If you’ll be my bodyguard

If you’ll be my bodyguard

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

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

***

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

Laurie and Hayley
Laurie and Hayley

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

***

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

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

LL Bean seat cushion
L.L. Bean seat cushion

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

***

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

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

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

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

ADA section
ADA viewing section

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” I answered, expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

windmills-sfoutsidelands.com

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

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

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

***

Adam Duritz_Huffington Post_
Adam Duritz and his hair

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

The_Lumineers
Lumineers

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Paul Simon c SF Chronicle
Paul Simon

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

2019_08-11_Outside Lands_Laurie Baker, Paula

 

***

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

2/13/72 [age 16]:

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

4/7/72 [age 16]:

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

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

Water chestnuts

Scented candles

The orchard

Intelligent conversations

Bread [the band]

Gary Puckett

The absence of braces

Jeanne’s Australian tennis hat

Love

Eyes

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

Hot chocolate

Cracker Jacks prizes

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

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

School (the people)

Fires

Occasional chances to drive

Clint Eastwood

“The Fool on the Hill”

Spencer Tracy

Ted

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

Baskin’s & Robbin’s

Tents

Looking at the stars (really)

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Johnny Rivers

Surprises

Knowing something worthwhile

“MacMillan and Wife”

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

Balconies

Sleeping

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

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

Mr. Bernert

“Hey, Jude”

Sincere little boys

Babies (like the Dossa twins)

Anything cooked in egg and flour

Being young and immortal

Getting a ride home

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

The word “yes” (I rarely hear it)

Everything chocolate

My cousins Carla and Lisa

Snow

Father Hayes

Hot days

Swings

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

Movie cameras

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

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

Fisherman’s Wharf

Mine and Jeanne’s dangling conversations

GOP

My holey tennis shoes

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

“Satisfaction” – Stones’ stuff

Ice cream

“Leaves of Grass”

Sunflower seeds

Frogs

Sean

Stereos

Freddie

Cool ’n Creamy

Matt Monroe

Christmas

Drummers and more drummers

Chewing on thermoses

And of course RICHARD HARRIS!

 

4/9/72 [age 16]:

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

4/17/72 [age 16]:

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

4/18/72 [age 16]:

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

A patriot’s dream

A patriot’s dream

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

***

Katharine Lee Bates 3
Katharine Lee Bates

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Katharine_Coman_(Yellow_Clover)_Wikipedia
Katharine Coman

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

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

***

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain

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

***

For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain

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

View from Pikes Peak_Shutterstock-2
Pikes Peak

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

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

***

Antlers_Hotel_built_in_1883_in_downtown_Colorado_Springs
The Antlers Hotel

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

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

***

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

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

***

Samuel_Augustus_Ward
Samuel A. Ward

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Fourth, everyone.

***

Coda:

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

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

 

“America the Beautiful”

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

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

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

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

 

the end

 

 

 

***

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

4/2/72 [age 16]:

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

4/7/72 [age 16]:

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

I’ll stand by you

I’ll stand by you

One of my former colleagues needs a new liver.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why Char is a gem.

***

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

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

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

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

Ellen Loerke and granddaughter Allie
Ellen and her granddaughter Allie

***

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

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

Riffle Mohawk
Julie R. and her scary mohawk

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

185_Baltimore_Paula, Lauren, Diana
Paula, Lauren, Diana

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

***

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

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

 

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

***

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

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

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

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

109_Lauren's house_Lauren, Riffle 3 - Copy
Julie and Lauren

***

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

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

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

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

 

THIS BLOG POST IS DEDICATED TO JULIE’S MOTHER,

NANCY JAYNE CARBACK RIFFLE,

5/12/37 – 10/30/18

the end

 

 

***

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

6/29/71:

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

6/11/71:

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

6/9/71:

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

5/31/71 [Memorial Day weekend]:

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

5/24/71:

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

5/11/71:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nobody knows you when you’re down and out

Nobody knows you when you’re down and out

 

What are the chances? I recently finished researching and outlining this blog entry – about a jazz singer named Alberta Hunter – only to find that the very next day the Chronicle’s Datebook section would feature two stories about the same Ms. Hunter! I gasped, wallowed for a while in the disappointment of it all, and then finally decided to write the post anyway. But I’m still wondering who tipped off the Chronicle. Frankly, I blame the Kremlin.

What got me started researching the life of a jazz singer born more than 120 years ago is that a book I was reading about the music business mentioned that Frank Sinatra once said he learned more from Alberta Hunter than from any other singer he’d ever heard. To pique my interest further, this woman once recorded an album called Amtrak Blues, and you all know how I feel about trains. I decided that I needed to look her up, and her inspiring story then led me to a similar – but ill-fated – chronicle of another jazz entertainer of the era. Their talents were similarly abundant, and the women faced similar constraints, but difficult personal choices would lead them down tragically dissimilar paths.

