From The Bar~ An Almost Ghost Story

Another segment of a project The Rise and Fall of a Saloon in the Latter Part off The Twentieth Century. These excerpts are not chronological. In fact very little logic prevails…

When I worked for The Bar I dressed up a bit on weekends. I added a vest to my basic attire of long sleeve shirt, medicine bag and The Hat. Not being a fan of neckties, I instead used silk scarves cleverly tied so the knots were invisible. This added a dash of color to my outfit and allowed me to avoid the constraint of total conformity. We called it an “ascot” although it didn’t tie like an ascot normally does. I still dress this way when I want to dress more or less formally.

For almost a year I favored tie-tacks, an accessory meant to keep a necktie from drifting out of alignment. I had a few of these and liked the bit of sparkle they added to my weekend costume.

One night a young man came in. He was a friend I had known from the Gelb days. He was something of a Grateful Dead fan and he told me he had been to the recording session the Dead did in Cairo, Egypt, in 1978. While he was there he said he had climbed to the top of the largest pyramid of the three at Ginza, the Khufu monument, and brought back some small pieces of it. He gave me a small chunk of this material. It wasn’t very large. It was a little smaller than an M & M peanut candy.
Well, of course, this bit of sandy colored stone just radiated MoJo!

I decided to make a tie-tack out of it. I got some sandpaper and very carefully rendered the thing into a small pyramid. It was soft… something like sandstone, easy to work. I had a flat surfaced tie tack so I very carefully mixed some epoxy and glued the mini-pyramid onto it and let it set for the required period.

The weekend was approaching so I checked to see how my glue job went and it looked good. No excess glue and the little pyramid seemed firmly anchored. It was a Saturday night, a band night, a night I usually wore my ‘dress’ outfit, the vest and scarf/ascot and debuted my fragment of pyramid on tie tack. For whatever reason I was extremely conscious of the thing. I was very aware of it thinking about its antiquity and the history and mystery of the edifice it came from.

I went down early and remember it being a moody night, weather-wise. Forecasters had predicted wind and rain so I figured I’d better get there before the inclement weather struck. The duty doorman, Dan York, was a good friend and was already there when I arrived.
I told him about my new tie tack. He had been there when the young man gifted the bit of rock to me and was pleased with the effect. It didn’t particularly stand out but he could definitely see it was a mini-pyramid and pronounced it a good job. I told him I liked it except my very colorful imagination had me being followed by two robed, bald headed guys who saw no humor in my using a piece of their ancient temple for a bit of frippery.

Well, the weather guys were correct. We had a noisy squall pass through our area… rain, darkness, lightning, wind…a very noisy storm front. Right at the peak of the squall, the door to the bar opened and a well dressed man with a swarthy complexion came in and walked up to Dan and myself. He spoke oddly accented English and asked for directions to somewhere…exactly where escapes me now… and Dan cheerfully provided the information he required.
I was curious about his accent so I asked him where he was from.
“Egypt.” he said.
Well, you Know that set the hair on my arms to rising!

Oddly, the storm abated in the next half hour and it was clear the rest of the night.

…and when I got home that night the tie tack was gone. I never saw it again…

The Creation of the NormHead Avatar

This is one of those stories that may bore you to tears but I do get asked about this from time to time.

My avatar. The “norm head” drawing, cartoon, silhouette, of the hat, beard feather and glasses that I post just about everywhere. “Avatar” is defined thusly:

“In computing, an avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user’s alter ego or character.”

Mine came about in this way…

I was reading a book by the cartoonist Bill Mauldin. He achieved fame, actually won a Pulitzer Prize by drawing black and white cartoons for the military “Stars and Stripes newspaper during WWII. His works were usually about two war weary GI’s “Willie and Joe,” tired, unshaven and irreverent.

In any case, as Bill described his venture into cartooning he made specific reference to a certain brush he used. It was a Winsor-Newton Series 7 #2. He said it was a standard tool used by all the cartoonists of the day.

