Paula’s pandemic pointers

Paula’s pandemic pointers

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

This coronavirus can really mess with one’s routine.

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

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

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

***

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

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

You’re welcome.

***

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

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

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

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

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

That made us laugh even harder.

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

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

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

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

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

Success!

Julie preparing to catch bagels
Julie milliseconds before impact.

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

Does anyone understand that?

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

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Char’s delightful and delicious bagels

***

Recommendation #9: Toss the Caravella.

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

il-convento-original-limoncello-of-sorrentoI was quite pleased with myself for figuring this out before my parents did.

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

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

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

Il Convento. Get some.

***

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

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

***

Recommendation #7: Crisp some prosciutto in the microwave.

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

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

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

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

proscuitto-crisps_Familystylefood.com
Microwave-crisped prosciutto

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

Give it a shot!

***

Recommendation #6: Embrace your hair.

 

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

 

***

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

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

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

Bread 2
Julie made this wonderfulness!

***

Recommendation #4: Have a delightful time exercisingfinally.

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

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

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

I love this thing.

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

BitGym
BitGym

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookie MixThe company makes over 400 products. But the best might be the Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix. The mix is gluten-free, which might be an added bonus for some of you. The website says that it is “a taste of childhood,” which is absolutely true. It’s easy to prepare (you add eggs, water, and butter) and the website notes that you can use their “Egg Replacer,” which we did because we had no real ones. Even though I normally eschew substitutions, we heartily recommend the Egg Replacer!

Finally, the site says that the cookie mix is “crafted to achieve crispy edges and a soft inside.” Also absolutely true!

And that’s why it’s the perfect chocolate chip cookie: just the right amount of chocolate and the right amount of sweetness, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Unfortunately, these days the mix goes in and out of stock on the Bob’s Red Mill site seemingly every few minutes (https://www.bobsredmill.com/gluten-free-chocolate-chip-cookie-mix.html). It’s also sometimes available on other sites online. A package costs $6.49.

Grab some when you can – quick.

***

Recommendation #2: Buy this shirt.

I’m sure I’ve driven my health care family and friends nuts because I thank them for their public service every single time I talk to them. I mean, at least two have been working directly with COVID-19 patients! So I bought this Life Is Good t-shirt, and I wear it regularly, in their honor. It costs $28.

Womens-Rocket-Med-Flag-Crusher-Tee_71114_1_lg

Women’s:

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

Men’s:

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

By the way, the company donates 10 percent of its net profits to The Life Is Good Kids Foundation, which “focuses on improving the capacity of childcare professionals to build healing, life-changing relationships with the most vulnerable kids in their care. Today there are over 10,000 Life Is Good Playmakers who have helped over 1 million kids heal from the trauma of poverty, violence and illness.”

Thank you to Alicia Darnell, Lynne Eckerson, Jane Malone, Julie Riffle, and all the healthcare workers out there.

As for the rest of you, you can shell out 28 bucks for this adorable and meaningful t-shirt, can’t you?

***

And my #1 recommendation: Dole out compliments for others’ endeavors.

I’ve been trying to play the piano lately. I took a year of lessons when I was 7 years old and I still have the old piano my parents bought me, as well as my old music books. I am terrible, of course, and I’m not being falsely modest in any way. I can read most of the notes in the treble clef (right hand) and a few in the bass clef (left hand), and that’s it. The only songs I attempt to play are patriotic tunes and antiquated folk ballads. My technique involves sporadic plunking at a dirgelike tempo while I hit at least 30 percent bad notes. (Much like a 7-year-old beginner.) My showpiece tune is a sluggish version of “My Old Kentucky Home,” which I’ve played on the order of 3,000 times.

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I try to play only on weekdays, and only when our doors and windows are shut so there is no chance of anyone hearing me. However, the other day my sweet young (yes, to me 30-ish is young) next-door neighbor texted me the following:

“I heard you on the piano on Wednesday last week. It was beautiful! I could have listened to you play all day! It reminds me of my sister back home [in Ireland].”

This one simple gesture has brought tears to my eyes nearly every day since. I think about the kind young soul – who, because of the pandemic, is being deprived of night life and many of the other joys of youth – taking the time to text a senior citizen and turn my halting, hesitant, discordant plunking into something beautiful. Thank you, Lauren Mason.

How about complimenting someone today?

 

the end

 

***

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

9/17/72 [age 16]:

“I really haven’t been thinking at all about school [college]. I suppose the thought of it is so horrible that I purposely try to put it out of my mind. But now it’s almost here, and I guess I will just . . . well, go, tomorrow. Oh, me, oh, my. CLUTZ – that’s what I am. The question is – is college for klutzes?”

9/18/72 [age 16]:

“Well, I can now say that I’ve made it through one day [of college]. Buying books was a hassle – I’ve bought 5 out of the 7 books I need for 2 classes, and it’s already cost $26. Book-buying is a hassle. My rides are still hassles; in fact, I don’t know how I’m getting to school Wednesday. Tomorrow I drive Robin and Mary and I don’t know where to park, since apparently both parking lots are too small to accommodate the stupid Travelall. I’m confused and oh-so-tired, but – I don’t know – the excitement, the people, the learning prospects – something is making me happy.”

 

 

 

 

 

The girls of summer

The girls of summer

On a beautiful May day in 1954, on an innocuous ballfield in Charleston, South Carolina, two Negro League professional baseball teams faced each other in a preseason game. It wasn’t a particularly big deal for the players. The dry infield dirt, as usual, crunched under their spikes. Gloves were oiled, rawhides roughed. But looking back now, it’s clear that that moment was definitely a big deal. Three of the players warming up on the field that day were women. They were the only women, in fact, to ever play professional baseball.

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson was pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns. Infielder Connie Morgan was on the bench. Toni Stone was up to bat for the Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson had been throwing a shutout until Stone stepped into the box and sliced a base hit to the outfield. But she took a careless lead on the next pitch and Johnson picked her off first. It was baseball as usual, but they were not the usual ballplayers.

They were the girls of summer.

***

Baseball as usual, of course, has disappeared for now, and we don’t know when it will return. I’d been planning on writing about these three women for nearly two years, but I backed off when I learned that a play about Toni Stone was due to open in San Francisco this March. Frankly, I was incensed that the theater company had stolen my idea.

Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, the live production of Toni Stone didn’t happen. Yet perhaps now, more than ever, we need stories like these. You do not have to be a sports fan. This story is about much more than that. It’s about sexism, racism, talent, and guts.

***

From her earliest days in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, where most of the Twin Cities’ black population lived, Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone had an absolute obsession for baseball. She thought of nothing else, dreamt of nothing else. “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping, I’d go crazy,” she said. But it was the 1930s, and her parents thought it was unnatural and unseemly for a girl to be crazy about a “boys’ game.” On top of that, Toni wasn’t at all interested in makeup or dresses or boys or any of the girlie fascinations that were thought to be “normal.” Everyone called her “Tomboy Stone,” and it was not necessarily a flattering moniker. Still, no one could deny that she was the best athlete, of any gender, in the neighborhood.

