"Who is that?"
"Amber," he says. "Want me to get it?"
So, of course, he hands me the phone while I am in the shower.
Then takes it away again.
"We're bringing pizza," I hear.
We didn't make it to the party yesterday. Car problems meant that we would have rolled in three or four hours after the party started, so we decided to stay home. We promised ourselves we would interrupt Amber's day on Sunday with pizza, then drive home again.
But the car gods had a different plan, this time it was my tires.
And thus began our journey into the multiculturalism of San Jose.
Sometimes I forget that Richard and I run in a certain group of people. Some are well-educated, most are hard working. But we miss some seeing some parts of society in our circles. Or something. Something that makes encountering a middle class white guy with a slightly southern twang a surprise encounter.
I think I am getting to like tow truck drivers. The last one, the one in Willows, was cool. Middle class, hard-working guy with a southern twang. And now this one. Nice guy. Intense. Professional. After Richard got him talking, he spent the rest of the drive telling us how proud he was of his profession. Of course, not so baldly as that, but he spoke of his training, his experience, the screening tow truck drivers go through to ensure they aren't the scum of society. But he didn't sound proud, just factual and kind of humble and... intense. He carefully and expertly put the car down where we needed it, and went on his way. I liked him. He seemed cool people.
So, there we were, back in our element. Richard spoke in Chinese to the young men at our auto repair shop. They exchanged pleasantries about racing cars as he took care of business. When Richard mentioned that he used to race his Porsche (something, something, something model) around the big track in Sonoma (whatever it is called,) I could see the young salivate.
About a block from home, now, we began the short trek. Past Applebee's, past Shabuway, where we turned, because our hunger took us to the Mitsuwa, the Japanese grocery store. After standing in the heat for an hour, then the crowded drive in the tow truck, then standing while Richard arranged business with the car guys, I just wanted to sit.
Mitsuwa has a food court, kinda. Two Japanese restaurants, one is kinda sorta American, and the other is no where near. I got the bento box special for $6; pork katsu, salad, soup, beef stuff, rice and edaname. Richard gets a bunch of stuff I don't recognize. I am, of course, the only Caucasian woman in the place. Korean, Japanese and Chinese dominate the place, except for those who clean. -- interesting, the assignment of assignments according to where one was born.
Finally, a walk through Mitsuwa to see if there is something I want for dessert.
Over the noise of the Sunday shoppers, I hear Toby Keith singing, "A little less talk and a lot more action."
and yet, again, I fall in love with the Bay Area and all that it offers.
It's always been about the stories for me. From the dresses I sell to the walkabouts with Richard, I am always looking for, and wondering about, the stories people tell me in the parts of them I see. Yesterday was filled with small, and large dramas being played out before I eyes.
I love Chinatown. Anywhere there is a place where I can immerse myself in a sea of humanity, where I am both unknown, and a part of a greater entity, where I am completely visible, yet unseen, I love. I feel at home most when I am least at home. Chinatown has both of those traits: it is a place where I feel I am in an unfamiliar place, and it is filled with great stories and people who don't mind letting you in on some of theirs.
Do you see the gentleman above them? The fella known as the last Maoist Communist in Chinatown? Well. This is his corner. It has been his corner since the 70's. He has stood here and cheerfully lectured tourists on the positive aspects of Communism every Saturday and Sunday for decades. In broken English, he talks about "happy happy happy," and "You have nice day," while passersby try to make sense of his signs. Everyone knows this is his corner and these two ladies are interlopers and they are louder than he is. He was pissed. I've never seen him pissed before. His sign today warns us of the evil of these two ladies.
What you don't see are the two cops casually passing time with each other behind this minor drama being played out.
Oh. And rumor has it that this gentleman is not Chinese.
This lovely is from Szechuan, where there is lots of bamboo. She shows off her skill of weaving bamboo over porcelain, then painting it, to create amazing vases and works of art. We found her working in a stationary store where we made an offer for their collection of mid-century greeting cards. Her work is here:
Being filled with humanity, Chinatown runs the gamut from exquisite to seedy. I love seedy. Chinatown has the best collection of interestingly seedy bars. Though I don't indulge in their offerings, I do love their exteriors. I mean, what is a Chinese MaiTai? And why does this facade look like a cave?
And this doesn't even touch on those special aspects of Chinatown that only the locals know: The Slave Bus, otherwise known as "30 Stockton", the route no bus driver wants, where you shove your way onto a bus that reeks of people and their stuff. Like, dinner. Like fish and poultry and the effects of last nights' garlic.
