‘It Was the Greatest Place on Earth’

The Bird, by Daniel Gies via Flickr.

When Kate and I got married, a rainy December evening in a past century, we ended the day by dropping into a bar that had been part of our courtship: The Albatross. The bartender, Bob Johnson, broke out a bottle of Cook’s to celebrate the occasion.

At one point in my early Berkeley wanderings, when I had a dozen addresses in half a dozen years, I lived about three blocks from the bar. I became a little bit of a regular, playing darts there and joining a softball team the bar sponsored. Later, a group of friends and I persuaded Bob, who along with his brother Val owned the place, to let us in an hour early on Friday nights so we could sit around a table in back and read “Ulysses” aloud. After Molly Bloom had breathed her final “Yes,” the group continued for awhile, going down to the bar to read poetry.

One Friday, the theme was baseball poems. Kate and I had just started going out, and she came with me. I only remember two poems from that night. Our friend Bill Joyce read “Ty Cobb Poem,” by William Packard (“…there is one question that usually never gets to be asked: who was the greatest major league baseball player of all time the first man who was voted into the Hall of Fame whose mother took a shotgun and killed his father during the first week of this player’s major league career?”)

The other poem from that evening that’s stuck in my brain is “Casey at the Bat,” because Kate, my date, performed it from memory. Wow! There may have been no joy in Mudville, but there was at our table. She won the hearts of all within earshot.

There were many other evenings at The Albatross. Kate and I would usually sit at the bar and talk to Bob or Val — I don’t remember them ever working together — and partake of The Bird’s proto-pub-bites gastronomical specialty, “muffies.” I guess they were a sort of pig in a blanket, a sausage of some kind swaddled in dough, precooked and heated to perfection in a secret room just behind the bar. Bob and Val also countenanced outside food, so sometimes we’d bring in plates from Everett and Jones, just down the street on San Pablo Avenue. And there was as much freshly popped popcorn as you wanted, for free.

Then the Johnsons sold the place in the late ’90s. We ran into Val once or twice afterward, but we saw Bob at his next stop, Berkeley Espresso, in a new building that had been put up at the corner of Hearst and Shattuck, fairly often. Kate and I asked about him at the cafe last year, and one of the long-time employees there told us he passed away a few years ago.

Now The Albatross itself is about to be history. The place has been closed since mid-March because of the plague. Its current owners announced earlier this week that they need to be off the premises by Nov. 30 because of “money running thin, no foreseeable re-opening date due to the ongoing pandemic, and new rent demands from our landlord.”

We hadn’t been down there much in recent years. After the Johnsons sold it — a full generation ago, for goodness’ sake — it got spruced up, expanded its hours (it had always opened at 8 p.m.), got a license for hard liquor and drew bigger and bigger crowds. Our infrequent drop-ins weren’t bad experiences, except for the one really awful Irish coffee I was served when Brennan’s was on its last legs and I was looking for alternatives. I think the last time I went in was for a Sunday night pub quiz with my son Thom and a few of his friends several years ago, and it was a blast to see how big and enthusiastic the crowd was (plus, we came in second and won some still-unredeemed drink tokens).

As I said long ago in writing about Brennan’s decline, a bar’s closing is a small loss in the big scheme. But it’s still a loss — of community, of a place that may have put a little bit of an imprint on you. (A friend, King Kaufman, said in remembering The Albatross that “it’s where I saw the only graffito that ever made me laugh out loud. I saw it on the Saturday night of Easter weekend, and it said ‘Easter’s cancelled: They found the body'”).

My own nostalgic feeling reminded me of “Bilbao Song,” a Brecht-Weill number we got to know as kids on a record by Will Holt. Play us out, Will. …

Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao
Was the greatest dancehall in the world I'm sure.
There you could for just a dollar whoop and holler, whoop and holler, whoop and holler,
And do a lot of things I wouldn't call so pure.
All the same, I'm not so sure that if you'd gone there you'd have liked it - 'twas a special kind of place.
Brandy laughter hit you at the door.
Blades of grass grew right up through the floor.
The moon shone green through a roof of glass,
And the music that they played there had such class!

(Chorus)Ah that Bilbao moon, when love was worth your while,
Ah that Bilbao moon, when people lived in style,
Ah that Bilbao moon, where did the time all go?
Ah that Bilbao moon, I guess we'll never know.
I'm not so sure you would have liked it, ah but then,
It was the greatest, it was the greatest,
It was the greatest place on earth.

Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao,
Has re-opened under different management.
Lots of palm trees, lots of ice cream, very flashy, very flashy,
But you know, it's not the same establishment.
Now I'll bet if you walked in you'd feel at home,
That is, if potted palms are just your style.
No grass is growing on that modern dancefloor,
The moon shining through the roof is just a moon,
And the music that they play there is the kind you'd never ask for.
Ah, Joe, play me that old time tune!

3 Replies to “‘It Was the Greatest Place on Earth’”

  1. Lovely as always, and so sad.
    A plague virus, but an equally deadly plague of indifference to our fellow citizens and the value of small businesses. Can’t fully understand how we failed to respond so that the crucial shut-down wouldn’t have these effects. When your house is on fire and there’s a category 5 climate disaster headed your way, your credit is good and money is cheap to borrow–that’s the time you run up some serious debt to save yourself for tomorrow.

    1. Chris, thanks. Yes, I think you diagnose the deeper sickness correctly. We’ve had many businesses around town, including The Albatross, start fundraisers to help staff eke out some kind of existence during the shutdowns. I think most people are willing to dig deep to help, despite the rhetoric we’ve heard from the likes of McConnell about not wanting to pay people for not working. That misses the point entirely. We’re on the edge of a precipice and heroic measures are called for to keep us from tumbling over. I’m reading one of the Caro books on LBJ right now, “Master of the Senate,” and he recounts the Senate’s resistance to passing any sort of meaningful relief bill after the 1929 crash triggered the depression here. When it finally did find its way clear to do something, Hoover vetoed it. Kind of feels like where we are today.

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