Remembering the man who owned Zeitgeist

  • Jun 30, 2020

I snapped out of a hypnotic trance held by a fiery pink sunset when his dog barked at me. His shoulders lowered as he smiled and apologized for his dog. He was a white man in his late fifties, burly with a scruffy beard, wearing a khaki colored waistcoat with multiple pockets and blue jeans. He took a seat by where I stood, bent over and tied a knot with his dog’s leash around the legs of the table. He unhurriedly lit a cigarette, his gaze fixed on the sky ablaze with color. I figured he was going to stay awhile.

“Really hot days reward us with some spectacular sunsets,” he said.

“Very true” I replied with a smile. We were experiencing an unbearable heat wave, but the sunsets had made it worth our while.

We spoke until the sun went down, and he told me all about San Francisco in the 80s and 90s. He had many colorful stories to share and one of them was about Zeitgeist- one of his (and my) favorite bars in San Francisco!

If your fingers are itching to google “Zeitgeist”, don’t worry, I got you!

Zeitgeist - a German word from the mid 19th century;

Zeit ‘time’ + Geist ‘spirit’

“The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.”

At the corner of Valencia and Duboce, Zeitgeist is a timeless wonder of San Francisco. It’s an infamous, no-nonsense dive bar with a biker vibe and a patio as enormous as its soul. It is loud, unapologetically punk, dive-y, and was once upon a time known to be the meanest bar in the city. The walls are scattered with murals, shoddy posters, bumper stickers and a kind of roughness that comes with age- 43 years, to be exact. The patio is like a mini-park and is lined with communal picnic tables. There is a pool table inside and a kitchen that serves beer food! They have the best beers in town (over fifty, yes 5-0 local and imported beers on tap), killer bloody marys, margaritas, really, something for everyone.

Amidst all the chaos, there is a huge sign at the entrance that stood out for me the first time I visited, it read : “Kamehameha the great” (Kamehameha was the founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii!).

Nursing a crisp and cold beer in the company of good friends, pink elephants and unicorns on a bright and sunny afternoon, is an experience that one will keep coming back to Zeitgeist for. Its great for people watching- a looking glass into San Francisco, because it attracts people from all walks of life - bike messengers, tech people, tourists, nurses, saleswomen, artists and hipsters. Metal heads flock to this bar like bees to honey, for the sweet sunny patio, beer and rock music.

If you’ve been here, you might have had the pleasure of eavesdropping on at least one occasion. Listening in on conversations is my favorite thing to do on communal tables. The conversations you discern from the chaotic background music, while trying not to choke on the smell of smoke, could be about anything. I’ve heard stories about disastrous jobs, rent control in SF, weed and LSD. Every so often you can listen to stories in German, French or Russian! It is also a great spot to get lost in a good book on a sunny afternoon while sipping some quality beer.

If you told me that this hardcore, dive-y bar was once called “The Rainbow Cattle company”, I would shrug it off with a giggle. Or that a 57-year-old rich gay German gentleman named Hans started this bar and was mysteriously murdered- I would be shocked.

That’s what happened when he told me about Zeitgeist!

Zeitgeist started as Rainbow Cattle Company in 1977 by Hans (Horst ”Hans” Grahlmann). At that time, the clientele primarily consisted of bikers and motorcyclists, wearing motorcycle themed t-shirts under their black leather jackets, who wanted to indulge in cocaine fueled sex parties. It was a rough and tumble place overrun by skinheads. In 1986, Hans changed the name to Zeitgeist. It became “diverse” and welcoming only after the mid 90s.

Hans was born on June 30, 1941 in Germany. Yes, he was born on Pride Parade day in 1941, around the time Hitler was bombing London! Why and how he came to the United States is unbeknownst to us. He may have had a British wife and two children who he lived with in Kansas before running away from them. He may have been a mediocre chef before abandoning his profession and fleeing westward. He is said to have inherited a lot of money from his German parents which he invested in bars and real estate. That he had a younger brother in Germany who went in and out of sanitariums will only remain an indisputable fact. He may have been yet another hippie who was attracted by California in the 60s.

What we know for sure is that in the 70s and 80s he invested heavily in Northern California’s real estate, primarily bars and to some extent in Hawaii. He was known for his brusque and blunt style and had the reputation for being either strongly likeable or strongly unlikable. He was known to be unassuming and generous, and to have had a heart of gold. One employee described him as “kind of rough character, but also an interesting, generous, and caring person”, another said “he always wore these blue overalls and looked very poor, but he wasn’t”. He helped people financially and once let a man with AIDS live upstairs. Among other stories, he once had to pay a settlement to a Black guy on charges of being racist.

Hans’s life, however colorful and unimaginable, was cut short in October 1998. He was murdered along with his colleague, Jason, in his three-story mansion in Monte Rio, a resort town in the Russian River area. Jason was a bartender at the Rainbow Cattle Company and also a handyman. He was reportedly working on roofing Hans’s home when they were both shot in cold blood. Jason was well liked by many people except for the time he broke a glass of beer on a customer’s head in the bar. The unfortunate recipient had to get 37 stitches!

A local suspect was arrested in 2000 for the murders, but was released a few years later when the court ruled him to be innocent. The murders were featured on America’s most wanted and to this day they remain unsolved! Since Hans’s mom passed away shortly after his death and nobody stepped forward and claimed to be his heir, the millions of dollars worth of estates/businesses he left behind were never bequeathed to anyone.

Stumptown Brewery (uncannily similar to Zeitgeist) in the Russian River area, The Mix in Castro and Lucky 13 (another iconic dive bar on Market Street which is struggling to survive the big old war of gentrification) were owned by Hans at some point.

On the table outside Gus where we sat, it had gotten chilly. He untied his dog, who started to run around in circles, and then stood up. He looked satisfied and happy with the story he had just recounted.

“Good night” he said “It’s time to call it a day”

“Good night!…and thank you for sharing that story. I can’t wait to tell people about it!” I said

On second thought, I added “wait…it doesn’t add up… How did you know about all this if you never worked for Hans?”

“You hear and you learn things. I was their electrician for 15 years.” he said and smiled wistfully as he turned around and walked alongside his dog.

I biked home that night, all the while thinking about all the mysteriously wonderful stories lurking in the shadows, and the nooks and crannies of this beautiful city, that I’m yet to unfold!

Let’s remember Hans, on his birthday and pride week of 2020, for the rich LGBT history of San Francisco that he has helped shape!

Happy Pride 2020!
About this story

Idea conceived: June 2019

Written/Edited : Monday Jun 29th

Published : Tuesday Jun 30th

Wordcount : 1400