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Murio’s is one of my favorite watering holes, a dive at the west end of Haight Street on the last block before the entrance to Golden Gate Park. There’s something intrinsically ironic in the fact the Park begins where Haight Street ends.
Out front of Murio’s you can’t help but stumble over descendants of the Great Hippie Scare of the 60’s clogging the sidewalk. These street kids are for the most part under 21 which is too young to get into Murio’s. Scruffy clusters of them mill around in front of Rockin’ Java or lie on the cement with their backs propped against the wall, nose rings dangling from punctured septums, drinking various liquors from brown paper bags, taking surreptitious tokes from glass bongs and openly selling drugs.
You can always tell when a new shipment arrives from Humboldt: The sales pitch becomes more frequent and fervent. You can’t walk a block down Haight without a dozen sotto voice offerings. “Kaih-buh” threw me for a while. Had to ask a friend who translated: Kind buds.
The full and complete name of the place is Murio’s Trophy Room and three very tarnished silver urn trophies are ensconced in a display case opposite the front pool table. The pool tables are in the back, but one is in front of the other which is why it’s known as the front table. Taz often breaks the rack with his cue ball flying into the air. Susan, the current owner of the bar, is convinced he’s trying to hit the trophy glass.
The original owner named the place after himself and the tallest trophy in the case is etched with John Murio’s name as a singles winner, 1933, Vancouver, B. C. John played tennis before he ran a bar. There is a giant ten foot long plywood replica of a tennis racket hung low against the wall opposite the trophy case. It was donated by Jack Kramer and it’s a Speed Flex with a Fibre Face. Says so on the handle.
The ceiling at Murio’s is covered with colored charcoal caricatures of patrons drawn by The Ant. The Ant used to practically live at Murio’s, but he doesn’t come around much anymore. When he was virtually homeless, Murio’s was The Ant’s living room during regular business hours, until closing which is 2:00 a.m. in California.
Then The Ant got on a city sponsored welfare program which gives him a room in a hotel at the corner of 15th and Valencia. Fourth floor, bathroom down the hall, a bed and the microwave I bought him. He gets a monthly bus pass, about a hundred dollars in food stamps and free medical and dental. He used the dental to have fourteen teeth pulled including the pair in front which got punched out one night at Murio’s when he made a wisecrack to a girl whose boyfriend reached across and slugged him. That’s all it took and The Ant had another piece of his persona: stump halves of his two front teeth.
These days The Ant has a lot of bridge work and an oddly perfect smile.
The Ant was born in Okinawa in ’61, moved to the States and got his green card in the early 80’s. Though what’s the point? It’s not like he’ll ever work. No one will hire him because, even with his perfectly precise dentures, he just plain looks weird. The Ant has these two aerials growing out the top of his forehead. It’s his real hair which he cultivates in bundles at the scalp line to grow straight up in two long, thick black strands that resemble antennae. He coils colored rubber bands at the base of them, around and around, and uses some kind of jell or mousse to keep them poking straight up into the air. Children love it; they think it’s hilarious. Grownups are usually put off by the effect, at least at first.
Everyone at Murio’s is used to The Ant, so no one stares.
The Ant grew up next to the Marine base on Okinawa and must have been raised in front of an American television set. His knowledge of the cast, plots and production values for such shows as Hawaii Five-O, the Beverly Hillbillies and Dallas are extensive. He also speaks English like he was born in Cleveland. The reason The Ant no longer hangs out at Murio’s is because his hotel is closer to a bar called Kilowatt which is on 16th Street. These days he mostly goes to Kilowatt where the beers and the pool tables are a quarter less than at Murio’s and they offer free pool on Sunday.
Murio’s attracts a diverse crowd including skinhead cowboys, intellectuals, lawyers and Goth Grlz. Many patrons are heavily tattooed and you should bear in mind that introverts do not get tattoos. Those who have them generally like to talk about ’em, compare their tatts with others and boast about the artist’s pedigree. Some, like Dave, wear emblems of their own handiwork.
Dave is right handed and has a permanent set of fuzzy blue-black ink bands on the knuckles of his left. He poked these into the back of his hand when he was a teenager. Sucking on a bottle of Wild Turkey and repeatedly sticking a sewing needle wrapped in thread dipped in India ink into each digit.
“Ouch. Hey, that hurt.” Suck on the bottle. “Ouch. Shit!” Suck on the bottle.
Dave told me he was trying to make it look like he was wearing rings on each of his fingers. If you examine the palm side you will note he did not finish the job.
“I tried. It hurt too much.”
These days Dave designs software for Sun Micro and is a technical writer. He does not drink Wild Turkey any more, but he does shoot a lot of pool.