Drinking Bourbon in the Zam Zam Room

August Kleinzahler

The best bar in San Francisco reopened for business the other day under new management. But it’s no good. They’ve got it all wrong. For one, the place is too bright and cheerful now. The new owners have installed all manner of lighting and cleaned up the mural over the bar. It looked better with sixty years of smoke stains, a kind of patina. Now, it just looks like what it is: a 1940 interior decorator’s kitsch version of a magnified Persian miniature. If that weren’t enough, the new owners have slapped a fresh coat of paint on the walls and put flowers all over the place – lilies, for crying out loud, gladioli, birds of paradise. Hideous. But worst of all, they keep the door open to the street, inviting all and sundry to come and take refreshment at the Persian Aub Zam Zam Room. That would have horrified Bruno more than anthing else. A bat could have dwelled happily, day and night, in the original Zam Zam. If someone opened the door, especially in daylight, and hesitated before coming in, Bruno would shout: ‘Shut that door, there’s a stench out there. Away with you, barbarian!’

Bruno Mooshei, sole proprietor and bartender, was famous for two things: his dry martinis and throwing people out of the bar. People from all over America, and even Europe, would come to the Zam Zam, sometimes for the martinis but usually to be thrown out. When David Letterman came to town to do a week of shows his advance people phoned Bruno to see if he would throw Letterman out of the bar on the show. ‘No, I’m sorry, thank you,’ Bruno said over the phone. ‘Who’s David Letterman?’ he asked us. ‘I don’t know this person. Why do these people bother me? He must be some New York person.’

A New York person was not a good thing to be. Bruno found they tended to be noisy and self-regarding, and they always let you know they were from New York. Bruno, who was born in Baghdad and taken to the Bay Area as an infant, liked to boast that he’d never been east of Reno. He did admit once that he wouldn’t mind ‘flying to Iowa and having a big, corn-fed steak. You know, just to see what it would be like.’ But the only time Bruno left town was to go to Reno to play keno and eat ‘extra heavy’, or to visit family in Modesto. He’d never been on a jet and didn’t like flying in general. ‘I went to Mexico once and was sick for 18 years. Isn’t that right, Ruth?’ ‘That’s right, Bruno,’ old Ruth would chime in from the corner stool.

I have always regarded it as one of the singular pieces of good fortune in my life that Bruno didn’t throw me out when I first wandered into the Zam Zam twenty years ago. It was a small, dark, cave-like place with Moorish arches and decor. It took a few moments to adjust your eyes to the darkness. There was an old-fashioned, vintage jukebox to the right with old-fashioned music playing, 1930s and 1940s big-band stuff. Bruno was at the far end of a 1940s-style, well-detailed, semi-circular bar with an old-fashioned, vintage cash register. The whole place was old-fashioned, vintage, including Bruno, who was chatting with a couple of friends. They all three glowered at me, hoping I might go away. It was one of the most depressing, unfriendly rooms I had ever walked into. I knew immediately I had found sanctuary.

I wasn’t good for much at the age of 30, but I could drink bourbon and I knew which bourbon I liked and how I liked it. Fortunately, it turned out to be one of the brands acceptable to Bruno. If you ordered Jack Daniel’s, for instance, Bruno would tell you that you were more or less a fool, in thrall to Madison Avenue. Tanqueray gin and Chivas Regal also earned you a rough ride. But Old Grand-Dad was jake with Bruno, a good, unfashionable whiskey. So it was my order that saved me, and knowing to put my money on the plank before having to be asked. And then shutting up. Having another two in quick succession and leaving quietly, a modest tip behind, didn’t hurt either.

Who was allowed into the bar and who was thrown out was a celebrated topic of conversation among drinkers in San Francisco. In fact, it wasn’t all that complex, at least on the surface. You took a seat on a stool at the bar, not at one of the tables in the back room. You had your money ready on the bar and you ordered your drink. This last had its hazards. Apart from the brands proscribed by Bruno (but which were nevertheless available), he held beer in low esteem. If you insisted, he would say: ‘I’ve got the horrible Budweiser, Becks and Heineken.’ Needless to say, if you ordered a Long Island Iced Tea or a Sex on the Beach, or even a margarita, he would throw you out. A bit of a minefield, but once you had it all figured out you were probably OK, unless Bruno just flat didn’t like you or the way you looked.

Young, in general, was not a good look. Young female trumped male, but the young lady was supposed to be just that, a lady. Halter tops and nose-rings didn’t fly. Manners were big with Bruno. In his view, the ‘young today have no manners. I feel badly for their parents.’ Flash was never good. Bruno, who was Assyrian, referred to a certain type of patron who would wander into the bar from time to time as a ‘Hollywood sheikh’. According to Bruno, a Hollywood sheikh was ‘someone from the North-East. Inherited his money. Wears floppy collars with black alpaca sweaters. Drives a white Thunderbird with a redhead wearing a white leather jacket. Calls her tomato.’

