“It’s not what’s given away,
but what’s taken away
that counts up…”
“Ever heard of Luba Kadison?”
“Ever heard of Jacob and Stella Adler? Abe Schwartz, the King of Yiddish Swing?”
“Can’t hear much of anything right now…”
“I rest my case.”
As Google maps and local lore would have it, we’d hit upon San Francisco’s answer to the Bermuda Triangle—Remy and rum-soaked though it was. And if the Swipe ATM sign was any indication, this scene was neither league’s deep nor shark free, in any way, shape or form. The mad-money machine was attached to an ornately gingerbread-trimmed, brown on darker brown on lighter brown corner Victorian—a last-stand two-story beauty that had added half again its size in remodels over the years.
Ambient noise ranged from piped out reggae and Latin jazz from the Northside Oyster Restaurant, and an over revving canary yellow Testarossa parked directly before it, which had just backfired like a multi-year major league contract. Sandwiched between them was a cordoned row of seven outdoor tables, jutting forth from the Vicky’s blue/gold-on-brown storefront, consuming nearly half the sidewalk, slowing foot traffic to a pub crawl, us included. A fast young crowd chowing down, they huddled over the sun-drenched tables, splayed lobster red extremities on wobbly wood and metal chairs, sipping caramel apple Martinis, swizzle stirring Chivas and S. Pellegrino with a definite twist.
“So, who are those characters?”
“Early Yiddish theater, my friend,” Reese Paulen told me, far from oblivious to the casually baking flesh on display. “Pure theatrical genius.”
“What, you mean like Borscht Belt, or…”Admittedly, nor the hell was I.
“Please, let’s posit a modicum of higher historicity, shall we,” Paulen stared me down. “Luba Kadison was a legendary actress, originally from Lithuania, who starred in everything from Ansky’s ‘Dybbuk’ to ‘Brothers Ashkenazi’ by I.J. Singer. And Jacob Adler played lead in ‘Shylock’; then his daughter, Stella did ‘God of Vengeance’ at Yiddish Art, before she founded her foremost acting school.”
“Yeah, well, where was all this happening?” Dybbuk…no, not that Dybbuk jazz again…hopefully not going there, not even close. I glanced away, scanning table to table, silver platters of appetizing dayboat scallops, tri-pepper Ahi and grilled Pancetta prawns.
We then gave narrow ground to a snippy twentyish waitress in cloppy island slides and everywear black, serving broad trays of shellfish from Northside’s raw bar, charge slips cocked in her apron holster, a fistful of dollars wrapped around her sticky little fingers. She delivered overflowing platters of fresh-catch oysters and littleneck clams on the half-shell, and half-cracked Dungeness Crab to a table of four chatty L.A.dies sipping Blanc de Blancs in their UCLA tank tops and Laker hats.
No suicide girls they, no tongue jewelry or getting bodily inked beyond a discreet flower or insect here and there. Lura’s Cape Verde rhythms resounded from compact loudspeakers tucked under a blue overhang, which was trimmed with strings of bronze-colored decorative bulbs, tinkling in time to the on-shore breezes.
“Yiddish theater actually is rooted in Eastern Europe—the likes of Abraham Goldfaden—from Romania to imperial Russia,” Paulen replied, inhaling the confluent seaborn aroma. “That is, before immigrants transported it to New York’s Lower East Side. It flourished there at the turn of the century, in houses like the National Theater and Folksbiene. Was the main entertainment for the tenement masses.”
“Oh, like Al Jolson…I’ve heard of…” I reflexively grabbed for a stray bag of oyster crackers, hunger panging in.
“Not even scratching the surface,” he said, somewhat startled by my scrounger move. “This wasn’t merely baggy clothes and blackface, but serious performances by Schwartz, David Kessler, Jacob Ben-Ami…Molly Picon. And the immortal Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.”
“But what about Eddie Cantor? My mom loved his bug eyes.” Caught dead to rights, I set the crackers back down, on a potted palm. More to the point, I couldn’t help but hear him out. Doc was a teacher, he was teaching—taking me back, taking me aback—in the Aristotelian tradition, at that.
“There you’re talking minstrelsy, dialect recordings like ‘Mammy’ and ‘I’m a Yiddish Cowboy’—big clay noses, Jolson, Roda Bernard. Rabbis hated that self-stereotyping shund.”
