Center of the Universe (2)
The Back Room
In the last days of the Korean War, when he was 19, Mr. Kang was conscripted, along with a friend, into the North Korean army and sent south, to the front, without a gun. That’s because, he explains, there were no guns left. The fight that he didn’t believe in, for the cause he despised, was already lost. And now he was going to die for it. He and his homey peered down from the citadel of Pyongyang at a forest of turrets, US and UN tanks, pointing back up. There and then they decided — quite sensibly — to go AWOL. The results were disastrous, mysterious, miraculous and led directly to here and now.
This is my new place. But that, I’m afraid, fails to do the affiliation — or the place — justice.
It’s been 13 years since we first put our names in the big book on the front counter and about 10 years since anyone asked us to. We’re family now. We get the next available table, even if they have to sneak us past waiting crowds via the back door. And that’s saying something. Because in the jerry-rigged time-traveling planet Fairfax, Sorellas Caffé is surely the sun.
Soyara is the slightly older of the two forever-young sisters — sorellas, in Italiano, one language neither sister (both of whom are fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and, with a slightly exotic cast it’s impossible to place, English) speaks. Soy works the front-of-house, lifting her glasses slightly to check the big book and then escorting the next set of diners to their table, while baby sister Sonia works the tiny kitchen, sweating, in cowgirl-kerchief, over the gas stove in the former gas station’s office, as head chef. Their father is Mr. Kang — Reverend Kang, to be precise — who, with the ascension of Kim Jong Un, the improbable third generation of deranged dictators, seems to have finally given up yearning to return. Their mother is Maria Kang, born and raised in Brazil. Somewhere not far back in Maria’s heritage (everyone calls her by her first name, reflecting her beatific simpatico) are Italians. But the half-Korean, half-Brazilian sisters learned their Italian trade over many pizza-pie moons at a red-sauce bistro in North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy, and that’s really why their menu is exclusively, and exquisitely, South Boot.
Unless, of course, you’re family. In which case you can share some of the decidedly off-menu kimchi, feijoada and rice that Sonia prepares for her parents.
I’m not sure we thought about what an apt place Sorella’s is to bring a foreigner when we picked up our son’s Russian friend Gleb and his girlfriend Maroussia at SFO. While it’s not surprising that Brazilian expats stop by the restaurant a lot, as do, less frequently and less boisterously, immigrant Koreans, there are also real Russians here all the time, sometimes more than one table. Near as I can figure, they’re part of the post-Soviet diaspora, especially drawn to the Russki history of Northern California, where fur traders out of Vladivostok and Yakutsk proudly dubbed their coastal Amerikanski citadel Fort Ross (as in Rus) and an important nearby waterway, the Russian River. So it was perfect. But, like most perfect things, pure accident. The reason we delivered a pair of exhausted young Russians straight to Sorella’s on their first night in California was that night happened to be Saturday.
Maybe, once upon a time, there were Saturdays like this everywhere in America — and imagining it as a visit from black-and-white pics and noir flicks and memoirs of postwar subcultures, a Fairfax wrinkle-in-time with an extra wrinkle (but never imagined to be anything of the sort, never imagined at all), is surely, when you get back to Moscow and try to tell it, part of the charm. But here, in the back room of Sorella’s (formerly, the sushi half of the Half-and-Half), it was just Saturday. And there aren’t likely to be a lot more. A comet burns across the sky. Or a cigarette across the parking lot — as the band takes five and the horn player hits the emergency exit for a smoke.
I’m not even sure it’s about music. Or a band, these Saturdays in the back.
The name on the bill is Wendy Fitz. Except there is no bill — regulars just know that, on Saturdays, seven to 10, she shows. And there really is no band. Sometimes she calls herself Wendy and Co. and, lately, Wendy and the Company She Keeps. Steve, the standup bass player, shows up consistently — but then he’s Wendy’s boo. Frequently, John joins on a mini drum kit — snare, cymbal and adorable half-size kick-drum — designed to fit in a mini corner of a small rear dining room of a not-very-big-to-begin-with restaurant. But then he’s Soy’s husband.
Which is not to charge nepotism. John Molloy is an extraordinary drummer, a onetime heavy-rock atomic clock (I’ve seen the video), a white boy trained in the R&B clubs of Newburgh, New York, gifted enough to know, long ago, that he must head for the musical horizon. Early in our relationship with Sorella’s, John’s wife, discovering I was a fallen-away critic, slipped me a homemade CD of his jazz combo — always a terrifying thing. And while it took a few months for me to be not scared enough and/or drunk enough to listen, it took a minute to be blown away. For a few months more, it took up residence in my CD player.
Speaking of nepotism, the thing about Wendy’s bassist and beau — all due respect to his physical magnificence — is it’s clear she picks her men based on musical mastery. And you don’t have to know anything about bass. You can feel the deep, swinging lyricism, whether he’s plucking or bowing or, for that matter, discreetly conducting the Company She Keeps. But what I’m trying to explain is that Wendy’s rhythm section can stand up to any, even when music is almost beside the point.
Wendy, you peg as the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” all growed up. Slim, with sandy, center-parted hair, So-Cal pretty, the beach bunny who, like the Beach Boys, transitioned to beach hippie, Nor-Cal pretty. Light drugs, heavy camping. Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Chased by every sandaled beardo, Santa Cruz to Big Sur to Mendocino. Lives now, for decades, in Fairfax, with or without bass players or beardos. Little house in the woods by a creek. Suffragette self-sufficient. No less self-sufficient musically: a soul-wailing, torch-singing, country-rocking, ragtime barrelhouse bossa-nova folkie and Great American Songbook singer, pianist. And that’s not including her other band, Todos Santos, a three-part harmonizing, high-country trio named for the Mexican coastal town where she’s been vacationing for 30 years (long before it got hip or a gringo music festival), to which, in addition to mezzo-soprano with a slight husk, she contributes tasty licks on mandolin and concertina. And while Wendy’s mostly an interpreter, she can write — engaging melancholics that surface occasionally in her sets, clicking along over rocks and keys, translucent as San Anselmo creek — but doesn’t do it enough.
Just don’t call her jazz.
It’s what I did when I was trying to put together some music for a birthday bash. Asked Wendy to come by Sorella’s front room and play some jazz. She was adamant—“I don’t play jazz” may have been the verbatim. And since there’s nothing more embarrassing than saying something uncool to a musician — especially when you don’t know what it was — I let it drop, like a steaming Sorella’s meatball.
But, other than that beating (and the one she’s going to administer for this), Wendy’s been good to me. Because if there’s steel, there’s also velvet. And it’s never more evident than in her dealings with Dave.
Despite what it seems, Dave Bergman is not part of her band. Dave just shows up. And not in the way Wendy shows up — the sisters pay Wendy to play; they just don’t make a big deal of it. Dave’s jamming. And he’s not alone. Carol shows up to jam on flute. That tall guy from around the corner, Chuck, to jam with his blues harp on blues numbers. That short guy, of unknown name and provenance, with the hot chromatic harp, to jam on anything Wendy throws at him. There have been guitarists, saxophonists, jews-harpists, percussionists, singers and too many others — amid the Sicilian wine and Fairfax bonhomie — to recall. The jam — the friendly, unbooked, post-gig playing together of musicians strictly for fun — is alive in the back room of Sorella’s. And the jammers — only some of whom are famous, at least in California music circles — are all pretty great. Suggesting that before you just fucking show up, you have to pass muster with the steely side of Wendy. But no one else shows up every time, barring illness or vacation, for the last two hours of the three-hour set and always gets the first solo.