The Zam Zam was a great place to bring a woman, especially if you were an item or inclining in that direction. Bruno would give female customers a Zam Zam paper napkin with their drinks, and if he liked the look of them he would lean over the bar and offer up his Dickens martini joke: ‘What’s a Dickens martini? Give up? No olive or twist.’

The darkness and 1940s atmosphere lent the place a bit of mystery and romance. But it was the music on the jukebox that clinched it. Bruno went in for what’s called ‘sweet-sounding society bands’ or ‘hotel society music’. There were some odd plays on the jukebox like ‘Tales from the Vienna Woods’ and excerpts from the Victory at Sea theme song, but it was the sweet music Bruno loved. ‘If there was more music like this,’ Bruno would say, leaning over the bar towards your date, ‘there would be less crime.’

The prototype of the genre was Leo Reisman’s orchestra, which held a long residency at the stylish Central Park Casino in New York in the 1920s. This was the band that provided backing for some of Fred Astaire’s biggest hits, like ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Cheek to Cheek’. In 1928, Reisman hired a handsome young piano-player called Eddy Duchin (Peter’s father). By 1931, with his matinée-idol looks and pianistic flourishes, Duchin had formed an orchestra of his own, replaced Reisman at the Central Park Casino and become a national celebrity. Years later he was played by Tyrone Power in The Eddy Duchin Story, but the piano-playing in the movie was done not by Duchin (of whom one sideman remarked: ‘He was the only musician I’ve ever known who could play a 32-bar solo with 32 mistakes and receive an ovation’) but by a young man named Carmen Cavallaro, Duchin’s relief pianist. There was an awful lot of Carmen Cavallaro on the Zam Zam jukebox, with his fiddles and silky reeds, playing ‘Dancing in the Dark’ or ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’. It was a treat sitting there in the dark with your girl, a couple of drinks in you, listening to that swill with all its flourishes, glissandos, accelerandos and the rest.

It was all part of a lost-era atmosphere that Bruno cultivated. The place was like a miniature of an old movie palace, with its darkness and exotic motifs. For Bruno, the bar was a piece of old San Francisco, a place that no longer existed except in films, photographs and Dashiell Hammett novels. ‘There were only two great cities in the world,’ Bruno liked to say, ‘and both of them are gone: San Francisco and Shanghai. They had intrigue and class. They were international and everyone dressed right.’

Dressing right was big with Bruno. He always wore a jacket, specially made to accommodate his girth, a tie and monogrammed shirt, also custom-made, with cufflinks. He wanted his bar to have class, like in the old days. ‘Another perfect masterpiece, just like down-town,’ Bruno would say, shining a small flashlight on a freshly poured martini for the drinker to admire the surface tension keeping the cold, glistening libation from spilling over. ‘Of course,’ he would inevitably continue, ‘that’s when we had a down-town. I’m talking about the 1930s and 1940s when San Francisco was a real city with a real down-town. Women wore gloves and hats and could wait for a streetcar at 1 a.m. and no one would bother them.’

Bruno’s martinis were famous enough to catch the attention of the national press on several occasions. He mixed Boord’s gin and Boissiere vermouth, in a ratio, he claimed, of 1000 to 1. These were stirred, not shaken, and poured into ice-cold three-ounce glasses. ‘A couple of martinis is the first course of any good meal,’ Bruno liked to say, ‘just before the soup.’ Bruno himself, during an evening behind the bar, would down shots of his house bourbon in order to maintain his spirits. He called these quick tipples ‘shotskis’, and might enjoy eight or ten on a typical worknight. When he was in good cheer and had a few shotskis under his belt and was surrounded by regular patrons he would often hold forth. He had a number of routines or riffs. A characteristic one went like this:

Who was that actress, you know, she played in Lifeboat? Her father was the House Speaker from Alabama. She had such a Southern name. No, not Gloria Swanson. Tallulah. That’s it, Tallulah Bankhead. I saw her on Geary Street one night. I just walked by this woman in furs. She was stiff. Boiled as an owl. Boy, is that a Southern name or what! She talked like her mouth was full of marbles.

Then there was the ‘ten ugliest people’ routine. ‘I’m number 3,’ Bruno would say with pride. Topping the list was a professional wrestler from an earlier era, the French Angel. The Angel was afflicted with a glandular condition that renders its victims Neanderthal in appearance. On one occasion the Angel, a highly intelligent and well-educated man whose real name was Maurice Tillet, was asked to pose dressed as a caveman, with axe and loincloth, among a group of reconstructed Neanderthal men in a local natural history museum. He was so convincing that he remained lost among the wax figures until, at a given signal, he plunged forward with an unearthly howl. This would have been an attention grabber. The rest of the list consisted of sports and showbiz personalities and politicians. I can’t tell you their names because Bruno would have preferred me not to. ‘Except for four of us, we’re all nice people,’ Bruno said, ‘just ugly.’

