On its surface, “The Cultural Ambassador of North Beach” is a story about a boy who befriends a young man hired to be the doorman of his father’s bar. But beneath it, Carlsen shines light on the complexities of understanding people from different backgrounds, the horrors of war, and post-9/11 attitudes toward safety. “The Cultural Ambassador of North Beach” services its characters and themes so fully, the story feels effortless. Enjoy the latest installment in our New Voices series — you won’t soon forget it.
“Were people meeting each other’s eyes with compassion for the first time? Or were we merely eying each other with fear, with dread, and with hatred?”
The Calliope, a clipper ship said to be a hundred and sixteen feet long and twenty-four feet abeam, is buried beneath my father’s bar, The Ann McKim. Little is known about the ship, but the historians I’ve spoken with believe the Calliope shared the same fate as the Euphemia or the William Gray: the crews, upon arriving to Yerba Buena Cove in the 1850s with “the color” on their minds abandoned their ships and took to the hills to find their fortunes. Over the following hundred and fifty years the city filled in, the Calliope hidden below. The ship remains underneath the basement of the building, just ten blocks from where I was born and raised, and where my mother was born and raised, and her father before her.
The Calliope’s mahogany bowsprit is still featured prominently on the wall, excavated during a brief historical fervor—the preserved figurehead of the muse, half clothed, flowing hair partially exposing her breasts, looming over the bar where patrons sucked down pints of ale or shots of whiskey or maybe a Campari when the weather was nice. My dad bought The Ann McKim and the resident hotel above it in 1988. I was five years old, and by the time I was a teenager it’d become a second home to me; the weary old drunks, the madcap schemers, the drifters and fugees a second family.
Izet Ibrahimovic appeared at The Ann McKim in the summer of 1998. I was just a teenager then. I see Izet silhouetted in the doorway of the basement as I’m hauling beer up the stairs. He’s got a CD boombox by the handle. A bottle of Coca-Cola hangs loosely in his other hand. He swirls it lightly at the neck and doesn’t say a word, light pouring in behind him. And because of the shadows I can’t see his face, but I can tell he’s smiling.