Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway. – Mother Teresa
June is Gay Pride month. The San Francisco parade has been cancelled this year and that’s a shame. I have colorful memories of that brilliant cavalcade: the vibrant floats and flamboyant dance troupes and butch bikers tattooed up in black leather and blue denim. Loud and proud.
I was called into a group-wide meeting one morning while working at Livermore Labs back in the 80s. Our area supervisor announced (paraphrasing) that from this point forward John should be addressed as Joanne and will be dressing accordingly. Expect female attire and makeup. She’ll also be using the ladies’ toilets. Any questions?
This coming out was one of the most startling and bravest things I’d ever seen. The John I had known was a burly guy’s guy and husband with kids. To be considered for reassignment surgery he first needed to live full time for a year as Joanne. I couldn’t imagine the courage it took to share that decision with family, friends, and now coworkers.
We all have our closets. We perform on an open stage and let our hair down with the cast and crew when the curtain falls. A very few good friends get invited back to the dressing room, but then there is the closet. I’m hoping that I’m not the only one with a scary closet.
There are few resentments worse than feeling like a fraud, of being inauthentic. Real honesty requires a precarious journey from closet to stage in full drag, and that can be a tough walk. The good news is that as we get older this gets easier. A certain “let the chips fall where they may” settles in with age. The urgencies that guided our earlier years – career and vows and status – become the lesser priorities to authenticity; leaving this world with a history that reflects our truest selves.
Martin Whatson: Behind the Curtain
Being honest with oneself is of course step one, and often the most difficult of conversations. I lived most of my adult years in San Francisco and didn’t bat an eye (or even a heavily mascaraed lash extension!) at people being true to their sexual and gender orientations. But professional orientation was a different beast altogether. It is convenient to suppress misgivings over career choices when those positions are filling the bank account and feeding the ego. Damn I’m special! I was front and center of that line but in good company, particularly in the investment banking and venture capital industries.
There’s no shame in pursuing pay over passion when young and in one’s prime income-generating years (I’m happy to debate this over a glass of rosé). There’s great dishonor when continuing to shelter in the closet post mid-life, to oneself primarily. What you do, where you live, and whom you love. The legacy you leave. Are you getting these right? Are the what, where, and with whom choices you are making now reflect the most authentic and beautiful you? Will your eulogy be delivered by people whom loved you most, reflecting on things for which you wanted to be celebrated, in a setting that defined your spirit?
That is a lot to consider.
A final note. I founded the Interprize Group in 2013 to help people, mostly at 50 plus, pursue grand life ambitions of deep personal meaning. If I’m being honest, I’ll admit to using these workshops as much for self-discovery as for guiding others. Authenticity and purpose are 2 topics that get a lot of attention in these workshops. For the past 3 years I’ve been focused on a grand ambition of my own and the workshops have been on hold. We are offering a new and completely redesigned Life Leap Workshop this October in Provence. You can find more information here. If you are curious to know more please get in touch and we’ll set up a time to chat. Let’s get you out of the closet.
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!
I’m sitting in 36D – center section aisle (mon préféré) – and after 12 hours on this United flight from Munich I admit to some ache. The pilot has just turned on the seat belt sign and provided an update on the cool, foggy San Francisco weather adding, “we should be on the ground shortly.” Blessings to an imminent touchdown.
I haven’t written a dispatch from San Francisco since my last trip here in February. I haven’t written anything since February, actually. Why the pause, my first writing laps in 8 years or so? Now that’s a question I’ve been pondering too. The well isn’t empty, but the motivation has been flagging. I’ve been stretched with other projects, but that’s nothing new. A mystery. Perhaps we just need a breather sometimes to rethink and resync.
Is there a better city than San Francisco for inspiration, to get that figurative pen back to paper, whatever one’s form of creative art? None that I’ve know of. So here’s to a refire of the creative flame. Let’s see what develops. We’ve just touched rubber to tarmac, … and off we go.
Dispatch #1 – A Sense of Place
Noe Valley is a beautiful family neighborhood in the sunny center of San Francisco. It’s a perennial locals’ favorite but never a trendsetter. While the must-live-here-now quarters like the Marina, Hayes Valley, and the Mission bloom and fade on the shifting whims of the hyper-paid, transient hip, Noe Valley remains a priority destination for those seeking longer-term permanence in this city by the bay.
It hasn’t escaped the gentrification wave and real estate bubble burning through the city. There is a scattering of all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars and quirky concept stores in the neighborhood now, but many of the boutiques along its 24th Street core remain in family hands after 30 years or more. Haystack Pizza, 24th Street Cheese, the Dubliner bar; I was a regular at all when Noe Valley was my first San Francisco home so way back when – the late ‘80s while studying at SFSU. I’m back in Noe Valley again this week, back to my morning buzz at Martha’s Coffee, my evening beer at the Dubliner.
Place plays an elemental role in life. It frames our quotidian and colors that community of friends and strangers who fill our days. When I take a pulse on how things are going – as I am this year – it’s the what I do, whom I love, and where I live that get the most critical reflection. Getting the where right is so important.
