“Waylaid on the road
to salvation, best to give
it a second thought.”
“…Who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses…”
Easy listening? Not so as I could tell. Sydney having hastened to take a further ablution turn in the flat’s only full bathroom; I’d drifted back into the parlor, settling on the piano bench, tinkling the keys like a five year-old at kindergarten play break. While sifting through the Gershwin and Cole Porter sheet music heaped atop the glossy black Steinway, I found this distant recitation catching my ear—muffled invocation, a callow, discordant prayer chorus echoing through a schoolyard just below the bay windowcase at piano’s rounded edge. What was this: an ‘Our Father’ here? I could have grudgingly drawn a bead on that confessional gruel anywhere…
“…and lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil, amen.”
An antsy muster of blue plaid uniformed gradeschoolers in all shades and shapes parroted late morning prayers, fidgeting, grabbing themselves, eyes wandering, feet shuffling, snickering at one another as they mangled ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Act of Contritions’, yet maintaining five tidy rows. Their tiny, stumbling voices oversize echoed about the game-lined asphalt quadrangle, rimmed with coarse, stubby hedges, boxed in on three sides by a holy trinity of four-story school buildings, a wafer white cluster of parochial classrooms, play halls, convent quarters and devotional chambers.
Anchoring the Broadway Street flank of this imposing, nearly one-block cloister, beyond a comparatively nondescript rectory, was a massive Romanesque cathedral, with a gabled roof and louver windowed tower, cornering at Van Ness Avenue. Crammed in along this near side was a line of secular condo and apartment buildings, not least the four-level mid-block address from which I overviewed the whole Gothic-style Catholic complex, perched as I was in this rear window-well on floor number three.
“Okay, everyone, let’s firm up our rows more smartly now, shall we,” prodded the more diminutive, red-faced nun, with her wire-marm eyeglasses and first sergeant firmness. “Time for catechism classes to begin. Christopher, no tarrying now, please!”
The emblem-sweatered elementary students faced toward a six-story west-side wing, tightening ranks as a team of darker blue habited nuns herded them like underfed shelties, fussily prepping the class for Saturday bible lessons. Between their charges and the nearest school doors was a gauntlet of basketball hoops, volleyball nets, footballs, tetherballs, bats, gloves, rackets, soccer shoes, skip ropes and roller skates—scattered recessories to be dutifully gathered up after another session of doctrinal browbeating. I reflected on my parents’ spiritual bargain as the sisters girded to lead their pupils out of the yard: Church on Sunday, but regular public school during the week—still sounded about right about now.
“Children, we are not proceeding indoors until our little formation is perfectly straight, do you hear? Terrance, Angela—pull in closer, will you please.”
Reflective as well were the school building’s details in the mid-morning sun. Across the yard, a main arched doorway the nuns were aiming for was topped with a ceramic Blessed Virgin, trimmed with Castilian brown Biblical Madonna, lamb and fowl creatured medallions and intaglios. Coordinate arcaded window arches featured baby Jesus faces and tiny stone tablet renderings of the Ten Commandments and Stations of the Cross. Between them stood deeply ribbed terra umber pilasters crowned with divinely ornate Vatican-touched capitals. Thematically lording over it all was a wraparound entablature, scripturally adorned friezes and architraves, gilt-dentiled, lancet arched cornices up top that looked like the embroidery on a priestly robe. En total, these were pious, studied offerings to the higher power above, nearly sanctified enough to bring us stray mortals to our sacrilegious knees.
“Flash, where are you now?!” Sydney’s voice gained as she sprinted toward the parlor, towel drying her hair.
“Just checking out all the noise,” I replied, continuing to peer down to the schoolyard, diametrically opposing her sliding dining cum bedroom doors.
“Oh, that’s St. Brenda’s, quite the spectacle, isn’t it,” she answered quizzically, glancing back through to her bedroom, tabulating two and two without displaying her bottom line. “Funny though, my faith worships individualism, but they seem more into crowds. They do that shtick every morning, weekdays starting at 8 a.m. They’re our local roosters…”
“Brings back some memories…” Wracking through a little Curacao Blue Moon hangover, I wondered why she had to hang that car door-lock rap around my neck. Me, of all people…why me?
