A fluke in Frederick

A fluke in Frederick

On a recent warm Sunday, Julie and I were beginning to emerge from what I call our Food Poisoning Apocalypse. Something – probably tainted crab cakes – had knocked us out of the human race for three miserable days. We were visiting friends in Frederick, Maryland, a historic, fetching Civil War town of about 80,000 people. I was still feeling a little weak and rather butchered, but it was time to work our legs and get outdoors, so we happily walked from our rented rowhouse to Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium for a day of sun and baseball. I had no idea that it would turn out to be a surprisingly fortuitous venture.

Nymeo Field is home to the Frederick Keys (named after Frederick native Francis Scott Key), an unaffiliated collegiate summer ballclub that serves as a showcase for prospects. (The Keys had been a minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles until Major League Baseball began slashing farm clubs in 2020.)

Nymeo Field

Starting this year, however, the field also hosts a still-unnamed Frederick team that plays in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, a high-quality league partnered with MLB that operates in cities without minor league franchises of their own. For reasons as mysterious as a knuckleball, the team’s moniker will not be announced until June 23. The final contenders are: Bone Shakers, Ghost Hounds, Rail Frogs, Sawbones, and Screaming Alpacas. Most of those names scare the bejeezus out of me – can you imagine screaming alpacas dominating your nightmares? – so I’m rooting for the least petrifying (and train-related!) “Rail Frogs.”

In the meantime, the players are wearing uniforms adorned with big colorful question marks. That’s low-level baseball for you.

There are no billionaire owners and superstars in these leagues. The players are underpaid and living on buses and in cheap hotels, but they’re doing it for the love of the game and for their dream of breaking into the majors. Only 10 percent of minor leaguers will make it to “the show,” and far fewer on independent teams will get there. But they press on until, for most of them, age and reality bring disheartening news.

There was plenty of extra room in the parking lot at Nymeo Field. Inside, an enthusiastically hokey announcer was making corny jokes about foul balls running “afoul” of something. On the outfield wall, billboards advertised a local ankle and foot doctor, Pepsi-Cola, and some kind of insurance. The scoreboard accuracy was, at times, questionable. In between innings, the young staffers worked hard. They raked the uneven infield dirt. They danced atop the dugouts to gin up the crowd. At one point they slingshotted free mattress pads, for some reason, into the stands.

I’m thinking of trying out

For the spectators, seeing a game at this level means spending a few hours with your family, under a clear sky, rooting fervently for your town. All of the cliché sounds of baseball – the crack of the bat, the thwack of leather – are louder and more resonant in these stadiums. The action is personal and immediate. And it’s so affordable. The day we were there, we got to see a surprise doubleheader because the previous day’s game had been a rainout. That’s two games for the ridiculously low price of $15 – in the “expensive” seats. For a few dollars more, we could get a hot dog, a slice of pizza, or a funnel cake. And, of course, cold beer at a reeeeeeeeasonable price. I avoided the fatty foods but thought a beer would be okay. One of the local breweries – Flying Dog – had a stand at the ballpark, and the woman behind the taps offered us tastes as we chatted. It all throws back to an America before greed took over.

The crowd was thin. I’d say there were only about 17 people in the stands, but Julie claims that I have a tendency to exaggerate. So it’s more likely that there were 100 people there – in a stadium that holds 5,400. It was Mother’s Day, so maybe that kept the attendance small.

Yet somehow the loudest man on the planet ended up sitting behind us. I’ll call him Boomer. He was a large man, and his resounding cheers and wisecracks ricocheted around the nearly-empty stadium. He also jangled a piercing cowbell that rattled our ears. But he was polite. In fact, he asked us if the cowbell bothered us, and when someone is that solicitous I’ll inevitably respond that I’m not troubled in the least. At one point he offered us a piece of his pretzel, which was bigger than his head. We demurred.

The cowbell and the yelling continued throughout the game and somehow became a welcome part of the atmosphere. Boomer seemed to know his team well.

Meanwhile, as the game moved on, we took casual note of a relaxed-looking man at the end of our row who was congenially talking baseball with another fan. Julie began to suspect that the guy in our row had been an actual ballplayer. Possibly even a major leaguer.

I was skeptical. Why would a big-league player be watching an independent-league game at a ballpark in Frederick with a mere smattering of spectators?

But she insisted. She wondered if he could be Shawon Dunston, a shortstop who’d played for the San Francisco Giants and a handful of other teams in his career.

Shawon Dunston

Okay, hold on now. Shawon Dunston is one of my all-time favorite Giants.

He’d been an All-Star – twice. He’d won the Giants’ Willie Mac award in 1996 for being the most inspirational on the team, with his big heart and smile. He played for 18 seasons, amassed almost 1,600 hits, and earned three World Series rings as a coach.

But much more importantly, his picture – which I cut out of the San Francisco Chronicle in August of 1998 and is now discolored with age – has been taped to the wall next to my desk for 25 years.

The reason this particular photo captured my heart is that, at the time, Shawon’s 5-year-old son Shawon Jr. – a Giants batboy – had been repeatedly asking after games, “Daddy, why don’t you hit home runs?” His father had always patiently replied that his career was winding down and he just wasn’t that kind of hitter. “Okay, Daddy, but why don’t you hit home runs?” Then on August 27, 1998, Shawon Dunston came into a game as a pinch hitter and swatted a three-run homer. His son, overcome with love and pride, couldn’t contain himself and ran out to the field to hug his father. That’s the photo on my wall.

My wall clipping

Back at Nymeo Field, I was now starting to feel the thrill of possibility that Shawon Dunston could be sitting a few feet from me.

Don Mossi signed postcard

It’s rare that I’ve been really close to a professional ballplayer. My cousin Dennis Corti played at the AAA level for the New York Yankees back in the early sixties; he hit .294 with 12 homers in his last year (1964), but he was an outfielder and there was no way he was going to go very far with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris on the big-league roster. In 1966, our parents took us to Pacific Grove for a short vacation and at the hotel we ended up meeting Don Mossi, a Bay Area lefty who’d pitched for a number of MLB teams and had recently retired. Giants third baseman Matt Williams signed a ball for me in 1999 when I was volunteering to collect signatures for the soon-to-be new ballpark. And I got a photo with former Giants coach Bruce Bochy a few years ago when I met him at a charity event. But no words were spoken between us and he was not very friendly, to be honest.

Julie spent the last 15 minutes of the Frederick team’s exciting nailbiter of a game taking surreptitious photos of the mystery man at the end of our row – enlarging them, studying them, even analyzing his ring. She became convinced that it was Shawon. I wasn’t as sure, but I developed an ingenious and foolproof plan to ferret out his identity.

I would use my feminine wiles with Boomer and enlist his help without his ever realizing it.

It was clear that no one in our group would have the nerve to approach the stranger in our row and ask him who he was. But Boomer was obviously not shy. This big dude would help us – I just knew it.

When the game ended and Boomer was getting up to leave, I had to act immediately.

“Do you see that man sitting at the end of our row?” I asked him. “Do you think it could be Shawon Dunston?”

He looked over that way, interested.

“Do you mean the guy who played for the Cubs?”

“Yes,” I said (inwardly perturbed), “but more importantly, for the San Francisco Giants.”

“Well, I’ll go ask him.”


Boomer strolled over to the mystery man and I could hear him saying, “Those ladies over there were wondering if it was you.”

Holy cats, it was Shawon Dunston!

“It’s him, ladies!” Boomer bellowed over his shoulder as he left.

Wow. The guy who’s been on my wall for a quarter of a century was now sitting near me in a virtually empty stadium in Frederick, Maryland.

I had to act. Throwing restraint to the afternoon breeze, Julie and I walked over, and I told him that we were from San Francisco and that he was one of my most-loved Giants and I wanted to thank him for everything.

Shawon Dunston, Jr.

This man, as I might have expected, was so gracious and kind. He explained to us that his son – the little 5-year-old in my photo – was playing outfield for the opposing team, the Lancaster Barnstormers, but he’d hurt his hamstring in the first inning of the first game (which we had missed). He joked that he didn’t like his son’s long hair but that it had come “from his mother’s side.” I asked whether he was still advising the Giants, as he’d been a couple of years ago, but he said that he’d left in 2020 and was “a nobody” now. We told him that he most certainly was not a nobody.

I’m typically not a celebrity groupie or a “fangirl” type, but for the first time in my life I asked a stranger for a picture. He seemed thrilled to oblige.

By the way, I would like to add that the man is in incredible shape. I felt like I was putting my arm around a stone monument.

As we were walking out of the stadium afterwards, Boomer zipped out of the parking lot in his truck and honked. We waved wildly and yelled our thanks.

These days I often have to remind myself that serendipitous moments are possible even on the most ordinary of days. So although I may not be feeling 100 percent, or I may be wanting to just slouch lazily on the couch eating Funyuns, it’s better to simply get up and leave the house.

There’s always a chance for happenstance.


Quick note: my piece in The San Franciscan is finally online!


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.

December 28, 1974 [age 19]:

“I picked up Jeanne [my friend who was visiting from the East Coast] at 12:30 at the airport in San Francisco and we left for our L.A. and Mexico vacation today. [We were in my old, tiny 1971 Toyota Corolla.] The trip was routine, save for a little rain, until we got to the Ridge Route [the 8,000-foot highway grade going from Kern County down into the L.A. basin]. Then it began to snow, and we had the brilliant idea of turning off to play in the snow. The exit, however, turned into a snowy mess, and we barely could move. Rather than get back on the Highway 5 on-ramp, Jeanne, who was driving, took the wrong road and we drove along parallel to the freeway but 100 yards away for half a mile, sliding in the snow. When we finally realized what was happening, we were isolated, alone, afraid, and unable to turn around. So we had to BACK down the road the half a mile, stalling every now and then. It was a nightmare. Back on the freeway we crawled along, and we learned that the CHP had closed the road down right after we’d gone through. But finally, driving in through flooded streets, we made it to Grammy’s house at 9:30. I’ll just never forget praying and shaking with fear on the Grapevine while we passed all those broken-down car corpses covered with snow.”

December 29, 1974 [age 19]:

“Yesterday we headed towards Mexico, settling down for two nights in the Motel 6 right on the border. Today we spent time first in Encinada [sic], walking around and buying liquor, then drove back up north, stopping for a walk on a beach. We parked in Tijuana so we could go into a bar (my first!) and drink margaritas. I had two (the second one was free, on the bartender) and then we drove off towards the border back into CA. Luckily we just looked innocent enough, I guess, to get past the customs inspectors, because the car in front of us had to pull over and open their trunk but we just had to answer a couple of questions. Thank goodness, because we were smuggling in 5 bottles of tequila and mezcal in the trunk.”

December 31, 1974 [age 19]:

“Of all of 1974 today had to be the most exhausting day. All morning and afternoon long we walked the entire length of the San Diego Zoo. Then at 5:00 [my friend Jeanne and] I drove to Anaheim, and the wind was blowing so violently that the Toyota swerved all over the road. We got to Disneyland and sat out in the parking lot drinking the mezcal from Mexico [it had a worm in it and tasted terrible!] until we ran into the Disneyland gates at 8:30 p.m. and had a great drunken time inside all night long going on the Matterhorn and the Haunted House and I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean that looked all purple and flowing through my hazy eyes.”

January 3, 1974 [age 19] [Ed.’s note: get out the violins again]:

“O you new year with your frightening implications. Why this black fear of life? [My friend] Jeanne and I are traveling on different roads. She likes meditation and I am skeptical, so she accuses me of not wanting to try new things. The past is falling away. Oh, it is terrible. I am alone. I want to be a writer and it’s such a useless dream. I have no direction. My personality twists within but never reaches the surface. How could I have been so naïve as to think that my friendship with Jeanne would never end? She is in love with Steve and ready to begin her happy new life with him in South Carolina. It’s really agonizing for me, and I’ve been bitter and cold. I should understand that she simply cannot continue dragging her life in the California mud. She has to settle down with her man. I’ve got to say goodbye for her sake. Her happiness is much more important than my sense of loss. So I’m here shedding tears for something lost and gone.”

January 4, 1974 [age 19]:

“[My friend] Jeanne and I drove home up the coast today, a gorgeous drive along 101 in our t-shirts, while we listened to The Band on my cassettes. It was warm and clear and we stopped to drive on Pismo Beach. I got to telling her about our Stations of the Cross ritual at St. Victor’s with all the incense that would make me so nauseated and I made it so funny that she laughed uproariously. After that we talked a fair amount, much more so than we had all week, about her love life with Steve and then about mine. Of course, I don’t have one. I tried to hint that my enigmatic relationship with Ted is more than platonic but of course it isn’t.”

January 5, 1975 [age 19]:

“The open road stretches before me now. I dropped [my friend] Jeanne off at the airport and she said that she would write and not break all of her California ties. I drove home alone not in utter sadness but in a dreamlike trance, watching the highway, knowing that this was the real culmination of my dependent existence, and that from now on a new life must begin: I must start making plans for the future, go back to school, leave home eventually, meet new people, tear myself away from the old. My new age has not dawned yet, but a red glow appears on the horizon. It won’t be long.”

January 11, 1975 [age 19]:

“I think I committed a felony today, which is pretty dumb since I’m majoring in law enforcement. Jeanne wanted me to buy her a lid of dope and mail it to her back East. I really didn’t want to do this at all; buying and carting dope around is a dirty and risky business. So I prayed that I would make it through safely. I called G– and he told me I could buy a lid from him for $15. I drove out to his house, gulping and shaking all the way, and bought the contraband. It was a small rectangle of stuff wrapped in thin Saran Wrap, about 5” by 2” or so. I had never seen a lid before. I put it in my spare tire compartment and drove home with EXTREME caution. Later, when the parents were gone, it turned out that disguising and wrapping was a problem. G– had given me the idea of taking a leg off a doll, so I went out and bought a $2 doll, but I discovered that the opening wasn’t quite big enough when, to my horror, it began spilling out on [my brother] Marc’s bed. Then I looked around my room for a suitable container and my eyes fell upon a can of tennis balls, so I emptied it, wrapped the dope in foil and put it in, stuck a tennis ball on top, shut the can, lay it in some straw inside a box, put a note in, unsigned, sprayed Lysol all inside, sealed the box, wrapped it up with a pound of package sealing tape, addressed it, wrote ‘Happy Birthday!’ on it, put 70 cents’ worth of stamps on it, and mailed it myself from the postal substation at work. I think it’s foolproof.”

January 16, 1974 [age 19]:

“One day this week after [my teacher’s aide job at a local high] school, Nancy Schwalen, a teacher, was talking to me about our future trip to San Francisco and about nightlife there and drinking and she suddenly asked, “Well, how old ARE you?” and I said nineteen and she said, “It’s funny, but I have a sister who’s your age and a freshman in college and you seem so much . . . .” and I KNEW she was going to say “younger.” All my life I’ve had this feeling that I’m socially very inept, very young. It’s a terrible insecurity. If only I were to be myself rather than talk embarrassedly to hide something. So I’ll work on it, on being as natural and as open as I can. But I still worry so desperately, about not keeping pace with my comrades, about being a little child forevermore. “ . . . . Older,” she said.

Bozos on this bus

Bozos on this bus

My first job out of college was as a production assistant at Harper & Row Publishers in San Francisco. My boss, Laura, was a petite Italian spark plug from New York. She was widely respected but not as widely liked. I, on the other hand, thought the world of her.

One spring day I sat at my desk outside her office and began to sneeze. I have serious hay fever – not like the many people who claim to suffer from “allergies” because they occasionally have the sniffles. My fits could go on for an eternity. I once counted 53 sneezes in a row.

“Bless you!” she yelled unseen from her office.

I sneezed for the second time.

“Bless you!” she shouted again, this time with perhaps just the tiniest note of impatience.

“Laura, I have to warn you, this is a fruitless exercise because I could go on for a while,” I said in between paroxysms.

“Well, THEN SHUT UP!” she hollered.

I cracked up so hard, I think I stopped sneezing.

I’m going to generalize here, but I love New Yorkers. I think most of them are hilarious.

Some people would have taken offense at my boss’ sense of humor. In fact, one of her colleagues came over to me that day and apologized for her. (This same curmudgeon had also once terrified me by warning me that all of life’s joy gets sucked out of you once you turn 30. I was 23 at the time.) She, among others, thought that Laura was abrasive and demanding.

I didn’t feel that way at all. Laura, to me, was not only riotously funny but also a terrific mentor. I’ll never forget her and her affirmative influence on my life.

(By the way, I just learned that she is extremely active in retirement and has donated more than 600 hours of her time to local nonprofits, including the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula. God bless her.)


For the most part, I’ve learned to love and accept individuals’ idiosyncrasies, especially if their hearts are in the right place. Quirky? So endearing. Imperfect? Only human. Blunt and fussy like Laura? A dash of flavor.

Unfortunately, many disagree with me. The default position now seems to be instant contempt for others. People pick out the tiniest flaws in each other that they can run with.

Disdain makes people feel smug and – for some reason – fills them with endorphins, so it’s become a drug, like heroin.

It’s in our very culture now. We’re hungry for a quarrel.


Not all that long ago, human beings had no time to concern themselves with the perceived shortcomings of their neighbors. People had to work hard all day just to stay alive, for cryin’ out loud, and they needed each other.

But today most of those challenges have disappeared. Loafers now have plenty of time to sit on their couches slaying imaginary dragons, as if life were one giant video game. They’ve been desensitized by the interpersonal distance baked into (the ironically-named) “social” media. Then, as their worldview contracts, so does their ability to understand and embrace the whole of humanity.

These people are unfulfilled and insecure and yet sneeringly convinced of their own superiority. Somehow they’ve managed to conclude that they’re perfect – in the face, by the way, of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.


“Decency,” I remember someone saying on The Crown, “is an easy quality to mock.”

Couch critics often pick on those most threatening to them – ironically, those most likely to truly do some good. Rather than get up off their butts and do something, they berate decent and courageous people who are at least trying. They look for ways to rain on others’ parades. It helps justify their own inertia.

As Teddy Roosevelt famously said in 1910, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

This tendency, I believe, has also extended to reviewers of the arts. A couple of years ago, Bill Maher remarked that movie critics these days often fault a film not for its artistry, but simply for not being the movie they would have made. Or because the film doesn’t reflect their biases. Not only is that careless and ignoble reasoning but it makes the reviewers feel self-righteous, when the fact of the matter is that they never could have produced a work of similar quality or import themselves.

Isn’t that the whole problem – that so many people have a need to feel self-righteous?

We’re devolving.


But Monday Morning Rail is going slightly off the rail and heading into a rant.

So let’s instead consider the antidote to all the hypercritical piety going around.

Let’s come back, for a moment, to our everyday interpersonal relationships, and think about the people we hold close.

In the natural world, the instinctive “desire” of an atom is to chemically bond with another atom to form a compound. Because atoms have an incomplete outer shell, they are often unstable by themselves. So they go looking for stability.

Sodium and chloride, for example, combine naturally to form salt, which is a most wonderful thing. In our bodies, salt transmits nerve signals, helps muscles function, carries nutrients, and balances our fluids and blood pressure. Of course, it also makes food taste really good.

I think that, as human beings, we have the same chemical need for stability. In fact, we’re almost involuntarily responsive to certain people.

We’re not all attracted to the same people, thank goodness. That’s what makes the world go ’round.

In my own life, I know that I wobble constantly towards others, trying to find that balance and steadiness.

I look for the heart beating underneath people’s appearance or their behavior. I don’t draw quick conclusions.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m a sweet Pollyanna who loves everyone. First of all, I certainly make judgments about what I consider to be bad behavior. I have my moral absolutes. I will jettison you in an instant if you lie, are rude to a service provider, think that cheating on your taxes is a bragging right, mistreat an animal, or disrespect the elderly. (“Respect,” Dr. Ruth Westheimer once said, “is nondebatable.”)

Sometimes, too, I strongly dislike people whom everybody else seems to moon over. In fact, I find some of my friends’ friends intolerable. But of course that doesn’t mean they’re objectively intolerable. In fact, it’s possible they’re just too much like me. The two of us may be magnetic poles who push back against each other in what science labels “repulsion.”

I also have aversions to certain celebrities for no rational reason. Elizabeth Moss, for example – a terrific actress and seemingly terrific person – absolutely freaks me out. It’s hard for me to watch her onscreen, and I have no idea why. (I have a similar and even stronger distaste for Fred Armisen. Coincidentally, the two of them were once married!)

Generally, though, give me an eccentricity or a quirk, and you’re eligible for my utmost affection. I don’t care that you count your steps, that the volume on the TV has to be set to an even number, that you crack your toes, that you collect banana stickers, or that you laugh inappropriately in elevators.

I admire you for the atoms at your core.


I’m not sure I’d want to be friends with me. I am sure that my inflexibility, neuroticism, moodiness, and tendency to ascribe too much import to the smallest of perceived slights can be turnoffs.

Yet my loved ones persist. And I with them. I so easily and clearly see the good in them, their creativity, the challenges they’ve gracefully conquered, their perspectives on life, their humor that keeps me uplifted when I’m feeling . . . well, stubborn, neurotic, and moody.

(By the way, I think all my friends and family members are good-looking. It’s the subjectivity in me, I guess.)


It’s best that we huddle up with people who listen to us, who’ll pick up the phone if we call, who are happy when we’re happy and sad when we’re sad and aren’t jealous when we succeed. People who won’t disparage us behind our backs. People who will lovingly tell us the truth. People we can trust.

I once read a Chronicle column written by a transplanted New Yorker who found himself brooding and depressed here on the West Coast. His new California pals were concerned, trying to analyze his feelings, suggesting he see a therapist. They drove him bonkers. Finally he called an old New York friend in the middle of the night. She answered.

“I’m depressed,” he told her.

“So what else is new?” she said.

He instantly felt better.

Those are the kinds of friends we want.

Back in the 1980s I once got down to a very skinny 113 pounds when I was despondent over a breakup and had stopped eating. My friend Ellen came to the rescue. “You look like hell,” she said. “Eat a sandwich.”

So I did.


I’m aware that this blog has been a bit haphazard, but that’s because sometimes I don’t quite know how to avoid all of the forces trying to drain the joy out of our lives through endless criticism and condescension. My personal salve is that for the most part I choose to ignore the fangs and claws of society at large and concentrate on the people I love.

I have no room in my life for the perpetually sanctimonious. We shouldn’t see each other as either angels or demons.

No one is perfect or even close to it. We all have our own vagaries, character flaws, and irritating habits.

But we also have traits that are fetching. We can only hope to stumble upon people in our lives who find our flaws acceptable and our quirks delightful. We need to surround ourselves with those who tolerate our imperfections while we in turn tolerate theirs. Who will get in the arena for us. Who’ll help provide us with stability, steadiness, and balance. Who’ll tell us to shut up and eat a sandwich.

We travel through life facing enough headwinds already. We need company.

Human beings may be limited and defective, but we’re in this together.

We’re all bozos on this bus.

Note: “Bozos on this bus” is taken from the Firesign Theater’s 1971 album I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.


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.

November 3, 1974 [age 18]:

“I had a day off, for once, and just had to get out. I ended up going to a $1 matinee called Slither that was suspenseful and really good. Then I wandered around downtown in book and record stores but ended up with nothing. I considered old Byrds stuff and This Side of Paradise and Tropic of Capricorn, but my money seems to like my purse better than it likes the open air. Tonight [my brother] Marc and I went out to eat at Roma Pizza, where even though I’ve been sick with the flu for a week I ate a huge meatball sub sandwich and half an extra-large pizza.”

November 4, 1974 [age 18]:

“Whew, I paid off my car loan today! And now that sweet little gray Toyota is mine, all mine! Oh, I’m elated! Now I feel somehow as if there is nothing to stop me, no one who can tell me what to do, ’cause I have a little car with decals and an FM converter and seat belts with shoulder straps!”

November 6, 1974 [age 18]:

“With great anticipation I accompanied Robin and Guy and Glen to the City to see a George Harrison concert at the Cow Palace tonight. But it was a disappointment. I’d spent SO MUCH money: $7.50 on the ticket, $3 on Kentucky Fried Chicken, and $2 on booze. At least the security people, who looked like they were searching everyone, wouldn’t search the girls, so the man just said “Move on, ladies,” and I did so, greatly relieved I got through with a canned daquiri in each coat pocket. But George Harrison was only fair and Ravi Shankar was TOTALLY BORING playing his tinkling sitar music. Billy Preston, though, who opened and played a grand total of three songs, far outdid the others. He was FANTASTIC! Glen and Guy offered me their dope and I refused. I was terribly tempted – 99% of the people there were smoking. I think the only thing that prevented me from smoking was embarrassment – I knew I’d cough and make a big scene and waste good grass.”

November 19, 1974 [age 19]:

“I’m 19. O, the nebulous age, when we all fade into oblivion. I stayed up until midnight because I was loath to see 18 depart.”

November 23, 1974 [age 19]:

“I lost my innocence today. I just wanted to get the whole thing over with, wanted to do it once for the sake of experience and the knowledge that I’d gotten away with something, then not worry about it again until I had to. So I called Robin and told her I’d bring over some records and an electric typewriter and help her with her paper. I must’ve looked like I was going away to camp when I loaded my car up; I was carrying about seven records and my journal and a few other manuscripts for Robin to read and a typewriter and a stack of paper – after I arrived I put on America [the first album by the group America, including the song “A Horse With No Name”] and set up the typewriter to write to Jeanne while Robin finished her paper, and then I looked up from my position on the floor and said, ‘Well, are we going to smoke [a joint] or not?’ I was really nervous at first; on my first hit, all the smoke poured out of my mouth immediately, it burned me so. But then I learned to hold it in my lungs, and we smoked it down to the end. Robin got stoned but nothing really happened to me. I felt a mite looser and time was distorted (one side of the record seemed to go on for hours) and I couldn’t type worth beans, but I didn’t consciously feel high. I’m not sure how I feel about it now. My conscious self doesn’t feel guilty about it; the whole event seems like a dream, and it’s hard for me to grasp the reality that I did it. I still can’t see the wrongness of it, and I want to do it again, with Jeanne, in Mexico.”

December 1, 1974 [age 19]:

“I had about 7 glasses of wine last night, but spaced them apart well so that I was never drunk. Bruce had a huge party at his house; I went just to “drop in” for an hour or so and ended up staying till 3:00 in the morning. I played doubles pingpong with Ted for a while, then went back inside to sit in a corner and watch the pool players. I got terribly depressed – though I told myself to mingle with the strangers, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then Ted sat down beside me in the corner and brought me a Coke, and we had the longest nicest talk we’ve ever had. We talked about traveling around the country this summer (although I don’t know how Mom and Dad would take to that idea). Enchanted, I got up at his bidding to play pool, and there I remained for the rest of the night. I was lousy but we had a good time. [My brother] Marc went home at 2:00 but Ted and I teamed up against a few stragglers. When I got home, Dad was standing in the hall and he unleashed a brief but raging torrent of words at me. Then this morning he came in and apologized to me – for the first time in 19 years! Oh, and I also remembered something embarrassing about last night. I’d been playing pingpong for ages, leaping around and all, with somebody handsome named Tony as my partner, when I found to my disgust and embarrassment that my zipper had been completely open the whole time!”

December 8, 1974 [age 19]:

“I want to briefly describe last night’s dinner, which proves that I do not have a future as a cook. [My brother] Marc and I are home alone; we’d decided to have chili dogs and burritos for dinner. Two mistakes: First, I was using a small pot in which to cook the hot dogs, so I couldn’t use a strainer to steam the buns. Against Marc’s better judgment I put the buns in the oven with the burritos, and when we took them out they were brown and dry and so brittle that Marc SNAPPED them in half. Then, I had left the hot dogs boiling so long that when I lifted off the cover I couldn’t even recognize them anymore, they had grown so big and fat and were split open and just rolling around the pot like malformed whales.”

December 10, 1974 [age 19]:

“Such terrible news, my dear sweet Larry [a pharmacist where I worked at Rexall] is leaving to get his doctorate in pharmacology. I really adore him. People I love are forever being lost to me. Come January he takes off, which makes me sad because he was such a great guy to work for, so nice and intelligent and we always spent every minute kidding around, insulting each other. One time he said I should become a dictator.”

[My 2023 hindsight comment: Hmmm, I’m not sure he was “kidding.” 😆 ]

December 11, 1974 [age 19]:

“We were doing this science experiment in class today [at James Lick High School, where I worked as a teacher’s aide], using a big tall metal ball on a stand which generates static electricity, and Mr. Nash wanted a volunteer with long hair to allow his machine to make their hair stand on end. Well, no one volunteered, so I was chosen, and he must’ve had the machine too powerful, because as I leaned my head near there was this loud “CRACK!” and a huge spark and I got a big shock on my forehead, screamed “OUCH!” in pain and the entire class went into hysterics.”

December 12, 1974 [age 19]:

“In my third period class [at James Lick High School, where I worked as a teacher’s aide] I have made great friends with the teacher, Kathy Giammona, and we sit around and philosophize and speak profundities.”

December 25, 1974 [age 19]:

“Today was a lovely peaceful quiet Christmas day with visits to our old Italian relatives and then a turkey dinner at home. Yesterday was more emotional. I went to Confession and with all the courage I could muster I confessed my experience with dope. In my head I vowed to stop sinning, but then today I’m thinking that I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep that promise.”

Frisco’s coolest cat

Frisco’s coolest cat

Years ago, a friend and I had a tradition that involved reciting to the other, while driving to a holiday dinner, a list of items for which we were grateful.

“John Madden!” I yelled out one year.

“Big Macs!”

“Opposable thumbs!”

“Oh, wait! Vince Guaraldi!”

Yes, the guy who wrote the score for A Charlie Brown Christmas – a TV special that, nearly 60 years later, may be the most popular Christmas show ever aired on television.

But he was so much more than that, especially to San Franciscans: a local boy; a boogie-woogie man with a wicked handlebar moustache who slid off piano benches and missed his own award shows and died young; and a beloved, talented central figure in the City’s cool heyday of nightlife and jazz.


Vincent Anthony Guaraldi was born in 1928 in North Beach, a close-knit Italian neighborhood in San Francisco.

At the time, North Beach – for the most part – had lost the unruly coarseness of the Barbary Coast days, and the beat movement had yet to arrive. But it was still an earthy place, permissive and rambunctious. Bootleggers and speakeasies found a good home there. Mixed-race jazz clubs – forbidden in most of the country – hosted traveling ragtime and New Orleans–style jazzmen like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton.

A couple of Vince’s uncles were accomplished musicians, and the young boy hammered out beats alongside his piano-playing uncle Muzzy before beginning piano lessons of his own at the age of seven. The instrument became an obsession, and when he entered Lincoln High School (which had opened in San Francisco’s Sunset District in 1940) he did the usual musician thing, playing at dances, parties, and rallies – anywhere he could slam on the ivories. He would also meet his future wife, Shirley Moskowitz, there.

Guaraldi’s early influences were boogie-woogie players. Boogie-woogie is all about having a good time; it’s fast, danceable, and unrestrained. But it’s not easy to play. Scat singer Jon Henricks described it this way: “You have to split your mind right down the middle,” he said, explaining that one half of your mind plays the left hand and the other half of your mind the right. Guaraldi had no problem with that. He was a natural.


In the 1940s, during World War II, African-American shipyard workers and their families – mostly from the American South – moved to San Francisco and, along with musicians and other artists, helped transform the Fillmore area into an energetic jazz neighborhood deemed “the Harlem of the West.” A new kind of jazz called bebop was taking hold. Bebop evolved from swing music and incorporated improvisation, complexity, and fast tempos. The city’s jazz scene burgeoned as people kicked around town searching for all-night entertainment. Clubs were everywhere, sometimes three or four to a block. The crowds were intense and committed.

“Fog, Irish coffee, cable cars, hills, pretty girls, bridges, crazy restaurants, and jazz. That’s what people think of when they hear ‘San Francisco,’ ” wrote San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph Gleason.

Writer Jack Kerouac, who was slouching around the City by then and who riffed like a jazzman, talked about “the throb of neon in the soft night, the clack of high-heeled beauties . . . . Here were the children of the American bop night. . . . Everybody in Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent.”


Guaraldi’s 1946 high school yearbook photo

After graduating from high school in 1946, Guaraldi was drafted and shipped off to Korea for two years, where he served as a cook. Upon his return he enrolled in a music class at San Francisco State but wasn’t serious and never graduated. He also got a job at the San Francisco Daily News as a “printer’s devil” – an apprentice-level job that involved mixing ink tubs and loading type. (Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Benjamin Franklin were once printer’s devils.) But at some point he almost lost a hand in a printing machine and quit. There was no sense risking his meal ticket.

Vince continued taking every gig he could get – a random joint in Yosemite, an all-night lesbian bar in the Tenderloin – and spending his free time hanging out at jazz clubs like the Black Hawk, which opened in 1949 at Turk and Hyde. He wasn’t old enough to drink, but thanks to a (dodgy) agreement between the owner and Mayor George Christopher, the Black Hawk skirted liquor laws by allowing minors in and separating them from the rest of the patrons by chicken wire.

Eventually Guaraldi met Latin-jazz drummer Cal Tjader, and when Tjader’s pianist Dave Brubeck was injured in a 1951 diving accident, Vince joined the trio. His rip-roaring style, combining the buoyancy of boogie-woogie and the energy of bebop, was a deluge of adrenaline. “In the beginning, Vince was so excited in his playing, it was like trying to hold back a colt or a stallion,” Tjader remembered. “Eventually he became aware of the fact that you don’t play every tune like a bebop express running 120 miles an hour.”


By 1954, Guaraldi was fronting a house trio six nights a week at the “hungry i” nightclub in North Beach. Established in 1950 and owned by Enrico Banducci, the place catered to beatniks and bohemians and booked edgy or nonconformist comics like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Phyllis Diller. Jazz and comedy at the time were both progressive art forms. “The comics and the musicians hung out together,” Vince said. “We were outlaws; we lived in an underworld, at night.” Guaraldi would finish his sets at the hungry i and then jam until dawn at after-hours clubs like Jimbo’s Bop City, where musicians got in free after 2 a.m.

Short and a bit stocky, with small hands, Guaraldi would compensate by using his speed on the keys. Or he’d use his fists, or his elbows, to add emphasis. “Vince is always pulling splinters from his fingers, driven in when he claws at the wooden baseboard, behind the keys,” said Gleason. He was intense, bending low over the piano, often oblivious to what was going on around him.

“I watched one night as [Guaraldi] bowed his head over the keys and dug into a blues solo,” wrote jazz historian Doug Ramsey. “The intensity of swing increasing, his forehead almost touching the music rack, he worked his way up the keyboard in a series of ascending chromatic figures and played off the end of the bench, onto the floor. Guaraldi picked himself up, did not bother to dust himself off, slid into place and went back to work. He lost a couple of bars, but not the swing.”

He was a truly percussive player, “a rare and wonderful combination of melody, power and jazz swing,” remembered drummer Fritz Kasten. “His ‘time feeling’ was just wonderful; he was like a freight train. You just had to climb aboard, hold on and hope for the best.”


Guaraldi’s first studio album, Vince Guaraldi Trio, was recorded at Fantasy Studios in San Francisco and released in 1956. Sales were low, but he and his wife were able to buy a tiny house in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. He started growing a ridiculous handlebar moustache. And he kept up his gigs. For a long time he played steadily at the Black Hawk – six nights a week, three 90-minute shows a night. Imagine that kind of commitment and stamina, despite the cramped, smoky environs of jazz clubs at the time. “The stage was so small that Coltrane started his solo in the kitchen hallway,” remembered audience member Dan Celli.

“There was no ventilation, and everybody smoked in those days; when you inhaled, you’d get 75 brands,” said drummer Al Torre. “It was terrible; on every break, I’d stand outside and breathe fresh air. Every day, I’d lay out on the beach and clear my lungs.”

But when Playboy magazine ran an extensive feature on San Francisco’s food and entertainment scene, with a long section on jazz, it called the Black Hawk “the most swingin’ jazz club in town, and one of the craziest in the country. It’s a smoky joint, serving ordinary drinks, but the music is the end.”

A Chronicle reporter named Jim Walls described the jazz scene in the late fifties. “Near Fillmore and in the Tenderloin, especially, those institutions known as ‘after-hours joints’ present music and entertainment until long after dawn has streaked the sky,” he wrote, while musicians “slay the powers of darkness in an endless and often exciting jam session. . . . On weekends, especially, the . . . customers will fail to find even standing room in Bop City. The musicians steam away at one end of the big room. In front of them, a wall-to-wall carpeting of jazz buffs waves to the wind instruments like a field of ripe corn.”

Those days must have been just wild. Guaraldi drummer Benny Barth recalled one incident when the trio was heading across the Bay Bridge to an East Bay gig. He was in one car and Vince and the bassist were in another. “They came up beside me. It was a warm evening; they had the windows down, and so did I. They were both sitting in the front, sharing a joint. Then Monty reached over and passed it to me! Luckily, he waited until it was about gone, because I didn’t want to have to pass it back; I took a couple of tokes and threw it out. I guess that proves that we were musicians, tried and true!”


