“Whoa, who figured this,
more than one had bargained for—
step back, boy, reel it all on in.”
“Then we have a nice Prinsess Tarta…”
“No thanks, had my fill of things princess for a while…”
“Napoleon Bakelse, it is good…marzariners for you?”
“Uh, little too rich for my tastes…I’ll go with the…Kanelbulle, you called it? One of the smaller ones…”
The whole ecumenical Hallidie Plaza sideshow had nipped at me like creekbed skeeters, enough from every angle to agitate and annoy me with the cumulative trepanning of a bayou infestation. Meanwhile Market’s boarded up storefronts beyond Fifth Street were degeneratively beyond the pale. So I looked to a banjo picker and some cable car tourists for reason, sound direction, a trail marker or touchstone, resigned to following a full-on, bell-happy Hyde Line trolley up Powell Street in search of whatever downtown reprieve I might find—anything to help me walk off that high-noon phone call.
My eyes dropped to the pigeon crusted bricktop sidewalk as onshore gusts turned building-hemmed Powell into a three-block dust chute. Gazing down to about knee level, I caught the dead hungry stares of a disarmingly nuclear family: mom and pop in their early 30s, one each son and daughter. Only this unit seemed trip wired with fatigue and fearful frustration. Their small scribbled sign read ‘We are from Dakota, we have no food, no home. Please help us if you can’. Some did in passing, but I admittedly glanced away from the tightly clustered family against all my sociological impulses. They’d become just more human refuse on The City’s crowded thoroughfares, hitting a little too close to home for study…or personal comfort.
Instead, I focused on the major label shoppers, skateboarding punks snorting sliced pizza, bewildered tourists Kodaking each other on idle cable cars, or leering into souvenir cluttered store windows—unable to avoid the winos finger-fucking Ma Bell’s pay phones for lunch money. All told, the uphill slog across Ellis Street steadily sapped me of resolve. Yogurt and cookie shops, two-buck fifty steak houses, a mini Hong Kong bazaar of tee shirt, crud jewelry and camera boutiques rocked and rolled, lured and lulled me into the advanced symptoms of McTourism’s Revenge. Which was why the cool, white-tiled Kryler Commercial Building seemed so cleanly inviting, so quiet and unassumingly dignified in a foreign, 1940s sort of way. Two blue awninged storefronts up from its open-mezzanined lobby was Scandia Bakery—proximate enough to what my sinking head and growling stomach had in mind.
I joined a line that extended several heads out double glass doors. Scandinavian, all right—the bright, humming place was set in four tidy rows, with two-seat place tables the length of its blond paneled walls. Sun bleached photos of Oslo and Goteborg skylines and secluded fjords covered the salmon trimmed sidewalls, each blow-up framed with blue and yellow bunting. Customers looped around past long glass display counters shelved with Ostkaka, klappgrot, tall spettekaka and layered apricot ganache, not to mention all those fruity, frostinged punschrulle. I pointed for a kanelbulle roll to the friendlier of two full-bodied blond counterettes, who then winked me over toward a six-pot, self-serve coffee bar. I waited, cup and saucer in hand, for a fastidious elderly couple creaming their kaffe—a stirring ritual that consumed the better part of a chokladboll, with time to spare for kringla or two.
Essentially, that was about all the turnover Scandia had to offer—yet it seemed about as close to the Ritz as I was going to get out this way. Its regular trade settled in with a smordegspaj of petites fours and a coffee cup, proceeding to fire up for free refills until natural selection forced them to remove and relieve themselves. Miraculously, nature called at a two-seater midway along the far wall; I aced out a Champagne velour medicine ball of a woman about four-foot-eight. She was incensed at my rudeness, swinging her fox stole around her shoulders like a bullwhip, cheeks florid as Scandia’s cherry tarts. I watched her huff away with a scoop of ungallant guilt, trying to figure out why she looked so familiar underneath that daffodil detailed millinery. Sure as chandelier earrings, she might well have been Dame Thornia’s little sister.
