Natives & Neighborhoods Getting to Suzy’s
This real life of cityscapes and sidewalks can destroy you.
The key to getting to Suzy’s is a solid head start. Staring at my cubicle wall, I imagine being an Olympic track runner, my heels poised against the starting block, waiting for the gun to sound “5 PM” to start my trek across San Francisco as quickly as possible and get to Suzy’s before the other locals, right when the bar opens at 6 p.m.
As the number of people living in this hive of an island city increases, so does my desire for isolation, to avoid running into wide-eyed newcomers asking for directions to bars as new as the ink on their leases. So I navigate the city’s side streets, the back alleys, and the paths less traveled than those pillaged by modern forty-niners upon arrival.
To get to Suzy’s, I map the post-work crosstown pedestrian trek on the city’s private and public forms of transportation—both are failures—and I’m propelled instead by foot. I’m always on foot. Suzy’s is in the TenderNob section of San Francisco, where the Tenderloin neighborhood’s northernmost grime sullies the bottom of Nob Hill, a luxuriously steep climb away from Grace Cathedral Church and the Powell Street tourists. My expedition begins on SoMa and Potrero Hill’s border, following the freeway overpass down 13th Street. Near the parking lots by Potrero, drug addicts are makeshift bicycle makers; a spray-painted sign reads bike city to sanction this small business of stolen parts.
I make it to the dispensary for two sativa pre-rolls and the week’s eighth, then to the cafe next door, where a woman I should hate for high school friendship drama gives me free coffees, seemingly out of attraction and guilt for past wrongs. She makes lattes with well-poured hearts that I take into alleyways, leaning between street lights and new sidewalk planters, smoking and sipping on a block of old Victorians and the new condos they’ll soon become. When hungry, I hit up the burger spot at the end of the alley where the girl in the denim jacket says with a guided nod, “I like the way you smell.” I know the place well enough that my phone syncs automatically to their Wi-Fi. The grown-ass man who sweeps the place gets pissed when yuppies scooter their way out the restaurant, to-go bags in hand.
My trek heads northeast. I walk down the alleys—just before they become dead ends—between the main streets, the remaining slums, the plethora of tourists, the single-room occupants above Market, the cops in the alleyways off 5th looking for residual criminals from 6th, all while I inhale clouds of smoke chased with caffeine, and exhale freely during this magic hour. I cross five-plus neighborhoods, climb hills, dodge traffic and pedestrians, elude addicts shooting up, and visit those who’ve known me as a local familiar face for ten years.
Strangers know me as that skinny, tall kid with the glasses and questionable racial identity who’s always turning the goddamn block into a reggae concert with those cloves or blacks or whatever the hell he’s smoking. That lanky motherfucker with the weird hat and glasses—all black—with his bourgeoisie white – people coffees, always scowling and walking fast. Their unknown faces and names all spell the same hate, projected from my anxieties, quelled by the inhaled trees, exacerbated by caffeine, this line my mind walks as my feet steadily follow.
The microaggressions are so clear and palpable these days, it’s the beat for the local news. I see it daily. The revs of engines cutting off pedestrians. The electric skateboards somehow made street legal statewide by a governor running on a progressive platform. The mayor of this city turning a blind eye to the local rapper who called him a disgrace to his people (brown and yellow people, if you were curious). I see the new city transplants walking around in tight company T-shirts, blue jeans and bright Nikes, oblivious to the crushed needles they walk over while waiting for their mobile-hailed cabs. They live the theory that a city’s social maladies don’t affect those wading prosperously through its waters, this force field of privilege keeping their noses and chins afloat, their devices instructing them where to drink, who to fuck, and how to get there. A cabbie who took me to the Ferry Building recently noted how those dependent on the unresponsive maps inside their pockets know nothing about this city. He used to drive around for hours doing research—his self-designed cabbie pedagogy—to know where to go when the traffic apocalypses hit.
Suzy stares at me slow when I walk into her bar atop Mason Street. I smile and nod, lifting the brim of my black corduroy hat that says “unusual” in Japanese so she can recognize me. “I’d ask your name but I’d probably forget it,” she says, pouring my Stella into a chilled glass. “But I won’t forget your face—you’re always so sweet playing music on the jukebox.” I always ask if I can, and do so again for tonight’s set. She says yes, controlling the digital jukebox’s volume with a universal remote control that probably also controls the TVs that are always turned off at either end of her railroad bar. Six pinball machines clutter the sometimes dance floor, at this hour a constellation of black tables and chairs on wheels that are barely able to roll across a thin layer of carpet. Everything is somewhat dilapidated here. I walk to the wall-mounted jukebox and select the first songs for the night.