No lessons here, only stories. And an admonition: children, listen to your parents. Try to get a scholarship to school, else you might end up using that fancy education to pay for your student loans in creative, but less than lucrative means.
Like this guy:
Him: Uh, okay. What do you want to do?
Me: I don't know.
Him: Let's go to Berkeley, I have to return a book.
The thought didn't over-excite me, but the formula, Richard+City always equaled something interesting. So, off to Berkeley we went. University Ave, with its endless sari shops called to me, and we made a quick stop to purchase some exquisite silk- ten yards at a shop going out of business set me back $20.
The garage was dirty and cramped and a foretaste of the streets surrounding the campus. Though I knew Arcata as a smaller, less brain intensive version of Berkeley, I was still surprised at the resemblance, with its tie-dyed t-shirt stands and the gaudy, unimaginative jewelry displays, I felt right at home. At least, the part of home I was glad to have left long ago.
One of the things Richard and I have in common is a love for libraries. The homes of possibilities, libraries are filled with promises of adventure, hope and the unexpected, and yesterday was no exception.
On entering and seeing the circulation desk, I realized that Gramma's picture might be in an old year book. Not knowing the date of her time there, I wasn't ready to pursue it, but it did make me realize that much of what I was seeing was her old stomping grounds. With that, it meant that I was not only seeing Richard's college years, but Gramma;s, as well. There are many places on the Berkeley campus that have changed very little from the time Gramma walked the grounds.
The first stop was the Bancroft Library. The pictures tell the story much better than I could, especially if you imagine Gramma sitting, standing or walking in these areas that are almost unchanged since her days there.
Upstairs in a quiet spot.
The next one is the reading room--
and then outside, Richard pointed out the very long bench and told me it has been there forever. The long one used to be the senior men's bench while the smaller one belonged to the women.
The last picture is of the South Hall-- the oldest building on campus.
I never know what to expect on a day with Richard, but this one was a lovely surprise. He told me what he knew of the history and traditions that have been in place since forever at this school, and he told me of his days there, as well. When we were done and tired, a visit to the near by Vietnamese restaurant was a perfect end.
This small city holds some of the biggest personalities in the world, each living side by side with a history of super-sized egos with a lust for power as well as the less ambitious, those who just want to make a life a little better for their children than what they had.
On a walk through North Beach attempts will be made to entice you to sit at sidewalk tables scrunched next to bright restaurants. Filled with young people serving plates with tiny amounts of what passes for modern Italian food Californian style. In other words, you won't find this stuff in Italy. The hostess and waiters take turns to beckon you in with their first year high school Italian greetings and a cheerful smile to smooth away the accent. People huddle against the walls, shivering in the cold San Francisco summer night waving flies away while they wait for over-priced, child's size serving of pasta.
The view across the street of one of these places is an old theater. Eh, theater, not really. It is a strip bar from the old days with a theater style marquee light..
The Condor has been around since the middle 60's and was the first strip club in the city with topless, then bottomless entertainment. The story goes that the popular dancer, Carol Doda, had a great act, back in the days when strippers had acts. To open her number, she would descend on a piano that would serve as her stage. Pretty cool, huh? Well, Carol's piano act turned deathly. Not for her so much, but for the manager and his girl friend. In the 80's one of the waitresses and one of the bouncers were having an intimate moment when the piano came crashing down. The waitress survived, the bouncer did not.
The outside of the Condor has a historical marker on the wall. San Francisco does love its characters.
Not everyone adored the sleeze of San Francisco. The Beat Generation thrived in North Beach. Assisted by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who owned The City Lights Bookstore, and who published Allen Ginsburg's, Howl, the bookstore has been hosting socially progressive thinkers, writers and speakers since 1953. Ferlinghetti referred to the Condor and Carol Doda as part of the ‘two decades of sleaze’.
Even though they were across the street from each other, I still doubt that Carol Doda was a frequent visitor to the bookstore.
Alongside the trail blazing strippers and the beatniks, were a quieter, but far larger group. Most of the Italians from North Beach have moved on, their restaurants taken over by enterprising companies or families. But the quiet ones remain. Spreading out from Chinatown are still many generations of Chinese living side by side, some having spent most of their lives there. Some speaking only one language, anchoring them to the familiar streets that echo memories of their birth place. These few streets are their world, now. America, yes, but one most of us will never understand. It isn't China, and it isn't anything that I can find much that is like how I grew up. Small places smelling of generations of humanity in cramped conditions, the restaurants adding their aromas and the sounds of the street keeping time to the rhythm of dinner time in Chinatown.
