My man in San Francisco, Spooky Noodles, rang me up last night and gave me a heads-up about the closing of ‘Oscar’s’ in Berkeley. I am going to have to send Spooky official Bohemian Adoption papers, because he recalled the name Oscar’s, and that it was important in Presco lore, which is like Rosamond lore, being, my father was a Bohemian-Beatnik, who admitted Jack London’s novels ‘Sea Wolf’ and ‘Martin Eden’ were his guides growing up – after his father ‘The Gambler’ abandoned him at the age of three.
Victor Hugo Presco had a brother named Oscar who owned a famous interior decorator firm in SF. When the brothers had a fight over their partnership, Hugo dropped out of society to live in a tar-paper shack under the Carquinez Bridge. Victor took his sons there, once, to show Hugo his grandsons. We said “Hello” and that was that! I was utterly impressed that my grandfather lived on a houseboat in a authentic Shantytown.
Only a Beatnik would take pride in driving around a red truck like the one above. We didn’t own an automobile. When the Prescos went to visit Grandma, Vic stacked some wooden crates on the bed, and fastened them down with an old smelly tarp, and real hemp rope. In our cubby hole, Mark and I had nowhere to hide as one car after another lit us up with their headlights.
“I heard they are filming a new John Steinbeck movie in Roseville.”
So I googled Oscar’s on Lakeshore in Oakland – not in Berkeley – and learned my father’s home away from home had closed, too. To my wonder, someone managed to locate and save what looks like promotional photographs of this lounge with piano bar, when it first opened. In looking at the Portuguese brothers who owned this swank establishment with a German name, alas, I get it, what made my father tick!
Being an only child raised by a domineering and protective mother, Vic Presco, had doubts about his manhood. Did he have sissy, homosexual, tendencies? He gripes about having the lack of a fatherly influence. More than anyone I ever met, Vic butchered Freudian psychology.
“Your mother and I did not get along because she wanted to wear the pants in the family.”
Did Vic worry about Rosemary making him wear a dress? Of course she did. This is why my father hung out in Oscar’s, with ‘The Brothers’, his surrogate family who listened to him bitch about his wife, and how she turned his children against them – and made them sissies! Hanging around a bunch of dudes in a bar, was ‘Vic’s Cure’.
Vic’s main job was to un-sissify his two sons. This is why we waited for Captain Vic out in the truck with ‘Acme Produce’ stenciled on the two doors. Starting at eight and nine years of age, we were awoken at 4:30 A.M. and were down in Oakland’s Produce Market before sunrise. We worked as Lumpers till 6:00 P.M. and then sat in the truck till around 9:00 P.M. till her emerged. We last ate around noon. Sometimes the Captain would have a big Oskie steak. As an only child, he did not like sharing his best food with his wife and four children, because, that was not how he was raised. Being utterly selfish was being manly in Vic’s eskewed view of the world. Being a generous human being, made me a sissy.
So, like hungry dogs, his son’s steady gaze was fixed on the front door of Oscar’s that was padded with red leather, and held fast by big brass studs. The flashing neon-sign is burned into my soul. If he came out and caught us getting some shut-eye while on watch, we were severely humiliated;
“What are you two doing – playing grab-ass!”
Why pay good money to go see a shrink when you can work out your mental illness on your small children. Watching the Sopranos is to see what that would have been like for the Big Baby in the family, if he had a therapist. Vic would parade us around the real Italian families that had produce markets, with sons in their twenties – who looked like they wanted to kick Mr. Presco’s ass!.
Trying to be a man in the 1950’s, was very surreal, because the armies of the world had drafted, boys in their teens. And when the war was over, they did not have a clue. Many war stories were shared in Oscars by men who had been – over there. As they droned on, there was a sexy singer by the piano singing patriotic tunes, while overly dressed citizens raised their Martinis, and guessed what it means to be a grownup – with children.
The divorce rate – soared – when mothers realized the fathers of their children would never grow-up. All this identity crisis was fueled by the drug, alcohol. The Souza brothers owned nice homes by providing men a place to get a buzz on – outside the home – at ten times the amount of buying a bottle at a liquor store. If marijuana had not come along, we might be buying a healing elixir at the Heath and Wellness Lounge with Healing Flame and Space music. How about a tranquil waterfall with a statue of Buddha?
And what’s with the mural of the three elephants? There are famous muralists in my family tree. Was this mural – saved? Three pink elephants in the ashtray. A trinity? Could it be…..these are the elephants from London’s semi-autobiographical novel, John Barelycorn? If so, what an incredible archeological find! Note the guitar shape in back of the bar where dance the three elephants to unknown music, while lined up on the neck, are glasses of mixed drinks. Hippies have not yet been invented!
