“Ain’t just numerology or
rocket science, bub. And
there’s nothing funny about it.”
“Goofy?! What the…” Oh, right—headed to what remained of the Disney Store on Union Square, reportedly entering its closing act. “Grab a 45 inbound bus,” I pointed down toward a corner MUNI stop.
“Tourists coming all this way for Mickey Mouse,” Reese Paulen scoffed, watching the young South Asian father scurry downhill, with his pink playsuited little daughter in tow. “They can see that tripe at home.”
“Mark one for American cultural hegemony worldwide, but I bet they’re not tourists at all,” I said, having noted an Intel badge clipped to the guy’s waistband as they scurried down the Fillmore Hill steps. “He’s probably a new H-1B systems engineer, already earning more than the two of us combined.”
“Well that’s pure fantasyland,” he huffed, double taking the skipping toddler’s way. “Honestly, words fail me.”
“Nope, that’s tomorrow land, doc. And it’s not about words, it’s all about the numbers–chipset divisions and absolute integers…”
Still, that was Union Street we were approaching, not Union Square: no cows here, but plenty hollow. As the professor and I had reached Green Street, things finally began to level off. Frozen momentarily at the curb by a string of party staging and rental furniture vans, we surveyed the scene, like public utility chieftains on vacation at Shasta Dam.
From there, the comparatively spacious aeries of well-networked upper Pacific Heights hauteurs gave way to the wall-to-wall clutter and jumble of more commercial apartment houses. Vantage-wise, building flagpoles elevated from our sightline, rooftops lowered to walk-up facades. On our right, an ultra-chic neighborhood boutique hotel from dot-com 1.0 days had been gutted for refurb, now tightly wrapped in white plastic, prettier than a sweetheart birthday present.
“Soo, you were saying,” Paulen sighed, moving on. “Ian who?”
“Paisley. Reverend Ian Paisley…the Protestant firebrand in Ulster—Northern Ireland,” I closed in alongside him. “You know, Scirish… Fritalian…switching colors mid-stream, like we were saying before.”
“Believe me, it is not in the same league, Herbert. Your…Scirish aren’t under siege worldwide.”
“Under siege? C’mon, everybody loves Jewish folks nowadays.” I looked west out Green, beyond two shaggy, sickly old palm trees, and a block of witch’s capped Victorians and twelve-unit TICs.
Beyond that, I eyed up the steeple of Saint Vincente Catholic church—stuffy, suspect St. Vincente—lording over Cow Hollow from every conceivable perspective. I could only wish I had benefited from some of those overlordly sacraments back when I needed that spiritual guidance the most, instead of the blessed come-on I actually grinned and bore.
“Loves? On what planet have you been residing?”
“No, really,” I said, respindling my newspaper. While the tinnitus eased some, more low-level anxiety was now broadjumping hemisphere to hemisphere across my corpus callosum. Along with that came a widening divide between what I’d say and what my brain might so arbitrarily replay… “Look at how popular people like Spielberg, Schwimmer and Adam Sandler are.”
“Yes, an elite American few, maybe…hold a sec,” Paulen said, pausing to set his attaché atop a covered trash container. Particulates apparently having lodged underneath his contacts, he methodically removed them, pressing them into a small black lens case. He then pulled out a pair of round-frame tortoise shells, slipping their hook backs over his ears, around his earphone, with careful professorial authority.
“And what about Seinfeld, huh,” I pressed in another pop culture vein, as we prepared to cross Green Street. “Who doesn’t love that?”
“Ah, Seinfeld…don’t get me started…” Paulen snapped up his attaché.
“C’mon, Jerry, George…Elaine. Show’ll go on forever—the Seinfeldophiles can’t get enough of it. Can you blame them?”
“Enough what? Enough of Newman, Uncle Leo…enough of the moyle?”
“To me, it’s a hoot…Jerrrrrrrry, got it on ya?, Frank and Estelle Costanza, c’mon…”
“Sure, laughable—like that recent episode of the good Kramer vs. evil Kramer racist rant in an L.A. comedy club?”
“Uh, that’s…interesting,” I pondered, following him into the yellow-striped crosswalk. “So Richardson could have some rehab issues. What’re you driving at?”
“That the show may be popular as all get out. But at the same time, it is something of an embarrassment…”
About mid street, St. Vincente’s gothic gabled roofline and soaring Norwegian-style belfry summoned my other, quite personal denominational issues back then; for the most part, far from spiritually uplifting, as I recalled. Somber, catechistic rectory, sober Irish parish priest: Could the father confessor have been any less observant and helpful on that cold, empty morning? Aw, leave it the hell alone, already—who knows any more?
Maybe he had other things, other subjects on his mind that time. Other priests cross-serving the diocese, turning the school kids into devoted altar and choir boys, pamphleteering for back alley coathangers, bookkeeping and bake-saling the collection plates, keeping flower baskets and candle shrines away from the padlocked front doors.
