I’d never imagined I’d be a party to any kind of court case. But there I was, in a San Francisco courtroom, clutching a McDonald’s bag that I’d found in the restroom and suing a newspaper owner over a bunch of typos.
It had all started on Thursday, January 28, 1982, when – according to my diary – I’d spent a good portion of the day entering a “Spot-the-Blooper” contest in the Sunset Independent, a now-defunct local newspaper covering San Francisco’s Sunset District, the largest neighborhood in the City (about 80,000 people). The contest’s rules stated that entrants should look for errors over four issues of the paper and submit a list of them on a postcard. The winner who found the most errors would get $1 per “blooper.”
Well, I loved reading my Sunset Independent with great fervor every week, and I already knew that it was always absolutely fraught with mistakes. I also happened to be making my living as a freelance proofreader at the time. So I figured I had this contest in the bag.
I found 359 errors.
Imagine my excitement. In those days I made so little money that I couldn’t even afford cheddar cheese.
Diary entry, January 29: “I found so many mistakes yesterday that I had to type it all up on paper and it took me 5 hours, taking time out for dinner.”
I sent in my entry. But on February 11, before heading off to work, I opened that week’s issue of the Independent and could not believe my eyes. The paper declared the winner to be a man who had found 41 typos.
I was, to put it mildly, royally incensed.
February 11: “Today was Sandy’s going-away luncheon at ICS. We went to MacArthur Park, and I had grilled gulf shrimp and tons of their ‘onion strings’ and two glasses of wine. I was fairly useless afterwards, so I came home and drank a bunch of rum so I could call the Sunset Independent. They were really nervous and hemmed and hawed and said the contest judge wasn’t there and would call back on Friday, but I never got a call. So on Pam’s advice I’m going to write them a letter. It ain’t the money with me, it’s the principle.”
Pam Pecora was a friend of mine who had finished law school a few months before, and she was my go-to source for legal advice. So I proceeded to angrily pen a scathing letter to the newspaper, demanding that without a reasonable explanation within a week I would either go to court or pursue my case with the Consumer Fraud unit of the District Attorney’s Office.
The paper then employed an odd strategy.
February 18: “Today we got the new Sunset Independent. And oh how they must have scurried around after getting my letter yesterday, ’cause they PRINTED IT along with a stupid ‘explanation’ that said many of my bloopers had to do with spacing, whereas in fact maybe 3 of my 359 did. Amazingly ludicrous. I tried calling the editor again, but she rudely wouldn’t answer my questions. All she kept saying was that it was the judges’ decision. Finally she said, ‘They didn’t agree with some of your errors.’ I said, ‘So, in other words, they didn’t agree with even 41 of my errors.’ All she said was, ‘I don’t know, it’s all in a file somewhere, and I don’t want to dig it out.’ Boy, was I burning and churning.”
Apparently I burned and churned for only a couple of hours before calling the Consumer Fraud people and asking them to send me a complaint form. It arrived two days later. Imagine a government agency responding so quickly today. Two days! That hardly gave them time to get it into a mailbox!
At any rate, I filled out the form forthwith, and on March 4 a representative from the Consumer Fraud unit telephoned me. (By the way, I’m going to call the editor Laura Silva rather than her real name, for reasons I will make clear later on.)
March 4: “Well, hey, Consumer Fraud called, and the woman there – named Sydney – told me that I have an open-and-shut case, even in the opinion of the D.A.’s men there. She tried twice to talk sense into Laura Silva, the Independent’s editor, but she said Silva was rude and a real ‘schmoo.’ ”
“The D.A.’s men”? I think I’d been watching a little too much Karl Malden in “The Streets of San Francisco.”
March 8: “I talked to Sydney again. She said she’d had a message from Laura Silva (the famous editor), and when she called her back, Laura only repeated that she didn’t want to talk to me anymore. So why had Laura left a message to call her? She must really be nuts. Anyway, I guess her latest excuse for my not winning is that I didn’t send my entry in on a postcard. First of all, can you see me writing 14 pages on a postcard? Secondly, the second issue of the paper stated that we could send in letters! It looks, anyway, as if I’ll be going to small claims court.”
Sydney had done all she could for me. Typo fraud was just beyond her purview. So I called the Small Claims Legal Advisor at the San Francisco Municipal Court and girded my loins for battle.
The first thing I resolved to do was find an expert witness. Because I’d been in the publishing biz for a few years, I had a squad of word nerds around me. I decided on Kathy Reigstad, a production editor and former colleague of mine from my days at Harper & Row. As it turned out, she’d gone to law school for about a year and had always fantasized about being in court, so she was ecstatic at the prospect. Her role was to determine how many of my “bloopers” were legitimate errors. I would sue for that number of dollars in addition to – per the guidance of the Small Claims Legal Advisor – punitive damages of $100. I could soon be rolling in it!
The next thing I had to do, according to the Advisor, was determine who was in fact the owner of the newspaper. To accomplish this, he suggested that I go down to City Hall and attempt to look it up in the Fictitious Names Index. Instead, I enlisted the help of my girlfriend Cynthia, who came up with the ruse of calling the paper’s office pretending to be a journalism student doing a project on newspaper ownership. The office clerk who answered the phone bought it, and he told her that Laura Silva was indeed the owner.
All I had to do now was wait for Kathy’s evaluation, then send a letter to the Independent with a demand for the exact amount.
A week later, Kathy called me down to the Harper & Row offices to go over my entry, and we came up with 249 valid errors. That sounded fair to me. So I sent the newspaper a certified letter and, as soon as the receipt came back to me, I went down and filed the small claims case. Cynthia served the warrant. My day in court would be April 28 at 8:15 a.m. Things were moving quickly.
April 13: “I’m sitting here tonight watching ‘People’s Court,’ one of my favorite new shows. It’s interesting to me to hear the variety of situations in which people shaft each other, and to hear the judge’s assessment of right and wrong in each case, I am especially getting more and more interested now that my own case is coming. And I am starting to realize that it is easy to sue, and that as they say on the show, it’s much better to go to court than to take the law into your own hands; maybe more of us can strike back at the myriad of people who rip us off.”
Obviously I was feeling righteous about the situation. But as the trial approached, I got more and more jittery.
April 27: “Tomorrow morning’s court date looms larger and larger, and it’s practically consuming me. My stomach was ulcerous – burning all day, in fear of my having to speak in court.”
Kathy Reigstad and I arrived in Small Claims Court (Dept. 1 of City Hall, at the time) extremely early on the 28th. I was so extraordinarily nervous that when I emerged from the women’s room I absent-mindedly picked up a stranger’s McDonald’s bag and carried it with me into the courtroom!
As you might expect, the bailiff smelled that breakfast sausage sandwich and handed me a mild reprimand. I scurried back to return it to the restroom.
Kathy amused me with her asides as we were waiting. “I don’t know if this is the right time to tell you,” she said, “but when I had to be in moot court in law school I cried.” Meanwhile we were trying to determine which person was Laura Silva. When a really gorgeous woman walked in, Kathy turned to me to pronounce, “We’re dead.”
But it wasn’t her. The real Laura came in and sat right next to me, not knowing that her tormenter was at her shoulder.
Our case was the first one called, which terrified me because I’d wanted to watch for awhile and get some tips from other people’s presentations. But no.
And true to form, I blundered right from the get-go.
“I started clambering onto the wrong chair in the beginning, saying, ‘Is that right, Your Honor?’ and he motioned me to stand in front of him, with a smile.”
I presented my side somewhat shakily and at lightning speed, ignoring both the speech I’d spent typing up until midnight the night before and my reams of documentation. Then came Silva’s turn, and the judge seemed to partially take my side from the very beginning. Silva wasn’t as respectful (i.e., scared) as I was, often finishing her responses snidely with, ‘Is that it? Am I through?’ And the judge even seemed sympathetic to some of my more questionable corrections. For example, he demanded to know whether she would count “proofread” and “proof read” in the same paragraph to be an error. She said no, along with this doozy: “That first one is two words. The letters are just squished together. You can see a line between them.”
“That’s the PROOFREADER’S red line!” he answered, with more than a little exasperation.
Another gem involved her misspelling the name of Fanning’s Bookstore. Silva claimed that she was under no obligation to spell the name of the bookstore correctly, especially since she had no time to look up the name in the Fictitious Names Index.
I told her that I had simply called Mr. Fanning and asked him for the correct spelling!
Finally, when the judge looked at Kathy’s carefully enumerated list of errors, he told Silva, “Paula’s list contains 49 spelling errors alone, which by itself beats the 41 that the winner had.”
“Well, uh huh, that’s true,” Silva admitted.
For crying out loud, why had this woman ever thought it was justifiable to declare someone else the winner? All she had to do was declare me the winner with 42 typos and I would never have felt cheated or taken her to court. Now she was spending her time defending her ridiculous excuses. What a waste! None of it made any sense to me!
The judge concluded by telling us that he would commission a third party to scrutinize my entry, and that we would get the decision in the mail.
As I walked out of the courtroom past the gallery, still a bit wobbly, a young guy about my age took my hands in both of his and said, “That was a very nice presentation.”
“I tell you, that sweet gesture made my whole day happy.”
A couple of weeks later, the judgment arrived.
May 12: “On the way out the door at 2:00 this afternoon, I found my court judgment in the mail, a piddling $80 victory. I’m glad I won, but it sure would’ve been nice to get more money for all the work I put in. And I feel a little sheepish calling up people like Mom and telling them that I only got 80 bucks.”
The cherry on top was that Silva waited so long to send me my check that her time limit expired and I had to lean on her with another letter. But she eventually coughed up the dough.
So that was it. Justice had prevailed, although it seemed like only partial justice. I still have my lengthy list of bloopers, and even with the mellowing of age, I still maintain that I had a couple hundred valid entries. Who was this “third party” who came up with such a cockamamie count? Obviously not an English major!
So where are these dramatist personae today?
As far as I can tell, Kathy Reigstad lives in the Pacific Northwest and still works as a copy editor, including for Harper Collins Publishers in New York. She was a dedicated, kind, competent editor and delightful human being.
Sydney Fairbairn, the earnest young woman from Consumer Fraud, is an attorney in Marin County.
My friend Pam Pecora Hansen is an attorney in the San Francisco D.A.’s Office.
Laura Silva, as it turns out, owns a large shop in my neighborhood! Oy! I have never stepped foot in her store, even though there’s some great stuff in there. But I’m too afraid that if I bought anything she would recognize the name on my credit card, even after so much time has passed, and I shudder at the thought.
She may well be a lovely person. After all, it’s been nearly 40 years, and we’re all different people from what we were half a lifetime ago.
On the other hand, maybe she’s still a schmoo.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
2/9/73 [age 17]: “Two learning experiences, one quite in contrast to the other. This morning I took Mary to school early in order that she be able to attend a History class. I went along to her class for lack of anything better to do and because I simply LOVE learning! The program was actually quite interesting. (Judy asked today what class I was reading Walden for. I answered that I was doing it for fun. ‘God, I NEVER do that!’ she replied.) And the other experience? Well, yesterday I was propositioned in the Student Union. I rudely turned the guy down. He must’ve been hard up.”
3/9/73 [age 17]: “Mom and Dad went out tonight so I naturally went in the sewing room to listen to four records at ear-splitting volume. My tastes are not limited; Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand hold as much appeal for me as do Neil Diamond or Johnny Rivers or the Four Tops. My sole material desire in the world is to own a stereo with four speakers at the very least. I know the quality of every radio station around; I can sing the words to almost every song that was ever written. It’s kind of ironic that I am so wanting in musical talent, and I have the worst voice this side of the Rockies.”
2/19/73 [age 17]: “Dad had to go to a basketball game tonight, so we’re not going to Clearlake until tomorrow. Instead, Jeanne took me to a ballet at Flint Center, “Swan Lake,” with Rudolph Nuryvev [sic]. I guess it was okay, but my mind wandered all over the place. It was so boring!”
2/20/73 [age 17]: “On my break today all I did was eat. So much for my diet. I had three pieces of pizza, a tuna sandwich, some French fries, and a glass of root beer.”
2/22/73 [age 17]: “I had a dream that I was in an elevator and the doors never closed and it started going up and down, faster and faster, never stopping. I grew dizzy, became disoriented. It was awful. I’ve tried to analyze what it all means – maybe the elevator is my world, for I am helplessly confined by something beyond my control. Alone, scared, out of place, confused. I woke up with my heart pounding like crazy and I was gasping for breath. I tell you, one of the most glorious feelings in the world is waking up from a horrible nightmare and realizing you are still alive.”
2/25/73 [age 17]: “I’m slowly recovering from a bash on the head [my sister] Janine gave me with a pot while we were drying the dishes. It was accidental, I think. I’ve finally decided to make some attempt at learning to cook, or at least to make preparations for my eventual independence, so I’ve bought myself a little notebook in which I shall observe different dinners and write them out. Eventually, I shall also include other domestic chores, such as washing, repairs, etc.”
2/28/73 [age 17]: “I’m still trying to get over the shock, but Mr. Jordahl from Rexall Drugs by Lucky’s called today about an interview; I went down and without any real questions he hired me (it’s advantageous that he knows Mom). The pay is really raunchy – $1.55 an hour – but I’ve accomplished the one thing I wanted to do: no more Clear Lake. I don’t know what I’ll do when they [my family] go away for the weekend, or how in the world I’ll get to work (in the dark? with no car?). We’ll solve that problem when we come to it. Maybe they’ll pawn me off on somebody or I’ll have a friend come over, which’ll be really nice. O, blissful freedom!”
“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.
Charlie was on his ship, the A.G. Ropes, for three years until it finally returned to dock in San Francisco. Still understandably furious, he vowed that his first act onshore would be to shoot old man Curten or, even better, boil him in oil. With his three-year grand total pay of $5 in his pocket, Charlie set his sea legs onto the dock and began making his way towards Curten’s. After stopping at a couple of bars along the way, he took out half his remaining pay and bought himself a revolver and ammunition. A few more bars later, he arrived, feeling no pain, at his destination. Sure enough, the owner was there, and he flew out from behind his bar to grab Charlie with a mammoth bear hug and a raucous greeting.
“Charlie, what the hell happened to you? I’ve missed ya for the last three years. The last time I saw you, you was in here having a good ol’ time. I’ve been so worried, my man! Come on in; your drinks are on me!”
Well, Charlie couldn’t refuse a good stiff snort of whiskey. Or two or three, if they were free.
The next morning he woke up on a whaling ship, bound for Alaska. The ship would be gone for three years.
Among all the books I’ve collected about San Francisco, the quirkiest one is a tiny hardcover out-of-print book that is so obscure it cannot even be found in an online search save for an entry in a 1966 copyright catalog. Rooted Deep, only 78 pages long, was written by Ward H. Albee, Sr., a stevedore and firefighter who spent his teenage years living on Telegraph Hill just a couple of blocks off the water. His book is a memoir as well as a recounting of stories he heard in his youth, and Charlie’s is among those tales.
Mr. Albee was brought up in the bawdy, lawless, corrupt, frantic, and cockeyed part of San Francisco that was the Barbary Coast. It extended along San Francisco’s brawling waterfront, where saloons, brothels, casinos, dance halls, and other gin joints were home to the assorted rogues and wanderers who lurched along those streets. The air smelled like men and rotgut, but there was a world of commerce going on, and in a few short years, the Gold Rush and the transcontinental railroad swelled the population of San Francisco from 1,000 to 100,000.
The lure of money, the whistle of a train, and endless whisky. San Francisco is a city with a provocative past, and in some ways it’s as bawdy, lawless, corrupt, frantic, and cockeyed today as it ever was.
That, my friends, is why I will always love it.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of my living in San Francisco. For months I’ve been wanting to write something evocative and coherent about my beloved home, but my usual fears of not doing it justice have held me back. To be honest, I’m still really afraid to hit the “publish” button. The City’s beauty and allure, first of all, are nearly impossible to put into words. And I can rattle off a list of attributes until I’m exhausted, but my relationship with San Francisco is so much more personal than that. It’s about sensation, emotion, history, the accumulation of experiences.
San Francisco is not the same town, of course, that swept me off my feet when I unpacked my boxes here in 1979. And I am not the same person. I recognize that, which makes my task all the harder. Still, despite our changes, this city and I have had a wonderful, longstanding, besotted affair, and San Francisco remains, to this day, one of the great passions of my life.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I am not a San Francisco native. I will always be envious of my friends who can make that claim. But neither was Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who did a pretty fine job (hello, Pulitzer Prize) of writing about this town for 60 years. Not long ago my friend Val, who did grow up here, invited me into a closed social media group for SF natives. I protested. She insisted, though, that no one loves San Francisco more than I do and that I deserved to be included.
I suppose she’s right. The truth is, I may not have grown up here as a child, but I grew up here as an adult.
It was June of 1962 when I first made the acquaintance of the City by the Bay. I was six years old. My family lived on the west side of San Jose, in a small house in a middle-class neighborhood. Next door to us lived Anita and Don Phillips, a wonderful older couple who carried around the sorrow that their only child had died of lockjaw after falling out of a tree and onto a piece of rusty metal. They took a shine to me and vice-versa, and after Don’s job as a furniture salesman took him to San Francisco, they invited me to stay with them. I imagine I was with them only a day or two, but Anita brought me to Golden Gate Park, only a few steps away, and to the zoo. Their small but classic home on 28th Avenue in the Richmond District had a dining room – a concept completely new to me. Oh, what enchantment!
A fairytale house, with a shimmering chandelier and a beautiful built-in china cabinet. A bag of bread, my little hand reaching in and feeding ducks along a small lake in the Park. A red plastic key to turn on talking exhibit boxes at the zoo. Russ Hodges on KSFO radio, announcing that, out at the ballpark, Willie Mays was rounding third.
