A whole new ballgame

A whole new ballgame

There’s a moment, as you’re heading to a Giants game from the west side of town, when your Muni train rises out of the darkness of the Market Street tunnel and rumbles into the sunlight.

It’s a moment I always anticipate, but this time it was particularly meaningful.

Until recently I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get to the ballpark this year. Typically I attend all the Giants weekday afternoon games, but for the last six months I’ve been suffering from savage nerve pain. For those long months I felt as though my eyes had been burned raw from the inside out, preventing me from seeing one ounce of beauty in the world around me.

But as fall became winter and turned again into spring, slowly and almost imperceptibly I started to get better. The murky tunnel in which I’d been existing started to recede behind me. I could finally start to clutch the world around me and feel the sensations of each moment clearly. It was time to take in a ballgame.

***

Cupid's_Span_-_panoramio_wikimedia commons-2

When the T-Third Street train climbs out of the tunnel and onto the city’s surface streets, the sun emerges like a gift, and the vivid appearance of San Francisco’s people and textures makes you feel like you’re passing through the opening curtain of a sumptuous play.

It was a cloudless April afternoon. As our train poked its head out onto the Embarcadero, my very first sight was the magnificent, colorful “Cupid’s Span” sculpture sitting romantically on the shore, its red arrow partially drawn. Tourist boats and cargo ships went about their business. Scores of people strolled along the promenade towards the stadium, past the piers, past the palm trees, past the choppy waters of the bay. Most of them were dressed in orange and black, all of them hopeful and happy.

We got off near the main entrance to the ballpark. Our animated crossing guard was earnestly attentive to the elderly, and to parents with children. We all felt protected. Everyone was chatting. Our friend Mona remarked that just being there lifted her spirits. I said that it felt like we were about to enter the enchanting gates of Disneyland.

***

Once we got inside, Mona mentioned that it was our mutual friend Holly’s birthday. Holly was a fervent Giants fan who passed away from cancer 11 years ago at a much too young age. She was also a tequila lover, so we immediately determined that our very first order of business was to have some shots in her honor. Bellied up to the bar, we clinked a toast and Mona downed a shot of fancy tequila while Julie and I each slammed back a jigger of Maker’s Mark.  Moments later, as we weaved our way along, Mona blurted out that man, she was really feeling that tequila. I suddenly realized that I was almost blind with liquor. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” I kept yelling, laughing.

It had been a long time since I had quaffed a shot of booze. I felt like a swaggering buckaroo in a Nevada saloon. The day got warmer.

***

People who claim that the best seats are right behind home plate are not necessarily true baseball fans, especially at the Giants ballpark. I recently heard Mike Krukow, one of the team’s announcers, say that if he could sit anywhere he wanted, outside of the announcer’s booth, he would sit in the upper deck, first base side.

I agree, and that’s my chosen spot. It gives me a bird’s-eye view of the entire stadium, the huge fiberglass glove and Coke bottle behind the left field bleachers, the retired numbers of the greatest Giants ballplayers, and the World Series flags whipping in the wind. Beyond lies the bay, dabbed with sailboats. The dramatic white span of the Bay Bridge is visible east of Yerba Buena Island. And standing far in the distance are the gently rolling hills of the East Bay.

***

I always insist on grabbing my Sierra Nevada beer and my Crazy Crab Sandwich early so that I can be at my seat when the National Anthem is played. And yes, I know that my favorite sports meal usually involves a hot dog. But there’s nothing in San Francisco quite like crab and sourdough.

The bread, I believe, might be the best thing about the crab sandwiches at the ballpark. The Boudin sourdough is cut thinly and spread with a mixture of garlic, parsley, and butter. Inside lies the sweet, tender Dungeness crab, mixed with a hint of lemon juice and a light bit of mayo to keep it together. Ripe red tomato slices rest on top of the crab. The whole thing is then toasted to a golden brown and served hot. God help me!

***

We were at our seats on time. A school band from Healdsburg began playing the Anthem. Hand on heart, I looked to the right of the scoreboard, out in deep center field just behind Triples Alley. Yes, our flag was still there.

I thought about the past six months and the unrelenting nerve pain that had sizzled through my body. I thought about all of the times I had considered giving up completely. Who would care, I actually wondered at one point. But working against that desperation was a reserve of patience, strength, and will that I never knew I had. And when I was at my very lowest, the phone would often ring. That does it. A surprise phone call. A suggestion. A kind word. My beautiful friends and family. “I believe in you,” one of them said. “I believe in your ability to cope.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.

***

Our seats were in full sun. I felt safe. I’d left almost all of my pain behind me in the tunnel.

Our long-postponed road trip to Kentucky would be happening soon. The thought made me smile.

A cool breeze came in softly off the bay. A lone seagull flew white against the blue sky.

The players had taken the field.

I settled back and slowly brought my cup of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to my lips. Its hue was a vivid amber, its fragrance clean like the clear crisp water of the Cascades. I took my first baseball sip. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

2019_04-10_Paula at Giants game-2

 

 

 

 

***

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.

3/11/72 [age 16]:

“My cold is still fairly bad but I am up here at Azama’s and Moore’s cabin anyway. . . . Skiing [at Bear Valley] wasn’t really that fun. Until lunch we were mainly trying to stay on our feet. It takes really long to get up if you fall. I was really a klutz, and Mrs. Espinosa was a chicken, so we stayed on the beginner’s slope. Mrs. Moore kept on repeating, “Why did you fall?” It made me mad. Then I got so hungry I could eat a bear. Luckily, lunch was fantastic. They had made us delicious sandwiches and I ate five of them. Miss Azama told me that skiing uses a lot of energy and that’s why I ate five sandwiches. After lunch we watched the Celebrity Ski Race, and I snuck under the tape and got pictures of Clint Eastwood and Peter Graves up close! Unbelievable! In the morning they made us something called sourdough pancakes and I had 13 of them. They were fantastic.”

2/7/72 [age 16]:

“Last year I saw a skiing movie in English called ‘Ski the Outer Limits’ and it was so beautiful I was hooked right then and there. Well, Miss Azama and Mrs. Moore asked Colleen, me, and Marie Ehrling, our Swedish foreign exchange student, to go up to their cabin for a weekend in March. I can’t wait. They’re going to teach us to ski. It’s going to cost us $15. They said the first day is the worst. I may, with my great coordination, find myself wrapped around a tree.”

2/6/72 [age 16]:

“This guy named Jerry in my English class has this crush on me. But I’m not going to spread it around like I did with Jeff last year. Jerry is kind of a baby but he’s nice. He’s played basketball with me a lot after school. And he sits in English and throws paper wads at me. Romantic, huh?”

2/5/72 [age 16]:

“You see, I don’t believe in finals. All they do is test a bunch of facts.”

2/4/72 [age 16]:

“We went to see ‘Dirty Harry.’ It was [my brother] Marc’s and mine first ‘R’ movie and [my sister] Janine saw it. Can you believe that? When I was eleven I got to see really good movies, like ‘The Love Bug.’ ”

 

I don’t want a pickle

I don’t want a pickle

I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to borrow my brother’s truck and head down to Los Angeles on Highway 5 when I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

It was August of 1986. I was living out in the avenues in San Francisco, working as a freelance editor and proofreader for a variety of publishing houses but mostly for an advertising agency called West End Studios. It was a giddy time. Work was easy, I was dating like a drunken sailor, I managed a softball team, and it was not uncommon for us to close down a bar after polishing off endless pitchers of cheap beer, only to get up four hours later to go to work.

One of my West End cohorts – a diminutive Irish woman from the Sunset District named Lori – drove a motorcycle all over town and had given me a few rides, often on our lunch hour. Something about carrying a helmet around made me feel like a tough chick. So I decided that, in my wildest dreams, I’d like to own a motorcycle. But of course I didn’t have the dough.

Then our receptionist Maria told me that her sister wanted to sell a 1982 red Honda Passport C70. Those little three-speed bikes were the cutest things ever. The engines were only 70cc, so I knew I could pick the bike up with one hand. The 44 mph top speed, too, would be great for tooling around the City. I had to have that Honda.

***

The only snag was that Maria’s sister lived in Los Angeles. I would need to pick up the bike and somehow transport it back to San Francisco – a task that my Toyota Corolla obviously could not handle. So my brother Marc agreed to lend me his truck.

Oh, wait, there was a second snag. His truck had a manual transmission.

Now, I’d driven a standard transmission once before – six years earlier, when I’d tooled around the country with a girlfriend in an old ’67 VW bus. But its skinny, on-the-floor gear shift was about three feet long, and we really didn’t even have to engage the clutch when we shifted. Honestly, that thing just drove no matter what. So I had not acquired the delicate skill of engaging a clutch in its normal tiny window of kinetic mystery, especially when starting out from neutral into first gear.

But, whatever. I breezily decided that I would somehow wrangle that truck down to L.A., stopping only once at a gas station. That seemed like a great plan, although I’d forgotten that when I got into Los Angeles I would be forced to brake at red lights.

Amazingly, my “frighteningly inept drive down to L.A.,” as my diary reports, yielded no dramatics except for my embarrassing, multiple attempts to clumsily get the vehicle in gear after the gas station stop. Once off the freeway I somehow managed never to come to a halt again until I reached my grandparents’ house in La Crescenta. I accomplished this by a) making dozens of unnecessary rolling right turns when I came to red lights, or b) approaching the red lights at an anemic 15 mph crawl so that I never had to come to a complete stop.

Long story short, I brought my grandfather and my uncle, in my uncle’s truck, to buy the bike. Once there, Maria’s airhead sister had the audacity to suddenly declare that she didn’t think she really wanted to sell the Honda after all. In my ensuing rage I let her know that that change of heart was simply not an option. She took one look at my muscular uncle and burly grandfather and decided to back down.

I don’t remember the trip back to San Francisco at all, and my diary makes no mention of it. But my experience with the truck wasn’t over. Before returning it to my brother, I parked in the UCSF indoor lot when I went to get one of my endless series of allergy shots. Afterwards, when I began to back the truck out of its space, an explosive “BOOM” shook me, the truck, and even the concrete walls of the parking lot. I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to engage the clutch when I put the truck in Reverse. Oops. Oh, well. I was unconcerned. I didn’t think it was any big deal.

The truck seemed perfectly fine after that, and it ran like a trooper. A day or so after it was back in my brother’s hands, though, he called me. “Say, did anything happen while you had the truck?” he asked me. “It won’t go into Reverse.”

I had ruined the transmission. It cost my brother $1,000. And for reasons I will never fathom, he didn’t ask me to pay him back.

***

Paula with Honda Passport

Everyone called my little bike a scooter or, even worse, a moped, but it was technically a motorcycle. A “hog,” as I preferred to call it. Unlike scooters, the Honda C70s were straddled like a motorcycle, had a manual gear shift, and ran on motorcycle-sized tires. I was required, in fact, to get an M1 motorcycle license, which in those days was not required of scooter riders.

Man, I loved getting on that bike and taking off flying through the streets of San Francisco. I felt light as a feather, and with those large-size tires I could lean into every curve with ease and speed. The open air was bracing. My leather jacket had a sensual, earthy rasp. On any random street I could catch whiffs of fried rice, pizza, sizzling steak, baking sourdough. I loved passing by laundromats and smelling the warm, comforting fragrance of running dryers. The Haight was a wash of patchouli. In Golden Gate Park the temperature dropped 10 degrees immediately, and the Monterey pines and minty eucalyptus would clear your lungs like Vapo-Rub. Out by the beach, the air was salty, the fog thick and fresh.

