The Seamy Saint of North Beach

by the late, great Warren Hinckle (first published in the S.F. Chronicle on November 12, 1977)

NOTE: This article is hung on the wall of my favorite (and in my humble opinion, the best) drinking establishment in San Francisco, Gino & Carlo on Green St. Having had the honor of tending bar (morning shift, 6am, Tuesdays) for some of my favorite people in the World (the Rossi Family), I was saddened to find that this funny, touching, epic tale of boozy camaraderie is nowhere to be found on-line. So I transcribed and here it is, in all it’s glory. God bless Warren Hinckle, and Johnny Pignatelli.

(photo courtesy of SF Chronicle-scanned)

They got to church early, like bandits casing the joint. The fuzzy rose of sin blushed in the veins of their cheeks. Outside, fall leaves blew over the early rising winos hanging in Washington Square Park. The priest began mass and nobody knew what to do. A babushkaed Italian lady who goes to church 365 days a year, turned around and showed them how to kneel. 

It was the biggest gathering of degenerates under one roof since the days when the people who wrote the Bible sat down to describe Sodom and Gomorrah. It took place Tuesday morning in SS. Peter and Paul Church. 

The extraordinary occasion was the High Requiem Mass, sung in Italian, for the late Giovanni Pignatelli, elder statesman and senior drinker of Green Street. If he were to be canonized, and there was talk of that in North Beach Tuesday morning, he would be the patron saint of alcoholics.

For the last 15 years Giovanni Pignatelli had drank a quart of scotch a day, sometimes a quart and a half, 2 quarts on holidays when there was something to celebrate. This is by the sworn estimate of the bartenders who served him the stuff. When he died, at 75 on Halloween night at Ft. Miley Veterans Hospital, he had just about everything wrong with him except for his liver, which was adjudged to be that of a 23-year-old. The doctors had sore necks from shaking their heads in puzzlement.

Once Johnny – as he was called- was hit by a Yellow Cab, an occasion of much pain and great fortune to him. There was a trial by jury to award Johnnie Pignatelli damages for his pain and suffering. The lawyer for the defense asked bartender Frank Rossi how much the victim drank. 

“He has a few drinks in the morning,” Frank said.

In the morning? The lawyer wanted to know how many. “Oh, maybe seven or eight coffee brandys,” Frank said. The lawyer stepped back like Frank had handed him a wet glass to dry. Seven or eight? In the morning? 

“He doesn’t drink much before lunch,” Frank said.

The jury looked at Johnny Pignatelli, who was sitting with a smile on his face looking as healthy and fresh as a clean scrub carrot. The jury almost applauded. 

The people who knelt so awkwardly and unexpectedly at mass Tuesday morning to pray for the repose of his soul were his friends. Most of them had not been in church since they had been baptized, and some of them had never been baptized. They were fishermen, scavengers, longshoremen, lawyers, writers, insurance executives, bartenders and bartendresses, saloon people of every stripe and plume. His wife and his stepson did not show up at Giovanni Pignatelli’s funeral. The people buried him were the people who drank with him.

Johnnie did most of his drinking at Gino and Carlo, on Green Street. Gino and Carlo is a giant egg crate of a bar that resembles a bomb shelter after the bomb has dropped. Those who have reason to know say it is the hardest drinking saloon in San Francisco. People who take the waters there are not so much customers as citizens of a strange land. Johnny Pignatelli was Gino and Carlo’s senior citizen. 

There are some people that did not like Johnny Pignatelli, among them, apparently, his immediate relations. His friends, however, loved him very much. Johnnie loved jest… He was irrascible. He was disputatious. He was flirtatious and unreasonable. He had a joyfully dirty mind. When introduced to young lady I would shake her breast before he shook her hand. When he danced he threw away his cane. 

He loved to play and we hated to lose. Johnnie was shaking for drinks with his best friend, Donato Rossi. Johnnie lost. That was outraged that the dice would do that to him. He congratulated Donato with a clenched fist. “You were borna’ crooked, you gona’ die-ah crooked, you are so crooked you even sleep crooked!” No one could ever slander Johnny Pignatelli by calling him a good loser. 

Bob Kauffman, the poet, a fellow citizen of Gino and Carlo, was asked over a Coke if he thought certain magnificent defects of Johnnie’s character should be corrected. “Why turn a perfectly good frog into a prince?” Kauffman replied. 

When he was in a good mood, which was often, Johnny Pignatelli sang. He sang with the grace of a baby whale and the strut of a tuba player pumping away and a Sunday parade in Ohio. He would leap on the bar, a spry 70-year-old, and leave an imaginary band of drinkers in his favorite song. It is unfair to ask people to guess what that might be. It was “Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder…”

He also sang opera, excellently, which he learned, somehow, when making his living with a net, the way Peter did, working out of the Italian Riviera at Fisherman’s Wharf. He sang at the old Bocce Ball on Broadway, before the Bocce Ball went the way of all North Beach flesh, along the forked path to trendiness or oblivion.

