“No matter how far you may
ramble and roam, family matters
will continue to hit home.”
“No, you see, I thought all along it was in Salzburg.”
“Really, all the way in Salzburg?”
“When in actuality it was Strasbourg…major difference…”
“Strasbourg? I guess…”
“Yes, right smack in occupied France,” Paulen said, measuring me anew. “A rather modest ‘Aryanized’ apartment house. Nevertheless…”
Concerning subject, re-predicate: There was a peculiar polar magnetic, circular structure to our entire encounter thus far, GPS compass holding true to its conversational coordinates. Still, a geography lesson was not my dutiful aim here, any more than Johnny Streeks up there expected his off-season snowpack to last through the Indian summer night. Reason enough why I gently nudged Paulen across Vallejo Street, to the hump crest of Fillmore’s next block downhill.
“You see, I was always aware there was a little family money, granny-wise, even way back in our Boulder student days,” Paulen said, steadying for a moment against a pipe railing that followed the curve of red-painted corner curb—intimating, though I had no idea why. Guess he just needed to post-Saturnal vent and spill. “I just wasn’t certain from which family bubbe it derived. Whether zayde’s Brooklyn fix-it shop ever amounted to anything—God knows, they were just lucky they fled Europe before the worst of it. But of course that was when I was still living in my father’s world.”
“And you were saying about your mother?” I idly shook the stand of a yellow traffic sign, looking up at its icon, a black image of a truck descending a triangular wedge—graphically understating the hazard ahead, to say the least—however much this line of questioning challenged my attention span.
“Well, father always fudged the subject, dismissed it rather heatedly, as a matter of fact,” Paulen added, moving us toward the next concrete stairsteps, circa 1915, as a smoky mattress delivery van wheezed its way to the hillcrest, bucking and braking up into the crosswalk, clutchplate burning like holy Hades, truck driver cursing out loud. “And mother wasn’t really able to set me straight until toward the end.”
“Why would she not tell you something like that?” Concentration quickened, much obliged, price of admission: I pinched and pushed myself to follow along on this Judeo-Christian track, no matter how squeamish it, or he, made me now.
Where Fillmore fell off from Vallejo Street, the view was no less steep, but with somewhat less of a grand, breathtaking sweep. Due west, we could see more rollercoaster rowhouses and blocks of glistening, parallel-parked cars. Immediately before us, apartment balconies overhung the cement stairs of Fillmore Street’s sidewalks on either side.
Downhill rooftops sported satellite dishes, tidy deck chair configurations and shuffleboard courts, apartment house flagpoles crowned with yacht club colors and whalebone weather vanes—no further snow drifters in the neighborhood wind.
“Who knows? Perhaps she was uneasy, self-conscious about what her parents and other relatives had gone through to warrant it,” Paulen said. We continued down past those dark-brown brick corner homes sucking up more than their share of daylight—the corner house adding another brickface story up top, much less the tomato-bisque Venetian-plastered gem next door, spoiling another sterling view.
We descended toward a period mix of nondescript pastel boxy moderns and Cape Cod frame SFDs, mostly sharing exterior decors of bright chalky white, bunched together like milk and egg cartons in a West Marin creamery. “She could have been in denial about the Holocaust reparations for losing bubbe’s family house and all—building in some psychological distance until reality demanded otherwise—sort of a generational thing. That’s just how she was…”
“Denial?” About then, I flashed on my mom’s deathbed confession of her latent epilepsy, that dreaded Falling Sickness, scourge of the mid 1500s—spawning petit and gran mal seizures at any moment, say, from hitting her head, scarring her brain tissue—or tumors even—how that started me anticipating the worst at the gravest possible time. Then I recalled my dad in her bedroom doorway, muttering about his wife of 40 years meeting up with Uncle Chad again in the Great Above and Beyond, his long-lost brother still crooning and sobbing in his bloody battlefield fatigues.
“Of the reparations, Hee-bert, Grandmother Paulenberg’s resettlement settlement,” Paulen side-eyed a pair of rock-hardbody uphill runners, sculpted bustlines and chiseled cheeks bouncing tightly in their Lady Nike work-out wear. “Not the kind of Holocaust denial with which I suspect you are familiar…”
He wouldn’t let it go for long. In any event, I just yearned to change the subject, but didn’t know what other subject we had buried in inactive files. I thought as well that—pro Jew, no Jew—this was really none of my business, objectively speaking; yet I shuddered to think that in some deep, circumstantial yet tactical way, it subjectively, inevitably was.
Truth be told, since September 11, 2001, anything and everything Middle East was everybody’s business around here in one way or another. Not that some amorphous war on terrorism did much to explain why I felt so singularly defensive, tacitly or tangentially. There was more to any vaguely guttural uneasiness on my part than a media-hyped, apocalyptic clash of civilizations. It was incrementally stirring with the on-shore breezes—that much, I knew; question was, how and how well did he know it, as well.
