  Elia told me about an article she came across that mentioned that when the Coast Guard found bottles during Prohibition they had to dispose of any broken ones themselves.  One could guess that “broken” was a relative term and there are many methods of “disposing” of bottles of hooch.11
Am I the last fan of this guy?

    In 1955, the bar was bought by an Italian immigrant named Ismaele Biachini, but most people called the happy guy Smiley.  This era would see a cultural shift as many artists and writers would discover Bolinas.  The Beats would often take extended trips there and the 60’s would put a lasting hippish feel to the town.12 Richard Brautigan’s brilliant novel, In Watermelon Sugar was based on a fantasized utopian commune version on Bolinas.  I asked everybody I talked to about Brautigan, as I’ve been a fan since high school, but nobody else seemed too interested or to know anything beyond that he had shot himself at his house in town and the body was not discovered for some time.  Don said he had seen Brautigan at Smiley’s a few times, but doesn’t remember anything about him.  According to Elia there are currently 164 published writers living in Bolinas and Stinson Beach in a population of about 2000 people.
    The Smiley’s website has a section that reads, “Before Lincoln was president… Before baseball was a game… Before Jingle Bells was a song…  There was Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and Hotel.”  At 150 years old the saloon is probably the oldest bar in California that has stayed in continuous service.  On the walk back to his establishment Don, whose been the owner for 35 years, told me that the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, near Yosemite, is a close second, opening in 1852.  Since nobody is exactly sure when Smiley’s opened they can’t make a definitive claim for the title.
    My drink is right where I left it (the break from it half way through was probably a good idea).  After a sandwich and beer at the bar, I’m back on the road, sun still barely above the horizon and with no diminished ability to make the turns.

1. Phil Frank, Kendrick Rand and Tamae Angoli, Bolinas and Stinson Beach (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 9.
2. V. Aubrey Neasham and William E. Pritchard, Drake’s Landing: The Evidence for the Bolinas Lagoon (Sacramento: Western Heritage Inc., 1974).
3. Elia Haworth (Bolinas Museum) in discussion with author.
4. Frank, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, 15-16.
5. Frank, Bolinas and Stinson Beach,  23-24.
6. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.
7. Frank, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, 39-41.
8. Joan Reutinger, "A Short History", Smileys Schooner Saloon website, accessed November 17, 2011,
9. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.
10. Reutinger, "A Short History".
11. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.
12. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.

1. taken by author on Highway 1 above Stinson Beach.
2.  Neasham, Drake’s Landing, 6.
3. taken by author.
4. taken from

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Your Bay Area Dive Bar Jukebox Song of the Week:

me at a Jawbreaker show at the Jabberjaw in L.A. in 1996
    I’ve had a hell of a time deciding which band to profile of the dozens of great Bay Area punk bands of the early 1990’s.  Both sides of the Bay were having a explosion of talented and prolific musicians that played in an incestuous web of bands.  It was never, “Is there a show tonight?”, but “How do we decided which show to go to tonight?”  There was a distinctive pop punk sound, but this would included an extremely wide range: the melancholy last-night-on-earth rasp of Jawbreaker, the Beatles LP played on 45 speed reverb of the Ne’er-Do-Wells, and the self-deprecating geek rock of Mr. T Experience who never seemed to sing a serious line.  And, of course, there was Green Day, which didn’t seem to be any particular stand-out until suddenly they were, propelling the entire Bay Area scene into the world’s spotlight.  Green Day has shown to have staying power (which is a mystery to me.  Seriously, I don’t begrudge their fame or longevity, I’ve mostly grown out of the punk rock contrarian impulse to hate the band everybody else loves most, but a few months ago I caught a glimpse of the Teen Choice Awards and the kids were going nuts for Green Day.  Most teenagers now probably were introduced to Green Day by their parents, so is it possible that they still be cool? [how old did I just make you feel?  I just grew like two inches of ear hair just writing that], but all the other bands are long gone, or at least only pop up every few years for a reunion show.  Blake from Jawbreaker seems to come out with a new band every year now, but even at their best they are only appealing for the wisps of Jawbreaker’s ghost.  I’ve see Dr. Frank of Mr. T Experience on Piedmont Ave quite a bit, sometimes typing on his laptop with a beer, so I assume he’s working on his successful series of young adult novels, the first of which is called King Dork.

