“Upon rising to the Heights,
be ever heedful on your
way back down.”
“But we need to replace them for sure, pronto—like, ASAP
“Yep, cards, licenses, the whole shebang…gone…could have happened anywhere…
“Not at O’Hare…no, not at Midway, either…”
“I’m not in Chicago! I sort of got…diverted back to San Francisco. Yes, I did give Lorraine your Mitzvah envelope. But my flights got cancelled—Colorado blizzards, and everything…
“So I rode out with Melissa’s friend—yes, boyfriend. No, nothing’s going on!”
Wait, was this a crypt? Where was that voice coming from, why was it so goddamn dark?! I scraped the hair out of my face, trying to sort out where things were around here. Was this a cell, or what? No, no respectable cell would be this dank or small. All I knew was I wasn’t back out on the road again because my tank was too empty, head was too weary, my gut too calorically full. And the last thing I actually remembered was strolling the upper reaches of some place called Lafayette Park.
Sydney had suggested we walk off last night’s gratis Hippo’s carbo loads by trudging up past the non-descript pastel apartment boxes along Jackson Street, then by the hallowed Haas-Lilienthal House, grey on gray and sprawling—a 24-room Queen Anne Victorian complete with witches-cap turrets, spired open gables, creamy white gingerbread and 13-foot ceilings. H-L’s sitting and drawing room windows overlooked a stately carriage house garage and iridal floral gardens: In all, an old-growth oak and redwood panelled spread dating back to 1886, monument to grocery money, built on a spacious lot beyond all neighborhood scale, long and outlandedly before the wall-to-wall surrounding apartment buildings. It was an architectural heritage museum once rimmed by other Victorian mansions, now a lone yawning, anachronistic manor house and grounds amid crowding concrete and asphalt mediocrity. Still, not too shabby, she noted, for Jewish pioneers who had immigrated wholesale from Bavaria.
We darted across Franklin Street, between barreling packs of time-sequenced traffic, then huffed up a Washington Street incline that made Boulder seem like eastern Colorado. Winded at Gough, I paused, turned to watch a company of fire engines rushing up Washington far behind us, above the Van Ness Avenue crease, emergency lights flashing like the radio antennae atop jumbled Russian Hill towers, and the downtown Transamerica Pyramid and megalithic brown Bank of America highrise just beyond them—an optical illusion/occlusion, to be sure.
But Syd instead pointed out the sumptuously dressed bay windows and gilt-edge marble tiled and planter filled lobbies that lined either side of Washington hereabouts, then the palatial Crestview Building’s bricktop apron and black canopied entryway. Breathing heavily, I could nearly taste the pine and pressed wood fragrance of myriad fireplaces. Meanwhile she waved and whistled to the valets and doormen, pulling me though Gough Street’s uphill traffic, pointing to snippets of the indigo bay down to our north, before coaxing me up the rounded staircase of Lafayette Park itself. By then I was puffing like a two-pack-a-day smoker, as she was aerobia unbound. The middle path of a terraced park side led us along a further breathtaking vista, panavision camera tracks on a Coppola noir film set.
“Have to get you in better shape, flash,” she smiled, barely missing a beat as she called out the scenic high points, bridge-to-bridge. “I thought everybody in Boulder was super fit.”
“Moon’s cooking,” I coughed, trying to re-coordinate my breathing with my gait, pressure mounting about the eyes. “And been spending more time hitting the books than the rec center.”
“Poor overstuffed baby,” she mocked, casting her gaze out over the night view beyond Washington Street. “Ever seen anything so fantabulous?”
The sweep was compelling, all right. From this fissured asphalt walkway, we could look out over a dark blanket of city lights unfurling broadly to the bay and backdrop. Past Washington Street’s august wall of white, gargoyled baroque mansions and grand coral stucco mid-rises rolled lower Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow, Fort Mason and the Marina, twinkling like gemstones on a field of black satin and amber sashes.
A long, luxury cruise ship steamed in under the Golden Gate Bridge, likely back from Yucatan, the running lights of tugboats and sundry party boats swarming around it—welcome wagons in full speed and sail. Foghorning them off was an outbound oil tanker riding high and empty, bound for another Middle East payload of light, sweet crude: Boulder’s Flagstaff overlook, only with an added window on the world.
