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.

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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.

Success!

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.

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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!”

il-convento-original-limoncello-of-sorrentoI 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.

Poo-Pourri_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:

proscuitto-crisps_Familystylefood.com
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.

 

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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.

https://www.markbittman.com/recipes-1/no-knead-bread

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??

BitGym
BitGym

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 MixThe 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.

Womens-Rocket-Med-Flag-Crusher-Tee_71114_1_lg

Women’s:

https://www.lifeisgood.com/healthcare-heroes/womens-rocket-med-flag-crusher-tee-71114.html?dwvar_71114_color=09826&cgid=healthcare#start=1

Men’s:

https://www.lifeisgood.com/healthcare-heroes/mens-rocket-med-flag-crusher-tee-71115.html?dwvar_71115_color=09826&cgid=healthcare#start=1

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.

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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.

2009_16_15_082.tif
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.

image0

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.

 

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***

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

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

***

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

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

361_J_IMG_4400

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonga Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pied piper bar (marriott.com)

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

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

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

mish_house_looming (noehill.com)

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

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

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

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

Balclutha (NPS photo)

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

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

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

25,000 other things.

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

***

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

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

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

But that’s San Francisco for ya.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, you see, is where I always belonged.

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A long, strange trip

A long, strange trip

 

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the end

 

***

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

4/23/72 [age 16]:

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/24/72 [age 16]:

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

4/26/72 [age 16]:

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

5/1/72 [age 16]:

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

5/8/72 [age 16]:

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

5/18/72 [age 16]:

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

5/23/72 [age 16]:

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

5/26/72 [age 16]:

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

 

 

 

If you’ll be my bodyguard

If you’ll be my bodyguard

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

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

***

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

Laurie and Hayley
Laurie and Hayley

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

***

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

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

LL Bean seat cushion
L.L. Bean seat cushion

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

***

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

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

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

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

ADA section
ADA viewing section

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” I answered, expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

windmills-sfoutsidelands.com

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

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

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

***

Adam Duritz_Huffington Post_
Adam Duritz and his hair

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

The_Lumineers
Lumineers

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Paul Simon c SF Chronicle
Paul Simon

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

2019_08-11_Outside Lands_Laurie Baker, Paula

 

***

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

2/13/72 [age 16]:

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

4/7/72 [age 16]:

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

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

Water chestnuts

Scented candles

The orchard

Intelligent conversations

Bread [the band]

Gary Puckett

The absence of braces

Jeanne’s Australian tennis hat

Love

Eyes

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

Hot chocolate

Cracker Jacks prizes

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

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

School (the people)

Fires

Occasional chances to drive

Clint Eastwood

“The Fool on the Hill”

Spencer Tracy

Ted

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

Baskin’s & Robbin’s

Tents

Looking at the stars (really)

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Johnny Rivers

Surprises

Knowing something worthwhile

“MacMillan and Wife”

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

Balconies

Sleeping

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

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

Mr. Bernert

“Hey, Jude”

Sincere little boys

Babies (like the Dossa twins)

Anything cooked in egg and flour

Being young and immortal

Getting a ride home

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

The word “yes” (I rarely hear it)

Everything chocolate

My cousins Carla and Lisa

Snow

Father Hayes

Hot days

Swings

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

Movie cameras

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

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

Fisherman’s Wharf

Mine and Jeanne’s dangling conversations

GOP

My holey tennis shoes

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

“Satisfaction” – Stones’ stuff

Ice cream

“Leaves of Grass”

Sunflower seeds

Frogs

Sean

Stereos

Freddie

Cool ’n Creamy

Matt Monroe

Christmas

Drummers and more drummers

Chewing on thermoses

And of course RICHARD HARRIS!

 

4/9/72 [age 16]:

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

4/17/72 [age 16]:

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

4/18/72 [age 16]:

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

Devil with the blue dress

Devil with the blue dress

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

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

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

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

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

Except that the tape got stuck in my VCR.

***

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

stuck videotape_abc news 2
My biggest fear

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

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

So I called my friend Kay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The manager waived the fees.

the end

 

 

 

***

 

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

2/7/72 [age 16]:

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

 

2/2/72 [age 16]:

THINGS I LOVE:

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

 

2/3/72 [age 16]:

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

 

2/8/72 [age 16]:

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

A patriot’s dream

A patriot’s dream

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

***

Katharine Lee Bates 3
Katharine Lee Bates

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Katharine_Coman_(Yellow_Clover)_Wikipedia
Katharine Coman

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

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

***

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain

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

***

For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain

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

View from Pikes Peak_Shutterstock-2
Pikes Peak

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

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

***

Antlers_Hotel_built_in_1883_in_downtown_Colorado_Springs
The Antlers Hotel

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

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

***

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

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

***

Samuel_Augustus_Ward
Samuel A. Ward

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Fourth, everyone.

***

Coda:

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

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

 

“America the Beautiful”

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

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

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

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

 

the end

 

 

 

***

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

4/2/72 [age 16]:

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

4/7/72 [age 16]:

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

I’ve been everywhere, man

I’ve been everywhere, man

Author bio: Buster Posey Scearce was born in Dixon, CA, on New Year’s Eve 2011. Although he has no formal education, Mr. Scearce is known for his street smarts. He enjoys dining on fine charcuterie and taking long walks on the beach. This is his first published piece.

 

Right off the bat, I need to clue you in on something. Paula Bocciardi is not the “Morning Morning Rail” author today. She says she is just too exhausted from being on the road for the last month. I, on the other hand, am not a whit tired, and while I was begging her to play with me this morning she snapped, “If you’re so energetic, why don’t you write the damned thing?” And so I will.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself. As my bio notes, I was born on New Year’s Eve 2011 in Dixon, California — a hot part of the Central Valley not far from Sacramento. I don’t remember much about my immediate relatives but I do know that I come from a very proud lineage. We, you see, are the Lhasa Apsos.

Lhasas are fairly recent immigrants to this country, having first arrived here in the 1930s. For centuries before that, we made our home in the mountains of Tibet, where we zealously guarded the Buddhist monasteries from approaching marauders. We are not warriors and we do not fight; we are much too refined for that. But our job is to protect against potential invaders by basically barking our lungs out. So, like my fathers before me, I am a sentinel through and through. At home, 24/7, I warn my moms about developing threats like wind-blown trash bags or sketchy people in hoodies. My bark is so shrill it could trigger a coronary.

The history books say that Lhasas are lionhearted, which also apparently translates to “maddeningly stubborn.” We’re quite smart, but we refuse to do anything that makes no sense to us. For example, when I was a few months old, my moms decided that I should get used to wearing a collar in the house. This, to me, was folly. There is no reason on earth for me to be inconvenienced in my own home. So, after they put that thing on me, I sat down and refused to move. For six hours. I do not exaggerate. I was a bouncy puppy, and yet I did not move for six hours. Eventually, they caved.

I am also reserved. Paula says that she gets jealous when she meets dogs in the outside world who constantly wag their tails and give kisses to passers-by. Whatever. That’s just gauche. I am wary of strangers and children and I have absolutely no reason to be friendly to them. I am above all that. I may be related to the Shih-Tzu, but I admit that I’m not nearly as nice. I’m like a Shih-Tzu with attitude.

cartoon

But I’m fiercely loyal, playful, and funny (more than once it’s been suggested that I try stand-up comedy). Unlike Paula’s first dog Peanuts – a beagle who apparently relentlessly ate everything from Paula’s dental retainer to her father’s cowboy hat – I’m a self-feeder; I merely graze in my bowl whenever I feel like it because I resent authoritarian schedules and want to eat on my own time, thank you very much. I can go 14 hours without “doing my business,” I sleep all morning long without waking my moms, and I don’t shed, which means that I never cause Julie any wheezing fits.

Best of all, however, I am the World’s Greatest Traveler.

That’s why I’m eminently qualified to write this blog post. Some of you readers may be weighing the possibility of taking a long road trip with your dogs. Worry no longer. I, the World’s Greatest Traveler, am about to generously share my wisdom, tips, and experience with you so that you will be fully prepared for the extravaganza. If you don’t care one iota about this subject, please stop reading now and wait for Paula’s next blog, which, with July 4 coming up, will undoubtedly be about something patriotic. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaawn.

***

Route:

One note: I prefer to use the term ’cross-country trip for our escapades, even though technically we do not drive all the way from coast to coast. (Please don’t blast me on Twitter for this slight irregularity of language!) Our trips are generally from San Francisco to Louisville, Kentucky — a distance of about 2,500 miles.

Before we leave home, my moms spend a lot of time discussing which way we’re going — the northern route along Interstate 80 (through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska) or the southern route along I-40, much of which parallels Route 66 (through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma). Although Louisville is a bit north of San Francisco (bet you didn’t know that!), both routes involve about the same number of driving hours (around 36), and both end up taking us into Missouri, through St. Louis, and on to Louisville.

