It’s 7:01 a.m.
Beyond the window bars, Kelsey is moving slowly behind the long bar, tidying here, wiping there. It’s cold outside, so I knock. Timidly first, then persistently.
Finally the side door swings open — it’s Rafael, the owner, in an apron and chef’s coat. “Good morning,” he says gruffly. He unlocks the doors and they creak open.
Inside it smells of burned toast — the bartender’s breakfast. “Not sure I’m gonna eat it,” Kelsey shrugs, her still-damp hair hanging about her shoulders. Three times a week she wakes up in the pre-dawn hours and takes the bus here from the Panhandle. When she’s not here she works at a catering business nearby, and takes night classes at City College.
Coffee in hand, she pours me a glass of grapefruit juice. There’s a pause as she eyes my scribbling. I tell her I’m a reporter. I’ll be here all day.
Her eyes light up. Turns out she’s working on an ethnography of sports bar behavior. “Liquor License,” a study by Sherri Cavan done in mid-60s San Francisco, is her bible.
First of all, she tells me, people don’t have conversations if they’re more than three bar stools apart. Oh — and women never come alone, unless they’re meeting someone or they’re with a boyfriend.
“Make sure you talk to Jimmy,” she says. “He’ll be here later. You’ll love Jimmy.”
I thank her for the advice and put away my laptop. I’ll stand out enough today.
In a neighborhood known for change, the Double Play is a place where time stands still. It’s a place where outsiders are identified instantly. People quickly decide whether or not they like you, and call you “honey” if they do.
No, they don’t have a blender. No, they will not make you a Malibu with a twist, or whatever. There are some concessions to the passage of time — the sandwich board perched outside boasts breakfast burritos and WiFi. They accept credit cards, though the cash register — a 1940s NCR Model 1900 — is manual, with a bell that tinkles with each purchase.
The Double Play might have become a hipster haven if it weren’t so far from Valencia Street, or if it had avoided the grand misfortune of being located across the street from a very suburban-style strip mall. So uncool.
It’s still well before 8. The only sound in the room is the drone of TV news and the incongruous clinking of cocktail glasses against the morning gray.
Who goes to a bar at 7 in the morning, anyway?
My question is promptly answered. In walk four nurses, fresh off a 12-hour shift at SF General.
“Is there a happy hour for 7:30 a.m.?” asks one. She and the three male nurses sidle up to the bar.
“You just missed it, actually,” says Kelsey as she lays out the cocktail napkins. She takes their orders — rusty nail, bloody mary and a long island iced tea — without raising a brow. “Wow, you guys are serious about breakfast,” says the lone female nurse. She orders a beer.
They raise their glasses and cheer: “To a hard night’s work!”
As they wind down their day, others’ are just beginning. Bay Bridge traffic crawls across the TV screen.
My eyes wander to the dusty memorabilia that stretches from wall to wall, floor to ceiling. There are articles about the Littlest Big Game, played every Thanksgiving, back when Polytechnic High and Lowell High School were the hottest rivalry in town.
And there’s a faded picture of the 1946 Mission Bears football team, with names like Mancuso, Gallegos and Shimamoto. I wonder if any of them were friends outside of football. When the photo was taken, Shimamoto had recently returned from the Topaz internment camp in Utah. That school year was likely his first since he got back; the camp closed in the fall of 1945.
The side door opens again. A woman enters, shivering as she shakes off her umbrella. She immediately reaches for a glass at the server’s station, and Kelsey meets her halfway with the coffee pot. It’s Rafael’s wife, Cristina.
When Rafael started as a cook here 22 years ago, Cristina stayed home to raise their four boys. Now that the three youngest are in school, she comes in after she’s seen them out the door, to take orders and bus tables.
Kelsey returns to her customers.
“What are you doing, Yelping?” she snorts at Rob, who is fiddling with his smartphone.
“Foursquaring,” he replies. “It’s this stupid thing,” he continues. “You check into places. There’s really no point at all.”
“What do you get from it?”
The nurses call for the tab.
It’s only nine o’clock.
In the empty dining room, a yellowed San Francisco Chronicle spread proclaims the inaugural game at Seals Stadium: April 19, 1931. It was home to the newly arrived New York Giants, who played there during their first two seasons in San Francisco, and then home to the city’s Pacific Coast League team. It’s where native son Lefty O’Doul began his career, and where Joseph Paul DiMaggio played backup shortstop before he became “Joltin’ Joe.”
Seals Stadium sat across the street from the Double Play. As the stories go, this is where thirsty players came for a drink between innings. It was owned by the sports-loving Stanfel family — they owned a sandwich shop across the street before they bought the bar in 1937 and changed its name. They added a menu and called the upstairs home.
