Northside SF
North Beach Beat
Policing the unpoliceable
If you’re laid back by nature, being a North Beach cop is probably a pretty sweet gig. Bad things happen here sure, but by and large the vibe is mellow and, besides, there are worse places to flash your badge. If you’re a Robocop, though, a cop’s cop, I imagine North Beach can mess with your head a little.

Historically this neighborhood has tolerated most kinds of quasi-legal, semi-illegal behavior as long as there was no real criminal activity behind it. There’s always been a shrugging-of-the-shoulders, live-and-let-live attitude here that you won’t find in the Marina, for example, or out in West Portal. Think of it as our Barbary Coast legacy.

So pounding a beat in North Beach requires a certain amount of finesse. I mean if you wanted to, you could spend your entire shift busting people for public drinking, for screaming their I’m-off-my-meds tirades at startled tourists, for sleeping in doorways between stints of panhandling, for selling stuff without a license, and for myriad other infractions that contribute to the loopy mosaic of North Beach life.

But you don’t. You turn a blind eye to it because nobody’s getting hurt, and it’s a monumental waste of your time anyway, especially when you could be patrolling Broadway and scooping up some far more deserving scumbags. Which is what makes the late November “pot bust” of North Beach denizen Tony Ryan so, oh, I dunno... silly.

Ryan, a regular at Specs, was kanoodling with a friend one evening in the alley outside that estimable watering hole when one of our local constables happened by and caught a whiff of the evil weed emanating from their direction.

Although no one was smoking anything at the time, and for reasons known only to the officer himself, the usual North Beach protocols were thrown to the wind. He decided to make an issue of it: Have you mooks been toking during the course of the evening?

The warm pipe in the cold hand of Ryan’s companion basically answered that question. Only, the way I heard it, the trouble began with Ryan’s reply to the copper, which was a tad frosty. (So it appears I’m not the only Tony in North Beach with authority issues.) Whatever he said caused offense.

As a result Ryan was cuffed – not with the traditional, manly metal handcuffs like the kind that restrained Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, but with those stupid little plastic ones that tie you up like a bag of lettuce.

After a while the restraints were removed. The cop either felt he’d made his point or had come to his senses. Really, who could expect a bust like this to stick? And what about the paperwork? Sheesh. But his nose must have still been out of joint, because now he asked Ryan for an apology.

Long story short he didn’t get one. The cuffs were slapped on again. At this point, Ryan’s companion, evidence still in hand, strolled nonchalantly back into the bar and disappeared from this narrative.

Tony Ryan, meanwhile, was whisked by paddy wagon to Central Station. “Am I being arrested?” he wanted to know.

Not arrested, it was explained. Detained. In layman’s terms, “jerked around.” Which is precisely what happened. He was searched at the station and a small amount of Mary Jane Green was discovered in one of his pockets. “Ah ha!” exclaimed another officer present, at which point Ryan produced a doctor’s note explaining his right to carry small amounts of grass for personal use.

After “detaining” Ryan for a short while, the police wearied of the game and turned him out into the North Beach night. He left with everything he’d arrived with, including his pinch of pot.

“All’s well that ends well,” the Bard once wrote. Of course, he also wrote an entire play that was much ado about nothing.

We were the children of the rock ’n’ roll generation and I grew up, like you, listening to the Beatles, the Airplane, Dylan, et al. I liked most of it, loved some of it and ignored the rest of it. But as much as I dug rock, Motown was always my first love. Marvin, the Temps, Aretha … to this day that’s the music I reach for first.

So what a great thing it was to discover a first-rate Motown tribute band performing regularly within a stone’s throw of North Beach. I refer to Top Shelf, which performs as part of a regular Thursday night Motown Madness dinner cabaret at – get this – the Imperial Palace restaurant (818 Washington Street) in Chinatown.

Motown may seem a long way from Chinatown, but the venue works. It’s a good room with a good vibe. And in the best Motown tradition, the music is tight, the girls are gorgeous, and everybody can really belt it out. In fact, you can too because audience participation is encouraged. If I can do it, so can you. Check out the Motown Madness website ( to see if they’re still playing the Imperial Palace in the new year. Wherever they are, you’ll want to catch ’em.
Tony Long  can be reached by e-mail at

March 2012
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