Northern pros:

  • Gorgeous high-mountain scenery
  • Higher speed limits
  • Really nice rest stops with grass where I can do my business

Northern cons:

  • Between Reno and Salt Lake City, there just ain’t much going on
  • Tortuous interstate driving through the Rockies, often with gale-force winds
  • Hundreds of miles between towns
  • Colder

Southern pros:

  • Follows Route 66 (this is huuuuuge for Paula)
  • More In-N-Out Burgers (a big plus for me – more on this later)
  • More towns
  • Oklahoma – so clean and friendly!
  • Warmer

Southern cons:

  • Many closed and/or undesirable rest areas through Arizona and New Mexico, with “pet areas” that are just patches of thorns and brittle weeds
  • Only one rest stop in Texas
  • More sketchy hotels

Julie likes the northern route because of the rest areas and because she feels safer. Paula likes the southern route because of Route 66 and because she feels safer. These gals just do not make sense.

The ideal situation is that we follow one route coming and the other going. But the reality is that we take most of our trips in the fall and winter when the weather across the mountains is typically dicey. So Paula usually wins.

***

001_Buster_home_Road Trip, Spring 2019

Packing:

Paula, of course, has compiled packing checklists for every kind of trip and every city, and apparently there is a “Buster” checklist as well. Although they pretend to adhere to these lists religiously, the bottom line is that my moms are not exactly fashion mavens and they really don’t need to bring much.

Eddie Bauer Infinity Travex shirt_c Eddie Bauer
Eddie Bauer Infinity Travex shirt

Paula has a dozen Eddie Bauer Infinity shirts, in different colors, that never wear out; she wears them every day she travels. They absolutely never wrinkle even if you wad them up in a tiny ball, which is how she packs.

Julie is widely known for wearing shorts and a t-shirt without fail, no matter what the weather, even in a blizzard.

I, however, am high-maintenance and require a multitude of items.

Dog bag_overland
Overland dog bag

First and foremost I have a little red travel bag that carries my toys, collapsible food and water bowls, ear infection medicine (just in case), hypoallergenic shampoo, comb and scissors, toothbrush, my medical and licensing paperwork (you should always carry those with you on a trip!), a bell to hang on people’s doors so I can ring it when I need to go out (yeah, you read that right!), food and treats, poop bags, and a belly band with Maxi Pads.

That last item is a bit embarrassing for me to talk about. You see, when I was young I used to occasionally pee in people’s houses (but only if they had let their own dogs pee there, which made me think the whole house was a bathroom). It made sense to me but my moms were always mortified, so their dogwalker friend Al suggested that they put a belly band around me with a lady’s Maxi Pad in it to cover my you-know-what and soak up any leaks. They’ve done this for years even though I have outgrown that habit, and the whole scenario has been an insult to my masculinity and a source of many triggers for me.

Behind the front seat my moms keep my leash and harness, bottled H2O, and a little water dish. Sometimes I am just too bull-headed to drink outside the car so Julie actually fills the bowl and holds it while I lap from the convenience of my prone position in the back seat. I’ve heard some people comment that that’s the height of entitlement but I consider it to be a luxury well deserved.

Oh, and Julie bought me a portable sunshade that suction-cups onto the side window. Nice!

We have a mid-sized SUV, and I ride in the back, on a fuzzy bolstered car seat for my ultimate comfort and so I don’t slip around. My dog bed – covered with my 49ers blanket (to show off my San Francisco cred) – is back there, and on the road I spend most of my time in that bed.

005_Buster staring from back seat_December 16, 2017
I just want to hop into the front seat SO bad!

Now, before you all start a Twitter campaign against my moms: yes, it’s true that they do not restrain me in the back seat. But here’s the thing: I don’t accept any form of restraint. I simply will not stand for it. Many seats and leashes and crash-safe harnesses have been tried on me, and I’ve refused them all. They’re just a royal pain in the culo. (Remember my aforementioned six-hour sit-in when my moms tried to force me to wear a collar in our house.) But because I am the World’s Greatest Traveler, I do not stick my head out the window. I do not pace. I do not pant. I do not cry. I do not bark. I do not stand up on the seat. That behavior is for boors. I just lie quietly in my bed, for hours and hours on end. So my moms figure that since I am always lying down, the chances of my being thrown through the windshield are negligible. And we do have side air bags. They did, though, buy a mesh thing to stretch across the gap between the front seats. Otherwise I will spring onto their laps mid-ride whenever I am scared out of my wits by road grooves, passing motorcycles, or that true horror of horrors, moving windshield wipers.

Mac Sports Collapsible Utility Wagon_c Amazon
Mac Sports Collapsible Utility Wagon

Because of Paula’s bad sacroiliac and poor packing abilities, Julie is in charge of loading and unloading the car. She strategically fits all of our suitcases into the back of the car, along with an ice chest, pillows, case of water, and finally her amazing collapsible red wagon. She bought this thing because standard hotel luggage carts are too wobbly and hard to steer, not to mention that they’re not always available. Paula originally had many a laugh about this wagon but now has come to eat her words and admire its utility.

When we arrive at the hotel each night, we load all this stuff – plus my dog bed – into the room. It’s a lot. At least, for expediency, my moms put all their road clothes and sundries into one little yellow duffle bag so that they never have to root through multiple suitcases. Very smart. Oh, and here’s another tip: be sure to put your lotion and other sundries bottles in plastic bags because, Honey, otherwise they will explode all over your clothes when you get up at altitudes above sea level!

***

Food:

You know, every time we’re about to leave on a ’cross-country road trip, I hear one or both of my moms utter these exact words: “This time for sure, we cannot have fast food for lunch every day we’re on the road. We need to bring healthy food from home, eat low-cal Subway sandwiches, or stop at cute little places along the way. So this time will be different, right?” Then we proceed to have fast-food burgers every single day for lunch.

047_In N Out, Kingman, AZ_Buster 2_December 31, 2017

Our favorite joint is In-N-Out Burger. Unfortunately, along our routes they’re found only in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. Because we love them so, when we’re in those states we try to schedule our daily drives around their locations, especially because I am an ardent fan of their “puppy patty.” It’s just the right size, unseasoned, with a fairly low level of grease, unlike that gigantic greasy patty I recently ate at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company that made me retch. That’s the last time we’ll do THAT!

If In-N-Outs aren’t available, we’ll grudgingly get a Subway sandwich or go to McDonald’s, which is the Switzerland of fast food for my moms because they simply cannot agree on any other chain. It’s so odd, though: they go in to McDonald’s really excited and after they’re done eating they’re consumed with guilt and shame. Honestly, I don’t understand people at all.

Meanwhile, we do eat well at dinner. In our hotel room, my moms always put out a delicious spread of what they call their “Tuscan meal”: rosemary crackers, cheese, almonds, prosciutto, salame, wine, and maybe a bit of chocolate. Unfortunately, they force me to eat dog food.

***

101_Buster_Beetle Bailey statue, University of Missouri_Columbia, MO_Road Trip, Spring 2019
Hoisting a brewskie with Beetle Bailey, University of Missouri, Columbia

Lodging:

Although I consider it to be blatant discrimination, many hotels do not allow pets to grace their premises. So it’s good to have some kind of idea which hotel chains allow dogs. Paula – OF COURSE – keeps a database of all our road trip lodging. The database not only includes comprehensive notes on every aspect of the hotels, but it also assigns a star rating to each establishment.

  • La Quinta Inns & Suites, until earlier this year, allowed pets to stay for free. But they were acquired by Wyndham a few months ago, and now each location is allowed to determine what, if anything, to charge. They’re still a great value and are our go-to hotels.
  • Best Western pet policies vary, but fees usually don’t top $20.
  • Drury Inn & Suites, recommended by our friend Val, charge $35 per pet and have weight restrictions. (For pets, not people!) Paula loves them because they offer free cookies, free popcorn, and a free “dinner” (of questionable quality, but heck, it’s free and it’s food) including two glasses apiece of wine, beer, or liquor!
  • We really love Candlewood Suites and Staybridge Suites, with pet fees that range from $25 up. Three days a week, they even offer free dinner and drinks (except in Wyoming, where for some reason they legally can’t serve booze).
  • At many hotel chains, like Holiday Inn Express or Embassy Suites, pet fees (if they allow pets at all) vary by location. In Tulsa, the Embassy Suites charges $50. Paula says that’s the most she’d consider paying for me because I don’t shed, I don’t do my business in the room, and I cause zero damage. Again, I am the World’s Greatest Traveler.
  • Some places, like Homewood Suites and most or all of the Marriott hotels, charge fees like $150 per pet, and that’s just plain old highway robbery, as my hero Rin Tin Tin used to say.

Please note that most of these hotel chains include “Suites” in their names. This, my friends, is the number-one key to a good hotel experience with your dog. As soon as we discovered that La Quinta suites are only $10 more per night than the regular rooms, we vowed never to get a regular room again. My moms like having a table – or at least a coffee table – where they eat their dinner. More importantly, I really appreciate having a lot of space in which to run around, and the closed door between the bedroom and living room is a great buffer from any hallway noise, leaving me less of an incentive to bark at night and guaranteeing my moms some peaceful sleep.

(But one bit of warning: make sure it’s a “one-bedroom suite” or “two-room suite.” A “king suite” or “king studio suite” usually just means there’s a low partition between the bedroom and couch areas. What good is that??)

