The year was 1997, I think. Anyhow, news filtered out that Bob Johnson had sold the Albatross Pub, that venerated institution down on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. The faithful clientele — by any measure, a group that was overstocked with seedy and semi-seedy old males, each harboring (of course) a life story most of us wouldn’t necessarily want to hear in detail. Charles and I still visited the pub regularly for chess. When it emerged that two women had bought the pub — well, that was just more salt in the wound. Few women, it was readily grasped, would put up with the pub’s rather dingy, darkish, and dour interior under Bob’s reign. Which, of course, we all admired and wanted to see stay exactly the same. So — in much the same spirit Mack and the boys showed when they decided to throw a party for Doc, in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row — it was decided among the regulars that a farewell party was in order. A farewell to Bob and a farewell to the Albatross as we all had come to know and appreciate it. And maybe even, it might be inferred, to one another as well.
Tasks were passed out to the party-organizing group — distributing responsibities for food, decorations, and so on. Charles and I were delegated getting the celebratory flatcake, with suitable inscription for the sad but momentous occasion it would mark. The assignment, as it turned out, was a bear. What to write on the cake? It would be uncandid of this writer not to relay that the anxiety and sleeplessness occasioned by this new and weighty responsibility was unequally shared between Charles and me. I sweated bullets, while Charles more or less backed out from the get-go — thinking, I guess, that the problem wasn’t really worthy of his time. Or thinking nothing at all, perhaps, too. Hard to say. And yet, something had to be inscribed on that cake. A simple good-bye seemed inadequate and not imaginative enough. An albatross’s image, in colored frosting, didn’t seem like enough either. Anything too slobbery sentimental would be out of character, too, for the pub’s flock of crusty, old-fart, but loyal regulars. (Bob, himself, it might be noted, wasn’t exactly known for a bubbly and cheery personality. Although Val, his brother and co-owner, was a kindly and friendly sort.) But what then? What would hit the mark exactly? And then it came to me. The epiphany happened spontaneously, out-of-the-blue, and in a golden instant: O Joy! Problem solved!
I’d have “SHIT!,” in big block letters, inscribed across the top of the cake — and a graceful albatross flying over.
So, off to Virginia Bakery I went, on Shattuck, now feeling much lighter and even a little pleased with myself for having found such a perfectly succinct and on-target message and salute for the pub and for Bob. The counter woman, a pretty lady in her mid-60s, I’d guess — and who, incidentally, always reminded of my Aunt Sue — was, well, a little taken aback when I told her the plan for the cake. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but we can’t put that word on one of our cakes.” Just the way she said it, not angry or petulant, but softly and plainly, made me suddenly feel that my great idea was coming to an abrupt end, right there. It was my turn for being taken aback a little. Bakery refusal hadn’t occurred to me. Don’t know why it hadn’t. So I did the obvious. I asked to speak with the baker directly, if I could. And she said okay, not in an unfriendly way at all. Just in a way that suggested she already knew he’d decline just as she had. Well, not quite, as it turned out. I explained the situation to him in detail — undoubtedly rather too much detail. He smiled a little and, when my pitch was finished, said, “Sure, I’ll do it. No problem.” And that was that. I picked up the cake the next day. Below, a shot of it, on the deck of our Hearst Ave. house — incidentally, before the cat chose for some reason to sit on the top of its pink box, disturbing the decorations just a little, but not so much as to ruin the baker’s beautiful effort.
The party was very nice. Happy and friendly. And even warm, among the old group. The cake? Well, it went over well, even with the effects of the cat’s untimely intervention the night before. Some took snapshots of it. Others just smiled their gestures of happy appreciation. To this day, I don’t know a better damn inscription for that cake for that occasion!
So, there you have it.