“Good ones?” She cinched up her white terry bathrobe. Prayers were potted down as the nuns and children crossed themselves and began filing into class. Then the church’s cherished Italian Ruffatti pipe organ rang through the yard, rattling the school’s brown, waffle-hatched windows floor upon floor.
“Cum se cum sa,” I grunted, with a so-so rock of the hand. Setting aside my boyhood clashes with top-down priestly and parish authority, with fiery images of Sister Eleanor and fourth-grade Catechismal drills, the scene below delivered me momentarily to one wistful weekend in Torino. How European a city this was for mainland U.S.A., only with brilliant sunshine, rather than driving continental rains.
“Beautiful buildings, that’s for sure. Look at how the sun beams off the curbstone cathedral’s stained glass windows and apostle statues. I’ve been told that art stuff was all made in Ireland. You might like to know Brenda’s school started in 1888 with the Sisters of Blessed Charity from Dublin. It’s been a center for San Francisco’s Irish community ever since. I hear Mayor Moscone went there, too. My roommate, Diana told me the whole story when I moved in.”
“No lie,” I said self-consciously, somewhat taken aback by her knowledge. I edged away from the window-well, as if dabbing in the holy water and crossing myself after high mass, then rounded the Steinway to brush morning dust off its ivories. “Sooo, whose piano?”
“Diana’s very musical, that one,” she followed me around the Steinway, brushing morning dust from its ivories. “She and Edie have lived here forever. C’mon, you can meet them, let’s cut through my space.”
“Er, nice place,” I batted away the bath towel she swung in my face, only to spot a living room wall photo, apparently of the two roommates. It was a blanched double exposure of sorts, a broad-beamed figure in black lingerie and party mask ghosting over a slender seated nude blowing a long silver flute, who was playing to sheet music spread across a pink throw-covered mattress. “Bit overexposed maybe…”
“You like it, hmmm? Found it a few months before I left for Europe,” Sydney noted, once we passed through the sliding doors back into her bedroom. “We split it three ways. I get a break ’cause my room’s smallest. Edie and Diana are real sweeties. Kinda distant sometimes, but the two of them have grown inseparable.”
“Like you and that painting? It’s the only one hanging on your walls…about the only thing in here that isn’t white.” I took fuller notice of the oil in progress, a shapely ass-ender with an oh-so-casual flip of a shaggy blond head over her shoulder.
“Isn’t she gorgeous? That’s my dear, dear friend, Aimee Pellimore, up in Marin. Oy, I’ve got to finish the work by spring—for her birthday,” she said, lopping her towel onto a set of porcelain hooks as we paused before through the opposing door into the hallway. “Yep, back to my studio it goes. It’s at the Art Institute, that’s where all my color is—but I’ll show you. See, my whole life is color—my work there, my tastes, my whole wardrobe behind that closet door. So I like to keep everything as white as I can here. A blank canvas—source of pure inspiration, centering, you know?”
“I just associate it with shoveling snow drifts.” I peeked into that now vacant bathroom, still strung up and steamy, just the same. “Which I’d better be getting back to…”
“Not in San Francisco, you won’t,” she smiled, leading me toward the kitchen. “Out here, you can leave the chains and shovels behind. Let’s see if we can grab a bite to go…”
On closer scrutiny, the kitchen fit their spacious flat like a one-car garage on a Grosse Pointe spread. It wasn’t much wider than the adjacent utility room, or all that much brighter, yet was considerably longer, and warm. Scored pots and skillets hung from pegboards; dance club and kitten magnets held scribbled notes and recipes to the avocado panelled refrigerator door. A tall, elbowed vent duct led from and Easy-Offed Roper range, somewhat eclipsing the lone, placemat-size window. What it didn’t obscure was covered nicely by Edie, still hunched over the slowly draining sink. Diana had joined her, lanky and dripping in a rouge-red bathrobe and shower bonnet.
Damp hand prints hinted that Edie had straightened up long enough for Diana to reach around her flowery mau-mau for some serious hug time, only to release her as we drew near. The long and short of it was, only Diana’s gangly arms could have fully reached around that housecoat, for Edie was built as stoutly as a Baltic powerlifter. Busy hands back on kitchen counters, they turned like Hummel figures to greet us.
