A joint called Polo's on Mason near Market, needing another bartender, put an ad in the paper the other day. Fifty applicants showed up.
Polo's is seeking to make it as a sports bar/restaurant. Several of the employees used to work for Enrico Banducci, who left them holding thousands in uncashable paychecks when his place on Broadway folded in 1988. Enrico wound up paying them off at 35¢ on the dollar. "A toast to Enrico," said Dave, the cook, raising his shot glass: "Up yours."
"He screwed the wrong people," added Manny, the bartender.
But next morning Ward Dunham, who works the 6 a.m.-1 p.m. shift behind the bar, scowled when he heard the others had been badmouthing Enrico.
Ward was owed money, too, but says, "There was nobody saying 'You can't leave, you gotta work here.' Any of us could have left and gotten another job. If we didn't, then we have nothing to complain about. We made the decision ourselves to stay. There were no guarantees. Enrico did the best he could. His back was up against the wall."
Ward started working for Enrico in '68 and poured the last drink 20 years later when the place closed due to bankruptcy. "A long run," he sighs.
Enrico Banducci took over the hungry i nightclub from Eric "Big Daddy" Nord in 1948 and soon moved it from the basement of the Sentinel building at Columbus and Kearny to the basement of the International Hotel a block away. Its heyday was the beat period, mid-'50s to early '60s, when comedians including Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory used it as a political forum. In the Fall of '58 Enrico leased the restaurant at Kearny and Broadway and turned it into San Francisco's first sidewalk cafe. A decade later he sold the hungry i name to the owner of a topless joint, declared bankruptcy and focused all his energy on the restaurant, which was in the name of his wife, Susie.
Ward wasn't around for the hungry i glory days, but he was always hearing about them. Barbra Streisand used to show up occasionally and she and Enrico would joke about how she still owed him two weeks at $250 a week. In 1963, while booked at the hungry i she had a chance to accept a much bigger gig in LA and Enrico encouraged her to do so. "He did that for a lot of people," Ward says. "If he didn't pay it's because he couldn't pay."
I recalled that in '68 I worked briefly for an entrepreneur of that type a few blocks down Broadway: Warren Hinckle, the publisher of Ramparts. When there was money he was freewheeling and generous, giving inexperienced writers advances to do stories on spec. "Great idea!" Warren would exclaim, "Go do it! Whataya need?" Then when things were tight the staff wouldn't get paid and it didn't matter that you had a family to support.
"Enrico was a brilliant guy," Ward resumed. "And it was the most amazing place. Everybody went there. Enrico's informal rule was that you could do or be anything you wanted to be as long as you didn't step on anybody else's toes. You could look any way you wanted to, you could dress any way you wanted to. We'd have cops and pimps in there, the social elite, Bukowski was in there all the time. It was kind of like neutral ground; an oasis."
Ward came to San Francisco in 1965 when he got out of the Army (Special Forces). A huge man who knows how to handle himself, he worked as a bouncer in a couple of beer joints, then got hired as night manager at The Roaring '20s (where beautiful Magi Disco used to work as a barker, standing out front in tails and a top hat, greeting the passerby with smiles and intelligent patter). "It was still kind of fun back then," Ward reflects. "San Francisco had the best strippers during the late '60s and the early '70s. Before that strippers were just street broads, some of whom may have graduated from high school. But then the hippy thing came along and it became kind of an in trip for a while for college girls to be strippers --topless dancers, actually, that was the new wrinkle. At that time it paid real well and they had great rock 'n roll groups. When I was at the Roaring '20s the Charlatans were the house band and the girls were absolutely gorgeous. We had a concert pianist in there... San Francisco was, for a while, the only place that really had topless dancing. Everywhere else it was the tired old end of the burlesque scene. San Francisco was the place to go in the late '60s because they had Haight St and they had topless. The world just beat a pathway to our door. It was new and fresh, the girls were gorgeous and everybody was making money hand over fist."
And now we've got AIDS and streets full of strung-out people...