Guaraldi’s first commercial breakthrough came in 1962, when he and his trio recorded the album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, inspired by a 1959 Brazilian/French/Italian film called Orfeu Negro that had a bossa nova soundtrack by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa. Bossa nova is based on samba music and appealed to Guaraldi’s upbeat, percussive style. One side of the album featured his interpretations of Orfeu songs, and on the other side appeared two standards and two of his originals, one of which was “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” The tune was agile and delicate but also high-spirited, with a radical range of tempo. It really swung.

“Cast Your Fate” was released only as a B-side, relegated to obscurity by the record label. But DJ and musical director Tony Bigg at Sacramento’s Top-40 KROY-AM 1240 happened to be a jazz fan and loved the song. The station’s rule was that DJs could play one personal favorite every two hours. Bigg chose “Cast Your Fate” and played it constantly for a week. He also used portions of it as the news lead-in.

“Cast Your Fate to the Wind”

At some point, a music consultant named Ted Randal noticed that the song was getting huge sales figures in the Sacramento market (even though it was primarily played on only one station), and he began recommending the record to his clients nationally. At first the tune “got traction” mainly in California. But then cities like Memphis, Denver, and Kansas City picked up on it. It was unusual in those days for jazz instrumentals to do well on the pop charts, but the song became a hit and climbed into the Hot 100 in December 1962. It peaked at #22 in February and crossed over onto the “black” stations. (Radio was very segregated at the time.)

“Cast Your Fate” was nominated for a Grammy (Best Original Jazz Composition). Vince drove to Los Angeles to attend the awards ceremony but he forgot his tuxedo and wasn’t allowed in! And he won!


It made perfect sense that a whimsical song like “Cast Your Fate” was a San Francisco product. There were cultural differences at the time between the East and West Coast jazz scenes. Bassist Ron McClure – who would later become part of Blood, Sweat & Tears – put it this way: “West Coast music always had a lighter vibe; it wasn’t as intense as the New York bands. San Francisco was like Disneyland in comparison.”

“Greenwich [New York] is 10 years later, and 10 years more crowded; there’s nothing to groove out there,” Guaraldi said. “The West Coast scene is beautiful in its looseness and diversity. There is lots to do, and plenty of time to do it in.”

Personally, Vince was as loose as his music. He brought a mischievous excitement to his playing, with a capricious sense of humor on the side. He’d encourage musicians with shouts of “You got it! I don’t know what you’re gonna do with it, but you got it!”

Or after a song he’d crack up his band with, “Well, that was tense and nervous!”


Vince Guaraldi Trio: Guaraldi (left), Fred Marshall, Jerry Granelli (1963 Franciscan,” SF State yearbook)

The Black Hawk shut in July 1963. Around this time, enhanced construction on the stunning Grace Cathedral (an Episcopal church) in San Francisco was nearing completion and Rev. Charles Gompertz was beginning plans for a huge celebration set for May of 1965. He’d heard “Cast Your Fate” on the radio and tracked down Guaraldi, who agreed to compose an entire mass. The Reverend primarily wanted established hymns, but he would allow Vince to “improvise around it.”

The idea of a jazz mass didn’t sit well with everyone, and Gompertz received death threats by mail and phone. “People felt that I was bringing Satan into the church: bringing the music of the cocktail lounge – the den of sin and iniquity – into the holy and sacred precinct.” He also invited a controversial priest named Malcolm Boyd to give the sermon. Boyd was a civil rights activist who strongly opposed segregation and was one of the 28 Episcopal priests who were part of the Freedom Riders. To make matters worse, attendees had to buy a ticket, which in itself was controversial.

But the church overflowed. Vince, of course, added a bossa nova feel to the music. He also completely improvised when more than 1,000 churchgoers took Communion, which lasted at least half an hour.

In the end the mass was well received, and Episcopal Bishop James Pike sent a letter to Guaraldi expressing his “excitement and enthusiasm after hearing your contemporary setting for the Holy Eucharist.” Fantasy Records released the LP Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral. And Time printed a piece with this photo caption: “Praising the Lord with blues and bossa nova.” One of the original cuts from the album, “Theme to Grace,” hit #2 on an L.A. radio station.

But Vince’s most beloved compositions, as yet unwritten, were about to hit planet Earth.


A little over a year earlier, it had been announced that Guaraldi would be composing the music for a documentary about the “Peanuts” comic strip written by Charles Schulz. It would be written, directed, and produced by Lee Mendelson, whose Burlingame company had recently done a special called “A Man Named Mays” (about Giants Hall-of-Fame outfielder Willie Mays). “I decided, having done a special on the world’s best baseball player, that I should do the world’s worst: Charlie Brown,” said Lee. He added animator Bill Melendez; DJ Don Sherwood of KSFO-AM 560 would narrate. Mendelson wanted a jazz score, and shortly afterwards he was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, heard “Cast Your Fate” on the radio, and was “blown away,” he said. The rest would be history.

Mendelson met with Guaraldi at Original Joe’s restaurant on Taylor Street, and two weeks later Vince played “Linus and Lucy” for him over the phone – an original tune with an ebulliently hip rhythm and melody. The left hand playing a definitive bass line on piano was a Guaraldi signature, and the jazzy snare was front-and-center.

The tune would eventually come to epitomize the “Peanuts” spirit. “It was so right, and so perfect, for Charlie Brown and the other characters,” said Mendelson. “Vince’s music was the one missing ingredient that would make everything happen.”

“Linus and Lucy”

Mendelson got people like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Arnold Palmer, and even Willie Mays to appear in the film, but in the end, no one would buy it.


In early 1965, though, Mendelson got a surprise call from John Allen, who worked at an ad agency in New York. One of Allen’s clients – Coca-Cola – wanted to sponsor a Christmas special. (At the time, the only TV Christmas specials were Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.) Coca-Cola wanted an hour-long show to be aired before Christmas. Yikes. Lee hurriedly got in touch with Melendez and Guaraldi but also informed Coca-Cola that that schedule was insane for a production that would take a year or two to finish. So they settled on a 30-minute show (including, of course, commercials). Even then, it was an almost impossible feat to pull off an original animated progam in six months.

Guaraldi went down to Glendale, CA, to cut the tracks for A Charlie Brown Christmas with bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey. The only repeat from the ill-fated “Peanuts” documentary soundtrack was “Linus and Lucy.” Vince came up with two new songs for specific scenes: one for the ice-skating scene (“Skating”) and one for the onstage party that happened when the kids were left to themselves by Charlie Brown, the play director (“Christmas Is Coming”). He also wrote “Christmas Time Is Here,” a waltz that he thought would be a good title theme. The rest are classic holiday songs rearranged by Guaraldi.

The special includes an amusing cornucopia of mini-stories – in a world, of course, inhabited only by children and pets, with no interference from adults. It opens with Snoopy the beagle leading a line of ice-skating “Peanuts” characters. The sight of a frozen pond alone was magical for me, a California kid who’d never even seen snow at that point in my life. But catching snowflakes on one’s tongue? Beguiling. And then there was Guaraldi’s captivating “Skating” theme, with notes descending like lightly falling snow. Columnist Barry Gordon would later write that “[t]he cascading notes to Guaraldi’s Vivaldi-like ‘Skating’ are the most vivid representation of falling snowflakes in music.” What strikes me is how Guaraldi made sounds that magically reflect the absence of sound that occurs in a snowfall.


Charlie Brown is, as usual, depressed and full of angst, all too aware of holiday loneliness and disillusioned about the meaning of Christmas. “Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy’s right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest,” Linus tells him. Lucy raves about wanting “real estate” and loving “the beautiful sound of cold hard cash.” Charlie Brown’s little sister asks for “tens and twenties” from Santa. Even Snoopy succumbs to crass commercialism when he gaudily decorates his doghouse for the lighting and display contest. But Charlie perks up when he’s given the assignment to direct the Christmas play. The task ends up frustrating him, though, when the “actors” seem to want only to goof off and dance to Schroeder’s [i.e., Guaraldi’s] joyful piano playing of both “Christmas Is Coming” (featuring Guaraldi’s trademark Latin syncopations) and “Linus and Lucy,” with Pigpen on bass and Snoopy on guitar.

“Christmas Is Coming”

Charlie Brown and Linus go off to find a tree, and they pick up what we all culturally now know as a “Charlie Brown tree” – sad, bent, and barren. The actors scoff.

Ultimately, though, Linus is able to answer Charlie Brown’s question about the real meaning of Christmas by standing alone on a stage, spotlighted, reciting Luke from the Bible: “And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you . . . . Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ ”

Linus, by the way, meaningfully drops his beloved security blanket when he says, “Fear not.”

Then, picking up his blanket, he finishes with, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Linus, as usual, got it right.

The whole scene was Schulz’s idea. Some people thought an animated comedy was too crass for a Bible reading. But Schulz thought Bible verses were for everyone.

There’s been some criticism, however, that the show is overtly Christian. Yes, Schulz and Guaraldi were Christians (Guaraldi a Catholic), but Mendelson was Jewish. The principal theme, really, is anti-materialism, with secondary themes of love, friendship, and respect for our differences. In the 2021 documentary Who Are You, Charlie Brown? podcast host Ira Glass of “This American Life” says, “I personally don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m a Jew. . . . Christmas means nothing to me. But the Charlie Brown Christmas special . . . I mean, does it get better than that?”


When the final cut of A Charlie Brown Christmas was done, Mendelson was worried. He and Melendez thought that it was too slow and that they had “ruined Charlie Brown.” The first screening at CBS didn’t go well, either. The executives were displeased about the use of children’s voices, and they didn’t understand the jazz score. In fact, they wanted to cancel the show. But it was too late; TV Guide and other publications already had listed the special.

It aired at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 9, 1965.

Jazz musician David Benoit, who was 12 when he saw the show that night, would later say, “We just tripped on the music. It was jazz, not the usual sing-song stuff that accompanied cartoons. It was so refreshing: There was humor and lightness. It was hip, like the characters.” A sixteen-year-old George Winston also watched. “That piano drove me crazy. I loved that piano. It just growled; it drove me insane. I was transfixed by that piano!” Because the closing credits were ridiculously fast, Winston didn’t know who had composed the score, but the next day he bought the newly released A Charlie Brown Christmas LP in a record store in Miami, and he said it changed his life.

The show was obviously an insane success. It was the second-most popular TV program that week (after “Bonanza”); nearly half the people in front of the television that night were watching Charlie Brown. And critics’ ratings were glowing. “Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s lovely, gentle, mood-setting score . . . helped give the half-hour an unexpected and attractive contemporary tone, mature in an almost eerie yet enticing way,” wrote reviewer Rick Du Brow.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was given a 1965 Peabody Award. And it would win, in 1966, the Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. Continuing his bad luck at awards shows, Vince was late, the doors in those days were locked when the show started, and he had to watch the whole thing from a hotel!

Why the accolades and popularity? Well, in my view, using children’s voices was a masterstroke. The script, while a bit of a patchwork, was funny and sweet. And most appealing of all was the zippy, colorful, percussive musical score.

The entire show was like a refreshing drink of cider on a crisp winter night.


By the late 1960s, music’s role in popular culture began to change. Rock and roll was getting more popular. Clubs like Basin Street West were starting to feature rock and roll or R&B along with jazz. Strip clubs were taking audiences away, and jazz clubs were folding; only a handful remained. In San Francisco, “urban renewal” tactics displaced more than 10,000 Black families, mostly from the Fillmore jazz district.

Always wanting to stay current, Guaraldi began incorporating jazz versions of pop in his sets – Aretha, the Beatles. He asked his bass player to switch from acoustic to electric bass, in accordance with the times. Vince himself was using the electric piano at times, loudly. He was looser, playing jams, experimenting.

But sometimes it was to a near-empty room. In October 1968 the hungry i closed.

The Matrix shut its doors in 1971. In November 1973, according to John Wasserman at the Chronicle, only three clubs featuring jazz at all were left in San Francisco: Keystone Korner, the Great American Music Hall, and El Matador. Jazz was just about gone from the American landscape by the mid-70s. It was mostly rock and pop, with country soon to dominate the mix.

Most people wanted to hear lyrics. They just didn’t have the intellectual patience for jazz.


Still, Guaraldi was happy. His family moved north to a larger home in Marin County. He would continue working with Charles Schulz on 17 “Peanuts”-related soundtracks. Altogether he made 14 studio albums, four live albums, and an additional five LPs with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete. And he was staying local, playing at El Matador and at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. For a while he even jammed with the Grateful Dead.

By 1975 Vince was laying down tracks for a future album and was also beginning to gig regularly at Butterfield’s in Menlo Park, a supper club that would soon become his second home. Butterfield’s was a laid-back place with a carved-oak bar, Victorian furniture, and Tiffany lamps. Guaraldi by then had reverted comfortably back to his all-acoustic roots. He “would dress in Levi’s and a paisley shirt: sort of a hippie thing, sometimes with a vest, with long hair and big glasses. Big glasses. Coke-bottle bottoms,” said his bass player Seward McCain. “He was really, really loose at the piano. At Butterfield’s, he had a regular piano bench, not a circular type. He would rock that thing back on its two legs, and sit way back like he was riding a low-rider motorcycle! After a gig, he’d mingle with the crowd. Everybody loved him; he had a wonderful following, with friends everywhere.”

Red Cottage Inn

Behind Butterfield’s was a motel called the Red Cottage Inn, where Guaraldi stayed on weekends when he played at the club. During breaks, the band would hang out there.

On February 5, 1976, Vince visited Lee Mendelson, telling him that he’d been hired to play “Peanuts” music on a cruise “and was excited about that.” But, said Mendelson, Vince also wasn’t feeling well. “His stomach was hurting him. A doctor had told him that he probably had a diaphragmatic hernia, and that they might have to deal with it.”

The next day, Guaraldi’s trio had a gig at Butterfield’s. They played one set, and drummer Jim Zimmerman went back with Vince to his room at the Red Cottage Inn.

“Vince was feeling sick to his stomach,” Zimmerman remembered. “He got up to go to the bathroom . . . and went down on the floor. I tried to bring him around and wasn’t successful.”

Vince Guaraldi was “pronounced dead on arrival at Stanford Hospital at 11:07 p.m.”

He was 47 years old.

The death certificate listed the cause of death as “acute myocardial infarction, due to or as a consequence of coronary arteriosclerosis with thrombosis and generalized arteriosclerosis.”

Guaraldi was buried in Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, where many San Franciscans are laid to rest. His low-profile gravestone reads simply, “In loving memory,” with his name and life dates following, along with those of his mother.

“Peanuts” music was played at his funeral.

Philip Elwood wrote in the Chronicle, “Charlie Brown and his buddies lost one of their real pals when Vince Guaraldi died Friday night. . . . Guaraldi’s music, whenever and wherever, was always the perfect accompaniment to the life of the Bay Area. One of the main cogs in our musical life has fallen out. Without Vince, things just won’t run as well, or sound so good.”

“He could swing, man,” said jazzman Jon Hendricks. “He swung like a front gate.”


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.

September 7, 1974 [age 18]:

“What I am currently ‘getting off’ on – tequila, reading hungrily, Ted, San Francisco, eating breakfast out, used bookstores, driving further and further, working as a teacher aide with no boss, little kid customers at Rexall, Jack Kerouac, my City notebook, non-parental weekends, sunflower seeds, Bob Dylan, sweet folk music, sleeping out on the balcony in cool night air, the 60s and all they represented, moderation (Bocciardi’s theory of), the vision of Christ-like Frank, wine, long-distance phone calls, photography, FM radio, bare feet, white clothes, accompanying [my sister] Janine on the guitar, night and cities and youth and drunkenness and life, writing writing writing and my idealistic dream of a grand discovery of America.”

September 8, 1974 [age 18]:

“[My brother] Marc and I are home alone this weekend. I wanted to go to Frisco or Santa Cruz but everyone was working. So I proceeded to begin a long epic letter I had promised Jeanne – hauled the typewriter and my favorite onionskin paper and carbons and my little torn-off bits of hastily scribbled notes and a bottle of Kahlua and Tequila up to my room and typed for hours slowly getting drunk. Then Marc and I drove (he, of course, behind the wheel; me trying to hide my condition but talking a lot) to Macy’s where Ted fed us sandwiches, doughnuts, and Cokes in the empty restaurant. On the way home we eventually discovered, much to our disgust but later hilarity, that we were nearly two hours behind because of a power failure the night before. So it turned out we had had lunch at 3:00 (we were WONDERING why Ted had looked at us so strangely.) After dinner of frozen egg rolls and TV dinners Marc wanted to go play cards at Joe’s but Ted and I were uninterested so I suggested going to Santa Cruz (I was sober by then). Once there Ted and I had a great time eating ice cream and drinking Cokes and walking in the dark along the beach, skirting the tide and talking on some steps near a railroad trestle. He is the boy I love most but platonically. Santa Cruz was a storyland of magical colors. But between my amateur driving and my night blindness, the ride there was terrible and we’re lucky to be alive.”

September 14, 1874 [age 18]:

“I really love my new job [as a teacher aide], and this week has gone by in a blur. I’ve somehow also kept up with [my part-time job at] Rexall. I’ve corrected stacks and stacks of test papers this week and am getting to know the names of all the kids. I’ve gotten lots of appreciative smiles from them and I LOVE it. But sitting home on a Saturday night now, with nothing to do, has prompted me to feel sorry for myself and my subservient condition. The parents have gone out and arbitrarily ordered us to stay home and do nothing. This simple demand irks me no end because it was unreasonable and unfair, and here I am paying room and board, and I’m subjected to this unmitigated crap. I’m 18-5/6 years old!”

September 15, 1974 [age 18]:

At work today [Rexall Drugs], after Mr. Jordahl [the pharmacist/owner] left for the day, I called in and won a Beatles album from KARA, and then when [my brother] Marc [who also worked there] and I had closed, locked the doors and all, we began going nuts, wildly throwing the cigarettes around and screaming, when we noticed that there was an old lady still in the store!”

October 4, 1974 [age 18]:

My day at school [where I was a high school teacher’s aide] was full of a lot of emotions, as usual. The kids are almost beginning to love me; in 5th period, in fact, the less-well-behaved ones clustered around and asked me all about myself – what I wanted to be, how old I was, etc. Julie [Miyahara, one of the teachers] told me that her dream would be to go up to the City and work, and I answered, a little loudly, “Oh, yes, my dream is to get an apartment on the wharf and work in a dusty bookstore.” And there was no disabling stare but only a knowing smile. The possibility is becoming more real to me, this vision of making San Francisco my home. I could be a writer in jeans and a workshirt. Ha! And Mrs. Schwalen talked to me for over an hour after school about religion and education and old towns. If I did not have an agonizing cold, I would run outside and shout wildly.”

October 5, 1974 [age 18]:

“At work [Rexall Drugs] we are always looking out of the window. Joe once commented on this, asking, ‘What is it that we hope to see out there?’ All of life is one big expectation. This thing that we wait for, that we hope to see, is something grand and wild, something that will by its magic pull us out of those dark corners that comprise our lives. People can never recognize their own happiness. They can’t. They dwell in the past, because the present is never quite enough. It never quite satisfies us. Hence, the hope that tomorrow will be brighter, that soon the days will grow sweeter.”

October 6, 1974 [age 18]:

“I drove [my sister] Janine and three of her friends to the Century to see a movie, and in the intervening time I wandered around downtown. I stopped in at Jack-in-the-Box to eat, then stumbled upon a record I have been searching for for months, and had given up hope that it even existed. There in my favorite used bookstore, the one that abounds in Jack Kerouac, the one with the basement, I found my dream album. Yes, I found the soundtrack to ‘Easy Rider.’ “

October 13, 1974 [age 18]:

“Mom and Dad went to Reno and told us to stay home the entire weekend again (ridiculous!!). So we started out with [my brother Marc] intending to have a quiet evening of study with at home with Joe. But somehow it ended up with 6 of us lying drunk in the living room. Bruce had come over and re-described the Elton John concert I’d heard about so many times before, and soon we all got so excited that we put Elton John on the stereo at tremendous volume, called Morris to bring beer (we’d already had some for dinner) and vodka, then Ted came over, and we all sat around and had GREAT conversations about the future till two in the morning. It was so intimate. I loved it, but at the same time, all of the love in that room saddened me, for some reason.”

October 12, 1974 [age 18]:

“Oh, brother, another embarrassing condom episode! At work today [Rexall Drugs], a man came in and asked for what I thought were condoms. I couldn’t understand him very well even though I’m usually able to understand people with accents. So I did what I’m supposed to do – I put the condoms in a paper bag surreptitiously and rang them up for him. He left, but then a few minutes later, he came back in with another guy. The condom box was open and the friend pointed to what he’d really wanted (behind me on the shelf): FLASH CUBES! Oh, man, I could have died!! He must have thought I was a pervert or something!”

October 17, 1974 [age 18]:

“Only little things today, only little things. In science class [at my teacher aide job] I stuck my hand in a beaker and shattered it, cutting my finger badly and trying to nonchalantly hold a paper towel to my skin so as not to disturb the class with the oozing redness. At home I read a news story about a poetry reading in San Francisco with Kerouac’s old beat-poet friends – Ferlinghetti, McClure, etc. – and now I am excited about going up to the City to see them with my own eyes. At work [Rexall] later, we crowded around the front register watching the [World] Series on my T.V., and I lost 75 cents to pools, a bottle of RC to [my brother] Marc, and a Tequila Sunrise to Terry. At midnight we were at Joe’s with Ted to celebrate Joe’s emergence into adulthood, eating cake and ice cream, playing Password and O Hell and Mini-Mysteries, listening to the stereo, and talking about nightmares and dreams.”

October 20, 1974 [age 18]:

[NOTE: This is a really long one, and I am using the initial “M” to protect the sort-of guilty]

“It was an incredible night. Bruce, M., Ted, Marc [my younger brother], and I decided to go bowling, and after much driving around all over town in Bruce’s car we found an alley (Plaza Lanes), but, disgusted with everyone’s terrible scores, the high 80-cent line fee, and my being unable to find a light enough ball, we left early with plans to stop at the Bottle Shoppe, leave M. off to get a couple six-packs, then drive up Sierra Road like we had done this summer, to sit in the weeds and talk. Well, it was magical then, but it wasn’t magical tonight. First of all, it was cold – our jackets weren’t able to keep out all the cold. Plus there was alcohol this time, enough to make us all extremely paranoid. Bruce pulled off the road, and the five of us climbed over barbed wire to sit down on a grassy hillside. About two minutes later, Ted leaped to his feet and shouted “Cops!” An unidentifiable car crept toward ours at about 5 mph, with something that may or may not have been a searchlight. I thought: “TRESPASSING. OPEN ALCOHOL IN CAR. MINORS POSSESSING ALCOHOL.” My adrenalin surged and I galloped blindly downhill, full speed, in the blackness, not being able to see a foot in front of my face, terrified, thinking of broken legs, only dimly aware of others crashing along somewhere beside me. Eventually we stopped and huddled at the bottom of the hill, and the car passed. We never knew if Ted had made a correct judgment. Scared, Marc and I persuaded the others (with little trouble) to leave. All we wanted was a quiet place to drink our beer and talk. Bruce suggested a place near Anne Drew’s house, but we drove away when he led us into someone’s driveway. Then Ted told us about a secluded road up above Suncrest, and it sounded perfect, so we joyously drove up. “See that house?” Ted said, pointing. “It’s the only one around.” The house was quite a distance away. We drove to the end of the road, and – guess what – our headlights lit up a house not 10 feet away, and these two dogs, which we could not see, were barking ferociously, making all kinds of noise. Paranoid, we drove away, getting a glimpse of the dogs. They were little bitty things, Malteses or something, and we burst out laughing. But we were still scared, and when a car approached slowly, our hearts lept [sic]. It turned out, however, to be a car we had seen back on Sierra Road, a sight which led us to believe that that HAD been a police car previously, if it was enough to make this other car leave, too. Finally, Bruce agreed to let us use HIS house. When we neared his driveway, we realized that he wasn’t supposed to have anyone in his car, so we backtracked to M.’s. We all got in HIS car, and transferred the beer on the way to Bruce’s, out of the range of the curious glances of [M.’s younger brother]. Everyone but Ted, who brought the beer in by the side entrance, walked calmly in through the front door, past Bruce’s parents, and into the poolroom, where we relaxed, took off our jackets, and drank our beer. Marc didn’t have any, Bruce and Ted had a can apiece, I had two, and M. had two or three. It was really fun (except for clock-watching because we had to be home by midnight). I swear that I cannot hold liquor at all, because I can remember me once, when we were playing cutthroat, trying to shoot at a ball which WASN’T the cue ball. Anyway, at five minutes to twelve we packed up to leave, suddenly remembering that M. had to drive us all home. I was a trifle worried about his condition, especially when we were doing 45 or so on Piedmont Road. Then, as the new stop sign, which had just been put in at Sierra and Piedmont, approached, I saw to my horror that M. wasn’t going to stop. I shrieked “Stop!” but his reactions were delayed, and, though slower, we drove right on through. I held my breath, awaiting a siren, but there was none. However, coming along Suncrest, there were headlights in the mirror, and Ted looked back and said, “Swear to God, it’s cops.” I can’t even describe my fear. For one brief instant, after we pulled over, we sat in the car terrified. Then, to look “nice,” we all got out. It was a sheriff. He talked to M. while the three of us stood, in the cold, worried about our curfew. It was then that I remembered something Bruce had done when we left. He’d shaken up a car of beer and walked up to M.’s window, pointed it at our innocent selves, and – well – there was beer all over the upholstery, the window, and the side of the car. Anyway, by now the preliminaries were over and I happened to glance over at M. and there I saw something which shook the living hell out of me. The sheriff was shining a light in M.’s eyes, asking, “How much you had to drink tonight, son?” and M. kept kind of shrugging and didn’t answer. Then the cop said, “Now, look here, I can tell you THREW your liquor out the window ‘cause it’s all over the car here, son,” and I guess M.’s explanation must have sounded a bit contrived. Then the sheriff made him walk a straight line (which he could) and stand on one foot, which he managed only after three or four tries. (Later he told me it was fatigue – he’d gone on a long mountain climb that day.) I was tipsy myself and was nonchalantly trying to walk along the curb to see what’d happen if they tested ME. I don’t know to what extent they can prosecute intoxicated minors (me). But the sheriff was interested only in M. Never spoke to us. Finally he said, “Well, you won’t have to go in this time; I’ll just write you a ticket.” (It was only for 10 bucks.) I heaved the biggest sigh of relief you ever heard, oh, we were so lucky, and there was so much FEAR all night long. I swear I will never do that again – never!”

October 20, 1974 [age 18]:

“I’m reading Kerouac as fast as I can, eating Milk Duds, and growing old.”

When October goes

When October goes

I have a brilliant idea about how to make the game of baseball much more enticing for spectators: each team must allow a fan to play one inning.

I’ve laid out this scheme to more than one baseball aficionado, and surprisingly it has not been taken seriously.

Here’s my proposal:

Before every game, any attendee who wants to voluntarily participate in “Bocciardi Baseball” is issued a numbered ticket indicating whether that person is a fan of the home or visiting team.

Shortly before the game starts, one lucky fan of each team would be selected in a drawing. And that person would get to play an inning of the game! Offense and defense. He or she would have to bat and play in the field. No designated hitters allowed.

There would be, of course, no limitation on eligibility. Participants could be of any age (18 and over), gender, or ability.

I’ve often wondered how a coach would manage the team in this scenario. What position would the fan play? I think it would have to be an infield position; that way, the other three infielders could help cover the entire territory.

Yes, it brings up a lot of logistical difficulties. Each team would need to have all sizes of uniforms and shoes at the ready, for one thing. But just think about what a scream it would be to watch. Consider the revenue!

Obviously in my fantasy I would be picked to play an inning with the Giants. If they put me at first base I could potentially be very effective, considering that that was my position growing up. In the 8th grade our coach – Sister Barbara Anne – called me “Stretch.”

(Disclosure: that nickname may no longer apply.)


October is ending, glorious October. In San Francisco there is no changing of the leaves. But as the days shorten, the summer fog typically begins to wane. The sun finally reveals itself, although lower in the sky, and the air snaps like an apple. Most years, there are occasional washes of rain. Not enough to keep us indoors for long, but enough to feel like a quick autumn cleanse.

My brother Marc and I, 1968

This is also the best time of year for sports fans. The baseball season heads towards the World Series, and football season is just gearing up. Meaningful games are taking place on chilly fields, with a lot on the line. There’s always someone to root for, always a sense of anticipation.

I grew up near the foothills of San Jose, surrounded by nut-brown orchards. As kids, the neighborhood boys and I adhered to the professional sports seasons religiously, playing whiffle ball in the spring and summer, flag football in the winter, and basketball on rainy October driveways in the fall. My best sport, I would say, was street flag football. On knee-grinding asphalt. We lived on a very steep hill, so teams facing uphill were at a decided disadvantage, but no one cared. I could catch anything and no one could catch me. Whatever the sport, we played until darkness closed in and our parents dragged us inside, against rigorous protestations. We were endless stores of energy.

Every night before bed I would fantasize about playing professional football. My favorite player was Jimmy Taylor, a powerful Green Bay Packers fullback. His number was 31, and because of him I wore that number throughout my life.


My mother, Beverly Steger, was an outstanding athlete in the late 1940s at Glendale High School in southern California. It surprises me how well-supported girls’ athletics were at her school. She played just about every conceivable sport, was frequently featured in the Glendale News-Press, and in the summer of 1950 was recruited after graduation for a regional semi-pro softball team.

Mom on the right, in her high school letter sweater, 1950

Mom never played slow-pitch softball – always fast-pitch – and she was a feared hurler. Only once during her high school years did her stoic, often belittling father come out to watch her play. On that particular day the coach decided to move her from the mound to shortstop – a position that she had never played and a move that, Mom thought, squashed the possibility of her finally impressing her father. The first hit was a line drive between her and third base. She dived for the ball and made a miraculous back-handed catch, body parallel to the ground. “White shorts on, legs exposed, everything skinned up,” she told me. “But,” she added proudly, “I showed him, didn’t I?” 

Luckily, my own parents were truly interested in everything their children did. In high school I played basketball, softball, tennis, and badminton, and Mom and Dad came often to watch me play (well, Dad didn’t have much of an excuse not to – he was already on campus because he was the principal!). But I was just an above-average athlete, not an outstanding one, and my nerves hamstrung me.

Investments in girls’ sports then were at their lowest point. I remember playing basketball outside on terrible cement courts. (When I first started, girls had to play a ridiculous six-person, half-court, zone-only game, with just two dribbles allowed.) And coaching was often sub-par. In softball, for example, I insisted on using my own bat, which was a massive wooden club that I could barely swing. I just liked the feel of it. But no one ever told me that I’d never be able to get any bat-speed on that thing.

Of course, my best sport – flag football – didn’t exist for girls in my time. I had one opportunity to play in high school on “Powder Puff Football” day and as I recall it was a travesty, a comedy of ineptitude.

A few days after I graduated in June 1972, along came Title IX, which provided that girls’ and women’s sports funding in federally funded schools should be equal to that offered for boys and men. (A revolutionary concept!) The Women’s Sports Foundation says that in the ensuing 35 years, female participation increased 904 percent in high school sports and 456 percent in college sports as a result of the legislation.

I just read an AP piece about how girls’ flag football is “soaring in popularity” at high schools around the country. In fact, the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section has voted to approve it as an official sport for girls.

I wish I’d been able to take advantage of Title IX. I wish I could have played flag football or, better yet, joined a Little League baseball team. What if I’d had better coaching, a lighter bat, and a modicum of confidence? What if I truly had been taught the fundamentals? Maybe I could have played at least at the college level, who knows. 


I don’t know how professional ballplayers survive the grief when they retire from their game. Their final moments on the field mark the end of their youth and the loss of the incredible camaraderie of playing a team sport. In my twenties and thirties I managed softball and basketball teams in San Francisco, learning what teamwork meant, discovering the cheapest pizza-and-beer joints in the City, figuring out how to close down the after-game bars and still drag myself into work a few hours later, and – most importantly – making intense lifelong friendships.

But I hung up my cleats at about age 40, realizing that although I could still run well on the basepaths, it was beginning to take me waaaay too long to get my legs moving out of the batter’s box. It was time.

I miss it so much.


Sometimes Julie and I spend the end of our day bragging about our athletic exploits. And by the time we’re done, the tales of our sports heroism have become bloated with exaggeration. Did you know, for example, that when playing intramural football Julie once did a full pirouette in the air while going up for a fingertip catch in the endzone? But did you also know that while playing street football I once went out for a pass, leaped, snagged the ball with one hand, and came down in a cactus? Completion!


The World Series will end this week (and what a thriller it’s been so far), but before the baseball playoffs started this month I made a mental list of the postseason teams and my feelings about them:

Teams I love:

Cleveland Guardians

  • Their new name may be terrible, but they play old-school baseball.
  • They haven’t won a World Series since 1948.
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • It’s a storied franchise.
  • Three great players are retiring this year (Pujols, Wainwright, and Molina).

NY Mets

  • I love New York but hate the Yankees, so the Mets get my support.
  • Darin Ruf, one of my ex-Giant boyfriends, plays for them after a heartbreaking trade this year.
  • Their manager Buck Showalter used to manage the Orioles, who play in Baltimore, an area where many of my friends live, and I really like the name “Buck.”

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Bob Brenly, one of my all-time favorite Giants, played for the Blue Jays after he was released by the Giants.
  • Also, there is nothing to hate about Canadians.

San Diego Padres

  • Haven’t ever won a World Series.
  • Players don’t have gross scraggly beards.
  • The great Tony Gwynn (RIP) played with them for TWENTY years and often took less money than he could have gotten elsewhere because he wanted to stay with the Padres.
  • But a deduction for Manny Machado. Ick.

Teams I’m torn about:

Houston Astros

  • Caught cheating when they won a World Series in 2017 (but it was the Dodgers they beat that year so I’m torn . . .).
  • I really, really, really want future Hall-of-Famer and Renaissance man Dusty Baker, who managed the Giants for 10 years, to win a World Series as a manager.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • The underdog Phillies beat the abhorrent Atlanta Braves in the 1993 postseason (see below), so there is a very large and special place in my heart for the Phillies.
  • But a deduction for Bryce Harper. Ick.

Seattle Mariners

  • They’re the only MLB team to have never been in a World Series.
  • But I loathe the Seattle football team (Seahawks) – and their gum-snapping, USC-cheater coach – with the heat of a thousand suns, which has poisoned me against any professional team from Seattle.

Tampa Bay Rays

  • They’ve never won a World Series.
  • But in game 6 of the 2020 World Series, the Rays’ manager foolishly removed pitcher Blake Snell, who’d allowed only two hits, which led to a *&^%$#@ Dodgers win. Unforgiveable.

Teams I loathe:

Atlanta Braves

  • I got an ulcer during the 1993 baseball season, when the Braves beat out the Giants (104 wins to 103) in the last great pennant race before wild cards were instituted.
  • Also, their “tomahawk chop” is a loathsome nightmare.

NY Yankees

  • I’m sick of them and their endless piles of money.

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • Odious. No need for an explanation.


I started young

As I’ve written before, someone once asked me to explain why I love watching sports and I found it hard to come up with an answer. For me, much of it revolves around passion and adrenaline and hope, and the older I get, the harder I fight not to lose those things. As a profoundly emotional person I don’t think I ever will, but I make sure I keep stoking the fire.

One of those passions is a fierce sense of place. I know it sounds ridiculous to believe that your local team somehow represents you and everything you live for, but that’s how I feel. When I was growing up, San Jose didn’t have a professional sports team; my allegiances lay with the Giants and the 49ers because San Francisco was the closest big city. After having lived in the City for more than 40 years now, my ties have only grown stronger.

But it’s also a form of love. Sports allow us to care fiercely about something outside ourselves — a person, a school, a town. 

As a child I was famous in my family for insisting that we delay dinner and keep the television on after any team won a postseason game because I wanted to see what I called “the happy locker room scene.” Champagne dumped on heads in sheer reverie. (Pre-goggles, when men were men!) That’s really what I lived for. Sports allow us to be fervently happy for others. 

Julie and her dad, 1978

Julie once told me that she’d seen her father cry just a few times in her life. Once was when he thought a tornado was bearing down on his family. (It missed them, thank God.) All of the other times were because of sports teams (especially the UK Wildcats).

As for my own father, well, on a memorable October afternoon in 1988, I saw him literally crawl across the floor in anxiety as 49ers quarterback Steve Young ran out of gas and tripped and stumbled across the goal line after a miraculous 49-yard game-winning run against the Vikings.

Sports fanaticism is something we can share when we watch a game together and root passionately for our team. We can scream, scare the dog, throw popcorn in the air, high-five each other, and spill our beer together, collectively, with one heart. 

As the great sportswriter Roger Angell once said, “It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificantly and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring – caring deeply and passionately, really caring – which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.” 