Stone started out playing in a summer Catholic boys’ league because a priest named Father Keefe needed someone to beef up his church’s ballclub. She then joined her high school softball team but quit after a year because the pace was too slow. But one spring day in 1936, at the age of 14, she stopped at a local park to watch a bunch of young white ballplayers coached by a man named Gabby Street, who had once played for the San Francisco Seals and the Washington Senators and who was then managing the minor league Saint Paul Saints. On that particular day, he was running a baseball camp for white boys in the area. Toni desperately wanted to play, and she was unaware of the fact that her race and gender were two strikes against her. Two strikes meant nothing to her anyway. So she began a campaign of relentlessly haranguing Street so that he would allow her to prove her skills.

Although Stone didn’t know it at the time, Gabby Street was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The group’s activities had begun to wane nationally, however, and the last Klan meeting in Minnesota had been held seven years earlier. Street began to wear down. “I just couldn’t get rid of her until I gave her a chance,” he said later. “Every time I chased her away, she would go around the corner and come back to plague me again.” Second base was her preferred position, so he asked her to field grounders and hit a few balls. And he was more than impressed. A few days later, on her 15th birthday, he bought her a pair of baseball shoes, and she thought it was a miracle. She had never owned anything “official” like that. He also allowed her into the baseball camp. Those white boys couldn’t believe their eyes when a black girl walked onto the field.

But she quickly proved her mettle.

Toni Stone
Toni Stone

Although Toni was not a good student in high school, she became an astute student of baseball in that camp. The game is packed with more nuance than those who don’t follow it could ever imagine. Under Gabby Street’s coaching she also honed her athletic abilities and learned the more intricate skills, to the extent that she was asked to join a few summer barnstorming teams of amateur African-American ballplayers. In addition to her comfortable position at second base, she’d play center field on those teams and sometimes even take the mound to pitch.

Barnstorming teams typically were based in cities that had no major league teams, and they spent much of their time on the road. (Note: The Minnesota Twins, formerly the Washington Senators, did not move to Minnesota until the 1961 season.) Keep in mind that in that day and age, being on the road for Toni and her teammates was not all fun and games. On one of Toni’s trips to Bloomer, Wisconsin, with her Twin City Colored Giants playing a white team, the man announcing the lineups blithely declared over the loudspeaker, “And now the starting lineup for the niggers.”

***

After dropping out of high school at the age of 19, Toni left her barnstorming Minnesota teammates behind and hopped on a bus headed for California, to see “what was over there on the other side of the fence.” Her sister Bunny lived in San Francisco, where men and women of all races had come to work in the shipyards. It was 1943, and the war effort was increasing. Toni had no idea where Bunny lived, and depending on when she would later re-tell the story, she had somewhere between 53 cents and $7 in her pocket. Her belongings consisted of a few items of clothing, her Goodwill baseball glove, and the cleats given to her by Gabby Street. To find her sister, the only thing she could do was comb the city’s streets. Incredibly, a few days after she arrived she was walking down a random alley when Bunny happened to look out the window and spotted her!

As I’ve written before, San Francisco is a mix of cultures, with so much to offer that any marginalized person can come here and find identity and acceptance. That happened to Toni. “I love my San Francisco,” she once said. “I had my hardships there. But they treated me right. Old San Francisco folks taken me over.” She had long had a passion for jazz, and the city’s Fillmore District was alive with it. She would hang out in Jack’s Tavern there, not only listening to the music but engaging in conversation with people more worldly than those she had known in her neighborhood back in Saint Paul. It was there that she would meet Aurelious Pescia Alberga, the much-older man whom she would eventually marry. He and the owner of Jack’s got Toni a spot on a local American Legion baseball team. Needless to say, she was the only woman on the squad. The team was part of a junior league, which required its players to be 17 or younger. It was now 1948, and Toni was 27 years old, so she decided to “change” her age by subtracting 10 years from it. It got her onto the team, but it also was the genesis of a long lie, and in years to come her fake youth would create unrealistic expectations and prove to be more of a hindrance than anything else.

Ultimately Toni found a place to live in Oakland through a priest at St. Benedict’s (because of Father Keefe, she would always have a soft spot for the Catholic Church). And she wrangled a job at Foster’s Cafeteria in the Fillmore District, although she would soon need more money and would end up doing physical labor down on the docks.

Toni stone_espn.com
Toni Stone

The next year, Stone was recruited by the San Francisco Sea Lions, a black barnstorming team that traveled throughout the country. (Note: The San Francisco Seals, part of the Pacific Coast League, did not include any black players.) She played second base and hit leadoff. Virtually no records were kept of those games, so no stats are available for me to quote. We do know that at some point Toni discovered that she was being paid less than her teammates, so she joined the New Orleans Creoles when they presented a better offer – which would indicate that her play was impressive. The Creoles went 44-8.

Better records are available for 1950, and by the middle of the season Toni was batting close to .300 for the Creoles. Meanwhile, she continued to fib about her age. She was a 29-year-old posing as a teenager. But she still had guts like no one had seen before. During one game in Iowa, a double-play throw from her third baseman ripped its way through her weakly made glove and knocked her out cold. Her teammates stood around pouring water on her (I’m not sure how that “treatment” was supposed to help), and when she regained consciousness she immediately stood straight up and screamed “Let’s go!” It stunned the crowd.

It was after the 1950 season, though, that Toni did a more audacious thing. She went and got married to the 67-year-old Aurelious Alberga.

No one really knew why she did it. In the first place, she had never had a boyfriend, had seemingly no interest in sex, walked around in men’s clothes, and, frankly, had been considered by many to be a lesbian. Yet her marriage to Alberga, in whatever form it took (they had separate bedrooms from the start), would last until his death.

Alberga was a well-known black social and political leader, and he provided stability and financial resources to the couple. But for a while, at least, he resisted the idea of her playing baseball, so she sat out for about a year and concentrated on home repairs and domestic chores.

Meanwhile, she was dying to get back to the diamond. During her hiatus she wrote to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – the one featured in the film A League of Their Own – but it was not only “all-American” but also all-white, and she never received a reply.

***

By 1953, some of the Negro League players had joined Major League Baseball (MLB), which had integrated six years earlier, and few Negro League teams remained solvent. But half a dozen were still in existence, including the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns, who had won the 1951 league championship. The Clowns’ young shortstop, Henry Aaron, had left for the Boston Braves in the middle of 1952, and they needed infielders. The players were well aware of Stone’s play with the barnstorming Creoles, when her powerful arm, her defensive abilities, and her speed (she’d been able to run the 100 in 11 seconds) had impressed them. So she was offered a spot in the Clowns lineup for the 1953 season and joined them for spring training that year. The owner did try to convince her to wear short skirts on the field, but she threatened to quit and he relented. I mean, seriously, who can effectively slide in a skirt??

At this point, don’t forget, everyone assumed that Toni was 21 years old, and they also assumed that she could move like a dancer and run like the wind. But she was a full decade older than that and edging past her prime.

After only two days of practice (the extent of “spring training,” in those days, for the Negro League) and a month of preseason games, Toni Stone officially played her first game as starting second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns on May 15, 1953. She was 31 years old. As she took the field against the Kansas City Monarchs in Beaumont, Texas, she earned her place in history.

She was the first woman to ever play professional big-league baseball.

***

Just a few words, at this point, about the Negro Leagues. They were not minor leagues; they were not repositories for lesser talents. They were the beginning of organized professional baseball for black (and Hispanic, by the way) athletes who were not yet allowed into Major League Baseball. That would not happen until 1947, when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Willie Mays were some of the former Negro League players to follow Robinson into the majors and ultimately into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Negro Leagues lasted for 40 years, but they started to wane significantly once MLB began attracting their best players. The owners typically weren’t compensated for the departure of their superstars, and many of the teams went bankrupt. By 1960 they were defunct. The loss was bittersweet, because the Negro Leagues had helped spur economic growth in black communities and helped provide a sense of social cohesion among people of color. Their passing was greatly mourned.

