There’s a moment, as you’re heading to a Giants game from the west side of town, when your Muni train rises out of the darkness of the Market Street tunnel and rumbles into the sunlight.
It’s a moment I always anticipate, but this time it was particularly meaningful.
Until recently I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get to the ballpark this year. Typically I attend all the Giants weekday afternoon games, but for the last six months I’ve been suffering from savage nerve pain. For those long months I felt as though my eyes had been burned raw from the inside out, preventing me from seeing one ounce of beauty in the world around me.
But as fall became winter and turned again into spring, slowly and almost imperceptibly I started to get better. The murky tunnel in which I’d been existing started to recede behind me. I could finally start to clutch the world around me and feel the sensations of each moment clearly. It was time to take in a ballgame.
When the T-Third Street train climbs out of the tunnel and onto the city’s surface streets, the sun emerges like a gift, and the vivid appearance of San Francisco’s people and textures makes you feel like you’re passing through the opening curtain of a sumptuous play.
It was a cloudless April afternoon. As our train poked its head out onto the Embarcadero, my very first sight was the magnificent, colorful “Cupid’s Span” sculpture sitting romantically on the shore, its red arrow partially drawn. Tourist boats and cargo ships went about their business. Scores of people strolled along the promenade towards the stadium, past the piers, past the palm trees, past the choppy waters of the bay. Most of them were dressed in orange and black, all of them hopeful and happy.
We got off near the main entrance to the ballpark. Our animated crossing guard was earnestly attentive to the elderly, and to parents with children. We all felt protected. Everyone was chatting. Our friend Mona remarked that just being there lifted her spirits. I said that it felt like we were about to enter the enchanting gates of Disneyland.
Once we got inside, Mona mentioned that it was our mutual friend Holly’s birthday. Holly was a fervent Giants fan who passed away from cancer 11 years ago at a much too young age. She was also a tequila lover, so we immediately determined that our very first order of business was to have some shots in her honor. Bellied up to the bar, we clinked a toast and Mona downed a shot of fancy tequila while Julie and I each slammed back a jigger of Maker’s Mark. Moments later, as we weaved our way along, Mona blurted out that man, she was really feeling that tequila. I suddenly realized that I was almost blind with liquor. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” I kept yelling, laughing.
It had been a long time since I had quaffed a shot of booze. I felt like a swaggering buckaroo in a Nevada saloon. The day got warmer.
People who claim that the best seats are right behind home plate are not necessarily true baseball fans, especially at the Giants ballpark. I recently heard Mike Krukow, one of the team’s announcers, say that if he could sit anywhere he wanted, outside of the announcer’s booth, he would sit in the upper deck, first base side.
I agree, and that’s my chosen spot. It gives me a bird’s-eye view of the entire stadium, the huge fiberglass glove and Coke bottle behind the left field bleachers, the retired numbers of the greatest Giants ballplayers, and the World Series flags whipping in the wind. Beyond lies the bay, dabbed with sailboats. The dramatic white span of the Bay Bridge is visible east of Yerba Buena Island. And standing far in the distance are the gently rolling hills of the East Bay.
I always insist on grabbing my Sierra Nevada beer and my Crazy Crab Sandwich early so that I can be at my seat when the National Anthem is played. And yes, I know that my favorite sports meal usually involves a hot dog. But there’s nothing in San Francisco quite like crab and sourdough.
The bread, I believe, might be the best thing about the crab sandwiches at the ballpark. The Boudin sourdough is cut thinly and spread with a mixture of garlic, parsley, and butter. Inside lies the sweet, tender Dungeness crab, mixed with a hint of lemon juice and a light bit of mayo to keep it together. Ripe red tomato slices rest on top of the crab. The whole thing is then toasted to a golden brown and served hot. God help me!
We were at our seats on time. A school band from Healdsburg began playing the Anthem. Hand on heart, I looked to the right of the scoreboard, out in deep center field just behind Triples Alley. Yes, our flag was still there.
I thought about the past six months and the unrelenting nerve pain that had sizzled through my body. I thought about all of the times I had considered giving up completely. Who would care, I actually wondered at one point. But working against that desperation was a reserve of patience, strength, and will that I never knew I had. And when I was at my very lowest, the phone would often ring. That does it. A surprise phone call. A suggestion. A kind word. My beautiful friends and family. “I believe in you,” one of them said. “I believe in your ability to cope.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Our seats were in full sun. I felt safe. I’d left almost all of my pain behind me in the tunnel.
Our long-postponed road trip to Kentucky would be happening soon. The thought made me smile.
A cool breeze came in softly off the bay. A lone seagull flew white against the blue sky.
The players had taken the field.
I settled back and slowly brought my cup of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to my lips. Its hue was a vivid amber, its fragrance clean like the clear crisp water of the Cascades. I took my first baseball sip. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
3/11/72 [age 16]:
“My cold is still fairly bad but I am up here at Azama’s and Moore’s cabin anyway. . . . Skiing [at Bear Valley] wasn’t really that fun. Until lunch we were mainly trying to stay on our feet. It takes really long to get up if you fall. I was really a klutz, and Mrs. Espinosa was a chicken, so we stayed on the beginner’s slope. Mrs. Moore kept on repeating, “Why did you fall?” It made me mad. Then I got so hungry I could eat a bear. Luckily, lunch was fantastic. They had made us delicious sandwiches and I ate five of them. Miss Azama told me that skiing uses a lot of energy and that’s why I ate five sandwiches. After lunch we watched the Celebrity Ski Race, and I snuck under the tape and got pictures of Clint Eastwood and Peter Graves up close! Unbelievable! In the morning they made us something called sourdough pancakes and I had 13 of them. They were fantastic.”
2/7/72 [age 16]:
“Last year I saw a skiing movie in English called ‘Ski the Outer Limits’ and it was so beautiful I was hooked right then and there. Well, Miss Azama and Mrs. Moore asked Colleen, me, and Marie Ehrling, our Swedish foreign exchange student, to go up to their cabin for a weekend in March. I can’t wait. They’re going to teach us to ski. It’s going to cost us $15. They said the first day is the worst. I may, with my great coordination, find myself wrapped around a tree.”
2/6/72 [age 16]:
“This guy named Jerry in my English class has this crush on me. But I’m not going to spread it around like I did with Jeff last year. Jerry is kind of a baby but he’s nice. He’s played basketball with me a lot after school. And he sits in English and throws paper wads at me. Romantic, huh?”
2/5/72 [age 16]:
“You see, I don’t believe in finals. All they do is test a bunch of facts.”
2/4/72 [age 16]:
“We went to see ‘Dirty Harry.’ It was [my brother] Marc’s and mine first ‘R’ movie and [my sister] Janine saw it. Can you believe that? When I was eleven I got to see really good movies, like ‘The Love Bug.’ ”
I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to borrow my brother’s truck and head down to Los Angeles on Highway 5 when I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.
It was August of 1986. I was living out in the avenues in San Francisco, working as a freelance editor and proofreader for a variety of publishing houses but mostly for an advertising agency called West End Studios. It was a giddy time. Work was easy, I was dating like a drunken sailor, I managed a softball team, and it was not uncommon for us to close down a bar after polishing off endless pitchers of cheap beer, only to get up four hours later to go to work.
One of my West End cohorts – a diminutive Irish woman from the Sunset District named Lori – drove a motorcycle all over town and had given me a few rides, often on our lunch hour. Something about carrying a helmet around made me feel like a tough chick. So I decided that, in my wildest dreams, I’d like to own a motorcycle. But of course I didn’t have the dough.
Then our receptionist Maria told me that her sister wanted to sell a 1982 red Honda Passport C70. Those little three-speed bikes were the cutest things ever. The engines were only 70cc, so I knew I could pick the bike up with one hand. The 44 mph top speed, too, would be great for tooling around the City. I had to have that Honda.
The only snag was that Maria’s sister lived in Los Angeles. I would need to pick up the bike and somehow transport it back to San Francisco – a task that my Toyota Corolla obviously could not handle. So my brother Marc agreed to lend me his truck.
Oh, wait, there was a second snag. His truck had a manual transmission.
Now, I’d driven a standard transmission once before – six years earlier, when I’d tooled around the country with a girlfriend in an old ’67 VW bus. But its skinny, on-the-floor gear shift was about three feet long, and we really didn’t even have to engage the clutch when we shifted. Honestly, that thing just drove no matter what. So I had not acquired the delicate skill of engaging a clutch in its normal tiny window of kinetic mystery, especially when starting out from neutral into first gear.
But, whatever. I breezily decided that I would somehow wrangle that truck down to L.A., stopping only once at a gas station. That seemed like a great plan, although I’d forgotten that when I got into Los Angeles I would be forced to brake at red lights.
Amazingly, my “frighteningly inept drive down to L.A.,” as my diary reports, yielded no dramatics except for my embarrassing, multiple attempts to clumsily get the vehicle in gear after the gas station stop. Once off the freeway I somehow managed never to come to a halt again until I reached my grandparents’ house in La Crescenta. I accomplished this by a) making dozens of unnecessary rolling right turns when I came to red lights, or b) approaching the red lights at an anemic 15 mph crawl so that I never had to come to a complete stop.
Long story short, I brought my grandfather and my uncle, in my uncle’s truck, to buy the bike. Once there, Maria’s airhead sister had the audacity to suddenly declare that she didn’t think she really wanted to sell the Honda after all. In my ensuing rage I let her know that that change of heart was simply not an option. She took one look at my muscular uncle and burly grandfather and decided to back down.
