“The big idea, the
let it get the best of you.”
“Sooo, Aimee was your first figure study, huh?”
“At the Institute, nosy. Faith was my very first.”
“You should see her pin-ups. The mother of all mothers.”
Angles and configurations, I was still trying to get a handle on any homological scenarios. But further prurient curiosity and concentration escaped me altogether once we rejoined Nicasio Valley Road, then Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Route 1 near Olema—no CHP shakedowns in sight. From there southward, we took the coastal route: Dogwood, hints of Bolinas, Stinson Beach. Barely secluded ocean strands, dizzily switchbacked turns, cliff-hanging S-curves, organic dairy farms and sprawling quarter horse spreads. Shoreline 1 was one long scenic blur of rustic and tidal beauty, expanding even more dramatically as we rose toward the Panoramic Highway hump, from which we could see clearly back north to Point Reyes and Drakes Bay from a string of narrow turnouts.
A peripheral lightheadedness, a swivel-necked giddiness set in at the Tamalpais viewpoint, a full perspective on the entire Bay region that rendered me speechless along the winding, redwooded descent into Mill Valley and its little shake-sided, arts & crafts-style charmers, down through Tam Junction, under the 101 freeway’s Wm. T. Bagley Bridge to this jaw-dropping walk in bayfront Sausalito, parking outside a landmark produce grocery mere footsteps away.
“It just goes to show how incredibly special the Bay Area is,” Sydney said, soon as we began strolling along the Bridgeway promenade, San Francisco’s skyline coming more fully into view. “You’ve got the most exciting city in the world over there, and, like, a rural paradise 15 minutes over the Gate. It’s even more spectacular the further up you go, like by Sebastopol, where my cousins live—they actually have a dome up there.”
“No lie? Those meters in force today, or,” I scouted around for meter maids—so far, so good. There was no missing Sausalito’s other surroundings, clustered cabins and cottages haphazardly spilling down its hillsides in Mediterranean tiers to the village’s waterfront tourist row. Across Bridgeway, I spotted a wiped-out old salt sitting, shivering in the cool shade of a palm tree, and pondered if it could have been Villa Mañana’s Mr. Wiggs.
“It’s Sunday, lighten up,” she pulled me along, pausing at the promenade railing. “Just look at this all, will you? There are so many possibilities, so much going on…and so mild climate-wise. There are no snow storms in these hills…a little blowing, maybe, but…”
“Uh-huh, kinda small town, if you ask me,” I said, peering up and down the walk with a trace of defensive resistance, jacket slung over my shoulder. “I mean compared to, like, Chicago or something.”
“Chicago? There is no comparison, class-wise,” Syd pointed beyond Sausalito’s sloping, cluttered-to-green Banana Belt ridge toward the Golden Gate towers, glowing redder with every glance. “Take that gorgeous bridge—a picture of grace and simplicity. If it was in Chicago, they’d have done it in gaudy chrome and car-lot searchlights.”
“Oddly enough, it was built by a Chicago engineer,” said a blue-vested valet pacing in wait to dislodge a Bentley from the fused wood piling parking deck of the dockside Trireme Restaurant, packed with larger numbers: 320s, 450s, 733i’s. “Says so right on the commemorative plaque up there by its gift shop.”
“Really? Chi-guy came up with that?” I asked the valet, who suddenly sprinted to the racing green British saloon as its graying broker-owner emerged from the dressy, showboat-themed Trireme, with a raven-haired trophy on his arm. “Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright?”
“No, but Wright did do the Marin Civic Center—amazing, too,” Syd huffed, diverted momentarily but undeterred, steering us eastward, toward central Sausalito. “But moving right along…”
Not quite stateroom class, nowhere near steerage, the Halyard was a boxy, two-story converted fishery a bit east of Trireme, jutting out well into Sausalito harbor—just the sort of reborn eye-sore at which local trendies threw bundles of cash, developers on down. Diners digested a three-sided view of the bayfront; Halyard’s back bar crowd enjoyed even more. A young helmsman between crews ushered us rearward, past redwood burl tables pleny with platters of lobster, scallops, cracked crab and anchovy salads.
