“Sometimes you have to scale
the Heights before you can even
begin to feel the depths.”
“It’s not the same, dude…”
“No way, bro…”
“I mean, we really had it goin’ here…it was epic.”
“Yeah, awesome, Johnny…”
“Champagne powder, this monster hill with the killer views, and all those ski groupies swarmin’ in for free. Media was all over it…”
“Whoa, skiing in The City during a heatwave…ESPN… totally bitchin’…”
No stoner pipedream here; this was no mere pedestrian snow job. Johnny Streeks was an Olympic medal winner, and there he stood before Reese Paulen and me, on the first full Fillmore Street landing—all but lamenting his recent downhill spill. Nearly a year before, Streeks’ Ski Francisco 1 had been a mash-up of city and Sierra slope, with a hot Indian Summer basecoat.
Really, who wouldn’t have gotten off on 200 tons of Truckeed in snow—amid 80-degree weather, with not even a hint of a breeze? High country contractors had laid in barricades and gray outdoor carpeting, from Broadway on down, cabling it all together to hold the deep shaved-ice ‘snow’ in place. It was the biggest off-season ski jump freak show since the 1938-39 Treasure Island Fair—way, way back in the day.
Along wooden shoulder rails had crowed some 5,000 tres degage gawkers and wannaskis rattling those sideboards in baggy shorts and tank tops, many hangers on hooting from the balconies and rooftops lining either side of the Fillmore hill ‘half-pipe’, blissfully cheering on the ski freaks chuting by within Skoal wad spitting distance at 30 m.p.h. up to 35. Ski Francisco 1 even had sponsorship, from High-Ball Tonic Water to Sing-Sing Bail Bonds. By most accounts, the kick-off event had basically caught sex-waxed lightning in a squeeze bottle.
Johnny Streeks and his Marin/Tahoe posse of X-treme skiers and Sugar Bowl boarders launched off a chartered motorized cable car up here on Broadway, bustin’ mid-air switch 1080-truetails and rodeo 5’s downhill against a brilliant blue sky Bay. Video copters hovered, Sirius speed-rock blared, grandstandees scattered as these scurvyass hoedads turned totally sick 20-foot backflips and 360-degree barrel rolls—dicing up a real smooth line.
Lesser freestyle dawgs bounced off shoulder barriers, wiping out in a slushy landing at Vallejo Street, POC goggles and nut belts flying, heaping into snow-melted hay bales on Green. One wedding day couple schussed down in full white tux and matrimonial gown, exchanging vows enroute to a Whistler honeymoon. Gnarly, dude: just another rousing event in a perpetual event-junkie town. Who wouldn’t have gotten off on all that?
“But then these cretinous ol’ farts around here started raggin’ the mayor and Supes, protesting our permits. So now Ski Francisco II’s stuck in a friggin’ ballpark—fake hill, fake snow ramp, fake ski freaks—freebies gone to $50 paybies, for shitsake…”
“But it is the bigs, the Giants crib, Johnny. Fuckin’ major leagues,” said Streeks’ snowboard crony—Ronin ASYM-suited, droopily overdressed. “Still, it is kinda corporate bogus, dude…you gotsta keep it real…”
“You want real? I’m, like, 29 years old, and don’t see any more Olympic gold in my future,” carped the North Face trim skicon, with a Coppola sweep of his arm. “And these senile coots are forcing me to totally sell out my dreams to a corporate plastic rip-off catapult farce in a closed up downtown stadium. And I still don’t know how the fuck we’re gonna pay for all of it.”
“Dig, anything good’s bound to get co-opted. But not to worry, my man—you’ll get over, you’re a fuckin’ genius…”
“Ain’t we all…”
Who wouldn’t buy in? The Pacific Heights Neighborhood Association, that’s who. First of all, there was City Hall’s chummy bending of established permit regs and safety ordinances, allowing for Ski Francisco 1’s oversized crowds. Then there was the appalling prospect of being snowed in for 48 hours on the hottest days of the year, being stranded in or away from their million-dollar abodes, shuttled about in sweltering stepvans—herded around by the overtime cops, firemen and security guards: All for the PCP-popping, dope-smoking glorification of a bunch of narcissistic A.D.D. slackers—mostly from out of town.