A couple of weeks ago I tried on an old glove that I hadn’t worn in a couple of decades. I must have broken it in really, really well because it was still soft and, unlike me, hadn’t cracked one bit. Three of us played catch in a local park and it felt sooooo good. I can still catch the ball like a champ, but now that I’ve had rotator cuff surgery, let’s just say that I don’t think I’d do too well as a fan-player in my made-up baseball game. I probably can’t throw 30 feet, let alone 90.

While we were tossing the ball around, some twenty-somethings walked by, looked at us gray-hairs, and smiled.


Is the passion we have for sports all about playing or all about watching? Well, it’s both. It’s about the way our lives evolve – starting with the little child watching games on TV with family and falling asleep dreaming of scoring a winning touchdown. Then the glory years of playing sports ourselves, perhaps too long, until dusk falls and the toll on our bodies forces us to stop. And finally, in the autumn of our years, we become mostly spectators again, relishing our memories, lying about our exploits, rooting heartily against the teams we disdain and lustily for the teams we love.

For me, the passion and the adrenaline make me feel alive. They keep me, somehow, young.

And how can we make it last?

Play catch no matter our age, before winter really sets in.

Watch football with people we love on chilly Sunday afternoons.

And hold close the memories of those childhood basketball games on slippery neighborhood driveways in a warm October rain.

Oh, for the fun of them, when I was one of them.

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smoky roofs
I watch the planes go by
The children running home beneath
A twilight sky
Oh, for the fun of them
When I was one of them
“When October Goes,” by Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow

With my nephew Alec, 1996


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.

September 6, 1974 [age 18]:

“And so today another chapter in my life begins. I was hired for the teacher aide’s job. (I think Mr. Salazar’s daughter didn’t actually want the job.) It will be $365/month gross instead of the $500 Dad told me. I had to go down to the Police Department to get fingerprinted, then drove to the bookstore to buy ‘Ulysses’ and two Jack Kerouac books. Tonight, all is quiet. Everyone is tired from their first couple days at school. I’m lying around and thinking about my writing, which is ca-ca.”

Finally a writer!

Finally a writer!

This will be the shortest blog I’ve ever written, but I’m writing it because I am doing handsprings right now – or I would be if I didn’t have a phobia about being upside-down.

You see, a few short minutes ago I was speaking to the editor-in-chief of The San Franciscan, an independent magazine that features excellent writing (including poetry and fiction) and photography.

Everybody who’s anybody in San Francisco subscribes. (Well, I just made that up, but I know it to be at least partially true.)

Last February, the magazine put out a call for submissions. Although I felt that it would be my absolute dream to write for this publication, I did nothing. But my friend Julie R. in Maryland, who also subscribes, e-mailed me this short note:

“I’m sure you [saw this call for submissions], but I just wanted to give it a little boost. You would fit right in this terrific magazine, and you have so much to say about San Francisco.

Don’t say no! At least consider it.”

(That’s the essence of a great friend: someone who can support you while preemptively calling you out on your nonsense.)

After I stopped laughing about “Don’t say no!” I officially wrote to the magazine staff and pointed them to my blog. Not because I had any hopes whatsoever, but just to appease Julie. That’s it.

Months came and went. I assumed there was no interest and it all receded from my memory. Except for my constant simmering feeling that I’d let Julie down.

But then came the out-of-the-blue e-mail from The San Franciscan about a week ago, leading to today’s phone call. It turns out that the magazine wants to publish, in an edited form, my blog post about Margaret Valentine LeLong, who bicycled from Chicago to San Francisco in 1897 (see https://mondaymorningrail.com/2021/05/30/a-bike-some-undies-and-a-gun/).

It will likely appear in the Winter issue (January), but there’s always a chance it could get pushed off to the Spring.

I just wanted to thank you, dear readers, for sticking with this blog. An acquaintance once complained that my posts are “too long and full of too many facts.” Ha ha. I know that’s true. But some of you continue to read it anyway.

Honestly, a few days before the magazine contacted me, I was contemplating stopping the blog.

But now I’m over the moon.

Blogging is, in my view, a hobby.  Getting published in The San Franciscan, though, means I can finally say I’m a writer.

And I’m reminded of something the acclaimed author Anne Lamott once said:

“Today’s writing advice: Remember, it will not go smoothly, or possibly not even well. Butt in chair: just do it, one disappointing paragraph at a time. Victory!”


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.

August 3, 1974 [age 18]:

“The family is gone and I had just settled down for an evening of listening to records when Ted and Joe arrived, prepared to see a movie. We procrastinated so much that we decided to go into the City instead, then threw out that idea and ended up driving blindly along Highway 17 hoping to run into the Nimitz drive-ins, which we did, and saw ‘The Skin Game’ and ‘Uptown Saturday Night’ till 2:30. Then Ted and I dropped Joe off and went out for breakfast – omelets and hotcakes – and had a nice talk about ruts and freedom. It is now 4:30 in the morning, and I just walked in the house, which if the parents knew would, I am sure, cause them to lapse into terrible fits.”

August 8, 1974 [age 18]:

“[My aunt and uncle] Jackie and Fred are downstairs with Mom listening to news reports on Nixon’s resignation speech. Dad is driving wildly out to the San Jose Municipal Golf Course after [my brother] Marc, at whom he is totally furious for going golf-ball-hunting out at 11:30 at night. In fact, he just arrived home without my poor brother, prepared, I am sure, to kill him. [My sister] Janine and [my 4-year-old cousin] Lisa are in bed next to me, chattering about all kinds of things. And I am listening to Dylan on my new earphones, agonizing over life.”

August 20, 1974 [age 18]:

“I’ve pretty much decided to take a year off school and apply for a real job for next year. Dad suggested that I apply to the ESUHSD [Eastside Union High School District, where he was a principal] as a teacher’s aide, which would be six hours a day and $500 a month, and I could keep my job at Rexall. So I went down to the district office yesterday to apply. I was scared sitting alone at a big desk with an electric typewriter and a timer for my typing test. My fingers were trembling uncontrollably and I was expected to type 40-45 words a minute but I managed only 20 words a minute with myriad mistakes. It was so embarrassing! I called later and they said I got a 92% on the written part but that I should come in again today to try to do better with my typing. This time I skidded through with 37 wpm and 3 mistakes. So I had an interview with Mr. Peters [at James Lick High School], who said he WILL hire me if I commit myself for the full school year. I have a week to think about it. Meanwhile I also applied to B. Dalton’s [a bookstore chain] this morning. Working in a bookstore would of course be my dream job – unless I were Bobby Dylan’s personal chauffeur.”

August 17, 1974 [age 18]:

“Last night after work I hit the record stores with Marc and Joe to take advantage of sales (I bought ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and “Nashville Skyline’ and the Byrds), then we played poker at Morris’ house and had pizza at Lord Byron’s. I was off by myself at the pizza place trying desperately to beat the driving machine and finally succeeded after feeding it four quarters. Then today I went to San Francisco with Carolyn. We parked the car at USF and took a bus down to see ‘Godspell,’ then to dinner at Slater Hawkins, then back to see another play, ‘Grease,’ – a Broadway play. I really loved both plays AND my sirloin tips dinner and with student rush tickets plus the Diner’s Card I managed to do the whole town on $10! But God! How I love the City! If only I could live there! It was cool and windy and clear and oh that sweet breathtaking moment when we came out of the play: sharp night, lights in a million brilliant colors, crowds of people, and the beautiful San Francisco skyline.”

August 31, 1974 [age 18]:

“Well, gang, I have done it. I called Mr. Peters and informed him that I will be taking a year off from college and will accept the [high school] teacher’s aide job for the next year. I should be grossing $450 a month, with $50 going to Mom and Dad for room and board, and some towards my car until I pay it off. But oh, I want to be a writer. If I could do it, if I had an ounce of talent, I would write an immense Wolfean epic incorporating the whole of America’s life and substance into it. I also have a deep sense of nostalgia and a dark awareness of the bitter brevity of life.”

September 1, 1974 [age 18]:

“I lost an important store key at work [Rexall Drugs] today and emerged frustrated with a sore back. [My friend] Morris and I went out to get corn dogs on 1st Street and eat sundaes at Farrell’s. He has a profound belief in me as a writer. Then until midnight I talked with [my friends] Ted and Frank, who is newly returned from Canada. For an hour and a half straight I stared transfixed at Frank’s long blond hair and his beard and his deep kind eyes of some Christ-like god.”

September 2, 1974 [age 18]:

“[Our neighbors] The Schweglers had a dinner for [our neighbors] the Dunns and all I know of today is that I gorged myself on food and drink like some obscenely fat Roman emperor.”

September 3, 1974 [age 18]:

“A surprise today regarding the teacher aide job I thought I was getting. Apparently Mr. Peters [the principal] has been getting some static from a higher-up named Mr. Salazar, whose daughter also applied for the job. Mr. Salazar says that I wouldn’t be able to relate to Black and Chicano kids. It kind of hurts my feelings and makes me mad at the same time because I am just going to be helping the students with their reading and math and I think they will like me. The verdict will be reached sometime this week so I just need to wait and see what happens. The suspense is terrifying. With uncontrollable longing I watched the boys depart for college this morning, and with aching regret I listened to them chatter excitedly about green sheets and Togo’s sandwiches. If I indeed do get the opportunity to be a teacher’s aide, then my burning desire to be of some value will be satisfied. But if not, the days will be dry and tasteless, and I will be a lonesome dropout.”

September 4, 1974 [age 18]:

“No word about my job yet. Today I dragged Mom and [my sister] Janine up to the City on a ridiculous strange chase to gather material for my writing project that I have tentatively entitled ‘San Francisco and Onward,’ a project which may well fizzle out before it gets off the ground. Needless to say, I gathered no material. Instead, there were lots of maps and parking lots. All we did were 1) buy cold cuts, 2) go to City Lights bookstore, and 3) eat lunch at a Chinese restaurant that was so expensive that all we could afford was a huge pile of fried wontons. I ate a MOUNTAIN of them and got really embarrassed because the waiters were pointing and laughing.”

The joy of discovery

The joy of discovery

Every so often I descend into a blackout period.

And no, I’m not talking about drinking excessively, although I’m not one to rule that out.

I’m talking about my personal rule when it comes to new experiences. For example, let’s say I’m going to see a concert. And let’s randomly say it’s Springsteen. If I wanted to, I could go online and pull up the setlists from every show on the current tour. I could find out about all the surprises so far, all the old chestnuts he’s been grabbing from his back pocket. And if I were to dig a bit further, I could read about the killer solos, Bruce’s hilarious stories, and what bandana colors Little Steven wore.

But I don’t want to know these things in advance, because then there is no element of surprise, and thus less of a chance for joy.

So I declare an “information blackout.” I do no research, and I allow no one to tell me about anything remotely related to the experience.

That’s because I want that mind-blowing, sudden rush of adrenaline made possible only by the unexpected.


I fully acknowledge the benefits the Internet has brought. Health and medical information at our fingertips, for example. I can now dash online and find out what fatal illness I’ve contracted when the tiniest inkling of a symptom shows up. And I can find a support group.

Nevertheless, I think the ability to know everything has robbed us of the joy of discovery. Of surprise. Of astonishment.

In 1980 I set off with a girlfriend in a ’67 VW bus that she had converted to an RV. (Well, an RV with zero amenities.) Neither of us had driven to other states before, and our goal was to cover the entire country by car, mostly by camping out. We had neither cell phones nor navigation systems. All we had were paper maps. We had no idea what we would find, and little idea what the rest of the country even looked like. Every day was a discovery. We befriended strangers, tried new foods, stumbled onto beautiful parks, heard new accents, completely immersed ourselves in different ways of living, and followed uncharted roads – all with no planning.

Is that possible today? It is, in theory, but no one would do it. Instead we sit for hours at our phones or computers, planning out each move, checking Yelp or TripAdvisor to ensure that our experiences will be “five-star.”

Of course, the problem with uber-planned experiences is that they don’t bring joy. Either they’re a disappointment or they merely live up to our expectations. Very little exceeds our expectations.


In the old days, discovering music and artists was possible in one of two ways. Typically, we would hear new stuff on the radio (limited to a handful of Top 40 AM stations and, later, a few savvy DJs on FM stations). It was out of our control, of course; we were at the mercy of what the DJs played and, if we had a favorite song, we had to be lucky enough to be tuned into the right station at the right time to hear it. I remember loving “The Sound of Silence” and feeling ecstatic when I happened to catch it on the radio. Those first few notes and – whoosh – a shot of adrenaline.

Christmas 1971

Or, if we hankered for something new, we could buy a record and take our chances. Because I had limited funds in those days, I shopped mainly at used record stores. My favorite record haunt in San Jose would slap a colored sticker on each record to denote the condition of the album. I would gently remove the LP from the sleeve, hold it up to the light, squint, and look carefully for scratches or pits. Most of the time my method worked. I’d bring the record home, set the needle down into the grooves, and listen to a dozen new songs with tremendous anticipation. Usually at least one would bring me great joy, but if I was lucky, it would be an entire album.


Getting tickets to a concert used to be a feat of endurance, patience, and ingenuity. Pre-Internet, there were essentially two choices: you could use your phone to repeatedly dial TicketMaster (or BASS or whoever your local ticket broker was) and hope that you’d be lucky enough to get through. It worked a couple of times for me but ultimately it became nearly impossible.

The other option was the most reliable: you’d line up. Hours in advance. Perhaps a day in advance. I’d join a line of die-hards in the frigid San Francisco dawn and hope that the tickets wouldn’t run out before I made it to the counter. It was a crapshoot. My legs would ache. My closest nail-biter was the time I waited in line at the Record Factory for Springsteen tickets in September 1980. In those days, BASS (Bay Area Seating Service) sold concert tickets in person at record stores. Three of us got in line in the morning, behind only about 20 people, but the machines were so slow that my two companions left me sometime during the day and I was still there at 5:15 p.m. Beyond my aching legs, the greater problem was that the BASS computers in those days shut down at 5:25 p.m. on the dot. Everyone knew that tickets were running out any minute, and the line could be cut off right in our faces. The people behind me were really vocal and getting obnoxious, trying to physically insinuate themselves ahead of me. But I was not about to let that happen and held my ground with some well-placed elbows. And as karma would have it, I was the very last person to get tickets. Behind the stage. At 5:23.

(I don’t exaggerate. It’s in my diary.)

I was ecstatic. Getting tickets was a crapshoot, and I’d won.

“This is bullshit!” one of the scorned women behind me screamed. “We should have gotten those tickets! We’re FROM NEW JERSEY!”

I kind of got her point.

My actual stub


That old process may have been brutal, but it separated the true fans from the rest of the plebes. Now a guy with a keyboard or a screen can casually sit at home eating a hoagie while buying tickets for a show he may or may not decide to attend. After all, he can always scalp them. And it’s just easier to sit on the couch. After all, the show will stream online somewhere, right?


People don’t call each other on the phone much nowadays, and when they do, they often text each other first and make a “date” for the call. There is just zero spontaneity anymore. Imagine growing up the way I did, when the phone rang and we had no idea who was on the other end of the line. Yes, it could be a huge disappointment to lift up that receiver, but much of the time it was a lovely surprise.

My grandmother’s phone (on my desk)

In the late seventies, long before there were personal cell phones, I was visiting my grandparents in southern California and absolutely obsessing about a girl I’d just met in San Francisco. Someone who would turn out to be my first love, although I didn’t know that at the time. I was dying to talk to her, but of course I couldn’t place a call from my grandparents’ phone, which was on a desk in their kitchen. So, with a pocketful of as many quarters as I could scrounge, I peeled off in my ’71 Corolla with an excuse I can’t remember. It was winter, and the rain was pounding. I drove around the dark wet L.A. streets until I found a phone booth, pulled over, and ran through the rain giddily to the booth. I had no idea whether she would be home, but my heart was screaming with hope. I was cold and soaked and that only made it sweeter. And decidedly more romantic.



Thrill. Avalanche of adrenaline.

Public phone booth on San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles, California


Before all of us had Internet access, places like restaurants got their reputations primarily through word of mouth. There were exquisite little neighborhood spots that were known mainly to people in the ’hood because people all over the country weren’t Googling “artisanal tapas places” and taking over local joints to the detriment of the actual locals.

The same was true with attractions like national parks. You couldn’t make reservations in advance (there was no such thing) and had to make the effort to travel to different places and scope them out on your own. Effort and risk. Maybe a particular trail was a bust, or just maybe it led to the most gorgeous, solitary view you’d ever seen in your life.

But times have changed. A woman named Andrea Howe tweeted recently: “At Disneyland with the family and probably 50% of toddlers are strapped in their strollers on iPads or phones. At Disneyland. We are so screwed.”


Arden Wood Christian Science Community

I walk my dog Buster every day and pass scores of other dog walkers in the neighborhood. To my dismay, I’ve noted that about 90 percent of the people are staring down at their phones. Nevermind that they’re completely ignoring their pets, who could be meandering through foxtails, stepping in gopher holes, or ingesting something unimaginable. These people are also missing out on the world around them. On one of my walks a few years ago I found myself peering through an iron gate and exclaiming to Buster (yes, I do that!) about the beautiful gardens that lay behind the gate. It looked like Eden in there. Just then, one of the residents came up behind me and trustingly let us in. On the grounds was a Christian Science retirement home, and I ended up befriending the resident, Joanne, with whom I had lunch on more than one occasion. (By the way, those Christian Scientists go all out in their retirement facilities and their meals are incredible!) She was a sculptor from New York, full of gritty metropolitan stories, and I’ll never forget that serendipitous moment we met.

On another dog-walk last year, I met a man who’d written a book about Abraham Lincoln. We had a long chat and he insisted that I wait while he zipped inside to retrieve a copy before sending me off with it! Julie couldn’t understand how I walked out the door with a dog and came back hefting a book about Lincoln.

When I’m not meeting local characters, I’m happy to check out old houses, say good morning to my neighbors, smell the food and coffee up on West Portal, and take in the ocean view.

Cell phone not required.


The Chronicle recently ran a story about how Major League Baseball was taking a look at “augmented reality.” Fans at the ballpark could hold their phones in front of their faces – while the game was going on! – and their screens would overlay the action with stats and diagrams showing trajectories, launch angles, velocities, fielders’ ability to cover ground in a certain amount of time, and other bits of information completely unnecessary to the appreciation of baseball. The league execs didn’t think that youngsters could appreciate the beautiful and delicate balance of the game without augmentation.

I hope it’s a long time before this abomination comes to fruition. Never mind that micro stats don’t enhance real fans’ appreciation of baseball one iota. More importantly, what about the senses? The crack of the bat, the umpire’s call, the smell of a hotdog, the first refreshing sip of a cold beer?

And how about the swift thrill of a great diving catch?


Again, I admit that knowledge at our fingertips can be helpful. For example, not long ago I drank a huge slug of Gatorade before I realized that a big slimy blob of something had slid down my throat. I was pretty sure it was mold, because the opened bottle had been on the counter for weeks. In a panic I rushed to the Internet, which reassured me that stomach acid would take care of it. Since I have enough stomach acid to dissolve heavy metals, I figured it would be okay.

That was a relief. Now, what would have happened in 1974? Well, perhaps the end result would have been the same. I would have panicked, Mom would have told me I’d be fine, and I would have just gone about my business, because there was no Internet to potentially convince me I was doomed!


I don’t think this is too far off topic, but I’ve read lately that young people aren’t having much sex anymore. And that was the case before the pandemic kept them physically apart. It’s just more engaging to be connected to their screens. Less effort. Less risk.

(I don’t understand it. Honestly, I always say that at the end of my life my one regret will be that I didn’t have more sex!)

Today’s kids also, apparently, care less about driving than my generation did. When I was young, we couldn’t wait to drive. It was all about freedom, yes. But it was also about the full engagement of the senses. The radio blaring, the windows down, the wheel in our hands, the smell of grass in the summertime.

And we never knew what was around the next bend.


Sitting on our butts in front of a screen doesn’t yield joy at all. The brain gets wrapped up in repetition and reward, and that fulfills us in some way.

Pulling ourselves away from our screens takes effort, doesn’t it? And it allows for chance, which means there is risk involved.

Risk and effort, I think, build character. Do we always need to get exactly what we want? And do we always need to know exactly what is coming our way?

Sometimes we actually have to work for the unexpected.

Because if we’re constantly connected, and constantly in front of a screen, then that, my friends, marks the end of happenstance.


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.

May 28, 1974 [age 18]:

“Today was rather a day of torture, for I believe I studied more than I have ever done in my life. We are having a final midterm in Drama tomorrow (I am a borderline B-/C+), and I have to read over seven plays, five essays, and my notes. The task was almost impossible. I studied from the moment I got home from school till the moment I went to work, than at work from 7:00 to 9:00, then for an hour on the phone with a friend, then until 11:30, when I plunged into sleep, and then I dragged myself out of bed at 5:00 this morning and studied until I had to get ready at 7:00. It was absolute murder. I kept getting all of Chekhov’s characters in the 3 plays we read all mixed up – all those Russian names, and everyone seems to be alike, representing work or degeneration or age or a love of the past or whatever. So then this morning what does he give us but a final unlike anything he had described, with no terms and no quotations but only a few relatively easy essays! I almost flipped! But I would rather have studied in vain than to have studied insufficiently. Then I whizzed over to my Speech class, looked at my current grade, decided I was too strongly an “A” to take the last quiz, and drove home happy.”

May 30, 1974 [age 18]:

“The times are strange. I’m in some sort of limbo now, intense schoolwork behind but fragments of studying still necessary now and then for my remaining finals. And when I am free of all this, what then? What will summer hold for me but more working at Rexall? Ha! We look for dreams, we in our eager youth. We await our long, romantic summers and the lovers who will come to us one day and carry off our hearts. We look for trains and blurring landscapes and new faces. And yet – I have so much to learn, so much naivete to conquer, so much more SAN JOSE to cope with.”

June 7, 1974 [age 18]:

“Carolyn called tonight, saying that she and her sister were going out to a movie, and would [my sister] Janine and I like to go? I drove – we had decided on ‘The Sting’ – and the movie was good but certainly didn’t deserve Best Picture. (I still vote for ‘American Graffiti.’) The funny thing is that while we were driving to the theater, Carolyn was showing me a ‘shortcut’ and only when I was about to turn onto an on-ramp did I realize that I was going onto the terribly crowded [Highway] 17, so I screamed ‘No! I can’t merge!’ and I stopped the car right on the on-ramp and got out and made Carolyn run into the driver’s seat so she could take over and do the merge.”

June 16, 1974 [age 18]:

“I managed to get enough courage today to ask the boss for a raise. After a long runaround he gave in and raised me 10 cents, so I am now making a mighty $2.00 per hour!”
Two days later:
“I had told Mr. Jordahl [my boss] some time ago that I’d love to fly ’cross-country this summer but my finances were holding me back. So today he turns to me and says, ‘Well, I figured out on my pocket calculator that if I give you $2.10 an hour this summer, that’ll be 92 extra dollars to fly back East with.’ So I stared, openmouthed, thanked him more than once, and came out with a 20-cent raise in two days!”

June 25, 1974 [age 18]: [Ed.’s note: And to think my career goal was to become a detective]

“I don’t know why I don’t notice things sometimes. There was a strange incident tonight as I sat at my desk. I noticed a most peculiar and obnoxious smell. But, true to form, I remained innocently oblivious, until Mom came in because she could smell the powerful odor. It turned out that something had gone wrong with my desk lamp, and two inches away from my face it had become so immensely hot inside that the base of the lamp had melted, sinking in on top, and burning my desk underneath. The whole family cannot believe how I could NOT have noticed it, TWO INCHES AWAY, and now I am paying for the consequences with a headache and nausea from the plastic fumes.”

June 27, 1974 [age 18]:

“I’ve realized that the terrible idea which has succeeded in filling me with so much anguish is the expectation of spending almost my life savings on a plane ticket in August. So, now I’ve decided to forget the possibility of such a trip, at least for the present (perhaps a golden opportunity will show up). So today I instead bought a most wonderful bodyshirt, completely to my expectations, white, long-sleeved, soft, with strawberries, and hopefully, as soon as I can find a pair, I’m going to get some long white pants and wear my new clean whiteness to see Cat Stevens.”

July 4, 1974 [age 18]:

“I made a hasty, wild decision to drive up to San Francisco alone today to ‘write.’ For the most part, I had a grand time, enraptured by the city I love so well for its magic. I should hopefully be able to express these feelings soon in my journal. The facts are these: Most of the day was spent ‘in search of’ something, because I don’t know my way around San Francisco yet, and I have a TRAGIC sense of direction. After finding a bathroom, I settled down to eat four pieces of Fish ’n’ Chips (I had wandered around the wharf for a long while, gazing at the fish and smelling their delicious, salty smells, but alas – they were too expensive) and read the newspaper to find out about any exciting events. I read that the composer of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ would be performing in the Cannery, so I struck out for there because I HAD to see him. Afterwards I wandered some more, played pinball machines, went to Ghirardelli Square, and saw a cinematic show called ‘The San Francisco Experience,’ which didn’t inspire me at all except for the idea that the city was ‘indifferent to fate.’ I then decided to eat in Chinatown, but, after a nightmare of driving, unable to park, I left in frustration. Finally, I settled down for a few minutes in the park where Jeanne and Carl and I had sat years before, wrote a bit, and gazed out to sea.”

July 6, 1974 [age 18]:

“Whew, this weekend has been rather crazy. I went to the library this morning, the big one, in search of information about San Francisco for my notebook, then to the Pruneyard to see ‘Our Time,’ a depressing story about a girl who gets pregnant and then dies. Then home to eat fish ‘n’ chips, and to Church. Though I settled down for what I thought would be a quiet evening, Ted and Joe and Bruce appeared, and soon, after a futile search for a movie to see, we somehow decided to go to Santa Cruz. So at 9:00 at night we drove over the hill to the Boardwalk in our shirtsleeves. We spent all of our coins in the Arcade and I loved it. There was a warm breeze and I had a great talk with Ted and I felt like the whole beautiful world was mine. Unfortunately we had to be home by midnight for Bruce Otherwise, I would have liked to have done innumerable crazy things.”

July 11, 1974 [age 18]:

“I finished another piece of writing for my journal tonight (or this morning, rather) which put me into a happy state and kept me there for the rest of the day. A writer’s work is every bit as hard as Thomas Wolfe portrayed it to be. You sweat blood.”

July 27, 1974 [age 18]:

“I was [a bridesmaid] in Colleen’s wedding today. I had three thoughts before I went: I was 1) curious about how to wear a long dress, 2) dreading the dancing, and 3) totally eager to eat at the reception. But when the moment came I shook like a leaf, and heard later that my nervousness was quite apparent all during my walk down the aisle. Tom Gallo, practically an Adonis among men, in my opinion, was my escort.”

July 31, 1974 [age 18]:

“The law enforcement classes which I so desperately need are closed, and it will do me no good to maintain a partial schedule, since I will still be forced to go to school an extra semester. Therefore I have decided not to go to school next semester (or most likely for a year) but seek alternatives. I need to leave myself some time to catch up to the world, else I will be graduating at 20 without ever having lived at all. My dream is to go up to San Francisco, the place so dear to my heart, to live for a while. Mom was dubious about it, repeating that I was “making a mistake,” but Dad even offered suggestions on where I could work in San Jose. I would like to work for the phone company and be one of those collectors who drive around and get coins out of phone booths.”

An honest voice

An honest voice

Because of COVID, too many years have passed since I last attended a live concert. So I recently threw caution to the wind and decided to see the same artist twice, within four days, in two different cities.

For once, no, it wasn’t Bruce Springsteen.

It was a true American treasure, as far as I’m concerned. Actually, an Americana treasure. It was Rosanne Cash.


Yes, I know I’ve always said that I generally prefer male vocalists and that in my version of hell I’d be forced to listen to Joni Mitchell and eat couscous all day. But even oldsters like me can evolve.

“Seven Year Ache”

Rosanne Cash is a fairly late discovery of mine. I’d known of her only from her 1981 hit single “Seven Year Ache.” That song earned the coveted Paula Bocciardi 5-star rating, but I didn’t follow her career because I was primarily a mainstream rock and roller. My adrenaline pumped to Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, and of course Springsteen.

I was also a rabid fan of “folk rock” – Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel.

But pure country music was completely unappealing to me. When we were young my father would turn on the scratchy AM country station every time we climbed into the family car. And it embarrassed me. I thought it to be musically simplistic and lyrically vapid. To prove my point I would always reference “Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life).”

Man, I missed out on a lot.


The CD that changed everything for me was Rosanne Cash’s The List. It was a collection of songs inspired by an impromptu music history lesson delivered by her father, Johnny Cash, more than 35 years earlier. Johnny had taken Rosanne on the road with him the day after she’d graduated from high school, and on the tour bus he’d handed her a list, written on yellow legal paper, of what he considered to be the 100 essential country songs. The tour lasted 2-1/2 years, and during that time she soaked up everything she could about the evolution of country music while learning how to play guitar from musicians like Mother Maybelle Carter and Carl Perkins.

The List includes some songs I already knew like “Sea of Heartbreak” (a duet with Bruce Springsteen!) and “Girl From the North Country,” the Bob Dylan tune on which Johnny Cash had collaborated so beautifully on vocals. But the one that hooked me was “500 Miles,” a folk song I’d sung since childhood while strumming awkwardly on the guitar. As a teenager I’d wept to the Johnny Rivers version on Johnny Rivers Rocks the Folk. Songs about loss and farewells always tugged at me, even at a young age. But Rosanne’s rendition was the best I’d ever heard. It was plaintive and resonant and just about broke my heart. It also won the coveted Paula Bocciardi 5-star rating.

“500 Miles”


The first of my two Rosanne Cash shows this year was at the San Francisco Jazz Center. It’s a modern auditorium, filled with deep grays and purples, swiveling seats, and lots of space. Space between rows, acres of air above our heads. Rosanne doesn’t sing jazz, but she’s had a deep affiliation with the Center over the years, and every so often she spends time there as an artist in residence. As usual she was accompanied by her guitarist husband John Leventhal, who also adds his lovely soft harmonies. We sat in the balcony, where the sound was pristine but not loud enough for my taste, and where we could see her, but not closely enough for my taste.

Miner Auditorium, SF Jazz

Much of her set was taken from The List and included, to my joy, “500 Miles” and “Sea of Heartbreak.” She reminded us that Springsteen had sung the latter as a duet with her. “Is he here tonight?” she quipped.

I wondered about the makeup of the audience that night. I believe that most of the people were likely subscribers to SFJazz (I’m not) and possibly somewhat unfamiliar with Rosanne’s music. The applause was polite and intellectual.

I would have a far different concert experience just three days later.


Rosanne Cash (tallest child) with her siblings and parents, Vivian (Liberto) and Johnny Cash

Rosanne Cash was born in Memphis in 1955 (a stellar year!) but grew up in southern California. Her mother – Johnny Cash’s first wife – was Vivian Liberto, a beautiful woman of European (including half Italian) descent. Or so Rosanne thought, until she learned – during an episode of the PBS show Finding Your Roots aired just last year – that Vivian’s maternal great-great-grandmother had been an enslaved Black woman. The KKK had harassed Johnny in the 1960s because they believed his wife to be Black, and although Cash wouldn’t have cared if she were, he didn’t know the truth at the time and had gone so far as to publicly deny the rumors in order to save his career.

After the tour with her dad in the early 1970s, Rosanne worked in London for a while at CBS Records, where Johnny had gotten her a job as an assistant in the artist relations department. After returning to the States she enrolled briefly at Vanderbilt as an English/drama major, but she soon dropped out. All she wanted was to be a songwriter, in the mold of her muses Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt. She shifted her life to L.A., asked country singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell to produce a few of her own songs for her, and eventually, with the help of her dad, was offered a recording contract with Columbia Records in Nashville.

Rosanne cut her first Columbia album, Right or Wrong, in 1979 at the age of 23 and a year or so later broke through strongly with Seven Year Ache, which reached number 1 on the country charts and yielded three number 1 singles. By then she’d married Crowell and had a baby, and the family moved to Nashville.

As the years went by, Rosanne continued to make albums, some of which were successful, and they generated a few hits. But she was increasingly disappointed with the music biz. She was bothered by the “pressure to be a certain way, to toe a certain line, to start a fan club (which I refused to do), to participate in big, splashy events, and to act as if the country music scene were a religion to which I belonged.” She resented the “narrow aesthetic” and the “established hierarchy” and “wanted to be in the trenches, where the inspiration was.” After making an introspective record called Interiors that was essentially abandoned by Nashville Columbia, Rosanne asked for a transfer to the label’s New York division. “You belong in New York,” her dad told her. Management was all too happy to let her go, and she headed for the Big Apple in 1991. By then her marriage to Rodney Crowell was falling apart.

Rosanne asked John Leventhal to produce her next album The Wheel. The album’s themes were fire, water, wind, and moon; she was in a “New Age mind-set” then because of her pain over the divorce, its effect on her children, the move, etc. The Wheel wasn’t a commercial success, and Rosanne resigned herself to the fact that her work would never be accepted on Top 40 radio. She asked to be released from her Columbia contract. It wasn’t about the label at all, she says. It was about her needing to figure out how her songwriting could meld her life experiences with the musical history and connections that had been a part of her since birth.


Her new path carried her in the right direction, and the ensuing years finally brought about her greatest artistic and personal triumphs (and one huge challenge). Rosanne married John Leventhal in 1995. Her voice and songwriting became richer and richer. After her father, mother, and stepmother passed away, she released Black Cadillac in 2006. The album deals primarily with loss; the black Cadillac was the car that drove her dad away after he died.

“Black Cadillac”

“The House on the Lake” is about missing her father’s Tennessee home – the wood and nails and “the smell of heavy rain.” It’s all about the complexity of grief: the surreal sadness, bitterness, confusion, and loneliness, and then the oddest flicker of hope. She searches for her family through her pain, and her musical past percolates through her memories:

you must be somewhere in the stars
’cause from a distance comes the sound of your guitar
and I will look for you in Memphis and the miles between

The record earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album and found its way to the Billboard Top 10.

But the very next year threw her a curveball – really, a fastball aimed directly at her head. She found herself facing major brain surgery: a “decompression craniectomy and laminectomy for Chiari 1 and syringomyelia,” to be precise. She’d had terrible headaches and neck spasms for 12 years, then began getting fevers and infections along with fatigue. The surgery involved sawing open a credit-card-sized piece of the back of her head, cutting through the lining of her brain, breaking her top vertebra, freeing her trapped cerebellum, and releasing a bunch of spinal fluid. She had a much-worse-than-childbirth (as she described it) headache for months afterwards and had to re-learn things as simple as walking up a stair. Her hearing became so acute that any stimulation involving noise upset her; in fact, music with lyrics was too complex and unbearable. And she sometimes scrambled her words.

In the end, though, the surgery was a success.


The List was released in 2009. Although Rosanne considers herself a songwriter first and foremost, she felt that The List had to be recorded because the songs “were so clearly a part of Dad’s musical genealogy, and therefore my own. . . . [I]t was a record I wanted to make for my children as much as for myself or the honor of my ancestors.” It was awarded Album of the Year by the Americana Music Association.

But some of her best work was yet to come. Believing that she had to get back to songwriting after doing a full album of covers, she released an original album in January 2014 on Blue Note Records called The River & the Thread. She described the album as “a mini-travelogue of the South, and of the soul,” and it was inspired by trips she took with her husband through the heart of Dixie. The original focus of the trips was a project to restore her father’s boyhood Arkansas home, but she and John also visited William Faulkner’s house, the Mississippi Blues Trail, the Tallahatchie Bridge, Robert Johnson’s grave, and sundry other musical landmarks.

Johnny Cash’s childhood home on the Cotton Highway,
Dyess, Arkansas

The album is an atmospheric masterwork. Like Faulkner, she captures the swampy, beautiful, humid, molasses-dark gumbo of the American South. It’s about magnolias, mahogany, and whisky, about sludge and secrets. She sings of hard truths. Her voice is like loam, deep and rich.

The songs cover a lot of history: the Civil War, her father’s impoverished New Deal childhood in the Arkansas Delta, Rosanne’s own return to Memphis after a pilgrimage to Europe. They’re about finding her roots and discovering that although her life had taken her in many directions, the South would always run through her. “Music can unlock a frozen memory that melts into the seeds of our creativity,” she says.

a feather’s not a bird
the rain is not the sea
a stone is not a mountain
but a river runs through me
“A Feather’s Not a Bird”

The River & the Thread was the Number One album that year on Americana radio. In early 2015, Rosanne won Grammy awards for Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song, and Best American Roots Performance. It turned out to be a good year for her: she also was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.


I love Americana music. Maybe I don’t need the constant blasts of youthful rock and roll adrenaline any more. Or maybe my musical tastes just got broader. For me, it’s all about good songwriting. It’s not about novelty tunes like “Drop Kick Me Jesus.” It’s about artists like Woody Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot, Lucinda Williams, Joe Henry, and Dolly Parton. Or Wilco, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, the Marshall Tucker Band, Steve Earle, Whiskeytown, Townes Van Zandt, Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin, and the Avett Brothers.

So, what exactly is Americana? According to americanamusic.org, it is “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.”

