|Around the corner from the Broadway Cafe, North Beach, San Francisco
Fiction: Excerpt from Cantina Psalms, Short Stories, San Francisco Noir Dives To be published by Three Palms Press, Early 2022, Copyright 2021 By Thomas Shess
Southside of Broadway: Chinatown
Li Wuan Lee, dressed in a flawless Asian style silk shirt that hung low to the knees of his tan trousers looked like a mirror store of older men in Chinatown and there was no telling by what they wore whether they had ten bucks to their name or couple billion. Old “Leon” liked it that way and dressed accordingly.
Chinatown's top landlord, Li Wuan was born in Macao of Chinese-Portuguese parents. He spoke all the important local dialects: street English, society English, health department English and, best of all, no English. He understood or didn’t understand half a dozen Chinese tongues, depending on who was asking. If he knew it meant money, broads, or a deal in his favor, he could also speak Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Eskimo, Farsi and flap more hip hop than a rap convention.
Sitting in the only front booth of his Broadway Café, a 150-year-old all-night diner, Leon worked his nightly ritual, jotting answers onto a crossword puzzle from a Chinese language newspaper. His ears were stuffed with iPod earplugs blasting Southern-style high-octane rock—ala ZZ Top, Creedence Clearwater or Led Zeppelin. In his 80 years, he had also become addicted to raucous rock that included acoustic piano or organ riffs.
A new reflection interrupted his late-night zen. The first cloudburst of autumn began to streak the diner’s floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. With the torrent, he knew the four lanes outside his window, would reflect the gaudy neon from all the strip joints along Broadway. And, when a customer would open the door to the café, he’d savor lungfuls of chilly air spiked with the aroma of wet asphalt.
While Broadway is an upstanding citizen as it cuts east to west from the Embarcadero to Presidio Park, it’s that four-block swath from the east lip of Broadway tunnel to Montgomery that forever stamped its reputation as a tawdry venue for two-bit bars, strip joints, adult book emporiums, and low-end liquor stores.
In its 150-plus years at the same North Beach location, the Broadway Cafe has had a United Nations of owners and all of them have managed to keep décor changes to a minimum. Broadway in later years became is the thin line separating Chinatown from North Beach. And, the boulevard at its Western terminus comes full circle as part of Pacific Heights, the City’s toniest neighborhood. It’s a paved contradiction serving as a metaphor for the gamut of high rent/ low rent, rags or riches lifestyles along its path.
Squealing brakes grabbed his attention.
Across the street in front of Clementine’s, Leon flinched as the Yellow Cab struck and flipped the large dark figure onto the asphalt. More brakes squealed. A sedan spun around on the rain-slicked roadway. The dark sedan stopped with its headlights shining directly into the tall, old-fashioned plate glass window of the art deco diner.
Leon calmly asked his niece, the young waitress at the counter. “Lyn, go help the man on the street,” Leon ordered knowing she was a trained paramedic, a New York Policewoman now on disability retirement.
Unhesitating, the toned Asian woman rushed out into the rain; while Leon dialed 9-1-1 on his cellphone.
Eventually, a patrol cop looking for witnesses to the accident entered the cafe. A wave of stove heat slapped him. It smelled of stale coffee and onions. The lack of air conditioning kept the place unbearably hot year-round.
Like the waves out at Ocean Beach, the Broadway Cafe never shut down. The Cinderella trade was nowhere to be seen. Normally at this time of night, Gothic North Beach would be perched in the Cafe like ravens on a farmer’s fence.
The first deluge of Fall was keeping everyone away. Two truck drivers seated at the counter and a black pimp occupying the front window booth with his white chattel made the crowd.
Only half of the six fans overhead were circulating. Each spun with the speed of a glacier, and none contributed to anyone’s comfort. Leon’s booth was easily front row center; the best place to catch the action as full moon weirdness rises each night over North Beach. Leon made it clear to his staff that winos, drug freaks, and street whores and their pimps were not allowed to sit in his favorite window booth.
Cops ate free.
Other beauties, the strippers on break from Clementine's from the other side of Broadway had to use the back booths near the cash register, where Leon could be sure they didn’t stick crack up their noses or shoot smack into their shopworn thighs.
The Broadway Cafe wasn’t paradise, but the food was good and cheap. Here customers could smoke cigars and, if they nodded a certain way, a shot of after-hours cognac would find itself into the coffee. Leon’s joint was a cultural asset, even if it didn’t rate a mention in any of the city magazine restaurant listings.
But as long as everyone behaved and paid cash, Leon didn’t care what his customers spoke, did or looked like. “This ain’t no beauty parlor,” Leon was quoted by one of the gossip columns. It was true. A guy wearing a corrugated cardboard box for a suit could find himself being served hash browns next to a Pacific Heights matron in a real mink stole.
Democracy breathes through the heavy tobacco smoke and smells like barbecued spare ribs and dim sum pork.
The one sure bet in all of San Francisco is the Cafe. It will be the same-same tomorrow and the next day.