I don’t remember the trip back to San Francisco at all, and my diary makes no mention of it. But my experience with the truck wasn’t over. Before returning it to my brother, I parked in the UCSF indoor lot when I went to get one of my endless series of allergy shots. Afterwards, when I began to back the truck out of its space, an explosive “BOOM” shook me, the truck, and even the concrete walls of the parking lot. I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to engage the clutch when I put the truck in Reverse. Oops. Oh, well. I was unconcerned. I didn’t think it was any big deal.
The truck seemed perfectly fine after that, and it ran like a trooper. A day or so after it was back in my brother’s hands, though, he called me. “Say, did anything happen while you had the truck?” he asked me. “It won’t go into Reverse.”
I had ruined the transmission. It cost my brother $1,000. And for reasons I will never fathom, he didn’t ask me to pay him back.
Everyone called my little bike a scooter or, even worse, a moped, but it was technically a motorcycle. A “hog,” as I preferred to call it. Unlike scooters, the Honda C70s were straddled like a motorcycle, had a manual gear shift, and ran on motorcycle-sized tires. I was required, in fact, to get an M1 motorcycle license, which in those days was not required of scooter riders.
Man, I loved getting on that bike and taking off flying through the streets of San Francisco. I felt light as a feather, and with those large-size tires I could lean into every curve with ease and speed. The open air was bracing. My leather jacket had a sensual, earthy rasp. On any random street I could catch whiffs of fried rice, pizza, sizzling steak, baking sourdough. I loved passing by laundromats and smelling the warm, comforting fragrance of running dryers. The Haight was a wash of patchouli. In Golden Gate Park the temperature dropped 10 degrees immediately, and the Monterey pines and minty eucalyptus would clear your lungs like Vapo-Rub. Out by the beach, the air was salty, the fog thick and fresh.
I’ve always been a good driver, but I became a much better one on that bike. I knew that the majority of motorcycle accidents occur when automobiles turn left directly into the path of the cycle, so I was always acutely aware of that possibility. But I also became extraordinarily defensive and anticipatory. I learned, for example, to watch drivers’ eyes in their rearview mirrors. Their eyes told me what they were considering, so when drivers were about to change lanes right on top of me, I could slow down preemptively. At the same time, I constantly had to scour the road ahead of me for potholes, puddles, and other hazards. It all required fine-tuned coordination.
Nevertheless, I was involved in three accidents on that bike. One day I’d just started home from a work party near Levi’s Plaza after drinking a glass of wine. Three sets of unused railroad tracks, part of the defunct State Belt Railroad that once served San Francisco’s waterfront, converged in an angular pattern outside in the mist, and the bike and I tipped over as I tried to cross them. Slippery and oddly angled tracks are a cyclist’s nightmare no matter what, but I vowed never again to consume any alcohol before getting on the bike. Luckily I was probably going only about 5 mph, and I wasn’t hurt.
Another time I was downtown making a turn from the left lane when a driver in the middle lane decided to turn left illegally, right on top of me. He hit me at a very slow speed and dragged me a bit before I fell over, at which point a homeless man came running over, helped me up, picked up the bike, and vehemently cursed the driver, who had pulled over about half a block away but never got out of his car. I thanked the homeless man profusely. Since that day, I’ve always felt differently about street people.
The last incident involved Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was stopped at a light on my way home from work in the middle of the day because I felt ill. Looking up, I noticed a KFC, and despite my flu-like symptoms I started reminiscing about the delicious sliders they used to make called Chicken Littles. “I wish I could have a Chicken Little right now,” I was thinking. “My friends could never believe that I’d order five of those things and . . . ” WHAM! I was flat on my back on the asphalt. A car had hit me from behind so directly that the bike just lurched straight ahead and I flew right over the handlebars. The driver, who’d been daydreaming, was extremely distraught, told me he rode a motorcycle himself, and insisted on giving me his business card even though I insisted I was okay. An ambulance happened to be parked right there, and the EMTs rushed over and checked me out right in the middle of the street because apparently they were bound to by law. Eventually I drove home just fine, albeit shaken up, and all I had to show for it were a bruised ankle, sore legs, and torn pants. The Honda, as always, was fine. That little thing had nine lives.
My bike and I went through a lot together. For 25 years it was my standard transportation to work – to Levi’s Plaza, to downtown, to south of Market, and to the Civic Center. I was riding home from the State Building when the big earthquake of ’89 hit. The tremor threw the Honda and me into the next lane but I stayed on like a cowboy and we were both unscathed. (See, however, my previous blog post, Shakin’ All Over, about an embarrassing situation involving the quake, my bike, and my standing in my apartment doorway with nothing on but my helmet.)
Together we rode in more than one Pride Parade, and at times my bike was the only tiny entrant among a massive horde of roaring motorcycles. The happy crowd loved us.
I rode it to play flag football in Golden Gate Park. It brought me and my drumsticks to my early days of band practice. I could park it anywhere, so I often took it to North Beach, where I could pick up some focaccia at Liguria bakery and a book of beat poetry at City Lights bookstore and never once have to circle a block.
I’ve never felt more connected to San Francisco than I did then. I miss those days.
Taking my bike to and from work every day provided me with more than just the joy of the ride. It was a way for me to actually look forward to the daily grind, as well as to wind down afterwards. It got me outdoors. It got me in tune with the city I loved so much.
When I left the house in the morning it was about 6:30 a.m., dark, and often biting cold. (And that was in the summer!) I wore a leather jacket and gloves, of course, as well as my full-face helmet, but they weren’t always adequate protection. My gloves, in particular, didn’t keep my hands completely warm because I have a benign but annoying condition called Raynaud’s disease. My hands don’t get enough blood circulation in cold weather and my fingers lose their color and feel like they’re growing numb with frostbite. It can be quite painful, so I developed a chant that I repeated loudly into my helmet to take my mind off the piercing pain in my fingers:
“I can’t wait to get to work
’Cause it’s so f—ing cold.
It’s so f—ing,
It’s so f—ing,
It’s so f—ing cold.”
It’s not very imaginative, and I don’t know why I decided to use the “f” word considering I typically don’t use it in my everyday life, but it definitely helped.
I also had another trick up my sleeve. When it was really cold, I stayed right behind a big truck, and its exhaust would warm me. No matter how slowly a truck chugged up the hills, I refused to pass, hugging closely to its maternal warmth.
A few years ago, the engine on my little bike finally gave out, and when I tried to get it repaired, the mechanic told me that so many tiny pieces were involved that “it wouldn’t be worth it” for me to get it fixed. I begged to differ, thinking that it might well be worth it to me if he would only give me a price, but he refused. I think he just didn’t want to bother doing the work.
Then I heard about a place south of Market, owned by a guy who worked only on old Hondas. He suggested that he install an aftermarket engine for me. I excitedly agreed, but the bike was never the same after that. The kickstarter was so stiff that I didn’t have the strength to engage it. To make matters worse, the new engine had four gears rather than three, with the gears in a reverse position from my old bike. I just couldn’t get used to it. My muscle memory was too ingrained. I’d shift down into first gear when I thought I was shifting up into third, and my bike would smoke and skid for yards down the street. It made me terrified to ride it. Meanwhile I had aged, and I knew that a fall off my bike would no longer mean that I’d pick it up and head on home. It would mean multiple injuries and maybe a hospital stay.
So I knew I had to sell it. It broke my heart.
When you weigh the pros and cons of owning a motorcycle, the pros are spiritual but the cons are practical. These days, I don’t see as many motorcycles or scooters on the streets of San Francisco. It makes perfect practical sense. “You know,” I say to Julie every month or so, “you’d almost have to be a fool to ride a motorcycle here these days. The City has become much more dangerous for bikes. The number of cars on the street has nearly doubled, thanks to the influx of tech company employees and the rise in Lyft and Uber drivers, who generally live out of town and have no idea where they’re going as they clog up our streets. Not to mention all the drivers distracted by their phones. No amount of good defensive driving can predict what the heck a distracted driver will do next.”
But the spiritual part . . . the smells, the freedom, the road, the rush of air, the adrenaline, the joy . . . . how do you let that go?
A couple of weeks ago, on my way home from a PT appointment, I saw a truly beautiful motorcycle cruise by our car. “Hurry up,” I demanded of Julie, “and drive alongside that bike so I can see what it is.” It turned out to be the SYM Wolf Classic 150. Gorgeous. Diminutive. Just the right size for a feeble dame like me. Enough to get up the hills, but not enough to take on the freeway. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Hmm. I’ve kept up my requirements and still have a license to drive a motorcycle.
A girl can dream, can’t she?
I want to thank all the people who sent me such kind suggestions and good wishes after I posted January’s blog. My short update is that I am finally feeling at least 50 percent better, and I no longer have times of despair, which is absolutely wonderful. I’m seeing two physical therapists and hoping that they can get me back to feeling 100 percent really soon. I’ll keep everyone posted.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
1/31/72 [age 16]: [Note: I was the editor of our school newspaper and this was back in the dark ages when our copy went off to a typesetter and came back to us to manually lay out]
“On Wednesday we get the copy back and have to paste it all up to get everything to fit properly, cut things down, make sure it’s all straight. Then we have to correct the mistakes our rotten printer makes, and we have to cut out each teeny letter and paste on the right one. That’s murder with my tremendous coordination.”
1/19/72 [age 16]:
“I got my Learner’s Permit today, 100% on the written test, passed eye test (miracle). When I came home I couldn’t find it and I thought I left it in A-3, called school, Mr. B looked, said no deal. I was in a panic. Decided to check my purse once more. It was there? Sho’ ’nuff.”
1/15/72 [age 16]:
“I think I must be very lucky. I am physically healthy. My mind is efficient. I’m athletic. I have good parents and brother and sister. I like my friends and my school. I have almost everything I want – a bike, good music, and good grades. I go a lot of places. And I’m at least average-looking.”