I have heard Haight Street described as the cloaca of San Francisco. It surely has competition but, after nine at night, the description does not seem unfair. The sidewalks are filled with the homeless, the drunk and drug-addicted and the itinerant population attached to the halfway houses that the city bestowed on the Haight years ago. A late stroll down Haight between Stanyan and Central on any given evening will not recommend any homilies about the triumph of the human spirit.

The street long ago lost its coherence as part of a neighbourhood. There is no bank or druggist, no butcher’s shop. It has become a shopping and tourist area made up chiefly of thrift clothing and shoe stores, gift shops and cheap beaneries. Haight Street caters to a young weekend crowd which pours in from the suburbs with their tattoos and piercings and Daddy’s money. During the week, except in summer, it’s a sleepy, unremarkable strip: part hippie theme park, part Desolation Row. If any of these kids wandered into the Zam Zam, Bruno would say: ‘Away with you, urchins. Go back to Novato and play basketball hoops in your driveway.’

Bruno was raised on Haight Street. His father first had a tiny restaurant with five stools called the Pall Mall and then, in 1941, opened the Zam Zam. It was a successful bar, open seven days and nights a week, with two bartenders and barmaids on hand. The Haight has always had a carnival or fairground aspect to it. Golden Gate Park begins at the foot of it, and Haight Street was the point of departure for the Sutro Baths, where ocean water was fed into a Crystal Palace-type enclosure, and assorted entertainments on the city’s western edge. Kezar Stadium, where the SF 49ers played their Sunday football games for many years, is only a few blocks west.

According to Bruno, the street changed in 1966. Bruno always blamed it on the Miranda decision, which required police to inform arrestees of their rights, and Chief Justice Earl Warren, on whose death Bruno closed the bar and went off to celebrate. In the mid to late 1960s the city, and the Haight in particular, became a catch-basin for kids from all over the country who, lured by Time and Newsweek, wanted to be part of the hippie adventure. The crush of new visitors can’t have been a very palatable spectacle to those already in middle age who had been raised on Haight Street with its milliner and dry-goods shop, when everyone knew one another and would stop to chat, discuss the weather or gossip about that Italian boy who plays baseball, DiMaggio, who was still hanging around the bank at closing time, trying to get a date with pretty Mary Ann DiMeeko.

How Bruno managed to survive the 1960s and early 1970s always mystified us. Business suffered, but by then his family had bought the building so he wouldn’t have had rent to worry about, and he would have had some income from the residential flats upstairs, in one of which he lived with his mother. But how on earth did he manage with the hippies and their Jesus hair, tatterdemalion outfits and blissed-out smiles? ‘Oh, those people,’ Bruno would say, pointing to his arm, ‘they didn’t drink; they all used dope.’ It wouldn’t have been as simple as that. The Persian Aub Zam Zam Room would have been a great place to hang on acid, not least with Bruno as master of ceremonies. I suspect he simply threw them out, one after another, for years, as he continued to do with others long after the nature of Haight Street had changed.

Bruno was not a physically imposing presence. He was short and fat, but he could look menacing, especially if you didn’t know him, like a swarthy Assyrian version of Edward G. Robinson, with maybe a gat under the bar, or at least a club or blackjack. He had none of those things, so far as I could tell. Instead, he had developed a science of removal. In retrospect, I don’t think this was so much a result of his curmudgeonly nature, which was genuine and extreme, but rather his way of keeping the bar manageable for himself as sole bartender, and also of maintaining a particular atmosphere. The Zam Zam was a controlled environment and Bruno Mooshei controlled it, imperiously and often arbitrarily. His techniques were various. Here are a few:

This is just an old saloon. The corner bar’s your best bet. They’re new. They have lights. Modern music. It’s the finest bar on the street.

I’m sorry, the tables are closed. There’s no room. Do you understand English. They have been closed since 7.30. C-L-O-S-E-D.

Please, please, don’t try to match wits with me. I try to serve people but they don’t know how to order. One time I had to serve 12 martinis, one at a time. I can’t do it any more. I’m old. I’m senile. It’s not you, it’s me. I can’t do it any more. I’m sorry. You’ll have to go drink somewhere else.

You’ve had too much to drink already. Go look after yourself, get a cup of coffee and a sandwich.

Hey, I don’t want any of that in here. This is a bar. You two go find yourselves a motel room.

If you’re going to sit in the horrible back room take a table for two. Sorry, I don’t serve here; this is for seated customers. I’m sorry. I have to work here. I need the room. Who are these people? Only people from Indiana sit in the horrible back room.

