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By Michael Wyatt
Wednesday morning. 5:45 a.m. The soft glow of incandescent lighting is absent from most bedroom windows, as soundly-sleeping commuters won't take their first poke at the snooze button for another 15 minutes. Restaurants have their lights off. Newspapers line porches. Coffee shops aren't open, but crews are gearing up for the first wave. Only doughnut shops boast unlocked doors and wares for sale. Cab drivers circle the area in vain, casting hard glances at anyone on foot. Eggs are not cooking. Bacon is not frying. The thought of morning coffee won't enter most people's heads for another half-hour or so. But meanwhile, a spattering of drinking establishments is gearing up to open as soon as the law allows. And while countless alarm clocks begin dutifully awakening the city, the patrons of these establishments are bellying up to the bar for first call.
Clooney's Bar, Valencia Street, Wednesday Morning, 5:50 a.m.
Muddy Waters coffee shop across the street had yet to brew its first latte, but eight people patiently awaited the opening of Clooney's Bar at 26th and Valencia. One was an older man who kept to himself. The others were 20-something partiers, all carrying half-full beer bottles and chatting a mile a minute in thick Irish accents. They talked of travel...of places in Europe. Two of the men were studying international law, and one would be headed to Italy within the next two weeks. I gave the crowd a looking-over...young, fresh faces, the men well groomed and the girls still dressed in last night's party attire.
At five minutes till, there were no signs of life from within the bar, and no signs of the morning's bartender getting ready to open up shop. One of the girls in the crowd asked, "Does this establishment open in a timely fashion?" I shrugged, and we both got ready for what could be a long wait.
Not much later, the sound of a turning lock rattled from within the darkened interior. Heads turned, conversation stopped, and beer bottles quickly scattered out of eyeshot. The door opened, and out spilled the aroma of chlorine and detergent, barely evaporated from last night's cleaning. I followed the older man inside and took my seat at the bar. 6:01 a.m. Clooney's was open for business.
Our bartender didn't exactly fit my image of who I'd expect to find mixing highballs at the crack of dawn. Walking along Valencia Street, I'd envisioned a grizzled ex-Marine with Vietnam-era tattoos and a grin reminiscent of a mischievous uncle smuggling firecrackers into a Fourth of July picnic. Instead, we were greeted by Dan, an energetic type in his mid-30s whose energy level exceeded that of a game show host. Dan bounced off the walls, joking loudly through his toothy smile as he took orders and mixed the first cocktails of the day.
When he spoke of a long affiliation with the bar, I asked him about it. Dan shifted gears for a few seconds, tempering his gleeful smile with a hint of heartfelt affection as he pointed to a large photo on the wall and announced, "That's my family." "The Clooney Family, 1943" read a pasted-on caption that pre-dated the earliest version of Adobe Photoshop by more than 40 years. The people standing in the picture had their names pasted below in a similar fashion. Next to the portrait was another photo, showing the grand opening of Clooney's Bar in 1938.
Dan was more than happy to fill me in on the history of Clooney's. His great-grandfather, Lawrence Clooney, had originally opened the pub in 1938 at the corner of Second and Minna. Somewhere in the mid-'80s the bar was moved to the Valencia Street location.
For a long time, Dan used to open the bar at 8 a.m, but all too often he found patrons standing outside, waiting. "I always was a morning person, and it didn't take me long to realize that I was missing out on two hours of business every day," Dan chortled as he mixed a highball for a customer across the bar.
I asked Dan if he ever spent mornings alone tending Clooney's at 6 a.m., to which he replied with a definite no. "There are always people down here as soon as I open. If I don't open on time, my customers will call me at home asking if I'm okay."
Dan mentioned that his early risers usually thinned out by 9 or so. "From 9 a.m. till 11 it's dead. But then the lunch crowd starts drifting in."
At 6:45 I ordered my second round, confessing to Dan that I'd intended to have one beer before migrating up to Martha's for coffee on 24th Street. "The coffee shop...," he said in a friendly tone while sprouting the widest grin I'd seen all morning. "It ain't the same...."
The man to my left started off with a beer and a shot. After quickly scanning the beer taps, I had Dan pour me a pint of Anchor Steam. The Irish crowd all ordered bottles of Magners, fired up the jukebox, and immediately took control of the pool table. Absent were the dejected faces I'd expected to see, the wretched masks of loneliness that housed tortured souls wishing nothing more than intoxicants with which to soothe their woes. To the contrary, the crowd looked ready to kick back, shoot pool, and enjoy the morning.