I was too young then to know that I would not have existed without San Francisco. My Italian grandmother immigrated here from Italy with her brother in 1906, just in time for the Great Earthquake. Displaced by the temblor, she moved across the Bay to San Leandro, where she met my grandfather. Their second child, my father, became a language professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Although he always said that he was bewitched by my mother the minute she enrolled in his Italian class, I like to think that they both fell in love on their first date – at the long-gone Leone’s restaurant in North Beach, 450 Broadway, San Francisco, in 1951.
It wasn’t until my high school years, 1968-72, that I reconnected with San Francisco. Annual school field trips turned us loose among the post-Summer of Love flower children. I remember looking up with both curiosity and longing into the windows of Victorian hippie pads, getting glimpses of pottery and macramé and Jim Morrison posters and wondering what it would be like to live here. This city, she could take your breath away then. There was no other place like it.
Painted houses, psychedelic head shops, Hare Krishnas, tie-dyed shirts, the smell of patchouli and incense, and the insistent pound of bongos played by shirtless men in parks. “White Rabbit” on the radio.
After graduating from college with a Law Enforcement major and a minor in English, I told my parents I wanted to finish up my English degree at San Francisco State. Its English department had a stellar reputation. But most of all I had discovered Jack Kerouac and the other Beat writers, and the pull that San Francisco had on them was pulling me as well. I was already driving to the City as often as I could to hang out at City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and I could still feel the Beats there, even though it had been 20 years since their heyday. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the store’s owner and Beat poet extraordinaire, was often behind the counter. There was an Italian bookstore in the neighborhood, too, and Italian delis and cafes, and I could buy a cheap book and a loaf of bread and sit in Washington Square Park among the old men on the park benches. Little did I know that I would meet Ferlinghetti and edit one of his books, a mere five years into the future.
I got my English degree after three semesters at San Francisco State and immediately and through sheer luck got a job with Harper & Row Publishers down near the waterfront. But what really ignited my affair with the City was a romance into which I had been swept during my last few months in college. I fell in love for the first time, and I realized that – for a gay person in the late 1970s – San Francisco was the place to be. The city was still reeling from the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. But a new movement was taking hold in San Francisco. Gay people were moving to the city in droves, and “Castro clones” – men who dressed in flannel shirts and jeans and sported mustaches – were everywhere. San Francisco had a warm heart, open hands, and a tolerant eye. It was whimsical, it was wild, it was affectionate, it was sensuous, it was all-embracing. For a young person, of any orientation, the life in this town turned into one big party.
Wow. I had hit the vein. This was the place where I was meant to live.
“If you’re alive, you can’t be bored in San Francisco. If you’re not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life. San Francisco is a world to explore. It is a place where the heart can go on a delightful adventure. It is a city in which the spirit can know refreshment every day.” (William Saroyan)
I got my first San Francisco apartment in 1979. In those days, San Francisco was an economically diverse place. There was a beautiful symbiosis, I think, among all of the city’s strata. Hungry artists could draw breath easily alongside millionaires in mansions.
It was, in essence, a place where one could live cheaply and yet live richly.
Our studio apartment cost $190 a month, and it was minuscule. It didn’t matter, though, because I lived in a great college neighborhood near UCSF that seemed to offer everything. I browsed in used bookstores and record shops, went to double features, ate cheap ethnic food. My girlfriend was a waitress at the Front Room pizza parlor a block away, and she brought home hot pizza and vats of salad dressing nearly every night. I even invented a sandwich that they put on the menu – Bay shrimp and melted cheddar cheese on a warm, crisp sourdough roll. We cooked a lot of pasta and drank cheap red wine, and despite our cramped quarters we gave frequent dinner parties, taking the bathroom door off its hinges to use as a dining table. (Which made it interesting when a guest needed to use the facilities.) At times, too, I still slouched around North Beach alone, jacket collar turned up, naïvely believing that somehow I could still find those traces of Beat poets hanging out in the alleys.
There are other American cities just as vibrant as San Francisco – New York, certainly, and Chicago, and Los Angeles. But the difference is that San Francisco is neither raw and gritty nor an expanse of blondes and freeways. It is 7 miles square, eminently walkable, a small town in a big city’s shoes.
Around every corner, through every window, and behind every door was something new and novel. As I walked its streets I felt, at times, as if I were riding a slightly tipsy carousel of blended sound, smells, and color.
The clang of the cable car bell and the rumble of its tracks. The flapping of swans’ wings on the Palace of Fine Arts lagoon, and the echoes of their mating calls through the rotunda. The slaps and groans of pilings on the wharf. The happy, rainbow-painted old Victorians. Blues and jazz pouring out of North Beach and the Fillmore. The dusty whiffs of old books piled in stacks. The cheap flats where the writers and the musicians and the eccentrics lived, hungry but certainly not starving in those days. Street artists, jugglers, dancers, mimes, raconteurs. The roasted smell of Hills Brothers Coffee in the air south of Market. Secret alleys, some conspiratorial, some brightened with murals, others populated by young families and topped with drying laundry. Old brick buildings with friendly doormen and cranky elevators. The robust aroma of thick steaks from Tadich Grill at noon, exhaling into my office window. Salt air, sourdough, and fresh crab down at the Wharf. Old men shouting in Italian and playing bocce in North Beach or downing cappuccinos at Tosca. Downtown bike messengers racing to deliver manuscripts to printers. KABL radio’s tagline “in the air, everywhere, over San Francisco” delivered by an announcer’s deep melodious voice and accompanied by a cable car clang. The low call of the foghorns, warning of the ocean rocks.
San Francisco was, as Giants outfielder Felipe Alou once said, “alive, breathing an air all its own.”
“Ah, San Francisco,” I would often write in my young, idealistic journal, “the city of my dreams.”
The San Francisco Chronicle was my morning-coffee habit before work. Herb Caen, who’d started writing for the paper in 1938, was like a good friend starting off my day. Back then you could sometimes see him roaming around town, always looking jaunty in a hat. His deep adoration of the City permeated the daily columns he tapped out on his trusty Royal typewriter. Caen sent personal responses to every one of his letters, and I have a few of ’em myself.
After 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.
Much 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.
Around the time I hung up my cleats, I started playing drums and put together a band. We got recurring gigs at a south-of-Market former speakeasy called Spike’s. Spike’s had deep red walls, black curtains, surrealistic paintings, and an underground vibe. Our first show, which started after midnight, drew such a huge crowd that there was a line down the street. Where else could a bunch of women with very little musical experience attract such an ardent following at 1:00 in the morning? Later on our venue was Kimo’s, a two-story dive on Polk Street that specialized in drag shows, rock and roll, and cheap drinks. As Hunter Thompson once said about San Francisco in general, Kimo’s was a haven for “mad drinkers and men of strange arts.” The place was dark and poorly managed and smelled of age and spilled beer, but we were allowed free rein to set our gig schedule, collect whatever cover charge we wanted, and play all night. Like much of San Francisco, the joint had a tawdry yet creatively liberating history. Metallica once played a surprise set there.
I remember vividly the day I heard Herb Caen passed away. It was February 2, 1997, and the news made me heartsick. Obviously I had never known the man, but he had been a daily part of my life for almost 20 years, and he’d always made me feel connected to San Francisco’s past and present. That night, Julie and I went out to dinner at the Beach Chalet, a restaurant and brewery overlooking the water where I could wallow in my gloom. I ordered my usual burger on a crisp sourdough roll, along with a hearty ale. The bartender stopped serving for a few minutes and informed the assembled diners and drinkers that we needed to raise our glasses in remembrance of the great newspaperman. His voice was full of pathos. The locals there knew exactly what had died inside us. Herb Caen was our beloved touchstone, our morning fix of the City. The voice of “Mr. San Francisco” was silent. What would happen to us now?
Herb, by the way, loved a martini. Vodka. On the rocks, with a twist. Shaken, not stirred. He called it “Vitamin V.” At his memorial, comedian Robin Williams announced that a special “Herb Caen communion” would be served, consisting of martinis and sourdough.
A couple of decades have passed since then. Most of my friends have gone, many of them back to the East Coast where they grew up. “When are you moving?” one of them asked when Julie and I retired, as if that were the default.
Here’s the deal. Age or infirmity might intervene at some point, but for now, I want to stay right where I am, tethered strongly to this place by a near lifetime of sturdy roots.
So what would I miss about this city if ever I had to leave her?
The topography and natural beauty. The ocean, the hills, the clean air, the crisp breezes. (The Dutch, by the way, practice an activity called uitwaaien, or “outblowing.” It’s about spending time in the wind, and it’s purported to have the effect of clearing one’s mind and engendering a feeling of relaxation and happiness. On the day we got married, the wind was titanic. Skirts were lifted, hair was whirled. My sister Janine snapped a photo of one gusty moment, all of us screaming with laughter. This has been a perfect day, I thought to myself.)
The way the temperature surprises you every day, depending upon the vicissitudes of the fog. Will it appear? Will it hang off the coast, or will it come rolling in? And if so, how far? Will it blanket the city, or will it cling to the edges?
Crazy ballot initiatives like the one involving Brendan O’Smarty, my all-time favorite SF character. Mr. O’Smarty was a ventriloquist’s dummy. His owner was Bob Geary, a police officer who liked to take the puppet on his rounds to help ease tensions. When Officer Geary was told by management that he had to get rid of Brendan, he succeeded in putting the matter on the ballot. The referendum – “Shall it be the policy of the people of San Francisco to allow Police Officer Bob Geary to decide when he may use his puppet Brendan O’Smarty while on duty?” – passed.
Our small but character-filled 1930s house with its gravity heater, hallway telephone nook, center patio, stenciled mahogany beams, wall sconces, breakfast room with built-in cabinets, art deco split bathrooms with pedestal sinks, and downstairs room cool enough to be a wine cellar, at a dependable 55 degrees.
The red fire alarm call box on our streetcorner, installed before everyone had a home phone.
Some of the greatest medical care in the world, which is perfect for me because – as I’ve said many times – my ideal retirement spot is across the street from a hospital.
The San Francisco Chronicle each morning with breakfast, still a necessity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Balclutha, an old “tall ship” I like to visit in the winter, when the docks are nearly empty. Retired and moored down at the wharf for many decades, she once carried her cargo around Cape Horn, then joined the salmon fishing industry and made several trips up to Alaska and back. In her time she carried pottery, cutlery, whisky, wool, tallow, canned salmon, lumber, and fishermen and their supplies. She also appeared in the film Mutiny on the Bounty, and now she rests. Very few square-rigged ships are left, and this one is a beauty. I love standing on the creaky deck with the rain on my face.
Golden Gate Park, bigger than Central Park in New York City, fashioned literally from grains of sand. Designed by John McLaren, it’s got museums, a music concourse, about a dozen lakes, a buffalo paddock, flyfishing ponds, horse stables, a Japanese tea garden, an arboretum, a conservatory of flowers, tulip gardens, windmills, a polo field, an archery range, and a carousel.
The diverse people in 36 official, discrete neighborhoods within a 7-mile-square town.
25,000 other things.
And the fact that this city is a watercolor of culture and cultures, with so much to offer that any one marginalized person, lost and alone, can come here and find identity and meaning, acceptance and renewal.
It’s become fashionable these days to malign San Francisco. Often the dystopian critiques are political, thrown around by pundits who like to make the City – and, in fact, California in general – into an example of what happens when progressive politics are involved.
In reality, San Francisco is a peaceful place that doesn’t come even remotely close to making the list of the most dangerous U.S. metropolitan areas.
But it’s also true that property crimes – especially car break-ins – have been soaring here, and now we’ve gone and elected a district attorney who has never prosecuted a crime in his life! Sigh.
But that’s San Francisco for ya.
The city is also dealing with other urban problems, including increasing homelessness, drug use, and unclean streets. City Hall has not yet addressed these issues effectively, and permissive attitudes and selective enforcement of the law don’t help.
Many of our challenges, though, are related to the fact that we have a severe housing shortage and serious income inequality. The city cannot expand geographically, and construction regulations here are nearly impenetrable. We welcome innovation and we breed forward-thinkers, so we’re now taking on a host of tech companies (who’ve been handed generous tax breaks) and massive numbers of their employees who have rolled into town looking for a place to land.
The truth is that for all the residents who leave because they can’t afford the high housing costs, there are just too many people wanting to move here.
“Nobody goes there anymore,” as the gag goes, “because it’s too popular.”
Longtime San Franciscans often demonize the tech workers these days. After all, they make boatloads of money, and the price of housing here has skyrocketed. Most of my neighbors are formerly middle-class workers like electricians, postal carriers, hairdressers, public sector employees, office managers, and the like. But they’ve lived on this street forever. Were they starting over now in those careers, they’d never be able to afford to live here. The new people moving in are working mainly for companies like Google.
We’ve certainly demonized other groups in the past. Going back to the 19th century, we’ve maligned the Chinese, the beatniks, the hippies, the gays, and everyone else who seemed to be “taking over” the city. Is there a difference now?
Maybe. Today’s newcomers are not introducing new cultures or social movements. They’re introducing great wealth, and it has become a dominant presence in this once much more egalitarian town.
The teachers and police officers and others who make the city run cannot afford to get a place here. Because of the influx of money, the average rent for a San Francisco apartment is $4,500 a month.
Some of the newcomers are literally painting the town gray, as a recent Chronicle story reported. They gut the old Victorians to install modern conveniences, then have the audacity to replace the gorgeous old external house colors with an overall charcoal gray. One realtor called it “sophisticated,” while to some of us it’s about wiping out historical details and erasing character.
The skyline is morphing into something almost unrecognizable, at least to us old-timers. The aesthetics are not pleasing. The new Salesforce Tower looks like a giant nose-hair trimmer.
Traffic has ballooned, due primarily to Uber and Lyft, because God forbid the newcomers take public transportation.
Cafés that were once comfortable gathering spots for creative types are now industrial-cold workspaces.
Live music joints are closing.
Restaurants are bent on serving up “artisanal” food and drink now. I mean, we’re making vodka out of fog, for crying out loud.
But some of these types of changes are happening nearly everywhere. Let’s face it, the American way of life is transforming dramatically. So perhaps we old-timers are Neanderthals, curmudgeons. A guy named Will Irwin once told Herb Caen, “San Francisco isn’t what it used to be, but it never was!”
San Francisco is a town that hangs onto its past tenaciously, but it also allows room for change. “These newcomers are just going to stay for five years and then leave,” we kvetch. But maybe not. If they stay long enough, the new kids will have their own memories. In the meantime, the rest of us can choose to grumble about our inconstant town or we can watch, with interest, to see what unfolds.
I suppose it’s now the twilight of my life. I never could have imagined it when I strolled wide-eyed around San Francisco in my youth, but I own my own home now. I even have my own dining room. We walk our dog Buster Posey around 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
AMERICA [the band]
HAIR (Robert Redford’s)
Hearing the net go “swoosh” when somebody makes a basket
FRIENDS (they’re wonderful)
DOGS (all but ours)
Having a perfectly clear face (I don’t remember when I last had it but maybe sometime in the near future . . . ?)
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
READING WALT WHITMAN
Jumping off the high dive into the deep pool and feeling really wierd [sic] on the way down
THE SANTA CLARA COUNTY FAIR
Riding the waves at Santa Cruz on an innertube and getting wiped out WATERBEDS
“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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.”
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.
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”?)
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
To 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.
Julie 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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
It 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.
I 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.
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.
“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!!!”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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”!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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
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.
Paula 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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!”
“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.”
“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!”
“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!”
“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!”
“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).”
In 1971, when I was 15, the allowance allotted to me by my parents was a meager $5 – PER MONTH! Under that kind of economic pressure I finally came to the conclusion that I should pitch a $3 increase, and I wrote them a letter in my best teenage legalese and accounting-speak. On a light note this week, I am reproducing the letter here, verbatim. Maybe Congress can use it as a model in the forthcoming budget negotiations.
From the desk of Miss Paula Rae Bocciardi on this day, July 1, in the year A.D. 1971 to Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Raymond Bocciardi:
A request for a raise in allowance to increase my previous income of $5 monthly. The underlying are reasons why $5 is too small a sum.
Presents – counting up all gifts, we have Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Marc’s birthday, Janine’s birthday, Beverly’s birthday, Gerald’s birthday, Colleen’s birthday, Beverly’s Christmas present, Gerald’s Christmas present, Marc’s Christmas present, Jan’s Christmas present, Carla’s Christmas present, Kathy’s Christmas present (this year), Colleen’s Christmas present, Mary Blasi’s Christmas present, and let’s assume 1 assorted birthday party, even though there were 2 last year. These total 18. Assuming $3 are spent on each on an average, a sum of $48 is spent per annum, or $4 per month. This leaves only $1 per month.
Food – rather than spend $.10 a day for hot bread, I suffer at “B” period [break]. But a $.10 root beer at lunch is absolutely necessary, since its absence will cause withdrawal symptoms known only to root beer addicts, such as falling asleep 5th period, a certain listlessness in 6th period, and a tendency to get hit in the eye with the ball in P.E. Also I develop kleptomaniac symptoms in G.A.A. [Girls Athletic Association]. Now, assuming that I get a root beer only 120 school days, the total is $12.00, or $1 per month, leaving me totally broke. Bankrupt. Caput.
Slurpees – after hot hours of tennis I can take one of two alternatives: a) buy a Slurpee, or b) watch everyone else gurgle and slurp theirs and die of 1) jealousy, and 2) extreme thirst and dehydration. Obviously, step a) is the only possible choice. Considering 24 days of tennis, Slurpee cost would be $4.80, or $.40 monthly, leaving me $.40 in the hole.
Other costs – necessities such as $.50 for G.A.A., money for gifts, and G.A.A. parties in which I seem to be the only one to chip. School presents many new and fascination [sic] expenses every week. So far, $2.00 in the hole.
“Luxuries” – things which I don’t have to get, but should. Film and developing are quite costly. Occasionally I get invited somewhere and must buy something to keep myself from starving. $3.00 in the hole.