1/13/72 [age 16]:
“Gosh, tomorrow is my Driver’s Training test. LET US PRAY. But I made two major mistakes in driving today. I was quite clutzy on the ‘Y’ turn. Also I sort of moved toward the left down one road and didn’t look toward the side. This car was there. I would have hit him if Mr. Locicero hadn’t stopped me. Oh, wow, bad deal.”
1/11/72 [age 16]:
“[In Driver’s Training] We went on the freeway today. At one point I got up to 72 m.p.h. When I looked at that speedometer, believe me, I slowed down in a hurry! Look in your mirror every 5 seconds, stay on the road, watch for lane changers . . . when you’re doing 60 or 65 it’s hard to watch all that at the same time. I’m alive, but it doesn’t seem like I’m too satisfied with myself. I’m going to be so nervous on test day I may die.”
1/10/72 [age 16]:
“I guess I was a little rusty at Driver’s Training today. First I forgot to take the parking brake off. And he had to tell me where one red light was; my visor was in the way and I couldn’t see the signals. Gosh, darn. And downtown [San Jose] – my God, it was murder. All those horrible, unannounced one-way streets!”
1/9/72 [age 16]:
“We had pheasant for dinner tonight. I don’t believe we should shoot them. I remember when [my brother] Marc first got his BB gun. I used to love shooting army men off the retaining wall out back. Then I kept hoping for a bird to come down. Day after day I waited. Finally a little sparrow landed on the lawn. Marc was saying, ‘Now! Now’s your chance!’ So I looked through the sight and could not shoot. When I looked at that poor helpless creature I vowed NEVER to shoot anything.”
Julie and I have celebrated a couple of milestones over the past few weeks. I’ll save the more monumental one for later and begin by noting that June 23 was our 10th official wedding anniversary. We’ve really been together more than 20 years, but it was June 23, 2008, when we scrambled to get married in the brief window of opportunity afforded us before California’s (short-lived, thankfully) Proposition 8 yanked that privilege away. The ceremony took place at City Hall on a Monday, which I know is an odd day but it all happened in a rush and people all around us were hastening to tie the knot. There was no time, really, to plan anything large and elaborate, so we gathered at a suite at the Fairmont Hotel for our small reception. I chose that establishment because to me it embodied old San Francisco, and I was grateful to the City in so many ways for the rich, fascinating, and happy life it had provided to me.
So my plan, 10 years later, was to surprise Julie with a return to the Fairmont.
It didn’t go exactly as planned, and I blame our dog Buster. Of course, he has no idea about his part in this. I had thought through all the details meticulously, calling the hotel directly instead of making online reservations just in case Julie were to see something on my computer, and arranging months in advance (by text) for our trusted dogwalker to board Buster. My chosen restaurant didn’t take reservations (ensuring that Julie couldn’t see any confirmations on our OpenTable account) but was open steadily from 11 a.m. on, so we could waltz in for a meal in the late afternoon and likely have no problem being seated. Tutto a posto, as they say in Italy. Everything was in place.
But not so fast.
Just a few days before June 23 arrived, our dogwalker’s husband informed her that they had a wedding to attend in southern California. And when she called to tell me the news, I idiotically answered the phone as Julie sat in the same room watching television. “Hi, Louise!” I said brightly before noticing Julie’s puzzled look. I then proceeded to splutter all kinds of nonsense into the phone as I tried to figure out a way to be covert. It soon became obvious to all concerned that the jig was up, and ultimately I had to confess my plan.
Of course, we then had to scramble to figure out where to leave our dog for the night. We don’t do kennels because Buster considers himself far too regal for cages. I thought of asking a neighbor but didn’t want to impose Buster’s quirky, barky little personality on anyone.
Finally, in desperation, I texted our former dogwalker – who now lives in New Orleans! – and bless her heart she did some long-distance liaison work and found us a substitute. All was well again.
For those of us who have lived in San Francisco for most or all of our lives, the City these days can be a difficult place to navigate, both physically and emotionally. Its changes have been monumental. I’m going to save my thoughts on that for another day, though, because for our anniversary I wanted us to honor, cherish, and celebrate some of the very oldest, and most respectable, places in town. Checking into the Fairmont would begin our tribute.
The Fairmont is not the oldest hotel in San Francisco – the Palace Hotel holds that distinction – but it is one of the few grand pre-Earthquake survivors. When the Big One hit in April of 1906, the building’s structure was complete, the rooms were about to get their finishing touches, and the hotel was about to open its doors to customers for the first time. The Fairmont was one of the “Big Four” hotels on Nob Hill that were named after three of the era’s Big Four railroad tycoons who built the Central Pacific Railroad: Leland Stanford (the Stanford Court), Mark Hopkins (the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins), Collis Potter Huntington (the Scarlet Huntington), and Charles Crocker (Crocker didn’t get a hotel named after him, although what is now the Westin St. Francis was supposed to be called the Crocker Hotel). The Fairmont had no ties with the railroad business but was named for sisters Jessie and Virginia Fair, the original owners who wanted to build a monument to their father. Nob Hill, around which all four hotels were built, was so named because the Big Four railroad men had been given the moniker “The Nobs.” (A nob is a nabob, or “a person of great wealth or prominence,” according to Merriam-Webster. Remember when former Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew referred to the “nattering nabobs of negativism”?)
Anyway, although everything around it was reduced to rubble after the Great Earthquake and Fire, the Fairmont Hotel stood like a heroic, indestructible symbol of the resilience of San Francisco. As the writer Gertrude Atherton said at the time, “I forgot the doomed city as I gazed at The Fairmont, a tremendous volume of white smoke pouring from the roof, every window a shimmering sheet of gold; not a flame, nor a spark shot forth. The Fairmont will never be as demonic in its beauty again.”
Before I leave the Fairmont’s story, I must note how San Francisco’s colorful history was exemplified in the refurbishing of the damaged hotel. The first choice for an architect to repair and redecorate the Fairmont was one Stanford White, a New Yorker with a ridiculous moustache who nevertheless was well respected for his use of Beaux Arts design principles. The moustache did not, apparently, prevent his being a bit of a tomcat because he was dining pleasantly during a show at Madison Square Garden on the evening of June 25, 1906, when he was shot dead by millionaire Harry Thaw over White’s relationship with Thaw’s wife. Ironically, the murder occurred during the show’s finale, “I Could Love a Million Girls.”
With Mr. White permanently out of commission, the hotel’s owners – quite progressively – then brought on Julie Morgan, who in 1904 had become the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California. Another aficionado of the Beaux-Arts style, she was later to become the principal designer for Hearst Castle. Morgan was apparently chosen because of her knowledge of earthquake-resistant, reinforced concrete construction, and after supervising every aspect of the job for 12 months with very little sleep, she was able to preside over the reopening of the Fairmont exactly a year after the earthquake.
The place is spectacular. The Charter of the United Nations was drafted and signed at the Fairmont in 1945, so the flags of the signatory countries still fly to this day at the front entrance. The grand and flamboyant lobby welcomes guests with ornate Corinthian pillars, marble floors, and gilded ceilings. The hotel’s Venetian Room is the lush showroom in which Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The Laurel Court restaurant sits under three domes and is a dashing remnant of the past. The tiki-themed Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a charming blend of kitsch and sophistication, is just a barrel of fun, with coconut-sized tropical drinks, an indoor lagoon and floating stage, occasional “rainstorms” complete with thunder and lightning, and a dance floor that was originally the deck of the S.S. Forrester, one of the last of the tall ships that sailed the south seas. And the city views from the Tower rooms are, in a word, stunning. Outside lie the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the vast cityscape of San Francisco and, right below your bedroom window, little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars.
Dinner that afternoon would be at the Tadich Grill, and we could get there easily by cable car. Because both of us are generally ravenous by 3:30 p.m., I knew that the restaurant’s no-reservations policy would not be a problem, even in the middle of tourist season.
Tadich Grill, founded in 1849, is the oldest restaurant in California. It also happens to be two doors down from 260 California Street, where I worked for much of the 1980s. My very first job out of college had been as a production assistant at Harper & Row Publishers, but when the parent company moved its textbook division back to New York, I was suddenly out of a regular job. Thus began my seven-year stint as a freelance copy editor, during which time I worked periodically at the Institute for Contemporary Studies (ICS), a nonprofit think tank and publishing house. This was during the halcyon days of working in downtown San Francisco. We’re talking short hours, midday martinis, spirited political discussions, expensive vendor lunches, and lots of drama among us young employees. Every day at 11:30 a.m., like clockwork, the thick, smoky aroma of Tadich’s grilled steak made its way through the open windows. It was exquisite and torturous and a sensory memory I’ll never forget.
Tadich is primarily a seafood restaurant, though, and Julie and I both ordered fish in one form or another. Julie chose the seafood sauté and I was reminded of the first time we had dinner together 23 years ago, at McCormick & Kuleto’s in Ghirardelli Square. Although she is from Kentucky and had never eaten a mollusk in her life, she ordered the seafood cioppino, threw on a bib, and dug with gusto into a messy bowl of Dungeness crab, mussels, clams, squid, shrimp, and who knows what all. It was most impressive.
I love the old, rich look of the Tadich Grill. Dark wood fills the interior. A mahogany bar extends almost the length of the restaurant. The booths are set back into individual dark alcoves that must have seen many a clandestine meeting of one sort or another. The lamps are antique brass. Everything is polished. And on each white-clothed table, waiting for diners, sit a bowl of lemon quarters and a basket piled high with authentic, chewy sourdough – not the namby-pamby stuff that supposedly passes for bread these days.