003_La Quinta, north Bakersfield_Buster
I was sad to leave this hotel because I loved that other dog who was in the room. Goodbye, little friend!

Each night, my moms typically reserve a room for the next night. They usually book the room online and then call the hotel to make sure everything went through. They also make this call because – and this is a word of warning – some sites and apps allow you to reserve a room at a pet-friendly place, but when you get there you find out that the specific room or suite you booked is not pet-friendly. So insulting.

Oh, and by the way, some hotels on our latest trip, even though they had pet fees, didn’t charge for me. Although my moms puzzled over the lack of these charges on their credit card bill, I’m convinced it was because I’m so charming.

036_Tucumcari, NM_tractor_Buster 1
My moms were running low on money, so they offered up my labor to a shady character in Tucumcari who did not meet my approval.

 

***

On the road:

When our vacation time was limited because Julie was still working, and before Paula’s back got so bad, we would drive about 9 hours a day and eat a drive-through lunch in the car, which meant we were on the road for probably about 11 hours a day when you add in all the gasoline and rest stops. Ugh. Now it’s more leisurely, and we make sure to drive no more than 6 hours a day, changing drivers every hour or so.

And remember that driving east we jump ahead an hour as we cross into each time zone, so on those days we have less time to drive if we want to pull into the hotel by dinnertime. Driving westbound allows us more flexibility.

If it’s a weekday, we have to base our departure and arrival times on rush hour, at least in the major cities. So in the mornings we often wait out the rush and leave at 9:30 a.m. Julie watches the news while Paula, who heaves and gags whenever she watches cable news, sips a cup of decaf and reads a book. Then Paula takes me on a long walk around the hotel, allowing me the daily satisfaction of peeing on every vertical object in sight. Julie, meanwhile, packs up the SUV.

086_Bluebird Cafe, Nashville_Buster 2
I laid down a killer solo gig at the Bluebird Café in Nashville.

I’m always really eager to get in the car every morning. I love the drive. I love the gas stations. I love the rest stops. Periodically, we get off the highway to track down some bit of Americana or another that Paula has read about somewhere. If we’re going the southern route, most of the attractions are on Route 66. In the north, Paula uses her “Roadside America” app, which she claims is the most useful app she owns. (I guess she’s not counting her beloved “Rest Stops Plus” app.) Anyway, my moms typically pose me in these historic places, and because I am the World’s Greatest Traveler, I resignedly humor them.

And when we pull into each new hotel every night, I am nearly overcome with anticipation. I love trotting through the lobby. I love getting on the elevator. I love sniffing under the door of each room down the hallway, trying to figure out which one is ours. Then, when we throw open the door to our own luxurious suite, I love rubbing my face on every square inch of the place, to establish my dominance. O, the rapture!

***

044_Williams, AZ_Buster 3_December 31, 2017
On Route 66 in Williams, AZ, I found myself in an authoritative position. The town lawman was suddenly called away and for some reason I was quickly appointed sheriff! So I had to guard these characters until everything got sorted out. At least they showed their appreciation by giving me the key to the city before we left.

I love the open road, and I love smelling every new town all across America. I’ve stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. Seen cowboys in New Mexico. Visited the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Admired the Mickey Mantle statue in Commerce, Oklahoma. Sat under the world’s biggest rocking chair in Cuba, Missouri. Stumbled upon a neighborhood tribute to Negro League ballplayer Buck O’Neil in Kansas City. Eaten barbecue in Nashville. Tromped through a pumpkin patch in Indiana. Paid veterans my respects on the Purple Heart Trail. Posed next to the Lincoln Highway monument in Wyoming. Walked along the shore of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Sat on an antique trail wagon in Elko, Nevada.

I’ve ridden past the colorful deserts, ranging farmland, rugged mountains, sweet-smelling forests, and meandering trains covering this great land.

I’ve been everywhere, man.

 

 

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.

 

3/12/72 [age 16]:

“I’m ashamed now that I had to be such a quitter [at skiing] yesterday. And I had to be so clumsy when Colleen and Tony were doing so well. Anyway, this morning [at Bear Valley] we went to the recreation area and had snowball fights. And oh, yes, we rode on a snowmobile out to the lodge and watched Clint (what a doll!) Eastwood and Ron (what a bod!) Ely play tennis.”

 

2/11/72 [age 16]:

“My First Date by PRB. Okay, so now I’ll tell you about Thursday night. It was our last night game [of my high school football team]. SOB, SOB. Anyway, Jerry asked if he could take me and for some inexplicable reason they [my parents] actually let me. . . . Afterwards, we went to Shakeys in Milpitas. A whole mess of PH [my high school] kids go there after night games, I found out. You should have seen their reactions [because I was the principal’s daughter]. The whole place just stared at us. I heard some comments. And Jerry said everybody always says “hi” to him but only one person did. They were the swingers – cheerleaders, songgirls, hard guys. They think I’m a goody-goody. ‘You have to prove you’re not,’ Jerry said. Well, I am A-1 confused. I am torn, because what do I do? Act contrary to my nature so I can be ‘accepted’? Or stay goody-goody and never fit and still go without dates? Sure, Jerry’s available, but I don’t like him that much, and the guys I do like, well, they don’t have the nerve to ask out PRINCIPAL’S DAUGHTER.”

 

2/14/72 [age 16]:

“Now that my first date is over with and the novelty is worn off, I’ve been kind of depressed. I wish Pat Sears would come back. He’s the only guy I’ve ever really liked. Maybe this summer. Jerry asked me to eat [lunch] with him again today and I said okay but I’m not going to tomorrow because he is bound to get the wrong impression. He is all right but I wouldn’t want him for steady company. Gosh, I’m sleepy. Zzzzzzz….”

 

2/18/72 [age 16]:

“Well, I had my second date tonight. All we did was go to the [basketball] game and then to Straw Hat Pizza again. Somehow I didn’t think it would ever be like this. Jerry is okay, but is really a baby. If only Pat Sears would come back. There is a rule in adolescent love: those you like like you not, and those who like you you like not.”

 

2/22/72 [age 16]:

“Today I have finally advanced from the rank of super goodie-goodie to beginning bad guy. I actually cut class. Jeanne and I went to the [school] library and sat down and looked at ‘The Chronicle.’ ”

 

2/23/72 [age 16]:

“I keep thinking about our basketball game. I only got to play the second half. But I didn’t make ANY points. I missed two shots and two free throws. In practice I am really super-fantastic, but in a game I get really nervous. My hands get all sweaty and everything. I just can’t hit. And I’m always so worried about what people are going to think of me. I get really embarrassed when I make a mistake. We lost 57-7. What a cream!”

 

2/25/72 [age 16]:

“I can’t explain why, but a big wave of depression has come over me lately. This time it is so deep it is threatening to drown me completely. I can’t get out. I’ve been actually considering running away. I am really surprised at myself. I don’t know where to yet, and it can’t be right away because of school, but I don’t want to go to college! I have my doubts. I don’t really need it. I’ll be so young [16]. Maybe I should wait a year. I just am too young. I realize now how sheltered I have been. I really don’t know what the world is like, and I’ve had no experience with it. I was talking to Mr. Barisich [my dad’s associate principal and a family friend] and he said he didn’t think people should go to college until age 24. He said if he were me he’d be “scared as hell,” not because of the academic competition but because of social adjustment. He told me I have a lot of thinking to do. I LOVE Mr. Barisich. This old college fear is weighing on me so heavily. I need SOME ANSWERS!!! And wow, I’m already 16 and never been kissed.”

 

3/9/72 [age 16]:

“Dad [also the principal of my high school] found out about Senior Cut Day, which was supposed to be tomorrow, and really threatened us over the P.A. today, saying they would make house calls and maybe take away the Senior Ball and Senior Picnic, etc. But what got me is Marc and Colleen both told me that everybody thinks I was the one who finked!”

A whole new ballgame

A whole new ballgame

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

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

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

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

***

Cupid's_Span_-_panoramio_wikimedia commons-2

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

The players had taken the field.

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

2019_04-10_Paula at Giants game-2

 

 

 

 

***

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

3/11/72 [age 16]:

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

2/7/72 [age 16]:

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

2/6/72 [age 16]:

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

2/5/72 [age 16]:

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

2/4/72 [age 16]:

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

 

I don’t want a pickle

I don’t want a pickle

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Paula with Honda Passport

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Sym Wolf Classic 150
SYM Wolf Classic 150

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

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

A girl can dream, can’t she?

 

the end

***

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

***

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

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

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

1/19/72 [age 16]:

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

1/15/72 [age 16]:

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

1/13/72 [age 16]:

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

1/11/72 [age 16]:

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

1/10/72 [age 16]:

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

1/9/72 [age 16]:

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

 

 

 

 

100 days of hard road

100 days of hard road

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Neuralgia is definitely, for me, a Level 10.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

She’s had no neck problems since then.