“Ladies, this is my dear new friend, fla—Kenneth,” Sydney smiled thinly, sliding past cooling bread loaves to tap a glass of bottled water from a corner dispenser. “He’s all the way from Boulder—that’s in Colorado. Flash, meet my fantabulous roommates…”
“Kenneth,” they chimed, glancing at one another like sisters superior. The squatter of the two added, “so you’re what was rattling around last night.”
“Edie’s a big honcho downtown at B of A,” Syd offered abruptly, between sips of Crystal Geyser, then handing me the glass.
“An admin assistant, actually—in the Best Practices Department,” she looked askance at Sydney, then turned my way. “And you…”
“Uh, just finished grad school, master’s program in…”
“He’s a good friend of my dear friend, Melissa Saversohn,” Syd blurted, grabbing the glass for a refill. Good enough to drive me all the way back to The City.”
“Friend,” Edie said flatly. “How friendly?”
“Live-in friendly,” Syd overrode me, gratefully so, as I drank up and handed her the glass. “But they’re not engaged, or anything—right, Kenneth?”
“Well, no—not exactly, or anything,” I diverted to Diana, who was now quietly slicing her bread loaves. I couldn’t help but disrobe her mentally, that double exposure snapping like a camera shutter across my frontal lobe. “Smells great…what kind of…”
“Diana’s our in-house baker,” Syd toasted her with a half glass of brand label…water. “Bet you baked your little buns off, hon.”
“All day yesterday, Sydney…took some sick time,” Diana said softly, wielding her carving knife with boulangerie pride. “Did a date-nut and four 9-grains. We’ve frozen half, gets us to payday.”
“Besides that, she’s an actuary for Pacific Life Insurance, can you believe it,” Syd added. “Next step, law school yet. Incredible…”
“So you’re co-habbing, are you, Kenneth, getting it on the cheap,” Edie stared my way, like a heavyweight free-weight medallist at an eighth-ranked contender. “Where’s this Melissa person? Is she here with you, or…”
“Uh, Ken’s the name, actually. And she stayed put in Boulder, work and everything,” I cleared my throat, tracking her warily as she planted her sole-worn bunny slippers before the Roper, to stir a pot of simmering oatmeal. “That’s why I’m heading back there ASAP—right after I phone her to…you know, hash out the return trip.”
“But not too ASAP,” Sydney winked, with a nod toward Diana and all that bread. “We’ve some places to go here, things to see and do first—right, Kenneth? So we’d better get shakin’.”
“Knock yourselves out,” Edie smiled stiffly, clearing the air but not the tension. She shot me a quick glare, then gestured Diana to her side with a case-hardened rise of the brow. “We working girls will hold down the fort, keep a look-out for that grisly killer up at the park.”
“Yes, until later, Sydney,” Diana smiled blandly, offering us some 9-grain slices on a paper New Years party plate. “We still must hear all about your devil-may-care holiday travels. In the meantime, you didn’t happen to leave your spare keys lying around, did you?”
“No, no way, not that I can remember, anyway,” Syd squeezed Diana’s chilly shoulder, Edie fixing on my fleeting eye. There we left them, co-stirring the oatmeal, one curious duad, indivisible.
“Pretty heavy chick,” I sighed, as we retreated to Sydney’s room to gather up some of her carry alongs.
“Ah, don’t let Edie rattle you,” she sneered, shedding her robe to merely tangerine bra and panties without missing a beat. “She’s just raggin’ because her lumberjack boyfriend won’t come back from Oregon and sweep her away from all this…now where did I leave those keys…”
“Can’t say as I’d blame him. I mean, how does Diana put up with that crap?” I tried to remain conversationally cool in the face of this nubile, flawless flesh, avoiding her key quest altogether, circumspectly so—even though I recalled spotting them on a front hall stand.
“You kidding me? Dear Diana gets off on that domination crap,” Syd asserted, with a shady little smile. “She’d never admit that to herself, the submissive sack—and here she’s wanting to become a lawyer. I’ve never heard her raise her voice above a whimper.”