At 60 I’m ready for at least 1 more grand adventure, one more lifting of the anchor for parts unknown. This new course doesn’t have to be geocentric. It might just be the what or with whom. It is certainly not guided by a quest for more cash or greater security, which often fuels the flight in younger years. The eternal wanderlust for personal growth and new experiences, the adrenaline rush from knowing you’ll likely fail spectacularly … but what if not?, … that stubborn unwillingness to accept that this is it at any age; yep, this is the propellant.
I’ve rambled a bit through the years, living here and there in the States and now in France. A few of these places have left their mark, have spoken to something inside that is authentically Bill. Aix-en-Provence, where I’m living now, moves me at a deep level, and San Francisco as well. If I believed in past lives I’d say that I have wandered those streets before. And whenever I’m in the magic kingdom – Bagdad by the Bay, as the great columnist Herb Caen used to say – there’s no neighborhood that I love more than Noe Valley. Now off I go to Martha’s for the morning cup. Onward!
June 7, 2018
Dispatch #2 – Graduation Day
The motivation for this trip west was the high school graduation ceremony for my daughter Stella. One of those big life moments for her and for her proud parents as well. The wave of emotion that swept over me as she first appeared in the auditorium wasn’t a surprise – I knew what was coming the moment I’d see her in that purple cap and gown – but it was still a struggle to keep my pride in check. I’m a teary guy, what can I say?
Stoicism is a guy thing, maybe even more so an American guy thing, I’m not sure. We imagine ourselves as cowboys carved from some noble stone. What me cry? Never! Nothing stirs me more than music and certain songs can put a fine crack in the cool façade. Stella’s mother used to tease me for that vulnerability. When the Beach Boys Don’t Worry Baby came on the AM radio of my treasured ’66 Mustang, sitting behind the wheel and a warm California breeze chasing us down some coastal highway, well lets just say things would get a bit misty. I’m even moved as I write this now, hearing that brilliant third verse in my head:
she told me baby, when you race today
just take along my love with you
and if you know how much I loved you
baby nothing could go wrong with you
oh what she does to me
when she makes love to me
and she says don’t worry baby
I went to an Irma Thomas show last night at the San Francisco Jazz Center. She has a backstory that is as fascinating as the timbre and range of her voice. Doing studio work by 13, two marriages and 4 kids by 19, over 30 singles and 20 albums and a history of small victories, but always in the shadow of Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and other better-known contemporaries.
Irma is 77 now and still brings it big. She had the committed crowd firmly in the palm of her hand, and for good reason. Her voice remains sure and strong and after 60 years in the business she knows how to command the stage. She had us on our feet for much of the night, white handkerchiefs waving New Orleans style as she worked through an endless string of requests from her long back catalog of hits.
We’ll all be lucky to still be bringing it at 77. Doing something we love, something so natural and sure that it seems destined. When I think about the kids graduating with Stella this week, about their futures and all of the questions and uncertainty they face in a world of rapid churn and change, I can offer just 1 piece of advice: never stop trying to find your reason for being alive. It’s rarely evident and you may keep asking the big questions well past midlife. But it’s that journey of discoveries and doubts that makes life as beautiful as a teary sing-along in a classic car or the sultry voice of an American soul queen. Sing on.
June 9, 2018
Dispatch #3 – For a Few Dollars More
The average selling price of a family home in Noe Valley in April this year was a cool $2.5 million. For the monthly rent on a 2-bedroom flat prepare to fork over $4,300. Welcome to the new world of San Francisco economics.
It’s not just the lodging that hurts. A veggie sandwich at Dolores Park Cafe ran me $14 earlier this week and my chai tea at Bernie’s last night was a steep $3.50. When you remove their cost for the tea bag – about 10 cents wholesale according to my back-of-the-envelop calculation – that’s some pretty pricey boiled water. But imagining their rent along that prime spot on 24th Street, I get it.
It’s an unvirtuous upward cycle driving this madness. A surge in the tech industry is once again pulling in boatloads of high-paid software engineers and designers who are young and hip and want to live in uber-cool San Francisco, not the uber-uncool suburbs of San Jose. And with the average salary for a tech worker now hovering around $150,000 they can afford it (well okay, maybe with a roommate!).
To woo the best and brightest, many of the newly minted barons of tech like Twitter and Salesforce are setting up in downtown now, and those that remain in Silicon Valley are providing wi-fi’ed commute transport from the city and back, … which feeds the need for even more pricey condos and chai lattes and all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars in neighborhoods like Noe Valley. Sitting at Martha’s Coffee earlier this week, I counted 7 massive luxury buses in 14 minutes rolling down 24th Street, picking up riders for the hour drive south to Google, Apple, and other large corporate centers.
So where’s the problem? The techies are happy, their employers are happy, the city with its coffers full of higher tax revenues is happy. The problem is the loss of diversity, and that has always been at the heart of San Francisco’s unique color and flair. How does a cab driver or cellist or schoolteacher afford $14 sandwiches and $4,200 leases? They don’t.
I like tech workers okay and count a number of friends among them. I just don’t want to be limited by only their interests and sensibilities. There’s only so much bar talk about stock options and fundraising and blockchain that I can take before my attention disorder gets provoked. Yawn, pass the wine please, … and where do I set up my tent?
