Harry arrives at the Balboa Cafe
If you’d have told me that I’d end my evening into very early morning trying to convince the legendary Harry Denton not to lay down in the middle of the intersection of Filmore and Greenwich after what he admits was a drunken bender, I’d have said you were nuts.
Well, you weren’t. What I saw was the embodiment of Old San Francisco in action. Harry Denton’s a throwback to the days of a bar called “Henry Africa” and Herb Caen and the Three Martini lunch, and Carol Doda. Denton is fun, San Francisco style. But what I now understand that to mean is a kind of ultimate freedom we don’t see today. And when we do see it, we just don’t know what to do.
Ok. This is what happened.
I decided to visit the Balboa Cafe in San Francisco, really because I’m used to the place and thought that the Olympics would be on television and I could watch the games with a crowd that may be yelling “Go USA” or something like that. But I forgot that it’s Saturday night and the only time one may release such a cheer was in watching someone else neck in public.
So when I arrived, the Balboa — partially owned by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom — was boringly crowded. People in clicks. Scores of lovely women. The Olympics were on TV. Chatter and laughter, but the same familar din one hears on a Saturday night at that place. Nothing special.
Enter Harry Denton.
Harry Denton is a true San Francisco legend. The man the San Francisco Chronicle calls one of the city’s most visible bon vivants, and a promoter and owner of several successful establishments, from Harry Denton’s Southside Bar which was on Folsom street in the 80s, to Harry Denton’s Bar and Grill on Stuart Street, and Harry Denton’s Rouge and Harry Denton’s The Starlight Club atop the St. Francis Hotel. Harry has established himself as a celebrity long ago. He has a list of fans — including me — and a fierce following of people. I think Harry also senses that San Francisco’s become a little boring.
So, Harry walks into the Balboa with a couple I’ve never seen before, goes around to the side bar area and during greeting us all — I’d just seen him at the REAF Benefit called “Help Is On The Way” the last Sunday — “I’m really fucked up.” Harry had a lot to drink, and was blowing off steam after a reunion of people associated with the late bar Henry Africa. I was happy to see Harry because he’s really a nice person who is always ready with a smile or a quick wit, and he’s got an eye for the ladies, even though he’s Gay, which is great for me because he points a straight bachelor like me in the right direction.
Anyway, I told my friend Lance, one of the bartenders that all we needed to complete the circle of famous San Francisco night crawlers was Johnny Love. Well, the person I’ve known since 1990 walked in just five brief minutes after I said that. It turned out that Johnny, Harry, and my friend Rick were all at the Henry Africa reunion, and had got a table outside.
I was invited to join them.
We were all outside and Harry was in rare form. He was well aware of his condition, saying “I need to blow off steam.” He did. Harry made fun of the lot of us and just in general was a total riot, occassionally tossing beer bottles to the ground, which refused to shatter — I’m not making this up — less they ruin the sprit of the proceedings.
At that point, it was clear something strangely, weirdly magical was happening, at least to me.
Johnny Love sitting On Harry Denton’s Lap
After a time, not too long, it was time for all to leave the Balboa. We’d went inside for a bit just before closing and then had a devil of a time getting Harry out, but we did. Then weirdness set in. Johnny walked off with his girlfriend, but without telling Harry or Rick he was going to return. Harry insisted on waiting for Johnny, but eventually realized he wasn’t coming back after a long episode of waiting and trying to keep Harry from falling.
Since the numberr were reduced to me, and Harry and Rick, I wound up with the task I assumed which was keeping Harry upright. That was tough. At that point Harry decided that he wanted attention. He said so: “I want attention”, and proceeded to try and lay in the middle of the intersection of Filmore and Greenwich. I successfully stopped him from the act, and as he was nearly hit by a car — but I did this solo.
In getting Harry back to the sidewalk I was livid with the onlookers, many who had taken time to talk to him and give him pats on the back, but would only look at Harry rather than come out and help me with him. At that point, seeing them as part of the shallow and spineless masses that let events like Columbine happen and allow people to be mugged and attacked before their eyes, I collectively gave them my finger.
I was pissed.
Getting Harry into a limousine was a chore, and I did not succeed at the time, but then Harry elected to try a second stint at laying down on the Filmore. Only this time he insisted and while I grabbed his arm, he fought me off, and as I talked to him about how the police may show up (“I don’t care”), Harry laid right down on Filmore.
My first thought was expressed to Harry “Hey, the police are going to get you.” Harry didn’t care, and sure enough an SF police cruiser pulled up, and as the officers got out of the car and approached Harry, something nice happened. Other people — not part of the throng I gave my finger to — stepped forward to help me get Harry up. The numbers of people — about 10 — was great enough to convince the police to get back into their car and continue on their way: they did.
Harry stood up and held his arms skyward as if to say “I did it” and the crowd standing on the Filmore and Greenwich sidewalk erupted into spontaneous applause. It was surreal.
Finally, the crowd broke up and once again I was tasked with having to get Harry into a limo, but this time I had help from guys who used to work for him and saw him. We got Harry into a limo and on his way home.
Harry Denton showed me and the crowd what San Francisco was all about: personal freedom. Laying down on the street was the ultimate act of freedom and fun. Something we used to see in the City when people were less judgemental and information was less fragmented.
Don’t get me wrong, I like — love — New Media, but there’s something missing in today’s society. It’s this watered-down P.C. culture, and while I love that it’s less racially insensitive and more diverse than in the past, it’s also less just plain fun. It’s like everyone’s worried about doing something wrong or being accused of doing so by someone else and certainly not willing to take charge of anything or take action against an injustice.
Enter Harry Denton.
Harry wanted to have old fashioned fun and the people of the city and even the police parted the way and let him. It was glorious.