Freeloaders by The Bay

AKA the usual suspects.

If you were down on your luck and down at the heel and still wanted to party, San Francisco would be the place to do it. With an endless cycle of wine tasting, charity events, PR presentations and restaurant openings, most serving at least some kind of crudo crustini or $2 a bite catered hors d’oeuvres, cheese, sometimes vodka and always wine, anyone who can locate a back door to the A-List can follow the moveable feast and reduce their food bills to zero.

San Francisco has had a core group of party crashers for years    – every city probably does. I first heard about them  from restaurant designer Bob Puccini at the opening of some restaurant  or other. We were standing on a balcony looking down, and Bob noted, “The usual suspects are here.”  “Gee,”  I thought, “neat! “ There was Bill Kimpton, probably Stanley Eichelbaum and probably Pat Kuletto, someone from the Mayor’s office, someone from the Restaurant Association, dozens of industry people, and it seemed, all in all, like a good group to be part of. That, however, was not what he meant.

A skinny guy in a once very pricey vintage suit cornered me. Claiming to be a wine importer, he struck up a conversation and eventually extended an invitation to an some premiere. I went and later invited him to the opening of Rose Pistola. It seemed a practical arrangement until he turned up completely stoned.  We were sitting with Wavy Gravy, so it didn’t seem entirely out of keeping and I didn’t pay it much heed beyond a mental note not to avoid him in the future.

When he called me a some time later to invite me to the opening of the Matrix on Fillmore I declined, but I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about it from Plumpjack’s Chef, James Ormsby. When I phoned James to ask, he was taken aback. “It’s private,” he blurted. “Just a few of Gordon’s  friends and some investors.  You can’t come.” No Kidding. I’d just been asked by one of the Usual Suspects  to crash Gordon Getty’s private function. So that’s what Puccini meant.

My real initiation into the ways of the Usual Suspects came about two  years later, when Slow Food Leader Lorenzo Scarpone asked me to help him put on the Golden  Glass, an ambitious and glamorous wine and food gala and fundraiser for which Scarpone had arranged for nearly a hundred of the top Italian vintners to bring their product to San Francisco.  It would be free to the trade – most of these events are – and cost the public about $40, which would support small farmers and school gardens.

Inexperienced in event planning, I reached out to a seasoned  veteran for suggestions on “getting the word out”. My friend, David Jones, generously shared all of his media contacts then added,  “But watch out for the usual suspects.” These, he explained, were a pack of wine guzzling marauders alerted to each new event by a point man who get tips on all of the industry events from a liquor store clerk. They descend on the galas and industry events like ants on a picnic pie.  David volunteered to man the press and industry sign-in taboe with a friend, Jim, who knew them all by sight.

When we happened to run into each other at another tasting before the  Golden Glass, David took my arm and said,  “Walk with me and don’t stare,”  and discretely pointed out the gate crashers as we circled the room. “There’s Donald the wine thief  – they call him that because he steals wine – and the  scruffy little old Russian guy with the frayed “press pass” from a paper which may or may not exist. The guy over there is David, who claims to be the wine representative for a non profit organization.” (Absolutely not, said the woman I called at their headquarters after throwing him out of our own event.).

There was a funny little man who brings his aged mother, whom he parked in a chair as he went for the wine, bringing her paper plates of cheese from the food table, the board member of an expensive private club who claimed to be the wine buyer (but did not pay the charity donation – Probably the $1,000 a month club dues ate up all of his disposable income), and my old pal from Rose Pistola in his same vintage suit. There was a squat and disheveled, Bitsy and a character who claimed to benefit wineries by letting them donate wines for his private parties, all in all an entirely Dickensian throng, trying to blend in with the authentic sommeliers and buyers and get their names to the vintners, prospecting for information on other events. We had their numbers.

At the Golden Glass Jim and David Jones were able to deter some of of the freeloaders, but about half of the gang managed to get in by hoodwinking our volunteers. Jim spotted David and Donald heading for the Barolo. We snagged them and escorted them out of the building as they shouted threats of legal action. .

A vintner alerted David that the Russian had pinched a couple of bottles. Jim and I chased the old coot to his car,obviously also his domicile, just managing to cut him off as he opened the door.  He adamantly denied having any wine, clutching his satchel tightly to his chest. “Give us the wine, and we’ll let you go,” I said, knowing full well we really couldn’t do anything if he didn’t – just as a dozen or so Park Police  rounded building “A” on a practice run with their new Segway scooters.  The desfile looped gracefully around towards us and encircled us like pioneer wagons around a campfire   The Russian Press Pass  ripped open his satchel to pull out not two but three bottles.   “Zey ver Pwezents” he  sulked defiantly.The vintners were very happy to get their presents back.

I was surprised how much fun being a bouncer is. It’s probably the power. I paid for my fun. One of the people I had chased down or turned away – I suspect Matrix/Vintage Suit guy – complained to Slow Food, which led in part to my dismissal from the board. (How like Slow Food not to ask for details). What I heard much later was, “You were very rude to an extremely influential person in the wine industry.”  Influential? But it was deeply satisfying.

I no longer help organize the Golden Glass, but I see the same faces now at nearly every event I attend. They used to be amusing. Now they’re revolting. Gate crashing antipathy has settled firmly under my skin.

About a year ago I somehow got so swept up in the excitement of SF Chefs, I was having a glass of wine with a couple of  food writers when one said, “Hey, let’s all go to the tent” – that I ended up slipping into  the tent with an undeserved press badge.   I sent a check to the organizers the next morning. They said it was not necessary. It was. I don’t  deal well with self-loathing.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Patti organized an event for a luxury clothing and $500 designer handbag retailer.The Usual Suspects were already there when I arrived.  It’s really frustrating for me now to see them in action and know that making a scene is out of the question. None the less  I asked Patty if they were invitees.  No, she answered. As a matter of fact the were not on the list, but they had told the reception they were press.   I explained what I knew and added, “some of them steal.”  I meant they stole wine.

Patty instructed the door tenders not to admit anyone not on the list and kept an eye on the ones already in the store, alerting the store staff to keep close watch on the smaller items.

She called me the next day: “You know your friends? They caught one stealing on camera.” A woman had tried to take three three pieces of designer clothing  – two under the one she put at the beginning of the evening. Gosh. Not just wine.

Patty just emailed me:  She was at the DeBeers event last night. “I saw your people there,” she said. Wow. I don’t know how they have become “My People.” And DeBeers? The diamond people?? The creeps are coming up in the world. Perhaps freeloading and gate crashing is starting to pay off. I wonder what they got away with. Even if they didn’t, DeBeers is bound to have Perrier-Jouet.

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