Now for something completely different!
The Tittie Kings of Broadway
By 1982 I was out of the guitar making buisness and well into my cabinet and custom woodworking phase in partnership with an old friend Paul Schmidt who had moved back to Northern California after a brief marriage to a Canadian woman. Paul and I moved out of my Novato shop and into an old warehouse building by the river in downtown Petaluma. We were well tooled up for just about any kind of limited production wood working or custom cabinet jobs, and we somehow were contacted by a brilliant and flaky French Canadian interior designer who was working for guys whom we termed the Tittie Kings of Broadway. They were three partners owned a famous San Francisco bar, (the) El Matador which had been a great jazz club in it’s day, then there was the Paladium, an after hours disco, and to top(less) it off they had six strip joints on Broadway in North Beach, the most infamous of which was Carol Doda’s. Next door was “Big Al’s” with a giant sign displaying a 1930’s era gangster with a Thompson submachine gun. Al Capone? No, it was “Big Al”, one of the three partners, and the mentor to Paul and my client Walter Pastore, “Al’s” nephew.
Walter is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, and his intelligence was completely applied in the street trades of booze and women and separating men from their money. He comes across like an incredibly charming “wise guy” right out of “the Godfather”, though as he explained to me, the Mob (capital “M”) never got into the San Francisco scene. Evidently, when Capone sent out scouts in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, the unfortunate emissaries would be met at the train station by the North Beach Italians who had succeeded the Barbary Coast sin salesmen; the boys from Chicago would be given return tickets and invited in no uncertain terms not to alight from the train lest they be bathing in the Bay with concrete bedroom slippers on. So organized crime didn’t get a foothold in San Francisco as the locals were quite happy with their arrangements with the cops and city hall and the bootleggers bringing in Canadian whiskey.
The job presented to Paul and myself was to completely remodel Walter’s fourth floor mini-condo on Telegraph Hill; it was about 900 square feet of great view overlooking Broadway, and the budget was about $125,000.00, a lot of money in 1985. Walter liked to be able to feel close to the street while up in the sky looking over his kingdom. The design included teak paneling the hallway into the living room, making mahogany soffit crown molding with down facing mirrors, putting a mahogany window seat across the window wall with brass grill for the baseboard heating, installing a European-style kitchen with granite counters, and then transitioning into the bedroom, bathroom, and dressing area where the wood theme changed to walnut and red oak for all trim and furnishings. We also got the job to make all the furniture except for a sofa out of the matching woods to the paneling and trim in each area. That included the usual dining table and chairs and a big chest bed with drawers, and it also involved making a glass front gun case, a tambour doored easy-access compartment next to the bed for a sawed off 12 gauge shotgun…never know who’s coming through the bedroom door…and putting a hot tub in the bedroom for entertainment. Did I mention the mirrored ceiling above the bed? Opulent, but the design was good, and Paul and I were (and are) good at what we do.
We really got along famously with Walter, who kind of took us under his wing as two naïve country boys from the sticks of Petaluma who were honest, hardworking, and in need of a North Beach University education. Once we got going on the job, we hit a nice rhythm where we’d build, build, build in our shop and do 95% of the wood work and lacquer finishing work off-site, and then we’d come down once a week or so for a couple of days of installing the latest work we’d done. When we would arrive, Walter would make us tea and serve us hand made North Beach Italian bread sticks, and we’d chat for a half hour or more. It was mostly Walter regaling us with street smarts, Sicilian-style. Some of it was scary, a lot was funny, and the rest was real wisdom from that very old school point of view. There’s something very reassuring about working for a guy like Walter and it’s his absolute honesty in dealing one on one with people. We got it quickly that if we, or anyone promised Walter that they were going to do something; that was better than a contract signed by one and all. Paper is bullshit and your word is your word; it’s very elemental and it forces you to be serious about what you say. It’s primitive, ancient, and refreshing.
One day, when Walter realized that we had no problem being paid in cash, he told me to come down to the El Matador to pick up a payment. I arrived exactly at the appointed hour, and Walter, ever the gentleman, “bought” me a drink. We chatted and then he said, “Follow me back to my office.” I did so, and then he knocked on the women’s room door and barked, “Any skirts in there get out.” A couple of ladies hastened out still pulling up their panty hose, and Walter motioned me inside. He pulled out a roll of hundred dollar bills, and said, “Count it; I’ll be right back.” I counted out 51 “C notes”, and counted again. Fifty one… So I counted one more time, pocketed fifty and waited for Walter to return. He came back in a couple of minutes later, and without saying anything, I handed him a hundred dollar bill. He asked, “Did you count it?” I said, “Yes.” “Did you count it twice” “Yes, Walter,” with a smile. He pocketed the wayward hundred and said, “Good boy!” My knee caps felt good that night…
Kings, Part the Second…
One day Otto, the plumber, was putting in a new low noise, low water use very nice toiled in Walter’s now Travertine lined WC. Big Al, Walter’s mentor and down stairs neighbor came up to look over the progress, and sees thing gleaming new Kohler masterpiece of hydraulic engineering and he asks, “Hey, Otto, how much to put a shitter like that down in my joint?” Otto says back, “’Bout eight hundred bucks, Al.” The big man said, in his best movie-gangster voice exaggerates, “Otto, yer killin’ me, yer killin” me!” and he staggers back slapping his chest in the classic Red Foxx Sanford and Son heart attack routine. Walter chimes in, “Otto, my friend, don’t listen to a word Al, here, says…His biggest problem is that all his money is tied up in cash!” True story, every word!
And the Third…
So there’s this new electrician on the job putting in plugs…well actually they’re receptacles and they’re what you insert a plug into, but who’s insisting on accuracy here, everyone in the business calls them “plugs.” Paul and I get back from a nice North Beach lunch, and the electrician is sitting on the floor looking very, very pale, and he’s not doing shit as they also say in the business. I ask him, “What’s going on, we’ve got a job to finish here…” He looks up at us and says, “I was putting in this plug, and Walter and his pals walked in to see what was going on, and I looked up and all I saw was guns. I thought they were going to whack me!” “No, no, no,” Paul and I say in stereo. “Look, these guys carry guns everywhere, everyday. Hey, just the other day one of Walter’s employees at the El Matador came running up the cellar stairs yelling, “There’s a big rat down there! So Walter pulled out his 38 and dropped six shots down the stairs, turned around and grinned. That’s why he packs heat!” So my nose got just a little longer that day. But it was true…the first part. These guys did carry guns everywhere, everyday, and Walter had the most incredible formula, as near as I could figure out, that determined exactly which sidearm he’d carry on a given day. Walter was and is a very snappy dresser…hand made shirts, bespoke suits, hand blocked Borsalino hats, the finest Italian shoes…the whole shooting match, forgive the pun. So the choice of pistol always matched the clothes, the need for concealment, and perhaps the level of potential gun-requiring trouble that he might encounter on a given day. There was the snub nosed 38 special in blued steel, the Beretta 9 mm in stainless, the Beretta .22 auto that could be concealed in a thing that looked like a wallet in his back pocket…God bless the poor fool who might try to mug him for his wallet…and several other choices. Holsters included the afore mentioned wallet, an ankle holster, and the usual shoulder holster affairs. For Paul and I it all became normal and part and parcel of the scene, and it didn’t bother us a bit. I had grown up with a step-father who was a gun collector, and some of my earliest memories of him included his stashing a couple of shotguns and a rifle in cases under my bed when I was seven. I learned to respect firearms, not treat them at all casually, but still, their presence was not abnormal in my consciousness.