This year we celebrate their 100th anniversary. It was in February 1920 that Andrew “Rube” Foster – owner-manager of the Chicago American Giants – convened a meeting with the owners of seven other independent black baseball teams to form the Negro National League. For true baseball fans and also for historians, it’s a really big deal. In fact, on June 27, 2020, all MLB players, coaches, and umps are (were?) slated to wear a Negro Leagues logo on their jersey. A host of other celebrations have been planned as well. The nature of those commemorations, however, remains to be seen.

***

A little more than halfway through that ’53 season when Toni Stone made history, her Indianapolis Clowns were in last place, despite Toni’s .364 average – fourth in the league. (Ernie Banks, by the way, was in second place.) Still, the team ranked first in attendance among all the Negro League teams – due almost exclusively to the presence of Stone, most observers agree. By season’s end, though, her batting average had dropped to .243, and almost all of her hits were singles.

It gave her cause for worry, especially because at that point a couple of other women were about to join the team.

***

Mamie Johnson was living with her grandmother in Ridgeway, South Carolina, when she first started playing ball in corner lots as a little girl. According to Michelle Green’s book A Strong Right Arm, a “pie plate was first, the broken piece of flower pot was second, and the large root about three feet from the lilac bush was third.” Home plate was the “smooth white lid of a five-gallon bucket of King Cane sugar,” the sweetest in the South. The “baseball” was a bunch of tape wrapped around a rock. And Mamie could throw that thing, powerful and smooth. She had a fastball, a change-up, and even a knuckleball, and the neighborhood boys had a tough time connecting with her pitches.

peanut johnson 1_National Visionary Leadership Project
Mamie Johnson

When Mamie’s grandmother died in 1945, it was decided that Mamie would move in with an aunt and uncle in Long Branch, New Jersey. She was about 10 years old, and it was not a popular move with her. Not only did she miss the sweet southern air, but there was no baseball at the school she had to attend. It was just softball, and she hated it and refused to play. The ball was way too big, and the pitching was underhand. Sissified blasphemy! But she had gumption, and one day she passed by a field on which a bunch of kids were playing baseball. All boys, of course. And all white. (Sound like a familiar story?) Although told she couldn’t play, Mamie noted that the team was sponsored by the Long Branch Police Athletic League and she hustled right on down to the police station to ask the officers – repeatedly – about whether local laws prohibited a girl from playing baseball. Eventually she wore everyone down and was allowed onto the team, which ended up winning the division championship two years in a row.

For a couple of years Johnson played for other sandlot teams, as well as for an all-black semi-pro club. Like Toni Stone, she also got wind of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and in her case she actually took a bus with a friend all the way down into Virginia to try out for the team. Once they arrived, though, exhausted but ready to play, they were told that no “colored girls” were allowed.

In 1953, when Johnson was playing for a sandlot team, a man in a pinstripe suit who’d been watching their games for three weeks came up to her after he’d witnessed her strike out a series of batters with a particularly voracious fastball. (By the way, she was about 5’2” and weighed 92 pounds.) His name was Bish Tyson, and he was a former Negro League ballplayer and now an unofficial scout. He told her that the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, would be coming to town for some pre-season exhibition games and would be looking for new players. He was taking a gamble on her; after all, she had no high-level experience on the playing field and no exposure to skilled coaching.

When she arrived at the field in September for what she thought were widespread tryouts, she discovered that the only person trying out was her! She also noted that the Clowns had another female playing for them – second baseman Toni Stone. Mamie did well in the batter’s box and threw to some great hitters that day, and right there on the spot they signed her. She’d be allowed to play in postseason barnstorming games throughout the fall and then would join the permanent roster the following season. Johnson quickly quit her job selling ice cream and boarded the Clowns’ bus, without getting a lick of input (or approval) from her husband. “It didn’t make any difference because I was going to play anyway,” she said.

Peanut Johnson
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson

By 1954 Johnson was in the regular pitching rotation and took the mound about every six days. Her curveball came to her when, in Kansas City, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige complimented her throwing arm. He was retired from MLB and back to playing in the Negro Leagues with the Monarchs. He told her to stop squeezing the ball as tightly and showed her his curveball. Allegedly. Years later, at a conference about the Negro Leagues, Mamie corrected the story. “He didn’t teach me how to throw it, he taught me how to perfect it,” she said. “I knew how to throw it.”

One day she faced hard-hitting Hank Baylis, third baseman for the Monarchs. Baylis reportedly stepped out, turned around, and hollered to the fans, “Why, that little girl’s no bigger than a peanut. I ain’t afraid of her!” She reached back, uncorked her fastball, and struck him out. “Call me Peanut,” she yelled back at him. From that point on she was Peanut Johnson.

***

At the end of 1953 the Clowns were also starting to look at Connie Morgan, who would be a more direct threat to Toni Stone because Morgan, too, played second base. Toni started to see the writing on the wall. Peanut Johnson and Connie Morgan – two 19-year-olds – were both slated to be her teammates on the 1954 Clowns. Toni was in her thirties, and the decision had been made that only one female at a time would be in the lineup. To add insult to injury, owner Syd Pollock offered her $350 a month, which was less than the $400 a month she’d been paid the previous year. So she made the decision to sign with the Kansas City Monarchs, who offered her $400 a month and the possibility of a $200 year-end bonus.

2009_16_15_082.tif
Connie Morgan

Constance Enola (“Connie”) Morgan, born in 1935 in Philadelphia, had played five seasons with the all-girl North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, with whom she’d logged a .368 batting average. She’d read about Toni Stone and the Indianapolis Clowns in Ebony magazine and penned a letter directly to Syd Pollock, requesting a tryout. He obliged in October 1953, and she signed a two-year, $10,000 contract after impressing the team with her defensive skills at second base. She was right out of high school. She’d never had male teammates, and at that point most of her time on the field was spent behind the dish, at catcher. But she could play any position except pitcher, and she shared the same chutzpah and self-confidence that Stone and Johnson possessed.

We don’t know as much about Morgan as we do about the other women, but we do know that her defense was spectacular. She was only 5’4”, but she was strong, and manager Oscar Charleston – a Hall of Famer, and universally considered to be one of the greatest ballplayers of all time – said “her throws across the diamond rank on par with many major leaguers.”

***

So, what was life on the road like for Negro League players? The teams played almost every day for eight months, with two (and occasionally three!) games on Sundays. Unlike MLB ballplayers, who usually had days off for travel, Negro League players had no such luxury, often riding on a bus for up to 400 miles between games with no break. Syd Pollock meticulously recorded every conceivable kind of stat, and according to his publicity material, “The Clowns have traveled 2,110,000 miles. Once played in a town with a population of 476 and had 1,372 fans at the game. Largest crowd 41,127 in Detroit. Smallest 35 in Lubbock, TX during a tornado. Have had the same bus driver for 17 years, worn out three buses and 19 sets of tires.”

By the way, for bathroom breaks, the bus would stop so men who had to pee could just line up on the side of the road and do their thing. The women, of course, had to walk off into the woods or a culvert, often in the middle of the night.

