“A full plate and flavorable
visions may not necessarily
be food for thought.”
“I guess it’s gotta be better here than that church stuff, huh?”
“Look around you, Kenneth, what do you think?”
“Beats a basement breadline, I’ll say that…”
“Bet it would wash The Sink down the drain in Boulder any day.”
“Yeah—it’s wet out here, all right…”
Beyond El Camino, the drop was precipitous, the scenario increasingly liquid all around. Geary Boulevard split off to Point Lobos, a cresting avenue lined with tidy bungalows, chalky apartment houses and a spray of swaying Canary Island palms. Destiny manifested itself at Camino del Mar, where we had curved breathlessly past crumbling cliffs and stooping Monterey pines down toward a prismatic horizon, sea level rising to meet us as if we were tailspinning into the drink.
Sydney had wedged into a white zone outside some modest halfway hillside coffee shop near Merrie Way, cracking that she’d go to the ends of the earth for a good omelet. Before I could park my stomach, she was leading me hand-in-hand along wind-chiseled coastal cavities to San Francisco’s perdurable first line of defense against any invading hordes storming the white-capped Pacific blue. Apparently, the strategy out here had long been to brunch them to death.
“But if you want to harp on religion, fine by me…”
“Who’s harping? My thing’s the social sciences—query, qualify, quantify,” I said, as we entered a low-slung, nondescript white blockhouse of a land’s end restaurant through its gift shop doors. “Blind faith, rote prayers, sacraments, transmutations, testaments, clashing denominations—that’s all a bloody morass to me now.”
“Bloody? Ever heard of Chaucer,” Sydney perked up. “He’s one of the guys who kept saying Jews killed children to eat their blood—Christian children, yet. Ever hear of that disgusting condition called trichinosis?”
“Uh, sure…some kind of gum disease or…”
“It’s what Jewish people get from eating blood and pork because that’s against Hebrew law. Catch my drift?”
“Whoa, I never said…”
“Just like with the phony Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Total BS, as in bloody slander, that’s what. If you ask me, it’s a Christian guilt trip brought on by your Eucharist,” she continued, rinding down on a cantaloupe crescent. “Then again, the Last Supper was a Passover meal, so mox nix.”
“My Eucharist? Hey, I’ve no taste for blood, haven’t taken communion in ages.” I glanced away from my tomato juice, combing for the source of some incessant outside barking. “But even if Jesus was Jewish, that doesn’t make him less…”
“OK, so let’s dumb things down…take somebody like John Lennon,” she dabbed Ratatouille from the corner of her mouth with a color-insigned napkin. “Here, everybody thinks he’s god. But over there, he’s just another grubbing, wise-ass Brit.”
“He’s more Irish, actually…”
Teetering high atop a knobby outgrowth just south of Point Lobos, the once neo-classic Cliff House was a boxy, sawed-off remnant of its former self. Framed lobby sepiagraphs chronicled the twice fire-gutted degeneration, from horse and buggy outpost torched by a stranded schooner’s dynamite explosion in 1887, to a sprawling saloon for the silver-rich carriage trade to a spire and turreted French gothic chateau all decked out with tasty gingerbread—eight stories of galleries, observation parlors and grand dining rooms. That Gingerbread Palace burned down in 1907.
I had paused before two photo blow-ups of that second, 1896 incarnation: One with a Wagnerian lightning storm over the Neuschwanstein-like castle, another with the entire baronial landmark ablaze like a nonagenarian birthday cake. I was staring wistfully as the next guy at the shot of a stunted Cliff House III when this handle-bared host with sleeve garters and isosceles sideburns called for Mendels, party of two.
“There, see? What’s the big, bloody deal,” Syd smiled, brushing him off with the tawny linen napkin. “And if it’s no big deal to me, why does it have to be such a big deal to you?”
“Who said it was a big deal? I haven’t even thought that much about it…”
“Oy, how could you live with a Jewish girl all this time and not think about it?”
“It’s just never come up, all right,” I cranked hard on a pepper grinder over my pan fries and plump Lucullan creation. “What’s difference does it make, for crissake?”
