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Minnie’s Can-Do Club

Portrait of Minnie Baker (1973) by Nicola Lane

“North Beach was, but Fillmore is.”

IT WAS ALIVE — very alive — for only five years at 1915 Fillmore Street, where Florio restaurant now stands. But Minnie’s Can-Do Club, the last of the old-time Fillmore joints, has become something of a legend.

The club itself is long gone. But Minnie Baker Thomas in 2007 is still among us. Until her recent move to Oakland, she lived at the Fillmore Center. At age 74 she’s still working, as she has for more than 20 years, as a merchant marine. She’s just back from China and four weeks at sea. And she says she plans to keep on shipping out. “Why not? — there’s no age limit,” she says.

She was back on Fillmore recently with friends from the glory days of the Can-Do Club, and they marveled at the force Minnie’s became almost from the day it opened.

“They all just came,” she says. “I was just sittin’ up there mindin’ my own business. My intent was just to sell beer.”

Minnie opened the club in 1969, and soon a group began to coalesce around her. Someone suggested music, so they got a piano. Someone else suggested poetry readings, and Tuesday became poetry night. They put a ping pong table in the back and had tournaments. One night the Chinese Olympic team stopped by to play.

“They busted me and said I needed an entertainment license,” Minnie recalls. “Somebody was always trying to shut me down. But too many people liked my place. And besides, what were we gonna do — dance ’em to death?”

The Redevelopment Agency had wiped out just about everything on Fillmore south of Bush Street, and the Summer of Love was over.

“There wasn’t too much going on back then,” Minnie recalls. “There was nothing to do on the other end of the street. And North Beach had died and was coming to Fillmore.”

“North Beach was, but Fillmore is,” wrote one of the poets.

There was a party at the Can-Do Club every night. Minnie’s had “4,000 kinds of sanctified beer, and if you’re feeling athletic, they’ve got ping pong in the rear,” one singer sang.

“You know what? That place was something,” Minnie says. “Every day there was something. Every day there was a story.”

Back on Fillmore now, Minnie is warm and wise, her life an ongoing adventure. She laughs and tells stories about the Can-Do Club, but she does not pine for days gone by.

“I think of the good times,” she says. “And I know this is another time. The Can-Do was part of my highlights, but not all of it.”

Still, more than 30 years after it closed, the club is never far away. “There’s no way I can get away from it,” she says. “There’s always somebody somewhere. Even at sea, somebody comes up and says, ‘Didn’t you used to be on Fillmore?’ ”

— Thomas Reynolds