While traveling in the South, the players had to drink only from certain water fountains and shop only in certain stores. Many of the gas stations were “Whites Only.” Restaurants below the Mason-Dixon line often provided no service to black customers, and much of the time those places were the only food establishments in the area. Once in a while the players would be allowed to go to a back window to pick up cold food. When white people were traveling with the team, sometimes they would pick up a load of food at “white” cafes and bring it back. But they had to be careful; servers had been known to spit into glasses of Coke being served to black people.

The_Negro_Travelers'_Green_Book_1953As for hotels, many refused rooms to black people, and it was often a scramble if schedules got changed. The Negro Travelers’ Green Book helped out when the team was traveling in the South. But for Toni, there was an added burden. It started when she was turned away at some of the hotels – the few who would serve African-Americans – because they assumed she was a hooker for the players. When the hotel owners pointed her in the direction of the nearest brothel, she found that the kindness of the ladies there was better than some of the everyday treatment she received from the outside world. The women not only provided her with a place to sleep but also fed her, laundered her uniform, gave her extra money, lent her a car, and often even attended her games. It was the prostitutes who always helped her out in life, she would say years after she’d left professional baseball.

One night after a game in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Toni’s rattletrap team bus caught on fire for no apparent reason. Almost all of the players’ belongings and equipment were lost, although Toni had managed to grab her glove before bailing out of the bus. No one, of course, immediately stopped to lend a hand. When a sheriff finally came by, he called his dispatcher. “Nothing serious,” he said. “Just a bus burning up with niggers on it.” Help didn’t arrive for two more hours.

The players knew they had to be infinitely careful about their behavior, especially in southern towns. The smallest of infractions –and sometimes no infraction at all – could get them jailed or killed. “Reckless eyeballing” was one of the ridiculous charges potentially facing a black man. Any white woman could accuse any black man of looking at her too long, and he could be put away. Coaches would tell rookies to “keep their heads down and their mouths shut.”

At ballparks in the South, black major leaguers usually were not allowed in clubhouses and were required to change clothes on the bus. Even more ridiculous – if that’s possible – black fans often had to completely leave the stadium to use a toilet!

Unlike today’s ballplayers, who sit out a game if they have a hangnail, the Negro League players had no physicians available and simply had to play through almost every conceivable injury or health condition outside of a coma. Players who got spiked, for example, would make paste from coal-stove soot, rub it on the (often very deep) wound, and lay a spider web on top of everything to protect the wound because there were no bandages available!

Toni Stone, in particular, was no stranger to being spiked, or to being hit by pitches. Many of the men in the league – including some on her own team – resented playing with or against a woman so much that they either ostracized her or blatantly tried to hurt her. Some teammates even threw to her directly in a baserunner’s path to make it easier for the opposing players to gash her with their metal cleats. She ended up with a lot of scars to prove it, although later she would shrug them off as being battle wounds.

Meanwhile, sportswriters were beginning to be more callous about the women in the league, considering them to be novelties and concerned that they were somehow emasculating the men and the sport. “It’s thrilling to have a woman in one’s arms, and a man has a right to promise the world to his beloved – just so long as that world doesn’t include the right to play baseball with men. . . . This could get to be a woman’s world with men just living in it!” screamed one such insecure writer.

***

Jackie Robinson and Connie Morgan
Jackie Robinson and Connie Morgan

After 1953, the league was on its last breaths.

Connie Morgan played only one full season with the Indianapolis Clowns. She never quite found her footing offensively, hitting only .178 with seven singles, a double, one stolen base, and one RBI in 45 at-bats.

Peanut Johnson hung on for a bit. She played for parts of three seasons with the Clowns and ended up with a dazzling win/loss pitching record of 33-8 and a batting average reported to be between .262 and .284.

Toni Stone_Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Toni Stone

The 1954 Monarchs season was not a good one for Toni, who was now 32 years old and 12 pounds over her typical playing weight. She was trying too hard, and her batting average never crossed what is now derogatorily called the Mendoza line (.200). As a result, her temper was closer to the surface. During one game she was called out by the ump on a pitch she thought was a ball, and the catcher yelled “pussy high” after the ball crossed the plate. Enraged, she leaped on the catcher’s back. She would later say that she didn’t know what made her the maddest: the call, the catcher’s vulgar and sexist remark, or the fact that manager Buck O’Neill loved retelling the story.

The Monarchs would come in last place.

Toni Stone retired at the end of the season. The owner gave her $400 for the month but refused to hand over her $200 year-end bonus. It wasn’t the money that mattered, though. “Not playing baseball hurt so damn bad,” she lamented, “I almost had a heart attack.”

After these three women left the game, no woman would ever play professional baseball again.

***

Toni had a hard time adjusting to life after Negro League baseball. She settled back into her home on Isabella Street in Oakland. Her mom and sister lived nearby, but she felt unmoored. She spent time alone with her mementos, reliving the glory days, and occasionally she took to drinking a bit too much. She was always suspicious of visitors claiming to be sympathetic reporters, who on more than one occasion stole her mementos. But she was also suspicious of bona fide reporters, who, she thought, would go to great lengths to make her seem more sophisticated, educated, or feminine than she really was.

In the 1960s, though, she emerged from her funk. She began playing rec baseball and coaching neighborhood teams. She attended Oakland A’s baseball games, sitting by herself behind home plate. In June of 1975, Stone threw out the first pitch at a Giants game. She also did work for local hospitals and served as an occasional home caregiver. When her ancient husband Alberga turned 100 years old in 1984, he asked Toni to give up playing recreational baseball, and finally she agreed. She was in her sixties. After he died at 103, she could often be seen riding her bike around Oakland.

Peanut Johnson earned a nursing degree, moved back to Washington, D.C., remarried twice, and had a 30-year career as a nurse. After retirement she managed the Negro League Baseball Shop in Maryland, which not only sold memorabilia but also taught the public about the historic nature of the Negro Leagues and about living during Jim Crow. It was impossible to get baseball out of her soul, and she remembered only the good times. When asked how she felt about her days in baseball, she would say, “Have you ever won a million dollars? Just to know I was good enough to be there was a tremendous thing for me. If they didn’t let me play, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I’m very proud of that.” She passed away on December 18, 2017, at the age of 82.

Peanut Johnson 2_Smithsonian
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson

Connie Morgan went back to business school, graduated in 1955, and enjoyed a career that included working for the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country. But her subsequent days working for a furrier aggravated her arthritis, and when she switched to driving school buses she developed kidney disease and had to retire at the age of 40. According to Martha Ackmann, Morgan “rarely talked about the Negro League. To many who saw her, she was just the lonely woman who sat for days by the window of her Federal Street row house with only the light of a flickering television set.” In 1995, she was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and the next year – after living with constant dialysis – she succumbed to her kidney problems at the age of 61. For years her grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia was unmarked. A travesty. But in 2014 she was finally given a headstone through the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project.

***

Incredibly, the Baseball Hall of Fame did not even officially recognize the Negro Leagues until August of 1991. Seventy-five former Negro League players were invited to Cooperstown that year, and Toni Stone was one of them. It was the second-happiest day of her life. The happiest, according to a tale she would oft repeat, was the day she got to hit against Satchel Paige during a barnstorming game. Paige loved to toy with batters by outright asking them, ahead of time, which pitch they’d prefer to see. He did the same for Toni. “It doesn’t matter which pitch,” she yelled back. “Just don’t hurt me!” Satchel had a lot of pitches in his bag o’ tricks: the bee ball, the two-hump blooper, and a raft of others. She didn’t even know which one he unleashed on her, but she smacked it over second base. Yes, that was the happiest day of her life.