With this diverse mix of ingredients, Americana can’t help but be a recipe for bridging cultures.


According to Rolling Stone, in 2015 Rosanne played a show in Mississippi at Dockery Farms, a sharecropping plantation known for being one of the birthplaces of the blues. At the afterparty, one of the musicians – an 88-year-old local harmonica player – told her, “When I was behind the mule in the cotton fields back in the Fifties, we had a radio on the porch and whenever your daddy [Johnny Cash] came on the radio we all ran out of the fields to gather around and listen.” Rosanne remembers that she started crying, thinking about the unseen connection. “This man has been playing the blues harp his whole life and I owe what I’m doing to him and, yet, I’m getting all the attention,” she says. “It just struck me so profoundly how much we need to honor him and his tradition.”

In 2021, Rosanne received the Edward MacDowell Medal, awarded since 1960 to an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to American culture. She was the first female composer to receive this prestigious honor.

Rosanne Cash has officially become an ambassador for the history of American music.


Cash has recorded 15 albums, and her most recent, She Remembers Everything, was released in 2018. Rolling Stone called it a “masterclass.” It’s really about the passage of time – our battles, losses, victories, pain, struggles, loves, ghosts, and memories both beautiful and haunting. Life’s train whistle, once staccato and cheery, has stretched into a longer, more reflective sigh. Because of the album’s wisdom and maturity, she says that she couldn’t have written it 10 years earlier. Her voice is strong and unapologetic.

The title song is dark. It honors women who live with suppressed trauma (“outside this waking dream, she remembers everything”).

“I read once that every time an old woman dies, a library disappears,” she often says.

But much of the album is about strong relationships and the ties that bind, often despite wounds and struggles. A nervous, eerily beautiful guitar line runs through “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For,” co-written with Lera Lynn and the great T Bone Burnett:

weren’t we like a pair of thieves
with tumbled locks and broken codes
you cannot take that from me
my small reprieves, your heart of gold
weren’t we like a battlefield
locked inside a holy war
your love and my due diligence
the only thing worth fighting for

I’m an idealist, though, so my favorite tune on the album, “Not Many Miles To Go” (yes, a Bocciardi 5-star), is an upbeat semi-rocker that confirms the ultimate promise she and John have made to each other:

thank you for the things you said
for not joining me out on the ledge . . .
thank you for the diamond ring
the baby boy and world on a string
the field guide to honor
and a thousand acts of love

I don’t miss living so much faster
I’ll take care of your Telecaster
you might miss the way I keep the beat
time keeps slipping through the curtain
from this point on there’s nothing certain
except there’s not many miles to go
and just one promise left to keep

When I listen to this song I am always reminded of the love I have for my family and friends – especially the ones who have talked me off ledges – and my fierce loyalty and unspoken promise never to leave. I hope you know who you are.

“Not Many Miles To Go”


A few days after seeing Rosanne at SFJazz, we drove 50 miles north to Napa, where she would be performing at the Uptown. The Uptown is a historic art-deco venue built in 1937 that is leagues more intimate than the Miner Auditorium at SFJazz. It holds about 863 people and the distance from the last row to the musicians is only 98 feet. Our seats were very close to the stage; Julie and I were mesmerized by Rosanne’s lanky fingers on the guitar.

This was a much rowdier crowd. Rosanne took an informal poll of raised hands and discovered that for most of us, it was our first live music event since pre-pandemic days. Everyone was energetic and anticipatory. There were shouts of encouragement and lots of requests. This was clearly her kind of audience: boisterous, appreciative, devoted.

And the show was stellar from beginning to end. Rosanne changed up her setlist, much to my delight. She chose songs from every period of her career, starting off with “Modern Blue” (a favorite of mine from The River & the Thread) and reaching back to “Seven Year Ache,” a song I’d never heard her play live before.

“Modern Blue”

She was loose and funny. At one point her husband John said something apparently sentimental about their many years together, but I couldn’t understand what the heck he was trying to say. She validated my confusion. “John,” she said to him right on stage, “I have no idea what that means, but we can parse it out later.”

She also added an amusing story to her “Is he here?” quip about Springsteen. She said that at one of her shows Bruce really was in the audience. At her request he ran up on stage to join her on “Sea of Heartbreak,” at which point she noticed with amusement that the jeans-and-leather-jacket rocker was actually wearing “Dad khakis.” 

And one last tidbit: “How many of you saw the new Beatles documentary Get Back?” she asked. I was in the middle of watching it at the time – a compilation of footage from the band’s 1969 recording sessions. “Well, do you remember the photographer on the roof? He’s a friend of mine and is here tonight.” Much shouting and applause. Jeez, I thought, that guy must be 100 years old. Rosanne seems to know everyone.


Before the Uptown show, Julie had set out from our hotel to get a cheeseburger. Because I have a nervous stomach, I typically don’t eat before social events. I debated whether I should go with her, just to get some air and exercise, but my laziness won out.

Not long afterwards, Julie sent me a text. She was at the restaurant waiting for her take-out. “Oh, and one other little thing,” she wrote. She’d been walking down some empty side streets and saw a mound of red hair walking towards her, carrying some shopping bags. No, it couldn’t be, she thought. But it was. There was no mistaking the hair. It was Rosanne Cash.

Rosanne seemed distracted, probably thinking about her setlist for that night. She and Julie exchanged a few pleasantries.

I was, of course, jealously furious.


Rosanne still lives with her family in New York and remains dedicated to honoring the American songbook and the legacy of her famous family. She will never be tied to the dictates of any one place or any one style.

Rosanne Cash and husband John Leventhal

Over the years, she’s talked about how she feels about country music, noting that it used to be about hard truths, loss, and family but is now more focused on “sexual heat,” becoming “shiny and rich and rather shallow” as pop music continues to seep in.

“We all need art and music like we need blood and oxygen,” she says. “The more exploitative, numbing, and assaulting popular culture becomes, the more we need the truth of a beautifully phrased song, dredged from a real person’s depth of experience, delivered in an honest voice.”

As Rosanne’s friend, songwriter John Stewart, once told her, “We are all just radios, hoping to pick up each other’s signals.” Her signal, strong and true, has reached me.


NOTE: Many of Rosanne’s quotes in this post came from one of my most cherished books, her autobiography Composed. The New York Times called it “one of the best accounts of an American life you’ll likely ever read.”


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.

February 13, 1974 [age 18]:

“[College] registration was so traumatic for me this year. I ended up with no less than THREE English classes and no more than ZERO law enforcement [my major] classes. I am going to end up an English major yet! It was terrible. I got there at 5:15 and I didn’t even get my registration number until 9:30. All those hours out in the icy cold were so miserable that at times I felt like crying, and my feet were frozen so badly that they hurt. Anyway, my classes: The first is Critical Writing—Drama, a course required for English minors. I hate the class. The professor is exceedingly arrogant and puts down student writing as though we were all a bunch of incompetent imbeciles. He gave only C’s on the first paper we turned in! I dread every paper we have to write, for fear of placing my amateurish writing under his scrutinizing nose. My second class I would have to rank as Number One. It is my upper-division Shakespeare class. The reading load is heavy – we read a play a week – and there is a quiz after every play, but I enjoy it and have learned a lot. The quizzes are essay questions, so we have to be able to grasp the deeper meaning of the play, the diction, the characters, the importance of certain scenes. Such is real education. The professor is wonderfully enthusiastic, bubbly with a good sense of humor, and the time flies in that period. I finally understand Shakespeare very well now, and I can read his plays smoothly and easily and actually ENJOY them. I don’t know what to think of my third class: Speech—Contemporary Dialogue. It has been a total waste of time so far. All we have done is watch a taped dialogue of two obscure students named Rocky and Charlotte, concerning their marriage. It’s been painfully dull. My next class is English 1B. It’s kind of boring, but I haven’t gotten lower than an ‘A’ on the essays, which take me only 20 minutes to write. The contrast between this class and Drama is astounding. We’re now reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Macbeth’ – Shakespeare is coming out of my ears! Finally I have my Geology class, which I LOVE. Professor Anderson is young, dryly humorous, and looks like Richard Chamberlain. I adore him. He squints to see the clock, just like I do. His lectures are so interesting that I barely mind the length of the class. Field trips are coming up, too. We’re not memorizing rocks or anything like that, but concentrating on the interactions between air, land, and water – you know, typical ecology-oriented stuff.”

February 16, 1974 [age 18]:

“I’m home by myself this weekend and [my friend] Jeanne and I decided to get drunk. So, after work we set off to buy booze at [our friend] Vivian Blades’ 7-11 in Milpitas. Once home we set everything up and even took pictures. I wore Mom’s cool lumberjack shirt. Well, Jeanne launched into a long story about Eric and Larry while meantime I drank continuously. Then IT hit. Oooh, boy. Altogether I had half a liter of Miller and then half a fifth of wine, too fast. I have never felt so ill in my life. In one second, Jeanne started to spin crazily, and I couldn’t see. It was like being on the operating table and going under. I ran downstairs and heaved two or three times and stayed in the bathroom about half an hour until I could be able to stand up to stagger upstairs and go to bed. I will NEVER do that AGAIN!” 

April 10, 1974 [age 18]:

“At 11:00 today, [my friend] Jeanne and I headed off to San Francisco, Jeanne behind the wheel. Once there, we headed for a gas station, one where you get a free car wash, and that was one of the best things all day! We were so snug and safe in the little car and this funny-looking canvas thing sort of crawled over the car and Jeanne started laughing and saying, ‘What is THAT?’ and then we both broke into screaming hysterics. Off to the Ferry Building to take a ride into Sausalito. We ate our picnic lunch down by the ocean and watched the rough waves. After a cone at Baskin & Robbins and a stop at the Wherehouse [record store] to fruitlessly look for ‘Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Part 2,’ we left for Golden Gate Park. We inquired about horseback riding, but the place was booked up. So we went to the Planetarium show, which was something about the future of the earth, but I don’t really remember — I was dozing off periodically because I was groggy from the Ornade [antihistamine] I had taken in the morning. Next we rode the cable car up and down, hanging onto the poles for excitement. It was neat. The driver looked like a Frenchman, with his black curls and moustache, beret, and print shirt and vest, and once we stalled and they had to pour sand on the tracks. There was a man on the corner screaming about sin and salvation and telling the world to repent. But I guess the weirdest part was walking by a little park and seeing a sign that said ‘Park closed’ but inside we caught sight of two men wearing tuxedoes, one in black and one in white, playing croquet! That was like a dream.”

April 16, 1974 [age 18]:

“Our night was interrupted by horrible vandals who threw boulders and bottles at our house and broke the front window, our screen, and the school car’s windshield. The police came. Ted was a witness but there are virtually no leads. Dad thinks someone was mad at him for something he might have done at school. [My father was our high school’s principal.] I was really shaken up. The parents are totally paranoid now about leaving me alone when they go off to the lake, and rightly so, I suppose. Therefore they have given me six million orders for this weekend: I shall not be out late, I shall sleep in their room [which was away from the front windows], the shotgun will be loaded and kept in the closet, I can listen to records in the living room only with the lights off, etc.”

April 20, 1974 [age 18]:

“Friday I skipped my Drama class to study ‘Othello,’ took the quiz, told why I thought Othello was a tragic hero, and noted that, if the discussion afterwards was indicative of the ‘correct’ response, I failed miserably. I cut Speech also – that ridiculous class – and played two sets of tennis with [my friend] Jeanne, emerging the victor. I came home, listened to Bob Dylan who was hopelessly stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again, and drove down to Jeanne’s for dinner. It was so immense that I must list the food: white rice, homemade biscuits, fresh string beans, fried chicken, mustard greens, squash fritters, strawberry shortcake, and Ovaltine.”

April 21, 1974 [age 18]: [get out your violins again; I’d just learned that my best friend Jeanne would soon be moving back East]

“I wonder, wonder how I will fare when I am left behind. For two years now I have been led by this refreshing friend. I can foresee this eternal grief closing suddenly in upon me in June. I can see me torturing myself listening to ‘Sounds of Silence’ or other songs reminiscent of those two years – ‘Maggie Mae,’ ‘Mandolin Wind,’ ‘Song Sung Blue,’ ‘Scarborough Fair,’ ‘Whiter Shade of Pale,’ ‘To Sir With Love,’ ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ I can see my tears and my flashing daydreams of things past. I can feel the deep, immense, unforgettable ache for something dead and gone. And what is to become of me? How can I start all over again? How can I possibly forget, wipe clean from my mind, all the glorious, youthful exultance I have known for just a moment? No answers, none at all but a dark feeling of this impending crisis of wracked emotions. Time, with its terrible tricks . . . .”

April 23, 1974 [age 18]:

“I want to tell about last Sunday morning. I answered the doorbell and there stood [a young man who lived down the street]. He has a crush on me and he had done this before – visited when he knew I was alone, hoping, I believe to be let in, shuffling around on the front porch. So I grew suspicious. He had two one-dollar bills in his hand, and asked if I had dropped them. I said no and he stammered out some desperate attempts at conversation and I sent him away. Reluctantly he left. Then that night I found out that he had suddenly joined the army. Looking back, he had only wanted to talk to me of his impending big step. I am a horrible person and will feel guilty about this until the day I die.”

April 24, 1974 [age 18]:

“Yesterday I drove to Jeanne’s and we were going to play tennis but the air turned gray, and after our simultaneous exclamations at the snow on the hills and her immediate suggestion to go up to it, we did. I actually drove Mt. Hamilton Road, scared to death but loving every inch of it. Then we romped around in the wonderfully clean snow, pretended we were Admiral Perry and his companion up at the North Pole, planted the ‘American flag’ (a broken branch), and got very cold and wet. I left with an aching head because Jeanne’s last snowball had hit me in the face and I recoiled and bashed my skull against a boulder. After seeing my wet clothes, Mom remarked that if I make it until age 21 alive, she will breathe a loud sigh of relief.”

May 24, 1974 [age 18]:

“If there had been a way for me to savor every day, every moment of this last week with [my good friend] Jeanne [before she moved back East], I would surely have done it. But the seconds have flown, and those sweet days of UC Santa Cruz visits and playing tennis and bumming through San Francisco and seeing Billy Jack twice and drinking tequila will fade, as all our life’s moments fade, slowly into our memory. I dropped her off at the airport today and had a speech prepared but didn’t say anything at all. Today all my fatigue caught up with me unmercilessly [sic]. My eyes were totally bloodshot, my stomach was upset, my head hurt, and I felt downright sick. I haven’t had any sleep to speak of for a week; also, I think my nerves, or my heart, or whatever, is (are) strained from all my sadness. And why did we have a lack of a real goodbye? That is preying on me. I am almost ashamed. If only I could go back in time. She was such a sun in my life – if only I can push aside the clouds somehow, I will make it through.”

May 26, 1974 [age 18]:

“I believe that I am surviving Jeanne’s farewell quite well. Perhaps I have been preparing myself for it all along. Of course, now I have finals and the end of school to occupy my mind, but in a week and a half or so, it will all be over, and I will once again be thrown helplessly into the world of long work hours, hot sweltering days, some sort of guilt-ridden hassle over family vacation, sunbathing, numerous lonely weekends, a diet, two weddings, and basic boredom. I have an intolerable urge to take the train ’cross-country, see all that land appear and fade away before my eyes. Thomas Wolfe loved the train – I could sit in it and write for three days straight. But who has $278?”

May 27, 1974 [age 18]:

“I saw ‘American Graffiti’ for the third time last night, along with ‘Pete ‘n Tillie,’ some mediocre comedy with Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett. Dad treated; I drove the whole family, squeezed uncomfortably in my little car. I love ‘American Graffiti,’ love its music and its characters and its overwhelming nostalgia. But nobody in the family liked it! How is that possible?”

Lonesome traveler

Lonesome traveler

A few years ago I was staying at a small family-run hotel in Lucca, Italy, near my grandparents’ birthplace. The daughter, Giulia, had just spent a few days across the border in Switzerland and was entertaining her brother Giovanni with an anecdote about a Swiss train station. They were howling with laughter. Giulia apparently had been waiting on the platform when the Swiss passengers around her suddenly grew enraged, barking angrily at their watches. It was practically an insurrection.

The reason for all the anguish?

The train was 3 minutes late.

Giovanni, Giulia, and their mom in Lucca, Italy

The cultural difference between these two countries, adjacent to each other, is astounding, and I understood the Italians’ amusement. In Italy, structure and punctuality mean nothing. It’s perfectly normal, for example, for restaurants to open 45 minutes later than their posted hours; no one bats an eye. Highway lane lines are “merely suggestions.” And the train system is seemingly unconcerned about timetables.

The Swiss, on the other hand, make some of the world’s best watches. They are just . . . precise.

Despite my Italian last name, large nose, and tendency to weep without provocation, I fear that I inherited the lion’s share of my DNA from my Germanic mother. I crave order and precision and am happiest when I am organizing something. Please don’t throw me a curve ball. Inconsistency terrifies me.

Except when I’m on a train.


Normally I don’t let much time elapse between Amtrak rides, but it had been three years since my last trip when I decided to hop aboard the California Zephyr in September. It would be my usual ’cross-country trip to Maryland, with a train change in Chicago. But this time it was in the middle of COVID.

I’d been extremely careful throughout the pandemic. I rarely went anywhere, depended on food deliveries, saw friends and family mainly through Zoom calls, and had a mask glued to my face.

But by September 2021, I was vaccinated and the omicron variant had not yet emerged. In Baltimore it was going to be hot as blue blazes, so I knew I could eat my meals outdoors. And my friends out there were all perfectly fine with my getting off a long-distance train and dragging all kinds of germs with me. So I decided to take a chance and finally use my twice-postponed ticket.


It is impossible, on Amtrak, to be Swiss. It demands, instead, that you be Italian. On a train, you have to roll (sometimes literally) with each moment. The Amtrak experience requires the utmost in patience and flexibility. Nothing is consistent; very little is predictable.

Consider, for example, the temperature on board, which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with the time of year. On this trip, the conditions in my room ranged hourly from sauna to meat locker. Most of the time it was like the frozen Yukon in there. I had brought a light fleece on board, but it was no protection against the frigid air blasting from the ceiling vent, despite my moving the vent lever to the “closed” position. (By the way, the sleepers also have useless “temperature controls” that have not worked since Jimmy Carter was President. Yes, some of these cars are nearly 50 years old.) I ended up stuffing an entire box of Kleenex (something useful that Amtrak actually provides!) in between the vent slats. That method helped mitigate the arctic conditions until nighttime, when the room inexplicably became an inferno. And on it went.

My DIY heating system

The in-room showers are not all that functional, either. One prevailing problem is that the water drains so slowly that it accumulates and begins leaking under the bottom of the door into the room itself. On this trip the drainage was virtually nonexistent, and to make matters worse, the waterstripping was loose and flapping. So I had ONE MINUTE to shower before the water rose the inch it needed to start pouring out under the door. There was no time for shampoo, let alone conditioner. It was a lightning-fast cleansing.

Speaking of hygiene, tooth brushing in a sleeper requires a great deal of physical flexibility. The attendants come around and pull down the beds in each room fairly early (say, about 7 p.m., when some people are still at dinner!), so you have to perform your evening ablutions after the bed is down. In room A (the smallest room, which I unluckily landed) the sink and bed are right next to each other, and I measured the distance between mattress and sink to be precisely two inches. There’s obviously no way to stand in that small space, so you must kneel unsteadily on the bouncing bed if you dare brush your teeth!

I’m telling you, trains are not for sissies. Sleeping can be a challenge, and the nighttime ride can be really rough through places like Nebraska. The tracks have gotten worse over the years, and it’s not unusual to be whipsawed back and forth all night while dealing with the sensation that the leaning, thrashing, jouncing train is going to imminently fly off the tracks.

Finally, to top it off, the Amtrak timetables are merely suggestions. In part because Amtrak shares its tracks with freight lines, the trains are rarely on time. I can usually count on being a couple of hours late into Chicago. But I’ve been lucky. This winter, I heard, was especially rough on passengers. Trains were up to 19 hours late. Imagine the Swiss having to deal with THAT! Insurrection City!


It’s possible that some of these challenges can be addressed in the near future. The recently passed federal infrastructure bill includes $66 billion in rail funding, including $22 billion for Amtrak.

Before the pandemic hit, the system was carrying more than 30 million passengers a year. Train travel is 46 percent more energy efficient than car travel and 34 percent more efficient than travel by air.

But Amtrak has been chronically underfunded, and it needs help. Its aging fleet is falling apart; tracks are decrepit; bridges, tunnels, and stations are crumbling; and there are shortages of machinists, electricians, train operators, and other staff.

Hurricane Katrina washed out many of the tracks along the Gulf Coast, especially between New Orleans and Orlando, but freight rail companies that control the tracks (despite Amtrak’s paying them fees) have stonewalled about rebuilding – for the last 16 years! Big cities like Nashville and Phoenix need passenger rail. And people in rural areas throughout the country, especially in the Midwest, depend upon trains as a low-cost, essential mode of travel, especially to locations with no bus service.

In my view, a great country needs a comprehensive, up-to-date rail network. It’s part of our lifeblood.


Because of federal TSA rules, there was a mask mandate on Amtrak. (Sleeper car passengers were allowed to remove our masks only in our room and only if the door was shut.) I was happy about the policy; I’m older and fall at the higher end of the risk aversion scale. I also didn’t want to infect any of my friends waiting for me at the end of the line.

The beleaguered Amtrak staff meant business about the mask mandate and served competently as enforcers. But no one can police an entire train every second. I went out to the observation car on the first day of my trip, partly just in hopes of getting warm. Everyone was masked, and I settled in. But about two minutes later, a 10-year-old sprite named Brandy with oversized glasses and a blond ponytail tapped me on the shoulder, plopped herself next to me, and announced that she loved the purple color of my fleece. Her mask was down completely under her chin and she yakked with me for 20 minutes about the trip she was taking with her mom, who was “between jobs.” It sounded like the family had recently split up, and Brandy seemed wobbly about telling me where she lived. She pointed out that trains blow their horns going around bends; I was appreciative of the information and mentioned that I loved the sound of the train whistle, even in the middle of the night when we roll through towns. She emphasized how much she loved the dark tunnels we were passing through and told me that she wished there were such a thing as an underwater tunnel for trains. Well, hang on to your hat, I said, because the Bay Area’s BART trains actually go under San Francisco Bay. Wow, was that a thrilling revelation!

How sad, though, that all the while she spoke I was concerned that her little mouth, which was two feet from me and into which she was shoveling barbecued potato chips, could spew dangerous COVID germs my way. Never mind that I’d taken all the precautions I could. How much paranoia must we endure? I decided that I wouldn’t let fear prevail and that I would continue entertaining this tiny child who was probably going through some tough times.

But shortly after she finally scampered away, a group of young men came in, none of whom was in mask compliance. Despite an otherwise empty car, they hovered right next to me, and one of them was coughing like a barking seal. Nope, I thought. I decided to skitter back to the meat locker that was my room.

That was my last trip to the observation car, and the last time I left my room, other than to lumber off the train at the infrequent station stops, where smokers pulled out their Marlboros while I breathed in some mountain air and made sure that my legs still functioned.


Despite my being an introvert, on past trips I relished being forced to sit with other passengers at meal times. Unless you’re traveling in a foursome, you’re asked to eat with strangers. Small talk is easy; the diners all have stories to tell about where and why they’re traveling. But during COVID we were allowed to sit only with our traveling companions. So it would have been just me alone at a table, which seemed pointless. Instead I opted to have my meals delivered to my room.

Amtrak’s spectacular “Signature Railroad French Toast”

With very little human interaction for multiple days, I tried to make the best of it. I would write, read (The Fran Lebowitz Reader was a good distraction), and listen to my superbly curated (if I must say so myself) train playlist. On the other hand, I also had way too much time to obsess about my imperfections and battle with my regrets.

In my case, lengthy self-reflection reminds me of 10,000 moments that I wish I could take back, when I had been thoughtless or ignorant or some combination of both. One of the films I had downloaded for my trip was the documentary Crip Camp, which was a stunning look at the difficult and courageous lives of people with disabilities. The film follows some young disabled activists and covers their 28-day occupation of federal offices in San Francisco in April 1977. That remarkable sit-in helped pressure the Carter administration to sign civil rights legislation for the disabled, which led to changes like the installation of ramps and sidewalk curb cuts and wider restroom stalls. It’s difficult to imagine a world in which these things didn’t exist and had to be fought for.

I was a student at San Francisco State University in the late 1970s, and on nice days I would climb the stairs to the roof of the Student Union to eat my lunch. One day the roof was suddenly closed off, and the explanation was that students in wheelchairs didn’t have access. I remember being angry and feeling that the able-bodied were being punished. It wasn’t until I saw this movie that I realized that the roof closure was likely the direct result of the 1977 sit-in. Without the closure, apathy like mine would have kept disabled people from enjoying what I enjoyed. How could I have been so thoughtless and ignorant?

Yep, that was one of my 10,000 regrets, and I had lots of time to think about it on that lonely train.


I was lucky, though, to be entertained by the witty commentary of our terrific veteran Zephyr conductor Brad Swartzwelter. Brad is a wordsmith, philosopher, musician, and teacher of history, geology, and railroad lore. Sometimes when trains are stopped for who knows what reason, he takes out his guitar and plays requests. At one point, as we were passing through a particularly unappealing section of the Colorado landscape, he announced that we were looking at “the handsome industrial underside of Grand Junction.”

Between Brad’s announcements, and with so much solitary time on my hands, I would watch the entire country roll by and imagine all the scenes in the great American play that was taking place outside the windows, in the fields, on open highways, in warehouses, behind closed doors. Somewhere workers were packing up fruit; somewhere activists held up their signs; somewhere a child was learning to read; somewhere a songwriter searched for a chord; somewhere a cook was rolling tortillas; somewhere a trucker headed for home; somewhere a couple was falling in love; somewhere a doctor had just saved a life.

“The traveler can abandon himself to the rich pastime of window-gazing,” wrote the photographer Walker Evans. “Along the paths of railroads, the country is in semi-undress. You can see some of the anatomy of its living. A backyard with its citizen poking into a rumble seat for a rusted toolbox; an intent group of boys locked in a sandlot ballgame; a fading factory wall; a lone child with a cart. Out on the plains, the classic barns and the battalions of cabbages. . . . One fleeting landscape can flush the mind with the images a child feels with train trips: waking at dawn to see a cool cornfield cut by a rutted road; a farmer in his wagon drawn up at the crossing. . . . He who travels by rail over the lesser lines of the U.S.A. clangs and shunts straight into his own childhood. . . . . A well-sooted depot today is what railroad stations have always been – focus and embodiment of heartbreak; citadel of boredom; and withal, portal of renewal.”


I’m filled with sadness every time I begin my return trip home from the East Coast. It’s partly because I’m leaving my friends behind, but also because I never know whether this will be my last train ride. In youth our lives are full of hope and adrenaline. But as we get on in years, each experience is filled with poignancy. We never know whether it’s the final time we’ll be doing something or seeing someone. Every special moment for me now is a combination of appreciation and angst.

I suppose there are a lot of lessons to be learned on trains. How to be flexible, for one thing. How to be socially engaged with all kinds of people (usually). Or (on this trip) how to be savagely alone.

This pandemic ride was a desolate one. It tested my durability and I frequently questioned my decision to make the trip.

On the other hand, I wish I were back on board – right now.


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.

January 6, 1974 [age 18]: [Note: another one that merits a violin]

“There is a funny kind of sadness clouding my days now. It’s the nightmarish feeling you get when you lose something very precious to you, which you know is irrecoverable. I am losing, slowly but very distinctly, the magic feelings which have been a special part of my childhood, and with these feelings goes my childhood itself. I am perched on the threshold of adulthood, yet to enter would only tear brutally away an essential part of me, for no matter how old I may live to be, I will remain a child forever, at heart and in spirit. To wrench myself away from the magic song of youth and innocence which rings within me would be like death itself. Yet time flows on, forever forward, and I die a thousand deaths watching it carry my magic world away from me.”

January 13, 1974 [age 18]:

“[My parents were out], so after a dinner dominated by a game of TV trivia and then Password, [my brother] Marc went off to play poker, and [my friend] Jeanne and [my sister] Janine and I, in a burst of wild spontaneity, drove down to Speedee to buy whipped cream so we could have a cream fight. The fight lasted all of 45 seconds, because the cream ran out too fast, and I escaped untouched while the other two were just gooey with it. Then I cajoled the boys into playing ‘sardines,’ a form of hide-and-seek, and together with a mob of little kids we ran screaming up and down the street, in pitch black and cold, until midnight, when we all broke up and came home to clean up before the parents returned. At one o’clock or so I finally drifted off to sleep thinking about the peck orders in chickens.”

January 9, 1974 [age 18]:

“Philosophizing is absurd; all we can ever be certain of is that we really know nothing. Often I think it is a terrible scourge to do any amount of thinking. Analysis only leads to a heavy heart, I have concluded.”

January 15, 1974 [age 18]:

“The day began well and ended terribly. After my break I nonchalantly threw all my books and my purse into the car and locked it, and I walked off to the Shakespearean Festival, where I had a great time. But then, the shock – I walked merrily back to the car and saw the wind wing jimmied open and the car broken into and my new purse, my beloved space pen, a huge amount of cash ($45), my picture of Wayne Yamada, and all my cards (driver’s license, etc.) GONE. I drove home angry, well, raging at the world but broke into anguished sobs when I told Mom. This is like a nightmare to me. How dumb I had been! O, these foolish deeds of ours that are irrevocable.”

January 19, 1974 [age 18]:

“I’m home all alone again this weekend, as the family has gone up to Clear Lake. There is a wonderful, almost ecstatic sensation I get when I am free to do as I please. I can sleep away the morning, eat frozen dinners, listen to the Beatles or Bobby Dylan full blast until long, long into the night, and sing to my receptive make-believe audience. And I can sleep nude!”

January 21, 1974 [age 18]:

“I wrote furiously, like an absolute demon, to finish my final poetry paper today. At 1:30 or so, Mom and I rushed down to school and I ran in to hand it over to Dr. Elsie Leach as Mom circled the block. Afterwards we went to all three used record stores, where I bought myself a used Johnny Rivers album for 25 cents (plus tax) and a new Three Dog Night album, ‘Golden Biscuits.’ Bruce and I had sat out in his car, in the dark, listening to his 8-track of it on New Year’s Eve, and I remember getting an awful lot of romantic ideas from that situation. So now I have something to remember December 31, 1973, by.”

January 24, 1974 [age 18]:

“Ted Morrow – how many times I have wanted to sit down and write a story about him! [He was my neighbor and friend.] He is one of the funniest, kindest young men the world has ever seen. The past two nights we’ve been playing pinochle. I look back on the years we have spent growing up together and we have had a strange affinity. It seems that we haven’t said that many words to each other since the day we met in my undeveloped backyard, he ten years old and I nine, he with poison oak all over his face. We always played together – every sport, every street game, every board game – yet were also distant in many ways because we didn’t talk much. I think we have always loved each other, and always known it. Now that we are older we finally joke and laugh, and someday one of us will leave the other behind, but I’ll always remember him.”

January 31, 1974 [age 18]:

“I’ve dealt with some bizarre people while working at Rexall. One lady slapped her prescription on the counter and told Mr. Jordahl [the pharmacist] to fill it correctly or she’d throw him in jail. And Mrs T., who made us go to Lucky’s and buy her some groceries to deliver to her house along with her prescription! And Mrs. V., who threatened Mike with an umbrella when he made a delivery to her house. Then there was the lady who raged for two hours over a 29-cent box of tinsel which was just like the 19-cent sale tinsel we had advertised but had run out of – she started yelling that she was going to call the Better Business Bureau. I guess one of the interesting aspects of working in a drugstore is all the people to whom I would like to scream, ‘Ah, shove it!’ ”

In search of purpose

In search of purpose

And now I spend my days in search of a woman we called purpose
And if I ever pass back through her town I’ll stay

Lately I’ve been in a writing funk. In 2021 I penned only three blogs: a story about a woman who bicycled from Chicago to San Francisco in 1897; a retread of a previous Fourth of July poem; and a lightweight tale about my phobia of vendors’ booths.

For someone calling herself a blogger, that’s just pitiful.

So what the heck is going on? Has COVID isolation simply made me sick to death of myself? Have I run out of ideas? Am I an empty, inert husk with absolutely nothing to say?


That’s what I was glumly thinking while I drove myself to CookieFest 2021 in Sacramento last month.

Every December I get together with half a dozen women who worked for the same San Francisco firm – The Shorenstein Company – in the late 1980s and have been reuniting annually for 32 years to exchange homemade cookies and hometown stories. Walter Shorenstein was a wealthy investor and real estate magnate who at one time owned or managed 25 percent of the commercial office space in San Francisco. The CookieFest ladies were all young then, but in those days you could be an artist or a poor student or an office clerk and survive easily and happily in a pluralist town that also sported an awfully big share of multimillionaire civic giants like Walter. I never worked for the man and in fact would not know him if I bumped into him on the street (which would be a major shock; he’s been dead for 11 years). But for whatever reason, I was invited into the CookieFest fold about 25 years ago and honestly can’t remember why. Maybe it’s just a “San Francisco oldtimer” thing.

Or perhaps it’s my world-famous molasses cookies.

Anyway, this year I was feeling a bit empty and pointless until one of the ladies mentioned my teenage diary entries that I post weekly on Facebook and attach to the ends of my blog entries. I had been considering stopping the diary posts, frankly, but the women were chortling and reading the posts aloud and going on about how my time-capsule diaries bring them a burst of delight every Thursday.

I had no idea. To me the posts are naïve and silly but to others they’re refreshingly honest and funny. They apparently splash rainbow paint on people’s gray COVID mornings.

Here’s the thing: Sometimes we don’t even know when we’ve given someone a gift.


One of the CookieFest women has told me, more than a few times, that she is still looking for her purpose. I could probably rattle off a dozen ways in which I know her kindness has helped me and others, which would be purpose enough, but I don’t know whether it would make a difference to her. So many of us feel lacking if we haven’t found a grand raison d’être or racked up accomplishments that have reverberated around the world.

A few days after I retired I decided to fulfill my lifelong adult goal of sitting in a coffee shop and reading, without a schedule and with nowhere to be. I walked up to my neighborhood Peet’s Coffee lugging an 800-page(!) book called Chief. It’s the autobiography of former California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, for whom I (indirectly) worked. One of the appendices is a list of the Chief’s judicial offices, memberships, awards, lectures, publications, and noteworthy cases. The list goes on for an eternity – pages and pages. It suddenly occurred to me that I was coasting into old age with absolutely nothing to show for it. It made me wonder: what achievements could even possibly be inscribed on my gravestone? “She, uh, was a bureaucrat. Nothing of note.”

But perhaps, for most of us who aren’t Chief Justice George, our purpose has been fulfilled incrementally, all along the way, by the good we do that we don’t even know about.

Perhaps our value in life is not at all based upon scale. It’s based upon character and decency, surely, but also upon the ways in which our words and actions – slight as they might seem – improve the lives of others.

We may not sport a grand résumé, but the effects of our benevolent gestures can ripple exponentially. And silently.


Sometimes I think about all the people who’ve lifted and sustained me in the smallest of ways through their words. People who talked me off a ledge, advised me against doing something dumb, helped me through heartbreak, boosted my confidence, nudged me in a direction that almost imperceptibly changed my orbit for the better. I can still remember every word they said to me – in some cases decades ago, in other cases just yesterday. Yet they have no idea.

Someone I’d just met gave me a book that got me through a devastating time. Someone suggested I apply for a job I felt was over my head. Someone gifted me with drum lessons despite my self-conscious resistance. Someone offered my band its first real gig when my mates and I had no idea what we were doing. Someone I didn’t know lent me money to buy a Springsteen ticket and ended up being my first love. Someone unknowingly called me at just the right moment, on just the right day, when I was about to mentally fly apart. A stranger with absolutely no ulterior motive told me I had nice eyes. A couple of people strongly suggested I start a blog. A friend once told me I was an idiot and was right.


Not long ago I was walking the neighborhood when I needed to cross the street to avoid some asphalt work. The morning fog had been heavy, and one of the workers told me that the road was really slippery and that he would help me across. For a millisecond I imagined myself defiantly pushing back against his conception of me as a little old lady needing help across a street. But I relented and took his arm, ultimately relieved that I had acquiesced. I mean, the street was indeed really slippery. And after all, who is to say that without his assistance I wouldn’t have taken a nosedive, ended up in the hospital, developed sepsis, and died?

A few years ago we had dinner with some neighbors at an Italian restaurant in North Beach. Soon after we sat down I realized, much to my horror, that I’d left my purse in the car. (What else is new?) Immediately our neighbor stood up to go retrieve my purse from the parking garage. He was willing to miss out on 20 minutes of Manhattans and merriment just to protect me from having to navigate the dark garage alone. (And I do mean “navigate,” because everyone knows I wouldn’t have been able to find the car.) Why should he go and not me? Well, he’s a tall ex-D.A. and not, I suppose, as easy a prey. And what if he hadn’t offered? Who is to say that I wouldn’t have ended up in the morgue?