***

Alberta Hunter was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1895. Her father – a Pullman porter – died very young, and her mother eked out a living as a servant in a brothel. Alberta, a relentlessly cheerful child, sang incessantly around the house, and when a friend in Chicago began sending letters back home about a Southside joint called Dago Frank’s where girls could make $10 a week singing, Alberta saw an opportunity to help out her mom. So in 1911, at the age of 16, she left home quickly and without a word. Clutching a kids’ railroad pass, she hopped on a train headed for Chicago, where she was given a job peeling potatoes in a boarding house for $6 a week.

Because she lied about her age, the scrappy teenager was able to land her first professional gig singing at night at Dago Frank’s, which was both a bordello and a gangster hangout. She felt safe there, though, and grateful to be living in a city in which black entertainers could get paid for their talents. Later in life, she would credit her time there for teaching her most of the life lessons she needed. “That’s a place where all the white prostitutes hung out,” she said, “and all their pimps, you know? And they knew I was nothin’ but a child, young, having run away from home. So they tried to teach me how to be a good girl. They said, ‘See what we’re up against? Don’t let fellas fool ya.’ And my mother always told me, ‘Have plenty sense. Use good judgment. Have a mind of your own.’ ”

When Dago Frank’s closed after someone was murdered there, Alberta moved on to other nightclubs, with both black and white audiences, earning enough to pay her mother’s way to Chicago so that the two could live together. They were sketchy places, but Alberta viewed every situation with good humor. “There was a pickpocket named Tack Annie,” she remembered. “Ugliest woman that God ever put breath in. She could walk up to a man and bite his diamond pin off. But she looked like a horse with a derby on!”

One night, though, Alberta’s piano player was actually shot and killed while they were on stage. So in 1921 she packed up and moved to New York, and that same year she recorded her first tune (“Bring Back the Joys”) with Black Swan, a black-owned blues and jazz record label operating out of New York that claimed it was “The only genuinely colored record – others are only passing.” Not much later she signed with Paramount. And she was no dummy. She recorded under a host of pseudonyms – including her half-sister’s – so that she could have “exclusive” contracts with a multitude of record companies!

ah-vaudeville-mobile
Alberta in Vaudeville, far right

It didn’t take long for Ms. Hunter to become internationally famous – not only for her singing, but for her composing and, occasionally, for her stage acting. In 1923, the great blues artist Bessie Smith sold 800,000 copies of her recording of Ms. Hunter’s composition “Downhearted Blues.” (Alberta, though, ended up with only $368 in royalties because her producer had clandestinely sold the rights and somehow ended up with all the proceeds. Such was the lot of black entertainers in those days, who had neither sufficient resources nor the sympathy of the law at their disposal.) In 1928 Alberta was cast in the role of “Queenie” in the London production of Showboat, and over the next couple of decades she spent time in the States and in Europe, recording, singing in nightclubs, appearing in repertory theater productions, and serving as a dedicated USO entertainer during both World War II and the Korean War.

Once the Korean War ended, though, Alberta’s life would take two major turns – one completely away from her music, and the next one all the way back in. As the war was winding down, her beloved mother was ailing, so she returned from Europe to care for her. Then, after her mother passed away in 1954, she stopped singing. Completely. As usual, though, she was able to cut through this roadblock with a bold and unusual plan. Consumed with the desire to find a different kind of meaning in her life, she gave away many of her possessions and became, of all things, a nurse. True to form, she lied about her age and her high school diploma (which she had never gotten) and enrolled in a practical nursing course, earning her license in 1957. For the next 20 years she worked at Harlem’s Goldwater Hospital. But she never sang a note during that time. Not even in the shower? she was asked. “No, I didn’t even hum, because all my interest was in my patients,” was her answer.

After she was laid off from nursing in 1977 because hospital administrators thought she was too old at age 70 (although she was in fact 82!), Ms. Hunter was invited to a party one night given by singer/pianist Bobby Short and she got to talking with the jazz impresario Charlie Bourgeoise, who – once he saw how spry and sharp she was – tried coaxing her back into show business. “Alberta,” she recalled him saying, “we need somebody, when there’s stories to be told, that can tell it. When you’re singing, people know what you’re saying.” She was intrigued but noncommittal. The next morning, though, she got a call from the owner of the Cookery nightclub in Greenwich Village, and he ultimately convinced her to jump back into the business and sing at his club for a two-week “limited engagement.” Well, that lasted for more than a year, and her career was thus resurrected at the age of 82.

