Yours sincerely, pruning away

Yours sincerely, pruning away

 

My new nose-hair trimmer has arrived.

Yes, let the shame begin.

For some reason, over the past year or so I’ve convinced myself that among the many unpleasantries of aging is the sudden growth of a miniature forest in one’s nostrils. I swear I can now see hairs growing out of my nose in full force, and I worry that I’ve unknowingly sported them for many years. But Julie insists that she has yet to see a hair descending from either of my nostrils.

Maybe they’re a complete figment of my imagination. Or maybe the only way another person could spot the hairs would be to come within an inch of my face and peer at an upward angle directly into my nose – as I do when I nervously check the mirror every morning.

Still, my resolve to vanquish the hairs has persisted. It took many months, but eventually I screwed up the courage to do some major research on nose hair trimmers. After all, I’d always assumed that this was “a guy thing” – like ear hair, which, thankfully, I have yet to claim.

Anyway, I clandestinely made my purchase (no one needed to know, really), settling on the ConairMan NE150NSCS Cordless Nose and Ear Hair Trimmer. The “ConairMAN” model name only increased my humiliation. But I overlooked that. I like Conair hair dryers, so I figured they know what they’re doing over there.

***

Let me digress for a moment with a somewhat-related story. Back around 1988, I read a “Dear Abby” or “Ask Ann Landers” letter from a mother of a minor-league baseball player. (Or maybe he was in college – I can’t remember and I’ve looked fruitlessly for this old column online.) This woman said that while her son and his teammates sat on the dugout bench, to pass the time they would reach over and pull out each other’s nose hairs. She was concerned about this practice because she had heard that it could kill you. I’m not sure why this was an etiquette question, although I suppose it certainly could be considered rude to indiscriminately yank out someone else’s bodily hairs. Anyway, either Abby or Ann did some calling around and found out that, indeed, pulling out one’s nose hairs could be truly dangerous, potentially leading to infections like meningitis.

This particular column has really stuck with me. First of all, since then I’ve been terrified of absent-mindedly pulling out one of my nose hairs and then dying a few weeks later of a raging brain infection. But I also continue to find it hard to fathom that men would sit around and entertain themselves by pulling out nostril hairs. Not to mention how adept and precise one would have to be to expertly clamp one’s fingers around another person’s solitary nose hair!

***

I have to admit that, a time or two, I’ve disregarded the advice column and recklessly pulled out a nose hair via tweezers. But then recently I decided to research whether tweezers were at least safer than a ballplayer’s unsanitary fingers. Not really. It turns out that no less of an icon than Dr. Mehmet Oz has warned about meddling around in that area of the face he calls “the triangle of death.” Using tweezers in and around the nose apparently can cause infections that might travel to your brain and lead to a hideous condition called “cavernous sinus thrombosis,” which is in many cases fatal.

Yikes. It was time to try out the trimmer.

I was quite nervous and scared about turning that thing on for the first time, fearing that I would slice the insides of my nostrils to ribbons. After all, the way it works is that the batteries power a bunch of tiny blades that spin around and carve off the hairs. The instructions were that the user should stick the trimmer in NO MORE THAN 1/4” (this seemed to be very important, and it struck the fear of God in me) and then move it around in circles. I tried this many times and just couldn’t see or feel any results. It could be that I didn’t have a nose hair problem in the first place. But I couldn’t be sure. I felt unsettled.

So I did what any tech-savvy retiree does these days: I turned to YouTube.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of YouTube videos address the proper way to use a nose hair trimmer. I was drawn to one young man in particular because he was very handsome, had an accent that seemed to be a cross between Wisconsonian and Middle Eastern, and spoke in an incredibly precise and earnest way. So I decided to give his video a try. And I’m glad I did, because I learned two important things from his demonstration:

  1. I need to be much better about measurements. It turns out that I had completely miscalculated what 1/4 of an inch is. Perhaps out of an abundance of fear, I probably put the trimmer only about 1/50th of an inch up my nose. That just ain’t going to do anything.
  1. “Moving it around in circles” means moving the trimmer all around the inside walls of your nostril. It does not mean putting it in one position and twirling it like a top, which is what I was doing.

This was such crucial information!

Amusingly, the fellow in the video took great pains to tell his viewers that he would have no need to show us how to use the trimmer in the left nostril after he’d already given us the instructions for the right. This made sense. “I only showed you how to trim one of my nostrils, because the process for trimming the hairs inside of the other nostril is identical,” he says, very deliberately. “Obviously I would be doing the exact same thing with the other nostril, but you don’t need to see it again.”

True. I don’t.

Nevertheless, I could watch this guy for days. He’s just so darned cute and caring!

***

Okay, that was settled. The video couldn’t have been more clear. Sure enough, when I tried it again, the trimmer snapped and crackled and made a lot of noises, so apparently it was doing its job inside my nose. It gave me a sense of satisfaction, and I prided myself on my good grooming.

I did, however, slather Neosporin all around the insides of both nostrils when I was done. You just can’t be too careful about cavernous sinus thrombosis.

the end

 

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

7/21/72 [age 16]:

“We happened to drive by a recent accident on Piedmont Road a few days ago and it scared me a little. Dad called later and told us that Mark Teresi had been killed and I am still wondering about death. I believe that death comes upon perfection of this level. Essentially, we have the potential to be perfect beings; we are but a perfect mind (or soul – I am not yet certain what the mind or the soul are, or if they are one and the same) clothed in physical bodies. When we manifest that potential perfection, we no longer need our bodies to exist in the next conscious level. At the funeral mass today Father Prindeville’s sermon said that God took Mark because He wanted him for Himself – because he had proven himself in this life. That MUST be right. I hope I am not coming close to perfection! I’m afraid. In fact, a few weeks ago I told [my sister] Janine I thought I’d die in two years. But now I realize how far from perfect I am.”

7/20/72 [age 16]:

“Today was Jeanne’s last day at home for a month, so I rode down to her house and together we rode to Barb’s vegetable stand (which was a mistake, because the roads were too dangerous). On the way back, both of my tires went flat in San Ysidro. Upon returning, I was exhausted but I knew she wanted one last tennis match, so we did. (Me, 6-4, 7-5.) At 6:15 we walked back to her house and had pizza for dinner. I didn’t realize that that was all we were having! I had only three pieces, thinking it was merely an appetizer!”

7/23/72 [age 16]:

“For some very strange reason, I have been proclaiming to the walls, ‘I love you’ lately. Yes, just walking into my room, smiling, and shouting out the phrase. Now, I am surely going crazy. The love in my heart grows by leaps and bounds, and I don’t know for whom. Perhaps, it is for humanity in general. The world is beautiful when you love. Last night, [my neighbor] Ted . . . and I went to see [the spaghetti western film] ‘Duck, You Sucker’ and I loved it. But Ted, he BEGGED me to come and he’s so nice and I love him, brotherly, but I don’t know how to express it.”

 

 

 

The Ballad of Jimmy Garoppolo

The Ballad of Jimmy Garoppolo
(photo credit: San Jose Mercury News)

Come gather, ye sports fans around the bay,
In honor of somebody special today.
If you’re one of the Faithful, then surely you know
That I’m talkin’ ’bout Jimmy Garoppolo.

It’s been 40 long years since Mr. Montana
Was our quarterback dropped from the heavens like manna.
For all of these decades my hero’s been Joe,
But right now it is Jimmy Garoppolo.

He’s one of four brothers from north Illinois –
A charming and handsome Italian boy.
Supremely athletic from head down to toe,
He favors his Papa Garoppolo.

The Patriots took him in 2014,
But Brady had already been on the scene.
So he sat on the bench and collected his dough
While the world lay awaiting Garropolo.

After three idle years he was suddenly traded
To the Niners – a team whose fortunes had faded.
But when Jimmy came in, we won 6 in a row
And our savior emerged as Garropolo.

Of all the league’s players he’s clearly the hottest,
Yet despite his perfection he’s humble and modest.
Those eyes and that smile, you have to agree:
There’s no one more handsome than our Jimmy G.

And oh, what a sportsman, oh, what a baller,
So cool on the field, and under the collar.
His completion percentage thwarted each foe,
So we pinned all our hopes on Garropolo.

In 2018, though, he tore up his knee,
Still, that didn’t stop our tough Jimmy G.
A year spent on rehab, and taking things slow,
Re-focused our Jimmy Garropolo.

He came roaring back, went 13 and 3,
Brought joy to The Faithful, brought rapture to me.
After clinching the West, to the playoffs we’d go,
Trusting our leader Garoppolo.

In the playoffs we conquered Cousins and Rodgers –
Two storied teams we made look like old codgers.
We stuck with the ground game. Few passes we’d throw,
But that never bothered Garoppolo.

He has no big ego, he plays a team game,
His goal is not credit, nor glory, nor fame.
Calmly preferring to always lie low
Is the style of our Jimmy Garropolo.

In my youth I always loved Brodie and Tittle,
But now we’ve got Bosa and Mostert and Kittle
To round out the team, to create the tableau
Anchored by Jimmy Garropolo.

After 25 years we were back in Miami.
My heart, it was racing, my hands, they were clammy.
A Super Bowl ring was at stake now, and so
I prayed for my boyfriend Garoppolo.

The Chiefs were a worthy, ethical team –
Their edge rusher speedy, their QB supreme.
But their much-deserved victory won’t dim the glow
Of our season with Jimmy Garoppolo.

The way to beguile Paula Bocciardi
Is for SF to hoist the Trophy Lombardi.
And sometime quite soon, Goodell will bestow
The trophy on Jimmy Garoppolo.

In the meantime I’ll hoist up a hearty beer
To a team that gave us a helluva year,
To a season whose highlights partly will owe
To the efforts of Jimmy Garropolo.

And for now I’ll just think of his beautiful skin,
His beard and his dimples, his darling cleft chin,
For I challenge you now to find someone you know
Who’s more gorgeous than Jimmy Garoppolo.

So when I’m on my deathbed, before I’m at rest,
I hope I’ll be granted one last request:
It’s not cabernet, it’s not escargot,
It’s to gaze at my Jimmy Garoppolo.

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With my signed Joe Montana football (thank you, Leon Emmons!) and my decades-old Niner troll

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

5/28/72 [age 16]:

“I have decided to minor in English, because lately I have found myself developing a passionate affection for writing. It’s frustrating, because I try constantly and I can’t write well. I want to learn how to. Maybe Law Enforcement isn’t the thing for me; I hate to face my own doubts, though. I wrote a poem this weekend but it is really bad. I mean REALLY bad. If only I were smart and talented like [my brother] Marc and [my sister] Janine. If only I had some kind of talent other than being a semi-good athlete.”

6/14/72 [Graduation Day, age 16]:

“Well, I graduated to the flowing strains of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ today and what can I say except that my heart aches for school (I’m bored already). I’ve had my last class, last tennis, last everything. Oh, God, I just can’t write how sad I am. At graduation Mr. Healy and Carl Blanchette gave me kisses and then we ate at Ming’s, which was the most delicious. Jeanne’s family was there too, and we were so embarrassed! Afterwards we stopped over at the Blanchettes’ house where I got another kiss from Carl. We just played pingpong. I got home at 1:00 and cried. Jeanne gave me a book today. It was very good.”

