on the page magazine

issue no. 1, winter 2000–2001
outsiders & community


Room at the Inn

by Susan Parker

It was two years after Ralph's accident before we started venturing back into San Francisco regularly. Parking was horrendous, and finding a space large enough for the van and wheelchair lift was a chore. But gradually I grew bolder and more aggressive. When garage attendants told me I couldn't park in their lots because the van was too big, I held my ground until they had no choice but to succumb. Sometimes I simply pretended I did not understand their broken English or sweeping gestures and drove in as though I were entitled to any spot in the place.

I found the locations of the disabled signs in every neighborhood and made a beeline for the blue curb. I discovered where senior citizen centers and government offices were, and I learned that parking in front of churches was always a good bet. Still, I had to be quick, daring and ruthless.

We went to Chinatown, the Mission, Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. Immigrants, tourists and children stared at us; in the Financial District we were deliberately ignored; in Macy's we were trampled upon; and at 18th and Castro streets, no one noticed us at all.

Golden Gate Park was too cold and foggy; the upper Fillmore and Pacific Heights were too hilly; the theater district was dangerous; South Park was crowded.

It was in North Beach that we finally found a comfort zone. One foggy afternoon Ralph and I were struggling over a small incline at Grant and Columbus avenues. We looked up and saw the swinging doors of the Saloon. We peeked inside. It was dark and loud. People moved barstools, chairs and tables so that Ralph could squeeze by. We passed leather-clad motorcyclists, neighborhood sex workers, poorly dressed tourists and sailors and old men in shiny suits, their hair swept into pompadours above bulbous, purple-veined noses. We settled into a corner, across from the small stage where Blues Power pounded out the obvious: blues.

I shouted an order to a scantily clad waitress—an Anchor Steam for Ralph, a glass of house red for me. The bass guitarist stepped forward off the stage, nodded at Ralph and plucked his guitar in a high-pitched cry.

Everyone in the bar was nice to us, so we decided to go back the next Sunday and the next, until finally we became regulars, looking forward to weekend afternoons at the Saloon, when Blues Power played for tips and free booze. The price was right. There was no cover charge or two-drink minimum. We could sit there all day, watch the crowd change, listen to the music, daydream. No one gave us any trouble.

Sometimes the band members changed: One week there'd be a trumpet player, who would be replaced by two saxophonists the next Sunday; occasionally an enormous woman with a huge gap between her teeth belted out ``Mama, he treats yo' daughter mean.'' Another afternoon a tiny gal from Texas sang in a voice that shook the dance floor and the building next door; a dark-skinned man carrying a beat-up Adidas gym bag and wearing decaying basketball shoes wailed incoherent lyrics in a desperate, eerie voice; a pale young man, nattily dressed in sports jacket, tie, overcoat and scarf walked in, mounted the stage and sang plaintively that if it wasn't for bad luck, he wouldn't have no luck at all.

Everyone in the bar danced. Now and then I jitterbugged by myself. Once I bobbed around the wooden floor with a woman who squirmed and writhed as if she worked at Big Al's. I slow-danced with the man with the Adidas gym bag and partnered with a band member, when he was not playing. Sometimes Ralph went out on the floor and manipulated his wheelchair back and forth and side to side with his chin. Everyone had to move out of his way or risk being knocked over.

The Saloon was now our place. It was full of people who didn't quite fit the norm. We basked in the glow of their camaraderie and acceptance.

Susan Parker is a writer living in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The San Francisco Chronicle, The Sun, and Salon. Her memoir, Tumbling After, will be published by Crown Books in November 2001. She teaches nonfiction writing classes throughout the Bay Area.

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