I joke (sort of), but we really don’t know, do we, how many times we’ve been led away from a bad turn by a seemingly innocuous act of grace?


I can think of only one instance when people’s good intentions had an adverse effect on me. It was when they inadvertently convinced me that my plane was going down.

I’m just one of many folks who suffer from fear of flying (aerophobia). Nothing awful has happened to me in the air, but someone once told me that a disabled plane takes a full two minutes to plummet out of the sky, and although I have no idea whether it’s true, I can’t get that terror out of my head. Anyhoo, a few years ago we were preparing to visit Julie’s family in Kentucky, and the night before the flight, an unusually large number of people called me – some of whom otherwise never spoke to me on the phone. And for whatever reason, many of these people ended up saying “I love you” to me. Now, I am a sentimental person, but typically I don’t run around saying “I love you” willy-nilly to others. I mean, it’s really kind of rare. Yet on this night, I heard it over and over again. It made no sense. Something was terribly wrong. I became unswervingly convinced that the plane was going to go down and this would be my very last night on earth.

All those nice people were unknowingly contributing to my horror and dread!

It took all of Julie’s powers of persuasion to drag me to the airport the next day. I think I may have had to take an Ativan. (Or, as one friend calls it, “Vitamin A.”)


Last week, Stephen Colbert mentioned that when he was at his dying mother’s bedside, his sister started to sing the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” When Stephen joined in on harmony, his mother asked if she was already in heaven, hearing her two children sing to her so beautifully. Colbert was interviewing Elvis Costello as he told the story, and he thanked Costello for having browbeaten him into learning the harmony part to that song many years ago. Elvis’ encouragement had, many years afterward, assisted in the heavenly passing of Colbert’s mother. Costello had had no idea.


In the Fall of 1962, the San Francisco Giants were playing the New York Yankees in the World Series. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. LaCosse, bless her heart, brought a large floor-standing radio to school and tuned in. (Yes, kids, the World Series was sometimes played during the day in those bygone years.) I was 6 years old but already a major fan by then, so I was ecstatic. The Series went to Game 7, and the Yanks were winning 1-0 in the bottom of the 9th with two outs. The Giants, though, had a couple of baserunners, so what happened next was likely going to decide the game. The great Willie McCovey came up to bat and absolutely scorched a line drive towards Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson. It looked like a sure Giants victory. But the ball sank from topspin, and Richardson made the catch. Except for those few feet, the Giants would have taken the World Series, and I would not have had to wait more than half a lifetime for the SF Giants’ first World Series title.

I think Charlie Brown said it best:

These kinds of scenes happen in sports untold times a year. We fans live for them – for the adrenaline, the elevation of hope, the miracle. But in sports we get to immediately see the results of the slightest happenstance. In life, we don’t, do we? We might be able to later identify the moments that have altered the course of our own lives. But most of the time we have no idea when we’ve changed someone else’s.


Now that old age has snuck up on me, and I still grapple with my own purpose, I can only hope I’ve made a difference once or twice myself along the way.

For the rest of you, I can tell you this: most of you have made a valuable impact on my life with a single word or gesture. A word or gesture that you yourselves would rate a 1 on a numerical scale, but I would rate a 10. That’s how much the simplest of our interactions have meant.

You, my friends, have nudged me gently, silently, often unknowingly, onto new trajectories, and you’ve made a cosmic difference.


I’m going to try to shed my writer’s block in 2022. I need to stop sitting around and hamstringing myself with melancholy. Whatever my purpose is, it can be achieved only by living.

I need to stop burning daylight.

[Opening quote from The Avett Brothers, “The Once and Future Carpenter,” The Carpenter, 2012.]

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.

October 6, 1973 [age 17]: [another oh-so-dramatic entry]

“Falling in love is all I think about. Day in, day out, minute after minute, the relentless, incessant torture. The heartbeat at the sight of a passing stranger. The lonely Friday nights. The overheard conversations. The lonely theaters. The people gone away and never forgotten. The longing. The ebb and flow of unfulfilled desires. The over-emphasized friendships. When, O when, will this awesome solitude cease and time not be so lonely?”

October 26, 1973 [age 17]:

“I won another radio contest! It’s called the KYA “Give-a-Shirt” contest, in which at a given signals everyone calls in, and they take a certain caller, and that person goes on the radio to be told what he or she has won. It’s always a shirt PLUS some great prize, nearly always $50 or $100 or a motorcycle. On impulse I called in and was the seventh caller from San Jose, so was really, really excited, knowing I’d get the money, at least, or if I was really lucky, a motorcycle, which would be my dream come true. So I waited breathlessly, could barely talk, and on the radio he said, ‘KYA gives a shirt – and then some – to Paula Bocciardi of San Jose. Know what else you got, Paula?’ ‘I have no idea.’ . . . tension . . . ‘A Proctor-Silex BLENDER!’ My heart just fell to my knees. Why on earth would anyone want a blender???”

November 12, 1973 [age 17]:

“I’m pretty sure I’m getting a surprise party because [my friend] Jeanne and [my sister Janine] have been whispering a lot. But I’m enormously worried, because what if there is dancing? I don’t know how I can prevent it, though. I overheard a parental conversation at noon today which led me to believe that the party is going to be at 6:00 on Sunday, when I get home from work. That means I’ll be in a dress – yick! Isn’t this terrible? I am really and truly ashamed of myself for not appreciating everyone’s efforts. But I tacked up a list on Mom’s bulletin board so she’ll be able to tell all the guests what gifts I want.”

November 15, 1973 [age 17]:

“Jeanne was in town today and I suggested that we go to Uncle John’s Pancake House because I know of an All-the-Pancakes-You-Can-Eat special for 79 cents. We didn’t realize how far it was until we began walking. It was MILES – 15 long blocks! O, so far! We took the bus part of the way back because I could barely walk after eating 16 huge pancakes.”

November 17, 1973 [age 17]:

“Ack – I know my [18th birthday] surprise party is going to be tomorrow! Problems: 1) feigning surprise, 2) my response to the gifts – I’m always bursting with gratitude inside but have trouble with physical manifestation, and 3) dancing? But then, I don’t know what boys could possibly be there because I don’t really know any!”

November 19, 1973 [age 18]:

“Today was my 18th birthday. Two things of note happened: 1) I went in to donate blood. I’ve always wanted to, but I also wanted to get my free Herfy’s hamburger (given to the first 500 donors). Besides, it made me feel good and useful (and a bit heroic). But after they put the needle in, seven minutes went by and my blood wasn’t coming out fast enough. So two nurses twisted, turned, and shoved the needle around until they gave up and said it wasn’t worth my time. Always a failure! At least I got the hamburger, though. 2) On the way home I went straight to our firehouse to register to vote. I had totally forgotten that I’d have to choose a political party, and when he asked me my intended affiliation, I hurriedly blurted out ‘Republican’ but now I’m not too sure.”

November 25, 1973 [age 18]:

“All I did today was play poker over at Ted’s house. Most of my money was thrown away on a game called Black Mariah, which is full of excitement and suspense but is a game that only the foolish play because it requires so much money. I lost over $1!”

November 30, 1973 [age 18]:

“I don’t think I’ve described my classes yet. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 7:30 I am bored to death by my Criminal Law teacher and his long gray hair because 1) his voice is garbled; it burbles as tough there is some thick liquid in his throat, and he pauses continuously between phrases, and 2) he looks at the clock unconsciously every 5 to 10 seconds. I write the lyrics to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon songs in my notebooks to pass the time. My only other class MWF is at 8:30, entitled ‘Critical Writing: Poetry.’ The teacher is brilliant, and she is not boring, but she is old – probably close to 50 – and saggy and wears gray clothing, heavy shoes, and low-hanging necklaces. Her hair sets like a lid upon her head. She talks with perfect diction, which annoys me because she contorts her mouth into awful grimaces and laboriously spews forth each word. And she is also extremely arrogant. I love poetry, though, and listen intently to the discussions, although I never contribute. My first class on T and Th mornings is Psychology with 500 other kids in one of my favorite buildings, Morris Dailey. Professor Rutherford looks rather like a young Mr. Healy [my high school senior English teacher], but he possesses far superior steadfastness and virility. He is a very intelligent man and so interesting that even his 75-minute classes do not drag for me (which is quite a feat, since I normally lose interest after half an hour). I also have Shakespeare. The teacher questions us orally all the time, which I hate because I usually never read the play until the last minute (like during my break before class); in fact, many is the time I’ve cut class so as not to be embarrassed. My other class on Tuesdays and Thursday is Environmental Studies. Two professors teach: Dr. Harvey, whom I enjoy very much, and Ms. Pitts (I call her Miss Nancy), who speaks at kindergarten level and makes terribly feeble attempts at humor. A real drip!”

December 22, 1973 [age 18]:

“Well, we are up at Grammy’s house now [near L.A.], and I am infused with my typical Christmas elation. I slept about 90% of the day, and then I had three glasses of champagne for dinner. I was in the living room, alone, in the dark, listening to Johnny Rivers through the headphones, when Grampy came in and asked why I was listening to headphones when everyone could hear the stereo loud and clear out in the kitchen. Oops! I guess I hadn’t realized that the main speakers were still on. It was so nice, though; I was half-asleep and the music was like a dream in my head. It now seems, for me, that there is no other way to listen to music than while you’re full of booze.”

December 25, 1973 [age 18]:

“I’ve been wondering what in the world I was getting from Mom and Dad for Christmas, and I was really hoping that I might even be so fortunate as to get a car. I guess I was disappointed, then, that there was no nice new shiny blue sportscar awaiting me, with tiny seats and an AM/FM radio. I had my hopes up that now I could move to the dorms because I’d have a means of transportation. But I’d been sort of warned because [my sister] Janine had told me that my gift was worth about $25, and for that price I’d have been getting an AWFULLY cheap automobile. Anyway, I DID get two nice gifts. One was the Beatles 4-record set that I wanted, and the other was a really nice book on American Literature with photos and all. So please ignore my greed or whatever this appears to be; I really got a lot of joy out of buying presents for others and I am not one big lump of selfishness.”

December 31, 1973 [age 18]: [Ed.’s note: Oh my God with the drama again!]

“I suppose that I shall try to put this year into perspective. I still believe in Jonathon [Livingston Seagull] with all my heart, but the ideas in the book – levels of consciousness, the soul, transcending, freedom of thought – those ideas seem so naïve and phony to me now. They’re not – ah, they’re as beautiful as I ever thought they were – but they’re idealistic and my idealism, though it has far from disappeared, has waned considerably. My desire for a ‘love’ this year has failed to manifest. With the terrible NEED I have for human affection, I often wonder how I survive without the romantic relationship I crave. I’m like a thirsty man in the desert. At least one occurrence was of major import this year, though: I got a job. It is quite a nice job [drugstore clerk], and the sense of communion between the employees helps. I love the customers as well, much as I gripe about them. I can surmise that being employed has made me grow up quite a bit. Certainly it has given me a great deal of experience (not to mention money). But anyway, here I am – lost, a little lonely, a baby. If 1974 is better than ’73 I shall be content, because this year has brought me little more than myriad repetitive days with a few personal losses thrown in. My soul is raging endlessly; I am so restless, so full of a terrible ache for a grand adventure, so haunted by unfulfilled dreams of a better life. I have so much to be thankful for: a good family, excellent health, fair intelligence, a decent moral sense, a clear conscious. So why this ravening hunger for something more? The world turns while my confused young spirit goes unnoticed.”

February 11, 1974 [age 18]:

“O, oh, I cannot even DESCRIBE how terrific Bobby Dylan’s concert was tonight. He sang something like 19 songs, most of them with The Band. Even The Band’s solos were nice. We were so close to Bobby Dylan that we could see him sweat. They were $7.50 seats, behind and to the side of him. At first, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed – Dylan was singing too fast, and he ended every line on a high note, and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe,’ one of my favorites, didn’t sound at all the same. But everyone was so together: kids wearing jeans and smoking dope and knowing that Dylan was ‘the greatest’! Jeanne and I drank beer. Oh, TONS of beer – tons and tons. First we had large beers and then we ordered a bucket of beer! So when the end came rolling around we were quite buzzed – and then he sang “Like a Rolling Stone’ and all the kids spilled out into the aisles. We gave him such an ovation that he did three finales. I came home ecstatic and flying on a cloud – he had been TEN Paul Simons!”

February 21, 1974 [age 18]:

“For a long time now I have been trying to determine how my own egotism differs from others’, for I could sense my egotism and yet also sense that I could not be classified with the arrogant people. A couple of days ago I came very near to the answer. I love to have my journals read, to be thought of as kind and humanitarian, and to be loved. But I don’t BELIEVE that I am a writer, or that I’m selfless, or that I am capable of being loved. My inferiority complex, then, dictates that ‘You’re in actuality a nothing, but you WANT people to think you’re great, and you let them think so, however much in ignorance they may be.’ ”

February 25, 1974 [age 18]:

“Oh, I am so exceedingly depressed. My drama professor read my thesis paragraph out loud in class today as a perfect example of a TERRIBLE introductory paragraph and what not to write. Man. I wish I had a car.”

March 1, 1974 [age 18]:

“I feel like I live in a dream because I live entirely in my mind, dreaming away in books, writing, or music. Thus my lack of practical knowledge, my inability to cook, sew, shop, or find my way around. [Ed.’s note: nothing much has changed.] And the more serious matter of personal relationships, not knowing how to project myself to other people. So, to cure the problem, I’m going to force myself into the swinging life.”

February 27, 1974 [age 18]:

“As Jean Chiaramonte and I were walking sleepily back to her car after school this afternoon (we’re in somewhat of a car pool), she and I were stopped by a man with a tape recorder. It turned out that he was from radio KXRX and was the ‘Man on the Street’ who roams around asking people various questions. Well, we were both excited – I mean, ME, singled out? I had half-assumed that all such programs were contrived. Anyway, I was at a total loss for intelligent thoughts – he asked if I thought we should limit the price increase in milk and I said no, that with inflation we’ve got to expect everything to go up, or some such bull. And he also asked if (relating this to Patricia Hearst) I felt that kidnappers should be sentenced to death if they did not kill their hostages and I said no, their sentences should be stiffened but the death penalty was too severe. It was really a common, NOTHING answer – I think I was a little shook up from the unexpectedness of the situation and the microphone in my face – so I didn’t expect to be on the radio at 5:30. I wasn’t. Ah, but I was [on] this morning at 6:40 A.M. when I’m sure all of San Jose heard me. It was the stupid milk question. Oh, well, so much for fame and glory.”

March 3, 1974 [age 18]:

“I hopped over to Santa Cruz today. Jeanne [a friend at UCSC] and I went back to our favorite private beach again, and built a fire and cooked hamburgers in little tin pie plates with barbecue sauce and cheese and ate them on English muffins. Then we walked back along a railroad track and ate again in an old hotel in our jeans with a bunch of elegantly-dressed people, none of whom were under 60. We had a talk in which she persuaded me to buy a car rather than move into the dorms. Finally, we saw ‘Cinderella Liberty’ and ‘Play It Again, Sam,’ realizing too late that we would see the last movie end right after the last bus came by the theater, so we ended up taking a TAXI home. A taxi! The first time I’d ever ridden in a taxi! It was a wonderful night!”

March 6, 1974 [age 18]:

“I’ve been doing a great deal of want-ad searching for cars. It has been awfully discouraging – I must expect to pay $2,000 minimum, and I have only $1,100 in the bank. I don’t want a box – I’d love a sleek, cool model – but Toyotas and Datsuns appear to be the cheapest and most economical in terms of gas. So tonight we went out car-hunting. I looked at a Datsun, 1972, 17,000 miles, $2,100, and when I drove it, it got up to only 20 to 25 mph FLOORED. I dropped the idea, understandably.”

March 7, 1974 [age 18]:

“O my God I have bought myself a car! I haven’t paid anything on it yet, of course, but have made arrangements to secure the loan and then transfer the pink slip tomorrow. It’s unbelievable – what a big decision I have made! And I’ve also decreased my chances of moving out to almost nothing. Oh, well, tomorrow I shall have my Toyota Corolla with its black racing stripes and its FM converter (which is the best part) and its 24 miles to the gallon and its automatic transmission. Ah, I have so many plans for it – Santa Cruz (possibly) next weekend, San Francisco, Monterey, tobogganing, even L.A. Jeanne will be shocked when she sees it. I have already bought CSUSJ decals for it. Tomorrow I shall drive away from the DMV in it and just cruise around town until it gets dark, maybe visiting a few friends to show off. O, I am so PROUD!”

March 10, 1974 [age 18]:

“It is almost pitiful to know that I had two papers and two plays to do this weekend and I did absolutely NOTHING. All morning I cleaned [my new] car out and washed it, all afternoon we went shopping for auto supplies, and all night we worked outside fixing up the car again. It looks great now – we put in a mirror and floor mats and a trash basket, filled the glove compartment, installed the FM converter (actually Bruce Schwegler did that), etc. But I still haven’t gotten any schoolwork done. Oh, but I love this car. Having something of my own, to love and cherish, till death do us . . . O, sweet car – sweet silver striped little Paula Bocciardi Toyota Corolla auto!”

March 15, 1974 [age 18]:

“All that sticks in my mind about today is the ‘dinner’ which I attempted to make. Alone, using the notebook which I have been slowly putting together, I managed to totally destroy an entire meal. First, the fish – the sole turned to absolute mush, so I gave it to the dog, and the crappies turned as hard as a brick. The [frozen] beans and spaetzle were fair but I heated them too long, so there were little brown pieces intermixed with the rest. About 1/3 of the eggplant was edible, but the rest were not only half-burned, but soft in the middle and raw on the outside. The biscuits [my brother] Marc described as being made out of cement. The salad and chocolate chip cookies, at least, were delicious – but that’s because [my friend] Jeanne made both of them. It was my first full attempt at a dinner, and perhaps it will be my last for a long while.”

March 17, 1974 [age 18]:

“I was worried terribly about the gas situation. I wanted to be able to fill up completely on Saturday so that I would be sure to have enough for the remainder of the weekend. [Our local gas station owner] claimed that he would run dry by then, but it turned out that the gas line was surprisingly short. So I drove to Santa Cruz to see Jeanne. We went on the roller coaster down at the Boardwalk and were terrified out of our wits, to say the least. Then drove slowly to Aptos along the coast, very beautiful, and ate a most excellent meal there at Manuel’s after having sat out on Sea Cliff Beach reading old Archie and Romance comic books. Then over to the Aptos Twin Theaters and were an hour early so we spent the wait talking to each other in the visor mirror of my car about all the weird things we do. We saw ‘Serpico’ – a great movie! Then we walked out of the theater after 10 awful minutes of ‘Catch 22’. Finally we spent a little while reading each other’s journals, and I can say that her poetry is far superior to mine. What a glorious day.”

Booth Phobia

Booth Phobia

Are you perchance, dear reader, afraid of buttons? If so, you likely have koumpounophobia. Perhaps you’re frightened unnaturally by peanut butter, in which case your condition may be arachibutyrophobia. Or you may suffer from octophobia: fear of the figure 8. Some folks are clinically afraid of gravity. Or ferns. Or the color purple. Or, believe it or not, knees.

My fears – and believe me, I have multitudes – tend not to be established phobias. This blog has already chronicled two of them: my stresses related to gas stations and to salad bars. (See https://mondaymorningrail.com/2016/09/19/panic-at-the-pump/.)

But I’d like to talk about a third condition of mine: “Booth Phobia.”

Right off the bat, I have to admit that I neither coined the term “Booth Phobia” nor identified the condition. Those credits go to my friend Maryl, who recently confessed to the affliction when she told me about a book fair she once attended. After she wandered – at her peril, as it turned out – into a booth inhabited by a children’s book author, the author insisted on showing every page of her book about cats to an entrapped Maryl, who could only stand by, painfully feigning interest, while the woman leafed through the book at a snail’s pace, accompanying each dramatic turn of the page with a long explanation of her creative process and the backstory of each illustrated cat.


At any rate, as I was listening to this story I realized that I, too, suffer from Booth Phobia. In San Francisco we’re blessed with some terrific farmers’ markets as well as (before the pandemic, at least) any excuse for a street fair. What’s odd is that I absolutely love the idea of these events and want desperately to attend them and come away with a raft of sophisticated purchases. But once I arrive, I’m paralyzed with fear of approaching any of the booths.

I think it’s all about performance anxiety, which is something I have in spades.

For example, I began my adult recreational softball career at first base, which is the position I’d played throughout grammar and high school. I was comfortable there and good enough to be nicknamed “Stretch” in the 8th grade by an enthusiastic nun. But early in my Parks and Rec days, my team’s pitcher left one night in the middle of a game to use the bathroom. And she never returned. Ever again. (True story.) So the coach, faced with the task of replacing her mid-inning(!), hollered at me to abandon first base and take the mound, and from that point on I was the pitcher. Unfortunately my wildly successful debut as the team’s ace hurler did not necessarily extend to all of my starts. In that first game I’d had no time to fear that I would stink up the joint; the role was thrust upon me and it was an emergency situation. But my successive games were unpredictable because of my crippling performance anxiety. After all, when you’re a pitcher, all eyes are upon you. So I would famously make a visit to the bathroom before each game, sick with worry that I would cost us half a dozen runs on my helter-skelter walks. Which did happen once or twice. At the end of the season I received “The Pepto-Bismol Award” from my oh-so-funny teammates.

Later, during my early years playing drums in a rock band, my performance anxiety was so bad that my feet would shake like a rattlesnake. One helpful friend who worked for the San Francisco Symphony told me that some of the musicians would take a pill called Inderal before their concerts. Inderal is a beta-blocker that effectively slows one’s heart rate. Well, that revelation was all I needed to hear. I begged my doctor for a prescription and started popping those things like a corner junkie.

Anyway, the point is that my Booth Phobia is related.

As you all know, the artists at street fairs and the farmers (or their representatives) at farmers’ markets usually occupy their booths alongside their wares. And I’m deathly afraid of talking to these people.

The fears are two-fold: 1) that I will hurt their feelings if I don’t buy something, and 2) that I will demonstrate my stupidity by asking a clumsy question.

If – out of the corner of my eye – I see some art that interests me at a street fair, for example, there is no way that I will enter the kiosk and take my time looking around at the paintings. Typically there’s a hungry-looking artist sitting inside amongst his watercolors, and I can’t fathom the thought of assessing his stuff and then strolling out, as if his life’s work is lousy and meaningless. Can’t do it. Instead, I quickly breeze by the perimeter, cast a sidelong glance at the art, and go inside only if I am taken by something so strongly that I can’t possibly leave without buying it. And if I walk in and have some serious second thoughts, well, I buy the painting anyway.

Think about it. We aren’t normally forced to directly convey to painters, or jewelers, or photographers, or authors our judgment of their creations, except at a street or craft fair. We look at, and purchase, their work in galleries or bookstores or other places where the artists are not present. But in these booths, they can see our reactions and sense our judgment. I assume it must be an awkward situation for them, too. And I don’t want to be a cause of their pain!

As far as farmers’ markets go, I simply don’t know how to tell a good peach from a bad one. All I know is that anything at a farmers’ market tastes better than the same thing at Safeway. Beyond that, I feel hopelessly ignorant. So if I do screw up the courage to buy something, I will simply shove the first vegetables I see into a bag because I have no idea what I’m doing. I just don’t know how to talk with farmers about the peculiarities of their cucumbers!

At least at Safeway no one watches me ignorantly squeeze the produce, so no one can cast judgment on my choices. But at farmers’ markets I sense uneasily that the people in line behind me are all manored ladies in vests and visors, with styled hair and fancy totes, staring at me because I have no idea how to purchase escarole.


At the end of my conversation with Maryl, she brought up another source of anxiety: her fear of getting her own drink at a fast food-type venue. Of course, I suddenly realized that I share the same fear and never can figure how the whole process works. I guess that will have to wait for another blog.

For now, though, I would love to hear from you, dear readers, about your own non-clinical phobias. Please don’t hesitate to share them in your comments.


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.

August 2, 1973 [age 17]:

“I keep wondering if I’ll ever get over Pat Sears. Aw, I guess it’s a common error for immature people like me to think someone is the perfect match in the world, which I suppose isn’t so, but is easy to believe. He is the only person I have ever fallen for. I remember last Thursday Barb said, ‘Oh, Paula, now don’t worry. Someone, someday, is going to love you for what you say, what you do, how you talk – love every breath of you.’ If only she is right!”

August 9, 1973 [age 17]:

“It’s time for my vanity to show through as I give a brief rundown of my current physical condition. My beloved new [wire-rimmed] glasses – my pride and joy – have probably helped a bit, at least to make me appear older. The progress of my diet is up in the air, right now. At this time of the month I usually gain any number of pounds. The thing is, I have been on the brink of ‘this time of the month’ for three weeks now. All weighings are thus invalid for a while. My face looks quite the same – awful. Those vitamin C pills have not done a great amount of good, but perhaps they’ve spared me from a few colds. My ‘tan’ – well, I’m browner than usual but I have a 2” strip across my stomach which is much darker than the rest of me and which looks utterly absurd. The cause of this phenomenon is unknown.”

August 11, 1973 [age 17]:

“One of my many strange quirks is that I simply cannot eat by myself without reading something. Yesterday I dragged out my old term papers, scrapbooks and such and really marveled at their development, especially at the things I wrote in the 3rd grade. It so amazes me how rapidly we progress – at a geometric rate, I’m sure, if it could be calculated mathematically. Even my freshman year in high school produced some terribly ignorant stuff (though now that I think of it, I was only 12 or 13 then). I hate my work. It’s terrible. When will my intellectual maturity come, or – horror of horrors – has it already? I wonder how stupid I am right now.”

August 26, 1973 [age 17]:

“I have a new literary hero. His name is Thomas Wolfe; Look Homeward, Angel was divine, and as soon as I can scrape up the energy I will have to read the terribly lengthy sequel, Of Time and the River, and then on to every other word that he has ever written. Walk Whitman lives in my eyes as the greatest poet of all time. There have been so many heroes in my life: Jimmy Davenport [SF Giants] and Jimmy Taylor [Green Bay Packers] in the world of sports, Spencer Tracy in acting, Paul Simon in music, and in politics Abe Lincoln, U.S. Grant, and Eisenhower.”

September 10, 1973 [age 17]:

“I felt a little rush of ecstasy this morning when B. Dalton’s [bookstore] called to say that The Human Comedy was in, a joy that waned a little when I saw its price ($6.95!). But, I merrily drove over to Eastridge [mall] to get it. I don’t know why books make me so happy – maybe so that I can know what others think about life so that I can quote them.”

September 14, 1973 [age 17]:

“Another wasted day, or so it seems, vacuuming the rooms we always vacuum on Fridays, reading Of Time and the River with love and awe, hungrily paging through books on photography at the public library, desperately scribbling down words of frustration to add to my journal collection of broken dreams, wearily trudging off to work, only to finally return home to devour whatever dinner lies in wait, read with tired, heavy eyes more words of absolute beauty by Mr. Wolfe, and drift reluctantly off to sleep. My life is horrible, unceasing monotony. Someday I’d like to get drunk and thrown in jail.”

October 1, 1973 [age 17]:

“All that happened today was that [my brother] Marc and I snuck out in the truck to pick up Bruce. Mom was gone, and it was 2:00 so we knew Dad wouldn’t be home. But just as we drove off down Suncrest we both screamed in terror because there was Dad coming up the hill! Later, while I was at work, Marc was yelled at, at dinner, but I, thank goodness, missed it. And I guess all had been forgotten by the time I got home. Mamma mia.”

October 6, 1973 [age 17]:

“I still pray at night. I’ve discovered that most of the things I pray for in earnest come true. I’ve always had a problem, though, in that I never know if I should pray for such a selfish thing as falling in love, so I never really do, except perhaps a hasty mention in passing.”

Cheeseburgers in Paradise 2

Cheeseburgers in Paradise 2

Former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll published a column about Thanksgiving and gratitude every year. The bones of it, and most of the meat, remained the same, but he continued to update it annually to reflect the changing times or his evolving wisdom.

Five years ago, when I was first starting this blog, I wrote a poem about July 4 that I would like to re-publish today. Its bones and meat are the same, but in the spirit of Mr. Carroll, I’ve cooked it up a little differently.

If I’m ever convicted of capital crimes, and afterwards sentenced to death,
I know what I’ll want for my very last meal, just hours before my last breath.

Don’t give me a pile of hummus, my friends, not caviar nor any peas.
Don’t make it a gourmet, artisanal feast; just give me a cheeseburger, please!

You can skip buying brie or Jarlsberg cheese; a big slab of cheddar’s delicious.
Whatever you do, don’t add a fried egg – by God, that is just sacrilegious!

The bun can be laden with gluten and lard, the beef need not come from Japan.
You can grill it or broil it, on stove or on flame, in a cast iron skillet or pan.

Its invention is claimed by multiple folks. Some say it was born in the west;
Some say Kentucky and others say Denver and everyone thinks they know best.

Well, whoever decided to slap on that cheese and throw that ground beef on the grill
Should have earned a gold medal, a Hollywood star, and a monument up on a hill.

The cheeseburger’s part of a glorious feast of distinctly American things.
I hope we remember, this Fourth of July, the blessings our citizenship brings.

I suggest as we gobble our hot dogs and pie, and drink a Sam Adams (or two),
That we put down our phones and reflect on the things that this country allows us to do.

If you shut your eyes tightly and listen quite close, you’ll hear the American song:
A racecar’s low roar on a Darlington track, a freightcar chugging along.

A carousel ride at a carnival fair, the crack of a bat on a field,
Guitars being tuned on a boardwalk stage, a church’s bell vibrantly pealed.

A tenorman wailing just before dawn, the whoosh of an eagle in flight,
The choice of a dozen talk-radio shows to make us less lonely at night.

A cowboy’s rough boot on an old tavern floor and a trucker unpacking his load,
Sinatra’s voice and a shot of good booze and another one just for the road.

Now open your eyes and take a good look at the landscape we’re privileged to share.
Strap on a backpack and camp ’neath Sequoias and drink in the starry night air.

Pack up a Winnebago, instead, or hop on an overnight train,
Cross mountains and desert and wide fields of corn to the rocky coastline of Maine.

Rev up your Harley or jump in your car and seek an alternative byway
Like Route 66, or the Purple Heart Trail, or the fabled and eerie Blues Highway.

Marvel at Rushmore’s eminent shrine, see Nashville or old Santa Fe,
Silently raft through a bayou down south, go crabbing in Chesapeake Bay.

Or pull on your blue jeans and pick up a book, if you feel like you want to stay in.
Read some Walt Whitman, or try Langston Hughes, or spend some good time with Huck Finn.

Try watching a classic western, perhaps, directed by Sturges or Ford.
With all the saloons, and all of the barfights, and all of those whiskeys poured.

Check out some different musical styles, some truly American voices:
Leadbelly, Seeger, Guthrie, Odetta, are some of the earthiest choices.

Put on some hip-hop, some ragtime, or jazz, take records out of your trunk,
And listen to Usher, or Redbone, or Ella, or low-lying New Orleans funk.

While we count all our blessings, let’s never forget the rebels who once brought us here:
A gallop at midnight through Lexington’s streets and the warnings of Paul Revere.

Or the valorous statesmen whose brilliant resolve established the new Declaration,
As they swore on their fortunes, their honor, their lives to the fledgling and sovereign nation.

We’ve made our mistakes; God knows there’ve been plenty, and they’ve come at a terrible cost.
Consider the Native American tribes, and the lives and the lands that were lost.

Consider the sins that slavery wrought, remember the crosses that burned.
Consider the immigrants scorned and demeaned, remember the families interned.

But call me a patriot, call me naïve, allow me this simple contention:
That our modern-day impulses lean towards the good and are rooted in noble intention.

Think of the nurses, think of the cops, our pharmacists, farmers, and teachers.
Think of the folks who deliver our mail, the factory workers, the preachers.

Think of our immigrants chasing their dreams while leaving their countries behind.
Think of their hope, and think of their grit, not knowing quite what they will find.

America’s pluralism shores up our strength; we’re bolstered by all our dissension.
If one group completely misses a wrong, another group then pays attention.

So how ’bout we root for the underdog, leave lights on for neighbors in need,
Let’s offer our hearts to the wayward man, and bandage our comrades who bleed.

Test out the roads less traveled, my friends.  And tamp down the cynical snark.
Let’s honor the heroes who gave us their lives, and the artists who left us their mark.


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.

July 16, 1973 [age 17]:

“I was left alone again this weekend, so yesterday I endeavored to cook a meal by myself, consisting solely of a hamburger steak. Though I did manage to successfully heat up a pot of canned gravy, I also managed to destroy the hamburger. Every time Mom leaves me directions she says to put the burner on ‘two,’ and every time without fail I forget and use the quick-speed burner and – instant frazzle. The moment I threw the hamburger in, the instant there was contact between meat and cast iron, it turned black. So I tried to turn it over and it broke into a million tiny bits.  It looked like dog food.  I’m such a clod.”

July 17, 1973 [age 17]:

“Today began with a visit to the eye doctor and then to the optometrist, resulting in my finally winning the endless battle [with my parents] and choosing a pair of wire frames. I was thus consecrated a ‘hippie.’ ”


“I’m feeling desperately sorry for myself. Things are not going quite as I had thought, or hoped, they would. Pat is still not here, and I had hoped he would teach me how to dance. I’m missing Jeanne more and more. I’m realizing more and more that this is going to be another lonely summer, that I can forget about playing tennis altogether, that Jeanne is not going to be around any more. And working six days a week is wearing me out, grabbing hold of every spare minute of time, preventing me from doing the reading, and, more importantly, the writing I did so want to do this summer. My world is caving in on me; it’s getting hard to breathe. O, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I’m despairing, all my hopes shattered, countless broken dreams.”

July 21, 1973 [age 17]:

“I went to the [St. Victor’s 8th grade] reunion today. It was fun (though I ate too much) and super seeing everyone. But then I began drinking wine and beer, and for some reason I lost my head and kissed Mike [xx] and he tried French kissing which I’d never done, and I was revolted.”

July 27, 1973 [age 17]:

“The only thing of note I did today was go to the dentist. There, after miraculously surviving the fluoride ordeal [fluoride always made me gag], I was told that I still have to have a crown put on one of my bottom molars. Apparently, the filling is chipped beyond repair. It must be done, despite my protests and agonized looks. After Mom’s description of her experience with crowns I dread the whole process. She tells of hours of drilling, of reducing the poor tooth to a mere point, of driving a gold wedge into the gum. It sounds ghastly.  After all my childhood encounters with the Dentist, times when in my traditional submission I endured pain without complaint, I now find myself reduced to a frightened baby. I both fear and hate dentists with surprising intensity, and I wonder if I will be able to last until August 13th without committing suicide.”

A bike, some undies, and a gun

A bike, some undies, and a gun

When Margaret Valentine LeLong decided in 1897 to ride a bicycle, alone, from Chicago to her home in San Francisco, everyone implored her to reconsider. No woman had ever dared try such a thing. Dangers abounded: wildlife, marauders, injuries, dehydration. Bikes at the time were clunky one-speed bonebreakers. And the roads, which offered peril even to the ordinary automobile, often were full of mud, rocks, chuckholes, and planks.

There were no bike lanes. There were no sag wagons. There were no fast-food joints or convenience stores. There were no motel chains. And there were no cell phones.

So the odds were heavily stacked that year against Ms. Margaret Valentine LeLong.


Bicycles had been available in this country since about 1877, when they were first imported from England. Called “ordinary” bikes, they sported the huge front wheel and tiny rear wheel we’ve all seen in Victorian-era drawings. They were slow and difficult to ride, and both easy and painful to fall from. For all that, the cost was almost prohibitive, except for the wealthy; priced at $100, the bikes would set us back about $2,596.83 in today’s dollars.

“Ordinary” bike

But then came the “safety bike” at the end of the 1880s, and it was chock-full of innovations. The wheels were now the same size. A drive chain, a front fork, and a leather saddle became standard. Tires were pneumatic; rather than being constructed of solid rubber, they contained pressurized air, which made for a smoother (although far from luxurious) ride. Best of all, the price “plunged” to $60 – still outrageous, but at least more affordable.

Because of these changes, the number of bicyclists in the U.S. grew from 150,000 to up to 4 million between 1890 and 1896. It was an absolute explosion in the industry. Biking elicited a fervent passion among Americans; it enabled people to get away from their reliance on horses and offered an escape from increasing urbanization – while providing exercise and a good dose of the sun. And for women in particular, bicycling was a literal vehicle towards achieving freedom and independence.

1890s bicyclists

In San Francisco (where, frankly, “a good dose of the sun” was rarely applicable), allegedly 65,000 bicyclists (half the population!) filled the streets – dodging streetcars, horses, and pedestrians – during the 1890s. Bicycle clubs sprang up everywhere, and although most were for men only, a ladies’ group called The Falcon Bicycle Club (FBC) also got started. An 1895 photo remains of their clubhouse – an old horsecar – out on the dunes of Carville on the western edge of the city. Surely Margaret Valentine LeLong was a member.

