“Longevity!” says Mr. Evans. “That’s the thing. Longevity: I come in here, and it’s familiar, welcoming, comfortable, like home. Like $2 beers on Thirsty Thursday. Still. Price unchanged! And Loni? Don’t get her mad. She’s little, but she knows Taekwondo. You’ll be out on the street before you know what hit you. But you know what? I lost my wallet, she lent me money. Friends got picked up by the Shore Patrol, she bailed them out. She gives money to guys for a pizza. I’ve been coming in since 1980. Color was never a problem here. This is our refuge, our comfort. She is good people.”
Gerald L. Evans, African American, US Army officer, retired, in his eighties, looks at me steady. “I want you to express that, Mr. Manson.”
His retired Navy buddies Jeffrey, Leo, and Calvin back him up.
Like everybody else in this crowded bar, Mr. Evans has come to say goodbye to Loni. Loni Huong-Thu Schock, who has been running this side of the saloon for 36 years.
423 E Street, Downtown San Diego
It’s Saturday afternoon at Star Bar, one of a handful of old-school holdovers in town. You can name them on your hand: Tivoli, Waterfront, Alibi, Chee Chee, Star. People coming in here are a mix of young, middle and old, rich, poor. Together, they look like a WPA painting from the 1930s.
Today’s Loni’s birthday, and also her retirement celebration. You’d never know, from the way she’s running around pouring drinks, cleaning spills, giving change. Except, yes, anytime someone asks, she stops and poses with them for a photo.
One’s Jack Shrivelsack. He’s a bike messenger, like all his buddies around him here. This is their hangout. “First time I came in,” he says, “it was raining real hard. I was just escaping the storm. I sat down at the end of the bar and the water ran off me like a river. It flowed right down the bar floor. Instead of cursing me, Loni got a mop and insisted on swabbing it all up herself. Ever since, I’ve decided, this is my place. I mean, now she buys gifts for our kids’ birthdays. We’re going to miss her very, very dearly. She’s one of the most beautiful girls in the world. Most beautiful. Write that down.”
A lot of people are saying that.
One reason is that the owner, Star Thomson, promised her late dad, Lloyd, she wouldn’t sell out on her customers. She wouldn’t give in to the developers who knock on her door daily. The result is all the people who used to afford her place still can afford her place. It used to be called a bar. Now it’s a dive bar.
“Ladies and gentlemen, a toast!” calls Joseph Anders. He’s standing by a big, square, candle-strewn birthday cake. “To Loni. Happy birthday and happy days!”
And the room busts out into a ragged chorus. Loni stops serving drinks for a moment, doesn’t know what to do, goes back to fussing about. You know it’s going to be hell for this gal who started life selling food on the streets of war-torn Saigon just to sit down and do nothing. Betting — hoping? — is she’ll be back within the month.