Just behind all that ship traffic, the moat-like bay churned before flickering hillside lights across the wide, open Marin Headlands—those dreamy, palatial playhouses spanning from Sausalito to Tiburon and Belvedere. We tracked the festive cruise liner as it floated like a trout fly on a Rocky stream toward Alcatraz. Container ships pressed slowly past it near Angel Island, freshly stacked from the quartz-lit docks of Oakland, on a Far East bearing for Asian ports of call—so many places I’d never even given a second wandering through, though now beginning to wonder why.
“I don’t know, Heidelberg wasn’t so bad, I mean from the castle’s parapets…”
“I think this is sublimely Greco-Roman,” she trumped, leading us further up the bush-lined path. “See, the peninsula’s like this magnificent penis, with San Francisco here as its head. And The City’s in constant climax, you know? Neverending climax—ewww, my panties get all sticky just thinking about it.”
“You mean metaphorically speaking, right?” I blushed, looked away, fracture mapping the intersecting surface cracks and stress risers in the asphalt at our feet.
“What do you think…”
This landscape did shake loose some architectural details from Army days roaming the Continent; Syd astutely filled in the rest. Between us and the view much further east now stood a majestic salmon-colored highrise, at least by ‘Roaring 20’s standards. Ten stories of gracefully aging elegance with dead-eye perspectives on San Francisco Bay northward to the wine country, courtesy of ornate Moorish balconies. Its crowning wraparound penthouse—topped with sculpted vases and a garden-framed rooftop pool—must have looked out arched window cases clear to the Oregon line.
I by turns stood in awe of the regal blue and silver Lincolns, Cadillacs and Mercedes sedans circling the co-ops’ red-brick driveway. Jaw-dropping even more were the uniformed doormen polishing brass handles and kickplates under crystalline carriage light, then tending to patrons such as the Schilling Spices clan, who emerged exquisitely dressed for the symphony and opera. But all that seemed pedestrian compared to their neighbor one Washington Street address west.
“Ahhh, the good life, picture perfect…”
“Yeah,” I blurted, somewhat surprising myself. “Just gimme a 200mm, a wide angle and bagful of Kodachrome.”
“Try Ektachrome 64T or Fuji Velvia, flash, for better print hues and saturation. If you’re going to be a serious photographer, you’ve got to be up to the challenge.”
“Who says I’m gonna be a serious photographer?”
“Come on, you’ve got to think visually,” she mimicked the aiming and snapping of a camera shutter. “This place stokes the creative fires without even trying. A person like you could be so productive here.”
“Oh, I could, could I,” I scoffed, staring out over the ridge view, soaking it in as if this were a long last gaze at a Neckar Valley I might never visit again—the way Melissa dwelled upon her moonglow ‘Waif and Grain’ portrait in unguarded moments.
“That’s up to you, if you want to be who you really could be.”
Just the other side of 2006’s fountained circular courtyard and meticulously trimmed gardens sat a solid black fleet of Rolls, Jags, Lams, Testas and Rovers splayed in an exotic crescent, as though delivering unto a capricious soiree or geared for a midnight scramble for the jetport and Montreaux. Apparently, this was a typical evening in and around the mansion, not unlike it had been since Adolph Spreckels built the the classical Beaux Arts landmark in 1912-13.
Son of a sugar tycoon, he dedicated this Francophilic palace to his striking wife Alma de Bretteville, a climbing ne-er-do-well beauty with French aristocratic pretensions, raised out on a Sunset District farm plot, who was barely half his age. The 55-room chateau had long hosted gatherings of the artistic and literary elite, toasting this glittering opulence and unsullied views of the bay. But Adolph eventually kicked, some said syphillis was involved, then his sweet Alma departed this elevated plane in ’68—their heirs since converting the confection of a family mansion into four full-floor luxury suites.
“I call it the Sugar Shack,” Syd beamed, licking her lips. “Mmmm…yummy.”
“More like a sugar plantation,” I said, not without awe.
“Before Alma latched on to Adolph Spreckels and became his chatelaine, know what she was? A common artist’s model, that’s what.”