***

I’ve always been a good driver, but I became a much better one on that bike. I knew that the majority of motorcycle accidents occur when automobiles turn left directly into the path of the cycle, so I was always acutely aware of that possibility. But I also became extraordinarily defensive and anticipatory. I learned, for example, to watch drivers’ eyes in their rearview mirrors. Their eyes told me what they were considering, so when drivers were about to change lanes right on top of me, I could slow down preemptively. At the same time, I constantly had to scour the road ahead of me for potholes, puddles, and other hazards. It all required fine-tuned coordination.

Nevertheless, I was involved in three accidents on that bike. One day I’d just started home from a work party near Levi’s Plaza after drinking a glass of wine. Three sets of unused railroad tracks, part of the defunct State Belt Railroad that once served San Francisco’s waterfront, converged in an angular pattern outside in the mist, and the bike and I tipped over as I tried to cross them. Slippery and oddly angled tracks are a cyclist’s nightmare no matter what, but I vowed never again to consume any alcohol before getting on the bike. Luckily I was probably going only about 5 mph, and I wasn’t hurt.

untitled
A perfect example of what not to cross on a bike

Another time I was downtown making a turn from the left lane when a driver in the middle lane decided to turn left illegally, right on top of me. He hit me at a very slow speed and dragged me a bit before I fell over, at which point a homeless man came running over, helped me up, picked up the bike, and vehemently cursed the driver, who had pulled over about half a block away but never got out of his car. I thanked the homeless man profusely. Since that day, I’ve always felt differently about street people.

The last incident involved Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was stopped at a light on my way home from work in the middle of the day because I felt ill. Looking up, I noticed a KFC, and despite my flu-like symptoms I started reminiscing about the delicious sliders they used to make called Chicken Littles. “I wish I could have a Chicken Little right now,” I was thinking. “My friends could never believe that I’d order five of those things and . . . ” WHAM! I was flat on my back on the asphalt. A car had hit me from behind so directly that the bike just lurched straight ahead and I flew right over the handlebars. The driver, who’d been daydreaming, was extremely distraught, told me he rode a motorcycle himself, and insisted on giving me his business card even though I insisted I was okay. An ambulance happened to be parked right there, and the EMTs rushed over and checked me out right in the middle of the street because apparently they were bound to by law. Eventually I drove home just fine, albeit shaken up, and all I had to show for it were a bruised ankle, sore legs, and torn pants. The Honda, as always, was fine. That little thing had nine lives.

***

My bike and I went through a lot together. For 25 years it was my standard transportation to work – to Levi’s Plaza, to downtown, to south of Market, and to the Civic Center. I was riding home from the State Building when the big earthquake of ’89 hit. The tremor threw the Honda and me into the next lane but I stayed on like a cowboy and we were both unscathed. (See, however, my previous blog post, Shakin’ All Over, about an embarrassing situation involving the quake, my bike, and my standing in my apartment doorway with nothing on but my helmet.)

Together we rode in more than one Pride Parade, and at times my bike was the only tiny entrant among a massive horde of roaring motorcycles. The happy crowd loved us.

I rode it to play flag football in Golden Gate Park. It brought me and my drumsticks to my early days of band practice. I could park it anywhere, so I often took it to North Beach, where I could pick up some focaccia at Liguria bakery and a book of beat poetry at City Lights bookstore and never once have to circle a block.

I’ve never felt more connected to San Francisco than I did then. I miss those days.

Paula and Kelly in Parade-1
With Kelly Tipton, Pride parade, June 1995

***

Taking my bike to and from work every day provided me with more than just the joy of the ride. It was a way for me to actually look forward to the daily grind, as well as to wind down afterwards. It got me outdoors. It got me in tune with the city I loved so much.

When I left the house in the morning it was about 6:30 a.m., dark, and often biting cold. (And that was in the summer!) I wore a leather jacket and gloves, of course, as well as my full-face helmet, but they weren’t always adequate protection. My gloves, in particular, didn’t keep my hands completely warm because I have a benign but annoying condition called Raynaud’s disease. My hands don’t get enough blood circulation in cold weather and my fingers lose their color and feel like they’re growing numb with frostbite. It can be quite painful, so I developed a chant that I repeated loudly into my helmet to take my mind off the piercing pain in my fingers:

“I can’t wait to get to work
’Cause it’s so f—ing cold.
It’s so f—ing,
It’s so f—ing,
It’s so f—ing cold.”

It’s not very imaginative, and I don’t know why I decided to use the “f” word considering I typically don’t use it in my everyday life, but it definitely helped.

I also had another trick up my sleeve. When it was really cold, I stayed right behind a big truck, and its exhaust would warm me. No matter how slowly a truck chugged up the hills, I refused to pass, hugging closely to its maternal warmth.

***

A few years ago, the engine on my little bike finally gave out, and when I tried to get it repaired, the mechanic told me that so many tiny pieces were involved that “it wouldn’t be worth it” for me to get it fixed. I begged to differ, thinking that it might well be worth it to me if he would only give me a price, but he refused. I think he just didn’t want to bother doing the work.

Then I heard about a place south of Market, owned by a guy who worked only on old Hondas. He suggested that he install an aftermarket engine for me. I excitedly agreed, but the bike was never the same after that. The kickstarter was so stiff that I didn’t have the strength to engage it. To make matters worse, the new engine had four gears rather than three, with the gears in a reverse position from my old bike. I just couldn’t get used to it. My muscle memory was too ingrained. I’d shift down into first gear when I thought I was shifting up into third, and my bike would smoke and skid for yards down the street. It made me terrified to ride it. Meanwhile I had aged, and I knew that a fall off my bike would no longer mean that I’d pick it up and head on home. It would mean multiple injuries and maybe a hospital stay.

So I knew I had to sell it. It broke my heart.

***

When you weigh the pros and cons of owning a motorcycle, the pros are spiritual but the cons are practical. These days, I don’t see as many motorcycles or scooters on the streets of San Francisco. It makes perfect practical sense. “You know,” I say to Julie every month or so, “you’d almost have to be a fool to ride a motorcycle here these days. The City has become much more dangerous for bikes. The number of cars on the street has nearly doubled, thanks to the influx of tech company employees and the rise in Lyft and Uber drivers, who generally live out of town and have no idea where they’re going as they clog up our streets. Not to mention all the drivers distracted by their phones. No amount of good defensive driving can predict what the heck a distracted driver will do next.”

But the spiritual part . . . the smells, the freedom, the road, the rush of air, the adrenaline, the joy . . . . how do you let that go?

Sym Wolf Classic 150
SYM Wolf Classic 150

A couple of weeks ago, on my way home from a PT appointment, I saw a truly beautiful motorcycle cruise by our car. “Hurry up,” I demanded of Julie, “and drive alongside that bike so I can see what it is.” It turned out to be the SYM Wolf Classic 150. Gorgeous. Diminutive. Just the right size for a feeble dame like me. Enough to get up the hills, but not enough to take on the freeway. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Hmm. I’ve kept up my requirements and still have a license to drive a motorcycle.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

 

the end

***

I want to thank all the people who sent me such kind suggestions and good wishes after I posted January’s blog. My short update is that I am finally feeling at least 50 percent better, and I no longer have times of despair, which is absolutely wonderful. I’m seeing two physical therapists and hoping that they can get me back to feeling 100 percent really soon. I’ll keep everyone posted.

***

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.

1/31/72 [age 16]: [Note: I was the editor of our school newspaper and this was back in the dark ages when our copy went off to a typesetter and came back to us to manually lay out]

“On Wednesday we get the copy back and have to paste it all up to get everything to fit properly, cut things down, make sure it’s all straight. Then we have to correct the mistakes our rotten printer makes, and we have to cut out each teeny letter and paste on the right one. That’s murder with my tremendous coordination.”

1/19/72 [age 16]:

“I got my Learner’s Permit today, 100% on the written test, passed eye test (miracle). When I came home I couldn’t find it and I thought I left it in A-3, called school, Mr. B looked, said no deal. I was in a panic. Decided to check my purse once more. It was there? Sho’ ’nuff.”

1/15/72 [age 16]:

“I think I must be very lucky. I am physically healthy. My mind is efficient. I’m athletic. I have good parents and brother and sister. I like my friends and my school. I have almost everything I want – a bike, good music, and good grades. I go a lot of places. And I’m at least average-looking.”

1/13/72 [age 16]:

“Gosh, tomorrow is my Driver’s Training test. LET US PRAY. But I made two major mistakes in driving today. I was quite clutzy on the ‘Y’ turn. Also I sort of moved toward the left down one road and didn’t look toward the side. This car was there. I would have hit him if Mr. Locicero hadn’t stopped me. Oh, wow, bad deal.”

1/11/72 [age 16]:

“[In Driver’s Training] We went on the freeway today. At one point I got up to 72 m.p.h. When I looked at that speedometer, believe me, I slowed down in a hurry! Look in your mirror every 5 seconds, stay on the road, watch for lane changers . . . when you’re doing 60 or 65 it’s hard to watch all that at the same time. I’m alive, but it doesn’t seem like I’m too satisfied with myself. I’m going to be so nervous on test day I may die.”

1/10/72 [age 16]:

“I guess I was a little rusty at Driver’s Training today. First I forgot to take the parking brake off. And he had to tell me where one red light was; my visor was in the way and I couldn’t see the signals. Gosh, darn. And downtown [San Jose] – my God, it was murder. All those horrible, unannounced one-way streets!”

1/9/72 [age 16]:

“We had pheasant for dinner tonight. I don’t believe we should shoot them. I remember when [my brother] Marc first got his BB gun. I used to love shooting army men off the retaining wall out back. Then I kept hoping for a bird to come down. Day after day I waited. Finally a little sparrow landed on the lawn. Marc was saying, ‘Now! Now’s your chance!’ So I looked through the sight and could not shoot. When I looked at that poor helpless creature I vowed NEVER to shoot anything.”

 

 

 

 

100 days of hard road

100 days of hard road

Warning: This blog is not written in my usual cheerful tone. It’s bleak. It’s about physical and emotional pain. If you’re in the midst of a hard time yourself, please don’t subject yourself to it. It’s guaranteed to bring you right down.

***

For the last three months, my everyday world has been colored by a feverish red wash of hot, searing pain – nerve pain that has brought me literally to my knees.

It started on October 26, 2018 – the day the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox played in a grueling World Series game that went 18 innings and lasted 7 hours and 20 minutes. I watched every minute of the game from our hotel room in Maui, propped up in bed. Those 7+ hours were my absolute undoing, and they would begin my nightmare.

We’d gone to Maui – a place we normally think of as Paradise – to celebrate Julie’s retirement. But now we wish we’d never made that trip. Paradise turned into hell.

***

I doubt that anyone I know would dispute that throughout my life I’ve suffered from a plethora of embarrassing medical conditions. If this were going to be a funny blog, I would probably list some of them, although perhaps it wouldn’t be prudent and ladylike to do so.

But I’ve decided to open up about my current situation, precisely because it’s not something people ever talk about.

What I suffer from is called pudendal neuralgia, and if you know what “pudendal” means I really don’t have to explain it further. It’s an indescribably severe and terrifying nerve pain – a relentless, crackling burn. And it’s in your pelvic area. Your personal, sensitive “zone.”

The condition is made all the more horrifying by the fact that people who live with it, like me, are too mortified to tell others what the heck is going on. So it’s as lonely as it is devastating.

If you have pudendal neuralgia, people around you see no injury. No cast, no sling, no bandage. Everything looks normal. But you feel like a match is being held to your tissues. And there is no making it go away. You cannot rest. You cannot salve the pain. You want to plunge yourself into ice. Your body crackles; your brain sizzles.

Pudendal neuralgia can afflict both men and women, so it’s not a “lady thing” by any means. Men often get it from riding bicycles for too long a period of time. Typically it happens when the nerve – which runs through your lower back – gets somehow damaged.

The condition is baffling, and there is no guarantee that it will lessen or go away. I constantly ask myself, “Will I have this the rest of my life?”