Suggested Song: The More Things Change, Bill Magill
Suggested Drink: Anchor Steam Beer (brewed in SF since 1896)
I’m en route to San Francisco with just enough connection time in Munich for a cold lager and doughy pretzel. The 11-hour leg into the magic kingdom will be long enough for a gourmet airline meal and glass of plunk wine, a couple of movies, and some typing on this first report. Perfect.
My last collection of dispatches was offered up just about one year ago. I was struck by the changes both good and bad resulting from the ongoing tech invasion, voyaged up to the wine country for a proper braising in hot, stinky mud, and went on safari for the perfect cheesecake. (That would be Zanze’s by the way, mission completed.)
What’s the plan for this trip? Well, aside from some music recording later in the week I’m keeping the expectations open and hopeful, which is how one should always approach San Francisco, this magical City by the Bay. Onward!
Dispatch #1 – All Colors of the Rainbow
I’m flying solo on this voyage so have accepted my ex’s invite to stay at the old homestead. It’s become quite the colorful residence, with ages ranging from 18 to 84, dinner debates in 3 languages, a grandma from Spain (no inglés, lo siento), our 3 French/American kids, one new boyfriend and a transgender girlfriend (both are second generation immigrants also fluent in Spanish, so that works for grandma!), and now Bill-the-former-husband sofa surfing for a week.
How my ex manages to manage this ever-entertaining circus while holding down a full time job, caring for her mother, helping with college apps, keeping the house from falling apart, and putting a dinner on the table every evening is a mystery to me. It takes real perseverance, acceptance, a love of all things diverse, and a big heart, … and this is what makes it a truly San Francisco household.
This is a city of incredible diversity: ethnic, sexual, economic, and even meteorological (50s at the foggy beach, 80s in Dolores Park). It’s not a town for the intolerant or neophobic. If you’re uncomfortable with change or being around people of different shades, accents, or orientations of any fashion, best to avoid signing a long-term lease.
Perseverance and ambition have been the hallmarks of each wave of migrants who’ve managed to secure a foothold: the gold miners and railroaders, the Chinese and Italians and Irish and Mexicans, the gay community, the techies. You don’t come to San Francisco for a life of leisure by the sea. It’s a city of creative sweat and big energy, … and the possibilities of beautiful reward.
So here I am and being blessed with sunny blue skies. My walk this morning along West Portal Avenue for a coffee at Peet’s – a few days of adjustment will be needed for the American caffeine dosage – has left me sweating in my light pullover. It’s only 9 a.m. but I’m already thinking through neighborhood options for lunch: tacos, pasta, sushi, burgers, pizza, dim sum …. the options are endless, kinda like this town. Appetite peaked, let’s go!
February 17, 2018
Dispatch #2 – Strike Up the Band
It is an interesting twist that we immigrants to this garden paradise are proposing border walls to keep out its former owners. Mexicans were roaming these Pacific lands long before the gringos arrived in ships from Spain and wagons across the Sierras. Since then they have been driven out, then invited back to work the fruit and vegetable farms during WWI, bussed back out during the Depression, then begged back to the fields during WWII, and on and on. They are a resilient group, and despite current presidential claims to the contrary continue to play a vital, essential role in the economy and social color here in the magic kingdom.
Mariachi music is distinctly Mexican. It is a festive mix of strumming guitars, brassy trumpets, sweeping violins, and nostalgic lyrics about life and love south of the border. These ensembles come large and small. Bands of 10 or more in splendid mariachi regalia play weddings and parties, and small combos of 3 or 4 in their nicked up cowboy boots and hats wander the Mission District streets, popping into bars and restaurants for an hour of entertainment and tips before moving on.
La Rondalla was a special kind of restaurant cantina in the Mission that I frequented in my rowdier years. It had a long and dark serpentine bar, Christmas lights shaped like tiny chillies blinking year around, generous bartenders known to break into Spanish song, a crazy fun mix of patrons – from the local hispanics to city hipsters, gays and lesbians of every persuasion, punkers and college kids and anyone else out for an unpredictable night – and great mariachi music. There was a large house band and no stage. They would show up mid-evening, stand at one end of the bar and rip out song after song while the locals sang along with lyrics that most of us didn’t understand. It was a family ensemble, with dad leading up the group and his young sons and nephews and friends, some barely into double digits, playing along and learning the craft. Great energy, great fun.
I had more than a few interesting evenings at La Rondalla. One involved a close and charming friend that moved me to write Paralyzed, which is one of 14 songs being recorded now for my upcoming album. It begged for a festive arrangement, and so last year I sought out the best mariachi band in San Francisco to help adapt and play it. Nueva Generacion was the obvious choice, particularly after learning that its young leader Eduardo Garcia was one of those kids playing weekly at La Rondalla so many moons ago, most likely on the night that Paralyzed was inspired.
Life never ceases to amaze. It leads us across the paths of people from different tribes and ages, with different histories and hopes, and we make biased assumptions about them that only serve to disserve. I have to constantly remind myself: stop this! Not in my wildest imagination would I imagine that this young Mexican kid I used to watch playing violin in La Randalla would be collaborating with me on music so many years later. Thank you Eduardo! Just more magic in the magic kingdom.