At the time I read the book I was making my own forays into art. Water colors. I eventually did a lot of paintings of women and called them “Paper Dolls” after that old Mills Brothers song.

What was so special about those brushes? Well, what it was that they would “point” when you loaded them with ink or color and gave a snap of the wrist or a tap on your rinse tank. This tendency to come to a point allowed the artist to control the shape of his line from straight and thin to a taper or swelling in the line. If you look closely at some of the lines drawn by the great pre-computer cartoonists you’ll see what I mean.

So I went and bought one. Relatively expensive for a brush that almost looks like the one you got in your tin watercolor kit as a kid.

I took the thing home, opened my black ink bottle and tried to think of a way to test my new brush. So I just did a quick self portrait. It couldn’t have taken more than thirty seconds. It covers and area about six inches square. This was in December of ’85.

I liked it. It was a lucky shot that came out well.

Just about that time I had decided to change banks. I asked the check lady if I could put my own logo on my personal check. She actually sort of sidestepped it. “It will cost you extra.”
“How much?”
“Twenty five dollars.” And you have to have camera ready artwork.

A piece of cake! Off I went to the Xerox machine with my self-portrait and made a copy and brought it to her.
“Oh!” she said, “It looks just Like you!”

So, there it was! I had it on my checks! Heeee…! It looked Great! I have since changed banks three times and oddly, they always made a fuss about having the checks done that way but when I told them I would take my money elsewhere if they didn’t allow it the barricades fell.

Some time later I spent a bit of money and had stickers made of it about the size of a five cent piece. I used those as property markers and around 2010 had “norm head” pins made to pass out. Those have been Great Fun and it is a warm feeling to know that people actually asked for them.

Of course I used the avatar, as it was defined earlier, in just about any application computer-wise. Any chat boards I belong to that allow avatars has the now nearly trade-mark like norm head avatar. I figured out how to make my computer include it in a return address form on the left end of my envelopes too. I even had one put on a coffee mug! Fun!

My beard is a lot whiter now but it still looks like me in profile. That little quick test sketch with the Winsor-Newton Series 7 #2 brush in 1985 has stood me in good stead over the years.

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it…

A Contest Lost…An Effort Saved… A Soul Remembered

I wrote this as an entry in a “Write Like Herb Caen” contest. To those of you unfamiliar, Herb was an iconic columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle until he died in the late nineties… By the way… I didn’t win the contest. I carefully kept mine in the same word length format Herb used. The guy who won…his was considerably longer…
But I liked the flow of this. I thought it was too good to waste and present it here…

Baghdad By The Bay

A “Herb Caen Write Alike Contest” so called…

I dunno…is that even doable?

Writing like Herb would be seeing like Herb, smiling like Herb or sipping a Martini like Herb…
We can all see, smile and sip…but to write like a man who did it for a living, producing columns that read like quiet inner thoughts…
Tricky, indeed… for there’s more to it than clacking 3 dots…
Would you need an Olympia typewriter and carbon paper to do it right?

It takes the soul of a Poet mixed with the wit of a Punster, one who takes things seriously Only When Necessary…
The City Herb loved so much seems largely gone. Much of it floating away in the yellow rivers of uncaring urine generated by the uncared for yearning… The Homeless almost outnumbering the Tourists and the Tourists don’t tour like they used to…
The Chron he loved isn’t what it once was… but then is anything ever what it once was and was it even what we thought it was at the time?

The Mayor would have been a constant Source for items… but using Politicians for items was as easy for Herb as spotting is to a Seagull…
It would take a month of Write Like Caen to even touch the Washington crowd we have today both in sunlight and shadow… mostly in shadow…
But The Fog is still here…
And The Bridge…
And Alcatraz…
Write Like Caen…? You have to start there first…with the Fog…the Bridge and Alcatraz and from there try to find the city’s Heart, now broken and lonely, that Herb loved so much…
And Herb would find it if anyone could. And he would have told us our quiet, inner thoughts about Baghdad By the Bay…
…three dots and all…

Through another’s eyes…briefly…

A certain reviewer for the San Francisco Weekly, Casey Burchby, had arrived at the Fox Theater on a Wednesday night to see and write about a certain character making an appearance there.

