C. Bobby & The Owl Tree
It was an annoyingly bright October morning, too warm too early in the day, when I learned Bobby had died. I read it over breakfast on the Chronicle’s obituary page. I looked up and told myself I should have a drink, not to settle my nerves, but a final tip o’ the glass to one of San Francisco’s last great bartenders. His bar survived without him for only a few months. Then it too died. A crinkled scrap of paper in the front window served as a tombstone: CLOSED FOR BUSINESS in undignified ballpoint pen. When Bobby and The Owl Tree passed, a little more of this city died, too.
The Owl Tree stood where Post meets Taylor Street. My first visit, I ventured inside intending only a quick drink before dinner. Bobby stood behind the bar, arms crossed and emotionless. He was alone. Before I made it two steps inside, I skittered to a halt. He wasn’t alone. Four hundred pairs of eyes were there too, staring me down.
Owls perched on every corner and shelf and wall, over the jukebox and hanging down from the ceiling. Paintings, woodcarvings, knit pictures; stained-glass owls, plastic, bronze, and silver owls; macramé, woodcraft, a portrait of an owl head made of coins, a stuffed horned owl nesting in the chandelier. No empty space was unadorned of owl. It was kitsch, but kitsch on a massive scale, the fulfillment of a lifetime of souveniring and flea-marketing. The only non sequitur in the room—if “non sequitur” is a word one can use when describing a bar full of decorative owls—was the working traffic light in the corner.
The milk-globe ceiling lamps and the amber votives gave this owl shrine the soft glow of Vaseline on a pornographer’s lens. To break up the silence I introduced myself to Bobby and mentioned I tended bar in North Beach. That opened the conversation up. We griped about the sorts of things bartenders gripe about—a lack of courtesy from patrons, the sophomoric names for new cocktails, and shitty tipping.
Bobby poured strong drinks precisely dispensed. They arrived with a basket of complimentary snack mix and a Wet-Nap moist towelette. The jukebox was a dependable library of jazz, big band, crooners, and blues, with the occasional stadium-rock clunker that out-of-towners would discover and play. And play. And play.
His real name was Robert Cook, but everyone knew him as Bobby, or C. Bobby. He was a pint-sized scrappy man of Irish descent with a robust head of gray hair. His deep, crackly voice box told you he was all business.
Bobby believed in “The Bar” as a vital American social structure. The Bar was a place to meet friends and make friends, a place of pleases and thank-yous, one of the last refuges of decorum in our society. His vision of The Bar was one of a comfortable space and a comforting space. Elsewhere you talked. In The Bar, you conversed. Bobby believed in conversation, and in the art of conversation. It’s not a common vision in America today, and with Bobby’s passing, I fear the vision has spent its last breath.
Don’t mistake The Owl Tree with Cheers though. Bobby could be a pistol when his temper frayed. One night, the bar slammed with the aftertheater crowd, there was this sad, clueless soul who asked Bobby for an “Amstel Light in a bottle.”
“In a bottle?” When Bobby growled, it sounded like he was shoveling words of jagged coal out his throat. “You see any taps on the bar? Now order again.”
The man blinked hard behind his designer eyeglasses. “Can I have an Amstel Light…in a bottle?”
Bobby turned to me. “See what I’m dealing with here, Jim?” Then to the befuddled young man: “I’ll give you one more chance.”
“Just ask for Amstel Light,” I murmured.
Another hard blink. “Can I have an…Amstel…Light?”
“See Jim?” Bobby said. “We’re all about teaching people bar etiquette here.” And up came a bottle of Amstel Light and a chilled lager glass.
Bobby was seventy-four when he died. He retained to the end that old-fashioned sense of privacy that America discarded long ago for the dazzling excesses of primal scream therapy and tear-soaked talk show confessions. Bobby would have none of that. Once, two women from out of town asked him if he was married. “Oh, here we go,” he growled toward me, then told them it was none of their damn business, and if they wished to continue drinking at his establishment they’d do well to remember it.
And then there’s this priceless exchange: some doughy punk with a baseball cap on backwards yelling at Bobby, “You’re the fucking rudest bartender in fucking San Francisco!”
And Bobby batting it right back: “There’s no welcome sign on the door!”
One day when Bobby was young, he was wandering through the woods in upstate New York, alone and scared. He noticed in the trees an owl watching over him. The owl gave him some courage, he said, because he felt owls were wise and friendly, and he made it home without incident. This unsophisticated tale, with the texture of a Poe story but the simplicity of a Big-Little Book, is how he explained the genesis of The Owl Tree to anyone who asked.
None of his other yarns were so lightly complected. He told me once that he left New York because he’d crossed paths with the Mob. Another time he spun a rather convoluted story for me, half Kafka and all Raymond Chandler, of being arrested at The Owl Tree and held in jail overnight to give corrupt cops a cover story. Bobby may have been a bullshit artist— most bartenders are—but he was a consummate bullshit artist.
He moved to San Francisco in the 1950s and worked downtown as a waiter and a bartender. In 1977, after two decades of saving and scrimping tips, he opened The Owl Tree at 601 Post Street, where it remained until he died. The yellow backlit sign hung on the corner for months after the bar was shuttered, but by then it was merely a name tag torn from its lapel.