For the next six years, Ms. Hunter continued to record and sing in the States, in Europe, in South America, on television, and at Carnegie Hall. She recorded the album Amtrak Blues in 1978. That year, she composed and sang the score of Robert Altman’s 1978 film Remember My Name, despite being unable to read music. She turned down a Sunday invitation from President Jimmy Carter once because – not one to be charmed by power, politics, or fame – she insisted that Sunday was her day of rest. But she relented in 1978 when he asked her to sing at the Kennedy Center in honor of her friend, the contralto Marian Anderson. “Bless his ole heart,” she said about the President before the show. “I’m gonna lay it on ’im!” It turns out that she was the only performer goaded into an encore that evening, and she later remarked that nothing in her career had ever thrilled her like that moment. After that performance, she was a frequent invitee of the Carter White House.

Alberta w_ Carters @ White House
Alberta with President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 1978

At the age of 89, Alberta finally stopped singing in public because age had started to affect her physical and mental health. She died in October 1984, with most of the money she’d made throughout her life stashed under her mattress.

***

When I listen to the recordings that Alberta made after her comeback, it’s hard for me to believe that she was in her eighties. Her voice was deep and rich as loam.  She looked glamorous and classy, but she was also fearlessly suggestive and sultry. “She doesn’t belt the blues, she insinuates them,” a reviewer once said. Yet the ironic twinkle in her eyes also revealed an appreciation of living that sometimes only the mounting years can bring.  I’ve always said that as the years go by, singers’ ranges narrow but their textures broaden. That’s what I call style.

amtrak blues

Off of Amtrak Blues, 1978:

“Darktown Strutters Ball” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OP-0geORbvM)


Live from the Smithsonian, 1981:

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdaNlZhmHoM)

“Handy Man” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiG3adgU0BI)

If you watch those live Smithsonian clips, you can’t help but smile. I’ve sat back and savored them dozens of times.

***

Being a black artist in a white world presented an enormous set of challenges that, for the most part, Alberta Hunter was able to face head-on, with cleverness, temerity, and subterfuge as required. But most of the world didn’t know that she was also hiding a major part of herself.

Alberta Hunter, as we now know, was gay.

She was married briefly to a waiter once, when she was in her twenties, but rumor has it that the marriage was never consummated because she told her new husband that she couldn’t bring herself to have “relations” in the house where her mother (and she) lived. It comes as no surprise, then, that the young couple separated just a few months later. I watched a clip of Ms. Hunter’s appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” decades later when she was in her eighties, and Mike asked her if she’d been married. She confirmed her brief nuptials and added, “He was a fine man – believe me when I tell ya. But I knew he needed a wife who was going to look after his clothes being cleaned and get his meals regular. And I wasn’t cut out for that.” Mike asked how she’d given her husband the news of her displeasure. “I didn’t tell him. I just ran away!” she answered. There was much shrieking laughter from the audience. But Ms. Hunter once admitted that the whole sham had been very unfair to her heartbroken husband.

The thing is, the great love of Alberta’s life was a beautiful woman named Lottie Tyler, who was the niece of Vaudeville entertainer Bert Williams. The pair reportedly met sometime between 1915 and 1917 at the Panama Café in Chicago, Lottie gave Alberta her uncle’s address in New York, and Alberta looked her up two years later. After that, they formed a bond that lasted for decades even as they lived apart. Alberta always kept her distance from men so as not to encourage them, and when she traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States, she always had Lottie to come back to.

lottie tyler
Lottie Tyler

Lottie Tyler died in Chicago in 1960, and I can’t help but wonder whether she had been ill for a time and whether Alberta’s disappearance from the public eye, along with her sudden inability (or refusal) to sing for a couple of decades, was related as much to Lottie’s passing as to her mother’s. I guess we’ll never know the answer to that.

***

One of Alberta’s contemporaries, unfortunately, had a career that began similarly but ended sadly, partly because she did not suppress certain parts of her life the way Alberta managed to do so deftly.

Her name was Gladys Bentley. Born in Philadelphia in 1907, Ms. Bentley was, like Alberta, a multitalented performer who left home at the age of 16 and found the beginnings of her career in New York in the 1920s. Unlike Alberta, though, she refused to hide away her natural self. She often eschewed dresses, sporting her trademark tuxedo and top hat instead. And she lived openly with a white woman, making no attempts to conceal her sexuality. “It seems I was born different,” she said, matter-of-factly.

gladys, 1932
Gladys Bentley, 1932

bentley-postcard2

This particular time in New York in the 1920s was called the “Harlem Renaissance.” Greenwich Village and Harlem were neighborhoods that attracted artists and intellectuals, in part because housing was cheap but also because there was a sense of cultural freedom from the restrictions of the Victorian Era. Gay people found an accepting home there, too, and gay entertainers like Gladys felt free to be themselves in cabarets and speakeasies.