Damn Thornia, she’s the one who started all this Saturn shit, could just about kill her for that. Therein began another internal inquisition: So where the hell are you, anyway? Think this is Basel or Heidelberg, or what? Your whole damn life’s splitting sideways, and here you are on the hauptstrasse with all the caffe dispensables. There’s no honorable discharge from here, dickhead. Oughtta kick your lame ass right outta here, troop—boot your sorry carcass back home…
I soon caught myself spooning deep grooves into a white china coffee cup, picking at my cinnamon roll, careful not to meet any leering, disparaging eyes. But then everybody resumed their preoccupation with refills and cardamom. Table upon table gyred with the countervailing centrifugal force of stir-crazy sippers and their glucosed stares. Some patrons sat Stockholm straight, others slouched like louche Parisian boulevardiers; few were Scandinavian blond actually, unless the granny blue rinses counted as style points. Up and down these bakery rows, the frail and foreign munched and dunked wienerbrod the afternoon away: crusty old San Francisco moneypennies, British glumwarts unfolding and refolding their tourist maps, German fraus exchanging Deutschemarks and pfennigs with their disoriented herr apparents. Upon further review, the place was a Pan Am terminal during Holy Week.
Other, tipsy wigged Indo-Europeans clawed flaky havrekaka, dipping into black de-caf, Saks and Macy’s shopping bags tucked neatly underfoot. Back further toward the display cases, spindly Argentine and Venezuelan couples soundly debated the merits of Allende and Peron, not to be outdone by the jabbering old Brooklyn Jews glorifying Golda while bad-rapping Menachem Begin. Bereted Adolphe Menjues with clip-on shades slumped at corner tables, drawing off lavender cigarettes, lofting smoke into Scandia’s stratospheric twenty-foot ceiling. No Norwegians, no Swedes, Fins nor Danes, however—only those two full-bodied, blue-smocked counter waitresses who served up the sugar and kept the lid on any arthritic spillage or refill aggression.
“Mayor Moscone wanting more taxes, payroll yet. Can you believe this clown?”
“Probably figures to siphon it off to his City Hall cronies…”
“Or to his little girlfriends, maybe to bankroll more Gay Freedom Parades…”
“How he got White to buy in, I don’t know,” said the nearer of two old-line San Franciscans, sharing friable drommars the next table over. The starchy, gingham-vested gentlemen looked to be Cable Car Clothiers, circa 1947, this chap of the David Niven variety. “Must be that Sutro Tower radiating his brain.”
“Just wait until downtown interests get Danny Boy to back off on the business tax,” sneered the other, more tweedy Raymond Massey style, gray Alpine hat atop his bird’s nest. They must have been corporate retirees out for their ritualistic afternoon tea. “He’s got to pay off his campaign debt somehow…something, or someone’s got to give…”
“Well, Prop. 13 will table Moscone’s whole crooked agenda.” His compatriot chuckled light properly, raising his napkin to clear frosted crumbs from his pencil moustache. “You can bet your George Christopher’s medal on that…”
Scandia’s front windows were immense, constituting the bakery shop’s entire façade, a floor-to-ceiling streetscape on the compellingly odder world immediately crowding Powell, not least those waves of Japanese tourists. Thus grand strategies were conceived and brilliantly executed in the pursuit of a half-dozen forward tables, spots as all-day precious as guest boxes to Pavarotti. Stake out, strike, solidify positions with folded newsprint or pocketbook, and fight to submission anyone who might claim jump whilst a body waited in the serving line.
Even from where I sat, such flaring territorial skirmishes and the scene outside were more than enough to take my mind off issues at hand. Fat, ill-shapen continentals shouldering Lufthansa and Royal Dutch satchels paraded up and down Powell Street, sucking Orange Julius by the plastic litre. Goateed Hindus and Pakistanis in maroon topees and purple turbans bowed to and sidestepped poor, crippled wretches shaking coin tins, haughty L.A. gays swiveled pink and puff-chested toward Sutter Street salons.
Dykes in battle fatigues and Central Valley boys in Lavelle and LeMaster Giants jerseys marched entirely the other way. Dark staring art students lugged poster-size portfolio cases, carefully avoiding the crew-cut hustlers and rustlers who bobbed and nodded outside Walgreen’s across Powell. Pumping and flexing in upstairs gym windows above them were muscle men of every persuasion. It all was set to a sound track of clanking Scandia dishware and clanging trolley bells.