And yet, I couldn’t say it didn’t gnaw at me that getting on in years seemed to mean growing up some, spiritually, while the Catholic Church of my younger days so stubbornly refused to emotionally mature. The eternal stream of ungodly revelations were enough to drive any former scapular-squeezing confirmation boy to question his church age faith. Oops, venial candor— that’ll be five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys, m’boy, and light a devotional candle for your trouble.
“What…embarrassment,” I maundered, “embarrassment to who?”
“To any thoughtful, self-respecting Jewish person, that’s to whom,” Paulen said, gazing upon this post-Green Street block of mismatched Tudors and Edwardians, nondescript windowboxed three-flats, and 1920s-era mongrels chopped up beyond recognition in the 1950s and 60s—by and large over priced, bleached-out white, taking Fillmore into the more congested commercial zone.
“You’re joking, right,” I quickly refocused, “I mean, how does that work…”
“Look, Seinfeld makes the world safe for Jew-bashing—complete with all the usual ugly stereotypes, only in this case played for hip-ironic grins. Might as well call it Mentshes Behaving Badly.”
“But…they’re Jewish…despite the fuzzed-up names.” A training cyclist in full Olympic Club racing regalia was pumping his 18-speed Cannondale, gearing up for the Fillmore hill, the bike already meeting near total gravitational resistance with every traversive down thrust of its pedal clips.
“Hmph—as though that somehow makes it right.”
Now nearing us up the comparatively mild incline from Union Street, a young couple looked to be bickering something fierce. Dude was bleeding from the back of his head, and had rubbed his girlfriend’s face in it— literally all over her puffy blond face, by this time fairly dripping in type O-negative.
“You happy now,” he kept screaming, “see what that bastard did to me because of you?!” From what we could glean, the pair had been going at it in broad daylight outside a nearby beer pub, and some goodbar Samaritan had gallantly intervened—cracking the dude’s melon against a brickface wall.
I couldn’t meet the chick’s eyes, nor she mine, so we merely exchanged awkward nods—as though this encounter was totally out of context and character. After all, we had had the same stormy history up hill at the house, hadn’t we? As if I hadn’t told her this hasty hook-up would never synch in and hold—whether she was a certified relationship counselor or not. Yet at the same time, I was somewhat bleeding for the guy: this latest victim of another Union Street bludgeoning.
Odds were, the next step was back to their trusty crib for a little killer make-up sex—some tuff enough love—at least until the DV unit arrived. Heavy petting and heavier hitting—that’s what seemed to happen these days, at least once a neighborhood—even this gentrified turf—trended generation younger. Where mind-altering substances were once used hereabouts in the service of higher consciousness and self-awareness, now monied Xers and Nexters were just getting high as a hoot owl, or stumbling numb, for the mindless time-burning buzz of it all, for that matter. While tremors of indignation, if not revulsion appeared to overtake Paulen at the specter of sorely engendered household violence before he quickly regained equilibrium.
“I’m sorry, but I’m still hooked on Seinfeld reruns,” I resteered, figuring neither of us wanted any further part in this wholesale domestic strife. “Bubble Boy, Soup Nazi—the whole shmeer.”
“Why am I not surprised,” Paulen sniffed his affirmation, glancing back at the fun couple as though he’d seen this all before.
“But c’mon, they’re classic, like M*A*S*H and Cheers, totally gut-busting funny…no matter how many times you watch them…and Seinfeld’s goofing on everybody.”
“Look let’s simply call that show what it is, shall we? Seinfeld is a farce—a brilliant farce, mind you—but nothing more than middle brow comfort food, a pop cult vehicle for the projecting of gentile prejudices. I know. I’ve internalized both sides of the show my own self.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you,” I peered back a moment at the dramatic duo turning, arguing their way east down Green—nothing I hadn’t seen before my own self, not that far from here. “I mean, that’s not how people see it. They’re laughing with those shows…especially if you like cereal or Pasta Primavera.”
“Serious as a strip search and TRO. And if only that were the case, my friend,” Paulen shook his head.
“Just a figure of speech. But hear me out: Seinfeld is the Amos ‘n’ Andy of Jewish comedy. Jerry is Amos, George is Andy, and Newman is Algonquin J. Calhoun. The analogy couldn’t be more apt if Cosmo Kramer were Kingfish Stevens, Elaine Sapphire, Uncle Leo were Lightning, and Monk’s Restaurant, the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge Hall.”
“Aww, you’re reading way too much into this,” I dodged a two year-old future trust fund baby blanketed in a titanium super stroller being wheeled by her busily tucking Filipino nanny. “Jeezus, lighten up, will you? It’s just a harmless sitcom…”
“That’s what they used to say about Sanford and Son,” Paulen said, adjusting his frames. “And you know what happened to that ‘classic’ as time went on…”
“Oh, I get it—this is what academia calls critical deconstruction, right?”
“No, more like decoding, dispelling a too-cozy latent mythology,” Paulen said, his bookish eyeglasses seeming to concentrate his vision overall, or else weak, miscorrective readers had distorted his vision overall. “Maybe even in the service of healing some divisions by facing too uncomfortable truths.”
“Holy mack’el, Andy,” I mocked, to the extreme. “I’se totally regusted!”
