TWO weeks ago Saturday, I found myself in the company of two esteemed
fellow news-dogs in desperate need of an escape -- from the bitter toil of
daily deadlines and the sweet indolence of their snug suburban homes. I
usually leave emergency mercy flights to the Red Cross -- but for once I
had a tank full of gas and heart full of empathy. "Pick you up at
eight," said St. David, savior of Peninsula shut-ins and rock 'n' roll
lost causes. "And don't worry -- they'll never find you here . .
10 p.m.: Take the Army Street ramp off 101 in San Francisco. Go past the
housing projects and turn left on Mission. Go past the unemployment office
and park on the right by El Rio, the neighborhood bar that dares to call
itself "your dive!"
Too late to back out now. You're going diving in the deep end of the
Mission -- along with the 99 bike messengers, college kids, B-grade
bohemians and garden-variety barflies who will jam the joint to capacity
for tonight's four-bands-for- five-dollars free-for-all.
Open the bottom section of the unmarked Dutch door, brush aside the
stage curtain that covers the door, and dive on in. As your eyes adjust to
the light you realize you're at the mouth of a long, dark cave of iniquity.
It's steamy and funky in the way that only a true dive can be -- that mix
of spilled beer, 10-year-old cigarette smoke and yesterday's dreams.
They'll never find you here.
Past the long, tiled bar and the shuffleboard table that fill most of
the narrow boxcar-sized front room is a pool table being used by several
young men with serious sideburns and serious leather jackets.
Beyond the pool room is the wood patio where the Latin bands play every
Sunday. And beyond that is what seems to be the jungle itself, still damp,
glistening and lusher-than-life from the evening rain. Way back in the
corner, under the broken-down little thatched cabana, I believe on certain
nights when the Mission moon casts just the right shadows over the palm
trees, you could see Albert Finney staggering around in the underbrush,
like an outtake from the film "Under the Volcano."
But tonight the dissipated old diplomat's not there. Just a very
self-assured white cat and four college kids smoking a reefer and waiting
for the next band to go on.
At 10:30 the opening band of the night, Pieces of Lisa, wraps up, and
the guys from Wig Torture, waiting in the on-deck circle out on the patio,
begin loading equipment through the sliding doors. Although the front room
looks and feels like a standard inner-city watering hole, out back here in
this magical little garden and in the adjacent garage-sized rumpus room
where the bands play is a separate reality. Imagine a frat party for people
of collegiate age who would never be caught dead in a frat.
There's a certain ease to the way people carry themselves back here that
seems worlds away from the outta-my-face-Jack reality that predominates
among the young and the feckless of the dance-club scene. On the deck, two
bike messengers in sweats and black leather -- one of whom just lost his
job -- take long pulls on their beers, gaze up at the clearing night sky
and talk about razing the Embarcadero and maybe even going back to school
as humanities majors.
Inside the rumpus room, the ceiling beams are draped with an elaborate
scrim of Latin crepe-paper doilies, as if somebody's mother had decorated
the family garage for a Quinceanera (Sweet 15) party and then fled
before the rowdy kids from down the block crashed it.
At 11:30, as if by some unspoken signal, everything just clicks, and
suddenly we're cruising with all jets burning bright. In the narrow hall
that leads to the rumpus room, kids are making out, oblivious to those
brushing past them into the sea of bodies. In the back of the room, under
the tiny rainbow pinata, people begin to climb the walls -- literally. They
stand two deep on the narrow benches that line the walls -- craning to see
Helen Keller Plaid, a better-than-average band that just happens to be
flying through the set of its life.
At midnight, the little garage is steaming like a sauna. A sauna
equipped with the loudest sound system this side of Helsinki. The club's
co-owner, Malcolm Thornley (the only man who would ever wear a tie to El
Rio), looks quietly pleased as he extricates himself from the matchbox D.J.
booth and heads back out. He walks past the couples still making out in the
hall and past the cat that's mesmerized by all the mysterious commotion on
the other side of the glass doors. Outside in the garden, he picks up a
lemon that's fallen from the tree, examines it and tosses it playfully so
it falls back into his palm with a wet, satisfying smack. Some life.
Tomorrow morning, perhaps you'll wake up late feeling like you spent the
past 10 hours in an industrial-size tumble-dryer. Perhaps you'll find your
clothes are still damp from the night before, and the sound of the band is
still ringing faintly in your ears. In your pockets maybe you'll find a
wadded-up ball that contains all of $1.85 in bar change, a shocking-pink El
Rio pocket schedule and the phone numbers of several very dear close
friends you did not know you had until last night. And you won't even ask
yourself, "Was it worth it?" You'll just know.
Where: 3158 Mission St., San Francisco
When: Live rock 'n' roll 10 p.m. Saturdays. Live Latin music 4 p.m.
Sundays. Stand-up comedy 9 p.m. Wednesdays. D.J. dancing 4-10 p.m. Fridays.
Admission: averages $5
Information: (415) 282-3325