Inside, the place was a repository of late Victoriana. We had followed two brass strips of tiny floor lights like hospital ward lines back toward the Barnacle Bar: a rush of cut glass, brass railings, Philodendron everywhere, and wine velvet love seats overlooking some white-capped rock formations and endless, roiling deep blue sea. Syd had pulled me away from the sweet, salty essence of midday Margaritas, up a scarlet flocked-foil stairwell lined with more framed tintypes, period illustration and yellowed reproductions of yesteryear’s news—all set in motion by a player piano piped out from the bar. We digested a short course in turn-of-the-century history before reaching the dining room. There, the Cliff House menu-gazette filled in any lorical blanks.
“Easy, Kenneth…I’m beginning to tell when you’re flustered.” She returned to her omelet of choice: extra zucchini, eggplant slightly singed, rice pilaf on the side. “You wrap your mustache down over your overbite.”
“Yeah? Just like when you get all fired up about something, your nostrils seem to pucker and flare,” I slammed down the grinder, pursing my lips. “Point is, I didn’t come all the way back here to wrangle over religion or idiosyncrasies.”
“Then what exactly did you come all the way back here for?”
She proceeded to read me up and down for an answer. Caught out of my current depth, I sought enlightenment from every feeding face in the main dining room, from red-vested waitresses criss-crossing the buffed oakwood floor with fresh fruit compotes, juice pitchers, corpulent omelets and steaming coffee. I searched the flocked, floral print wallpaper, the hanging planters and Tiffany lamps, the pressed copper ceiling in maddening detail. When that failed me, I plunged back into my food. “The omelets, what else?”
“Is that so, “ she deftly fended my dodge, over the concerted hum of rotary ceiling fans. “Well, at least you could have ordered one a whole lot healthier than that.”
“What, it’s a Denver-Plus,” I picked at my plate, separating the Bauernfruhstuck from the stringy cheddar from the peppers and Canadian bacon. “It’s got a little of every…”
“Everything that will kill you. Don’t you know the lower you eat on the food chain, the higher your evolution,” she reached over to spear away my nitrates and shredded fats. “You really must learn to take better care of yourself.”
“That’s Moon’s department…” I glanced away from her surgical stare, out the room’s floor-to-ceiling oak framed windows onto a wide-angle south coastal view.
“Maybe, but Moon might not always be there, Kenneth.”
“Yeah? Like when?”
The only downside to table twelve was that someone had to sit facing away from the massive oak-framed corner windows. I finally turned a full tourist swivel toward the barking, away from this eggplant inquisition. It earned me a 130-degree pin on the Pacific coastline, from Lobos Point south along the Great Highway Esplanade, mid-tide swells sheeting over Ocean Beach like rinse water over linoleum, clear down to Fort Funston and beyond. Directly before us, a westward panorama of ocean no end laid anchored by that tri-mound, white-crowned formation, a mere melon’s throw away.
Gulls, cormorants and wandering tattlers swarmed over the wave-worn Seal Rocks, as did the occasional glide-by pelican, to challenge sea lions and elephant seals basking among the deep crags and kelp, some weighing upwards of 600 to 2,500 pounds. A thin front of grayish clouds drifted up from the southwest, the only easement in a sky and waterscape of engulfing blue—out by where the City of Rio once shipwrecked, near where the Frank H. Buck tanker was head-oned by a sinking luxury liner christened the cool Calvin Coolidge.
“It’s funny, there once was even a little suspension walk bridge out to Flag Rock there, until it yawed upside down,” Sydney mused, as she cleaned up her eggplant with half an English muffin. “Actually, Point Lobos means place of the sea lions. Sometimes they’ll be totally silent out on their rookery. One seal, usually a stellar cow, will start yapping. Then one by one the bulls start barging in. It’s like when they’re migrating back from Ano Nuevo and Baja with their pups, the bulls strut all they want, but the cows really run the show.”
“If you’re such an expert, what’s with the rocks, all that white stuff those rowdy suckers are lounging around,” I turned back around toward her—the dissected omelet, bloodshot tomato juice, strong coffee and slaphappy waves stirring my intestinal jetsam.
“Looks like snowcaps, doesn’t it—like up in the Sierra.”
“Uh, check again,” I squinted into the cyanine blind. “I could swear that’s crusted bird shit out there.”