6/16/72 [Two days after graduation, age 16]:

“Help! I’m going crazy, insane, out of my mind!! I’m bored stiff, I miss everyone! God! I am wracked with despondency. I wish I could go back in time. We’re at Clear Lake now and Mom said, ‘We’re going down to Buck’s pier to fish. Want to come?’ and when I said no she said, ‘Life is going to pass you by’ and I, sprawled on my bed in desperation, cried, ‘It already has!’ ”

6/13/72 [age 16]:

“Oh, gosh bless it. I woke up this morning with a wonderful cold and a swell sore throat to go along with it. I am absolutely, positively miserable. Now I can’t go swimming at Clear Lake, and swimming is all I have up there.  Mr. Snyder said he’d teach me how to waterski. That’s shot.  Crud crud crud! My cold keeps me using up Kleenex after Kleenex.  (I must have used a million.) My bad throat is descending to my chest, and when I sneeze, wow! the pain. Nuts.  The worst, most depressing thing for me is sitting inside doing nothing, letting my hair and body increase in dirtyness [sic], not taking advantage of every possible moment before college, as I have been trying to do. O God, why must I get colds at the most inopportune moments?”

6/27/72 [age 16]:

“I am contenting myself with working feverishly in crossword puzzle books. We went bowling tonight. I didn’t want to go, but I figured the family would scorn me if I didn’t. The four adults and [my sister] Janine bowled. I kept score. It was my first time keeping score and I found it very enjoyable. Everyone considered me to be odd.”

7/6/72 [age 16]:

“Boy am I scared about [college] registration tomorrow! I’ll be on my own, looking for advisors and such. Help!! I am doing some deep thinking about death and what comes next. From Jonathan Livingston Seagull and my own scant intellect I have come to the rather shaky conclusion that next comes a higher, more advanced level of consciousness, and ‘heaven’ is the perfection of the highest level.  That’s simple, but Catholicism brings up millions of other ideas, e.g. hell, purgatory, limbo, seeing God, etc. I’ll discuss these as I master them.”

7/10/72 [age 16]:

“Mom and Dad want me to get a job, so tonight I went down to Baskin & Robbins, which is opening soon on Landess and Morill. Mary, Denise and I applied for a job. However, [the manager] stressed that it would entail my working weekends. Now – Clear Lake problem. Mom & Dad say ‘absolutely not’ to staying home alone on weekends; therefore I’ll have to call him tomorrow and decline. But it seems to me that if I am ‘responsible’ enough to work for myself I’m ‘responsible’ enough to stay home. I am mad that I was both forced INTO and OUT OF the job. I AM old enough to stay home alone, but there is no use arguing. I shall seethe inwardly and let them know about my contempt.”

7/14/72 [age 16]:

“The Law Enforcement people at [San Jose] State said I cannot have English as a Minor – oh, no! – unless I get Departmental Approval. But they BETTER give me their approval. I want English! Got to write! (Not for a living, I’m not good enough. Just for my own satisfaction. And I want to learn how to do it well.) Apparently they want me to take Psychology or Sociology or something. Ugh! How boring!”

7/15/72 [age 16]:

“I’ve begun to realize that Clear Lake can be all right if I make the most of it. We and the Chamberlains had a neat hamburger dinner at Buck and Virgie’s and it really was fun. Also, [my brother] Marc and I broke one of their trophies playing pool. More about college – You know, I’m actually looking forward to it now. Not the required P.E. swimming, but the PEOPLE. Those Law Enforcement guys were so wonderful, and I was talking to a neat guy in line Saturday and I met some nice girls. I love people – I declare love for everyone! Yeah!”

7/17/72 [age 16]:

“It is so very odd that I have no vices whatsoever. (I take that back, slightly; there WAS a stage, many years ago, when I read every obscene book I could get my hands on, but that is past.) At the present moment, I do not smoke, I do not drink, do not swear, do not take drugs, do not gamble, do not indulge in sex, and do not watch dirty films. In fact, I observe all the Commandments. My parents do five of the seven above. But I am 100% pure!”

 

 

I’m always drunk in San Francisco

I’m always drunk in San Francisco

 

“The San Franciscan has one foot planted precariously on a hill and the other planted firmly in the past.” (Herb Caen)

Sometime during the late 1800s in San Francisco, a young rounder named Charlie hoisted a couple of drinks at Curten’s saloon, a rowdy hole-in-the-wall south of Market Street. It was a Saturday night, and perhaps he hoisted more than a couple. At any rate, when he awoke on Sunday morning, he found himself – involuntarily, of course – on a cargo-laden clipper ship, facing seas rougher than the ones in his own head. The vessel was heading out on a long, dangerous voyage to England around Cape Horn in South America. Charlie had been shanghaied.

In port towns like San Francisco, it was a fairly common practice at that time for unscrupulous “crimps” to incapacitate and/or kidnap men and force them to board ships in exchange for payment, or “blood money,” from the ship’s boarding masters. This was known as a shanghai. Experienced seamen were in short supply, so any healthy body would do. Unfortunately for the unwitting, fledgling sailors, it was illegal to leave a ship before the conclusion of its voyage, so they were stuck on board for years of servitude, against their will.

A.G._Ropes_(ship,_1884)_-_Wikipedia Commons

Charlie was on his ship, the A.G. Ropes, for three years until it finally returned to dock in San Francisco. Still understandably furious, he vowed that his first act onshore would be to shoot old man Curten or, even better, boil him in oil. With his three-year grand total pay of $5 in his pocket, Charlie set his sea legs onto the dock and began making his way towards Curten’s. After stopping at a couple of bars along the way, he took out half his remaining pay and bought himself a revolver and ammunition. A few more bars later, he arrived, feeling no pain, at his destination. Sure enough, the owner was there, and he flew out from behind his bar to grab Charlie with a mammoth bear hug and a raucous greeting.

“Charlie, what the hell happened to you? I’ve missed ya for the last three years. The last time I saw you, you was in here having a good ol’ time. I’ve been so worried, my man! Come on in; your drinks are on me!”

Well, Charlie couldn’t refuse a good stiff snort of whiskey. Or two or three, if they were free.

The next morning he woke up on a whaling ship, bound for Alaska. The ship would be gone for three years.

***

Among all the books I’ve collected about San Francisco, the quirkiest one is a tiny hardcover out-of-print book that is so obscure it cannot even be found in an online search save for an entry in a 1966 copyright catalog. Rooted Deep, only 78 pages long, was written by Ward H. Albee, Sr., a stevedore and firefighter who spent his teenage years living on Telegraph Hill just a couple of blocks off the water. His book is a memoir as well as a recounting of stories he heard in his youth, and Charlie’s is among those tales.

Mr. Albee was brought up in the bawdy, lawless, corrupt, frantic, and cockeyed part of San Francisco that was the Barbary Coast. It extended along San Francisco’s brawling waterfront, where saloons, brothels, casinos, dance halls, and other gin joints were home to the assorted rogues and wanderers who lurched along those streets. The air smelled like men and rotgut, but there was a world of commerce going on, and in a few short years, the Gold Rush and the transcontinental railroad swelled the population of San Francisco from 1,000 to 100,000.

The lure of money, the whistle of a train, and endless whisky. San Francisco is a city with a provocative past, and in some ways it’s as bawdy, lawless, corrupt, frantic, and cockeyed today as it ever was.

That, my friends, is why I will always love it.

 

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***

This year marks the 40th anniversary of my living in San Francisco. For months I’ve been wanting to write something evocative and coherent about my beloved home, but my usual fears of not doing it justice have held me back. To be honest, I’m still really afraid to hit the “publish” button. The City’s beauty and allure, first of all, are nearly impossible to put into words. And I can rattle off a list of attributes until I’m exhausted, but my relationship with San Francisco is so much more personal than that. It’s about sensation, emotion, history, the accumulation of experiences.

San Francisco is not the same town, of course, that swept me off my feet when I unpacked my boxes here in 1979. And I am not the same person. I recognize that, which makes my task all the harder. Still, despite our changes, this city and I have had a wonderful, longstanding, besotted affair, and San Francisco remains, to this day, one of the great passions of my life.

***

Let’s get this out of the way first: I am not a San Francisco native. I will always be envious of my friends who can make that claim. But neither was Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who did a pretty fine job (hello, Pulitzer Prize) of writing about this town for 60 years. Not long ago my friend Val, who did grow up here, invited me into a closed social media group for SF natives. I protested. She insisted, though, that no one loves San Francisco more than I do and that I deserved to be included.

I suppose she’s right. The truth is, I may not have grown up here as a child, but I grew up here as an adult.

 

***

1962_06_Anita Phillips house, 879 28th Avenue, San Francisco_Mom, Janine, Marc, Paula
Mom, me, my brother Marc, and my sister Janine (sitting), visiting Anita and Don Phillips, 879 28th Avenue, SF

It was June of 1962 when I first made the acquaintance of the City by the Bay. I was six years old. My family lived on the west side of San Jose, in a small house in a middle-class neighborhood. Next door to us lived Anita and Don Phillips, a wonderful older couple who carried around the sorrow that their only child had died of lockjaw after falling out of a tree and onto a piece of rusty metal. They took a shine to me and vice-versa, and after Don’s job as a furniture salesman took him to San Francisco, they invited me to stay with them. I imagine I was with them only a day or two, but Anita brought me to Golden Gate Park, only a few steps away, and to the zoo. Their small but classic home on 28th Avenue in the Richmond District had a dining room – a concept completely new to me. Oh, what enchantment!

A fairytale house, with a shimmering chandelier and a beautiful built-in china cabinet. A bag of bread, my little hand reaching in and feeding ducks along a small lake in the Park. A red plastic key to turn on talking exhibit boxes at the zoo. Russ Hodges on KSFO radio, announcing that, out at the ballpark, Willie Mays was rounding third.

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I was too young then to know that I would not have existed without San Francisco. My Italian grandmother immigrated here from Italy with her brother in 1906, just in time for the Great Earthquake. Displaced by the temblor, she moved across the Bay to San Leandro, where she met my grandfather. Their second child, my father, became a language professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Although he always said that he was bewitched by my mother the minute she enrolled in his Italian class, I like to think that they both fell in love on their first date – at the long-gone Leone’s restaurant in North Beach, 450 Broadway, San Francisco, in 1951.

***

It wasn’t until my high school years, 1968-72, that I reconnected with San Francisco. Annual school field trips turned us loose among the post-Summer of Love flower children. I remember looking up with both curiosity and longing into the windows of Victorian hippie pads, getting glimpses of pottery and macramé and Jim Morrison posters and wondering what it would be like to live here. This city, she could take your breath away then. There was no other place like it.

Painted houses, psychedelic head shops, Hare Krishnas, tie-dyed shirts, the smell of patchouli and incense, and the insistent pound of bongos played by shirtless men in parks. “White Rabbit” on the radio.

After graduating from college with a Law Enforcement major and a minor in English, I told my parents I wanted to finish up my English degree at San Francisco State. Its English department had a stellar reputation. But most of all I had discovered Jack Kerouac and the other Beat writers, and the pull that San Francisco had on them was pulling me as well. I was already driving to the City as often as I could to hang out at City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and I could still feel the Beats there, even though it had been 20 years since their heyday. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the store’s owner and Beat poet extraordinaire, was often behind the counter. There was an Italian bookstore in the neighborhood, too, and Italian delis and cafes, and I could buy a cheap book and a loaf of bread and sit in Washington Square Park among the old men on the park benches. Little did I know that I would meet Ferlinghetti and edit one of his books, a mere five years into the future.