Add to that the throwaway beer bottles, wind jugs, ski-wax flyers and Starbucks cups—the stiletto heel and ski pole spike punctures on hillside flat-roof condo buildings in this way-buttoned-down part of town—Bobcat tractors and dumptrucks hauling away slush piles and debris well into the night: Even the Hindu Temple meditators at Vallejo chanted, ’Never again, until the hill freezes over, a snowball’s chance in hell never again’. Alice Coltrane, herself would have been pleased to chime in with her musical mantra against the fiasco.
“I’m hip, hear Castro Halloween is gonna be shoved down around there, too—in the ballpark’s parking lot—corralled and censored like some protest pen at the national convention, so there’ll be more cops than queens. And wait’ll you see the hatchet job they have in store for Bay to Breakers. Bucks, Johnny—you know it takes megabucks to move mountains in this town.”
“No shit, Sherlock, and that’s just wrong,” Streeks snapped, as they turned uphill toward Broadway. “But I still think that with the right juice, anything goes in San Francisco.”
“That’s what she said…”
“Fuckin’ hilarious, dude…”
Rumor on the stairs had it ‘Johnny Ski’ was bailing this whole light-headed downhill scene, anyway—for a Wall Street equity fund training program, no less—cutting out on his losses, cutting back his shaggy, streaky blonde hair to a tight, grown-up Big Board crop and grease job, once again, going for the gold.
Paulen and I attributed the Ski Francisco row to a clash of energies, of higher raditudes—of San Francisco, old and new. Which nevertheless had landed us on this streaming downslope, slalom stepping with stairclimbers and street fair fleers crossing paths up and down. At the next small lookout level, there we paused.
“Caught some of that ski thing here myself,” I said, turning my gaze downhill. “A total media circus…”
“Yes, saw some of it, as well,” Dr. Paulen replied. “The Boulder paper ran a link to the wire story on its Website, and a gallery of photos. I suspect they were using the coverage to jumpstart the Colorado ski season.”
“Something like that. Wouldn’t put it past the ol’ Daily Camera, all right…”
“Oddly enough, that’s in fact where we…I first spotted you, in the background of a photo of Mr. Streeks sticking his half-pipe. There you were, in a sea of colorful Patagonia and Burton mesh tops, looking on midway down hill, a vaguely familiar face amid all the displaced mountain types. Took a major zoom-in—aged some, but it just had to be you.”
“Really…imagine that…” I shuddered, dripping in armpit perspiration. “Must have been taken with a telephoto lens…”
“Truth be told, that picture spread set me to thinking about revisiting San Francisco in the first place,” Paulen said. “I kept staring at it over low-fat pastrami and blintzes in the New York Deli on The Mall—between a 201 lecture and grad seminar, to be exact.”
“Well, like you said, a body can’t help where he’s from, huh?”
“Hmm, yes—although of course I was coming back out here, anyway,” Paulen replied, taking in the broader view. “Mother’s condition, and all…”
“Sure, I know how that goes,” I said, jogging, kickstarting some more pivotal flashbacks—Boulder, San Francisco—and mother-wise. “You and your mom were close, or…”
“Only toward the end, sad to say…”
We hastened to clear off the landing, what with the abrupt warning ping of an opener signal, and out swing of the high-rise’s fume-gate garage door. A balky, pitted olive Mercedes 240D sedan angled out, loudly tapering down Fillmore hill, brake lights aflame, its silver-coiffed driver heatedly waving today’s pedestrians out of her pathway.
Among them were some plucky Aussie mates puffing up past us in rugby shirts and cargos, likely day-trippers from the Fort Mason hostel. Roughly on a sight line with the brims of their bush hats, the Marina rolled out in bright whites and pastels, only a foreground row of dark brick houses sucking up the daylight like a lower row of bad teeth halfway down on Vallejo Street, where Johnny Ski’s first bank of snowballs used to be.
“So, you said you grew up around here,” I asked, as we proceeded down Fillmore’s mossy concrete stairsteps, visibly intermittent and slightly askew though they were, sea breezes picking up to somewhat carry us along.
“Yes, this hill, these streets, summon up all sorts of ancient memories,” Paulen said, pointing about, right to left, with mounting distance and disdain. “We pretty much lived all over down there.”
“Really, you mean literally,” I explored, trying to picture growing up here.
“Indeed, as I recall, we at one point lived at Webster near Filbert. Then we had a tidy two-flat over there at Green and Broderick. Later, we moved up on Steiner, close by Alta Plaza Park. Even Baker Acres for a spell.”
