Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Self Made-Up Man

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s is an undersung San Francisco institution, and its owner, Henry Africa nee Norman Jay Hobday has died.

I was an assistant at Last Gasp of San Francisco when I first set foot in Eddie’s, sometime towards the end of the 1990s. It had been a late night of typesetting or proofreading or some other tedious publishing task, but we’d finally put the book we were working on to bed, so Ron took me out to celebrate. We found ourselves in a far too bright bar room illuminated by antique lamps, and with dozens and dozens of motorcycles hanging from the ceiling. Ron and I put our considerable bellies to the bar and an ancient, rotund, wheezing man hobbled over to us, poured our drinks and offered me an ashtray. These were the high times of California’s smoking ban. I fell into an immediate, deep and enduring love with that bar that is more meaningful than many romantic relationships proved to be. If you knew the place, you’d understand.

Norman was a marvelously strange dude, the kind of eccentric that San Francisco celebrates. I couldn’t tell whether his autobiography was completely full of shit, or just mostly. He spoke fondly of his glory days running a bar called Henry Africa’s, which was apparently one of the City’s more fashionable spots in Norman’s bygone day. At some point, he legally changed his name to Henry Africa. He had a fondness for the Seven Sisters colleges, and in later life employed as many of its women as he could persuade to work for him. And then there was Mr. Higgins, his morbidly obese alcoholic bar cat.

And the bar. Jesus! It was like the dream room of a teenage boy from the Great Depression. Over 40 vintage motorcycles hanging from the ceiling, antique firearms, military recruitment and propaganda posters from the start of the 20th Century, and a model train running along the top of the bar room. A ladder led up to a loft where Norman lived when he shut the bar. If you’re gonna choose a place to spend the last of your days, and you’re a degenerate of particular means and tastes, you’d have opened a place like this too. Norman was living a very singular dream.

When life moved me out of San Francisco, I would always find my way back to Eddie’s on my visits, often to the annoyance of friends who’d have preferred to go somewhere darker, more fashionable, and maybe with some women. And when they couldn’t be persuaded, I’d go on my own and soak in the atmosphere the way Higgins would soak up beer spilled onto the bar.

There was always surrealism and bad behavior afoot at Eddie’s. In his latter days, when Norman became too sick to work, he set up a couch and TV at the front of the bar where he sucked oxygen from a tube, smoked for as long as he could, and berated the pretty bartenders, who were serving double duty as nurse-practitioner to this elderly oddball. While Norman would be watching some program on military history, the late night bar would be populated by a variety of powerful, high-velocity drinkers and a staff who only seemed to work when they ran out of other things to do. Sometimes this would go on until the most liberal interpretation of last call, and other times, abruptly, Norman would shout at everyone to go home so he could go to sleep before midnight. The only thing one could reliably expect from a trip to Eddie Rickenbacker's is that it was going to be fun and deeply fucking weird.

Somewhere on the wall behind the bar, behind some officer’s hat from the Third Reich, is a picture of Norman, painfully young, muscular, standing tall with perfect posture, in excellent physical condition. He’s wearing next to nothing. And he boasts a knowing, confident grin. Like the man who bought the world.

Who was Norman Hobday? Or Henry Africa? Does it matter? He was a man who invented his own reality, and built a temple to himself that others could come into and make their own. He was an illustration that one could invent their own reality, and their own legend. I hope his lives on for a long time to come.

Read Norman’s obituary here.