By the way, the FBC often held dinner parties for local notables, newspapermen, socialites, and bohemians of all stripes. Among the hilarious satirical descriptions the club sent to the local press was this one from August of 1896:

“A most delightful banquet was given last Saturday evening by the FBC. . . . The following was the very unique menu:

Soups – Whalebone, Lampwick, Corncob and Lozenges.

Fish – Carp, Octopus, Catfish and Cartridges.

Game – Pedro, Oldmaid, Smut and Cribbage.

Entrees – Brown Beans, Baked Beans, Barnacles, Spidertoes, Froglegs and Frangipanni.

Vegetables – Bunions, Soft Corns and Halpruner.

Relishes and Booze – Mother-in-law Fried, Roasted, and Deviled; Ice Cream, Doorjamb and Vaseline; Sponge Pies and Leather Pies, with or without Buckles; Cream Coffee and Chocolate; Café au Lait and Rouge et Noir; Good-night Kiss and Dream of Grandmother.”

I wish I could have been at THAT party!


It isn’t readily apparent why Ms. LeLong decided to ride her bicycle thousands of miles alone, and my guess is that she would have been scornful of anyone who dared ask that question. San Franciscans in those days were an independent lot, she was visiting friends in Chicago, and according to the Chicago Tribune, she did it “purely for enjoyment.”

We don’t know much about her. None of the (very abbreviated) newspaper accounts mentioned her age at the time – perhaps it was considered uncouth. But the Tribune’s six-sentence mention of her feat did manage to include a description of her as a “slender little woman” who stood 5’2” tall and weighed 114 pounds. (Obviously those were crucial statistics.) It also referred to her as “Mrs.,” but her own account of her experience never mentioned a husband or family back home.

[By the way, her name was spelled “LeLong,” “Lelong,” or “Le Long” in the many resources I checked, and I’ve decided to use “LeLong,” just for consistency’s sake.]

Ms. LeLong formulated her plans “[i]n spite of the opposition of every friend and relative who was on hand to register a protest (and those at a distance objected by mail),” she would later say. And although her loved ones’ opposition may have been related to the inherent dangers of her trip, resistance to the very notion of female bicyclists was quite strong. In some states it was altogether illegal for women to ride. Cycling was considered to be so challenging for the female constitution that it could lead to insomnia, depression, and heart problems. It could cause “bicycle eye,” which occurred when a rider had to look forward too long while her neck was bent. Worst of all, it could bring ruin to “the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity.” The Woman’s Rescue League of Washington, D.C., apparently claimed that bicycling prevented women from having children. Another charge was that the “friction between a woman and her saddle caused illicit sexual arousal.”

Ah! No wonder women flocked to bicycling in droves!

Then there was the matter of attire. Women had been accustomed to wearing skirts while riding side-saddle on horses. But some female cyclists thought that long, flowing garments could get caught in bicycles’ moving parts, so they chose bloomers instead of skirts. Bloomers were loose, harem-style pants, some of which fastened – gasp! – under the knee. Oh, the scandal!


A huge backlash ensued. One mayor condemned the new pants for being a “menace to the peace and good morals of the male residents.” In 1895 three bloomer-wearing female teachers were prohibited from riding bicycles to their school in Flushing, Long Island (New York). The scandalous pants had come to represent women’s rights and freedom, and people were simply outraged!

Margaret rode a “drop-frame” safety bicycle (with a low, curved cross-support) because the standard cross-bar used by men would get in the way of her skirt. Yes, despite everything I’ve just said about women’s liberation and bloomers, Margaret preferred skirts.

Drop-frame bicycle

In any case, she climbed onto her bike in Chicago on May 20, 1897, dressed in her skirt and her leather shoes – laced to the knee – that she had had modified with heavier soles. Bicycles were yet to come equipped with baskets, so she brought only some extra underwear, some toiletries, a handkerchief, and a tool bag – all of which she somehow managed to strap onto the handlebars. In her tool bag was her final essential item – a pistol.


“And so one morning in May I started,” wrote Ms. LeLong in the journal Outing in 1898, “midst a chorus of prophecies of broken limbs, starvation, death from thirst, abduction by cowboys, and scalping by Indians.”

The Illinois roads at first proved to be rider-friendly, for they were generally smooth and level. But from the get-go the headwinds were a formidable demon, and even Margaret’s attempts to get up before the chickens were fruitless. “Let none flatter themselves they can get up before an Illinois wind,” she noted wryly, “for it blows all day, and it blows all night, and it always blows straight in your face.”

On one occasion, the combination of wind, mud, hills, bogs, and swirling sand convinced her to stop early in the day at a hotel in a small Iowa town called Homestead, where she would “spend the rest of the day expressing my opinion about the League map of Iowa, which is a snare and a delusion.” She would also spend the day trying to comprehend the norms of the town’s denizens.

In the mid-1800s, Homestead had been purchased by the Amana Colonies, a group of German Pietists who were originally members of the Lutheran Church but were persecuted in Germany by both the government and the Church. They’d relocated to the United States – first to New York and then to Iowa – in search of some seclusion and peace. The Colonies operated as truly a self-sufficient and communal settlement for 80 years, relying exclusively on their own farming and craftsmanship until they formed a for-profit organization during the Depression (and by the way, the Amana appliance cooperation was part of that organization).

“These are some of the things I learned,” she would later write. “The Amanna [sic] Society is co-operative in the fullest meaning of the term . . . . Everything is community property, and the man who joins the society with only the clothes on his back has the same rights and consideration as the man who puts in thousands. . . . Each male member receives thirty dollars per year spending money, in addition to his living; each female member, twenty dollars. This sum they are entitled to spend as and where they please, but permission to leave the settlement must be granted by the council.

Homestead, Iowa, around 1900

“All business of the Amanna Society is transacted by the council, and the purchase of even a sheep or a keg of beer is a task requiring much time and patience. One would think all that was necessary was the proper amount of greenbacks and negotiations with the head shepherd or brewer. These are but preliminary steps. It involves consulting every member of the council, from the shepherd to the president, and back again. . . .

“I am afraid their laws for the management of lovers would not find favor among our American youth. If a young man shows a more than brotherly interest in one of the pretty blonde mädchens [young girls], and she shows a disposition to be more than a sister to him, an investigation is immediately made, and if he declares his intentions serious – other things, such as parents, being propitious – he is allowed a farewell interview with the maiden, and then hustled away to one of the other settlements, there to stay one year [ed.’s note: whaaaat?] to prove the strength of his attachment. If his intentions are not serious, he is hustled off just the same, but without the farewell interview. Every May-day all the unappropriated maidens, dressed in their Sunday gowns, are loaded into gaily decorated wagons, and, blushing and giggling, are taken the rounds of the settlements for the inspection and selection of the unattached men.”

Ms. LeLong’s overnight stay in Homestead, although it yielded neither a suitor nor a gourmet meal (“beer soup” did not particularly appeal to LeLong’s San Francisco sensibilities), nevertheless was filled with the proprietor’s warmth and kindness, and her stays for the rest of the trip were similar. Despite the social mores of the age, her gender was never questioned, nor was she ever threatened by another human.


It was far from easy mechanically to ride a bicycle in those days. Balance was tricky. The coaster brake (which is engaged by backpedaling, and which many of us had as kids) was not invented until 1898, so Margaret’s bike likely was equipped with a heavy front “spoon brake” and nothing on the back wheel – always a recipe for taking a header over the handlebars. And the roads – well, they were like angry opponents. In San Francisco, the year before her trip, more than 5,000 bicyclists had marched down Market Street in a rally for decent streets. Paved asphalt was not yet the norm, and the country’s rutted and cratered roads – even in urban areas – were often nearly impassable. Someone with an eye for poetry once called them:

“Wholly unclassable
Almost impassable
Scarcely jackassable!”


Nebraska came next, and for a cyclist, Nebraska was more preferable for riding, even though the scenery in Iowa had been lovely. “Iowa is described in the guide-books as a ‘fine, rolling country,’ ” she wrote. “For the cycler this means that you roll your wheel up one side of a hill and down the other, with never a level spot between to rest the sole of your foot upon. This is especially true of the western part. If you can forget your grievances against the roads long enough to stop and admire, the scenery is beautiful beyond description. What a relief to a weary wheelman to cross the muddy Missouri and go skimming over the smooth gravel roads of Nebraska. In Iowa the road will go several miles out of its way to climb a hill; in Nebraska it makes some attempt to go around.”

Happy Jack Road, Wyoming

Wyoming, of course, brought mountains, trees, and stone, and the landscape toughened. As a result, one nearly regrettable decision resulted in a rather painful battering for Ms. LeLong. She’d decided to take the “Happy Jack” road between Cheyenne and Laramie, which was about 52 miles at the time and a bit shorter than the alternative. The road (what is now Highway 210) was named in the 1880s after a local rancher who, while transporting lumber and hay to Cheyenne, earned the nickname “Happy Jack” because he simply would not stop singing. But the Happy Jack Road did not, for Margaret, prove altogether happy. I’ll let her tell the tale in her own words, which are far more eloquent – and funnier – than mine:

“A two thousand foot rise in thirty miles, and a thousand foot drop in the other twenty-two miles is the record of the ‘Happy Jack’ road. For twenty miles the road is good, and the grade gradual, then trouble begins. Up and down, in and out, over rocks and through sand runs the Happy Jack road, and at every mile your breath comes harder and your knees grow weaker. . . . Numerous dents, bruises, and abrasions on myself and wheel mark the moments when I became lost in admiration of the wild grandeur of the scene, and forgot that I was riding a bucking bronco of a bicycle.”

At one point Margaret flew off of her bike at the bottom of a particularly unnavigable hill. Fortunately a log cabin sat at the bottom of the cliff.

“I landed at the bottom without breaking neck or wheel, though the two men who came out of the cabin seemed to think I ought not to have a whole bone in my body.

“I was not asked to dismount. I had already done that on all fours, with the wheel on top, but I was invited in to dinner, with true Wyoming hospitality. Mr. Shaw, the owner of the place, the famous ‘Cabin Under the Rocks,’ cooked the dinner, scolding all the time, in a good-natured way, because I had not arrived sooner, and there was nothing left but scraps. If that was a dinner of scraps, then may I always dine upon scraps. Fresh antelope steaks, mountain trout, caught in front of the door, and canned peaches from my beloved California, all washed down with milk that had never known the pump.”

But she still had to find lodging. I don’t know why she couldn’t stay at Mr. Shaw’s cabin, but propriety and a lack of a spare bed may have dictated the situation. Or perhaps it was too early in the day (late afternoon, I presume) to consider bedding down for the night. Her host advised her that halfway between the cabin and Laramie was a place called “Dirty Woman’s Ranch,” where she could stay.

On the way, of course, she took another tumble.

“A long, steep hill, with a barbed-wire gate strung across it half way down; a barrel-hoop in the middle of the road, and a badger hole at one side. Thirty seconds later add to the scene on one side of the road a woman, all of a heap; on the other a pea-green bicycle, and down by the gate a brown hat and white veil. I carefully wiggled around and found no bones were broken, then sat up and began to cry. Then I laughed, but the laugh had a hysterical sound, and I quit. There is no use having hysterics all alone, eight miles from the nearest house. I wonder what women would do without hairpins. I took one out of my hair and picked the gravel out of my knees, and cried some more; got up and straightened my handle-bar, put on my hat wrong side before, wiped my eyes and started again. I will confess that for several miles I saw the road through a mist of tears. Eight more miles I made somehow — just how I don’t know — then the house I had despaired of finding that night came in sight.”

But the Dirty Woman’s Ranch had no beds. (I know; I don’t understand, either.) It was after dark by then, and about 12 further miles to Laramie, with no houses in between. So a stranger, who happened to be milking his cow nearby, threw her in a wagon and set out for a house on another road altogether.

“Behind two bucking, half-broken broncos, in a wagon without springs away we went –  away we went over boulders that jolted me off the seat down on to my poor, lame knees, into the bottom of the wagon. Every time the driver slowed up, in response to my agonized plea for a moment’s rest, the broncos bucked. Down we went into canyons, black with shadows of night, through passes where the rocks seemed to meet over our heads; up over ridges, where we lost all trace of the road, and crashed along over sagebrush and boulders.

“Twinkling lights almost beneath us, the yelping of dogs, and a chorus of profanity, told us that our arrival had been noted at Cazorus’ cattle ranch. Down, down we went, I with both feet braced against the dashboard, and a silent prayer in my heart, the broncos kicking, and the driver swearing.”

But they made it, and Margaret was met with a meal, bandages, and a great deal of sympathy.


It was while she was still in Wyoming that Ms. LeLong’s revolver came in handy. She’d just finished wading through a marsh when she noticed that a nearby herd of cattle was starting to size her up. The prevailing wisdom for such a situation was, counterintuitively, to advance slowly towards the herd, shouting and waving one’s arms. “This sounds very simple sitting safely at home with your cattle before you in the form of roast beef,” she said. “It is a very different thing when facing a pawing, bellowing herd of cattle in the middle of a Wyoming cattle range, your knees knocking together, and your heart making quick trips from your head to your heels and back again; every nerve tingling with a wild desire to run and no place to run to. Not a tree, a bush, a rock, or even a telegraph-pole.”

So she drew her pistol and fired five shots in the air, “scattering handkerchief, curl-papers, and powder-box to the winds to get at the cartridges in the bottom of my chatelaine bag. I loaded as I ran.” Much to her relief, the noise prompted the cattle to first run in circles and then, thankfully, retreat.


Leaving Wyoming behind, Ms. LeLong was delighted to be traveling through the Weber Canyon in Utah – a place whose beauty she found to be “little short of Paradise.” Her only complaint was that the creeks were generally not bridged, and sloppy irrigation ditches resulted in standing water everywhere. On one occasion she was rescued “from a maze of creeks and mud-puddles” by two men returning from a fishing trip who immediately invited her to share their bounty – 400(!) trout. After they made camp and the men were preparing the fish, Margaret “was unanimously elected to make biscuit. Now I can make biscuit, but I want all the modern improvements in the way of utensils. Here I had neither mixing-board, rolling-pin, flour-sifter, nor biscuit-cutter, so I take credit to myself that those biscuits were eatable at all. We baked them in a Dutch oven, and many burnt fingers and much merriment resulted from trying to get them out.”


Unsurprisingly, Margaret’s journey across Nevada, through the Great American Desert, was anything but picturesque. But after the desert came the greatest payoff. “From Reno to San Francisco the roads are good, the scenery beautiful, and the water like wine after the alkali of the desert,” she wrote. “At every turn of the wheel I felt my spirits rise, and when I finally crossed the State line and stepped once more on California soil I wept a little weep for joy.

“You who have had only tantalizing glimpses through the cracks of the snow-sheds, know but little of the beauty of the scenery between Truckee and Blue Canyon. It amply repaid me for the many miles I had to walk and push my wheel up the long, steep hills. One day among the snow and rocks of the summit of the Sierras, the next spinning along through orchards of the Sacramento Valley where the trees were bending with their burden of fruit. Although the scenes around San Francisco bay had been familiar to me for years, they seemed wonderfully new and beautiful to me. The Oakland Mole seemed the entrance to Paradise, and San Francisco, Paradise itself.”

Truckee River


Margaret Valentine LeLong cruised into San Francisco on July 8, which was 50 days after she left Chicago. I’m going to guess that she covered 2,500 miles, because she certainly didn’t ride in a straight line, which means she averaged about 50 miles a day. Her record was 86 in one day, which impresses me greatly because I get tired just driving 86 miles.

The major newspapers of the day covered the end of her trip and granted the story a couple of sentences. The Hayward Daily Review was the most long-winded:

“She was on the road . . . without a puncture. She made the journey not to save expenses, for it cost twice as much as by rail, but for the sake of the adventure and the experience. . . . She did her own washing, had the good sense not to try for the record, and rested when she was tired. . . . On the way she lost eight pounds, made a detour from Ogden to Salt Lake, rode the railroad track for numberless rough and bumpety miles, and walked an average ten miles a day. She is muscular as few women are, and is as brown as the proverbial berry, for she even tanned her hands through her thick chamois gloves. But she is not the least bit footsore or weary, and she would do it again.”


Researching stories like these often leads me down divergent paths. An interesting coda to this tale is that a fairly well-known artist named Minnie Valentine LeLong lived in San Francisco at the time. She’d been born Minnie Valentine Cox in Iowa in 1863 (she married Charles LeLong), which would have made her 34 years old at the time of the bike ride. Could she have been our cyclist? Well, “Minnie” indeed can be a nickname for Margaret, and one illustration in the Outing article about her trip was attributed to “Le Long.” But in those days women were typically married by the age of 34 and probably would have been deemed much too old for cycling alone across the country.

Considering that her writing was so witty and creative, though, it is not a stretch for me to imagine Margaret as an artist. Besides, how many M. Valentine LeLongs could there have been in San Francisco in the late 1800s?

I just don’t know. I suppose it will remain a bit of a mystery.

In any case, whether she was a distinguished gallery artist or not, Margaret had much to be proud of. She was a fearless young woman, boldly progressive, pioneering in spirit, with strong legs, a quick wit, and unrelenting optimism.

“To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play,” declared Munsey’s Magazine in 1896. “To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”

Margaret Valentine LeLong happily rode her steed into the unknown, her face turned towards the sun. She was, I think, the best of America.


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.

3/2/73 [age 17]:

“I worked the register at Rexall for awhile today and then got shown the “ring-out” procedure, which is how to count money and checks and get everything ready for the bank, which took an hour and a half of explanation and I don’t think I remember a thing. I am so stupid. My feet and body are tired, but cashiering was fun and I did work for three hours ($4.65); if I work 20 hours a week, I’ll make $31 (not clear), so maybe $100 a month clear. I like the cute little kids with all their change. The only strange part was walking the mile home in the pitch black and rain, but even that was nice. I whistled the entire second side of [the Simon & Garfunkel album] ‘Bookends’.”

3/7/73 [age 17]:

“I am disappointed that Joe did not show up last Friday. I do not want to remain an old maid forever. There are guys in my AJ [law enforcement] classes whom I like but they are either too old or not aware of my existence. I recall my old heartthrobs and how they slid by the wayside. But I can understand – I’m almost entirely devoid of personality.”

3/8/73 [age 17]:

“Mr. O’Neill died last Wednesday; I missed the rosary tonight because I was at work. Death puzzles me exceedingly – I wonder if people’s demise is caused by merely Fate or if God has a hand in it and people are somehow ‘chosen.’ If so, what would be the criteria? Last summer, I thought people died when they ‘perfected this level’; I was under the ridiculous assumption that I was nearing such a state, and that I would die within two years ([my sister] Janine said in summer of ‘74 she’s going to give me a ‘still alive’ party). Father Prindeville says God wants the person with Him in heaven. I don’t worry incessantly about death as Dad does, but I’m not exactly looking forward to it.”

3/10/73 [age 17]:

“Boy, was I embarrassed at work today. I was behind the counter with Mr. Jordahl and a guy came up and asked for some Trojans. I didn’t know what they were, so I yelled back to the pharmacy, ‘Mr. Jordahl, where are the Trojans?’ I guess the whole store could hear me. Well, Mr. Jordahl came scurrying out and told me he’d help the man. Afterwards he showed me where they were (down behind the counter on the right-hand side), although he gave me no instructions. I finally realized that they were rubbers! I just don’t know anything about them! And boy, was my face red!”

3/23/73 [age 17]:

“I had a two-hour break today at school and since, miraculously, my homework was all caught up I decided to wander. Priorities were 1) food, 2) books, and 3) records. Unfortunately since it is Friday, I was forced to eat a fishburger at McDonald’s. [Ed.’s note: no meat on Fridays!] I roamed around in a bookstore which professed to be cheap and as it was completely unorganized I became disillusioned and left. Finally, I looked up record stores in a telephone book and found Discorama, which turned out to be so wonderful that I am sure I will frequent it on many Fridays. They have used albums and I bought ‘Reflections’ by the one-and-only Johnny Rivers for 73¢.”

4/8/73 [age 17]:

“I am trying the carbohydrate diet, so after work today I had 13 pieces of chicken, counting dinner and after-dinner snacking.”

4/9/73 [age 17]:

“Mom went into Rexall this afternoon. And when she returned, she informed me of a conversation with Dorothy, the Post Office lady who works there. Apparently Dorothy commented on how mature (???) I was, and said that they all love me. Boy, does THAT shock me. I was getting really paranoid there for awhile; I mean, I AM awfully clumsy – last week I ran right smack into the big tall vitamin display and the next day knocked a metal coffeepot off the counter. Perhaps they pay much less attention to those things than I do. (I don’t even know if Mr. Jordahl noticed the coffeepot incident, yet I don’t see how he could help but hear the parts clanging all over the floor.) At any rate, it doesn’t appear that he has any intentions of firing me.”

4/10/73 [age 17]:

“[A friend] finally wrote to me and told me about her first sexual encounter and I am STILL A-1 confused about it all.”

4/13/73 [age 17]:

“I swear – I had a test in every one of my classes today and I did not study one moment last night. I really had intended to, but [my brother] Marc called me downstairs to play Password and Stadium Checkers with Joe and Morris and him, and I was so tired by the time we finished that I went straight to bed. I think this no-carbohydrate diet is contributing to my perpetual exhaustion. Still, I am greatly shirking my schoolwork. So I got up at six this morning and got to school by 7:30 so I’d have two hours to study for History. I did, but then I had no time to prepare for Philosophy. I’m sure I didn’t exactly pass with flying colors. I DID manage to get another “A” in Biology, though, which I studied for after I ate lunch and spent a bunch of time listening to the Stones in the listening rooms. I really should crack down on myself.”

4/15/73 [age 17]:

“Well, it happened again. I had intended to get so much schoolwork done today and I didn’t touch it for ONE SECOND. I went to the 10:30 mass and since it’s Palm Sunday it lasted until close to noon. When I returned I cleaned my shoes and did a few other jobs until I was invited to play poker with the four boys at Joe’s and could not resist. I won almost a dollar, which just about paid for my movie ticket tonight. We all went to the Serra and saw ‘Bless the Beasts and the Children’ and ‘Last Picture Show.’ The day didn’t end until midnight. I had no time whatsoever to study.”

4/18/73 [age 17]:

“This morning I was back home from school by 9:00, cooked myself a breakfast of four scrambled eggs and three slices of bacon, cleaned up the house, and let the dog run loose while I read endless pages of History in the garage. At 1:30 I began walking to work because Mr. Jordahl wanted me to come in at 2:00 to learn about some insurance work. I had had a lunch of five slices of Spam – two with cream cheese on top. I worked my seven hours. Now it’s 10:00 and I just finished my bath. My dinner will consists of tuna and cheddar cheese and root beer as [our neighbor] Mr. Morrow told me that ice cream and pie is awaiting me over there.”

4/19/73 [age 17]:

“Presenting ‘Another Rotten Thursday’ or ‘Paula the Klutz Does It Again.’ The day began well, with Jeanne’s overdue letter not arriving only a minor disappointment. At eleven or so I took off for Judy’s [on my bike]; I visited with Robin and her for awhile, then rode to the library to browse through the records and try to find a book on the physiology of emotions for my own interest, but could find none. Well and good. At 12:30 or so I set out for Sue’s. Upon arriving at Hostetter, I saw that the right lane was closed and I’d have to walk the bike through mud. I decided to continue down Capitol to Trimble or Landess. I put some air in the tires and nervously rode on because I hate chancing Capitol. The road narrowed; I waited for a clear space and then pedaled a mile a minute down the edge of the road. A truck was coming; I zipped on, my right front tire hit a 1/2-inch crack, and I was thrown out onto the road, bike on top of me, right in front of the truck. He screeched to a halt; I crawled out slowly from under the bike, people were stopping to ask if I was hurt, I dazily [sic] shook my head no (I was on half a hay fever pill), and trembled all the way to the Chevron station at Trimble. I was scared, now that it was over. I decided to call Sue to come get me; I was quaking when I discovered she wasn’t home. So I called Judy and she came. It was when I tried to put the bike in her car that I realized how sore my left hand was; it still is, and swollen too, so I guess I’ll have to tell the parents when they get home. O Lord, and how I used to disgustedly tell them, ‘Oh, I’m NOT going to get hurt!’ Robin came over later to help fix the bike (it was mostly just twisted) and to talk about life a little. That was nice and I appreciated it. Then when I went in to take my shower, I spilled Mom’s bath powder all over. I vacuumed it up and when I took the vacuum hose off in the sewing room, I spilled all the powder all over again! So I vacuumed it up again. I’m such a clod. Then Mr. Morrow took his family and me out for pizza and I blew my diet. Geez, what a day!”

May 2, 1973 [age 17]:

“I got trapped in a stall in the bathroom today and had to crawl out. The space between door and floor was minuscule and I was forced to slither out like a snake – a rather undignified position.”

May 9, 1973 [age 17]:

“I am actually going to have electives to take next semester, but the classes at [San Jose] State are just too general for me. My preferred four electives would be a whole class on Walt Whitman; one on rock music; one on the history of World War II; and one on parachuting.”

May 15, 1973 [age 17]:

“I just remembered that I used to pray FOR God: ‘God bless Mom and Dad, Marc and Paula, Janine and God.’ How absurd!”

May 20, 1973 [age 17]:

“Jeanne and I took off for San Francisco at 1:30 today to see Paul Simon. Mr. Schwegler had given us directions to the Opera House to pick up the tickets, and with me navigating it was a nightmare of confusion. Once we got to the City I think it took us another hour and a half to get there – our map is outdated and didn’t show all the one-way streets! At one point we even ended up coming on the freeway BACK towards San Jose! We decided to go to the museum in Golden Gate Park first to pass some time, and we finally got there at 4:30, only to discover, after we had paid, that it closes at five. Good grief! Getting to the Wharf to eat dinner was another example of poor navigation, and the Fish ‘N Chips I suggested when we finally got there were awful. After stopping on Van Ness to get a couple cans of Coke, four boxes of Milk Duds, and three packages of M&Ms, we made it to the Opera House with an hour to spare, but I spent all that time running up and down the streets of San Francisco trying to find a place to change into nice clothes. But Paul Simon more than made up for all our trials. Afterwards Jeanne and I stayed outside to wait for him and he came out and walked right by us (with Art Garfunkel!) and he is very short and I just can’t describe how wonderful it was.”

May 24, 1973 [age 17]:

“I forgot to tell about my Philosophy oral report last Friday. I had typed up a technical document of about six pages beforehand, but due to a total lack of rehearsal, the other three members of the group took too much time, leaving me only eight minutes. Realizing my lack of adequate time, I began skipping areas and then lost my head altogether, ad libbing about the soul and consciousness and ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ – oh, I was classic. And do you know that I got an A on it? And I made everything up!”

May 26, 1973 [age 17]:

“Last Tuesday I went to see a counselor to talk about my woes concerning the generalness of school. I was hoping he would tell me about some unknown programs – maybe one where I could go to Paris for a year and study for free, or one where I could be transferred to another school and study ‘Law Enforcement in Vermont.’ Ah, but there was no such luck.”

May 28, 1973 [age 17]:

“I’m beginning to detest my appearance. First of all – my hair. I must be the only college student in the world with bangs. My hair is too thick and heavy, and now that the weather is hot I’m beginning to be annoyed by it. If I don’t chicken out, I may cut it all off this summer. Then, my face. Yecchh. All broken out. Mrs. Czarnecki claims that Harry and Judy were saved by Vitamin C, so I bought myself some chewable tablets and I’m beginning to take them every day. Thirdly, I’m obviously too fat – 135 pounds. My legs are like barrels. Fourthly, the upper half of me is so darned small. How humiliating. And finally I cannot get a tan and my skin is so white I look sick.”

June 7, 1973 [age 17]:

“I went with Jeanne to her Birth of a Poet class at Kresge College [UC Santa Cruz] today. Th teacher is William Everson, who used to be called Brother Antoninus and is a beat poet! I was so excited to see him, especially now that I’ve been reading ‘Visions of Cody,’ BUT the class was in a sweltering dome at a temperature of (no exaggeration) 110 degrees. There were a bunch of students with no shirts on who had painted themselves, and it was so hot that all the paint was running down their skin. They were like human watercolors! I’ve never seen anything like this and I would have appreciated it more but to tell you the truth I was just miserable in that heat. I wish I could have stayed overnight in the dorm but Dad would never have allowed me to sleep in the midst of a mob of ‘hippies.’ “

June 11, 1973 [age 17]:

“Sometimes I simply cannot understand my feelings towards human beings. Am I a humanitarian, or do I totally hate mankind?”

TBT, 1969 or 1970 [age 13 or 14]:

[NOTE: This is something I found in my files a few days ago. I have no recollection of it, but it appears that I was writing my future bio: tongue-in-cheek, but grounded in wishful thinking.]

“Bocciardi (Bo CHAR dee), Paula, 1955-. Great athlete, musician, comedienne, detective, intellectual, and politician. Plays on professional football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis, swimming, badminton, track, squash, soccer, lacrosse, equestrian, and sky-diving teams. Received highest awards in all sports. Took Gold medal in all events in 1972 Olympics. Set mile record – 3 min. 31 sec. High jump – 8 ft. 3 in. Pole vault 30 ft. 2-1/2 in. Long jump – same. Broad jump 11 ft. 9 inches. 50 yd. dash – 4 sec. Longest sky jump – she was dropped from a rocket. Better than Glen Campbell at the guitar, better than Liberace at the piano. Voted world’s best comedienne. Wrote 56 books – all million sellers. Ranked no. 1 detective. Apprehended criminals of all crimes since 1901. In 1970, shot 3 times in leg, 2 times in arm, 5 times in head, once in stomach, yet managed to bravely crawl away and handcuff the crook. Joined up with the Hardy Boys. I.Q. of 187. Able to outwit everyone, even Mr. Romero [my English teacher]. Was senator, governor, and finally – 1st woman President! A great person truly.”

June 16, 1973 [age 17]:

“Yesterday at work [at Rexall drugstore] a hippie-looking guy asked me, ‘Where are the (mumble mumble)?’ I couldn’t exactly understand him but it sounded like he said ‘breast bracelets.’ That seemed kind of repulsive to me but I figured it must be part of the new cult or something I walked over to Dorothy and said, ‘uh, could you help this man?’ She was busy at the post office and said, ‘Well, what does he want?’ I tried to act cool and said that he wanted some breast bracelets. She looked very puzzled but then he wandered over to the wall and we heard him say, ‘I found it!’ He came back with some Binaca. I guess he had actually said ‘breath sprays’!”

June 17, 1973 [age 17]:

“Last night Judy and I went to see ‘The Harrad Experiment’ and ‘Lovers and Other Strangers’ at the Meridian Quad theaters. For the first time in my life the people at the door were making everyone prove that they were 17, or maybe 18, I’m not sure. I’m not an ‘adult’ yet so I was kind of scared but either I look old or my CSUSJ student body card was indicative of my age ‘cause they let me in. I wondered why the rigamarole but I got my answer when I saw ‘The Harrad Experiment.’ Total frontal nudity, time and again, boys and girls! I was nauseated by the talk about how if you follow society’s conventions and want one faithful partner you’re being possessive and selfish! That’s just bull!”

Typos on trial

Typos on trial

I’d never imagined I’d be a party to any kind of court case. But there I was, in a San Francisco courtroom, clutching a McDonald’s bag that I’d found in the restroom and suing a newspaper owner over a bunch of typos.


It had all started on Thursday, January 28, 1982, when – according to my diary – I’d spent a good portion of the day entering a “Spot-the-Blooper” contest in the Sunset Independent, a now-defunct local newspaper covering San Francisco’s Sunset District, the largest neighborhood in the City (about 80,000 people). The contest’s rules stated that entrants should look for errors over four issues of the paper and submit a list of them on a postcard. The winner who found the most errors would get $1 per “blooper.”

Well, I loved reading my Sunset Independent with great fervor every week, and I already knew that it was always absolutely fraught with mistakes. I also happened to be making my living as a freelance proofreader at the time. So I figured I had this contest in the bag.

I found 359 errors.

Imagine my excitement. In those days I made so little money that I couldn’t even afford cheddar cheese.

Diary entry, January 29: “I found so many mistakes yesterday that I had to type it all up on paper and it took me 5 hours, taking time out for dinner.”

I sent in my entry. But on February 11, before heading off to work, I opened that week’s issue of the Independent and could not believe my eyes. The paper declared the winner to be a man who had found 41 typos.

I was, to put it mildly, royally incensed.

February 11: “Today was Sandy’s going-away luncheon at ICS. We went to MacArthur Park, and I had grilled gulf shrimp and tons of their ‘onion strings’ and two glasses of wine. I was fairly useless afterwards, so I came home and drank a bunch of rum so I could call the Sunset Independent. They were really nervous and hemmed and hawed and said the contest judge wasn’t there and would call back on Friday, but I never got a call. So on Pam’s advice I’m going to write them a letter. It ain’t the money with me, it’s the principle.”

Pam Pecora was a friend of mine who had finished law school a few months before, and she was my go-to source for legal advice. So I proceeded to angrily pen a scathing letter to the newspaper, demanding that without a reasonable explanation within a week I would either go to court or pursue my case with the Consumer Fraud unit of the District Attorney’s Office.

The paper then employed an odd strategy.

February 18: “Today we got the new Sunset Independent. And oh how they must have scurried around after getting my letter yesterday, ’cause they PRINTED IT along with a stupid ‘explanation’ that said many of my bloopers had to do with spacing, whereas in fact maybe 3 of my 359 did. Amazingly ludicrous. I tried calling the editor again, but she rudely wouldn’t answer my questions. All she kept saying was that it was the judges’ decision. Finally she said, ‘They didn’t agree with some of your errors.’ I said, ‘So, in other words, they didn’t agree with even 41 of my errors.’ All she said was, ‘I don’t know, it’s all in a file somewhere, and I don’t want to dig it out.’ Boy, was I burning and churning.”

Apparently I burned and churned for only a couple of hours before calling the Consumer Fraud people and asking them to send me a complaint form. It arrived two days later. Imagine a government agency responding so quickly today. Two days! That hardly gave them time to get it into a mailbox!

At any rate, I filled out the form forthwith, and on March 4 a representative from the Consumer Fraud unit telephoned me. (By the way, I’m going to call the editor Laura Silva rather than her real name, for reasons I will make clear later on.)

March 4: “Well, hey, Consumer Fraud called, and the woman there – named Sydney – told me that I have an open-and-shut case, even in the opinion of the D.A.’s men there. She tried twice to talk sense into Laura Silva, the Independent’s editor, but she said Silva was rude and a real ‘schmoo.’ ”

“The D.A.’s men”? I think I’d been watching a little too much Karl Malden in “The Streets of San Francisco.”

March 8: “I talked to Sydney again. She said she’d had a message from Laura Silva (the famous editor), and when she called her back, Laura only repeated that she didn’t want to talk to me anymore. So why had Laura left a message to call her? She must really be nuts. Anyway, I guess her latest excuse for my not winning is that I didn’t send my entry in on a postcard. First of all, can you see me writing 14 pages on a postcard? Secondly, the second issue of the paper stated that we could send in letters! It looks, anyway, as if I’ll be going to small claims court.”

Sydney had done all she could for me. Typo fraud was just beyond her purview.  So I called the Small Claims Legal Advisor at the San Francisco Municipal Court and girded my loins for battle.

The first thing I resolved to do was find an expert witness. Because I’d been in the publishing biz for a few years, I had a squad of word nerds around me. I decided on Kathy Reigstad, a production editor and former colleague of mine from my days at Harper & Row. As it turned out, she’d gone to law school for about a year and had always fantasized about being in court, so she was ecstatic at the prospect. Her role was to determine how many of my “bloopers” were legitimate errors. I would sue for that number of dollars in addition to – per the guidance of the Small Claims Legal Advisor – punitive damages of $100. I could soon be rolling in it!

The next thing I had to do, according to the Advisor, was determine who was in fact the owner of the newspaper. To accomplish this, he suggested that I go down to City Hall and attempt to look it up in the Fictitious Names Index. Instead, I enlisted the help of my girlfriend Cynthia, who came up with the ruse of calling the paper’s office pretending to be a journalism student doing a project on newspaper ownership. The office clerk who answered the phone bought it, and he told her that Laura Silva was indeed the owner.


All I had to do now was wait for Kathy’s evaluation, then send a letter to the Independent with a demand for the exact amount.

A week later, Kathy called me down to the Harper & Row offices to go over my entry, and we came up with 249 valid errors. That sounded fair to me. So I sent the newspaper a certified letter and, as soon as the receipt came back to me, I went down and filed the small claims case. Cynthia served the warrant. My day in court would be April 28 at 8:15 a.m. Things were moving quickly.

April 13: “I’m sitting here tonight watching ‘People’s Court,’ one of my favorite new shows. It’s interesting to me to hear the variety of situations in which people shaft each other, and to hear the judge’s assessment of right and wrong in each case, I am especially getting more and more interested now that my own case is coming. And I am starting to realize that it is easy to sue, and that as they say on the show, it’s much better to go to court than to take the law into your own hands; maybe more of us can strike back at the myriad of people who rip us off.”

