What Makes San Francisco Fun

Had to smile when I read this bit today in the SFGate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s online home:


From Leah Garchik’s column:

“On Upper Grant one recent Saturday, Mal Sharpe and his Big Money in Jazz Band were playing at the Savoy Tivoli, which has windows open to the street. When Sharpe sang out to a group of passing German tourists, reports Lucy Johns, no one responded. But their tour guide, Tara, said she was not only a guide, she was a singer. This spurred the crowd to demand a song. She sang ‘All of Me,’ and ‘we all swooned,’ said Johns. ‘Then she tromped off down the street with her bullhorn, leading the Germans to City Lights,’ said Sharpe.”


I love the visuals on this bit of North Beach storytelling. I adore Mal Sharpe, he’s a SF Bay Area legend, and one of The Good Man’s favorite jazz musicians. When you see a Mal show, you are completely engaged by his charm. So this story, inviting a passerby to come up and sing (and she knocks it out of the park), comes as no surprise to me.

It’s one of the many reasons why I love North Beach.

These kind of things just happen every day in San Francisco. It’s just how we do things…especially in North Beach.

Here’s another example. One night I was sitting at my favorite family-owned Italian restaurant called Sodini’s (it’s a North Beach icon). The restaurant was crammed and I was alone, so I manged to squeeze into a nice seat at the bar next to an older gentleman.

He and I got to talking when he offered to buy me another glass of Chianti. The man turned out to be Leo Riegler, current owner of Vesuvios, the world-known bar next door to the City Lights Bookshop where the Beat Generation used to drink and write and fight.

Leo has owned quite a few businesses in North Beach through the years. That night he told me about the coffeehouse he once owned (on the site that is now the Lost and Found saloon). I asked him about the bands that used to play there, as that coffeehouse was well known to host Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and more. He told me a long and involved story, the punchline of which was…

He used to pay Janis Joplin $20 a night to play his stage.

I mean. Wow.

All this over a simple plate of ravioli and a glass a wine. Leo is a walking musical history lesson.

That’s just how it goes in North Beach. That scruffy guy in the corner of Caffe Trieste who looks like he just dragged in off the street? Probably a world famous poet laureate. That run down guy who looks like he’s about to pass out on the bar at The Saloon? Likely a multi-millionaire musician.

And then sometimes you just meet a random German tourist who can’t believe that his tour guide stepped in off the street, did a set with a local band, wowed the crowd, then kept going.

How beautifully inspiring. The Muse always does a little dance inside of me when we walk together up Grant street. It’s her fault I moved here, after all…..

Stockton Street, looking toward the tunnel, 2:51 a.m.

Photo by my North Beach friend, Scott Palmer.

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  • Natalie

    It’s stories like this and the connections that remind us that life can be beautifully simple through… the joy of sharing, connection, kindness and, well, a good story.

    Needed that.

    • Karen Fayeth

      Natalie – My blue mood had leaked over to the blog, so I needed something to add some sunshine. Gotta burn off those dark clouds, no?

      Thanks for the comment and glad I could send a little mental sunshine your way too!

  • Patrick Strei

    Hey Karen, thanks for a lovely post, one that sent me immediately to the keyboard, and I hope you don’t mind my pasting in here something which can hardly be termed a comment, but which I just had to write in response to your post:

    I was seven, up with my folks for LA when I first remember going there. I had an old bachelor Irish granduncle who had led a rough life of ups and downs, following the gold rushes in Australia and the Klondike, busting cattle up around Lassen, and over around Tonopah. He remembered the 1916 eruption vividly. He had finally settled down to a job in the merchant marine during the war, and ended up with a decent seamen’s pension, He had a small apartment on Upper Grant, with a view of the Bay and Alcatraz. We spent a part of the afternoon with him instructing me on the nomenclature, cargoes, destinations and origins of the vessels cleaving that heartbreakingly blue bay.
    Later we took him to the Gold Spike, one of those family style eateries of which there were many then, providing food and company for not only the large Italian families on a night out, but the many single men, Italian and Basque mostly who lived in the boarding houses around there. My mother had an unmarried cousin, also Irish, who traveled the world as an English teacher and governess, and she had just come in on Matson from Australia via Honolulu. It was an evening full of traveler’s tales from her, my grand uncle and my former merchant seamen dad. I knew then that I would live in San Francisco, and it was to me the gateway to the world beyond its horizon.
    In the early seventies I did move there and for a while led a rather solitary life as I worked in lowly jobs. North beach was a place where one with little money could idle away hours and days in the park and then dine decently for a few dollars, and drink in a café until late. A favorite of mine was the Bohemian Cigar store, later tarted up a bit, but entirely genuine then,
    The attractive matron behind the bar, a north Italian blond, would when the urge took her, break into an aria as the old men who filled the place drinking coffee, red wine , playing dominoes, and reading weeks old Italian newspapers, stopped and listened, then applauded quietly, but sincerely,
    She was usually the only woman there. One rainy night, two young women came in the door, flushed with the excitement of a night out, gaudy but attractive in the kind of late, high hippie style of the moment – scarves, layers and colors, india print, and little at all in the way of foundation garments. They were there just to buy cigarettes. The old men‘s faces lit up with what I would describe as a benign lust, not at all offensive. Quite kindly, I thought, the girls preened a bit, adjusted their wraps, displaying bare arms and a bit of bosom. They smiled, and one of them gave a saucy wave as they left.
    Later, my college buddies and I liked to buy a jug at Coit Liquors, sit in the park at night, talking, drinking and smoking late as the windows of the down town towers, and the cheery lights of cozy apartments, all seemed to hold our not yet lived stories; everything and anything was possible.
    Over the years, we’ve returned there many times, lately looking back, not forward, but one thing that for me hasn’t changed is that North Beach is and always was, about dreams, dreams of life, yet to be lived, or lived well and sweetly past.

    • Karen Fayeth

      My friend Pat – Thank you for that. What great memories. I got a sad feeling when you mentioned the Gold Spike because I was so brokenhearted when it closed. It seems more of the traditional Italian places are closing and nothing is replacing them.

      North Beach just has a certain magic.

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