At Mario's on Columbus
So we were all in line at Bimbo's. It was probably 1999, because so many of my friends still lived here. We were carefree, and we took cabs. It was the North Beach Jazz Fest, that much I remember, but I have no idea who I was in line to see (I like to think it was the Innerzone Orchestra). Who knows?
It was me, my wife Anne (who wasn’t technically my wife yet, as we got married in 2000), my buddy Rob, and my college friend Pete. It was crazy that the three of us were together in line, and since Anne was with us, we’d done the prudent thing and gotten there early. The doors were just about to open and the three of us were poised to run in and try to find a seat.
Bimbo's, for those of you who don’t know, is a pretty large club with tables on the floor in a semi-circle around a large stage. You’ll find more tables against the wall on the edges of the room, but those fill up so fast, and it’s never worth trying to get them. Then there are the corner tables. Large enough for an entourage, the corner tables have views of the whole room, the stage, everything. I surveyed the crowd. A long line stretched down Columbus toward Fisherman’s Wharf. It would be mobbed tonight. I’d probably have to hold my jacket, Anne’s jacket, drinks, and whatever else. It looked to be stuffy, hot, tiring.
But tonight, fate had adventure in store. As the doors opened, Pete and Rob disappeared inside. I walked straight to the bar, ordered a gin & tonic and a beer, thought better about it, and ordered a sparkling water for Anne, too. Caught up in the mad rush from the door to the main room, I saw Anne, and then found Rob. He was motioning to us both, pointing at Pete sitting in a corner booth. Pete had a table! Amazing. I ran over. Best seat in the house. Closest to the stage. One of those booths with a large round table and leather seats. Classy, but fleeting. It would be ours for only moments. The booth would seat at least 20 and we were only 4. In another minute some large group would move in and we’d be just as crowded as the poor saps in the middle of the room.
We all felt the pressure. Pete acted. He looked around at a pile of flyers lying on the table-top, and found one with an unprinted side. He folded it in half like a table-tent, took out a black felt-tipped pen and calmly started writing. He printed these three letters on each side of the fold: V.I.P.
I laughed. “Bro, that’s never going to work,” I said.
Pete didn’t laugh. He was a man on a mission. He waved down a waiter, ordered a magnum of champagne and a bucket of ice. He asked for half-a-dozen glasses, maybe more.
The effect was instantaneous. The rest of the club filled up, but our little corner stayed nice and empty. A long-haired Jazz fan with a backpack tried to back in and sit down on our couch. I made eye-contact with him, pointed at our little sign and simply mouthed “Dude …V.I.P.” He apologized with a wave, smiled, and left.
The band played. We sipped the champagne, we ordered more champagne. It was classy. Then the strangest thing happened. Other V.I.P.s started coming over and hanging out. A couple here, a couple there. They wore sports coats and were very cordial. We all shook hands. I introduced myself as an “artist,” Anne and Pete were in “high-tech,” Rob was a “film-maker.” All of this was basically true, but it was more of how we wanted to see ourselves than how we really were.
Another V.I.P. couple sat down next to us, and the man introduced himself as the owner of a club in the lower Haight. It was the DJ bar, “The Top,” and “Had we ever heard of it?”
“No Fucking Way,” I said, but then got a little embarrassed. That’s not how V.I.P.s talk, you know.
The Top was just about the coolest club in town at that particular point in history. We talked to him a bit more. Rob actually made music videos, and I owned turntables so we were (kind of) in the same business ... a little bit. We poured him some of our champagne, we traded music industry stories, we laughed. Then, as he left, he signed a few credit-card sized badges and suddenly we had year-round V.I.P. passes to his club. Amazing. And to think earlier in the day I was too broke to buy the super burrito at Pepito's.
And then, as soon as it had started it was over. The lights came on. Our real lives returned. Pete would soon disappear back East (Brooklyn). Rob went on to work on movies (the three of us were extras in “Groove”), and screenwriting took him down to L.A. Within a year me & Anne’s life evolved, simplified, and got a lot more complicated. We got married, bought an apartment, had kids. Champagne was reserved for birthdays, New Year’s, and new jobs.
There are so many stories I have about my life so far in San Francisco, but this one just about sums up what I like best. The randomness of every single day. The way you can re-invent yourself a thousand times over. The way that no-one really cares one way or the other what you do, as long as you do it with style. San Francisco is a city where you can do anything, be anything you want. It turned me, a broke kid from Florida into a big-city V.I.P., if only for a night. And for the record, Pete, Rob and I must have gone to The Top every weekend for the next year, loving every minute of it.