As an impressionable young student, one of the first subversive books I read was "The Journal of Albion Moonlight" by proto-beat poet and painter Kenneth Patchen. First published in 1941, it was surreal and influential and deep and strange and convoluted and I had no idea what it was all about, so I never finished it and traded it back in for something easier, like Vonnegut or Brautigan or even Albert Camus. Then I heard Van Morrison, my favorite singer at the time, going on in song about some mythical place called Albion, which turned out to be the mythical original ancient term for the island of Great Britain. He wanted to go back there, it seemed. Which sounded great and mystical, whatever it meant. In any event, the name stuck in my psyche.
Thus when, on one of my long San Francisco city walks, I saw a bar called simply "The Albion" I had no choice but to veer inside.
The Albion was on 16th Street in the Mission district, on the corner of an alley called, yes, Albion Street. This was when the Mission was a largely Latino, relatively inexpensive, hip (as opposed to "hipster", which is the opposite), and sometimes dangerous part of town. But it was really only risky if you were a jerk to some local vatos or tried to walk home or to your car drunk at 2am closing time, when the predators did come out for easy prey. Otherwise, it was just a cool neighborhood for almost every kind of person with the best food options in town, even if quite dirty in places.
I went in. The Albion looked kinda dirty. In the late afternoon the sun slanted into the doorway and lit the inside up a bit so you could see that. No big deal. A classic neon martini glass, olive and all, was already plugged in and glowing. There was a longish bar to the left with only one guy sitting there and a nice little slot by the wall with an elevated floor and only a couple of seats, so I slid right in, up against the cool glass-bricked wall from where I could see everything. One of the taps was for Anchor Steam, the superb local brew. My favorite. A big neon sign behind the bar read "SERVICE FOR THE SICK." As a public health professional, I already liked this dive.
The guy behind the bar eventually looked up from his book, noticed me, walked to the back all the way around the bar and up to where I sat. "What'll it be?" he asked. "It's either an Anchor or whatever your best specialty might be?" I replied. I have long learned to rely upon the local experts. "Well, we do have the best Bloody Mary in town," he said, in a way that made me believe him. "Sold" I said. Bloodies are my favorite cocktail since, as a public health professional, one can claim that all that tomato juice and other vegetable matter is healthy, in fact, almost like a smoothie. Service for the sick, indeed.
About ten minutes later the Albion was my favorite bar in the city. The Bloody was, indeed, superb. They whipped up a big bucket of the red spicy mix every midday, installed it under the bar, and used it through the evening, pouring the vodka - whatever kind, unless one is a pompous enough to pretend to taste the difference - and other final fixins in as the drinks were ordered. Delicious. Mouth-watering, literally. Almost crunchy, like a salad in a pint glass. Back then you could get a very good burrito within a block, bring it in, and have a Michelin-star meal with libations - say a Bloody and a pint - for about ten bucks total, with tip. There were three good used bookstores within one block. That light slanted in so nicely and the music was good and just the right volume and all was right with the world. My best New York City pal, himself a professional bartender and connoisseur of all thing related, just loved the joint. Charles Bukowski would have felt right at home, as long as nobody bothered him, and they wouldn't. In fact, most anybody without a bad attitude felt right there - the crowd was multiracial, all-ages, and nice-looking women - they did show up - were not hassled, or at least not for long. There were happy dogs inside! And that first bartender was reading - I peeked - Camus. All this in a place labeled "vaguely scary" by a city guidebook.
I became a semi-regular; not enough to be on a name basis with the staff or the real regulars but enough to feel welcome and comfortable, and even to get a free drink now and then. In fact, that place became my second or third office for a few years. This was before cell phones or internet and I carried a folder of papers and a legal pad and once I'd ordered my nutrients I would sit for hours at the end of the bar, composing articles about the horrid new plague called AIDS, the new efforts called needle exchange aimed at stopping it spreading, nuclear radiation, public health budgetary fights, and all manner of uplifting topics while I sipped my drinks, ate, and watched people come and go. I could have been known as "that quiet guy who drinks and scribbles in the corner." A few times I shot a little pool on the ratty table towards the back, under a big garish painting of demented-looking barflies, and lost. Slowly the place would fill a bit, but I tended to be done and out by busy bar time.