“When ol’ Adolph croaked, she took it all over, linked the mansion up with the Palace of the Legion of Honor—Rodins, the whole hi-brow aesthetic scene. Then she boogied between here and a French villa. What a lifestyle, huh?”
“Plus a lot of the movie ‘Pal Joey’ was shot here, Frank Sinatra and everything.”
“Yeah, the Rat Pack,” I said, watching a pair of dim varmints scurrying along the mansion’s facade, then crossing Washington Street, vanishing up into the parkside above us. “Looks like all that’s left are the rats, big ones.”
“Silly, that’s just some friendly neighborhood raccoons.”
So the shack had seen more decorous days. Though largely shrouded in tall, thick hedges, its scrolled iron gates were chipped and rusting. Flood lights revealed cracks and crumbling fizzures around its rinceaux, its medallion cornices and Tuscan pilasters, water discoloration up and down its Utah limestone arches and columns like tea stains and sweet tooth decay. Nevertheless, windows on all four stories of this massive sugar box shone bright and lively. I couldn’t begin to imagine what was going down inside them tonight, not even with the Wylies’ New Years evening coming freshly and referentially to mind.
Yet curiouser than the Spreckels floor shows was rustling that crept up on us from the rear—shadowy shuffling about and wicked laughter in the bushes and shrubs above.
Lafayette Park was nearly 12 acres of terraced green spaces first set aside in 1867 by City Attorney Samuel Holladay, who built his Italianate mansion and gardens on this robber baron ridge, which became a political and literary hive for the likes of Leland Stanford, Brete Harte and Samuel Clemens.
Real estate magnate Louis Lurie bought the whole plot, and sold it to The City in 1935, which landscaped the acreage and tore down Holladay House a year later, soon adding several tiers of paved paths, picnic areas, playgrounds and a couple of park-top tennis courts. Sunny and wholesome enough in theory and civic-minded intent, but these days Lafayette was exhibiting a somewhat darker side.
“Ever see Pal Joey? I have, three times.”
“Can’t picture it, but have you ever checked out ‘King of Hearts’,” I asked, glancing behind us uphill. “Moon drags me to it at least once a semester.”
“Allan Bates, of course. Who do you think you’re talking to, mister,” she asserted, as we passed on a dew-damp slat bench. “That one about loonies taking over the bin.”
“Right, kinda like this here,” I said. Further up the foliage, the sights got better, but the sounds got weirder. Thrashing among the dark groves and bushes, solitary forms lurked, with no apparent reason or resolve, fondling the fauna, themselves, one another. “What the hell’s going on up there?!”
A bit scruffier and overgrow, the lofty park had by day become sun and bareskin worshipper territory all year round. Come nightfall, thickets of brush, clusters of pine, cypress and swaying palm trees harbored all sorts of chance encounters and resulting consummation. Hence the groaning trysts and quick trick gaiety amid dormant flower beds. Best to turn the other cheek and move along this triple-junction, geo-shifted asphalt path in guarded, forward-looking denial, whatever the consequences.
“Them? They’re just your friendly neighborhood…raconteurs.”
“But it sounds like all guys again—strange suckers, at that,” I said, growing more flustered and disoriented. “This an all-guys scene, or what?”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic. This is San Francisco,” she drew closer. “Some things are just different here. Live and let love, that’s what makes it so great…”
“Yeah, well, how about live and let’s leave…” It was enough having ‘Afternoon Delight’ re-ringing in my ears.
Once we heard the shrieking, time had come to make tracks. Easing downpath to Octavia Street, we crossed Washington between the sugar mansion and a row of boxy, three-story stucco and brickface palais. Octavia here was a one-block Lombard-in-see-minor oddity of a side street, an inverse egg cup of an artery, curving gently in and outward, with three stepped concrete median islands greenery garnished, top to bottom. Full, bushy Sycamore trees lined its long middle strip, obscuring a vista that unreeled all the way down to water’s edge and beyond.
“But it can be tough on a single woman. Look at all this beauty, especially at night time. So many times I want to stroll about and enjoy spots like this.”
“Yeah, so—you’re close enough to it, aren’t you?”