I pondered ordering one of the local specialties, like the Crab Louie or perhaps the Hangtown Fry (an omelet made with bacon and oysters), which has been on the menu for almost 170 years. Legend has it that the dish was created when a successful Placerville gold prospector asked his hotel proprietor to serve him the most expensive meal possible. The three priciest foods at the time were eggs, bacon, and oysters, which had to be brought to Placerville on ice from San Francisco, more than a hundred miles away.
Ultimately, though, I settled on my perennial favorite, petrale sole.
“Would you recommend the mesquite-grilled or the pan-fried?” I asked our white-coated, black-tied waiter.
He gave me a smirk. “Do you want healthy,” he asked, “or do you want tasty?”
To cap off the evening it seemed appropriate that we hop a cable car back up California street to the Top of the Mark, the glass-walled penthouse lounge on the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins hotel. San Francisco’s cable cars are part of the last manually operated cable car system in the world. Only three lines remain, and the California Street line, established in 1878, is the oldest. We clanged our way towards Nob Hill, rumbling and lurching along the track. It’s a hard job to manually operate the levers controlling the car’s movement along the cables. It was an uncommonly balmy evening, and the gripman pulled and sweated and cursed.
Since 1939, the Top of the Mark with its 360-degree view of the city has been a destination for tourists, entertainers, sailors, soldiers, and natives. Some say that during World War II, soldiers would buy a bottle of liquor and leave it with the bartender so that the next guy from that squadron to visit the establishment could enjoy a drink – a practice that remained ongoing as long as whoever had the last sip bought the next bottle.
A man and woman with thick Georgia accents sat behind us. He was dressed rakishly, and she wore a hat. “We had no idea we’d be here in San Francisco on such a special weekend,” the woman said, warmly. It was Gay Pride weekend, but Julie and I had stayed away from all the events this year. We go to the parade every once in a while, but it takes fortitude to stand on Market Street for 8 hours. I’m not kidding about the time frame. Sometimes half an hour goes by between floats. I don’t know what it is but gay people can be extremely disorganized.
Julie ordered a tropical cocktail called the “Bay Bridge” and my choice was the “Indonesia Nu Fashioned,” a mixture of Woodford Reserve Distillers Select Bourbon (my nod to Kentucky), dark crème de cacao, and Angostura bitters served on the rocks. I gave it a stir and gazed outside at the breathtaking view.
“I wish I were wild and elegant like that Georgia lady,” I said, a little regretfully.
The sky was clear over Nob Hill as we headed across the street and back to the Fairmont, but fog was drifting in slowly from out past the Golden Gate. Julie said that to her the fog in San Francisco is like a blanket, always there to tuck us in at night.
Three weeks have passed, and today marks the other milestone for us.
Today is the first day of Julie’s retirement.
Last Friday – her final workday ever – we went downtown, dropped off her work computer, turned in her badge, and drove out to the beach to have lunch at the Cliff House, another venerable SF institution. It’s a place where we’ve celebrated significant events in our lives. We’d gone there after we applied for our marriage license, on the day the CA Supreme Court granted us that privilege. We’d eaten there on the day I retired, nearly 5 years ago. And now this. A comfortable fog hung over the surfers. Julie said it was perfect.
There is, of course, no telling what the future has in store, and whether this new freedom of ours will last for one day or 20 years. With the liberation of age comes the restriction of physical changes. The body is often sore for no reason. Despite all efforts and all manner of exercise and healthy eating, the bones grow tired and the muscles get weaker.
There are times when I rue the fact that I now glide through my days unnoticed. Darn it, I want to be appreciated, respected, and even heralded, like the Fairmont, Tadich Grill, the Top of the Mark, the Cliff House, and the cable cars that manage to keep on rumbling up the hills.
Maybe I am like the San Francisco of old. Some of me is weathered, some of me is gone completely, but other parts still stand resolutely. And there are promising days ahead. There will be more causes for celebration. There will be good food and wine and laughter. There will be beauty and unexpected discoveries. There are trains to be taken and there is music to be played.
A new chapter starts now. I want healthy, but I also want tasty. I will not go gently into that good night.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
“I went to see LOVE STORY today and was a bit disappointed, mainly because of the buildup I had been getting from other people. When the girl died, I cried one tear and that’s all. It wasn’t that good. Then I went to Colleen’s and they took me out to eat at MacDonald’s. Now, I am sitting here sniffling as the after-effect of the hay fever attack I got over there. Know why? Well, because they have lots of hay, of course.”
“What has been occupying my thoughts partly lately has been a sorry feeling for my teachers – three in particular. Mrs. Dossa is one. We make fun of her because of her unwashed, uncombed hair and her unkempt clothes, especially her lack of a sense of humor. Well, it is really not her fault. And she really tries to teach us everything and let us enjoy it. But we just complain and don’t respond. She seems really interested in our American Lit projects but all we do is . . . well, nothing. Same with Mr. Ferguson. To make history less boring he even lets us try simulation games. But we just say we hate them. He took it personally and said, ‘Well, I thought it was kind of interesting.’ I felt sorry for him and hoped we could continue our game. And nobody listened to our poor devoted P.E. substitute.”
“We got report cards [today]. . . . I wrote ‘excellent student’ next to my A+ P.E. grade and [my P.E. teacher] Azama got kind of mad.”
“Since I am in such a sorry state of affairs [I had a cold] I doubt that I will go to church tomorrow. But we haven’t gone in such a long time. I keep begging them to take me to Confession but we never seem to get around to it. We didn’t even go on CHRISTMAS! I am ashamed to go to Confession and say that I haven’t been to Mass the past 106 times.”
Well before dawn this coming Wednesday, city officials and a parade of fire trucks will convene downtown for the annual commemoration, at Lotta’s Fountain, of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which killed up to 3,000 people, destroyed 28,000 buildings, and rendered 225,000 people homeless. Lotta’s Fountain was a gift to the City from Lotta Crabtree, a local actress, and it was used as a meeting place for residents after the quake. The last two survivors of the devastation died a couple of years ago, but the annual ceremony continues, beginning at 4:30 a.m. and counting down to a moment of silence at 5:12 a.m., which is the moment the earthquake struck.
My grandmother, 18-year-old Ambrogia Fontana, was one of the survivors. Newly arrived from Italy through Ellis Island, she had been in San Francisco less than a week. She spoke no English. She and her younger brother David were aiming to get a foothold in the new land, trying to figure out the people, the food, the language, the urban hustle. The culture shock was immeasurable. The two of them were asleep on Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906, when the most devastating natural trauma ever to hit San Francisco shook and burned the city. David was smashed in the head by a falling ceiling beam and was injured so badly that he was knocked unconscious and lapsed into a coma. The two of them were carted off to a tent city for quake refugees. Ambrogia had no idea where she was, where to go, or what to do, and no one could understand her. All around her, the city was in ruins.
Ambrogia, who was born in 1887, had grown up cutting quite a rebellious figure in the tiny northern Italian town of Staffoli, near Lucca in the Tuscan region. The oldest of 8 children, she worked in her father’s bottega (shop) where, at the age of 9, she spent her days making panini (sandwiches) while pouring a bit of grappa for herself every time she served a glass to a customer. Stern, robust, and always resentful of authority, as a teenager she would deliberately walk the streets of Staffoli wearing – gasp! – pants and smoking a Toscano cigar, just because it wasn’t done in those days.
(As an aside, Staffoli was originally in the province of Florence, but when Mussolini tinkered with the divisions in 1920 [gerrymandering!], he made Staffoli part of the province of Pisa. This would enrage my grandmother, who considered all Pisans to be thieves. The sentiment seems to endure somewhat today, and it may have stemmed from a time in history when many Pisans were tax collectors. One of my grandmother’s favorite [albeit skeevy] sayings was “Meglio che mangiare la tigna dalla testa di un cane che avere un Pisano alla porta!” [“Better to eat the mange off the head of a dog than to have a Pisan at the door!”])
Ambrogia’s father Pietro was a fairly successful businessman. In addition to owning the bottega, he was a cattle dealer, buying the animals in Milan or Venice and selling them in Florence. He also traveled extensively to Sao Pao, Brazil, where he had a coffee plantation, and to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he owned a brewery. Rumor has it that he kept a woman in every port, and the fact that two of his children were named Brasila and America certainly nurtured the speculation.
Although he was one of Staffoli’s few wealthy residents, Pietro was, for some reason, a socialist. In fact, he periodically hosted neighborhood socialist meetings with about 15 other men – a risky proposition, given that at that time the Italian government was cracking down hard on political activists, especially anarchists and socialists. The women, of course, were not allowed to participate in the meetings. Ambrogia was required to serve the males, and she grew increasingly resentful of her father’s rigorous authoritarianism. (Little did he know that when he went off on his trips, she would gather up her younger siblings, haul a bounty of salame, bread, and a bottle of chianti up to their room, and host a food-and-wine fest on their beds!)
At one particular political meeting, at which the now-18-year-old Ambrogia was, as usual, serving, Pietro’s rigid child-rearing practices were questioned by one of his more lenient buddies. “My children,” he responded angrily, “can do whatever they want in life.” This was the moment my quick-witted grandmother seized like a snake. “Oh, yeah?” she piped up in front of everyone. “Then I want to go to America.” Shocked by her audacity, the rest of the men challenged him. “You heard her, Pietro. So you will really send your daughter to America, then,” they said, mockingly. Pietro was stuck. He had made a proclamation and he couldn’t backtrack. His ego overruled his common sense. “Sure,” he answered. His wife immediately began to cry. But it was done.
That’s how my grandmother came to find herself boarding the steamship Prinzess Irene in Genoa, Italy, on March 22, 1906. It was unheard-of in those days for a young woman to travel alone; typically, in fact, it was a household’s father or eldest son who made the voyage and then sent for the rest of the family when life was settled. In this case, though, Ambrogia’s dim-witted 16-year-old brother Davide (David) was sent with her as a “chaperone.”
