“Cash is the answer
but brings questions of its own.
Sooner starve than go begging?”
“Have an account with us?”
“Uh, no, not…”
“Have a local address?”
“Not at the moment, but…”
“A 415 phone number, do you?”
“Sure don’t, but maybe I can…”
Latter day breezes had picked up across the Western Addition, pressing me against Steiner Street’s post office wall in wait, trying to tease out the hieroglyphics of a peachy redelivery slip, much less figure out what some postage-due 1st class letter would be all about. A half-hour on, I coughed up the 13 cents, and tore away from a closing call window with a Scotch tape-sealed #10 envelope, its handwriting shakier than scribbling on chiffon.
Nevertheless, I could make out the return address, namely Dellis Herbert, central Illinois. Yeesh, had to be family decisions after the fact, loose ends needing to be tied up—god forbid, expenses owed—nothing I had the funds, stomach or attention span for about then. So I stuffed the yellowed envelope in my jacket pocket for later reference, retreating to another night weltering behind the wheel. Wasn’t until morning next that curiosity won the day, and I keyed open Uncle Dellis’s letter to find his note roughly itemizing proceeds from selling off my father’s left-behinds, amounting to some $587.69. With that, he wished me well wherever I was, hoped that I’d stop by and see him and dad’s gravesite sometime soon.
“Hmm, out of state license, out of state personal check. This is a tough one, Mister… Herbert, but you look honest enough…”
“That would be great, anything you can do to…”
“However, it will take a while to clear, from where is this? Prairie Crossing Bank and Grange?”
“It’s back in the Midwest,” I said, cursing Dellis for shortchanging me on the certified or cashier’s draft. “How long, do you think?”
“Prairie, huh? A while, could be a good while…”
After wrestling with whether and/or how much my uncle might have pocketed for his trouble, I breathed deeply and hit the bricks for the nearest Pacific Bank & Trust branch; seemed only…apropos on several levels. But one line led to another, most frustratingly at PBT’s Marina branch, and I had no stomach for it, estimating there was little time to spare.
Which propelled me up to a branch of less resistance, the higher Fillmore facility in Pacific Heights—less resistance. A three-piece, brown double-knit new accounts officer greeted me leerily at the first desk in from security guarded doors. A fishy handshake and smiles all around: After agreeing to set up an account with a minimal balance from the released proceeds, I signed off only modestly relieved, then pocketed a fistful of complimentary suckers on my way out to another radiant day in paradise.
“One hit or two? ”
“OK, one’s a quarter, two .35.”
“No, make that two then…”
Couldn’t get enough of it—meaning Pacific Heights. Stepping up Fillmore from the bank branch with newly found vigor, I turned left out Washington, drawn to a street abruptly estopped by an overgrown grassy knoll. Built upon a former rock quarry by renowned John McLaren, Alta Plaza Park rose like a well manicured wall, dotted with trim shrub bushes and stunted palms, laced across the top with tennis court fencing and clustered pine and acacia trees.
Crossing Steiner Street, past Gertrude Stein’s old shake-shingled place, I climbed the lowest of Alta Plaza’s three knobbed concrete staircases, the park being tiered and terraced like an elaborate Mayan ceremonial mound. Breathing heavier at every level, I passed long green wooden benches with scatterings of nursing young mothers, gossipy widows and dozing, sunning elders. I was braced by afternoon on-shores, pinged by the soft thwacks of backhand volleys, by the childish shrieks and screams from a park top playground—but above all, stunned by the sweeping 360-degree views from up here.
Looking back, I spotted a prominent 12-story Steiner Street co-op tower, its creamy white Spanish style crown, so prominent in any northern cityscape, fronting a jamble of apartment buildings rolling out over to Russian Hill. Southward to Clay Street, the park’s grand stairway descended to a tidy row of colorful carpenter Victorian homes and later three-flats, beyond them a wavy sea of wall-to-wall urban clutter dipping and tufting like a pastel-on-white crazy quilt—backstopped by the San Bruno Mountains, Twin Peaks and that soaring orange and white Sutro transmitter. Around to the north side, Jackson Street’s mansions reigned, the French Consular home, Linda Rondstadt’s next love nest—below them, snippets of the gleaming Marina and Bay vistas clear to Marin. It all made for a dazzled daydreaming mode, leaving all my fiery hoops and hassles behind.