***

My nerve was damaged 8 years ago, and I live with a very low level of pain every day that I can easily manage. But I’ve had a couple of flareups in the last few years, and while the first one lasted only a couple of weeks, this one has gone on for many months. Foolishly I caused the flareups by lying in bed too long reading or, in the case of last October, watching television – a position that puts too much pressure on my lower back and, as a result, on my surrounding nerves. Since then, I’ve been walking endless excruciating miles of bad road.

[Those damned Dodgers! As if I needed another reason to hate them!]

As I’ve dealt with this latest bout, I’ve discovered that the only position remotely comfortable for me is standing. Imagine not being able to sit down. Julie, always so resourceful, set up a standing desk for me so that I could work at my computer, and she’s bought special cushioned mats for me to stand on. She also found me a “kneeling chair” to help take the pressure off my feet. So I spend my days upright at my desk, reading in the kneeling chair, and walking in loops around the house just to get some exercise. I had been given a Fitbit for my birthday and one day it started buzzing at me, “fireworks” lighting up its screen. I had walked 10,000 steps in my own home, trying to walk the pain away.

The nerve pain gradually gets worse as the day goes by, so there is no way I can see anyone or do anything in the afternoons or evenings. No movies, no plays, no shows, no dinners out, no nothing.

Unfortunately, standing all day has taken its own toll. My knees have started to seize up. My feet are raw. And my back pain has spread. Everything aches, so it’s hard to sleep in a comfortable position. And now, because of nerve “cross-talk,” the bottoms of my feet prickle and burn. My teeth and fists are often clenched from pain. I am simply exhausted.

More than once I’ve gotten down on my knees to pray.

“How am I supposed to live like this?” I asked Julie once.

My friend Char wondered the same thing. “How do you keep your sanity?” she wanted to know.

***

It can be nearly impossible to tell concerned friends and neighbors about my condition. I mean, when my neighbor asks me how I’m doing, I can’t really answer, “Well, Roger, right now my crotch is on fire.”

Some folks believe I should “reach out” to others more when I’m in distress. But that is not my nature. I don’t like bothering people. As my friend Julie R. says, “The drowning person doesn’t reach out! The folks onshore do!” I really love that metaphor, although I’m still trying to figure out whether it completely makes sense.

When close friends and family do check in with me, though, I don’t hide my situation, and I’ve been fortunate that many of them have tried to help with visits, rides, suggestions, information sharing, and – I know it’s practically an anachronism – phone calls. Oh, and a trip to a dispensary.

My friend Ganja (ok, yes, that’s not her real name!), despite my reluctance, dragged me to met me at a dispensary south of Market Street in San Francisco. I smoked dope (as we use to call it) a few times in my youth, but it was much weaker then. Once I got into my thirties I stopped wanting to ingest any drugs whatsoever, including prescription medication if I could help it.

So last month I entered the new world of state-legal cannabis grudgingly. But Ganja showed me the ropes and the products. A most supercool young bro helped us out and I came home with some CBD (the nonhallucinogenic compound derived from the cannabis plant). I’ve used it a few times, and I can’t really tell whether it helps with the nerve pain, but there appear to be no side effects, so I’ll continue to try it when needed.

My pusher Ganja, though, thinks that we can be stoner buddies, so she’s been nudging me into trying TCH (the psychoactive component that can get you high). One night we shared some tasty THC-infused granola, waited the requisite hour before the effects would kick in, and then proceeded to not get stoned. We couldn’t figure it out. But I’m not ruling out another shot at getting carmelyzed in the future.

***

I once asked my mother what it was like to give birth. She was 22 years old when she had me, and it was no walk in the park. In those days, of course, there were no Lamaze classes. During labor women typically were given some form of anesthetic, but when I decided to enter this world, there was a snafu at the hospital and the machine wasn’t available. My father, meanwhile, was at home with a ruptured disc. So Mom went through her long, painful labor with no preparation, no anesthesia, and no husband nearby.

Anyway, when I asked her about the pain, she said, in her typical dauntless way, “Well, it hurts, but it’s not like someone sawing your leg off or anything.”

This harrowing scenario of someone sawing my leg off has always been my benchmark for “Level 10” pain. But most of us won’t ever experience being wounded on a Civil War battlefield, so these days when we’re asked to assign a number to our pain, we’re told that a Level 10 is “the worst pain you’ve ever experienced.”

Neuralgia is definitely, for me, a Level 10.

Lest anyone think that I am exaggerating, I have a high pain tolerance. In December 2015 I missed a step in our house and thought I had sprained an ankle. We took off a couple of days later on our 2,300-mile road trip to Kentucky, and I walked around on my tomato-red, swollen foot like it was nothing. By the time we got to Louisville, however, it started to seem like the pain was maybe a liiiitle too much for a sprain. An urgent care visit and a few X-rays later, it turned out that I had a torn ligament and had broken my foot in two places, including the heel.

A few years earlier I had a kidney stone. When the doctor said I needed to have surgery because the stone was too big, I tried to talk him out of it. I thought I should just go home from the hospital and deal with the pain like any other tough soldier. He thought that was absurd and admitted me for surgery, against my protestations.

But I would rather have 10 kidney stones than this condition.

***

This year, Julie, Buster, and I postponed our Thanksgiving road trip to Kentucky in hopes that I’d be better by Christmastime, but we had to cancel that trip as well. I just couldn’t sit in a car comfortably for 5 days, let alone deal with all the nerve pain. It was devastating, but I encouraged Julie to fly back herself. Why should she stay home and be as miserable as I was?

It was a lonely holiday for me, to say the least. I missed Julie and the rest of my Louisville family dearly. But on Christmas Day I got a call from my friend Mary, whom I’d first met in 6th grade and who, coincidentally, lives in Kentucky now. She called to wish me a Merry Christmas and we had a wonderful chat. She also recounted a story that has given me hope ever since. She said that a few years ago she had bone spurs along with pain and spasms in her neck, and to top that off, every time she looked up towards the sky she got dizzy. She was told by a specialist that she would need surgery, and it would involve . . . well, there’s no sense in reciting the gruesome details, other than to say that while she’d be on the operating table her head would not be attached to her neck in any usual way. And her personal physician told her that she would be in a wheelchair the rest of her life!

When she heard all of these prognoses, Mary said, “That scared me so much that I actually recovered!!”

She’s had no neck problems since then.

This story has made me laugh many times. But it also gives me hope. Mary says that the power of prayer helped her, too. I keep trying that. Maybe fear and prayer are the answer.

***

It’s amazing how long it takes to wend one’s way through the health care system these days. Three months have passed since I hurt myself. But there are weeks of waiting between each appointment. So far I’ve seen my primary care doctor and two spine specialists. The first specialist, a well-respected neurosurgeon, was so cavalier about seeing me that he asked me twice why I thought he could help me. I was coming to him because my doctor had referred me, that’s why! But I didn’t say that. I just stammered. He blew me off and sent me on my way with nothing.

I then went to see my primary care guy again to ask for a second referral. Now I am under the care of another renowned surgeon (he worked on Joe Montana’s back!), who thankfully took me more seriously and ordered X-rays and MRIs. I’ll get my latest results from him in February. Keep in mind that I started seeing him in December. It’s an eternity just waiting for appointments anywhere.

Meanwhile, there are the frustrating days on end that I have spent on the phone, dealing with my primary care office’s wrong referral codes, incorrectly written prescriptions, and office staff who never answer the telephone.

***

I recently read an article in which six doctors and pain researchers were asked what they considered the worst pain to be. They all said it was nerve pain and/or pain that you feel you cannot control, or that will never end. Chronic pain makes you feel unsafe, one of them said. “Acute pain is unpleasant (even extremely so),” said another, “but chronic pain is about suffering.”

I realize that there are people out there who are far worse off than I am. There are people battling cancer, for crying out loud. I remember that when my mother was at her absolute wit’s end caring for my demented father, or when she herself was battling cancer, she would always say the same thing: “There are people worse off than I am, so I shouldn’t complain.”

But I would always answer, “Mom, that makes no sense. If the only people who are eligible to complain are the people who have it worse than anyone else, then the only person allowed to complain is the ONE person who is the most worse off in the entire world! And he is probably the one getting his leg sawn off!”

***

My physical therapy friends have been terrific listeners. One of them, Jill, even FaceTimed me last week so she could use a spine model as a visual aid while she explained what she thinks is going on with me. And I believe she’s right. I have a tailbone that is angled differently from most people’s. (I think I broke it twice, although I never went to see a doctor.) She thinks my lying on it puts pressure on the middle of my tailbone, which stretches the ligaments, causes inflammation, and presses on the nerve. I know she’s right, dammit! Someone just needs to LISTEN to me!

This is a complex condition that won’t be magically solved by any one approach. I do think it’s possible that, if the MRI results are unhelpful, my best hope may now in fact be physical therapy. It took me 6 weeks to get PT appointments but they are coming up this week. One is for my back and the other is for pelvic pain. Amazingly, there are actually specialized clinics now that deal only with pelvic pain and offer hope. The forms for the clinic, though, terrified me; I had to sign one indicating that the treatment might cause me “physical and emotional distress.” A friend of mine told me that she had once been prescribed pelvic PT and never went, out of embarrassment.

I, too, am scared. But I’m hoping that good therapists will be able to help figure this all out. I just need the pain to stop, please, stop.

***

So how are things these days? Well, I’m taking Gabapentin – an anti-seizure medication that’s been shown to work with nerve pain. (Opioids don’t work on nerve pain, and they make me violently ill anyway.) And I’m worn out from standing all day.

Every once in a while I have a good day. That’s an improvement, and maybe my nerves are settling down just a little. My mood has brightened a bit. Occasionally I find myself able to laugh.

But most days I feel like I’m walking barefoot across an endless expanse of blistering desert, broiling on the inside, facing a searing sun.

***

So what’s my point? Why did I write this difficult personal post, against my nature?

Well, partly it’s to explain my absence. I’ve been a hermit since last October. And when I have seen people, I’ve been withdrawn, cranky, ready to jump out of my skin.

But the larger reason is this:

There are many private sufferers out there, like me. Maybe you know someone in a similar situation. Or maybe some of you are struggling with issues you don’t want to talk about. If so, I hope you know that you are not alone.

The one modern cliché I’ve fully embraced is that the person standing next to you might be hiding pain and troubles. We should all go through life remembering this.

**

I have a generally healthy psyche, a glass-half-full outlook on life. I don’t think that’s changed. But it has certainly taken a long hiatus.

My poor Julie, who has suffered along with me, says, “As soon as you are better, we’re going to take on the world in a different way.”

My friend Kati, who just weathered a tough year, has a beautiful outlook on things. As 2019 arrived she said, “Instead of ‘Happy New Year’ I’d like to say Peace through your days, see God in the worst of it, and when you are desperate, despondent, grieving, or struggling may you find one shred of life to hang on to until you can once again feel its worth.”

I am hanging on. And when I get better and can feel life’s worth, I swear to take on the world in a different way.

 

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.

1/6/72 [age 16]:

“You know, I brought a pair of black shoes to school yesterday (no, Tuesday) for Mary Pasek to wear to the PAL meeting. She couldn’t come and I LOST the $20 shoes of Mom’s. She was upset. I found them yesterday in my locker. And last night I lost my Physiology oral report and had to do it today. I found it in my locker but I didn’t have much time to practice. I LOSE EVERYTHING! 💧- teardrop”

1/1/72 [age 16]:

“This year is going to be a biggie. I tied my radio to my new bike today and took off. Miles and miles. I went south to Crown Super and north a little past Piedmont Hills. I rode around a lot in between. When I reluctantly crawled exhausted back in the door, Mom said from now on I have to tell her beforehand exactly where I’m going. But I can’t do that; no, I have to be FREE!”