“How did that work, exactly?” Tipping forward, hanging tentatively on every step, we descended with all due circumspection, given the wavy, broken concrete of Fillmore’s weatherworn stairs.
“Look, father was sort of a jumparound, Okay? Fancied himself something of a man-about-town. Then he’d turn the page on a dime, drag mother and me along for the ride.”
“Gotcha. Had a painful move or two of my own back in the day…”
“But moving wasn’t the half of it,” Paulen took in several come-lately luxury residences on corner lots west across Fillmore. “Father was constantly reinventing himself. He went from the shipping business to a stint in life insurance to wholesale wine distribution. Then he’d bon vivant around Financial District gin mills like Harrington’s and the Hoffmann Grill, trying to shmooze his way into financial planning, prepping for tests he never got around to passing.”
“Sounds pretty ambitious to me…”
“Yes, well, none of it ever amounted to much. Being Gallic-Italian, if you will, he had charm and bonhomie to spare…always ready to hug your shoulders, pump a promising hand, but fall though on the follow through. Seemed most people took his measure before long.”
“San Fran’s a tough town that way, good at ferreting out the phonies,” I noted, with some residual chagrin. “Funny, though—I could never get my ol’ man to express much of anything at all unless amply lubed.”
Paulen continued scanning like a chopper pilot, left to right, taking in the wider view. As for me, I quickly adopted rather a tunnel vision approach. The pitch and counter pitch of this staircase gave me waterbed wobblies like I hadn’t experienced since crawling on all fours out of that copy shop whipsawing seaward during Loma Prieta’s 7.2 Richter rock ‘n’ roll. Sweeping, panoramic memories: Couldn’t find the horizon line to save my life—party as I was to yet another monster earthquake striking San Francisco in the five o’clock hour.
“Sadder part was, mother took the brunt of it. He always made certain she played the Euro-domesticated role—as in gracious, vivacious, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…”
“Sooo, that made you, what—Fritalian?” I yielded to intimate discomfort, feigning interest the best way I could. Just like that would have made me Scirish.
“As it were…on father’s side, at any rate,” Paulen snorted, barely breaking recollective stride. He spirited us around a pair of misshapen young Euros, panting at the next driveway pause down, a cheeky fraulein muttering that if she had wanted to climb hills like this, they could have holidayed in Tyrolia. “Mother did the best with what she had—seeing as how she herself never had a refined mother figure to school her in the social touches and graces.”
“Somehow, I can relate to that…the mother of a raw deal.” I just grew edgier and queasier on our way downhill, on increasingly shakier ground. Paulen and the young Hessian trekkers alike appeared to see a sparkling Marina and Marin County backdrop across the Bay—albeit with its ermine collar of fog fingering in from the Pacific Ocean, increasingly tickling the Headlands and bridge towers.
Instead, I wrestled with older, more hellish images of MUNI buses stalled powerlessly in place up and down Fillmore, of Lombard traffic snarled with panicked drivers fleeing the damage all around them in October, ’89—toward whatever remained of the Golden Gate Bridge at the time.
Of a stucco bandbox at Fillmore and Beach Streets, kneeling forward into the parking lane, devouring a yellow-gold Beemer 325i. Of 2 Cervantes Apartments collapsing altogether in the geletal liquifaction—terra infirma beyond Chestnut Street, burying who knew how many tenants in and under the shredded stud framing and debris. Of myriad other Spanish-style two-flats teetering into hopelessly stalled traffic, succumbing by unnatural selection to their domino fall—good God, possibly even Hers.
“Oh, but he never forgave mother any of her beau monde shortcomings or the slightest hostess faux pas. Still and all, she worshipped her hot-blooded romeo charmer, and put up with his bullying–good trooper that she was—to the point of being a Jewish mother in denial, if not exile.”
“Wow, how rare are women like that anymore,” I tread lightly. Bay fog, brain fog: A certain psychic fuzziness was settling over my three-pound cerebral mound, tipping me forward, upending my equilibrium, making me pathologically woozy headed like I hadn’t been for ages. I flashed all over again on those Scientific American mags and neuro-psychology texts I used to thumb through in CU’s Norlin Library, their graphic mind/brain illustrations. Still—focus, dickhead, focus. “But it all must of made you angry as hell, huh?”
