by Tom Gogola
Rolling through the North Bay a couple of weeks ago was my old friend Jones—my first journalism mentor from when I worked at an alternative weekly in Albany, New York. He was the state columnist back then, covering that dirty old capital city in the late 1980s, and I was the cub reporter fresh out of college with a head full of Gonzo and rather long hair.
Jones planned to toot over on the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco to Sausalito on his way to Oregon, and he called to suggest that we meet up at Fred’s Place, a diner-style breakfast and lunch joint near the anchor-outs in Sausalito. Jones knew the place from the 1960s—he has connections and friends all around the Bay Area.
Sounded great to me. I bounced over the mountain from Bolinas in the morning and grabbed an inside stool, coffee please and what’s the Wi-Fi password? I cranked out some copy and checked out the scene at this smallish corner outpost.
The kitchen crew was dominated by cheerful Latinos working the line, big loads of hash browns were smoldering on the grill and a generally well-heeled bustle of families, loners, regulars and weirdos came and went. Fred’s reminded me right away of a place like Marin Joe’s: They wear the old-school well.
The menu is dense with the expected offerings of a joint such as this: All of the usual diner stuff, all of it a little on the upscale end. This ain’t no dive joint with Angry Eddie dumping his Lucky Strike ashes into your Denver omelette.
You’ve got a whole selection of eggs-with to choose from, beaucoup burgers on the bun and salads in several incarnations. One standout item was a house specialty of the artery-annihilating variety that we’ll save for next time: Deep-fried French toast, known as Fat Fred.
Here’s a suggestion: Go to Fred’s, shut up about your health and order the “Millionaire’s Bacon” with whatever it is that you’re getting. Jones and I both ordered a heap of eggs, hash browns drizzled in a super-rich Hollandaise, some juice and coffees, one decaf, one not. Breakfast was rounded-out with some chewy pads of sourdough toast and a side of the bacon, about which more shall be revealed momentarily.
Our meet-up reminded me of a persistent, specific food memory that Jones is a part of. One time we met up at a place in New York that’s no longer there, called West Side Stories—an upscalish diner of the standard-issue variety, with mauve tones and vaguely delicate cup-and-saucer sets on the tables.
All of these years later, and it must be 25 of them, I can still recall, in exquisite detail, the robust flavor of the cup of coffee I ordered that morning. I have several memories like this: Recollections of a basic food or drink pegged to a specific encounter with the item. There has to be a word for this phenomenon, but I don’t know what the hell it is—Proustian recall?
I asked Jones as we lit into our eggs if he thought that there was a word for this and he came up with “transcendence.” He’s onto something. And speaking of, this being Fare Thee Well country, we talked about the Grateful Dead and the great times we had seeing the band in Albany back in 1990—those shows wound up on a popular three-disc set, Dozin’ at the Knick.
We finished our meal and ambled over to my car, which has seen better days. Jones had an afternoon meet-up with friends in Santa Rosa, and I had a story to write and a red-eye to catch in San Francisco that night. It would be a hectic day and that sturdy breakfast would come in handy. The only way out is through, they say, to which I would only add: through bacon.
I had to tell Jones that the front passenger window of the Grand Marquis was broken (my damn dogs did it), so the ride to Santa Rosa would be a little breezy. My tires are getting worn down, again, and the radio still won’t work. I started the car and it occurred to me that maybe Jones and I will never be millionaires, but we can still eat us some Millionaire’s Bacon, and hope for the best.
I reminded Jones that he provided me with a mantra many years ago that I still say to myself on occasion, or at least once a day when The Worry takes hold: Nothing bad will happen.
Jones had a key role in another of these persistent memories around food and drink. Way back when, he hooked me into a community of East Coast radicals who head up to Adirondack Loj in upstate New York every Labor Day for a three-day campout.
One year I was up in the mountains solo for a few days before the Labor Day festivities. It was a weird trip because of what was going on some 1,500 miles away: Hurricane Katrina. My late aunt was then living in the outskirts of New Orleans and had evacuated to northern Louisiana with her friend Big Pam, but I couldn’t reach her for days.
Wouldn’t you know it but the raggedy, howling remnants of Katrina blew through the campsite one night, along with the largest raccoon I had ever seen—before I moved to Bolinas, that is.
One morning I got up and hiked Mount. Marcy, the highest peak in New York at 5,343 feet. That’s not saying much in the face of California’s epic peaks, but fans of the writer Russell Banks will know Mt. Marcy as Cloudsplitter. This is John Brown country, and Cloudsplitter is Banks’ novelistic paean to the late abolitionist. The John Brown Farm is nearby, in the shadow of a training ski jump installed for the 1980 Winter Olympics. Go U.S.A.!
Anywho, it was a long, satisfying day on the trail, and at the end of it I went to the camp grocery store for a 16-ounce Coke. I stood outside the store and slugged it back—and now that I’m kicked back in my chair with the memory, I can still remember exactly how that Coke tasted. It tasted goooooood.
Transcendence indeed. Jones showed up for the weekend camp-out a day or two later, and I remember eating a lot of pie. My aunt popped up in my phone messages—she was fine, but her car was trashed by Katrina. Nothing bad will happen.
My occasional meetings with Jones still have a familiar and grounding arc to them, and I couldn’t be more grateful for an old friend like him.
Doesn’t matter how many years go by. Our meet-up at Fred’s was like every other one we’ve had over the years: We caught up on mutual friends and interests, updates on the family scene and pushed the enterprise forward: social justice of the unapologetic variety.
Jones is a real inspiration on that front. His wife is a vegetarian, but we are not.
You were wondering about the Millionaire’s Bacon? The stuff has been featured on the TV show United States of Bacon, so it’s basically a national goddamned treasure.
What’s in it? Applewood-smoked bacon baked for four hours with brown sugar, cayenne pepper, chili flakes and black pepper.
Unforgettable stuff, that.
Fred’s Place Coffee Shop, 1917 Bridgeway Blvd., Sausalito; 415/332-4575.