12/1/71 [age 16]:

“I think there are two desires I have at this stage of life: friendship and music. I do not like to be in a crowd. But I do like companionship – say, one friend who can really understand me. That would be very difficult. Also, I love my records, and I simply could not exist without my radio. Am I 33, reading this now? Do I still listen to rock?”

11/29/71 [age 16]:

“Once I dreamed I made love to Daniel Boone. (He looked like Fess Parker.) That was the start of my physical desires. Strange, but up until then I really had no knowledge of bedroom procedure.”

11/5/71 [age 15]:

“I’ve sort of been down lately. I guess I’ve been thinking too much – arguing things out with myself, trying to figure people out. I’ve been drifting over towards the liberal faction because my so-called “conservative” friends have gone bananas.”

9/26/71 [age 15]:

“I read Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther, about his 17-year-old son who died of a brain tumor. One day John Jr. wrote in his diary some words which I feel describe me, coincidentally, perfectly: ‘About 1/2 time my conscious mind is either asleep or wandering off in space. . . . I am greatly over-introvert – caused by over-consciousness of what others think of me.’ If there is a more accurate description of myself in the world, let it be found.”

9/21/71 [age 15]:

“PANTS! Mom said today I could wear pants once every 2 weeks to school. I guess she was in a good mood or something and I have been especially good lately. But what great maneuvering power you have, Paula!”

9/11/71 [age 15]:

“It wasn’t a great vacation [in Clear Lake]. Mom is trying to quit smoking and she was a bear. Worse, I think. She won’t eat, won’t talk, won’t anything. And to top it off, the fishing was lousy. Dad has promised Mom this trip to Clear Lake, 2 dinners, a shotgun, a new rod and reel, and a stereo if she quits. I sure wish she would, but I don’t think she’ll make it. I was so nervous that I ate three Nutty Buddies.”

9/4/71 [age 15] [Ed.’s note: my brother and I, who are medical miracles because we always develop identical maladies simultaneously, had both gotten plantar warts on the bottoms of our feet]:

“Last night Marc’s wart fell off and I was replenished with hope and got this brilliant idea to lift up the edges [of my wart] and put Wart Remover right on the quick. I ran around the room screaming for 15 minutes. Ever had acid eat away at you?”

8/4/71 [age 15]: [My parents had gone to Tahoe for the weekend and left us with our Italian aunt and uncle in San Leandro]

“Mom and Dad went to Tahoe and dropped us off at Zio and Zia’s house. Meals are TERRIFIC! And we got to watch COLOR TV!”

7/14/71 [age 15]:

“We went to the doctor today. I’m 5’6-1/4” and weigh 126. According to his chart I’m 13 pounds underweight. But FORGET THAT! I’ll stay where I am.”

 7/11/71 [age 15]:

“I went to the dentist with [my brother] Marc and [my sister] Jan and Mom today. We were there from 12:45 until 3:45. I was the only one with no cavities. Jan had one and Marc had two. Ha ha for Marc.”

7/4/71 [age 15]:

“This week was fun. The police never bothered us, even though firecrackers were part of our basic everyday diet.”

6/29/71 [age 15] [Part One of Two]:

“O H, W O W! The thrill of my entire life has happened. Last night Carolyn Edmonds asked me to come over along with about 4 other girls because Mary Blasi is here. She had been 2 years in Hawaii and had come to visit. I was glad it was all girls – I don’t dance. [But then] Kevin Daly came over. Uh, oh. It seemed Carolyn had asked some guys from our class that afternoon. [Ed.’s note: all the invitees were fellow graduates of St. Victor’s Elementary School.] Soon Pat Pisturino, Jose Salcido, Mike Necas, and Art Pasquinelli were there. Uh, oh. I just sat on the couch and sweated, hoping they wouldn’t dance. Then all of a sudden P A T  S E A R S came in. I almost died. His hair was pretty long, and I like him. He was like the old Pat, but his voice was a little deeper. Then came the inevitable – dancing. Fast. It was horrible. Mary and Jean Greiner and I sat on the couch nervously eating pretzels. I think we ate about a million – it was a huge salad bowl and we reduced it to crumbs.”

6/29/71 [age 15]: [Part Two. I asked my young self for permission to reprint this.]

“Then ‘Hey, Jude’ came on, and they dance slow to it. But I haven’t ever done that either. Pat came over, took both my hands, pulled me up and said ‘Come on, don’t say you don’t know how.’ I said, ‘Teach me, Pat.’ And he did. Kids today, I noticed, just put their arms around each other and sway. He said (I’ve got to capture the conversation) ‘It’s easy.’ Me: ‘Not when you’re as uncoordinated as I am.’ Pat: ‘But you’re not. You’ve got to have some grace to be in athletics.’ Me: ‘Yeah, but I am a complete idiot at home.’ Pat: ‘We’re all a little clumsy. I am. All the Sears are.’ Then he told me about something he had just done, but I wasn’t listening. I was trying to keep off his feet. The music was almost over. It seemed like people were watching me. But I felt so good. I had never been so absolutely close to a guy before. I loved his back and the feel of his hands on mine. Don’t make the song be over, God. It’s a long song, believe me, but it went so fast. I was the biggest clutz in the world. At least everyone else was dancing, so they wouldn’t notice. He was so nice. As soon as the music stopped, Mom came. Aarggh. I’m always the first to leave. I wanted to stay. I begged her to stay. But no.”

[Ed.’s note: I was working in the stacks at the SFSU library seven years later when I was suddenly overwhelmed with rushing memories of Pat. I had to sit down. That night my mother called to give me the news. Patrick Conley Sears had died on September 1, 1978, in a plane crash near Anchorage, Alaska. “I loved him,” my diary entry says. He was 24 years old.]

 

 

I’ll stand by you

I’ll stand by you

One of my former colleagues needs a new liver.

The problem is, in order to be eligible for an immediate liver transplant a patient must be very high up on the waiting list and practically at death’s door. She is not there yet, although she has suffered terribly with this condition for many years. More than 17,500 people are on the waiting list in the United States.

There is, however, a way for “living donors” to give someone a portion of their healthy liver. The donor’s liver regenerates; we can actually lose up to 75 percent of that organ and it will grow right back. The recipient, in turn, grows a virtually new liver from the piece he or she was given.

My friend’s hepatologist works out of the University of California, San Francisco, and I decided to research the procedure on the UCSF website. It turns out that it is no walk in the park for the donor. The potential complications are severe and could even be life-threatening. The postsurgical pain is brutal – worse for the donor, in fact, than for the recipient. Recovery takes a week in the hospital and many months afterwards, and some donors suffer from pain and complications for life.

Strongly shaken, I closed my eyes and tried to assess the degree of courage I had. To what length would I go to save a life? What amount of pain and potentially life-changing discomfort could I imagine going through? And for whom?

***

I was thinking about friendship on my recent ’cross-country train trip. I’d met an older woman in the observation car, a mentally and physically strong widow who went to the gym every day and kept up with politics and had a plethora of art-related hobbies and was taking the trip by herself to visit her daughter in Florida. “I’ve gotten along just fine living alone,” she said, “and I’ve kept myself healthy, but this year I lost my best friend, and that’s what kicked me hard in the gut.”

It was the third time I’d gone back East, by rail, to the beautiful state of Maryland. Three of my friends happen to live in the Baltimore area, which is both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate for me that they happen to live within 60 miles of each other. Unfortunate that they’re not in San Francisco any longer. They weren’t West Coast people in the first place, but they’d all ventured out to the Bay Area for a time, shortly after college. Eventually, and for varied reasons, they made their way back and settled in Maryland. All of their departures broke my heart.

So, on the first day I ride the train back from Baltimore, I cry. It’s become a tradition.

***

There is little in the world that I value more highly than friendship. It probably even irritates a few people who may, in fact, consider my persistent loyalty and sentimentality to be an unwanted annoyance.

I’ve always longed to enjoy the “Cheers” or “Sex and the City” dynamic with a few really close friends – that is, a group of people who get together on a regular basis, rain or shine, at a preordained spot, over coffee or wine or a meal. But that is not to be. Almost everyone I know has moved out of San Francisco, or left the Bay Area or the state entirely. So I jealously take note of the small group of retired bearded gents who take up the same table at my neighborhood Peet’s Coffee every day. Or my high school teachers who meet once a month for a sandwich, half a century after they worked together. Or my father-in-law’s high school and college buddies from Shelbyville and Georgetown (KY) who get together like clockwork. In fact, he told me that he has eight different groups, from different parts of his life, that he sees on a regular basis for lunch. They’re all in their eighties, by the way. “And normally I don’t even eat lunch,” he recently told me. “I have to take care not to spoil my boyish figure.”

***

So, what qualities do I look for, instinctively, in a friend? The ability to laugh. Shared values. Kindness. Intellectual curiosity. A complete lack of arrogance or pretense. A strong respect for older people and institutions. And most importantly, the willingness to listen. I have to admit, I’ve jettisoned a few “friends” over the last few years because I suddenly realized, after many decades, that they’d never listened to a word I’d said!

And to further escalate my demands, I prefer that people not only listen but also respond.

Lest I start getting too serious, let me give you an example of someone who listens to my tedious minutiae and follows up, which is the critical thing. One day this summer I was at the ballpark with my attorney friend Char. Char has been a bandmate of mine off and on for many years now. And I don’t think she would mind my saying that she has virtually zero interest in baseball, so when we go to a game I have to occasionally (and discreetly) shift one eye to the field if I have any hope of keeping track of the game at all. Char is an example of one of the world’s greatest conversationalists. The topics range from the ridiculous (“Paula, would you kiss so-and-so if you were the last two people on the planet and stuck on a desert island?”) to the less so (“Char, for the love of God, please explain emoluments to me”).

(By the way, if there were only two people left on the planet, why would they have to be stuck on a desert island?)

At our game this summer, Char mentioned that when she saw Springsteen with me two years ago, it was a life-changing concert for her. I think she actually said “life-changing.” Swoon! I started yammering on about how I was in the middle of a years-long process of listening to, cataloguing, notating, and rating all of my Springsteen bootlegs. My end goal, I told her, is to come up with “The Definitive Bruce Show,” with the best live version of each song I feel worthy of inclusion.

What I didn’t mention, because who on earth would care, is that I’ve been obsessing all these years about what format to use for the final output. CDs? (but there would be multiple CDs, and who but me listens to them anymore?) MP3 disks? (but would they play in precisely the order I decree?) Anyway, I didn’t mention my obsession because who cares. No one.

“By the way,” Char responded immediately, “what format are you going to use for this project?”

This is why Char is a gem.

***

When I arrive on the East Coast, I’m typically met at the train station by my friend Ellen, whom I met when we worked together at a nonprofit political think tank in San Francisco. Ellen came from a huge East Coast family, went to college in Oberlin, shared my undying love for Springsteen when we were young, introduced me to a host of terrific Oberlin and Jersey guys, drank profusely with me throughout the 80s, lost her husband at a way-too-young age, works in book publishing in Washington, D.C., lives in a lovely home in the country, and still amuses me with her opinionated, broad-based, funny takes on all of life’s variables, from the profound to the mundane. We like to rave about how cool we are. Springsteen’s gorgeous ode to friendship – “Bobby Jean” – always reminds me of her:

We liked the same music, we liked the same bands
We liked the same clothes.
We told each other that we were the wildest,
The wildest things we’d ever seen.

We have so many laughs. I’ll never forget the day I finally came out to her, in 1984, after years of friendship. I was absolutely terrified that that would be the end of our carefree years of running around town together. This is how she reacted:

“Well, if I’d known that all along, I could have become your plaything and you could have been my sugar momma!”

Ellen Loerke and granddaughter Allie
Ellen and her granddaughter Allie

***

After a couple of days with Ellen, I check in for a week at a hotel in downtown Baltimore, just a few blocks from my friend Julie R.’s apartment.