But breathtaken and panned out, I soon followed a sloping path down westward to Washington Street’s renewal, past au pairs and covered prams, nannies exasperated with so many spoiled and soiled little brats. Across Scott Street, between stick and Queen Anne Victorians, I passed teeming Montessori and Waldorf schools, mouth sandpaper dry by then. So I happened into a corner Heights Apothecary straight out of Mayberry or Southern Pines, thirsting for a fountain coke or Green River, unexpectedly bargaining for even more.
“There, Chocolate Ripple, that’ll do ya,” the druggist-proprietor firmed up triple ice cream scoops, which spilled over a cake cone like the windblown flame on Liberty’s torch. “Here, use this napkin.”
“Unreal,” I beamed, gladly forking over the pocket change saved from Kendall’s Korner, wrapping the napkin around that slender, overmatched cone. “Place over on Sacramento wanted at least twice as much for half as much.”
“Better get used to that,” the wiry old pharmacist replied, moving from Heights’ small lunch counter toward his dispensary window. “Come the first.”
Grilled cheese 85 cents, BLT a buck-ten, including pickle and chips. The horseshoe counter was an artifact intact, the whole drug store a turn-of-the century anthropological find. Corner storefront of a boxy blue Victorian, it had been this neighborhood’s general store since his grandfather first peddled his potions and lotions. Squeaking hardwood, worn smooth oak display cases, Sal Hepatica, back plasters and hot water enema bladders—the Apothecary was a one-way retrospective on all that ailed and healed this leg of Washington Street for generations. Ruddy, cotton topped Dale Bollow spoke historical volumes, dispensed his family’s long perspective while shuttling from counter to prescription window to the corner postal cage, changing smocks and headwear along the way.
“Why’s that,” I scanned the vacant counter, a sweet soup and sandwich sidelight arrangement that took me back to after-class sundaes in my grade school days.
“Finally closing it down,” he said, towel over his shoulder, creaking with the floorboards to his mortal and pestle, to scribbled-out prescription pads. “Time’s come. It’s been good to the Bollow family over the years. But I’m getting old, legs are giving out. Besides, the neighborhood’s changing and my regulars are leaving me behind. Must be the medicine…”
“You’re joking, right?” I followed him to the small, pebble glass pharmacy window.
“Realtors made me an offer I can’t refuse, planning to turn the place into some uppity wine and cheese store. I’ve got cheese, but these new ones, they want the smelly import stuff—guess they expect everybody to drink their ailments away.”
“But what about all your great store stuff, your fixtures and everything,” I glanced about at antiquarian quality, aisle to aisle.
“Selling it to a store up near Grass Valley—whole kit and caboodle,” the druggist said, slipping behind his dispensary window. “That’s where I’m headed myself, getting out before all that nonsense at Lafayette Park migrates over here to Alta Plaza.”
“How do you mean,” I asked hesitantly through the glass, fixing to naysay his answer on shaky grounds, making way for an octogenarian dowager aching for a refill on her pills.
“All that hooty-scoot business, now the killings. Nope, want no part of that over here,” Dale Bollow turned toward his long-time customer. “Come back for my go-away giveaways in a couple of weeks. Yes, Mrs. Sundquist, that rheumatism of yours again?”
“I’d be a fool to miss that…bye…”
As went Bollow’s Apothecary, so went much of Pacific Heights. But that didn’t stop me from basking out the door with a mouth and handful of dripping cone, devouring it all like some dawdling time traveler content to kill some clock. No place better to stem my chronological skids than the shop directly across Washington Street, sign above the door reading, Timeless Clockworks and Repair.