Obviously I was feeling righteous about the situation. But as the trial approached, I got more and more jittery.

April 27: “Tomorrow morning’s court date looms larger and larger, and it’s practically consuming me. My stomach was ulcerous – burning all day, in fear of my having to speak in court.”

Kathy Reigstad and I arrived in Small Claims Court (Dept. 1 of City Hall, at the time) extremely early on the 28th. I was so extraordinarily nervous that when I emerged from the women’s room I absent-mindedly picked up a stranger’s McDonald’s bag and carried it with me into the courtroom!

As you might expect, the bailiff smelled that breakfast sausage sandwich and handed me a mild reprimand. I scurried back to return it to the restroom.

Kathy amused me with her asides as we were waiting. “I don’t know if this is the right time to tell you,” she said, “but when I had to be in moot court in law school I cried.” Meanwhile we were trying to determine which person was Laura Silva. When a really gorgeous woman walked in, Kathy turned to me to pronounce, “We’re dead.”

But it wasn’t her. The real Laura came in and sat right next to me, not knowing that her tormenter was at her shoulder.

Our case was the first one called, which terrified me because I’d wanted to watch for awhile and get some tips from other people’s presentations. But no.

And true to form, I blundered right from the get-go.

“I started clambering onto the wrong chair in the beginning, saying, ‘Is that right, Your Honor?’ and he motioned me to stand in front of him, with a smile.”

I presented my side somewhat shakily and at lightning speed, ignoring both the speech I’d spent typing up until midnight the night before and my reams of documentation. Then came Silva’s turn, and the judge seemed to partially take my side from the very beginning. Silva wasn’t as respectful (i.e., scared) as I was, often finishing her responses snidely with, ‘Is that it? Am I through?’ And the judge even seemed sympathetic to some of my more questionable corrections. For example, he demanded to know whether she would count “proofread” and “proof read” in the same paragraph to be an error. She said no, along with this doozy: “That first one is two words. The letters are just squished together. You can see a line between them.”

“That’s the PROOFREADER’S red line!” he answered, with more than a little exasperation.

Another gem involved her misspelling the name of Fanning’s Bookstore. Silva claimed that she was under no obligation to spell the name of the bookstore correctly, especially since she had no time to look up the name in the Fictitious Names Index.

I told her that I had simply called Mr. Fanning and asked him for the correct spelling!

Finally, when the judge looked at Kathy’s carefully enumerated list of errors, he told Silva, “Paula’s list contains 49 spelling errors alone, which by itself beats the 41 that the winner had.”

“Well, uh huh, that’s true,” Silva admitted.

For crying out loud, why had this woman ever thought it was justifiable to declare someone else the winner? All she had to do was declare me the winner with 42 typos and I would never have felt cheated or taken her to court. Now she was spending her time defending her ridiculous excuses. What a waste! None of it made any sense to me!

The judge concluded by telling us that he would commission a third party to scrutinize my entry, and that we would get the decision in the mail.

As I walked out of the courtroom past the gallery, still a bit wobbly, a young guy about my age took my hands in both of his and said, “That was a very nice presentation.”

“I tell you, that sweet gesture made my whole day happy.”

A couple of weeks later, the judgment arrived.

May 12: “On the way out the door at 2:00 this afternoon, I found my court judgment in the mail, a piddling $80 victory. I’m glad I won, but it sure would’ve been nice to get more money for all the work I put in. And I feel a little sheepish calling up people like Mom and telling them that I only got 80 bucks.”

The cherry on top was that Silva waited so long to send me my check that her time limit expired and I had to lean on her with another letter. But she eventually coughed up the dough.

So that was it. Justice had prevailed, although it seemed like only partial justice. I still have my lengthy list of bloopers, and even with the mellowing of age, I still maintain that I had a couple hundred valid entries. Who was this “third party” who came up with such a cockamamie count? Obviously not an English major!


So where are these dramatist personae today?

As far as I can tell, Kathy Reigstad lives in the Pacific Northwest and still works as a copy editor, including for Harper Collins Publishers in New York. She was a dedicated, kind, competent editor and delightful human being.

Sydney Fairbairn, the earnest young woman from Consumer Fraud, is an attorney in Marin County.

My friend Pam Pecora Hansen is an attorney in the San Francisco D.A.’s Office.

Laura Silva, as it turns out, owns a large shop in my neighborhood! Oy! I have never stepped foot in her store, even though there’s some great stuff in there. But I’m too afraid that if I bought anything she would recognize the name on my credit card, even after so much time has passed, and I shudder at the thought.

She may well be a lovely person. After all, it’s been nearly 40 years, and we’re all different people from what we were half a lifetime ago.

On the other hand, maybe she’s still a schmoo.


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.

2/9/73 [age 17]:
“Two learning experiences, one quite in contrast to the other. This morning I took Mary to school early in order that she be able to attend a History class. I went along to her class for lack of anything better to do and because I simply LOVE learning! The program was actually quite interesting. (Judy asked today what class I was reading Walden for. I answered that I was doing it for fun. ‘God, I NEVER do that!’ she replied.) And the other experience? Well, yesterday I was propositioned in the Student Union. I rudely turned the guy down. He must’ve been hard up.”

3/9/73 [age 17]:
“Mom and Dad went out tonight so I naturally went in the sewing room to listen to four records at ear-splitting volume. My tastes are not limited; Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand hold as much appeal for me as do Neil Diamond or Johnny Rivers or the Four Tops. My sole material desire in the world is to own a stereo with four speakers at the very least. I know the quality of every radio station around; I can sing the words to almost every song that was ever written. It’s kind of ironic that I am so wanting in musical talent, and I have the worst voice this side of the Rockies.”

2/19/73 [age 17]:
“Dad had to go to a basketball game tonight, so we’re not going to Clearlake until tomorrow. Instead, Jeanne took me to a ballet at Flint Center, “Swan Lake,” with Rudolph Nuryvev [sic]. I guess it was okay, but my mind wandered all over the place. It was so boring!”

2/20/73 [age 17]:
“On my break today all I did was eat. So much for my diet. I had three pieces of pizza, a tuna sandwich, some French fries, and a glass of root beer.”

2/22/73 [age 17]:
“I had a dream that I was in an elevator and the doors never closed and it started going up and down, faster and faster, never stopping. I grew dizzy, became disoriented. It was awful. I’ve tried to analyze what it all means – maybe the elevator is my world, for I am helplessly confined by something beyond my control. Alone, scared, out of place, confused. I woke up with my heart pounding like crazy and I was gasping for breath. I tell you, one of the most glorious feelings in the world is waking up from a horrible nightmare and realizing you are still alive.”

2/25/73 [age 17]:
“I’m slowly recovering from a bash on the head [my sister] Janine gave me with a pot while we were drying the dishes. It was accidental, I think. I’ve finally decided to make some attempt at learning to cook, or at least to make preparations for my eventual independence, so I’ve bought myself a little notebook in which I shall observe different dinners and write them out. Eventually, I shall also include other domestic chores, such as washing, repairs, etc.”

2/28/73 [age 17]:
“I’m still trying to get over the shock, but Mr. Jordahl from Rexall Drugs by Lucky’s called today about an interview; I went down and without any real questions he hired me (it’s advantageous that he knows Mom). The pay is really raunchy – $1.55 an hourbut I’ve accomplished the one thing I wanted to do: no more Clear Lake. I don’t know what I’ll do when they [my family] go away for the weekend, or how in the world I’ll get to work (in the dark? with no car?). We’ll solve that problem when we come to it. Maybe they’ll pawn me off on somebody or I’ll have a friend come over, which’ll be really nice. O, blissful freedom!”

Our noble home

Our noble home

Very few people know this, but I once saved the life of Chelsea Clinton when she fell from the window of a burning dormitory at Stanford University. I leaped out of my passing car and caught her on the run, like a wide receiver.

I’ve also saved the lives of Jenna Bush, Amy Carter, both Obama girls, and Ron Reagan, Jr.

As you can see, I haven’t been partisan.

These fantasies (yes, none of this really happened) have been a part of my evening ritual for decades. I go to sleep each night imagining myself to be the hero I have always wanted to be. In these scenarios I never knew that the people I was rescuing were public figures. And sometimes, but not always, I would sustain gruesome injuries.

So why did these people falling from burning windows have to be the children of Presidents? Because I figured that only then would I be invited to appear on the Johnny Carson show and be lauded as a hero in front of millions of Americans.

(Never did I consider the fact that Presidents’ children might have had Secret Service Protection and would more likely have been rescued by someone with sunglasses and a gun. That would not have fit well with my design.)


I hear people overuse “amazing” so much these days that I could just scream. If everything and everyone is amazing, then nothing is amazing. Let me tell you something: a horsefly can catch a pellet fired from an air rifle. Now, that’s amazing.

Along those lines, the other overused word that gripes me is “hero.”

As I’ve said before, to me a hero is someone who throws himself on a grenade. He risks his life to save another person or, on a larger scale, his family, his community, or his country. And he is selfless. He does it for neither fame nor money.

(Needless to say, a hero doesn’t have to be a man, but I didn’t want to get too mired in pronouns here.)

So if I ever really do catch someone falling from a burning building, would that act fit the definition of heroism? I’d say so, unless before I started my sprint I yelled at an onlooker to film the whole thing so that I’d go viral and end up on Colbert.

Reuben Steger, c. 1941

My great-uncle Reuben Steger, whom I discussed at length in “Their Last Full Measure,” was a true hero. He absolutely knew he was going to die at the Battle of Buna in World War II when he saved at least half a dozen lives running through machine gun fire to drag his wounded men to safety. Eventually, on the sixth or seventh foray, his luck ran out. He was 25 years old. The Army gave his parents the Distinguished Service cross he earned for “extraordinary heroism.”

Joe Rosamond

Of course, one needn’t die in order to qualify as a hero. A couple of weeks ago I read a news story about Chief Warrant Officer Joe Rosamond, a helicopter pilot with the CA Army National Guard. Thirty families were trapped at a place called Mammoth Pool in the wilderness, taken by surprise when one of the California fires came raging at them at a savage speed. All ground attempts at reaching the stranded campers had failed. A rescue effort by a CHP helicopter had likewise failed. Another plan had been diverted because the air conditions were so hazardous. Finally the operations commander called off all rescue attempts, but Rosamond was already in his chopper and on the way, not to be dissuaded. He was determined to save those people or die trying, and frankly, there was a good chance he would. He couldn’t make out anything past half a mile, even through his night-vision goggles. By the time he landed on a boat ramp, his own windshield was black with ash and it was impossible to see through it. Then he had to go back twice. Twice. The operation was so harrowing that afterwards he would liken it to his missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He saved 214 people.

Harriet Tubman with rescued slaves, c. 1887

And what about Harriet Tubman, the brutally-beaten slave who escaped and made 19 return missions to rescue dozens of slaves using the Underground Railroad, each time putting herself willingly in grave danger? Had she been detected, she would have been drawn and quartered.

Saman Kunan

Or the unbelievably courageous divers in 2018 who rescued 12 young boys and their coach from a cave in Thailand. The undertaking was physically treacherous and mentally terrifying. All of the kids, and their coach, survived. But one of the divers, Saman Kunan, died of asphyxiation in the cave. (Another one, by the way, died 10 months ago from a blood condition he contracted during the rescue.)

Amy O’Sullivan

Or Amy O’Sullivan, who made Time’s list of 100 influential people last month. A long-time ER nurse, she helped care for the first COVID-19 patient at Brooklyn’s Wyckoff hospital. A short time later, she came down with the disease herself and spent four days intubated, hooked up to a ventilator. After two weeks she went back to work.


When we were very young, my siblings and I had an album called America on the Move. It was part of the 1959 multi-LP set “The Golden Library,” which featured collections of patriotic tunes, songs about faith, nursery rhymes, and other music. One of our favorite songs from the album was “Casey Jones,” about the railroad engineer who gave his life for his passengers on his “farewell trip to the Promised Land.” I actually have a one-minute recording of the Bocciardi kids singing this tune in 1962:

“Casey Jones” by the Bocciardi kids
Casey Jones

Jones, a railroad engineer, died in 1900 at the young age of 37. On his last run, with six cars of passengers, the train was heading out of a blind curve when the engine’s fireman spotted a freight train parked on the track ahead. It was too late for Jones to stop, and he knew it. After yelling at the fireman to jump, Casey stayed aboard, blowing his whistle and braking the train as it went crashing through four of the freight train’s cars before leaving the track. He spent his last moments on earth mitigating the potential effect of the collision on those for whom he had responsibility. All of the passengers (and the fireman) survived. Casey did not. The story goes that his body was found with his hand still clutching the whistle and the brake. He was a true hero.


But what about those who display extraordinary selflessness without risking their lives?

I’d like to call attention to one of my favorite ballplayers: Buster Posey, the storied catcher for the San Francisco Giants.

Sure, he has potential Hall of Fame stats, is a six-time All-Star, won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2010, and was the National League MVP in 2012. But he’s not a “hero” to me. I think it’s ridiculous that we so commonly apply that label to athletes who hit baseballs or sink baskets or score touchdowns while playing a game they love and pulling in more money annually than most of us will ever see cumulatively in our lifetimes.

But there’s something special about him that I recognized when he first came up with the Giants. He went about his business quietly. He wasn’t a showboat. His teammates immediately looked up to him. I’d say that he’s been a steadfast role model.

But this season he proved to be much more than that.

Just a few days into the summer preseason, Buster had just finalized the adoption of twin premature baby girls and had been told that after spending at least four weeks in neonatal intensive care, the babies would have vulnerable immune systems for a number of months. He reported to camp for a day or two but was visibly tortured. After talking to doctors, he made a decision that was personally excruciating but, for him, clear-cut.

He opted out of the 2020 baseball season altogether.

“These babies being as fragile as they are for the next four months, at minimum, this ultimately wasn’t that difficult a decision for me,” he said. “From a baseball standpoint, it was a tough decision. From a family standpoint and feeling like I’m making a decision to protect our children, I think it was relatively easy.

“My wife, I, and our other children are just overwhelmed with joy to welcome them into our family to love them unconditionally and just share life with them.”

Buster and his wife Kristen gave up $8 million when they made this choice.

Now, let’s face it, that’s a drop in the bucket for them and will make no difference in the quality of their lives whatsoever.

But Posey also gave up a season of, for him, just a few dwindling seasons left. He is 33 years old, and for a catcher, that means he’s nearing the end of his playing career. After a lackluster 2019 as a result of postsurgical difficulties, he’d been absolutely tearing up the first Spring Training in early 2020, hitting a whopping .455. This had the potential to be a dominating year for him – perhaps his last. Yet he opted out. For most professional athletes, that would be tantamount to torture.

The most noble among us, though, are willing to devote ourselves to causes well beyond our own self-interest. To country, or community, or family. Buster and his wife have been struggling to adopt – which in and of itself is a selfless act – ever since they had biological twins in 2011. But meanwhile they have been devoting their energies to the Buster and Kristin Posey Fund, which is dedicated to battling pediatric cancer through awareness and research.

Buster and Kristin Posey

“It’s not acceptable,” Buster once said about childhood cancer. “We can’t sit here and talk about how bad this is, we’ve got to try to help.”

To whom much is given, much will be required.

Buster has given back in abundance. Not just talk, but action. Not just money, but time. He’s what a man – especially a ­man of means – ought to be.

He has character.

So I want another category. I want a category for people who make personal sacrifices for others, even though those sacrifices might not involve life and death.

I’ve decided to use “lodestar.”

Buster Posey is my lodestar. Add that to his legacy.

So as I sit here today on this metaphorical pier, at the edge of the Pacific, while the country rocks and swells and stumbles darkly behind me, I think of all the lodestars still lighting our way. I think of all the great men and women who silently, and without acclaim, provide reason, patience, calm, truth, integrity, and sacrifice.

Ever the optimist, I believe that, with time, they will help bring us back to our once-noble home.

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.

9/20/72 [age 16]:
“Oh, I am so excited by the prospects of learning. All the books I’ve gotten – they all are filled with so much wonderful new information that I want to read very word and to keep them forever. I don’t like the early hours of college; in fact, I have to pick Robin up at 6:45 tomorrow because she has to get there especially early. I don’t like my lack of sleep. And of course my laziness makes me extremely adverse [sic] to studying, or any kind of work. But the bright promise of learning – I think it is worth everything.”

9/21/72 [age 16]:
“I wonder if I am the only near-17-year-old in the entire world who has had such a meager love life. I am so-o-o-o lonely for real companionship. I don’t think there is any guy I really like right now, and I may never have the chance to. I am young, have a weird voice, and am far from good-looking. In fact, I’m not sexy at all, and I suppose I suffer from lack of feminism [sic]. My face . . . oh, yecch.”

9/27/72, ONE WEEK after starting college [age 16]:
“Boy, I’m so tired! College requires such a large amount of reading – I get headaches every day now. Between tons of homework and my daily Bible reading (which takes quite a bit of time) and my daily letters and baths and hairwashings and homework, I never have time for FUN anymore!”

10/4/72 [age 16]:
“At dinner tonight, Dad told me that my dear beloved [former high school teacher] Mr. Bernert told him that whenever he hears that ridiculous song ‘I’m the Happiest Girl in the Whole USA’ by Donna Fargo, he thinks of ME. I’m still trying to figure out what he could possibly mean.”

10/4/72 [age 16]:
“Our first biology field trip today was to Alum Rock Park [in San Jose]. I enjoyed it, because, besides the fact that I am in love with Dr. Shellhammer, the teacher, I now have a far greater ecological appreciation for the Park. And to think I used to call it a dumb place . . .”

10/5/72 [age 16]:
“I had the ‘tremendous’ privilege of seeing the Vice-Presidential candidate Sargent Shriver today at [San Jose State]. I was with Mary Pasek, and I almost fainted. Why? Because 1) it was very hot and I had on a sweater OVER a jumper, 2) there were 4000 people there, 3) I hadn’t had lunch at all, and 4) I suppose he wasn’t too thrilling for me to listen to.”

10/14/72 [age 16]:
“Since Sue came home this weekend I took her and Barb to Baskin’s and Robbin’s tonight. Night driving scares me. Then we came to our house and talked. I loved it. Sue is religious now, very into the Bible, and she is exceedingly happy, just in the way she talks it shows. We talked of religion, mostly, and once more I felt warmed over with love for humanity. Mom laughed at the whole affair, saying, ‘You feel obligated to be worldly. Why can’t you talk about fishing, like boys do?’ ”

10/16/72 [age 16]:
“It was strange, but Mrs. Espinosa called today (you know, the school nurse who I went skiing with) just to see how I was. It was really nice. The thing is – I honestly keep wondering to myself how anyone could LIKE me, let alone care enough about me to call. I mean, I’m such a quiet, sullen, moody, morose person.”

10/18/72 [age 16]:
“Our Biology field trip today was to Villa Montalvo, and Dr. Shellhammer walks so fast that the rest of us have to jog. But I did so willingly; I have developed a passionate love for running. I first saw that in the movie ‘Tribes,’ where the guy claimed that he could do any physical feat by putting ‘mind over matter,’ and I then thought it was a bunch of bull, but now I really believe it. When I am running, I can daydream – as long as I am not running uphill, where concentration is required.”

10/25/82 [age 16]:
“I got my second English paper back today with a B- on it. I have always taken great pride in my writing. It would not be too bad if Dr. Haeger’s comments were justifiable, but I disagree with 95% of them. I like my word choice better. Also, I certainly am not going to change my style. The fragments, dots, dashes, etc. that I use are not accidental grammatical errors; they are techniques I use on purpose to contribute to the effect of the paper. Hmmm. Last week I claimed that I had no interest in grades. Perhaps I should rescind that.”

10/27/72 [age 16]:
“I was thinking about [San Jose] State today, how I love it but I hate it. It’s far too big. There are so many people that I’m forced to be alone, solitary in the midst of others. Is that understandable? There is no chance to cultivate any close friendships, or really get to know anyone. We have 25,000 students! I spoke with Yolanda Parra today and she seemed so open and loving. But she gave me a blank stare when I mentioned my ‘there are so many people that I feel all alone’ theory. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a ding-a-ling.”

10/28/72 [age 16]:
“[My friend] Judy came over today at 12:30 and we worked on her essay on busing for 4 hours. Actually, I wrote the whole thing – just dictated while she wrote it down. I’m glad I could help, but – what do I know about busing??!”

10/29/72 [age 16]:
“Tonight I asked Robin over to watch ‘Yellow Submarine’ and a Peanuts special, where my beloved Linus won an election! I love him – he’s so cute and kind and wise and intellectual. He’s my man.”

12/5/72 [age 17]:
“Barb and I rode up and down the elevators at Duncan Hall yesterday. We had just eaten an entire bag of too-salty cornnuts on empty stomachs. Then these elevators – in Duncan Hall they’re so FAST that your stomach exits. We got in two separate elevators on floor 6 and rode up and down trying to find each other. Eventually we did, but only after I’d gotten a million drinks of water on a million different floors . . . plus the cornnuts, plus the elevators – Barb and I were so nauseated. We each went home, took two aspirin, and went to bed.”

12/11/72 [age 17]:
“Gadzooks! Robin has decided to have a wild party sometime during Christmas vacation. I guess it’ll have all the vices, bar none. For some totally absurd reason I would love to go, so that I could at least know that I have been in a tempting environment and have resisted it.”

12/12/72 [age 17]:
“I have almost resigned myself to the notion that there is no possibility of my ever becoming lucky enough to fall in love. And how can I live my life alone? True, I am young, but I see future repetitions of my present daily, weekly, monthly, yearly pattern. It’s almost unbearably depressing, yet I remain clinging to the hope that perhaps someday I will stumble miraculously upon him. In the meantime, I sit and wait . . . and cry every once in a while.”

12/19/72 [age 17]:
“I’m still worried about Law Enforcement and if I will indeed remain with it. There are so many things I want do to: be a psychologist, work with the physically handicapped, read to old people, get people off drugs, write, be a cop. And I don’t think that I could do everything at once. And the thing that I would really like to do, above all else, is to move out and go to college for 50 years. Of course, I’d have to have a part-time job on the side.”

12/23/72 [age 17]:
“Another rotten day. Both the 49ers and the Raiders lost by way of flukes in the last few seconds. Pittsburgh caught a deflected pass near the ground and ran a touchdown in the last 5 seconds to be victors over the Raiders. And the stupid Cowboys scored two touchdowns in the last 2 minutes to wrest victory from the deserving hands of San Francisco. The only good thing was [my cousin] Ronnie’s appearance. I love just looking at him – he’s so cute and now he has a moustache. A pleasing sight is no substitute for sweet victory, however.”

12/25/72 [age 17]:
“About all I do up here [in southern CA at my grandparents’ house] is listen to music. [My uncle] Fred brought over his two-record set of Neil Diamond’s live concert at the Greek theater (which he and [my aunt] Jackie witnessed) called ‘Hot August Night.’ It’s an eight-dollar record! While I listen to that I’m writing an entry for my journal about the past year called ‘Shades of 1972 Revisited,’ which is so lengthy I may never finish. Otherwise, I’m wearing the grooves out of ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Songs for Beginners.’ I don’t write while I listen to those because I love them so much that I need to listen intently.”

1/5/73 [age 17]:
“Once again, for the jillionth time, I feel terribly guilty. [My friend] Robin has decided to move out tomorrow – has even informed her parents – and I didn’t discourage her in the least. I feel as if I’ve contributed to the ruination of a young person’s life. She doesn’t have much money, and her parents will be hurt. Will Robin regret it forever? Will she go off the deep end, as I believe she already has? (I heard rumors, partly verified, that at her party she gave a couple of weeks ago there was a lot of ‘making out.’)”

1/6/73 [age 17]:
“It was once again brought to my attention today that as far as practical knowledge and skills go, I am a total failure. My complete uselessness in the household infuriates Mom to high degrees. But I need not know how to cook exotic things for myself, because I can easily subsist on hamburgers and root beer.”

1/8/73 [age 17]:
“Our tennis class was cancelled today so Barb and I took the bus (a first for me!) to her house where I had rice and egg fu yung and won ton soup. Wow, what a lunch! Her parents were astounded at my universal appreciation of food.”

1/12/73 [age 17]:
“We came up to Clearlake today and I’m freezing to death. One small fire and an inadequate heater cannot warm my perpetually shivering body with their meager warmth. Small things make me happy, though. They bought us a colossal bag of sunflower seeds, which makes my studying much more enjoyable.”

2/1/73 [age 17]:
“My constant praying has paid off. The wait in line outside from 6:00 to 10:00 to register for this semester was not too bad. I had on long underwear (with no bra – it felt weird), my yellow sweatshirt, Levis, and my blue jacket. The only parts of me that got cold in this freezing weather were my feet – they turned numb. I was number 83 in line and got all the classes I wanted AND the sections I wanted! (except tennis, so I took badminton) God is a great guy, but today he was exceptionally terrific.”

Paula’s pandemic pointers

Paula’s pandemic pointers

I may have committed a felony last week. I’m not really sure. But it involved throwing a bag of bagels from a 10th-story balcony.

This coronavirus can really mess with one’s routine.

I don’t know whether the act of throwing something down to the street from 10 stories up is illegal. When I first looked it up, I found the term defenestration, which I always thought meant the act of shaving one’s legs. Anyway, although defenestration does mean throwing something or someone out of a window, it apparently connotes an impulse both deliberate and forceful, especially when it comes to tossing one’s enemies out onto the street to kill them.

My online reading of the California Penal Code proved inconclusive. I mean, I came away pretty sure that if the bagels were thrown deliberately to hurt someone, it would be considered an assault. (Especially if the bagels were stale.) However, if there was no malicious intent . . . well, that wasn’t directly addressed.

Finally, I cryptically texted a police officer friend and asked whether, hypothetically, it would be illegal to toss a bag of bagels off of a 10th-floor balcony towards a person waiting to catch them. “Of course not!!” was the response. “Unless it hits them on the head and kills them. Then you might be looking at a murder charge!”


I was supposed to be on my biennial train trip to the East Coast right now. Boo hoo. Instead, I’m cooped up just like the rest of you, but I’m one of the luckier ones because I have no aging parents to worry about, no children to homeschool, and no paychecks to forego. My heart goes out to everyone suffering from the disease or its economic effects, and my deepest respect goes out to everyone on the front lines keeping my vulnerable arse safer – delivery people, grocery clerks, mail carriers, and especially health care workers.

So I’ve decided to do what little good I can and help you all through the pandemic by recommending the top 10 products (and activities) I’ve discovered while sheltering in place.

You’re welcome.


Recommendation #10: Do something so silly it makes you giggle.

Regarding the above-mentioned felony: My friend Char Sachson recently mentioned that she was baking homemade bagels and that we should let her know if we wanted any. After that conversation, the only thing on my mind, 24 hours a day, was the possibility of nabbing some of those bagels.

The only slight glitch was that she lives in a high-rise condo building, and for various health and logistical reasons it was best that we not do a personal handoff. So she suggested the “bagel drop.” This would involve her sending the bagels plummeting to earth from her 10th-floor balcony.

IMG_0827 with red circle
View from street up to Char’s balcony. Char is circled in red.

Char said that she would make us three kinds of bagels, put each type in its own paper bag, then put all three paper bags into a bigger paper bag. Julie and I would drive down to her neighborhood near the Civic Center, park on Franklin Street, and get into position under her balcony for the drop. On the way there, Julie and I were on the phone with Char, plotting the details of the caper and laughing harder than we had since this whole pandemic started. I mentioned that we had recently gotten some cream cheese delivered so it would be a perfect time to acquire the bagels. That’s when Julie commented that she liked jalapeños on hers, and Char was aghast. “Only a shiksa would put peppers on a bagel,” she scoffed.

That made us laugh even harder.

Sure enough, there were a couple of parking spaces right near Char’s balcony. We’d decided that Julie would attempt to make The Catch. We were both wearing masks, but she was also wearing her baseball glove. My job was to take photos and hope that the “sports mode” on my camera, which shoots multiple frames per second, would capture the exact moment of the catch.

IMG_5479-1 with red circle and arrow
Char took this photo. Julie, awaiting the drop, is circled in red (with red arrow pointing to her).

We positioned ourselves and gave the sign that we were ready. Char let ’er rip. The bagels fell to earth much faster and harder than we had anticipated. Julie said she hadn’t accounted for wind and trajectory. The bag smacked off Julie’s glove, caromed off her forearm, and then hit the pavement with an explosive boom that echoed far down the city streets.

I had my camera trained on the right spot but never even saw the bagels come down. I just heard the boom. As bad luck would have it, the camera’s shutter captured only the moment before and the moment after impact. Dang!

Julie was okay, although her arm was a bit sore. All three interior bagel bags ripped open on impact, but the outer bag survived and kept the bagels from rolling into Franklin Street. And the bagels were, thankfully, intact.


Julie preparing to catch bagels
Julie milliseconds before impact.

My friend Julie Riffle, after I’d recounted the story to her, said that we should have calculated the force of impact beforehand. Well, I never took physics, so that had not occurred to me. She actually spent some time after the incident to perform a number of calculations (with the disclaimer that she hopes no physicists are reading this blog because these are very rough estimates) and concluded that “the force at impact is dependent on the surface it impacts. If the surface is soft and gives, the impact is less, or if the object itself gives, the impact will be less. This makes it very hard to calculate since the bagels first glanced off of Julie’s glove and arm, which would have lessened the impact. And then there’s the effect of the bagels (and/or bag) being displaced upon impact with Julie and ultimately the sidewalk. So, I started with the default for d (distance traveled after impact), 0.1 m representing the movement of Julie’s arm after impact. This gave the result in Newtons which equals 609.18 lbs of force at impact. But if the bagels had missed Julie and hit the sidewalk, the distance traveled after impact would have been only the displacement of the bag and/or bagels, since the sidewalk would have presumably not been displaced. This would result in greater impact.”

Does anyone understand that?

By the way, she also commented that Char should have made a tiny parachute for the bagels. Maybe next time.

Char’s delightful and delicious bagels


Recommendation #9: Toss the Caravella.

Limoncello has been all the rage in the States for some time now. It was first offered to my parents and me back in 1998 on our trip to Italy. We were sitting outside our small hotel on the outskirts of Rome. Our young waiter poured it for us and told us that it “helps with digestion.” He also told us, excitedly, that he was soon going to California with his girlfriend and was especially looking forward to seeing “Joe’s Meat.” We were puzzled. It came to me, though, after a few seconds. “Ah,” I said, “Yosemite!”


I was quite pleased with myself for figuring this out before my parents did.

Anyway, as you all surely know, limoncello is a lemon liqueur. People over here often say “lemonchello” but it’s actually pronounced “LEEmonchello.”

We’ve been buying the Caravella brand, which is the only kind carried by Safeway, our local supermarket. But a couple of weeks ago we picked up an order of wine (I just can’t get enough of it these days) at our neighborhood wine store (curbside), and we noticed on the store’s website that they carried only one kind of limoncello and it was not Caravella. It was Il Convento. I don’t like change, so I was skeptical, but I finally agreed to give it a try.

It was glorious. Birds started singing when I brought the tiny glass of liqueur to my lips. It was not thickly sweet like the Caravella. The consistency was lighter. The color was a yellow pastel. It tasted more like lemons, and like Italy. It was springtime in a bottle.

Il Convento. Get some.


Recommendation #8: Poo-Pourri. Go with it.


I don’t think I need to dwell too long on this product, in case you’re reading this blog post over breakfast. Suffice it to say that about a year ago, some friends suggested that Poo-Pourri is an essential suitcase item for travelers sharing hotel rooms. You spritz it into the toilet before you go, and it covers up any odors. I had my doubts but added “Buy Poo-Pourri” to my Microsoft Outlook calendar, a year into the future. Well, the year came ’round, the “reminder” popped up, and I decided to give the product a try. Danged if it doesn’t work like a charm. And it doesn’t work by just covering the odor with a strong, cloying smell, which is what I feared. It just makes the odor disappear altogether. A miracle! I don’t understand it. Anyway, many lovely scents are available, but I would recommend buying the sample pack and figuring out which one you like. The vanilla mint is, in my view, especially nice.


Recommendation #7: Crisp some prosciutto in the microwave.

It’s quite possible that the mere suggestion of microwaving prosciutto could be considered a crime of heresy in Italy and could net you some jail time. I know my nonna would thrash around in her grave if she were to catch wind of this nonsense. I’ve been eating this thin-sliced Italian ham delicacy my entire life and never heard of microwaving it until this pandemic. But Julie discovered it online and then used it to slightly modify a recipe she found for Prosciutto Pasta with Peas and Parmesan Cheese.

Pasta_juliasalbum.com - prosciutto-pasta-peas-parmesan-cheese
Prosciutto Pasta with Peas and Parmesan Cheese

Let me just say that the result entered the realm of the god-like. The microwaved prosciutto is crispy, and a bit like bacon, but much more delicate and, in my opinion, much more concentrated and flavorful.

I interviewed Julie so that I could properly replicate her technique:

Microwave-crisped prosciutto

“Line a microwaveable plate with two layers of paper towels,” she says. “Lay 2-3 slices of prosciutto on the plate, then cover with another single layer of paper towels. Microwave for one minute. If it doesn’t look too fried, do another 30 seconds and continue microwaving for 30-second intervals until it is crisped. Remove plate from microwave and use a paper towel to wipe off any grease sitting on the prosciutto. Let it cool for a bit. Once it’s cool enough to touch, crumble each slice into small pieces. Then sprinkle it over the pasta.”

Give it a shot!


Recommendation #6: Embrace your hair.

Julie says my hair looks like the Wizard of Oz. Our niece Tara merely says it looks “voluminous.”


Recommendation #5: Try Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread recipe.

The aforementioned Char Sachson – who apparently has become a baker extraordinaire – suggested that we try making our own bread. I used to bake sourdough bread but it was a pain in the arse and never really worked for me. Julie groaned at the thought of kneading bread. But the recipe Char recommended requires no kneading! In fact, it is called “No Knead Bread,” and although it takes 15-21 hours to make, the dough is “largely unattended” and probably requires only 30 minutes or so of effort on your part.  Each loaf is a perfect loaf, every time.


Bread 2
Julie made this wonderfulness!


Recommendation #4: Have a delightful time exercisingfinally.

Many of you know that I hate exercise and that occasionally I work out for only 30 seconds at a time and consider that a coup. We recently bought a stationary bike and I glumly figured I would never warm to it – until I discovered BitGym.

BitGym is an app. I don’t normally like apps of any kind. But this one is a marvel.

Everyone around me is sick to death of hearing me waxing poetic about BitGym, but in a nutshell it makes you feel like you are riding your bike through the California redwoods or on the streets of Paris or along the Atlantic shore. And you need no special hardware or connections whatsoever! More than 170 high-resolution video rides are available (they add more every month), and these are real trips that volunteers? employees? drones? have filmed, complete with location sound so that you can hear the leaves rustling, birds singing, hikers clomping, waterfalls roaring. By tracking your eye movements the app knows that you are exercising, so as soon as you start pedaling the landscape starts flowing. I hooked my phone up to our TV so that the gorgeous scenery is up on a huge screen and I actually do believe that I am biking through Nova Scotia. When the company says its rides are “immersive,” they are not kidding. In fact – and I am not making this up – on more than one occasion I have felt like I was too close to a cliff and about to tumble off the side of a mountain, so I’ve actually yelled, “Be careful!” to myself!

I love this thing.

The free version, which I used for a while, limits the user to 10 minutes per “tour,” and the choices are fewer. The pro version costs me $8 a month, but I think it now may be up to $10 or so. EXCEPT that the company is making it completely free through May 31 because so many of us are quarantined!!! Isn’t that lovely??


Let me tell you, I can get on that bike and pedal for way more than 30 seconds – maybe up to 45 minutes or so – and feel like it’s nothing.

And you don’t have to worry about flat tires, traffic, or bad weather! The weather in our downstairs room is always a perfect 55 degrees.

By the way, you don’t necessarily need a bike. You can use it with other aerobic machines like treadmills or ellipticals or rowers.

So if you want to make your workouts more pleasant, please give this app a shot and then thank me profusely later.

[Note: Unfortunately, my back pain is not allowing me to ride our stationary bike anymore – for now, at least. But if it ever gets better, you’ll find me in our downstairs room, merrily riding through a jungle in Costa Rica.]


Recommendation #3: Get some Bob’s Red Mill cookie mix.

Wouldn’t it be great to bake the perfect chocolate chip cookie from – gasp! – a mix?

Well, it’s not only possible but a certainty.

And you’d be supporting Bob’s Red Mill.

Bob Moore, the founder of this wondrous company, is 91 years old. He got into the milling biz quite late in life, which is a minor story unto itself. He was living in southern California, working at gas stations and tire stores, when he strolled into a library and randomly pulled John Goffe’s Mill off the shelves. The book is about a man with zero experience who bought an old grain mill.

Well, that sounds fun, doesn’t it? At least, it did to Bob.