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

But the larger reason is this:

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

 

the end

 

 

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

1/6/72 [age 16]:

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

1/1/72 [age 16]:

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

12/1/71 [age 16]:

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

11/29/71 [age 16]:

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

11/5/71 [age 15]:

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

9/26/71 [age 15]:

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

9/21/71 [age 15]:

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

9/11/71 [age 15]:

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

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

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

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

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

7/14/71 [age 15]:

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

 7/11/71 [age 15]:

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

7/4/71 [age 15]:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

I’ll stand by you

I’ll stand by you

One of my former colleagues needs a new liver.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why Char is a gem.

***

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

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

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

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

Ellen Loerke and granddaughter Allie
Ellen and her granddaughter Allie

***

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

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

Riffle Mohawk
Julie R. and her scary mohawk

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

185_Baltimore_Paula, Lauren, Diana
Paula, Lauren, Diana

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

***

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

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

 

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

***

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

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

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

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

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Julie and Lauren

***

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

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

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

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

 

THIS BLOG POST IS DEDICATED TO JULIE’S MOTHER,

NANCY JAYNE CARBACK RIFFLE,

5/12/37 – 10/30/18

the end

 

 

***

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

6/29/71:

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

6/11/71:

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

6/9/71:

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

5/31/71 [Memorial Day weekend]:

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

5/24/71:

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

5/11/71:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An iron road runnin’

An iron road runnin’

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

Gordon Lightfoot

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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Central Pacific Railroad at Cape Horn, Colfax, CA

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

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

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

Still, they persisted.

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

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

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Buster Keaton on a handcar

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

The name of our band?

“Transcontinental Railroad.”

the end

 

***

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

5/7/71:

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

4/25/71:

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

4/3/71:

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

3/30/71:

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

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

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

2/24/71:

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

2/18/71:

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

Into that good night

Into that good night

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

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

***

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

But not so fast.

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

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

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

***

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

Flags outside of Fairmont - from Fairmont site

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

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The Fairmont stands tall amidst the rubble, 1906

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

Stanford White
Stanford White

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

Julia Morgan-2
Julia Morgan

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

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

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

***

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

026_2018_06-23_10th anniversary_Tadich Grill sign_Paula

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

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

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

TadichFry-800x496
Hangtown Fry

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Today is the first day of Julie’s retirement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

2/21/71:

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

 

2/1/71:

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

 

1/29/71:

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

 

1/23/71:

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

 

A thank-you lives forever

A thank-you lives forever

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

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

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

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

But I heard nothing back.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

We both cracked up.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

the end

 

***

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

 

1/11/71:

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

 

12/26/70:

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

 

12/11/70:

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

 

The lonely neurotic

The lonely neurotic

This past week, Julie had to fly off to Denver on business. She doesn’t love traveling by air or staying alone in hotels, so she was dreading the entire trip. I, however, was eagerly looking on the bright side. For one thing, I was going to have multiple days free of political jabber and, in fact, free of any news whatsoever except for my morning Chronicle read. Julie, you see – the woman who moved to California 22 years ago with not a scintilla of interest in politics – has now become a journalistic junkie, whereas I am so roiled by national and world events that even the slightest passing glimpse of the news gives me agita. One evening I fell asleep while she was listening to cable news on headphones, and the next morning I awoke to a 1,000-word e-mail message from her – a series of bullet points, no less! – summarizing the previous day’s political revelations, accompanied by a succinct legal analysis of each incident. My heartburn erupted.

More importantly, Julie’s absence for a prolonged period of time also means that I can clean out all of our expired food. Oh, the rapture! Our cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer are always filled with food that we’ve forgotten we have, or that we bought for one exotic recipe years ago, or that we purchased after one too many wine-tastings, if you know what I mean. Julie never wants to get rid of it but I can’t stand to have solidified fig preserves cluttering up my space! So when she is gone I gleefully throw open the cupboards, take out our stepstool, and start TOSSING, baby!

My time of uninterrupted organizational bliss was about to begin.

 

MONDAY

After dropping Julie off at the airport, I stop at the UPS Store to pick up a couple of parcels. The guy behind the counter says I have seven packages. I’m rather surprised. By my calculations, all I am expecting are printer ink and some orange shoelaces. Maybe Julie has bought me a raft of presents! He hands me the packages and I start hefting them out to the car. I can’t wait to tear into them. When I glance down, though, I see that they’re all for someone else. Dejectedly I trudge back into the store. The guy apologizes and says he thought I was another woman. I’m kind of excited to think that I have a doppelganger in West Portal.

I then race home, eager to get started on the kitchen. My rule is that the expiration dates on the bottles, jars, and packages must have come and gone. I spot about 11 expired bottles of assorted vinegar varieties. Can vinegar even go bad? It’s already so bad. Then again, we bought these bottles when we lived in a different house. It’s been more than 12 years! Surely they must be riddled with sediment at the very least. Can sediment kill us? It’s certainly possible. I throw out the vinegar.

I throw away half-used bars of Ghirardelli Cooking Chocolate from 2009. Out goes the stoneground mustard that is so desiccated it has become colored pebbles. With an athletic hook shot, I toss the foil-wrapped beige-colored thing from the freezer that cannot be identified. I take the rubbery Triscuits and sink a fade-away jumper into the trash.

I empty dozens of jars and haul many bags of recycling down to the garage. I’m so lucky that tonight is garbage night.

IMG_1660-[edited for blog]My rotator cuff starts to burn from all the “kitchen basketball” heroics. I down a bunch of Advil.

Buster sleeps for part of the night in the foyer, right by the front door, waiting for Julie to come home. I don’t think he usually does that when I’m gone. He obviously likes her better. Why am I so unlikable?

 

TUESDAY

As per my usual morning routine, I go downstairs and exercise on the elliptical. Thankfully I’m on a roll and I’ve been able to work out for a full 30 minutes regularly for about a year without tearing any muscles or snapping any bones. As usual, I listen to one of my CDs and fantasize that I am asked to play drums for the performer when the regular drummer has a sudden but nonfatal bowel emergency. Today I am listening to Hitsville USA, which is a box set of the Motown singles. I notice that the main Motown drummers (Benny Benjamin and Uriel Jones, members of the Funk Brothers) would often start a song (like “My Girl” and the sublime “This Old Heart of Mine”) with the same fill: one hit on the high tom, some 16th notes on the snare, and then one bass drum BOOM before the song starts. But they never finish the fill with a crash. Why? Everyone crashes at the end of a fill! When I get back upstairs I obsessively comb the Internet looking for an answer. This takes hours. Finally, I watch a video and find out that in those days the singers and musicians all recorded together in one room and the drummers were afraid that if they crashed, especially going into the start of a song, the sound would bleed into the other mics. Ah. Now I can relax.

I go in to take a shower and start worrying about what could happen if someone broke in. Buster is a prize-winning barker but I don’t think he would deter a marauder. I start hearing voices. It sounds like someone is begging for his life! Why would a criminal be begging for his life? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Or does Buster have him cornered? I shut off the water to listen. Nothing.

In the kitchen I see some purple bloodstains on the counter. Is someone in the house? Aren’t bloodstains red? Wait a minute, that’s where I inadvertently smashed a blueberry with my elbow.

In the afternoons I like to lie out in our backyard and read for a while. I’m beginning to have an unsightly farmer’s tan. Right now I’m continuing to make my way through A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I really enjoy it and I think Dave Eggers is brilliant. Many people reviled this work as an overblown exercise in self-indulgence. They are clearly misguided. I, for one, love stream-of-consciousness. Give me the hearty Thomas Wolfe or William Faulkner any day rather than, say, that insufferable Henry James. Gad. When you read that guy’s prose it’s as if you can actually hear the delicate tinkling of teacups.

It’s about 43 degrees outside with a blustery northwest wind (welcome, summer!), so I last only a few minutes. After I come inside I realize that Julie’s dad has called but the downstairs phone was malfunctioning and I could not hear the ringer. It is a beige 1970s wall model that I cherish. I decide to look at it and the entire phone clatters off the wall and falls on the floor with a bunch of electrical things hanging out of it. I’m horrified. I leave it on the dining room table for Julie to fix.

I decide to spend the latter part of the day watching all the documentaries that are piled up on my DVR. I can’t believe Julie has no interest in watching docuseries about the Kennedys or the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Tonight I choose HBO’s The Searcher, about Elvis Presley. Gosh, I never knew how much his manager Colonel Tom Parker screwed him by insisting he take time off from music to take on movie roles in Hollywood. And wasn’t he a handsome guy? Those lips!

IMG_1661-[edited for blog]
Lou Seal
Buster spends another couple of hours in the foyer at bedtime, waiting for Julie. He finally saunters back to the bedroom, where he sees our cute little stuffed Giants mascot Lou Seal. He eyes it warily and smashes up against me, far away from that terrifying seal.

 

WEDNESDAY

In the middle of the night I am startled awake by a robocaller. I cuss heartily. I decide that I should change our answering machine greeting to simply state that I already know I owe the IRS and have debilitating credit card debt and could use a vigorous carpet cleaning.

In the morning I wake up with lower back pain because I have had to sleep curled around Buster like a paper clip. The bed is 76 inches wide. Buster has somehow taken up 70 inches.

I down more Advil.

The Chronicle points out that Southwest Airlines keeps having to make emergency landings. Julie is flying Southwest. What if she gets sucked out of an airplane?