I got my English degree after three semesters at San Francisco State and immediately and through sheer luck got a job with Harper & Row Publishers down near the waterfront. But what really ignited my affair with the City was a romance into which I had been swept during my last few months in college. I fell in love for the first time, and I realized that – for a gay person in the late 1970s – San Francisco was the place to be. The city was still reeling from the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. But a new movement was taking hold in San Francisco. Gay people were moving to the city in droves, and “Castro clones” – men who dressed in flannel shirts and jeans and sported mustaches – were everywhere. San Francisco had a warm heart, open hands, and a tolerant eye. It was whimsical, it was wild, it was affectionate, it was sensuous, it was all-embracing. For a young person, of any orientation, the life in this town turned into one big party.

Wow. I had hit the vein. This was the place where I was meant to live.

***

I got my first San Francisco apartment in 1979. In those days, San Francisco was an economically diverse place. There was a beautiful symbiosis, I think, among all of the city’s strata. Hungry artists could draw breath easily alongside millionaires in mansions.

It was, in essence, a place where one could live cheaply and yet live richly.

Our studio apartment cost $190 a month, and it was minuscule. It didn’t matter, though, because I lived in a great college neighborhood near UCSF that seemed to offer everything. I browsed in used bookstores and record shops, went to double features, ate cheap ethnic food. My girlfriend was a waitress at the Front Room pizza parlor a block away, and she brought home hot pizza and vats of salad dressing nearly every night. I even invented a sandwich that they put on the menu – Bay shrimp and melted cheddar cheese on a warm, crisp sourdough roll. We cooked a lot of pasta and drank cheap red wine, and despite our cramped quarters we gave frequent dinner parties, taking the bathroom door off its hinges to use as a dining table. (Which made it interesting when a guest needed to use the facilities.) At times, too, I still slouched around North Beach alone, jacket collar turned up, naïvely believing that somehow I could still find those traces of Beat poets hanging out in the alleys.

There are other American cities just as vibrant as San Francisco – New York, certainly, and Chicago, and Los Angeles. But the difference is that San Francisco is neither raw and gritty nor an expanse of blondes and freeways. It is 7 miles square, eminently walkable, a small town in a big city’s shoes.

Around every corner, through every window, and behind every door was something new and novel. As I walked its streets I felt, at times, as if I were riding a slightly tipsy carousel of blended sound, smells, and color.

The clang of the cable car bell and the rumble of its tracks. The flapping of swans’ wings on the Palace of Fine Arts lagoon, and the echoes of their mating calls through the rotunda. The slaps and groans of pilings on the wharf. The happy, rainbow-painted old Victorians. Blues and jazz pouring out of North Beach and the Fillmore. The dusty whiffs of old books piled in stacks. The cheap flats where the writers and the musicians and the eccentrics lived, hungry but certainly not starving in those days. Street artists, jugglers, dancers, mimes, raconteurs. The roasted smell of Hills Brothers Coffee in the air south of Market. Secret alleys, some conspiratorial, some brightened with murals, others populated by young families and topped with drying laundry. Old brick buildings with friendly doormen and cranky elevators. The robust aroma of thick steaks from Tadich Grill at noon, exhaling into my office window. Salt air, sourdough, and fresh crab down at the Wharf. Old men shouting in Italian and playing bocce in North Beach or downing cappuccinos at Tosca. Downtown bike messengers racing to deliver manuscripts to printers. KABL radio’s tagline “in the air, everywhere, over San Francisco” delivered by an announcer’s deep melodious voice and accompanied by a cable car clang. The low call of the foghorns, warning of the ocean rocks.

San Francisco was, as Giants outfielder Felipe Alou once said, “alive, breathing an air all its own.”

“Ah, San Francisco,” I would often write in my young, idealistic journal, “the city of my dreams.”

 

***

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The San Francisco Chronicle was my morning-coffee habit before work. Herb Caen, who’d started writing for the paper in 1938, was like a good friend starting off my day. Back then you could sometimes see him roaming around town, always looking jaunty in a hat. His deep adoration of the City permeated the daily columns he tapped out on his trusty Royal typewriter. Caen sent personal responses to every one of his letters, and I have a few of ’em myself.

***

Literary San FranciscoAfter I’d worked a year at Harper & Row, the company moved its staff to New York, and I refused to go. So I became a freelancer, working for book, magazine, and newspaper publishers all over San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Marin County. I edited a book by, and got to meet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who, by the way, turned 100 earlier this year). Later when I worked at a nonprofit political publisher, vendors were always squiring my boss and me to fancy three-martini lunches. On many a workday afternoon I leaned over manuscripts sporting a pickled grin.

I may have lived paycheck to paycheck, but oh, the food and oh, the spirits!

***

For me, perhaps above all else, the City then was a place where I could be myself and not have to worry about the judgment of strangers. In those days the social climate for gay people in this country was not as warm and accepting as it can be now. In San Francisco, though, gay bars and bookstores and softball leagues and music and comedy clubs offered an array of activities in a carefree, safe environment. And even outside those like-minded venues, SF was just a downright welcoming town. For this conservative girl, it was a heady buzz.

When I found myself single again, I decided to organize a few Parks & Rec basketball and softball teams. Some of the softball games started at 9 p.m., which, in the summer, meant that out near the ocean the fog would have already rolled in thickly and the outfielders could not possibly see the batter. They could only pray that batted balls would drop into their mitts and not onto their heads. After the games it was cheap pizza and endless pitchers of Anchor Steam, and somehow we’d close down the joints at 2 a.m. and then head back to work in the early morning hours.

Meanwhile, I was dating like mad. So many nights I’d come home late after this or that adventure, usually alone, never afraid, through the misty, western streets of the city. The fog always felt like a cloak, hiding the mysteries and promises of a night without limits.

Herb Caen used to say that San Francisco was always a mecca for round pegs in a largely square world. I saw it as the place where the chimes of freedom were flashing.

***

Main-gate-for-webMuch to my joy, my sister often allowed her kids to stay with me by themselves. On one such visit, my young niece Sara wanted to go looking for San Francisco landmarks that Laura Ingalls Wilder had mentioned in her 1915 letters to her husband. Among them were the reclining lion statues at the western edge of Golden Gate Park. Sara squealed when she saw them, still on their perches, reminders of days past. We visited the Exploratorium and the Zoo. We rented paddleboats on Stowe Lake, where I’d fed the ducks as a child, and ate a Kentucky Fried Chicken picnic lunch on the grass. At the end of the day she declared that she wanted to go out to the beach and “sit on a rock and talk.” It occurred to me that that’s not something you can do everywhere.

“Auntie Paula,” Sara said when she finally allowed me to tuck her in that night, “this has been a perfect day.”

By the way, she ended up getting married in Golden Gate Park. The cuisine? KFC.

***

marqueeAround the time I hung up my cleats, I started playing drums and put together a band. We got recurring gigs at a south-of-Market former speakeasy called Spike’s. Spike’s had deep red walls, black curtains, surrealistic paintings, and an underground vibe. Our first show, which started after midnight, drew such a huge crowd that there was a line down the street. Where else could a bunch of women with very little musical experience attract such an ardent following at 1:00 in the morning? Later on our venue was Kimo’s, a two-story dive on Polk Street that specialized in drag shows, rock and roll, and cheap drinks. As Hunter Thompson once said about San Francisco in general, Kimo’s was a haven for “mad drinkers and men of strange arts.” The place was dark and poorly managed and smelled of age and spilled beer, but we were allowed free rein to set our gig schedule, collect whatever cover charge we wanted, and play all night. Like much of San Francisco, the joint had a tawdry yet creatively liberating history. Metallica once played a surprise set there.

***

I remember vividly the day I heard Herb Caen passed away. It was February 2, 1997, and the news made me heartsick. Obviously I had never known the man, but he had been a daily part of my life for almost 20 years, and he’d always made me feel connected to San Francisco’s past and present. That night, Julie and I went out to dinner at the Beach Chalet, a restaurant and brewery overlooking the water where I could wallow in my gloom. I ordered my usual burger on a crisp sourdough roll, along with a hearty ale. The bartender stopped serving for a few minutes and informed the assembled diners and drinkers that we needed to raise our glasses in remembrance of the great newspaperman. His voice was full of pathos. The locals there knew exactly what had died inside us. Herb Caen was our beloved touchstone, our morning fix of the City. The voice of “Mr. San Francisco” was silent. What would happen to us now?

Herb, by the way, loved a martini. Vodka. On the rocks, with a twist. Shaken, not stirred. He called it “Vitamin V.” At his memorial, comedian Robin Williams announced that a special “Herb Caen communion” would be served, consisting of martinis and sourdough.

***

A couple of decades have passed since then. Most of my friends have gone, many of them back to the East Coast where they grew up. “When are you moving?” one of them asked when Julie and I retired, as if that were the default.

Here’s the deal. Age or infirmity might intervene at some point, but for now, I want to stay right where I am, tethered strongly to this place by a near lifetime of sturdy roots.

So what would I miss about this city if ever I had to leave her?

The topography and natural beauty. The ocean, the hills, the clean air, the crisp breezes. (The Dutch, by the way, practice an activity called uitwaaien, or “outblowing.” It’s about spending time in the wind, and it’s purported to have the effect of clearing one’s mind and engendering a feeling of relaxation and happiness. On the day we got married, the wind was titanic. Skirts were lifted, hair was whirled. My sister Janine snapped a photo of one gusty moment, all of us screaming with laughter. This has been a perfect day, I thought to myself.)

361_J_IMG_4400

The way the temperature surprises you every day, depending upon the vicissitudes of the fog. Will it appear? Will it hang off the coast, or will it come rolling in? And if so, how far? Will it blanket the city, or will it cling to the edges?

Crazy ballot initiatives like the one involving Brendan O’Smarty, my all-time favorite SF character. Mr. O’Smarty was a ventriloquist’s dummy. His owner was Bob Geary, a police officer who liked to take the puppet on his rounds to help ease tensions. When Officer Geary was told by management that he had to get rid of Brendan, he succeeded in putting the matter on the ballot. The referendum – “Shall it be the policy of the people of San Francisco to allow Police Officer Bob Geary to decide when he may use his puppet Brendan O’Smarty while on duty?” – passed.

Our small but character-filled 1930s house with its gravity heater, hallway telephone nook, center patio, stenciled mahogany beams, wall sconces, breakfast room with built-in cabinets, art deco split bathrooms with pedestal sinks, and downstairs room cool enough to be a wine cellar, at a dependable 55 degrees.

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The red fire alarm call box on our streetcorner, installed before everyone had a home phone.

Some of the greatest medical care in the world, which is perfect for me because – as I’ve said many times – my ideal retirement spot is across the street from a hospital.

The San Francisco Chronicle each morning with breakfast, still a necessity.

Tonga Room

The floating stage at the Fairmont’s Tonga Room, a 1940s Polynesian-themed bar with an indoor “lagoon,” periodic “rainstorms,” and bold tropical drinks.

Surfers, peeling off their wetsuits out on the Great Highway, having just ridden the waves on . . .

The rocky, roaring, crashing, thunderous Pacific Ocean, carrying cargo ships to the end of their voyages home.

Buses, trolleys, streetcars, and cable cars that may be quirky but that can get any San Franciscan anywhere in the city at a decent price.

Liguria Bakery in North Beach, the only place that makes focaccia that tastes like Italy, the way it did when I was a child.

Fisherman's Wharf, 1940s_Walter H. Miller (public)

Seafood right off the boat, fresh, at neighborhood butcher shops and delis.

Dungeness crab, the sweetest in the world, eaten chilled and pristine with just olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper, and a hunk of . . .

Sourdough bread. Robust flavor, chewy inside, and a crisp crust.