    J Church was a San Francisco band (hence the name after the Muni light rail line) that started in 1992 out of the ashes of another solid band, Cringer.  I hear so few people ever talk about J Church anymore.  They were political and had a vaguely crust punk aesthetic, but they were also melodic, funny and sweet.  Front man, Lance Hahn had a knack for vivid imagery that always made say, “I know somebody just like that” or “I’ve been to those type of parties before.”  Unfortunately, he succumbed to a long struggle with kidney related problems in 2007.  A few years before that I bought a bottle of whiskey from him without realizing it at a liquor store in North Beach.  It wasn’t until we got outside that my friend said to me, “Dude, that was Lance Hahn!”  I had seen him play a few times in the 90’s, but you don’t expect to see your high school heroes in such common place settings a decade later.  Punk rock is awesome like that.
   This is “Tide of Fate” off a 1993 EP that I still listen to on a regular basis:

Okay, after talking about Mr. T Experience I put on one of their records and now I can't resist a bones track.  Also from 1993, this is "Even Hitler Had A Girlfriend":

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Bait Shop with Bar Stools- The Kingfish Pub, Oakland

    The Kingfish Pub in Oakland is a green shed of a bar that I’ve admired for years every time I went to DMV, which is the only reason most people are on that stretch of Claremont Ave, just north of Telegraph.  Though it took years until I actually went into the bar, I always found its sheer old-schoolness impressive.  While the neighborhood around was tearing down wood and brick and putting up stucco and concrete, the Kingfish was obviously being kept alive by some loyal tribe of some regulars.  I had no idea how right I was or how many threats to the bar had faced in the last decade as Temescal has been growing exponentially hip.
    I started going into the Kingfish about six months ago and moved in about ten blocks away about a month ago (I, of coarse, am not one of those hipster dorks who moved to Temescal because it was cool, I just happen to look a bit like those dorks and I like all the same restaurants and shops those dorks also like).  When I’ve told people about my historical bar project many people (including a librarian in the Local History Room at the Oakland Library) told me that I need to write about the Kingfish.  I explained to them all that I like the Kingfish, but it seemed a little too low profile for this.  Sure, it was a great bar, looked awesome and had some history, but which canonized writer blew entire book advances there?  Then I came across an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about how the Kingfish was applying to become a historical landmark.1  If looking into what makes neighborhood bar into recognized historical landmark doesn’t fall into the purview of this blog, then I’m not doing my job.
    The Kingfish opened in 1922 as a bait shop for fisherman when Claremont Ave was one of the few thoroughfares between the Bay and the Delta.2  The Temescal neighborhood was a major commuter hub in the 1920’s in the web of a Key lines (the Key System was a network of street car lines that are a noble slice of East Bay history in of itself worthy of a whole book or blog) and the beginning of the Sacramento Northern railway that ran from Shafter and 40th Street all the way to the city of Chico3.  I was surprised to discover that Temescal had once been it’s own village, founded in the 1860’s with undelineated boundaries, wedged between Oakland and Berkeley.  It was incorporated into Oakland in 1897 and right at the heart of the city’s defining demographic shifts in class and race.4
    Within a couple years of the Kingfish opening it acquired a room in the back (where a shuffle board table and bathrooms now stand), which served as a casual beer-only speakeasy for the fisherman.  Evidently, nobody questioned why a bait shop should have need of barstools or why its customers would be in there for hours buying bait.  After Prohibition officially ended in 1933 the Kingfish ditched it’s bait shop pretence and was in the more lucrative business of serving beer and wine openly.  Eventually, a kitchen was added to serve lunch and according to some old reviews that are framed on the wall the shrimp sandwich was particularly amazing.5 
     A historian’s note that is so obvious that it almost isn’t worth stating, except that it is: Dates are particular fuzzy when it comes to bars.  Not because they are run and patronized by people who enjoy the drink, but because almost all businesses are not operated under the assumption that they will one day be considered historical.  This is even more true of businesses operating in a time of much less stringent bureaucracy.  And then doubly true of a business that was forced to operate semi-illegally under the Volstead Act.  So I’m starting to get the feeling that tracking history of bars is akin to recording Native American oral history or capturing folk songs passed down through generations of hill people.  Somebody is just as likely to tell you the true story of John Henry as they are able to tell you how drinks were served in the backroom of the Kingfish in 1927.
    This hazy history is what lies at the heart of the Kingfish’s uphill appeal for landmark status.  The only other bar in Oakland that is considered a historical landmark is Heinold’s First and Last Chance (see my Oct. 27th post) and that is largely due to the bar’s relationship with Jack London.  The Kingfish has certainly hosted its fair share of celebrities, but they tend to be local sports heroes, rather than literary.  Countless players and coaches from the A’s, the Raiders and Cal-Berkeley have made the bar their place to watch a game, despite and because it is not a sports bar.  There is an egalitarian feel to the space that awards equal status to the winner of yearly shuffle board tournament to a star Raider’s lineman to a high school teacher who has put in years worth of stool time.  In the 1990’s former presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater evidently felt he was not awarded the service according to his station and when given a Kingfish shirt, he used it to wiped his mouth6 (who would have thought old AuH2O, one of the fathers of modern reactionary conservatism, would have been a such a grumpy guy?). 
    The Kingfish has no artifacts like the picture of Jack London learning to read and the Last Chance, but walking in there does have the same effect of stepping in a lost time preserved in amber.  The ceilings are low and along with the walls is covered in pictures, flyers, business cards, ticket stubs, anything somebody felt worthy of attaching to their favorite bar.  The refrigerator and heater are the same since the 1930’s, the benches are from the 1923 Memorial Stadium, there is a popcorn that can’t be more younger than 40 years (and probably has some of the original kernels in it).  The bar room, the shuffleboard room and two bathrooms all stand on different levels.  This old fashion charm was not created or planned, it is simply the result of nobody seeing reason to fix something that wasn’t broken over the last 90 years.