This morning while exercising I worry that I could have a heart attack like Sheryl Sandberg’s husband did while he was working out in a hotel gym. What if I keel over and die right here in the garage? I’m not wearing pants!

I am going to the Giants day game today against the Reds. And I have a huge decision to make. Do I leave the door to the backyard open for Buster? I am afraid that he might encounter a coyote or start eating landscape bark. After an agonizing three hours I finally settle on leaving the door closed. After all, finding a small pile of poop in the house is much preferable to Buster’s being devoured by wild animals or choking to death on mulch.

For this ballgame I am bravely attempting something new: I’ve resolved to find the crab sandwiches! I am filled with excitement and anxiety. Normally I sit in the same general area: sections 310-314, between home plate and first base, on the top level because that’s where the cheapest seats are. I keep a spreadsheet on the specific seats I’ve gotten over the last 5 years. The spreadsheet rates the seats according to the following criteria, among others:

  1. How long am I in the sun? (I prefer that it be half the game.)
  2. Do I have to look through that infernal Plexiglas wall?
  3. Are the season-ticket holders around me obnoxious or friendly?
  4. How close are the bathrooms?

The problem is, some of my favorite food items near those sections have, over the last few years, disappeared. So I am left primarily with my old standby: the “Sports Meal,” which consists of a hot dog, popcorn, and a beer. However, I really really really love AT&T Park’s crab sandwiches. They’re on buttered, crisp toasted sourdough with some kind of herb sprinkled on them. Heavenly! But, unless you are sitting in the luxurious Club-level seats, you can get them only on the opposite side of the stadium, near the bleachers.

IMG_1659-[edited for blog]
Success!
Julie has told me not to worry. She says that I should try to find the Marina Gate, which will likely be the nearest entrance to the precious sandwiches. Then I can “just trot upstairs and find the crab.” I obsess about the whole procedure all the way to the game on Muni. Sure enough, I can’t find the Marina Gate. But I adopt a new tactic: ask for help. Ask repeatedly. I get there early enough that all of the Giants personnel are still eager to assist. So I ask about the gate, I ask how to get upstairs, I ask where the crab is (that gentleman is so happy to help me out that he escorts me directly to the sandwiches!), and I ask how on earth I can then get back around the entire stadium to section 311. It all goes off somewhat without a hitch. I carry my sandwich delicately all the way around the ballpark, more than once narrowly avoiding having it knocked out of my hand by clueless frat boys, and make my way to my tried-and-true vendor where I buy my Sierra Nevada beer. My stress levels ease as I get to my seat. I then sit there and smugly scorn all the people who have a hard time figuring out on which side of the section to enter while trying to find their seats. Dolts.

Buster is still alive when I get home.

I decide to watch more documentaries, but they are starting to get tedious.

At some point in the evening our landline rings and the phone identifies the caller as my nephew Alec. What?? No one under 40 uses the telephone anymore! Someone must have died!!

(No, thank goodness.)

 

THURSDAY

The Chronicle runs a long article detailing how scores of people are dying from carbon monoxide poisoning because they don’t realize that they’ve left the engines of their keyless cars running in the garage. I immediately become convinced that I will easily make the same mistake and that I have very little time to live before I die of carbon monoxide poisoning myself.

While exercising I tell myself for the 50th time that I really should let my hair go grey. But I don’t have a young face. I have furrows in my brow the size of the Marianas Trench. If I go grey, that guy at the UPS Store might start mistaking me for Mel Brooks.

I go to Safeway to replenish our stock of expired food. I buy 11 replacement bottles of vinegar. Julie will never know what I’ve done. I have successfully covered all my tracks.

I spend some time continuing to work on my long-running project to finish scanning and naming (using a very strict naming protocol, of course) my parents’ and grandparents’ old photos. I’m also continuing to get my Super 8 films digitized, including my two-hour movie (with soundtrack and narration!) of my three-month 1980 round-the-country trip with a girlfriend in a VW van. It’s an epic and Oscar-worthy film. The thing is, who is going to care about any of this when I’m gone, which will be soon because I will imminently be murdered in the shower, suffer a massive heart attack while exercising, or asphyxiate myself with our keyless car? No one will care about your silly digitized photos and movies, Paula. They will just be summarily deleted.

Like me!

Thank goodness Julie is coming home today. Being alone, even with freshly organized cupboards and brand-new vinegar, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Meanwhile, I’ve still got my next blog hanging over my head. I’m letting down my legions of fans. Maybe I should write about the time I got an X-rated videotape stuck in my VCR. No, that would sully my pristine reputation.

Buster has developed a sudden fear of uncarpeted stairs. Good grief, where is he getting all of his strange neuroses?

Julie’s plane is late but she finally lands around dinnertime. Hallelujah! Buster and I pick her up. The “Human Anti-Anxiety Pill” has arrived!

***

As soon as we walk in the door, she heads to the kitchen for a snack. “Hey, you rearranged the cupboards!” she announces. “And have you heard about today’s chaos in Washington?”

Strangely, I feel a wash of serenity.

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.

 

11/19/70 [Ed.’s note: I was a couple of years younger than others in my class]:

“Today was a great day! They sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me in Spanish and we went through the whole age routine. At lunch, everyone got me ‘Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour’ album. During Geometry, someone wrote ‘Happy Birthday’ on the board and I went through the whole age bit again. Tonight I got a Glen Campbell song book from Mom & Dad, 5 dollars from Zia, Grammy, and Auntie Jackie, a belt from Marc, a guitar strap from Jan, ‘Oh, Happy Day’ record from Colleen, and personalized stickers from Barb. It was all very happy, except now I realize I’ll never be 14 again. Never!”

 

11/6/70:

“Tonight, [my sister] Jan discovered that [our tiny pet frog] Toby wasn’t in his cage. I love that frog. We’ve had him for a year and a half. I feel like crying. We looked all over for him and finally found the poor little guy all dried and shriveled up under the T.V.”

 

10/19/70:

“Tonight at 6:00 we went to the Blanchettes for dinner. We had barbecued bonito. It doesn’t sound too good, but by that time I was so starving I would have eaten anything. We had a little game of football and Butch and I were the best. Then Butch and I went into his mom’s room to watch T.V. Once he called me “honey.” How romantic! I wish I was clever or humorous or something. But I’m such a complete dud, I swear. We watched interesting things like bullfights.”

 

10/7/70: [Ed.’s note: I think Eddie Ryan was just a guy who went to our school]

“[My brother] Marc and I have a thing going when we walk to school every day. We have to see ten landmarks: 1) “Whistle-’em-up” the crossing lady (she told us to whistle when we want to cross), 2) A pet, 3) “Hawkins” written on sidewalk, 4) “Rhonda Kelly was here” on sidewalk, 5) Piedmont Hills bus, 6) little bus, 7) Boys’ P.E. bus, 8) Girls’ P.E. bus, 9) A motorcycle, and 10) Eddie Ryan. That’s the hardest one.”

 

10/4/70:
“You know, I really want a bike for Christmas. But Dad thinks it’s too dangerous. To him, everything is too dangerous. But Mom said she’d rather wait and give us a Honda. So now I want a Honda. You don’t need a license except for the streets. Like Bronson –the feel of the wind on your face. Groovy!”

 

 

La bella vita

La bella vita

Well before dawn this coming Wednesday, city officials and a parade of fire trucks will convene downtown for the annual commemoration, at Lotta’s Fountain, of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which killed up to 3,000 people, destroyed 28,000 buildings, and rendered 225,000 people homeless. Lotta’s Fountain was a gift to the City from Lotta Crabtree, a local actress, and it was used as a meeting place for residents after the quake. The last two survivors of the devastation died a couple of years ago, but the annual ceremony continues, beginning at 4:30 a.m. and counting down to a moment of silence at 5:12 a.m., which is the moment the earthquake struck.

My grandmother, 18-year-old Ambrogia Fontana, was one of the survivors. Newly arrived from Italy through Ellis Island, she had been in San Francisco less than a week. She spoke no English. She and her younger brother David were aiming to get a foothold in the new land, trying to figure out the people, the food, the language, the urban hustle. The culture shock was immeasurable. The two of them were asleep on Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906, when the most devastating natural trauma ever to hit San Francisco shook and burned the city. David was smashed in the head by a falling ceiling beam and was injured so badly that he was knocked unconscious and lapsed into a coma. The two of them were carted off to a tent city for quake refugees. Ambrogia had no idea where she was, where to go, or what to do, and no one could understand her. All around her, the city was in ruins.

***

Ambrogia, who was born in 1887, had grown up cutting quite a rebellious figure in the tiny northern Italian town of Staffoli, near Lucca in the Tuscan region. The oldest of 8 children, she worked in her father’s bottega (shop) where, at the age of 9, she spent her days making panini (sandwiches) while pouring a bit of grappa for herself every time she served a glass to a customer. Stern, robust, and always resentful of authority, as a teenager she would deliberately walk the streets of Staffoli wearing – gasp! – pants and smoking a Toscano cigar, just because it wasn’t done in those days.