“Maybe, but a woman just doesn’t dare roam by herself after dark—even with another galfriend. There are too many crazies skulking around,” she sighed, tightly pulling closed her jacket. “Sometimes I just need a real, strong man to turn to—to do things and feel safe with—to really cut loose and dig The City with, you know?”
“Don’t ask me, I’m just passing through…”
“It’s just that I feel so penned up at night sometimes. Wary of the nutcases coming out of the woodwork.”
“I’ll bet…getting a little chilly, huh? Freezing my gonads up here…”
“Well, can’t have that now, can we? Let’s make our way down to Franklin, so we can go unload my stuff from your clunker.”
“It’s your trip, I’m just along for the drive.” I pulled back, for there she was, baring her breast again without a blink of the eye. Seemed she could be so brutally frank—no reserve, no self-consciousness whatsoever. It rattled me, all right; but after years of a reticent woman, also intrigued me just a skosh. “Just get me to my car.”
“Hah, as if it’s any warmer in that heap. Speaking of cold, know what once in that mansion down the block there,” she pointed down Jackson Street toward Laguna. “Nazi Germany’s Consulate. Nazis, can you believe it? Bastards blew town just before the war broke out.”
Taxis and towncars gunned up and down the red brick lanes, rubber krinkling and crackling like studded snow tires on dry pavement. We skipped along Spreckel’s stone retaining side wall, noting the escutcheons and garlands on it corroded balcony balustrades, then that panorama opening wide near Jackson, past even more chateau-style mansions, a descending olio of apartment house, shop and traffic lights down to Fort Mason—that cruise ship slowly passing Alcatraz on a now glasswater bay. A turn of the corner back toward Van Ness Avenue carried us along the towering back wall of Spreckel’s square half-block estate. Even taller hedges atop the fortress-like retainer hid a rear mansion indoor pool, massive solarium, sloping gardens and grounds lording over lower Pacific Heights congestion like a master’s house over fashion slaves.
Heady, nearly giddy was our mood, what with all this storybook opulence—buffeted only by the siren and emergency flashers of an S.F.P.D. squad car rushing up Octavia in the direction of Lafayette Park.
“So you really think I could make it with my cameras?”
“Sure. I saw the prints on your cabin walls,” she said, as we paused at the Gough Street stoplight. “You can do whatever you want here.”
“I don’t know about that. They’re pretty much dwarfed by your Hippo ‘Hipster’ painting down there and portrait of Moon.”
“Waif? That’s nothing. You should see my studio…”
“It’s a long story, Daddo. I’ve explained it all to Faith, she can fill you in…
“Now, about re-issuing my cards? Greato! And, well, a new down comforter would be nice. And I could use some new Birkies…sandals, silly—ask Faith…
I now eyed a razor crack along the far floorboard—actual, natural…light. Mired in the sleepy funk of strange, non-sensory surrounding, I poured out of a stretcher-width aluminum cot and low crawled to blindingly rude new morn. The slit widened to a daylight inferno as I opened the door, snapping me to my feet faster than an off-key reveille. Steep lightwells ignited either end of a long white hallway, lined with fine-arts posters and unframed paintings in various stages of emergence, and several wobbly end-tables topped with not-so-fresh cut flowers.
These overnight accommodations, now an ink-blot cubicle over my shoulder, seemed a mini abyss in light of all this sunshine—one I put quickly and squarely behind me. A quick hit in an adjacent, sort of peculiar little loo-only lav room, and I was slowly zipping down the hall. Between the lightwells were four opposing open doorways, each a vessel of activity feeding the principal artery in this congested, neo-Victorian flat.
Spit straightening slept-in clothes, I shuffled softly along the hall’s threadbare Persian-like runner, first encountering a darksome, narrow kitchen and a broadly girthed figure softly cursing a sink full of last-night’s dishes, perfectly eclipsing a soda-cracker-sized inner window—the only light in the room. I peeked up ahead through a half-closed door into a steamy bathroom, panty hose and pink shower curtains veiling a tall, slender soprano.