Suggested song: San Francisco Days, Chris Isaak
Suggested drink: tremblement de terre (earthquake) cocktail: equal parts absinthe and cognac, attributed to the late great French painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
Again I descend from the clouds over San Francisco for a 10-day visit to this kingdom of magic. It’s an interesting time to take the pulse and gauge the temper of America from a very unconventional American assemblage. And few cities are more interesting to write about than Bagdad by the Bay.
February can be an unpredictable time to visit and indeed the rains this winter have been biblical. Reservoirs are flooding, dams are bursting, avalanches are sliding, and all the anxiety over drought concerns seems suddenly quaint, … for the moment.
But Provence weather has followed our flight all the way from Marseille and our first 2 days in country have been sunny and warm. Not quite tee shirt weather yet, but the umbrellas and raincoats are safely tucked away. Fingers crossed for the rest of the stay. Onward!
Dispatch #1 – Something in the Air
The veneer of life in San Francisco is largely unchanged from my trip here last fall. It remains a city of hyper-active super achievers. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a jogger. Lululemons remain le vigueur for Saturday morning café garb (a yoga matt over your bony shoulder earns extra points). The dinner talk we overhear at a communal Nopa table centers on innovation and investors and the fortunes possible if stars align before the bubble bursts. (Great meal by the way.)
Despite the indefatigable positivity that defines this kingdom a destabilizing uneasiness is seeping in below the surface. Trump is not popular here. Signs of resistance are evident in the windows and walls of businesses and homes scattered across the city: Not our President! and Why I Marched and Make America Love Again are just a few examples of the sentiments expressed boldly and widely across this 49 square miles. The new president is an unapologetic technophobe and his economic policies introduce uncertainty into no industry more than Tech, with his promises of lower taxes on repatriated profits (very good) to higher tarifs on Chinese imports and harder limits on immigrant visas (very bad). 74% of Silicon Valley-employed computer and mathematical workers ages 25 to 44 are foreign-born, according to the 2016 Silicon Valley Index.
While the Bay Area still remains The Big Show to brilliant innovators and startup dreamers across the globe, it’s eminence is under attack by other, smaller centers of innovation. America is closing its borders to the best and brightest, and other countries stand to gain. In just one example, the new French Tech Ticket Program awards each year 70 foreign startups (no, they CANNOT be from France) financial support (a 50,000€ grant for starters), free incubator space, and active mentoring for moving their budding operations to the land of great wine and cheese. One of these countries is closing its borders despite no real history of immigrant driven domestic violence. The other is opening up, despite having one of the highest incidences of this particular brand of horror.
It all makes one wonder if the golden sun will continue to shine here for years to come, or rainclouds are forming.
February 13, 2017
Dispatch #2 – Across the Gate of Gold
The SF Bay Area is of course much more than just a center of technology innovation and startups. It’s home to some of the nation’s largest banks, most creative artists and giants of literature, some of the world’s most innovative chefs, … and then there is the wine. We set the compass north and head across the Golden Gate, up through the Marin headlands and past the Sonoma frontier, then point east and into the mecca of American wine: Napa Valley.
The wine industry commands an emotional center of San Francisco history. The Italians, Germans, and French all journeyed here in the late 1800s, impressed by its rocky rich soil and moderate climate that rivalled any region in the old world for making fantastic vino, wein, du vin (mon dieu c’est bon!). The Valley covers about 42 thousand acres and hosts 450 immoral havens of the fermented grape, the wineries. The biggest names in industry have their roots in this valley: the Mondavis and Krugs; the Beaulieu and Montelena families.
None were greater than the house that Jacob and Frederick Beringer built, established in 1864 and considered the oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley. It is here that our best efforts at sobriety for an afternoon end, led through a private tour and then generous tasting of the really good stuff by a great friend and shameless corrupter, Hubert. After leading us through the nuances of Beringer’s top flight reds, and they were top, we sobered up over Champagne at the ranch of my old pal Chris, followed by dinner and more amazing cabernet at the All Seasons Bistro in sleepy Calistoga. (Yet another great meal.) I slept well.
Addendum: We had braised gently in piping hot, smoothy thick tubs of stinky brown mud, then had our baby pink bodies cleansed and bubbled in artisanal spring water baths, cool cloths over our beading foreheads. The final act at the Roman Spa in Calistoga was a relaxing one-hour massage with lavendar oil, and truth be told I may have snoozed through a bit of that. This early afternoon pampering had been our prep for the wine immersion at Beringer and I’ll offer as my excuse for the wobbly performance by evening’s end. It’s my story, I’m sticking to it.
February 15, 2017
Dispatch #3 – The Great Cheesecake Hunt
How hard can it be to find a great slice of cheesecake in San Francisco? It’s pretty damn hard I’m here to attest, and that’s a reflection of how this town has changed. Apparently the nouveau rich of SF don’t stoop to that pedestrian dessert level.