But before long, the caffeine and cable cars were my undoing. The latter creaked left and right past this larger-than-life window screen, rocking with tourists who fawned, gushed all over the green, red and yellow trolleys, hanging like zoo baboons from side grips fore and aft, more wild-eyed and waving than high school juniors in a homecoming parade. The riders were all such hayseeds, so out-of-town, so unabashedly Middle America I couldn’t much stand it any longer. No, that wasn’t me, this isn’t me…I didn’t belong there, don’t belong here like this. Look at them in their Legion windbreakers and feed grain hats, grinning like corn-fed sows. They’re just cutting loose as little as they can, going home with some sourdough—nobody will know. But they didn’t fuck up like you have, didn’t trample all over everybody in sight, didn’t axe the welcome sign at both ends and leave splinters on every mile of the Interstate between Kankakee and Alcatraz…
A glacial chill spread over me, as I nervously gulped down my remaining kanelbulle and coffee. I’d just about had my fill of Scandia’s alder fik bitar as it was, Abba’s slower numbers now piping down from its raspy ceiling hung speakers. I fixed on the front window, on some wraparound shaded blacks in Raider sweat suits, on the packs of Orientals swooping by en formation after ‘Gold Mountain’ souvenir tee shirts and anything solid-state powered by D-cell batteries. Got to get out of here, get some air. I jumped up, head ringing louder than the blue/gold cable cars, legs mushier than Palm Garden’s corned beef hash. I knee jerked my table, tipped a quarter cup of coffee into and over the saucer, in the process splashing some nearby regulars square, as others gasped and downed their refills at this scandalicious little faux pas—messier than the spillover at Pearl Street’s McKyle’s.
“Well, I never,” the fey fellow of the two huffed, having caught the worst of it on his herringbone.
“Got that right,” I coughed, in tourist-grade chagrin on my way toward the bageri’s open glass doors. “And you never will…”
“For shame,” screamed his Newport dragging companion, dabbing his brow and slicked down hairline with her monogrammed violet hanky. “What are you, some kind of crazy pervert?!”
“Pervert?!” I dodged a lemon rind the utterly disgusted fellow winged my way. “Don’t look at me, et vous…”
There, a little fractured Francais couldn’t hurt amid such an international incident, and with that, I beat a retreat out onto Powell Street. Yep, blow this Scandi scene before I stir any more Kaffe uproar, merge with the sidewalk flow. But pervert? Maybe you actually hit it on the head, lady, maybe that’s what it takes to bail out on your life, shoot out here like a misspent mortar round, with nothing on the horizon but low coastal fog. Just imagine what a relief it must really be to be rid of me. Moon must be breezing on a porch swing, gleefully spinning her pottery wheel. And Syd, hah, what a joke that turned out to be. Think they could be on the horn right now—making nice, comparing notes, sistering up again…wait, naw! That couldn’t have possibly been the plan from the very beginning…she wouldn’t, no way…stop it, I mean it, even She couldn’t have cooked up something that sinister or bizarre…
“Pork sausage and pineapple?” She hit me up the moment I stepped out Scandia Bakery’s sweet shadow, a young woman in turquoise hat, leopard coat, red disco boots and strapped on rollerskates, balancing a tray of chopped-up pizza slices like a car hop at Mel’s Drive-In as George Lucas pictured it to be.
“Sure, why not…” No reason not to ease up, take her up on the offer, grabbing two small squares before she could wheel away. Price was right—guess this could be called a come on for the take-out pizzeria up the block.
I stepped more lively up Powell Street now, to the whirring clack and clatter of trolley cables and pulleys, fighting off phantom flashbacks of what lay ahead up on the Hyde line—or at least what I remembered from the last time along the Jackson Street turn. That in mind, along with carnival light bulb signage of Tad’s two-buck steaks and the pizza place’s pepperoni-garlic airs, I pushed across Ellis nearly 15 seconds into a ‘Don’t Walk’ flasher. This death wish drew bellicose beeps from a tour bus and two taxis, Yellow and Veteran’s Cabs to be exact, no Checker Superbas in sight. But hey, from the north corner I could see legendary John’s Grill—Bogey and Lorre still chasing after the Maltese Falcon down the Greenstreet. Back down toward Eddy and Market Streets was a standing block load of disengaged cable cars just waiting to climb halfway to the stars. Unreally, here was another place and time…
So, suck it up, soak it in, right? This isn’t Chi, this is Cali. It isn’t the Tenderloin, this is classic downtown. Your pockets are tapped now, you’ve a little walking around change, you’re not a bum, you’re an alum, a social scientist, not some social deviant—act like it, already. And as for those chicks, they aren’t fighting with you, they’re fighting over you—meaning it’s still in your court. Now, which way do we turn from here?
