Vintage Jim McDermott: The Bar That Hobday Built
Norman's Not There Anymore

It's fitting that I met Norm Hobday on the tail end of a 2000 mile motorcycle tour. When I chanced upon his bar in the summer of 2010, the clothes on my back had two weeks of sweat soaked into them. Wind was still roaring in my ears, even though I had been off the bike for hours. I needed a drink and was feeling as conversational as a jackal.

It can take a while to find a good bar in San Francisco. Too many of them serve fifteen dollars cocktails that taste like something the Easter Bunny concocted. Sometimes the guy behind the bar looks like the Easter Bunny.

Hodbay's place was different. There was a sign outside that read "40 Cycles Of Yesteryear". The bar was called Eddie Rickenbacker's.

Inside, dozens of priceless vintage motorcycles, all original and unrestored, hung from the ceiling: Clark Gable's Indian, a purported John Dillinger bike, an Ariel, old Harleys including some racing machines, a Motosacoch ... treasures. A case held a pristine assortment of Lionel tin trains, looking new as they did on a 1940's Christmas morning. There were pistols from the Dalton Gang, epaulets from General George Custer. The place was clean and well lit by vintage Tiffany lamps. For a moment, I knew how Howard Carter must have felt when he cracked Tutankhamun's tomb. It was a most unlikely setting for shifting beer and burgers. A comely barmaid, flannel shirt fanned open just enough to challenge the will of thrifty tippers, took my drink order. The wall behind the bar was covered with tin signs and old photographs. Meanwhile, a corpulent three-legged cat ambled up on the bar top and sized me up through sleepy eyes. "That's Mr. Higgins," the barmaid said. "He's got cancer."

A comely barmaid, flannel shirt fanned open just enough to challenge the will of thrifty tippers, took my drink order. The wall behind the bar was covered with tin signs and old photographs. Meanwhile, a corpulent three-legged cat ambled up on the bar top and sized me up through sleepy eyes.

After granting me his sniff of approval, Mr. Higgins made his way towards a man reclining Jabba-esque on a couch near the front door, who I had missed on the way in. His eyes were glued to a cheap television and oxygen tubes ran to his nose. The man was in quite a state, looking like he'd had an arm wrestle with Excess and lost. Not wanting to stare, I sipped my drink and looked at the photographs behind the bar. In one, a tough looking bastard wearing a military cap glared at the lens, hands on his hips.

"That's me," said the prone man. "This is my place. I used to carry 70 cases of booze up two flights of stairs every day, until a friend of mine told me I was rich enough to have my help do it, so I stopped. Within a year I had gained 40 pounds and it was all downhill from there." Compared to the photograph, the de-evolution of the man was shocking. He noticed my helmet and asked if I was on a bike, so I told him a bit about the ride from Vegas. The talk about motorcycles and traveling must have sparked something in him, and he called out to the barmaid "Memsahib, come over here and sit me up." (Memsahib is an Arabic & Hindi term which means "a person whom one knows, likes and trusts".)

The young Memshaib propped Hobday up, and as she did, he half heartedly pawed at her breasts, and she deflected his gropings with a tired ease that made it clear she'd done it hundreds of times before. "Now Norman, you behave yourself," she scolded him. "I was just trying to do a little grocery shopping," Hobday chuckled, then coughed like a consumptive character in a Charles Dickens novel.

I asked Norman about himself. He had a lot of stories. He'd been running successful SF gin mills for over 30 years. He was known by those closest to him as Norman Hobday, but most people called him Henry Africa, the name of his most successful bar. He was a sailor, he was a Korean War veteran, he was a former French Foreign Legionnaire. He was an entrepreneur who reinvented the bar scene in San Francisco by making them more respectable and comfortable for women to frequent. He was infamous and rubbed some people the wrong way. Even in his diminished state, it was obvious he was a man who knew how to trade charm for forgiveness. Hobday was a character.

He assembled his stunning collection of old motorcycles like the proverbial drunken sailor. "I had a Sopwith Camel in my bar, and I got tired of it, so I sold it to a guy and had to deliver it on the other side of the country," he said. "I liked bikes, and he had a copy of Walneck's Cycle Trader magazine, and I asked him for it. So I had a pocket full of cash, an empty truck, and a long drive home. I flipped thru those pages and saw a bike I liked, called the seller, bought it and put it in the truck. I did that all the way home until the truck was full and I was out of money. When I got back I hung them all in the bar. I just liked the way they looked."

I neared the bottom of my drink, Hobday noticed and summoned the Memsahib to pour me another one, on the house. He said he'd joined the French Foreign Legion in the 1950's, became a paratrooper. "Dumbest f**king thing I ever did. There was nothing glamourous about the Legion. We parachuted into Dien Bien Phu, and when I hit the ground I sh*t my pants and broke my ankle at the same time. When we "capitulated" - because the Legion doesn't surrender—the Viet Minh let me and the other Americans go, thinking it would be a sign of goodwill and diplomacy towards America. That didn't work out too well for them." he grinned.

I noticed the lack of bars on the windows, and asked Hobday if he was concerned that someone might break in one night and make off with his life's treasures. "Well, I sleep here," he said. "One night a few years ago, someone had just that bright idea, and climbed through the front window in the middle of the night. I shot him with my .38. It took him a long time to die." Hobday was very matter of fact when recounting the incident. "Cost me about a hundred grand in lawyers fees to stay out of jail. The city government always had it out for me and I barely escaped that one."

He spun tales for an hour. Eventually, the conversation ran out of steam. Once a member of the world's elite fighting men, Norman was now on dialysis, and didn't have a lot of time left. But Hobday was more worried about the health of Mr. Higgins, a cat he had rescued from Hurricane Katrina, on one of his adventures. Cruising patrons for table scraps, the cat became a fixture at Eddie Rickenbacker's. It stayed close to Norman now, in the corner watching TV. The the rest of us drank and ate hamburgers, treasures hanging over our heads. Everything in Eddie Rickenbacker's—the bikes, the lamps, the rifles, all the photographs and posters, all of it—were imbued with Hobday's spirit. They were relics from a time when guys like Mark Zuckerberg couldn't get laid in a Moroccan brothel with 2 month's sea pay in his pocket. They were just mechanical, obsolete things; but with Norman close by, they became more. They were glowing stars in his constellation of memory.

I finished my drink, and gave my regards to Hobday. I didn't return to Eddie Rickenbacker's until summer 2011, at the end of another motorcycle trip, this time 4,200 miles across America. Eddie Rickenbacker's seemed the ideal venue to celebrate the completion of the journey. Hobday and Mr. Higgins had passed away since my last visit, and I was a bit worried that the place would be a lot different. It wasn't. The barmaids were still lovely and inviting, the drinks strong and reasonably priced. Norman's treasures still hung from the ceilings, still filled the glass cases on the walls. The big photograph of Norman Hobday was behind the bar, looking chiseled and tough as a drill Sergeant. Glasses were clinking, people were laughing, and a wooden table occupied the space where Norman and Mr. Higgins spent the last few months of their lives.

Eddie Rickenbacker's looked the same, but it felt different. The treasures, undiminished in monetary value, seemed to have lost a bit of their luster. That glow, that dreamy amber one sees when looking through a tumbler of old Scotch at a crackling fireplace, no longer surrounded them. I guess that was to be expected.

Norman's not there anymore.

Jim McDermott has written for for over a decade. When not alternately telling stories which will sear to your brain like branding on a calf, or complaining about Dean's driving, he runs The Lost Adventure.
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