“Your mother’s denial, that’s what I meant,” I sputtered, eyes front once more, righting my step, mind sloshing around in my brainpan. “I meant your mother…”
“Be that as it may, poor dear was finally growing less conflicted about it. Then, she was gone,” Paulen pressed, gazing off to the copper Infiniti SUV angling back out of a cockeyed parking slot, to the warning horn of an unbound cable guy apparently just off the clock. “Still, she…we deserved every penny of the windfall, especially tuition-wise.”
“Sure, hey—who’s to say she…you didn’t?” Windfall? How…windy was it? “I mean, under the circumstances—not that I profess to know the circumstances, or anything, but…” Suddenly, I could see buildings tumbling into Marina streets down there, just like October, 1989 were yesterday, not going on 20 years ago today.
“Ultimately, my father did…that’s who,” Paulen said. “Another thing mother said was he never could have actually accepted that a French government might be accountable for any, how did she put it? Supposed acts of survival under such wartime duress. I only wish she hadn’t have kept so mum on their simmering differences until she was on her way off this plain.”
“So maybe your mother was just trying to keep her household together…” Keep a family household together? What the hell would I know about it? Whatever pleasure I might have generated in my visual cortex was abruptly torn asunder back in my limbic regions. That mere tinnitus was turning to the aching of my vestibular canals and cochlear nerves. Loud and clear.
“Well, that goes without saying, and father’s temper tantrums didn’t help,” Paulen adjusted the shoulder strap on his attaché. “Look, misplaced modesty or self-abnegation are certainly endearing qualities. However, I’m discovering that full self-awareness and acceptance are a far healthier path in the long run…wouldn’t you say?”
“What…hey, I’d say—couldn’t agree more,” I stammered, mostly over the word, acceptance, if not the wet-combed auburn beauty carrying Saks bags from her jet black Jag, in through the electronic gates of a set-back spread mid-block reminiscent of Hepburn-Tracy’s place in ’Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’—all glassy and airy with palm trees, circa 1963. “But your dad’s blow-ups must have really pissed you off, huh?” As in not far from the tree.
“Anger? Well, not exactly,” Paulen continued quizzically, pausing to gaze out upon the gated action to our left, then abruptly to the vista dead ahead, panning away from my prying eyes. “Still, certain…reckonings weren’t, aren’t without costs. To wit, how do you suppose these awkward family revelations make me feel”?
“You?” Was he really laying this on me? And how could it be getting this much easier to listen, given that our stairway descent was now hastening decompression earaches worse than some Aeroflot death bucket on approach to Krasnoyarsk from 30,000 feet, while giving me the bends.
“Yes, me,” Paulen said, growing more mildly demonstrative than pedantically detached. “All these years I’ve been saying my family is a little bit Italian, on the French side…”
“On your father’s side…”
“Correct, when in truth I was ignoring the Jewish side of my little bit Italian on the French side…”
“On your mother’s side…”
“Hmm, I recall running into some of those kind of identity issues myself,” I hung closely on his every word, painfully reflecting upon how tough it can be changing colors, choosing sides. How easy it was back then to split the difference—particularly amid block upon mental block of dark-brown brick and darker alleys—soaking in as I long had, a wee dram of Scottish malt with my Irish Cream, Noraid and Orange chaser on the side.
“Well, imagine the inner discord,” Paulen replied. “What with my French-Italian side selling out my Jewish side back in World War II.”
“But that was…c’mon–over half a century ago…and didn’t Chirac apologize for all that…”
“Look, there is no statue of limitations on official betrayal,” Paulen said, as we forged ahead, mindful step by down step. “I mean, how in heaven do I reconcile my own inner personal clash of civilizations? What am I to make of it all?”
“It’s still ultimately you, right? You are you, no matter what…”
“And yet which me is it, for godsakes? Is it the Jewish me or the French-Italian me any more? Am I Ben Gurion or some cruel-and-unusual hybrid of Mussolini and functionary cowards like Louis Darquier or Maurice Papon? Does my blood run to nationalist or Free French Resistance? Did father’s kin defend mother’s or deliver them to Vichy collaborators? The only thing I’m sure of is that mother never dared ask him such things; but lately it has become terribly important to me. Hmph, only in San Francisco could they have gotten together in the first place…like it is to this day—that gumbo pot up at the jazz fair.”
“Believe me, I understand, could even see how you might inherit your dad’s… temper from it all,” I backstretched some for reassurance, Cassini’s Division once again springing to mind, that red dirigible gliding right on through. “Time was I struggled with something like that myself. My Scots-Irish conservative protestant side doing battle with my rebellious Irish-Catholic side. But it eventually works itself out…especially here in The City.”
“Temper, nothing, Herbert. What’s more, it’s apples and olives—not even close,” Paulen countered, holding us back suddenly, what with a 7-Series Beamer crossing our paths on its way out of its hill-tilted condo driveway. I hadn’t even noticed the silver blur. “This situation is far different, by definition and degree. It isn’t just about religion, and it clearly isn’t getting any better. Good god, man, do you realize neo-Nazis are on the march in France as we speak?”
