I want to thank the couple at the Hôtel Pullman, 5th Floor, Charles de Gaulle Airport, for getting my travel day started with the right spirit this past week. Their impressive exhibition of amorous congress, drapes pulled proudly wide, was a surprise distraction while lacing up my boots in the Ibis just opposite the courtyard. “This flight to San Francisco will either be totally f*cked or f*cking amazing” I thought, depending on their performance now. Allez, avec enthousiasme!
Dispatch #1 – Neighborhood Charms
San Francisco is a city of small villages, and that’s party of its intimate charm. Neighborhoods are defined by ethnicity (Chinatown), weather (the Sunset), sexual orientation (the Castro), affluence (Pacific Heights), or pharmaceutical proclivity (the Haight). It’s also a city of coffee culture and North Beach would be that tribe’s historic ground zero.
The Italians started arriving in San Francisco in the early 1900s and quickly planted their flag in this beautiful corner of the city. The young DiMaggio boys played stickball on these streets in the 40s, Beats claimed asylum in the ’50s, sleaze clubs took over Broadway in the ’60s, and the punk wave crawled out of the Mabuhay Gardens in the ’70s.
I arrived in San Francisco in the ’80s and spent my idle hours in the coffee shops and blues bars along Grant Avenue. Listening to opera singers who would casual in on Sunday afternoons at Café Trieste was always a solid backup plan, with a bottle or two of chianti and a close friend.
North Beach has resisted the techie invasion transforming many of the other San Francisco neighborhoods, sometimes for the better, more often not. And this gives me comfort. City Lights Bookstore is still thriving – it’s poetry collection on the second floor is unbeatable (no play on words) – and Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe on Columbus and Union remains safely in family hands.
We took up bar stools there yesterday and ordered hot focaccia sandwiches, with Mario’s young grandson Dario working the oven and his sister taking orders and running the till. It was a reassuring moment of escape from a world that never seems to stop losing its authenticity. Grazie, and another glass of that delicious red my friend. Now onward!
Dispatch #2 – Build It and They Will (Still) Come
I’m trying to imagine a San Francisco without illegals from south of the border. The slightest peek under the hood of this town’s booming economy shows the degree to which these crafty intruders have ingrained themselves into the gears. Build a wall, physical or virtual, and that finely tuned machine will grind to a very messy halt.
A morning stroll down 24th Street in Noe Valley means dodging prams of pale, blue-eyed babies guided by brown Aztec chicas: Illegals! Push through the swinging kitchen doors of any city restaurant – from Michelin star to burger joint – and who’s manning the burners and cleaning the plates? Illegals! (“The restaurant business as we know it , in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers.” – Anthony Bourdain). Suffer the roar of (what sounds like) a million lawnmowers and leaf blowers buzzing through the grassy gardens of St. Francis Wood or Pacific Heights and who is making the racket? Illegals!
When I lived in San Francisco Valentin was our gardener, Rosa our cleaning lady, and Ana our Nanny. There is no family position requiring more trust than that woman helping with the babies. Ana was a gift from heaven. Short, wide, solid, gracious, and assured. Just let me do the diaper por favor, you got it all wrong Bill. She was part of the family but not. She joined on vacations, but rarely at our dinner table. We paid her well but not enough to escape the gang-ridden barrio of the Outer Mission. When mules arrived in Tijuana with her frail father, whom they had smuggled up from Guatemala, they demanded an additional $5,000 at the border to hand him over. When she pleaded that she didn’t have it Ana found a gun barrel at her temple.
We privileged gringos of San Francisco have first world problems: the line at Tartine Bakery was insufferable this morning, wifi was down on the Google bus, and now Hamilton is sold out! If the Illegals are dismayed by our sense of entitlement and lack of empathy they hide it well. Job security? Zero. Medical coverage? Ha! Still, they mow and clean and cook and raise our precious kids, all with a smile of gratitude. And still they come, … despite the absurdity of blame for stealing jobs that no one else wants, … and the humiliation of a wall.
I opened a new checking account at my Chase branch in West Portal yesterday. A young Gabriel Deluna was the Private Client Banker who helped me set it up, quickly and with coffee offered (how not French). It was his last day before a week’s vacation in Guadalajara. “Mexican,” I asked? Yes indeed, second generation. Did his father mow lawns? That I didn’t ask, maybe he was professor at Stanford. Somehow I doubt it. Chase, you have a star on your hands. Treat him well. Now wouldn’t that be a change? Onward!
Dispatch #3 – The Soundtrack of a City
The best cities come with a soundtrack. There’s an urban pulse and rhythm, a melodic energy that pulls us down the avenues and into old haunts, that guides us to new encounters. Our dearest memories might be triggered by old sites and smells, the childhood bedroom and mom’s kitchen aromas, but our most vivid recollections of the city sort are provoked by music.
San Francisco and Paris are two of my favorite towns. Feasts for the senses, cityscape museums, hip and romantic, captivating places where interesting people gather and cool shit happens, … and they have amazing soundtracks.
My Paris is Piaf, Brel, Aznavour, and Gainsbourg. When I explore the winding ruelles of Montmartre La Bohème is swimming in my head, and along the grand boulevards it is Je t’Aime, Moi Non Plus, with Jane Birkin’s erotic (okay, she’s about to have an orgasm) word play with bad boy Serge. I love this song so much I honored it with my own Linger With Me; Laëtitia Costechareyre invoking the breathy Birkin purr.
San Francisco is a very different evocative jukebox. Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Huey Lewis, and Chris Isaak for starters. Janis and Credence are there too, and of course the Dead. Just as in Paris, the music is drawn from the neighbhorhood character. I was never much of a Deadhead or pot fan, but both are hard to avoid in certain quarters like the Haight. And when in Rome …
The best mode of transport in both scenic cities is by shoe leather. Down Boulevard Saint Germain, past Notre Dame, across the Seine and on to the Marais? That’s quite the hike but pas de problème, with Quand On a Que l’Amour in my imagination spilling from the cafés and animating the lovers sharing a glass en route. From the cablecar turnaround at Union Square, up through Chinatown and down Columbus Avenue to Mario’s for a sandwich in North Beach? Just another amazing walk when powered by Huey’s The Power of Love. (His brilliant trumpet player Marvin McFadden brings the brass on my 1996 release Dance Hall Girls.) These 2 songs of love couldn’t be more different; these 2 romantic cities couldn’t be more distinct.
Do you hear music too when skipping through your favorite town? Maybe you hear voices. I don’t know, I think we’re all a little crazy. And now I’m off to France. Homeward!