“Angry? Well, let’s say I never felt especially comfortable with their whole asymmetrical relational dynamic,” Paulen said, catching the tic in my eye. “It isn’t easy to trade-in one’s parental role models, now is it? But thank God I inherited her mitochondria.”
“Well, don’t ask me…” I backed off, gripping some for reassurance. Couldn’t help it, couldn’t shake it: I could still smell PG&E gas escaping the Marina’s ruptured mains from way up here. I re-imaged firefighters rushing to the 1989 Divisadero inferno, struggling to keep it from turning into some notorious ‘steak and eggs benedict’ fire, as in replays of the post-quake inferno of 1906.
Hydrants gushed into the street gutters, paramedics scrambling amid the heat and haze to help heavy rescue trapped dwellers. Eventually converging on what little remained standing of 3465 Fillmore with the Jaws of Life.
“But then, father’s massive heart attack took care of all that. I suppose it was the overextended Martini lunches and fat cigars in his Montgomery Street watering holes…who knows? I was completely snowbound in Boulder at the time.”
“Really—parent bound…in Boulder…” By this time, the misty mental fog was pouring over my Prefrontal Cortex, rolling back toward my Parietal and Occipital Lobes—thick and ponderous, mainly at will.
“Up to my desktop,” Paulen replied, reaching into his jacket, quelling the vaguely familiar Rare Silk ring tone of his cel. “But at least his little insurance policy helped pay for mother’s condo—which is right down Broadway aways, by the way.”
“You mean in Karr country?” Flashing images like these only stir-fried my hippocampus even more, plumbing the gut-level, long-term memories layered deep in my cerebral cortex.
“Sorry, don’t follow…”
“John Mark Karr—you know, the JonBenet confessor who was arrested for peeping into Sacred Heart girl’s school windows.”
“Oh, John, Con—that twisted little tabloid fraud, a fool in creep’s clothing, a lot he really knew about it,” Paulen snapped, quickly checking, collecting himself.
“Really knew, how so,” I leaned in.
“How on earth should I know? Anyway, wouldn’t you know it was bubbe on mother’s side who had quietly salted away a bit of family money all along.”
“Granny warbucks, huh?” Not that this flippant digression could damp the high-voltage buzzing between my ears, this damn tinnitus distorting the sensory feed into to my misreading auditory cortex.
We continued down past the peachy pastel, comparatively sprawling Vedanta Society temple across Fillmore—a full half-block deep—which evidently had settled back into mantric bliss inside its new Swami Centenary Hall. We then negotiated a narrowing, shadowy passage to Vallejo Street, between overhanging curbside trees and the untrimmed shrubbery of a 1950s Mies-modern glassy apartment building—its iron garage gates swinging open for an incoming indigo Lexus ES.
Thereupon we squeezed around some scaffolded window washers. Beyond a couple of stairclimbing power runners, the blinding bright Marina vectored up past a picket fence of boat masts lining the harbor, out toward a fog frothy bay.
“Hilarious, dude, but it would appear that’s not the half of it…”
“Half of what?” No comment; instead, it was just more simmering gray matter over mind. Still, catching my eye down Vallejo Street were a couple of refashioned mansions in the Milano and Florentine styles respectively, tangerine faux finishes and Renaissance frescoes shipped in from Bologna and Toscana, bay view palazzos years in the remaking—no architectural shortcuts, no reconstruction expenses spared.
“Nothing, nothing—just a slip of the…er, I should say figure of speech,” Paulen stumbled some, sighing to reload. “Funny, I can remember growing up when you could see clear to the gate bridge from here without all these dreadful condos.”
“I remember the night gassy smoke wiped out this bridge view even worse.” My brain commenced to spinning like a disc drive hell bent on anti-thermic shutdown. Which only got me glancing once again over my shoulder, as if to make sure the ol’ house wasn’t afire now after all.
“I take it you’re referring to the earthquake…”
“Yep, black smoke covered the Palace dome, too,” I said, pointing over to the Palace of Fine Arts, which anchored blocks of sunny low, level roof tops. “Down there in the Marina, below where that red blimp is hovering right now.”
“Please, might we just leave Saturn out of this for once?”
“Looks like there’s not a snowball’s chance of that…”
Care for more?
Chapter Fourteen. A little family
background takes on the trappings of