“Upon rising to the Heights,
be ever heedful on your
way back down.”
“Yep, cards, licenses, the whole shebang…gone…could have happened anywhere. But we need to replace them, like pronto…
“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 then my flights got cancelled—Colorado blizzards, and everything…so I rode out with Melissa’s friend—yes, boyfriend. No, nothing’s going on!”
Wait, 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 crypt, 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 recalled was scouring the upper reaches of some place called Lafayette Park.
Sydney had suggested we walk off last night’s gratis Hippo’s carbo loads, the flaming exotic burgers and celebrity table spotting. We trudged up past pastel apartment boxes along Jackson Street, then by the hallowed Haas-Lilienthal House. Grey on gray and sprawling—a 24-room Queen Anne Victorian came 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 paneled spread dating back to 1886, monument to imported grocery money, built on a spacious lot beyond all neighborhood scale, long before the wall-to-wall nondescript apartment buildings crowded in. It was an architectural heritage museum once rimmed by other Victorian mansions, now a lone yawning, anachronistic manor house and grounds amid surrounding 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, to a flickering blaze 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, cowboy,” 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, playing catch-up on a curved path, trying to re-coordinate breathing with gait— Hippo and Polk Street refluxing, pressure mounting about the eyes. “And been spending more time hitting the books than the rec center.”
“Oink, poor porker baby,” she mocked, casting her gaze past some gnarly overhanging tree branches, 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 Marin County 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 craft 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 was being a bit arbitrary at this point, although slightly distracted by some scattered rustling up over my shoulder.
“Puleeze, not even close. I think this is sublimely Greco-Roman,” she trumped unfazed, leading us further up the overgrown 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, the path darkening further under cover of eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees.
“Metaphysically is more like it, accent on the physical…but what do you think?”
Didn’t know what to think, that rustle quickening up in the shadowy trees and shrubbery behind us, that appeared to grow thicker and more tangled, with a deep undertow of muffled moans and groans as we went. Still, this landscape straight ahead 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 20s’ 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. Still, all that seemed pedestrian compared to their neighbor one Washington Street address west.
“Ahhh, the good life, picture perfect,” she beamed, her misty eyes focused out ahead.
“Yeah,” I blurted, looking her way, playing along, blinders on for the moment as well. “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 speed.”
“Who says I’m gonna be a serious photographer?”
“C’mon, you’ve got to think visually,” she mimicked the aiming and snapping of a camera shutter without pause. “This place stokes the creative fires without even trying. A person like you could be so productive here.”
“Oh, right,” I resisted, staring out over the panoramic ridge view, yet unable to filter out the heavy footsteps and breathless, bestial thrashing going on over our shoulders.
“That’s up to you, if you want to be who you really could be.” While she was not even blinking an eye, as if nothing peculiar were happening up there.
Just the other side of 2006’s fountained circular courtyard and meticulously trimmed gardens sat a solid black fleet of Rolls, Jags, Lams, Testies 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. “Before Alma latched onto Adolph Spreckels and became his chatelaine, know what she was? A common artist’s model, that’s what.”
“Figures…” I was beginning to get annoyed by all the commotion in the dark upper reaches of Lafayette Park, where those moans and murmers were increasingly spiked with flares of randy laughter.
“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?”
“Can’t imagine…” I said, not without a measure of awe.
“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.”
“Oh, get a grip—they’re just some friendly neighborhood raccoons.”
Surely 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 on inside them tonight either, much less what was going down in the woodsy wilds above.
Lafayette Park itself 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 shadier side. For curiouser than the Spreckels’ floor shows was more rustling that crept upon us from the rear—shadowy shuffling about and more wicked laughter in the bushes and shrubs above, plumes of hash and ganja wafting down.
“So didja ever see Pal Joey? I have, three times.” Syd seemed to utterly disregard that the demonic laughter was turning into shemanic cries and hemonic shrieking about the twisted overgrowth and underbrush up there.
