The 540 Club, in an old bank building at 540 Clement Street in San Francisco, is the only bar in town to call an elephant its mascot. A 300-pound stuffed pachyderm blobs on a ledge above the front door, a cast-off inherited after the San Francisco zoo shuttered its elephant exhibit. The bar’s logo, a pink elephant found on its tables, its business cards and the forearm of its soda jerk, is described by the staff as “the universal symbol of alcoholism and sloth etc,” and not as any sort of inducement to Republicans. In fact, the threat, in liberal San Francisco, of being labeled a GOP sympathizer never really occurred to the owner of the bar, Jamie Brown—until this week, that is, when he found himself debating whether to supplement the elephant with a stuffed donkey. The bar was set to hold a fundraiser for none other than the Great Spoiler, Ralph Nader. “What the hell?” Brown said Sunday morning, apropos of nothing, as he dragged on a Camel and waited for Nader’s entourage to arrive. “Just in general, what the hell?”
Brown had sent two emails announcing the event. One said Nader would be coming. The other said this wasn’t a joke. The local media had called to ask if the fundraiser was a ploy to sell drinks. Patrons hadn’t known what to think. A few days after the email went out, during the bar’s “Uptown 20s Jazz and Big Band” night, one drinker had supposed Nader would read from Don Quixote; another wondered of the man: “What did he do? Was it a car dealership?”
“I still think people think it’s a joke,” Brown said that morning before the Pabst Blue Ribbon clock struck noon. Nader was running late. A small crowd at the bar nursed pint-sized bloody marys. Brown, who sported several days stubble and a severe bed head, excused himself for a moment. “I need a shot, sunglasses, and a pack of cigarettes,” he said.
At the back of the bar, attorney John Hoar was wearing a “Modern Drunkard Magazine” sweatshirt and sipping a shot of Fernet Branca, the herbal hangover remedy. He’d come to defend the Corvair: “It was a small, lightweight, early ’60s, fuel-efficient car,” he said, “and Ralph killed it.” Several minutes later a woman shuffled into the bar pushing a walker. “That isn’t Ralph is it?” Hoar looked up from his drink.
It was Jeanne Lynch, a senior citizen activist. She ordered a stein of warm brandy and sat down near the middle of the room on her walker, which doubled as a chair. She wore a purple jump suit, purple glitter sunglasses shaped like hearts, and a purple beret. “Power, loyalty, and royalty: It’s my signature color,” she said.
Another regular at the bar, Jenny Pfister, had come on behalf of the German zine Der Penis to photograph punk rocker Jello Biafra, who was supposedly accompanying Nader. Her roomate had slept in—”I’m not feeling political yet,” he’d said—and she’d arrived late, alone, and without a camera, but with a copy of Der Penis in hand. She’d recently come from the zine’s anniversary party in Bavaria, where she’d earned kudos for dressing as a penis.
Despite everyone’s respect for Nader’s accomplishments and irreverent style, nobody that morning said they’d vote for the man. When someone suggested the event be dubbed Naderpalooza, the bar’s Iron Man bouncer suggested instead: “Nader’s A Loser.” Still, he planned to defend the Great Spoiler from any belligerent Democrats. “I’m gonna put it on my resume,” he said.
Sometime after noon, Nader’s scout arrived in a sticker-smeared Prius. A few minutes later Nader stepped out of a Ford Escape SUV and waded to the back of the bar. The Grateful Dead cut out and Nader paused, letting his eyes adjust to the speakeasy darkness. “Suddenly everything’s quiet,” he said. “Where’s the mariachi band?”
“In the early 60s we had these small, lightweight, fuel-efficient cars,” began Hoar, the Modern Drunkard, who found his stool conveniently situated next to where Nader had paused. “And later we had these huge land yachts. I consider that your fault.”
“Actually, the mileage wasn’t that hot,” Nader said.
Having no immediate retort for this, Hoar changed the subject to turbocharged convertible Corvair Spyders. “Very deadly and very expensive and crappy,” Nader offered.
After an introduction by his running mate, former San Francisco mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez, Nader warmed up the crowd with an anecdote about how it used to be you could walk into a bar and ask, “who runs this city?” But, he added, “I don’t know if we know the answer to that today. We knew who our rulers were years ago—John D. Rockefeller, JP Morgan. Now we have these faceless, giant corporations, and look how they’ve repaid the American people.”
Forthwith began a drubbing of the oil companies, the auto companies, the drug companies, the big banks, the copper companies, the big HMOs, George Bush and Dick Cheney (“who are marinated in oil”), the genetic engineers and, in particular, the credit card companies. They change the terms, charge penalties, and raise the rates in the middle, Nader said, “but they never say you’ve got to write us a check. They just debit you. And so it goes doesn’t it? So it goes.”
Before ducking out, Nader handed the mike to fundraiser Gregory Kafoury, who informed the crowd that Nader would take $100 donations on plastic. “Put it on a credit card–it’s not like you really have to pay for it,” he said. “Do it over time. $10 bucks a month for 10 months.”
The purple grandma volunteered $100. As did a bartender who’d been laid off her job managing a call center. Someone in the back volunteered $5.
On the sidewalk outside, Kafoury was accosted by a bar patron for denouncing credit card companies while relying on them. “OK,” Kafoury admitted after five minutes of heated polemics, “you think it’s ironic.”
Back inside, Brown, the owner, and his bouncer were trading thoughts over shots. “It’s the stop, drop and roll of political commentary,” the bouncer said. “You hear that and you just want to roll under your desk and wait for the nuclear weapon to detonate over you.”
“You know what, that was one of the coolest things that’s ever going to happen in my life,” Brown replied.
“I’m sorry,” the bouncer said. “I did twins once.”
They clinked glasses and downed shots of vodka. “Yeah, you’re right,” Brown said. “That was cooler.”