Timeless, all right. I could see that in the small storefront’s display windows, in the round porcelain faces and antiquated spear tip hands, all sweeping and chiming like a Swiss funhouse. From there in, Gruens, Hamiltons, heirloom Patek and Breguet timepieces with finely tooled leather and alligator bands adorned brass and crystal showcases. Compact walls were lined with Austrian Regulators, Dutch wags, Westminster Chimes, Gledhill-Brook Time Recorders, Frying Pans, Seth Thomas casements, elephant swingers and banjo clocks. Standing tall like palace guards about the shop were Parliaments, German cuckoos, mahogany grandfathers and Tempus Fugit Grandmothers and Daughters—en total driving me to Clockwork Orange distraction.
The bells and gongs enveloped me; gold gears, sprockets, mainsprings and ruby jeweled movements mesmerized—as did the inlaid pendulums, cuckoo birds and drop-chained brass counterweights. So I impulsively knuckle tapped the stenciled plate glass window to get the watchmaker’s attention in admiration. Bad idea, worse timing, as the window’s alarm strips set off a shrill, deafening siren that drew an old Prussian’s scowl and scorn, to where he charged away from his cigar and shoeboxes full of repair parts, out from behind his workbench.
“Get away from the windows,” the watchsmith waved me off as he disarmed his burglary system, a cockeyed magnifier headband suggesting just how ticked-off he was. “Off with you, you nut—casing my shop, I’ve had enough of thieving louts like you!”
“Sorry, just blown away by your collection here.” A lame retort, due to seeing if I could spot my missing my Railway Special in there. I was back-footed all the more by my sun raw, wind-disheveled reflection in his window, not to mention the chocolate ripple I’d inadvertently smeared across the glass.
“Fine, now just blow,” the watchmaker dusted off a square Tiffany and Chelsea Art Deco-Jadite anniversary, venturing nowhere near his doors. “Before I have to call the authorities again!”
“Whoa, time out…” I had a feeling he’d been here before , so waved weakly and turned up Washington. The chocolate ripple giving me a tooth and headache, I was intent on getting time back on my side. Yeah, up ahead, that was better—all those homey, gilt-edged Victorians. Time instead for a mind rewind, shift from grey matter pressure to the wiser connections of white matter—hook up with the task-negative network, slipping back casually into that daydreaming mode.
“Oh, don’t mind him, he’s actually very mellow.”
“Really something, I’ll say that…”
“I’ve had Adam since he was a wee one.”
“You must be very…proud.”
Across Broderick, great Victorians, grand Victorians, brash Victorians, storybook Victorians: Alamo Square notwithstanding, the painted ladies of Pacific Heights seemed like Victorian empyrean. They graced either side of the gently rising street, bringing me fresh, becalming dopamine spurts, what with the non-stop precious beauty of them all.
“Yes, isn’t his coloring amazing? That’s what makes him so…cuddly.”
“You mean figuratively?”
“Oh, now of course…he’s grown out of that huggy-hugging a bit…”
I’d wandered aimlessly up among the Victorian faithful, along trim, serried rows of Queen Annes with loop and garland friezes, corrugated bay windows, finialed rooflines and silo round corner turrets. Past Gothic two-flats with sculpted fretwork tucked intricately around corniced crowns, square windowed Italianates trimmed in tasseled balustrades with ornate Mediterranean porticos and finely finished oak double doors, pillared French Renaissance variations with tucked loggias and scallop crenulated towers, Turkish marvels with onion bulbed cupolas, Moorish columns and commanding mogul arches.
Each quiet and breezy new side street between Washington and Clay Streets brought gladsome vistas of colorful two-story workingman’s Vicky rowhouses on tight 25-foot lots, rehabbed, indeed transformed to museum-piece detail. Some were built out with lush greenhouses and nook ’n’ cranny side room apartments. Brilliant flowerbeds fronted them, as well as shaped scrub oak and manzanita. Classic, carnauba-polished Jags, Benz cabriolets and Rovers cooled down in tiny cobblestone driveways, international no parking symbols on every remote-controlled garage door.