Syd guided me along a spar deck of inlaid redwood paneling and bowline-hanging planters, beyond sunburst leaded glass lightboxes tucked between gargantuan ferns and cordotum, which cast a red lobster glow across the nautical dining room. A commodore suited waitress picked us up at sliding glass doors leading into The Xebec, an aft deck bar with full sailing decor, seating us a small mid-row table beside an open-windowed affray.
“Ringside seat, no?” Sydney asked, as we pulled our stools nearer into the round, hatch-size table, knees aknocking. “What I’m saying is there are no limits to what you can accomplish here…it’s not like Chicago that way, or cowtown Colorado, for that matter.”
“Chicago what way?” I picked up immediately on San Francisco’s skyline across the bay, a foreground sprinkle of yachtsmen, listing, heavy heeling into the lingering sunlight, jibs and mainsails reflectively ablaze.
“C’mon, you know as well as I the Midwest is pure suffocation.” She’d ordered us a couple of café au laits, then dug into a breadstick basket. “Why do you think all the good people leave there?”
“That’s not the Chicago I come from,” I said, getting unexpectedly defensive, taking in the broad sweep of Richardson Bay and the city front far beyond. “I just left because of the harsh winters… and the muggy summers…and the…”
“Hey, I come from where you come from, remember…”
Rail side, we were greeted by the light wash of a sleek 40-foot sloop gybing aimlessly before the promenade, its crew saluting in yellow foul weather gear. I actually found the spray comparatively bracing alongside deep winter images of speed skating on Nederland’s mountain reservoirs, or ice floes locking up Lake Michigan freighters. Here, sailboats cross-hatched the waters in mid-season form, a tight late-day racing pattern rounding the mark between Sausalito and the Headlands shadow, heeling in toward Marin’s Corinthian Yacht Club as if clambakes, Tanqueray Coolers, party balls and fireworks awaited them.
Framing the promenade, yacht clubs and rest of Richardson Bay were the cloistered, villa and condo-crazed enclaves of hilly Tiburon and Belvedere, the starkly unspoiled green coves and canyons of lee side Angel Island—the outer stretches of Treasure Island, Alameda and Oakland’s cityscape peeking up behind, Bay Bridge spans and cantilevers threading it all together. An outbound container ship fog horned gnatty pleasure craft out of its channel, drawing my eye rightward to Alcatraz, which rose from center bay like steeple-less Mont-Saint-Michel at maximum tide, the island’s cell blocks and prison laundry crumbling in the salt air as though unearthed Sicilian ruins—that rotted incisor in dire need of capping in an otherwise captivating smile.
“Just look at all that. Funny, like I said, the whole peninsula as this humongous erection,” Syd mused, stirring sugar into her coffee with a Stella d’ Oro breadstick. “With San Francisco at its head, constantly getting off. Know what I’m saying?”
“Couldn’t tell you,” I blanched, as she stirred mine in turn, tossing her soggy breadstick over the railing to the seagulls. “Though it does seem like a great place to visit, but it’s got nothing to do with me.”
“It’s got everything to do with you,” she snapped off another salty stick like kindling, staring me X-ray through. “Honestly, what do you want to do, be a professional student all your life—sucking up to deans and chalking blackboards?”
“Maybe not, but first, I’ve got some holes to dig out of.” I drank a stiff jolt of sweet, milky java. “Got a career to build up…”
“Are you telling me you don’t want to be all the best you can be? That’s what this is all about here…that’s what everybody I know is doing…”
“Well, maybe that’s the difference between you and me,” I said, licking my lips, a bit on the salty side. “You and your pals are free to play in your sandbox, chase your dreams. I’ve got obligations …I owe people.”
“You’re as free as you want to be, flash. And the only person you really owe is yourself,” she said, again banging her knee against mine. “C’mon, you just loaded up your head with all this ammunition, now’s the time to aim and pull the trigger. It’s the difference between getting by and getting over, don’t you understand?”
