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North Beach

28 Nov

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(This piece resulted from inspiration provided by my friend and blogger Karen Fayeth.) when she wrote about an enjoyable

Change: "Halal Trattoria" featuring pizza, curry and naan. But continuity still: food has always been central to the North Beach experience

evening in San Fransisco’s North Beach.

Continuity: Gino & Carlo. 100 year old North Beach dive

If San Francisco were only North Beach, it would still be San Francisco;  San Francisco without North Beach would be somewhere else.   Over the years, the City’s Italian enclave has contracted and changed, but it’s core reains, as real and welcoming as ever.

 

 

 

Low rents are just a distant, mythical memory.

Originally populated by immigrants from Sicily and the Mezzogiorno who

The best salami anywhere. One of the old line businesses still running.

had come to fish the bay, a community grew that met all there needs, and drew others attracted to good food, low rent, and stunning views.

I was seven, up with my folks from LA when I first remember going to North Beach.  My mother had an old bachelor Irish uncle who had led a rough life of ups and downs, following the gold rushes in Australia and the Klondike, busting cattle up around Lassen, and over around Tonopah.  He remembered the 1916 eruption vividly.  During the war, he had finally settled down to a job in the merchant marine, and ended up with a decent seaman’s pension.  He had a small apartment on Upper Grant, with a view of the Bay and Alcatraz.  We spent a part of the afternoon with him instructing me on the nomenclature, cargoes, destinations and origins of the vessels cleaving that heartbreakingly blue bay.

Most of the places on this stretch of Green Street have been there for decades, and some even longer. I had friends who insisted on going to Caffe Sport for the Sicilian seafood, but the waiters were insufferably rude, so much so that their antics appeared often in Herb Caen's columns in the Chronicle.

Later we took him to the Gold Spike, one of those family style eateries of

The Gold Spike closed some years ago. I appropriated this image from Devin Mc Cutcheon's lovely memoir; like me, and countless others, he knew he was a San Franciscan before he ever got there.

which there were many then, providing food and company for not only the large Italian families on a night out, but the many single men, Italian and Basque mostly, who lived in the boarding houses around there. My mother had an unmarried cousin, also Irish, who traveled the world as an English teacher and governess, and she had just come in on Matson from Australia via Honolulu. It was an evening full of traveler’s tales from her, my grand uncle and my former merchant seamen dad. I knew then that I would one day live in San Francisco, and it was to me the gateway to the world beyond its horizon.

 

Tosca: Smoky red light and opera. Ther always seemed to be a bearded guy in a beret trying to impress a woman of a certain age dresed in formal black and pearls.

When I started college in Santa Clara, some fifty miles to the south in ’67, it was obligatory to go to Broadway in North Beach and see a topless show.  The semi nudity had been a nationwide sensation the year before.  Later, some wine, cheese, and fresh bread were a cheap date meal in the park before going on to Winterland or the Filmore. In late spring North Beach evenings would be alive with hippy freaks, beatnik holdouts, and prom goers in from the suburbs for dinner before the big night at the Mark or the Fairmont.

The Condor Club, on Boadway's "Silicone Strip," where Carol Doda unvelied her massive implants.

In the early seventies I did move to “the City ” and for a while led a rather solitary life as I worked in lowly jobs.  North Beach was a place where one with little money could idle away hours and days in the park and then dine decently for a few dollars, at Places like the U.S. restaurant, and then drink in a café until late.  A favorite of mine was the Bohemian Cigar store, later tarted up a bit, but entirely genuine then.

The Bohemian Cigar Store is actually a small cafe. Elderly Italian men congregated there to read the papers from Italy, play backgammon and chess, or just stare into their apertivos. They did sell a selection of American cigars. No smoking today, not even on the sidewalk in front.

