• Saint Mary's
  • Saint Mary's

Saint Mary's

A bar review for the San Francisco Examiner

The rain is falling in the San Francisco night, but not heavily. It’s a misty, moisty drizzle that lands quietly on the asphalt of the deep, deep Mission, the Mission of old that clings stubbornly to its roots. While that stretch of the Irish cum Spanish cum dot.com neighborhood; that street of dives-now-hot spots; that land of blue collar-now-T shirt and Gold Card lies in ferment several blocks to the north. For now. Up there, in the new Mission, an old place that has for years called itself “Your Dive” stations its bouncer at the door while a long line of well dressed people waits in respectful order. They’ve come from all over town to render unto Caesar for their chance to sip a thimble sized drink served by a bored scullion too hip to care. They’ll endure the wait outside, then the crush within, perhaps get something spilled on them, shout to be heard above the din, then go home in the satisfied delusion that they have imbibed the essence of one of The City’s great and famous neighborhoods. Poor little innocents abroad.

But down here on the 3800 block it’s still alive. For now. Hat pulled low against the steadily falling rain I make my way towards Saint Mary’s Pub at 3841 Mission, at the corner of College. A clutch of tough looking Latin men with buzz cuts and heavy footwear stand outside the door, seemingly oblivious to the weather, regarding me as I approach. Each holds a dark object in his hand, though in the rainy night I cannot see what it is. I slow my pace, and they subtly fan out as though to cut off any escape I may have in mind. I note an alley way to my left that offers egress, and continue toward my destiny. The dark objects the men hold come into view. They are bibles. The Elder of the tribe greets me, “Buenos noches, senor.” His congregation smile benignly as he invites me to come to their church with them tonight rather than enter the bar. I try to make a joke about communing with a different kind of spirit, but my kitchen Spanish fails me. “Via con Dios,” they all say warmly. “Igualmente,” says I. And I duck in to take refuge from the elements in the bosom of “the Virgin.”

Saint Mary’s Pub has been dispensing comfort and cheer in this working class neighborhood for 55 years. This was an Irish pub back then, welcoming home the Hibernian veterans of WWII. About half the clientele are still such people. The other half Hispanic, mostly Mexican and Salvadoran. They mix easily with each other, and the bubble of conversation is English, Spanish and “Spanglish.” For a mere $2.50 Jay the barman pours me a very very ginny gin & tonic. I slip a dollar into the jukebox and punch in Dino, the Chairman of the Board, a few legends of Rock and Soul. I eschew the one Barry Manilow selection. Three Latinas of a certain age seated at one of the little round tables applaud my choices, and one compliments me on my hat. Later, when they leave to go dancing to the Latin jukebox of Galon’s, one block to the north at 3775, they invite me to go with them.

The dark old wood panelled walls exhude warmth, as does the the art-deco bar with its glass columns emitting pastel light, befitting an old time movie palace. The ancient pinball machine at one wall, and the equally ancient gumball machine that takes only nickles at another, bespeak older, better times. The linoleum tile floor is well kept. And pictures of family, and of course the Virgin, adorn the mirror behind the bar. The crowd usually thins out early, and Jay often closes by midnight, as he does tonight. “You should go on and dance with those ladies at Galon’s,” he says as he stacks up the ancient wooden barstools. “You know how to do the Latin. It’s a nice place, too.” I knock back the last of the generous G&T.

Outside in the gentle rain, this little branch of the great tree of the Mission dangles, far from the mother trunk. Four little restaurants, two bars, and one mini mart make up the remnants of the nightscape here. Across the street a windchime composed of a single bell tinkles in the slipstreams of passing busses. I can hear it four lanes away.