    My first trip into the Kingfish to do research as the opposite of productive.  It was my own fault though, I had gotten cocky.  I went in at about eight at night and I brought my wife with me.  Aside from the fact of wanting to enjoy her company, I thought it couldn’t hurt to bring a beautiful woman with me to collect information.  For some reason, though, the female bartender was unimpressed with Dawn’s winning smile.  On top of that, the bartender was very busy serving 24 oz cans of Coors Light to the crowded bar because we came in on a night Coors was doing a promotion with a bunch of girls in skin tight snow bunny outfits.  Further, an old acquaintance of ours was sitting at one of the tables and asked us to sit down.  So rather than get any research done I did the type of “research” everybody assumes I’m doing when I tell them I’m doing a historical bar blog and earned myself a neat little hangover for my troubles.
    Two days later I returned alone as soon as the bar opened at four.  Going by myself, I realized, is an elemental part my process.  Bartenders feel compelled to talk to the guy sitting at the bar alone, a couple at the bar asking questions can come off as either amateurish or interrogative.  I had the luck of being the only person in there with the bartender, Dustin, who not only worked at the bar since turning twenty-one, but spent a good portion of his childhood coming in there with his father.  He was just one part of a generational legacy of regulars who made the Kingfish their home away from home.  In the United States these days we tend look down a bit on people spending so much time in the local pub, but in many there countries, and not so long ago here, the pub was a center of the community.  This isn’t a place to just go get hammered, well it can be that, but it is also where one goes because they know their friends will be there.  It becomes part of one’s identity to be a part of this pub culture.  And honestly, at a time when most Americans spend most nights at home, silently sitting next to each other while staring at the TV, there is a lot to be said for people would still rather be among other human beings and have conversations.
    So.  Is the fact the Kingfish is a well persevered and functioning time capsule that is beloved by generations of devoted and wide ranging patrons enough to make it a historical landmark? 
    This is not a theoretical argument.  In the early 2000’s the Kingfish had a run of underage drinking violations and the owner (who Dustin thought was the original owner, but if that was true it would be man of great longevity) was ready to call it quits.  Some legal limbo ensued over the next couple years with the owner’s sisters and a man who wanted to tear down the bar, along with the surrounding houses, to build condos.  At this time the patrons began a bid to the City of Oakland to make the Kingfish a landmark to keep it from being torn down, which was denied.  The “march of progress” was only halted the bursting of the housing bubble and subsequent recession.  Still, the bar sat empty, with everything in remaining untouched, for almost two years, until two of the old regulars came together and bought the bar.  They reopened about four years ago and everybody came back as if the shut down had never happened.7  This was only a reprieve though and the threat of demolition still looms, hence the second, and thus far more successful, bid to make the Kingfish a landmark.  Unfortunately, we are entering the area of pending legalities that I would not be able to report on even if I knew them.  I can tell you that a clipboard sits on the bar with a petition for the city to consider.   There are many pages of signatures from local citizens who can not imagine a world without the Kingfish, but they can definitely use more (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

1. Carolyn Jones,  “Landmark status sought for Oakland's Kingfish pub”, San Francisco Chronicle, October 12 2011, accessed  November 10, 2011,
2. Jones, “Landmark status”.
3. Jeff Norman, Temescal Legacies: narratives of change from a North Oakland neighborhood, (Oakland: Shared Ground, 2006), 42.
4. Norman, Temescal Legacies, 1.
5. Dustin Hughes (Kingfish Pub bartender) in discussion with author, November 10, 2011.
6. Jones, “Landmark status”.
7. Dustin Hughes in discussion with author.