Entertainment – since I have the unique ability to attract only little boys and wierdos [sic], and lack for dates and/or good* (*clean) fun with the opposite sex, and don’t enjoy or believe in turning on, and don’t drive, I turn to music. Once a half-year I might like a record. A far-fetched thought, I know. I haven’t gotten one in months and months, unless counted is the $1.97 1932 Glen Campbell record I got where he sounds 12 at the most and howls as he sings “Those Lonesome Lonely Jailhouse Bluuuues.” YECCH!
Other income – none. The Gallos have no work to offer. Since I am only 15 I cannot get a decent job. I can’t babysit. I’d destroy the babies.
Bank – I should think ahead. The $130 I have saved for 10 years won’t go too far in college. Birthday money should go to the bank, but is always needed to put me out of the hole.
All in all, we can conclude that a raise is desperately needed. I have been proven to be very resourceful in times of crisis and butt operations. [Ed.’s note: I believe this referred to a procedure my father had done at the hospital. We’ll leave it at that.] I was uncomplaining. I have helped more and thoroughly destroyed the house, but that is unimportant. I have a $1 raise already, but now that the causes are understood, perhaps sometime in the near future the remaining $2 in the hole monthly will be considered.
Thank you and sincerely yours, Miss Paula Rae Bocciardi
My parents caved. I got the full $3 raise.
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.
“Softball was wierd [sic] today. Mom and Dad came for the first time and watched the other team get 10 runs in the first inning. We made about 15 errors (me not included). But after that we held them scoreless. I got a home run. Soon we had only 10 minutes left and we were up. The score was 10-8. All we needed was 3 runs. All of a sudden it was 13-10. What a comeback, man! Right on!”
“We went to Coyote [Reservoir] to fish and have a little picnic. We caught about 76 crappie – the best we’ve ever done, not counting Clear Lake. They are small, but plentiful. It would have been perfect except as usual my hay fever started acting up around lunchtime. Hay fever is one thing I simply cannot stand. I don’t mind all the work I’ve had done on my teeth, or my operations, or even having to wear glasses. But hay fever is terrible. I sure wish we could have shots for it. But for some reason good ole Doc Williams won’t give us the shots. Let me tell you, I’d suffer any amount of pain. And I had taken a [Ornade prescription antihistamine] pill in the morning! Those babies are strong, too, boy.”
“Marc [my brother], Ted, and I have a dirty book storehouse in Rudy’s poolroom. We’ve only got two books, but they’ve got loads of Playboys to read. I’ve read one of the books so far. It was called ‘Retribution.’ Some name, huh?”
It came to mind recently that although I’ve filled many drawers and shelves with diaries, journals, notes, correspondence, and more than a few published articles, I never seemed to be very prolific as a poet. In fact, after much searching for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been able to unearth only the following six works, all written in my childhood. And now I know why no one encouraged me to pursue the poetic arts any further.
This first gem is actually one of three songs I wrote as a youngster, all of which have specific melodies. Because I’m unable to reproduce the tunes here, I thought I’d figure out their closest approximation. After all, they must have sounded like some nursery rhyme or popular children’s song at the time, correct? But I gave up after spending a couple of hours online, listening to at least 50 classic children’s songs. None sounded familiar.
Believe it or not, I then tried singing the songs (sans lyrics) into the Shazam app, hoping that somehow the melodies would be recognizable. Uh, no.
Finally I did what I often do in these situations – I called my sister Janine. But she could not pinpoint my musical influences, either. These must have been original melodies I came up with! I was obviously a genius!
As for this first song and its lyrics, neither Janine nor I could imagine how I came up with the idea of three men in a bottle. Our best guess is that I was influenced by the literature I was reading at the time: “Run-a-Dub Dub, Three Men in a Tub.” Which makes a lot more sense than three men squeezing into a bottle – full of whisky, no less. My father used to drink whisky “highballs,” a classic cocktail, so maybe that’s what was on my mind.
Anyway, here’s the song, any mistakes included.
THE THREE MEN (age 8)
[a nursery rhyme with a lilting melody]
Three men went out in a bottle to sea
And it was full of the drink wiskey,
But when they got there they all drowned
I think the bottle has not been found
So please, unless you’re less than 1 pound
Don’t try to sail, unless what you’re in is round.
I tried songwriting again the following year, and I’ve wrestled with whether I should publish it, because it deals with my brother Marc accidentally walking in on my sister when she was taking a shower. It seems a little odd that I would write about this incident, but I did.
JANINE TOOK A SHOWER THIS MORNING (age 9)
[belt this one out with gusto]
Janine took a shower this morning.
She got water all over the floor,
She got soap all over the soapdish,
And she forgot to close the door!
Marc walked into the shower
And he saw her standing there.
He looked at her in amazement
’Cause he’d never seen her bare!
My final tune is a bit of a cross between a folk song and a wartime march.
We had just moved into our new house in East San Jose, and at the end of our street stood an orchard followed by rolling hills. I couldn’t stop wondering what lay beyond those hills (answer: more hills). This became an obsession, so I composed a song about it.
My sister nailed my style and influences when she reminded me that when I wrote the song I was squarely in the middle of my “New Christy Minstrels period.” I was quite enamored with large groups of folk singers.
And I will add that my appending the “boys” to the end of each line is reminiscent of those World War I and II songs about soldiers leaving for, or coming back from, battle.
Obviously I liked mixing my styles, so I will call this song a “pastiche.”
WHAT’S ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HILL, BOYS? (age 10)
[sing this song in a rousing manner]
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
Do you know?
We will go,
And we’ll see,
You and me.
Yes, we will
Climb that hill
And we’ll look dowwwwwwn.
Will it be a town, will it be the sea, will it be the woods, what will it be, what will it be?
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
Although I was done writing songs, I did continue to churn out a few poems. This one was a Catholic school assignment. I was already in the seventh grade, so the real travesty was that I still had to go to bed at 9:00!!
UNTITLED (age 11)
Over and over my dad has said,
“Paula, it is time for bed!”
How I dread the hour of nine
When I begin to beg and whine,
“But Dad, please, just a little more?”
And that’s when he gets really sore.
So I, not making one more peep,
Go up to bed, and fall asleep.
I wrote this poem on the eve of my starting “Driver’s Training,” which in those days was a short high school course that involved hands-on experience behind the wheel. My course was taught by football coach Ron “No Neck” Locicero. He took us up in the East San Jose foothills and was actually very kind, even though he was forced to use his extra set of brakes liberally when I was behind the wheel.
The poem was published in the January 14, 1972, edition of our high school newspaper The Legend. Of course, it wasn’t difficult to get my own works into print, since I was the editor of said paper.
FUTURE DRIVER’S LAMENT (age 16)
O Horror of Horrors! I grieve in sorrow;
I wish I never could see tomorrow,
For when 3:30 comes I start Driver’s Training.
What if it’s windy? What if it’s raining?
What if I make a jillion mistakes
And he always has to slam on the brakes?
Everyone knows I’m the world’s biggest clutz –
The whole Driver’s Training Department is nuts!
They decided to risk it and hand me the wheel.
It seems they don’t value their automobile.
What if I step on the pedal too hard
And we end up in somebody else’s backyard?
I’m so absent-minded I just may forget
That I’m driving a car, and I’ll daydream, I bet!
I’m no big speed demon, the world will soon see.
Ten miles an hour is the limit for me.
Oh, no, I don’t panic, just go in a coma.
They may have to revive me with some strong aroma.
I don’t want to look like a stupid old fool
Nor be laughing-stock every day I’m at school.
They said, “Don’t be scared, Paula, you’ll do all right.”
But I have to drive at 5:30 at night!
The world will be dark. Is it like being blind?
What if I hit some poor guy from behind?
“It’s only 9 days – they go pretty fast.”
Oh sure, but I do hope my teacher can last.
My friends have no mercy. This whole bit they’ve seen.
Don’t they know what it’s like to be only sixteen?
“What about college? You won’t want to hike!”
You’re right, but I’d rather stick with my bike.
I guess I’ll live through it. I just hope I don’t kill
Some innocent soul. I keep thinking I will.
Yikes! Here comes the teacher! My heart beats no more.
Oh, what did I ever get into this for?
There’s just one thing to do. I look at the sky
And plead with Him, “God, oh, I’m too young to die!”
I didn’t even remember the following poem until my sister – who actually recalled most of the first stanza! – pointed out that she had once tried to set it to music. An accomplished banjo and guitar player by the time she was 12, she apparently wrote a melody for this poem “using a lot of minor chords.” Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the tune, but she claims that it was truly terrible, which I strongly doubt.
As for my influences at the time, I would have to say that they were a mixture of William Shakespeare, John Dunne, and whoever wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
UNTITLED (age 17)
This cool, tranquil, weightless night
A star begins to die
In quiet, pulsing, choking gasps.
And I must say goodbye.
In young, confused and awkward grief
I watch the lonely light
The sky gives up its ghost; the star
Plunges out of sight.
If time would just dissolve this knot
I’ve never overcome –
But I, in muted silence, stand
Embarrassed, frightened, dumb.
O God! If man is so supreme
Then why am I so weak
That those whom I adore the most
Have yet to hear me speak?
I cannot catch my tortured breath
Or cool my heated head;
I cannot purge my heavy heart
Of all I’ve left unsaid.
I love you, friend, though through it all
I gave you not a sign.
If all you saw were pleading eyes
’Twas not your fault, but mine.
Could this be any more overwrought?? Then again, I guess that’s what being 17 is all about, isn’t it? ℘
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.
“Monday night I had my first driving lesson [with my parents]. I don’t want to make a complete fool of myself, with my uncoordination and absentmindedness and stuff. I get so nervous. So we took the truck. I was scared to death. I jerked on the brakes a little. It’s hard to know how far down to push them or the accelerator. And sometimes I forgot to change the gear shift. I think I got up to about 9 M.P.H. but was scared. I thought about 4 M.P.H. was a safe speed.”
Finally, as a reminder, our band, “Hotter Than Helga,” will be playing in Fairfax at 19 Broadway on Thursday night, September 14. (I play drums.) If you like alt/country/rock/Americana music, come out and have a listen!!
I’m calling this my “By Popular Demand” post because I’ve gotten repeated requests for a few specific items. First, people who read my last blog are wondering about the brushes with the law that I mentioned briefly. Second, friends who are not on Facebook are asking me to repeat my weekly diary entries so that they can see them as well. Finally, the non-Facebook people also continually ask me when my band will be playing. So I’ll cover all three requests in this week’s post.
My first scrape involving law enforcement involved, as usual, my friend Jeanne who had wire-rimmed glasses and the intense disapproval of my parents. (I’m beginning to see why!) I was visiting Jeanne in August 1975 and we’d just come back to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, after a trip up to Maine to meet her new husband Steve’s family (see “Return to Triangle Acres”).
For whatever idiotic notion, we decided to head over to a nearby private beach on Steve’s decrepit motorcycle. And this was, according to my diary, after I’d already donned my nightgown and “put on my curlers and retainers.” So I threw off the curlers and retainers, we grabbed a bottle of rum (never a good idea) and packed a knapsack, and we took off. Along the way we purchased some Cokes and napkins, and my diary says that “we had to use the napkins to sop up some of the gas which kept spilling out of the tank.” Again, never a good thing.
Leaving the motorcycle up off the road, we walked down to the beach in the balmy moonlight. The white sandy dunes were, of course, beautiful, and we proceeded to alternately drink rum and Cokes and then take plunges into the warm Atlantic waters (we had bathing suits on under our regular clothes). Once again, not a good idea. Luckily, neither of us drowned, and we spent hours making ill-informed forays into philosophy, all the while slamming down liquor as if there were no tomorrow.
Eventually we passed out on the beach, and a few hours later we awoke, shivering, both of us heavily encrusted with wet sand. It was time to go home, we thought, and off we trundled towards the poor excuse of a motorcycle that was waiting for us. A hideous idea. Anyway, as we approached we saw, squinting through drunken eyelids, that the bike was surrounded by police cars and a group of clean-cut men, many of whom were in uniform. Someone asked Jeanne for her license and registration, which she cheerfully handed over, but we knew that the bike itself was an illegal mess. It had no brake light, no license plate, and lots of duct tape everywhere. Oy. One of the local police officers said that the infractions amounted to a $66 ticket and he began to write it up.
Another of the officers – with a rather rough bedside manner – asked me for my license, but I wasn’t carrying one and explained to him that, since I wasn’t driving, I didn’t have it with me. “Well, show it to me anyway!” he barked nonsensically.
Then for some reason the police cars both drove off and we were never issued the ticket.
Still, a group of men remained, and one of them – not in any kind of uniform – sort of took us under his wing as we stood there perplexed, still reeking, I’m sure, of spirits. He explained that the local officers could not ticket or arrest us because we and the motorcycle were on private property. But he pointed out that they were parked just across the beach line on the public road and would surely nab us, if we dared to start the bike and venture home, for not only the vehicle infractions but also for trespassing, sleeping on a beach, and of course driving while intoxicated.
Then he asked us if we were “holding.” I had no idea what that meant. But Jeanne said yes, she had a lid (an ounce of marijuana, for any of you under 55). This was news to me.
Then the man pulled out his badge and flashlight and identified himself as a state SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) officer.
I just about died.
As luck would have it, though, he had much, much bigger fish to fry. He explained that we had actually stumbled into the middle of an enormous statewide drug stakeout whose mission was to break up a network of heroin dealers. To prove it, he shined his flashlight up into the hills surrounding the beach, and about 50 flashlights blinked back.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, sympathetically. “Let me take you up into the trailer park across the road, and you can sleep off your intoxication in the lounge chairs by the side of the pool. By the time you sober up, those cops will be gone. They’re not going to sit there all night waiting to nab you.” I could tell that there was some tension between the city and state officers, and he was happy to thwart the efforts of what he thought were clumsy local goons. I myself was happy to take advantage of that, so I thanked him until the cows came home.
Jeanne and I climbed into his Volkswagen – really, another stupid move because he could have been an axe murderer – and sure enough he took us to the trailer park and helped us find lounge chairs. And he watched over us all night.
At sunrise he woke us up and told us we had to get moving because the residents were starting to rise. So we dragged our sand-encrusted carcasses to the bike, started it up, and got home safely.
Then, of course, we went out to breakfast and, according to my diary, “had a beer to settle our stomachs.”
Youth: Reckless, dumb, and lucky.
On Friday, November 22, 1985, I had just turned 30 a few days earlier and was driving over to my friend Ellen’s house on 21st Avenue in San Francisco’s Richmond District, ostensibly to pick her up to go to dinner at Speckmann’s, a German restaurant that I’d heard served great spaetzle. Sampling that spaetzle was my one and only fervent birthday wish. When I got to Ellen’s, though, I found myself ushered into a surprise party. All of us had a great time, and I remember that at one point we all donned streamers to mimic Bruce Springsteen’s then-ubiquitous headband as we danced much of the night away to Springsteen tapes. After most of the guests said their goodnights, the few of us remaining were still full of residual energy. So at 3:00 in the morning we came up with the brilliant idea of playing “knee football” on the hardwood floors (ouch!), using a birthday balloon as the football. Three guys and three gals. As we were scuffling around on our knees, laughing loudly and hysterically, we looked up and saw flashlight beams coming through the slatted doors that we had closed to shut off the living room. Two police officers were out in the hallway; we’d never heard their robust knocking at the front door. Uh oh. They admonished us to be quiet, and after they left, still wanting to play, we came up with the idea of “silent knee football.” The idea was that we would no utter no sounds at all, so as not to disturb any neighbors. As my diary says, that “made the whole game even more fun. I must say that I was the star of the game, making most of our touchdowns. Boy did we all have bruised knees the next day.”
By the time she was 30, my mother had three kids. I, on the other hand, was single and playing Silent Knee Football.
I’ve been pulled over three times while driving. The first two instances happened with Julie behind the wheel. In 2001 we were in my new T-Bird on Route 66 – or should I say, accidentally well off of Route 66 – going a tad over the limit as we sped past an Oklahoma police officer who just happened to be sitting by the side of the highway with a radar gun. When he asked us where we were headed, we told him the truth, that we were dreadfully lost going north trying to go west, and we admitted that we had absolutely no excuse for flying along as fast as we were (except gosh, in that car it really feels like you’re just CRAWLING if you’re going 80). We were so polite and deferential and confused that he pointed us in the right direction and let us go.
Much more recently, we had just left Safeway and were driving TWO BLOCKS to our local meat market, Guerra’s. I reminded Julie, who was driving, that she needed to put on her seatbelt, but she insisted that there was no need for that as we were going to be in the car only 90 seconds, and I retorted back that people had been known to die in low-speed collisions not far from home. Of course she refused, and of course we then saw the flashing lights. I was almost smug about it. The female officer told Julie that she was in violation of the seatbelt law and that “people have been known to die in low-speed collisions not far from home,” at which point I smacked Julie on the shoulder and said, “See?! What did I just say?” and thanked the officer. She let us off.
The only time in my life I’ve been personally pulled over was in the late 1980s when some of my workmates and I piled into my Corolla to attend a wedding in Chinatown. I was driving all of us down Oak Street, and it was one of those situations in which I had to keep flying through yellow lights in order to beat the red. As a side note, for reasons I cannot recall, my girlfriend Adair’s wisdom teeth, which she had just had removed, were in one of the front seat cupholders. I swear to this day that I was already in the intersections when the lights turned yellow, but we were driving at a fast enough clip that my friend Leon Acord – possibly the funniest human being who ever lived – began screaming dramatically and then grabbed the teeth and hurled them into the air as though all the passengers were losing their teeth from the ultrasonic speed.
Of course, then came the flashing light.