Not that the place was really dead in the day. The restroom was in the far rear and there was a little room back there too, always empty during the day. Or almost always - one time when I went back to piss I heard animalistic sounds from that room, and as the wall was thin and had open slits between the rotting wooden slats, I took a peek. A woman was in there servicing two guys at once. She looked bored but was making the requisite noises. Whatever. The bathroom was filthy. Back at the bar, I caught the bartender's eye, cocked my own towards the back room, and just asked "Professional working girl?" He shrugged and replied "Yep - helps pays the bills."
As for the bills, one time my girlfriend and I, along with a couple of her sisters and their boyfriends, stopped in for a drink before going for dinner nearby. It was happy hour time and fairly crowded. My girl's dad was joining us from down the street, where he helped run the local bank. He came strolling in wearing his suit and tie, and we saw him walking down the bar, leaning in between drinkers, checking out their drinks and scowling. People looked baffled at who this little old mafia-type was doing there. We waved at him and when he found us, he said "You know, I think I own this place." He looked up at the bartender, who had followed him down to our end of the bar, looking quizzical or even worried, and handed him his business card. Suddenly a whole round of drinks materialized for our group. Apparently we were now drinking with the landlord, or at least the guy who held the loan papers. I wasn't sure if this would bode well for my future there, but things stayed fine and friendly.
At night the Albion got jumping with happy drunks. Bands starting playing in that little back room sometimes. I would take friends visiting from milder hometowns in for cheap drinks, and they loved it. Once suitably prepped, you could skitter kitty-corner across 16th to a place called The 16th Note, a bigger bar with a very high ceiling that featured a dancefloor in the back and deejays helmed a big sound system. I recall one DJ working the crowd into a frenzy with building chants over a driving beat - this was before any "rave"-type scene had migrated across the Atlantic from, well, New Albion - and my friends stumbled out, amazed at the energy they had just soaked up in San Francisco. There were famed warehouse parties springing up South of Market and such, called things like Anon Salon and those could be fun, but you could get your fix of real city livin' in a smaller, more user-friendly way from these two dive neighborhood bars.
There were other less positive fixes going down nearby too, alas. Junkies lying in the alley were a reminder of what turns life could take. Cocaine was still popular, even though the crack version had made it distinctly less trendy and appealing. Booze, obviously, was omnipresent. As for the truly lethal stuff, some other regulars from that time recently posted this memory:
As for the Albion I have a story about that first week in SF where smoking in bars became illegal. I was sitting in the old Albion with a friend, he looked around and lit up a cigarette. Suddenly, the bartender points at him and screams, “YOU, GET THE F__K OUT!!!” Totally fine. We got out post haste. Once on the street, my friend says, “You did see why I did that, right?” No. “The people at the table right next to us were blowing lines of coke. So, yeah, we're the problem?” Goodnight, sweet Albion.
As a public health professional - one partly and proudly responsible for that early ban on smoking - I tend to keep my opinions on such matters to myself when out drinking. No sense in arguing. Choose your poison - just keep it to yourself. Unless you really want to share with somebody, of course.
The Albion is long gone now, of course, although seemingly fondly recalled by many - it's got a private Facebook page, for crissakes, and how many old dead bars can say that? Local music star Chuck Prophet has noted simply that "The Albion was a bar in SF. There was a backroom for music. It was a dive. It was a firetrap. It was heaven." There's still a bar there and not a very fancy one, albeit with bouncers and attitude to go with them. So it's changed, along with the neighborhood and the whole city. All three of those used bookshops are also gone, for example. Now there's a busy "craft" or "artisanal" (gag) beer joint just across the alley. In any event, when the final change came to the Albion, an online "critic" wrote this apt eulogy:
Another one bites the dust. Let's all raise our glass to the dive bar beauty that was the Albion. She didn't shave. She didn't use deodorant. She was foul-mouthed, loud and bitchy. I loved her. And then she had a make-over and became Delirium. A poser. A bridge and tunnel dive for those who don't know better. Trying to pretend that in spite of the face lift, the fake boobs and the new wardrobe she was still her old self. I'm not fooled. RIP, Albion....
But at least the sign over the bar there still reads "SERVICE FOR THE SICK." Hail Albion!