1. taken by author.
2. taken by author.
3. from Carolyn Jones article for San Francisco Chronicle, accessed  November 10, 2011,

Friday, November 4, 2011

Your Bay Area Dive Bar Jukebox Song of the Week:

 Today I did an interview for a separate project with the legendary East Bay promoter of the Teens N' Twenties rock and roll shows, Bill Quarry.  Bill put on shows from the late 50's to the early 80's at many different venues with acts ranging from Fats Domino to Neil Diamond to the Yardbirds to Michael Jackson (he as even in charge of concessions at the infamous Altamont Speedway concert), but his most successful venue by far was at the Rollarena in San Leandro.  There local bands got to play with their heroes at shows for kids that cost no more than $2.  I got a bunch of flyers today for shows at the Rollarena, and three of them showcase a Fremont band called Peter Wheat and The Breadmen playing alongside The Byrds, 13th Floor Elevators and Them.  In 1966, Peter Wheat and The Breadmen were supposed to be the opening act for the Beatles at Candlestick Park in what turn out to be the Beatles' last live concert, but there was a conflict between the East Bay's musician's union and San Francisco's and they couldn't play.1  I know!  Talk about your bummer, man.
Here is their video for their 1966 song, "All the Time" with the insanely gorgeous British actress, Judi Huxtable.

1. Bruce Tahsler, The San Francisco East Bay Scene: Garage Bands From the 60's: Then and Now (San Leandro CA: Teens N Twenties Publications, 2007), 84-85.

"It ain’t cheatin’ if your doing it with a ghost,"- The Warehouse Cafe, Port Costa

    I had a tidy little plan today to do further historical research on Henri Lenoir, the early bohemian scene in North Beach and the history of neighborhood that made it receptive to the Beats.  I had my eye on the Henri Lenoir Papers, among other things, at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, but right before I made the call to request the documents I saw note that read, “UNARRANGED COLLECTION. UNAVAILABLE FOR USE.” I began the process of applications and waiting periods to gain use, but was suddenly all too aware of this not being a project just for fun.  This is a school assignment with a deadline officially for tomorrow.  I cried the procrastinator’s lament for not taking care of this business weeks ago when I first discovered the Lenoir Papers and ran through my list of potential bars, most of which bored me to merely look at their websites, I suddenly remembered Port Costa.
    Port Costa.  For years it seems every person I know has told me that it is a crime that I have not been out to this bemusingly bizarre biker bar and the hotel across the street that has changed little since it was a 19th century brothel.  Port Costa.  Is that the name of the city or the bar or the hotel?  All I knew was that it was near the Carquinez Bridge and all the stories I had ever heard of the place ran in the same vein as, “So I had just taken my forth tequila shot in Tijuana when the biggest…”  Information online for the city and bar was scant, but intriguing.  Before I thought it over too much, I drained my Earl Gray, gave a high five to some kid standing in my driveway and got on the I-80 North.  Usually if I’m taking that freeway further than Golden Gate Fields it means I’m on vacation, and for a few hours I was.

