SF’s Deepest Dives – Part 1: The 21 Club


21 Club is just a two-block stroll from that pedestrian heart of the city, Powell Street Station. Now this is only a block or two into the Tenderloin, but it looks, smells and feels much deeper. The corner of Taylor and Turk is a busy little intersection with an artfully painted crosswalk.

It’s about 6pm and I’m with two British drinking buddies, Tom and Emily, who have just come from the Financial District. There happen to be about a half dozen, large black citizens in worn black hoodies conversing in front of the building. I briefly wonder what percentage of San Francisco’s politically correct, yogalates crowd would invent an excuse to walk the other way. We are, of course, ignored as we pass between them and enter the establishment.

[FYI: Your humble narrator is indeed half-black himself, but this is irrelevant.]

There are 7 people sitting at the bar and our entrance attracts everyone’s attention for a moment. (Cue the record scratch) It’s an ethnically mixed crowd, the average age being maybe 50. Most of them have a face like Danny Trejo, including the one woman. A basketball game is playing on a 21” screen in the corner. Boston vs. Miami, I think.

Emily asks Frank, the bartender/owner who looks much healthier than his clientele, if she can put her bike in the corner. We find seats in front of the window with a clear view of Taylor St. There is a stack of Philippines Today in the corner of the window. The cover reads CORONA GUILTY. Embarrassing, I have no idea what this means.

[FYI: Your humble narrator is indeed part Filipino himself, making this relevant.]

Tom orders us drinks and I take note of the mishmash of things that decorate the 21 Club.

The windows are lined with SF 49er’s/Bud Lite hangers (the kind of advertisements that double as Super Bowl decorations). There is an antique rifle above the center of the bar. A sign reads CAUTION: RATTLESNAKES HAVE BEEN SIGHTED IN THE ROUGH.

Another reads NO DOGS OR IRISHMEN ALLOWED ON THESE PREMISES. Babbleheads, masks, trinkets, a worn Hoobastank bumpersticker.

The bar itself displays Seagrams 7, Bacardi, Smirnoff, Old Crow, Jim Beam, Cutty Sark. The most top shelf libation appears to be Hennessey. It is literally on the top shelf.

Tom points out that Frank is from Guam. Incidentally, a variety of cans of SPAM decorate the center shelf. I can’t tell if some of them are international versions or just store brands. Emily says that the woman at the end of the bar doesn’t seem to like her.

On the wall near the bathroom is a framed two-page spread. The section is Tenderloin Stars. The title of the article reads “Frank, Barman of the 21 Club.” http://www.studycenter.org/test/cce/issues/119/ccx.119-cp4&5.pdf

On the other side of the room is a small framed article from Esquire Magazine with the title “Best Bars of 2008” presumably featuring 21 Club. http://www.esquire.com/features/best-bars-in-america/best-bars-list-0608

There are several books nearby including Physician’s Desk Reference, Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and, to our amusement, Glenn Beck’s “Arguing with Idiots.”

Tom points out the more-prominently displayed book “Lost in America: A Dead End Journey.” It was apparently written by one of the regulars.

An ambulance wails down Turk St. The front door of the bar is open and we all have front row seats to the siren symphony.

It’s at this point I notice that those of us inside the bar are not the only ones with front row seats. There is a man standing outside the window with his face nearly touching the glass. His ratty, faded black hoodie is unzipped exposing his bare chest. He is staring at Emily like a shipwreck survivor peering at a glass of water. There’s nothing too provocative about her attire, unless you count the slightly low cut of her T-shirt. The man outside apparently does. I consider slapping the window, but I have no idea what this unpredictable wretch would do.

His G-rated peepshow is interrupted when he finally notices the 6’2” Tom sitting next to her. And just like that, the man’s demeanor shapeshifts before my eyes. He suddenly smiles and waves bashfully at Tom. He laughs and pantomimes a gesture of harmlessness as if to say “Oh, you know me. I’m just foolin’ around, boss!”

But he does not leave. He chugs the remainder of his King Cobra and slams the can on the sidewalk as if having scored a winning touchdown. He continues to peer into the window and as soon as Tom turns towards the TV, his focus slams back to the English girl sitting between us. His prison-rape gaze is so shameless and lustful I would not be surprised if there were a strange puddle on the sidewalk. I figure this a good time for me to go the restroom and let Tom be a hero is the demon should break the glass.

I take a moment to browse the fairly modern jukebox. It has the classics you’d expect: The Doors, Patsy Cline, Metallica. There’s also The Black Keys, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse and interestingly enough, IZ.

Aside from a strip of flypaper over the toilet, the men’s room is in better shape than I expected. The sink is surprisingly clean, but maybe nobody washes their hands. I decide to give my audio recorder to Emily later to critique the lady’s room.

When I come back, there’s a Snoop Dogg/Johnny Cash mashup playing over the speakers. The outdoor voyeur is thankfully gone. A man in a wheelchair is now talking to my friends. I can tell that he’s not a veteran or panhandler. He’s a clean-cut Maori fellow and his chair has nice, custom 25” aluminum rims. The kind you usually see on lowriders.

His name is Rodney and he’s part of the AXIS Dance Company, which integrates dancers with and without disabilities for modern contemporary performances. He’s apparently been dancing for 16 years. Rodney moved from New Zealand to SF 5 years ago and is quite knowledgeable about the Tenderloin. He’s a charming guy and our chance encounter with him is a testament to the unpredictability of the city.

The overall mood of the 21 Club has perked up. The people sitting at the bar are all chatting and laughing. They may not be strangers to hard times, but none of that matters now. Frank is in a good mood, not just working, but seemingly hosting. He’s clearly a shrewd but generous barman of a bygone era. He’s obviously seen a lot go down over the years while running his business here. I make a note to talk to him in more depth later.

At around 7:15 the smell of marijuana floats in. Almost like the sunlight shining through a gap in the clouds, a more hopeful-looking breed of pedestrians suddenly appear in clear contrast to the passersby we’ve watch for the last hour. People with fresh clothing, healthy strides and smooth complexions. People who appear to have jobs or classes they’ve just come from. What may be the first toddler I’ve seen all day walks in front of the door with his mother not 4 feet away.

The 21 Club’s charms are apparent for those willing to venture where yuppies and hipsters fear to tread. It’s a nostalgic retreat for the neighborhood folk to leave their troubles at the door.

And out the window, we see a rotund, middle-aged woman drop her shorts and take a piss on the sidewalk. In her hand is a bloody piece of tissue. On her face is the strained look of someone who has waited as long enough. Tom and I turn our heads out of courtesy and disgust. Emily has gone to the bathroom and missed this exhibition.

Michael Jackon’s  “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” is playing on the jukebox. After leaving a puddle and bloody rag on the sidewalk, the woman pauses in front of the open door to dance enthusiastically to the music.

And speaking of bodily functions, I’ll now cap off this edition of Deepest Dives with:


“Now here I am in the ladies’s room of the 21 Club. There is a notable population of animal life demonstrated by the flystrip hanging from the ceiling covered with what I can only describe… as a horde of small flies. There is a hole in the ceiling, which goes… I do not know where. Perhaps into a black void of stench. The artwork, on the other hand, uplifts this environment. Some quality of, why I would almost say, Cubist faces sketched throughout the facilities. On the wall in the toilet is inscribed something to keep up our spirits ‘Chin up. Cheer up. Panties down.’ That’s all for now. Thanks so much for tuning in. Bye bye!”