(As an aside, Staffoli was originally in the province of Florence, but when Mussolini tinkered with the divisions in 1920 [gerrymandering!], he made Staffoli part of the province of Pisa. This would enrage my grandmother, who considered all Pisans to be thieves. The sentiment seems to endure somewhat today, and it may have stemmed from a time in history when many Pisans were tax collectors. One of my grandmother’s favorite [albeit skeevy] sayings was “Meglio che mangiare la tigna dalla testa di un cane che avere un Pisano alla porta!” [“Better to eat the mange off the head of a dog than to have a Pisan at the door!”])

Ambrogia’s father Pietro was a fairly successful businessman. In addition to owning the bottega, he was a cattle dealer, buying the animals in Milan or Venice and selling them in Florence. He also traveled extensively to Sao Pao, Brazil, where he had a coffee plantation, and to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he owned a brewery. Rumor has it that he kept a woman in every port, and the fact that two of his children were named Brasila and America certainly nurtured the speculation.

Although he was one of Staffoli’s few wealthy residents, Pietro was, for some reason, a socialist. In fact, he periodically hosted neighborhood socialist meetings with about 15 other men – a risky proposition, given that at that time the Italian government was cracking down hard on political activists, especially anarchists and socialists. The women, of course, were not allowed to participate in the meetings. Ambrogia was required to serve the males, and she grew increasingly resentful of her father’s rigorous authoritarianism. (Little did he know that when he went off on his trips, she would gather up her younger siblings, haul a bounty of salame, bread, and a bottle of chianti up to their room, and host a food-and-wine fest on their beds!)

At one particular political meeting, at which the now-18-year-old Ambrogia was, as usual, serving, Pietro’s rigid child-rearing practices were questioned by one of his more lenient buddies. “My children,” he responded angrily, “can do whatever they want in life.” This was the moment my quick-witted grandmother seized like a snake. “Oh, yeah?” she piped up in front of everyone. “Then I want to go to America.” Shocked by her audacity, the rest of the men challenged him. “You heard her, Pietro. So you will really send your daughter to America, then,” they said, mockingly. Pietro was stuck. He had made a proclamation and he couldn’t backtrack. His ego overruled his common sense. “Sure,” he answered. His wife immediately began to cry. But it was done.

That’s how my grandmother came to find herself boarding the steamship Prinzess Irene in Genoa, Italy, on March 22, 1906. It was unheard-of in those days for a young woman to travel alone; typically, in fact, it was a household’s father or eldest son who made the voyage and then sent for the rest of the family when life was settled. In this case, though, Ambrogia’s dim-witted 16-year-old brother Davide (David) was sent with her as a “chaperone.”

PrinzessIrene2-[edited for blog]

The Prinzess Irene was a German-built ocean liner that ran on the Genoa-to-New York line beginning in 1903. She was 540 feet long and 60 feet wide, weighed almost 11,000 tons, and traveled at about 15 knots (18 mph). The ship carried more than 2,000 passengers – most of them, including my grandmother, in 3rd class or “steerage.”

Before boarding, passengers were asked to answer a number of questions, the oddest of which included whether they were polygamists or anarchists. I’m fairly sure my grandmother was not the former, but she may well have been the latter. In any case, both she and David answered “no” appropriately. They also were subject to medical examinations and to “disinfection.”

generic 1909 passport-[edited for blog]There is no way to sugarcoat the experience of the passengers in steerage. In fact, up to 10 percent of them died on the way. They sat crowded together, in the dark, under the most unsanitary of conditions. The air was chokingly foul. Five years after my grandmother’s trip, the U.S. Immigrant Service reported that “[t]he open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and the odors from the hold and galleys. . . . The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it . . . . Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air. The food often repels them. . . . It is almost impossible to keep personally clean. All of these conditions are naturally aggravated by the crowding.”

In my grandmother’s case, this went on for 15 days. She and David arrived in New York on April 6. She had $25 in her pocket.

***

Three million Italians came to the United States between 1900 and 1915 during the “New Immigration” of Slavs, Jews, and Italians. Most of them were farm workers and unskilled laborers fleeing not only a politically chaotic country but also the crush of abject poverty. That was not the case with my grandmother, but it did apply to my grandfather.

Gustavo Bocciardi, a Tuscan like my grandmother, grew up extremely poor and with very little education. In April 1904, Gustavo came to America (also on the Prinzess Irene) by himself, as a teenager, in search of work. A couple of aunts in California had wired him the money to find his way out west. While on the train from Ellis Island to San Francisco, he was nearly taken advantage of when the guy at the café counter tried to charge him something like $30 for a 52-cent sandwich. As the story goes, my grandfather – short in stature, but strong as a bull – grabbed the guy by the collar and throttled him until he got his money back.

1956_07_Gustavo Bocciardi, Paula(b)
Gustavo Bocciardi (Nonno) and me, 1956

My grandfather was an interesting dichotomy. He was an emotional pushover who, in his later years, liked to push me around the neighborhood in a stroller to show me off. But apparently he had a temper – one I never, ever saw. Maybe his attitude was hardened by the bigotry that Italians regularly endured in this country. My dad told me that one day a passerby called Gustavo a “dago” to his face. “So he dropped the son of a bitch,” my father said, rather dryly. The man hit his head on the sidewalk, and Gustavo thought he’d killed him. While he was trying to explain the situation to his aunts afterwards, a police officer arrived at the door – a fellow who knew the aunts and liked them. “That guy is a jerk,” said the officer. “He’s just fine, he didn’t die, and you just tell your nephew Gustavo not to worry about it.”

***

In the few days between the time they arrived in San Francisco and the time the Great Earthquake hit, Ambrogia and her brother David had been staying in SF with their relatives the Mancinis. On April 18, the Mancinis had already gone to work by 5:12 am. – the moment the house was destroyed, and David was critically hurt – and they had no idea where their young charges were. The American Red Cross and local charities were providing food and medical care to everyone in the tent cities, which is where Ambrogia found herself, along with David, who was unconscious for days. One day, as Ambrogia was still trying to make sense out of what had happened to her, she heard Italian being spoken outside their tent. She ran out and discovered that a representative from the Italian consulate was walking around offering assistance, and she was able to tell him that she had been separated from the Mancinis, who, she knew, had relatives in Redwood City. Somehow the Consulate ended up finding the relatives and providing Ambrogia and David with transportation to their home. David would recover from his injuries.

***

By 1907, after working for a short time as a nanny, Ambrogia packed up and moved to San Leandro, a small city across the Bay from San Francisco to which many people displaced by the quake had relocated. She began working at the King-Morse cannery off of San Leandro Boulevard (now the site of the San Leandro BART station). Meanwhile, Gustavo Bocciardi – who’d been working as a logger in Boulder Creek – had also moved to San Leandro and was working at the same place.

Del Monte Cannery-[edited for blog]
The cannery
San Leandro has perhaps the greatest weather in California, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s there were plenty of farmers growing stone fruits, asparagus, and other produce in the area. The farmers made a lot of noise about getting a local cannery built to help ensure that their produce didn’t rot, and the first San Leandro cannery was established in 1898. In 1916 it became part of the California Packing Corporation (CPC), which eventually merged with the Del Monte conglomerate and became the largest fruit and vegetable canning company in the world. (Del Monte moved the San Leandro operation to the Central Valley in 1967.) The cannery employed a lot of Italians, and it was one of the few businesses in the area that provided employment to women. It was even so progressive as to offer free on-site day care. It also supplied little living shacks, for minimal rent, to some of the workers.

Gustavo and Ambrogia saw each other for the first time at that cannery. And here’s the craziest thing: they discovered that they were from the same tiny town in Italy! And they hadn’t known each other! I don’t know the population of Staffoli back then, but even now it has only a few thousand people. I can’t imagine how they could not have run into each other, especially because they were only two years apart in age. But my grandfather was poor and uneducated, and my grandmother traveled in a different universe.

Not surprisingly, Gustavo and Ambrogia ended up getting married, in Oakland, on December 30, 1907. A year later they had their first child, my aunt Nini, whose real name was actually Maria. [Ed’s note: every Italian family has a Maria!] My grandfather apparently won the naming rights and chose to name my aunt after his grandmother Maria, even though my grandmother – who was very anti-clerical (but not anti-religious) at the time – emphatically insisted that the Biblical Maria (Mary) was “the world’s first whore”!

1916_(L to R)_Giannina Corti, Gino Corti, Rizzieri Matteucci, Gustavo Bocciardi, Marie Bocciardi, Ambrogia Bocciardi-[edited for blog]
Gustavo (sitting) and Ambrogia Bocciardi, with daughter Maria (Nini), 1916
My aunt Nini – who was loud and very funny, often unwittingly – used to tell us that she was “born dead.” That declaration always amused and puzzled us kids, but my mother explained that although the doctors did initially pronounce her dead because she wasn’t breathing, she suddenly took a gasping breath and that was that. Nini slept, as an infant, in a dresser drawer, and when she was a month old my grandmother took her to work with her in a shoebox. They were all still living, at the time, in a cannery shack.