It is no doubt no accident that Johnny Pignatelli, a real man of the old North Beach, left the stage the same month that Little Joe’s, the finest flood counter in America, succumbed to popularity and expanded into a ridiculous Baby Joe’s with tables, next-door, and City Lights continued its downhill plunge into merchandising that began when the management shafted Shig Murao by expanding, also, next-door into a magazine rack satellite. North Beach is becoming the Emporium with beards.

Johnny’s singing made his fortune. In the matter of Pignatelli vs. Yellow Cab, the victim took the stand. He was asked his name. He stood up, eyes as bright as an Everyready ad, his crew cut white hair flat top level and trim, and sang to the jury “My name is Giovanni Pignatelli. I love to be an American. I love to sing. I will sing to you Pagliacci.” That jury of his peers gave him a hundred grand. They were not out as long as it takes a racetrack tote board to add up. When the Scrooges at Yellow said they would appeal, Johnnie settled for a fast 75. He put it in the savings and loan a few doors down from Gino and Carlo and spent all the money buying drinks for his friends. It took him six years to use it up. When Johnny Pignatelli was rich, everybody was rich.

At Frank Rossi’s home on telegraph Hill, the former Kathleen Garafalo was serving dinner one night, Johnny Pignatelli was the guest. The two sets of Rossi twins were seen but not heard the way the nuns tell you to be in Catholic schools. When Mrs. Rossi, who is the former Miss Garafalo, cleaned up the table, Johnnie Pignatelli had left a 20 under each kid’s plates.

For the funeral mass there had been many frantic preparations. First the body had to be extracted from the cliff-hanging grasp of the Veterans Hospital bureaucracy. “What do you mean his friends want to bury him? We can’t just release a body to friends!” The bureaucrats of this government and of this city of ours make dying even more of the pain in the ass than it is.

Then there was a matter of the music. Bobby Short, a friend, suggested a trumpeter should play Johnny Pignatelli’s favorite song, which is not exactly in the handbook of Gregorian Chants. Mrs. Rossi dealt with the church. While kind, the church maintained a confusion bordering on suspicion about the arrangements. “Aren’t there relatives here? Yes. Are they coming? No.” Consanguinity is to Rome as baseball is to America; expected. Meanwhile, Shirley Bossier, a waitress, another of Johnny’s hundred friends, was desperately trying to land a trumpet player. The Musicians Union couldn’t guarantee anything on such notice. They suggested the band barracks at the Presidio. Shirley called the number and asked “Do you have a trumpet player who knows ‘Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder’? and can he do it at 9:30 the next morning at SS. Peter and Paul?”

At 9 that morning, in the rectory of SS. Peter and Paul, Staff Sergeant Henry Buzby Jr. was there, tall, black, in full uniform, trumpet under his arm. He discussed the morning’s unusual musical score with Lola Simi, the organist. SS. Peter and Paul has not had a moment like this since a frustrated contractor who lost a bid hired goons to try to blow the church up back in the twenties or so. All was, finally, settled. The usual amenities were offered, and turned down. Sergeant Buzby said he had never seen a man’s friends doing what  Johnny Pignatelli’s friends were doing for him: he would not play for pay.

The High Requiem Mass ended. The pallbearers began the long march down the aisle with the casket dripping with the morning’s holy water. Wearing the standard white gloves of the Green Street Mortuary, their faces as stone as Mt. Rushmore, were Donato and Frank Rossi, formerly  of Genoa, then of Gino and Carlo, and their partner Aldino Cuneo, also of Genoa, and Dino Petrucci, like Johnnie from Marche, the day bartender at Columbus Café, where Johnny also drank, and Sylvio Conciatore, the dean of North Beach Italian chefs, who had cooked Johnnie a thousand noonday meals in Gino and Carlo’s back kitchen, and show me a bunch, but this Chuckie that people honk at, another citizen of Johnnie’ where Johnny also drank, and Jim Bunch, the disc jockey that people honk at, another citizen of Johnnie’s land.

As the casket moved down the aisle at the speed of an Alaskan snail the trumpet strain in largessimo time, of “Off We Go…” filled the huge church. Grown drunks cried in their sobriety and tears the size of martini onions rolled down the cheeks of Johnny Pignatelli’s friends. “That wasn’t a funeral – it was church insurance,” one mourner later said.

In Colma, at the Italian Cemetery, in the honest light of early winter, his friends said good-by to Johnny Pignatelli. “Are you only a friend, too?” Father Costanza of SS. Peter and Paul, who still had a weather eye out for a relative, asked Joe Barbirri, a retired scavenger. 

In the end all Johnnie Pignatelli had were friends. We should all be so lucky. 

Green Street, looking toward Russian Hill

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