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Joe Nobriga's Showcase Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

8 January 2014

Once upon a time (there's really no other way to begin something like this), we were young and happy. The night was young, too, and we would shoot down Geary (or was it Sutter) to the Oasis Motel on Franklin, a concrete contraption whose only redeeming value was a little bar on ground level.

We'd park under the infrastructure of the hotel and walk right in past the actual bar itself to a corner room, two sides of which had windows looking out on no view in particular -- no small feat in San Francisco. A real baby grand occupied that corner with a silver mic keeping it company.

We'd find a seat at one of the little round cocktail tables and, before we could worry about it, a waitress would ask us what we'd like. Which was all we ever expected of heaven, actually.

We'd find a seat at one of the little round cocktail tables and, before we could worry about it, a waitress would ask us what we'd like. Which was all we ever expected of heaven, actually.

We were young. We were happy. We didn't notice the piano player was anyone but a piano player with a thick book or four of popular sheet music. But there we were listening to Dick Hyman [pause] and his trio. Except he'd given two of them the night off.

Instead, there was that silver mic. Anyone could come up to the six-inch stage and sing. Dick would find the music in his binder.

But what's special about this story is that no one who came up sang badly.

There was, for example, the short guy from the University of California Medical Center (a doctor, we later learned) who could mimic Nat King Cole perfectly. "Smile though your heart is breaking," he would sing and we can still hear him singing now (thanks to his perfect imitation). He would come, if we remember correctly, every Tuesday, after his shift. To relax. And we wouldn't let him off the stage until he had sung Smile. Even though his heart was breaking.

But we were young. And happy.

Joe Nobriga himself sang too. He filled in when drink made cowards of us all. Just to keep Dick busy.

He was a statuesque fireman. And a part-time model. He had a rich dark beard and a voice to match. He sang in amateur productions, if we remember. His signature song? "Flamingo!" It's the only word of the song we can remember but we can still hear him sing it, the windows rattling as his baritone voice turned over every syllable. "Fla ... Ming ... Go!"

We smiled, we sipped, we listened politely. We were young. And happy.

He was, though, singing to the woman behind the bar. His wife Nancy. Did she ever sing? Perhaps, to give Joe a break. Memory fades. She was tall and kind, that much we remember.

It's been almost 10 years since Joe left us. Longer since the bar turned into a gym. But a more hospitable place there never was. You could bring twelve drunken family members in there and be treated to CPR. We just happen to know for a fact (it was a bachelor party, actually).

We were talking about this tonight to the girl we used to take there on Tuesdays, thirty years or so later, and we thought we'd share the memory because, you know, there are very few temples without their Pharisees.

Music was the art that drew people to Joe Nobriga's. And for all the money you could toss at Nancy, it was the tears the lyrics brought that kept you coming back. Smile, even though your heart is breaking. Flamingo, like a flame in the sky.

We were young. Debating the Nikon F3 versus the FM2. Which lenses. But the girl? No question. She was, flamingo, "the love that is true." And we're still happy, if no longer young.

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