Tales from my Barbary Coast Saloon
I don’t recall when I bought this book. It was stacked in my library on the San Francisco shelf, the second one down on the left, among books on Hitchcock and his movies, the 1906 earthquake, three or four books by Herb Caen, one signed, and so on. It is a small book with a slim black spine, 212 pages; so it was just there, even with my periodic revisiting the shelf, unnoticed for about three years, until a couple of days ago, when digging again into the Hitchcock volumes for Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock at Work, for his writeup on Saboteur which I had just watched again on DVD. But in reaching for Krohn, I found something else. I pulled the black book out, Name Dropping, Tales from my Barbary Coast Saloon, by Barnaby Conrad, 1994.
I quickly flipped the pages, the illustrations drawn by Conrad (an excellent artist), and settled in on Tahiti in Part 4, the focus of my research for my current novel in-progress. I then flipped back to page 1, and began reading what has now become one of my truly favorite books. Conrad’s storytelling talent can’t be pushed aside. You eagerly turn the pages for the next absorbing encounter with an incredible range of people at his saloon, El Matador, or the Mat, as it came to be called, with his memoire of the City in the fifties and early sixties — a time when I was on the other side of the Bay at UC Berkeley and where I returned after four years in the Marine Corps. He mentions the places around him, as the Hungry I, across the street, where my wife and I had gone to listen to The Limelighters one great evening. I even still remember the opening joke of the comedian, and that strong alcoholic fragrance that followed the three Limelighters up to the stage. I recalled Conrad had written a book on bull-fighting a bunch of years earlier, but I never read it — having read Hemingway, and didn’t need any more bull.
The principal names are dropped in the table of contents with others mentioned while waiting for a glass of sherry. Starting with Jack Kerouac, and then on to so many others as diverse as John Steinbeck, Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Trader Vic, John Wayne, Manolete, Gary Cooper, Juan Belmonte, Maurice Chevalier, and, well, others, finally closing, of course, with Herb Caen.
You pick the book back up with the eager anticipation of who will you meet at the Mat this evening, regretting at the same time, that you can’t drive down Broadway, find a spot, and actually enjoy an evening at El Matador.
Even if the fifties and the early sixties are before your time, the time of El Matador, the Hungry I, and that spot just around the corner where Johnny Mathis first appeared, was when San Francisco was truly captivating, you will enjoy the characters that flow over the pages.
And as Conrad describes when, after about ten years, he finally decided to close El Matador when Broadway, both sides, went topless, the hamburger place across the street began using nude waitresses, a nude shoeshine stand down the street, an era of unique charm had rapidly become devoid of any imagination, and devoid, as well, of any decency. The colorful surroundings, the small theaters, cafes, and show places, were also disappearing. Conrad had more books to write and more portraits to paint — and the Girl he had always hoped for, had walked into his life. It was time to go.
Reflecting, Barnaby Conrad recalled Noel Coward’s comment, “Working is so much more fun than fun.”
It was, in my memories, a magical time, The Hungry I, even the legendary Finnochio’s where my mother-in-law had insisted on going, where my brother and I took the A train from Berkeley over to green Seal Stadium to watch Ten Williams and the Red Sox play the San Francisco Seals, for $5 each. When I returned from the Corps, Seals Stadium was gone, the team was called the Giants, and almost everything else. had new names as well. The El Matador sign was still there, but no one of any stature would waste their time going through the swinging doors.
. Name Dropping brings those lost moments magically alive, once more — just for a time.