November 6, 2015

The Breakfast Club

Scrawled across the chest of every server at Sweet Maple is a tribute to its signature item. “I [heart] Millionaire’s Bacon,” the T-shirts tout. Indeed, the sales tactic works—as plates of the thick, brown sugar-tinged slabs adorn pretty much every one of the twenty-five tables in the place. But not Billy’s and Bob’s.

Pork?” scoffs Billy Cohen, when I ask if it’s the bacon that brings him and his friend Bob Bransten here every Saturday morning. Definitely not, they say.

At eighty years old, they don’t touch the stuffOh, sure, maybe thirty years ago—when the they were college buddies who became Pacific Heights neighbors and began what’s become a weekly breakfast tradition. Sweet Maple wasn’t always their spot. Neither can recall the name of the first San Francisco diner they went to together, just that they’ve outlived it. “Remember that other place on Fulton, where we could never find parking?” probes Bob, like one half of a long-married couple. “What was it called?”

Another of their spots was Eats, a classic on Clement Street. “But frankly, by the time we got there, it was already packed with families,” says Billy. “I don’t do lines anymore. I gave up that up in the army.”

The Internet is filled with raves about Sweet Maple (“OMG, the millionaire bacon. Let’s talk about that first!” Yelps Karen S. of Sacramento. “As I took the first bite, my eyes rolled back like I was having an orgasm.”), but for Billy and Bob, the food here is just “fine.” Ultimately, they chose it as their go-to place simply because of its size. It’s one of the largest breakfast spots in the city. Plus, they quickly figured out that if they showed up by eight a.m., they’d “beat the mobs.” After four years, the staff knows their names, their window table, and their order. “Granola and fruit, no yogurt, low-fat milk for Billy; one egg white scrambled with tomatoes and mushrooms, no toast, no potatoes, and a glass of orange juice [with a straw] for Bob,” says the smiley server as she presents their plates and refills their coffee mugs. Billy pours in three packets of Splenda and passes Bob the ketchup, which he squeezes beside his egg white. For Billy and Bob, it’s not about the cuisine, but the company.

Bob came from a big West Coast coffee family—MJB it was called; founded in 1881, it rivaled Folgers and Hills Bros. back in the day. He worked in mass-produced coffee for decades, but admits he likes Blue Bottle now. Still, he doesn’t seem to mind the generic Italian roast at Sweet Maple; he accepts a third, then a fourth, then a fifth topper.

Back in New York, Billy took his Harvard MBA to Broadway, where he was a producer. He still is, in that semi-retired, successful way. He co-produced the current hit Beautiful, about Carole King. “I’ve spent my life theoretically working in a creative industry,” says Billy, “but none of it has rolled off on me as far as my culinary habits.”

Bob agrees. “Let me suggest that Billy also likes to go to the same place at night,” he teases. That place is Izzy’s Steak & Chop House, a Marina mainstay since 1987. They go about once a monthwith their wives, which means they sometimes end up eating breakfast and dinner together in the same day. “He likes the potatoes and the creamed spinach there,” explains Bob.

After thirty years sitting across from each other, there’s still plenty to talk about: They gossip about their kids (Billy’s son, who’s thirty-two, “is about to cohabit with a young woman,” beams Billy); rib each other about their prestigious business schools (“You know what they call Harvard,” says Bob. “Preparation H.”); and roar with laughter about their lucky, lackluster military experience. “My friend here, was a member of the distinguished 353rd and Leaflet Battalion!” Billy guffaws over his granola. Apparently, Bob’s role was to drop leaflets for civilians when the occasion called, but turns out his battalion never even had to do that. “They called us ‘Legs,’” says Bob, “A deprecatory term that means guys who walked as opposed to guys who jump out of airplanes.” “You know, on Veterans Day, when you’re at the 49ers game and they ask those who served to stand, I’m always a little hesitant,” says Bob. “I don’t think we’re really the ones they mean to honor.”

The real draw of Sweet Maple every Saturday, say Billy and Bob, is the desire to get out of the house, to talk, and to try to make sense of the sort of life-stuff that happens. “Let me be clear, Billy is my psychiatrist,” says Bob, only half-joking. “My wife, forget it. He’s heard all of my trials and tribulations. It’s painful, but it’s cheaper than therapy.”

