I was walking up Tenth to Market when I spotted him. Skip. Standing on the corner with his cardboard sign out. Can't quite read it. Something like "Dollar Appreciated." White-bearded, cherry-cheeked guy. He had this spot nailed, because all the Tenth Avenue traffic had to stop at Market on the light.
Me, I'm foraging for food, as usual. I slip Skip a Washington and ask him if he knows where a man can get a bite. We get to talking. I like him. And now I remember a place two blocks west, toward the bay.
"Come on with me," I say. "I've got enough."
So -- he gathers his electric scooter and starts pushing. He has to because his battery's dead, and anyway all his stuff is piled in green bags on the seat, with his purple sleeping mat on top.
Two blocks down, here's this little place with a tan awning and three or four slatted tables and chairs outside, New York--bistro style. The sign says "artisan breads." This is it.
Skip parks his scooter against the front railing and we amble in. It's one of those high-ceilinged, older downtown buildings, but they've stained the concrete floor brown, painted up the walls olive green, hung glass lights from the white ceiling, and, like, it wouldn't be cool without exposed air ducts, right? But the place is real. (Juli, the manager, says that the countertop dates back to the 1880s, when this was the Marston sisters' boarding house. It stayed a hotel till the 1990s.) You can see they bake at the back. And -- this is good -- they have bags of flour piled hip-high along the left wall. Sol Brillante High Gluten Flour. Mello Judith Bakers Flour. In a metal rack, their breads sit labeled with names like Bâtard, which, says Juli, describes the shape. Plus, according to French tradition, it's baked in a basket that has to be woven from German reeds. Huh. Today's is a roasted garlic bread. Then there's foccacia, their "big crumb, signature bread" with rosemary. Oh man.
But we're here for eats, and they're listed on the big board above the flour. Basically we're talking sandwiches. Like the Tuscany, with mozzarella, peppers, olives, onion, tomato, arugula ($7.25), a BLT for the same price, or a melted Brie cheese and tomato on a baguette for $6.25. They also have salads, like the Caesar for $6.00 ($8.00 with grilled chicken), and a half-and-half deal, half sandwich, half soup for $6.50, or a cup of soup on its own for $2.75. A bowl is $4.50.
But Skip's looking at breakfasts. Now we're talking deals. The Country Breakfast is ultra simple, a baguette, butter (or cream cheese) and jam, and a small coffee for $3.00. The Morning Sandwich has two eggs, provolone cheese, and butter on a roll for $2.75. You add 75 cents if you want ham or bacon with it. "I'll have both," Skip says. Fine. What's that, $4.25?
Gotta move, 'cause three smart office gals have come in. Katy, Kate, and -- if you can believe -- Caitlin. "We're always here," says Katy. "Their tomato basil soup is, like, awesome."
"And so is the Tuscany sandwich," says Kate.
"And so is the Californian," says Caitlin.
I look. The Californian's avocado, jack, tomato, and mayo for $7.00.
But I've got it down to that Caesar salad or a cheese plate I've just noticed. "Your choice of Brie, gorgonzola, walnut-crusted goat cheese, cheddar, or jack, served with seasonal fruit, kalamata olives, dried cranberries, and sliced baguette." With two cheeses it costs $5.95, three, $6.50.
D'ah...I go for the two-cheese, with Brie and walnut-crusted goat cheese. And a small coffee ($1.50). Skip gets a Snapple iced tea ($1.75), and then we go back outside. Man. You can see clear across vacant lots to the ballpark.
We yak. It turns out Skip used to be a musician with a band named Night People. They played all over the U.S. and Canada. Skip played lead guitar, piano, trumpet, harmonica, and flute. "Best moment was one night when Carlos Santana was on the bill," Skip says. "He heard me play a pretty extended flute solo. He said, 'That's good. That's really good.' I never forgot that."
Skip says something stupid happened. His girlfriend was mad at him for leaving a birthday party up in the Oregon woods. "We were driving down the mountain, and she got so mad she grabbed the car keys and threw them out the window. That jammed the steering wheel, and we slammed straight into a tree."
The result was a half-paralyzed arm, a broken head, and slurred speech that makes people -- 'specially cops -- think he's drunk.
Chris, the guy who took our orders, brings out the food. We both wolf it down. My cheeses are nice, olives are salty, cranberries are tangy. Don't see no fruit though. Still, it's surprising how it can all fill you up. We kind of kick back and let things settle.
Everybody walking by seems to know Skip. Even Jeff the mailman. "Got any mail for me?" says Skip. Jeff laughs.
"Uh, guys, I appreciate the business, but your scooter is scaring away customers," says Juli.
Skip gets up and moves the whole pile against a lamppost. As he does, and I know this is cliché, but with his rosy face and white beard and big shuffling body, I suddenly think Father Christmas, Santa Claus, and his sleigh bulging with toys. Except Skip's sleigh ain't packed with no toys. Just the things that keep him going between stints with his "Dollar Appreciated" sign at Tenth and Market.
Gotta go. I get up, shake his gnarled hand.
"Have a good one," he says.