The legendary San Francisco Giants, who arrived in the city – with the greatest player to ever take the field – just as I became aware of baseball. Half a century later they handed San Francisco the first of three World Series and caused me to weep for three days.

America’s most beautiful ballpark, an easy streetcar ride away. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a crab sandwich on sourdough, and sweeping views of San Francisco Bay.

pied piper bar (marriott.com)

The Palace Hotel at Christmastime, with its enormous gingerbread houses and snow globes, its elegant Garden Court dining room which has been designated as an indoor historic landmark, and its classic but casual bar overlooked by “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” a 6×6 foot, 250-pound Maxfield Parrish mural.

The 50-year-old, world famous, naughty, serious, playful, beat-pounding San Francisco Pride Parade.

The organist at the historic Castro theater, who rises up like a phoenix from the stage before every program, playing a medley of classics before ending always with “California, Here I Come,” then “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” then finally, with great bombast, “San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate,” to thunderous applause, before sinking back down into the stage as the curtains open.

mish_house_looming (noehill.com)

Colorful Victorian, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Marina-style homes, each a visual feast of bay windows, facades, arches, cornices, columns, and gargoyles.

Our gilded and majestic City Hall, where I got married.

All the dive bars that are still great bars, full of characters and character, like . . .

The Riptide out at 47th Avenue and Taraval, near the shore. Heading west, it’s been pointed out, the next closest bar is in Hawaii. Sporadic free food; the last time we were there, they were doling out lasagna, “courtesy of Alisha.” Surfer spot. Warm yet cool. Nostalgic yet youthful. Knotty pine décor. A wood-burning fireplace. Cash only. And, as Springsteen might say, cold beer at a REEEEA-sonable price.

Balclutha (NPS photo)

The Balclutha, an old “tall ship” I like to visit in the winter, when the docks are nearly empty. Retired and moored down at the wharf for many decades, she once carried her cargo around Cape Horn, then joined the salmon fishing industry and made several trips up to Alaska and back. In her time she carried pottery, cutlery, whisky, wool, tallow, canned salmon, lumber, and fishermen and their supplies. She also appeared in the film Mutiny on the Bounty, and now she rests. Very few square-rigged ships are left, and this one is a beauty. I love standing on the creaky deck with the rain on my face.

Golden Gate Park, bigger than Central Park in New York City, fashioned literally from grains of sand. Designed by John McLaren, it’s got museums, a music concourse, about a dozen lakes, a buffalo paddock, flyfishing ponds, horse stables, a Japanese tea garden, an arboretum, a conservatory of flowers, tulip gardens, windmills, a polo field, an archery range, and a carousel.

The diverse people in 36 official, discrete neighborhoods within a 7-mile-square town.

25,000 other things.

And the fact that this city is a watercolor of culture and cultures, with so much to offer that any one marginalized person, lost and alone, can come here and find identity and meaning, acceptance and renewal.

***

It’s become fashionable these days to malign San Francisco. Often the dystopian critiques are political, thrown around by pundits who like to make the City – and, in fact, California in general – into an example of what happens when progressive politics are involved.

In reality, San Francisco is a peaceful place that doesn’t come even remotely close to making the list of the most dangerous U.S. metropolitan areas.

But it’s also true that property crimes – especially car break-ins – have been soaring here, and now we’ve gone and elected a district attorney who has never prosecuted a crime in his life! Sigh.

But that’s San Francisco for ya.

The city is also dealing with other urban problems, including increasing homelessness, drug use, and unclean streets. City Hall has not yet addressed these issues effectively, and permissive attitudes and selective enforcement of the law don’t help.

Many of our challenges, though, are related to the fact that we have a severe housing shortage and serious income inequality. The city cannot expand geographically, and construction regulations here are nearly impenetrable. We welcome innovation and we breed forward-thinkers, so we’re now taking on a host of tech companies (who’ve been handed generous tax breaks) and massive numbers of their employees who have rolled into town looking for a place to land.

The truth is that for all the residents who leave because they can’t afford the high housing costs, there are just too many people wanting to move here.

“Nobody goes there anymore,” as the gag goes, “because it’s too popular.”

***

Longtime San Franciscans often demonize the tech workers these days. After all, they make boatloads of money, and the price of housing here has skyrocketed. Most of my neighbors are formerly middle-class workers like electricians, postal carriers, hairdressers, public sector employees, office managers, and the like. But they’ve lived on this street forever. Were they starting over now in those careers, they’d never be able to afford to live here. The new people moving in are working mainly for companies like Google.

We’ve certainly demonized other groups in the past. Going back to the 19th century, we’ve maligned the Chinese, the beatniks, the hippies, the gays, and everyone else who seemed to be “taking over” the city. Is there a difference now?

Maybe. Today’s newcomers are not introducing new cultures or social movements. They’re introducing great wealth, and it has become a dominant presence in this once much more egalitarian town.

  • The teachers and police officers and others who make the city run cannot afford to get a place here. Because of the influx of money, the average rent for a San Francisco apartment is $4,500 a month.
  • Some of the newcomers are literally painting the town gray, as a recent Chronicle story reported. They gut the old Victorians to install modern conveniences, then have the audacity to replace the gorgeous old external house colors with an overall charcoal gray. One realtor called it “sophisticated,” while to some of us it’s about wiping out historical details and erasing character.
  • The skyline is morphing into something almost unrecognizable, at least to us old-timers. The aesthetics are not pleasing. The new Salesforce Tower looks like a giant nose-hair trimmer.
  • Traffic has ballooned, due primarily to Uber and Lyft, because God forbid the newcomers take public transportation.
  • Cafés that were once comfortable gathering spots for creative types are now industrial-cold workspaces.
  • Live music joints are closing.
  • Restaurants are bent on serving up “artisanal” food and drink now. I mean, we’re making vodka out of fog, for crying out loud.

But some of these types of changes are happening nearly everywhere. Let’s face it, the American way of life is transforming dramatically. So perhaps we old-timers are Neanderthals, curmudgeons. A guy named Will Irwin once told Herb Caen, “San Francisco isn’t what it used to be, but it never was!”

San Francisco is a town that hangs onto its past tenaciously, but it also allows room for change. “These newcomers are just going to stay for five years and then leave,” we kvetch. But maybe not. If they stay long enough, the new kids will have their own memories. In the meantime, the rest of us can choose to grumble about our inconstant town or we can watch, with interest, to see what unfolds.

***

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I suppose it’s now the twilight of my life. I never could have imagined it when I strolled wide-eyed around San Francisco in my youth, but I own my own home now. I even have my own dining room. We walk our dog Buster Posey around Stowe Lake, where I first learned to love San Francisco, and afterwards eat fish tacos for lunch out on the lawn behind the Beach Chalet, where we once toasted Herb Caen. And in the evenings at sunset I sit in our backyard with a glass of wine and a good book, occasionally looking up to stare at the beautifully lit dome of St. Cecilia’s church. I am always awed and comforted by the sight. The bells of St. Cecilia’s ring each evening at about 5:20. On clear days the sky turns slowly orange as the sun sets over the coast. On other days, the fog continues its gentle roll inward.

As my glass drains I get increasingly sentimental. I think about the wild history of this town, from the Gold Rush through the labor movement, the Beats, the hippies, the gays, and all the other social forces that have arisen here. I think about my own history as well, and the very real part that this city has played in it.

West Portal (old b and w)
West Portal, 1927

How lucky I am, I think, to live just a few walkable blocks from the West Portal neighborhood, a place that a local shopowner once described to us as “Mayberry.” Someone once wrote that West Portal is like the set of a 1950s movie. Our century-old theater, Post Office, drugstore, banks, produce market, and restaurants and drinking establishments offer everything we need.

How many people enjoy the sense of place that I do? How many people thank God every day, as I do, for the town in which they live?

We went to see Hamilton at the Orpheum theater this summer and sat next to someone who had flown in from Portland just for the experience. At Giants games we routinely sit beside people who have come from across the country – or across the world – to watch a game in the most beautiful park in the land. But I get to enjoy these things whenever I want. I live here.

It’s fall, now – the best time of year by the Bay. A jet flies directly overhead, bound across the Pacific. Two doors down, kids are playing outside as new young families are moving into the ’hood. I’m reading Herb Caen’s Baghdad by the Bay, and a chilled glass of white wine is warming me up. The blood flows; the mind wanders. Seagulls are cawing. I smell eucalyptus. I will never, ever fall out of love for this place. Forty years on, I wish it would never end. I want to live my last day here.

This, you see, is where I always belonged.

Here’s to a life that’s been one long, drunken, and glorious night. A toast to you, my city, my heart.

 

***

I’m always drunk in San Francisco
I always stay out of my mind
But if you’ve been to San Francisco
They say that things like this
Go on all the time

It never happens nowhere else
Maybe it’s the air
Can’t ever seem to help myself
And what’s more I don’t care

I’m always drunk in San Francisco
I’m never feeling any pain
But tell me why does San Francisco
Like a lover’s kiss go straight to my brain

I guess it’s just the mood I’m in
That acts like alcohol

Because I’m drunk in San Francisco
You better believe I stay stoned in San Francisco
I’m always drunk in San Francisco
And I don’t drink at all

–Tommy Wolf
(sung live by Carmen McRae at the Great American Music Hall, SF, 1976)

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXSS9tNL0N4&list=RDRXSS9tNL0N4&start_radio=1

 

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A long, strange trip

A long, strange trip

 

Dear readers, my writing has been stuck lately. I know that my next blog needs to be – no, is going to be – about my great love for San Francisco. But I can’t seem to do the topic justice and I’ve been mentally flogging myself about it for weeks. Basically, I suck and I stink. So I’ve decided to put the grand opus away for a while and concentrate instead on a little ditty about the zaniest commute day I ever had.

***

It was the winter of 1979, in the waning days of the old green San Francisco streetcars. Fresh out of college, I’d just taken a job at Harper & Row Publishers down on the Embarcadero. Every evening after work I’d catch the 42 bus out near the railroad tracks across from Pier 23, get off at the former Transbay Terminal, and take the N-Judah streetcar outbound to my apartment in the Inner Sunset. The trip was never a short one, and it was rarely without incident. But on this December night in particular, what a long strange trip it was.

In those days, the 42-bus driver had a number of quirks. Most annoyingly, he whistled – continually – “As Time Goes By,” the lovely tune that Sam sings in Casablanca. The problem was that he whistled the first three lines and then stopped, without ever getting to the resolving line. Sans lyrics, what we heard was:

You must remember this:
A kiss is still a kiss.
A sigh is just a sigh . . . .

And then nothing. Crickets. A few seconds later he started over. It drove me absolutely mad.

The fundamental things apply!” I wanted to scream at him. “As time goes by, you irksome twit! Stop persecuting me!”

This guy also had the well-deserved reputation for driving, well, a tad rapidly. But breakneck speed was really the lesser of his foibles. What was worse was his habit of trying to stop on a dime at every corner, throwing his passengers into a severe panic and into the aisles.

On that particular day I was wearing my platform shoes for the first time ever, no easy challenge for feet accustomed to years of sneakers. I twisted my ankle about 742 times that day. It was in a most crippled state, then, that I hobbled tentatively onto the bus and, unable to find a seat, grabbed the pole directly in front of the sideways seats up front. Big mistake. The driver took off like a madman. I clutched the pole in fear of my life at the first two corners but lost my balance at the third. In a dizzying display of clumsiness I spun 180 degrees around the pole and tumbled backwards across the laps of three teenage boys. They were polite (albeit stunned), but I was mortified – so mortified, in fact, that I became confused, lost my composure, and simply got off the bus then and there.

