Dorian and I relocated to San Francisco nine years ago, after a lifetime of visits. I wrote this piece about 3 months after we’d moved into a residential hotel on Mission Street in February of 2009.
The man has no recollection of the boy’s first trip into the big, shining City by the Bay. It was long ago, and the boy was too little to hang onto memories at first.
It was likely a trip with mom and dad to see the great aunt and uncle who lived in the grand house on Van Ness Avenue. The three made that trip every Thanksgiving holiday during the boy’s youth until the great aunt and uncle reached the end of their life’s journey and bid all adieu.
She left first because of a heart too gracious and loving to last much longer, and he followed shortly thereafter because of a heart broken by grief and loneliness after sixty years of marriage. Several years before their departure, the boy started keeping memories. The man pulls them out now and then to blow the dust off, whenever life starts to take a toll and he needs a little smile.
An earlier one of these shows a bearded man with long, shaggy hair sauntering through an intersection not far from Golden Gate Park, a ratty guitar case slung over his shoulder and the proverbial flowers in his hair. The boy’s dad was a longshoreman, like Brando’s Terry Malloy in “On The Waterfront,” so hippie types and flower-children were not allowed to pass without enduring a little verbal abuse.
“Oh, look at the little girl, with her long pretty hair and flowers!” He held a cigarette out the window with his left hand while his right gripped the steering wheel of the pick-up. The boy’s mother was easily embarrassed, so she asked her husband to keep his voice down, but to no avail; the hippie heard the taunts and responded with a smile, flashing a peace sign at the crusty dock-worker while continuing to cross the intersection.
“Peace to you, brother!” he said, which drove the dad a bit nuts. He didn’t know what to do with that, so he threw it in the trash and lived on, without inspiration.
The boy didn’t realize it then, but this was somewhere in the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury, perhaps at the famed intersection itself, right around the time of the infamous “Summer Of Love.” Might the sandaled gent have been Scott MacKenzie, Norman Greenbaum or even the late, great Jerry Garcia? Probably not, but it’s fun for the man to think so.
Those handful of Thanksgiving holidays at the grand mansion on Van Ness included cousins along with other assorted aunts and uncles. The boys and girls of the clan would often play on the sidewalk in front of the house and take occasional walking trips down the block to the little corner bodega, where needful provisions would be obtained along with sodas and candy.
Trips would sometimes be made to local points of interest including Fisherman’s Wharf, where the most delicious clam chowder ever made would be ladled into bowls carved out of sourdough bread, to be consumed and committed to the fond memories the boy treasured as time pressed on.
The boy was still a boy as he stepped off the yellow school bus with the rest of his peers, but several years had trundled by since the last of the Thanksgiving visits, leaving him taller, lankier, and a bit of a smart-ass.
He and a buddy ditched the group that was headed into the museum at Golden Gate Park for their field trip, opting instead to take an unofficial tour of the park and purchase an unofficial joint from a much older black man who approached them. The high-schooler was smart.. really! He just didn’t know it yet.
They found some bushes to hide in for the purpose of toking up and then spent the next two hours wandering the park in a daze, watching it ebb and flow. People flung grins at them as they passed by, while the world spun with the two clinging madly to it.
They realized a few moments in that they’d been presented with no ordinary Mary Jane, but rather something that had been nicely laced-up. They laughed excessively and spat on the ground more in those two hours than they’d ever done in their 16 years of existence.
After reconnecting with the group, they wondered between themselves what the hell was in that stuff? The teacher chewed them out but he so resembled a yapping little dog wearing a suit jacket and jeans that the two couldn’t help snickering, which caused the yappy little dog to yap more, which caused their snickers to explode into guffaws. It was all quite the psychedelic cycle of craziness, and the price was a day of suspension once they returned home.
“When you get tired of walking around in San Francisco, you can always lean against it.”Herb Caen, once describing the numerous hills of that city
The young man had miraculously graduated from high school and, a few months later stood at the airport, waiting for his ride. He’d also managed to complete Navy basic training but felt ill-prepared and nervous as the slightly older young man wearing navy-blue dungarees approached him at the gate and asked his name. He gave it and was whisked away in a gray truck with US NAVY stenciled on the side.
He arrived in Hunters Point, this being back in the days when the US Navy kept a few ships there, and he walked briskly up the gangway to salute and announce that he was reporting for duty.
The year was spent there with Candlestick Park on his left, the mighty Bay Bridge on his right, and the City by the Bay laid out before him. He wasn’t a week into it when he discovered The 711 Club, a sailor bar at 711 Market Street that was owned by an old German named Heinz.
There always seemed to be plenty of Becks beer on hand and, surprisingly, sailors who were too young to legally drink, such as him, drank freely in that establishment.
It wasn’t until years later that he found out Heinz had been with the San Francisco Police Department for many years, retiring at the rank of Captain, then opened a bar to augment his pension and have some fun. Thus the local cops left him alone.
A friend once visited from the young man’s hometown, bringing along a pretty girlfriend, and the two toured the naval vessel that the young man loved showing off to the pretty girlfriend, who seemed uneasy.
