If You’re Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Get Drunk, Mourn, and Move On
A week ago today I woke up hungover. My hangovers not only include physical pain, but they tend to come with emotional duress as well. A lot’s been going on. We’ve got 45’s lies, increased COVID-19 infections and deaths, a global racial reckoning, climate fires and hurricanes. Add in family tension surrounding all of these issues and a pending move for my husband Dean and me.
The day before my hangover Dean and I drove from Sacramento, where we’ve lived since February 1st with my eighty-nine year old grandmother, to San Francisco. Like all of us, the Coronavirus pandemic has altered our lives, and aside from one trip to the beach, we haven’t been anywhere outside of Sac since March. We were giddy like kids on Christmas Eve, for many reasons. For one, we were alone, for 24 hours relieved of the care we give my grandmother (another story). For two, we both love San Francisco. Who doesn’t? I spent the first six years of my life in North Beach. For Dean, North Beach is a place he never wants to leave. And for three, we were shooting a music video.
I wrote the song on September 20th, according to my notes, and I know on that morning I was also hungover. Hmm. The song is about leaving California, the place Dean and I have lived for a combined forty-two years.
The idea to film in San Francisco just came, and we all know the power of the smart phone these days. To make this video, we decided, all we needed was an idea, a phone and ourselves. We were able to get all the footage we needed, and spend a night in the city, without ever being in the same room as another person.
Daylight savings had just ended and the skies began to slip into their Winter garb. The ocean and the beach were to be featured in the video, and given the fast sinking afternoon sun, we drove there first.
Crossing the Bay Bridge is always a thrill. Would it be the same if I crossed it every day? Or would traffic and commuting cloud my perception? The Bay unfolds in impossible beauty. Coit Tower rising softly from Telegraph Hill, marker of my earliest years. What happened to this city? Why can’t we live here anymore?
Off the freeway and we’re onto Fulton Street. Painted Victorians roll up and down with the hills. The University of San Francisco sings softly some holy chant, fingering a rosary and another time, a distant land. And then the park. All that Eucalyptus. They used to have opera in the park here, in the 1980s. My mother loved to go. It was free. I wonder if they still have it. For a brief moment as the green rolls past all is right and I can hear the voice of Maria Callas, “La mamma morta” assuaging my fast beating heart.
What happened to this city? Why can’t we live here anymore?
My mother worked as an architect in the 1980s, earning $32,000 a year in 1986, which is the equivalent to about $76,025 in 2020. Sounds pretty good to me. But it’s still below the median income level for families in SF in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which reports the number at $104,552. My mother was the single earner for our family. Supporting three children and a husband who cared for those children was not sustainable, even as an architect building and preserving this city, even in 1990.
There is the ocean. Endless. We turn North on the Great Highway, and find the golden ticket that any Californian will attest to — a parking spot. A FREE parking spot.
The air is cold, the wind rooted in a firm dance, all the beach its stage. A few folks play volleyball. A few more brave souls in wet suits disappear like seals with longboards into the waves. The beach is wide and long and affronts a colorful wall of graffiti to the east. Surely Fellini is groping around somewhere, draped in a cape, a camera in his hands.
We get what we need and walk North towards some rocks as the beach itself curves beneath the Cliff House restaurant. The Sutro Baths. Dean’s hair gone curly, thick and curly like Botticelli’s Angel of the Annunciation, with a few more years. My hands feel like icicles. I try to bury them in the small pockets of the jacket I wear, my grandfather’s leather flying jacket. It may be seventy years old; it certainly spent decades moulding itself to the hanger where it lives in his closet, alongside ties, shirts, jackets, shoes, socks, his entire wardrobe that my grandma has done neither this nor that to in the seven years since his death.
My grandpa joined the Air Force, thinking he would be drafted, at the start of the Korean War. Nobody seems to know what the Korean War was about. When asked, my grandma gives the text book, there were good guys and there were bad guys (no, she’s never heard of Camper Van Beethoven). Seems John Prine didn’t know, as he sings in one of my favorite songs of his, “Hello in There”. Seems Bruce Springsteen may not know, as he sings in his stupendously haunting “Youngstown”. Note to self: find out why the U.S. went to war with Korea.
If my grandpa was still alive, could he tell me? Would I be satisfied with his answer?
It’s strange, to be here on the beach in San Francisco, wearing this jacket. To be here on the edge of the land mass known as the Bay Area, where my family on my grandpa’s side has lived for more than a hundred and fifty years. And to wonder, what did we do this city? What do we do this city, to ourselves, to each other? Why can’t we live here anymore?
Has anyone seen The Last Black Man in San Francisco? If you haven’t, you really should.
Driving to North Beach where we will stay for the night. A surprisingly low rate at the Washington Square Inn on the corner of Stockton and Filbert. I’ve known it my whole life and never set foot inside. On the single occasion my dad’s mom traveled from Wichita to visit us, she stayed there. Only after booking the room did I learn it was also there where my parents spent their wedding night, quite possibly in the same room where Dean and I would pass the night.
We are lost in heartache with the city. Its sky pink and gray over Russian Hill, Saints Peter and Paul ominous at dusk as it is forgiving at dawn. And the room. Room number seven, with windows that cover every direction. Coit Tower up the hill to the east. Saints Peter and Paul to the west, Liguria Bakery right out the window to the north, Columbus Ave to the south. We’re entranced. The wine we buy at Coit Liquors and the dinner we take out from Da Flora deepens our intoxication, so we’re called back out of room to find one more glass of wine in the nine o’clock hour.
