“Idly parking in the park is no
substitute for an illuminating
walk and talk in the park thereabouts.”
“I know this here…”
“You ought to, it wasn’t that long ago.”
“Isn’t this where…”
“Yes, where we landed in your scow—an epic Sir Francis Drake moment, it wasn’t, that’s for sure. ”
We wound silently by the Cliff House, down onto the Great Highway, below Sutro Heights Park, past a razed midway in the ankle of the Heights, once so alive with the innocent gaiety of the Bob Sled Dipper, Dark Mystery, Topsy’s Roost and Laffing Sal. On a weekend this grand, San Franciscans cavorted among the calliopes and midway arcades. Locals gorged on It’s-Its and Salty Dogs, tossed it all on the Parachute Drop, rickety roller coasters and Chutes At The Beach; tried their hands at Playland’s shooting galleries and Whir-lo-Ball, or cut up to Sutro’s Baths to oogle the bathing beauties on its Silver Slide.
But the fun ended in ’72, in low-grade condos up to Fulton Street, after hungry developers leveled the amusement park for a highrise complex that city planners mercifully whittled down. Strolling lovers and swimming mongrels currently pulled my attention like undertow over the seawall to a long, sparkling Ocean Beach. The distant swells, surf riptide rinsed in, clear down to The City’s southernmost shores, yet not far enough away from the Esplanade’s median strip parking, scene of that earlier sunset car door jimmy and purse grab.
“Anyway, did your handbag ever surface,” I said, slowly turning her way.
“Sad to say, that beloved purse is in never, neverland—never to brighten my day again.”
“Still, maybe we should stop and check around. Who knows? Could be it’s washed up, or something…”
“Washed up, alright,” Sydney said, arm out her window with a left turn motion. “Forget about my purse, already. God, you’ve got to learn how to move on from things.”
When she veered off the highway into Golden Gate Park, the Fox’s armrest pressed sharply into my rib cage, incidentally crushing those sweet rolls I had so hangdog pocketed. But beyond the broken down Dutch Windmill and Queen Wilhelmina’s tulip beds, I began to feel her centripetal force all around.
“Well, maybe whoever took it needed money that bad,” I quibbled. “I’m just trying to be helpful, pay some of my way…”
“Hahhh, help? How about coming clean about what you’re really doing back here? That’s what would help.”
“I’m, like, scoping things out—for Moon and me,” I rubbernecked the broad, breaking sea left behind. “If maybe I can put something together. By the way, don’t forget your little present there. She glazed you a real nice coffee mug—kiln-fired and everything…”
“I see,” she glowered, fanning the dashboard heater. “You called me to help set things up for you and Moon.”
“Well, yeah, sort of…”
“Sort of like the neighborhood welcome wagon…”
“No, hey…I don’t mean it like…”
“Sure, and why stay out here in the Richmond,” she turned on the FM radio to ‘Got to Give It Up, Parts 1 and 2’ by Marvin Gaye. “We can all pile in at my place. Don’t forget the pets, while you’re at it.”
An overgrown golf course diverted us up into thickening eucalyptus groves, Ocean Beach slipping away like the other side of a zipper pull around a jogging, banked curve. Syd goosed her Fox pointedly up John F. Kennedy Drive, through a heavily wooded stretch of secluded ponds, fly-casting pools, equestrian trails and scruffy buffalo grounds that opened gradually to vast Lyndley Meadow. Kite meets and volleyball picnics had already laid claim to the softly rolling links, along with a pan-European practice field of soccer, rugby, hurling and rounders.
“Come on…as if you didn’t know why I came back,” I groused, snared by the remote-control model boat races and side action at Spreckels Lake.
“Oh, now I’m supposed to be some kind of mind reader.”
“Because, I couldn’t get away from you, that’s why,” I erupted, as she steered around a rhododendron island, center drive. “It was like I never left Sausalito, okay? I mean, I wasn’t even in Colorado. Everywhere I looked, there you were—in the shaving mirror, on the Flatirons, on the bedroom ceiling for Christsake. What the hell am I supposed to make of that?!”
All right, then,” she smiled, a smile as inscrutably out of context as the ratty bison in that over-grazed paddock we had just passed. “Now was that so hard?”
