“Confront past demons, face
current truths. Not that it’s
all downhill from there.”
“So, what might this be?”
“Oh, just a letter from an old, old…friend back in Chicago. I’ll take that off your hands…”
“Heeb-ert? Since when do you spell your name Heeb-ert?”
“No, no…Nate’s still always jerkin’ around…you know, just old schoolyard stuff….ancient…”
“And Kikerooski? What’s this Kikeroo business all about?!”
“Uh, I really haven’t had a chance to read that yet…” Can’t believe he’s calling me out for being called that, when that goddamn old nickname’s never been exactly my call anyhow.
Now, as I had told Reese Paulen amid our walk across Broadway, if we were going to do this jazz thing justice, we should check out all the venues, city wide, boom-bass begone. I had unrolled the throwaway program, which trumpeted that the greater San Francisco Jazz Festival was as vast as it was venerated, a stellar, logistically challenged affair that had gained all-world stature in its less than quarter century of existence. Thumbing through the booklet, I saw we could bop to that Charlie Parker Revue at the Bill Graham Auditorium.
We might just as soon have caught the Jazz Collective with Joshua Redmon and Bobby Hutcherson over at the Herbst Theatre. Then again, there was Mingus Amungus down North Beach way. We might very well have savored the Wayne Shorter idiom at Masonic Auditorium, followed by a Dexter Gordon and Yusef Lateef kind of groove. We could have taken in the likes of McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders at Davies Symphony, or done a Jack DeJohnette number at the War Memorial Opera House, then toasted a bit at Pier 9 with the ragin’ Zydeco Flames.
Take your pick; pick your passion. Instead, we had earmarked the scenic route. That Coltrane tribute down there at the Palace of Fine Arts, sounded supremely copasetic to Paulen, as were rumors of a high-voltage jam with Bill Frisell and Vernon Alley, even the playful eccentric asynchronicity of Ornette Coleman. But of course that’s when a sudden wind gust had blown open my morning Times, that damned letter falling out onto Fillmore hill’s top sidewalk step, then skimming the professor’s way. To paraphrase the Old Gray Lady, ‘Expect the Worst’.
“So tell me, what is the meaning of this?”
“Meaning? What meaning,” I picked up, recollated the newspaper, commencing to sleeve the jazz program around it. “That letter’s just something from a long, lost friend, from totally another place and time—as they say, from a superannuated galaxy far, far away.”
“Really,” Paulen stood his ground there at the corner. “Couldn’t be Saturnian in origin, could it? And what’s this clipping stapled to it…an obit?”
“Uh, I’ll just look at that later,” I grabbed the letter from him, quickly exchanging it instead for the Jazz Fest guide, cover silhouette visible, playing stand-up bass in a Ron Carter posture and entranced state of mind. “Care for a souvenir?”
“You know,” he said, making the trade-off, stuffing the program into his valise. “I think this little faux pas might help explain some things…”
“What things,” I scraped my foot across a studded yellow wheelchair safety tile embedded in the sidewalk’s handicap ramp, cramming the letter back inside the Times. “What are you saying? And what is this blamed preoccupation you seem to have with…”
“Strictly academic, my friend…call it a little applied exercise in field research…”
Not immeasurably flummoxed, I looked past Paulen westward from this postcard, almost promontory corner. Vibrantly colorful Victorian gingerbread houses, and boxy pastel apartment buildings with varied dormers and sundecks, troughed chock-a-block down to Steiner Street, then stacked back up like a Farralon tidal swell to the Divisadero ridgeline—mansions upon mansions, piling up on high—decleating my equilibrium some, nearly casting it adrift.
More immediately, a MUNI trolley bus bucked the steep climb toward us, voltage drops, or no. The Double Deuce-Line coach turned fully loaded off Broadway, south down Fillmore in power-switching fits and starts. But not before passing the Mrs. Doubtfire house, then the old Francis Coppola spread, where little Ms Starstruck so unceremoniously dressed me down at that gallery gala seemingly a Saturnaeon ago.