Billy puts the point of their weekly breakfast date a little more bluntly: “It keeps us alive,” he says.

With collared button-downs beneath their wool sweaters, gray hairs on their balding heads, and cute comments about grandkids (Bob has six; Billy’s “still waiting”), this two-top sticks out at Sweet Maple. In fact, they stick out in San Francisco, where signs of life over sixty are becoming more and more rare. But sit and talk with these guys for an hour on a Saturday morning, and their wrinkles and their years seem to fade away. Suddenly, it’s easy to see Billy and Bob as they still see themselves.

“Sure, we have more physical concerns now,” says Billy. “But we also wake up every morning and know it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.” He peers around the restaurant, at the fitted plaid shirts, the soft hands sparkling with newly donned engagement rings, the new fathers cutting their toddler’s pancakes, and the hung-over crews devouring deep-fried French toast and sucking down Sweet Maple’s bottomless soju Bloody Marys. “We think, Gee, that guy over there certainly looks old, when he’s probably ten years younger!” (Or fifty years younger.)

Oh, kids today. They text and bail and reschedule and hover for hours, holding out for the perfect poached eggs at the most popular spot—but Billy and Bob know better. They know what matters isn’t so much where you go—bacon be damned—but that you show up. “We just call each other and say, ‘Eight a.m. and hang up,” says Billy.

The bill arrives, which they split, and scramble together a 20-plus percent tip. “I don’t like owing this guy anything,” teases Bob. It’s getting close to ten a.m. A few more swigs of coffee and the old friends shuffle out. In their loafers and pressed-yet-sagging khakis, they cut through the throngs waiting for a table, San Francisco’s hipster youth parting like the Red Sea. “What’s going on the rest of the day?” asks Bob. Not much, replies Billy. “I think I’ll go home and take a nap.”

How Was Your Day … Last Coast Miwok on Tomales Bay?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Merrel Rocca
Marshall, California

I’ve been in my Winnebago all morning watching Buffy (Season 6). My daughter bought me the entire VHS set for my birthday and I’ve been burning through it. Not much else to do. I roll my own cigarettes, I fill them with pipe tobacco. I’m a smoker. I’ll smoke anything. I don’t have a phone. No email. People knock on my door or leave a note if they want to find me. I’ve lived here on Tomales Bay for 61 years. I don’t like to mention it to everybody, but I have.

Usually sitting here outside in this La-Z-Boy I got from my neighbor. He said he slept in this more than his bed and I believe him. God, is it nice. This spot is protected from the wind. So I sit here, smoke, and look at the water. Watch the tourists speeding to the oyster farms. I’ve got my own oysters, growing on the dock across the road. When the wind blows, a lot of the times one of the Hog Island sacks will break away and they’re floating, and I just pick them up. Free oysters.

A while back, I worked at the Bohemian Grove up in Monte Rio, splitting wood and driving around members. Like Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood, and a retired Supreme Court judge who gave me $400 for picking him up. Now I drive old people around, a few locals from here. I drive my neighbor, he’s about 100 years old. I take him over the hill, to Trader Joe’s, doctors’ appointments. Last time I drove him all the way to Novato for an ear test. Five hours and he only paid me 20 bucks.

My son and his wife live in this house 5 feet away. I’ve got my trailers. My grandfather came from Italy all the way to Ellis Island and then here, to Tomales Bay. There were a lot of Italians here. He was a rum-runner during Prohibition. My grandmother grew up in this A-frame across the road, it was built in 1864. I didn’t even know my grandmother was half Indian, Coast Miwok. She never mentioned it until she was on her deathbed.

Then she filled out all the papers, so now we’re connected with the new casino they built in Rohnert Park. We got two free days there before it opened up. Me and my friend were invited to the opening party. We got to eat all the food that was in there. They brought it to us, we didn’t have to move. God, they brought these pot stickers … the Indians throw fun parties.

I don’t know much about the Coast Miwoks. They ate the little oysters, the Olympians. After they finished shooting us and doing all the crap to us, there were only about 15 of us left, as far as I know. They say there were more Indians here years and years ago than there are white people now, which must have been a lot. They said they owned more land than anybody too, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and way up north. Now we don’t own crap. Now we’ve got a casino.