“Oh, sure,” I muttered, out toward a little down-meadow lacrosse—albeit with a hint of histrionics, if not shards of hyperbole. “Moon kept poking me just to keep me focused on anything. I had the attention span of a fever tick.”
Halfway into the park, where Marx Meadow met Portals of the Past, she horned by a bike rallye, then pulled over to an unforeseen break in the parking lane. Cloud cover had begun to clear out, leaving a stray ray to key down upon Lloyd Lake and its singularly well-landscaped shores. The emerging sun soon lit up the whole tree-framed garden like a subdivision nativity scene. It seemed the best of many nearby niches in which to nail all this down.
“So why didn’t you just say so in the first place, Kenneth?”
“Because it scares me shitless,” I spouted, loosening my collar and coat. “Because we barely even know each other, and because what I do know tells me we’re such different goddamn people…”
“Speak for yourself—I feel like I’ve known you all my life. Besides, what if we are different? What’s so godawful wrong with that?”
“Aww, give me a break, Syd. You’ve got everything going your way, alright? Compared to you, I’ve got zip. I’m seeing this place is one big sandbox, and maybe you can pay the freight and play. But I can’t even afford a little plastic shovel.”
“That’s total horsepucky,” she dragged an old paint-splattered London Fog from the back seat and uncoiled out of the car. “In reality, you’ve got a lot going, Kenneth, potential-wise. I’m beginning to think I believe in you more than you do.”
Pausing before a small rushing waterfall, we took in this suddenly warm spring-like calm, the Pomeranian lapping water upstream, a gaggle of Chinese children bolting toward them from an extended family gathering down JFK Drive. Syd prodded me to skip several slickened step stones over to the lake itself, scattering overfed geese, gulls and mallards back into the naturalized wading pool. She smoothed the waters with some leftover cottage fries she’d bagged ever so discreetly from the breakfast table.
“Let’s just say I know my limitations, okay?” I scoured the palms, eucalyptus, gnarled cypress trunks and hidden pools, plumbed the depths for what to say. “See, I’m coming from nowhere. No juice, no bucks. My ol’ man’s no highroller—that’s reality—someone like you just doesn’t happen to somebody like me. It’s about time we set things straight…”
“Straight, shmate—all you’ve got to do is dump the negatives, focus on the positives. Adolph Sutro didn’t start with anything and it didn’t stop him. Neither did Josh or Daddo, for that matter.”
Lloyd Lake’s paired swans paddled along, unruffled by the commotion; blackbirds, wrentits and white-headed sparrows flew in from bordering fir trees to drill the last few potatoes she had crumbled along the walk. I trailed her around the tiny lake to a decaying Roman doorframe standing alone against a backdrop of unruly brush. Bare survivor of the 1906 earthquake, this brick and marble portal had shown little improvement in fortunes since being donated to Golden Gate Park. It now encased a slab stone bench, angled perfectly toward the sunbathed waters. There we sat, peeling and picking at the rifted columns, skimming the graffiti scratches of those who had come before us, rather than catching one another’s eye.
“Who knows, maybe that’s why I find you interesting,” she added, draping the splotchy maincoat across our laps. “I mean, as a project.”
“Sure, a blank slate—that’s how my parents started out. Daddo went on to build a huge contracting business with his own two hands. But he’s the first to say how Faith was the key. Frankly, I’ve always sort of envied how far they’ve gotten together…total teamwork. Now that he’s sold the company, they can kick back and enjoy. She’s got Florida and her Winnetka greenhouse; he’s got his computer and stocks. Must be really gratifying to make it that way, don’t you think?”
“How would I know,” I flushed, pulling out two scrunchy sweet rolls, one of which she declined. “My dad was too busy taking a fifth…aww, you don’t want to know…”
“Of course I do—I want to know everything about you,” she said, zeroing in on, gauging my responses. “The truth of the matter is, in some ways, my parents have done everything for me. But in other ways, they’ve done not so much. Like, even though I worship Daddo, he was hardly ever around either.”
“At least he was out paving your way,” I said, sinking at the thought of what she was reading into all this. “My dad just kept throwing up roadblocks. It’s my mother who’s done everything. She’s the one who pushed me toward college, for criminy. My mother’s an angel…”
I jumped up like a commuter on a wet bus seat out from under the lap coat and poked about the portal, settling momentarily on its memorial plaque—obscure names and a Pine Street address that meant nothing to anyone for at least three generations. Dig down deep, she says… while way down deep my vital organs were freefalling to my feet.