The Prinzess Irene was a German-built ocean liner that ran on the Genoa-to-New York line beginning in 1903. She was 540 feet long and 60 feet wide, weighed almost 11,000 tons, and traveled at about 15 knots (18 mph). The ship carried more than 2,000 passengers – most of them, including my grandmother, in 3rd class or “steerage.”
Before boarding, passengers were asked to answer a number of questions, the oddest of which included whether they were polygamists or anarchists. I’m fairly sure my grandmother was not the former, but she may well have been the latter. In any case, both she and David answered “no” appropriately. They also were subject to medical examinations and to “disinfection.”
There is no way to sugarcoat the experience of the passengers in steerage. In fact, up to 10 percent of them died on the way. They sat crowded together, in the dark, under the most unsanitary of conditions. The air was chokingly foul. Five years after my grandmother’s trip, the U.S. Immigrant Service reported that “[t]he open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and the odors from the hold and galleys. . . . The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it . . . . Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air. The food often repels them. . . . It is almost impossible to keep personally clean. All of these conditions are naturally aggravated by the crowding.”
In my grandmother’s case, this went on for 15 days. She and David arrived in New York on April 6. She had $25 in her pocket.
Three million Italians came to the United States between 1900 and 1915 during the “New Immigration” of Slavs, Jews, and Italians. Most of them were farm workers and unskilled laborers fleeing not only a politically chaotic country but also the crush of abject poverty. That was not the case with my grandmother, but it did apply to my grandfather.
Gustavo Bocciardi, a Tuscan like my grandmother, grew up extremely poor and with very little education. In April 1904, Gustavo came to America (also on the Prinzess Irene) by himself, as a teenager, in search of work. A couple of aunts in California had wired him the money to find his way out west. While on the train from Ellis Island to San Francisco, he was nearly taken advantage of when the guy at the café counter tried to charge him something like $30 for a 52-cent sandwich. As the story goes, my grandfather – short in stature, but strong as a bull – grabbed the guy by the collar and throttled him until he got his money back.
My grandfather was an interesting dichotomy. He was an emotional pushover who, in his later years, liked to push me around the neighborhood in a stroller to show me off. But apparently he had a temper – one I never, ever saw. Maybe his attitude was hardened by the bigotry that Italians regularly endured in this country. My dad told me that one day a passerby called Gustavo a “dago” to his face. “So he dropped the son of a bitch,” my father said, rather dryly. The man hit his head on the sidewalk, and Gustavo thought he’d killed him. While he was trying to explain the situation to his aunts afterwards, a police officer arrived at the door – a fellow who knew the aunts and liked them. “That guy is a jerk,” said the officer. “He’s just fine, he didn’t die, and you just tell your nephew Gustavo not to worry about it.”
In the few days between the time they arrived in San Francisco and the time the Great Earthquake hit, Ambrogia and her brother David had been staying in SF with their relatives the Mancinis. On April 18, the Mancinis had already gone to work by 5:12 am. – the moment the house was destroyed, and David was critically hurt – and they had no idea where their young charges were. The American Red Cross and local charities were providing food and medical care to everyone in the tent cities, which is where Ambrogia found herself, along with David, who was unconscious for days. One day, as Ambrogia was still trying to make sense out of what had happened to her, she heard Italian being spoken outside their tent. She ran out and discovered that a representative from the Italian consulate was walking around offering assistance, and she was able to tell him that she had been separated from the Mancinis, who, she knew, had relatives in Redwood City. Somehow the Consulate ended up finding the relatives and providing Ambrogia and David with transportation to their home. David would recover from his injuries.
By 1907, after working for a short time as a nanny, Ambrogia packed up and moved to San Leandro, a small city across the Bay from San Francisco to which many people displaced by the quake had relocated. She began working at the King-Morse cannery off of San Leandro Boulevard (now the site of the San Leandro BART station). Meanwhile, Gustavo Bocciardi – who’d been working as a logger in Boulder Creek – had also moved to San Leandro and was working at the same place.
San Leandro has perhaps the greatest weather in California, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s there were plenty of farmers growing stone fruits, asparagus, and other produce in the area. The farmers made a lot of noise about getting a local cannery built to help ensure that their produce didn’t rot, and the first San Leandro cannery was established in 1898. In 1916 it became part of the California Packing Corporation (CPC), which eventually merged with the Del Monte conglomerate and became the largest fruit and vegetable canning company in the world. (Del Monte moved the San Leandro operation to the Central Valley in 1967.) The cannery employed a lot of Italians, and it was one of the few businesses in the area that provided employment to women. It was even so progressive as to offer free on-site day care. It also supplied little living shacks, for minimal rent, to some of the workers.
Gustavo and Ambrogia saw each other for the first time at that cannery. And here’s the craziest thing: they discovered that they were from the same tiny town in Italy! And they hadn’t known each other! I don’t know the population of Staffoli back then, but even now it has only a few thousand people. I can’t imagine how they could not have run into each other, especially because they were only two years apart in age. But my grandfather was poor and uneducated, and my grandmother traveled in a different universe.
Not surprisingly, Gustavo and Ambrogia ended up getting married, in Oakland, on December 30, 1907. A year later they had their first child, my aunt Nini, whose real name was actually Maria. [Ed’s note: every Italian family has a Maria!] My grandfather apparently won the naming rights and chose to name my aunt after his grandmother Maria, even though my grandmother – who was very anti-clerical (but not anti-religious) at the time – emphatically insisted that the Biblical Maria (Mary) was “the world’s first whore”!
My aunt Nini – who was loud and very funny, often unwittingly – used to tell us that she was “born dead.” That declaration always amused and puzzled us kids, but my mother explained that although the doctors did initially pronounce her dead because she wasn’t breathing, she suddenly took a gasping breath and that was that. Nini slept, as an infant, in a dresser drawer, and when she was a month old my grandmother took her to work with her in a shoebox. They were all still living, at the time, in a cannery shack.
What continues to amaze me to this day is that my indefatigable grandmother found an additional way to make money. At night she would cook up an abundance of food that she could feed at lunch the following day to the many single young men who worked alongside her at the cannery: stews, chicken in sauce, etc. In the morning she would set the table, and at noon she’d race home to heat up the food. Then the cannery workers would come over and buy lunch from her to eat while they rested! How she did all this and cared for a baby, I do not know. She was strong, smart, and determined. It didn’t matter that she had been brought up in a family of means. She was on her own now, and she had no expectations of being handed anything anymore. She could stand on her own two feet. And hold everybody else up as well.
At some point my grandmother quit the Cannery and they rented a house in San Leandro. Gustavo then worked at a variety of jobs – lumberyard, sawmill, munitions factory during World War I, etc. – for a few years each until his hot temper got him kicked out. Finally, nearly 20 years later, they could afford to have their first home built in 1926, right across the street from the San Leandro Ballpark (adjacent to the cannery) where my father says he saw Billy Martin play before he made it into the majors. Tickets to the Sunday afternoon baseball games cost 15 cents for gentlemen and 10 cents for ladies. What a steal! (That field, which I remember well, is now long gone, demolished when the BART station was built.)
By then my grandfather had gotten into the poultry business, and eventually he established his own market with two other guys – one of whom was his new son-in-law Ray. My grandparents weren’t keen on Ray because he was, irony of ironies, a Pisan! And true to stereotype, Ray’s father was a crook – a bootlegger who somehow cheated my grandfather out of a lot of money, although no one quite remembers how.
Nearly nineteen years after Maria was born (yes, you read that right), along came my father in 1927. He was almost named “Sbaglio” (“Mistake”) because my grandparents had been convinced that they were too old to have children. In fact, once she started to show, my grandmother went to the local pharmacist to ask him what to do for her “tumor.” His reply? “That’s no tumor, lady. That’s a baby!”
Dad once said that they should have named him “Tumor.”
My father had a wonderful childhood in San Leandro, in what he calls “the Italian ghetto.” He was adored and spoiled and many of the neighbors spoke Italian (or Spanish or Portuguese) and everyone watched out for each other. When he ran home from his first day of school because he couldn’t speak English, my grandmother ushered him right back. Her children were going to make something of themselves, and they would have an easier life.
I’m only half Italian, but nearly all of my historical and cultural understanding of my heritage came from that side of the family. The German relatives on my mother’s side were almost guarded about their ancestry. But the Italians were proud and joyful.
My first language was actually Italian. I didn’t know how to speak English until I was about three years old and my maternal grandmother was babysitting me one day, couldn’t understand my repeated requests for acqua (water), and implored my parents to for God’s sake teach me some English.
When I was a child, I had the great fortune of spending at least every other weekend at my grandparents’ house in San Leandro. Nonna (my grandmother) wore aprons all the time and was constantly at the stove. Nonno (my grandfather), as I mentioned before, pushed me around in my stroller and visited all the neighborhood ladies. He let me help him pick vegetables from their perfect garden and dig for treasures in their basement. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran two lines near the house because the cannery depended on trains to bring in produce and ship out the canned goods. In the middle of the night the house would shake and rumble and the train whistle would practically wake the dead as the “choo-choo” thundered by. I loved the comfort of it.
What great resilience and fortitude the immigrants had. How did those people from quiet little towns – some of them teenagers, like my relatives – find the courage to leave their homes and families and travel in horrid conditions across an ocean without knowing whether they would even survive the journey or, if they did, what they would do when they arrived? Most of the time they would end up sacrificing everything for their own new families in America. And yet, despite the prejudice and the barriers, they did it without complaint. Without defeat. They were heroes without monuments.
