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Roll the Can Slowly

Life, love, fun and games in postwar S.F.

By Steve Bjerklie

Dad singing. That's the hardest part to imagine. Well, Dad getting reamed by the cops, too, but they came later. Once in my life I can remember a moment when Dad's singing voice held within it all the sweet weariness of love, but that's all. In church Dad didn't exactly lead a charge of the baritones in "Onward, Christian Soldiers." A steady man--he was an auditor for decades at Wells Fargo--he sings in a smooth, straight line that never wavers by more than a note or two. Dad's singing voice can reduce any melody to its natural basics: same key, same note, same volume. It's like stuffing a pound of meat and spices into a chain of inch-wide weenies.

Apparently this was not always so. Dad claims singing is at the very heart of many of his fondest memories--the night, for example, he and two buddies decided to find out how far down Baker Street they could roll a beer can. This was long ago, when beer cans were all-steel and could survive transit across oceans and wars, not to mention down Baker and across Lombard to Chestnut. Several verses of "Shine On, Harvest Moon" seem to have been involved in the pre-roll festivities. Dad, a Norwegian, is reticent about the details.

That's OK. The beer-can roll is legendary among a certain group of people I grew up knowing better than I know my real aunts and uncles. What Dad won't tell is available for the asking from Aunt Joannie, for example, one of my mom and dad's best friends. She's Sicilian, she talks (her father, a gambler, once got picked up in New Jersey because he looked like the sketch of the Lindbergh baby's kidnapper; he didn't talk). Dick Savage--a real name--claimed victory in the can roll, and he still likes to best my father with stories and jokes. He'll talk anytime. Gentle Uncle Willie, who signed postcards to me that way my whole life, alas, died a few years ago. There was no more loyal friend in the world to my father. He would've told either everything or nothing.

Dad and all of these folks lived together in the late '40s and early '50s in a guest house called Baker Acres high above Lombard at the corner of Baker and Jackson streets. Across the street was another guest house, The Jackson Jungle, which is where the woman who one day became my mother lived. She was from a small town in Minnesota, and I don't think she immediately wrote to her parents with the name of her building in far-away San Francisco in the return address. I doubt as well they knew Mom lived in bathrobe-close quarters with a couple dozen single men, one of them a whiskey salesman who was never without free samples, even in the morning.

Dad, Mom and the rest were young and fresh from the war. Dad, who grew up in North Dakota, had first seen San Francisco gleaming across the water from the Alameda navy yard when he was 17 years old, and he never lived in North Dakota again. Mom and her friend Phyllis came from Minneapolis on the train to Oakland with a pile of overstuffed, leather-cornered suitcases and the written-down address of a guy in San Francisco one of them sort of knew. Willie came from Idaho, Joannie from Santa Barbara. Others in the guest houses came from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois, all drawn to the pearl on the bay. They wanted to have the time of their lives, and they did.

They had parties several times a week in both Baker Acres and The Jackson Jungle. My dad once reluctantly revealed that the morning after a party in his room--he called it "The Pit"; its windows were slatted with iron bars--he woke up to find more empty whiskey bottles than there had been people at the party, the Baker Acres maid emptying ashtrays into a grocery sack, and a pair of woman's pumps placed perfectly in the middle of the floor as if she'd taken two steps and fallen right out of them into someone's arms, which she had.

They all drove up to the wine country in Willie's Mercury convertible to buy Kenwood jug wines, which the winery left on a picnic table out at the side of the road along with a coffee can to leave money in. They went to Ocean Beach and sang "Under Canadian Skies" and "There's a Shanty in Old Shanty-Town" to ukelele accompaniment. They came home from the beach to have another party and sing some more. They paired off, got married, had children. They all remained close, lifelong friends. At my mother's funeral 30 years after she lived in the guest house, the six pallbearers were four men from Baker Acres and her two brothers. The guest-house marriages never broke up. There was one divorce in the whole bunch.

I must say all of this bored me intensely for years. I could not believe my parents were young and single in San Francisco at the same time as Jack Kerouac and they didn't know who he was. They didn't go to North Beach to listen to bop; they went to North Beach to listen to Bob Scobey play trad jazz. They and their friends drank whiskey and scotch and beer, not sangria and ouzo and French burgundy. They were all so normal and resolute and loyal to each other that for a long time I did not understand at all who they are.

Dad, Dick and a third buddy named Jack were up in Dick's room at Baker Acres singing one night. There was a lot of beer, all of it in steel cans. In between songs, an empty can sort of flew out the window, says Dad. Then another, and another. After that, the obvious idea arrived: How far down Baker Street could a can roll?

The answer: too far, whatever the distance. Dad doesn't remember if they even got one can down a single block before the cops arrived and told them all to shut up and sober up or face the consequences.

End of story, except that it gets told and retold almost every time the guest-house gang gets together, which is still a couple times a year. It has become a legend within a family, a short chapter in a long, long myth binding together the collective and individual memories of people who truly love each other, who have shared their entire adult lives even though they are not, in the blood sense, family. My teenage daughter, Sarah, represents the guest-house gang's third generation, and when she tells the old stories to her friends, she speaks with the authority and command of the bard. The sweetness of love rewards all those who remember it: Sarah and Uncle Willie and Sarah, the gentlest man I ever knew and the most beautiful daughter in the world, had the same birthday and blew out candles together until Willie was gone. At their last birthday together, Sarah turned 12, Willie 76.

One time, when I was driving up into the mountains with Dad and my sister, the Judy Collins version of "Amazing Grace" came on the radio. All of a sudden my dad began singing along--singing in a warm, beautiful voice I'd never heard before. He had never sung like that in church. It was a voice from the long-ago past, I finally realized, and he was singing about the amazing grace of his best friends and the times they shared.

Old Grandad. The whiskey of choice among my parents and their friends when they were young--but that's because it was actually the better brand sold by Whiskey George, the salesman who lived upstairs from Dad at Baker Acres. It's still a decent swill, and a lot cheaper and more democratic than the snobby single-malts. Whiskey George's other juice was a tank-car concoction called Cabin Still, which, since Dad to this day still calls it "Old Stab'n Kill," I didn't sample.

Henry Weinhard's Bottling Number 96. Most of the beers of my parents' San Francisco youth are long gone--Lucky Lager and Falstaff, for example. I'd drink them for quick quaffs if I could find them, but since I can't, I drink Henry's when my thirst cries for slaking. Comparing this easy, almost flowery beer to the hearty stouts and ales so trendy right now is missing the point. Henry's is the best beach beer in the world. Bring a ukelele.

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From the August 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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