In memory of
Richard Simmons In a town where the best bartenders are celebrated like rock stars or baseball players, the death of Richard Simmons, better known among longtime North Beach tipplers as Specs, is an especially heavy blow. While his death wasn't a surprise – he was 88 after all and had been in declining health for some time – it was still another reminder, if we needed one, that times are changing. That's a tough pill to swallow in a neighborhood that prides itself on timelessness. It's also hard losing someone whose generosity and wit will be impossible for the community to replace. Specs died Oct. 12 from osteomyelitis and Parkinson's disease and, as he would be the first to admit, from having lived life on his terms. Those who knew him the longest and loved him the best probably mourn the least because they know better than the rest of us just how much fun Specs had while he was here. Peter Losh, who worked across the street at Discovery Books back in the day and started coming to Specs' 12 Adler Place Museum Café the year after it opened, was with him at the end. He had an easy passage out, Losh said. So there's solace in that. As word of Specs' death got around, the tributes flowed. The bar itself was closed on the 12th but candles and other mementos were left outside in Adler Place. Sam's Grill, one of downtown's stalwart eateries and a Specs favorite, printed its Oct.13 menu in his honor. In talking to some of the people whose lives he touched, it was hard not to be impressed by their genuine warmth and affection, something that obviously flowed both ways. When Jackie Beier, a Specs bartender for fifteen years, was asked what she most liked about her job, she replied simply, "The best thing about working here is you don't feel like you're working when you're here. It's like hanging out in a community." She's right. It is. And Specs himself set the tone for that. A steady cadre of regulars may hold down the fort but as Tony Ryan, one of the most regular regulars, observed: "It's a welcoming bar. Specs was a generous man and as long as you behaved yourself you could come in here and be anything you wanted to." Specs was also a political man, a staunch union man, a man of the left. He didn't wear his politics on his sleeve but he applied his ethics to the running of his bar. Specs is possibly the only independent tavern in San Francisco with unionized bartenders. Then there was his honesty, and sense of fair play. "Specs used to have two bartenders on both shifts, early and late," said Ryan. "He liked working the early shift so he could make the rounds later on in the evening. Whoever worked the shift with him pocketed all the tips because, as Specs said, 'I make my money from the bar.' That's just the way he was." Making the rounds was something of a Specs tradition. Leaving his own place, Specs routinely hit a number of other joints around North Beach before circling back for a nightcap. His daughter, Elly Simmons, wants to honor him with a memorial gin crawl, possibly on election night. The timing seems sound: It's a good bet that people will want a few drinks, no matter how things turn out. Several people mentioned Specs' interplay with customers as a major lure for hanging out. Some ended up enjoying close friendships with him as a result. Jessica Loos, who pitched in as one of Specs' caregivers as his health declined, was one. Loos was the central figure in one of the more popular tales, one that revealed Specs' famous sense of humor. "I fainted one night and hit my head," she recalled (or recalled being told). An ambulance arrived and as she lay strapped to the gurney, awaiting transport, Specs walked up. Looking down at her (and probably realizing he wasn't going to be sued), he cracked, "Ahh… another satisfied customer." Specs was a man with appetites, an omnivore. He loved the sea, he loved iconoclasts, and he loved the underdog. He loved jazz, a passion he shared with old friend Joan Wood, who he met half a century ago when both worked at Vesuvio. And like any man about town he loved good food and drink. Most of all, though, he had an eye for the nicely turned ankle, and you dangled your lady love before him at your own risk. You might be decades younger and cut from marble but he was smarter than you, wittier than you, and craftier than you. In the end, maybe your girl left the bar on your arm but it's even money that she at least thought about sticking around with the old guy. "He loved women," said Ryan. "But he was always a gentleman." He especially loved one woman. Sonia Marantz, like Specs an East Coast transplant of Jewish extraction, was the one he chose to build a life with. They met at Vesuvio, married, and the life they built centered on family, left-wing politics and bohemian culture, dovetailing nicely with the ethos of mid-century, freewheeling San Francisco. As his daughter Elly puts it on her promotional website for an upcoming documentary of her father's life ("Last Call: The Specs Film"): "Working class life, infused with lots of partying, was rich and fun. It was cheap to live in the city at that time, music and art abounded, and the booze flowed. This was a time of great creative and social change, rich in quality of life and social transformation, and Specs was at the center of that culture." Sonia died in 2002 at the age of 74 and Specs mourned her to the end. (Her portrait, showing a woman with strong, attractive features under the bobbed haircut she wore all of her life, hangs in tribute near the back of the bar.) Women, from his granddaughter Maralisa to the covey of frails who grace his tavern on any given night, played a central role in Specs' life. He wouldn't have had it any other way. Specs opened his namesake bar, known formally as Specs' 12 Adler Museum Café, in 1968 and for nearly half a century now it has stood alongside Vesuvio's and Gino & Carlo as a quintessential North Beach watering hole, a fact that only gains in significance as the years roll on. Other places may invent themselves as piratical hideouts or speakeasies or British subway stations, but it's a safe bet that Specs is the only bar in the seven-by-seven that has a genuine walrus penis mounted on the wall. The eclectic nature of the décor (which qualifies it as a genuine museum) is a reflection of the eclectic nature of the man. Now the man is gone and it's left to his friends, his regulars, and his bartenders to see to it that his legacy endures. Richard (Specs) Simmons was predeceased by his wife Sonia, his daughter Mara, and is survived by his sister, Arline Coles, his daughter Elly Simmons, his granddaughter Maralisa Simmons-Cook, niece Pamela Coles and nephew Daniel Coles and numerous cousins. Special thanks to the folks who really showed up for him in his final year, Jessica Loos, Peter Losh, Gail Gilman, daughter Elly Simmons, Marilyn Saner and bartenders Jackie Speier, Lucy Lee, Laura Bellizzi, Michael Grim and Tony Liosce and entire North Beach family. His legacy will continue thru his beloved pub and the myriad stories and adventures shared by hundreds.
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