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Requiem for a Joint -- the M&M

  Monday, October 30, 2000

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 bad hash.

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 go.''

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 forever.

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 newspapers past.

San Francisco is 49 square miles. Each week Scott Ostler chooses a square at random and finds a Monday column there. Suggestions, comments, call 415-777-7031 or e-mail sostler@sfchronicle.com.

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Requiem for a Joint -- the M&M

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Scott Ostler Archives:

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01/31/1999 - `Angry Inch' Furiously Entertaining .

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