The attractive matron behind the bar, a north Italian blond, would when the urge took her, break into an aria as the old men who filled the place drinking coffee, red wine , playing dominoes, and reading weeks old Italian newspapers, stopped and listened, then applauded quietly, but sincerely,
She was usually the only woman there.  One rainy night, two young women came in the door, flushed with the excitement of a night out, gaudy but fetching in the kind of late, high hippie style of the moment – scarves, layers and colors, india print, and little at all in the way of foundation garments. They were there just to buy cigarettes. The old men‘s faces lit up with what I would

Now just another bump and grind joint, The Hungry I once hosted beat poets, and comedians like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen, as well as jazz and folk acts in the late 50s and early 60s.

describe as a benign lust, not at all offensive. Quite kindly, I thought, as the girls preened a bit, adjusted their wraps, displaying bare arms and a bit of bosom.  They smiled, and one of them gave a saucy wave as they left.
In time, with a decent  job and more income, and a collection of college friends working in town, North Beach became a favorite destiatin for weekend fun, with food, drinks and

U.S. Restaurant. The bread was always a bit stale, but you could eat for south of five bucks in the early 70s.

entertainment all in a compact area.

Late, boozy nights.  When the weather was warm, it didn’t matter that the next morning was a work day. A “Warm San Francisco Night” is never to be wasted.  Up on Grant, the Saloon had rock and booze; and the outdoor tables at Savoy-Tivoli were always thronged with gorgeous women.  Green Street throbbed to the Latin rhythms coming from Cesar’s club.  For later night reflection , there was Tosca on Broadway, with it’s dark wood bar and paneling, plush red banquettes and a juke box stocked with opera and bel canto. At 1:55 am, a mad rush to a combination liquor and porn store on Grant for a six or a bottle to keep the fun going.

In additon to great family places, and elegant date restuarants, North Beach has always had a place for the solitary tipler. This place had a jukebox loaded with 40s and 50s ballads, and a collection of old rummies that seemed to live there. I peeked in recently, and it looked like the same cast as in my youth, except that I would fit in nicely now.

Crusty loaves, sweet pastries

For anyone with a yen to travel, but short of the fare, North Beach at the confluence of China Town and little Italy, was a city trip abroad.  A walk up Stockton Street past the fish markets and Peking Duck places was a taste of Kowloon; cross Broadway as the scents changed from pungent Asian to Italian coffee and pastry. You could stock your pantry for the culinary voyages that stood in for the ones you couldn’t yet take in the real world

Capp's on GreenStreet and Vallejo. For me, a faorite for family dinners and boys nights out. I had my 40th birthday celebration here. One afternoon, I was drinking early, when a couple in full bicycle regalia stopped in, demanding Evian to go, wrinkling their noses and commenting loudly at the cigarette smoke. The bartender served them, then gave me a light, and rolled his eyes as he tapped half an inch of ash off his Camel. Who had the last laugh?

Later, my college buddies and I liked to buy a jug at Coit Liquors, sit in the park at night, talking, drinking and smoking late as the windows of the down town towers, and the cheery lights of cozy apartments, all seemed to hold our not yet lived stories; everything and anything was possible.  One could commune with  spirits of the Beats, who had dreamed here too, before they found their ways, or disappeared entirely, to drugs or drink, or ordinary lives.

Over the years, we’ve returned there many times, lately looking back, not forward, but one thing that for me hasn’t changed is that North Beach is and always was, about dreams, dreams of life, yet to be lived, or lived well and sweetly past.

We will pass from the scene, but North Beach will remain, and others will follow us there, to live and dream, as did those before us.

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‘53 Plymouth “Prices Slightly Higher West of the Rockies.”

18 Sep

 

It’s hard to imagine now that the US was once a not quite unified market a few decades ago.  Restrictive work rules and collusion between the rail roads meant shipping costs were high.   The interstate trucking industry had not been born.  There was no interstate.   So we in the western states paid a premium for manufactured goods from the distant East.