The officer pulled me over and asked me for my license and registration. The license was in my purse, which was in the trunk of the Toyota, so I got out and wobbled to the back of the car in my dress and high heels (yes, I know that I’m not normally associated with purses, dresses, and heels, but I was going to a wedding, for crying out loud). I cannot possibly replicate in words how my hands were shaking, but let’s just say that it took me about four hours to get my license out of its little plastic holder. I think the officer was starting to feel sorry for me. I pleaded with him that the lights had all been yellow, and he said he wasn’t so sure about that. “Besides,” he continued, “what on earth were those things flying through the air?” “Teeth,” I answered.
By the time I got through explaining why the wisdom teeth were in the car in the first place, he was probably weary. So he let me go.
One experience with the law, though, caused me great mortification twice – 10 years apart. Yes, the same offense.
In 1975 I was living in the dorms at San Jose State and working towards my (first) degree in law enforcement. One Saturday night in December, a friend of my brother’s called me up and wanted to know if I wanted to go see a movie. I don’t think either of us thought it was a date, but we were both feeling kind of gloomy and thought it would be nice to get together. I will call him “Rusty,” after my childhood crush Rusty Hamer from the “Make Room for Daddy” TV show. (Truth be told, there was some resemblance between the two lads.)
Warning: This anecdote carries a PG rating, so please tear your small children away from this blog immediately.
Anyway, after the movie Rusty and I decided to drive to Santa Cruz. This was what young people always did in those days if we were feeling shiftless and wanted to seek out some form of adventure. No matter what we were doing, or what time of day, “Hey, let’s go over the hill!” was always cause for excitement.
Long story short, the two us ended up on a deserted dirt road in Scotts Valley and let’s just say that Rusty ended up on one of the bases. I don’t know all of the distinctions between the bases, but I can say with certainty that he did not get a home run or even a triple. I think he ended up only on second base, and nothing below the waist was involved. So it was fairly innocent. But we had a lovely time, and he was just cute as a button. A lovable, freckle-faced cad.
As luck would have it, though, just as we were about to leave the scene of the crime we saw the telltale flashing red light in the rearview mirror. I frantically threw my shirt on backwards.
It was a patrol officer, and he admonished us for parking on private property. We were trespassing, technically. After sitting in his police car and taking what seemed like forever to make sure we weren’t wanted anywhere, he jotted down our names and addresses and employer’s addresses and said that we were now going to be put on the Scotts Valley “list” of offenders, that we’d now be “on file,” and that if we were ever caught again we’d be in a heap of trouble.
I was mortified.
Now, at the time I was working part-time as a teacher’s aide in San Jose at James Lick High School, which is part of the same school district for which my father was working as principal of Piedmont Hills High School.
On Monday, I was at work when I was summoned to the office of Lick’s vice-principal, Russ Phillips, who was a giant of a man, an ex-football coach with a huge square head and heavy, oversized rings on his fingers. I was absolutely sure that the Scotts Valley Police Department had called Mr. Phillips to tell him that he had an immoral employee working for him. I was also sure that he was going to fire me and then call Dad. I was about to bring shame down on my entire extended Italian family and on all devotees of the Catholic faith.
“Principal’s Daughter Caught Canoodling in Scotts Valley,” the San Jose Mercury-News headline would read the next day. Or so I imagined.
I panicked and started to sniffle as I headed to Mr. Phillips’ office.
Luckily, he wanted only to ask me something about my payroll form.
And my father, bless his soul, never knew about Rusty and me. On top of everything, he never really liked Rusty much, either.
A decade or so later, this incident actually was a factor in influencing the course of my career. I was a freelance editor at the time, after having gotten a second degree in English. I’d all but given up on a career in law enforcement because police departments were requiring perfect vision among their recruits and I wore contacts, but times started changing and two local departments had no such requirement: Fairfax in Marin County and Fremont in Alameda County. So I applied to both and began working to build up my legendary herculean strength.
Fairfax, like most departments, had a physical skills requirement, and the one possible impediment to my getting past that test was The Wall. We had to perform other tasks like dragging a heavy mannequin or stepping rapidly through tires while wearing a heavy weight belt, and I was able to do those easily. The Wall, though, was a different story. It was taller than we were and we had to leap up, grab the top of the wall, and hoist ourselves over it using sheer upper-body strength. In general, men are taller and their upper-body strength is much greater than women’s. All of the other women at the test site failed; they just weren’t able to pull themselves over that thing. I was the last hope for my gender. I went flying towards that wall, leaped up with every ounce of momentum I had, grabbed the wall, and flung myself over. It was all adrenaline, I think.
I was secretly happy, I have to admit, because all of the other women had been effectively eliminated, which greatly increased my chances of getting the one open position. Or so I thought. Then they allowed the women to all try again, with some help, and a couple of them made it. I was furious. Damned liberal Fairfax!!
I didn’t get the job, but it’s interesting that a couple of years after that, my parents in Clearlake met their new police chief, who just happened to have arrived there from Fairfax. Upon hearing their last name, he remembered me and apologized to them for my not having been picked. He said the department brass had been impressed with me (it must have been my domination of the wall!), but they already had had someone picked out before testing had even started – a guy who was a police cadet serving in that department. I guess that made me feel a little better.
Then came Fremont. It was a much larger and seemingly more professional department. There was no physical agility test, for some reason, but there was a written test and a grueling oral exam. After both of those, I was #1 on the recruitment list. All that was left was the lie detector test.
So I found myself sitting in a little room, wired up to the polygraph, with a kindly young officer. It was the last question, and it was an odd one: “Have you ever committed rape, child molestation, or indecent exposure?”
I said no, and the polygraph needle started jumping all over the place.
“That’s odd,” he said. “Let me try again.”
Same result. That needle was flying.
He turned off the machine. “Okay,” he said, “I’m quite sure that you have not committed rape or child molestation. Tell me what’s going on with the indecent exposure thing.”
I was – of course! – mortified. I knew I was thinking about Rusty and that night in Scotts Valley with my shirt off! But I didn’t want to tell the officer. My heart started hammering and I completely lost focus, to the extent that I neglected to mention that Rusty and I had been out in public, which was of course what triggered the “indecent exposure” fear in my head.
Instead, all I said to the officer was, “Well, one time I was with a guy and we had our shirts off.”
There was a pause. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.
Then very gently he said, “Really, dear, that’s okaaaaaaay.”
I didn’t get the Fremont job. My status as #1 on their list must have plummeted after that polygraph test. They probably thought I was just too weird for words.
Of course, in retrospect it was good not only for me but for the safety of all the citizens of the Bay Area that I did not become a police officer. Things, as they say, happen for a reason.
There are countless people in our lives who say or do something, however insignificant it seems at the time, that we will remember all of our lives. I wish I could thank all of them. When I think back on that sweet little evening in Scotts Valley, I can’t help but smile. It really did me a world of good, in so many ways. Thanks, Rusty.
Due to popular demand, for those of you who are NOT on Facebook, I am including for you, here, the 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, and they’re all inadvertently hilarious. From now on, my most recent entries will be at the top.
“We went to Clear Lake today. Big deal. It was miserably cold, miserably rainy, and miserable. Dad took us out to dinner and I became ill. There’s a lot of flu going around. It’s weird — you get very depressed and feel very blecchy. And another weird thing is you feel like crying. So I ate only 2 pieces of chicken, 1 helping of beans, 1/2 baked potato, 2 pieces of bread, and a chocolate sundae. Since I hardly ate anything, they KNEW I was sick.”
“I wanted to see what sport I’ll be in in P.E. It’ll probably be tennis, basketball, or flag football. All of those choices are good, but I like basketball best. I just adore the feel of that big orange ball.”
“Today I took my ‘big bath.’ There I 1) wash face with special soap, 2) pluck eyebrows, 3) clean ears, 4) blow nose, 5) brush teeth, 6) shave, 7) take the bath, and 8) clean my nostrils, etc.”
12/22/70, one of many displaying my teenage eating prowess:
“While there I ate an egg sandwich, macaroni salad, toast, popcorn, and Tab. Then I came home and ate dinner.”
“Today [my cousin] and I stayed at [my aunt’s] house while they all went shopping. We played with [the baby] a lot, and we looked at all their dirty books. One that was really a crackup was A Guide to Sex in Marriage, and man, it told the whole procedure!”
11/11/70 (and it MUST be the winner of the “Unclear on the Concept” award):
“We went to the Veterans Day parade on 1st Street today. We were going to march in the ‘Silent Majority’ section but there wasn’t one.”
“[My brother] Marc beat me 17 games to 0 in Hex today. It’s a game like Twix but on paper. It was the first time I played, and quite possibly the last. How humiliating!”
“Mark, the president of our class, is in my History class with Mr. Ferguson and he is the most good-looking boy I’ve ever seen. He says hello all the time and WOW!”
“Barb and Denise came up later and we just talked in my room for hours. I showed them my big Glen Campbell poster and we tied all our shoes together and other such mature stuff.”
“On another one of our numerous high school surveys, I had to put down 3 careers I want to enter. I was tempted to put down prostitution but I’m sure Dad would find out.”
Again, this is just for people NOT on Facebook:
Our band, “Hotter Than Helga,” will be playing in Fairfax at 19 Broadway on Thursday night, September 14. (I play drums.) If you like alt/country/rock/Americana music, come out and have a listen!!
It was really right out of a movie script, and a saccharine one at that. A couple of years ago I drove all the way to a small town in Maine in search of a farm, a house, and a family that I had loved and lost four decades earlier. Against all reason, I wondered if I could find the glorious place where, on the verge of adulthood, I had once spent three idyllic summers. But when I finally arrived, I saw that all of it had vanished. And then I turned . . . .
The people in Maine say that there are only two seasons in the state: August, and winter.
I saw Maine for the first time in August of 1975. My high school friend Jeanne – she of the wire-rimmed glasses whom my parents mistrusted – had married a man named Steve Harrington (I’m changing his last name, out of respect for his family’s privacy). How Jeanne – a paragon of narcissism – had landed Steve is something I’ll probably never understand, because he was the gentlest, sweetest man I’ve ever met. The two of them lived in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but he was a native Maine-iac and was up visiting his family at the time. The plan was that I would fly out to meet Jeanne in South Carolina and the two of us would drive up the East Coast together to Maine, where she would reunite with Steve and meet her new in-laws for the first time.
It was a crazy vacation because we were young (19) and somewhat reckless, and our adventures were abundant. We spent some time in New York City, seeing off-color shows at the Village Gate and closing down the bars. (It was a Village bartender who first introduced me to the wonders of Sambuca Romana, the clear licorice-flavored liqueur that’s as strong as whisky and absolutely must be drunk with three coffee beans floating in the glass. The drink is called “Sambuca con la Mosca,” which in Italian means “Sambuca with a Fly.” And there must be three beans, representing health, prosperity, and happiness. But, as usual, I digress.)
We also got stuck in the middle of a statewide drug bust in South Carolina – a bizarre story that will be told at some later date when I discuss my brushes with the law. 😉
Anyway, eventually Jeanne and I made it, pulling up at the Harringtons’ farmhouse at 5:00 one morning after an 18-hour drive through some dangerously misty backroads in New Hampshire. I remember the instrumental “Tubular Bells” coming eerily through the radio, white birches glowing like spectres in the blackness, and wisps of fog skulking low along the road. We’d been through so much that day. We’d driven 60 miles out of our way to the town of Woodstock so that we could stand on the farm where half a million kids had spent three days of love and rock ‘n’ roll, and it turned out to be the wrong site. We’d gotten stuck with a flat tire and no tools on the New York Thruway, and had had to sit miserable and shivering in a downpour until relief came. And after I accidentally loosened my grip on our trusty map and let it fly out through the open sunroof, we’d meandered lost down every side route, dirt road, and ghostly trail along the way.
Anyway, long after our edge of exhaustion, the mountains became level and the darkness became dawn. Jeanne and I pulled up to the farmhouse and were instantly met with the strongest, longest hugs imaginable from an extended family that had come in from far and wide to meet Steve’s new wife. And that was my warm orientation to rural Maine – a stone’s throw from the capital, Augusta, but a world away.
“Triangle Acres” read the sign on the roadside that marked the entrance to the farm. I don’t know how many acres the family had, but the land was enough to provide lodging for horses, cattle, a rooster, hens, sheep, a ram, and four dogs, all running around neighing, mooing, crowing, clucking, bleating, and barking at once. The land also provided sustenance for the Harrington garden, a veritable Eden of beans, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and oh-so-sweet butter-and-cream Maine corn. Off to the left stood a huge weatherbeaten barn, complete with cats and barn swallows and a hayloft. Behind the barn were woods and fields. And down by the road stood the family’s vegetable stand, which was never manned; a sign merely instructed customers to “Pick out your vegetables and put money in the jug,” which they did, on the honor system, with nary a hint of thievery.
The Harringtons lived in a century-old, two-story white clapboard farmhouse. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was well-worn but tidy, and it had many of the “appointments” common to old farmhouses, like pantries and built-in corner cupboards and a wood-burning stove. At night it was a little crazy – people on couches, cots, or on the floor, or outside in tents, trailers, or the hayloft in the barn. I suppose out of deference to my being a guest and a girl, though, I got to sleep upstairs in a tiny bedroom full of Charlie’s dusty Zane Gray paperbacks about the American frontier.
Charlie – to this day one of my favorite human beings of all time – was the patriarch of the family, a beanpole of a man, with a bald, sunburned head, a smattering of whiskers, a cigarette or pipe constantly hanging out of his mouth, and pants rolled up about six inches on the bottom (“darn these things,” he’d say, “they’re too blasted stiff”). He was born around 1909, which would have made him about 66 when we met. After the eighth grade he’d left school and gone to work on the railroads and then on construction sites.
I loved his stories and recorded some of them. “I been up to the top of Maine and back down again with this construction company, used to work seven days a week, holidays, 12-14 hours a day; we’d be so weary we’d walk along and trip over a little pebble in the road,” he told me. “Once it rained and stormed and we all decided to go home. The boss got mad but we said hell, we been workin’ every day since spring, we got a right to come home, but my little daughter Cherie, she was but 8 or 9 months at the time, if I saw her and came to pick her up in my arms, why, she’d scream ’cause she didn’t know me, her own fatha. Three years I lived in a tent. It had a hahdwood floor and a gas stove and heata and a sink, a bed . . . why, it’d be 20 degrees outside but so warm and comftable in my tent, maybe 70, 75 degrees, you know, yes, it was comftable. I took a bulldozah and plowed a hole in the woods so the wind’d go right over the top, see, and took a tarpaulin and put it over a pole, makin’ whatcha call a ‘fly,’ and covered everything with snow and leaves. I tell you it was comftable. But lonely, oh, it was so lonely.”
Charlie was sinewy but strong, hard-working but playful, and he had a keen sense of honor. The only time I ever saw him mad was when we all sat around the table one night and drank up all his whisky. For this I could be forgiven, because I was simply following his children’s lead. But that whisky was precious to him, and he laid into his kids the next morning when he discovered the empty bottle. We all sat there sheepishly and full of shame and of course replaced the booze the next day. Other than that, he was a jokester and a prankster and perennially of good cheer. I’ll never forget his favorite line about his philosophy of life and death: “I’ll know when I get t’heaven, because I’ll get t’live my dream of walkin’ barefoot across a field of naked women’s breasts.” He always said it with a twinkly grin and would leave us all laughing as he strolled off to the barn.
“Not everyone can get as much out of their land as you do, Papa Charlie. You must be awfully proud of this farm,” I once told him as he took some tobacco and rolled a cigarette. (I’d gotten that line from Easy Rider, but I meant it nonetheless. I thought he was everything a great man ought to be.)
“Dahlin’,” he said, “I’ve got everything heah with me. I’m retired now, but I do desehve t’be after so many yehs of wehk, and I’ve got my gahden and my woodchoppin.’ It’s so good, so good for a man t’be able to make a little money from his own hands, and I love my house so much that whenevah I leave, even just for a minute, I look back and akchally cry.”
In front of the house sat an ancient truck (the “Tonka Toy,” as it was affectionately named), an old beat-up ’52 pickup with wires and rusty bolts and levers hanging out, windows blistered or broken, seats torn out to reveal just bare springs. But it did its job, however haltingly. When Charlie finished talking to me about his house, he went screaming off with it into the woods, over the stumps and the rocks and the trees, choking to a stop every couple of minutes.
Gert, his wife, was four years younger. She was shaped like a barrel and had a raspy voice and wiry gray curls, and her teeth were either missing or askew. But she was loud and jolly, and she loved every second of managing this insane houseful of Maine-iacs. She’d been a looker in her younger years; I saw a photo of her once and nearly gasped with the recognition of what the aging process does to us. “Why do you insist on looking at those old scrapbooks?” she asked me. “I hate lookin’ at myself.” I remember that she said it with sadness, and it was the first time I realized the melancholy that can catch us when we’re not looking, when we are reminded what the years have wrought.
Jeanne’s husband Steve, with his soft southern drawl and his kind eyes, was one of five kids in the Harrington family. One sister, Judy, lived in California but was out visiting with her two young children. Brother George, who lived in Connecticut, sported an impeccable haircut and seemed a bit more upscale than the rest of the family. Cheryl, the youngest, was a good-humored young woman who always seemed to be rubbing cake in someone’s face. I didn’t know it then, but the next year she would catch leukemia and it would take her very quickly. After Cheryl died, they told me that Charlie would cry almost every night, thinking that no one heard him.
Then there was brother Ron, the oldest, who reminded me of Jack Kerouac – my favorite author at the time. Ron had been all over the country from east coast to west, bumming and fighting and riding the rails and doing odd jobs, and he was still a perennial vagabond. He was coarse and had an annoying giggle, but because he was a rambler and even physically resembled Kerouac, I romanticized him for a long time until I learned what a scalawag he was. He had a darling son we all called “Little Ronnie” who was only about 6 years old and whose mom hung around a lot but was no longer in any kind of relationship with his father. There was simply an understanding.
I was a child of the suburbs, and although I ran free in the San Jose orchards and knew my way around a fishing pole or a county fair, this was the first time I was introduced to rural living. And to say it was heavenly would be an understatement. The family and all of its cousins and extensions loved each other fiercely, and I was now a part of it.
