In the glory days of the M&M Tavern -- and there's a phrase you can
ship right to the Oxymoron Hall of Fame -- the place wasn't perfect.
The food was terrible, the language crude, the neighborhood
shabby, the cigar smoke heavy, gambling was rampant, the clientele
was hardly the cream of San Francisco society, and the bartenders and
the cockroaches copped attitudes.
The M&M had its bad points, too, but why dwell on those? This
is a requiem for the joint, a moment to rehash the good times and the
The M&M shut down last week after 66 years of more or less
continuous business. It will reopen soon as a trendy Irish pub that
can more properly serve the now hip and tidy SoMa district.
This saddens many old-timers. It's like seeing the Taj Mahal
converted to a Wal-Mart, and may Vishnu forgive me for comparing the
Taj Mahal to the M&M.
The city in general, and newspaper culture in particular, are
unrecognizable to anyone who has missed the last 50 years, and the
M&M is symbolic of all that change.
Most of the old regulars aren't making a big fuss about the
closing, because most of the old regulars are dead. But there are
still enough newspaper folks around who remember with fondness what
might be the last great newspaper bar west of Chicago.
The Examiner and Chronicle, which like the M&M will both soon
cease to exist as they once were, are both just a few lurches up the
street. The Call-Bulletin used to be nearby. Pressmen, truck drivers,
reporters and editors all considered the M&M their headquarters.
For a time, the Examiner had a hotline phone from its newsroom
to the M&M. Credit was extended, and a newspaper guy could always
borrow $20 until Monday from the bartender. On occasion, the bar
wired money to reporters on out-of-town newspaper assignments.
At closing time every night, owner Al McVeigh would get a rush
of newspaper workers dashing in to pick up a half pint to carry them
through the rest of their shift.
In the old days, roughly the '30s through the '60s, newspapers were
produced with 50 percent ink and 50 percent alcohol.
``I started at the Examiner in '63,'' says Lynn Ludlow, who
still works there, ``and reporters then were amazing drinkers. They'd
go to the M&M for three huge martinis at lunch, and skip the food,
and go back and write beautiful, complex stories on deadline.''
Years ago the printing presses were relocated to what is now
Cesar Chavez Street., and it was the M&M's loss. Before that, the M&M
was a newspaper melting pot. You had the grimy, sloppy, ink-stained
newspaper workers, and you also had the pressmen and truck drivers.
``What a group of people!'' sighs Carole Vernier, best known
for her years as Herb Caen's versatile assistant. ``Printers,
drivers, plant guys, messengers, reporters, editors, bookies -- a
real Damon Runyon place.''
The various segments of newspaper society sipped side-by-side.
One old pressman named McCarthy was contemptuous of reporters. ``You
and your bloody educations,'' he would rail. Perhaps out of kindness,
those who knew McCarthy's secret never revealed to others that he had
a degree from Columbia in romance literature.
The M&M was opened in '34, just after Prohibition's repeal, by
Martin McVeigh and Mike Malloy. Then, the bar was located a block to
the north, a spot that is now the lobby of the Examiner building.
McVeigh died but his wife kept her half interest, and when their son
Al came out of the Navy after the war, he bought the whole shebang.
In '57, the Chronicle, which held the lease on the building,
booted Al McVeigh onto the street with no notice. Two years later, Al
bought the building that now houses the M&M.
Trouble is, Al couldn't afford to equip the new place. Legend
(his) has it that McVeigh went to St. Patrick's and said a prayer,
then walked out of the church and saw a newspaper ad. McCarthy's bar
was selling its furniture and fixtures for $1,700. Al's M&M was back
in business, new location and a horseshoe bar.
The M&M opened at 6 in the morning and closed at 2 a.m., and
it was always busy, and there wasn't much time to clean up, so the
place never displayed the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
The 90-proof Fleishman's Whiskey was 35 cents a glass (three
for a buck), and beer was a quarter a bottle. There was a cop who
came in every day, placed a quarter on the bar, drank a beer,
pocketed the quarter and left. ``I'll bet that quarter was worn out
when he died,'' McVeigh once said.
``The M&M back then was rowdy, dirty and smelly,'' says Tasso
Manitsas, who bought the bar in '89, got rid of the horseshoe bar and
cleaned the place up. ``I don't remember the last time I've seen
anyone play dice at the bar, but back then, if there were 35 people
at the bar, 30 were playing dice and swearing. It was a warm place to
A small group of cheerful women who worked in classifieds used to
sing at the bar. They called themselves the Android Sisters.
The food was not good. Vernier once complimented bartender Len Wiggin
on the beef barley soup and he said, ``I'll pass the compliment to
Mr. Campbell when he comes in.''
Howard Street was the city's main skid row. A panhandler staggered
into the bar through the Fifth Street door one day, seeking
donations. Wiggin came out from behind the bar and pushed the man
back out onto the sidewalk.
Ten minutes later, the same guy came in through the side
entrance on Howard Street.
``I thought I told you to get out of here!'' Wiggin said.
``Jesus Christ!'' the panhandler said. ``You work here, too?''
The owners of the Chronicle tried to buy McVeigh's building in
about '60 and he laughed in their face.
``It's Irish Alzheimer's,'' one M&M regular jokes. ``You
forget everything but your grudges.''
McVeigh got his revenge, but the relocating of the printing
operation changed forever the character of the bar as a melting pot
of half-potted newspaper folk.
Everything changed. Over the years, reporters and editors have
cut back on serious mid-shift drinking, and some actually have home
lives. The M&M had been rendered irrelevant. Last week it closed
Al McVeigh has fond memories. ``It was a good era,'' he said. ``It
didn't kill me.''
``We'll drink to that, or half of it, anyway,'' say the ghosts of
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