I reconnected with that container ship this side of Angel Island. The high-riding Matson freighter’s blue-banded smokestacks of a high-riding Matson freighter conspired with low wispy fog to carry my eyes along San Francisco’s teeming waterfront across the bay. From downtown’s skyline and wharf to the cream cheese hued mansions Syd coveted, which were stacked like palleted dairy cases up and down the length of Pacific Heights, over to the craggy wooded bluffs and dense urban forest of the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge: All this was packed tighter, more seamlessly than the quick highlight edits of a year-end network newsreel, rolling out like an IMF bar graph of the Americas in the aggregate.
Greeting that Asia-bound container ship just inside the gate was a band of over-the-limit fishing boats hounded by hovering swirls of hungry seagulls. As the churning trawlers gathered steam to shake them, the birds gained reinforcements—a swooping, squawking waterspout that all but enveloped the laden boats like sand flies over a freshly beached sea lion. This compelling little drama lured me all the way back to Crissy Field, the Marina Green, Fort Mason piers, ultimately to downtown San Francisco, by now popping out like a flaming matchbook against the clear twilight sky.
“But nothing, your mind is like a muscle,” Syd replied, shifting and upper body stretching in her seat. “You’ve got to keep bulking it up with new challenges, flash. California’s the big workout, and the Bay Area’s a totally mental place. If you can cut it here, you can cut it anywhere.”
“Christ, I can’t even cover what I’ve already done back in…”
“What? You’re saying you don’t want to reach all the absolute potential you can? You sound like some kind of prisoner out on The Rock or something.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You seem to have plastic to burn…”
“Hmph, it’s as easy as you want it to be. Just do what you do best and get it out there for people to see, that’s what I do,” she said, as she framed the skyline with painterly outstretched hands. “Like, if I were you, I’d stash the books and break out my cameras in a heartbeat. Create my brains out…if you’re doing what comes naturally, intuitively, people pick up on that energy like crazy. All you need is a good eye and your equipment…put Annie Liebovitz to shame. ”
“Right, that and a blank check from Kodak …”
“It’s all a matter of attitude, total positivity,” she scowled, breaking off more breadstick. “You’ve got to decide whether you’re gonna be an additive or subtractive personality—simple as that. Look at Josh Gravanek, for godsakes.”
“The music promoter? What’s he…”
“I’m up at his Telluride spread for New Year’s, flipping out over how this shlub started in the Midwest with zilch, no real talent but beaucoup energy. And he’s grabbed L.A. by the noogies, wrapped the whole record business around his little finger. Beverly Hills mansion, the whole works.”
“Yeah, bully for him, so…”
“So at least you’ve got some talent. Use that and your smarts, and you can forget about classrooms and a glorified little shed overlooking Boulder. You can move up here and look out over the edge of everything…all you have to do is reach out and grab it. I sense you can do this, Kenneth, you can do anything you want.”
“Yeah, well, his ranch burned down, didn’t it—at least, that’s what I read in the Denver Post…” Not without notice was that she actually remembered my name, although too formally so for my flannel tastes.
“Hah, if I know Josh, he’s probably already rebuilding it in spades by now…”
“Whatever…the whole thing sounds pretty selfish to me.”
“Selfish, my heinie—this is nothing less than self-preservation. You’re missing the big picture here, Kenneth. The trick is to decide what you want and go for it—grab on and hold tight, like Josh and Aimee have. It’s a competitive, eat or be eaten world out there, so you’ve got to do what you do best. That’s the only way to real happiness. Anything less is just settling, going through the motions, and you’ll never be truly happy doing that. Neither will anybody around you if you do—just ask my sorry schlemiel brother.”
The bay turned slowly indigo now, downtown’s radiant white-gold towers casting high-rise reflections around the city front, a bracelet of dazzling gems, ranging from the Transamerica Pyramid’s pointy headed boldness to the square-headed prominence of Embarcadero Center and B of A headquarters, floor and flood lights glimmering alabaster in the embering daylight, red avigation/clearance lights blinking cherries on top. Coit Tower and Nob Hill hotels contained some of the rampant vertical corporate growth—stood stubborn topographical sentry over office buildings crammed side-by-side, new Manhattanized construction cranes crowding the Financial District fringes. Beyond them, San Francisco regained its free-rolling scale, this shimmering hologram of a city, this self-anointed West Coast bastion of insouciant style and grace.
