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Letter To San Francisco

Dearest bitch by the bay, when a best friend John suggested we meet in your bosom to spend a few leisurely days, I thought of the new fifty-eight story skyscraper of multi-million-dollar condos at 301 Mission called “the leaning tower of lawsuits”, because six hundred and forty-five feet of reinforced concrete wrapped in gleaming glass has sunk seventeen inches, and is listing an alarming foot and a half to the southwest imperiling multitudes of your innocent. Here we have whopping irony, dear, that the foundation of this soaring monument to mega-bucks, instead of being deeply anchored on bedrock, rests shallower in shifting sand below rubble from your 1906 earthquake.

Too, I recalled a recent experience driving south on the 101 from your teeming hilly centrum on my way to the airport. I was negotiating densely packed seventy mile an hour traffic, the sort of conditions that boost all my senses to red alert, when I suddenly saw in my rearview a black Mercedes approaching like a djinn from hell, swerving and diving between gaps in the speeding traffic. Then in a millisecond the apparently crazed fool at the wheel nearly sideswipes me, loses control of his car and careens off the right shoulder, then goes airborne and ends up crashed somewhere high in the wall of ivy and live oak that borders the freeway. I fully expected two and a half tons of wreckage to come cascading down into the lanes and cause unimaginable havoc and carnage, but no, thank God, the jerk stayed stuck in the brush. On my way I went, shaken to the core, wondering what he was going to tell the cops.

So now you’ll understand my reply to John was to suggest merger in a venue I regard as less frenetic than yours. I mentioned Morro Bay and Vancouver Island. Can’t do it, he said, we have reservations and Jeannie’s looking forward to the cool touristy things she remembers warmly from her last time in The City twenty-five years ago, like riding the cable car, like having an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista, like shopping at Macy’s on Union Square, like, you know. Yeah, I know John, we’ve been friends for fifty years, I know, you know, we all know.

What is there to do but give my assent? Gwen and I make (shudder) commercial airline reservations from Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport (we live in Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula) to SFO. I won’t bore you with ugly details involving what it takes to drive to the airport in Seattle from our home on the west side of Puget Sound, but when it comes to a congested metro traffic nightmare Greater Seattle is right in there, dear lady, with yours. And what more is there to say about the tyranny of flying commercially? You become human baggage in a digital system that makes fascism seem to shine with benevolence. On our return we encounter the least of all possible inconvenience Alaska Airlines can lay on their highly valued passengers: Our early morning flight is cancelled, no reason, no notice. No worries though. We’re in the computer to take another flight that leaves a mere four hours later.

We figured it would be great for the four of us to stay together at the same hotel in The City a far better writer than I once described as “49 square miles surrounded by reality”. It’s not to be. John and Jeannie are booked at The Marines’ Memorial Hotel on the corner of Sutter and Mason which I try but is full, no vacancy. I manage to reserve a room for Gwen and me at The Marker, a new smartly renovated version of the old Monaco closely located two blocks down on Geary. Close these days is a big win.

Immediate semper fi epiphany: I’ve been in the city dozens of times in this little 76-year life of mine. Never even heard of the 138-room Marines’ Memorial Hotel. It opened on the Marine Corps birthday in November 1946 in a 12-story brick building that stands straight and true as a drill instructor a few blocks from Union Square. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General A.A. Vandegrift, designated it a “living memorial” providing “a tribute to those who have gone before, and a service to those who carry on”. Every floor including the spacious lobby has impressive galleries of photos, artifacts, maps, charts, medals, citations, certificates, posters, plaques and dioramas that honor the valorous history of “The Proud, The Few”. Gracing the 11th floor is the General E.O. Ames Library and Museum, a magisterial wood-paneled retreat shelved with 4000 volumes of U.S. military history from the Revolutionary War to present day Afghanistan, well lit with cushy chairs and warmed by a fireplace should you wish to sit comfortably and read for a week which I felt distinctly the desire to do.

