Noe Valley Voice September 2004

Otis and Ray Say: Meet Us at Tully's

By Heidi Anderson

Noe Valley has its own cast of Friends--a group of folks who meet at a coffeehouse every day to mull over what's wrong with the world, josh each other about stuff that happened years ago, and ponder the bigger questions of life.

But unlike the stars on the popular TV series (which is now in reruns), the gang at Tully's doesn't get paid $1 million a week, and the folks sitting around the three small tables clustered in the bay window are almost all over 70.

The main characters are Ray del Portillo, 78, and his friend Otis, who gives his age as "about 75" and his last name as "Starbuck," after the coffee-swilling character in Moby Dick.

"We meet up here to talk about our world," Ray says. "It's full of $800,000 fixer-uppers, and our kids are all over the globe."

And they've been doing it for more than 20 years now, holding forth for at least 10 of those at Tully's on 24th Street. Why?

"I dunno," Otis says. "Ray's the one who keeps calling us to meet for coffee all the time."

The half-dozen coffee-klatchers are mostly older men, though a woman sneaks in here and there, along with some younger sippers. What they have in common: They all live in the neighborhood, and they usually show up without reading material, expecting instead to chat away the morning hours.

Politics, Poets & Percy Dovetonsils

Meeting on a recent sunny Saturday, the group's conversation meanders from the political--there are alternate recitations of Network character Howard Beale's famous movie line "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"--and then drifts to the poetry of Dylan Thomas, which, strangely enough, sparks memories of TV comedian Ernie Kovacs' lisping poet "Percy Dovetonsils," and then suddenly one of the conversationalists is holding forth about baseball being a game of infinity.

Then, inexplicably, everyone is talking about communism.

Gab like this needs fuel. Everybody takes turns at the counter, and a wider circle of neighbors--associate members, if you will--put in their two cents as they stop in for lattes. Some of the conversations break off and swirl to the side. The line at Tully's on a Saturday morning can stretch out the door, and those in line today get an earful of this cheerful, chatty bunch.

"Russia now has the highest number of millionaires in the world," Otis says. From there, the facts and figures of this new hypothesis are hashed out with the wit and sly cynicism of a group whose collective years on this earth total, oh, about 400.

If you want to participate, it's a good idea to drink lots of coffee and pay close attention or you might find yourself hopelessly adrift and unable to keep up your end of the conversation.

Ah Yes, I Remember It Well

Ray and Otis trace their ties back to 1938. That's when two sixth-grade boys met at Everett Middle School and struck up a friendship. It lasted through high school, even though one went to Lowell High and the other to Polytechnic. They were on opposing track teams but met up at parties after meets.

That's what Ray says, anyway. He and Otis don't always agree about their history.

"No, it was at least 1940," Otis says.

But they both remember hanging out at the Clay Theater with friends, and eating burgers at Wimpy's afterward.

"Ray was always the one lecturing us not to get into trouble, but he was the one who got busted!" says Otis. "We pulled a little prank one night, and Ray was the one the cops caught going over the fence!"

Ray jumps in. "No, no, no! What happened was, well, it was one of those nights, you know, and Otie thought it would be funny to take a case of Sunshine Pies. We were walking down Baker Street with it, and the police saw us," remembers Ray. "We knew Otie's father would give him hell, so we let him get away."

Ray says he and his fellow youthful offenders were taken to the Stanyan Street police station, given a wink and a stern warning, then driven home to waiting parents.

Ray pauses and then asks, "What fence?"

Reunion Outside Little Bell

Ray and Otis graduated high school without further dustups, or so they both say, but went their separate ways.

"We totally lost track of each other," they agree.

Otis signed up for the Merchant Marine and worked the last months of World War II in the Pacific Theater. Meanwhile, Ray stayed in town.

"I got my degree at USF, and did graduate work at University of California," he says. "I taught English, Latin, and Spanish up until '68. Then I went into administration--curriculum writing, stuff like that."

Otis stayed on after V-J Day as a Merchant Marine and split his time between the sea and seasonal construction work on land.

"Back then," Otis remembers, "the sea was not a good life for a married man--I had a wife and kids. You were gone too long, and the pay was not too good, so you did construction half the time."

By the early 1980s, Ray had retired from academic life. Now married to his wife Carlota, Ray opened an office to help Latino and Irish immigrants seeking amnesty.

"That's about the time I bumped into Otie," Ray says, recalling the day he and his old buddy crossed paths outside Little Bell Market, which then occupied Walgreen's spot on Castro Street.

Otis, who by that time was no longer married and had retired from the service, remembers only that he didn't recognize Ray at first.

All the same, they discovered they were living in the same neighborhood, and said the neighborly thing: they should get together for coffee.

Your Cell Phone's Ringing

After meeting for several years at other local coffee shops, they eventually started going to the Spinelli Coffee Co., which opened in 1986. (Spinelli's was bought out by the Tully's chain in 1998.) Since then, various friends of Otis and Ray, and naturally some Tully's regulars, have been adopted into the group.

"I'd say we meet here three or four times a week," says Ray. "Sometimes I'll be taking a trip up to the country for one reason or another, my cell phone will ring, and it's one of these guys here asking, 'Hey, why aren't you down here today?'"

Otis sees it another way.

"It's Ray who puts Tully's into his morning routine. He's got a wife and eight grown kids and 13 grandkids. If he hangs out with us too long," Otis chuckles, "his cell phone will start ringing!"

Back Stories Welcome

On this particular Saturday, Otis is the one who says it's time for him to go--he's got to get some exercise.

"You know, you can't sit around telling old lies to each other all day!" he says.

But no one seems eager to leave the comfort of the bay window and the long, colorful conversation--least of all, Otis.

He says he's started a new greeting for friends as they enter the coffeehouse.

"One of our friends came in with a black eye. Turns out she bent over and something in her back went out, and she fell and banged her nose."

Otis says it's the best black-eye story he's ever heard.

"Then Jack, who's an artist, went to France this summer to paint. But sprained his back and had to come home early."

It dawned on Otis that it seems everyone has a back story to tell nowadays.

"Get it? 'Back story'?

"So I think, instead of saying, 'Hey,' like everybody does when they come in, we should say, 'How's your back?' or 'Watch your back!'"

Meantime, the sunny morning has become early afternoon. The group has dwindled down to three--Ray, Otis, and their friend Mark. When someone asks where everybody went, Mark waves his hand dismissively.

"They'll be back," he says.