I’ve known Julie for more than 25 years. When we first met in San Francisco, she claimed – at the time, at least – to be an anarchist. And she’d been “warned” by a mutual friend that I was – at the time, at least – a Republican. I’m sure we both did an inner eyeroll. All these years hence, I think I can accurately assume that we’ve both been pulled a few degrees towards the middle.

Riffle Mohawk
Julie R. and her scary mohawk

Julie had more contradictions than anyone I’d ever met. I knew that she had formerly rocked a mohawk and had been arrested in a variety of political demonstrations, yet she was earnestly, by degree and trade, an accountant. An aficionado of the punk scene and devotee of Iggy Pop, she had painted obscene epithets on her bedroom walls back home, yet her inner core was sweet and sensitive. She wore black. She was a serious introvert. She refused to eat any green foods or anything crunchy. She laughed easily. And she played the guitar like Keith Richards.

Julie and I had a band called Three Hour Tour for many years, but eventually she headed back to Maryland where, among other things, the cost of living was a lot lower. A few years ago, to my unending admiration, Julie courageously decided to completely raze her career path and go into physical therapy. It required getting into a school with very specific requirements, following a point system I never understood, and the first time she applied she was rejected. Most of her friends and family responded in the same way: that she just needed to be patient and try again the following year. My response, by contrast, was abject anger. “What?! What kind of so-called school is that – that would reject someone clearly smarter and more qualified than any other possible applicant? Are they blind??!” I was aghast, outraged. She later told me that my response was the one she liked best. (And she got into that idiotic school the next year.)

We typically keep in touch via phone conversations that can last for hours. She also frequently sends me envelopes full of newspaper clippings about topics ranging from baseball (she’s an avid sports fan) to music to Maryland history and lore. (Using the U.S. Mail! Who does that anymore?)

A few years ago, for Christmas, I bought Julie a book called The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis. Yes, it sounds odd. But I had seen it on her Amazon wish list and, knowing her broad range of interests, I didn’t think too much of it. It turns out, though, that she’d put the book on her list so she could remember to buy it for her sister, who does medical research. After she opened my “gift,” she was too polite to tell me that I had made an idiotic mistake until I forced the issue when I asked her how she was enjoying her wonderful new book on childbed fever.

***

During our week in Baltimore this time we toured the Bromo Seltzer Tower (much more interesting than it sounds!), visited the Peabody Institute Library, frequented any number of charming Baltimore taverns (although one drink puts Julie under the table), walked 40 miles (at Julie’s insistence, of course – she’s a long-distance runner) to find the 49ers game at one such tavern, saw an Orioles game at Camden Yards, went through Baltimore’s fantastic African American History Museum, watched a Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary, embarked on a self-guided literary walking tour (to which Julie had made her own personal additions), sought out all the best Maryland crabcakes around, and played music nearly every day.

Julie Riffle Bike 2011
Julie on one of her innumerable athletic endeavors

One day, Julie and I drove out to her parents’ house, in her home town of Thurmont, to work out with her mother and other ladies of, shall we say, an advanced age. More advanced than mine, to put it one way. Julie has been a certified personal trainer, and she really loves older people, so she enjoys torturing putting the screws to the ladies and forcing them to keep up with their exercises. She’s coerced them into getting together regularly at her mom’s house for strength training and conditioning, and on her rare days off Julie drives out there and makes sure they’re not shirking their commitment. Then, after their workout, they all tell stories and scarf a bunch of doughnuts.

Julie has always loved older people. She arrived at work one day recently to find one of her elderly hospital patients crying hard. Julie asked what was wrong, and the woman (let’s call her “Dottie”) said that she couldn’t find her beloved stuffed animal. It had gotten misplaced somehow and Dottie couldn’t bear the thought of going on without it.

“Honey,” she sniffled, “I didn’t sleep one minute last night because all I did was cry and pray to God that He would bring my teddy back.”

Her plight was not taken seriously at all by the nursing assistants. But Julie would have none of that nonsense.

Over the years, Julie’s tendencies toward steely introspection have softened into a gentle, universal, empathic kindness. Most of us mellow with age, I suppose. In any case, the stuffed animal situation sent her into action. During one of her spare moments (God forbid she do this on company time), she whisked herself down to the hospital laundry in hopes that somehow the animal had been caught up in her patient’s bedding. Sure enough, there it was, perched on a shelf. Julie brought it back to the ecstatic woman, who then proceeded to tell everyone within earshot about “that white woman who was so kind to me.”

“You would have thought I was some kind of saint,” Julie told me, unassumingly mystified.

***

cajonIt’s become a tradition that, when I visit Baltimore, Julie and my friend Lauren and I play a gig in a small café called The Village Square. I’m a drummer, and obviously I don’t lug a drumset across the country with me on a train, nor would the café tolerate the noise, nor would it fit well with the folk-acoustic style music we play. So I accompany my bandmates on the cajon (box drum).

(For those of you not on Facebook, a link to one of our songs is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoxZDnREiCQ. Notice that I had no idea when the song was supposed to end.)

185_Baltimore_Paula, Lauren, Diana
Paula, Lauren, Diana

Lauren worked for a short time with Ellen and me at the think tank in San Francisco. A native of Chicago, she is a wickedly brilliant writer (and editor) on a variety of topics, mostly related to politics and the arts (oh, and did I mention that she was the speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of Defense for three years?). Anyhoo, she has a beautiful voice and plays a deft guitar and those qualities, accompanied by her encyclopedic knowledge of American folk music and singer-songwriters in general, are what she brings to our little trio, Transcontinental Railroad.

***

I like it when friends champion each other’s passions. Julie has always known how important my blog is to me and continues to mention it in conversation. She says she appreciates that my writing “covers a lot of ground.” Well, that’s a nice way of putting it. Someone else once said that my blogs are “too long and have too many facts.”

Friends can also help nudge us in better directions. Julie, of course, is always touting the value of exercise and checking in to make sure I don’t spend all my hours sitting on the couch eating clam dip. She’s also recently been chastising me for not seeing enough live music. So I’ve got a couple of shows lined up in the near future. Lately she’s started nagging encouraging me to take piano lessons, which I haven’t done since I was seven. “For God’s sake, do things out of your comfort zone,” she keeps telling me. Hmmm. Staying firmly in my comfort zone is actually one of my life’s goals. But deep down I know she’s right.

 

Finish line_May 15, 2011
Julie and Paula, Bay to Breakers, May 15, 2011

***

As the years go by, I’m realizing that the nature of my friendships has become wildly varied. Some friends are good for a laugh, but nothing deeper. Some are extroverts who can make any moment fun, and they serve a special role for me because often I live too closely bottled up in my own tiny anxieties and can’t always see the forest for the trees. Some were friends from long ago but are now Facebook acquaintances, and we keep abreast of each other’s lives but never talk; still, I enjoy knowing they’re doing well. Some share the unbreakable bonds we formed at a particular moment in our lives, like high school classmates or bandmates or teammates. Some are former lovers, and I’ve kept in touch with almost all of them (okay, there aren’t very many, but still).

Each kind of friend represents a lovely trinket in a box of treasures. We have to appreciate them for whatever role they play in our lives.

But the gold nuggets are hard to come by. They endure. “We carry each other’s history,” as songwriter Carole Bayer Sager says. We see each other through all of our relationships, moves, job and career changes, perceived slights, setbacks, right turns and wrong turns, hangovers, regrets, embarrassments, illnesses, failures, triumphs, moments of beauty and creativity, and moments of sheer vulnerability.

True friendship is a very, very rare connection. Sometimes it develops very slowly over the years, sometimes in fits and starts, and sometimes in an instant. However it begins, its nurturing takes care and commitment. If you take it for granted, it can slowly and imperceptibly trickle like sand through your fingers until one day you realize it’s gone. But if you make an effort to sustain it, you will have a lifelong gift. Hang on tightly.

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Julie and Lauren

***

The day before I left Baltimore, we played music together, this time without the pressure of preparing for our gig (which had been, of course, a triumphant success). I like the language of musicians. It’s unspoken, based on a shared affinity. It’s like a secret code.

After we finished playing, we were talking about something health-related and I told her my story about living liver donations. She, of course, was very attentive.

I thought about the people most important to me. I thought about the history we carry. I thought about how life without Julie R. would kick me hard in the gut.

I looked up at her. “Julie,” I said sincerely, “if you needed it, I would gladly give you a piece of my liver.”

 

THIS BLOG POST IS DEDICATED TO JULIE’S MOTHER,

NANCY JAYNE CARBACK RIFFLE,

5/12/37 – 10/30/18

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.

6/29/71:

“[This summer] has been rather boring. Besides getting my one suntan hour every day, I am making a cassette of my favorite songs. Most of the time I am outside. We are in the middle of a Frisbee fad. We play tag with them, war with them, or else we line up along the curbs and throw them at a poor kid who runs the gauntlet down the middle of the street.”

6/11/71:

“We went to a surprise party for Judy Czarnecki today. It was supposed to be mixed, but only one of the 15 guys showed up. But it was fun. Mom bought me some good plaid western pants and a gold blouse to wear. We sat around and talked, and even had a séance and levitated and stuff.”

6/9/71:

“All we did today was sign yearbooks. I always write really good things in other people’s books. Most of them are funny. But everybody always writes really clutzy stuff in mine, like how smart I am or ‘you’re a nice girl. Stay that way.’ Aauggh! I could just scream!”

5/31/71 [Memorial Day weekend]:

“Saturday we worked all day, and Sunday we went to a late mass, which wrecks the WHOLE DAY. So I thought Monday we could do something I like, maybe get some kids together and go down to play ball at Noble [School] or Piedmont Hills. But I guess I expected too much. We went fishing and (you guessed it) caught nothing. And they force me to go, which makes no sense at all. Why, why, why? I can see it all now – if I forced them to go to rock concerts on their free days. No way, man, no way.”

5/24/71:

“We lost in A-league softball today and Andrew Hill [High School] got the championship. We both were undefeated. Now, being objective, I can sure criticize the plate and base umps. They were boys from their school!”

5/11/71:

“What a dream I had last night! First I had a wierd [sic] short one about Bruce Tambling trying to teach me how to play the drums on a set that must have cost 25 cents. But then I dreamed that we were going to go fishing up this mountain that looked like granite and had roads like glass. There was water all over the roads. Reports came in that 52 people had died already, because their cars had slipped off the roads and plunged to their deaths. So I begged and pleaded that we wouldn’t go and everyone was all mad at me and I kept saying, ‘But don’t you see? People are DYING!’ When I woke up I was in agony, and my heart was on the verge of exploding. Why do I always have such terrible dreams?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An iron road runnin’

An iron road runnin’

For they looked in the future and what did they see
They saw an iron road runnin’ from the sea to the sea
Bringin’ the goods to a young growin’ land
All up through the seaports and into their hands

Gordon Lightfoot

A remarkable American event occurred nearly 150 years ago on April 28, 1869 – something that was considered to be an unimaginable feat at the time.

On that day, during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the world, a group of men laid down 10 miles and 56 feet of rail in the high ground of Utah in less than 12 hours.

We may not be able to appreciate it fully today, when automation and technology have reduced most tasks to the push of a button. But in those days it was a feat of human perseverance, brute strength, endurance, planning, ingenuity, guts, cooperation, and commitment. It was a record that would never be broken.

***

Construction of an expansive rail system spanning the continent was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s most pressing goals. By the 1860s railroads were up and running in the east, but they came to an end near Omaha, Nebraska. From that point, it would take four months for anyone to make the trip west to California by stagecoach or wagon train.