“Field research,” I sputtered, “should we be—I mean, why are we even talking about this?!” I stepped aside a small clot of rubberneckers congealing at the corner—milling, up-and-down hilling, pausing at this grand, sweeping view upon the Bay. Here, the high terrain slanted, dipped, dropped and rose like a roller coaster in all directions, tightly crammed rooftops and dormers crowding the sightlines, adding a wobbly gyroscopic tilt to the wraparound panorama. Getting woozy, losing my bearings, taking it on the dome, something to do with a cerebellum back on the fritz. Growing lighter headed at the same time things keep getting heavier. Gotta hype my thalamic to somehow process the mitigating signals. In other words, steady, sport…
“Why? One person’s taboo is another’s talking point,” Paulen replied, staring right through me, even as I endeavored to gaze away. “Question is, how could we not be talking about it these days?”
“These days? I don’t follow…” A low-slung Camaro with Petaluma plate frames—evidently some Metallica-banging junior collegiates in town for a little big city action— snagged my attention momentarily as it scraped bottom up over the Fillmore verge, here at this hilltop, of a street that dropped like a Shoot-the-Chutes down toward Cow Hollow.
“When you’ve got people openly denying the Holocaust, and wanting to blame Israel off the face of the earth,” Paulen cast a jaundiced eye upon some Austrian-sounding tourists huffing, puffing their way up the final top steps of a Tyrolian-grade climb that began down at Union Street. “Who in good conscience can tolerate such intolerance today?”
“So, what’s that got to do with you and me?” A Yellow Taxi pulled up Broadway behind us, honking everyone back away from the curb. Within moments, the front security doors buzzed open, those of a milk-white blockhouse of a corner building, nine stories of rear-balconied view spreads, with a wind shielded pool deck up top. This man servant in a long dark duster and captain’s lid guided his charge into the waiting cab: A stoop-backed fogy in a sagging three-piece gabardine and half-Windsored red tartan tie, under a weathered London Fog maincoat and gray Mackinaw cap. Likely a cashiered attorney at leisure, he was inching along, shuffle by painful shuffle, propped up on his titanium walking cane, no doubt swimming in prescriptions.
“Look, I follow the news as well, my friend,” said the professor, fidgeting with the zipper of his wide-grain leather attaché, his periodicals tightly inside. “I’m telling you, I’ve seen the rallies and teach-ins—even at CU. Which is why I’ve begun focusing in earnest on Jewish issues, with a little help from a dear, dear friend in Boulder. That, and the fact I’m finally, fully embracing my Jewish side—at long last.”
“Your Jewish side? Think I remember you were, like, French-Italian, or something.” I dodged the leaky hydrant puddle splashed by that departing taxi, whisking east toward the Broadway tunnel, probably to some chilled Gibson-soaked reunion at Sam’s Grill. I ushered Paulen to the top step of the Fillmore hill, stepping around the doorman, who was now retreating to his lobby station. Between us and the stairs stood a visitor from Atlanta, cell circling with his picture-phone, shouting, “See? Here I be, looking out over San Francisco Bay”, as if compensating for any sudden signal drop, just shooting the breeze beside us into stiffening winds.
“Why, yes. Father’s side, but matrilineal line otherwise: my mother is Jewish—or was, as the case may be,” Paulen asserted, once we commenced our descent. “Her maiden name was Mildred Paulenberg. I have her Brooklyn birth certificate, and everything. Even the Israeli Knesset has deemed someone like me to be a legitimate member of the tribe.”
“I see, shorthand name change–that’s just terrific, believe you me,” I said, on the downstep. “How d’ya say it, mazel tov…”
Here at Broadway, there were times when tension was all the more palpable, primarily between the hilltop people and climbers. Aerie dwellers on all four corners heaped scorn on virtually any plans for the Fillmore hill that in any way portended a breach of their inalienable right to rarified peace and unobstructed passage. The neighborhood association, NOMSHYD protested Grand Prix bicycling, railed against Fleet Week Blue Angels’ overflights, thwarted X-gamey skateboarders, and now were battling city hall over some hair-brained stunt to once again snow pack the street for off-season downhill skiing. It went something like, ’We rocked, but you’re blocked—Not On My Shining Hill You Don’t—Pac Heights elders rule, or die trying’.