I made the long walk up Battery Street and across Market to the Transbay Terminal in about half an hour, record time considering that I fell off my shoes every 50 feet. The usual throngs of people were waiting at the streetcar turnaround, and I planted myself in the exact spot where I’d calculated that the doors would open when the N-Judah pulled up. That way, I’d be strategically positioned to shove my way through the front doors and do a swan dive into an empty seat.

But then came disaster. Rain. The old streetcars’ nemesis. For some reason – perhaps wet tracks? – the entire system would often become disabled by the mere suggestion of water. Those stubborn, breakdown-prone streetcars would simply refuse to move in inclement weather. They’d back up along Market Street, about 25 of ’em, and hundreds of pathetic commuters would be stranded. The Municipal Railway (Muni) would then send out its regular buses, after an interminable wait, and because the buses couldn’t go through the Duboce tunnel, they would discharge the hapless commuters at the Van Ness stop to wait again. I’m not sure what good that did at all.

Sure enough, the buses arrived about an hour later and deposited us at Van Ness. By then the system had gotten started again, though, so the next 12 streetcars that came by passed us without slowing down, crammed to the hilt with people they’d picked up all along Market.

After I finally made it onto an N-Judah streetcar with a few inches of available room, and as we were plodding our way through the tunnel, the alarm bells suddenly screamed and we slammed to a halt.

“All right, is someone stuck in the doors or are you just playing around?” our driver yelled, infuriated. “Someone better answer me” (then a pause) “or we’re not moving at all! Is someone stuck in the goddam doors?”

“No,” came the meek response from all of us standing jammed and exhausted in the car. I myself was immobilized with depression at the thought of “not moving at all.”

“You get paid enough!” came one passenger’s rather puzzling retort.

“I don’t get paid enough to take your abuse!”

“Well, turn the heat off then!” (Another frustration-induced non sequitur.)

“The heat’s not on!” yelled the driver. He tried to re-start the streetcar but it wouldn’t budge. “Thanks a lot, buddy!” he shouted at the argumentative passenger, whom he apparently blamed for his constant mechanical trials and never-ending series of breakdowns.

Someone standing behind me told everyone that it had happened to him once, getting stuck in the tunnel. “What a horrible feeling,” he droned, “watching the headlight from another streetcar rush up on you from behind and thinking, ‘We’re gonna be hit. . . . We’re gonna be hit . . . . We’re gonna be hit . . . .’ ”

In unison, everyone anxiously whipped around to size up the situation behind us.

Meanwhile, the driver got out and worked on the door, along with a bunch of Muni men from all the other streetcars who were now stopped as far as the eye could see in both directions.

At one point something fell on the tracks, maybe a huge piece of metal, and it clanged and echoed in the dark.

“What was that?” someone asked, and a droll commuter in the back cracked, “Maybe one of the driver’s eyelashes fell out.”

Once the door was finally fixed they still couldn’t get the car going, so another streetcar came up on the tracks behind us to push us in traditional Muni fashion – by slamming mercilessly into our rear. Wham! (we’d lurch a foot). Whack! (another foot).

Unbelievably enough, when we emerged from the tunnel and the streetcar gained power again and it seemed that we would all get home after all, the back doors suddenly started banging open and closed repeatedly, rapid-fire, as if possessed. The streetcar couldn’t move, of course. We all groaned.

I’d gotten off work three hours earlier and still hadn’t made the 5 miles home across town yet. People all over the city were getting ready for bed and I was still stuck on the N-Judah. I eased my way resignedly towards the front and got out into the chilly December night. And walked home.

the end

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

4/23/72 [age 16]:

“God, give us peace here, not simply the superficial absence of war, but genuine unequivocable [sic] harmony and unity. Give Ireland back to the Irish and Vietnam back to the Vietnamese. Let Cubans and Russians and East Germans have their freedom, and, in turn, let Americans come to know and appreciate what freedom is (as yet they do not). Free us from environmental pollution and the curse of overpopulation. Is it possible that the starving can have food, and the naked can have clothes, and the homeless can have shelter? Deprive me – I am too well off for my own good.

“Let the unemployed find work, if they so deserve. Give strength to victims of mental disease and fatal illnesses, like cancer and leukemia, and physical handicaps, and to those who love them. Help the unfortunate victims of broken homes. Let the blind see and the deaf hear and the dumb speak and the lame walk and the ignorant be made wise. Comfort the broken-hearted; they, too, suffer. Enlighten students to the values of education (I know without it I would be totally lost). Let the young take care of the old, and the old appreciate the young. Restore to the populace a real sense of moral value. Keep good people as they are, and convert the bad to good. Let the innocent be safe from the guilty.

“Bless my relatives and friends. Give [my younger sister] Janine the ability to withstand my persecutions, release the clutches of hay fever from [my brother] Marc, help Mom stop smoking, and get that stupid job off Dad’s back. Ease Grampy’s asthma, let Nonna at least remember who she is, and help Auntie Jackie lose weight so she is not so fat.

“And for me – may the coming of college be a ‘finding’ and not a ‘losing,’ may I retain my mental and physical health, and perhaps (can I ask this?) may I gain a little bit of common sense and knowhow? Let me accomplish something while I am here.”

4/19/72 [age 16]: [Ed.’s note: Even after the girls were finally allowed to wear pants at our high school during our senior year, my parents didn’t allow me to wear them except, I think, during finals week. And maybe on FridaysI can’t remember.]

“On our field trip to San Francisco today, Jeanne and I changed our clothes twice in the course of the day. I snuck a pair of Levi’s out of the house around [my brother] Marc’s waist. When we got to school we rushed to the restroom to change into our Levi’s and barely made it to the bus on time. We ran the 150 in 10 seconds. In SF we went to Golden Gate Park and just sat down on a grassy hill and ate our lunches. Soon we had only 20 minutes left and we still had to change into our dresses [for a play we were about to see]. We were looking for a restroom but they charge admission to get in the museum, we found out. Some guy said the restrooms were way over there behind the pillars. We had four minutes left before the bus took off so we sped over there, changed, in a flash, and sped back. Embarrassment. Everyone was on the bus already. Then we went to the play, ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’ It was well-done, but BORING. I almost fell asleep. Finally, the play ended at 4:35. Joe Turner and Mark Anhier had cut out of the play and weren’t there. Mr. Vierra went on a wild goose chase with the police all over Golden Gate Park but didn’t find them. They eventually got suspended. Anyway, eventually I came home in my dress with no idea how I was going to sneak my Levi’s back into the house. Jeanne said she’d hold them for me and I could smuggle them home with my gym clothes Friday. However, Thursday was Mom’s washing day, and noting the missing pants, she figured the whole thing out.”

4/24/72 [age 16]:

“Joe – as you know, he’s my lab partner in Physiology. (I can’t stand Physiology right now; we’re cutting up the stupid mink and I’ll never be able to memorize all those muscles.) He got suspended Thursday. He’s always talking to me in English. On the bus going to that memorable field trip Jeanne told me she thought he liked me. Would I go to the Senior Ball if he asked me? Ha, I’m sure Mom and Dad would never let me go with that ‘hood.’ ”

4/26/72 [age 16]:

“I MUST relate my bike-riding experiences! First I went to Jeanne’s at 10:15 (my chain slipped off once and my hands got all black; her mother sprayed some stuff on them to take the grease off). She had to take her little brother to Eastridge to pick up a friend, so I drove with her out there. (She’s a good driver – nice and smooth.) Then we came back and her mother wanted her to go water some garden at Noble School, so we bike rode over there and we played tetherball for awhile. Then we rode to the library and then down to the drugstore because I had to pick up some prints. I wanted to eat, but Jeanne wasn’t hungry, so since she wanted to go the Flea Market and had never been there, we went. I wanted to eat there, but she STILL was not hungry. Then we rode back to Jeanne’s to eat lunch; I called home, and Jeanne discovered she had lost her mom’s keys at Noble. So we drove back over there, looked, walked to the library, looked, drove to the drugstore and looked, but they were nowhere to be found. This was after we ate lunch of hot dogs and potato chips and cupcakes and Oreos. We rode back and she suggested we play tennis (I swear, she is a tennis fanatic) and I won, as usual. (It’s just my consistency; she is a better player.) Then she drove me and the bike home. Don’t we do thrilling things?”

5/1/72 [age 16]:

“Jeanne and I had pizza and chicken TV dinners for dinner. Afterwards I sat on the couch and she sat on the steps and played my guitar. (She’s darn good, too.) Then we established the fact that neither of us is arrogant.”

5/8/72 [age 16]:

“Today Nixon made a critical speech about how we were going to back off North Vietnam ports and then withdraw only when they release our American POWs, etc. I don’t know what will come of all this. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be atom-bombed.”

5/18/72 [age 16]:

“I went to the CSF Life Membership Ceremony tonight. They read our names and we had to walk up on stage (I was so afraid I was going to trip) and Mr. Bailey named our college and our major. That was embarrassing – everyone thinks Law Enforcement is so wierd [sic]. Then (I’m such a klutz) the people to the right of me would move down and I’d stand there oblivious, with a big space between us until the girl on my left nudged me. I did that THREE TIMES!! Good grief. How dumb.”

5/23/72 [age 16]:

“Last night I got a really cute blue bodyshirt. It’s not really too tight, but I like it. It makes me look more feminine. I’m changing. I always hated more feminine styles but I’m coming to like them more and more. A new image is what I need; I wish I had done it sooner. I can’t go on being a tomboy forever.”

5/26/72 [age 16]:

“Today was Senior Picnic. Well, Jeanne and Robin and I didn’t want to go. So we got this wild idea to stay in Mr. Healy’s room and we brought food like gobs and we played Risk and talked. Everyone thinks we’re wierd [sic]. We are. I had potato chips and onion dip and a tuna sandwich and an egg salad sandwich and a deviled egg and two chicken legs and about twenty cookies and a big piece of cake.”

 

 

 

If you’ll be my bodyguard

If you’ll be my bodyguard

I was dreading the Outside Lands music festival this year. And no, not because we can hear the booming bass notes three miles away at my house, where I was almost blown out of my rattan patio chair by the sound check.

No, I was dreading it because, for the first time, I actually had tickets.

***

Every year, my friend Laurie and her daughter Hayley stay in our downstairs guest room while they attend Outside Lands. I use the term “guest room” loosely, and those of you who live in San Francisco’s Sunset District know exactly what I mean. In this western part of the city, the (usually two-bedroom) Marina-style homes are built above garages that run the length of the house, and many of the garages have been partially converted into spare rooms. Most of the time, these rooms are not built to code and are unpleasantly dark and dank, with low ceilings marred by the occasional stray water leak. Ours, however, was an original room built with our 1936 house, so although it’s still as chilly as a wine cellar, it was built to code, with a regular ceiling and sans water leaks as far as we know. But it has its quirks. In the old days it served as a “rumpus room,” so instead of a closet there is a wet bar area with a flip-up wooden “bar counter” and vintage sink. And around the corner there is a separate toilet room, smaller than a phone booth, with just, well, a toilet. The walls are concrete, so we’ve painted them wild colors just to avoid the potential bunker-like ambiance.

Laurie and Hayley
Laurie and Hayley

Laurie and Hayley started their charming mother-daughter Outside Lands tradition when Hayley was graduating from high school. I fondly call these two “The Churchmice,” because when they stay downstairs we hardly know they’re here, as they spend all three days at the festival and refuse to so much as drink an ounce of our water lest they inconvenience us. Occasionally one of them pops upstairs to take a shower, but otherwise they come and go with the utmost of stealth.

