For 50 years, the Geary Club (768 Geary St.) has been tucked away between corner stores, boutiques, and apartment complexes, invisible to all but longtime inhabitants of the Tenderloin. The owner just turned 80 and still works Saturday and Sunday shifts, but it's Lillian, the diminutive bartending powerhouse with a German accent, who may be the biggest part of its allure.
Approaching the bar's entrance, a woman's voice loudly bellows, “I want the big motherfucker!” Someone scrambles out, and returns with a large bottle of Tabasco sauce from the corner store. Behind the bar (now equipped with hot sauce), Lillian is simultaneously singing Pink's "Get The Party Started," working the old-fashioned register, and greeting her regular flow of traffic with, “You want the usual?”
Lillian has worked at the Geary Club for 11 years, and she knows she's now part of the spectacle. “People used to come and see me, sure. The neighborhood knows me,” she says coyly. Recognizable by her thick, dark makeup and hair, she insists that visitors "shouldn't assume anything because of the makeup: I’m a tomboy. And I’m not a hoochie mama; I’ve never dated anyone in a bar.”
Born in Germany to Hungarian parents, Lillian grew up with 15 siblings. She says she came to the United States for an American, and love. Now 56, she's known to many as just Lillian, because her last name still reflects her partnership with her former husband of 23 years.
Lillian has lived in San Francisco for 35 years, and spent most of that time living and working in the Tenderloin. She worked at now-closed restaurant German Cook for 23 years, and also had stints at the Nite Cap and Mel’s Drive-In.
Her tenure at the Geary Club was originally only meant to last one day. “The same day that I lost my job [at Mel’s], I came here, because I lived around the corner. I filled in for someone, and now I’ve been here for 11 years. I’m always here—I’ve never had a sick day in my life—but I don’t know if I want to be a bartender my whole life.”
Lillian is best known for her rendition of ABBA's "Dancing Queen," but someone (who she refused to name) had it permanently removed from the Geary Club's jukebox. “I’m misunderstood, that’s for sure,” she says. Her personality is an unusual dichotomy of off-the-wall commentary mixed with a very soft, reflective side. “I’m not always an angel; sometimes I’m going to be a little raw.”
She recalls the tail end of the days when Geary Club used to open at 6am, filling with mailmen, taxi drivers, and fishermen. “They all retired, and came in until their last breath.” Today, the afternoon crowd is somewhat scant, but that gives Lillian the opportunity to listen and learn new things from the people she meets. As we talk, some of her regulars are surprised to learn so much about her for a change. “I’ve known her for a long time, but today I got to know her for the first time," says Randy Quade, who has known Lillian since her days at the former Nite Cap.
She admits that “life has changed” outside of these doors, but says she still loves living in the Tenderloin. “I used to live in the Avenues with my backyard and cars and dogs, but I gave it up for love—no, for independence. Living in a smaller place, I am happier being around people that I can relate to. And we pay good rent here, and have good homes. What you see is not what you get; we have a lot of hidden sanctuaries.”
For Lillian, what hasn’t changed about the Tenderloin is the close community. “We can’t control the outside, but we take care of one another here. Everyone knows each other, people look out for each other, and if anybody bothers anybody: our ass is out there! Life is like the weather: you get a storm, but then comes summer, then fall, and then winter; always a little bit of everything.”
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