Toni Stone Alberga died of heart failure in an Alameda nursing home on November 2, 1996. She was 75 years old.

A year later, a baseball field named for her was dedicated at the Dunning Sports Complex in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

***

The year Toni Stone died, Minnesota playwright Roger Niebor wrote a play entitled Tomboy Stone that had a brief run at the Great American History Theater in Saint Paul. “I suppose the number of women who could travel and play like that, discriminated on the basis of race and sex the whole time, would be few,” he said. “And to do it with the energy and intensity of Toni Stone evidenced the power and beauty of the human spirit and made me proud to know her.”

To “power and beauty” I would add “fearlessness.” Those women needed to be physically tough and to have no problem squatting in a dark culvert at night or playing through serious injuries with no medical attention. And they had to be courageous enough to suffer relentless racist and sexist taunts and all the other consequences of breaking barriers more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act was signed.

Finally, I would also add “dignity.” No matter what they faced, these women continued to live their lives with self-respect. And when they retired from the game, and their departures garnered no attention, they showed no traces of bitterness over the ways they were exploited by team owners. Even in later years, when they spoke of their reverence for the game and for their time in the big leagues, they never dwelt on the fear they lived with on the road, the inconveniences, the scorn.

They played with passion, these women. Passion got them through the tough times.

Like a lot of war veterans, Toni Stone “didn’t talk too much about her baseball life,” said her niece, Maria Barlow. “But she was the first woman to do a lot of things. She wouldn’t consider herself a feminist, but she knew that she wanted more in life and she was fighting for it. She stood up to people, like the white owner, and fought for her pay. She stood up for herself. I saw the letters that she wrote. And she did it all by herself. She didn’t have anyone helping her or clearing the path for her. My aunt was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known.”

All three are gone now. But they represented the best of America. And for a brief moment in time, they were our girls of summer.

***

Note: Much of the information in this piece was taken from the beautifully researched Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann and from A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson by Michelle Y. Green.

the end

 

 

 

***

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

7/24/72 [age 16]:

 “I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I have begun reading the Bible. Seriously, and completely. I have only gotten through Genesis. It is interesting reading, though sometimes the ‘Jason had two sons, Esau and Aron, and Aron had . . .’ and it continues for pages is boring. It may take me a year or two to read it, but I want to conquer it, just as I conquered ‘Leaves of Grass’ (of which I finally bought a copy, the cheapest paperback available, 95 cents).”

8/5/72 [age 16]:

“I rode [my bike] down to Confession tonight. Big deal, I missed Mass once. But I won’t miss it again. Hey, Auntie Jackie called yesterday and asked if I could fly down to her house [in southern CA]. I really want to go, and I love to fly, and I’ll be AWAY. But Mom and Dad are against it, and as yet they haven’t produced an answer. If they say no, I’ll croak!”

8/8/72 [age 16]:

“The [Santa Cruz] beach was awful today – it was completely cold and gray and overcast and there were absolutely no waves at all. No surf + no sun = no fun. (A Paula Bocciardi original – perhaps I should have it patented.) I didn’t even go in swimming, although I did wade a bit. Mom and Dad still haven’t given me an answer on the trip down south. They better hurry. If they don’t let me go, I will stay mad the rest of my life!”

8/10/72 [age 16]:

“It’s hard to believe that I got to come down South [to visit my relatives in southern CA] today. At 6:55 we took off from San Jose, and Grammy and Grampy picked me up in Burbank at 7:43. Fantastic, that plane ride! I mean, all by myself and it was so miraculous looking down on the earth. I was not afraid at all. I also love it down here. [My aunt] Jackie is a neat-type parent, and I like her way of life (except her house isn’t very clean). Today I was introduced to a new way of life. We drove down to [my aunt’s friend] Renee’s store. I met Renee – she’s a middle-aged hippie and owns a boutique shop and sells organic health foods. A friend of hers was in there, another free-spirit musician, playing his guitar and singing. The place smelled like a funny spice, which I can still smell, and was so hot I almost passed out. Also, I had one of her homemade organic fruit drinks and it nauseated me.”

8/14/72 [age 16]:

“I pulled one of my traditional ‘Paula Bocciardi the klutz’ tricks today. Dad had given me five dollars for this trip [to southern CA] along with the strange words ‘Don’t spend it’ (don’t ask what that’s supposed to mean) and [my cousins] Carla and Ronnie and I went down to a record store in Hollywood to get Andy Williams’ ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ for Carla. I stuck the bill in my pocket and – ack! – it had a hole in it. I LOST it! What will Dad say?”

8/15/72 [age 16]:

“Oh, wow, today was the best day of all. Grammy took [my aunt and cousins] Jackie, Kathy, Lisa, and me (Carla was too tired) to Magic Mountain in Valencia. I loved it. You pay $5 to get in, but after that ALL THE RIDES ARE FREE, yeah. I liked the log ride because there are two slopes that are straight down. And I also liked the bumper cars, because we met some guys (I swear they are all cute down here) and had a ‘war’ with them. From 8:00 to 8:45 we saw TRINI LOPEZ (free!). And Grammy saw GLEN CAMPBELL stroll by, and I’m sick because I didn’t see him. 1:00 to 11:00 – total time, 10 hours.”

9/9/72 [age 16]:

“Mom and Dad and [my visiting uncle and aunt] Fred and Jackie and [my cousin] Lisa and I went off to the Cannery and the wharf and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. I’ve seen them a million times but I love San Francisco for its hilaric [sic] craziness. The city has a grand, majestic, mysterious beauty but the cars and the people and the streets – they’re all crazy. Two guys came near to blows in the middle of traffic and some girl who thought she was a witch was cursing some guys, and the musicians – it’s so crazy!!”

9/11/72 [age 16]:

“The very worst possible thing has happened. Dad mentioned tonight that we are going to Clear Lake this weekend. O, I did so want to make the most of this very last weekend before I start college! I don’t want to go to that horrid place I hate so dreadfully! Maybe if I play it straight and be calm and cool and good, something’ll happen. Please, God!!”

9/14/72 [age 16]:

“Today was a nothing day except I found out some wonderful news. We are not going to Clear Lake this weekend. I wanted everyone else to go and just let me stay at [our friends] the Rosaleses at night, but instead we are not going at all. Now I feel guilty. I don’t know if I should, since I HAVE put up with it for so often. Maybe it wasn’t wrong to ask – God heard my fervent, fervent prayer and granted it, so perhaps it’s okay. I don’t know. I can’t help but feel guilty, but my joy and relief right now overrules it. Yeah.”

9/15/72 [age 16]:

“The time for college is growing near, and I am no more emotionally prepared for it than I am sensible, and THAT’S not at ALL. My car pool situation is very confusing, which doesn’t cheer me up at all. My best friend and teacher and confidant is going away, and the thought of homework kills me. Only a few days left, and I am so scared. Oh, my aching heart.”