I sat the Persian lamb coat down on the counter in front of the former Iranian diplomat turned dry cleaner. I watched, as this man I had never met rubbed the fur with his dark, worn hands, back and forth, his eyes twinkled with a memory, and the story started.
“I was in Paris,” he said, “and right across the street from where I worked, was the House of Dior. In there, was a coat, like this, that I bought for my wife.“ My eyes went wide,knowing I was about to experience one of those unexpected moments in life when everything unimportant is set aside and the joy of a vintage memory is shared.
He went on, with a sprinkling of elegant French,which Richard understood but I did not, to tell me about this coat that is now a quarter the size his wife current wears—his words. It went with the couple through all their travels; Africa, Spain, back to Iran, and finally, to the US. All that time, the coat was never worn.
To me, that is the best kind of treat—to have a stranger, or a loved one, spontaneously share a memory with me. Of course, it only happened because this man had known Richard for decades, and they had shared many a story. But for me; the coat I brought to him was magic. He touched it, and I was the recipient of the story.
Antiques, vintage—they are like that for me. Each item holds stories and memories. They can be a magic carpet that transport the one who looks at it to a different time and place, like a piece in a museum, only one that can be held or touched.
There is a mid-century couture fur sitting in a closet somewhere on the San Francisco peninsula. At some point, it will bring in a nice chunk of change for that couple. I hope the new owner knows, though, that what is worn is far more precious than a pretty coat, but that what keeps her warm is a bit of magic with which a new coat can’t possibly compete.
The Paramount Theater in Oakland, www.paramounttheatre.com/history.html an appropriate venue for a musician who plays music from the Art Deco period, was built in the '30's and restored to its original glory and is a sight in itself. Last night, though, it was filled with fans of a singer and orchestra that played big band music in German and English from days gone by. Appropriately, the fans, many of whom looked like this music could have been just a decade or so older than they, were dressed in everything from authentic period vintage, to costumes that appeared to be purchased November 1st, at half off the regular price. You know. Like in a bag. Like from Halloween. Like, yes, I can be snarky.
Even my outfit got its comment or two-- mine, well, I wear this stuff sometimes-- it is regular clothing for me. The dress was from the 50s, I believe, and Cuban heeled stockings were a modern take on a 40's theme, and the cashmere coat was what I put on when I am cold. And it is about 70 years old. And in perfect condition. The shoes-- second time around Ferragamo shoes are hard to date. The style just doesn't change. Who knows how old those are.
So, spangles and sequins abounded. As well as feathers in hats and in hair. Bad taste in vintage still looks like bad taste; but good taste in vintage can really rock. One lady, about my size, rocked it. An understated 40's suit in a rust with a cute hat that wasn't too out there. The right hair and the right shoes. Nicely done without going over the top. One young woman was stunning in her gown from the San Francisco Opera rummage sale (yes, Richard complimented her, and she couldn't help but tell us where she got it) and a simple up-do. Both women proving that you don't have to be tall and lithe to stand out of you have a bit of taste.
But my favorites were were the ladies who danced to these hits in their youth. I saw more than one who looked like they simply dug into the back of their closets and found the clothes they wore way back when. Vintage ladies wearing their own clothes.
The pre-show, though enlightening to watch, was only there because of one man and the orchestra who backed him up. Oh, to be Max Raab.
First impressions remind me of Fred Astair, after all, he is about the same size, has the lithe grace of a dancer and wears his clothes much the same. He has too, the manner of an introvert who is confident in his abilities and skill and in the skill of those extraordinary musicians who back him up.
So, Max can drape. And he can look both masculine and decorative as he drapes. He can also project both humility and confidence with his 3/4 stance at the microphone; his posture sharing the stage with the musicians who seem able to play any instrument they pick up.
The wry humor, the inexplicable pauses at which the audience laughs, though I doubt they know why, the raised eyebrow that sends the audience back into uncertain titters-- his comedic timing, with a deadpan face, is spot on.
But we come for the music. The Palast Orchestra, all men except for a strikingly lovely violinist, seem to be old school musicians who can pick up a variety of instruments and make them sing; some even show they can sing, themselves. The pleasant baritone and the amazing falsetto Max has trips through complicated lyrics with ease.
What a treat to watch for those two or so hours, a group with so much respect for each other and the music they play.
This is Richard's Chinatown, the one the tourists know nothing about, and the one we visit as often as we can. The long and hectic day of work on a day that many take off, prompted the suggestion that we walk the city. No agenda, nothing we have to do, just find a place to park, take the camera, and see the city through his eyes.