I asked them, “How much do you think my share will be after we pay back the government?” About $10,000 or $12,000 a month. Jeez, after I got up off the floor, I said, “You’re going to put me in a higher tax bracket.” I just want to collect one share and go to New Zealand. And if I die after that, I’ll be happy. Did you see Lord of the Rings? All that land was New Zealand. It’s beautiful … but I’d go just for Hobbiton.

They asked me if I wanted to move; they are going to build us a rancheria and they asked me if I wanted to live on it. I don’t know why they call it a rancheria — it’s a reservation. They asked me if I wanted a house. Why would I want to live there when I can live here?

I’ve been looking at this bay for years and years and years. Sometimes I take it for granted, but usually when I’m gone and I come back, it’s like, wow, like new again. That’s a good view. And one of these days, they’re going to charge me for it. Don’t laugh. They do that.

As told to Rachel Levin

How Was Your Day … Quadriplegic Dad?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Les Peer 
Stowe, Vermont

Well, I stay in bed more often than not lately. Getting up doesn’t happen very quickly. I’m on a ventilator. I need round-the-clock care. Sometimes I’ll sit at my computer or go into town for lunch with my wife, Marion, but I can’t eat much anymore. I used to love a good steak, foie gras, homemade popcorn.Now I drink Ensure.

I also used to be a skier. It’s been 33 years since my accident. I wasn’t supposed to live this long. At 69, I’m supposedly the longest surviving quadriplegic, but I don’t know for sure. I moved to Vermont back in 1965 to ski — and to go to college. Goddard was one of those avant-garde schools, you know, where anything goes: coed dorms, plenty of dope, your own self-designed curriculum and class schedule. You took what you wanted, when you wanted, and I arranged it so I had plenty of time to ski.

I worked as a bellhop at the Lodge at Stowe and got free lift tickets. I skied pretty much every day. I loved the snow, but I liked adventure better than school. A year later, I went to Iceland and worked on a fishing boat … then I went off to London and worked as a waiter at the Playboy Club. I actually tried to get into England’s Royal Academy for acting, but when that didn’t work I went back to being a busboy and a ski bum in Vermont, in the Mad River Valley.

I was footloose. I became a ski instructor and a bartender; I was a pretty popular one, I’ll admit. It was Sugarbush, in the ’70s, and everyone dated everyone. In the winter of ’71, I met a beautiful woman named Barbara; we dated for three, maybe four months. She was a ski instructor, too. It was a fling; and at the end of the ski season, she just disappeared.

After eight years as a ski instructor, I took a job as a sales rep, pedaling skis for Elan. I was pretty good at it so they sent me everywhere: the Midwest, NYC, the Lake Placid Olympics, Colorado. One day, in Aspen, in 1982, I was out skiing with a couple of friends — and, all of a sudden, I just fell. When I woke up I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel anything. I was numb. And I just knew.

I was paralyzed from the neck down. I was 36 and single and I would never ski again.

Marion and I had dated for a bit back in Vermont, in 1981. When she heard about the accident, she came out to Colorado to visit me. She came a few times over the years, and eventually we started dating again. She had two young boys at the time. I had my condition. And I proposed. We got married in 1992 and moved back to Vermont, to Stowe. I ended up adopting her children later. I remember the judge asked, “Do you have any other children, Les?” I’d laughed. C’mon, I couldn’t have kids.

Then in the fall of 2008, the phone rang. Marion answered and hooked me up to the line, and the woman at the other end asked if I knew someone by the name of Barbara. I said, yes, I used to. The woman said she was calling from an agency in New York, that they’d hired a private detective to find me. She said there was a child. A child that could be mine.

It was mind-boggling. We did all the tests and blood work, but when I saw the picture, I knew.

A month later, this smart, beautiful, 36-year-old woman from San Francisco named Katrina walked in our door. She was a gift from heaven. Truly. A skier, too, raised in Manhattan. And she looked just like me. Her first words, she joked, were: “Can I borrow the car?”

I’d remembered I’d seen Barbara, once, in the ski line, a few years after we’d broken up. We just nodded at each other through the crowd. I don’t know why she never told me. I wish she had.

Katrina moved to Vermont a few years ago. To get to know me, she said, which made me feel like a billion dollars. She lives down the road now. Still, I am very sorry I missed something so huge in my life. And in hers. I would’ve given my right arm to watch her grow up. I would’ve given both arms, actually. They’re dead weight at this point.

As told to Rachel Levin

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