Ms. Bentley did some recordings with Okeh Records but her live shows were what drew the crowds. She was a rhythmic, powerful pianist, and she parodied blues standards and show tunes, making up bawdy lyrics as she went. Her shows were funny and risqué. She had a sweetness about her, too, so when she laughingly flirted with women in the audience, no one seemed to mind. And oh, that powerful voice. Her range was such that her voice could sound like a brass section or a bird within a few measures of each other.

1928: “Worried Blues” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptIBk2PZK74)

Gladys made a lot of money in those early days, and she sported a fancy car and an apartment on Park Avenue. But as the 1930s wore on, the effects of the Great Depression were taking their toll on American society. People began to mistrust each other as they scratched out their own livings. Black migration to large northern cities heightened racial tensions. And as Victorian values started to resurrect themselves, the public slowly grew intolerant of gay people. The police began making arrests.

In 1933, Gladys moved her act from Harlem to Broadway for a short time, but “morals complaints” from the more uptight Broadway crowd ended up shutting down her club, so she was forced to move back to Harlem. By then the blues were passing out of favor, and her venue the Ubangi Club shut its doors, too, in 1937. So at the age of 30, Gladys left Harlem for good and moved to Los Angeles to live in a tiny house with her mother, and little by little her confidence, independence, and success began to ebb away. She continued to perform in a selection of nightclubs on the West Coast, and in 1945 she made a few records on the Excelsior label (always careful to watch the content of her lyrics). But with the advent of McCarthyism came the witch hunts aimed at not only communists and their sympathizers but gay people as well. Suddenly, special permits were required for Ms. Bentley to wear pants (I know, it sounds absurd). The House Un-American Activities Committee investigated her as a “subversive.” She grew fearful, started wearing dresses, and cleaned up her act.

In 1950 an article under Gladys Bentley’s byline appeared in Ebony magazine. It’s unclear whether she actually penned the piece, entitled “I Am a Woman Again.” She first writes about how society’s censure “has the effect of creating within us a brooding self-condemnation, a sense of not being as good as the next person, a feeling of inadequacy and impotence.” She talks about how people like her can often find solace in the professional world, in that audiences who would “bitterly condemn” them personally still recognize their talent and pay to be entertained by them. But then she goes on to say that she had renounced her ways after finding the love of a man who awakened the “womanliness” in her, and that through his help and the aid of hormone treatments, she had found a way to be “happy and normal.”

The truth was, Gladys claimed to have married two men in her life, but there were denials (from one or both of the men), and it’s possible she never married either one of them. In any case, the relationships ended, of course, in the inevitable dissolution.

To find some meaning in the paradoxical twists her life had taken, Gladys finally turned to religion, but at the age of 52 she became a victim of a flu epidemic and died, emotionally desperate, guilt-ridden, and terrified.

***

Like many others, I often look back wistfully on “the good old days.” For someone like me, who has led what I consider to be a charmed life, there are good reasons to be nostalgic. But what I often forget is that for many others, the “good old days” simply weren’t.

If I could go back in time, I would thank Alberta Hunter for her guts and for her persistence and for listening to Charlie Bourgeoise when he convinced her to start singing again at the age of 82. As for Gladys, I would thank her for her youthful courage. And given the opportunity I would steer her gently away from dosing her body with hormones in a frightened, misguided attempt to rework her essential nature.

A few months before she died, Alberta was asked what advice she would give to young people. “Learn respect,” she answered, “and by all means respect the other fellow’s ideas and thoughts. Have a mind of your own. Don’t let money get you off the track. And don’t begrudge other people of their success. And don’t sit around waiting for somebody else to do things for you. Do them yourself. And remember, time waits for no one. It passes you by. For no one. Do you hear what I’m saying? It rolls on forever like a cloud in the sky.”

Our ephemeral lives are indeed short. But who knows what more either of these two women could have accomplished if the times in which they lived had been more forgiving of people’s differences. How much better could this world be if people were only allowed to simply be themselves?

Alberta older

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A sloth’s guide to exercise

A sloth’s guide to exercise

 

When I was talking to my good friend Julie R. last week, she told me with great disappointment that she had a terrible cold and had to scale her cardio exercise session “down” to 30 minutes. Then she and I immediately laughed, because we both know that getting up to 30 minutes of cardio is my never-ending goal.

I am cursed blessed with a group of friends – none of them spring chickens, mind you – who all seem to be paragons of physical fitness. The aforementioned Julie R. runs marathons. Jill and Barb climbed Mt. Everest and, when that got a bit tedious, trekked around Machu Picchu. Michele works out with kettlebells (or, as I like to call them, “rotator cuff rippers”). Ron hikes the Pacific Crest Trail. Annabelle is a national champion in velodrome cycling. M.L. does triathlons.