The last meal served to me (read: slopped on my plate in the mess hall) when I was a young hero in an infantry unit stationed at Fort Ord in 1960, was shit-on-a-shingle, creamed chipped beef on toast, which I admit I loved, but was a far cry from the haute cuisine, including the best Oysters Rockefeller I’ve ever encountered, and expertly herb roasted free range organic chicken plump and juicy, served with breathtaking grace and elegance in the Leatherneck Steakhouse on the uppermost 12th floor of the Marines’ Memorial, with a wonderful view of The City to boot. Who knew the Marines have lodging and dining that rival the very best in SF?

Gwen and Jeannie want to go shopping, so the dutiful, considerate guys we are, off we go to the epicenter of that activity, Union Square. We approach here the 79-foot-tall granite shaft with Winged Victory atop that memorializes the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish American War. The unambiguous order deeply engraved in the stone always stirs my history-loving guts: “Secretary of the Navy John D. Long to Commodore George Dewey April 24, 1898. War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to the Philippine Islands and capture or destroy the Spanish Fleet”. Later that year on July 1, he who would become President Theodore Roosevelt, he who dedicated this memorial in April 1903, leads his 1st. U.S. Volunteer Cavalry of Rough Rider cowboys and college students in a charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba through withering Mauser fire, an experience TR would refer to later and often as “my swollen moment” in a “splendid little war”. 

We walk down the crowded gilded thoroughfare of Post Street and encounter people wearing sandwich boards lettered big in bold face with “Gump’s Going Out of Business – 30% to 40% off -- Bankruptcy Sale!”. Can it be that a landmark San Francisco emporium that has been retailing high end fashions, jewelry and furnishings since the Civil War is going down so ignominiously? Business reporters are in agreement on reason that tastes and values in the luxury market are changing. One wrote “No one wants to buy pearls and jade anymore”. As the four of us enter the store I couldn’t help but wonder if an age of mindless consumptive materialism was ending, perhaps a silly thought, but it intensified when I see a huge golden statue of Buddha seated centrally, solidly, on Gump’s first floor bearing His enigmatic facial expression evocative of “One who is awake”.

But we soldier on, we the loyal mates of our inveterate shopping queens. Iconic pricey Macy’s, aisles teeming on every floor, seems not to be hurting a bit for business. And at Swarovski’s Jewelry there is for sale an $8900.00 Star Wars Stormtrooper Helmet described as a “limited edition masterpiece” that glitters with nineteen hundred crystals. Just outside the entrance of Swarovski’s at the crowded intersection of Geary and Powell I unintentionally kick off the sidewalk a paper cup full of change that is at the feet of a homeless man reclining there against a post in urine-stained khaki pants. He looks at me for a moment with rheumy-eyed hatred before I bend over and retrieve every sticky coin one by one and replace them in his cup, adding a dollar bill I pull hurriedly from my wallet.

A coffee break seems required so we head away from the square down Maiden Lane to Montgomery Street. We enter the Palace Hotel. John has mentioned desire to view Maxfield Parrish’s “The Pied Piper”, a sixteen by six-foot mural of astonishing light that has been the backdrop of the Palace bar since 1909, commissioned three years earlier in the aftermath of the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Though the bar is closed in the early afternoon, as we sit and sip under the huge glass dome of the spacious lounge that is an atrium the size of a cathedral, our gracious hostess assents to unlock the oaken doors of the bar and allow us a private showing of the famous masterwork. Not long ago, in 2013, the corporate geniuses who run the hotel came to a venal decision to send the painting obviously worth millions to New York to Christie’s to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, under the thin guise of a plan to “re-invent the décor of the bar”. Public outrage, including the mayor’s, and presumably God’s, ultimately prevailed and the day was won.