Cheesecake is one American recipe that the French enjoy. They don’t try to hide its origin or claim some adaption as their own. They list it as cheesecake américaine when offered, not gateau au fromage. Attempts at it – mostly mediocre – are not uncommon on bistro menus across the hexagon, and I have been tasked with finding the real American deal while here in the magic kingdom. “Not to worry,” I’ve assured my traveling companion, cheesecake is as American as apple pie. Try finding that too.
There are a lot of innovative, delicious desserts on the menus throughout San Francisco. Nopa, for example, offers cream cheese doughnuts and huckleberry buttermilk panna cotta as 2 options. The doughnuts ingredients: shinko pear butter, nocino raisins, cinnamon honey syrup and fried walnuts. And for the panna cotta: white chocolate labne, puffed grains, cacao nib and candied meyer lemon. We loved our meal there and the desserts were indeed scrumptious, and it’s great to have this kind of creative gastronomy across the city. But some nights I just want a simple (and cheap) scoop of ice cream or slice of cheesecake; something with ingredients I can pronounce and afford. Honestly, I don’t know my shinko from my nocino, but I do love how they fall off the tongue.
Does Bar Crudo serve cheesecake? No. Does Cafe Claude or the Bean Bag Cafe or Mario’s or Napa Valley Burger in Sausalito or the 2 to 3 dozen places I tucked my head into and asked, “Hey, do you guys have cheesecake?”? No. My promises of a quick cheesecake fix were starting to sound hollow, my reputation as an expert SF guide tarnished.
San Francisco has become a thrilling playground and gastro destination for the newly minted techno-rich who don’t blink at paying $3 for a cup of Indonesian bean drip coffee each morning, or $50+ per night on a Nopa dinner capped with huckleberry buttermilk panna cotta, or $60 on 12 pieces of nigiri at Tsunami Sushi across the street. Are they worth it? Your call, but that’s not the point. For the rest of us seeking more humble options that won’t break the bank, like cheesecake, the availability is getting thin. It’s been encouraging to walk along Divisadero street each night this week and see the bars and restaurants humming, people paying, the local economy hitting on all cylinders. But something is being lost in the excess. It’s called diversity, and San Francisco doesn’t want to lose that part of it’s amazing charm and distinction.
Did we ultimately find our cheesecake? Yes, by paying a visit to Zanze’s in the outer reaches of the city’s southwest corner; the fogbelt along Ocean Avenue. Sam Zanze has been making one thing and one thing only here for the past 30 years: cheesecake. And any SF foodie worth their toque will tell you it’s the best in the world, … not only in this city. We would have to agree: light, fluffy, divine. Assignment completed and my reputation salvaged for the moment.
Suggested Song: Sunny Afternoon, the Kinks
Suggested Drink: 2015 La Rose Des Ventes rosé, Cotes de Provence
It’s Wednesday afternoon and hopefully someone is working. Are you? Because I’m floating around a placid lake in the south of France with a few friends, enjoying the Mediterranean sun and warm breeze and a bottle or two of Provence rosé. We forgot to bring plastic cups so have dissected small water bottles into goblet pairs. Amazing how creative one can get with a bold thirst and Swiss Army knife.
We’ve rented two small electric powered boats; one for the adults and one for our teen daughters. They’ve set out up the gorge in search of flirtatious mischief and a discreet cove to probably smoke something tucked into a bikini bottom. They would deny all of this of course.
We watch from a receding distance and putter along leisurely, recounting our own tales of youth and sharing details that only great friends care to hear. There is no rush, … to go where? … to power aggressively through one of the most stunning river systems in Europe, the beautiful Gorges du Verdon at the southern base of the French Alps, with its limestone cliffs carving dramatically down into the cool turquois-green water? The good lord was having a inspired day when she cast this spot.
It is a small boat, a lazy pace, and a best-of-friends moment. The sun is bronzing our shoulders from a pastel blue Cezanne sky. Are you working, keeping the wheels of industry turning, the flows of the economy flowing, craving that rush hour drive home in your fabulous gleaming Tesla or BMW or whatever the driven class drive these days? I truly hope so, because the world needs you. We float in our 15-foot rental and praise you, we toast you with another pour of the bottle. God bless you.
We’ll gather with our girls in an hour to share a simple late lunch of smoked salmon and lettuce sandwiches in poppy seed baguettes, and local Provence cherries and strawberries from the market this morning. It’s hot but we have lots of water and plentiful ice for the wine, and now the carved-up plastic cups. All is good. All is really good actually.
This makes me think about the goings on in my old stomping grounds of San Francisco. Tom Perkins died there last week. He was an originator and titan of Silicon Valley’s venture capital industry and amassed a great, great fortune investing in companies like Genentech and Tandem Computers. Perkins was a man of big appetites and had commissioned the 289-foot clipper the Maltese Falcon (at that time the world’s largest private sailing yacht). He must have enjoyed some amazing times on that massive beast, champagning the biggest celebrities, wooing the hottest models (just saying it’s possible), traversing the oceans blue. Well perhaps not too much free time for traversing blue oceans. That high-gain, high-burn vc lifestyle doesn’t tend to pair well with extended, low-stress getaways. Unlikely he’d have been caught dead on our dingy, drinking discount wine out of MacGyvered cups. We would have enjoyed having him aboard I think. What an exchange.