It probably goes without saying that none of those things is in my repertoire.

For the most part, I hate exercising, unless it involves playing competitive sports. I used to be a decent athlete, but nowadays my sports endeavors typically end in a torn muscle, a broken bone, or some combination of the two. So I have settled on exercising as an individual, because of course it’s good for your heart and helps keep your bones from disintegrating and blah-dee-dee blah blah blah.

I have a feeling that some of my readers (outside of my close circle of superjock friends) might feel the way I do, so I would like to offer my surefire method of starting an exercise program and sticking with it. My method involves just three components:

  1. Exercising for only 30 seconds;
  2. Getting into a furious lather over newstalk; and
  3. Hoping that Max Weinberg gets food poisoning.

 

Follow the “30 Seconds” program

The most critical element of the Bocciardi exercise program is exercising for only 30 seconds. Now, I know you’re all assuming that I’m just trying to be funny, but my closest friends and family members can verify that what I am about to say is 100 percent true.

It seems that every year or two something happens that completely derails my exercise program. I shatter a bone, rip a ligament, get sick, experience some kind of life interruption, or just plain get lazy. And as many of you know, it is really, really hard to start up exercising once you have stopped. It is painful. The lungs burn, the legs ache, the heart labors, and it’s simply a boatload of misery. So I have found that the only thing that makes me start up again is knowing that I have to do it for only 30 seconds.

My cardio machine of choice is the elliptical, and what I do is exercise for 30 seconds on my first day back, 60 seconds the next time, and so on. Of course, increasing by only 30 seconds per outing means that it takes 60 outings to work my way up to my 30-minute max, but that’s fine with me. (And if I get on the elliptical three days a week, that means it will take five months to reach my half-hour max – about enough time for me to tear another ligament and have to start all over again.)

Knowing that I have to suffer for only 30 seconds that first day is a sublime motivator. And I really get into it. I pull on my sweats, grab some Gatorade, and even make sure I wear my sports bra.

 

Get infuriated over newstalk

My ideal sports regimen involves using the elliptical on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I work out for 20–30 minutes on our hybrid weight machine in our downstairs “guest room.”

I discovered many years ago that listening to newstalk radio in the car always makes me furious, which can really make a lengthy trip zip by in seemingly no time at all. If a 22-year-old know-it-all starts ranting about how future Hall of Fame coach Bruce Bochy doesn’t know what he’s doing and should have replaced a pitcher, the time you spend sitting in rush-hour traffic will pass swiftly as your disgust rises. Or if one of those “survivalists” calls in from his bunker to offer his completely uninformed opinion about the Constitution, your three-hour trip will evaporate while you seethe.

So, while I spend time downstairs on the weight machine, injuring myself in small increments (until one day: SPROIIIIIIING!), I watch cable news on television. I can simultaneously do a shoulder press and shriek at the TV, “Why on earth do you still have a job, Wolf??! Is no one else sick to death of your breathless pettifogging?”

Not only does that pass the time, but my blood boils, my heart pumps like a locomotive, and my theory is that it enables me to lift more weight!

 

Imagine Max Weinberg with salmonella

While I’m on the elliptical in the garage, though, I don’t watch television. What I do is put one of my so-last-millennium CDs into my so-last-millennium living room CD player and listen via wireless headphones.

(Of course, as you might imagine, when I’m exercising for only 30 seconds, I don’t get to hear very much of a song.)

Dealing with the pain and misery of cardio exercise, however, requires that I do something more than just listen to music. So I fantasize.

fess_parker_as_daniel_boone
Fess Parker

When I was a little girl, my favorite fantasy was that I was a wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers. As I got a little older, I had a dream (now legendary among my circle of friends) about Fess Parker and me that involved no clothing whatsoever except for coonskin caps. It was rather wonderful, but I digress.

For the last two years I’ve slowly been going through my entire Springsteen CD collection, which includes studio recordings, EPs, and a raft of bootlegs. My objective is to catalog all of them in a detailed database and to rate each studio and live performance according to the Bocciardi ratings system. This means hundreds of hours listening to Bruce while I work out on the elliptical.

What I do for the entire 30 minutes – or seconds, as the case may be – is fantasize that I am playing drums in the E Street Band behind Bruce at a live concert. In my scenario, I’ve been conscripted to play, on the spur of the moment, because regular drummer Max Weinberg is suddenly stricken and unable to take the stage.

Rock fans, this is where we absolutely must discuss the fact that this did happen to the world’s luckiest teenager. And it occurred right here in Daly City.