Then barrel-windowed, Victorian-style six-flats nosed out over scrubbed sidewalks, their copper quoins and downspouts, their scrolled pilasters, delicate balusters and crested, dentiled bays hovering like royal boxes at the opera. Between them snuck in ducky little frontier clapboard cottages from an even earlier time, shaded with baby pines and redwoods all their own.
“Now, about the room, it’s so sunny and quiet, facing south,” she spread her Inca turquoise wristleted arms, eyes tabulating move-in’s as she spoke. “It’ll be first month’s and split the deposit and utilities…”
“Where does Adam stay?”
“That padded bed in the small room next to mine, lined with aspen shavings and a heat mat. He even has his own hides in there. Though he mostly has the run of the place.”
“You mean the crawl…”
But even some of the grandest of dames were showing stress lines of competitive change, not least the condo squeeze setting in. Those not already facelifted or awkwardly altered were being scaffolded and sandblasted down to their first-growth framing, or else their neighbors were. Gaudy yellows, limes and purples gave way to understated blues and tans; eccentric Sixties excesses were scraped away, painted over with professionally color-schemed wall-to-window progressions accentuated with exquisite pure gold leaf half-shells and rosettes. Something more solid, substantial—more stylish and responsibly subdued. Such color coordination became integral to any self-satisfied renovation, homefront investors hedging against raging inflation, staking claim to their vein of the re-Victorian gold mine.
For every grey Victorian two-flat trimmed in darker gray, white and burgundy, there was a light gray neighbor touched with medium grey, burgundy and white. Increasingly, blue, gray, maroon townhouses contrasted so considerately with grey, blue, wine four-flats right next door. Then some flashy khaki, blue, heather, carmine showplace would play off a mild-mannered Eastlake Victorian in blue, khaki and a mad touch of scarlet.
So trippy, surreal outliers were offset with shades of tan and beige upon tanner tan. Cut from button-down oxford cloth, these well-tempered treasures seemed intent on socially ostracizing what remained of the hallucinogenic hothouses up here, upscale blockbusting the neighborhood, street by pristine street—quite properly, if you please.
What prevailed was the refined grace to Pacific Heights—a long-privileged casual nature that teetered on the rim of squired decadence. Cases in point, its converted carriage studios and historic firehouses: the sparsely sycamore lined blocks reeked sweetly of old money and oddball antiquity, down to the baroque gingerbread millwork, lonic columns, composted gladiola boxes and fanciful leaded glass.
Here was an understated, free-leisured, flip-flop flamboyance that reflected not simply income, rather capital gained and passed along: tracking trusts, annuities and dividend distributions on the way to the club, florist or facial, Brooks Bros chucking the three-piece mohair for J. Crew, Izod, Sperry and Signature L.L. Bean, packing bike-racked RVs for a family weekend fete up at the North Lake compound. Easily made any green-eyed body want to buy in…christ it’d be great to live in a neighborhood like this…
Yet Pac Heights laggards there were, cracked, discolored pearls in the cultured strand. Take this olive drab corner Victorian two-flat at Clay and Diviz—across from the Supreme Courtly Iglesia in Cristo—bearing a small red and white For Rent sign out front. I’d wandered up several landings to the top floor unit, where I was greeted by this frizzy middle-aged New Ager in a Rio Negro Andean housecoat, who was looking for a roommate to split the monthly nut. Her three-bedroom crib was nice enough, lots of maroon velvet and satin, though draped with a jungle of tropical plants, filigree and climbing vines. A large stoneware bowl filled with red and golden delicious apples centered on a bamboo coffee table like it was propped up for Gauguin.
But I had been more drawn to what appeared to be a lacquered native art ottoman or hamper of some sort over in a living room corner nearest the bay window. Must have been the spotted burnt cream coloring interspersed with deep reddish-brown crossbars and quadrates. Turned out the latter were saddles, however, bred-in camouflage, receptors through which the hamper, as it were, seemed to sense my stair-sweat body heat—because it suddenly shifted and stirred. Up popped a striped, arrow-shaped head in an agitated mood, gliming about the room with milky blue eyes, flitting its lengthy split of the tongue. Thereupon Adam began to uncoil—all ten salami-thick feet of him—snaking around the Persian carpet, reclaiming his abode.