    I should mention right away here than I barely scratched the surface of history of the Warehouse Café.  I found some helpful resources on the town of Port Costa at the Oakland Public Library, but the bar that most people in the area know the town for has no official records.  The bartender and customers did not even know who to direct me to who could give definitive information.  So I gathered the recollections and stories I could on one afternoon, but I got the impression than entire book could be written on the Warehouse Café and the Burlington Hotel.     
    Exiting just before the Carquinez Bridge and driving east, I passed through the beautiful, quaint town of Crockett, fostered like brick laid ivy up the hillside above the Carquinez Strait that the connects the Sacramento River Delta from the San Francisco Bay.  This already felt remote to me, but soon the town gave way to naked rolling hills, brown with October and raw with a warm, dry wind that is impossible not to mark as a fireman’s  son.  I only drove about three miles, but it felt longer because of the windy roads and uncertainty where I was going, when suddenly Port Costa appeared.  The houses, which probably number a few more than fifty, were mostly older California ranch style, but there is wide variety, right up to houses that look like 1970’s tract houses with no tract around them.              
    The one road through town deposited me into a dirt parking lot that ends a chain-linked fence, that is followed up a set of train tracks, then about a mile of water to Bencia directly across.  One would never guess to look at this narrow strip of abandoned coastal land now, but it was not only was the genesis of the town, it was one of the most important hubs during California’s “Bread Basket to the World” grain boom of the 1880’s, supplied a wharf that hosted the largest ferries in the world, and was the impetus behind the ambitious machinations of men who all saw their fortunes rise and fall (usually literally going up in smoke) right here in a town that rarely had more than a population of 300 people.
    I’m not doing a history of the “census-designated place” of Port Costa, see the books in my bibliography for a more in depth look, but there is no telling the story of the Warehouse Café without give some of the story of Port Costa.  That story mainly revolves around two men: George Washington McNear and Bill Rich (who we will get to in time).
    In the 1870’s the Central Pacific railroad company sought a new route from the Oakland and the Bay to the transcontinental railroad and the agriculturally rich Central Valley.  The only other line ran over the treacherous Altamont Pass and it was controlled by the California Pacific company.  Before they built a bridge connecting Solano and Contra Costa counties, it was decided to ferry the actual train cars across the strait from Benicia (which briefly served as the state capital in 1853 and ‘54) to small ranch called Bull Valley, which was chosen because it was so close and had deep waters.  In 1879 the largest ferry on the planet at the time, the Solano, left the West Oakland shipyard to beginning shuttling trains and passengers across the thin band of water.
    George McNear, a Scot financier and grain impresario, saw the obvious potential in Bull Valley as a hub for big business and began buying up the surrounding ranch lands.  He didn’t just build warehouses for his grain, but aided in the building of a school, churches and other buildings.  He even designed an water system that he owned and operated.  The name Port Costa made more sense than Bull Valley because it was now the port of Contra Costa and it sounded more official.  McNear was open for business shortly after the Solano began running (to be followed soon after by another ferry of the same size called the Contra Costa) and he was partial owner of nearly everything in the new town.1
    One of the many warehouses McNear built was finished in 1886 and was the fist fireproof building in Contra Costa county (as commemorated today on a plaque outside), which turned out to be good thing because a major drawback nobody had seen to Bull Valley was that it was seriously prone to fires.  The withered grasses and chaparral, paired with the strong, dry wind that tore through the hills, that I had noticed on my drive over was not an anomaly.  The next sixty or so years were a succession of blazes that wiped out warehouses, wharfs, ships and the dreams of anybody who invested money in the waterfront.  The 1906 earthquake did its fair share of damage and a teredo (a type of worm that eats ships and docks) infestation in 1921 destroyed most of the waterfront.   People, including McNear, who conspired to corner the wheat market or dominate West Coast shipping by using Port Costa were ruined as they built up and then were forced to rebuild.  Gradually, they stopped rebuilding, a bridge to neighboring Martinez opened in 1931, the Solano stopped running and the town had virtually drifted into obscurity by the fire on Labor Day of 1941 that left only one warehouse left in town.2  Guess which one?

    At one end of the dirt parking lot the warehouse with the bottom floor that house the Warehouse Café doesn’t look much like a warehouse or a bar, just a large concrete building that would seem more like part of an old California Spanish mission.  Across the street, I notice the Victorian three-story Burlington Hotel, a former bordello and cheap place to sleep off the drink rather than tackle the unlit, curvy roads back to all points other than here.  Inside, the dark warehouse is filled with artifacts from the town’s past that probably feel spooky when closing down the bar in the wee hours.  The main bar section is brighter and looks nicely out onto a patio, with the water and adjacent hills beyond.  
 I ordered a drink, identify myself to the bartender as a undergrad at Cal State East Bay doing a project on historical bars and I am met with an expression I’m growing familiar with: a mix between being utterly unimpressed and dread that I’m going a be asking a bunch of annoying questions.  But I’m also learning the value in patience when it comes to discussions like these.  I let him do his work as I sip my beer, ask a couple small questions when the opportunities arise, but mostly chat with other people at the bar and generally try to be a good customer first, then a historian.  By the time I finished my second beer I had Larry, the bartender, and a man from Martinez (whose name I never caught) feeding off each other and competing to tell me what they know about the bar.
    Larry thought the bar opened in this incarnation in 1967 or ‘68, but the man from Martinez said he remembered coming here with his grandfather a few years before that when it was a cowboy bar from all the ranch hands in the surrounding hills.  “I would be the only one in here not in a cowboy hat,” the man from Martinez told me.  He said the windy road, Carquinez Scenic Drive, used to be the only way to get from Martinez to Richmond and from there they would take San Pablo Ave all the way down to Oakland.  He’d often ride with his grandfather on these trips and stop at the Warehouse Café on the way back, though it wasn’t called that back then.  I asked the man from Martinez if he knew how old the bar was.  “Well, let me ask you… is that a buffalo?” he said and pointed to the head mounted on the wall.