I think about Perkins and his accomplished life while bobbing around on this warm serene day, chilled rosé in hand. I hope he died a happy man, with that keen knack for moneymaking and great talent for toy buying: the boats and Bugatti collection and massive homes. He probably did, what do you think? Maybe he got buried in one of his Bugattis, that would be cool. Who said you can’t take it with you? He did get touchy about his wealth status near the end, writing that the rich in America were being unfairly persecuted in a manner last visited on the Jews in Nazi Germany. It’s a weird paradox: the more we have, the less willing we are to share it. Money is like that, cocaine is like that, rosé with good friends isn’t like that.
I’m back in the U.S. for 3 weeks. I always miss home when traveling, but I’m sharing fun times with people I love, mixing in a bit of work that I enjoy, getting my fix of Americana like smoked BBQ and sweet tea and friendly waitresses who say darlin’, and staying in sunny locales with good wine and lively music. No need to reach for the Kleenex just yet.
My final day before departure was a list of last-minute to-dos that mark the approach of an extended trip: the laundry and ironing and packing, and discovery that my favorite shirts weren’t washed; the inventory of passports and boarding passes and U.S. bank cards that I use stateside; and a sit at the laptop to firm up flight times and can’t wait to see you soon emails.
Still, there was time to for a dose of my daily routine, first stop the outdoor market for flowers and strawberries, and surprised to find a good friend back from winter travels and manning a fruit stall. After promises of a longer follow up over drinks I popped over to the roasterie for a rich brew with my morning coffee clutch. We spent an hour discussing nothing more pressing than the current glorious weather, last night’s dinner menus, and who had the best produce at the market that day. I made a pitch for Maité’s berries: unbelievable.
I was back home in time to scratch out a short note (writing letters with a quality fountain pen on heavy parchment is pure indulgence) and a meander to the post for stamps. In a moment of clarity I decided that the ripe strawberries, bought for my incoming house/cat-sitters, would pair nicely with a split of French champagne or Italian prosecco . My guests would be arriving from California after all, so midday here would mean late night there and the combination sounded like a perfect antidote to their certain jetlag. Since my go-to wine shop was en route, I stopped for a recommendation from cave manager Carl and picked up a couple of bottles of rosé for the effort. A productive start to the day indeed.
Lunch and the afternoon followed with the requisite nap, two hours at the desk putting final touches on an upcoming Interprize workshop in Charlotte, a self administered (and poorly executed) yoga session, and a half hour or so at the piano to wind things down. I was considering a dinner of leftover pasta when the invite came to an impromptu garden apéro. The evening was spent chatting with friends and enjoying pan-fried veal cutlets, a spicy simmer of spring vegetables, a simple green salad tossed in truffle oil and lemon juice, and more than a few bottles of well-matched Cotes de Rhone.
My life in Provence is deeply rich, but without the wealth. It’s colorful, luscious, intemperate, unhurried and simple, and it thrives on connection and community. I might splurge on a Saturday night feast for a dozen good friends, then go a week without paying for a meal. We share a passion for food and entertain from our kitchens, comparing recipes and debating our favorite market stalls and butcher shops and cheese guys. With local Provence produce so inexpensive eating well doesn’t break the bank, especially with meals focused more on seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs and zesty Mediterranean spices, less on a dominant meat entree.
Our Aix circle is a varied mix of expats and natives, runaways and homecomers, bar browsers and homebodies, left-leaners and right-wingers, carnivores and vegetarians and pescetarians and flexitarians, hedonists and innocents and the malleable. Professionally we are a handful of struggling entrepreneurs and industry captains, writers and artists, engineers and admins and bartenders and merchants of mysterious unmentionables. In other words, all over the map in both income and accomplishment. Everyone is pursuing something purposeful but greater affluence is not the guiding principal; status not the binding glue. And this is the implicit thread that connects the group, I believe.
I’ll be touching down in San Francisco in the next 30 minutes and I’m excited. It’s a city of remarkable beauty, diversity, energy, and potential. It has also become a city of extremes and divisions, of unhealthy margins at both ends. The hyper-creative and hard-working tech tribe and the financial industry that funds them are driving an impress economic resurgence. They live from bonus check to options grant, dress their kitchens with high-end stoves and cookware, then eat out because, well, who has the time or energy to create in the kitchen? Mingling with the masses means chatting up the tattooed bartender or speaking broken Spanish with the housecleaner, but these folks are not getting put on the dinner invite list (which is a missed opportunity. Imagine the stories). There is a very tangible caste divide between the have-a-lots and the others in this city that cuts mostly across income and wealth.
To find the strongest currents in the deepest streams you have to move beyond surface illusions. I’m not at all adverse to money, just no longer willing to compromise my lifestyle and community for it. New possibilities open up along so many dimensions – where you live, what you do, with whom you love and commune – when you stop obsessing about the bank balance and status trajectory. I could be dead in a week. Fuck that.