One of my very favorite movies, Mi Familia, ends with a scene in which the mother and father of an immigrant family from Mexico sit at a table and reflect back on their lives. The mother had suffered terribly getting to this country as a young woman. Their oldest son had been murdered. Their daughter-in-law had died soon after giving birth. But ultimately their remaining children and their grandchildren had found their way in life. As the parents savor their coffee and reflect on their marriage and family, José says, “Maria, we’ve had a good life. We’ve been very lucky.”
She nods but then pauses. “It would have been even better if . . . .”
But José won’t hear of it. “No, Maria, don’t say it,” he says. “Don’t even say it. It is wrong to wish for too much in this life. God has been good to us.”
“You’re right,” Maria says. “We have had a very good life.” And they kiss.
Sometimes I wonder what my grandparents would say if they knew what the world was like today. How could they comprehend people pulling out guns and shooting up schools and workplaces because they’re frustrated that things aren’t going quite perfectly for them?
And what would they think about those of us who show off pictures of our own food? How self-important have we become?
And how high are our expectations about the happiness we think life owes us?
Ambrogia and Gustavo lived in their little white San Leandro house for the rest of their lives. It was a simple existence, but they provided their two children with everything they needed: love, support, and education. My grandparents worked hard and had no time to be self-important. Life wasn’t easy. But they were self-reliant and they were happy. They talked, they laughed, they loved, they ate, and they drank with gusto.
And even when they were practically penniless, they were rich with courage, culture, and ideals.
It was the good life. It was la bella vita.
Salute, Nonno and Nonna. Vi voglio bene. I will love you forever.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1971 and 1987.
“6th period I have Geometry with Miss McCulloh. I always get done before everyone else in there. She said kiddingly, “I’ll have to give you extra work.” Well, brother, I have had enough of THAT before!”
“I had to stay home from school today because I was sick. What a bummer! I’ll have to miss tennis tomorrow. Shoot! Not much else to say. I watched Graham Kerr [“The Galloping Gourmet” on TV] make poached eggs in wine sauce. Then I got hungry so I went up and had lunch. I had green-pea soup, a salami-ham-cheese sandwich, potato chips, an apple, a Ding-Dong, and a Coke.”
“Today we went to Church in our red plaid Scottish skirts and blouses and berets. The blouses were wool blue and so were our sweaters. Janine and I were scared with our berets.”
One late afternoon, back in the 1980s, my friend and colleague Ellen and I were interviewing a prospective employee. The two of us worked for a political think tank and book publisher called the Institute for Contemporary Studies. Both of us were drinking beer. It was a wild time to be working in San Francisco. Workdays were short on hours and long on cocktails.
For some reason, even though I was a copy editor, I had been handed the human resources responsibilities when the real HR person had left, even though I had no experience in that field whatsoever.
So we were interviewing John, a cheerful, curly-haired young man with a linebacker’s sturdiness. The position was low-level and I believe it had something to do with the mail room. The sole reason we had chosen John’s résumé from among the others is that it contained the following item:
Winner of Chili Cook-Off, 1983
This skill set was, to us, extremely appealing.
Then he sealed the deal by saying something that I have not forgotten, all these years later.
“Joe Montana is God.”
He was hired.
For those of you who aren’t sports fans, the two teams in the Super Bowl yesterday were the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. The Falcons have been a professional football team since 1966 and have been to only two Super Bowls, both of which they lost. The New England Patriots started out in 1960 as the Boston Patriots but changed their name when they moved about 20 miles outside of Boston in 1971. They’ve been to nine Super Bowls. Seven of those appearances have come during the era of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. They’ve won five.
It’s really quite astonishing. Belichick and Brady have won more Super Bowls than any other coach and any other quarterback.
I hate them both.
I’m not normally a fan of any team from Atlanta. It all goes back to 1993. The San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves were locked in the last true pennant race of all time – before the “wild card” scenario was instituted. The Giants were phenomenal and won 103 games, but the Braves won 104. The Giants needed to win their last game to force a tie-breaker, but they were massacred by the &^%$#@ Dodgers. During that entire season, my stomach ground itself to bits, night after night, and to make me seethe even more I had to endure the Atlanta fans’ odious “tomahawk chop” and war chant whenever the two teams met. I got an ulcer that season. No lie.
So I’ve continued my loathing for all teams Atlanta.
But this year I was all in for them. Anything to put Brady and Belichick in their respective places.
Bill Bellicose, as I like to call him, has to be the world’s surliest man. His hostile unwillingness to ever utter more than a two-word mumble at press conferences – even after he has won a Super Bowl – makes me sick. The least he can do, before he runs home with his $7.5 million annual salary, is offer his fans a smile and some insight. Instead, he wears a perpetual frown and a perpetual gross sweatshirt, glares at everyone in the room, and acts as if it would be far too much of an imposition for him to answer a simple question.
Here’s a tiny compilation of Bellicose’s upbeat cooperation at press conferences:
I’d say he was generally a sore loser, but truth be told, it’s hard to tell because all of his press conferences are exercises in moroseness, whether he wins or loses. I do know that in 2008, when his Patriots were upset in the Super Bowl by Eli Manning and the New York Giants, the classless Bellicose actually left the field before the last play of the game. I imagine it might have killed him to shake the hand of winning coach Tom Coughlin, or to congratulate him.
“They made some plays. We made some plays,” he said magnanimously after the game.
During his reign, Bellicose has presided over both “Spygate” and “Deflategate.” His role in the 2007 Spygate mess (in which the Patriots were caught videotaping an opposing team’s signals from the sideline) personally cost him half a million dollars, the largest fine ever exacted on an NFL coach (and the maximum allowable amount).
For his role in Deflategate, quarterback Tom Brady may have taken some flimflam tips from his coach. In 2015 he was accused of using purposely underinflated footballs to his advantage during the AFC championship game. The Patriots would have won the game anyway, but the point is that Brady cheated, then contorted himself into a pretzel trying to deny the hefty accumulation of (admittedly circumstantial) evidence, then destroyed his own cell phone immediately before he met with NFL investigators! (In the end, he was given a four-game suspension to take effect the next season.)
I don’t know Brady personally, but word around the NFL is that he is a whining crybaby. Players say he looks at the referee nearly every time he gets hit, hoping for a penalty flag.
One of my favorite gems about him: he left his girlfriend when she was three months’ pregnant to take up with his now-wife Gisele Bündchen. I just love his family values. Oh, and Gisele herself is a paragon of sportsmanship as well. After her husband’s team lost in the 2012 Super Bowl, she said, blaming Brady’s receivers, “My husband cannot f—ing throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.” So lovely.
There’s no doubt that Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to have played the game, and he is now the winningest Super Bowl quarterback as well. Someday soon he will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I wrote much of this blog post just before yesterday’s game. I wrote from the perspective that, regardless of who won the Super Bowl, Joe Montana would still be the greatest quarterback of all time. But this morning, as I savor the memory of cocktails, “Betty’s Shrimp Dip Divine,” wings, bruschetta, nachos, sliders, and Derby pie, I have to concede that Brady now shares the podium with Joe.
In my heart, though, Joe stands alone. He might have four Super Bowl rings to Brady’s five, but Joe is the guy I’d want to be helming my all-time fantasy team. He never lost a Super Bowl and in his four championship games he threw for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions. NO interceptions. Brady can’t say that.
But greatness is not necessarily measured by stats. Joe was a consummate leader who could see the entire field, coolly call a game, complete a miraculous pass, and carry out a comeback with steely calm. He was smart and never sloppy. He also played, let’s remember, during an era when football players – especially quarterbacks – were not protected the way they are now. If Brady had to take the hits today that Joe took during his career, he’d be full-out bawling on the turf.
Someone once asked me to explain why anyone would be a sports fan. I tried to tell her that in my view it’s all about hope and loyalty. For a variety of reasons, a fan develops an emotional tie to a team or a player, and from then on, season after season, the allegiance perseveres. And hope endures – for the next game, the next season.
On December 7, 1980, I was driving up Highway 280 back to San Francisco from my parents’ house in San Jose. It was Joe’s second year with the 49ers, along with his genius (and 100 percent classy) coach Bill Walsh, and although the team still ended up with a losing season, the Niners had improved over their 2-14 record from the year before. That day, Joe presided over the greatest comeback in NFL regular-season history by erasing a 28-point deficit and beating the New Orleans Saints 38–35. I was listening to sportstalk radio and a young-sounding guy called in, his words cascading over themselves with excitement about the promise of his team and of Joe Montana. It was only the Niners’ sixth (and last) win of a 16-game season, but that young guy’s world was bursting with hope. That’s what sports are all about.
In Joe’s case, he gave us hope during each and every game. There was no deficit that could not be overcome. Joe could see the unseeable, throw the unthrowable, find the unfindable, score the unscoreable.
I remember watching the most famous 49ers play of all time, when Joe completed the touchdown pass to Dwight Clark that won the 1982 NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys and opposing quarterback Scramblin’ Roger Staubach. The sporting world refers to that play as “The Catch,” which honors its matchlessness. The entire game had seesawed back and forth, and for me it was four quarters of fierce pain and intense hope. My father, who watched the game with me, kept darting out into the backyard and slamming the screen door behind him. “Dad, why in the world aren’t you staying in here to watch?” I yelled to him. I’d never seen him behave this way before. “I just can’t stand the stress,” he said.
After that game, the Cowboys were no longer a dynasty. And the 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl and to dominate football throughout the 1980s. My friends and I would gather every Sunday, throughout the fall and winter, to watch those games. We stopped talking whenever Joe had the ball, wondering what kind of miracle he would pull off next.