“Sure and begorrah, my Celtic friend. Jean-Marie LePen and his National Front jackboots are fire bombing Jewish community centers these very days, spray painting Jewish cemeteries with swastikas.”
“Neo-Nazis? I thought I heard it was Muslim radicals doing that…” Swastikas: just what I needed to dig up were those long-buried visions of placards and tattoos in Marquette Park.
“Them, too—when they are not busy torching cars and protesting head scarf bans,” Paulen said, as he sidestepped a squirrelly heartland guy and wide-brimmed woman rushing uphill, apparently to catch a glimpse of bay splendor, with or without the slowly erasive curtain of fog. “But it’s getting even worse than that. Synagogues are being trashed, from Sarcelles to Marseille. The thugs are attacking innocent Jewish students, have even kidnapped one boy and killed him outright.”
“Jeez, you do sound really pissed.” Taking the couple’s cue, as locals often do, I focused on a dredging barge being tow-boated down there mid bay. ”I mean, how do you know all this? Le Monde, the Herald Tribune? Do you read French, and who is Louie Daiquiri?”
“Darquier…the fascist Vichy stooge—you know, Petain’s patsy, Hitler’s Parrot…’The Sorrow and the Pity’,” Paulen said, alerting me with a tap on the sleeve to dodge the mossy seepage slickening much of three cement steps directly down. “And I know just enough Francais, my friend, and all about anti-Semitic bigotry. These days, I make it my business to pay attention to such things, because it is a large part of who I am now—or am not—as the case may be.”
Again, with the dreaded A-word… Me, I still couldn’t take my eyes off the bay. Always, at such curious moments, came the cruise ships: so ephemeral, so fleeting, so escapist—tugging away from the finger piers in their leisurely, free sailing fun. Passing the anchored silt platform for and aft were an in-porting Coast Guard cutter and outgoing Princess Ecstasy—the latter decked out in white cap hull and aquamarine trim to the waterline. Not nearly so stately as the QE2, but plenty champagne buoyant, just the same—streamer confettied, summoning visages of dockside parting shots and au revoirs.
Sailboats salt and peppered the bay; its main ship’s channel was turning busy amid the afternoon tidal flood. Ecstasy’s upper decks and funnels soon vanished altogether into the easternmost tail of the bay’s finger fog, headed out the Golden Gate, presumably for ports of northern call. Tough captain’s call indeed on a day so chromatically brilliant, so strollingly mild—condoed Tiburon and Belvedere hills glowing calico beyond the bay shores, Mount Tamalpais poking up behind the Marin Headlands as though painted on tormentor wings. Just inside the Golden Gate, a soupcon of Sausalito spilled down the lee side of Marin’s coastal hills. She couldn’t have timed things better if She were still sitting there brainstorming at that Pier 35 watering hole, now could She? “But I read their president was clamping down on…”
“Look, the Jewish people have been legitimate French citizens since the 1780s, and are still considered ‘salir des juifs’ in many quarters. “A lot of it has to do with the yellow press, mocking the ‘Zionist conspirators’, trivializing the Holocaust, baiting on and on about the Dreyfus Affair. Little wonder Ariel Sharon urged French Jews to do aliyah.”
“Emigrating to Israel, as early as possible for their own safety.”
“Wow, neo-exodus…” However eager to ride his winning side, I couldn’t catch my tongue to save my life. “Bet that fried the Frogs, all right…”
More immediately, Fillmore Street plunged toward Cow Hollow, then seemed to vector back upward, a dark asphalt strip boring through a dense sea of rebuilt white on tan on pastel Marina District stuccoplexes—priced beyond all reason, given the landfill muck of their foundations, in fact. Loma Prieta belied the district’s seismic stability, ruptured any pretense of its invulnerability.
Sitting pretty, standing firm: just ask Her all about that. But, hey, take your escape valve anywhere you can get it. I took to counting the cars and trucks crossing Fillmore down before us, in either direction, at well-trafficked intervals, Union to Lombard to Chestnut Streets and Cervantes—leading my eye up to Marina Boulevard, across the Green to the general vicinity of once havenous Washerwoman’s Lagoon and Gashouse Cove.
“Quand meme, Ariel Sharon’s remark was taken out of context, blown entirely out of proportion—twisted in translation, left and right.”
“Slow boil, whatever, fine by me.” By now my whole head was floating as well, inner ears oscillating like mercury diodes in an overheated household thermostat. “All I sayin’ is, wasn’t that about the time some Parisian gal admitted her anti-Semitic attack story was really a false alarm?”
“Yes, well, let’s just say that incident wasn’t helpful…to either of my sides,” Paulen said, a bit off guard. “I have found it rather difficult to reconcile…”
“Difficult? Try reconciling the likes of Jerry Adams and Ian Paisley for the last 25 years, like I have…”
“I’m afraid you’ve but begun to reconcile such straits with difficulty, my friend—more than you’re likely to know.”
Care for more?
Chapter Fifteen. With all such
comparisons ringing hollow, they
descend to form an imperfect re-Union…