The overall plan was that the Union Pacific Railroad would construct tracks heading east out of Omaha (well, technically, Council Bluffs, Iowa). Its counterpart would build a railroad from the west that would meet the Union Pacific in northern Utah.

Transcontinental-Railroad-map-wiki
The Union Pacific (in blue) and Central Pacific (in red) segments of the Transcontinental Railroad

The logistics of building the western segment over the Sierra Nevada mountains were considered to be prohibitive, however, both physically and financially. General William Tecumseh Sherman, in fact, had visited northern California and declared that laying down tracks over the Sierras would require the work of none other than “giants.”

But the collective hubris of California’s “Big Four” rail tycoons – Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Potter Huntington, and Charles Crocker – led them to pool their amassed fortunes and take on an enormous gamble: financing a railroad that would face the challenge of traversing some of the most challenging geography in the country as it headed towards its terminus at Promontory Point, Utah Territory. And so the Central Pacific Railroad was born.

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Central Pacific Railroad at Cape Horn, Colfax, CA

Work on the Transcontinental Railroad by the two powerful railway companies went on for six years, and the Central Pacific had a much tougher time of it. Crossing the Sierras was backbreaking, and the weather and topography proved to be formidable adversaries. The snow was deep, the gorges steep, and the mountain rock nearly impenetrable. Imagine tunneling through the Sierras by hand. To create each tunnel, two men would work an entire day to pound holes 5 feet into the rock using only hammers and chisels. Then other workers were hung from the rock faces and suspended in baskets while they stuck black dynamite into the holes, lit the fuses, and were frantically yanked to safety before the explosives erupted. More than a dozen tunnels were blasted through the mountains. And of course grades needed to be carved and bridges constructed.

The Big Four neared bankruptcy. But the work continued, and eventually the exhausted Central Pacific crew broke through and descended into the Nevada desert.

At this point, I’d like to note that both of the companies involved in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad hired immigrants for the hard labor. About 8,000 of the railroad workers were employed by the Union Pacific and were primarily of Irish, German, and Italian descent. The majority of the laborers (13,000), however, were Chinese immigrants working for the Central Pacific. These guys were, reportedly, extremely hardy and committed workers. They built Buddhist shrines to tend to their spiritual well-being. For their physical health, they wisely arranged for deliveries of rice, dried vegetables, dried oysters and abalone, pork, and poultry, so their food was healthier than the meat-and-potato staples of the other workers. And because they drank boiled tea rather than untreated water, they tended not to fall prey to the dysentery and other infectious diseases that roared through the camps. Of course, they were paid far, far less than the white workers. And to make matters worse, although meals were included in the white workers’ salaries, the Chinese men had the cost of their food deducted from their wages.

Still, they persisted.

tc-railroad

As the Central Pacific guys were moving across the Nevada flatlands, the workers of the Union Pacific were slapping down track at breakneck speed as they headed west out of Omaha towards the Great Salt Lake. And at this point the effort became a race, of sorts – a rivalry to determine which group of workers could lay the longest amount of track in the fastest amount of time. That is when Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific Railroad made the claim that everyone thought was foolish: that his men could put down 10 miles of track in a single day.

At 7 a.m. on April 28, the sprint began. The plan, as executed, involved bringing in 16-car trains loaded with rails, bolts, spikes, and other materials needed for two miles of track. All 16 cars were then miraculously unloaded in eight minutes, “cleared with a noise like the bombardment of an army,” according to Erle Heath, associate editor of the Southern Pacific Bulletin. The emptied train would be hauled immediately out of the way and a new loaded train pulled into the appropriate position.

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Buster Keaton on a handcar

Enter those little iron handcars we’ve all seen in Buster Keaton movies. A keg of bolts, a keg of nails, a bundle of fish plates, and 16 iron rails would be loaded onto a handcar, each of which was manned by six Chinese laborers and their white boss. On flatlands and uphill grades, the handcars were pulled by two horses in tandem. On the downhills, they went sailing along at full tilt, with one man serving as brakeman, the horses galloping alongside until they reached level ground. Keep in mind that while all of this was happening, the empty handcars returning from their position were on the same track. So as the fully loaded cars came whizzing toward them, the guys on the empty handcar had to leap off, hoist the car off the rails, and then put it back on again after the full car had zoomed by without slackening its speed.

Then came the Irish rail handlers – an elite crew of only eight men who actually laid down all the track. And on the tough grades and curves, the rails had to be bent through the sheer force of heavy hammers. Each rail was 30 feet long and weighed – get this – more than half a ton. By the end of the day, each of these guys had lifted 125 tons of iron.

After the rail handlers came the spikers, the bolters, the guys who “surfaced” the tracks by shoveling ballast under them, and finally the tampers – at least 400 of them – with shovels and tamping bars. Foremen on horseback raced back and forth along the tracks.

“It could only be compared to the advance of an army,” said Heath.

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But it all went down smoothly, at the rate of about a mile of track laid down every hour. All in all, in that one day the workers placed 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,000 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and other material for a total of 4,462,000 pounds. Ten miles and 56 feet of rail in one workday.

It brought the Central Pacific railhead within four miles of the eventual connection, a month later, with the Union Pacific railroad at Promontory Summit.

***

800px-The-Golden-Spike-7Oct2012
The original Golden Spike

On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad opened up for through traffic after Leland Stanford, using a silver hammer, drove in the historic Golden Spike connecting the two railroads at Promontory Summit. (Side note: the spike was actually gold-plated, because real gold is too soft.) Both the hammer and the spike were connected by wire to the telegraph line, which would enable the hammer strokes to be heard as clicks at telegraph stations throughout the land. The entire country was listening in. But there were technical difficulties, as the story goes, so the clicks were actually “sent” by the telegraph operator. Uh, oh. FAKE NEWS!!

***

In the end, about 1,900 miles of rail were laid for the Transcontinental Railroad, with tracks reaching as high as 8,242 feet (at Sherman Pass, Wyoming). Estimates are that fully a quarter of the American labor force worked, in some capacity, to build that railroad.

And it would now take only a week for goods and people to travel from coast to coast.

1920px-1869-Golden_Spike
Golden Spike ceremony, May 10, 1869, Promontory Summit, Utah Territory

As with all “progress,” the emergence of the national rail system was not without its drawbacks. It permanently disrupted the way of life of many Native Americans, for one thing. And the railroad barons, driven by greed, exploited their workers.

But intercontinental train travel allowed the restless and growing American populace to find their place in whatever part of the American landscape captured their hearts. It provided a way for poor Southern blacks to migrate northward and westward. It offered employment to thousands. It allowed farmers to transport their goods anywhere quickly. It was the face of the Industrial Revolution.

Labor Day was not yet a holiday when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. But we celebrate it today to honor the labor movements of the late 19th century that were borne out of the suffering of workers who toiled under truly harrowing conditions, with 12-hour workdays, unsafe labor conditions, and paltry wages. Some of those workers were children as young as 5 years old.

Let us be reminded, on this first Monday in September, of the sweat of our ancestors who made possible for us the comforts with which we are living today. Let us be grateful for the miners, the lamplighters, and the stevedores. And let’s think about those railroad workers grinding their way, under the most difficult of conditions, to give us the gift of mobility and freedom.

***

This week I’ll be boarding the California Zephyr, as I do every couple of years, and traveling across the country by train. To this day, the Zephyr – which goes from Emeryville to Chicago – runs on a part of the original Transcontinental Railroad, from Sacramento to Winnemucca, Nevada.

When I get to the eastern shore, four days later, I’ll be spending time with my Maryland friends and playing music with two of them in a Baltimore coffeehouse.

The name of our band?

“Transcontinental Railroad.”

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.

5/7/71:

“Boy, hardly any days left of school. This year went by so fast it’s hard to believe. And thinking we only have one year left at this great school just tears me apart. Skipping [a grade] has taken away one year of my youth. I have been thinking about waiting a year before college. Heck, I’ll only be 16 and just a baby. I’ll be sucking my thumb while everyone else is walking already.”

4/25/71:

“I sure love music. I used to listen to KLOK, but I don’t too much anymore because they play too many oldies, which I hate. But KYA has the good rock and roll. The current songs I like are ‘Sweet and Innocent’ by Donny Osmond and ‘Timothy’ by the Buoys (which is about cannibalism).”

4/3/71:

“The Blanchettes came over for a pheasant dinner tonight [with their two sons, Butch and Carl]. A couple of weeks ago when we were at the beach, Butch and I went out pretty deep in the water and when he said ‘Better hold my hand’ I thought he was getting fresh or something, but he wasn’t. Now he’s in the ‘in’ crowd. [My sister] Janine was telling jokes like a book called ‘Music Theory’ by Clara Net. Ho ho. But here’s a good one offered by Carl: ‘Hole in the Mattress’ by (ready?) Mister Completely!”

3/30/71:

“I don’t feel too bad today. I made it through OK. Only threw up 4 times. My temperature was up to 102 degrees and climbing, but I took an aspirin and it zooped down to 100.6. But my stomach was in agony & I thought I was in a furnace. It’s funny how under these conditions your mind kind of leaves your body and wanders around on its own, while the mortal body will only lay and suffer, and hope for an end to the torment.”

2/25/71: “I had a murderous Chem test today and I’m beginning to get very worried. So far I have about a B-, and if I don’t bring it up I may wreck my 4.0 average. And I just CAN’T do that! It’s practically my life!”

Next day, 2/26/71: “I got the highest at our table on the Chem test [yesterday]. But it was only 41 out of 50. I hope he gives us some extra credit this semester or I’ll really just BOMB OUT!”

2/24/71:

“Mr. Curtis came up to me today and said that he was shocked that I wasn’t taking Algebra II. However, baby, NO AMOUNT of coercing from him will prompt me to take it. I cannot stand math (except Geometry, which I love) and do not wish to burden my schedule with a course I do not like!”

2/18/71:

“Today was rather unusual. I got to school at about 8:40 as usual, but inside it was dark. When the bell rang the power was still out and they wouldn’t let us in. We knew that if the power was off for about an hour, they’d let us go. So we stood outside and prayed until, at 9:30, the glorious words came: SCHOOL IS DISMISSED!”

Into that good night

Into that good night

Julie and I have celebrated a couple of milestones over the past few weeks. I’ll save the more monumental one for later and begin by noting that June 23 was our 10th official wedding anniversary. We’ve really been together more than 20 years, but it was June 23, 2008, when we scrambled to get married in the brief window of opportunity afforded us before California’s (short-lived, thankfully) Proposition 8 yanked that privilege away. The ceremony took place at City Hall on a Monday, which I know is an odd day but it all happened in a rush and people all around us were hastening to tie the knot. There was no time, really, to plan anything large and elaborate, so we gathered at a suite at the Fairmont Hotel for our small reception. I chose that establishment because to me it embodied old San Francisco, and I was grateful to the City in so many ways for the rich, fascinating, and happy life it had provided to me.

So my plan, 10 years later, was to surprise Julie with a return to the Fairmont.

***

It didn’t go exactly as planned, and I blame our dog Buster. Of course, he has no idea about his part in this. I had thought through all the details meticulously, calling the hotel directly instead of making online reservations just in case Julie were to see something on my computer, and arranging months in advance (by text) for our trusted dogwalker to board Buster. My chosen restaurant didn’t take reservations (ensuring that Julie couldn’t see any confirmations on our OpenTable account) but was open steadily from 11 a.m. on, so we could waltz in for a meal in the late afternoon and likely have no problem being seated. Tutto a posto, as they say in Italy. Everything was in place.

But not so fast.

Just a few days before June 23 arrived, our dogwalker’s husband informed her that they had a wedding to attend in southern California. And when she called to tell me the news, I idiotically answered the phone as Julie sat in the same room watching television. “Hi, Louise!” I said brightly before noticing Julie’s puzzled look. I then proceeded to splutter all kinds of nonsense into the phone as I tried to figure out a way to be covert. It soon became obvious to all concerned that the jig was up, and ultimately I had to confess my plan.

