Northside SF  

Bellingham by the Bay
By Bruce Bellingham

The Washington Square Bar & Grill finally reopened the other day, and it is a smash hit. There was more than a smashing coterie of North Beach locals, who appeared to be relieved that The Square (as the purists call it) had been given back to them. That’s thanks to Liam and Susan Tiernan, the new owners. They poured a fortune into the new place to make it look authentically old. And it looks grand. Ernie Beyl even contributed a manual typewriter that belonged to Stan Delaplane to hang on the wall with the other old-time artifacts. Delaplane, the famed Chronicle columnist, used to hang out at The Square in the old days with his pal and colleague, Kevin Keating. Stanton the Great would surely love the restoration. To give his inimitable imprimatur, Ed Moose dropped in at the reopening day party. Ed started the Washington Square all those years ago. All noted his approval, including Deanna Mooney and Valerie Pinkert, also witnesses to the merriment. Ron Fimrite – one of the best sports writers in the whole wide world, and the author of The Square, the authoritative bio of the tavern, came by that first week of revelry last month. Chris Barnett, one of the best travel writers in the whole wide world, said all seemed right again with the world. In an unrighted, uptight world, that says plenty.

Making things right behind the bar were the bar stars – Michael McCourt, Michael Fraser, brought out of retirement, and Mitch Galbreath – such a solid crew of salooners.

“It’s so great to see them restored to their place behind the bar,” observed Jerry Gibbons, one of the greatest ad men in the whole wide world.

“Like City Lights Books,” said Neil Mortensen, “this is a cornerstone of culture.” Live music is back at The Square with Terry Disley and the dashingly talented Tim Hockenberry.

It made a few of us wistful to note some of the characters who are missing these days. Of course, the eternal mentoring spirit of the Washbag is Herb Caen.

“I’ve got to tell you, Bruce,” murmured Susan Tiernan, “the Chronicle called us. They want to celebrate 144 years of the Chronicle’s existence – that’s cause of celebration any day – and Herb Caen’s birthday.” On April 2, The Square threw a party for Herb, now gone all of 12 years, by serving his beloved Vitamin V – that’s Stoli vodka. They also proffered etched martini glasses at three-bucks a throw. A steal. Herb’s books were available, too. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world – the whole wide world. …

It just hit me like a ton of bricks: how much I miss Herb Caen. One day, I walked around the Marina with him. “Hey, Bellingham,” asked Herb, “what is your university experience?”

“Gee, Herb, you know I went to NYU for 10 minutes. I’m really an autodidact.”

“I know what that is,” Herb shot back. “That’s when you drive yourself crazy.”

Quick he was. He didn’t like driving all that much, but he came from the generation that loved elegant cars. He had a Jaguar that he called The White Rat. It was useful for trips to the Wine Country. But Herb Caen really liked to walk around San Francisco. He knew back in 1939 that no one gets good items by driving down a highway. Later they would call them freeways – though we’re still paying for them. Nothing is free in California.

Perhaps breathing is still available at a discount. That’s what I love about North Beach. You can walk down Columbus and smell the Bolognese sauce. It’s as natural as the scent of the sea breeze off the Mediterranean. Yes, Bolognese means tomato sauce with meat in it. Honest, I’ve been considering going back to being a vegetarian. Fat chance. I consider the lamb stew at the Big 4, and all bets are off. Let me set the record straight. Lips that have touched snouts and foreskins shall never touch mine, OK? We’re clear on that, right? … This I gutted from the New York Post: “Radical vegans – who avoid any product that comes from animals – are now buzzing about the evils of honey. They claim its production uses the labor of oppressed worker bees, according to a Time magazine report on the growing numbers of American vegetarians. And kiss a carnivore? Never. The survey revealed that 29 percent of committed vegetarians would refuse to kiss someone who just wolfed down a meal containing meat. The poll showed that 10 million Americans consider themselves vegetarians, while an additional 20-million people have flirted with a meatless diet.

“But is it healthier? The jury is still out.

“‘Vegetarians don’t live longer, they just look older,’ said South Dakota cattle rancher Jody Brown. ‘If animals weren’t meant to be eaten, then why are they made out of meat?’” … Herb Caen used to say gossip is the mother’s milk of journalism. So here’s more. Bruce Willis, truly a good guy, just got married again. I always sensed he was a reasonable man. One of our fave Upper East Side bartenders all those years ago. Good on him. His bride is a lingerie model. That’s the height of maturity: to marry a lingerie model. The rest of us are usually reduced to just marrying the lingerie.
You know what Dorothy Parker said: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

Brevity often escapes me, but one has spaces to fill, as you know. I think I once wrote something about Tennessee Williams, and his lament about “the terrah of the blank white page.”

Mad specter of the writer, the indefatigable scourge. Of course, I never really suffered from writer’s block, as someone once asked me.

“What do you do about writer’s block?” she asked.

“I think about the rent.”

Not deterred by my flippancy, she persisted.

“You’re a writer. How many words a minute can you type?”

She was a little on the hostile side.

I am serious, she actually asked me this.

I pretended to ponder it a bit, then said, “Oh, I think I can type about nine words a minute.”

“Nine words a minute!?” she shot back with disgust. “You’re kidding! That’s all?”

“Yes, but they’re very good words.”

I hope they are. Otherwise, Herb would be, as he used to say, “pissed as hell.” Here’s to Herb Caen Day. He almost always picked his words carefully. Gawd, he loved this town. He really was the best in this whole wide world. San Francisco is the whole world to some of us. …

Bruce Bellingham is the author of the book called Bellingham by the Bay. He also writes for the Marina Times and Media People. He’s working on a book, “The Angina Dialogues.” Go ahead, torture him at

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