***

Outside Lands is a three-day music, arts, and food festival held in Golden Gate Park. It never rains in San Francisco in August, so – unlike the great 1969 sludge-fest at Woodstock – the weather is not a potential problem. Most of the time it’s foggy, but sometimes the sun makes a quick and casual appearance, like a reluctant party guest. Security is tight. The whole thing is organized down to the most minute of details. Five beautiful stages are set up so that the sound from one never bleeds into the other. It’s eco-friendly. More than 80 local restaurants and food trucks offer everything from bacon flights to pork belly burgers to acai bowls to liquid creme brûlées to apple and wildflower honey melts (I have no idea what those are). This year marked the introduction of Grass Lands, which featured cannabis products for sale and inhalation/consumption. The Wine Lands area allows ticketholders to try wines from 125 different wineries; Beer Lands offers a similarly varied selection of craft brews. Attendees can listen to rock, pop, Americana, country, hip hop, comedy, lectures, and just about anything else that entertains. It’s always peaceful, despite the huge crowds of up to 90,000 a day.

I’d optimistically bought my Outside Lands tickets, back in May, because I was interested in the Lumineers (fairly contemporary), the Counting Crows (middle-aged dinosaurs), and Paul Simon (at 77, definitely an old dinosaur). But considering my unrelenting back problems, I now knew I couldn’t spend full days at the festival, and there are no in-and-out privileges. Seating is on the lawn (unless you’re rich enough to spend $1,600 for a la-di-da VIP ticket). So even if I were to attend only the three shows, I had no idea how I was going to sit on the cold hard ground, out in the fog, being jostled and trampled upon by harmless, happy, but potentially inebriated young festivalgoers.

LL Bean seat cushion
L.L. Bean seat cushion

Nevertheless, I prepared myself. I bought a small, light, clear plastic backpack, to adhere to the new bag policy imposed for security reasons. Heeding the advice of my friend Julie R., I also purchased an extremely lightweight L.L.Bean self-inflating seat cushion that came in its own tiny sack. Other than a bottle of water and a good fleece jacket, not much else was needed.

***

As luck would have it, the Counting Crows and the Lumineers were both scheduled for Friday night, on the same stage back to back (albeit with an hour’s break in between). Paul Simon, the closer, was slated for Sunday night.

Laurie and Hayley arrived mid-day on Friday, as they usually do, and we offered them a ride to the festival. When we dropped them off, Laurie apparently sprang quickly into action.

“Ok. So here’s the story,” she texted me a few minutes later. I’m not sure we were even home yet. “There are [ADA] wristbands that you can get issued. Still can’t figure out how to get that. But I went to the guy who is staffing the Twin Peaks stage and his name is Lee. He said that I just need to go right up to him and tell him my name and bring you and you can stay in the ADA section as long as you want. He’s worked that spot for 7 years. He remembers faces.”

She also, of course, sent a photo of the ADA section.

ADA section
ADA viewing section

Now, ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which regulates public accommodations for people with disabilities. The very idea that I could be in an “ADA section” startled me.

“But I can’t be in there,” I thought. “Not me. I don’t have a disability.”

After all, up until last October I was a fine physical specimen. Okay, I wasn’t a stud like my friends who run marathons, climb Mt. Everest, and hike Machu Picchu, but I was working out on the elliptical for half an hour every day and had even started walking to the beautiful Moraga steps – a 3-mile trip, plus 163 steps – to help strengthen my brittle bones. Yes, maybe now I have a painful and unbalanced sacroiliac that my doctor says looks like I had been through some sort of “trauma.” And yes, maybe now I can’t walk 50 steps without my back seizing up. But ADA accommodations are for old people and people in wheelchairs. Definitely not for me. Oh, no. I am far too young and strapping for that.

2015_01-01_Moraga stairs_Paula
With Buster at the Moraga steps

 

***

The Counting Crows were scheduled to play at about 7:00 on Friday night, and Julie drove me to the Outside Lands gate at the appointed time. Laurie, bless her heart, had told me that she’d meet me inside and escort me to the stage area. I don’t know whether it was because it was the opening night and the workers were all fresh as daisies, or whether it was because they were surprised to see an old lady all by herself, but every gate attendant looked at me with a huge smile and told me to have an absolutely wonderful time at Outside Lands. This was starting out well!

By this time, Laurie had already calculated that there were 3,200 steps from the gate to the Twin Peaks stage. She was ON it!

But she was also worried, I think, about how I’d make it that far over what I now call “rough terrain.”

“Can I ask you something?” she said. Whoa, I thought, she is immediately getting into a heavy discussion with me about something. Politics? Religion? Our personal lives?

“Of course,” I answered, expectantly.

“Is there a way we could get a ride on this if we get an ADA wristband?” Oops, she wasn’t talking to me at all. She had spotted some kind of transport vehicle and was finagling a seat for me with the driver.

“Sure,” the driver said, “I’m going up to the Twin Peaks stage anyway.”

I started to protest. “Oh, but I don’t have a wristband yet, and I don’t want you to have to wait for me.”

“Don’t worry, you can just get one near the stage. Hop in.”

Well, I didn’t exactly hop, but we did climb in, and the driver took off like a bat out of hell, flying over these big plastic humps that were set up every few feet, so hard that I flew up out of my seat each time we hit one, despite my desperate attempts at bracing myself. I was saved the 3,200 steps, but my sacroiliac got a most unwelcome jarring.

windmills-sfoutsidelands.com

At the end of that wild ride we were let off right at the ADA viewing section and, as promised, Lee let us in immediately, no questions asked. (Wristbands were not provided anywhere, so that mystery continued.) The ADA platform was large, totally flat, and surrounded by a barrier, with perfect sightlines. A couple of helpers immediately put out folding chairs for us with (hooray!) backrests. All I needed was my handy inflatable seat cushion. And here’s the best part: a row of bathrooms was set up right there! So, unlike all the poor schlubs who had to trek from their crowded lawn areas when they had to pee, we had immediate access to restrooms! I could get used to this!

I looked around me. There were a few people in wheelchairs or with walkers or canes. But there were also folks like me, with no visible infirmity. Most of us were older, but there were pregnant women as well, along with a smattering of young people. My resistance and guilt began to ebb very quickly.

I puzzled over why the ADA area was so sparsely populated. Then I realized that most young people wouldn’t be caught dead in it. In fact, 11 months ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead in it!

***

Adam Duritz_Huffington Post_
Adam Duritz and his hair

This post isn’t about the music, but let me just say that I enjoyed both bands. I did think that Adam Duritz, the front man for the Counting Crows, took a few too many liberties with his own songs, not to mention that it took me a while to get over my shock at seeing Duritz and his hair looking like a middle-aged car mechanic wearing an oversized Siberian hat. But the Lumineers’ energetic performances of their pure and rustic folk tunes were sublime. Meanwhile, the mostly-young(ish) crowd was amicable and happy.  Some of the attendees were a little loose in the gait, probably because they’d been drinking for the last 8 hours, but I saw no fights, nor did anyone appear to get sick. The only common faux pas seemed to be severely underdressed folks, partly because out-of-towners, in particular, don’t realize that a 75-degree day will quickly drop into a 50-degree sunset. I wore a shirt, fleece, and my heavy jacket.

The_Lumineers
Lumineers

Inexplicably, no ADA cart was available at the end of the Lumineers show, so I had to walk the 3,200 steps back to the exit, a portion of which was uphill on uneven “rough terrain,” which was a bit taxing. Parts of my sacroiliac that had been fine now started to join in the complaint chorus.

When I got home that night, I recounted to Julie all the things that Laurie had managed for me. “Well, she’s a mom,” Julie said. “Moms know how to take care of business.”

She was right. My mother, my sister, and all the other moms I’ve known – they’re resourceful and they get things done. They don’t fool around.

***

What is it that keeps me from being able to accept assistance gracefully? Part of it is pride. Even when I was most unlucky and impoverished in my younger years, it never occurred to me to ever file for unemployment or seek financial aid, although I certainly would have qualified. And now – a blue disabled placard? No. ADA support? Never.

But part of it is also denial. We get older incrementally; it doesn’t happen overnight. So it’s easy to cling to notions of what we used to be, even though the realities of time quite clearly refute those notions, if only we would take a hard look. It seems like just yesterday that I was floating gracefully above a defender’s outstretched hands, catching a spiral in the endzone as the first female wide receiver in NFL history. Oh, wait – that was just my fantasy for the first 40 years of my life.

Sigh. Every day I seem to drink the same pride-and-denial cocktail, with a liberal dash of stubbornness.

***

On Sunday night, Paul Simon closed out the festival on the main Lands End stage. It was located on the Polo Field, right at the entrance gate, so (thankfully) there were no 3,200 steps to walk. Laurie met me at the gate again, and this time I felt no shame sauntering into the ADA area. I was one of “them,” and I accepted it.

It was a clear night. Purple, blue, orange, yellow, and magenta lights flooded the trees. Paul Simon’s earnest, breezy voice lent a mellow tone to the closing hours of the festival.

Towards the end of the two-hour set he brought local boy Bob Weir up on stage with him. Weir, a former member of the Grateful Dead, played guitar and sang gamely along, although it was clear he wasn’t entirely prepared. The crowd sang, too. The song was “The Boxer,” one of my favorites.

Paul Simon c SF Chronicle
Paul Simon

I thought of the last time I saw Paul Simon, in May of 1973 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. After the show my friend Jeanne and I hung out at the stage door, hoping to spot Paul as he walked out. We were the only fans out there. That could never happen today, with increased security and every experience so “shared” that nothing is spontaneous and no scheme is ever kept under wraps. But it worked. When he came out, he walked right by me, inches away. By the way, his head came up to my shoulders – that’s how short the man is.

That night, Paul had added a new, beautiful verse to the end of “The Boxer”:

Now the years are rolling by me
The are rocking easily
I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be
But that’s not unusual
No, it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are
More or less the same

He’s sung that verse only a handful of times since that tour, and he didn’t do it at Outside Lands, but I’ve never forgotten it. My mind wandered and I thought about how I am most definitely older than I once was.

***

Decline is a funny thing. It sneaks up on you, and if you’re like me, when you ultimately realize it’s happening, you flail and rail against it. You do not go gently into your waning years.

But I’ve learned a great lesson. From now on, I will accept my limitations and work with them. And I will also accept that, by God, I’ve earned the right to allow others to help me when I deserve it. Besides, apparently age and physical impairments can get you into places. (Sometimes they can even get you a seat on the bus!)

I am also now extremely appreciative of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and of institutions like Outside Lands that provide boundless assistance to people with every kind of challenge.

Thank you, Laurie, for the many efforts you made on my behalf. And here’s a special shout-out to all the parents among us, of all ages, who just never stop takin’ care of business.

2019_08-11_Outside Lands_Laurie Baker, Paula

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

2/13/72 [age 16]:

“It’s a good thing Mom is a good finder, because I’m a good loser. Last year I had an attack because I lost my retainer downstairs and simply COULD NOT find it. Mom, knowing me, went down and looked in all the ridiculous places and found it sitting in the candy jar.”

4/7/72 [age 16]:

[NOTE: good grief, another list of things I loved!]

“It’s funny, but our capacity to love is not like a bucket or a bathtub, that eventually runs out and gets empty. It just keeps on coming. You can love so many people and so many things at once it gets confusing.