Ward analyzes the decline from his behind-the-bar perspective. "It got to the point where you could see topless dancing at a beer joint in Iowa -- there was no reason to go to San Francisco to see topless anymore. So the club owners started going into bottomless and the quality of the women just dropped like a stone. Instead of dancing to good music in a G-string you were dancing to a juke box and guys were looking up your pussy. Then there was the heat from the ABC, so some guys gave up their liquor licenses and concentrated on selling pussy -- encounter studios and so on. The other thing that happened was high quality pornographic movies, and then videos. Why would you go to a sleazy dive in a bad neighborhood with junkies strewn all over in doorways and panhandlers and assholes and pimps, when you can just rent a pornographic movie and watch it in the comfort of your own home and get closer and see more?"
As the technology changes, so does the economic substructure and the cultural superstructure. Didn't somebody say that?
Ward was originally hired at Enrico's as a bouncer/bartender. "Broadway was overrun by pimps and hookers. Some middle-aged guy would be a little drunk, five or six girls would surround him and he'd wind up getting his pocket picked. Well, that's just bad for business. So they wanted to get rid of these guys and they hired me to be behind the bar -- I wasn't a great bartender in those days -- and my half-brother was hired just to be around and act like a customer. Some guy would get out of line and he would grab him and take him outside and kick the living dogshit out of him and then wander off. The cops would show up -- of course they knew exactly what was going on and they loved it. We'd say, 'Well, we don't know, two customers got into and it didn't happen in here, they went out on the street...' And there would be one getting thrown in the meat wagon and the other one, well, he just wandered off..."
Ward laughs at the memory. "We'd tell them he was a black guy, a white guy, sometimes Chinese. The witnesses could never agree on a description. 'Great big guy. About 6' 7". Kind of skinny.' 'No, he was a fat guy.'"
After a couple of years of ousting undesirables from Enrico's, Ward's brother got into some legal trouble and had to leave the state. He still works as a bouncer on Bourbon St. and every once in a while he catches a ship or works on the oil rigs as a steward. Currently he's in the Persian Gulf on a jet fuel tanker. "Can't make an honest living any more than I can," Ward comments.
Ward lived with a woman named Mary in a house on Telegraph Hill and they had three kids. When they broke up in the early '80s they threw a big party for all their friends, to show that there was no animosity. Ward helped Mary buy a house in the Excelsior district and stayed close to the kids. He moved into his studio above Enrico's -- for which he paid $50 -- and supplemented his income with what he calls "thug work" (mainly collecting debts), for which he generally got $5,000 per assignment, and by teaching calligraphy, at which he is a master. Because the studio didn't have a shower, he rented a hotel room on Battery St. When Enrico sold the building in '85 and the new owner raised the rent on the studio, Ward gave up the hotel room and accepted Duke Skinner's invitation to shower and do his laundry in one of the massage parlors on Broadway. "It worked out great," he recalls.
It was pretty loose. The girls would be in and out... I asked Ward if working on the edge of the sex industry had resulted in his getting a lot? "Not really," he replied. But it's resulted in me getting some. Most of 'em, you know, you have to talk to 'em and they drive you crazy. In San Francisco the sex scene pays so badly that you get drugged-out freaks and others you'd be afraid of, what with AIDS and everything. Even before AIDS they were a scarey bunch -- tattooed, mindless, cracked out, totally fried by the time they're 30, the absolute dregs. It's frightening."
After Enrico's closed Ward went to work as a bartender at Capp's Corner in North Beach. "That really wasn't a very good house for me," he says. "It was very busy, the owner's making about $300,000 a year, the waitresses make a lot of money, but as a bartender you'd kill yourself working but you couldn't make any money. People come there from the Peninsula looking for a little bit of Italian whatever. Kind of a low-strolling crowd. They come in, they're there for the dinner, they don't want to sit at the bar but it's real crowded so they sit at the bar and they're pissed about it and either they nurse a drink or they'll have two or three drinks while they're waiting for their table and then they'll tell you to put it on their dinner check and the waitress ends up getting the tip. And they don't kick back. So from a bartender's point of view it was a bad house."