“Adam is totally harmless, believe me,” she said cheerily, eyeing her other roommate like a fawning mom as Adam slithered toward his rat mush and mousecakes. “C’mon, I’ll show you your new home.”
“Uh, you know—Evelyn, is it? I’m kind of double-parked out there, but I’ll come right back.”
“Well, hurry up, so you and Adam can get better acquainted…”
Against my nature, so I didn’t. Instead I fled, striding to put safe distance between Adam and myself. Even though I was actually getting comfortable up here in the Heights, gobs of mind-easing seratonin amid all the colorful charm. A guy could get used to this, grow right into it. Soon I began identifying with it all, as if by moseying osmosis, with an easy nod to joining the party. Roaming around here like clock hands weren’t turning, as if time was frozen in perpetuity, projecting on a grandiose scaIe: I could be as casual and carefree, claiming I really belonged—something of a four-flush parvenu…gotta find a place to live up here…
But breaking out of this cloistered social circuit toward Jackson Street, I found the gold numeral addresses and European no-parking signs beginning to alienate me more and more. Even such passing gestures to liberal guilt as ‘Hands off Central America’ window stickers couldn’t ease my mounting anxiety. Maybe because too many of the dated peace and ‘Moscone for Mayor’ signs, the UNICEF and Amnesty International posters were custom framed. Anyway, how did this square with my Volvo down there?
Nearing Jackson, Latino and Asian parishes gave way to the historic Arts & Crafts-style Swedenborgian Church, Victorian frame architecture giving ground to a tight pasticcio of 1920s stucco and post-war modern—plenty of Colonial Revivals, sun bubbles and drop-centered balconies. These guest houses, triplexes, fourplexes on up to six-story apartment buildings, even a reputedly haunted El Drisco Hotel, served as buffers between thoroughly respectable Pacific Heights and the gradated opulence of upper Broadway and palatial Presidio Heights, where Ann Getty types personally redesigned the single-family manors. Virtually bridging the Heights, on the cusp up near Lyon Street, was this prim green three-story Georgian hatbox with the tiniest of for-rent signs. Twice burned and all that, still my growling gut feeling was: shape up, pat the wind-wild hair down and check it out.
“The unit is a small in-law we have tucked in down here,” said Mrs. Alice Caprow, a properly silver streaked, golden tanned Carol Brady lady of the house, leading me around to a recessed side entrance. “You see, it has its own private ingress and houselights.”
“Wow,” I marveled, as she opened a dead-bolted door to small ground floor apartment—set off, forward of what continued back as the home’s basement. Duly awestruck, I brushed against a small diagonal item on the doorjamb, which fortunately did not move a lick. “This is incredible…”
“Mercy no, it’s legitimate, all right,” she opened blinds in the two-room studio, which brightened like a rear patio solarium. “Of course, the little kitchen is fully equipped.”
“Is that a microwave,” I asked, slack jawed as I stroked the handle of an electric can opener.
“Yes, we had a few extra appliances upstairs after our Janine left for Princeton…”
“Amazing…” I couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate term, that I’d had the good fortune to ring her bell. The unit was one of those few and far-fetched little charmers the trendy post grads from Amherst to Stanford were swooping in to lock up long-term before the bidding really got out of hand. They had begun to stake out Pacific Heights every weekend, glued to their want ads, opportunistically knocking on any door this side of Baker Acres that showed any sign of potential vacancy. But today was midweek, and I’d stumbled upon this hideaway the moment Mrs. Caprow hung out her shingle.
Seal-a-way was more like it, for that matter the entire neighborhood seemed cloistered up and away, as far from city clamor and strife as their liquid assets and bordering pine/eucalyptus groves would allow. Mansion upon million dollar mansion: massive brick palaces and sleek Bauhaus showcases peaceably cohabitated in Presidio Heights as if age were no object so long as money was the same.
