Really, who doesn't want a time machine? I know that a time machine cannot exist unless all time happens at once, but that hasn't stopped me from wishing I had one on more than one occasion. I don't want to get your hopes up, but on Thursday, I think I found one.
You have to go to the Excelsior, one of the San Francisco neighborhoods that doesn't show up in any of the brochures. Out there, amidst the taquerias, 5 and dime stores and nail salons is the Granada Cafe, a holdover from the days when the Excelsior was the neighborhood Italians moved to when North Beach got to feeling too crowded.
I've toyed with the idea of the Granada Cafe before. One time Kathleen and I, in our never-ending precious search for "authenticity," parked and walked up to the door of the Granada Cafe, only to chicken out because the place looked empty. Which was not unusual, because it usually looks empty. Its sign hangs askew. Ancient Christmas lights seem to still be hanging only because they're too tired to fall down. The windows are either tinted or opaque from 50 years of cigarette smoke. In all, not an inviting place.
Unless you're me, that is. On Thursday, having been left alone with the Jawa in Monterey with his Boston-based pals the Fusco Brothers, and S. Bullock out with friends, I found myself with 20 minutes to kill in the Excelsior as my pizza cooked. I screwed up my courage and entered the Granada Cafe.
Inside were about a dozen people. The youngest was 2o years older than me, not counting Tommy, the bartender. I guessed that the decor hadn't been updated since 1956, and judging by the date on the nudie calendar hanging on the wall, I was right. The bar was wood-grained formica. It was old without any of the winking kitsch that usually plagues these places. Nobody, except for a dozen seniors who'd probably been coming here since 1956, had discovered this place yet.
"Can I get an Anchor Steam?" I asked Tommy.
"No you can't," he said without smiling.
"Uh..." I said.
"We've got Bud, Coors, Miller, Heineken and Moretti," he continued.
By the time I realized that I'd entered a time machine, I'd already embarassed myself. I looked foolish in my 1969 jeans and retro sweatshirt. They suggested that my only interest in the Granada Cafe was for camp value. Not so.
I sat back and soaked it all in. The Giants were on TV. Everyone besides me had moustaches. Even the women. Dave bought Brian and his wife a round. All three raised their glasses and said, "Salud!" Time passed easily.
Brian's wife has a birthday coming up, but she needs nothing. Jewelry? Nah. A new TV? Not a chance. What she wants is for Brian to take her up to Reno, and then, upon their return, to a good dinner.
"House of Prime Rib?" asks Brian.
"Of course," she says.
The Giants were up 4-0. Everyone was talking at once. Nobody but me was drinking beer. Brian and his wife ordered dinner, then dug into the anti pasta plate that arrived as an appetizer. I sat there wishing I was invisible, so I could get close enough to sample everyone's conversations, and thinking, "These are the people who own all of those houses I see every week."
Soon my beer was gone, and my pizza was ready. I stood to go, knowing that, even though I was an outsider, Tommy would thank me for coming in. He did. I walked 50 years through the front door, arriving at the present. Two kids wearing NBA replica jerseys and gigantic pants were loitering out front. The store next door advertised, in Spanish, great deals on cell phones. Cars sped by on Mission Street.
You can argue that my interest in the Granada Cafe is merely anthropological; just another ironic white kid skimming along the surface of other people's cultures. And you'd be right -- to a point. I guess for me it's simple: it's another way of going to North Carolina, only this time it's a chance to visit 1956.
Which is a place I've always wanted to visit, even if only for 20 minutes.