Dick Stanfel, whose father and uncle owned the bar, still remembers coming downstairs to clean up the bar before going off to school at Commerce High on Van Ness. The bar hosted lunches for employees at the Rainier beer factory a block away.
“There were hot lunches — meatloaf, spaghetti, sandwiches,” he recalls.
During games, says Stanfel, it was packed. “Players came in, members of the team. There were people who worked in the area that were always regulars, too.”
Breakfast of Champions
It’s an hour before Ken walks in. His ruddy face is covered with a neatly trimmed white beard. He greets Rafael warmly, then sits at the bar. He orders an omelet, a Bud Light and tomato juice. The last he promptly pours into his beer.
Ken walks and talks like a regular, and I contemplate approaching him. But he’s three bar stools away — too far.
“So what’s he doing, then?” Ken asks Wayne as he slices limes at the bar.
“Oh, nothing really. Just going to church, coming here. The usual.”
Deliveries begin to arrive: produce at 9:45, bread at 10.
Ken pays no attention. He takes his last bite, pausing to chew, then neatly stacks his dishes.
“Rafa’s gonna get your breakfast again,” Wayne says.
Rafa, his wife, and some of the staff recently benefited from Ken’s tickets to the Mexico-Paraguay soccer match.
“No, no, don’t do that.”
“No, he already told me.”
Ken sets a couple of bills on the counter, anyway.
He attempts to thank the owner, but Rafa beats him to it. “My first game I seen live!” he says, laughing heartily.
For years, Rafa worked double shifts at the Double Play and Mayes Oyster House on Polk Street. He and his family have lived in the same rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment on Valencia for more than 20 years. He’s never really gone out to bars. They don’t eat out.
“I never been to Daly City, I don’t know Oakland,” he says.
He doesn’t have a car. How does he get around?
“BMW,” he laughs. “Bus, Muni, walk.”
Another regular walks in.
“Eli, how are you?” asks Wayne, who promptly slides him a screwdriver without being asked. In between sips, Eli keeps stepping outside to take calls.
“I used to come here for lunch, sit at the bar, have a couple drinks, take an hour and a half,” Eli says in a those-were-the-days kind of tone. Now he can’t stay off his Blackberry.
Wayne hasn’t checked his email for months.
Let the Games Begin
It’s 11:30, and the lunch rush has officially begun. The door can’t stay shut for more than a few minutes at a time.
Meals here are comfortable — low-key, but efficient. Two men in jeans and loafers walk in and forego the bar for the nearby booths.
They’re handed a basket brimming with bread. “Two chicken parmigianas, please.” It’s on the table in five minutes.
Suddenly, on the other side of the room, near the front window, there’s a loud slam. The games have officially begun.
Timothy, or “T” as everyone calls him, shakes a leather-bound cylinder, rattling the dice feverishly before slamming them down hard. He slowly removes the cup and peeks. He first came here when he was 23 — he’s been playing for 30 years now. The old-timers taught him how.
He began coming here after he started working at the SPCA down the street. “It was just a divey, old-looking bar,” he says, looking around. I’m not sure if he means to say it’s any different today. “Fresh, good hamburgers. That’s why we came here.”
“Make sure you talk to Jimmy,” he says. “He’ll be here later. You’ll love Jimmy.”
Rattle, rattle, SLAM. Rattle, rattle, SLAM. Bets are made. At the end of the round, the loser buys the drinks.
“It could cost you $60 or $70,” says T, who’s paid his share of dice game bar tabs. “But on the other hand, you could drink for free all day.”
A little before noon, almost everyone in the bar is eating. I remark that it must be mostly regulars.
“It’s all regulars, honey, says Timothy. “That’s what keeps this bar going.”
He gestures to a couple of white-haired men seated in the back. “Bode Gravel,” he says, referring to the company they own. “They have a table they like to sit at. They have the same thing every time. Wayne knows.”
“Manhattan, chicken parm and fries,” Wayne recites, leaning over the bar.
Another couple walks through the door. They are greeted with firm hugs, laughter. Without a word, Wayne hands them two Bud Lights.
Fernando Robles, 47, sips on one. He grew up a few blocks away, but moved to San Bruno 30 years ago, closer to his job as an airplane mechanic at SFO. “On my days off, I come, once a week or so,” he says. He settles into some Giants banter with the crew.
And then, another dramatic entrance. At exactly 12:24, the heavy door swings open. “If I don’t get a f—ing tequila right now, I’m gonna kill someone!” shrieks a petite, honey-haired woman.
There’s a cackle at her unexpected outburst. “The nicest one comes in here cursing up a storm,” says Timothy. Wayne pours Carmen a double shot of Don Julio.