There you go, take a breath, and a good, hard look at those crazy old cable cars. Sure, the ringing, abrading little buggers once gripped and rode braided wire all over The City. By the late 1800s, San Franciscans could cable from Rincon up and down fabled hills clear out to Potrero and Golden Gate Park. By now, all that remained of Andrew Hallidie’s crosstown vision were these touristy Hyde and Powell lines, plus the longer, more locally packed trolleys plying California Street.
At the moment, a constant hum of half-empty cars surround sound mixed with the beat of electronic store loudspeakers and honking of buses and deliver trucks. Traditional Powell Street storefronts once home to prime grottos and haberdashers presently reeked with Seiko watches, Hitachi tape recorders and Casio calculators; boisterous slickos reeled in tourists from behind glass showcases; scarcely more cordial snippers beckoned from curbside flower stands. Yeah, cultural imposition, all right—rank differentiation applied: I paused at O’ Farrell to picture the tailors, jewelers and seamstresses who probably filled the stately, chalk white Elevated Shops Building, tuning out a newshawk over at Marquard’s Little Cigar Store who was loudly pitching an afternoon Clarion headline reading, ‘Patty Hearst’s Wedding Plans‘, read all about it! Then ‘Another Savage Murder In Lafayette Park Overnight’, below the fold. But none of that was exactly my concern about then.
Instead, I focused on the ground floor display windows of a mezzanine holdover named Minalli’s Beauty College. The accompanying Theresa Brewer and Patti Page tunes nearly carried me into an aged Hotel Stratford midway up the next block, then the comparatively gleaming white Villa Florence across Powell, my helium head swiveling at the serried contrasts, getting dizzy with concentric-zone theory, propelled on up to Geary Street—to where I nearly got clipped at the corner by a blaring 38-Limited MUNI motor coach.
“Watch it, pally, you’ll be shittin’ bus tokens if you don’t watch out,” cracked a churlish little rogue squatted in a nearby emergency exit way down Geary, wrapped with his rat dog in a tattered tartan plaid.
“Yeah, well, thanks—appreciate your…concern,” I said, startled out of a hypothetical haze. “Lost it there for a second, sorta slipping my mind…”
“Tell me about it…but it’ll cost you an honest Abe. Gotta gimp, cap’n, see?” He lifted his tartan to show his shriveled left leg, his napping salt and pepper terrier landing on all fours. “Dance for the man, Scotty, do him your jig.” With that, he whipped a harmonica out of his parka pocket and played a rough ‘Bonny, My Bonny’.
Priced out, begging off, I turned down Geary, passing a retail block scented with perfume, cologne and shoe leather, then the polish of glossy Macy’s and I. Magnin windows—Scotty?! That’s not my clan tartan, not my goddamn kilt… Each displayed the stunning to outrageously chic fashions of Razik, Romeo Pomposite, Givenchy and any other design demigod who’d landed by way of the runways of Paris and Milan. But blowing in as well was a feral catwalk aroma likely foreign to the Champs Elysees. Called street people, they’d appropriated doorway after un-trafficked doorway and nearly every spare inch of sidewalk, shaking down passersby at punchy intervals, making Geary more a raree midway than boulevard. It further set my mind adrift in a choppy seas…
“Smile, friend.” Before I could fully recoil, this cross between a steam pumper fireman and interurban train conductor snapped my photo with a wooden box camera mounted on a single brass-trimmed leg. “Print goes in tonight’s mail. That’ll be two dollars fifty.”
“No thanks, chief,” I moved on along, toward I Magnin’s Halston store displays.
“Send it to your girl, your loving mother…” The grand popparazzi fixed to address a small corrugated mailer.
“Christ, are you hitting up the wrong rube,” I huffed, as he followed me in step.
“Too late, son, shot’s all ready to go in the soup…I’ll even make it a sepia for you…”
“Don’t bother, she’d just return it to sender…and don’t be bringing my mom into this.” His loving mother reference having brought out the Chicago in me. I tore past two Macy’s bag-laden shopping molls, almost tripping over a cigar-chomping, double amputee Kaesong vet selling Bic fine-points from a four-wheel furniture dolly. But that music…just beyond Magnin’s, a medleying from ‘Nature Boy’ to ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ grabbed me as I approached.
“Say, better tie up that bootlace of yours.” What made this next guy so remarkable was his perfectly tuned ear. He seemed to hear every sound, every note and nuance of his music and everything else around him—including my flapping leather lace.
