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Running on Fumes

Motorcycle Collector Henry Africa Dies at 77

Friday, March 11, 2011
Henry Africa, a motorcycle collector and owner of the San Francisco bar, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s, has died at the age of 77. A colorful character in Downtown San Francisco, Africa’s real name was Norman Hobday. The San Francisco Chronicle reports Hobday died February 25, 2011, “three weeks after falling ill barside.”

Henry Africa holds court at Rickenbackers sitting next to his cat Higgins on a sofa at the front corner of the bar.
Henry Africa, AKA Norman Hobday, and Higgins in 2007. Africa passed away February 25, 2011 at the age of 77.
Barside is where I met Henry Africa, having wandered into his establishment (located at 2nd Street and Minna in the SOMA district) back in 2007 while covering the SF Supercross race. I’d been lured into Rickenbacker’s by the vintage motorcycles hanging from the windows and a sign saying “"Forty Cycles of Yesteryear: The riders are gone; the bikes are still here!" (Read Forty Cycles of Yesteryear)

Upon entry, my first sight was of an obese man trapped in his recliner chair. A newspaper lay draped across his belly and legs as he dozed, with food encrusted on the bib of his overalls. Perched next to him was an orange cat, just as fat and seemingly immobile as he. I wandered about, looking at the bikes. It was an eclectic collection of historic marques, with bikes like a 1941 Indian once owned by Clark Gable, as well as rare brands like Excelsior, Nimbus, Henderson and New Imperial.

The place was hosting a modest lunch crowd, so I leaned against the old wooden bar and ordered a sandwich and pint - numerous vintage bikes hanging inches above my head. I asked the barkeep for the low down on the place. He just smirked and nodded over to the man at the front, who sat unmoved from the position I’d first seen him. I sidled over to have a chat with Henry Africa.

Photo behind the bar of Hobday as a younger man.
Photo behind the bar of Hobday as a young man. He changed his name to Henry Africa,  the name of his most popular SF bars.
Crotchety was a kind description for Africa. During our chat he’d stop midsentence to bark orders at the hired help, who paid him no mind. I ate my food and quaffed a pint or two during an impromptu interview. After introducing his portly feline companion, Higgins, Africa filled my voice recorder with story after story of his motorcycle purchases and the sizable collection of Tiffany lamps that adorned the bar (the lamps are worth as much or more as the bikes!).

Africa also related the tale of his entering the bar business. Discharged after the Korean War, he claims someone slipped him a mickey at a local bar and then stole his $1200 in mustering pay. Angrily returning to the bar the next morning, the proprietor hired him on the spot, offering him $20 to get breakfast and a clean shirt.

A tall tale, perhaps. I certainly thought so at the time. It wasn’t until later, after a bit of research, that Africa’s true name and backstory surfaced. Originally hailing from Pumpkin Bend, New York, Norman Hobday would source his AKA from the name of his most famous San Francisco bar – Henry Africa’s (during our interview he insisted Africa was his given birth name).

The Henry Africa bar is credited as San Francisco’s first “fern” bar, a classier establishment than the typical dive – with décor spruced up by the namesake fern plants, as well as Africa’s numerous Tiffany Lamps. The drinks were more foofoo as well, and Africa’s is credited by some as the birthplace of the Lemon Drop martini.

Located just blocks away from San Franciscos Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art  Capt. Eddie Rickenbackers bar restaurant is mini museum of its own  showcasing 40 vintage motorcycles of various makes and models.
The fine collection of Tiffany lamps on display have a direct role in Africas acquisition of his first motorcycle.
Motorcycles and Tiffany lamps, the hallmark of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker's - Africa's final establishment.
Hobday was not beloved by all. He offended more than a few folks in his time. Second to his association with the bar Henry Africa’s, Hobday is probably best known for sparking a protest from activist Ward Churchill, who objected to a tasteless display at the bar. The display at issue was a pair of American Indian teeth – claimed to have been knocked out of “Custer’s squaw.” Insensitive to begin with, Africa went out of his way to enrage protesters by his resolution of the dispute – tossing the teeth in the trash.

During our interview, aside from complaining about the wait staff, he espoused a generally dim view of his fellow man. I recall the words “shiftless” “lazy” and “worthless” tossed out more than a few times. It was a fascinating interview, if awkward at times. But maybe we caught him on a bad day…

Despite his obvious warts and flaws, Hobday can’t be faulted for making uninteresting conversation. I deem myself fortunate to have tipped a glass with him. There certainly won’t be another like him – for good or ill.

RIP Henry Africa, AKA Norman Hobday, a character of the first order.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle and SF Weekly Blog
(By the way… SF Weekly, excellent lead photo!)
 
Post Tags: Henry Africa, Eddie Rickenbacker's Bar
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Comments
DocNick March 12, 2011 12:10 PM
Interesting article. Obviously the bikes are not in running condition -- who wants drops of oil in his hair, food, or drink?