She sips it, venting about her morning at work. The bar responds with bear hugs and guffaws. Someone begins to sing the Cheers theme song, loudly and off-key. Within minutes, she’s laughing again.
The revolving door of regulars continues — first Jeff, a contractor from down the street. Then Morris, a wealthy man of unspecified profession, and his chihuahua, Wednesday. Then Dave of McMillan Electric, who everyone calls Blondie.
Rattle, rattle SLAM. Rattle, rattle, SLAM. Groan.
Someone’s just won a drink.
Meanwhile, the lunch regulars have finished eating, brushed off their shirtfronts, and left. The back room sits abandoned.
Rattle, rattle, SLAM. Rattle, rattle, SLAM. The bar set owns the place.
Across the room, there’s a cry: “Carmen, you still here?!” It’s nearly two.
Mid-Day No-Man’s Land
At 2:30, the kitchen is closed. The bar has become a haven for wandering souls, of a sort.
“Irish” Pat Lawlor, a former middleweight champion boxer whose heyday photo hangs on the wall, sits by himself at the bar.
Lawlor, now 47, once defeated the formidable Roberto Duran. He retired in 2005. His right hand is wrapped in gauze. “I hit somebody,” he shrugs. “Some things never change.”
In walk a couple. She orders a margarita, he, a kamikaze. With a fleeting smirk, Wayne delivers the news — the bar has no blender. It’s clear this is a running joke. “On the rocks, then,” she says.
Another voice spins me around on the bar stool. “My buddy’s gone and so is my wife. All I got is my cheap tequila,” says a man, slumped in a booth. He orders a steak sandwich.
The man, Mike Garza, is the resident yarn-spinner. He tells me about his good friend Warren Hinckle. He tells me bout the time people actually believed he’d chopped up a body and buried it under his Hunters Point property. He tells me about the controversy surrounding his black-bellied Barbados sheep.
“I feel sorry for her, she has to listen to your stories,” a voice interrupts from the behind the bar.
Jimmy has arrived. Vincenzo James Calonico has been tending bar at haunts like Tarantino’s and Castagnola’s for more than half a century, and now at the Double Play for eight years. Jimmy takes pride in delivering clinking glasses with a stinging sarcasm. “The house specialty is abuse.”
“Hey, young man!” calls Garza to the 85-year-old bartender.
“You can’t believe anything he says,” Jimmy says.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
By 3:30, all the bar stools are occupied again.
There’s Jeff again, barely an hour after his lunch ended. “I was done at noon. I’m a bureaucrat!” he laughs. Really, he says, business at his contracting shop down the street has been excruciatingly slow.
Blondie from McMillan Electric can’t stay away, either. Isidro saunters in for at least the third time today.
Wayne’s shift was over at 3, but he joins the crew on the other side of the bar, sipping a beer.
Now Morris is back, too, little Wednesday in tow, though she’s ditched the service dog vest. “Off duty,” Morris explains.
Rafa brings out a plate of cheddar cheese slices for Wednesday, the de facto bar mascot, and Sally breaks out a brand new bottle of Ketel 1 vodka. “Oh, you knew I was coming,” Morris deadpans.
And then there’s Alec, a bespectacled man with a Hawaiian shirt.”How do you know what I drink?” Alec snaps, as Jimmy finishes pouring him a shot of vodka. “Have I ever been here before?”
“Oh, get outta here,” Jimmy complains. He and Alec trade grins. Alec has been coming here about as long as Jimmy has been tending bar for a living — 55 years. In that time, he’s seen it change hands four times — from the Stanfels to Mike McKenna, then Gigi Fiorucci, Marty Coyne and, finally, Rafa.
At 16, he had a summer job nearby and started coming in for the food, and the pinball. “Once I won 200 nickels. I turned around to Lee Stanfel, and he said, ‘Get outta here, you asshole. You’re not even old enough to be here!’” Alec chuckles at the recollection.
Stanfel did pay him later, with one caveat. “He said, ‘Now start spending it.’ And then he gave me a beer and a shot for 60 cents.”
To Alec, the Stanfels were family, and the Double Play was home. “This was a blue-collar neighborhood bar. Tuesday they had ham hocks and lima beans. Thursdays was roast beef.”
Back then there was no ice maker. The front windows of the bar were blocked off with plywood. The day’s delivery would sit 5 feet high on the far end of the floor. The tables in the bar area today were once a miniature bowling alley, and the back dining room boasted large booths with curtains for privacy, and a bell for service.
“There was a barber shop on the other side, reputed to be the biggest bookie in the neighborhood,” Alec recalls.