9/16/72 [age 16]:

“I went to see ‘On a Clear Day’ and ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’ with Jeanne, and something a lady in the latter movie kept saying has been bothering me. She was always in a constant state of depression, and told Alan Arkin that he couldn’t be able to think of three kind, loving, decent human beings, and I’m wondering if humanity is all that bad. Who would my three be? [My cousin] Carla, Sister Kathleen Mary, and Abraham (my Bible hero). Linus and Charlie Brown aren’t real, and Christ is God. I don’t know if I could think of anyone else.”

Yours sincerely, pruning away

Yours sincerely, pruning away

 

My new nose-hair trimmer has arrived.

Yes, let the shame begin.

For some reason, over the past year or so I’ve convinced myself that among the many unpleasantries of aging is the sudden growth of a miniature forest in one’s nostrils. I swear I can now see hairs growing out of my nose in full force, and I worry that I’ve unknowingly sported them for many years. But Julie insists that she has yet to see a hair descending from either of my nostrils.

Maybe they’re a complete figment of my imagination. Or maybe the only way another person could spot the hairs would be to come within an inch of my face and peer at an upward angle directly into my nose – as I do when I nervously check the mirror every morning.

Still, my resolve to vanquish the hairs has persisted. It took many months, but eventually I screwed up the courage to do some major research on nose hair trimmers. After all, I’d always assumed that this was “a guy thing” – like ear hair, which, thankfully, I have yet to claim.

Anyway, I clandestinely made my purchase (no one needed to know, really), settling on the ConairMan NE150NSCS Cordless Nose and Ear Hair Trimmer. The “ConairMAN” model name only increased my humiliation. But I overlooked that. I like Conair hair dryers, so I figured they know what they’re doing over there.

***

Let me digress for a moment with a somewhat-related story. Back around 1988, I read a “Dear Abby” or “Ask Ann Landers” letter from a mother of a minor-league baseball player. (Or maybe he was in college – I can’t remember and I’ve looked fruitlessly for this old column online.) This woman said that while her son and his teammates sat on the dugout bench, to pass the time they would reach over and pull out each other’s nose hairs. She was concerned about this practice because she had heard that it could kill you. I’m not sure why this was an etiquette question, although I suppose it certainly could be considered rude to indiscriminately yank out someone else’s bodily hairs. Anyway, either Abby or Ann did some calling around and found out that, indeed, pulling out one’s nose hairs could be truly dangerous, potentially leading to infections like meningitis.

This particular column has really stuck with me. First of all, since then I’ve been terrified of absent-mindedly pulling out one of my nose hairs and then dying a few weeks later of a raging brain infection. But I also continue to find it hard to fathom that men would sit around and entertain themselves by pulling out nostril hairs. Not to mention how adept and precise one would have to be to expertly clamp one’s fingers around another person’s solitary nose hair!

***

I have to admit that, a time or two, I’ve disregarded the advice column and recklessly pulled out a nose hair via tweezers. But then recently I decided to research whether tweezers were at least safer than a ballplayer’s unsanitary fingers. Not really. It turns out that no less of an icon than Dr. Mehmet Oz has warned about meddling around in that area of the face he calls “the triangle of death.” Using tweezers in and around the nose apparently can cause infections that might travel to your brain and lead to a hideous condition called “cavernous sinus thrombosis,” which is in many cases fatal.

Yikes. It was time to try out the trimmer.

I was quite nervous and scared about turning that thing on for the first time, fearing that I would slice the insides of my nostrils to ribbons. After all, the way it works is that the batteries power a bunch of tiny blades that spin around and carve off the hairs. The instructions were that the user should stick the trimmer in NO MORE THAN 1/4” (this seemed to be very important, and it struck the fear of God in me) and then move it around in circles. I tried this many times and just couldn’t see or feel any results. It could be that I didn’t have a nose hair problem in the first place. But I couldn’t be sure. I felt unsettled.

So I did what any tech-savvy retiree does these days: I turned to YouTube.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of YouTube videos address the proper way to use a nose hair trimmer. I was drawn to one young man in particular because he was very handsome, had an accent that seemed to be a cross between Wisconsonian and Middle Eastern, and spoke in an incredibly precise and earnest way. So I decided to give his video a try. And I’m glad I did, because I learned two important things from his demonstration:

  1. I need to be much better about measurements. It turns out that I had completely miscalculated what 1/4 of an inch is. Perhaps out of an abundance of fear, I probably put the trimmer only about 1/50th of an inch up my nose. That just ain’t going to do anything.
  1. “Moving it around in circles” means moving the trimmer all around the inside walls of your nostril. It does not mean putting it in one position and twirling it like a top, which is what I was doing.

This was such crucial information!

Amusingly, the fellow in the video took great pains to tell his viewers that he would have no need to show us how to use the trimmer in the left nostril after he’d already given us the instructions for the right. This made sense. “I only showed you how to trim one of my nostrils, because the process for trimming the hairs inside of the other nostril is identical,” he says, very deliberately. “Obviously I would be doing the exact same thing with the other nostril, but you don’t need to see it again.”

True. I don’t.

Nevertheless, I could watch this guy for days. He’s just so darned cute and caring!

***

Okay, that was settled. The video couldn’t have been more clear. Sure enough, when I tried it again, the trimmer snapped and crackled and made a lot of noises, so apparently it was doing its job inside my nose. It gave me a sense of satisfaction, and I prided myself on my good grooming.

I did, however, slather Neosporin all around the insides of both nostrils when I was done. You just can’t be too careful about cavernous sinus thrombosis.

the end

 

 

***

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

7/21/72 [age 16]:

“We happened to drive by a recent accident on Piedmont Road a few days ago and it scared me a little. Dad called later and told us that Mark Teresi had been killed and I am still wondering about death. I believe that death comes upon perfection of this level. Essentially, we have the potential to be perfect beings; we are but a perfect mind (or soul – I am not yet certain what the mind or the soul are, or if they are one and the same) clothed in physical bodies. When we manifest that potential perfection, we no longer need our bodies to exist in the next conscious level. At the funeral mass today Father Prindeville’s sermon said that God took Mark because He wanted him for Himself – because he had proven himself in this life. That MUST be right. I hope I am not coming close to perfection! I’m afraid. In fact, a few weeks ago I told [my sister] Janine I thought I’d die in two years. But now I realize how far from perfect I am.”

7/20/72 [age 16]:

“Today was Jeanne’s last day at home for a month, so I rode down to her house and together we rode to Barb’s vegetable stand (which was a mistake, because the roads were too dangerous). On the way back, both of my tires went flat in San Ysidro. Upon returning, I was exhausted but I knew she wanted one last tennis match, so we did. (Me, 6-4, 7-5.) At 6:15 we walked back to her house and had pizza for dinner. I didn’t realize that that was all we were having! I had only three pieces, thinking it was merely an appetizer!”

7/23/72 [age 16]:

“For some very strange reason, I have been proclaiming to the walls, ‘I love you’ lately. Yes, just walking into my room, smiling, and shouting out the phrase. Now, I am surely going crazy. The love in my heart grows by leaps and bounds, and I don’t know for whom. Perhaps, it is for humanity in general. The world is beautiful when you love. Last night, [my neighbor] Ted . . . and I went to see [the spaghetti western film] ‘Duck, You Sucker’ and I loved it. But Ted, he BEGGED me to come and he’s so nice and I love him, brotherly, but I don’t know how to express it.”