For those of you who don’t know, there is a night club setting adjunct to the Fox Theater called the Club Fox and it was my habit to go there on Wednesday nights.

When I go to Club Fox, since it is a music venue I go in “full regalia” that being black boots, pants, a black vest, white shirt a very colorful cravat and my legendary black hat with its long tail feather from a Blue and Gold Macaw and a gold filled ebony walking stick.

Some nights I would go there with Kevin Jarvis and some nights I would go alone. On my ‘loner’ nights I liked to take a cab.

Imagine my surprise when the owner of Club Fox told me this Casey Burchby had written about me…

You wonder how you look to others…

Sometimes you find out…

There were no costumes, sadly, amid this Wednesday afterwork crowd. There was, however, a very tall older gentleman who alighted gingerly from the rear of a limousine in front of the theater, sporting a Western-themed mode of dress, a long salt-and-pepper beard, and an oversized black cowboy hat with a two-foot pheasant feather sprouting from its band. Sadly, my technical ineptitude with the camera means that there is no photographic evidence of this cane-wielding Deadwoodian character — but he lives in my memory like a mythic specter of the old West.

Toni… a Sorrow…

Toni Berry…

During the Gelb years when Kevin and Henry had the store I used to take my Dobro over to Kitty and Errol’s, the Powers sisters, two pretty Montessori schoolteachers. We’d play music. They both played a little guitar, Kitty was a guitar student of mine. They both sang so we’d have a nice time making music, folk songs mostly. We all enjoyed the exchange and this was a once or two night a week bit of business.
Well, after about a year of friendship the two girls were suddenly chatty about ‘Toni’ and how Toni was coming up for a visit.. “Wait ‘till you meet her. You’ll love her. And then they’d look at each other and would say words to the effect that I “wouldn’t know what to do with that one.”
“Can she sing?” I asked.
“No, she doesn’t sing. You just wait. You’ll meet her.”
Well, it came to pass that there was to be a dinner party and I would get to meet Toni.
I had no idea what to expect and I just hoped that whoever she was that we would be comfortable with each other since Kitty and Errol obviously loved this person.

So I show up and there are people milling around. The girls lived in a rented house and had room for a nice party if you know what I mean. Their friends were an intelligent bunch… no Bubbas…no Valley Girls. Also no Toni.
Great. Got some dame coming up from L.A. and can’t even show up on time for her own party!
I didn’t give it much thought…you know how it is… I wasn’t that concerned.
I was in the kitchen, I hear the conversation tone change. Evidently Toni has arrived. “Perfect,” I thought. “I’ll be able to ooze into the mingle if I wait a minute”.

Well, the kitchen door swings open and there she is. I had no idea what she was supposed to look like but I found that was always a good thing because in that way you’re never disappointed.

She was short…maybe five five, round face…brown hair styled nicely…collar length and full… brown eyes. Cute, rather than pretty…pretty rather than beautiful.
“I’m Toni.” she said.
“I’m Norm.” I said.
She looked and at me with a smirk and said, “I’m a hooker.”
I looked at her for a second. A little at a loss for words.
“You want something to drink? A sandwich, maybe?” I asked. She laughed and just then Kitty and Errol came in and said “You met Toni!” in happy voices.

Yes indeed. I’d met Toni

Now I’m basically a country boy. I had never in my life met an honest to god ‘working girl’ that I knew of. She certainly didn’t look anything like what I’d imagined what one would be like. None of the stereotypical descriptors of “hooker” or “prostitute” that one reads about in novels seemed to apply. She had a nice figure and was wearing jeans and a long sleeved blouse.