His next job was at the Chez Paris on Mason. "That was an ideal job for me. I was making three or four hundred a week and working five nights, which is more than I like to work, but I could sit there and write letters or write in my journal... They'd been having trouble with street toughs -- idiots, kids, punks, junkies, the scum that you get down here. They were coming in and making it hard for the girls in there to do business." After six months' of Ward's presence behind the bar the problem diminished. "Three or four of these idiot junkies are not a problem. They'll shove a waitress around, but anybody even near their size, they'll make a little noise and back right down. I would just immediately shove them out and slap them around a little bit. I never broke any bones or anything like that but I kicked a couple of shins pretty good. Well, I did break one nose, but that was by accident.
"Same thing in here. Three weeks ago I hit a guy and my hand was swollen up like a catcher's mitt. I'm not sure now that I didn't get AIDS from this idiot. He was this huge guy with a very bad attitude. As wrecked a human being as I've seen that young. This guy had to be in his early 20s and he looked like he was 50 and busted up pretty good. He just not gonna leave. I'd been downstairs getting ice and I came back and he was scaring the customers. So I just started walking up on him and pushing him out. He pushed back so I backhanded him and I guess I hit a tooth or something."
Ward shows me the scab on his hand and I try to reassure him that the literature on HIV transmission reveals no cases of transmission by punch in the mouth. We talk about medical students getting needlesticks all the time... His friend who's a paramedic in Mendocino and can't help being afraid, getting splashed with blood... Dental hygienists' hands sweating inside their gloves...The conversation comes back to Polo's longshot chances of making it.
"Polo's has been here for 52 years," says Ward. "The old ownership got tired of seeing the neighborhood go downhill. A few years ago they sold out to a couple of Iranians, one of whom had a ferocious temper, was known to throw dishes at customers. They just buried the place."
The Iranians sold out to partners who have divided the bar and restaurant side of the business. Magnolia Thunderpussy, a renowned caterer who was most recently maitre d' at Capp's Corner, has been put in charge of the restaurant side. Her reputation, Ward thinks, will bring customers. "But at Capp's," he observes, "about half the people who would come to see us lived right there in the neighborhood. For those people, coming down to the Tenderloin means going out of their way.
"These streets are nasty. You've got people sleeping in doorways and panhandlers and junkies who are basically pretty harmless and a lot of mental patients who are on SSI and are staying in all these hotels. They're going down the street, manic depressives displaying what appears to be violent behavior -- talking to themselves real loud. These people are totally harmless but they terrify people. And you get some guy who lives down on the Peninsula and he sees a guy like this and he says 'Hey, I don't need to bring my wife and kids down here, they don't need to see this.' That hurts. It killed Broadway."
Ward's view of the world is informed by two decades of removing people from restaurants. "Back when I started I was working weekends as the bouncer at a joint on upper Grant called the Rickshaw. Kids would come in, 17 or 18 years old trying to get into a place where you had to be 21, and I'd tell them they'd have to have this, that and the other thing as an i.d. And they'd give me all kinds of shit. Finally I put up signs listing what you had to have. And that worked. They wouldn't believe me but they'd believe the signs.
"Of course there were a few who'd give me shit anyway. I used to take more shit in the old days," he says. "I was pretty much of a liberal type guy, I didn't hate anybody. And because of that, I used to take a lot more shit than my partner. He'd tell somebody they had to leave and they'd say, 'You're prejudiced.' And he'd say, 'Yeah, I hate you fuckin' niggers, get out.' And they'd turn around and leave. But me I'd say, 'Oh no, don't think that, I'm not prejudiced, I'm just trying to do my job.'
"They'd say, 'Well if I was white you'd take this i.d.'"
"And I'd say, 'No, I wouldn't.'
"Finally I got to the point where I'd see a black guy with an Afro coming down the street and I'd instantly just sort of dislike him. I talked to a friend of mine -- a black guy -- and he said the best thing for you to do is get out of that joint. Because you're gonna end up with a permanent sort of attitude and that's not healthy.
"You know, if a certain type of person gives you shit enough times, you get to the point where if you see a guy like that, you just don't like him. It happens to cops. And then it becomes a perpetuating situation."