I turned away from the brilliance like bloodshot eyes from a solar eclipse, surveying Xebec’s happy hour clamor, Halyard’s early dinner horde through the smoky door glass, people far prettier and much less hungry than I, reeling in choice servings of sea bass and Shrimp Louis, their off-season tans glowing in the table-to-table candlelight. The concerted low-grade flame reflected off brass rigging and navigational devices, flickered off polished kevels, pulleys and anchors, teased highly strung rudders and mooring lines, setting each starfish and abalone shell into deep sea motion. My head was filling with ambiguous prospects, sensory overload, gut stirring like the inner harbor’s swaying topmasts, the bay wake slapping at the rocks below. I suddenly felt seasick moving and shaking, just the same.
“For my money, that’s where all your hostility is coming from,” she continued. “You’ve got to use all that pent-up frustration as a motivator. If nothing else, you owe it to your dog…”
“What are you talking about, hostility? And I’m not frustrated,” I snapped, homing back in on my coffee cup, something to do with my hands. I looked away, back into Halyard’s candlit tables and mounted grapnels, brass compasses, strung hawsers and martingales. “Seamus’s got nothing to do with…”
“Pu-leeze, Kenneth, this isn’t sweet little Melissa you’re talking to here,” she cranked back my attention, mugging with her Stella like a Havana Panatela, before stuffing it in my cup. “I mean, get with the program, you’ve gotta set goals. I know about your Saturn Return meshugahss, so make that inner turmoil work for you too. Just like I’m always telling myself that if I don’t continue to evolve as an artist, I’ll end up washed up and alone like Darna Karl to keep me painting—whatever works, see what I’m saying?”
“Now, that sounds frustrating,” I replied, not caring to give Saturn and the lost Satalisman a second thought, instead casting about the deck for some avenue of escape. “No, actually, that sounds just plain weird.”
“Of course I know in the back of my mind that once I team up with the right person, we’ll take over that town, and move up here to Marin,” she said, brushing back her ringlets. “I mean, do you know what it’s like to not be absolutely ravishing in San Francisco. It would help if I didn’t look more like an everyday stenographer.”
“Hey, come on, I don’t think you look like a…” I finished off my au lait, much as she already had, with breadsticks all noshed down or overboard.
“You don’t,” she asked searchingly, as she beckoned me back through the Halyard. “Then what do you think I look like?”
“Huh,” I squirmed, especially when facing up to the fact that this little cherry bomb across from me was paying again. “I don’t know, I’d have to think about it…”
“You just do that,” she said, as we cleared the Xebec back into the main dining room, sniffing the baked Salmon Tartare, while I was hungering for the car. “You just think all about it…real careful like.”
Once outside Halyard’s clattery gangway, we walked its plank onto the promenade and over to Syd’s Audi, first grabbing a couple of orange juices from that relic produce grocery. We flipped a U-ey onto Bridgeway, Syd hell bent on providing a quick motivational tour of Sausalito’s wraparound hillside showplaces, a bit of nautical slumming by the bobbing seaplanes, teredoed rustbuckets, renegade houseboat communities and rowdy claptrap clogging its estuaries.
But about then, stomach contractions and hunger pangs overcame us, whereupon she directed me to turn back around on the median strip near the Bay Model Center warehouse, goading me on to beat the departing Red and White ferry to The City. I drove ahead like the cab hack I once so briefly was, guesstimating our chances from here across a broad, forbidding bay, blowing off Village Fair souvenir shops, peeking about Sausalito’s patchwork of picket fenced mariner cottages and stilted hillside homes as we throttled up past multi-level modern complexes spilling down outer bay view cliffs like a rockslide—never losing sight of the Fox’s rearview mirrors.
A slow clot of traffic led us up a steep, winding road toward the Golden Gate, Syd motioning me around some dawdling out-of-state station wagons and compacts. The radio play of bluesy Mark Naftalin at New George’s dropped off in the tunnel under Waldo Grade, around weeded over old military emplacements this side of Tennessee Valley. His Butter-Bloomfield guitar riffs re-surged as we ramped full throttle onto Highway 101 south, force merging between an airporter van and Winnebago Chieftan, Chevy Vega hitched behind, across from Vista Point.