I was, and still am, big on ‘reading edges’ trying to ken what a persons “aura” might be saying. I didn’t actually see auras (except in special circumstances) and I didn’t see one on her but I could tell she was Going To Be Different.

I like to look at hands. Ideally, on a woman, I like ‘Vargas Hands’, the kind that have long tapering fingers with lonish enameled nails but those are rare. Still, some of their personality is reflected in thier hands. I always look at their hands because to me it speaks volumes of how a woman views herself. It’s part of the whole picture.

“Let me see your hands” was a question I was never afraid to ask . The way they put their hands forth told me things. I would do my “study” and sometimes do a jackleg imitation of a palm reader which allowed me to touch her hands and pick up little hints about their persona. A lot of tactile signaling can happen doing this.
When I asked her to show me her hands I noticed a bit of a hesitation and she presented me with two gently clasped fists that she ever so slowly opened. A person who trusts but only reluctantly…

She had “Urchin’s Hands” which are hard to describe. They aren’t and never could be ‘Vargas Hands’ but long nails wouldn’t enhance the hands that much. But I could see she had a well keptness to them. Honest and sturdy but still maintaining femininity.

I took her two unclenched fists in my upturned palms and was startled by her wrists. She had deep scars on both of them the ones on her left wrist a bit rougher in scar tissue than her right.
I gently stroked them with my thumb.
“Are you O.K. now?”
She cocked her head at me said “Kitty and Errol told me you’d let me know if I was OK or not.”
“Well, you really ought to get into another business if it comes to that, y’know? You need to be good to yourself”

We talked for a little while. She said she wasn’t a street hooker…no, she was a ‘call girl’ and she just had a couple or ‘regular clients’. More like a kept woman was how she put it. She made it very plain that she had no pimp. “No man ain’t taking any money from me.” I listened to her story with absolutely no judgment to it at all except to sniff it lightly to see if it was a true tale. It certainly seemed so.
Oh, well, another trippy person living an interesting life but the scars on her wrists bothered me. These weren’t little white lines… she had done a real hack on herself .

The rest of the night passed uneventfully. She and I mingled with the others and eventually Kitty, Errol and myself played about an hours worth of music. A good time was had by all. Toni and I didn’t say much for the rest of the evening . I’d catch her looking at me sometimes. Sometimes her face would be expressionless other times she would have her smirk. a certain knowing smile.

Finally I went up to he and very quietly said “Y’know what?”
You think you’re pretty rowdy. Yeah, you do. You think you’re pretty rowdy but you’re just a rowdy little punk which is to say you ain’t all that rowdy at all.” She thought this was very funny. I started calling her “Rowdy” after that. She loved it.

She was only up for a weekend. The dinner party was on her arriving Thursday. That Friday we went to an Emerald Hills burgerie and played pool. When we got there I found she was only 20 which would be a problem because the Canyon Inn, the burgerie, was a beer and wine joint and she had no ID.
We just wanted to eat and shoot a little social pool so we had Toni drinking Cokes. I got another revelation when we got there. She asked me if the cops in this area write citations for needle marks. Whoops! Needles! This explained why she was wearing long sleeves on warm nights.

That gave me something to chew on as we played some pool. We eventually got turned out because Toni couldn’t produce an I.D. so it was a short night. She was on a plane that Sunday and I figured that would be the last of her.
Just as well. It’s hard for me to understand someone so into a substance that they are willing to inject it into themselves. We ain’t talking medicine, here. Her world was so different than mine I didn’t think we would ever be more than casual aquaintances.

A couple of months later, to my surprise, here comes Toni strutting into the store.
“The Rowdy Little Punk is here!..” she announced, kissing me in the process.
She invited me up to the Powers house that night and of course I went. We had a nice time. Played music, sang a little, Toni just taking it in and enjoying it. Talking during that second weekend visit I found out that she made really good money at what she did but she had nothing to show for it except a lot of clothes. She said that’s where most of her money went…to clothes.