“Why do these guys keep staring at me?” she asked, retreating under the security of her boyfriend’s arm. “Don’t mind them, they’re sailors,” said the young man. “They don’t see girls like you that often.”
The three of them later paid Heinz a visit at The 711 Club, where a case of Becks was consumed and merriment was made well into the night.
The young man had an aunt who lived in neighboring Daly City, so he took weekend treks out that way to visit and do a load of laundry or two. He’d since inherited the pick-up truck that dad taunted the hippie from ten years earlier, so he often drove out but sometimes he’d take the relatively new BART train when the old truck was in need of a repair.
The Daly City visits were a far cry from the occasional jaunt across the bay into Oakland, where a fellow shipmate and he would pay a visit to a one-legged prostitute named Debbie for tokes, jokes, and pokes well into the night.
He was glad for the camper shell on the back of the truck with the comfy mattress he’d purchased from a thrift store, which all came in handy on those nights he’d close down The 711 Club and stumble outside to sleep in the back.
The rig stayed parked on Market Street all night, in a time when such a thing wasn’t the big deal it’d be now, and one wouldn’t have to fetch one’s vehicle from a city impound lot in the morning.
The day finally came when the Navy ship checked out of the Hunters Point hotel and slid gracefully under the Bay Bridge and then the Golden Gate, with the young man standing on a wind-swept deck looking fondly back on the city that had given him a seabag full of memories. Off they went to San Diego, which he would call home for the next few years.
“The Golden Gate Bridge’s daily strip tease from enveloping stoles of mist to full frontal glory is still the most provocative show in town.”Mary Moore Mason
The young man returned to spend a week by the bay while processing out of the Navy in ’82, and wandered into The 711 Club while on a two day pass from the Treasure Island Naval Station. Heinz was glad to see him, even though he didn’t remember him.
On a visit a decade later, the not-so-young man took his new wife in to meet Heinz only to discover the old German had long since retired from bar owning, and the place was now being run by Les, a bartender he remembered from the sailor bar days.
They were a bit surprised to find that Les had turned it into a gay bar, while not really being surprised at all, knowing this city, and the man and wife visited with Les and reminisced until closing time.
The couple visited this familiar city off and on over the next decade and more, always staying at a different hotel but paying frequent visits to soak in the sultry torch songs that were softly sung at the Mason Street Wine Bar at Mason and Geary.
Sometime after the turn of the century, the 711 Club was replaced by a 711 store, which can be found today at 711 Market Street. A hot dog cart now occupies the space inside the store where the man ushered in his 19th year on a bar stool, long ago.
A stroll down Van Ness Avenue one year revealed that the old mansion of the long departed great aunt and uncle wasn’t a mansion at all, but a rather plain two-bedroom dwelling with a bay window over a small garage. The memories were bigger than the house itself, and the man grew a bit misty as he stood on the sidewalk and let them flood in.
A few New Year’s Eve celebrations were rung in by the couple as they joined the madness in Union Square, and they have oft dreamed of someday calling the city home, but other places needed to be tried and lived-in first to prove beyond a doubt that nothing else would do.
Finally, having had enough of not living, the man stood up one day and announced to his wife of nineteen years, “We’re going to San Francisco!” She heartily agreed, having shared the hope, and together they started winding the countdown clock that would propel them into the rest of their future.
“Somehow the great cities of America have taken their places in a mythology that shapes their destiny: Money lives in New York. Power sits in Washington. Freedom sips Cappuccino in a sidewalk cafe in San Francisco.”~Joe Flower
It’s been a long road but the clock has finally struck, and the man finds himself sitting in the bay window of a hotel overlooking Mission Street. The building came into being in 1907, rising up out of the ashes from the great quake and fire, and has stood on this spot for over a hundred years. Fittingly symbolic for a couple who are resurrecting their lives from the ash-heap.
He takes short breaks from typing to gaze down at the street two stories below, where the Muni #14 and #49 go whooshing through every ten minutes in both directions. Crazies yell and scream, spewing their demons out into the air while the comparatively sane walk by unfazed because it’s the way things are here. The little neighborhood market does a brisk business, as does the medical marijuana dispensary next to it, and the Walgreens on the corner.
A subterranean train whizzes by deep underground every 15 minutes, the only indication being a whirring sound that rises from a street grating under the bay window. The couple has already had visitors; the old friend from the foothills who once brought a young, pretty girlfriend on board the Navy ship had a wife with him this time, but she wasn’t the same girl.
The two couples went for a walk and paid a visit to a certain 711 convenience store on Market Street, where the two old married men laughed at the hot-dog cart inside, which stood approximately where an old German pulled beer taps ages ago.
The visitors have returned to the foothills and the couple will remain surrounded by the charm of 1907 until something better is found. They don’t know where yet, but it will be somewhere in this city full of noisy light and quiet memories. A handful of favorite old things are either gone now, such as the Mason Street Wine Bar or have yet to be revisited, like sourdough chowder bowls at the wharf, while hundreds of new discoveries lie in wait.
They’ve come home to stay.
“San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art. Every block is a short story, every hill a novel. Every home a poem, every dweller within immortal. That is the whole truth.”William Saroyan