“Dear Mildy was abidingly secular. Her marriage and I came first, at least until her later years,” Paulen said, over the roar of a smoky tour bus rumbling uphill from a stutter start down at Green Street. “For my part, I’ve lately been ardently seeking to explore, learn more about the heritage she so ambivalently bequeathed me. Unfortunately, I’ve spent most of my life running away from my Jewish identity. But if I’m one of the Chosen People, I now choose to be chosen. Why, I’m even planning my Bar Mitzvah online.”
“That all there is to becoming Jewish? Pretty amazing, all right,” I coughed amid the plumed fumes of the retread Nipponese-packed coach, must have been positively gagging the old nags several floors above us.
“Naturally, why wouldn’t it be? After all, we of the Book are such a welcoming people.”
“You’re asking me? How should I know,” I sidestepped. “I mean, not that I’m in any position to say…”
“Moreover, all this hate toward Jews and Israel these days only motivates me to embrace that heritage all the more. In fact, some of the things on my calendar here are to attend a fund-raiser for the new Jewish Museum in Yerba Buena Center, and a pro-Israel rally.”
The diesel smoke began to lift as we descended step by concrete step, but not the fumes. They were sooty enough to set old-timers hankering for the Fillmore Line’s streetcars that climbed this steep 24% grade from its Marina Boulevard terminus.
Alas, a groundbreaking steam/cable counterbalance system, cleanly tasking a downhill trolley to pull the Broadway-bound car uphill, was smoked out by postwar diesel buses. But strengthening breezes cast the tour buses’s gritty particulate matter eastward, clearing away a stunning panorama, Angel Island to the Golden Gate Bridge. Schools of tiny Laser sailboats raced about buoyed Bay courses, bobbing like whipped cream dablets on an icee blue sorbet. Larger yachts negotiated excursion boats and maniacal wind surfers for righteous channels and currents.
An outbound freighter handed off to a Chevron super tanker just this side of the gate, where early wisps of coastal fog were beginning to feather on in. Backgrounding it all was the haughty, naughty topaz lore of calico hillside Marin. Day-trippers paused on steps below us, where wooden plank steps once made the grade, turning breathlessly to soak in the view.
“Hey, who could blame you? I mean, under the circumstances.” It was all I could do to right a head helium-balloon dizzy with the residue of cut-rate diesel fuel. “The whole Middle East thing is so…”
“Indeed,” Paulen said, not missing a step, scanning, sizing the vista below us, yet seemingly numb to the Bayscape, as if having seen it too many times before, however long ago. “Let me tell you a little something, Heeb-ert.”
There he paused, as we encountered Fillmore’s first downhill landing. Where upwardly mobile tourists saw wide-scale beauty, I flashed on buildings collapsing out over curvate Marina streets down there like flimsy rooftop deck chairs, the Divisadero fire blazing in the hot après-earthquake night, which only made me quaver all the more.
“No, see, the letter just got my name wrong, that’s all,” I blurted, on the next down step. “Nate never could spell worth a damn. Probably just a typo—I mean, it’s been such a long time…aeons ago.”
“Of course,” the professor followed, “then perhaps I should have said, ‘I’ve something to tell you, Kikarooski…’”
“Wait, that’s not what you think it…” I really didn’t know where he was headed with all this Jewish business, but I did know he wasn’t about to let it go.
“Well, I suppose a person can’t really help where he’s come from, now can he?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” W-w-wait, I shuddered. I didn’t bargain for this—total bait and switch—wanted no part of this stuff again, nossiree. But, Christ, a deal’s a deal, couldn’t afford to bail out now…
“Nature-nurture, Herbert, nature versus nurture. I could see that from your letter there. We simply are a product of where we’ve been, now aren’t we—for better or for worse, in mental sickness and in health…”
Care for more?
Chapter Thirteen. Further descent
into the Hollow brings sharper issues
and divisions into focus, with a view…