    “It appears so,” I said.
    “Is that a big white bear?” he asked, pointing to the glass enclosed and taxidermied polar bear, standing on hide legs for a ferocious man-eating attack.
“Is that a… what is that?  An elk?” he asked, pointing to the head of some horned buck.

    “Close enough for my guess,” I said truthfully.
    "Then you know it’s got to be pretty damn old.”
    I saw no reason to poke holes in this logic and moved on.  Later, I came across a picture of the Burlington Hotel from 1960 with the caption saying the warehouse across the street was “mostly unused” at this point.  An adjacent picture showed the warehouse in 1977, open for business under the name of Juanita’s Gallery.3
    It was on the point of what “mostly unused” means that Larry told me later and was my favorite part of the story.  In the early 60’s the warehouse was the occasional site for a gay dinner theater club!  Throughout my visit the people I talked to always mentioned Bill Rich as the guy who revitalized the town and tilted their heads to a picture on the wall of a older gentleman in a white cowboy hat.  In 1960, Bill Rich, who was a Coors delivery truck driver, borrowed money from his family and bought most of the town for $20,000, including the warehouse and the Burlington Hotel.  Rich spent the rest of his life in Port Costa doing his best to make it into a tourist destination and place for galleries and antiques.4  What I was not able to find in print is that, according to Larry, Bill Rich was gay and sought to make Port Costa into an open-minded haven for people to get away from the city be themselves, weather they wanted to experience art or simply go fishing.  The performances at the warehouse were part of the fun and there are still some colorful glass orbs from those days that hang near the polar bear.  At a time when even homosexuals in San Francisco could not be completely open in public, what a scene Port Costa must have been.
     Rich also reopened the Burlington Hotel, playing up its reputation as a former bordello from the untamed port days when it the sailors and railroad men called it “The Dutchman’s” because it was operated by the “spirited” family with the name Boehm.5  Instead of numbers the rooms are labeled with names of women we are led to believe occupied the rooms for means of ill-repute.  The bartender at the Warehouse Café also serves as the front desk to the hotel and Larry let me borrow the keys to the Wilma room on the third floor.  Sure enough, the red faded wallpaper, simple wood furniture and creaky beds fit exactly what I’ve seen in movies as a Wild West whorehouse.  Needless to say, I loved it.  The hotel is widely believed to be haunted, but as the man from Martinez said to me when he got the keys to his room, “I keep hoping to see one of these ghosts.  I already told me wife, ‘It ain’t cheatin’ if your doing it with a ghost.’”
    At some point in the late 70’s bikers discovered the bar as a great stop on weekend rides and the word spread out to everyone in the Bay Area about the tiny town, perfect for an overnight vacation that cost next to nothing, was less and an hour drive from anywhere, and all with the reputation of anything goes in Port Costa.
view from the Wilma room in the Burlington Hotel

1. Dick Murdock, Port Costa 1879-1941: A Sage of Sails, Sacks and Rails (Port Costa: Murdock-Endom Publications, 1977), 5-11.
2. Murdock, Port Costa 1879-1941,  36-39.
3. John V. Robinson and Veronica Crane, Port Costa (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2007), 39.
4. Carolyn Jones, “Venerable Port Costa hotel is one of a kind”, San Francisco Chronicle,  January 11 2009, accessed November 3, 2011,
5. Murdock, Port Costa 1879-1941,  23.

- the wharf, the Solano and the railroad tracks in the 1880's, from Port Costa 1879-1941, 7.
- the exterior of the Warehouse Cafe by Robert Hurly, found at
-all other pictures by the author on his iPhone.  I promise to start using some apps that will make up for some of my poor photography skills.