So much the better to see a few more of the architectural mixed breed apartment houses on either side of Fillmore Street: ficus-shaded glimpses of skylighted Tudors and barrel-bay windowed Victorians, with several counter-intuitive dark brown four-unit 50s cardboard bandboxes and a sleek teak Tokyo bento sprinkled in. Problem was, it also became clearer that either unsightly fire escapes, windblown sea flags or tangles of overhead trolley and power wires would be splintering the Marina haciendas and aquamarine bay water view from this point forward.
That’s about when we came upon a crème de cocoa Victorianesque retail/rez building—eyewear, aromatherapy shops fronting Union Street, an off-brand coffee roaster anchoring the corner space, complete with a colorful Savona-muralled Fillmore side wall. Upstairs, bay-windowed flats rose two more stories.
I peeked through the iron gate of their backside entrance, then recalled floating up to #302 that foggy summer night, lured by the celestial smells and sounds. There, Jay Jacoby Jacobson was holding forth, a hayseedy huckster from just south of the Ozarks who dispensed dog-eared chart readings with the pass of an offertory hat. Hokey though his hourly sessions may have been, the late-70s cosmologically curious flocked up to his apartment for the hothouse ganja-laced date nut squares and lightly spiked punch, along with the stereo-cassette sound track of New Age atmospherics and Charlie Pride.
He was gaining a following all right, but losing his financial tunic doing so. In my case, I munched and remained in listening mode back then—comparing and contrasting his shtick with Dame Thornia’s rituals, a little oppo research, sizing up the local astrology arena in general. In retrospect, this was quite possibly where my entire Saturn game plan split its rings.
“Hmph. Now, if you want to discuss real comedy—forget about smut-mouth dialects and baggy drawers,” Paulen continued, “let’s talk Mort Sahl, Shelly Berman, Billy Crystal on Oscar night …even Jon Stewart today. There’s cutting, worldly wise wit and sarcasm for you.”
“OK, you mean the brainy types, like Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen…” We can’t really be having this conversation. Suddenly I’m puffing on a Panatella at the Friars Club, feeling all of 75 years old. Not that there was anything wrong with that.
“Oy, poor Alvy Singer? How about Borat, while you’re at it,” Paulen sneered, reaching into his jacket to cut short his increasingly recognizable ringtone. He flipped out his cel phone to screen a voicemail caller ID, then repocketed his RAZR, picking up the thread. “Self-loathing or loathsome either way.”
“Whoa, dunno about that, doc, but then what about that Sarah Silverman chick? I’m trying to draw a baseline here.”
“Ah, yes—frisky, smart-ass princesses,” he sighed, as if channeling some fantasies one would have thought he’d outgrown years ago. “She’s no Joan Rivers in her prime. Still, I could definitely see feeding her a dirty punch line or two, as it were.”
“And this would be coming from your…Fritalian side?” I wondered whether his ears were compression popping, as mine now happened to be as we touched down from a loftier plane.
Precious seconds ran out on the crosswalk timer as we pulled up to the Union Street curb. What an intoxicating confluence of aromas: roasting coffee, cigar smoke from the gourmet shop across Fillmore, distilled spirits from the liquor store the other side of Union, straight ahead. Suddenly with the turn of the traffic light, yet another one of those motorized cable cars passed before us, gaining speed up Union toward Van Ness, the very same route She and I had waded through when its street fair was so long ago in bloom.
Unsettling as that memory was, it all but blinded me to the haunting figure who appeared to be huddled on the trolley’s rear bench, caped in a Grayline Tour blanket, leaning forward over the brass safety railing—all bundled up for a sizeable dressing down—soaking in the current scene, albeit minus me. Could that have been She? Naw, that would be too much like soapy sci-fi TV, had to be a high road mirage. But before I could ID her for certain, the cable car had motored halfway to Webster Street, long and hopelessly gone.
“I simply happen to admire the young Silverman woman’s chutzpah—as a social phenomenon, professionally speaking, of course,” Paulen winked, having buttonholed me back to the topic at hand. “Although you have to admit she’s awfully foxy for a potty mouth…”
“Foxy? I guess—in a awfully twisted sort of way,” I reflected on visages better left caliginous, waiting for the pedestrian signal to flash white once again, focusing instead on that ‘tourist’ lifting his daughters onto the Union Square bus, before recalling as how the Disney Store had recently closed… Damn, don’t get downtown there much anymore; it just isn’t part of the conversation. But, given everything, who could blame me? It would be like revisiting a crash site with binocs, a blanket and picnic basket. “Anyway, what’s up with this stand-up stuff? Are you writing a book on it? Or some kind of post-grad study…”
“Academic study? If things were only that uncomplicated.” He traced a tandem of buff Trek and Gary Fisher trailbikers pumping past us up Fillmore Hill.
“Well, at least you can take comfort in knowing that your French side will always love Jerry Lewis, huh?” I strained to check out what remained of the fog line, up there on what we could still see of the bay.
Very funny, Hee-bert, funny as Vidkun Quisling or the Vel d’Hiv…”
Care for more?
Chapter Sixteen. Drifting into
the valley of the doll faces, they
further the French connection…