I got to swim in the ice-cold, crystal-clear, cobalt blue waters of the local quarry.
I spent $4.50 on tickets to the drag races.
I dug my own worms, caught a few bass, and took flyfishing lessons from one of the cousins.
Out in the barn, I spent hours talking about life in the earthy-smelling hayloft. Sometimes a joint may have been involved.
We chased escaped piglets up and down the road until we were exhausted from laughing and running, and, by the way, we never caught the pigs.
I once accidentally left a gate open and a steer got loose, resulting in lots of hollering until he was recaptured.
I was also violently slammed in the butt by “Bucky” the ram. I’d been standing around in the pasture, minding my own business, when without warning I found myself hurtling through the air and landing squarely on my back. Luckily I was young and no body parts were damaged. And true to their code of integrity around woman and guests, the boys who witnessed it did not laugh. Not even a smirk.
We took the coon dogs out into the misty Maine woods at 1:00 in the morning, seeing no raccoons but inhaling deeply the fresh odor of loamy soil.
I went bareback horse riding down empty streets at midnight.
I shot high-caliber pistols at targets up near the waterfall.
I picked my own vegetables and shelled my own peas.
I saw Tom Petty in concert in Augusta, with a crowd about 1,000 times rowdier than any I’d ever experienced in the Bay Area. Beer, brawls, and beards in abundance.
In the evening, we sat outside and had huge family feasts. Once or twice we picked out lobsters and clams from a nearby distributor and cooked them up, but they were luxuries. So usually dinner was something like venison, thick homemade potato bread with fresh raspberry jam, abundant ears of garden corn, mustard pickles, fiddleheads, fresh peas, new potatoes, and strawberries. I mean, delicious.
At night we played spoons and drank whisky and made up stories and laughed until long past midnight.
Never once did we want for anything to do or anyone to hug.
So it was that shortly after Memorial Day in 2014, I pulled into that small town in Maine in search of a memory. All I wanted was to see that white clapboard house again, if it was still standing.
I couldn’t remember the address, so I’d done an Internet search, finding only the business address of a roofing company operated by a Harrington I didn’t know. Still, as soon as I saw the street name I knew it was the one. I thought that maybe one of the descendants was operating a business out of the old house.
When Julie and I pulled up, however, we saw that there was no more open land on the old spot – just some small, nondescript homes. I hadn’t had high expectations about seeing the old place again, so I just sat in the car and sighed and submitted wistfully to the inevitable shifts of time.
As we started to pull away, though, I glanced towards the opposite side of the street and thought for a moment that I saw a flash of white hanging from the bottom of a tree. It was a familiar-shaped sign with worn black lettering, and since it was hanging perpendicular to the street I had to get out and walk up to it to make out the words.
“Triangle Acres,” it read.
I looked up and saw the old house. The front of the bottom story was stripped down to bare wood. Wires and antennae and satellite dishes were now attached to the roof. But it was the same place, all right. A couple of boats were in the backyard, looking as if they had been marooned there for quite some time. There were a few sheds and a woodpile and a rusted-out garbage can.
I decided to take a picture of the sign, for old times’ sake, and I was standing in the road adjusting the focus when a woman strolled purposefully out of the house and directly towards me. “Can I help you?” she asked, in a way that was neither friendly nor antagonistic, just direct. She wanted to know who the hell I was, this stranger with a camera and a rental car with New York license plates.
“Well, I know this is kind of weird, but I’m from California and I came all the way up here just to see if I could find the house where I spent many summers – maybe before you were even born – with a wonderful family called the Harringtons,” I explained, taking out my old photo album so I could show her that I wasn’t a loon.
“Well, you’ve found it,” she said. “I live here with Ronnie Harrington and his father. I’m Ronnie’s girlfriend.”
Her name was Jamie, and she texted Little Ronnie (as he was apparently still called!), who was away as he often was, for weeks at a time, working seasonal construction jobs and trying to make ends meet. I figured he’d have forgotten me, but I was wrong. “Damn,” he texted back to her. “Paula was supposed to wait for me so I could marry her.”
His dad, Ron, had driven into town, and Jamie called him and asked him to come back right away, saying he had an old friend waiting for him.
There was no garden anymore, no barn, no animals. Jamie invited us in for a drink of water, and when I looked around I saw that the house was in some disrepair. I remember thinking that someone could easily fall through the floorboards. I doubt that Little Ronnie’s hard but sporadic work in construction was able to provide enough for upkeep and repairs on an old, creaky home. I started to feel embarrassed to be breezing in with my fancy camera and my L.L. Bean sweater.
Ron drove up about half an hour later. I figure he was about 80, still robust and not all that aged despite the 40 years, and he held my hand and was sweet as can be and wanted us to stay for dinner. We weren’t able to stay, but we spent a few hours talking about the family, especially old man Charlie, and much to their amusement I repeated Charlie’s notion of heaven and the naked breasts, and they laughed knowingly.
Gert had died of cancer in 1985, and Charlie had passed in 1990. Steve and Jeanne had long since divorced – such a shock! – and Steve was still living in the Carolinas, although he was struggling with health problems.
I don’t know exactly why Ron and his son hadn’t kept up the farm. I don’t know whether the younger Ronnie made a choice to work seasonally, or whether that was the only job he could find in an unsteady economy, or whether it was the only one for which he was suited. I don’t know how many strikes he may or may not have had against him, especially considering his father’s propensity for a nomadic, adventurous, but somewhat shiftless life.
But does the cause – which was probably a mix of many factors – really matter? I’m just plain lucky that I’ve been able to retire before the age of 60 and carry a fancy camera and hail from the land of artisanal toast and hand-massaged beef. So many of us live in a ridiculous bubble of comfort and security, and we take for granted how fortunate we are. Out here most of us think alike and vote the same way and share the same outrage at things we believe to be uncouth or boorish. We forget that many people live differently and suffer pain and hardships that we could never imagine having while we hunch over our computer screens or sit around with our glass of chardonnay and exclaim over mango foam.
This weekend I finished reading a little book called The Rangity Tango Kids by Lorraine Rominger. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for exceptional prose, nor would I recommend it to anyone under 50 who hails from an urban or suburban environment. It’s a folksy memoir written by a local woman from Winters, in northern California, about her childhood on a farm in Sonoma County, and what it was like growing up with a passel of brothers and sisters in a time whose traces are disappearing so fast that there are very few remnants left for us to savor. Although I didn’t spend my childhood on a farm, the memories and the values evoked in Ms. Rominger’s book brought me back to my youth.
“There were things I took for granted growing up that are gone now,” Rominger writes, “things my nieces and nephews will not have the opportunity to experience, like the simplicity of a farm family whose lives revolved around a place where we lived and worked, so our family and farm would prosper. Dad’s attachment to the land, and his father’s, is like none any of us will ever know. My grandparents have passed, but Dad and Grandpa Rominger have collectively been on the farm for nearly a century and have witnessed the wild, open country taken away over time. I prefer the world I grew up in, not the world I am growing old in.”
To our detriment, I believe, so many simple pleasures have vanished. If I could go back in time for a moment, I would. I would walk back onto that farm in Maine and remember the joys of physical exertion, the tastes of food right out of the earth, and the prolonged laughter that comes from family and friends actually interacting with each other, without judgment. I would let Bucky ram me from behind just so I could sail through the air again, free, without a care in the world. I would ride a horse bareback down an empty street at midnight.
So don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot
It was 45 years ago this month that I graduated from high school, and every so often a few of my old friends get together for a weekend of wine, memories, laughs, and sentiment. This time we met up in Ventura. Even though our school – Piedmont Hills – was located on the east side of San Jose, a handful of us have relocated to southern California, and we thought we’d gather down there for a change.
Two days, many cocktails, countless stories, a plethora of hugs, and a few tears later, I drove back home, cranking up the tunes (a luxury best reserved for solo driving) and reflecting on where we’d all come from and where all these years had taken us.
I was utterly terrified on my first day of high school. I’d come from a Catholic school and had never known what it was like to have lockers, carry books, change classes, navigate from building to building, or walk hallways filled with students who were older, more mature, and almost adults. “I couldn’t believe that I was now surrounded by men,” one of us said this weekend. “Not boys, but men. With beards.” To some of us that was exhilarating. To me, it was just plain frightening. Raised by loving but extremely protective parents, I was naïve and unsophisticated.
Within minutes after I arrived at school that first day, a senior boy/man saw me and took off his class ring, slipping it on my finger and asking me how that felt. I didn’t know what to make of the entire thing. I was only 12 years old. Just a baby. I went home and told my father about the whole mystifying situation, and he made quick work of tracking down that senior and handing him a stern lecture. My father, you see, was the principal.
Obviously I had a few strikes against me.
Later that day, we were all asked to pair up and choose locker partners. Most of my St. Victor’s Elementary School classmates were off at Catholic high schools, and I didn’t know a soul. The time ticked down and I found myself standing alone, consumed, as always, with worry. But I mustered my courage, walked up to a total stranger, and asked her to be my partner. Her name was Barbara. I don’t know why I picked her. Maybe it was because she looked reserved, she wasn’t rocking a miniskirt, and she wasn’t sporting two tons of blue eye shadow. I hoped that my intuition was right and that she wouldn’t reject me. Saints be praised, she said yes immediately, which was a great act of gallantry because she had to have known that I was the principal’s daughter and that her association with me could prove to be an inconvenience at best. Almost half a century later, we’re still in touch. And by the way, she still looks exactly the same.
Barb didn’t have a single affectation. There wasn’t an elitist or supercilious bone in her body. Her parents worked on a farm, and she routinely presented me with gorgeous fresh produce as gifts. One time she gave me some sweet anise on my birthday and I was so thrilled that I gushed about it in my diary. I also remember driving out to the farm with my parents to pick squash blossoms, because there is nothing more delicious in this world than fried zucchini flowers. (Just dip them in egg and flour, fry briefly in oil, and be prepared to swoon.)
In those days, San Jose was not the technology mecca it is today. Much of it, in fact – especially on the east side, where we lived – was agricultural land. As my high school years went on, I would befriend lots of kids who had grown up on ranches and farms and knew their way around the county fair.
Barb had met Sue when they started kindergarten at Orchard Elementary School, one of the oldest educational institutions in the state (1856) and one that served residents of a part of the city that remained agrarian despite the burgeoning presence of housing tracts and malls. The two girls bonded at naptime that first day because Sue had an apparently-coveted Huckleberry Hound mat.
While Barb was more reticent, Sue was outgoing and full of spirit. She was optimistic and quick to laugh. I also thought she was very grown up – not in a “blue eye shadow” kind of way, but in a wise kind of way. She meant a lot to me because she always gave me good advice that came from a warm place deep in her heart.
In preparation for this reunion, I decided to drag out my diaries. For about 17 years, I diligently wrote in those little books every night, with the tiniest of Parker pen nibs. The diaries were delightfully unfiltered and un-self-censored, and when I think about it, I really have in my hands a remarkably honest chronicle of a young girl’s adolescence and young adulthood.
According to my diary, in March of 1972 I decided to run away from home. I loved my parents dearly, but holy cats they were strict with me! I wasn’t allowed to wear pants to school when girls were finally given that “privilege.” I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at a friend’s house ever, even if both sets of parents knew and thought highly of each other, because my father thought it was barbaric not to be at home at night. On my first date (I was a senior) with Jerry Miyakusu, my curfew was so early that Jerry had to shatter speed records racing home from Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in his sports car on dangerously curvy backroads. I’ve never wolfed down a pizza that fast since. And I think Jerry created a sonic boom as he hurtled me home. He wouldn’t have had time to kiss me even if he had wanted to.
(By the way, in 1972 when I was finally allowed to wear pants to school – but only on Fridays – I donned a super-cool ensemble that consisted of tight gold-plaid pants and long-sleeved gold Western blouses with lots of embroidered curlicues and snaps.)
Anyway, my frustrations with my folks had been piling up, and according to my diary, on March 21:
I called Sue because I thought she had an empty duplex, but it’s inhabited. She said, “Don’t leave, Paula, it won’t solve anything.” So I didn’t.
It was as simple as that. My plans were instantly jettisoned. Sue had spoken.
I guess it makes sense that Sue would go on to be a teacher and a motivational speaker.
I was an absent-minded little thing. It was legendary. My mother would ask me to “watch the rolls,” and I stood and stared at the oven glass and watched the rolls burn to a crisp. I routinely threw my socks away. I was playing the board game Risk once, with a Ritz cracker in my hand, and I popped the dice into my mouth and rolled the cracker!
Wednesday I looked in my purse for my glasses but they weren’t there. Obviously I almost had a heart attack! I decided to tell the parents at Clear Lake this weekend when they were in a good mood. But luckily I asked Miss Lasagna [yes, that was her real name] and she said she found them and my badminton racket on her desk. Whew! I don’t know how many times I have come so close to losing my glasses. And last Thursday I came home from badminton, changed, took off my blouse, and calmly went into the bathroom and deposited it in the toilet!
When I read back over those diaries, I am absolutely astounded at how worried I was about every little thing. I mean, I was a roiling cauldron of anxiety.
Boy, am I worried. Last semester I had a lot of points wrapped up by Final time, but not this year. In Chem I have a 90%, and I need an 86 on the Final to get an A. Shoot! His Finals are tough. I may shoot myself if I miss it. You won’t believe how worried I am. Every so often little pangs of fear go through me.
I am worried sick about the swim test tomorrow because of only one thing – diving. I can do everything else but that, and I get so embarrassed when I bellyflop.
Friday is the GAA/Faculty Mixed Doubles Tennis Tournament, and I am worried. I have to play some of the best players. It’ll be worse with Mr. Barisich as my partner because now he’ll know how really lousy I am.
Nearly every page is filled with one anxiety or another, sometimes accompanied by beseeching prayers to the Almighty. This one really takes the cake:
I, my friends, am really up-tight about something which most people would be happy about. “Our gang,” or, as we have come to call ourselves, “the out crowd,” has informed me that I may accidentally get a lot of nominations for Junior Prom Princess. Well, for one thing, I am not pretty. The only time I may be cute is when I smile, which helps decrease the length of my nose. Maybe I can persuade the kids to put up somebody else. Help me, God!
Finally, there’s this:
Today I went to the dentist. I had no cavities but I had fluoride. YICK! I hate it, and it always upsets me for a long time.
I honestly can’t figure out what on earth that last one means.
It was an interesting time to be young, back then. Just a few months before we started as freshmen, both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. The number of Vietnam War casualties would hit an all-time high of nearly 17,000 in 1968. New and wilder kinds of drugs were infiltrating the schools.
Over the next four years, the war engagement would start to wind down. Men’s hair would grow longer. Women would start to speak up. The voting age would be reduced from 21 to 18. Meanwhile, we were learning who we were and how we fit in with the changing times. Some of us (myself not included) wore black armbands to school to protest the war. Some of us struggled with figuring out our political identities and how to behave in a world in which gender roles were suddenly changing. We made mistakes and we were insecure and we were sometimes jealous in the most petty of ways, but we were all finding our way, bound together by the fears and joys and struggles of adolescence.
I remained – not altogether voluntarily – essentially a Puritan. My friends still remember the long skirts my mother sewed for me. And of course, as the principal’s daughter, I could get away with nothing. On Senior Cut Day I was one of the few hapless kids forced to come to school. The worst thing I ever did was steal some pre-signed get-out-of-class-free pink slips from one of the counselors and use them liberally during my senior year. I was finally caught by a sympathetic teacher who never ratted me out to my father, thank goodness.
Some of the friends I hung out with, though, were a little wilder. I loved them for what they were, but I think they deliberately withheld a lot of their activities from me – an arrangement that, in truth, was beneficial to all parties concerned. One of those friends was Jane, who had a gorgeous English accent and whom I always considered to be supremely exotic. She seemed so worldly. She flowed mysteriously through our group and I was never quite sure what she was up to, believing that one day she’d end up as some kind of insurgent – maybe one of those radicals who joined the Weather Underground and set off explosives.
Jane became a nurse. A Critical Care nurse, in fact. I imagine she has helped save thousands of lives in her career. In Ventura we talked about what retirement would mean for her, and she said she feared that leaving her job would mean losing her purpose in life. So we all discussed options that would enable her to maintain her dedication to health care, such as volunteering in places like homeless shelters. As she wavered about eventual retirement, I could see, in her eyes, her devotion to her calling.
Jane wasn’t the only one of the group who went into public service. I suppose it was the specific time in which we graduated, but it’s interesting that no one in our group left high school with the goal of making money. That wasn’t even in our vernacular. I think it was because we graduated at the tail end of the peace-and-love days. We were many years removed from the Summer of Love, but we were also two years ahead of the invention of the microprocessor and the total domination of the world by Silicon Valley. Just a couple of years after we left high school, people’s values began to change. But we just wanted to study the arts and help people and have a lot of goofy fun along the way.
Our friend Terrie became a lifelong public servant, too. After high school I lost track of her until many years later when I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle and her name suddenly appeared. I don’t remember what the story was about, but I learned that Terrie was a police officer in Morgan Hill. Eventually she would become Commander. Remember that in the 1970s there were very few female police officers anywhere, and Terrie was the only woman on the Morgan Hill force for a long time. To this day she says she didn’t think about it much. If she faced any biases, she never let them get under her skin. And she truly loved her job. In Ventura she talked about how people she’d arrested had come back to thank her because she listened so openly to them and, if they were willing, she helped them find their way towards becoming productive members of society. “It’s how you handle yourself,” she once said. “That goes across the board. If you have the ability to talk to people, to respect them, you can accomplish a lot. You always aim for diffusing a situation, not using force.” Terrie is probably one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met, and when she retired after serving for 26 years, the whole community felt the loss. A 2006 Letter to the Editor in the Morgan Hill Times said, “We have never met a more kind, generous, hard-working and professional public servant in our lives. Morgan Hill has been blessed. The force will be without her, but we know that she will only redirect her many talents in other community aspects. The quality of our community is so much better because of Terrie. May the force continue to be with you Terrie.”