All of this, the culmination of my patterned Mondays: a weekly ritual of an after-work coffee, two joints, as many cocktails, and at least twenty-five dollars on a dive bar jukebox where at 6 p.m., I’m the first customer and have the whole vomit-stained carpeted place to myself.
I play songs that make Chicanos, old-timers, hip-hop beat purists, ex-cons who ride on Central Valley Amtrak trains, skateboarders, and myself feel at home. These are the sounds that blared from cars and amphitheaters during my mother’s time in Los Angeles, and from what is probably blaring out of the cars that sometimes crowd 24th and Mission on Friday nights, the lowrider shows drowning out the drone of gentrified Bernal Heights. These are for those Chicanos who’ve spawned across the Central Valley, through all of California, Arizona, and Nevada and still tune in to listen to their ritual—the Art Laboe Connection—six nights a week.
Tonight’s set begins with Tierra’s “Together,” followed by Young-Holt Limited’s piano solo classic “Soulful Strut,” which is a perfect lead-in to my current obsession, “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells. Then maybe El Chicano’s “Tell Her She’s Lovely,” Brenton Wood, Mary Wells, Thee Midniters, Billy Stewart, The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around,” Yarbrough & Peoples’ “Don’t Stop the Music,” “I’m Your Puppet,” Sly, Slick and Wicked, “Break Up to Make Up,” One Way’s “Cutie Pie,” any song by War—those songs white kids discover through the latest Tarantino film.
The soul tracks engender trust between any bar stragglers and myself, their self-appointed (and funded) selector of the evening. The soul gradually evolves into the rage and warm lust accompanying my second round—PJ Harvey, the Breeders: 90s grunge that unearths the angst brimming just under the surface most weekdays when I’m at my desk.
Suzy asks, “Do you want it louder?”
A few tracks in I say, “Yes,” needing to hear the bass that make Zapp and Roger’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” that amazing. I take cell-phone videos of these sets for memory’s sake: a dark bar with nobody in it, me sitting in the seat—able to see anyone who enters or leaves the bar, a tip I learned while reading Malcolm X—the horizontal pan ending on the image of a neon Budweiser sign reflected in a Trumer Pilsner branded mirror, a turned-off Pac-Man floor console, and the digital jukebox, lined in studded neon pink lights. I nurse each drink according to the length of the setlist, closing with something I can remember as my cue to leave. When James Brown comes on, the show’s over, ending the set with “The Big Payback,” giving me enough time to enjoy the song through the walls of the restroom and to say Peace to Suzy.
I can only do this on Mondays. Tuesday’s bartender front-loads the jukebox with long, predictable indie rock songs that passes the time but fails to tell the night’s story, fails to reflect a mood—his, the city’s—and instead uses sonic filler to leave us, the bar’s clientele that somehow increases on his nights rather than Suzy’s, subject to the banality of eight-minute art pieces by formulaic jam-rock bands making demo tapes for XL. His Jameson and gingers are filled with ginger ale, not ginger beer, and more ice than any other ingredient. He voluntarily plays Weezer songs in 2016—publicly. Everything on his playlist has a perfectly distorted guitar and white male singer: no horns, no sequence pants, no choreography for the nonexistent backup singers. Meanwhile, I sulk with a grin on these Tuesdays and other off-nights, devoid of the sonic control Suzy provides me on Mondays, and of the fleeting satisfaction of having crossed a whole city trying to control something—anything—amidst an untamable metropolis.
On my third (or fourth?) round of Jameson, Suzy walks over to my table. She extends her hand with an avocado in its palm, says, “Take one home.” I thank her, placing it on my hat resting on the table with my drink, and I think of the way my grandfather would pronounce aguacate . Sonny Ozuna’s “Smile Now, Cry Later” plays as loudly as those first sung notes were originally intended. Nobody here knows how good Sonny Ozuna sounds outside on a sunny day at Echo Park or somewhere in a park in Santa Ana in 1991 celebrating my uncle’s sixtieth birthday, when I first saw my cousins brown-bagging beers and realized not everyone’s home had more books than places to chill beer. And then, staring at the avocado, I think of my white Californian girlfriend, and how she’ll be thrilled.
This real life of cityscapes and sidewalks can engage, ignore, or destroy you at a moment’s notice. Monthly checks keep roofs over our heads, this tithe we all pay to sleep close to our ghosts—these memories of friends and place and co-conspirators—who once lived here with me, at the end of one of this city’s many small nooks and cross streets. On Mondays these ghosts appear, ready now to buy me coping mechanisms in forty-ounce doses after quitting my hourly work registering rich kids for private swim classes off the 1-California.
It’s for these ghosts of fellow metropolitans long since gone that I choose Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” as the last song of this set , his same kiss to the sky made tonight by me and my ghosts, those spirits expelled now into the night from my lungs, into the sky we all once inhaled.