I felt well beyond being a pet project, yet somehow gratified she had put me in her class. Still, barely 24 hours into town, my welcome mat had already worn through to the tack strips. Regina Tzu had resorted to throwing things; this one to shelling me like a green pistachio with that crooked little smile of hers, while so blithely pulling daffodils from her hair. What the hell was I doing back here?!
“So is Faith…but I know I can do even better,” she blurted, as I mucked further around the spongy green turf. “And not with some workaholic engineer.”
“Your father’s an engineer, too?” I nibbled at a squashed, frosted roll, repocketing the other.
“Of course, by training—worked his way through,” she sighed, sailing her flowers to the swans. “My problem is, all I’ve kept coming across are ozone warriors like James Winslow Holcomb or wusses who’ve had everything handed to them, like my brother or Bernard. Now you come along with your storybook Boulder household and European photographs and holey underwear.”
“I’m not exactly out of that household, you know,” I tread lightly, sending up something of a warning flare. It fizzled.
“May I remind you you’re here now,” she rose to shepherd me back to the car, pinching and pulling on my cheek, London Fog slung over her shoulder. “Totally of your own free will, at that.”
“Yeah, free as the wind…” We dashed across JFK Drive, between bicycle pack and charted bus, wherein I caught the bite of split decision in the air.
“Whew, I don’t about you, but I’ve got to get out of these clothes,” she said, unlocking, piling into her Audi wagon with a rearward fling of the maincoat, and we were merging away, KYA radio recycling Neil Sedaka’s ‘Laughing In The Rain’.
Kennedy Drive being closed thereon for the usual Sunday roller derby and hormonal zoo parade, she detoured over and round about Park Presidio. Enroute, we sniffed the bucolic Strybing Arboretum, glimpsed an outdoor concert on the music concourse, got a taste of the Japanese Tea Garden, caught a cat show at the Hall of Flowers. Out crossing Fulton Street, she didn’t offer to pit stop at Denise’s, while I thought better of running into Regina Tzu the morning after.
Syd’s only diversion off Park Presidio was for a chocolate praline mousse from Fantasia on California Street, followed by a quick, albeit circuitous spin through the Presidio itself. The Arguello gate led us down through the main post’s parade grounds and adobe heritage sites, headquarters and billets taking me back to Army days—from Fort Bragg conflicts to Mannheim’s kasernes. The Lombard gate fed us out to Cow Hollow, past the impenetrable Soviet Consulate and fortified upper Broadway mansions, eventually delivering us in heady anticipation to a Pacific Heights yellow zone after six times around the block.
Syd curbed her tires like water balloons down Franklin Street, nostrils flaring, poised to bail out faster than a test pilot over Mojave while I dwelled upon the better outlook on this side of town. Still, before she killed her engine, a news brief boomed out of her radio on the heels of Leo Sayer’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’, something about another brutal murder overnight up in nearby Lafayette Park—damned if I could say I actually knew anything about that. But with clear bay views, even brighter skies, it was off with the radio and ignition.
I lipped my overbite and instead mulled over our immediate differences all the way up to her apartment, checking out the lobby’s gilded mirror, shunning varied signs of apprehension as I followed her out of Ivar’s birdcage elevator, anticipating a quick change by this artist before returning me to my misplaced scowback and Regina Tzu’s.
“Bet it was another homo-cide up there—agricultural in nature again, lots of head bashing, if you know what I mean,” she said, keying open her front door deadbolts. “But it’s just awful, isn’t it? God, why do they have to hang out up there, anyway? They’d be so much safer staying in their bars and baths.”
“Uh, wouldn’t rightly know about that…”
“Really, so strange how this only seems to be happening when you’re in town,” she chided, ushering me into her sun splashed flat. “Out plowing the fields at night, are you?”
“Not my area of expertise,” I followed defensively, parrying the murderous news . “And what’s your alibi, all-night disco? By the way, spare me any more jive about you being so lonely.”
“Pardon me, Kenneth,” she closed the door behind me, “but I never said I was alone…”
Care for more?
Chapter 31. Damp wear and inhibitions
fall away in an unguarded moment,
with passions stirring far and wide…