 

 

 

The Ballad of Jimmy Garoppolo

The Ballad of Jimmy Garoppolo
(photo credit: San Jose Mercury News)

Come gather, ye sports fans around the bay,
In honor of somebody special today.
If you’re one of the Faithful, then surely you know
That I’m talkin’ ’bout Jimmy Garoppolo.

It’s been 40 long years since Mr. Montana
Was our quarterback dropped from the heavens like manna.
For all of these decades my hero’s been Joe,
But right now it is Jimmy Garoppolo.

He’s one of four brothers from north Illinois –
A charming and handsome Italian boy.
Supremely athletic from head down to toe,
He favors his Papa Garoppolo.

The Patriots took him in 2014,
But Brady had already been on the scene.
So he sat on the bench and collected his dough
While the world lay awaiting Garropolo.

After three idle years he was suddenly traded
To the Niners – a team whose fortunes had faded.
But when Jimmy came in, we won 6 in a row
And our savior emerged as Garropolo.

Of all the league’s players he’s clearly the hottest,
Yet despite his perfection he’s humble and modest.
Those eyes and that smile, you have to agree:
There’s no one more handsome than our Jimmy G.

And oh, what a sportsman, oh, what a baller,
So cool on the field, and under the collar.
His completion percentage thwarted each foe,
So we pinned all our hopes on Garropolo.

In 2018, though, he tore up his knee,
Still, that didn’t stop our tough Jimmy G.
A year spent on rehab, and taking things slow,
Re-focused our Jimmy Garropolo.

He came roaring back, went 13 and 3,
Brought joy to The Faithful, brought rapture to me.
After clinching the West, to the playoffs we’d go,
Trusting our leader Garoppolo.

In the playoffs we conquered Cousins and Rodgers –
Two storied teams we made look like old codgers.
We stuck with the ground game. Few passes we’d throw,
But that never bothered Garoppolo.

He has no big ego, he plays a team game,
His goal is not credit, nor glory, nor fame.
Calmly preferring to always lie low
Is the style of our Jimmy Garropolo.

In my youth I always loved Brodie and Tittle,
But now we’ve got Bosa and Mostert and Kittle
To round out the team, to create the tableau
Anchored by Jimmy Garropolo.

After 25 years we were back in Miami.
My heart, it was racing, my hands, they were clammy.
A Super Bowl ring was at stake now, and so
I prayed for my boyfriend Garoppolo.

The Chiefs were a worthy, ethical team –
Their edge rusher speedy, their QB supreme.
But their much-deserved victory won’t dim the glow
Of our season with Jimmy Garoppolo.

The way to beguile Paula Bocciardi
Is for SF to hoist the Trophy Lombardi.
And sometime quite soon, Goodell will bestow
The trophy on Jimmy Garoppolo.

In the meantime I’ll hoist up a hearty beer
To a team that gave us a helluva year,
To a season whose highlights partly will owe
To the efforts of Jimmy Garropolo.

And for now I’ll just think of his beautiful skin,
His beard and his dimples, his darling cleft chin,
For I challenge you now to find someone you know
Who’s more gorgeous than Jimmy Garoppolo.

So when I’m on my deathbed, before I’m at rest,
I hope I’ll be granted one last request:
It’s not cabernet, it’s not escargot,
It’s to gaze at my Jimmy Garoppolo.

image0

2020_02-02_Paula_Super Bowl-2
With my signed Joe Montana football (thank you, Leon Emmons!) and my decades-old Niner troll

 

***

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

5/28/72 [age 16]:

“I have decided to minor in English, because lately I have found myself developing a passionate affection for writing. It’s frustrating, because I try constantly and I can’t write well. I want to learn how to. Maybe Law Enforcement isn’t the thing for me; I hate to face my own doubts, though. I wrote a poem this weekend but it is really bad. I mean REALLY bad. If only I were smart and talented like [my brother] Marc and [my sister] Janine. If only I had some kind of talent other than being a semi-good athlete.”

6/14/72 [Graduation Day, age 16]:

“Well, I graduated to the flowing strains of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ today and what can I say except that my heart aches for school (I’m bored already). I’ve had my last class, last tennis, last everything. Oh, God, I just can’t write how sad I am. At graduation Mr. Healy and Carl Blanchette gave me kisses and then we ate at Ming’s, which was the most delicious. Jeanne’s family was there too, and we were so embarrassed! Afterwards we stopped over at the Blanchettes’ house where I got another kiss from Carl. We just played pingpong. I got home at 1:00 and cried. Jeanne gave me a book today. It was very good.”

6/16/72 [Two days after graduation, age 16]:

“Help! I’m going crazy, insane, out of my mind!! I’m bored stiff, I miss everyone! God! I am wracked with despondency. I wish I could go back in time. We’re at Clear Lake now and Mom said, ‘We’re going down to Buck’s pier to fish. Want to come?’ and when I said no she said, ‘Life is going to pass you by’ and I, sprawled on my bed in desperation, cried, ‘It already has!’ ”

6/13/72 [age 16]:

“Oh, gosh bless it. I woke up this morning with a wonderful cold and a swell sore throat to go along with it. I am absolutely, positively miserable. Now I can’t go swimming at Clear Lake, and swimming is all I have up there.  Mr. Snyder said he’d teach me how to waterski. That’s shot.  Crud crud crud! My cold keeps me using up Kleenex after Kleenex.  (I must have used a million.) My bad throat is descending to my chest, and when I sneeze, wow! the pain. Nuts.  The worst, most depressing thing for me is sitting inside doing nothing, letting my hair and body increase in dirtyness [sic], not taking advantage of every possible moment before college, as I have been trying to do. O God, why must I get colds at the most inopportune moments?”

6/27/72 [age 16]:

“I am contenting myself with working feverishly in crossword puzzle books. We went bowling tonight. I didn’t want to go, but I figured the family would scorn me if I didn’t. The four adults and [my sister] Janine bowled. I kept score. It was my first time keeping score and I found it very enjoyable. Everyone considered me to be odd.”

7/6/72 [age 16]:

“Boy am I scared about [college] registration tomorrow! I’ll be on my own, looking for advisors and such. Help!! I am doing some deep thinking about death and what comes next. From Jonathan Livingston Seagull and my own scant intellect I have come to the rather shaky conclusion that next comes a higher, more advanced level of consciousness, and ‘heaven’ is the perfection of the highest level.  That’s simple, but Catholicism brings up millions of other ideas, e.g. hell, purgatory, limbo, seeing God, etc. I’ll discuss these as I master them.”

7/10/72 [age 16]:

“Mom and Dad want me to get a job, so tonight I went down to Baskin & Robbins, which is opening soon on Landess and Morill. Mary, Denise and I applied for a job. However, [the manager] stressed that it would entail my working weekends. Now – Clear Lake problem. Mom & Dad say ‘absolutely not’ to staying home alone on weekends; therefore I’ll have to call him tomorrow and decline. But it seems to me that if I am ‘responsible’ enough to work for myself I’m ‘responsible’ enough to stay home. I am mad that I was both forced INTO and OUT OF the job. I AM old enough to stay home alone, but there is no use arguing. I shall seethe inwardly and let them know about my contempt.”

7/14/72 [age 16]:

“The Law Enforcement people at [San Jose] State said I cannot have English as a Minor – oh, no! – unless I get Departmental Approval. But they BETTER give me their approval. I want English! Got to write! (Not for a living, I’m not good enough. Just for my own satisfaction. And I want to learn how to do it well.) Apparently they want me to take Psychology or Sociology or something. Ugh! How boring!”