Michael was a politically savvy young man studying international law. He spoke with passion when he expressed his ambition of returning to Ireland to work with the political process, hopefully to make his homeland into a better place than what he knew growing up.
Mark was dark-haired, thin, wiry, and every bit as full of piss and vinegar as the rest of his cohorts.
When the sun was about half above the horizon, someone asked who Kezar Stadium was named after. Nobody knew. Mark suggested that we invent a legend. "Danko Kezar!" he exclaimed. "Greatest Niner that ever was!"
"Came over from Poland in 1938," quipped someone from down the bar.
"They know him as 'The Polish Jerry Rice'!" shouted Mark.
Someone else invented an impressive rushing statistic for Danko Kezar. Every 30 minutes or so, the bar would break into a spirited, spontaneous toast to our newly invented hero. People who hadn't been there earlier would inquire as to who Danko Kezar was, and would be subjected to a barrage of replies. "Came over in 1938!" "Greatest Niner that ever was." "The Polish Jerry Rice!" Only one older man called "Bullshit!" The rest of the crowd grinned, added their own bits to the story, and chimed in when the next toast came around.
Charlotte was sassy, loud, and easily the most charming woman in the bunch. She carried herself with confidence, going drink for drink with the crowd even though she weighed 30 pounds less than anyone else in the bar. At first glance, Charlotte was a pool shark who could enter a cussing contest and give any sailor a run for his money. But beneath the hard shell was a lady. Sharp, bright, talkative, outgoing. A genuinely fun gal who could sand off her rough edges on short notice and become someone your mother would adore if you brought her home to meet the family on Thanksgiving. I laughed as I thought of something my mother had always told me: "You're never going to meet a nice girl in a bar!" It would have been fun to bring Charlotte around and explain to Mom that not only had I met her in a bar, but I'd met her in a bar at 6 a.m.
At about 8:30, Charlotte couldn't find her cigarettes. Off to the side of her beer was an empty box of Camels. She looked at the box in disgust, remarking that it was full two hours earlier. Not long thereafter she launched into a tirade, accusing her bar companions of smoking all her cigarettes.
Michael got Dan's attention and flagged him down for a pack of Camels. Then, in a polite, humble manner, he asked me if I could spot him a few dollars. Remembering my younger days, and how important it was to impress the women in the crowd, I handed him three crisp one-dollar notes. Cigarettes were $5. I saw Michael reach into his wallet and find it empty. After hesitating a bit, he reached into the farthest corner of his wallet and pulled out a two-dollar bill. He looked at it long and hard, as if it held some significance. I took out another two dollars and told him to keep his special bill. Michael looked happy. Charlotte had her cigarettes. Dan was busy pouring drinks. The bar was once again at peace, and I was left with the comfortable feeling that one gets after dropping a handful of change into the piggy bank of good karma.
9:30 a.m. Three beers into the morning, I remembered the adage "Beer after liquor, never sicker.... Liquor after beer, you're in the clear." I shifted gears and ordered a whiskey as Michael described a dream of using his education to better the world. Part of me saw a capable young man who could very well achieve his goal. The other half saw unbridled idealism, unaware of the pitfalls and treachery of the political machine.
Somewhere around the end of my whiskey, Michael reached back into his wallet and took out the $2 bill. "I want you to take this, put it in your wallet, and forget about it," he instructed. He added that someone had given him the $2 note in the same way, with orders to part with it only when a good deed was involved. I refused at first, but he insisted. As he watched intently, I stuffed the $2 bill in my wallet. It sits there to this day.
By 11 a.m., I'd put down four pints and a whiskey. The temptation to stick around was there, but the morning was long in the tooth. New people had drifted in, but I saw little interest in profiling people who were drinking in a bar at lunchtime. Mark, Charlotte, Michael, and their friends were still going strong, but it was time for me to head home. Dan was seated at the other side of the horseshoe bar. I shook hands with him and told him I'd had a great time. He returned the handshake, looked me in the eye, and hit me with an infectious grin as he said, "And you were planning on going to the coffee shop...."
* * *
Pub denizen, unrepentant coffee-shop slacker, and computer repairman by day, Michael Wyatt has lived in Noe Valley for eight years. An aspiring writer, he currently operates Flying Bovine Computing Services (www.flyingbovine.com) from his studio apartment on 24th Street.
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