“Then what would they make of Borat’s ‘sexy time’?” That’s it, but keep yielding the podium more often than not, key in good measure to his verbosity and non-verbal cues, just the same. Let him make his case, hang knot his noose, take it as it flows…
I strained to peer through the restaurant’s brown wood slat window blinds, bicycle racing and Cal-Trojan football on the bar tubes, behind a vast, brightly illuminated aquarium—the main dining room otherwise cast in darkness and shadows. Outside, however, the Northside radiated life lived very large. The Ferrari revved anew, as though gearing for Laguna Seca, noticeably thrilling the younger women sprinkled about Northside’s brimming sidewalk tables.
For their part, the starlets alternately tipped Steely Bubbly and dabbed Bullfrog sunscreen on any skin surface not covered by shorts, baby doll tube or halter tops. Serious rackage, lithe and legs up to here: These D-D G’s were getting immodestly wasted in the UV heat, basking away behind oversized Prada shades, their companion party boys munching Cobb salads with Reggiano and Spanish anchovies, mixing in so smoothly table after table, like Compari, Noilly Prat and Pernod. While they whispered amongst themselves as to whether these guys were catch as catch can, or just a case of, what’s the catch? Which further prompted those wracking questions, dudes’ calculations going something like: Were they pushed up? Hell, were they even real? Why run the risk, why the fuck bother to find out? Safer to stick to beer pong, to the Lotto tickets and Vegas spreads.
Northside’s ornate Victorian boasted a scale model P-51 Mustang weather van flying high on the rooftop above this oysteria’s corner front doors—steady on its chrome pole stand, propeller blades whirring into the teeth of somewhat stiffening breezes. A brief gust back drafted one turned-out hottie who was skipping across Fillmore, fresh from some cocoa mist-on tanning and a quick French oil man/pedicure, jumping the Northside pale before her polish and bronzer could even dry.
Copious cleavage fore and aft, sporting something of a whale tail—a little Hermes silk gypsy look going—this insta-tart hit the bistro scene like Paris herself. She slid over to a crew at table two, past scurrying waitresses and the sassy drama queens burning up their cel phones with idle ‘been there, done that’ chat—lotsa ‘Omigods’ and ‘You know whats’, as precious overage minutes dissolved somewhere into the ionosphere.
“Well, curiously enough, Jewish audiences ate it all up back then, too,” Paulen dodged, while eyeing her, as though proctoring a mid-term exam. “Even singing along with ‘I Want To Be An Oy, Oy, Oyviator’. Seemed as though it was the lower brow mishegas that beat the legitimate Yiddish theatre out of Lower Manhattan to reach broader audiences, and infused Vaudeville like it had never been before. Trust I’m not belaboring all this, but…”
“No, no way,” I stifled a yawn, feeling so peripatetic about now. Just keep on spilling, doc, the meter’s still running, wheels are still turning around. So you keep picking and probing, tuning in for hot spots…gotta hold it together, conscious versus unconscious, cling to the knife edge of your whipsaw concentration. “You’re a professor, right? You’re professing…that’s what you do.”
“Very well, it’s simply that we’re not talking chopped liver here,” Paulen puffed up some, tapping my forearm to drive home his point. “Yes indeed, European Jews brought their genius and initiative to the garment industry and theater. And look where it led.”
“To Moe Ginsburg,and Myron Cohen?”
“Hmph, Myron Cohen and the Toastmaster General paved the way for the likes of Jay Leno, I’ll have you know. Anyway, as I studied Jewish-American culture more thoroughly, I was struck by the talent and magnitude of the accomplishments—the sheer pantheon of brilliance. Just stop a moment and think about it.”
“Will do,” I replied, fixing instead on the exotic sports car, taking in its detailed finish, the powerful smell of Armor-All and Carnuba wax. “Only what say we don’t do so at his particular spot…”
Between the LeManiac revs of his Testarossa, rear deck now lifted to expose its racy, turbo manifold V-12 mill, we could hear laughter bursting out all over into their Nokia and Ericcson phones. So could the liquored and oystered up guys, ripped as they were, busting out of skin-tight pocket T’s branded Berkeley to Pepperdine. They be posing in back-ass ballcaps and basketball baggies, balancing their clam and beer-steamed mussel combo platters atop parking meters and the hoods and trunk lids of Audis and Benzes marking metered time to either side of that yellow Ferrari. Itemizing IT spreadsheet dudes were hovering, hatching strategies to bust moves on those studiously annoyed post-coed, pre-coital goddesses.