There is no doubt that yesterday’s comeback performance by Brady and his receivers is historic. Before that, though, most sports fans would have pointed to the final drive of the 1989 Super Bowl, culminating in Montana’s touchdown pass to John Taylor, as the most riveting performance ever in a football playoff game. The Niners were on their own 8 yardline, trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 16–13, with only about three minutes left to play. Before starting his legendary 92-yard drive down the field, Joe calmly looked toward the stands and breezily said to his tense teammates in the huddle, “Hey, isn’t that [comedian] John Candy up there?”
Joe threw that winning touchdown to Taylor with only 34 seconds left in the game.
He would have 31 fourth-quarter comebacks in his NFL career.
With Joe, there was never “not enough time.”
A couple of decades later, I have lost some of my love for watching football. Too many sketchy characters seem to be part of the game now. We’re seeing multiple arrests for domestic violence and other criminal behavior, and the NFL has done far too little for far too long. Aaron Hernandez, a New England Patriot (no comment!) now serving a life sentence for murder, already had been involved in violent behavior when he joined the team. There had been a bar incident in which he refused to pay his bill and then punched an employee and ruptured his eardrum, but city officials looked the other way, reportedly because of his athletic talents. He also may have been involved in a double shooting later that year, but no charges were ever filed. Eventually, he learned that he couldn’t get away with out-and-out murder.
Maybe my disappointment with football also has to do with the 49ers and the mess that owner Jed York has made, what with the move out of San Francisco down to Santa Clara and into a poorly designed stadium that caters to the wealthiest ticketholders, and York’s decision to show the door to coach Jim Harbaugh, who might be grating but who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl. And then there’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who, I hope, will be moving on to another team any minute now. Good riddance. Joe Montana is the only player to have thrown two touchdown passes of 95 yards or more. Kaepernick is lucky to ever connect with a long bomb. And he can’t see the whole field, in my opinion. He just doesn’t have all the tools. And he surely isn’t a leader.
My friend Kelly once played basketball with Joe Montana. That’s right. He was a terrific basketball player, and she was at her gym one day when he came in and both of them ended up in the same pickup game. She said he was just as cool on the court as he was on the field, and just as inclusive. He didn’t seem to notice that he was a celebrity and everyone else was just a regular person at the gym. He didn’t treat Kelly, a woman, any differently from the respectful way he treated the guys. In fact, he set a tone. That’s what good leaders do.
Joe Montana and his wife of more than 30 years have four children. He spends much of his time now devoted to charities – the bulk of them for kids. “Typically, we don’t do things in public for charity because we feel like if you’re doing it for charity, you shouldn’t get anything back for it,” he once said. And that’s how people of character feel.
Maybe that’s what I miss – character. You never heard about Joe, or Jerry Rice, or Roger Craig getting into any kind of trouble whatsoever, or being anything but dedicated athletes. There weren’t any cheating scandals, and their wives didn’t make statements disparaging the team. It was another era, I guess. People didn’t spike the ball, do the chicken dance, kiss their own biceps, and congratulate themselves every time they made one good play. It wasn’t all about self-promotion. It was about the team.
But enough about that. The world has changed. I don’t want to get stuck in the past. Congratulations to you, Tom Brady.
I’ll never forget the night I was sound asleep in my San Francisco apartment when the phone rang and a friend of mine demanded that I leap out of bed and rush immediately to the Symphony.
I had just started work for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, at a job I thought would be temporary but, as it turned out, lasted 26 years and netted me a pension. We worked only until 4 p.m. in those early days (ah, the 80s!), and my new co-workers told me about their “tradition” of periodically heading out to the Cliff House bar after work to quaff a few on a Friday night. I happily agreed to go along, and that night they introduced me to the delightful but merciless beverage called the Long Island Iced Tea. This insidious assassin of a drink contains five different alcohols, with a little Coke thrown in for good measure. I certainly hadn’t been a teetotaler up to that point – far from it – but I had no idea what that drink was. The very first sip was absolutely delicious – it tastes, of course, like iced tea – so I downed a tall one and then ordered another, unaware that the copious amounts of hidden alcohol in that lovely amber cocktail could kill a horse. About halfway through the second one, I realized that I couldn’t feel my feet.
So I stopped drinking and left for home, probably on a bus, because I’m sure I wasn’t driving. It was only about 6:30 p.m., but of course the minute I got home I decided it was time for bed.
I was already slumbering soundly when my friend Kay called. She worked as a marketing person for the San Francisco Symphony and had two tickets for the Symphony that very same night. In about an hour. Insisting that I go with her, she wouldn’t take my protestations seriously. “Good God, Kay,” I groaned, “I’m already in bed! My contact lenses are being disinfected and I already have my retainer in! And I’m sure my hair by now is a rat’s nest. Plus I just drank the equivalent of four liters of alcohol and can’t feel my feet! Forget it.” But one of Kay’s gifts was the power of persuasion, and for some reason I acceded to her demands and dragged my sorry self wearily out of bed.
I hardly had time to get dressed, but I managed to pull on some nylons, the only dress I owned, the only shoes with heels I owned, and the only coat I owned, which was a London Fog raincoat, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I thought I should try to look elegant.
Mind you, I was not a Symphony type of gal. In addition to rock and roll, I definitely loved Big Band and the great American crooners. But to a great extent I’m a cultural philistine, and I keep my distance from the refined arts. So I had never been to the Symphony or the Opera and had intended to keep things that way. Still, I had heard a few classical pieces and thought to myself, “Well, some of that stuff can be rousing and might get my adrenaline going. How bad can this be?”
I’ll tell you how bad. What I didn’t know until the music started was that I was in for an evening of ancient chamber music, performed by a string quartet. Four people with violins on a stage. The best way I can describe the entire night is that it went like this:
With an occasional:
Needless to say, it was neither rousing nor inspiring. It finally got to the point where, much to my amusement, I thought I heard the older gentleman next to me sawing logs. Then a loud snort came out of me and I realized, to my mortification, that I was the one who’d been snoring.
When Kay drove me home after the evening mercifully ended, I told her in no uncertain terms that she owed me BIG TIME. What I demanded in return was that she get us two tickets to see Tony Bennett when he appeared with the Symphony later that season. She thought I was joking. “Tony Bennett?? You’ve got to be kidding me. That old guy? What are you, a senior citizen?” But I would not back down. I loved the man, and she was going to take me to see him. She teased me about it for months and proclaimed my uncoolness to all of our friends, but I kept my resolve and won.
I had been a Tony Bennett fan for nearly my entire life. When we were kids, my mother kept a radio on top of the refrigerator, and it was on KABL night and day. Mom was first and foremost a Sinatra fan, but she certainly loved and appreciated all of the sophisticated adult (i.e., non-rock) music of the time. I absorbed all of it.
Sinatra, I thought, was an actor as much as a singer, and his style could practically conjure a feature film out of every song. Perhaps because of my age I wasn’t a fan of his woeful laments like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” that he recorded when Ava Gardner was about to leave him. But I adored his big-band and swing tunes, Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra being an album I could listen to every day.
Tony Bennett, to me, was jazzier and less mercurial. He didn’t have Sinatra’s urban rakishness, but his voice was so good that flair was unnecessary. He could do ballads and he could do swing, with equal weight. He was never breezy. His voice had a hint of Italian huskiness to it, like a little bit of peppery seasoning on a tender filet.
Sinatra famously said Tony Bennett was “the best singer in the business.” Is there a greater endorsement?
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Queens, New York, in 1926. He studied music and painting in school but dropped out at the age of 16 because his family needed the financial help. During World War II he served on the front lines with the U.S. army infantry – an experience, by the way, that spurred him to become a lifelong pacifist. After the war, he decided to study singing and acting. Pearl Bailey discovered him in Greenwich Village, Bob Hope put him in his road show, and Columbia Records signed him in 1950. Lucky for us. Since then, he has sold more than 50 million records.
Tony’s life wasn’t without its problems. When music labels began demanding that singers record rock albums in the 1970s, he hated compromising his principles so much that he apparently would get sick before recording sessions. The rock records didn’t sell. His second marriage dissolved, his lack of business savvy brought him to near financial ruin, and he got involved with drugs. Fortunately, his son Danny helped him completely resurrect his career. He got Tony booked on “MTV Unplugged” in 1994 and exposed him to a hip, younger crowd. The Unplugged album from that show won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Tony was hot again.
Tony Bennett is a gentle man, happy and grateful, with an artist’s sensibility and an abundance of class. He walked with Martin Luther King in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He’s an accomplished painter whose works hang in the Smithsonian. His paintings have been commissioned by the U.N. and he was named the official artist for the 2001 Kentucky Derby. He is tirelessly involved with a host of charities. He and his wife founded Exploring the Arts (which promotes arts education) and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a high school dedicated to performing arts instruction. Right now he’s in the middle of a tour that runs at least through November and includes a show next month at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
On August 3, he turned 90 years old.
Most people don’t know that “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was written in 1953 by two gay World War II vets, George Cory and Douglass Cross. They lived in New York City after the war but strongly missed what George called “the warmth and openness of the people and the beauty [of San Francisco]. We never really took to New York.” They moved back to the Bay Area in the late sixties, and three years after Douglass died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 54, George took his own life. The coroner’s office reported that he was “despondent over failing health,” but I wonder about his broken heart.
After it was written, “I Left My Heart” languished until late 1961, when Tony was looking for a song to add to his repertoire while he was on tour. Not even realizing that the tune would be a hit, he sang it for the first time in December 1961 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where his tour culminated. He recorded it in January 1962 and it was released as the “B” side to “Once Upon a Time.” The rest is history. It won the Grammy award for Record of the Year, and Tony won for Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, his first Grammy.
San Francisco adopted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as the city’s official song in 1969. In 2001 it was ranked 23rd on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
On Friday, August 19, San Francisco organized a huge celebration for Tony by unveiling a statue of him in front of the Fairmont Hotel. The Giants game that night was dedicated to him as well. I had decided months ago to attend both events, and I was determined to follow through with the pledge, despite the fact that I was suffering from vertigo.