The streets are mostly deserted. Covid like Death in Venice. And everybody here wears a mask, even when walking alone outside. It’s encouraging to see, and I feel guilty if I walk a few steps without one. With the night comes more cold, but we cross the square anyway and catch the Da Flora folks, Jen and Darren, as they’re closing. They give us each a Super Tuscan in a plastic cup, in exchange for money of course. And when I mention my aunt who used to live around the corner on Powell, maybe eighteen years ago, Jen says, “Oh! You’re Laura’s niece? Oh my god she was just here. It was still so smoky then.” The fires. I don’t want to be reminded. “Emily’s such a grown up now. And I just saw Frank the other day. He musta been showing a building. I was like, Frank Remo?!”
These people know my family. The owners, the chef and business manager of this fine Italian inspired osteria in North Beach, San Francisco, know my family. For a moment, maybe I feel comfort. The leather jacket squeaks and we humbly accept our plastic cups of wine and turn back toward the square. Did I think then, a week ago, as I do now, my uncle, my aunt’s husband — last year he and his partner sold the most expensive residential building in the history of San Francisco. It was in the newspaper.
What happened to this city?
Why can’t we live here anymore?
Darling, you never had a chance.
For whatever reason, we sit on a bench in the deserted park, before the lit up Saints Peter and Paul. Looming. Ominous. Maybe if we become priests we could live here in the rectory. A terrible idea.
Dean starts telling me of a woman he knew before he knew me. She was in her forties, and wanted to be a star. A pop star. But she wanted Dean to write all her songs for her. And produce her record. Lillith. Dean sensed her delusion and his sympathy for her began to wear thin. Plus, he said, she was waiting for me to make a move.
Jeez, I say.
Dean continues. At first, for awhile there, I thought you were going to be like Lillith. But you’re not.
That hurt. In the moment. It’s not always been easy for us, making music together, and whatever I am, the last thing I want to be is delusional. The cold and the wine and the light from the church accelerated my feeling sorry for myself.
You’re not Lillith, he says. Not at all.
A group of seven young men, they look like boys really, carrying packs of beer, stroll past us. So young, excited, talking. No masks, and then and there I don’t want to admonish them, even to myself. Where are they going? Where have they been? Who are they crushing on? What songs did the love last year? What songs do they love now? And suddenly I imagine I am a very old lady with heavy cheeks, sat here on this cold bench in a large parka that covers my shapeless body. I don’t have anywhere to go. I live on these streets and my body swells to the heat and to the cold and my skin is thick like an alligator’s. People don’t really look at me, but I don’t mind. I look at them. I have my stories and I have the city. All the time. It’s beauty. I know its warm places and I know its dumpsters. And sometimes, I’ll call out to those boys, and they’ll stop and talk to me, and answer my questions, and sometimes, they’ll stay and listen to a story of my own. I’ll die with my stories and the beauty and the cold and that’s alright. Somehow I remember what the great Toni Morrison said, “At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to.”
This imaginary life painfully comforts me as I accept my husband’s former thoughts. I know I’m not Lillith, but the fear of delusion, Blanche DuBois, she’s never too far away. If it ever were to come to that, give me Teddy Brewster of the Arsenic and Old Lace ilk.
The next morning I wish I felt better. All through the night I’d wake, too hot, too cold, drinking water down. Two things had to be done before 9am. Feed the meter and get focaccia. At 8:45am I stumble outside, beat up, wishing for a ball cap to hide my face. The car is still there, with no ticket. That’s good. Seeing other people, seemingly so normal, makes me long for that myself. Just a nice morning in North Beach, feeling good. When I lived in New York, there was the occasional hangover day when I’d drift through the village and see a pregnant woman, face a glow, hair shiny and full, and think, you know, why not just walk in front of a taxi? Get it over with.
Liguria Bakery’s been on the corner of Stockton and Filbert for over a hundred years, and it’s been owned and operated by the Soracco family for all of those. It’s been a tradition in my family, for forty of those years, to get their focaccia bread whenever possible. That’s all they make. Liguria is closed much of August, they close at 2pm daily, and they usually sell out of focaccia by noon. So your window is not as big as you think. My dad tells me that Mike Soracco took him to the Italian Athletic Club once, down the street from Liguria, where they played basketball. There was a court in there, my dad says, with a ceiling high enough you didn’t even have to alter your shot.
My dad also tells me that Mike took him up into a building the Soracco family owned on the corner of Lombard and Stockton to show him an apartment they were going to rent. Views of the Golden Gate my dad says. Views.
What happened to us?
Why can’t we live here any more?
If my brain was functioning better I would have ordered more than the five slabs I did, and I would have had them sliced. But whatever, this morning the sweet and soft bread slowly begins to reinstate my balance.
By 11am we checked out, moved the car back two places, and walked up to Grant Street. We sat outside at Caffe Trieste, doing nothing, saying nothing. We hiked up to Coit Tower, thinking of Lillian Coit and her cigars and fire obsession. Filming bits and pieces here and there.
Water lapping against the wooden dock at Pier 39. Always. Barking sea lions. Always. A carousel turning round. Always. Mystery drifting through the rising hills. And us, driving away.