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