53 Plymouth : the two-tone was more expensive. We got the basic model, in basic black.

My parents had begun their married life with a ‘37  Ford coupe.  My father

My Dad's 37 Ford Coupe didn't look quite this good after he fixed it up.

had bought it for $35 off blocks, rebuilt the engine with help from a friend – they were not  mechanics, but could tinker, and together they got it running.- knocked out the dings and painted it pea green. It was getting harder to squeeze my brother and me into the space behind the single seat.  Among other places, they had driven it – and us – to Canada reaching as far north as Chicoutimi, where the road north stopped short of Hudson‘s Bay..  Among my few  memories of that trip  is waiting to be seated, all dressed up, at the Château Frontenac in Quebec, quite impressed by the waiter captain in his uniform, and the velvet rope he pulled aside for us.  And, perhaps to make up for the extravagance of such a meal, dining on peanut butter sandwiches in the garret room we rented in the eh old quarter of the Cite.  Perhaps I black out being sandwiched in the back space for seven thousand odd miles. And somewhere in  backcountry Quebec a curving road thorough dark forest, with occasional hamlets with general stores, ands tatty souvenir stands, a landscape I recognized instantly when I read “Surfacing.“ My parents decided to buy a ‘53 Plymouth, new.  They would pay cash, as they did for everything, except homes. By ordering the car direct from the plant and picking it up in Detroit, substantial savings were possible, savings that would pay for a trip east for my mother and her two sons, where her only brother and sibling was to marry. She was desperately homesick. The nearest rail stop was in Argus, at the western edge of the Mojave  The Santa Fe would stop if there were passengers or freight.  Argus seemed like a big city: There was a main street lined with two story shops and offices,  and a stoplight or two, a few side streets with small houses with green lawns, a strange sight after Trona’s sandy lots, all huddled together for a few blocks in the immense desert. Again, my memories are clear short shots, in and out with out fade or continuity, like the clear pictures that  dot a blackout bender. So I don’t remember the departure, only staring out the window as the train snaked through rocky canyons, snow melt roaring below.  The brilliant orange and red train so long that half of it disappeared around curves. It was endlessly fascinating. I loved trains, waved to engineers as they went by, and now I was on the most glorious of all, the Santa Fe.

The train was so long tha part of it disapeared as it took a bend.

My mother spent most of the time with her nose in a book.  Years later she told me that we were no trouble at all, spending or waking or looking out the window, and preening as old ladies patted us and said how cute we were.  It was the first time since her marriage, she said, that she had really had time to read. The books were Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” and Carson McCuller’s “Ballad of the Sad Café,” authors she introduced me to a decade later when she thought I was mature enough. We slept in our seats. Strangely, I remember staring at a rather dirty, and disgusting antimacassar on the seat in front of me. The railroads never did regain their prewar eminence in service, but air travel was still out of reach of most.    I don’t recall being served by smiling back waiters in the dining car, as most accounts of similar trips of the time mention. Knowing my mother, we probably ate slightly stale sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper all the way,  I do remember the conductor calling out the stations: Kingman, Gallup( which I heard as gallop, and so thought I would see horses) Albuquerque, and more. In Chicago, the huge echoing station, then a taxi across town to the Northwestern train for Detroit.  And my brother’s inconsolable grief as he realized that the departing cab bore away his momentarily  forgotten, but beloved stuffed chimpanzee. An identical replacement was quickly purchased in New York, named Zippy, as was his predecessor, and survived for many decades. There had been many soldiers on the train from California, some sleeping in the aisles.  There were more on this one, coming home from Korea at last.  When the conductor announced “Battle Creek, Battle Creek,”  I started awake and looked out to the darkness,  expecting war. Then morning, a clear blue sky,  as clutching our hands, my mother walked us across a vast parking lot,  with the blank and slightly scary factory buildings in the distance, past endless rows of shining cars, and then, checking the invoice, stopped by one, fished keys from her purse, and let us in. Night. My brother sleeps, his head in my lap, as I crane to see ahead through the window.  My mother is silhouetted in the light from the dashboard and soft music plays from the radio. We drive through empty streets, and then we rise on a brightly lit structure, great stone towers rising into the night, climb to the middle and looking across  to the skyline along the inky water, my mother sings out, ”Brooklyn!” As my grandfather carried me, mostly asleep, up the steps of the house where my mother grew up,  I felt immeasurably happy, somehow sensing, I believe now, that we had crossed a great distance, and that my country was vast, and full of wonder.