On November 20, 1973, the Who – one of the greatest bands of all time – were (or is it “was”?) in the middle of a show at the Cow Palace when drummer Keith Moon passed out cold, allegedly from a combination of tranquilizers and brandy. After being revived offstage with a shower and a cortisone injection, he came back out and continued drumming, seemingly back to normal. But during the very next song he passed out again, and this time he meant it.

Miraculously, some of this was filmed and has been posted on YouTube. You can see Keith slumped over at about 8:22, right after “Magic Bus” ends.

https://youtu.be/aIjH9OU2JKw

Guitarist Pete Townshend then looked up into the crowd and asked whether there were any good drummers who could come down and help them out. Holy nirvana! This doesn’t even happen in the movies!

Nineteen-year-old Thomas Scot Halpin, a fan who’d arrived 13 hours early with a friend to see the legendary band, was standing on the floor off to the side of the stage. When Townshend made his plea, the friend dragged Scot over to a security guard and insisted that he knew all the material and would be the perfect person for the job. Concert promoter Bill Graham came over to check out what he thought was a security issue, but he ended up recruiting Scot for the job. So Halpin found himself onstage, where someone gave him a shot of brandy to calm his nerves and he proceeded to spend the next few minutes of his life living out a dream that afterwards he could barely remember because of the adrenaline and the unreality of it all.

The band did three more songs, two of which were classic blues numbers. The third song was a Who tune called “Naked Eye” that had been played live but had not been released on a studio album, so I don’t know whether Halpin had even heard it before.

Although he had not touched a drumstick in a year, and Townshend sometimes had to help him through the tempo changes, I think the teenage drummer did a great job:

https://youtu.be/X5ZGlVY5rg4

At the end, Halpin takes a bow with the band and looks like the happiest man alive.

It gives me chills to watch it.

scot-halpin

My fantasy, as I mentioned, is similar. But there is no way Max Weinberg would ever be under the influence at a concert (or probably anywhere). For a long time my scenario involved his having a heart attack, but after many months it occurred to me that if Max had a coronary before a show, Springsteen would not blithely carry on with the concert as if nothing had happened! So I decided that he needed to suddenly get a raging case of food poisoning. Nothing too serious, of course, but enough to keep him indisposed for a few hours. Meanwhile, I would be dragged up on stage to finish the show.

My appearance would be, of course, triumphant.

And that’s how you can get through your new exercise plan for 2017.

You’re welcome.

paula-exercising

My heart’s still here . . . .

My heart’s still here . . . .

 

I’ll never forget the night I was sound asleep in my San Francisco apartment when the phone rang and a friend of mine demanded that I leap out of bed and rush immediately to the Symphony.

I had just started work for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, at a job I thought would be temporary but, as it turned out, lasted 26 years and netted me a pension. We worked only until 4 p.m. in those early days (ah, the 80s!), and my new co-workers told me about their “tradition” of periodically heading out to the Cliff House bar after work to quaff a few on a Friday night. I happily agreed to go along, and that night they introduced me to the delightful but merciless beverage called the Long Island Iced Tea. This insidious assassin of a drink contains five different alcohols, with a little Coke thrown in for good measure. I certainly hadn’t been a teetotaler up to that point – far from it – but I had no idea what that drink was. The very first sip was absolutely delicious – it tastes, of course, like iced tea – so I downed a tall one and then ordered another, unaware that the copious amounts of hidden alcohol in that lovely amber cocktail could kill a horse. About halfway through the second one, I realized that I couldn’t feel my feet.

So I stopped drinking and left for home, probably on a bus, because I’m sure I wasn’t driving. It was only about 6:30 p.m., but of course the minute I got home I decided it was time for bed.

I was already slumbering soundly when my friend Kay called. She worked as a marketing person for the San Francisco Symphony and had two tickets for the Symphony that very same night. In about an hour. Insisting that I go with her, she wouldn’t take my protestations seriously. “Good God, Kay,” I groaned, “I’m already in bed! My contact lenses are being disinfected and I already have my retainer in! And I’m sure my hair by now is a rat’s nest. Plus I just drank the equivalent of four liters of alcohol and can’t feel my feet! Forget it.” But one of Kay’s gifts was the power of persuasion, and for some reason I acceded to her demands and dragged my sorry self wearily out of bed.

I hardly had time to get dressed, but I managed to pull on some nylons, the only dress I owned, the only shoes with heels I owned, and the only coat I owned, which was a London Fog raincoat, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I thought I should try to look elegant.

Mind you, I was not a Symphony type of gal. In addition to rock and roll, I definitely loved Big Band and the great American crooners. But to a great extent I’m a cultural philistine, and I keep my distance from the refined arts. So I had never been to the Symphony or the Opera and had intended to keep things that way. Still, I had heard a few classical pieces and thought to myself, “Well, some of that stuff can be rousing and might get my adrenaline going. How bad can this be?”

