In 1968, Richard “Specs” Simmons opened the North Beach bar that bears his name. A year later, he nearly drowned in the briny deep of San Francisco Bay.
The San Francisco Examiner reported his miraculous nighttime rescue by a nearby 55-foot sailboat returning from a pleasure cruise, with reporter Baron Muller writing Specs and his compatriots, “visible only because of a single bobbing flashlight, were plucked from the darkened ocean off the Golden Gate early today in a one-in-a-million rescue.”
Their 32-foot sloop sank. Specs lived. And the bar he opened in North Beach thrived.
Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe is now set to celebrate its 50th anniversary Sunday, April 29, with a bash for the bar and its loyal patrons. Specs, sadly, left this world two years ago, but his daughter, Elly Simmons, is ready to honor the bar’s legacy.
Despite its 50-long years, the bar is not the oldest in the city. Hell, it’s not even the oldest bar in the neighborhood — that honor goes to the Saloon, only a few blocks away, which started in 1861.
But Specs birthed his bar in “The Season of the Witch,” when The City’s Irish Catholic power structure thrashed in revulsion against progressive flower children. North Beach in particular soaked and marinated in the poetry of the beats.
The bar’s notable patrons past and present reflect that history, from jazz pianist Thelonious Monk to poet and activist Jack Hirschman. Elly Simmons said poets, painters, strippers and “working stiffs” have all called the bar home. For years, eye-patch wearing, booze-swilling Warren Hinckle could be found there punching out his Examiner columns, accompanied by his canine companion, Bentley. When Hinckle died in 2016, a funeral parade marched its way straight to Specs, where toasts were traded in his honor. I downed a whiskey shot that day myself.
“It’s great to live in North Beach, because when you die you’ve been memorialized in North Beach,” Hirschman said Tuesday night, as he explained why Specs is so special.
For Hirchsman, part of it is ritual. He leans back against the wall, holding court with a band of poets who meets there every Tuesday, at their usual table near the center of the bar. They nosh on pizza after performing their poetry at the North Beach Library.
“Specs was this extremely progressive guy,” Hirschman said. My eyes drift to the “Boycott Coors beer!” above the bar, honoring the LGBT movement’s fight against Coors’ open termination of gay employees. “This is a very special place,” he says with a smile.
Jessica Loos, another poet, sits across from me. Tonight she’s tired, and she hits me with wry answers. When speculating on Specs’ success, she simply says “We all look better in sepia tone,” and peers up toward the amber-colored lights. I pepper her for more, and she tells me “It’s more than just a bar. It’s one of the cultural centers of this ‘village,’” meaning North Beach. “Here and Caffee Trieste!”
Bartender Mike Grim easily glides between customers. Between pours, he points out something few notice right away: People in Specs talk to each other. “There are no widescreen TV’s in here, that’s on purpose,” he says. And it’s consistent: From the thorny, ominous crab hanging on the wall to the layout of the chairs. Grim said he’s had customers walk in, seen their eyes bulge and heard them remark, “I haven’t been here since 1975, and it’s the same.”
“San Francisco is going through a lot of change,” Grim notes. But not Specs.
Diego Delo, who hails from Italy, said he owes the bar much. He’s sitting across from Hirschman and says that joining the group of poets spurred artistic expression he didn’t know he had in him. He started writing just five years ago.
“My children died, my wife died, my family died,” he told me. “I never wrote poetry before … it’s a new life for me.”
He rifles through his bag and hands a small stack of papers. I scan the first one, which touches on his struggle overturning his eviction from the neighborhood. I tell you with no shame, my glasses got a bit misty.
Mid-poem, Tony Ryan plunks down in an empty seat between me and Diego. With long white hair and oversized spectacles, he’s a North Beach character I recognize from my other less-than-sober nights, when I watched curiously as he wiped down tables and collected spare glasses. No, he doesn’t work there. But the poets know him, and though one rolls her eyes at his habits (a Yelp review accused him of acting like he “owned the place,” she tells me), they all feel affectionate toward the man.
Ryan started coming to Specs in 1970. From the beginning, Specs would 86 you from the bar for three reasons, he said: racism, harassing women and physical violence. It was a haven for union supporters, artists, bohemians and everyone else. “I knew it was for me,” Ryan said.
Trying to impart Specs’ particular magic, Ryan takes me on a whirlwind tour of the bar’s kitsch.
Behind the bar, far above the liquor, is the piece de resistance: a petrified walrus penis. Near the bar, newsclippings from the Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle detail Specs’ daring bay adventure oh-so-long ago. And an advertisement for Hinckle’s Examiner column, drawn by the famous Robert Crumb, sits on the brick wall near the entrance, showing the rabble-rousing Hinckle being hauled off by cops.
Ryan is perhaps most excited about the Egyptian-esque tomb titled “King Nut,” standing ominously in the corner. Rather than showing the dignified face of a pharaoh, the artist, Dancer, chose to depict Specs himself, peering suspiciously to the right, the walrus penis bone in one hand and a bottle of booze in the other.
The tour ends near the bathroom, under stairs that led to a strip club, years ago.
Ryan is trying to impart knowledge he’s garnered from decades of drinks in a place that’s like a second home to so many in North Beach. That’s a tall order.
The only thing to do, then, is to drink — and build your own memories in a special place like Specs, one sip at a time.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.