The lower rent studded flunkies among them got their aphrodesia across Fillmore at Orgasmic Pizza, manning up with take-out slices of Romeo & Juliet or Adam & Eve, if not a First Kiss calzone for two. The worst among them were simply the usual around-town lounge lizards, bagging rays when and where they could, scoping out myriad purses and work-out bags hooked carelessly over chairbacks of the loopier markettes, while feinting curbside fascination with the throttled Testarossa.
“Just consider how legitimate Yiddish theater transformed the Broadway stage,” Paulen said, holding his ears as we pressed slowly forward along Fillmore. “Joseph Lateiner and Jacob Gordin begetting the likes of Harold Clurman, Kurt Weill, Arthur Miller and Neil Simon—Tevye the dairyman, for godsakes.”
“’Fiddler On The Roof’, I saw that flick once,” I noted a lightpole poster for the Jewish Film Festival’s showing of a Selina Soloman documentary. We momentarily paused at the corner to soak in the whole Bacchanalian scene. He dwelled on on the curvatures, I on ghostly triangles. “Was ages ago…”
“Ah, yes, motion pictures. Almost entirely a Jewish-built industry, why they made Hollywood—from Louis B. Mayer and Paul Muni to Lee Strasberg and Steven Spielberg, much less Kubricka and Polanski.”
“Yeah, caught ‘Meet The Fokkers’ on the tube last week, you mean like that,” I said, joining him in a measure of audible relief. “Hilarious, funniest I’ve seen since ‘Mad, Mad World’.”
“Yes, well, moving right along, Herbert…nothing to see here…”
Yet we did stall a bit near Northside’s portal meeting post, waylayed by a yappy little dog fight between some grant writer’s Yorkie and the Shiatsu of a double-pressed casual Asian woman heading to the nail salon for her full set, pink and white. She shrieked and scooped the butterscotch crème furball up into her raglan cashmered arms, huffing across Fillmore, drawing my attention toward FatJack’s Buoy Café on the opposing Greenwich corner. Social circles of sated, full belly brunchers lingered around this single-story neighborhood landmark, with its simply faded, rusty old cola signage.
Outlasting just about every other watering hole in the Marina District, the Buoy remained cigarette paper white, perhaps grandfathered in, even in this brown FatJack world. Still harboring its staunch Manhattan and Bloody Mary clientele, the cafe was party to the sclerotic Perry’s, Washbag, Ed Moose’s circuit—so sedentary, set in its well-drink ways—PGA tour on oak-backbar Zeniths, Olympic Club on the cardigans, regulars feeding at linened oak tables over cholesterolic bar food, par for the course—misrutting toward demographic extinction. Dow Jones willing, only a prodigal generation of neocon duffers tabbing their martinis would continue to bring any signs of Izod life to the place.
“And then look at the musical sphere,” Paulen continued, glancing at one of Northside’s folded take-out menus, “Going from Hebrew liturgicals to Katzy klezmer bands to the Gershwins, Aaron Copeland. So quintessentially American, like Horowitz, Hammerstein and Irving Berlin—those wonderfully mournful brass and string tones—an exquisite balance of major and minor, smiling through their tears. To the Barry and Feder Sisters, the Irving Fields Trio, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the King of Swing…”
“That anything like Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building—Manilow, King and Diamond?”
“Personally, I’d prefer to think in terms of Heifetz, Darius Milhaud, Erich Korngold and Izak Perlman.”
“Actually, I don’t get much beyond Dylan, Newman, Simon or Joey Ramone…” And as for Sedaka or Leonard Cohen, don’t even think of replaying those damn numbers. “But how about George M. Cohan, huh—or James Joyce on the classical guitar?”
Quickly seizing out attention, however, freezing us at corner’s edge were the erupting sirens from a firehouse further out Greenwich, an engine company and hook & ladder roaring our way, emergency lights ablaze. Traffic froze, inadvertently clogging the intersection as motors raced, sirens wailed deafeningly, so as even to pot down the Testarossa and loudspeakered chanteuse. Befuddled drivers finally climbed curbs and sidewalks to clear the way for the exercised, red flag-waving first responders.