“Must let her music do the talking, huh?” Try as I might, there was no missing the small, delicate bumblebee tattooed just below her navel. My grip tightened on the 9-grain paper plate. ”With her instruments, all that…”
“Makes me no nevermind.” She casually reached for a cranberry pullover, wriggling into creased Vanderbilt jeans—apparently knowing all too well the virtues of erotoshock therapy. A blast of her hairdryer, dab of lip gloss, grab of backup keys and a mini Gucci purse: she was ready for take-off. “I buzz in and out of here and leave them be. Just mind my own toothbrush, pay the rent months in advance. A little pit stop, and we’ll fly…”
“Roger that,” I said, snatching up Syd’s pearly Princess phone the moment she hit the bathroom, for a quick cash call to Moon—a little Western reUnion for the road. Yep, just punch in some 303 numbers and brrddt…brrddt…brrddtt…
“Speaketh…” The gruff, muffled voice had a half-chewed mouthful, saying a mouthful.
Speaketh? CLICK. I hung up moments before Sydney returned for her bag. Who the hell was that guy?
“Bambina mio, come va…dove sei stato?”
“Roma, Venezia, Milano,” Sydney beamed, as we reached a fully decaled and postered service counter, Gran Prix imagery and busty Snap-On Tools calendars wallpapering all around. “Ah, the Galleria Borgese, the Pinacoteca di Brera, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Mario. The marble in Carrera—cosa marmo grande!”
Wasn’t all that far; the weather wasn’t that bad, at all. Syd had assured me she knew her way around, and my chances of getting a weekend non-metered parking ticket were next to nil. A brief stop at the squareback for my shaving kit appeared to validate her nil hypothesis. So there we left it for the time being, electing to go about some of her homecoming errands on foot.
I breathed in the spring-like Saturday morning, a sparkling skyline over Russian Hill that seemed crowned by the pointed upper stories of Transamerica’s Pyramid beyond, tagging along as she stopped at a neighborhood bank branch to exchange traveler’s checks and tap her rainy day savings account—explaining away an expired driver’s license for required picture ID. A nearby locksmith duped a set of her emergency apartment keys; her road-soiled clothes were headed straight for the dry cleaners. Next up, a long red and gray repair garage with twin overhead doors: one emblazoned with a large Alfa-Romeo emblem, the other half-opened, with Ferrari’s black-on-yellow stallion. Straddling both, in bold drop-shadowed script, was the name, ‘Mario’s Monza Garage’.
“Si, sicuro,” replied Mario himself, a swarthy middle-aged gumba in yellow pit crew coveralls, clomping about the service/parts compartment in leather-strapped sabots.
Framed photos suggested his father had been a champion pioneer race driver on the Formula One circuit before opening this shop, while his son was now waist-deep in Castrol gear grease, oli per transmissioni and manifold high-performance automobili tradition. With a shake out of his curly hair, he reached over to a pegboard panel filled with tagged vehicle keys, next to a signed color shot of Giancarlo Baghetti, then handed her two spares on a fuzzy rainbow ring. “I’m bred to diagnostic tune Maseratis and they bringing me questo cheesebox Fiats and Lancia Y’s to de-smog. Pero, su, L’auto va bene…”
“Bene, grazie, see you first of the month,” she smiled, turning to me, in near whispers, leading me further into Mario’s garage. “I slip him a little Italian, he gives me a little break on the day rate. That’s how it works hereabouts, flash. One hand spritzes the other—a delicate balance. You just have to tip it in your favor…”
“Check,” I said, struck by the winner’s circle-painted cleanliness of the quartz-lit service bay, the array of Lamborghinis and GTEs alongside those cheesy mini imports. Metric tool chest consoles lined the garage’s Gran Prix muralled walls, which took me back graphically unto racing pilgrimages to Hockenheim and Nurburgring.
“Scope this out,” she countered, directing me around a green Spider Veloce to her fire red Audi Fox/Avant wagon.
“Nice wheels…uh, about your driver’s license, want me to…” I removed a hot wax detailing flier from under her windshield wiper, setting it atop a steel brake fluid drum beside the sports car, on which a young Team Mario mechanic was busy adjusting valve tappets.