I’ll tell you how bad. What I didn’t know until the music started was that I was in for an evening of ancient chamber music, performed by a string quartet. Four people with violins on a stage. The best way I can describe the entire night is that it went like this:

Plink.

Plink.

Plink.

With an occasional:

Plunk.

Needless to say, it was neither rousing nor inspiring. It finally got to the point where, much to my amusement, I thought I heard the older gentleman next to me sawing logs. Then a loud snort came out of me and I realized, to my mortification, that I was the one who’d been snoring.

***

When Kay drove me home after the evening mercifully ended, I told her in no uncertain terms that she owed me BIG TIME. What I demanded in return was that she get us two tickets to see Tony Bennett when he appeared with the Symphony later that season. She thought I was joking. “Tony Bennett?? You’ve got to be kidding me. That old guy? What are you, a senior citizen?” But I would not back down. I loved the man, and she was going to take me to see him. She teased me about it for months and proclaimed my uncoolness to all of our friends, but I kept my resolve and won.

***

I had been a Tony Bennett fan for nearly my entire life. When we were kids, my mother kept a radio on top of the refrigerator, and it was on KABL night and day. Mom was first and foremost a Sinatra fan, but she certainly loved and appreciated all of the sophisticated adult (i.e., non-rock) music of the time. I absorbed all of it.

Sinatra, I thought, was an actor as much as a singer, and his style could practically conjure a feature film out of every song. Perhaps because of my age I wasn’t a fan of his woeful laments like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” that he recorded when Ava Gardner was about to leave him. But I adored his big-band and swing tunes, Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra being an album I could listen to every day.

Tony Bennett, to me, was jazzier and less mercurial. He didn’t have Sinatra’s urban rakishness, but his voice was so good that flair was unnecessary. He could do ballads and he could do swing, with equal weight. He was never breezy. His voice had a hint of Italian huskiness to it, like a little bit of peppery seasoning on a tender filet.

Sinatra famously said Tony Bennett was “the best singer in the business.” Is there a greater endorsement?

***

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Queens, New York, in 1926. He studied music and painting in school but dropped out at the age of 16 because his family needed the financial help. During World War II he served on the front lines with the U.S. army infantry – an experience, by the way, that spurred him to become a lifelong pacifist. After the war, he decided to study singing and acting. Pearl Bailey discovered him in Greenwich Village, Bob Hope put him in his road show, and Columbia Records signed him in 1950. Lucky for us. Since then, he has sold more than 50 million records.

Tony’s life wasn’t without its problems. When music labels began demanding that singers record rock albums in the 1970s, he hated compromising his principles so much that he apparently would get sick before recording sessions. The rock records didn’t sell. His second marriage dissolved, his lack of business savvy brought him to near financial ruin, and he got involved with drugs. Fortunately, his son Danny helped him completely resurrect his career. He got Tony booked on “MTV Unplugged” in 1994 and exposed him to a hip, younger crowd. The Unplugged album from that show won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Tony was hot again.

Tony Bennett is a gentle man, happy and grateful, with an artist’s sensibility and an abundance of class. He walked with Martin Luther King in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He’s an accomplished painter whose works hang in the Smithsonian. His paintings have been commissioned by the U.N. and he was named the official artist for the 2001 Kentucky Derby. He is tirelessly involved with a host of charities. He and his wife founded Exploring the Arts (which promotes arts education) and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a high school dedicated to performing arts instruction. Right now he’s in the middle of a tour that runs at least through November and includes a show next month at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

On August 3, he turned 90 years old.

***

Most people don’t know that “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was written in 1953 by two gay World War II vets, George Cory and Douglass Cross. They lived in New York City after the war but strongly missed what George called “the warmth and openness of the people and the beauty [of San Francisco]. We never really took to New York.” They moved back to the Bay Area in the late sixties, and three years after Douglass died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 54, George took his own life. The coroner’s office reported that he was “despondent over failing health,” but I wonder about his broken heart.

After it was written, “I Left My Heart” languished until late 1961, when Tony was looking for a song to add to his repertoire while he was on tour. Not even realizing that the tune would be a hit, he sang it for the first time in December 1961 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where his tour culminated.  He recorded it in January 1962 and it was released as the “B” side to “Once Upon a Time.” The rest is history. It won the Grammy award for Record of the Year, and Tony won for Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, his first Grammy.

San Francisco adopted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as the city’s official song in 1969. In 2001 it was ranked 23rd on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

***

2016_08-19_Tony Bennett Statue Dedication_2

On Friday, August 19, San Francisco organized a huge celebration for Tony by unveiling a statue of him in front of the Fairmont Hotel. The Giants game that night was dedicated to him as well. I had decided months ago to attend both events, and I was determined to follow through with the pledge, despite the fact that I was suffering from vertigo.