7/15/72 [age 16]:

“I’ve begun to realize that Clear Lake can be all right if I make the most of it. We and the Chamberlains had a neat hamburger dinner at Buck and Virgie’s and it really was fun. Also, [my brother] Marc and I broke one of their trophies playing pool. More about college – You know, I’m actually looking forward to it now. Not the required P.E. swimming, but the PEOPLE. Those Law Enforcement guys were so wonderful, and I was talking to a neat guy in line Saturday and I met some nice girls. I love people – I declare love for everyone! Yeah!”

7/17/72 [age 16]:

“It is so very odd that I have no vices whatsoever. (I take that back, slightly; there WAS a stage, many years ago, when I read every obscene book I could get my hands on, but that is past.) At the present moment, I do not smoke, I do not drink, do not swear, do not take drugs, do not gamble, do not indulge in sex, and do not watch dirty films. In fact, I observe all the Commandments. My parents do five of the seven above. But I am 100% pure!”

 

 

I’m always drunk in San Francisco

I’m always drunk in San Francisco

 

“The San Franciscan has one foot planted precariously on a hill and the other planted firmly in the past.” (Herb Caen)

Sometime during the late 1800s in San Francisco, a young rounder named Charlie hoisted a couple of drinks at Curten’s saloon, a rowdy hole-in-the-wall south of Market Street. It was a Saturday night, and perhaps he hoisted more than a couple. At any rate, when he awoke on Sunday morning, he found himself – involuntarily, of course – on a cargo-laden clipper ship, facing seas rougher than the ones in his own head. The vessel was heading out on a long, dangerous voyage to England around Cape Horn in South America. Charlie had been shanghaied.

In port towns like San Francisco, it was a fairly common practice at that time for unscrupulous “crimps” to incapacitate and/or kidnap men and force them to board ships in exchange for payment, or “blood money,” from the ship’s boarding masters. This was known as a shanghai. Experienced seamen were in short supply, so any healthy body would do. Unfortunately for the unwitting, fledgling sailors, it was illegal to leave a ship before the conclusion of its voyage, so they were stuck on board for years of servitude, against their will.

A.G._Ropes_(ship,_1884)_-_Wikipedia Commons

Charlie was on his ship, the A.G. Ropes, for three years until it finally returned to dock in San Francisco. Still understandably furious, he vowed that his first act onshore would be to shoot old man Curten or, even better, boil him in oil. With his three-year grand total pay of $5 in his pocket, Charlie set his sea legs onto the dock and began making his way towards Curten’s. After stopping at a couple of bars along the way, he took out half his remaining pay and bought himself a revolver and ammunition. A few more bars later, he arrived, feeling no pain, at his destination. Sure enough, the owner was there, and he flew out from behind his bar to grab Charlie with a mammoth bear hug and a raucous greeting.

“Charlie, what the hell happened to you? I’ve missed ya for the last three years. The last time I saw you, you was in here having a good ol’ time. I’ve been so worried, my man! Come on in; your drinks are on me!”

Well, Charlie couldn’t refuse a good stiff snort of whiskey. Or two or three, if they were free.

The next morning he woke up on a whaling ship, bound for Alaska. The ship would be gone for three years.

***

Among all the books I’ve collected about San Francisco, the quirkiest one is a tiny hardcover out-of-print book that is so obscure it cannot even be found in an online search save for an entry in a 1966 copyright catalog. Rooted Deep, only 78 pages long, was written by Ward H. Albee, Sr., a stevedore and firefighter who spent his teenage years living on Telegraph Hill just a couple of blocks off the water. His book is a memoir as well as a recounting of stories he heard in his youth, and Charlie’s is among those tales.

Mr. Albee was brought up in the bawdy, lawless, corrupt, frantic, and cockeyed part of San Francisco that was the Barbary Coast. It extended along San Francisco’s brawling waterfront, where saloons, brothels, casinos, dance halls, and other gin joints were home to the assorted rogues and wanderers who lurched along those streets. The air smelled like men and rotgut, but there was a world of commerce going on, and in a few short years, the Gold Rush and the transcontinental railroad swelled the population of San Francisco from 1,000 to 100,000.

The lure of money, the whistle of a train, and endless whisky. San Francisco is a city with a provocative past, and in some ways it’s as bawdy, lawless, corrupt, frantic, and cockeyed today as it ever was.

That, my friends, is why I will always love it.

 

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***

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

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

***

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

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

361_J_IMG_4400

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonga Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pied piper bar (marriott.com)

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

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

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

mish_house_looming (noehill.com)

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

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

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

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

Balclutha (NPS photo)

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

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

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

25,000 other things.

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

***

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

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

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

But that’s San Francisco for ya.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, you see, is where I always belonged.

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A long, strange trip

A long, strange trip

 

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the end

 

***

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

4/23/72 [age 16]:

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/24/72 [age 16]:

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

4/26/72 [age 16]:

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

5/1/72 [age 16]:

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

5/8/72 [age 16]:

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

5/18/72 [age 16]:

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

5/23/72 [age 16]:

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

5/26/72 [age 16]:

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

 

 

 

If you’ll be my bodyguard

If you’ll be my bodyguard

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

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

***

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

Laurie and Hayley
Laurie and Hayley

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

***

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

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

LL Bean seat cushion
L.L. Bean seat cushion

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

***

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

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

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

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

ADA section
ADA viewing section

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” I answered, expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

windmills-sfoutsidelands.com

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

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

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

***

Adam Duritz_Huffington Post_
Adam Duritz and his hair

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

The_Lumineers
Lumineers

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Paul Simon c SF Chronicle
Paul Simon

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

2019_08-11_Outside Lands_Laurie Baker, Paula

 

***

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

2/13/72 [age 16]:

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

4/7/72 [age 16]:

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

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

Water chestnuts

Scented candles

The orchard

Intelligent conversations

Bread [the band]

Gary Puckett

The absence of braces

Jeanne’s Australian tennis hat

Love

Eyes

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

Hot chocolate

Cracker Jacks prizes

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

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

School (the people)

Fires

Occasional chances to drive

Clint Eastwood

“The Fool on the Hill”

Spencer Tracy

Ted

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

Baskin’s & Robbin’s

Tents

Looking at the stars (really)

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Johnny Rivers

Surprises

Knowing something worthwhile

“MacMillan and Wife”

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

Balconies

Sleeping

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

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

Mr. Bernert

“Hey, Jude”

Sincere little boys

Babies (like the Dossa twins)

Anything cooked in egg and flour

Being young and immortal

Getting a ride home

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

The word “yes” (I rarely hear it)

Everything chocolate

My cousins Carla and Lisa

Snow

Father Hayes

Hot days

Swings

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

Movie cameras

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

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

Fisherman’s Wharf

Mine and Jeanne’s dangling conversations

GOP

My holey tennis shoes

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

“Satisfaction” – Stones’ stuff

Ice cream

“Leaves of Grass”

Sunflower seeds

Frogs

Sean

Stereos

Freddie

Cool ’n Creamy

Matt Monroe

Christmas

Drummers and more drummers

Chewing on thermoses

And of course RICHARD HARRIS!

 

4/9/72 [age 16]:

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

4/17/72 [age 16]:

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

4/18/72 [age 16]:

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