El Rio's inner sanctum is a separate reality

Published: Feb. 15, 1991

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.

El Rio
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

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