Jack London and George Sterling lived a mile up Lakeshore in Piedmont, one of the wealthiest communities in the Bay Area. Here dwell college educated businessmen who may have read London’s books, and got it, what this local modern décor is all about. Did they understand they were being given literary and Bohemian permission, to tie one on, and show-off their knowledge around the large circular fireplace?
““the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.”
And look at that kidney-shaped piano bar! Is that Eunice Steele playing the eighty-eights while her fans sit safe and secure in heavy-duty splayed legged bar stools covered in real pink elephant hide? Who was the interior decorator? Was he famous, or did the Souza brothers hire some kid fresh out of college? Why don’t we have the answers to my question? We spent trillions of dollars and twenty years forcing our culture on the Iraqi and Vietnamese people, and no one could pay some Beatnik goof ten thousand dollars to go around Oakland with a notepad and camera?
“Too late! All gone!”
If this is a authentic Jack London connection, it would be huge in putting together the history of my late sister, the famous artist ‘Rosamond’ who had two galleries in Carmel where George and Jack helped found the Bohemian Scene there. What I am suggesting, is, Oscar’s was a high-class Bohemian establishment. Are these the real clientage? Or did the Souzas hire them out of central casting, and bring them up on a train? Maybe they came over on the fairy from San Francisco, they enticed to do some slumming in Oakland? Did the Brothers tell the elite there was going to be a secret pot party after the shoot?
“Those Portuguese. They always get the good stuff!”
I own the privilege of being a historian who witnessed the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. All the history from now on will take place in the Informational Carnival Freak-house. We will pay to enter, eat the cotton candy, ride the scary rides, and get suckered once again into going for the ring toss to win a bowl with a gold fish! But, there is no EXIT. There is no going home………..again! Even the places we did business will never open their doors the same way.
Ray Bradbury, got it right! Rod Serling now comes onto our computer screens to inform us all the Souza Brothers were reptiles from another planet. Hark, is that the ironic lady laughing at Playland at the Beach? She mocked us as we lost another summer vacation to tyranny. While all the children on our block went outside to play, Mark and I were already at work, struggling to get another one hundred pound sack of potatoes up on the flatbed. When we got home about 9:30 at night, Rosemary looked alarmed, she searching our souls for any sign we hated them, hated her, as she heated up a pan of cheap hot dogs and German sauerkraut. We ate as fast as we could so we could rush upstairs and go to bed. We enjoyed six and half hours of oblivion before we awoke to another day’ nightmare.
There is a Lost Youth story, here. But, the only ones who lost their youth – for sure – was my older brother, and I. We will never reap our revenge, sit at the bar in our golden years, having a Oskie steak….. all to ourselves.
The Confederate flag in South Carolina comes down, and, it is official: We are a World of Lost Causes, but, there will never be another Oscar’s, a great place to cry in your beer.
Oh…and you didn’t have to go outside to smoke.
“Seeing pink elephants” is a euphemism for drunken hallucination, caused by alcoholic hallucinosis or delirium tremens. An early literary use of the term is by Jack London in 1913, who describes one kind of alcoholic, in the autobiographical John Barleycorn, as “the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.” A reference to pink elephants occurs in the 1941 Disney animated film Dumbo. Dumbo, having taken a drink of water from a bucket spiked with champagne, begins to hallucinate singing and dancing elephants in a segment known as “Pink Elephants on Parade“.
Oscar’s was a restaurant with fireplace and piano bar owned and operated by the Souza family, which was located at 3285 Lakeshore Avenue, in Oakland, California. Currently, there is a Gap store in the former location of Oscar’s.
The brothers were John Souza, Frank Souza, Mac Souza, Jim Souza, Carl Souza, Tony Souza and Clyde Souza. They ran Oscar’s during the 1940s and 1950s. 2 Oscar’s was in business from 1945 until about 1984.
Food at Oscar’s was American Cuisine, with the famous “Oskie” Steak which cost $3.50 in 1974. Eunice Steele was the piano-bar artist for over 25 years. Oscars was home to entertainer Danny Marona for about half a year.
Oscar’s, the iconic Shattuck Avenue restaurant, is not long for this world. The restaurant, a Berkeley institution since 1950, will close in the next month or two, reports Eater SF. In its place will be the first Northern California outpost of Washington, D.C.-based Sweetgreen, a “seasonal fast-food chain.”
Oscar’s has primarily been a burgers and fries destination for Cal students and others looking for a no-frills carb fix for the past 65 years. Owned by the same family for many years, the corner restaurant, at 1890 Shattuck Ave. at Hearst, feels much as it probably did when it opened, with its scalloped roof overhang, vintage signage, laminate-topped tables and white globe lights. Berkeleyside spoke to owner Scott on Tuesday, but he was reluctant to comment on the news, saying just that he was not the forthcoming type. “I’m not a warm and fuzzy guy,” he said.