We board a passenger-jammed cable car (who among ten million SF tourists doesn’t?) and ride to its streaming terminus between Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf: An Irish at the Buena Vista? Check. A sinful hot fudge in Chocolate Land? Check. Buy a black and white prison stripe nightshirt lettered on the breast with “Outpatient Alcatraz Psycho Ward” from a kitsch souvenir joint? Check. Stroll through the maritime museum for a look at The Bay before the Bridges, when Italian fishermen in their feluccas were the traffic? Check. And not too surprisingly, in a venue where the unexpected is mundane, view from bayside bleacher seats a trio of beautiful Hawaiian girls performing their Hula, their grass skirts swinging, accompanied by live traditional chanting and drumbeats. Check.

We jump in a cab. Jeannie’s bucket list includes the Seven Painted Ladies, a row of colorful Victorian houses on Steiner Street across from the high grassy knoll of Alamo Square in the Haight. Our cabbie mistakenly unloads us, albeit nearby “Postcard Row”, on another street of Victorians, where we meet residents Dave and Ernie and their little dog Scout. Dave and Ernie kindly stuff John, Jeannie, Gwen and me, together with themselves and Scout, into their late model compact Beemer designed for four, and ferry us to the real deal. Wasn’t Scout Holden Caulfield’s dog in “Catcher in The Rye?”, John asks me. No schmuck, she was his sister. The much photographed and filmed street lined with pastel antiquity as we view it from on high in Alamo Square is in smashing contrast with the panorama of the towering modern skyline of The City that looms beyond. 

We’re far from alone here. The green square on a gloriously sunny day is loaded with picnicking families, women pushing strollers, kids playing ball, a newly married pair taking selfies in their wedding attire, a couple of models posing for a fashion shoot, the usual. Then I see what is clearly the unusual: A middle age man lying on his back attired in nothing but a polka dot skull cap, sunglasses and an undergarment so much briefer than a jockstrap I can only call it a member sock, with his member obviously rising in various states of tumescence as he observes passersby, who seem to be paying no attention to the uber exhibitionism, or regarding it as just another day in a Bay Area park.

Sunday morning I’ve got a dim sum breakfast in mind. When the four of us re-unite at the Marine’s Hotel I ask a lovely Chinese lady housekeeper, where’s the best place to go in Chinatown? I ask her to write it down in Chinese. She smiles beautifully, and carefully writes the name of a restaurant on Jackson in perfect Chinese logograms, and says it’s Obama’s favorite. Off we go to Chinatown which is more jammed with people and traffic than ever I’ve experienced. Many blocks of Grant Avenue the main thoroughfare are off limits to vehicles because of an elongated stationary procession of Moon Cake vendor’s carts offering the holiday favorite. Dumb me didn’t know it’s Moon Day, the second biggest celebration in China after the Chinese New Year, one that fetes mid-Autumn in legend after legend about what hits your eye like a big pizza pie. I lead Gwen and Jeannie and John through the throngs holding up my little piece of paper inscribed with the three Chinese characters. Kind people point their fingers down Jackson, we recognize the Chinese characters on a sign that reads in English GREAT EASTERN RESTAURANT, and guess who’s broadly smiling presidential countenance is taped on the window? The dim sum is fabulous, especially my braised chicken feet and Gwen’s baby octopi.

We schedule our final evening meal together in an institution I’ve enjoyed on special occasions with family, best friends, business associates, college buddies, acquaintances and lovers for fifty years. The Tadich Grill, San Francisco’s oldest restaurant, has been opening its doors since 1849 through wars, fires, earthquakes and a Great Depression. The waiters I know, John, Marion, Stefan and others I’m told, have spent decades-long professional careers here, and I say professional because there’s rare high art in the grace and style and manner and true affection and tradition involved in serving great cooking that’s to say the least, memorable. And here it comes, a bowl of perfectly steamed clams in rich, buttery garlic broth in which to dip fresh warm sourdough, and expertly pan-fried sand dabs caught hours ago, crisp around the edges, brought to the table whole fish, bone-in, un-fileted as they’re favored on the plate back home in Slovenia.

There was the advertising campaign of a premium whiskey that ran some years ago here in the land of the free. The brand name escapes me at the moment but the headline remains. The good things stay that way. Even in San Francisco, especially in San Francisco, it’s as true as a sunrise.

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