Back in the day, what was this, 2000, 2001, Charlies was a little Bodega between a Tony Romas and a shitty hotel that had some permanent guests. I was a waiter, and then a cook at that Tony Romas. It sucked. The botches from Macys ruined my day, every fucking day. Toss my salad, this long black hair is in my salad (no one who worked there had long black hair) but anyways, Charlies, the cig shop next door, was the shit. It was owned and run by some crazy Palestinian guy who I originally thought was Charlie, but his name was Tariq. He was tall, six foot somethin, and angry, like most Palestinians i had met at the time. Mind you, this was just before and after 9/11, so things were hot. Charlie (Tariq) was a crazy asshole though, he kept a aluminum bat behind the counter and would chase people down the street with it. I know for a fact that he smashed up at least one car with it. He was such a god damned stereotype. Anyways, he hired me eventually, I was always outside smoking anyways, not because he wanted to but his wife was pregnant and his relatives were trying to steal his land back in Israel or whatever. The point of this story was the little spot in front of Charlies, between that shitty hotel and Tony Romas. There were two old men who had a permanent status in this hotel, I can't remember the name and am too lazy to google it. It was there though, and it was shitty. It was a flop house for Russian immigrants, Irish too, maybe it was a Hostel but I don't think so. Why would Don be living there?
Don was an old man, he must have been in his eighties when I met him. He looked healthy enough, he wasn't starving and wasn't in a wheelchair. I would see him outside, in front of his building, chain smoking. I didn't know it at first, but he was usually drunk. You know how hard it is sometimes to tell when an old person is drunk? that was him. He had a quick wit, and was curmudgeonly as fuck, he saw San Francisco through eighty years of disillusion, eighty years of revolution, eighty years of shit, filtered through seventy years of whiskey. He was the grandpa I always wished I had never gotten to know. his sidekick, Harry, was a short, and I mean like five foot or less asian guy. I never asked him what his ancestry was, It didn't matter. He spoke my language, and as far as I knew he had been born here. It didn't matter either way, he was just Harry.
Harry lived in the same building as Don, shit, they might have been living next to each other for decades as far as I knew. I had to stand a certain number of feet away from the front door of Tony Romas to smoke, and that was either in front of Charlies, by the weird old wooden cutout of "Charlie" which looked like a 1915 version of a cool guy, or next to the old men. Anyways, back to Harry. He was small, Hobbit sized really, but he was old as shit and Asian so whatever. That sounds racist but think about it, okay, think about it... lets move on. Harry wore a taxi drivers cap and sunglasses, ALL THE TIME. He was always dressed nice, except for his shoes. He always wore sneakers. The rest of him was stylin though, slick brown suits with nice vests, and he always had a cane. A nice one, with a fancy head on it.
Don and Harry would stand on the sidewalk, posted up on their corner, Don chain smoking, Harry leaning on his cane, I never saw Harry smoke and have no idea why he would hang out there, with Don who was undoubtedly a racist, and me who was usually recovering from a long night of whippets and ecstasy and/or acid or more often than not, bourbon and shitty mexican food. Harry was the real mystery, I think I understood Don.
Don liked me, I think he saw me as a grandson he never had. He liked hearing about my adventures, my shitty days. He never really showed it, he never hugged me or cried or anything, but one time he gave me a photograph. It wasn't anything weird, he wasn't like that. It was a photograph, taken from a hill or the top of a building or something, of San Francisco one year after the great quake of 1916. It was awesome. I lost it, of course, over the last decade, like I lost all my real grandparents. Don is probably dead now too, Harry probably went to his funeral, alone, wearing his plaid taxi driver hat and sunglasses, with his cane.
They were both drunk all the time. That's the thing. They would get drunk and go stand on the corner and talk shit about the city. They loved it. That corner was their life, that shitty little corner with the fancy new shops on Powell coming and going, the parking lot up Ellis, the strip joints up the street, the crack heads form the tenderloin, it was part of their life and they were a part of it, a fixture, a land mark. When I think about my time in San Francisco, Don Gamble and Harry the little old Asian dude who I used to take my smoke breaks with are the first thing that I remember. They were San Francisco to me. Let them rest in peace.