“Guano. Guess it’s all in how you look at things, Kenneth,” she applied newly issued plastic to the check at hand. “Like my classic nostrils—they don’t pucker, they flare…”
“Right…maybe we should go, huh,” I muttered, scrounging for the tip, pocketing a couple of sweet roll appetizers, no longer able to elude stares from the host and impatiently famished couples crowding up behind me as we cleaved past cut glass mirrors toward the doors. “Christ, we’re even more different than I remembered, you and me…”
A stiff wind and salt spray welted up as Sydney skipped out ahead undaunted down the surf-battered rear promenade, tourists riveted to the ocean splendor, mesmerized by the swirling tides. We dashed by the camera obscura, through a Musee Mecanique filled with oddball automated antique music boxes, player pianos, peep shoes, grip testers, nickelodeons and stand-up orchestrians—not to mention a gypsy fortuneteller character from the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition.
She then pulled me around an outside totem pole, limning on the run a majestic Cliff House castle, the Floods, Stanfords and Crockers of gaslit San Francisco arriving in private broughams to toast the mighty masted clipper ships and crashing waves. Syd said she could just see Mark Twain buggying his way out here on one of his storied literary forays into the cold summer fog. How fun-loving couples later steamed out on the Ferries & Cliff House Railway, later still when the Cliff Line was an electrifying streetcar ride—before landslides derailed the cliffside route for good. Merely keeping pace with her led me huffing up past the Fox and fragrant hotcakes to the steep, scabrous bluffs above Point Lobos Drive.
Hacking for breath, coming up sausage, I eventually caught her atop some decaying steps on the far side of a formidable stone wall and outcroppings, a wind-twisted copse of ancient Montereys. The view from up here sent both our heads spinning, numbing us even more than the steady, grinding updraft gale. Battening onto my arm, she mapped out the shoreline from Drake’s Bay and Bolinas southward to Point Pedro and Devil’s Slide.
Wintergreen coastal hills were already abloom with purple lupine, yellow lizard tail, cobweb thistle, larkspur as blue as the sea beneath it and what remained of the clear sky above. A red and white tug boat hauled two Humboldt county timber barges into the Golden Gate, steering me back to the gray cloud line shearing in from the west, inevitably to the champale pink flowers pinned so securely in her hair.
“See, what did I tell you,” she said, having already gained her second breath, barely beading a sweat. The tiny wildflowers seemed braided into her loose spiral perm with piano wire. They played beautifully with her pink turtleneck and white cable-knit sweater, positively sang with her Argentine stretch pants. “Eat light, fly right.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I coughed, drawing in deeply of a cool ocean updraft. Still, I felt a slight surge of promise and accomplishment out here on the brink—or was it just the refilled coffee?
“So let’s shake it then, flash…” She started down the weather-rent concrete viewing deck.
“All right, already. Christ, this air feels like lead compared to Colorado.” I locked her arm with the sleeve of my gray sport jacket and held my ground, pores venting like trout gills underneath. “Anyway, you haven’t finished showing me around here yet…”
“And you still haven’t answered my question.”
“Question?” Full maw or no, I remained mid-morning cranky, but was getting increasingly cranked up like a turn-of-the-century horseless carriage by the whole spectacular setting out here—the churning wide-angle seascape, the telephotogenic coastal domains.
“Kenneth, you’re being evasive…” Syd leered at me, then continued the coastal tour. She pointed out far beyond pounding aquamarine surf to the impervious bird sanctuaries of the Farallon Islands—several puffin-filled bumps on the distant horizon, a vista so clear it might have been Kaanapali. Some fully stacked container ships lured us back to Point Lobos, to a scarred, gaping cavity, nearly three acres of crumbling foundations filled with muddy sea water where the world’s largest, most fashionable indoor natatorium used to be.
“So what’s this all about?” Stirred and stunned, all right—even though I was playing it too diffidently cool by now to cop to that.
“Okay then,” she sighed, pointing about the ruins, which looked more like a worked-out stone quarry. “You’re the photographer, so picture this long Greek temple façade with a grand palm-lined staircase leading down to humongous stained glass-roofed arching pavilions. Inside the bathhouse were seven public tanks—pools, really, with trapezes, swinging rings, water slides and circus acts. Hoi polloi by the hundreds in black bathing suits swam and splashed around the fresh-or-saltwater tanks for two bits a pop. Hundreds more elevatored to upper balconies filled with art, knights’ armor, Japanese swords, exotic fish, treasures from ancient Egypt, stuffed jaguars and anacondas. Or they hit the amphitheatre for live opera and plays. Then everybody strolled down the arcade all dolled up to Cliff House castle for brandy and chamber music. With zithers, no less. Now is that San Francisco, or what?”