Paulen could just hold his ears and pace in place, marveling at a cleverly painted effect of an antique toy train crashing through the Victorian’s second story sidewall—product of a creative marketing firm up the stairs. I could but wonder how, through all the commotion, Northside’s sidewalk crowd didn’t seem to miss an orgiastic, a Saturnalian lick, whilst I myself was aftershaken ever deeper, to the bone.
“Small Irish potatoes. So let’s focus upon the finer arts, shall we,” Paulen pocketed the paper menu. “Renowned sculptors such as Jacques Lipschitz, Ya’akov Epstein and Louise Nevelson. Painters the likes of Cubist Max Weber, and abstract expressionist Mark Rothko…”
“Painters…Jewish painters,” I muttered, head beginning to swirl in this overload of mixed aromas, sorely quaking memories, but most of all doc’s torrent of cultural information. At the same time, all this stimulation was reverberating, ricocheting off my occipital, side to side, crashing in and out through the globus pillidi, super colliding with the superior colliculus at my subthalamic nuclear core. So hold on tight… “Painters, a topic I remember a little about…second hand, that is.”
“And that doesn’t begin to address seichel, the very intrinsic quality of Jewish thought: Walter Lippman, Hannah Arendt, Freud and Spinoza. My god, look at the writers—Kazen, Rosenfeld, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Primo Levi, Saul Bellow and Doctorow.”
“Excuse me…” Circuits frying, I was a getting a bit short. But remember, dodo, get past his words a bit, check out any ticks, tells, telltale signs—you know he must be doing the same with you. “But how did we get there from Vaudeville?”
“Point taken, but even those hook-nosed, baggy drawers farces informed the golden age of radio and TV,” Paulen lectured, his facial expression of confidence turning reflective, slowly bereft. “Berle, Benny, Ceaser, Burns & Allen: Again, all that genius, all that creativity and inspiration.”
“Guess that’s why you’re taking such pride in your Jewish side, huh…” That’s it, reverse engineer, trace them back through your withering orbitofrontal cortex, tap the superiority of your temporal sulcus—that is, with whatever superiority you have left.
“Who wouldn’t? What with Jews elevating and so richly endowing western culture, and influencing so many lesser mortals who could only derivate and abscond,” he asked rhetorically, then turned somewhat plaintively my way. “Only to have it all Eurotrashed, sullied and bogged down in the Middle East muck and mire. Don’t you agree?”
As the fire sirens faded, a 43 Masonic MUNI bus honked and turned the corner sharply before us, Fillmore onto Greenwich, its full-body decal for a ‘Spiderman’ movie sequel blurring by. So there it froze us in step, both ingesting a plume of diesel fumes like Point Reyes oysters and so much sea salt, gasping for some of that open air up there on the Bay.
That motorcoach’s sweep through the already agitated intersection jarred loose images of San Francisco’s earlier Grand Prix bike race: Scores of colorfully Spandex-skinned cyclists pumping their grotesquely bulging elephant legs fiercely along Greenwich, peloton banking tightly around the bend here into the inclined straightaway. Bunched team riders would be all emblazoned with head-to-toeclip corporate logos, their team gear surpassed only by NASCAR stockers.
The evenly matched wheel spoke-thin men would be shifting sprockets, sucking waterbottles, as though racing for their very lives— shadowed by crew cars and motorized emergency escorts up the ball-busting Fillmore hill, cranking past cheering course-side devotees, fans like Johnny Ski. None were more colorful than the screaming yellow Saturn team—if only the cars themselves could have been as racy and energized as their cyclists.
But, smoke lifting, we made our way uneasily across Greenwich into a different level of revelry, a marginally choppier angle on the local Bermuda Tri—with a zero-heading nowhere, ultra fast. All I knew for certain, however, was that this wasn’t Great Abaco—or Athens’ Lyceum, for that matter. And I hadn’t a clue where Professor Paulen was going with his lesson plan, yet remained obligated to stick it out.
“Bogged down? You mean, as in the Middle East right now?”
“No, from the looks of things, now and forever.”
Care for more?
Chapter Twenty. Sophomoric indulgences are a
gateway to the choicer, private label stuff–
all of which only shortens fuses
and fans topical Mideast flames…