“Yeah, sure, thanks,” I propped my leg up on a hydrant, bow tying as he sang, ‘By the time I make Albuquerque…’ “How’d you…” But I stifled any pity patter acknowledgement of the toy piano man’s blindness.
Lime green was his leisure suit, sweat damp and wrinkled, but hardly as soaked as his salmon shirt and orange-knotted necktie. He sat playing the toy baby grand on a duet of wooden milk cases, facing a tropical beachwear window display. He reveled in his music like Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder, but sang like Nat King Cole, sunlight star crossing his reflective eyeshades and the massive rings on every finger. He told that passing crowd between verses that he been tinkling the miniature keys since he was five, but sounded like he’d been playing it right out of the womb. The melodies he coaxed out of that little spinet were bone chilling in their power and range. How he could still stab that cramped keyboard with his gnarled fingers was as mysterious as how he had venued on this busy streetcorner. Still, he couldn’t have sounded fuller had it been a concert Steinway Pianoforte. Little wonder small crowds milled about this King Oliver-looking busker with the Sammy Davis sunglasses.
I was no less taken, yet could swear that honeyman was, in his own virtuoso way, counting the house shoe by shoes. I caught my swooning, swaying image in the store window, a reflection of my looking-glass self, taking stock of the block-long sideshow, segmenting the demography, stratifying the class distinctions, when that hellish voice barged back in: Freaks, just goddamn bums and freaks. You’re no damn better for being here. They’ve got nobody, you’ve got nobody. They’ve got no place, you’ve got no place. They’ve no job, you’ve got no job. But at least they’ve got an excuse…
“Aww, excuse me,” I said, almost stumbling over a woman next to me as I turned to move along for relief.
“No, pardon me, I shouldn’t have snuck up on you like that,” she smiled, middle-aged platinum, quietly elegant in virgin wool, packing two red on black designer bags out of I Magnin’s corner marble palace.
“Hope I didn’t damage anything,” I squirmed, having virtually spin blocked her into a motorized quadriplegic who played master level chess with the rubber-tipped pointer strapped to his forehead. “Help you with those?”
“Oh, I think not,” she straightened her seams and pill box hat, gracious to a fault, the very picture of Mrs. San Francisco, down to her impeccable Pacific Heights posture and veneer. “But thank you for your concern—Prentiss is the name, Dianne to you…”
“Well, I really appreciate that…maam.” The entire encounter smacked of Tipi Hedren’s entree in ‘The Birds’. “Mine’s Ken Herbert, quite a scene here, huh?”
“We make our way through it as best we can these days,” she sighed, with a wistful glance across Stockton Street at what remained of that grande dame of fashionable San Francisco dry goods. On its last silken legs, the City of Paris was creaking with downscale disrepair, from its iconic Eiffel Tower rooftop prow down through its stained-glass domed rotunda. “Gone from Liberty House to perhaps Neiman Marcus Texans, of all things. We can only hope that Beaux Arts masterpiece over there will sail through landmark status. Mother took me to marvel at their magnificent tree every Christmas of my childhood. It is why I dabble in a little retail myself to this day.”
“You do?” I escorted the lady across Geary Street at the flashing walk sign, stiff arming a honking cabbie right turning off Stockton as if a professional courtesy. “Sure I can’t help you carry those bags?”
“I’m fine, thank you, can use the exercise. And yes, I happen to own ‘My Sisters’ Keepers’—a lovely little antiques gallery/gift shop up there on Sutter Street,” she pointed ahead with white gloved hand, the smaller of her two bags waving in the open breeze. “Which I must return to directly before my associate suffers an acute panic attack. Nice meeting you though, Mister Herbert. You must stop by the store sometime. It’s quite… edifying…”
“Oh, edifying, for sure, Mrs. Prentiss,” I nodded. “I’ll certainly keep than in mind…”
“Until then, good day to you,” she strode fluidly up Stockton, shoulders straight and finished, bags in perfect balance.
There I froze, as if just landing a luminary autograph, not knowing what to make of it, only that she was some somebody, deigning to a nowhere nobody like myself. But what stopped me even more were the two clown-striped characters soundlessly flitting about, toying with shoppers and strollers up and down a sweeping stairway off to my left. Guy and gal mimes they were, young and masterful as Marceau himself, so confident and playfully polished. Though Shields and Yarnell might have been working the corners now, they were likely only street watchacallit, workshopping new material between network shows, having moved on to far larger stages, CBS to Carson’s couch. Not that this spot was exactly a college town mall or rubber chicken in the round.