(Yes, I’ve been dealing with dizziness for about three months, on and off, and am not happy about it. It’s become clear that it has something to do with my ears – so I probably don’t have a brain tumor, which is always my initial assumption – and I’m going through the process of getting medical attention. But I’ve been living in a disoriented fog of dizziness, nausea, and general ennui on and off since May. It was so bad last week that I wasn’t able to work on my blog because I just couldn’t focus. I hated not posting something, but it also made me realize that there is no way I can come up with 52 good ideas a year anyway! So now I am reconciled to the fact that Monday Morning Rail won’t be published every single week. At least my misery has resulted in a revelation.)

Anyway, that Friday morning I found myself walking up Powell from Market Street towards the Fairmont. It may not have been the best choice of routes, because in that area Powell Street is so steep that you practically need climbing gear trying to summit it. I was huffing up the street at a pretty good clip, though, silently congratulating myself for being in such decent shape after not having exercised in many weeks because of the *&^%$# vertigo, when I looked to my left and a young woman and her three-year-old child went skittering past me up the hill like a couple of mountain goats.

I could probably write a 100,000-word love letter about San Francisco, and maybe I will someday. The subject, though, is probably much too broad and much too emotional for someone like me to adequately capture. I would undoubtedly lapse into clichés or drunken sentimentality. But let me just mention that the two hours I spent in front of the Fairmont were arresting. The fog, of course, was hanging over us, somewhat lightly, but enough to keep me cool in the almost constricting crowd. There were tourists, residents, babies, parents, old folks, and people of all colors. The bells of Grace Cathedral were ringing melodiously and with grandeur. The San Francisco Chief of Protocol (I love that quaint designation) spoke, as did the mayor, and Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein. Behind the blue birthday balloons – some of which were lurching and popping in the wind – the Fairmont’s procession of international flags lined its historic façade. I was thinking about the Fairmont and how it survived the 1906 earthquake, and how I loved the hotel’s tropically decorated Tonga Room and its thatch-covered floating stage and its exotic drinks, and how the Fairmont had been the site of our wedding reception and I had actually, truly, gasped when I first saw the view from the room. About then, a cable car stopped behind us and remained there for the ceremony, the conductor ringing its bells periodically with great spirit and joy.

View from Fairmont
The view from our reception room at the Fairmont, 2008

Three very elderly women were standing behind me, and I could tell that they were native San Franciscans – probably Italians. They spoke with a classic San Francisco accent, and yes, there definitely is such a thing among the old-timers. My cousin Jerry, who was born in San Francisco, used to speak with a combination of Boston and New York accents – an articulation cultivated specifically by the Irish and Italian Catholics who lived out in the Mission District. Sure enough, when one of the speakers joked that the world is divided into people who are Italian and people who want to be Italian, the ladies cheered. I knew it! Anyway, these women were about 4-1/2 feet tall at best, all dressed to the nines. And they had that unselfconscious way of speaking their mind and not caring who is in earshot – common to the elderly, I think. “The papers said this ceremony was going to be on the Fairmont lawn,” one of them declared loudly. “There’s no lawn at the Fairmont. What a bunch of crap!” She was right about that. When Dianne Feinstein came out to speak, one of them sucked in her breath at what she must have considered a fashion faux pas. “Oh, my,” she hissed, “can you believe she’s all in red?”

The sun finally broke through the fog, with its usual good timing. Tony Bennett walked out to much applause and his huge statue was unveiled, depicting him with his head thrown back and arms raised upwards, singing with great heart, as he always does. The real Tony choked up and told everyone, “You have been so wonderful to me. I’ll never forget this day.” I felt embarrassed to be fighting back tears myself, but I stole a glance at the young man beside me and he was sobbing!

***

2016_08-19_Giants Tony Bennett Night_3

That evening, Julie and I took the streetcar out to the ballpark for Tony Bennett Night. Tony didn’t sing, but he said a few words. The entire stadium sang “Happy Birthday” to him. I had a crab sandwich on sourdough.

2016_08-19_Giants Tony Bennett Night_1

After every Giants home victory, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is piped over the public address system at the ballpark. While most people file out of the stadium, I always stick around to listen to the song. For those three minutes, I relish not only the victory but my great fortune to have spent a lifetime loving both Tony Bennett and San Francisco.

That night, the Giants won 8-1.

***

You know, something else sticks with me about the day. Mayor Lee made a point of saying that while the city is facing new problems that need to be resolved soon, “we also need to celebrate what is right and what is great about San Francisco.” To me, everything about that day was right and great.

It’s all Springsteen’s fault

It’s all Springsteen’s fault

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:

  1. I am not brave; and
  2. 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.

***

Paula, Julie, and Mom (with copyright)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.