Of course, we then had to scramble to figure out where to leave our dog for the night. We don’t do kennels because Buster considers himself far too regal for cages. I thought of asking a neighbor but didn’t want to impose Buster’s quirky, barky little personality on anyone.

Finally, in desperation, I texted our former dogwalker – who now lives in New Orleans! – and bless her heart she did some long-distance liaison work and found us a substitute. All was well again.

***

For those of us who have lived in San Francisco for most or all of our lives, the City these days can be a difficult place to navigate, both physically and emotionally. Its changes have been monumental. I’m going to save my thoughts on that for another day, though, because for our anniversary I wanted us to honor, cherish, and celebrate some of the very oldest, and most respectable, places in town. Checking into the Fairmont would begin our tribute.

Flags outside of Fairmont - from Fairmont site

The Fairmont is not the oldest hotel in San Francisco – the Palace Hotel holds that distinction – but it is one of the few grand pre-Earthquake survivors. When the Big One hit in April of 1906, the building’s structure was complete, the rooms were about to get their finishing touches, and the hotel was about to open its doors to customers for the first time. The Fairmont was one of the “Big Four” hotels on Nob Hill that were named after three of the era’s Big Four railroad tycoons who built the Central Pacific Railroad: Leland Stanford (the Stanford Court), Mark Hopkins (the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins), Collis Potter Huntington (the Scarlet Huntington), and Charles Crocker (Crocker didn’t get a hotel named after him, although what is now the Westin St. Francis was supposed to be called the Crocker Hotel). The Fairmont had no ties with the railroad business but was named for sisters Jessie and Virginia Fair, the original owners who wanted to build a monument to their father. Nob Hill, around which all four hotels were built, was so named because the Big Four railroad men had been given the moniker “The Nobs.” (A nob is a nabob, or “a person of great wealth or prominence,” according to Merriam-Webster. Remember when former Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew referred to the “nattering nabobs of negativism”?)

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The Fairmont stands tall amidst the rubble, 1906

Anyway, although everything around it was reduced to rubble after the Great Earthquake and Fire, the Fairmont Hotel stood like a heroic, indestructible symbol of the resilience of San Francisco. As the writer Gertrude Atherton said at the time, “I forgot the doomed city as I gazed at The Fairmont, a tremendous volume of white smoke pouring from the roof, every window a shimmering sheet of gold; not a flame, nor a spark shot forth. The Fairmont will never be as demonic in its beauty again.”

Stanford White
Stanford White

Before I leave the Fairmont’s story, I must note how San Francisco’s colorful history was exemplified in the refurbishing of the damaged hotel. The first choice for an architect to repair and redecorate the Fairmont was one Stanford White, a New Yorker with a ridiculous moustache who nevertheless was well respected for his use of Beaux Arts design principles. The moustache did not, apparently, prevent his being a bit of a tomcat because he was dining pleasantly during a show at Madison Square Garden on the evening of June 25, 1906, when he was shot dead by millionaire Harry Thaw over White’s relationship with Thaw’s wife. Ironically, the murder occurred during the show’s finale, “I Could Love a Million Girls.”

Julia Morgan-2
Julia Morgan

With Mr. White permanently out of commission, the hotel’s owners – quite progressively – then brought on Julie Morgan, who in 1904 had become the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California. Another aficionado of the Beaux-Arts style, she was later to become the principal designer for Hearst Castle. Morgan was apparently chosen because of her knowledge of earthquake-resistant, reinforced concrete construction, and after supervising every aspect of the job for 12 months with very little sleep, she was able to preside over the reopening of the Fairmont exactly a year after the earthquake.

The place is spectacular. The Charter of the United Nations was drafted and signed at the Fairmont in 1945, so the flags of the signatory countries still fly to this day at the front entrance. The grand and flamboyant lobby welcomes guests with ornate Corinthian pillars, marble floors, and gilded ceilings. The hotel’s Venetian Room is the lush showroom in which Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The Laurel Court restaurant sits under three domes and is a dashing remnant of the past. The tiki-themed Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a charming blend of kitsch and sophistication, is just a barrel of fun, with coconut-sized tropical drinks, an indoor lagoon and floating stage, occasional “rainstorms” complete with thunder and lightning, and a dance floor that was originally the deck of the S.S. Forrester, one of the last of the tall ships that sailed the south seas. And the city views from the Tower rooms are, in a word, stunning. Outside lie the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the vast cityscape of San Francisco and, right below your bedroom window, little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars.

051_2018_06-23_10th anniversary_Night view from Fairmont room 18
View from our room

***

Dinner that afternoon would be at the Tadich Grill, and we could get there easily by cable car. Because both of us are generally ravenous by 3:30 p.m., I knew that the restaurant’s no-reservations policy would not be a problem, even in the middle of tourist season.

026_2018_06-23_10th anniversary_Tadich Grill sign_Paula

Tadich Grill, founded in 1849, is the oldest restaurant in California. It also happens to be two doors down from 260 California Street, where I worked for much of the 1980s. My very first job out of college had been as a production assistant at Harper & Row Publishers, but when the parent company moved its textbook division back to New York, I was suddenly out of a regular job. Thus began my seven-year stint as a freelance copy editor, during which time I worked periodically at the Institute for Contemporary Studies (ICS), a nonprofit think tank and publishing house. This was during the halcyon days of working in downtown San Francisco. We’re talking short hours, midday martinis, spirited political discussions, expensive vendor lunches, and lots of drama among us young employees. Every day at 11:30 a.m., like clockwork, the thick, smoky aroma of Tadich’s grilled steak made its way through the open windows. It was exquisite and torturous and a sensory memory I’ll never forget.

Tadich is primarily a seafood restaurant, though, and Julie and I both ordered fish in one form or another. Julie chose the seafood sauté and I was reminded of the first time we had dinner together 23 years ago, at McCormick & Kuleto’s in Ghirardelli Square. Although she is from Kentucky and had never eaten a mollusk in her life, she ordered the seafood cioppino, threw on a bib, and dug with gusto into a messy bowl of Dungeness crab, mussels, clams, squid, shrimp, and who knows what all. It was most impressive.

I love the old, rich look of the Tadich Grill. Dark wood fills the interior. A mahogany bar extends almost the length of the restaurant. The booths are set back into individual dark alcoves that must have seen many a clandestine meeting of one sort or another. The lamps are antique brass. Everything is polished. And on each white-clothed table, waiting for diners, sit a bowl of lemon quarters and a basket piled high with authentic, chewy sourdough – not the namby-pamby stuff that supposedly passes for bread these days.

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Hangtown Fry

I pondered ordering one of the local specialties, like the Crab Louie or perhaps the Hangtown Fry (an omelet made with bacon and oysters), which has been on the menu for almost 170 years. Legend has it that the dish was created when a successful Placerville gold prospector asked his hotel proprietor to serve him the most expensive meal possible. The three priciest foods at the time were eggs, bacon, and oysters, which had to be brought to Placerville on ice from San Francisco, more than a hundred miles away.

Ultimately, though, I settled on my perennial favorite, petrale sole.

“Would you recommend the mesquite-grilled or the pan-fried?” I asked our white-coated, black-tied waiter.

He gave me a smirk. “Do you want healthy,” he asked, “or do you want tasty?”

***

025_2018_06-23_10th anniversary_Cable car_Julie, PaulaTo cap off the evening it seemed appropriate that we hop a cable car back up California street to the Top of the Mark, the glass-walled penthouse lounge on the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins hotel. San Francisco’s cable cars are part of the last manually operated cable car system in the world. Only three lines remain, and the California Street line, established in 1878, is the oldest. We clanged our way towards Nob Hill, rumbling and lurching along the track. It’s a hard job to manually operate the levers controlling the car’s movement along the cables. It was an uncommonly balmy evening, and the gripman pulled and sweated and cursed.

Since 1939, the Top of the Mark with its 360-degree view of the city has been a destination for tourists, entertainers, sailors, soldiers, and natives. Some say that during World War II, soldiers would buy a bottle of liquor and leave it with the bartender so that the next guy from that squadron to visit the establishment could enjoy a drink – a practice that remained ongoing as long as whoever had the last sip bought the next bottle.

A man and woman with thick Georgia accents sat behind us. He was dressed rakishly, and she wore a hat. “We had no idea we’d be here in San Francisco on such a special weekend,” the woman said, warmly. It was Gay Pride weekend, but Julie and I had stayed away from all the events this year. We go to the parade every once in a while, but it takes fortitude to stand on Market Street for 8 hours. I’m not kidding about the time frame. Sometimes half an hour goes by between floats. I don’t know what it is but gay people can be extremely disorganized.

Top-of-the-Mark-56Julie ordered a tropical cocktail called the “Bay Bridge” and my choice was the “Indonesia Nu Fashioned,” a mixture of Woodford Reserve Distillers Select Bourbon (my nod to Kentucky), dark crème de cacao, and Angostura bitters served on the rocks. I gave it a stir and gazed outside at the breathtaking view.

“I wish I were wild and elegant like that Georgia lady,” I said, a little regretfully.

The sky was clear over Nob Hill as we headed across the street and back to the Fairmont, but fog was drifting in slowly from out past the Golden Gate. Julie said that to her the fog in San Francisco is like a blanket, always there to tuck us in at night.

***

Three weeks have passed, and today marks the other milestone for us.

Today is the first day of Julie’s retirement.

Last Friday – her final workday ever – we went downtown, dropped off her work computer, turned in her badge, and drove out to the beach to have lunch at the Cliff House, another venerable SF institution. It’s a place where we’ve celebrated significant events in our lives. We’d gone there after we applied for our marriage license, on the day the CA Supreme Court granted us that privilege. We’d eaten there on the day I retired, nearly 5 years ago. And now this. A comfortable fog hung over the surfers. Julie said it was perfect.

There is, of course, no telling what the future has in store, and whether this new freedom of ours will last for one day or 20 years. With the liberation of age comes the restriction of physical changes. The body is often sore for no reason. Despite all efforts and all manner of exercise and healthy eating, the bones grow tired and the muscles get weaker.

There are times when I rue the fact that I now glide through my days unnoticed. Darn it, I want to be appreciated, respected, and even heralded, like the Fairmont, Tadich Grill, the Top of the Mark, the Cliff House, and the cable cars that manage to keep on rumbling up the hills.

Maybe I am like the San Francisco of old. Some of me is weathered, some of me is gone completely, but other parts still stand resolutely. And there are promising days ahead. There will be more causes for celebration. There will be good food and wine and laughter. There will be beauty and unexpected discoveries. There are trains to be taken and there is music to be played.

A new chapter starts now. I want healthy, but I also want tasty. I will not go gently into that good night.

2018_07-13_Julie's retirement day_Julie at Cliff House window 2
At the Cliff House, Julie ponders what on earth she’ll do in retirement

 

***

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.

2/21/71:

“I went to see LOVE STORY today and was a bit disappointed, mainly because of the buildup I had been getting from other people. When the girl died, I cried one tear and that’s all. It wasn’t that good. Then I went to Colleen’s and they took me out to eat at MacDonald’s. Now, I am sitting here sniffling as the after-effect of the hay fever attack I got over there. Know why? Well, because they have lots of hay, of course.”

 

2/1/71:

“What has been occupying my thoughts partly lately has been a sorry feeling for my teachers – three in particular. Mrs. Dossa is one. We make fun of her because of her unwashed, uncombed hair and her unkempt clothes, especially her lack of a sense of humor. Well, it is really not her fault. And she really tries to teach us everything and let us enjoy it. But we just complain and don’t respond. She seems really interested in our American Lit projects but all we do is . . . well, nothing. Same with Mr. Ferguson. To make history less boring he even lets us try simulation games. But we just say we hate them. He took it personally and said, ‘Well, I thought it was kind of interesting.’ I felt sorry for him and hoped we could continue our game. And nobody listened to our poor devoted P.E. substitute.”