The demonstrative duo had already donned tux jackets and tails by the time I’d decided to climb those sweeping concrete steps to the main terrace, robotically gesturing me to waltz along upstairs, however willfully I shooed the silent partners away, so as to take in this open-air urban pause free and clear, in a sugar/caffeine glaze.
Depending on the perspective, Union Square was a lush civic glory to behold, or a tantalizing parcel of commercial real estate going to waste, or a decaying molar amid a shiny gold retail crown. Reputably named for pro-Union rallies on the brink of the Civil War was now center masted by a hugely rising, phallic, composite capitaled column honoring Commodore Dewey’s triumph at Manila Bay. The square actually comprised slightly rising rectangles of manicured turf and paved esplanades, stretching over The City’s first underground parking garage.
I drew in the resulting fragrance of flora and carbon emissions, before walking between a foursome of fully symmetrical palm trees, epaulets on this monumental little parade ground. Sunny Union Square was 360-degree framed with San Francisco’s top-drawer cosmopolitan contenders: Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany, Bally’s joining the Macy’s-Magnin power grid. Giant billboards topped these bordering, largely classical-style buildings, colorful advertisements for TWA, BOAC, Pan Am, Qantas and Philippines Airlines that beckoned upwardly mobile shoppers to exotic reaches internationale the world over, more specifically to plush lobby booking agencies to send them on their way. From here, I goggloed, a body could go anywhere.
Choice enough spot to sit about, kind of sort everything out, have a little preverse, inverse Conversation, minus the mic and taping. Either-or, forward-back: either come to grips with this mess, or leave all that heavy lifting behind. Could do the decent thing and go back to Moon, or the sicko, selfish thing and go ahead, reel Syd in here again. Really, I could maybe head back to school and that Ph.D. deal again or stay here and chase some dreams. Hell, I could fly back to get gored again at the Gastof zum Red Ox in Old Heidelberg, or sail ahead to Lahaina on the ghostly Mariposa or Monterey. Sky’s the limit, soaring like Admiral Dewey. Yeah, lotsa choices, good and hard choices, but choicer ones than the ones back there before. Still, I got to moving again, as this quasi-Saturnian conversation began getting buggy, statically short-circuited, like somebody in charge was all ears.
Union Square came that quickly upon me, the lollers, lovers and laggards, activists pushing recall petitions, apocalyptic flyers, marijuana initiatives and nickels of sensimilla and Peruvian red. Every cautious step seemed to clear a path like an Arctic icebreaker, splitting shoals of pigeons and their droppings: black pigeons, gray pigeons, mutant white pigeons with spaniel-like brown spots thriving on the fumes and whatever else might seep through to them. Guhwroog, guhwroog, guhwroog: little sludge suckers.
Yet further along, my shuttle train of thought was derailed altogether by Union Square’s rockier rights of way. Behind trim, trapezoidal hedges congealed a layer of shifty human ballast—lethargic, half-bagged lowlife along park benches, under shrubbery, all rolled up in newspapers or filthy blankets, spent enough to squeeze the last drop of a stone dry Lucky Lager can, to suck a filter tip down to the charcoal.
The more agitated trolled flowerbeds of crocus, narcissus and impatiens for toke, smoke and chuggables, which inevitably led some aggressive street lifers to that low-fenced lawn social over near the Square’s Post and Powell corner. Colorfully beautiful as this all was at first glance, imposing as was the massive, regal corniced St. Francis Hotel straight ahead, a few steps further led to its seamier asides. But between here and there came this gathering.
“Clink, clink…Ladies, may we convene the 74th Yerba Buena Charitable Tea, hear, hear,” gavelled Madame Chairman of the St. Francis Society, with ladle taps against a cut-crystal punchbowl.