Out of the Desert

17 Sep

In the gathering dusk, bats flit through  the garden, and the great cumulo-nimbus clouds  of the tropics turn pink in the fading light of another perfect Bali day.  Half a world, and more than half a century away from my earliest memories, on an equatorial evening,  I wonder if life is a truly a  path as I remember the Mojave.

1953 Rail Excursion to Indian Wells

Mid Century.  It’s unlikely I’ll see the next, which would be one year after I got my congratulatory centenarian phone call from the President.

I  think I may remember this day.  The excursion was to a place called Indian Wells  where there was a swimming  pool.  Living in the desert – without air conditioning – this was a great treat.

This picture is quintessentially 1950s,  the lads in front with their high school jackets and brylcream haircuts.

Mid century – the time of optimism with America  towering above the world as its people went about building prosperity after the war.  I was one statistic making up this picture, born as my father finished Stanford, present at his graduation.  Then he took a job at Trona, in the company town American Potash had built in Searle’s Valley, out in the Mohave.

And my mother.  Her mid calf dress, hair up with bobby pins.  I don’t know where my father was, but I guess  he was at the plant. The only camera he had at the time was the Kodak his father had taken to France in 1917, and which I later used.  It couldn’t have produced an image of this quality.  I have no idea who the older girl in braids was, but their were plenty of them like that in my primary school classes, some of whom I teased, and others I pined for.  The carriage must date from the30s at least, which makes for me this an evocation of an even more distant past.

My brother, on the left, went on to a very troubled life, now mercifully over.  My mother lived long and traveled widely.  Here she seems distracted,  looking perhaps across the sere dessert toward whatever future she imagined, or perhaps wondering how she had come to this place from the tree lined streets and tidy row houses of her Brooklyn neighborhood.   Did she see the open vistas, the empty desert expanses surrounded by low mountains open to an enormous expanse of sky,  as exile?.  Just before her wedding in ’47, she had gone to Europe, visiting relatives in Ireland and England, and seeing a bit of France where she also had friends.  She saw Elizabeth crowned.  Now, she was in a town of cinder block one story houses topped with nearly useless swamp

We lived in a house like this when we first arrived in Trona.

coolers, washing my father‘s khakis stained with chemical spills that would today cause an EPA shutdown.  Her washer was from the twenties, agitator tub and hand cranked rinsing rollers.  Back in Brooklyn, her mother had always sent the laundry out to the Chinese place.

It’s hard  now to comprehend the isolation of such a town.  The nearest dentist was in San Bernardino, hours away on a baking two lane highway.  Motorists carried canvas water bags for overheated engines.  There was no TV.  We listened to the radio.

The Plant. Trona was established as a company town. The population has fallen, as workers now commute from Ridgecrest and China Lake.

In time my father was promoted and we moved to a larger frame house with high ceilings and  a shaded porch.  I don’t remember being hot, but in the summer we had to come in at nine in the morning, and were not allowed out again until four.  That was when my brother and I would run to the plant gates at the end of the street to meet my father, taking turns standing on his shoe tops, and holding on as he galumphed towards home, making giant noises, grumbling, and huffing.

The desert heat may have confined us at times, but the land was also a gateway to freedom, exploration that began in the back yard when we were very little and around town later.  In the yard were salt cedars that were home to noisy and personable jays, and the sand and scrub bushes sheltered lizards and horned toads.  You could have a stare down with a toad as he craftily, bit by bit, wiggled back into the sand to get away from you, or just catch and release.  The lizards were too fast.

Out on the golf course( sand fairways, oiled sand for greens, no water hazards, but plenty of sand traps) we found gila monsters, watching them with a delicious frisson of fearful excitement;  here was poison, danger, and even death, still only an interesting abstract concept.