“Hope the water was cleaner than it is right now,” I sniffed at the murky reflection in what remained of the pools, of immediately surrounding storm-ravaged cliffs that looked more like an abandoned strip mine.
“Very funny, but they had constantly circulating ocean tides,” she nudged. “The steam-heated baths were designed by the man who engineered the main tunnel for the Comstock Lode, Adolph Sutro. He’s the same genius who built Cliff House castle.”
Darkening cloud cover pared away half the southern sky as we roamed the parapet, and paused to look out over the Great Highway and surfer curled waves off Ocean Beach. Syd redrew the turreted observation towers, Haunted Swing and Firth Wheel that Sutro had built up here, then a barren stretch some 200 feet down, sketching in a coupe-clogged midway of carousels, rickety roller coasters, Chutes-at-the-Beach and skee-ball stands—a Playland of sandblown funhouses and salty dogs once crammed along the Esplanade as far as the twirling Dutch windmills of Golden Gate Park. All that remained of those caramel corn, cotton candy days were the plaster imitation outcroppings strung down cliffsides below.
“Getting the larger picture here, Kenneth?”
“Yeah, fake snow, fake rocks, some unsightly holes in the ground…” Really, was this the right move at the right time, or the right move at a bad time, or a wrong move at a good time, or the wrong move at just the wrong time—or any and all of the above? Time for some second-guessing, a little Sunday morning quarterbacking with time running out.
“Wrong,” she yanked at my arm on Palm Avenue, separating my blue flannel shirt from the sweaty tackiness of my skin. “What I’m saying is it was one man’s energy, one man’s imagination that made all this happen. Adolph Sutro was a Jewish immigrant from Prussia who came here peddling tobacco and ended up one of The City’s greatest landholders, 24th mayor yet. He created all this for San Francisco—brought scads of European culture here, finally gave his whole estate to the city, for godsakes. In fact, I hear his ashes are buried in an urn up here somewhere…”
“Hmph, must have been a raging egomaniac.” I rubbed the nose of the right of two opposing stone cats greeting visitors at the Lion’s Gate into Sutro Heights Park.
“So even if he was, even if he did get caught in a scandalous triangle up in Virginia City, ” she spun effusively. “Look at where it got him. Just look at what a difference he made! Generous, too—I’ve heard he used to hand out gold coins on the streets downtown.”
As we descended the stony terrace, circled around the cypress-swept hanging balcony, Syd recreated hydrangea-arched railings, paths lined with 200 Euro statues—Grecian deities, Mercury, Venus, Prometheus, Goddess Diana the huntress with her deer—explaining how she came out here time and again to pop a pressure cork in her early days, to draw strength from Sutro’s accomplishments, to drink in the cinemascopic beauty from Inspiration Point.
She told how Sutro had transformed barren sand dunes into lush tapestry gardens, where he had built a modest cottage out to a grand country home caked with ornate gingerbread and classic sculpture—reputedly for his mistress. She hand painted a still life on a grassy terrace of the glass gabled white botanic conservatory greenhouse it once held, lush with a exotic orchids and a hundred different rose varieties, and ceramic tiled walkways, mostly as long gone as Sutro’s chateau.
“OK, so it’s incredible,” I trailed her, as some light spritz showers set in. “What’s your point?”
“My point is you can make that kind of difference,” she insisted, prideful tear welling in her eye.
“Whoa,” I flushed, hoping it was just a raindrop. “I’m no mining engineer, and for damn sure not Prussian…or Jewish.”
“What’s that got to do with anything? You can be as much a mentsh as he was —I mean, everybody’s got a little Jewish in them, a little chosenness. I’m talking about balls-out ambition and will power. You can do this, Kenneth, I know you can. Deep down, so do you,” she said. “Why else would you have come back out here?!”