Water chestnuts

Scented candles

The orchard

Intelligent conversations

Bread [the band]

Gary Puckett

The absence of braces

Jeanne’s Australian tennis hat

Love

Eyes

Trying to think up another ingenius [sic] way to get out of class. (It’s getting difficult)

Hot chocolate

Cracker Jacks prizes

Being able to breathe correctly once in a while when hay fever chooses to leave me alone

Knowing that I won’t have to go through getting my tonsils out again

School (the people)

Fires

Occasional chances to drive

Clint Eastwood

“The Fool on the Hill”

Spencer Tracy

Ted

The beach, the beach, the beach . . . such a mystery

Baskin’s & Robbin’s

Tents

Looking at the stars (really)

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Johnny Rivers

Surprises

Knowing something worthwhile

“MacMillan and Wife”

The day when I’ll get down to 120 [pounds]

Balconies

Sleeping

Going to movies with someone other than my family, but I never have the opportunity to

“And it did, and it does, and you’re cute!”

Mr. Bernert

“Hey, Jude”

Sincere little boys

Babies (like the Dossa twins)

Anything cooked in egg and flour

Being young and immortal

Getting a ride home

Knowing that if I run away, someone will take me in

The word “yes” (I rarely hear it)

Everything chocolate

My cousins Carla and Lisa

Snow

Father Hayes

Hot days

Swings

Riding 9 million miles an hour [on a bike] down Suncrest

Movie cameras

Knowing that I’m not the way I am because “everybody else is” (heh, heh, that’s for sure!)

That guy at Clear Lake who was always saying, “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard”

Fisherman’s Wharf

Mine and Jeanne’s dangling conversations

GOP

My holey tennis shoes

When I was feeling way down and Denise asked me to go with them to Stanford to get out of my rut – that was nice. (Guess what, I didn’t get to go!)

“Satisfaction” – Stones’ stuff

Ice cream

“Leaves of Grass”

Sunflower seeds

Frogs

Sean

Stereos

Freddie

Cool ’n Creamy

Matt Monroe

Christmas

Drummers and more drummers

Chewing on thermoses

And of course RICHARD HARRIS!

 

4/9/72 [age 16]:

“I don’t why, but I suddenly got the urge to read Walt Whitman’s [book of poetry] ‘Leaves of Grass’ in its entirety.  What a project!”

4/17/72 [age 16]:

“I was sitting in Civic class [on] Friday reading the poems [in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass] when Mr. Bernert, who is without a doubt the most brilliant man I know, asked me what book I was reading and if it had been cleared with the social studies department, kiddingly. I showed it to him and he asked, “Why are you reading it?” and I said, “To be educated,” and he replied, “Better not, you’ll be all alone in the world.” That was serious. True, too. I love the way he combines humor with sincerity. Then he started talking to me about the [school] paper, and how he bet I got in trouble over [my editorial] on finals. I said yes, I did sure enough, and he laughed and said I was a “fuzzy-thinking, left-winged Communist extremist.” That cracked me up. He smiled that darling smile of his and I thought, with all the laughter and good nature he can be so wonderfully understanding. And then all of a sudden I just felt this warm love for him swell up, and I left feeling contented. Such great people you have made, God, thank you, and now I know just what you meant, Walt.”

4/18/72 [age 16]:

“In Physiology class today, [my lab partner] Robin and I moved to the table where Joe Turner and Dave Hale were. Joe suggested that we mix partners so the guys could do the dissecting, and I agreed with that, for sure! Now Robin is a little mad because she thinks that with guys as partners we aren’t going to learn anything!

Devil with the blue dress

Devil with the blue dress

This, my friends, is just a quick little tale about the one and only time I rented an “adult movie” – an effort that, as per my usual bumbling ways, ended disastrously.

I’d had only a couple of encounters with off-color films, and they’d been innocent enough. When we were teenagers, my brother and I and a couple of our friends snuck into a drive-in to see a movie called Please Don’t Eat My Mother. I know what you’re thinking, but it turned out to be a tame little flick that didn’t even live up to its salacious name. As I recall, it was a comedy about a strangely sexy carnivorous houseplant. And although there was some nudity, I don’t remember any hanky-panky involved. Or maybe I just didn’t understand what I was seeing. Unfortunately, we were busted when my mother found the ticket stub in my brother’s pants pocket. Dang! We should have done our own laundry!

Later, when I was a resident at San Francisco State and chair of the dorm film program, a couple of good-looking, charming fellow movie buffs coaxed me into giving them a private showing of one of the 16mm prints I’d rented for the film program from a major Los Angeles distributor. (It was an Italian neorealist movie called The Bicycle Thief.) The guys noted that the movie was preceded by trailers (previews), including one for Fellini’s Amarcord. I locked up the print when we were done, but using some subterfuge that I never figured out, they later snuck into the A/V room, took the film to their room, cut out their favorite trailers, inserted some choice pornography, and returned the altered print to its shelf. I innocently sent the film back to the distribution house, at which point all hell broke loose and eventually the FBI got involved. A couple of federal agents came to the dorm to interview our dorm advisor and me. By then I’d told the advisor about my suspicions (this means you, Kevin Henry!), and he believed me from the get-go. The FBI guys seemed to believe me, too, because the nervous young dupe girl sitting in the hot seat did not appear to be an Amarcord-slicing, porn-inserting swindler. I was off the hook, and I don’t know what became of the investigation. (Are you still out there free as a bird, Kevin Henry?)

The incident at hand, however, happened in the early 1990s when I decided to rent a steamy little video that I will call, for the purposes of this tale, Lex Baldwin and His Peccadilloes. Lex Baldwin was the real-life leading man, and his co-stars were an assortment of men and women, all involved in a variety of scenarios in every conceivable configuration. The film had been recommended to me by my hairdresser. (I have no idea how on earth we came to have that conversation.)

In those days, of course, there was no streaming video and there were no DVDs. We had to rent videotapes from the Blockbuster chain or a local video store, watch the tapes on a videocassette recorder (VCR), and bring the tapes back like library books to avoid incurring overdue charges. I had never been assessed a late fee on anything in my entire life so I knew that that wasn’t going to happen.

Except that the tape got stuck in my VCR.

***

“Oh, no, nonononono!” I screeched, partly out of terror of the tape’s late fees (or, even worse, the total replacement fee) but also because of what I knew would be my impending humiliation and disgrace. I clawed frantically at the machine. But not only was the video jammed, the VCR would not even power on. I pushed every button 26 times. I tried sticking a screwdriver through the flimsy little tape door, to absolutely no avail. Then I decided to pry off the whole casing, but the “Do not attempt to remove the back of the VCR because of the possibility of electrocution” sticker dissuaded me. Finally I gave up, letting the machine sit overnight in hopes that the components would cool down. Sigh. No luck.

stuck videotape_abc news 2
My biggest fear

Today, someone in a similar predicament might very well simply throw away the entire kit and caboodle. Buy a new VCR, pay for the tape replacement. But that was not remotely an option for me in those days. I had no money whatsoever – certainly not enough to buy a new VCR, which would have cost me $400 or so (almost $800 in today’s dollars). I mean, around that time I was actually trying to figure out whether, to save money, I should stop my Chronicle delivery, which was costing me all of 10 cents a day.

I couldn’t very well discuss my plight with my mother, my usual go-to person who always knew what to do about everything from appliance repair to wardrobe malfunctions to food spoilage questions. No, this was far too delicate a matter.

So I called my friend Kay.

“OhmyGod, Kay,” I blurted as soon as she picked up, “I-got-an-X-rated-movie-stuck-in-my-VCR-and-I-don’t-know-what-to-do!” I was in a wheezing panic.

“Paula, calm down and let’s brainstorm,” she said. “Isn’t there a repair shop somewhere that could get the tape out without ruining it?”

“Well, there’s that electronics place out in the avenues, but I just know it must be run by a nice little old Irishman. How will I be able to show my face, Kay??”

“Paula, your worst fear is not going to be realized. There will be no little old Irishman. It’s going to be okay, and they won’t care! This probably happens all the time!”

I wasn’t listening. “I know, I’ll invent a story to make the situation more respectable. I’ll say I was watching it with my husband. I’ll say it was HIS fault! HE wanted to rent the movie!”

“Oh, brother,” she said. “I’m not sure why that is more respectable, but OK, I’m with ya.”

“And listen,” I continued. “I think I should look sophisticated and proper. Kay, you have a ring that looks like a wedding ring, don’t you? Can I borrow that? I’ll wear a simple blue dress and pumps.”

Kay did an eyeroll over the phone but nonetheless humored me as she hung up to go find her gold band. After rushing to her place to borrow it, dashing down to Macy’s to buy some pumps with high heels (my heels were way too low and clunky to be considered sophisticated), and calling Kay another 52 times for reassurance, I knew that it was finally time to pay a visit to the electronics shop.

Blue dress photo with copyright
The “My Husband Did It” ensemble, except that I didn’t wear the hat

When I pushed open the glass doors to the shop, carrying my disabled VCR – the proof of my sins – under my arm, I didn’t see anyone behind the counter at first. I clomped unsteadily towards the back of the store in my new high heels. It felt like it took me three hours to get there. I was relieved, at least, not to see a little old Irishman. However, much to my horror, as I approached the counter up popped a petite young Asian woman! Or a girl, even! She didn’t look to be much older than 16. I was awash in shame and mortification. “Oh, no,” I thought, “I’m going to ruin this poor young woman if she finds out what kind of tape is in that VCR!”

But there was no getting around it. When she asked what she could do for me, I launched into my long story about how my-husband-rented-the-tape-and-somehow-it-got-stuck-and-I-don’t-really-know-what-the-tape-is-so-please-just-fix-it,” etcetera. And then she said, “Well, let me get the owner,” and out came a little old Irish man.

Of course.

Then I commenced to relate the whole story about my husband again.

Unfazed, the Irishman told me that the VCR would be fixed in three days. I could practically hear the late fees adding up. Ka-chink! But I had no choice. I whirled around on my heels to leave and did a face plant onto the showroom floor.

For crying out loud, how many indignities would I have to suffer for my wickedness???!!!

Three days later I went back to pick up the machine. Once again I donned my outfit – dress, ring, heels, the entire ensemble. It was a different young woman at the counter, and I breathed a momentary sigh of relief that she wouldn’t recognize me as the raging degenerate with the X-rated movie. She went into the back room to retrieve the VCR and when she brought it out, Lex Baldwin and His Peccadilloes, with its title in gargantuan letters, was taped to the top of the VCR. Oh, I am a wretched disgrace.

It cost me about $100 to fix the VCR. A veritable fortune for me in those days.

The next day I clomped into the video rental place in my now-wrinkly dress to return Lex Baldwin and I launched once again into my well-worn husband story.