 

1/29/71:

“We got report cards [today]. . . . I wrote ‘excellent student’ next to my A+ P.E. grade and [my P.E. teacher] Azama got kind of mad.”

 

1/23/71:

“Since I am in such a sorry state of affairs [I had a cold] I doubt that I will go to church tomorrow. But we haven’t gone in such a long time. I keep begging them to take me to Confession but we never seem to get around to it. We didn’t even go on CHRISTMAS! I am ashamed to go to Confession and say that I haven’t been to Mass the past 106 times.”

 

A thank-you lives forever

A thank-you lives forever

My father hand-picked my high school teachers. That’s right. He was the principal, so he had special powers, and this was one of them. I didn’t have a particular opinion about it at first, but I grew to realize that although he generally chose the toughest, strictest instructors, he knew exactly what he was doing. Most of my teachers were on the “excellent” end of the scale.

It’s been many decades since I graduated from high school, but since then I’ve thought often about one teacher in particular: Ellen Giannini, who taught Spanish. And I was reminded of her again over the Christmas holidays when I was in Kentucky. It’s become somewhat of a tradition that Julie and I get together every year with my old grade-school classmate Mary and her sister Patty, who now live in Georgetown, KY. Both of them attended my high school, Piedmont Hills (in San Jose). While we were slamming down our hearty diner food, Patty (who graduated a few years before I did) pulled out a few photos of her 50th reunion and I immediately recognized my beloved Mrs. Giannini, who might have aged a little (she’s now nearly 80), but overall she looked much the same as I remembered her.

At that moment, I fell into the vise of yet another Paula Bocciardi obsession: I had to contact her. All these years, I hadn’t even known whether she was alive. Now here she was in the photo, the same woman who’d embodied what I most respect and admire about teachers. And I needed to tell her how much she had meant to me.

With Patty’s help and encouragement, and with some investigative twists and turns, I finally got Mrs. Giannini’s address. Then I sent her a letter in February, telling her what she meant to me and citing examples of her efficacy and her kindness. I told her that she didn’t need to respond, although I was fervently hoping that she would.

But I heard nothing back.

A couple of weeks later, I got this chilling e-mail from the person who’d passed her address on to me:

“At our monthly PHHS luncheon today, I found out that Ellen has had a stroke.”

“Oh, no!” I thought. “She never got my letter.”

***

Ellen Delucchi (her maiden name; she was single then) was the very first teacher I saw when I walked onto the Piedmont Hills grounds in September of 1968. Spanish I was my first class of the day. She was a tiny spitfire with a beehive hairdo, and I liked her immediately because her unwavering no-nonsense demeanor was always accompanied by a persistent twinkle in her eye. The twinkle suggested not only a keen sense of humor but a kind and flexible heart. She was so human, with a rare and perfect combination of toughness and sensitivity.

1971_Ellen Delucchi-GianniniIt didn’t take long – perhaps mere minutes – for her empathy to reveal itself in a way I wouldn’t have expected. That first day, the principal of the school – aka “Dad” – stopped by to just “check in on things.” When he strolled to the open doorway of the classroom and leaned oh so casually against the jamb, I was an instant wreck. With a fire-red face I tried to squirm as low into my desk as possible. Dad was probably there less than a minute, but during that time I died a thousand deaths. I was, after all, only 12 years old. And what did Miss Delucchi do? Nothing overt, of course. But then she called the roll. Her routine was to refer to everyone by last name. “Señorita Atkinson?” she would call out. “Señor Azevedo?” Oh, God, I thought, she’s going to say “Señorita Bocciardi” next and they’re all going to turn and stare at me with disdain.

Except she didn’t. “Paula?” she called out, nonchalantly.

You know, even today, as I write this, I get tears in my eyes. She broke her own previously inviolable classroom rule for one reason only: to save me the embarrassment of having the same name as the principal. She couldn’t have been more than 29 years old at the time, but she had the discerning heart of a woman with vast perspective.

Yet she was also a disciplinary stickler to the core. We all knew that she would allow no señor or señorita to stray even one micrometer over the line. And she had the uncanny scofflaw-detecting abilities of a bloodhound. In those days, for instance, the school did not abide gum-chewing by any student. It was an intolerable crime (probably in no small part thanks to Dad). Yet on one particular occasion, Carolyn Edmonds – who sat in the very back row – decided to flout the rules. Miss Delucchi was up at the board, with her back turned to the classroom, writing out some conjugation or another. “Señorita Edmonds?” she called out, without turning even one degree towards us. Uh oh. “Spit out that gum!”

We all gasped. How on earth . . . ? Obviously she had sonor capabilities that could detect a gum-chewer a mile away.

Carolyn slunk up to the garbage can and tossed the offending Chiclets.

The same Carolyn, who was mature beyond her years – after all, she wore a bra in grade school! – was of course also the first to spot the ring on Miss Delucchi’s finger one day. “Miss Delucchi, don’t you have something you need to tell us?” she demanded. Miss Delucchi smiled sheepishly but broadly, telling us that yes, she was soon to be married to a certain Mr. Peter Giannini. We were all delighted for her.

***

Five decades later, I still remember much of the three years of Spanish that I took with Mrs. Giannini, because her passion made it all so enthralling. Learning a foreign language truly enriches our world. It also teaches us about elements of grammar that we may not even have known existed. I learned, for example, about the subjunctive mood, which is used in situations expressing doubt, possibility, desire, or circumstances contrary to fact. It’s complicated, and I was annoyed by it initially, but it’s actually quite beautiful. We don’t use it much in English, but it has its place nonetheless (“If only I were there with you”). A former work colleague in the process of getting his master’s in English once told me that his college professor believed the subjunctive to be useless and therefore not worth teaching. I almost lost consciousness. And I fantasized about siccing Mrs. Giannini on that guy.

***

A few weeks ago, while I was sitting at the Giants game enjoying a sunny day at the park, my cell phone started ringing. Of course, I would never answer the phone at a ballgame, but I did glance at the caller I.D., which merely said “Unknown.” Another robocall, I thought, no doubt about my being an IRS outlaw on the brink of arrest. But the caller left a message (odd!), and my curiosity got to me, so I immediately checked the transcription (this is a much abbreviated version):

“Hi, Paula, this is Ellen Giannini. You probably thought I fell off the face of the earth! What happened was I had a cerebral hemorrhage and I was at the hospital for four days. I go to the ‘Y’ every day to work out, though, and that really saved my goose! But anyway, I wanted to get back to you with regard to that beautiful letter you sent me. You actually took my breath away when I read it. I just couldn’t believe it.”

***

“Oh, my gosh, I thought maybe my letter had killed you!” I joked to Mrs. Giannini when we connected on the phone later that day. “Call me Ellen,” she insisted, although it was hard for me. Lucky for all of us, Ellen’s stroke had left absolutely no residual effects. When I heard her voice, I could tell that she was exactly the same person who’d made such a mark on me 50 years ago. Funny, loquacious, spirited, kind.

“All three of you Bocciardi kids were different,” she said. “You hit the nail right on the head when you said that I didn’t use your last name for a reason. I knew how sensitive you were, and I could tell you were shrinking in embarrassment when your dad showed up. But your sister was the real character. When your dad would come on over the loudspeaker with an announcement, she’d just yell out, ‘Now what do you want?!’ ”

We both cracked up.

I asked her about how times have changed, especially in regard to students with attitude who think there’s no need to listen to their elders. “It’s actually the parents who have changed,” she told me. “A lot of them are now telling teachers what to do. You never saw that back when I started in my career. As for any problem kids, my philosophy was always this: First, talk directly to the student. Don’t immediately resort to taking action by sending the kid to the administrative office. If that doesn’t work, phone the parents. Then, only if all else fails, write a disciplinary referral. The bottom line is that I never took any guff. ‘If you don’t want to stay in this class,’ I’d tell them, ‘go see a counselor and transfer out.’ ”

Before we got off the phone, Mrs. Giannini told me that a group of retired teachers from my school got together regularly, and she thought it would be nice if I could come to her house, chat with her awhile, and then go to the luncheon. It would be held at Harry’s Hofbrau – a deli from my childhood that was a personal favorite because of its enormous portions of freshly carved meat heaped on huge sourdough sandwich rolls. I agreed immediately.

2018_05-29_Harry's Hofbrau_Ellen Giannini, Paula 1I suppose the lunch was a bit anticlimactic. I have to admit that many of the teachers who were there from my era hardly remembered me. All of them, though, seemed to recall my character of a sister!

The overriding sentiment I sensed at that lunch was that these people were genuinely happy. They had a camaraderie that reflected not only their shared experiences but also their shared commitment to education. I would think – or at least hope – that they’re content with, and proud of, their careers in public service.

Teachers have to deal with a lot. They’re instructors, parents, psychologists, and disciplinarians. They have to deal with demanding and critical parents. They work long days, spending many an evening at home correcting papers and preparing lesson plans. In inflation-adjusted terms, teacher pay has fallen nationally over the past decade, yet 94 percent of teachers, according to the stats I’ve read, spend their own money to buy school supplies. And in this country, at least, they now have the added worry about feeling secure in their classrooms. But their dedication persists. They deserve our deepest respect and our greatest gratitude.

***

All of us can look back and appreciate the scores of people who, along the way, have made a positive impact on our lives. And it could have been just a gesture, a word, the slightest whisper of an influence that blew us gently in one direction or another.

Maybe somebody suggested you have an artistic talent you were unsure about. Maybe they said a kind word when you nervously told them a secret. Maybe they held you while you cried. Maybe someone hired you just when you were getting desperate. Maybe someone called just when you thought you were going to fly apart over a broken heart. Maybe they gave you a book to read that steered you away from self-destruction. Maybe they told you that you were beautiful, in one way or another.

I suggest thanking them. Write them a letter, call them, send them a text – just let them know. Show appreciation for someone who is least expecting it. Don’t let a life end before you show your gratitude. It will make both of you happy. A thank-you will live forever in both of your hearts.

Before I left her house, Mrs. Giannini mentioned to me that she had re-read my letter many times. I had a twinkle in my eye all the way 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.

 

1/11/71:

“I have made up my mind a long time ago not to ever smoke weed. But now that I’ve listened to the other side I’m not so sure. I mean, I’m not really going to, I don’t think. But it doesn’t sound that bad. I’m getting [the info] straight from someone who does it and really knows. Oh, shoooooooooot!!!”

 

12/26/70:

“Today and Sunday were average days. We got up around 9:30. After breakfast we watched football. The SAN FRANCISCO 49ers are division champions! And today they beat Minnesota and I hope they go all the way to the SUPER BOWL. I practiced shooting with Grampy’s pellet gun and can now do 13 jumps on the pogo stick. I got blisters on my hand from the pogo stick. In the afternoon we went over to the cousins [house] and looked at dirty books until [my sister] Janine squealed and we got in trouble.”

 

12/11/70:

“You know, for some strange, wierd [sic], unexplainable, mystical reason I began to think about Nonna’s [my grandparents’ house]. It began Sunday when I saw some old pictures. Now, I feel, I don’t know, crushed, it feels hard to breathe. I know I will never again see those days. I remember we used to watch Shirley Temple. I remember the chicken store, Nonno’s love, fresh fugaccia [dialect for focaccia], the old house, the garage with the scales, the “treasures” we used to find in the chairs, the old ball park, the zucchini and the flowers, how we used to play on the porch, soccer on the cracked patio, naps in the cold bedroom, the pantry, the basement with the old games, and bottles, and the dirt where I thought money was buried. I can’t get over that ache in my heart.”