North Beach is where magic lives. Neon strip club signs throw color at the pavement below while Coit Tower sits illuminated on Telegraph Hill, like God’s own fire hose nozzle. Smells of garlic and sauce drift from restaurants whose large windows teem with people from around the world. Street barkers do their best to pull you in, and whether they’re peddling pasta or tits and ass, their coo is the same: “What you’ve got going on out there will never compare with what we have in here.” And sometimes they’re right.
This is the San Francisco that still feels like San Francisco. Part sideshow for the tourists, part midnight movie for the locals, North Beach can be anything to anybody as long as they are willing to say “yes.”
Unfortunately, I’ve got the shakes this morning from too much yes-saying last night. I was at Spec’s, where you can flirt with pretty girls and hear stories from weird old men. I did both. But I could’ve been at Vesuvio, or Gino and Carlo, or Tony Nik’s or, or, or …
It doesn’t really matter where I was, as long as it was in North Beach.
The written word is still a sacred thing in North Beach. As is art. Hovering over a corner at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus, large illuminated books seem to be flapping their wings to fly. The art piece by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn is called “Language of the Birds” and is an homage to all the literary brilliance that has come out of San Francisco — especially North Beach. Across the street is San Francisco’s literary anchor, City Lights Books, and kitty corner to that is the Beat Museum. One of the finest things you can do in this neighborhood is sit in a bar and read a book.
The other is to drink like a madman. This is usually the path I take.
Though I don’t live in the area, I’m there frequently. I can show up alone and know that I’ll run into friends somewhere, because North Beach is still an actual neighborhood, where people act like neighbors.
I know Mikey might be smoking outside Grant & Green, and Matt might be making pizza at Capo’s, and Laura might be pouring stiff ones at Columbus Cafe. And even if I don’t run into friends, I know that I’ll make new ones on a barstool at some point in the night, because this is North Beach, and that’s just what you do.
It’s a weird thing to be in love with a neighborhood in which you’ve never lived. It’s strange to know all its alleys and street names and colorful characters. But who am I to fight against magic? How can I resist the ghosts of the Barbary Coast? How can I say no to the staccato echoes that still reverberate with Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” or combat the lure of Jeremy Fish’s artwork on the side of buildings?
For me the answer is simple: I don’t.
Yes, magic lives in North Beach. Hopefully, I’ll run into you on a barstool there soon.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.