Not only was the animal life fascinating, but the desert had its own unique human denizens.  The Mohave never had a lot of precious metals, but there had been some short-lived strikes, and not far were there were the gold mining towns of Red Mountain and Randsburg, where rock rats to this day look for that big vein that everyone else has missed.   There had also been a major boom in borax mining in nearby Death Valley, in the late 19th century( the source of the radio, and later TV show Death Valley Days, hosted by, among others, Ronald Reagan), and other mineral extraction operations in the neighboring Panamint and Searle’s valleys followed.

My parents liked to mess around out in the desert, collecting  detritus left by the miners:  tools, bits of harness, water jugs and canteens, and sun struck glass.  And they collected old timers and odd characters as well, striking up conversations with them when they came into town, and having them over for a beer.  One was Indian Joe, a Shoshone who said little, mostly nodding and smiling to himself as rolled his own with one hand.  I remember his leathery copper skin, and grey pony tail.  In town he was always neatly dressed, with a string tie and western shirt.

Not so neat, actually quite filthy,  was Seldom Seen Slim, a semi-recluse who lived in the town of Ballarat, already abandoned when he moved there around 1917.  I remember seeing him  a number of times in the general store where my Dad would take us for a popsicle or soda.  I call him a semi- recluse because in town, he was a non stop talker.  He was a one time experiment as a guest; way too dirty for my mother, but we saw him a number of times when we went to Ballarat.

My father had a friend who also greatly enjoyed these forays, a rock hound and small plane pilot.  He had  a daughter,  with braids, of course, and I remember liking her a lot.  We would skip along trails and scramble over rocks together.

Evening.  We have driven somewhere in the hills up a gravel road, and stopped in a grassy bowl surrounded by tumbled heaps of rock, rounded boulders stacked into monstrous  shapes  that seemed to live in the growing shadows.   My father and his friend punched a couple of Schlitz and leaned against the car.  The sun vanished, leaving an amber glow crowning the rocks, and the sky changed from deep cobalt to purple.   I remember a feeling of immense well being, one that I have since occasionally felt again, one that stems from a perfect unity of place and moment,  and as we grow older, the more poignant for the knowledge that it cannot last.  But not then.

Another time, also up in the hills.  I don’t know who the people we were  visiting were.  Theirs was a fairly well watered place.  They ran some stock, and lived in a  house set in a grassy meadow, with smaller but still intriguing piles of boulders all about,  and rusted hulks of ancient automobiles, as  well as even older horse drawn farm equipment providing ample opportunities to nose about.

They had some kids, quite a few, and after an initial stare off we ran off together with some of them as the adults sat on the porch.  The one story ranch house was plank built,  long and weathered.  In the kitchen,  the lady of the house and some older daughters laughed as they worked.

In the after glow of sunset,  one of the older boys took out a guitar.  The others joined in song and the music drew us back, kids sitting on the steps as the grownups talked between songs, drew on their beers, and some smoked companionably, the flare of a passed march traveling in the darkening gloom.

Then we were called in for dinner, a thick stew, fragrant with celery and carrots.  There was white bread and butter, green beans, sweet pickles, ice tea for the kids, beer out of the can for the grownups.

Some time after that, my Dad’s friend invited us for a spin around the valley.  The plane was a two- seater, unpainted metal, its silvery skin riveted together.   I had to crawl over the wing to get into the cockpit.  I was wearing shorts, and either the hot metal, or the sharp edge of a rivet – something hurt  me, and I began crying uncontrollably.  So I was left on the ground and my Dad went up.

On the way home I cried again, from regret, and promised to be braver next time.  My father said there would be another chance and I would wear dungarees so it would be easier climbing aboard.

Two weeks later his friend flew into the side of a mountain.  The girl and her mother moved to Riverside.  We saw them there some years later, but she and I were no longer little kids.  And there were no rocks or meadows, just low houses on long streets where the utility poles converged at a featureless horizon.

I still dream of the desert.  The shadows in a hidden draw, with a clear pool at the end .  Sometimes a gently rising road between distant low mountains, the white line rising to  meet the sky,  or antelope leaping across the  plains copper in the long twilight.