(Yes, I’ve been dealing with dizziness for about three months, on and off, and am not happy about it. It’s become clear that it has something to do with my ears – so I probably don’t have a brain tumor, which is always my initial assumption – and I’m going through the process of getting medical attention. But I’ve been living in a disoriented fog of dizziness, nausea, and general ennui on and off since May. It was so bad last week that I wasn’t able to work on my blog because I just couldn’t focus. I hated not posting something, but it also made me realize that there is no way I can come up with 52 good ideas a year anyway! So now I am reconciled to the fact that Monday Morning Rail won’t be published every single week. At least my misery has resulted in a revelation.)
Anyway, that Friday morning I found myself walking up Powell from Market Street towards the Fairmont. It may not have been the best choice of routes, because in that area Powell Street is so steep that you practically need climbing gear trying to summit it. I was huffing up the street at a pretty good clip, though, silently congratulating myself for being in such decent shape after not having exercised in many weeks because of the *&^%$# vertigo, when I looked to my left and a young woman and her three-year-old child went skittering past me up the hill like a couple of mountain goats.
I could probably write a 100,000-word love letter about San Francisco, and maybe I will someday. The subject, though, is probably much too broad and much too emotional for someone like me to adequately capture. I would undoubtedly lapse into clichés or drunken sentimentality. But let me just mention that the two hours I spent in front of the Fairmont were arresting. The fog, of course, was hanging over us, somewhat lightly, but enough to keep me cool in the almost constricting crowd. There were tourists, residents, babies, parents, old folks, and people of all colors. The bells of Grace Cathedral were ringing melodiously and with grandeur. The San Francisco Chief of Protocol (I love that quaint designation) spoke, as did the mayor, and Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein. Behind the blue birthday balloons – some of which were lurching and popping in the wind – the Fairmont’s procession of international flags lined its historic façade. I was thinking about the Fairmont and how it survived the 1906 earthquake, and how I loved the hotel’s tropically decorated Tonga Room and its thatch-covered floating stage and its exotic drinks, and how the Fairmont had been the site of our wedding reception and I had actually, truly, gasped when I first saw the view from the room. About then, a cable car stopped behind us and remained there for the ceremony, the conductor ringing its bells periodically with great spirit and joy.
Three very elderly women were standing behind me, and I could tell that they were native San Franciscans – probably Italians. They spoke with a classic San Francisco accent, and yes, there definitely is such a thing among the old-timers. My cousin Jerry, who was born in San Francisco, used to speak with a combination of Boston and New York accents – an articulation cultivated specifically by the Irish and Italian Catholics who lived out in the Mission District. Sure enough, when one of the speakers joked that the world is divided into people who are Italian and people who want to be Italian, the ladies cheered. I knew it! Anyway, these women were about 4-1/2 feet tall at best, all dressed to the nines. And they had that unselfconscious way of speaking their mind and not caring who is in earshot – common to the elderly, I think. “The papers said this ceremony was going to be on the Fairmont lawn,” one of them declared loudly. “There’s no lawn at the Fairmont. What a bunch of crap!” She was right about that. When Dianne Feinstein came out to speak, one of them sucked in her breath at what she must have considered a fashion faux pas. “Oh, my,” she hissed, “can you believe she’s all in red?”
The sun finally broke through the fog, with its usual good timing. Tony Bennett walked out to much applause and his huge statue was unveiled, depicting him with his head thrown back and arms raised upwards, singing with great heart, as he always does. The real Tony choked up and told everyone, “You have been so wonderful to me. I’ll never forget this day.” I felt embarrassed to be fighting back tears myself, but I stole a glance at the young man beside me and he was sobbing!
That evening, Julie and I took the streetcar out to the ballpark for Tony Bennett Night. Tony didn’t sing, but he said a few words. The entire stadium sang “Happy Birthday” to him. I had a crab sandwich on sourdough.
After every Giants home victory, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is piped over the public address system at the ballpark. While most people file out of the stadium, I always stick around to listen to the song. For those three minutes, I relish not only the victory but my great fortune to have spent a lifetime loving both Tony Bennett and San Francisco.
That night, the Giants won 8-1.
You know, something else sticks with me about the day. Mayor Lee made a point of saying that while the city is facing new problems that need to be resolved soon, “we also need to celebrate what is right and what is great about San Francisco.” To me, everything about that day was right and great.
No, that isn’t me in the photo. It happens to be my niece Tara. A couple of weeks ago, Tara threw me into a fit of hysterical choking laughter when she texted this picture completely out of the blue. The photo references one of my many mortifying personal stories, and it must have stuck with her, because she spontaneously saw fit to do a reenactment. So I thought I would re-tell the story. I’ve been writing some fairly serious blogs lately and I thought I’d lighten things up this week, in keeping with my vow to periodically post little vignettes that capture the inane, embarrassing, and/or idiotic things I’ve done in the past.
It all started at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989. Northern Californians remember that day well. The Giants were about to start the third game of their first World Series in 27 years. They had lost the first two games, but of course there was still abundant hope circulating in the heart of Paula Bocciardi. I was working in the Civic Center and was desperate, of course, to get home for the start of the game. So, like the devoted but precise employee I was, I SHOT out the door at the stroke of 5:00 p.m. as if there were a rocket strapped to my back.
My preferred mode of transportation at the time was my cherished “hog.” It was a red-and-white Honda C70 Passport motorcycle. Okay, it was only 70cc and its top speed was 44 miles an hour, but for the City it was perfect. A few people had dared to call it a “scooter” or, even worse, a “moped,” but I would quickly put those people in their place. First of all, you needed a motorcycle license to ride that bike. Second, the tires were motorcycle-sized so you had to lean into curves as you would on a real chopper. Finally, it had actual gears that you had to shift. I felt studly riding that thing, even though, to be honest, if it fell over I could pick it up with one hand.
So I hit that throttle and zoomed down Larkin Street, heading towards Geary to get home, when suddenly my bike was thrown into the next lane. And I mean thrown like kindling in a cyclone. I had just gotten a new tire, so I instantly assumed that the mechanic had done something terribly wrong. I hollered every expletive I knew into my helmet. Thankfully, I was still upright when I came to a stop. And it was then that I noticed that the ground was rolling, a burgeoning cloud of dust was filling the air, and people were streaming out onto the street. The air got thicker and browner, the traffic lights suddenly went out, and everyone was yelling. I finally figured it out. EARTHQUAKE.
It took me forever to get home, stopping at every intersection in the City because the lights were out. When I pulled up to my apartment building, one of the other tenants was standing outside. “Did you feel it?” he asked. I explained that I had been on my bike and hadn’t really understood what was happening at the moment it hit. To this day, I remember his exact response: “It’s a good thing you weren’t here in the apartment building,” he said, “because you would have lost your lunch.”
There really wasn’t much destruction in my apartment at all. My beloved 19-inch television, perched on top of a trunk, had been shaken off and onto the ground, and a few things on shelves had fallen and broken, but overall everything was okay.
My workplace was closed immediately after the quake because of structural damage, so I headed up to spend a few days with my parents in Clearlake, away from the aftershocks. All in all, then, I was fairly sheltered from experiencing the true drama of that devastating quake.
When I returned to my apartment on Friday night, I settled in to relax and watch television. Channel-surfing, I landed first upon a local news station that was running a montage of never-before-seen footage taken during the temblor from various video cameras around northern California. I started to absorb the horror of what I was seeing: the terrible shaking, the merchandise falling and shelves crashing onto the floors of local businesses, a panicked bartender racing out from behind a bar to escape shattering glass, customers screaming, a freeway collapsed.
Suddenly, I was petrified. It was three days after the event, everyone else was calming down and starting the work of healing, and I became paralyzed with fear. I concluded that there was going to be an imminent aftershock that would be stronger than the initial tremor on Tuesday, and that we were all destined to perish. It was terror delayed, but it was the kind of terror a child experiences when he knows that, the instant he closes his eyes at night, a monster will leap out of the closet.
I needed to take action to ensure my safety. That action, I concluded, was to place a motorcycle helmet on the bed next to me before I went to sleep. That would save my life.
For some reason I didn’t choose my black helmet that made me look like Darth Vader in tennis shoes. In a cool way. At the time, I had a passenger helmet that was a god-awful yellow hue, with no face guard or chin strap, and that’s the one I laid carefully next to my pillow that night.
Well, wouldn’t you know, I was slumbering peacefully when all of a sudden the most clamorous racket arose in my apartment. Wham! Clang! Bang bang bang! It was like John Henry hitting a piece of iron with his mighty hammer. Bang bang bang bang bang! My eyes flew open and the bed was shaking violently and I knew exactly what was happening.
“IT’S THE BIG ONE!!” I shrieked.
I snatched that helmet, crammed it on my head, and raced for the doorway, bracing my arms and legs against the jamb and preparing myself for the inevitable crumbling of the walls.
My doorway faced into the living room, and when I could finally focus, I noticed that my big heavy flower pot, suspended from the ceiling by a long macramé hanger, wasn’t moving. Not swaying a bit. In fact, nothing was moving. Nothing at all.
It seems that, since the power had gone out three days before, the automatic timers that worked the building heating system had been out of whack. The heat was now coming on in the middle of the night. And every apartment had the old-fashioned metal baseboard steam heaters that sound like hammers when water first starts to flow through them. So it was the radiators that were clanking.
And it was my pounding heart that had set the bed moving.
There I was, then, adorned in that yellow beehive of a helmet, pressed in fear against the doorway. I was facing out towards the street, and when I looked out my huge living room window, I saw two passers-by staring up at me.