Suggest Song: San Francisco, Scott McKenzie (written by John Phillips)
Suggested Drink: Irish Coffee; coffee, sugar, Irish Whiskey, whipped cream (the recipe created by Jack Koeppler and Stanton Delaplane at the Buena Vista, 1952)
San Francisco is a gorgeous city full of mystery, magic, and infinite wackiness. It’s a writer’s paradise, a Mecca for those seeking out the unexpected in full spectrum technicolor. And for that reason I love to scratch out a few dispatches when here for a couple of weeks each fall.
First things first: when did my kids grow up between this past summer and today? When did that wild and irascible bunch that needed cajoling for everything from dinner vegetables to the morning routine turn the tables on dad? It’s hard to play drill sergeant when the recruits are first to rise, preparing their own breakfasts, getting their backpacks together, and gently closing my bedroom door so the noise doesn’t disturb sergeant dad’s jet-lagged slumber. Damn.
Dispatch #1 – A love letter
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.
I need to start these posts with a paean to this city I so love. It remains the magic kingdom; an engaging city of elegance, eccentricity, animation, and tolerance. San Francisco is Venus to New York City’s Mars; it’s the Haight’s Grateful Dead to the Lower East Side’s Velvet Underground. It’s a mischievous city, relaxed and sensual, with a wardrobe of faded denim, delicate chemise, and a tasteful leather corset. The classic John Phillips hymn to the summer of love – sung by Scott McKenzie – captured a gentle rebellious spirit that remains 5 decades on. The flower children tuned out and drifted off; the techies have turned on and plugged in. Tying together these tribes and all between is a desire to create something sublime and inviting, … something magical.
October is the best month for San Francisco visits. It’s warm and sunny and that cool blanket of Pacific fog tends to burn off by mid morning. Locals call it earthquake weather and indeed the last big one buckled freeways and fell buildings on a warm October evening in 1989, … and revealed the best of the city. With power out, homes dark, and nerves rattled San Francisco’s residents looked for comfort in the masses. Most of the local businesses locked up but the many bars along Noe Valley’s main thoroughfare were candlelit and abuzz. We joined neighbors at The Dubliner pub to share our “holy shit!” moments and a few pints to calm the jitters. Thanks be to god that beer kegs run off pressurized gas. The cash registers weren’t working of course so our barman approximated change with a shoebox full of bills and coins. A lot of free and sympathetic Guinness got poured that evening until the fire company arrived around midnight to shut us down. (Apparently lit candles aren’t ideal in a city full of leaking gas mains.) Through it all the neighborhoods pulled together, the crime rate fell, and the Giants were swept in the World Series. Well two out of three ain’t bad.
I had an early breakfast yesterday at 2nd and Mission with an old friend. I Ubered down there from our home base in NOPA but decided to walk back. A 45 minute hike in San Francisco promises a colorful journey from most any point and in any direction. From SOMA up Market Street through Hayes Valley and past Alamo Square, it’s a ramble through gleaming high rises and indigent lowlifes, chic coffee bars and tagged-up liquor stores, Victorians and Edwardians and tenement hotels and vibrant mansions. Why rush around in a cramped taxi when you can walk and look and smell and hear every detail of this living museum. My two weeks will pass too quickly. Meanwhile, I’ll keep you posted.
October 24, 2015
Dispatch #2: From the Bean Bag to Blooms (and Across the Universe)
I’ve been taking my morning coffee this past week at the Bean Bag Cafe on Divisadero Street. It’s a classic neighborhood spot with that rustic look: lots of dinged-up wood, a mishmash of sit down tables and stand up counters, 8 coffees and 6 beers on tap, crepes and bagels and sandwiches and vegie omelets, Bob Marley on the sound system this morning. The Bean Bag has a young casual vibe with a lean towards enlightenment (all smoothies with less than 2% fat), falling somewhere between the preppy Marina and the hipster Mission. It works.
Yesterday I ventured out of this neighborhood to the far side of Potrero Hill: destination Blooms Saloon. It was a classic SF weekend ramble, winding down to the Castro, out through the Mission, up Potrero Hill and across the 101 Freeway by footbridge. Just shy of ten thousand steps according to my iPhone (scary what these phones know about us). Sunny and gloriously warm, a light jacket was too much and ended up over my arm.
A diverse collection of grimy tents have sprouted up like mushrooms along a block of 16th Street just past Folsom. A homeless community is taking root here, a refugee phenomenon spreading across the city as the usual encampments – the out-of-site, under-the-freeway bidonvilles – are being cleared out in a bid at urban beautification. It’s a game of whack-a-moll between city hall and the moll caste that is pushing a long-festering problem to the surface.
San Francisco’s homeless dilemma is shifting from an embarrassing tourist irritation to a vexing dilemma for local residents. The city’s impressive economic upshift is not trickling down, and it appears in fact to be making the gap between the have almost everythings and the have absolutely nothings more glaring and noticeable. It is a topic front and center for the upcoming elections and everyone has an opinion on cause and solutions, from the coffee counters at the Bean Bag to bar stools at Blooms.
There is a multiverse forming here, numerous layered but opposed realities based on income and employment mobility. At least 3 coexist in varying degrees of tension: universes T (for the Thriving), C (the Coping), and BS (the Barely Surviving). The city is in bloom thanks largely to the residents of universe T and it’s a wondrous thing, making available all that one expects from a world-class town. Their sun shines bright and some passes through to layer C, but that’s about it.
