Getting To Know North Beach Fixture Roy Mottini

Photos: Romalyn Schmaltz
By Romalyn Schmaltz - Published on December 07, 2015.

“Roy is like the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill—you hear him coming before you see him.” —Anonymous

It’s a bright winter day in North Beach, as Roy Mottini settles into the big round table by the door of Caffè Trieste. His sharp London Fog wool coat picks up the same color in his cashmere sweater, and he opens it, Dracula-style, so the Sunday patrons can see its satin lining. “Now that’s a lining,” he announces, before launching into his personal story.

"I’m a native San Franciscan, born in the late '40s in the Portola district. My father was from Switzerland, on the Italian border. But I was born here. It’s funny, because everybody wants to be a native, but that doesn’t mean everybody wants to be me."

If you’ve spent any time in North Beach, you know Roy. But you probably don’t associate him much with Portola. “I came to North Beach in the 1960s because I kept hearing about Beatniks, and I had to find out just what a beatnik was. I also wanted to be an artist—you know, a painter. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, I got involved with heavy-duty characters, like some Chinatown types, and the Black Panthers. I was friends with all of them. Eldridge Cleaver—he liked me. I was almost 22 then."

Photo: James Cha

"Washington Square Park was my first stop in North Beach, and where I decided I wanted to be artistic in the 1960s, and then I got into the whole Broadway thing. Everything was a club, and I met Carol Doda there. You know she just passed away, Carol? That really hurt, ‘cause I always knew Carol. I was a doorman at The Condor for years."

Few locals—or tourists—are indifferent to Roy, one of the true volunteer emcees of the North Beach experience. Diagnosed as a chronic paranoid schizophrenic, he's notorious for shouting obscenities in public spaces; it's a common feature of life in the city, but Roy commands an audience when he spouts off. We asked some of the neighborhood regulars what they saw as the elements that make Roy more than the sum of his parts.

One regular of over 30 years, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been among Roy’s more consistent caretakers. "Roy was born in 1947 to a middle-class Swiss-German family, and had a ‘normal’ childhood—he had a real life. Then, in 1966, he had a psychological breakdown and was ‘treated’ with electroconvulsive therapy ... It’s like if you took a piece of bamboo, which is pretty tough stuff, and you broke it, and then you tried to put it back together again, splinters and all.”

He went on to describe Roy’s situation living in a North Beach SRO, and the implications of living with mental illness in what may now be the most expensive city in the United States. “Roy and others like him have extremely limited income, with over 75 percent of his income going to housing, and he could get kicked out at any time. He needs supportive housing that is safe and clean, without crime, drug or alcohol use, or bedbugs, with only about one quarter to one third of his income going to housing.”

“Roy doesn’t drink or have a drug problem, which is rare and probably one of the reasons he’s able to survive all these hardships, but it’s definitely getting harder for him and others like him.”

Roy and fellow Trieste regular Earl Thibodeaux.

The rapidly rising cost of living in San Francisco poses obvious threats to those on fixed incomes with special needs. Roy needs “his meds” on a regular basis, and on his worst days in public, it’s generally assumed that that’s where things went wrong. But he also suffers from a failing hip, cellulitis, and other physical maladies associated with growing older in a harsh environment.  When we met with Roy, he had just returned from a two-month convalescence in a Hayward hospital, suffering from a nasty bout of pneumonia. And then there’s the fact that, one year ago in November, he was shot.

“I was walking right over there,” he points out the Trieste window to the intersection of Vallejo and Columbus, “when these fellas drove by slowly giving me these arrogant expressions. So I took my cane and rapped it on the side of their car. And then I saw they had a .38 Special. I don’t know what I said, but they called me an old man.” (At the time, SFPD Capt. David Lazar wrote in an email tha “Roy was yelling at the driver of the vehicle and using the ‘N’ word.) The story, covered in the local media, goes on to describe how one of the men in the car got out to teach Roy a lesson by pistol-whipping him when the gun went off, shooting Roy in the shoulder and taking out the window of the nearby restaurant Buster’s, barely missing patrons. The assailants fled and the case remains unsolved. Roy was taken to SF General, but was back at Caffè Trieste the next afternoon, holding court for all who would listen.

“I was lucky,” he said.

Some locals have suggested that while the shooting wasn’t exactly something you could plan, that Roy flamboyantly milked the event much in the same way that he doesn’t just wear clothes, but outfits. As 26-year veteran Trieste barista Ernesto Evangelista describes his legendary flair, “Roy shows us all you don't need a million bucks to dress like a million bucks.”

Evangelista, who has known Roy since he first started working at Trieste, is highly familiar with Roy’s rhythms. “Roy's world is pretty small and his daily routine varies little— a chai latté or frappé at Trieste, breakfast on Polk Street or downtown, Goodwill on Fillmore, back to North Beach for lunch and then home. Roy can be pleasant, he can be funny, and he can be extremely generous—especially to those who have less than he does. He can also be incredibly mean and nasty. Love him or hate him, I think most people look out for him.”

Roy Mottini and Trieste's Ernesto Evangelista.

Zach Ruta, a former North Beach resident of the past two decades now living in Lower Pacific Heights, echoes Roy’s sense of generosity paid forward. “I remember a day about 12 years ago I was sitting at The Triage [ed. note: almost all regulars have their own nicknames for Caffè Trieste] and Roy ... asked me to buy him a sandwich. I went in and bought him a sandwich, and then watched him take it to a man who was sitting in front of the garage doors across the street. I was deeply moved by his action, and took him to Mo’s for some meatloaf. He has a big heart, and has for as long as I remember been a lovely swath of color in my life.”

It would seem that few in the neighborhood are neutral to Roy. Nor is Roy indifferent to the other neighbors that make up North Beach's community, some of whom banded together to help him during an eviction saga which pushed him out of the neighborhood for a time. 

“I like Ernie [Evangelista]," said Roy, when asked about his favorite North Beach characters. "He’s good—really good. And Ida [Zoubi, manager of Caffè Trieste and granddaughter of its founder, Gianni Giotta], Ida knows everybody. She’s the one who calls me, called me in the hospital. Her and Aaron [Peskin]. Aaron told me when I was sick, ‘Get offa Broadway, we gotta find you somewhere else to live where it’s clean, quiet.’ So he cares, and I think maybe he can help.”

“I like civilized people, people who take themselves seriously, people who care,” he concluded. “Not punks, not punks who dress badly and not punks with power. Ida’s got power, but some people call that ‘clout’ when really it’s moxie. I like people with moxie. Sure, they’ve got the power and the style, but they’ve got something extra.”

Another Trieste barista, Joe Ruggiero, has seen Roy in action on a daily basis for the four years he’s been serving in North Beach, and sees both sides of Roy’s seemingly simple, yet complex routines. “Roy precariously balances on a tightrope beneath which lies the perilous fates of most people with his condition. I have witnessed Roy in a menacing rage ... People almost feel grateful for his attention it seems, because he says what most people wouldn't be caught dead thinking. There's something respectable in that. Roy champions much needed directness in a gratuitously P.C. world. Whatever the case, he’s an indispensable part of the North Beach community.”

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