The first wave brought the sort of thin, transparent clouds that yielded moisture far beyond their visible means. But spritz turned to dark drizzle, and it condensed in short order to send Syd and me scurrying for shelter. She ran me around spindly, wind-shorn cypress, Montereys and Northfork Island pine, through the dwarf shrubs, santolina, blue gum eucalyptus and dragon trees that framed a grassed-over arbor Sutro’s villa had called home.
I chased after her, sport jacket over my head, past cracked birdbaths, stubs and stumps of deistic statues shipped painstakingly around Cape Horn. We paused together to weather the worst of it under a shaggy Canary Island date palm, laughing, whirling away the water, flapping around like wild ducks. Syd conjured grainy apparitions of black-clad parasoled couples hustling their bustled and high-bottom shoes into the conservatory, Sutro himself, stroking his bushy white mutton chops, signaling from his porch rocker with the smoke rings of his private label panatella.
“I’m just saying I should probably set my sights a little lower right now, that’s all.”
“Nonsense, look at Adolph. He was one of the first visionaries who saw how everything starts here and rolls east like the sea—winter storms, potent new ideas, the future of the world. Presidents came to visit him, great artists like Oscar Wilde partied at his soirees.”
“Yeah, well, the what happened to this palatial spread of his, anyway?” A peered over at jutting sandstone-set parapet and Dolce Far Niete cantilevered balcony, terraced with salt-tolerant scabosia, geranium, alyssum, yellow santolina and red-hot poker, like a gun turret nobly disarmed.
“Don’t know for sure,” she said. “I think the bathhouse turned into an ice rink, then got torched by developers, and everything else got bulldozed down—none of it Adolph’s doing, mind you. But nothing lasts forever here…”
“Sounds like Josh Gravanek’s Das Kapital folly to me,” I breathed deeply of the bracing sea air onrushing the promontory, rustling a nearby juniper tree.
“Oh, it’s nothing at all like Telluride. Josh is another ambitious Jewish genius who’s built himself a fabulous empire, and you can bet that Das Kapital will rise again from the ashes,” she snapped, before catching herself mid-paean. “Which reminds me, I still haven’t heard from him about what’s up with that little package of his, ’cause he instructed me not to futz with it until he gave the OK. But enough with the history lesson. Let’s focus on here and now, Kenneth. Your future, your destiny, the vision that brought you back.”
“Uh, it’s a bit more complicated than that…” Whoa, too much, too soon? Or too little, too late to turn anything around, shipshape-wise? Blue-sky visions? Seemed more of a high-pressure storm center; a nimbostratus occlusion was somehow setting in before our very eyes.
A tapering of the drizzle, and we dashed to the old well house, an elaborately milled egg-white gazebo that had somehow survived the estate’s overall disintegration. We shook off excess droplets and perched momentarily on the ledging as the meager shower largeky passed. Great for the rosarium, English ivy and fleabane, Syd said, bad for the flowers in her hair.
She wrung out her spirals, then briefly distracted me with stereograph mirages of the colorful tapestries Sutro’s gardeners would bed about his grounds: intricately inlaid orchids, camellia and exotic flowers from Australia and South Africa contoured with topiary, Veronica shrubs and ornamental hedge maze. But I couldn’t take my eyes off her, snapping my own mental pictures as we dashed into now horizontal rain, through Lion’s Gate on their way down Lobos Drive to her car.
“Sooo, talk to me,” she shivered, soaked to the skin, squeegeeing in against her vinyl bucket seat.
“Talk? About what,” I muttered, mopping up with my coat sleeve and belting up as we backed into curving traffic and drove away. I found myself stealing off into eroded hills, where electric trams and Sutro’s private railway trains used to thrill San Franciscans strolling around this bend in their black-cloaked finery, out looking for some weekend escape from their daily straits. “Except to say thanks for the great breakfast…”
“That’s what you get for early birdin’ it with me,” she said, wheeling around Point Lobos Avenue, downward onto the Great Highway past this present flat-topped Cliff House declension and Playland’s plaster rockslide. “Although I might just put the balance on your tab, or reserve the right to take it out in trade at a later date. At least I think you think that’s what I’m thinking, anyway. Am I right?”
“Uh, no—not hardly. Curious…thought, though…”
Care for more?
Chapter 30. A scenic spin into
Golden Gate Park prompts a free-spoken
mind meld on parallels and differences…