Our friend Mary is the one who keeps everyone laughing, and she increases the hilarity quotient of any gathering by 1,000 percent. I mean, spend 5 minutes with the woman and you need to take Advil to soothe your stretched-out-from-laughing jaw muscles. I love her stories of our high school days, like the time she found an entire unopened jug of Spañada wine in the orchard and considered it to be the greatest treasure find of her young life. From what I gather, she dipped into that thing any number of times during the school year. My favorite family anecdote of hers is that she “started a campaign around Christmas time one year to convince my two younger sisters that Santa was indeed watching them – even in the bathroom. I constructed little paper cameras and colored them black, then placed them on top of the light so they could just see enough to be nervous!”
Mary left her home in northern California a number of years ago so that she could care for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She gave up a lot, but that’s who she is, and she wouldn’t have dreamed of doing things differently. She’s currently thinking about starting a humor blog, and we couldn’t be more encouraging about that. Start it now, Mary. It’s never too late.
When I really think about it, there weren’t all that many things that our group had in common. But we didn’t judge each other. We weren’t snarky. We were never arrogant. We never thought that we were the most interesting creatures on the planet.
Hmmm. Maybe that’s what we had in common.
Half of us turned out to be gay, proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my longtime contention that something sketchy was going on with the drinking water in the East San Jose foothills. Half of us ended up caring for parents with Alzheimer’s. Half of us had kids and grandchildren. And all of us have been successful. It really rankles me that the term “successful” means, to many people, earning a lot of money. You never hear people say that someone is “a successful preschool teacher” or “a successful police officer” or “a successful court clerk.” Well, in my book we’re successful if we pay our taxes and behave like responsible citizens. We’re successful if we raise our children with all the selflessness that that role demands. We’re successful if we keep our commitments to friends and family. Really, we’re successful if we manage to navigate our way gracefully through life’s challenges.
Being with these old classmates, despite the years and the miles, was easy. We don’t have to get to know each other all over again. It’s like the comfort of being bandmates or teammates or lovers. You may move on, but you can’t dismiss the times you spent together and the influences you had on each other’s lives.
As Sue summed it up later, “I just can’t put into words how precious every moment, every laugh, every tear is to my heart.”
A few days after I returned from Ventura, my family got together in San Jose to bestow our Gerald and Beverly Bocciardi scholarships on four remarkable seniors. All of them have specific goals and majors in mind, but the truth is, some of them will end up in places, and enjoying accomplishments, that they cannot even imagine now. We shook their hands and asked them about their college choices and their chosen fields, but if I’d had the time I would have said a lot more than that.
Don’t short-change yourself. Every so often, say hello to someone you don’t know. Be grateful for fresh produce. If someone you love wants to run away from home, or from life, talk them through it. Make others laugh. Consider public service. If you venture into the business world, keep your integrity; they’ll take your soul if you let them, ah, but don’t you let them. Take care of your parents, and learn about their lives; they are far more interesting than you think. Most importantly, hang on to your friends with character – the ones who count. If they call out your name, come running.
And for God’s sake, don’t be upset by fluoride.
Write your own life’s music. Learn the chords and the rudiments from the people who came before you, but then make the score your own. Play it loudly and then eventually teach it to others. That’s the reason you’re here.
That’s what we were doing, back in 1968. We were just trying to figure out our songs.
My father had the world’s most bizarre middle name.
If you think yours can top it, think again. If your middle name is Phinneas or Clothilde, you still don’t get the blue ribbon. Even if your middle name is Adelgunde, step aside.
My dad’s middle name was . . .
Wait for it . . .
Hand to God.
As the story goes, my father grew up believing that he did not have a middle name. No one told him otherwise, and because Italians really didn’t hand out middle names the way other cultures did, he was simply Gerald Bocciardi.
At some point, though, someone decided that he should adopt Raymond as his middle name. His paternal grandfather’s name was Raimondo, so that made as much sense as anything.
So he’d been going along in life as Gerald R. Bocciardi until the day he went to the Oakland Hall of Records to obtain his official birth certificate.
My father had been in the army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at UC Berkeley when he was an undergraduate. ROTC was a program that trained young college students to be commissioned officers in the armed services. When he got his draft notice in August of 1952, in the middle of the Korean War, Dad drove from San Leandro with my mother – his new wife of three months – directly to the Presidio in San Francisco to activate his commission so that he could go into the army as an officer rather than as a grunt private. After a full day of being sent from building and building, signing and transporting paperwork, he was given an official letter to present to the Oakland draft board declaring that he was a commissioned officer.
Now, my dad was a patriotic man and he wanted to fulfill his duty to his country, but Gerald Bocciardi’s boots on the ground would not have served America well. He was a smart guy, but he was also completely inept at practical matters. The man just could not master the most basic of everyday tasks. Boot camp would have kicked him to the curb.
When he got to Camp Cooke – a former army base near Lompoc, California – he was assigned to, of all things, “heavy mortar.” That obviously was not going to be a permanent spot for him. Later, at Fort Lewis in Washington, he was asked to oversee “reconnaissance patrols.” As my mother told me later, those were “the guys who go out in the middle of the night, and they have to read the maps in some foreign, strange jungle. He couldn’t find his way around San Leandro!”
That was a bust, too. It was then that my dad, who was nothing if not crafty, marched into the General’s office with a plan. “I think I’m probably misplaced here,” he announced. “I’d be much better utilized in Intelligence. I speak foreign languages. I’m fluent in Italian and Spanish, I can get by in French, and I also know a smattering of German.” It was all true, although because we were at war with North Korea, I’m not sure how any of those skills mattered. In any case, the General bought the pitch, and my father soon found himself with a top-secret clearance.
During that time, Mom and Dad lived off base in a motel room because Dad was supposed to be deployed to Korea any minute. Every day they waited for his papers to arrive. Mom was isolated and had nothing to do all day, so she put her considerable energies into a lot of cleaning and knitting. At night they watched television. In those days you had to put a coin in the slot to watch a motel television, but when the coin box broke and my mom – in all of her honesty – told the proprietors about it, they felt so sorry for her being alone all day that they decided to “forget” to fix it. So Mom and Dad had free TV for all those months. As long as she lived, she was always grateful for that.
She and Dad would get out to the Officers’ Club every Saturday night, though. “For one buck,” she told me, “you picked out your huge T-bone. Thick, and choice meat. The army had the best meat in the world. And then they had all the other stuff on buffet tables and salad tables. And they cooked your steak right in front of you. For a dollar!”
Months passed, and more months, and the deployment papers never came. It was a classic army snafu.
In any case, at the beginning of this whole process, Mom and Dad stood at the counter at the Oakland Hall of Records waiting for a copy of his birth certificate to submit to the army. The woman helping them returned with a wry smile on her face. “Well, I see you have a very unusual middle name,” she said, mysteriously.
“What do you mean?” my dad replied. “Raymond?”
“Oh, no. Fug.”
Well, that certainly blew their minds!
My father made the mistake, when he first got into the service, of telling a fellow soldier about his newfound middle name. It was a grave error. From that point on, he couldn’t walk through the base without someone hollering “Hey, Fug!” at him.
And when his two years were up, his army buddies sent him off with a party, a poem, and a cartoon. The presentation was called “Fug’s Final Feature.”
I now have a certified copy (dated 1980) of Dad’s birth certificate, and it offers Option No. 3. It lists his name as Gerald Gus Bocciardi. Gustavo was his father’s name.
I don’t know what happened. Maybe the original original did show Fug as his middle name. Or maybe someone transcribed or typed something incorrectly along the way, and “Gus” became “Fug.”
You know, maybe the army never got Dad’s papers sorted out because they were looking for Gerald Raymond, who technically didn’t exist. Or maybe they were looking for someone named Fug. I don’t know. Things happen for a reason, though. Had Dad gone off to Korea, it’s possible that his ineptitude would have singlehandedly and inadvertently sabotaged the entire U.S. war effort. On a more serious note, it’s also possible that he never would have come back.
Well, how odd. That was the entire, precise Facebook message, including caps and exclamation points, that suddenly appeared on my new smartphone at 3:15 p.m. on October 3, 2014.
Now I just had to figure out why in the world my friend Mona, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, had sent a message out of the blue shouting “son of a bitch!” at me without so much as a greeting or an explanation. How does one respond to such a thing? What did it mean?
Mona and I had gotten to know each other back in the 1980s, when she decided to sponsor my softball team. Other than my move to San Francisco in the 1970s, that team was the single most significant influence in my life. The lessons I learned, and the powerful friendships I made, informed my life’s course at a time when I most needed direction. And I have been blissfully bound in the mesh of those relationships, filament by filament, ever since.
As time went by, after Mona married and had a couple of children, we’d just naturally lost touch for a few years. She and I are very different in a million ways. She owned the first female-run network telecommunications company in the country and has been a serial entrepreneur ever since. She’s energetic, gregarious, and progressive. I’m more reticent and conservative, and I prefer the back of the stage rather than the front. She has a warm voice and a beautiful crinkly smile and she wears her feelings on her sleeve, while mine are often deeply concealed. But at our essence we’re both passionate and emotional, culturally similar. And as with all old friends, the bonds between us have abided.
Anyway, that October afternoon I was glued to the television watching a baseball game. When the “son of a bitch” message popped up, I’d been digging around in a wooden bowl for old maids. You know what they are – those partially popped kernels of popcorn at the bottom of the bowl that are so crunchy and satisfying. I’d just finished eating a sports meal, or at least my definition of one. A Paula Bocciardi sports meal consists of three items: a hot dog, popcorn, and a beer. I prefer Hebrew Nationals, Pop Secret Homestyle, and Sam Adams Boston Lager.
As I sat on the couch, crunching on the last of those old maids, I racked my brain for some kind of meaning to Mona’s expletive. At first I figured it was a mistake. Maybe she hadn’t meant to send it at all. And why no explanation? Did she really expect me to understand what she meant, especially since we hadn’t spoken in so long? It must have been meant for someone else. Maybe she was sitting in a boardroom somewhere, seething about something, and she’d fired off the message to the wrong person.
But then I started laughing. I figured it out. It was right in front of my eyes. I was watching game 1 of baseball’s Division Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals. The Giants were ahead 3-0 going into the 7th inning when coach Bruce Bochy pulled out starting pitcher Jake Peavy – who had a shutout going – and brought in the ever-erratic reliever Hunter Strickland, who allowed back-to-back homers by Bryce Harper (whom I loathe anyway) and Asdrubal Cabrera.
It was after the homer by Cabrera, when the score was suddenly 3-2, that Mona flew into a baseball rage and messaged me.
Assuming that my clever deduction was indeed correct, I messaged her back. The exchange was exactly this:
M: Son of a BITCH!!!
P: No kidding!! Plus I hate Bryce Harper.
M: Then I hate him too!
P: He’s an a-hole. On the plus side, I love Joe Panik. i just gotta first iPhone. This is fun!
M: Panic is a fun player to watch. Strong infield, I love Brandons!
P: I agree! Now we need to suffer through 6 outs. I need some bourbon.
The beauty of the whole thing was the fact that someone knew me well enough to correctly assume what I was doing at a particular moment in time. And to assume that I would know exactly what she was talking about, despite the years since we’d last talked. Within seconds we had effortlessly relinked ourselves. That kind of friendship is a precious gift.
I probably have hundreds of ballpark memories, but my most cherished are those that were shared with friends whose hearts beat with the same love of sports. In the first season the new Giants ballpark was open, tickets were nearly impossible to get, but my good friend Julie R. and I developed an elaborate scheme to score some seats, part of which involved my cozying up to a workmate whose boyfriend had season tickets. Armed with a couple of his unwanted seats, Julie and I went to our first day game at what is now AT&T Park on June 14, 2000. What made that day almost unrivaled in San Francisco history is that the temperature was 103 degrees. For San Francisco, that means you have practically entered the gates of Hell. (The average temperature for that date, by the way, is 69 degrees.) I would send an e-mail to my sister-in-law Lori later that night, telling her that it was 91 degrees inside the house at 9:00 p.m. (no one has air conditioning here). I also reported that I’d been reading Rolling Stone magazine that evening, and that the inks on the cover had melted in the heat and run all over my legs.
In any case, Julie R. and I were not to be deterred from seeing that game. We were intrepid sports fans and we were not going to let the heat get to us, even if we boiled to death. Our seats were, of course, in the blazing sun; they were very close to the field, along the third base line. We endured the conditions as long as we could, but after an hour and a half, with sweat cascading off of us, we decided that our hearts were racing dangerously fast and we needed to seek shade. Only when we turned around did we realize that no one else in the stadium was sitting in the sun. And I mean no one. It was 111 degrees on the field, we had heard, and I believe that we were possibly close to death at that point. Plus we hadn’t had a thing to eat; as Julie later said, “My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow.”
The fans, it seemed – at least, those who were still there – had crowded into any empty spots they could find in the shade. There was very little shade left for us, but we eventually managed to spot four seats under an overhang, and we quickly grabbed two of them. Shortly afterwards, however, along came the season-ticket seat owner. He was with only one companion, so we asked him if we could use his other two seats. It was then that we realized that he was drunk as a loon. He was stumbling and slurring, his zipper was half-down(!), and he declared that we could use his seats only if Julie R. gave him a hug! (She ended up being the one next to him, thank God.) So the typically reticent Julie had to close her eyes and reluctantly hug him. It was hard for me to control my laughter, and at the same time I was utterly relieved that he wasn’t sitting next to me. Anyway, whenever the Giants did something good, he would sort of put his arm around Julie, but she was sweating so much that he would then draw it back in revulsion. He did this repeatedly because he kept forgetting that he’d tried it earlier! Luckily, he left before the game was over and we were able to enjoy the rest of the afternoon baking in peace.
Whenever either of us recalls that game, we burst out laughing. It’s just a funny, funny memory that can never be replicated.
Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees at AT&T Park are, as one might expect, rare. In my estimation, the ballpark had to have been designed by a meteorological genius, because no matter how chilly and windy the San Francisco days and nights might be, inside the park it’s usually fairly temperate, as if you’ve entered another town altogether. The team’s former stadium, of course, was Candlestick Park, which was not so temperate and had a worldwide reputation for its blustery, howling winds. Longtime rumors have it that Giants pitcher Stu Miller was blown clear off the mound there during the 1961 All-Star game. Witnesses agree. Miller, though, claimed that he merely “waved like a tree” in the sudden gust.
In any case, my favorite Candlestick wind story was not Miller’s. My friend Erlinda and I were there for one of the rescheduled 1989 World Series games, and she told me about an acquaintance who had brought a little boy to the park for his very first game. When it was over, the boy gushed about what a great time he’d had, and she asked him what his favorite part of the game was.
“The flying napkins,” he answered.
Another only-in-San Francisco moment of a totally different nature came during a game in August of 2002. Barry Bonds hit his 600th homer that night. Julie S. and I were sitting in a good seat down the third-base line. A yo-yo sitting in the row on front of us, and slightly to the right, was constantly standing up and blocking my view of home plate. I could have stood up, too, but then I would have been obstructing the people behind me. It was very frustrating, and these two young guys beside me asked me if I could see. “Not at all,” I said glumly. They were peeved on my behalf. They shouted to the guy a polite request to please sit down, but he belligerently told them that he was going to do what he damned well pleased.
Their furious San Francisco response? “Well, that’s not very mature!!”
The next day, I ran the situation by my friend Carl – a Yankee fan and consummate New Yorker. I asked him what would have happened had a similar situation occurred at Yankee Stadium. His answer was that the scenario would have progressed thusly:
Man stands up and blocks people’s view.
Someone: “Down in front!”
Man does nothing.
Someone else: “Hey! Sit the f— down!”
Man does nothing.
A fight ensues and the man gets beat up.
The year after the ’89 earthquake, when many of my workmates and I were displaced from our damaged building, I somehow finagled a work situation in which I was allowed to edit manuscripts from home. (Remember, this was before the concept of telecommuting existed.) No one ever checked up on me, and I would steal away to Giants day games by myself at Candlestick. I was never caught, and in fact this is my first public confession of those crimes. (Honest as I was, though, I would always make up the hours and work late into the night after I got home.) I would walk two blocks to 19th Avenue and catch the 28 bus for its very circuitous route to Candlestick Park. (The bus schedule was dubious; I remember that one time the driver made us wait 20 minutes while he parked and bought something at a garage sale!) I shared the bus with five-foot-tall little old ladies from the Sunset, all of them wearing baseball caps adorned with pins marking some Giants event or another. They were hale and hearty and always undeterred by the Candlestick chill.
These days, I still go by myself go to all the Giants weekday afternoon games. I’m a loner, so that’s just fine with me. But sharing the games with others is so much better.
Last year, Mona treated me to a seat at the ballpark on Opening Day against the Dodgers. When Hunter Pence hit his grand slam, I believe I actually crawled up Mona’s arm. She paid me no mind. She also participated in one of my fantasy leagues last year, drafting an all-Latino team as her “strategy.” It was not a particularly successful strategy, but I wished I’d thought of it nevertheless.
My mother became a hardcore Giants fan in her later years, and I took her to a handful of games at AT&T Park, where she always insisted on having a glass of (bad) red wine with her crab sandwich on sourdough. She thought Brandon Crawford was a hunk. Those are some of my most beautiful memories.
During the 2012 playoffs, Mom was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery, so we watched the Division Series together in her hospital room. When Buster Posey hit his grand slam against the Cincinnati Reds in game 5, we tried to maintain quiet and dignity so as not to disturb the other patients on the floor. Then we heard the whoops erupting from the other rooms and echoing along the hallways.