“Can’t picture it,” I glanced behind us uphill again, where that pitch darkness flickered with smatterings of Zippos and candlelight, set to cross thread of tribal tunes. “But have you ever checked out ‘King of Hearts’? Moon drags me to it at least once a semester.”
“Allan Bates, of course. Who do you think you’re talking to, mister,” she parried, 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 sightlines got better, but the sounds got weirder. Thrashing among the dark groves and bushes intensified, solitary forms lurked, with no apparent reason or resolve, fondling the flora, the fauna, themselves, maybe one another—rather aberrantly, disquisitionally so. “What the hell’s up up there anyway?!”
A bit scruffier and overgrown, the lofty park had by day become sun and bareskin worshipper territory all year round. Come nightfall, more 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. Common sense said best to turn the other cheek and move along this triple-junction, geo-shifted asphalt path in guarded, forward-looking denial, however uncommon the consequences.
“You mean up by the swings and picnic tables? They’re just your friendly neighborhood…raconteurs.”
“But it sounds like all guys night out again—strange suckers, at that,” I said, growing more flustered and disoriented. “This another one of your barnyards, or what?”
“Yeesh, we’re talking San Francisco,” she said dismissively, drawing closer. “Some things are just different here. I mean isn’t it incredible, so positively progressive. See no, hear no—live and let love, that’s what makes the town so cool…”
“Yeah, well, how about live and let’s leave…” It had me checking my pants again—thanks be no rocketry, only the usual requisites, with a distant ‘Afternoon Delight’ ringing in my ears. While my wallet wasn’t exactly burning a hole in my pocket any more, keys were cutting into my thigh. So I fidgeted them around for reassurance until they became entangled in my side pocket, to where I pulled the cluttered ring out, brittly shaking its fob and bibelots back into place. I then reburied the cluster deep into my jeans—keys that they were to my getaway.
In any event, once we heard some ghastly carnal screams, time had come to skirt the unruly shrubbery and 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 doesn’t dare roam by herself after dark—even with another gal pal. There are just too many crazies skulking around the edges here ,” 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 dig The City with, you know?”
“Don’t ask me, I’m just passing through…”. I thrust into my side pocket to paw my key ring, just to be sure.
“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 noogies 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, holding tightly to my keys, 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 back 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? Hun bastards blew town just before the war broke out. Probably went crawling back to Heidelberg.”
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 Spreckels’ 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 Spreckels’ 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 now, what with all this storybook opulence—buffeted only by the siren and emergency flashers of a powder blue S.F.P.D. squad car rushing up Octavia in the direction of Lafayette Park, paramedic ambulance not far behind.
“So you really think I could score with my cameras?” I glanced over my shoulder, more morbidly curious than visually mused.
“Sure. I saw the prints on your cabin walls,” she poked me back her way, as we paused at the Gough Street stoplight. “You can do whatever you want here.”
“Don’t know about that, I mean compared to your Hippo ‘Hipster’ painting and portrait of Moon.”
“Waif? That’s nothing. You should see my studio…”
“It’s a long story, Daddo. I’ve explained it to Faith, she’ll fill you in…
“Now, about my credit 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. 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, 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 back here and situating. 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, kiddo. 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…much as I can remember.”
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 my cards.”
“Aww, maybe your purse will turn up,” I said, unable to shield my eyes against the brutal morning, trying to decipher what I’d overheard. My eyes instead roosted in a sickly lemon tree outside her windows.
“Don’t hold your breath,” 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 comatose,” I rubbed an overnight growth, fishing about my work shirt and pockets, 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. 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…”
“All in good time,” she tapped my leg. “So, you noticed my roomie on the way out?”
“Little on the porker side, muttering in the kitchen?”
“Hmph, that’s one of them, Edie. Oh, know what? She said she heard on the KSFD news this morning that there was a violent attack 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 comatose?”
Care for more?
Chapter 18. Confronted with memories
parochial, figures of contrasting dimensions,
their race is on to even more uncommon ground…