I’m hoping that San Francisco can direct its creative energies toward a multiverse in greater harmony. Economic disparities are a challenge for all big cities and there is no silver bullet solution. Still, this is not just any big city. San Francisco has always been marked by its openness, compassion and creativity. Now is the time to find a bit of that magic again.
October 27, 2015
Dispatch #3: The Counter Culture
A dyslexic walks into a bra.
A lone stranger walks into the Chapel Bar, 19th and Mission, pulls up stool and orders a beer. What’s his name, where’s he from, what brings him to San Francisco and to the Chapel? These questions and others are batted and returned across the bar like a lazy badminton birdie, and within 30 minutes he’s on first names with the tattooed bartenders and chatty neighbors, has offered up a brief of his brief and gained theirs. Within an hour he’s getting a primer on the mix of a new cocktail – and sharing free samples – getting the haunted history of the establishment – a former mortuary – and getting tips for the weekend. Before leaving all are invited to his hometown in Provence, and him to a bartender convention in New Orleans next June (the exact details remain a bit hazy). By the end of the night, and sitting in another fine SF drinking establishment, part of the Chapel staff wanders in and it all starts again. San Francisco is like that.
A slightly hung-over stranger walks into the Bean Bag Cafe, Hayes and Divisadero, orders a black coffee and pulls up to his favorite counter spot. The Bean Bag has its usual weekday mid-morning crowd with Mac screens up, ear buds in. Some are multitasking with plates of huevos rancheros (organic black beans, naturally) or similar breakfast selections and Bob Marley, again, is playing on the sound system.
Across the counter he sees a young, bright looking tech type chatting online. There is a bulky white goggle set next to him, a latest generation Samsung phone attached flush to the front and the Oculus logo on the side. It catches his attention. The techie is a friendly guy named Taylor, the Chief Evangelist, he later comes to learn, for a startup promoting the virtual reality industry. “It’s the Samsung Gear VR system, interested in trying it out?” He can’t resist. It’s beyond cool. The moment he slides the goggles in place the coffee shop is absolutely gone. The first VR app Taylor loads up has him standing in space looking at planets and stars and moons in rotation 360° around him; he turns and there are orbiting bodies behind him, to the right and left; he zooms in and zooms out. Wow! Taylor wants him to try another app. This one places him in a movie theatre. Oddly enough there are others there as well, beside him, behind him, … others on compatible VR systems somewhere in the world, playing the same app and sharing the moment. “Talk to them,” Taylor says, and when he does they talk back and from other distant points on the globe. He’s astounded, he’s sold, he wants one these things. His hangover is gone. San Francisco is like that.
I love France and I blow its beautiful horn regularly in my essays. But there is one glaring hole in its game plan: no counter culture. The French sit at tables, not communal counters and definitely not at bars, and this is a sadly missed opportunity. They are fantastic conversationalists, well read, up on events, love a good debate, curious. To be unexpectedly “adopted” for an evening or exposed to wildly new experiences happens most often when engaging others from a different universe, often when you’re the stranger in a strange land. It’s a beautiful thing. San Francisco is like that.
October 31, 2015
Dispatch #4: An Opportunity Knocks
Now I sit at Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting for my connection to Marseille and missing my kids, San Francisco, and morning coffees at the Bean Bag Cafe in that order. You can only miss something that is not there, can love and appreciate something most deeply when you suffer from its absence. Want to know just how precious someone, some place, or something is in your life? Leave it for a few months.
My two weeks in San Francisco has revealed a city that is hipper, livelier, and more beautiful than the one I quite 5 years ago, even more so it seems than during my visit 12 months back. The waves of money pouring into the city from the latest tech boom are funding amazing restaurants of every stripe, the construction of new campuses and sports arenas and office buildings and museum expansions, and putting a new shine on the historic homes that make San Francisco a living postcard.
The tide is not lifting all boats, however, and a wicked undertow is making it difficult for a lot of the city’s less affluent (and not just struggling artists and newly arriving immigrants). With the brisk rise in home values, rents, and menu prices even the fully-employed mid-class are feeling the pinch. Note that the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in October was $3,670. A burrito at the Little Chihuahua on Divisadero cost me about $11, a cheesesteak across the street at Jay’s ran $10. Both were beyond delicious, neither place was fancy. For those who can afford it: fantastic! For those who can’t: ouch. And beyond ouch for the emerging tent city caste springing up along 16th Street and elsewhere, as I mentioned in Dispatch #2.
Is there another city in America with the abundance of resources and resourcefulness that San Francisco enjoys at this moment? This blessing offers an exceptional opportunity to demonstrate its claim to distinction, to the title of Magic Kingdom (well to be fair, that’s a claim I grant unconditionally). The city is chock full of curious inventive minds and money. Perhaps the high-flying tech companies – the Googles and Instagrams and Facebooks – that attract this talent and unleash its spending power on the community can consider this as a chance – an obligation? – to direct a slice of their incredible creativity and capital toward urban solutions to the challenges they help provoke. Thoughts?