She told me that she had been involved with an “outlaw” motorcycle club for a while. She liked the big bikes and the lifestyle. And the drugs available. She had pretty much quit that life but still kept in touch with some of the guys. After all, she had built some friendships with some of them.
She wanted me to write to her so I did. I think I saw her on three, maybe four separate weekends. Never even approached intimacy… no kissing, well, no necking, making out…that kind of thing. But still, a deep, caring, love and affection was growing between us.

I wrote to her for a year or so. She would get depressed and I would somehow cheer her up. And I would keep gently pressing her to get out of the business. She asked me to call her a couple of times and introduced me to her mother over the phone. She lived with her mother and would meet her clients at whatever rendzevous they arranged. Never at home.

One night her mother called me. She was worried because Toni was stoned or something and would I talk to her. I had no idea what I could do that far away. Looking back on it, she should have called the paramedics but maybe it was a financial thing or she was afraid of getting her put in jail, I don’t know. But talk to her I did and she was a mess. Obviously depressed but not actually suicidal that I could tell. But she was loaded on something. Just what I never found out or cared to find out. I talked to her and got her from mumbling to coherence, somehow.
I got a promise from her to call me the next day and once more I told her she had to find something else to do with her life but I felt out of my depth. I mean, why am I even talking to this girl… she likes bikers and uses drugs that require needles.

I’m not exactly sure what it was that did it…she always said it was me…but she got reconnected with her father who ran a catering truck business and who had a small fleet of “roach wagons” as people call them. She got a job driving one of these and found that she loved it and claimed that she had quit The Business and the drugs except for a little pot. Quitting the business was not an overnight thing. She may not have fully quit it, I don’t know. But her letters took an amazingly upbeat tone. She was starting to save money and just all in all felt happy.
This went on for a long time. She never came back to the Bay Area. But I had no idea that I would never see her again.

This went on for a while. She was happy and proud to be out of her olld profession and lifestyle.
One night I was thinking about calling Kitty and Errol and see if they’d heard from her…when the phone rang. It was Kitty. Toni was In Something more than trouble.
It turns out she went on a ‘run’ and a good time was had by all. During the revelry she had gone into someone’s tent and indulged in a needled drug. I have no idea what it was but likely it was heroin.

She passed out. She had overdosed herself because she had tried to throw up and aspirated on her own vomit. This is usually what kills in an overdose. It isn’t the drugs necessarily, that kill them. It’s the incapacitating effect so that your body doesn’t react to things like aspirating your own vomitis. You drown in it. She didn’t die but it caused oxygen starvation… brain damage…and all that was Toni went away forever. She was alive but she was pretty much going to need institutional care for the rest of her life.

A day later I got a letter from her. She had written it and mailed it just before she went on that fateful trip. In it she said she knew I wouldn’t approve but she was going on a run with this bunch of bikers she used to ride with “just this once and never again”. She told me she would be careful and signed it with love as she always did…

I cried. Deep and hard. The adult version of that little kid’s shoulder shaking shuddering, gasping sobs. There have only been two other incidents that moved me that deeply and I have to say it is Not a fun cry to have.

When I went to LA on what I call “The Johnna and Deedee Caper” I decided to try to find out more about her. Kitty gave me a phone number of one of her friends in L A and while I was down there I called the number and stated my business… was there some way I could visit Toni. The guy made me leave a number and I’m sure he made a couple of calls to have me checked out.

He called back and said, “Look. I don’t think you should go see her. She’s really fragile now. In fact the person you knew as Toni Berry isn’t in her any more. She’s changed a lot physically and she would not like to know you saw her like this.” His voice was gently…not hostile or defensive bit full of empathy and sadness.
“Remember her as she was, man. Everyone would be better off…”

And that’s the end of it.

Of course, now, there are lots of ‘what if’s’ but they won’t fit in the slot and you don’t get to play them anyhow…

I’ve only composed two songs in my life. Both instrumental, both played on the Dobro.
One is called “Travis” and the other…

…the other is called “Berry Pickin’ Waltz”