Moments earlier, matrons from Ross to Hillsborough, dowdy debs from Presidio Heights, honored Sisters of the Sierra, Daughters of the Gold Rush and Barbary Coast had emerged arm in arm from the Carnelian Room, filing down the St. Francis Hotel’s canopied marble foyer. They passed undauntedly near where a pistol-packing Sara Jane Moore tried to take out an inflation-whipped Gerry Ford in ’75 (and would have if she could have shot any straighter than Squeaky Fromme). Nonetheless, it amounted to a right proper parade of taffeta, pinpoint oxford, cotton chambray, hopsack blazers and pleated chino. The Senior League auxiliary clicked tasseled flat and spectator pump heels, stopping Hyde Line cable cars in their tracks across Powell Street, bound for a semi-annual fund-raising luncheon, today’s outdoor gala being held in a picket fenced garden under another swaying quartet of Union Square’s corner palms.
“Ladies, if you please, we have a full docket,” the gargle throated chairwoman spoon thwacked her water pitcher. “We must attend to those less fortunate about us if we are to bloom ourselves…”
This cultivated conclave was place seated by white-coated hotel waiters to wicker chairs and banquet tables with red and gold bunting, sterling silverware holding down the white linen cloths. Each name-carded table featured matching red/gold napkins and carafes of Napa chardonnay, to either side of Sierra ’49er goldigger sculptures in multicolored ice. The Japanese lanterns were a delicious, if not ironic touch, but nowhere near as captivating as the off-Julliard string ensemble atop an adjacent open slab stage.
Garnishing everything were brilliant sprays of hibiscus, mums, tulips and flaming camellia. But foremost on the agenda were mammoth trays of canapés, watercress, meaty finger sandwiches and frosted shortbread along the low perimeter fences, along with candle-heated tureens of bisque and consommé. Bounty, beauty and the feast—all in one comely garden party, for the better, more generous of intentions…if not for the taking. Guhwroog, guhwroog, guhwroog…
“Thatta tune, momma,” sidled up a couple of Square pegs, smacking their grizzly lips at this culinary score, one a shirtless biker cast-off in cutoffs and a black leather vest who’d stormed over my way, just beneath an onstage violoncello. “Looky there, cold cuts…heinous spread, ain’t it? Damn sight better’n St. Anthony or Tinus Thrall’s…whole scads better’n Jimmy Jones’…”
Wasn’t long before it was high tea time in every camp and crevice of Union Square, virtually its entire derelict, marble-loose menagerie rolling toward society’s corner, successive waves of rag-clad depravity whooping and snorting and picking, nibbling at the catered platters like mice in a midnight panty, others liberating entire lazy susans, salad tumblers and carafes. These raiding hordes took the matrons by oyster shell-shocked surprise, upsetting tables and dessert carts, scarfing off with hands full of delectable spoils, some scatting back for seconds and thirds.
“I declare, this will not do—not do at all. And we’ll have no more of it,” Madame Chairman gasped, wiping wine from her jowls and silk campshirt blouse, straightening her cloche hat while seeking to rally her panicked conclave, these mortified daughters and granddaughters of The City’s founding fathers and others so pedigreed. “Ladies, time has come we must draw strength from our heritage. We shall summon the resolve of our forebearers, take sustenance from our unyielding pioneer stock!”
“Don’t havta do nuthin’, honey,” shouted a grabby, sleeping bag-wrapped squatter. “Just keep servin’ up the lunchmeat…ain’t ate ina week…”
With that, the St. Francis Society rose en unison and indignantly stood their ground, tossing fromage plates, hors d’oeuvres, ambrosia and whole ice buckets of wine and ice water at these motley marauders, as if to keep the vermin at bay at least until some of Chief Gain’s powder blue patrol cars might bother to arrive. What followed wasn’t pretty; backlash never was. Union Square deadbeats and marginal denizens gave as good as they’d already gotten, however, chucking as if both sides had just taken in that new Belushi frat movie. I just remained aside the unstrung ensemble stage; really, what did these society bags and dirtbags mean to me anyhow? Still, my armpits juiced up at the sociological sight, never having been party to such a spectacle before. Witness the empirical and sector theory potential of such status and role conflict, I reasoned—the Gemeinschaft-to-Gesellschafting regression of it all—while kept at clinical distance, as it were. In that respect, it couldn’t get much better than this.
“Honest to God, what’s our city coming to,” muttered a seasoned, platter-juggling waiter on his way back over to the hotel, white coat splattered with bisque and wine. “Something must be done…”
“Really, something’s gotta be done, alright…” Which was about all I could come up with at the moment, while qualitative scoring the canapé trays.
Care for more?
Chapter 54. Wandering into the wilds
under the guise of sorting things out: it’s a return to
the Y and wherefores as many other things heat up…