On it, a mother and baby owl stared down at passersby from a wooden branch. Like the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, Bobby’s owls were the watchful all-seeing presence of the once-living, now gone but remembered.
Herb Caen was an Owl Tree regular back in the day, back when Trader Vic’s was across the street at the end of Cosmo Alley. City Hall lawyers and Bohemian Club types took the aqua vitae at The Owl Tree, as did art students and floundering art school graduates, hack writers and bike messengers, newspaper men and cops, off-duty bartenders and lifelong waiters. The Owl Tree was a watering hole for the well-connected, the disconnected, and the unconnected. It purveyed the crisp aura of an august but egalitarian drinking establishment, and Bobby made sure it lived up to that expectation.
Some nights Bobby would dust off his hands at nine or so and let a relief bartender work solo. On the drinking side of the bar, Bobby dispensed with his cloth black tie and white starched button-down, mingling with his clientele in a loud silk floral-print shirt. He wolfed chardonnays and vodka-and-cranberries and Jaegermeisters, slipping fast into a rather hammered state. He would snap “Get out!” at rude patrons and bat his lashes at the prime-grade, well-cut young men who happened in for a drink. Sometimes his bender would reach a fevered pitch early and he’d kick everyone out for the hell of it, no matter the hour. When he was sober he called me Jim and when he was drunk he called me Steve, and I have no clue why.
Bobby had three sons, but his baby was Chester, a Jack Russell terrier he spoiled mercilessly. Chester was better fed than anyone in that bar and the dog knew it. Bobby loved dressing him up in little outfits, especially baseball hats and neck scarves. When Bobby was sloshed he would cuddle Chester against his cheek and make baby talk. Chester recoiled at Bobby’s chardonnay breath with a cringed shudder. It reminds me of Vonnegut tormenting his wife with the alcoholic breath of “mustard gas and roses.” That was Bobby: mustard gas and roses.
That traffic light in the corner of The Owl Tree served a purpose. Green, bar was open. Yellow, last call. Red, get out and go home.
One Friday morning of September 2006, after switching the traffic light to red for his last time, Bobby collapsed. His son Michael—who often worked as a barback—rode in the ambulance. It was an unnecessary trip. Bobby was gone.
Two of Bobby’s sons were left to deal with the estate. Bobby’s corpse remained on ice for a full month while the city dug around for his third son, long estranged from his father. The coroner’s office finally hired a private investigator, who unearthed him living on the streets and crashing in junkie dens. Only then could Bobby’s estate be settled and his frozen body lowered into the ground.
Bobby’s favorite bartender was Brandon. Bobby liked him so much, he fired and hired him a dozen times in half the number of years. After Bobby’s death, Brandon continued on as the sole bartender, confiding to me it was his personal quest to keep “The Tree” running exactly as Bobby had taught him. He carried the torch for a number of months, heroically serving the febrile after-theater rush with the detail and promptness Bobby had demanded from all his bartenders. All the while, Brandon was coping with one son’s urge to shutter and sell the property, while the other dropped in demanding sixty-five bucks, seventy bucks, eighty bucks from the till— whatever the going rate was for a fix.
Finally, the CLOSED FOR BUSINESS sign went up written in that undignified ballpoint pen. It was replaced months later with a plastic redand- white FOR SALE sign. During all this, the strung-out son moved in and made The Owl Tree his home. He slept on a ratty nest of blankets under a cocktail table and used the amber votives as ashtrays. He sold the owls out the front door for quick cash. When they were gone, so was he.
Gutted and abandoned, The Owl Tree fissured in half and sank into the deep and dank tarn of the Tenderloin.
It was an annoyingly bright April morning, too warm too early in the day, when I chanced upon Bobby’s son Michael on Taylor Street. He was walking Chester, still well-fed and more chipper than usual. We shook hands and I offered my condolences. Michael related to me Bobby’s last night in the bar, and of the ambulance ride. He spotted me a cigarette. There on the sidewalk, we shared a couple of our best stories about Bobby. Michael teared up, and I’ll admit, I spilled a couple myself.
Then Michael took something from his jacket pocket and pressed it into my palm. It was an owl of hard plastic with orange feathers and bronze trim. It was the size of dashboard Virgin Mary. The little owl stared up at me with bulbous onyx eyes that had witnessed so much over thirty years— thirty years of San Francisco life passing in and out of a modest bar on the corner of Post and Taylor.
“Pop would’ve wanted you to have that,” Michael told me. “Pop always thought big of you.”
I keep that owl beside my cocktail glasses and bitters, my bottles of gin and Scotch, my shaker and my vermouth. It’s staring at me right now as I write this, mutely refusing to disappear.
The Owl Tree will re-open soon under new ownership, with the same name, a different street sign, refurbished and repainted, without the owls, without the traffic sign, without everything that made it C. Bobby’s Owl Tree.
Jim Nelson’s work has been published in Switchback, SmokeLong Quarterly, Watchword, and other fine literary venues. Today he resides in San Francisco. He fell off a cable car and lived to tell about it.