Where to Find the Real Debauchery of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco

I once interviewed writer David Sedaris for a San Francisco weekly newspaper. My boss had one request: you have to ask him one or two San Francisco-related questions. So when I asked his thoughts on the City by the Bay, he said: “It’s one of the most volatile, tense cities I’ve ever been in.” This was a lot coming from someone who’s on a constant book tour and has probably visited every city in America dozens of times. “The last time I was in town,” Sedaris added, feeling compelled to give me an example, “my friend and I had just come out of movie and suddenly a guy was running at us swinging a chain over his head.”

It’s uncertain whether this chain-twirling lunatic was indirectly inspired by the legend of the Barbary Coast, but, as Daniel Bacon said in a previous post, the legendary neighborhood has imprinted its DNA onto the city. From the current strip clubs and peeps shows that line Broadway (which were once part of the Barbary Coast drag, Pacific St.) to the openness with which the city welcomes people of every stripe. But besides the obvious – like those strip clubs – where else, I wondered, could I find spiritual remnants of the old neighborhood. Specifically, where to find the real debauchery of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco?

There’s the Tenderloin. Specifically one block on Turk Street, which the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported was the most dangerous block in the city. Violent crime is 35 times higher on this block. Just 438 people live on the city block, yet in a six-month period there were 248 crimes reported. I wanted to go see it for myself, but I like my health and my wallet.

So instead I went to the Saloon, the oldest bar in San Francisco, and right on the medallion-guided Barbary Coast Trail. I started to think I was on to something when 28-year-old Sophie, sitting next to me at the bar, announced she was a heroin addict. “Oh look,” she said, studying a pea-sized black dot on her thumb, “how did some junk end up on my finger?” She picked off the tar-like substance and deposited the remnant into her pocket. Soon enough her dealer showed up and he whipped out a bag of heroin, stuck it in her face to smell and said, “This is for later.” But before that, a procession of characters were dispatched into the place that felt like central casting was having a busy day. There were trannies. There were guys with headbands and leather jackets playing Bob Dylan songs on a harmonica. There was Tommy, a flamboyant homeless guy who would blurt out random statements like “Let’s all wait until daddy’s butt gets flat” and “I’m not a hanging uterus.”

As I sat there taking it all in, sipping a vodka and tonic (and at $3, a bargain), I realized that this kind of debauchery has been going on in this space for the last 160 years. The real remnants of the Barbary Coast are not necessarily the physical remnants of the neighborhood, but instead living in certain people. It’s in Jonny Raglin at the Comstock Saloon and Daniel Bacon who started the Barbary Coast Trail. It’s in all these people in the Saloon who are screaming and laughing and slamming their empty drinks down while demanding another.

I emptied my glass, said farewell to Sophie and the rest of the Saloon regulars, and walked out into the fading San Francisco day, the weak sun splashing me in the face as I walked away from the Barbary Coast for the last time.