Herein, a draping coppice of undergarments and housecoats dripped down into a clawfoot bathtub. Hot curlers and hairdryers tangled with cosmetics bags and pump sprays, stray dental floss winding around mouthwash bottles and maxipads, tortoise shell brushes aplenty, toothpaste tubes squeezed and uprolled dry. This all taking on the trappings of some undergrad panty raid, I licked and finger wiped a forced, cotton-mouth smile over toward Sydney’s room.
The further I ventured, the meaner the morning light—particularly upon entering a curved, baby Steinwayed living room saturated with the incandescence of twin bay windows. The mahogany baby grand piano broached them, beckoning me to tinker the keyboard, though I knew nary a note. Instead, I turned to peek through sliding parlor doors, spotting Syd nervously tightening a white terry bathrobe about her neck while finger twirling a coiled white Princess phone cord.
I caught a quick shot of her lotus and stretching on a faintly periwinkle futon, her loaded wardrobe valises hanging precariously behind her on suspended clotheslines, sweater bags and shoeboxes stacked neatly on the hardwood floor, a city life suspended for months at a time. So clean, already so perfectly scrubbed and clean…so bright, squeaky clean…
“Yes, I promise to be more careful—guard against the shortcomings of others like you’ve always told me…I mean, if only he’d really locked his car doors…
“You know best, Daddo. So you’ll help get me my new plastic right away? Yes, call you soon as they come. Big love and smoochies…hi to Lester, while you’re at it. Tell him I’m here and clear, already. Me, too, bye-bye.”
She sprang from the lotus position like a startled Pallas cat, then darted toward me, ruffling her frazzled hair to make it fuller. It was her Linda Kelsey look, or rather, a Sandy Dennis variation on the Dyan Cannon look. But it kicked ass then, just the same. “There you are, flash. When did you wander out here?”
“Only a few minutes ago,” I said, through coated tongue, morning mouth run a-muck. “W-w-what’s the story?”
“What’s the story with you? Lost track of you a little after midnight…”
“Just sleeping it all off, I guess…”
Her room matched the parlor’s high, plaster-cast ceiling and tall bay windows, stirring off-white walls and woodwork into a searing sunlit frenzy. She blinded me with whiteness, and I sought relief in the periwinkle, her rainbow wardrobe, an unfinished portrait of a striking semi-nude gymnast in page boy and partial Danskins facing her futon—the room’s sole wall hanging to be seen. She refolded back into lotus position on her futon, then motioned me down to her side. “Just called my parents. Daddo ragged on about how careless I was, but is already taking care of replacing my cards.”
“Aww, maybe your purse will turn up,” I said, unable to shield my eyes against the brutal morning, disinclined to tip how much I’d overheard. My eyes instead roosted in a sickly lemon tree outside her windows.
“Don’t hold your breath, toots,” she sighed, staring through the scales on my lids. “Not with the hang-loose S.F. P.D. on the case.”
“Never know, sometime do-gooders find hot stuff in the trash—months later, even.” I couldn’t stare her in the eye on this point, rather settling upon that solitary unframed canvas.
“Dream on, this isn’t cowtown Colorado,” she sniffed. “So how did you sleep in the servant’s room back there?”
“Like I was embalmed,” I rubbed an overnight growth, keeping my breath at bay. “But so much for California dreamin’. I leave a cozy Boulder cabin for a glorified broom closet.”
“Don’t press your luck, flash. Good thing I still had my extra key stashed under the front steps. Besides, it just so happens our broom closet is in one of San Francisco’s best neighborhoods. I mean, you could be down in the Tenderloin.”
“I’ll keep that in mind back over Donner Summit…”
“We’ll see about that,” she tapped my leg. “So, you noticed my roomie on the way out?”
“Kinda on the stout side, muttering in the kitchen?”
“That’s one of them, Edie. Oh, know what? She said she heard on the KSFD news this morning that there was a stabbing in Lafayette Park last night—some guy died up there…”
“No…way,” I said hesitantly. “Guess that explains the sirens, huh?”
“Actually, police suspect it happened a lot later, like the wee small hours,” Syd said, as if casually assessing my still-disheveled state. “What was that you said about embalmed?”
Care for more?
Chapter 18. Confronted with memories
parochial, figures of contrasting dimensions,
their race is on to even more uncommon ground…