What do you mean how much are the drinks? They’re the same they’ve always been, or at least since I changed the price.

Young people. You have no class. I’m glad I’m on the two-yard line and will be dead soon. I can’t take it any more.

Bruno was a great trencherman. When he wasn’t eating he liked to talk about food. Every Sunday he went to a rotten Italian restaurant out on the avenues and had prime rib. He had prime rib 52 Sundays a year. When he went to Reno it was as much for the huge, inexpensive hotel buffets as the keno. He liked to analyse the people in Reno – that’s what he called it. ‘I’ve spent a lifetime analysing corruption,’ he would say. He called the old ladies up in Reno ‘good morning, dears’. A ‘good morning, dear’, by definition, eats for breakfast ‘melba toast, cottage cheese and pears, with a cherry on top’. Every December Bruno made the same New Year’s resolution: drink more, smoke extra heavy and eat more animal fat. And unlike most, he kept to it.

Bruno was married twice, the first time very briefly right after the war. Of that wife he would only say: ‘Oh, the ogre. She was bad, very bad.’ He married again in his late sixties to a woman 25 years younger called Debbie. She was an alert, direct, full-figured woman, working-class and local, like Bruno. He adored her. Bruno would just about leave his feet when she walked into the bar. She, for reasons that eluded us, seemed to love Bruno. Then one day, only a year or so after they were married, Debbie had a brain aneurysm and dropped dead. Bruno kept the bar open and sighed a lot for a couple of years. ‘Oh, boy,’ he would say to no one in particular. It was difficult to watch. Bruno, over the years, had a ringside seat as all of us passed through our own vicissitudes, amatory and otherwise. None of us would have ever discussed a personal crisis with Bruno or vice versa. It was a very male place, for all the women who wandered through. It was also a conspicuously unarty environment. People associated with the arts did go there, but the only ones who were welcome operated under the same principle as gays in the military: don’t ask, don’t tell. You could discuss movies, if they weren’t foreign or egghead films; and even books, on occasion, if they were about sports, cars or World War Two. Bruno had been a Navy corpsman at Guadalcanal. He learned over time that I was a poet. It was a mild source of embarrassment for us both. Alcohol helped.

Bruno tended bar solo for 35 years or so. With his big attitude, throwing people out all the time, dissing them, I often wondered why some cowboy didn’t just vault over the bar and throttle him. Bruno maintained that he was frightened on only three occasions at the bar:

She was black as her hair and with purple eyes. Ordered Miller and a shot of Dewars with a British accent and I knew it was OK.

Indian from Montana. Hair like a horse’s tail. Tall. 1.40 a.m. No one in the bar. Professor at Stanford. ‘Grandmother didn’t want to, but we had to get rid of Custer.’

Ducktail. Leather jacket. Looked like a robber. Asked for a green Chartreuse.

I spent so much of my life over the past twenty years in that dark little room between the hours of five and six, talking about the ball game, listening to Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra play ‘It’s the Talk of the Town’, that I find it strange, disquieting even, to be about in the world now at that hour, left to my own devices. Of course, away from the confines of the Zam Zam Room, one can observe, among other things, the weather and change of light, not a small thing in this part of San Francisco where the fog moves in across Twin Peaks and breaks up among the hills.

Bruno liked the fog. He said: ‘Shirts feel better. Food tastes better.’ Bruno didn’t care much for the sun or heat. He looked a little like a deep sea creature out of his element when you saw him in the sunshine wearing casual clothes. If Bruno were a plant you’d have to feed him lots of cigarette smoke, liquor and red, fatty meat, if you wanted him to flourish and bloom.

After Carmen Cavallaro and hotel society music, Bruno’s next favourite was Fats Waller. There was lots of Fats on the jukebox. I think Bruno found in Fats a kindred spirit: anarchic, boozy and, well, fat. Bruno knew every song on that jukebox, as you might guess, having pretty much lived in that bar his entire adult life. He didn’t exactly sing along with Fats as much as call out some of Fats’s signature asides, like: ‘Keep it good, momma, ummmmmmm’; ‘Don’t give your right name’; ‘Drag your body over here’; ‘Oh, what a half pint would do.’

One could keep track of the seasons while sitting in the Zam Zam, roughly. There was a transom over the door and a couple of small tinted-glass panels built into the doors. For instance, you could tell it was winter because it was dark outside and cold as hell in the bar. (Bruno didn’t believe in heat.) Also, it would probably be raining out. You knew it was May or October because it was bright outside. But there was a period of only a week or so in high summer when the light came through the transom and puddled on the floor in a particular way. I’ll always remember that. I imagine it must be like that in certain prisons, with only a small patch of sky visible through the bars. A guy serving twenty years to life would come to treasure little details like that.