Alec graduated from UC Berkeley in 1962, back when tuition was $73.50 a semester. He earned his law degree from USF. Today he owns his own law practice downtown and lives in Bernal Heights.
“There’s a nucleus of about 50 people who come and go,” he says of the Double Play. “Some you don’t see for a couple of months. Some you see every day. Some you still don’t want to sit with.”
At 71, Alec is “semi-retired,” and only visits the bar three times a week. But he represents Rafa, Timothy and a handful of the Double Play clientele as an attorney. “Why not?” he says. “I’m here, anyway.”
Down the bar, the dice begin to fly again. “I got six dollars. Let’s go!” yells Morris.
“I got two!” replies Rafa.
They rejoin the group.
“You can’t come in here and try to cheat at dice,” says Steph. It’s happened before, she says, and someone “almost got f—n’ cut.”
Isidro is finishing his drink. “One for the road, Jimmy, when you get a chance.”
Jimmy obliges, then joins in on another round of dice.
Minutes later, he’s taking out his wallet.
Jimmy the Bartender
As the game nears — the one between two freshly revived rivals at AT&T Park — preparations are simple. Sally turns the channel on all four televisions to the game, and ups the volume. There’s still a half-hour before it starts.
Jimmy ignores the noise. He’s got some information to share about love, sex and mortality.
After two marriages, he doesn’t believe in the institution. He’s been dating a woman 30 years his junior — “She’s 50, looks like she’s 25” — for more than a decade, but they live separately. “I do my own cooking, laundry, shopping. That way, you don’t get stuck in a rut.”
His one-liners come fast. When you get dates, you get laid, when you’re married you get effed. People are too afraid of hell — it’s a warm room and you get to live forever! At my age, it’s like trying to shove a marshmallow into a piggy bank.
But he takes a pause when he talks about his second wife and their 38-year marriage. Shortly after the wedding, she had a debilitating stroke. “You don’t even know what you’re made of until something like that happens,” he says softly. He cared for her the rest of her life.
The door swings open and a young family enters. It’s Rafael Jr. and his wife. They’re both decked out entirely in Giants gear, and their newborn is swaddled in a massive black-and-orange Giants blanket.
Rafael Sr. landed here fresh from Guanajato, Mexico, in 1984, a 16-year-old with a fourth-grade education. He’d heard stories of the USA. “Work a little bit,” he says. “Buy whatever you want. Buy a car.”
Today, he still doesn’t own one.
“When I came here from Mexico, I didn’t have a place to live,” he recounts. He earned $36 a day as a dishwasher, and paid $150 a month to sleep on the floor with 12 other people in the garage of a house on Ocean Avenue. “I said, this is not my life. I don’t want to be like that.”
He kept working. He’s been waking up at 5 a.m. for more than 20 years. He has never taken a vacation. “To me, it’s worth it. Because I never seen nothing different. This is my life, this is what I do.”
After 20 years of running the kitchen at the Double Play, Rafael bought the bar in 2009. His three youngest children still live at home in the two-bedroom on Valencia. His 21-year-old is studying to be a sound engineer at the Art Institute, and his two youngest boys go to Catholic school in the Mission.
It’s a quarter after 7, first inning, and the Dodgers are already up. Almost no one is paying attention to any of the four screens. Two young women in their 20s glance every so often, and make comments. One of them, Kristin Karesh, is a recent transplant from DC. “It’s definitely a baseball place, and I’m a baseball fan,” she tells me. She’s one of the few in the bar who’s come here just to watch the game.
But her interest in the game wavers when confronted with Wednesday the chihuahua, who’s back with her owner for the third time today.
7:25: The Giants make their first run of the game. Eyebrows lift, but not a cheer.
The day’s action is already done at the Double Play. The home team has long since left. The games were played, fans cheered, the victors laughed and the losers bought the drinks.
At 8 o’clock, Rafa has changed out of his greasy chef’s coat and put on a clean shirt. He’s been here since at least 5 a.m., and it’s time to go home. But just as he turns to leave, a call comes in.
“Rafa, can you do sauteed prawns?” A couple who’s settled into a booth to watch the game have decided on a late dinner. “Yeah, OK,” he says, and trudges back into the kitchen.
A half hour later, the prawns delivered, Rafa has slipped out.
Jimmy stacks mugs and glasses at the bar. Not much left to do. In another hour all the customers will be gone. All that will remain is to latch the doors and click off the neon lights. Until 7 a.m. tomorrow, when it starts all over again.
“People ask me when I’m going to retire,” Jimmy says to me.
“Retire? Never. I’m going to shit my pants, keel over, and give those customers a last call like they never had in their life.”