The manager waived the fees.

the end

 

 

 

***

 

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

2/7/72 [age 16]:

“When she was young and went to school
Some asked her what they’d taught her.
‘I just recall one thing,’ she said,
‘That I was principal’s daughter.’ ”

 

2/2/72 [age 16]:

THINGS I LOVE:

12-STRING GUITARS
HAIR (blond)
AMERICA [the band]
MR. BARISICH
SKIING
HAIR (Robert Redford’s)
Hearing the net go “swoosh” when somebody makes a basket
MY 10-SPEED
FRIENDS (they’re wonderful)
MUSIC
PAT SEARS
DOGS (all but ours)
LINUS
BLUE
Having a perfectly clear face (I don’t remember when I last had it but maybe sometime in the near future . . . ?)
NEIL DIAMOND
LEVI’S
GOD
DAYDREAMING
THE POLICE DEPARTMENT
PIZZA & LICORICE & HAMBURGERS & OREOS & EATING IN GENERAL
Staying home and turning up the record player so loud they can hear it in Alviso and my eardrums become so immune I can hardly hear the rest of the day
MICROPHONES
ARGUING
READING WALT WHITMAN
ROOT BEER
Jumping off the high dive into the deep pool and feeling really wierd [sic] on the way down
MR. ADAMS
AIRPLANES
BODY SHIRTS
GOATS
THE SANTA CLARA COUNTY FAIR
Riding the waves at Santa Cruz on an innertube and getting wiped out
WATERBEDS
CAMAROS
TULIPS
SAN FRANCISCO
“ALL IN THE FAMILY”
THE WORD “SENSUOUS”
All those wonderful times we have where the great kids on our block all get together and have one huge gigantic waterfight and we all sit around and drink lemonade and play pinochle afterwards
HELIUM BALLOONS
BEING SIXTEEN
CUTTING CLASS
LIFE

 

2/3/72 [age 16]:

“Once in the eighth grade we had this graduation swim party and once again I demonstrated my complete lack of sense. The water at Rock Canyon was freezing cold and something happened to my jaw. It kind of locked. I guess the nerves tightened up because of the cold. I could open my mouth, but only up to a certain point. Then if I opened it farther it popped and hurt like crazy. I guess I’m a physical freak. Anyway, it was pretty miserable and I got one of the kids who wasn’t swimming to call my teacher over. Sister Anne Maureen. She knew a lot about science so I assumed she knew about diseases. So I ask her, ‘Do you think I have lockjaw?’ I don’t know how she kept from bursting out in hysterics, but she said, ‘I really doubt it.’ And I said, ‘Well, I stepped on a nail about a year ago.’ Pure stupidity, I swear.”

 

2/8/72 [age 16]:

“My idea of heaven – I run away to a place on the beach. I adore the beach, but my parents hate it so I never get to go. There wouldn’t be any parents there. The temperature would always be a comfortable 82 degrees. I would have an AM-FM radio with a really loud volume. I’d have a stereo with ten speakers all over the house. I’d also have my bike and a lifetime supply of root beer, hamburgers, and onion rings. Add a couple people I like and – presto – Utopia.”

A patriot’s dream

A patriot’s dream

The woman who wrote “America the Beautiful” was not exactly a 19th century wallflower. She was a feminist. She was an activist. She was most likely a lesbian. And she was involved in a “Boston marriage” – a concept certainly new to me when I began to research this piece. Little did she know when she boarded a train in Chicago one summer that it would lead her to set down some of the most stirring words ever written about this country and its ideals.

***

Katharine Lee Bates 3
Katharine Lee Bates

As the spring semester drew to a close in 1893, a 34-year-old Wellesley professor named Katharine Lee Bates was offered the opportunity to teach a summer class on Chaucer at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. (Wellesley was, and is, a private school for women in Massachusetts.) Bates jumped at the chance. Earlier that year she had dealt with a severe bout of depression, and the travel, she thought, would do her good. A published writer and poet, as well as an experienced international traveler, she nevertheless was unlikely to have seen much of the country west of the Mississippi. So she was eager to get started on the roughly 2,000-mile train trip.

O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears

The first leg of the journey by rail ended in Chicago, where Bates would pick up Katharine Coman, a fellow Wellesley professor of economics and history who would likewise teach a summer class in Colorado Springs. They’d known each other for six years. Coman’s family home was in Chicago, and the two spent a few days there, visiting the World’s Fair and a recently-built monument to women in the arts and sciences. At the World’s Fair, Bates took note of an area called “The White City” that featured buildings illuminated not only by their painted-white exteriors but also by the multitude of streetlights lining the boulevards. It was the beginning of modern city planning.

“Thine alabaster cities gleam,” Bates would later write.

From there, “the two Katharines,” as they were often called, boarded a train on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail line. It was July 3, 1893.

***

Bates was an ardent member of a group of progressive Boston female academics and activists who were pioneers of social reform and concerned with immigration, labor union rights, women’s suffrage, and urban poverty. She was the author and editor of more than 40 works of poetry and literary criticism.

Katharine_Coman_(Yellow_Clover)_Wikipedia
Katharine Coman

Katharine Coman, two years younger than Bates, taught at Wellesley for 35 years and was the first female professor of statistics in the United States. Like Bates, she was interested in social reform, especially through political economics; she would take her students on field trips to tenements, factories, and sweatshops in Boston to teach about applying economic theory to social problems. In 1910, Coman would help unionize striking women in the garment industry during the massive Chicago garment workers’ strike. She was the author of The Industrial History of the United States, among other works.

Together, the Katharines – who were dedicated to helping the poor – had in 1887 founded the College Settlements Association, which assigned female students to help poor European immigrants who had recently come to America. The two women volunteered at the association’s Denison House, which was a Boston settlement house that distributed necessities like milk and coal, offered classes, conducted housing investigations, and served generally as a neighborhood center. Bates and Coman were totally committed to ensuring that immigrants and women could have the basic support they needed to get a foothold in society.

***

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain

With the land opening up in front of her as she rode the rails to Colorado, Bates saw vast open spaces for the very first time. The raw, sweeping West was so much grander in scale than the populous East Coast. Out the window of the train, in what was likely Kansas, she could see endless fields replete with “amber waves of grain.” Above it all were the “spacious skies” of the Great Plains. Overwhelmed, she scrawled some notes. It was the Fourth of July.

***

For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain

Bates had a lot of free time that summer, in between her Chaucer classes. She and Coman and other professors took group trips around the area, and on Saturday, July 22, they headed for Pikes Peak, which, at 14,115 feet, is higher than any point in the country to its east. (The area is named for explorer Zebulon Pike, so it baffles me that there is no apostrophe; it somehow got discarded along the way.) The little Cog Peak railroad that had been built two years earlier to convey sightseers up the mountain was broken down that day, so they ended up having to take a horse-drawn wagon halfway there, and then mules the rest of the way. A sign on the wagon read “Pikes Peak or Bust.” At that altitude, by the way, oxygen levels are dangerously low.

View from Pikes Peak_Shutterstock-2
Pikes Peak

The 360-degree panorama from that summit took Bates’ breath away. She was awestruck by the grand appearance of the Rockies, the “purple mountain majesties.”

“I was very tired,” she said. “But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there. . . . [We] gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and sea like sweep of plain. Then and there the opening lines of ‘America the Beautiful’ sprang into being. . . . I wrote the entire song on my return that evening to Colorado Springs.”

***

Antlers_Hotel_built_in_1883_in_downtown_Colorado_Springs
The Antlers Hotel

Bates was staying at the Antlers Hotel, a rather grand lodge built in 1883 by William Jackson Palmer, who also happened to be the founder of Colorado Springs. The 75-room hotel was named for the collection of elk and deer racks that he installed there. Bates undoubtedly enjoyed her summer residence at the Antlers, especially because it was a fancy place for the time. No two rooms were alike. The guests enjoyed steam heat and hot and cold water. There was a music room, a Turkish bath, a barber shop, and a hydraulic elevator. It was all downright luxurious.

I don’t know whether Bates and Coman stayed together. But it was in her hotel room, when she returned from Pikes Peak that night, that Bates sat down to pen the original words to “America the Beautiful.”

***

In the late 1800s in New England, female pairings were so plentiful that they came to be called “Boston marriages” or “Wellesley marriages,” in which two women lived together without – gasp! – any financial support from a man. These couples were not necessarily romantic, although my guess is that more of them were than were publicly acknowledged. Typically the women were well educated and had solid careers, often in social justice areas. If nothing else they were intellectual companions, and they provided each other with moral support in the unrelentingly sexist environs of the time. At Wellesley, specifically, female professors were usually forced to resign if they married, so if women wanted to keep their careers they often paired up for financial reasons at the very least. In the late 1800s, according to Lillian Faderman, “of the 53 women faculty at Wellesley, only one woman was conventionally married to a man; most of the others lived with a female companion.”

The Katharines lived together for more than 25 years. When they were apart, they wrote each other letters every day and pressed yellow flowers between the pages.

***

Samuel_Augustus_Ward
Samuel A. Ward

“America the Beautiful” took a crazily convoluted path. Bates’ poem, titled “Pikes Peak,” was first published as “America” in The Congregationalist newspaper on July 4, 1895. People loved it so much that at least 75 melodies were written for it (even “Auld Lang Syne” was matched to it for a while because the song’s meter fit the lyrics). Finally, in 1910, a publisher added a melody that had been written in 1882 by New Jersey organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. The combination was now retitled “America the Beautiful,” and Bates amended her lyrics shortly thereafter, in 1911, to the version we know today. Sadly, Bates never met Ward. He had died in 1903 and was never aware of his music’s legacy.

***

Katharine Coman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1912 and died on January 11, 1915, at the age of 57. Bates, who had lovingly tended to her throughout her painful ordeal, was so grief-stricken that she said, “So much of me died with Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.”

Seven years later, Bates published a book of poetry about Coman called Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance.

At least one scholar has disputed the now-accepted notion that Bates and Coman were lovers. I don’t think it really matters. Romantic or not, love is love.

Katharine Bates never left Wellesley. She continued her work there until 1925 and after she passed away in 1929, the flag at Wellesley’s Tower Court was flown at half-staff.

***

O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness
America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life
America, America, May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine

Because of its first verse, “America the Beautiful” is often seen as a lovely but innocuous song about the breadth and beauty of this country – the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountains, the fruited plain, all stretching from sea to shining sea. But really, the song is just as much about principles, and about the rich history of people who courageously fought here. It’s about wayfarers who managed to settle a wild, sometimes coarse landscape. It’s about the heroes who loved their country more than themselves. It asks for God to mend our flaws (and heaven knows there have been many). It reminds the citizenry to reign in their newfound freedoms through self-control and the exercise of law, and to ensure that the pursuit and use of the country’s riches remain noble. And in the end, it expresses the hope that, years hence, our shining cities will be undimmed by the tears of the unfortunate.

It was a prayer, it was a caution, it was a patriot’s dream.

I doubt that the dream will be fully realized in my lifetime. But I do believe that both our idealists and our pragmatists continue to try to bring it to pass. Maybe that constant effort is actually what makes Americans who they are.

Happy Fourth, everyone.

***

Coda:

The 1976 Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” stands alone. There is no other version, as far as I’m concerned. It’s sung with sincerity, love, longing, and guts. Even if you’ve heard it before, please give it a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CILIBlQ2D0Q

 

“America the Beautiful”

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain 
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain 
America, America, God shed His grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea 

O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress 
A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness 
America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw 
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law 

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife 
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life 
America, America, May God thy gold refine 
Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine 

O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years 
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears 
America, America, God shed His grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea

 

the end

 

 

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

4/2/72 [age 16]:

“We all went to [my aunt] Zia’s for Easter dinner today, and when we got back an unusual thing happened. We all smelled something funny [in our house] and we searched for a long time trying to see what was burning. Finally, [my brother] Marc discovered that I’d left my lamp on and my pet plastic monkey from Barrel of Monkees had fallen off the lampshade and had welded itself to the lightbulb in a glob.”

4/7/72 [age 16]:

“I don’t know why, but I got this sudden urge to read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I found out we [my parents] have it. One poem, “Tears,” is really good. I like good old Walt baby.”