When the San Francisco Giants finally won the World Series in 2010, it was their first title since they’d arrived in the city in 1958. A lifelong fan, I wept for three days after that Series. My emotions partially sprang from the happiness I felt for the ragtag group of players who pulled off that improbable victory – especially for Andres Torres and Cody Ross, good-natured and grateful guys who had been put out to pasture until the Giants picked them up. But mostly I cried for the fulfillment of my 50 years of hope and longing.
That night Julie S. and I took the bus down to the Civic Center, where a celebration was brewing. All I could think of was the night the 49ers won their first Super Bowl in January of 1982. Cynthia and I had raced out of our 9th Avenue apartment into an exuberant crowd of celebrants. It was a spontaneous and delirious gathering. A young man – a stranger to both of us – suddenly swept Cynthia up in his arms and kissed her. We were all smiles; there was no harm or disrespect intended. The whole thing looked like that iconic World War II photo of the kissing strangers in Times Square – a sailor dipping a nurse and planting a joyful smooch on her when the news broke that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.
But the Civic Center in 2010 wasn’t like that. It was mostly a bunch of drunken college girls who may or may not have had any idea how the game of baseball is even played. We came home quickly, dejected. But the next day I was listening to Gary Radnich, one of my favorite Bay Area sports show hosts, on the radio. And he launched into a speech about how the lingering euphoria in the air was most decidedly not for the youngsters. It was not for the bandwagoners. It was not for the casual fan. It was, he said, for the battle-scarred veterans.
It was for the little old ladies with the pins in their caps. And frankly, it was for me, too.
People wax poetic about baseball all the time, and they often talk about the concept of renewal. Spring Training is a metaphor for that. It’s a way for the team to rebuild and refresh itself, and for the fans to revive their sense of optimism for the coming months. Everything starts all over again. I look at friendship that way. Sometimes it waxes and sometimes it wanes, but it can always be renewed. The ties, they bind.
The Giants take the field at AT&T Park in just a few hours for their 2017 home opener. The ticket prices were just ridiculous, so Mona and I decided to go to a sports bar instead and watch the game from there. It’ll be the two of us, then, throwing back some Boston Lagers and cheering our way through a 3-hour ballgame, tethered gently by 30 years of friendship and the beautiful, delicate filaments of memory.
Those of us who live in California are getting a bit tired of the unending rain. We’re ecstatic, of course, over the apparent end to our five-year-long drought, but enough is enough. I have to check the weather sites and watch the “motion radar” every few minutes just to determine whether it’s safe to take our dog out without walking into a deluge. The lakes, streams, and reservoirs are getting full now – some dangerously so – and we could all use some sun exposure.
When I was young, full lakes and the promise of spring meant one thing to our family: fishing. We never took fancy vacations, but we spent many a Saturday or Sunday throwing worms or minnows into a host of Santa Clara Valley reservoirs hoping to bring home bluegill, crappie, bass, and catfish. Mom packed a picnic basket full of salami sandwiches, potato chips, and Cragmont sodas. Dad spent much of his time untangling our lines, and he and my brother ultimately had the task of cleaning and filleting the fish. (We ate everything we caught.) Once in a great while we would rent a cabin up at Fallen Leaf Lake in the Sierras, and Dad would take us out in the early morning chill to fish for trout. I remember that he used to sing or whistle the Army’s “Mess Call” (“Come and get your chow, boys”) so the trout would bite. In the early days, I believed that that worked. I will never forget the taste of fresh rainbow trout, right out of the water, wrapped in bacon for breakfast.
The Bocciardi kids became avid anglers.
Meanwhile, we also loved to form clubs devoted to our youthful pursuits, and as luck would have it, I still have the “minutes” to two of those clubs. One of them, The Tibby Club, was dedicated to my grandmother’s dog, an adorable but spoiled and yappy Lhasa Apso whom we revered. The other club was The Fishing Club. We were a little older then, so the minutes were, of course, typed.
The year was 1969. The meetings took place in our house in San Jose. I was 13 years old, my brother Marc was 11, and our beloved but beleaguered (you’ll see what I mean) little sister Janine was 8.
Please note that although there were four meetings, all of them appear to have taken place on the same day. Then the club completely fell apart in acrimony.
I don’t believe I need to say anything further. I have re-typed the minutes precisely as they originally appeared. They speak for themselves. Enjoy.
Date: June 19, 1969
Time: 8:25 – 8:48 a.m.
Place: Paula’s room
Present: Paula Bocciardi, Marc Bocciardi, Janine Bocciardi
Acting Chairman: Paula Bocciardi
The meeting was called to order by Paula at 8:25 a.m. All were present.
This was the first meeting. The list of club duties was passed around.
Next, we voted on the place to go fishing. The area that came in first will be presented to our parents and if they disagree, the others, in order, will be presented to them. Lexington was first with 11 points, Mt. Hamilton second with 9, Coyote and Chesbro with 5, and Anderson is the alternate.
Then we decided on date, time, bait, and other articles which will be on the plan. Paula will type the plan.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:48 a.m.
Fishing Club Duties:
The main duties and functions of the fishing club are as follows:
To plan and prepare one fishing trip a month
To trade fishing gear
To make better fishermen of all its members
To find out the fishing rules and regulations for various areas
To aid, if possible, in fish conservation
Any other duties pertaining to a fishing club
Paula Bocciardi – secretary
Marc Bocciardi – equipment manager
Janine Bocciardi – frog-keeper
Meeting place – 3561 Telegraph Drive
Meeting days – anytime
Date: July 19 or 26
Area: Drive around lake, then return to old spot if no other one is available.
Getting up time: 4:45 [a.m.]
Bait: 2 dozen minnows, 2 night crawlers, 2 worms, no clams, etc.
Leave: anytime parents want, possibly no later than 2:30 [p.m.]
Go across street to buy bait
Wake up parents
Get ourselves ready
All parents have to do is dress, drive, and pay for bait.
Fishing Day Activities:
Make breakfast (Janine, Paula)
a. Tell man what we want (Paula)
b. Pay (Marc)
c. Carry bait (Janine)
Wake up parents (Janine)
Load car (Marc)
Make lunch (Paula, Marc)
Date: June 19, 1969
Time: 12:37 p.m. – 12:52 p.m.
Place: Marc’s room
Acting Chairman: Paula Bocciardi
The meeting was called to order at 12:37 p.m. The minutes were read.
There were no corrections. There was no old business.
Paula read the fishing plan. No corrections were made.
Janine suggested that we have a suggestion box. This was voted down.
Paula informed Marc that, as manager of the equipment, he must obtain a notebook for the club.
Marc suggested that we should collect dues every once in a while to pay for certain fishing gear we could buy. Paula added to this and said that the equipment manager should present something new we might get at every meeting and we could vote on these presentations.
It was decided not to present the parents with our plan today, but wait.
The meeting was adjourned at 12:52 p.m.
Date: June 19, 1969
Time: 2:24 p.m. – 3:09 p.m.
Place: Paula’s room
Acting Chairman: Paula Bocciardi
The meeting was called to order at 2:24 p.m. The minutes were corrected by Janine, who said that the opinion she gave of the problem that she and Paula would fight over the lures, etc. we buy was not included in the minutes. However, since this was only part of the discussion, and not a suggestion, it does not have to be included in the minutes.
Janine, the frog-keeper, was called upon to report. She said that she was going to ask the twins (Chris and Dan Sears) to take care of Toby, the frog, when we go up to Fallen Leaf Lake on Saturday. The twins weren’t home, so Marc will call them later.
Marc, the equipment manager, was called upon to propose some ideas on things to buy. He suggested a bass/crappie jig, some split shot, some #8 hooks, some #2 hooks, or a plastic worm. We voted on the split shot. We will pay, as individuals, 8¢ for 20. It was agreed that anyone who loses a lure, etc. will be unable to use the others.
There was no old business.
We then chose some projects to undertake. Marc will write to the Fish and Game Department and ask if there is anything we can do, such as putting up posters. I, too, will write to them and tell them about the bad situation at Ed R. Levin Park.
Marc then read the portion of the fishing regulations that tells about night fishing. We discovered we cannot night fish at lakes here.
We decided that Janine should put up posters saying to come to our house for information on local fishing. Janine refused and was kicked out of the club.
The meeting was adjourned at 3:09 p.m.
Date: June 19, 1969
Time: 9:44 – 9:58 [p.m.]
Place: Paula’s room
Acting Chairman: Paula Bocciardi
The meeting came to order at 9:44 p.m. The minutes were read. There were no corrections.
There were no new developments on the frog. The equipment manager had nothing to report.
There was no old business.
Janine orally took an oath, then signed a written one, which enabled her to come back into the club. This was done because Janine tattled and Mom said that if we didn’t let her in, we couldn’t have a club either. Mom also said she did not want any posters to be put up so we’ll have to think of a new project for Janine.
Marc got a notebook during the meeting.
It was decided that we will write our letters tomorrow if possible, and if not, as soon as possible when we get back from vacation.
We voted on a suggestion made by Paula and Marc. The club shall temporarily be closed to further membership. However, if one of us would like a new member to join, the person would have to be approved by every other member.
The meeting was adjourned at 9:59 p.m.
I, JANINE BOCCIARDI. DO SOLEMNLY SWEAR THAT IF KICKED OUT OF THE CLUB I WILL NOT CONVEY THIS MESSAGE TO OUR PARENTS IN ANY WAY. I ALSO DO SOLEMNLY SWEAR THAT I WILL NOT DISCUSS ANYTHNG ABOUT THIS CLUB TO ANYONE, INCLUDING OUR PARENTS, UNLESS I AM GIVEN PERMISSION TO DO SO BY EITHER MARC OR PAULA BOCCIARDI.
I hope you enjoyed that peek into the past. Meanwhile, for those of you not on Facebook, I have some blogging news. I am now the official blogger for the San Francisco Giants on a website called “Sports Spotlight.” If I think any of those blogs might be of interest, I’ll include the links at the end of my Monday Morning Rail posts.
When I was a little girl, I was afraid of a multitude of things, including lawn mowers, elevators, cat’s eyes, cuckoo clocks, the mosaic stone tower at Valley Fair Shopping Center in San Jose, and the revolving Hamm’s beer display (with a giant bear) at the local supermarket. Sometimes, with luck, those things would disappear. For example, my grandparents would nail shut the little door of their cuckoo clock whenever we visited. And the revolving Hamm’s display was ultimately taken down. I spoke Italian at that age, and when the scary things vanished I would ask my father where they had gone. “Dov’è la statua che gira?” (“Where is the statue that turns?”) And Dad would always answer, “It went to Bakersfield.” That town clearly had a lot of open space.
Well, one day when I was three years old, our family was driving to the L.A. area to visit our grandparents, and in those days you had to drive down Highway 99, which ran through the San Joaquin Valley and was the only major connection between northern and southern California.
Most of the towns along the route had arched signs over the highway, welcoming travelers to their communities.
So, visible from the highway was a big banner that announced “BAKERSFIELD” in enormous capital letters as we approached that cowboy town.
That would have been just fine, except that Jerry and Beverly Bocciardi had forgotten that they had taught their daughter to read at the age of three. (It was absolutely unheard of then, although common now.) So they were startled, to say the least, when an ear-piercing scream such as they had never heard before issued forth from their hysterical daughter in the back seat.
The scream did not relent. I shrieked all the way through Bakersfield and continued to shriek through the next three towns. My parents both suffered partial hearing loss. The sheer decibel level caused all the Bakersfield residents to stop in their tracks. Local lore has it that Buck Owens even wrote a song about “The Unending Scream.”
In my mind, all the lawn mowers, elevators, cuckoo clocks, disembodied cat eyes, stone towers, and Hamm’s beer displays were waiting along the side of that dusty road to attack me.
More than half a century later, my terror of even the word “Bakersfield” was finally alleviated when I reluctantly spent the first night of a ’cross-country trip there and was not assaulted by a marauding bear statue.
Whew. One totally unreasonable terror that I can now check off the list!
No, that isn’t me in the photo. It happens to be my niece Tara. A couple of weeks ago, Tara threw me into a fit of hysterical choking laughter when she texted this picture completely out of the blue. The photo references one of my many mortifying personal stories, and it must have stuck with her, because she spontaneously saw fit to do a reenactment. So I thought I would re-tell the story. I’ve been writing some fairly serious blogs lately and I thought I’d lighten things up this week, in keeping with my vow to periodically post little vignettes that capture the inane, embarrassing, and/or idiotic things I’ve done in the past.
It all started at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989. Northern Californians remember that day well. The Giants were about to start the third game of their first World Series in 27 years. They had lost the first two games, but of course there was still abundant hope circulating in the heart of Paula Bocciardi. I was working in the Civic Center and was desperate, of course, to get home for the start of the game. So, like the devoted but precise employee I was, I SHOT out the door at the stroke of 5:00 p.m. as if there were a rocket strapped to my back.
My preferred mode of transportation at the time was my cherished “hog.” It was a red-and-white Honda C70 Passport motorcycle. Okay, it was only 70cc and its top speed was 44 miles an hour, but for the City it was perfect. A few people had dared to call it a “scooter” or, even worse, a “moped,” but I would quickly put those people in their place. First of all, you needed a motorcycle license to ride that bike. Second, the tires were motorcycle-sized so you had to lean into curves as you would on a real chopper. Finally, it had actual gears that you had to shift. I felt studly riding that thing, even though, to be honest, if it fell over I could pick it up with one hand.
So I hit that throttle and zoomed down Larkin Street, heading towards Geary to get home, when suddenly my bike was thrown into the next lane. And I mean thrown like kindling in a cyclone. I had just gotten a new tire, so I instantly assumed that the mechanic had done something terribly wrong. I hollered every expletive I knew into my helmet. Thankfully, I was still upright when I came to a stop. And it was then that I noticed that the ground was rolling, a burgeoning cloud of dust was filling the air, and people were streaming out onto the street. The air got thicker and browner, the traffic lights suddenly went out, and everyone was yelling. I finally figured it out. EARTHQUAKE.
It took me forever to get home, stopping at every intersection in the City because the lights were out. When I pulled up to my apartment building, one of the other tenants was standing outside. “Did you feel it?” he asked. I explained that I had been on my bike and hadn’t really understood what was happening at the moment it hit. To this day, I remember his exact response: “It’s a good thing you weren’t here in the apartment building,” he said, “because you would have lost your lunch.”
There really wasn’t much destruction in my apartment at all. My beloved 19-inch television, perched on top of a trunk, had been shaken off and onto the ground, and a few things on shelves had fallen and broken, but overall everything was okay.
My workplace was closed immediately after the quake because of structural damage, so I headed up to spend a few days with my parents in Clearlake, away from the aftershocks. All in all, then, I was fairly sheltered from experiencing the true drama of that devastating quake.
When I returned to my apartment on Friday night, I settled in to relax and watch television. Channel-surfing, I landed first upon a local news station that was running a montage of never-before-seen footage taken during the temblor from various video cameras around northern California. I started to absorb the horror of what I was seeing: the terrible shaking, the merchandise falling and shelves crashing onto the floors of local businesses, a panicked bartender racing out from behind a bar to escape shattering glass, customers screaming, a freeway collapsed.
Suddenly, I was petrified. It was three days after the event, everyone else was calming down and starting the work of healing, and I became paralyzed with fear. I concluded that there was going to be an imminent aftershock that would be stronger than the initial tremor on Tuesday, and that we were all destined to perish. It was terror delayed, but it was the kind of terror a child experiences when he knows that, the instant he closes his eyes at night, a monster will leap out of the closet.
I needed to take action to ensure my safety. That action, I concluded, was to place a motorcycle helmet on the bed next to me before I went to sleep. That would save my life.
For some reason I didn’t choose my black helmet that made me look like Darth Vader in tennis shoes. In a cool way. At the time, I had a passenger helmet that was a god-awful yellow hue, with no face guard or chin strap, and that’s the one I laid carefully next to my pillow that night.
Well, wouldn’t you know, I was slumbering peacefully when all of a sudden the most clamorous racket arose in my apartment. Wham! Clang! Bang bang bang! It was like John Henry hitting a piece of iron with his mighty hammer. Bang bang bang bang bang! My eyes flew open and the bed was shaking violently and I knew exactly what was happening.
“IT’S THE BIG ONE!!” I shrieked.
I snatched that helmet, crammed it on my head, and raced for the doorway, bracing my arms and legs against the jamb and preparing myself for the inevitable crumbling of the walls.
My doorway faced into the living room, and when I could finally focus, I noticed that my big heavy flower pot, suspended from the ceiling by a long macramé hanger, wasn’t moving. Not swaying a bit. In fact, nothing was moving. Nothing at all.
It seems that, since the power had gone out three days before, the automatic timers that worked the building heating system had been out of whack. The heat was now coming on in the middle of the night. And every apartment had the old-fashioned metal baseboard steam heaters that sound like hammers when water first starts to flow through them. So it was the radiators that were clanking.
And it was my pounding heart that had set the bed moving.
There I was, then, adorned in that yellow beehive of a helmet, pressed in fear against the doorway. I was facing out towards the street, and when I looked out my huge living room window, I saw two passers-by staring up at me.
The terrible shootings in Florida have taken a toll on many of us these last couple of weeks, and I haven’t been able to figure out what to do with the heartache. June 23 was Julie’s and my 8th (official) wedding anniversary and, more importantly, in a few weeks we’ll commemorate 20 years together. It should be a time of celebration, but I just can’t shake the news about Orlando (not to mention Sandy Hook, and San Bernardino, and Charleston). So I’ve decided to display my defiance by simply telling my story. And along the way, I want to explain how Bruce Springsteen made me gay.
I first heard the ferocious wall-of-sound chords of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” through my FM converter as I was driving to San Jose State on a scorching day in 1975. I actually pulled the car over and stopped on the side of the road, breathless. The song was a revelation. It was the anthemic answer to the insipid music dominating radio during that time. There was a lot of disco and very, very little rock and roll. That year spawned an anemic swarm of hits that represented the nadir of once-great artists. Glen Campbell sold out with “Rhinestone Cowboy.” The underrated folk-rock singer Johnny Rivers covered “Help Me, Rhonda.” Cat Stevens recorded the forgettable “Two Fine People.” Paul McCartney released – gag me – “Listen to What the Man Said.”
