The Tenderloin has always been home to a lot of dives. While the characters and the vices may have changed over the years, there's been something consistent over many decades in the Tenderloin's unvarnished, naked glimpse at a cross-section of sometimes downtrodden humanity. And the neighborhood's bars have probably always been the best window through which to study the place.
An autobiographical essay titled "The Hard Crowd" by novelist Rachel Kushner (The Mars Room, The Flamethrowers, Telex From Cuba) that appeared in last week's New Yorker has been making the rounds on social media, and offers some vivid snapshots of San Francisco in the 1980s and 90s, when Kushner was coming of age here. It is a catalog of memories of people and places she knew, including Lyle Tuttle's old tattoo parlor on Market Street, next to a long-gone Greyhound bus station, and a music venue on Sixth Street called Rendezvous where she remembers seeing a hardcore band called Agnostic Front with a female lead singer in a nurse's uniform named Pearl Harbor.
Kushner recalls her first bartending gig, at The Blue Lamp (now Swig at 561 Geary Street, near Jones). "This was the early nineties, and all the girls I knew were bartenders or waitresses or strippers and most of the boys were bike messengers at Western or Lightning Express, or they drove taxicabs for Luxor," she writes.
It was a music bar sometimes, and as this blog describes it, "Dried puke on the floor, restrooms that were barely useable, a pool table that was so far off from being level it was ridiculous… in other words, ATMOSPHERE!!!" (Kushner says there was never a pool table at the Blue Lamp.)
Kushner remembers a beautiful man named Tommy who used to hang out during her shifts, a Polk Gulch hustler whom she describes as "perversely and resolutely blank, like a character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, except with no money or class status." He later turned up decapitated a few blocks away.
But the long-gone bar that caught my attention is one she mentions in passing. "There was another bar up the street from the Blue Lamp that had a double bed in the back where a man lay all day, as if it were his hospice. You’d be playing pool and drinking with your friends and there was this man, in bed, behind a rubber curtain."
Hoodline followed up with Kushner, who now says that a friend remembers the convalescing person in the bed as a woman.
She says it was called Ray's Bar or Ray's Sports Bar, and it was on Geary. "The person in the bed was connected to the owner," she says. "A friend of mine says it was his wife, the bar’s matriarch, who lay in the bed, but I don’t remember. Everyone remembers the curtain, the bed, right there behind the pool table."
Sounds about right. Kushner said she'd continue to flesh out the details, if she can, via friends who may remember better.*
Anyone out there remember Ray's bar or the woman in the bed in back? Let us know in the comments.
Kushner's essay, "The Hard Crowd," will be published as part of a book, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020, in April.
*An earlier version of this post suggested that the woman in back was slowly dying in the bed, and while we are all, technically, slowly dying, Kushner denies that the woman was doing anything but lying back there. "For all I knew that person in the bed was simply resting," she says.