“You ride shotgun, I’ll take my chances.” Syd belted in, started the Fox, revving through a few seconds warm-up, then wheeling for the doors with a cheshire smile. She slowed at the front counter, rolling down her window. “Grazie, Mario, tab it, OK? But ease off the highway robbery, you’re bleeding me dry!!!”
“First of month, Bambina,” he shouted, wiping his mitts with Gunk hand cleaner. “We go to caffe. Sacripantina…I buy…”
“I’m thinking Zabaglione or Zuppa Inglese with a little Marsala. We’re good, ciao…” With that, she rolled out and we were fast into traffic, cutting off an irate cabbie, swinging around an idling MUNI bus, turning out onto Polk Street, headed for her favorite Greekateria across Broadway. “A steal, really. It’d cost me five times as much at any other garage—for storing a German car, yet. I just kept stopping by, pencil sketching Mario behind the wheel of his favorite vintage Bugattis in full racing drag. He can’t get enough, frames them at home. Let’s get us some real eats.”
“What about this 9-grain here?” Never one for seat belts and harnesses, I held tight to the armrest with one hand, clutching my shaving kit and the paper plate I’d stuffed into it with the other.
“Save it for the pigeons. We’re doin’ gyros or something…I’m famished.”
A parking spot, right out front Urnie’s, midway along a solid block of liquor/groceries, coffee bars and curio shops. Unbelievable, she said, stepping up to take a number for a couple of pita sandwiches, extra hummus, sprouts. I ducked into the shop’s john for a quick brush and flush; she met me at the front door with a dripping bag of Grecian delights.
“Coulda just settled for a Big Mac or…” I juggled the pitas along with my Dopp kit as we drove off for who knew where.
“Not around here you won’t,” she said, buzzing through a yellow light, turning left toward the Broadway tunnel. “There’s barely one McDonalds in the whole city, if that. Closest thing are the Doggy Diners out on the avenues. People actually march in protest every time some fast-food chain tries to buy their way into town. I’m talking militant, hanging Ronald the clown in effigy. Hold tight, flash, we’ve got to get cookin’ while they’re still warm.”
Syd downshifted through the long, dark tunnel to Chinatown’s edge, then left-turned illegally into the tight-knit clamor of North Beach. Broadway’s skin dives were a blinking red blur, we sped through Columbus Avenue espresso, garlic and antipasti vapors like a contraband cigarette boat out of Biscayne Bay. This could all wait, she insisted, cutting between a flower power Corolla and Westfailure Microbus as we passed a bandana of a crowded park whose sign read, ‘Washington Square’. Punching up Journey’s ‘Wheel In The Sky’ on her FM radio, she pointed out the angelic white twin steeples of St. Marilyn and Joltin’ Joe—yet another of those blessed grandiose Catholic churches.
“Kinda pushin’ it a bit, don’t you think? I mean, with your license situation…”
“Not to worry, flash. You’d have to commit hit-and-run murder for the cops to pull you over for a mover in this town. Anyway, we’ll do some sightseeing stuff later. We’ve got real places to go first,” she hugged the middle lane, reviewing her frizzing hair in the rearview mirror, then motioned left toward Graffeo coffee roastery. “Their dark roast will curl your fingernails.”
“Later? When later?” I tightened the grip on the warm Urnie’s bag between my legs, nervously nibbling at the smashed 9-grain slices in my shaving kit. KSFR cross-faded to Heart’s ‘Barracuda’, while I was still trying to remember where that Lady Thornia astrology place was situated around here when I blew through over last Thanksgiving break. “I’ve got to phone Moon, get my trip back to Boulder squared away.”
“C’mon, how could you not want to see more of this beautiful place? Besides, I thought you just tried,” she smirked, hooking a left turn off Columbus just short of Fisherman’s Wharf, making for a Chestnut Street climb up the lee side of Russian Hill. “If it hadn’ta been so short, I’d bill you for the long-distance call. Tell me, what was that all about?”
Care for more?
Chapter 19. Attitudes trump latitude.
A difference in outlook leads to
some brasher, blurrier visions…