What continues to amaze me to this day is that my indefatigable grandmother found an additional way to make money. At night she would cook up an abundance of food that she could feed at lunch the following day to the many single young men who worked alongside her at the cannery: stews, chicken in sauce, etc. In the morning she would set the table, and at noon she’d race home to heat up the food. Then the cannery workers would come over and buy lunch from her to eat while they rested! How she did all this and cared for a baby, I do not know. She was strong, smart, and determined. It didn’t matter that she had been brought up in a family of means. She was on her own now, and she had no expectations of being handed anything anymore. She could stand on her own two feet. And hold everybody else up as well.

***

San Leandro ballpark sign-[edited for blog]At some point my grandmother quit the Cannery and they rented a house in San Leandro. Gustavo then worked at a variety of jobs – lumberyard, sawmill, munitions factory during World War I, etc. – for a few years each until his hot temper got him kicked out. Finally, nearly 20 years later, they could afford to have their first home built in 1926, right across the street from the San Leandro Ballpark (adjacent to the cannery) where my father says he saw Billy Martin play before he made it into the majors. Tickets to the Sunday afternoon baseball games cost 15 cents for gentlemen and 10 cents for ladies. What a steal! (That field, which I remember well, is now long gone, demolished when the BART station was built.)

By then my grandfather had gotten into the poultry business, and eventually he established his own market with two other guys – one of whom was his new son-in-law Ray. My grandparents weren’t keen on Ray because he was, irony of ironies, a Pisan! And true to stereotype, Ray’s father was a crook – a bootlegger who somehow cheated my grandfather out of a lot of money, although no one quite remembers how.

1925_San Leandro_Gustavo Bocciardi in Dodge truck-[edited for blog]
1925
***

Nearly nineteen years after Maria was born (yes, you read that right), along came my father in 1927. He was almost named “Sbaglio” (“Mistake”) because my grandparents had been convinced that they were too old to have children. In fact, once she started to show, my grandmother went to the local pharmacist to ask him what to do for her “tumor.” His reply? “That’s no tumor, lady. That’s a baby!”

Dad once said that they should have named him “Tumor.”

1937_12_Dad, Gustavo and Ambrogia Bocciardi-[edited for blog]
Gerald (my dad), Gustavo, and Ambrogia Bocciardi, 1937
My father had a wonderful childhood in San Leandro, in what he calls “the Italian ghetto.” He was adored and spoiled and many of the neighbors spoke Italian (or Spanish or Portuguese) and everyone watched out for each other. When he ran home from his first day of school because he couldn’t speak English, my grandmother ushered him right back. Her children were going to make something of themselves, and they would have an easier life.

***

1956_11-19_Gustavo Bocciardi, Paula(b)
Nonno and me, 1956

I’m only half Italian, but nearly all of my historical and cultural understanding of my heritage came from that side of the family. The German relatives on my mother’s side were almost guarded about their ancestry. But the Italians were proud and joyful.

My first language was actually Italian. I didn’t know how to speak English until I was about three years old and my maternal grandmother was babysitting me one day, couldn’t understand my repeated requests for acqua (water), and implored my parents to for God’s sake teach me some English.

1956_07_Mom, Paula, Ambrogia Bocciardi(b)-[edited for blog]
Beverly Bocciardi (Mom), me, and Nonna, 1956
When I was a child, I had the great fortune of spending at least every other weekend at my grandparents’ house in San Leandro. Nonna (my grandmother) wore aprons all the time and was constantly at the stove. Nonno (my grandfather), as I mentioned before, pushed me around in my stroller and visited all the neighborhood ladies. He let me help him pick vegetables from their perfect garden and dig for treasures in their basement. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran two lines near the house because the cannery depended on trains to bring in produce and ship out the canned goods. In the middle of the night the house would shake and rumble and the train whistle would practically wake the dead as the “choo-choo” thundered by. I loved the comfort of it.

1957_09_Marc's Baptism_Paula, Gustavo Bocciardi, Marc 1(b)
Nonno with me and my brother Marc, 1957

***

What great resilience and fortitude the immigrants had. How did those people from quiet little towns – some of them teenagers, like my relatives – find the courage to leave their homes and families and travel in horrid conditions across an ocean without knowing whether they would even survive the journey or, if they did, what they would do when they arrived? Most of the time they would end up sacrificing everything for their own new families in America. And yet, despite the prejudice and the barriers, they did it without complaint. Without defeat. They were heroes without monuments.

One of my very favorite movies, Mi Familia, ends with a scene in which the mother and father of an immigrant family from Mexico sit at a table and reflect back on their lives. The mother had suffered terribly getting to this country as a young woman. Their oldest son had been murdered. Their daughter-in-law had died soon after giving birth. But ultimately their remaining children and their grandchildren had found their way in life. As the parents savor their coffee and reflect on their marriage and family, José says, “Maria, we’ve had a good life. We’ve been very lucky.”

She nods but then pauses. “It would have been even better if . . . .”

But José won’t hear of it. “No, Maria, don’t say it,” he says. “Don’t even say it. It is wrong to wish for too much in this life. God has been good to us.”

“You’re right,” Maria says. “We have had a very good life.” And they kiss.

Sometimes I wonder what my grandparents would say if they knew what the world was like today. How could they comprehend people pulling out guns and shooting up schools and workplaces because they’re frustrated that things aren’t going quite perfectly for them?

And what would they think about those of us who show off pictures of our own food? How self-important have we become?

And how high are our expectations about the happiness we think life owes us?

Ambrogia and Gustavo lived in their little white San Leandro house for the rest of their lives. It was a simple existence, but they provided their two children with everything they needed: love, support, and education. My grandparents worked hard and had no time to be self-important. Life wasn’t easy. But they were self-reliant and they were happy. They talked, they laughed, they loved, they ate, and they drank with gusto.

And even when they were practically penniless, they were rich with courage, culture, and ideals.

It was the good life. It was la bella vita.

Salute, Nonno and Nonna. Vi voglio bene. I will love you forever.

1949_Ambrogia Bocciardi(a)-[edited for blog]

 

 

 

***

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 1971 and 1987.

 

9/24/71:

“6th period I have Geometry with Miss McCulloh. I always get done before everyone else in there. She said kiddingly, “I’ll have to give you extra work.” Well, brother, I have had enough of THAT before!”

 

 

10/26/71:

“I had to stay home from school today because I was sick. What a bummer! I’ll have to miss tennis tomorrow. Shoot! Not much else to say. I watched Graham Kerr [“The Galloping Gourmet” on TV] make poached eggs in wine sauce. Then I got hungry so I went up and had lunch. I had green-pea soup, a salami-ham-cheese sandwich, potato chips, an apple, a Ding-Dong, and a Coke.”

 

Christmas, 1967:

“Today we went to Church in our red plaid Scottish skirts and blouses and berets. The blouses were wool blue and so were our sweaters. Janine and I were scared with our berets.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tibby is king!

Tibby is king!

I have been lazy of late, dear readers, for no particular reason, and I know that it’s high time I got back on the blogging horse. I’m working on a more dignified piece right now, but in the meantime, just to sate your appetite for my literary pearls, I’ve decided to present to you the official minutes of the Tibby Club of America. And I will reward you with more substantive content in the days to come.

The Bocciardi kids founded two groundbreaking organizations in the 1960s. One of those – The Fishing Club – has already been covered here on Monday Morning Rail. The other was dedicated to my grandmother’s dog. Luckily, in both cases I appointed myself the recorder of the meeting minutes, and the historic proposals and decisions we made as members of these clubs are now saved for posterity.

As a bit of background, my mother’s parents lived in La Crescenta, California, which is in the southern part of the state near Los Angeles. At some point when we were kids, my grandmother acquired a cute little Lhasa Apso puppy whom she named Tibby, presumably because that breed of dog originated in Tibet (and was in fact not introduced to the United States until the 1930s).

Tibby was an adorable but completely spoiled little white bundle of hair. Now that Julie and I have a Lhasa Apso of our own, we’re quite familiar with the breed’s extreme stubbornness, tendency to bark maniacally at perceived dangers (their name in Tibetan means “Bark Lion Sentinel”), mischievous ability to outsmart their owners, and marked distrust of strangers and children, with whom they can be quite snippy.

Luckily, Tibby was a fairly chill little dude. His worst trait came about only because my grandparents fed him “people food,” a practice that was frequently evidenced by Tibby’s walking around with an orange beard after slurping Ragu-drenched spaghetti out of his bowl. (These grandparents weren’t the Italian side, hence the dubious sauce.) However, when the family sat down to dinner, Tibby would expect additional tidbits and would beg and yap ceaselessly in a voice so shrill that it could cause serious tinnitus. He would then be banished to the backyard, where he would continue to yip, all the while pawing and scratching incessantly at the sliding glass door until we went nearly insane.

Otherwise, though, he was very good with children, and he put up with our constant mauling in a manner that was both aloof and patient. We absolutely worshipped him.

1965_05_Janine, Marc, Agnes (Hansen) and Frank Steger, Jackie Gross, Dad, Mom, Carla Gross, Kathie Gross, Ron Gross, Tibby
Adults in back: My grandmother Agnes (holding Tibby), grandfather Frank, aunt Jackie, Dad, and mom. Standing kids: My sister Janine, brother Marc, and cousins Kathy and Carla. Kneeling teenager is my cousin Ronnie, whom we’d just as soon forget.