The songs on the Born to Run album pulverized the mold. None of them followed the standard verse-verse-chorus of pop music. They were, instead, long poetic stories about what it was like to be young in the seventies, populated with characters right off of the Jersey shore. The band was full and resonant, with guitars and piano and organ and a lyrical, echoing sax that always sounded like the mysteries of a city at midnight. The songs were about nights on the beach, wheels on the highway, the rush of the city, and the languorous days of summer, with “barefoot girls sittin’ on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.” Bruce was the poet Everyman for teenagers like me who didn’t do drugs and didn’t mess up our lives but still lived slightly recklessly because we had no responsibilities and everything was magic. It didn’t hurt, either, that Springsteen’s voice was growly, howling, and provocative. It was almost choked with desire.
I know it’s heresy to some people, but I really prefer men’s voices in rock and roll. My vision of hell is being trapped in a room where I am forced to eat nothing but couscous and listen to piped-in Joni Mitchell music.
It took nearly three years for me to see Springsteen in person. In late June of 1978 I went with my brother to see his concert at a half-empty San Jose Civic Auditorium. We practically frothed with anticipation. We had heard rumors, after all, that his shows were nearly four hours long, and it all proved to be true. Even in front of a fairly small audience, that man and his band spent every last ounce of their energy on that stage. The songs became epics; the youthful Bruce leaped onto his amps, onto the piano, and into the crowd; and we all were held fast by what Springsteen calls “the power, the magic, the mystery, and the ministry of rock and roll.” The show is among the very few for which there is no fully recorded bootleg and no complete setlist. I remember, though, that after the last of the drenching encores, I knew that I had just seen the greatest live American rock and roll band in history.
In those days, I thought I wanted to be a police officer. But when I graduated from San Jose State with my law enforcement degree, I was still too young to apply to the force. So I decided to move up to San Francisco, a city I dearly loved, and get a second degree in English. That was a fortuitous decision. I would have made a terrible police officer, for two reasons:
I am not brave; and
I can’t make a quick decision to save my life.
So in the fall of 1978 I moved into the SF State dorms, and on a Sunday morning in November I was reading the Chronicle’s pink section when an ad sent me rocketing out of my chair. Springsteen was coming to Winterland the next month and the tickets were going on sale at 10 a.m. that very morning. My diary actually says that the ad “shot me into the realm of ecstasy.” (I was a bit dramatic in those days.) I hurriedly picked up the phone and called BASS (the local ticket supplier) multiple times but never got through. Panic set in. Certain that tickets would be sold out within minutes, I grabbed my credit card and screeched off in my Corolla to the closest ticket outlet, which was inside Bullock’s department store in the Stonestown Shopping Center. There was a fair-sized line, and when I got to the counter, the woman casually told me that it was cash-only. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Two tickets would cost me $15. I didn’t have that kind of dough!! I had only five bucks and some change to my name. I noticed a phone hanging on the wall and I shakily dialed my roommate for help, but she said she had only two dollars. Then the phone ate all my change. What a nightmare!
It was, according to my diary, the coldest November 12 in San Francisco history. But I flew so fast getting back to my car, and then from my car to the dorm, that I was pouring sweat. I bolted down the hallway, pounding on doors and begging for money, but no one had cash to spare. Then, as I sped past the glass-enclosed study room on our floor, I glanced inside and saw a young woman I had not seen before, studying peacefully. I skidded to a halt, threw open the doors like a SWAT officer, and bellowed, “I know you don’t know me, but in the name of God, do you have $10 I can borrow?” She didn’t say a word. She got up quietly, said “follow me,” and led me to her room, where she slowly opened up a little wooden box that she had brought with her to school. Inside one of those “secret” compartments was her emergency savings: a $10 bill. What I didn’t know at the time was that she had grown up with very little money, was the first in her family to go to college, and was dependent on that money. I snatched the bill out of her hand, threw an “I promise to pay you back!” over my shoulder, and raced back down the hall. I ended up with two tickets. And that Winterland show is now universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have ever done.
As life goes, that encounter was my destiny. It was not the concert. It was Cynthia. It was the beautiful 19-year-old girl with the $10 bill.
I had dated a few men – well, boys, really – but it had never been quite right. It’s not that I didn’t find them to be attractive, but the way I explain it is that there always felt like there was a wall between us. Like a clear Plexiglas wall that I couldn’t break through. I couldn’t feel the euphoria of young love that others felt. It was being withheld from me.
When Cynthia’s dogged pursuit ultimately wore down my resistance, the wall cracked and then disappeared. We had no money, yet we lived an exuberant life in the City and drove around the country in her VW bus between jobs. I was as happy as it was possible to be while living in secret. I hid my entire life away – from family, friends, co-workers, everyone. I know it became a burden for her, and I lost her, with much heartbreak, after five years. In retrospect I see now that it was primarily because I was crouched with fright in the closet.
And it took me forever to realize what a burden it was for me, too. I mean, when she left, I spent the weekend at my parents’ house in Clearlake wearing nothing but a trenchcoat.
And no one had any idea what on earth had gotten into me.
Decades later, I now firmly believe that I owe it to myself, my family, my friends, and the community at large to be honest about my life. But it can be a terrifying step to take, and for some people, the consequences can be disastrous. So I understand the need for people to be revelatory at their own pace.
I had it fairly easy. When I finally told my family, they were terrific. My father, I believe, already knew. “Is there something you would like to tell me?” he had asked when I was parading around in the trenchcoat.
My mother needed more time and didn’t speak to me for a few months, but the thaw happened fairly quickly. The younger folks, like my friends and siblings, didn’t seem to give a gnat’s ass. And my sister tells me that she and a friend were riding in her car one day, speaking about me in hushed tones, when my 9-year-old niece piped up from the back seat, “Oh, for goodness’ sakes, Mom, I’ve known about Auntie Paula for years!”
But whether it was because I was old-fashioned, religious, ashamed, or just plain scared, I really wasn’t able to speak openly about myself to everyone until this millennium. I learned from watching a good friend of mine at work speak naturally and easily about his partner. He never really “came out.” But when someone would ask what he had done over the weekend, he didn’t circumnavigate the question, the way I often did. “Oh, you know Paul; he made me chauffeur him all around town,” he would say and roll his eyes. Everyone loved him and would laugh. It was as easy as that. A name and a pronoun.
Julie and I got married on June 23, 2008, one of the happiest days of my life. Just a few weeks earlier, Chief Justice Ronald M. George of the California Supreme Court had authored the state high court’s opinion that granted gay people the right to marry in California. I don’t think I have ever been able to adequately describe what that decision meant to me. It was more than just the sudden, exhilarating right to get married. It was, for me, a sense that I could enter the mainstream that I always wanted to enter. I was being accorded respect and dignity – not by a politician or an activist or a celebrity, but by an authority figure with solid integrity and conservative credentials.
“In light of the fundamental nature of the substantive rights embodied in the right to marry — and their central importance to an individual’s opportunity to live a happy, meaningful, and satisfying life as a full member of society — the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all individuals and couples,” the Chief Justice wrote.
My sister had come down to my workplace the day that the decision was announced. She and I and some colleagues gathered in my director’s office to await the news. When the decision was read, most of us erupted in cheers. I was tearfully weak with amazement and emotional fatigue. But I do remember that a colleague from a different group had a stricken look on her face and turned away in disgust. It hurts me to this day. It’s too bad that that’s something I’ll always remember.
But I called Julie, demanding that she leave work and meet me at the county clerk’s office, and we were the first in line to get our marriage licenses. Our picture was in the New York Times.
As strange as it is for me to recall now, I was hesitant to tell my mother that I was getting married, even though she loved Julie with every fiber of her being. She was a devoted Catholic, and I was afraid of putting her in an awkward position. But I finally called her, and it turns out that she was full of joy and couldn’t wait to be a part of the festivities. She later told me that she “talked” about it with God for a few days and that after those conversations, she felt that He kept asking her, “Why not, Beverly? Why not?”
I know that I have a handful of dear friends and family members, including some of my blog readers, who have heartfelt religious convictions preventing them from supporting gay marriage. (Oh, yes, I know who you are!) I’m deeply happy that you continue to share your friendship with me anyway. And I firmly believe that some of you, at some point, will come to ask yourselves, “Why not?”
I have read the entire Bible, cover to cover, word for word – including the “begats.” When I finished the last page, I was thoroughly intoxicated with the rhythm and beauty of the writing and the power of the message. The Bible never gave me doubts. It is the interpreters who have bred the doubt.
I take comfort in knowing with absolute certainty that no one could ever condemn my sweet Julie to eternal damnation. But what about me? What if I am a different story? I’m a religious person, I still say prayers every night, and to be 100 percent honest, I occasionally worry and obsess over whether I will end up rotting in hell with Joni Mitchell and all that couscous.
I met Julie Scearce 22 years ago – where else but on a softball field. Duh! It’s how we all meet! She was visiting from Kentucky and filling a temporary vacant spot on our team during a tournament in Tahoe. That girl could throw a baserunner out from far right field. Dreamy.
Julie denies it to this day, but she was actually repulsed by me when we first met. Lucky for me, I eventually won her over with my endless charm, and she moved out west and into my house 20 years ago. She left her family, her friends, her job, and her home to be with me. I think she knew it would kill me to leave my beloved San Francisco, so she made the sacrifice. Those who know Julie would not find that surprising. The woman never thinks about herself.
People say that marriage is hard work, but in my case it’s been very easy. I can remember only two major arguments between Julie and me. One happened when she didn’t like a piece of furniture that I had suggested buying, and in the middle of the Ikea aisle I loudly accused her of not loving me. (I believe some hormone issues may have come into play when I pulled that one.)
Our second major argument was on June 13, 2012. It was about baseball. I don’t want to point fingers, so let’s just say this: We were both watching the Giants on television. One of us fell asleep in the middle of the game. Matt Cain went on to pitch the first perfect game in Giants history. The awake one did not want to rouse the asleep one. The next morning, the asleep one found out what she had missed and went bananas. Absolutely bananas. I won’t say who was who, but the argument raged for days.
Without Julie, I would never be able to follow the plot of a movie. I just never know what is going on. Thank goodness we now have DVDs and streaming videos and I can pause every five minutes to ask Julie what the heck just happened. Why are they whispering? Is he a bad guy or a good guy? Is that Brian Dennehy or Charles Durning? Is the dark-haired guy Luke Wilson, or one of those innumerable Arquette siblings? What does “money laundering” mean? Why is that guy hiding in the shrubs? Is there a conspiracy I don’t know about? For crying out loud, what’s the connection????!!
(I think I have a hard time telling people apart. Back in the 1990s, when a lot of my friends followed Stanford women’s basketball, I went to one game and realized that I couldn’t distinguish one player from another. I just collectively called them “The Blond Ponytails.” They all looked alike. And to make matters worse, their names were all some version of “Kate”: Kate Starbird, Katy Steding . . . . Oh, and then for God’s sake, there was also Kaye Paye!!! I mean, COME ON!!!)
Without Julie, there would be no smoky smell of southern barbecue floating into my kitchen window on weekend nights. She lovingly tends to her marinated meats and veggies out on our center patio while I wait inside, drinking my glass of wine like the Queen of Sheba.
Without Julie, I would not understand what baseball’s “double switch” is. She patiently explains it to me over and over, every season.
Without Julie there would be no one in the house to install light switches, set up wireless networks, pound mollies into lathe-and-plaster walls.
Without Julie, I would not know the burnt-oak taste of a good bourbon.
Without Julie, no one in my house would joyfully drive over the speed limit.
Without Julie, no one would do “the Tom Jones dance” down our hallway.
Without Julie, I would not have the unqualified love of my second family in Louisville, and I would not know the natural beauty of Kentucky’s forests and lush green hills, the exhilarating crash of a cleansing thunderstorm, or the flash of fireflies on warm summer nights.
Without Julie, I would not know how to pronounce “Lou-ah-vul.”
Without Julie, there would be no humor in my home.
Without Julie, I might still be encased in Plexiglas.
Without Julie I would be a roiling cauldron of anxiety.
I have dragged Julie with me to many of the 15 Springsteen shows I’ve seen. This last time, in March, she had been up nearly 72 hours straight working on a critical project for her employer. Her exhaustion was almost beyond measure. And we had tickets for a Springsteen show in Oakland. I asked her repeatedly whether she should just stay home, but she said that she knew it meant a lot to me and that she would insist on attending. I have no idea how she stayed awake for those four hours and the BART ride home. And it turns out that the next day she came down with viral meningitis, a serious illness that would sideline her for a month. The doctor said it happened because the virus opportunistically raided her exhausted body. She should have been home sleeping that night. But she went out of love for me.
When it comes to our relationship, Julie definitely ended up with the short end of the stick. I can be moody, nervous, impractical, distant, hypersensitive, and juvenile. She, on the other hand, is steadfastly perfect. Always kind, always empathic, always mature. She is good-natured, even-keeled, strong, capable, and selfless. She encourages my passions for drums and train travel. She likes my blog. She calms my nerves. She steadies me.
Happy anniversary, Sweetie. I love you with all the madness in my soul.
Today’s post will be the first in a sporadic series of short anecdotes detailing some of the myriad clueless and/or humiliating things I’ve done over the years. If you are a family member or friend who goes back a long time with me, you’ve probably heard these stories ad nauseam, so just hit the delete key and go on with your life.
The incident in question happened on May 19, 1985. I know the exact date because I kept a diary every day of my life from 1970 to 1987. I filled every blank line in those diaries with two lines of printing so microscopic that only eagles can read it without a magnifying glass. So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of words that I set down during that period. Anyone with questions about events that occurred during that time frame, or even about what they said to me during those years, should feel free to ask me for a full recounting.
I had just moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Lake Street in San Francisco. My housemate Keith and I had been essentially kicked out of our flat on Pine Street by unscrupulous new landlords who falsely claimed they were moving into the building (which enabled them to skirt the rent-control laws) and then immediately doubled our rent. We couldn’t afford the astronomical monthly increase, so we were forced to leave.
In retrospect, it was a great move. I had just spent the bleakest period of my life in a place that was as dark, cold, and dank as my emotional state. It was the bottom flat of a three-flat Victorian. At high noon, it was pitch black. On a sunny day, we could see our breath indoors. And it was so damp inside that we actually had – I kid you not – mushrooms growing out of our bathroom tiles.
The place I found on Lake Street looked like the absolute blight of the block from the outside. Amidst the beautiful houses that line that street, my building looked like an aging pinkish ill-proportioned flat-nosed trapezoid or rhombus or one of those odd shapes we all learned about in geometry class. I’ll include a picture and maybe someone can tell me what on earth it is and why anyone would ever have built the thing.
Inside, however, it was actually quite darling. The rooms were big, bright, and airy; the kitchen was both vintage-cute and functional; and it felt like a brand-new start. Indeed, that place represented the first light of day to me. I wish I could have told my younger self, and could impress upon every young person today, that things that threaten to rip you in pieces – that make you feel like you’re going to “walk down the street and fly apart,” as my friend Ellen used to say – will usually align your compass towards a better direction. The thing that binds you involuntarily will ultimately free you. It just might take awhile.
The only flaw in my delightful new apartment was that one of the living room windows was stuck open. The window was an old-fashioned crank-style, and although I struggled mightily to close it, it would not even begin to budge. And it was frigid in that apartment. People who have never lived in San Francisco may be unaware that a “warm San Francisco night” is a rarity. (I don’t know what Eric Burdon was ingesting when he wrote that song.) Summer days in SF can be foggy, drizzly, and even bone-chilling, and the nights can be worse. I was freezing in that place, and unfortunately the heating system did nothing to counteract the temperature. The apartment had baseboard radiator heaters that were controlled by building management on a timer. They came on for only a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening, and although that ordinarily was okay, the bitter wind coming in off the Bay and right through my open window almost killed me.
I made a couple of phone calls to the realty company handling my apartment, but those calls were not returned. My blood was starting to boil (as much as it could, in that refrigerator of an apartment), and on the evening of May 19 I was heading out the door, fleeing the apartment to have dinner at Ellen’s house. I was looking forward to being in a toasty home and eating a warm meal and just, for God’s sakes, warming up!
Well, as I descended the stairs I saw an open apartment door, with a man in the usually-deserted hallway collecting money from the tenant inside. And his accent exactly matched the indeterminate accent that I heard the building manager speak when I had initially rented the place. Oh, hallelujah, it was the landlord!
“Excuse me, are you the landlord?” I interrupted him. He gave me a quizzical nod. “Well, my window won’t close, and I thought maybe you could come up and look at it. I’m Paula, the new tenant in #7. Please just come and look at the window, OK?” I don’t believe I sounded angry or threatening; I was just pleading plaintively, like a character in Les Misérables.
It worked. He dutifully followed me up to my apartment, and I showed him the window, recounting in strict detail my unreturned phone calls and the efforts I had made to close that (*&^%$! window. He tried his own hand at forcing it shut, but it would not yield. “It looks like the hinge is rusty and won’t bend,” he said. “I think that what you need to do is get a can of WD40 and see if that works to clean it.”
Well, that annoyed me. Typical landlord, I thought. Too miserly to call in a real repair person to do the job right or, heaven forbid, replace the hinge.
“All right, I’ll clean it,” I said, with some irritation, “but if it still doesn’t work, you’re going to hear from me again, be-lieve-you-me.” I made an internal vow to be assertive, for once in my life, and not let him get away with shirking his responsibility.
“OK,” he said. I glared at him.
“I’d like to help you, lady,” he continued, backing slowly out the door, “but I have three more pizzas to deliver.”