The Caprow house itself knotted up near the Presidio like creamy green icing on a mint chocolate cupcake. Three generations of physicians had occupied the place, which tucked between the Kuwaiti Consulate and a spit-shined image of the glassy Hepburn/Tracy split level where Sidney Portier once came to dinner. And three generations of their liberally leaning wives refuted the prevailing notion hereabouts that live-in domestic help was any prescription for a household of equitable health and happiness.
Hence this would-be servants’ quarters, this two-room au paradise, had long been a gesture of noblesse oblige to promising starving artist types, the Caprows generously subsidizing them via remarkably below-market rents, good Phil Burton Democrats that they were. Presently, that amounted to $85.50 per month, all utilities included, for a Murphy bed/bath/semi-board arrangement with space heaters, flower boxes and a precious Presidio to Golden Gate front yard.
“Tell me, what is your particular calling, Mr…Herbert, what is your forte?”
“Um, I’m kind of a photographer, a little bit of a writer,” I hedged, surveying a small but hotel sanitary lavatory, with both shower and claw foot tub.
“That so,” Dr. Jacob Caprow’s better half looked me over. “How interesting…our previous tenant was a thespian calligrapher who wrote his ticket into a film fellowship at USC. But all’s well that ends well, for we can’t have those flighty Hollywood types around here, now can we…”
“I’ve two degrees in sociology as background.” I came back to the main room, breathing in the wintergreen Lysol and fresh latex, not to mention the tulip-framed views of the Presidio woods, with a Marina shoreline well below. Just far enough from the Volvo to enjoy this mindless wanderlust in such rich, rarefied air. Comfortably away from Eric and Sherry and that weird twosome in the panel van—unreal, gonna land this baby but good, to where I could rethink where I’d even come from before it came to this.
“Graduate work, very impressive…something to fall back on, so to speak,” she pulled a pen and notepad from her apron pocket. “How long have you lived in San Francisco, Mr. Herbert? Your current address and phone number—where I might reach you in the event…”
“Well, I’m currently between places, ma’am,” I felt suddenly flushed with residual anxiety, either that or my meager nutritional intake was taking its toll. “That’s why I so sincerely want your apartment and will be such a non-flighty tenant. I mean, I can have a deposit for you within a few days at the most…”
“I see, then do you have local references?”
“Uh, I have one really solid one,” I muttered, combing what had to pass for my mental Rolodex, coming up with a single, dizzying entry—an against the odds and better judgment call that made me brace myself against the kitchen doorway, holding on tight. C’mon, Syd, we’ve gotta seal his deal, get our team really working this time, just like we talked about in..Lafayette Park. “She’s a successful San Francisco artist, a painter with a huge new bank commission as a matter of fact…I’ve been helping her with a proposal.”
“Splendid, that will do fine, Mr. Herbert,” her discerning eyes directed me toward the studio’s door. “I’ll take down her number, but please understand we are just getting started with this process…”
“Gotcha, Mrs. Caprow,” I sputtered, as we exchanged phone numbers and headed for a cordial, soft handed exit. “I’ll be certain to call you tomorrow as follow-up, okay…and then we can go over the lease and stuff, I’ll sign anything you…”
“No lease or rental agreement, young man—we rent with a handshake, month to month,” she pocketed and notepad and scanned me even more carefully. “Are you all right? You suddenly look white as a ghost…”
“That’s fine, I’m fine, Mrs. Caprow. All I want to stress is how much I’d love to move in to your great apartment here and thaaat…” Already hunger woozy, I found this scenario so heady, mine began spinning like Reno roulette. The pad was just that primo, such a perfect first foothold into San Francisco and Syd’s better graces, I could have absolutely fainted with praise right there on the spot.
So I did…
Care for more?
Chapter 68. A timely rebound brings
an ill-timed reply, hastening a pressurized
blow-up with an Oriental flavor…