Sometimes, in various parts of town, we encounter some of the celebrities of San Francisco; the nattily dressed Frank, who protests against Obama, Clinton, Bush and The 12 Galaxies. Once we encountered the twins, Marian and Vivian Brown, two ladies in their 90's who dress to the nines and serve as hostesses at Saks Fifth.
This walk, we encountered two of the legendary San Francisco inhabitants; the last communist in China Town, and who now shouts to passers bye his communist doctrine in a cheerful voice, and Elvis, who keeps the tradition of beat poetry of North Beach alive by writing on masking tape on the sidewalk.
Richard knows most of them. He stops, he argues baseball with Elvis and discusses the local news with Frank. They recognize him, or pretend to, and banter with him before we move on.
We were lucky to park on Waverly, an alley in Chinatown. Well, not really an alley as in, there is no room, but alley as in, "this isn't quite a street, and there sure isn't much parking, but we got a spot anyway", kind of alley. Richard points to a kelly, almost lime green building, one of the nicer buildings in China town, and tells me it is the X gang, also known as a benevolent society. He points down the street to show me the home of the rival gang. Between the buildings are others, and Richard reads the signs to me; social organizations to help families, a temple, a bakery.
Ross street is an alley. A real one. We poke our heads into the fortune cookie factory. While Richard shares words with the worker, I munch on warm, flat cookies. There isn't much to see in there. Nearby, the closed and shuttered off interior with the lights on behind the blanket at the door is a sweat shop, I am told. I hear the clatter of many sewing machines. We walk by the Chinese opera house to see when the next performance is, and we drive by the Buddhist temple to see many, many white, older people smiling and leaving. Could have been the local Baptist church on a Sunday afternoon, only it is a Buddhist temple. In Chinatown.
Into North Beach for dinner. Wine, souffle, more wine, more souffle. Lots of laughter. Dinner was perfect, as was the evening. We return to our car and hear the opera, the karaoke and the clatter of gambling tiles hitting the table. The green house glows in the dark. Unmistakably, China Town.
When I was young, I knew I was a bit of a dreamer... even something of a closet firebrand. ready to go off when the time was right. Security was an anathema and freedom was a life goal. And like Frank, I wanted to live my life with no regrets.
Mostly, I have. I have done things and gone places so many just wish about, and even more shudder in recoil.
But with everything comes a price and I do my best to hold up my end and not regret. I wanted to invest what ever resources I had into me, not stuff. I wanted to make me the most interesting person I know. And so, security fell by the wayside, dropped like a dull acquaintance.
Packing again, after so many places I have packed and unpacked. Each time, I want to say that the next one, the next one will be the I won't have to pack up again. I stare at the boxes and hate them for the anchor they represent.
Here I am, the third house I have bought and sold, and I am just turning my back on it. It holds few memories I want to keep and many, many that were too terrible to ponder.
Other people have done it, got up and started over, and over again. And I know I can do it, and I know it will get better. I am looking forward to the little place with no space. I will pack all my things up and tuck them away to open them, like Christmas, when I have more space. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I can learn to live with less and less, and find more joy knowing that stuff anchors you.
Something comes with this wanderlust I have-- this streak of independence and curiosity and zest for knowing and seeing it all. I have to pay in ways I never knew I would.
But then again, I get to see the world.
I got a chance to love again
when others are given none.
If chances are meted out
then mine are more than done
though none I took for granted
and each one added life
this time I will treasure
the joy, as well as strife
I have learned from the two,
those that have gone before
I treasure what I've shared with them,
good memories to adore.
But now I have my forever friend,
and the one I want to keep
together we will grow old
and intimacy we will reap.
He is all I ever wanted
and a surprise, you know its true
he has taught me how to love again
and my heart how to renew
as chances go, this is my last
with luck I give up my rights
I only want to be with him
for all remaining nights.
So if I've any more chances
and I've one remaining, due
I give my rights to you, my friend,
and hope you can also bid,
your loneliness adieu.
When trust is stolen behind
the ugly veil of dark,
guilt replaces self esteem,
and shame will find its mark.
When evil creeps into the room
of a sleeping little girl,
it leaves behind unspeakable
knots that won't unfurl.
In this, the evil is palatable,
one living, sucking hell
trust is its own nectar,
and in selfish lust it dwells.
Forced to make decisions that
no innocent should know,
the father she so wants to hate
yet love refused to go.
She wraps her little girl
into the safest place inside
tucking her deeply in
from everyone to hide.
Finally so precious are
those who force her to deny
the lies that she repeated
with no courage to defy.
The purging is too painful
and few can through it live
some endure and for themselves
find the power to forgive.