When the first meeting of the ambitiously named “Tibby Club of America” was convened at our house in San Jose, I had just turned 12, my brother Marc (obviously the money guy) was 10, and my sister Janine was 7. Occasionally our grandparents drove up to visit from SoCal, bringing Tibby and sometimes the two other people present for the club meetings: our first cousins Carla (12) and Kathy (10), the two daughters of our beloved hippie aunt Jackie who lived just a few blocks from my grandparents.

This is an abridged version of the complete minutes of the Tibby Club. If I were to include the full documents, you’d all be snoring. My comments are bracketed in italics.

***

 

TIBBY CLUB OF AMERICA

Minutes

The meeting came to order at 8:25 p.m., Friday, November 24, 1967. Kathy Gross, Janine, Marc, and Paula Bocciardi attended.

The President, Marc Bocciardi, said that the four slips of paper in front of us may be wrote on about a suggestion [sic] after you call time out.

We all called time out and wrote our suggestions. Then we all called time in after putting our suggestions in the bandage box located behind Paula, the Great.

Marc then proceeded to write down the Tibby motto.

Tibby Club of AmericaPaula voted that we read the suggestions. Marc took them out and the first one was Janine’s. It said, “My thing is this – we should feed Tibby every day except once in a while.” Everyone voted on it.

The next suggestion was Janine’s. It said, “Do the Tibby sulut [sic] every day.” Everyone almost voted it in. Then Janine got a demerit for talking about how Marc once said, “Dear Grammy and Grumpy.”

Next was Paula’s. It said, “We should have an itiation [sic; initiation] for Kathy and other new members.” Everyone voted for it.

Kathy got a demerit of salivaing [drooling on] her knee. Paula said Kathy should say to Grampy, “Grampy, damn it.” The inititon [sic again!; initiation] was decided to be a tickle torture.

Paula said, “Wall – damn it” after Jan fell and Paula made a loud poop [fart].

Next was Janine’s. It said, “I love Tibby . . . I love Tibby.”

Next was Kathy’s. It said, “I don’t love Tibby.” Kathy almost got a demerit for it.

Next was Marc’s. It said, “I think we should all five of us (Kathy and Carla, Marc, Jan, and Paula) should contribute 10¢ for Tibby’s birthday present and 10¢ for his Christmas present.” We all voted for it.

Then Janine said, “I think that we should play with Tibby more often.” We all voted for it.

Then I read this, and the meeting was adjourned at 9:04 p.m.

Signed,
Paula Bocciardi
Minute Man

 

***

Minutes

The meeting started Saturday, November 25, 1967 at 8:10 a.m. Marc, Paula, Jan Bocciardi and Kathy Gross were present.

Marc, the President, passed out suggestion slips. Everyone called time out and wrote down their suggestions. We all called time in.

Then we decided to collect the 20¢ for Tibby’s presents. Everyone contributed 20¢ except Kathy and Marc. Marc had done it the previous night.

1965_05_Felicia Morrow, Agnes (Hansen) Steger, Tibby, Janine, Marc-2
Neighborhood friend Felicia, my grandmother Agnes (with Tibby), Janine, and Marc

Then Marc read the first suggestions. It was Paula’s and Marc’s and Kathy’s. They said, “We should give Tibby a final salute and have a salute every meeting and a final playing with.” Everyone voted for the first and third, everyone except Paula for the second.

Next was NOBODY. It said NOTHING. [It appears that I had left blank spaces where someone later filled in the “nobody” and “nothing.” The handwriting was clearly my brother’s.]

The meeting adjourned at 8:26 a.m.

 

***

Minutes

The meeting came to order at 7:31 p.m. on Saturday, November 25, 1967. Kathy Gross, Paula, Jan, and Marc attended.

Kathy suggested that we read the promotion. Then Paula said to Kathy, “You stink.” Then it was decided that Kathy and Janine were to be promoted. Kathy was promoted to first class and swore (an oath, that is). Janine was promoted to first class and swore.

We discussed swearing.

Marc suggested we read the suggestions. The first one – Jan read. It was Marc’s. He said that we should have a crown [for Tibby]. Suggestion was overruled.

Then Kathy read Jan’s. It said that we should comb, brush, feed, and give water to Tibby everyday.

Then Marc read Kathy’s. It said that Carla should send up her membership and that we should care for Tibby better. The first part was voted for by everyone.

Paula moved that we should adjourn the meeting and give the Tibby salute. We all voted on it.

The meeting adjourned at 7:55.

Signed,
Paula Bocciardi
Co-Chairman
(Minute Man)

 

***

Minutes [these are written by my brother]

I had to write the minutes because Paula got mad and threw the orig. ones in the wastebasket.

President, Marc

The meeting came to order at 3:57 p.m. on Thursday, December 21, 1967. Kathy and Carla Gross and Marc, Paula, and Janine Bocciardi were present.

We wrote our suggestions.

The first one read, “Let’s give Carla her Initiation Tickle Torture.” Everyone but Carla voted for it.

The next one said, “let’s have a party.” Everyone voted for it. The next said, “We should give Marc demerits when he needs them.” Everyone voted for it.

The next said, “let’s make a Tibby song.” It was overruled.

The next one said, “we should have interest on dues.” [Guess whose suggestion THAT was?] It was overrruled. The meeting was adjourned at 4:31 p.m.

President,
Marc

1969_06 Marc, Tibby, Paula, Janine-2
Marc, Paula (with Tibby), Janine

***

Minutes

P.R. – Marc (President)
M.M. – Paula (Minute Man)
1st class Jan – Janine

The meeting came to order at 10:05 a.m. PAT (Paula’s alarm clock time) on Sunday, June 30, 1968. Then Paula read the minutes of the last meeting. After Marc passed out the suggestion slips, we wrote them down and put them in a jacks bag.

The first Marc read’s [sic] was 1st class Jan’s. It said, “We should take turns reading these.” That was voted in. Then Jan read her own, which said that we should sell Tibby badges for 5¢ apiece [and] that she could make some – Marc’s idea. Then she read Marc’s which said the same, but also 5¢ for folders, money to Tibby fund. We voted that in.

Marc read Paula’s, which said we should have a Tibby scroll. Jan read Paula’s, which said she’ll make a Pig crown for Uncle Dave.

Then Paula read Jan’s, which said, “I think every day we should give Tibby rewards because he’s KING. First-class Jan.”

Then Marc read Paula’s, which said not to go too far or Mom or Dad will get mad.

Janine then left to go to the bathroom.

The meeting was adjourned at 10:35 a.m. PAT.

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 1971 and 1987.

12/13 and 12/14, 1971 [the hard life of a teenager]:

“Mrs. Moore gave me a tutoring assignment today. I was really happy about it until she told me it was in Algebra. Yecch! My worst, most hated, dumbest subject! Yecch! First period P.E. has (glory of all glories) BASKETBALL IN THE GYM. And do you know what I got stuck with? Huh? FENCING!! That’s right! I’m so sore I can’t move.”

12/5/71:

“I was very busy today and did not go to church. Dad had a cold, Mom had a stomach pain; yet I could have walked. I should have. Somehow I know that I am a good person, and perhaps those religious standards made me that way. Yet there are all these new voices proclaiming that we do not have to go to Mass. I hate to think that they are right, and that all my Masses and all my Confessions were for nothing!”

12/7/71:

“Tonight, I went with Mary Pasek to my first P.A.L. [at the time, sort of like little junior police officers] meeting. We got a thing for our parents to sign saying that if we are killed or seriously injured, the Police Department is not liable. We are binded to risk our lives for policemen. The rigidness of conduct and the very strict inspection scared us into a panic. However, it scared me INTO P.A.L. because I have found that I have a certain desire for very authoritative procedures. We MUST have black shoes and a pen.”

11/26/71:

“I watched the Baltimore Bullitts [sic] beat the Atlanta Hawks today, 105-118. Pete Maravich is the only reason I watched. I used to like ‘Pistol Pete’ a couple years ago when he played college ball. I can’t say he’s too much of a shooter, but he sure can handle that ball. I used to think he was cute. YICK!”

11/30/71:
“Boy, did we see a tear-jerking movie tonight. The movie was “Brian’s Song” about Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears. Brian died of cancer. I cried the last half hour and 15 minutes AFTER that movie!”

11/23/71:

“Today I was notified that I am going to be Editor-in-Chief for the next issue of our [school] paper. SWELL. I had to fork out an editorial today. I also got my senior pictures taken. At first I was really scared, but it didn’t take too long, thank goodness. One thing I am afraid of is Driver’s Training. I’m getting it sometime this quarter. Boy, I am so scared. Thank goodness tomorrow is the last day of this week. Yay, Thanksgiving! Food!”

11/21/71:

“What did I do today? I went to Church, finished selling my box of candy bars, vacuumed my room (there were 26,962 pieces of confetti on the rug), wrote thank-you notes, got Mom to let me wear pants once a week, made up a schedule for wearing my clothes, and took a BBGO (Big Bath and General Overhaul).”