Long story short, Bob and his wife Charlee bought an abandoned mill in 1978. Its headquarters are now in Milwaukie, Oregon, and you’ve probably seen Bob’s natural, organic stone-ground flours and steel-cut oats on your grocery shelves.

Charlee – the love of Bob’s life –passed away in 2018, and Bob’s Red Mill is estimated to be worth around $100 million. But he refuses to sell. Instead, he’s transferred ownership of his company to his 500+ employees, with their shares dependent upon how long they’ve worked there. The man is a gem.

Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix

The company makes over 400 products. But the best might be the Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix. The mix is gluten-free, which might be an added bonus for some of you. The website says that it is “a taste of childhood,” which is absolutely true. It’s easy to prepare (you add eggs, water, and butter) and the website notes that you can use their “Egg Replacer,” which we did because we had no real ones. Even though I normally eschew substitutions, we heartily recommend the Egg Replacer!

Finally, the site says that the cookie mix is “crafted to achieve crispy edges and a soft inside.” Also absolutely true!

And that’s why it’s the perfect chocolate chip cookie: just the right amount of chocolate and the right amount of sweetness, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Unfortunately, these days the mix goes in and out of stock on the Bob’s Red Mill site seemingly every few minutes (https://www.bobsredmill.com/gluten-free-chocolate-chip-cookie-mix.html). It’s also sometimes available on other sites online. A package costs $6.49.

Grab some when you can – quick.


Recommendation #2: Buy this shirt.

I’m sure I’ve driven my health care family and friends nuts because I thank them for their public service every single time I talk to them. I mean, at least two have been working directly with COVID-19 patients! So I bought this Life Is Good t-shirt, and I wear it regularly, in their honor. It costs $28.




By the way, the company donates 10 percent of its net profits to The Life Is Good Kids Foundation, which “focuses on improving the capacity of childcare professionals to build healing, life-changing relationships with the most vulnerable kids in their care. Today there are over 10,000 Life Is Good Playmakers who have helped over 1 million kids heal from the trauma of poverty, violence and illness.”

Thank you to Alicia Darnell, Lynne Eckerson, Jane Malone, Julie Riffle, and all the healthcare workers out there.

As for the rest of you, you can shell out 28 bucks for this adorable and meaningful t-shirt, can’t you?


And my #1 recommendation: Dole out compliments for others’ endeavors.

I’ve been trying to play the piano lately. I took a year of lessons when I was 7 years old and I still have the old piano my parents bought me, as well as my old music books. I am terrible, of course, and I’m not being falsely modest in any way. I can read most of the notes in the treble clef (right hand) and a few in the bass clef (left hand), and that’s it. The only songs I attempt to play are patriotic tunes and antiquated folk ballads. My technique involves sporadic plunking at a dirgelike tempo while I hit at least 30 percent bad notes. (Much like a 7-year-old beginner.) My showpiece tune is a sluggish version of “My Old Kentucky Home,” which I’ve played on the order of 3,000 times.


I try to play only on weekdays, and only when our doors and windows are shut so there is no chance of anyone hearing me. However, the other day my sweet young (yes, to me 30-ish is young) next-door neighbor texted me the following:

“I heard you on the piano on Wednesday last week. It was beautiful! I could have listened to you play all day! It reminds me of my sister back home [in Ireland].”

This one simple gesture has brought tears to my eyes nearly every day since. I think about the kind young soul – who, because of the pandemic, is being deprived of night life and many of the other joys of youth – taking the time to text a senior citizen and turn my halting, hesitant, discordant plunking into something beautiful. Thank you, Lauren Mason.

How about complimenting someone today?

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.

9/17/72 [age 16]:

“I really haven’t been thinking at all about school [college]. I suppose the thought of it is so horrible that I purposely try to put it out of my mind. But now it’s almost here, and I guess I will just . . . well, go, tomorrow. Oh, me, oh, my. CLUTZ – that’s what I am. The question is – is college for klutzes?”

9/18/72 [age 16]:

“Well, I can now say that I’ve made it through one day [of college]. Buying books was a hassle – I’ve bought 5 out of the 7 books I need for 2 classes, and it’s already cost $26. Book-buying is a hassle. My rides are still hassles; in fact, I don’t know how I’m getting to school Wednesday. Tomorrow I drive Robin and Mary and I don’t know where to park, since apparently both parking lots are too small to accommodate the stupid Travelall. I’m confused and oh-so-tired, but – I don’t know – the excitement, the people, the learning prospects – something is making me happy.”

The girls of summer

The girls of summer

On a beautiful May day in 1954, on an innocuous ballfield in Charleston, South Carolina, two Negro League professional baseball teams faced each other in a preseason game. It wasn’t a particularly big deal for the players. The dry infield dirt, as usual, crunched under their spikes. Gloves were oiled, rawhides roughed. But looking back now, it’s clear that that moment was definitely a big deal. Three of the players warming up on the field that day were women. They were the only women, in fact, to ever play professional baseball.

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson was pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns. Infielder Connie Morgan was on the bench. Toni Stone was up to bat for the Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson had been throwing a shutout until Stone stepped into the box and sliced a base hit to the outfield. But she took a careless lead on the next pitch and Johnson picked her off first. It was baseball as usual, but they were not the usual ballplayers.

They were the girls of summer.


Baseball as usual, of course, has disappeared for now, and we don’t know when it will return. I’d been planning on writing about these three women for nearly two years, but I backed off when I learned that a play about Toni Stone was due to open in San Francisco this March. Frankly, I was incensed that the theater company had stolen my idea.

Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, the live production of Toni Stone didn’t happen. Yet perhaps now, more than ever, we need stories like these. You do not have to be a sports fan. This story is about much more than that. It’s about sexism, racism, talent, and guts.


From her earliest days in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, where most of the Twin Cities’ black population lived, Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone had an absolute obsession for baseball. She thought of nothing else, dreamt of nothing else. “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping, I’d go crazy,” she said. But it was the 1930s, and her parents thought it was unnatural and unseemly for a girl to be crazy about a “boys’ game.” On top of that, Toni wasn’t at all interested in makeup or dresses or boys or any of the girlie fascinations that were thought to be “normal.” Everyone called her “Tomboy Stone,” and it was not necessarily a flattering moniker. Still, no one could deny that she was the best athlete, of any gender, in the neighborhood.

Stone started out playing in a summer Catholic boys’ league because a priest named Father Keefe needed someone to beef up his church’s ballclub. She then joined her high school softball team but quit after a year because the pace was too slow. But one spring day in 1936, at the age of 14, she stopped at a local park to watch a bunch of young white ballplayers coached by a man named Gabby Street, who had once played for the San Francisco Seals and the Washington Senators and who was then managing the minor league Saint Paul Saints. On that particular day, he was running a baseball camp for white boys in the area. Toni desperately wanted to play, and she was unaware of the fact that her race and gender were two strikes against her. Two strikes meant nothing to her anyway. So she began a campaign of relentlessly haranguing Street so that he would allow her to prove her skills.

Although Stone didn’t know it at the time, Gabby Street was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The group’s activities had begun to wane nationally, however, and the last Klan meeting in Minnesota had been held seven years earlier. Street began to wear down. “I just couldn’t get rid of her until I gave her a chance,” he said later. “Every time I chased her away, she would go around the corner and come back to plague me again.” Second base was her preferred position, so he asked her to field grounders and hit a few balls. And he was more than impressed. A few days later, on her 15th birthday, he bought her a pair of baseball shoes, and she thought it was a miracle. She had never owned anything “official” like that. He also allowed her into the baseball camp. Those white boys couldn’t believe their eyes when a black girl walked onto the field.

But she quickly proved her mettle.

Toni Stone
Toni Stone

Although Toni was not a good student in high school, she became an astute student of baseball in that camp. The game is packed with more nuance than those who don’t follow it could ever imagine. Under Gabby Street’s coaching she also honed her athletic abilities and learned the more intricate skills, to the extent that she was asked to join a few summer barnstorming teams of amateur African-American ballplayers. In addition to her comfortable position at second base, she’d play center field on those teams and sometimes even take the mound to pitch.

Barnstorming teams typically were based in cities that had no major league teams, and they spent much of their time on the road. (Note: The Minnesota Twins, formerly the Washington Senators, did not move to Minnesota until the 1961 season.) Keep in mind that in that day and age, being on the road for Toni and her teammates was not all fun and games. On one of Toni’s trips to Bloomer, Wisconsin, with her Twin City Colored Giants playing a white team, the man announcing the lineups blithely declared over the loudspeaker, “And now the starting lineup for the niggers.”


After dropping out of high school at the age of 19, Toni left her barnstorming Minnesota teammates behind and hopped on a bus headed for California, to see “what was over there on the other side of the fence.” Her sister Bunny lived in San Francisco, where men and women of all races had come to work in the shipyards. It was 1943, and the war effort was increasing. Toni had no idea where Bunny lived, and depending on when she would later re-tell the story, she had somewhere between 53 cents and $7 in her pocket. Her belongings consisted of a few items of clothing, her Goodwill baseball glove, and the cleats given to her by Gabby Street. To find her sister, the only thing she could do was comb the city’s streets. Incredibly, a few days after she arrived she was walking down a random alley when Bunny happened to look out the window and spotted her!

As I’ve written before, San Francisco is a mix of cultures, with so much to offer that any marginalized person can come here and find identity and acceptance. That happened to Toni. “I love my San Francisco,” she once said. “I had my hardships there. But they treated me right. Old San Francisco folks taken me over.” She had long had a passion for jazz, and the city’s Fillmore District was alive with it. She would hang out in Jack’s Tavern there, not only listening to the music but engaging in conversation with people more worldly than those she had known in her neighborhood back in Saint Paul. It was there that she would meet Aurelious Pescia Alberga, the much-older man whom she would eventually marry. He and the owner of Jack’s got Toni a spot on a local American Legion baseball team. Needless to say, she was the only woman on the squad. The team was part of a junior league, which required its players to be 17 or younger. It was now 1948, and Toni was 27 years old, so she decided to “change” her age by subtracting 10 years from it. It got her onto the team, but it also was the genesis of a long lie, and in years to come her fake youth would create unrealistic expectations and prove to be more of a hindrance than anything else.

Ultimately Toni found a place to live in Oakland through a priest at St. Benedict’s (because of Father Keefe, she would always have a soft spot for the Catholic Church). And she wrangled a job at Foster’s Cafeteria in the Fillmore District, although she would soon need more money and would end up doing physical labor down on the docks.

Toni stone_espn.com
Toni Stone

The next year, Stone was recruited by the San Francisco Sea Lions, a black barnstorming team that traveled throughout the country. (Note: The San Francisco Seals, part of the Pacific Coast League, did not include any black players.) She played second base and hit leadoff. Virtually no records were kept of those games, so no stats are available for me to quote. We do know that at some point Toni discovered that she was being paid less than her teammates, so she joined the New Orleans Creoles when they presented a better offer – which would indicate that her play was impressive. The Creoles went 44-8.

Better records are available for 1950, and by the middle of the season Toni was batting close to .300 for the Creoles. Meanwhile, she continued to fib about her age. She was a 29-year-old posing as a teenager. But she still had guts like no one had seen before. During one game in Iowa, a double-play throw from her third baseman ripped its way through her weakly made glove and knocked her out cold. Her teammates stood around pouring water on her (I’m not sure how that “treatment” was supposed to help), and when she regained consciousness she immediately stood straight up and screamed “Let’s go!” It stunned the crowd.

It was after the 1950 season, though, that Toni did a more audacious thing. She went and got married to the 67-year-old Aurelious Alberga.

No one really knew why she did it. In the first place, she had never had a boyfriend, had seemingly no interest in sex, walked around in men’s clothes, and, frankly, had been considered by many to be a lesbian. Yet her marriage to Alberga, in whatever form it took (they had separate bedrooms from the start), would last until his death.

Alberga was a well-known black social and political leader, and he provided stability and financial resources to the couple. But for a while, at least, he resisted the idea of her playing baseball, so she sat out for about a year and concentrated on home repairs and domestic chores.

Meanwhile, she was dying to get back to the diamond. During her hiatus she wrote to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – the one featured in the film A League of Their Own – but it was not only “all-American” but also all-white, and she never received a reply.


By 1953, some of the Negro League players had joined Major League Baseball (MLB), which had integrated six years earlier, and few Negro League teams remained solvent. But half a dozen were still in existence, including the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns, who had won the 1951 league championship. The Clowns’ young shortstop, Henry Aaron, had left for the Boston Braves in the middle of 1952, and they needed infielders. The players were well aware of Stone’s play with the barnstorming Creoles, when her powerful arm, her defensive abilities, and her speed (she’d been able to run the 100 in 11 seconds) had impressed them. So she was offered a spot in the Clowns lineup for the 1953 season and joined them for spring training that year. The owner did try to convince her to wear short skirts on the field, but she threatened to quit and he relented. I mean, seriously, who can effectively slide in a skirt??

At this point, don’t forget, everyone assumed that Toni was 21 years old, and they also assumed that she could move like a dancer and run like the wind. But she was a full decade older than that and edging past her prime.

After only two days of practice (the extent of “spring training,” in those days, for the Negro League) and a month of preseason games, Toni Stone officially played her first game as starting second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns on May 15, 1953. She was 31 years old. As she took the field against the Kansas City Monarchs in Beaumont, Texas, she earned her place in history.

She was the first woman to ever play professional big-league baseball.


Just a few words, at this point, about the Negro Leagues. They were not minor leagues; they were not repositories for lesser talents. They were the beginning of organized professional baseball for black (and Hispanic, by the way) athletes who were not yet allowed into Major League Baseball. That would not happen until 1947, when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Willie Mays were some of the former Negro League players to follow Robinson into the majors and ultimately into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Negro Leagues lasted for 40 years, but they started to wane significantly once MLB began attracting their best players. The owners typically weren’t compensated for the departure of their superstars, and many of the teams went bankrupt. By 1960 they were defunct. The loss was bittersweet, because the Negro Leagues had helped spur economic growth in black communities and helped provide a sense of social cohesion among people of color. Their passing was greatly mourned.

This year we celebrate their 100th anniversary. It was in February 1920 that Andrew “Rube” Foster – owner-manager of the Chicago American Giants – convened a meeting with the owners of seven other independent black baseball teams to form the Negro National League. For true baseball fans and also for historians, it’s a really big deal. In fact, on June 27, 2020, all MLB players, coaches, and umps are (were?) slated to wear a Negro Leagues logo on their jersey. A host of other celebrations have been planned as well. The nature of those commemorations, however, remains to be seen.


A little more than halfway through that ’53 season when Toni Stone made history, her Indianapolis Clowns were in last place, despite Toni’s .364 average – fourth in the league. (Ernie Banks, by the way, was in second place.) Still, the team ranked first in attendance among all the Negro League teams – due almost exclusively to the presence of Stone, most observers agree. By season’s end, though, her batting average had dropped to .243, and almost all of her hits were singles.

It gave her cause for worry, especially because at that point a couple of other women were about to join the team.


Mamie Johnson was living with her grandmother in Ridgeway, South Carolina, when she first started playing ball in corner lots as a little girl. According to Michelle Green’s book A Strong Right Arm, a “pie plate was first, the broken piece of flower pot was second, and the large root about three feet from the lilac bush was third.” Home plate was the “smooth white lid of a five-gallon bucket of King Cane sugar,” the sweetest in the South. The “baseball” was a bunch of tape wrapped around a rock. And Mamie could throw that thing, powerful and smooth. She had a fastball, a change-up, and even a knuckleball, and the neighborhood boys had a tough time connecting with her pitches.

peanut johnson 1_National Visionary Leadership Project
Mamie Johnson

When Mamie’s grandmother died in 1945, it was decided that Mamie would move in with an aunt and uncle in Long Branch, New Jersey. She was about 10 years old, and it was not a popular move with her. Not only did she miss the sweet southern air, but there was no baseball at the school she had to attend. It was just softball, and she hated it and refused to play. The ball was way too big, and the pitching was underhand. Sissified blasphemy! But she had gumption, and one day she passed by a field on which a bunch of kids were playing baseball. All boys, of course. And all white. (Sound like a familiar story?) Although told she couldn’t play, Mamie noted that the team was sponsored by the Long Branch Police Athletic League and she hustled right on down to the police station to ask the officers – repeatedly – about whether local laws prohibited a girl from playing baseball. Eventually she wore everyone down and was allowed onto the team, which ended up winning the division championship two years in a row.

For a couple of years Johnson played for other sandlot teams, as well as for an all-black semi-pro club. Like Toni Stone, she also got wind of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and in her case she actually took a bus with a friend all the way down into Virginia to try out for the team. Once they arrived, though, exhausted but ready to play, they were told that no “colored girls” were allowed.

In 1953, when Johnson was playing for a sandlot team, a man in a pinstripe suit who’d been watching their games for three weeks came up to her after he’d witnessed her strike out a series of batters with a particularly voracious fastball. (By the way, she was about 5’2” and weighed 92 pounds.) His name was Bish Tyson, and he was a former Negro League ballplayer and now an unofficial scout. He told her that the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, would be coming to town for some pre-season exhibition games and would be looking for new players. He was taking a gamble on her; after all, she had no high-level experience on the playing field and no exposure to skilled coaching.

When she arrived at the field in September for what she thought were widespread tryouts, she discovered that the only person trying out was her! She also noted that the Clowns had another female playing for them – second baseman Toni Stone. Mamie did well in the batter’s box and threw to some great hitters that day, and right there on the spot they signed her. She’d be allowed to play in postseason barnstorming games throughout the fall and then would join the permanent roster the following season. Johnson quickly quit her job selling ice cream and boarded the Clowns’ bus, without getting a lick of input (or approval) from her husband. “It didn’t make any difference because I was going to play anyway,” she said.

Peanut Johnson
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson

By 1954 Johnson was in the regular pitching rotation and took the mound about every six days. Her curveball came to her when, in Kansas City, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige complimented her throwing arm. He was retired from MLB and back to playing in the Negro Leagues with the Monarchs. He told her to stop squeezing the ball as tightly and showed her his curveball. Allegedly. Years later, at a conference about the Negro Leagues, Mamie corrected the story. “He didn’t teach me how to throw it, he taught me how to perfect it,” she said. “I knew how to throw it.”

One day she faced hard-hitting Hank Baylis, third baseman for the Monarchs. Baylis reportedly stepped out, turned around, and hollered to the fans, “Why, that little girl’s no bigger than a peanut. I ain’t afraid of her!” She reached back, uncorked her fastball, and struck him out. “Call me Peanut,” she yelled back at him. From that point on she was Peanut Johnson.


At the end of 1953 the Clowns were also starting to look at Connie Morgan, who would be a more direct threat to Toni Stone because Morgan, too, played second base. Toni started to see the writing on the wall. Peanut Johnson and Connie Morgan – two 19-year-olds – were both slated to be her teammates on the 1954 Clowns. Toni was in her thirties, and the decision had been made that only one female at a time would be in the lineup. To add insult to injury, owner Syd Pollock offered her $350 a month, which was less than the $400 a month she’d been paid the previous year. So she made the decision to sign with the Kansas City Monarchs, who offered her $400 a month and the possibility of a $200 year-end bonus.

Connie Morgan

Constance Enola (“Connie”) Morgan, born in 1935 in Philadelphia, had played five seasons with the all-girl North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, with whom she’d logged a .368 batting average. She’d read about Toni Stone and the Indianapolis Clowns in Ebony magazine and penned a letter directly to Syd Pollock, requesting a tryout. He obliged in October 1953, and she signed a two-year, $10,000 contract after impressing the team with her defensive skills at second base. She was right out of high school. She’d never had male teammates, and at that point most of her time on the field was spent behind the dish, at catcher. But she could play any position except pitcher, and she shared the same chutzpah and self-confidence that Stone and Johnson possessed.

We don’t know as much about Morgan as we do about the other women, but we do know that her defense was spectacular. She was only 5’4”, but she was strong, and manager Oscar Charleston – a Hall of Famer, and universally considered to be one of the greatest ballplayers of all time – said “her throws across the diamond rank on par with many major leaguers.”


So, what was life on the road like for Negro League players? The teams played almost every day for eight months, with two (and occasionally three!) games on Sundays. Unlike MLB ballplayers, who usually had days off for travel, Negro League players had no such luxury, often riding on a bus for up to 400 miles between games with no break. Syd Pollock meticulously recorded every conceivable kind of stat, and according to his publicity material, “The Clowns have traveled 2,110,000 miles. Once played in a town with a population of 476 and had 1,372 fans at the game. Largest crowd 41,127 in Detroit. Smallest 35 in Lubbock, TX during a tornado. Have had the same bus driver for 17 years, worn out three buses and 19 sets of tires.”

By the way, for bathroom breaks, the bus would stop so men who had to pee could just line up on the side of the road and do their thing. The women, of course, had to walk off into the woods or a culvert, often in the middle of the night.

While traveling in the South, the players had to drink only from certain water fountains and shop only in certain stores. Many of the gas stations were “Whites Only.” Restaurants below the Mason-Dixon line often provided no service to black customers, and much of the time those places were the only food establishments in the area. Once in a while the players would be allowed to go to a back window to pick up cold food. When white people were traveling with the team, sometimes they would pick up a load of food at “white” cafes and bring it back. But they had to be careful; servers had been known to spit into glasses of Coke being served to black people.

The_Negro_Travelers'_Green_Book_1953As for hotels, many refused rooms to black people, and it was often a scramble if schedules got changed. The Negro Travelers’ Green Book helped out when the team was traveling in the South. But for Toni, there was an added burden. It started when she was turned away at some of the hotels – the few who would serve African-Americans – because they assumed she was a hooker for the players. When the hotel owners pointed her in the direction of the nearest brothel, she found that the kindness of the ladies there was better than some of the everyday treatment she received from the outside world. The women not only provided her with a place to sleep but also fed her, laundered her uniform, gave her extra money, lent her a car, and often even attended her games. It was the prostitutes who always helped her out in life, she would say years after she’d left professional baseball.

One night after a game in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Toni’s rattletrap team bus caught on fire for no apparent reason. Almost all of the players’ belongings and equipment were lost, although Toni had managed to grab her glove before bailing out of the bus. No one, of course, immediately stopped to lend a hand. When a sheriff finally came by, he called his dispatcher. “Nothing serious,” he said. “Just a bus burning up with niggers on it.” Help didn’t arrive for two more hours.

The players knew they had to be infinitely careful about their behavior, especially in southern towns. The smallest of infractions –and sometimes no infraction at all – could get them jailed or killed. “Reckless eyeballing” was one of the ridiculous charges potentially facing a black man. Any white woman could accuse any black man of looking at her too long, and he could be put away. Coaches would tell rookies to “keep their heads down and their mouths shut.”

At ballparks in the South, black major leaguers usually were not allowed in clubhouses and were required to change clothes on the bus. Even more ridiculous – if that’s possible – black fans often had to completely leave the stadium to use a toilet!

Unlike today’s ballplayers, who sit out a game if they have a hangnail, the Negro League players had no physicians available and simply had to play through almost every conceivable injury or health condition outside of a coma. Players who got spiked, for example, would make paste from coal-stove soot, rub it on the (often very deep) wound, and lay a spider web on top of everything to protect the wound because there were no bandages available!

Toni Stone, in particular, was no stranger to being spiked, or to being hit by pitches. Many of the men in the league – including some on her own team – resented playing with or against a woman so much that they either ostracized her or blatantly tried to hurt her. Some teammates even threw to her directly in a baserunner’s path to make it easier for the opposing players to gash her with their metal cleats. She ended up with a lot of scars to prove it, although later she would shrug them off as being battle wounds.

Meanwhile, sportswriters were beginning to be more callous about the women in the league, considering them to be novelties and concerned that they were somehow emasculating the men and the sport. “It’s thrilling to have a woman in one’s arms, and a man has a right to promise the world to his beloved – just so long as that world doesn’t include the right to play baseball with men. . . . This could get to be a woman’s world with men just living in it!” screamed one such insecure writer.


Jackie Robinson and Connie Morgan
Jackie Robinson and Connie Morgan

After 1953, the league was on its last breaths.

Connie Morgan played only one full season with the Indianapolis Clowns. She never quite found her footing offensively, hitting only .178 with seven singles, a double, one stolen base, and one RBI in 45 at-bats.

Peanut Johnson hung on for a bit. She played for parts of three seasons with the Clowns and ended up with a dazzling win/loss pitching record of 33-8 and a batting average reported to be between .262 and .284.

Toni Stone_Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Toni Stone

The 1954 Monarchs season was not a good one for Toni, who was now 32 years old and 12 pounds over her typical playing weight. She was trying too hard, and her batting average never crossed what is now derogatorily called the Mendoza line (.200). As a result, her temper was closer to the surface. During one game she was called out by the ump on a pitch she thought was a ball, and the catcher yelled “pussy high” after the ball crossed the plate. Enraged, she leaped on the catcher’s back. She would later say that she didn’t know what made her the maddest: the call, the catcher’s vulgar and sexist remark, or the fact that manager Buck O’Neill loved retelling the story.

The Monarchs would come in last place.

Toni Stone retired at the end of the season. The owner gave her $400 for the month but refused to hand over her $200 year-end bonus. It wasn’t the money that mattered, though. “Not playing baseball hurt so damn bad,” she lamented, “I almost had a heart attack.”

After these three women left the game, no woman would ever play professional baseball again.


Toni had a hard time adjusting to life after Negro League baseball. She settled back into her home on Isabella Street in Oakland. Her mom and sister lived nearby, but she felt unmoored. She spent time alone with her mementos, reliving the glory days, and occasionally she took to drinking a bit too much. She was always suspicious of visitors claiming to be sympathetic reporters, who on more than one occasion stole her mementos. But she was also suspicious of bona fide reporters, who, she thought, would go to great lengths to make her seem more sophisticated, educated, or feminine than she really was.

In the 1960s, though, she emerged from her funk. She began playing rec baseball and coaching neighborhood teams. She attended Oakland A’s baseball games, sitting by herself behind home plate. In June of 1975, Stone threw out the first pitch at a Giants game. She also did work for local hospitals and served as an occasional home caregiver. When her ancient husband Alberga turned 100 years old in 1984, he asked Toni to give up playing recreational baseball, and finally she agreed. She was in her sixties. After he died at 103, she could often be seen riding her bike around Oakland.

Peanut Johnson earned a nursing degree, moved back to Washington, D.C., remarried twice, and had a 30-year career as a nurse. After retirement she managed the Negro League Baseball Shop in Maryland, which not only sold memorabilia but also taught the public about the historic nature of the Negro Leagues and about living during Jim Crow. It was impossible to get baseball out of her soul, and she remembered only the good times. When asked how she felt about her days in baseball, she would say, “Have you ever won a million dollars? Just to know I was good enough to be there was a tremendous thing for me. If they didn’t let me play, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I’m very proud of that.” She passed away on December 18, 2017, at the age of 82.

Peanut Johnson 2_Smithsonian
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson

Connie Morgan went back to business school, graduated in 1955, and enjoyed a career that included working for the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country. But her subsequent days working for a furrier aggravated her arthritis, and when she switched to driving school buses she developed kidney disease and had to retire at the age of 40. According to Martha Ackmann, Morgan “rarely talked about the Negro League. To many who saw her, she was just the lonely woman who sat for days by the window of her Federal Street row house with only the light of a flickering television set.” In 1995, she was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and the next year – after living with constant dialysis – she succumbed to her kidney problems at the age of 61. For years her grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia was unmarked. A travesty. But in 2014 she was finally given a headstone through the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project.


Incredibly, the Baseball Hall of Fame did not even officially recognize the Negro Leagues until August of 1991. Seventy-five former Negro League players were invited to Cooperstown that year, and Toni Stone was one of them. It was the second-happiest day of her life. The happiest, according to a tale she would oft repeat, was the day she got to hit against Satchel Paige during a barnstorming game. Paige loved to toy with batters by outright asking them, ahead of time, which pitch they’d prefer to see. He did the same for Toni. “It doesn’t matter which pitch,” she yelled back. “Just don’t hurt me!” Satchel had a lot of pitches in his bag o’ tricks: the bee ball, the two-hump blooper, and a raft of others. She didn’t even know which one he unleashed on her, but she smacked it over second base. Yes, that was the happiest day of her life.

Toni Stone Alberga died of heart failure in an Alameda nursing home on November 2, 1996. She was 75 years old.

A year later, a baseball field named for her was dedicated at the Dunning Sports Complex in Saint Paul, Minnesota.


The year Toni Stone died, Minnesota playwright Roger Niebor wrote a play entitled Tomboy Stone that had a brief run at the Great American History Theater in Saint Paul. “I suppose the number of women who could travel and play like that, discriminated on the basis of race and sex the whole time, would be few,” he said. “And to do it with the energy and intensity of Toni Stone evidenced the power and beauty of the human spirit and made me proud to know her.”

To “power and beauty” I would add “fearlessness.” Those women needed to be physically tough and to have no problem squatting in a dark culvert at night or playing through serious injuries with no medical attention. And they had to be courageous enough to suffer relentless racist and sexist taunts and all the other consequences of breaking barriers more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act was signed.

Finally, I would also add “dignity.” No matter what they faced, these women continued to live their lives with self-respect. And when they retired from the game, and their departures garnered no attention, they showed no traces of bitterness over the ways they were exploited by team owners. Even in later years, when they spoke of their reverence for the game and for their time in the big leagues, they never dwelt on the fear they lived with on the road, the inconveniences, the scorn.

They played with passion, these women. Passion got them through the tough times.

Like a lot of war veterans, Toni Stone “didn’t talk too much about her baseball life,” said her niece, Maria Barlow. “But she was the first woman to do a lot of things. She wouldn’t consider herself a feminist, but she knew that she wanted more in life and she was fighting for it. She stood up to people, like the white owner, and fought for her pay. She stood up for herself. I saw the letters that she wrote. And she did it all by herself. She didn’t have anyone helping her or clearing the path for her. My aunt was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known.”

All three are gone now. But they represented the best of America. And for a brief moment in time, they were our girls of summer.


Note: Much of the information in this piece was taken from the beautifully researched Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann and from A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson by Michelle Y. Green.

the end


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

7/24/72 [age 16]:

 “I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I have begun reading the Bible. Seriously, and completely. I have only gotten through Genesis. It is interesting reading, though sometimes the ‘Jason had two sons, Esau and Aron, and Aron had . . .’ and it continues for pages is boring. It may take me a year or two to read it, but I want to conquer it, just as I conquered ‘Leaves of Grass’ (of which I finally bought a copy, the cheapest paperback available, 95 cents).”

8/5/72 [age 16]:

“I rode [my bike] down to Confession tonight. Big deal, I missed Mass once. But I won’t miss it again. Hey, Auntie Jackie called yesterday and asked if I could fly down to her house [in southern CA]. I really want to go, and I love to fly, and I’ll be AWAY. But Mom and Dad are against it, and as yet they haven’t produced an answer. If they say no, I’ll croak!”

8/8/72 [age 16]:

“The [Santa Cruz] beach was awful today – it was completely cold and gray and overcast and there were absolutely no waves at all. No surf + no sun = no fun. (A Paula Bocciardi original – perhaps I should have it patented.) I didn’t even go in swimming, although I did wade a bit. Mom and Dad still haven’t given me an answer on the trip down south. They better hurry. If they don’t let me go, I will stay mad the rest of my life!”

8/10/72 [age 16]:

“It’s hard to believe that I got to come down South [to visit my relatives in southern CA] today. At 6:55 we took off from San Jose, and Grammy and Grampy picked me up in Burbank at 7:43. Fantastic, that plane ride! I mean, all by myself and it was so miraculous looking down on the earth. I was not afraid at all. I also love it down here. [My aunt] Jackie is a neat-type parent, and I like her way of life (except her house isn’t very clean). Today I was introduced to a new way of life. We drove down to [my aunt’s friend] Renee’s store. I met Renee – she’s a middle-aged hippie and owns a boutique shop and sells organic health foods. A friend of hers was in there, another free-spirit musician, playing his guitar and singing. The place smelled like a funny spice, which I can still smell, and was so hot I almost passed out. Also, I had one of her homemade organic fruit drinks and it nauseated me.”

8/14/72 [age 16]:

“I pulled one of my traditional ‘Paula Bocciardi the klutz’ tricks today. Dad had given me five dollars for this trip [to southern CA] along with the strange words ‘Don’t spend it’ (don’t ask what that’s supposed to mean) and [my cousins] Carla and Ronnie and I went down to a record store in Hollywood to get Andy Williams’ ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ for Carla. I stuck the bill in my pocket and – ack! – it had a hole in it. I LOST it! What will Dad say?”

8/15/72 [age 16]:

“Oh, wow, today was the best day of all. Grammy took [my aunt and cousins] Jackie, Kathy, Lisa, and me (Carla was too tired) to Magic Mountain in Valencia. I loved it. You pay $5 to get in, but after that ALL THE RIDES ARE FREE, yeah. I liked the log ride because there are two slopes that are straight down. And I also liked the bumper cars, because we met some guys (I swear they are all cute down here) and had a ‘war’ with them. From 8:00 to 8:45 we saw TRINI LOPEZ (free!). And Grammy saw GLEN CAMPBELL stroll by, and I’m sick because I didn’t see him. 1:00 to 11:00 – total time, 10 hours.”

9/9/72 [age 16]:

“Mom and Dad and [my visiting uncle and aunt] Fred and Jackie and [my cousin] Lisa and I went off to the Cannery and the wharf and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. I’ve seen them a million times but I love San Francisco for its hilaric [sic] craziness. The city has a grand, majestic, mysterious beauty but the cars and the people and the streets – they’re all crazy. Two guys came near to blows in the middle of traffic and some girl who thought she was a witch was cursing some guys, and the musicians – it’s so crazy!!”

9/11/72 [age 16]:

“The very worst possible thing has happened. Dad mentioned tonight that we are going to Clear Lake this weekend. O, I did so want to make the most of this very last weekend before I start college! I don’t want to go to that horrid place I hate so dreadfully! Maybe if I play it straight and be calm and cool and good, something’ll happen. Please, God!!”

9/14/72 [age 16]:

“Today was a nothing day except I found out some wonderful news. We are not going to Clear Lake this weekend. I wanted everyone else to go and just let me stay at [our friends] the Rosaleses at night, but instead we are not going at all. Now I feel guilty. I don’t know if I should, since I HAVE put up with it for so often. Maybe it wasn’t wrong to ask – God heard my fervent, fervent prayer and granted it, so perhaps it’s okay. I don’t know. I can’t help but feel guilty, but my joy and relief right now overrules it. Yeah.”

9/15/72 [age 16]:

“The time for college is growing near, and I am no more emotionally prepared for it than I am sensible, and THAT’S not at ALL. My car pool situation is very confusing, which doesn’t cheer me up at all. My best friend and teacher and confidant is going away, and the thought of homework kills me. Only a few days left, and I am so scared. Oh, my aching heart.”

9/16/72 [age 16]:

“I went to see ‘On a Clear Day’ and ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’ with Jeanne, and something a lady in the latter movie kept saying has been bothering me. She was always in a constant state of depression, and told Alan Arkin that he couldn’t be able to think of three kind, loving, decent human beings, and I’m wondering if humanity is all that bad. Who would my three be? [My cousin] Carla, Sister Kathleen Mary, and Abraham (my Bible hero). Linus and Charlie Brown aren’t real, and Christ is God. I don’t know if I could think of anyone else.”

Yours sincerely, pruning away

Yours sincerely, pruning away


My new nose-hair trimmer has arrived.

Yes, let the shame begin.

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Yikes. It was time to try out the trimmer.

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

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

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

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

This was such crucial information!

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

True. I don’t.

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


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

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

the end




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

7/21/72 [age 16]:

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

7/20/72 [age 16]:

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

7/23/72 [age 16]:

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




The Ballad of Jimmy Garoppolo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2020_02-02_Paula_Super Bowl-2
With my signed Joe Montana football (thank you, Leon Emmons!) and my decades-old Niner troll



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

5/28/72 [age 16]:

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

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

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

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

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

6/13/72 [age 16]:

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

6/27/72 [age 16]:

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

7/6/72 [age 16]:

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

7/10/72 [age 16]:

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

7/14/72 [age 16]:

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

7/15/72 [age 16]:

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

7/17/72 [age 16]:

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



I’m always drunk in San Francisco

I’m always drunk in San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


“If you’re alive, you can’t be bored in San Francisco. If you’re not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life. San Francisco is a world to explore. It is a place where the heart can go on a delightful adventure. It is a city in which the spirit can know refreshment every day.” (William Saroyan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Tonga Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pied piper bar (marriott.com)

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

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

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

mish_house_looming (noehill.com)

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

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

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

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

Balclutha (NPS photo)

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

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

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

25,000 other things.

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


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

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

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

But that’s San Francisco for ya.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, you see, is where I always belonged.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



A long, strange trip

A long, strange trip


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the end



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

4/23/72 [age 16]:

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/24/72 [age 16]:

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

4/26/72 [age 16]:

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

5/1/72 [age 16]:

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

5/8/72 [age 16]:

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

5/18/72 [age 16]:

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

5/23/72 [age 16]:

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

5/26/72 [age 16]:

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