Once KTIM’s signal faded, Syd tuned through KRE, KYA, KSFO, KSAN, KOME, KYUU, up and down the radio band. She paused at KSFD’S newsbreak—that Peoples Temple was now embroiled in a child custody tug-of-war between the defector family Stoens and Jim Jones in Guyana, deadline showdowns looming, details at 7. She then dialed on from the report. Meanwhile, I fixed on the bridge’s north tower—all 746 feet, 44,000 tons of steel plates and 600,000 rivets of it—glowing in the bi-way headlamps like a gilded Deco stepladder to the stars.
The Audi’s tires hummed over the bridge’s deck seams and grated panels when she push buttoned to KMEL’s Album Caravan, and an eerily timed Journey preview track, ‘Lights’, from their brand new album, ‘Infinity’, Steve Perry debuting as lead singer. Then she urged me forward with an eye to the ferry boat crossing mid bay beyond Alcatraz Island, going on about how this was the future, the creative center of the universe, everyplace else being just history. I leaned into the steering wheel, lost in the gently bowed deck, the south tower, the harp string support cables—a Singapore-bound Pan Am China Clipper climbing steadily above the bridge, Carnival cruise ship steaming in below, ‘Infinity’ next tracking to ‘Wheel In The Sky’.
“There, the right lane’s opening up,” she pointed, over the three-lane hump, on approach to the amber-lit Toll Plaza, reaching over to toss paper and coinage into the collection basket. “I’ve got it covered.”
“Bull’s eye, Nice shot.” I punched it on the green light, wheeling through the neoned plaza. “Sign you up with the Nuggets…”
“Make that Golden State Warriors, and step on it,” she peered like a longhaired pointer, tracking the Red and White ferry below.
Around the 101 curve, well down Doyle Drive and through Presidio shadows, I began getting the bigger picture. Racing along the bay front, clipping pylons, gaining noticeably on the Sausalito ferry, I caught a glimpse of the incredible totality of this place. Over there to the left, God’s green paradise; over here, The City was ablaze, all ermine shoulders and white gloved open arms, Sutro Tower overlording on Twin Peaks beyond. The idea was every bit of it, the timeframe was now; this wasn’t trig or applied statistics, didn’t take some Ph.D.
The headlong epiphany churned forth like the sandy surf undertow lapping Crissy Field, chilling me around the Marina curve, steadily surging like high tide up the full length of Lombard Street’s motel row as Journey played ‘Feelin’ That Way’. Seven futile spins around Syd’s block couldn’t shake the rush. Neither could the white loading zone two streets down we desperately settled for. Lingering starlit bay views, the Sunday night aroma of broiling sirloin, pumped me up even more all the way back to her place. The prospect of a hot seafood combo pizza hand delivered from North Beach lifted us up three full flights of stairs.
Suddenly this all seemed so right somehow, I chased Syd’s honeydew derriere up to her apartment, dragging my sheepskin coat along. I felt somewhat San Franciscan, though didn’t really know the meaning of the word. Imagine all the people, living out their dreams—grab and hold tight. It made no logical sense whatsoever, of course, which was why it made such intuitive sense. Hell, if somebody this good and gifted figured I could cut it in San Francisco, who was I to deny or doubt her? The sheer potential of it all swelled tightly against the zipper of my jeans as she tumbled her triple-locked door.
“We did it, flash, beat that ferry cold,” she smiled, high-fiving me to the distinctive ringing of her phone. “Probably LaDolce Pizza calling to take our order right now.”
“Telepathy, totally mental,” I puffed, keying on her on the way to her room and Princess phone. “We’re really on a roll.”
“Sydney here, we’ll have an extra large combo with…huh? Sure, toots…hold a sec,” she slipped from laughter to chagrin, handing me the phone, raising her fingertips to her lips.
“Kenny? Where’ve you…tsk, I’ve been calling all day…”
Care for more?
Chapter 23. A rapid turnaround results
in systemic breakdowns, and portents
of stalled ambitions, daydreams
hitting a bit closer to home…