“A taste of the past can
set the table for your tomorrows.”
“It’s nothing but in your head, sister girl—I’m, like, totally sure of that…”
“But we’ve just been having these…culture clashes lately…and I sometimes tend to go off…”
“Oh, you could get along with a tsetse fly.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, hon. so I’m going out with my guys tonight. My two gay guys, and my token little straight guy…”
“Mmmm…sounds perfect…hi there, try a touch?”
“I’m hoping I can meet someone new…am getting tired of my Durex and avatar.”
“Whatever works…and we can always hit our spots Sunday, Sunday—or, like, football Monday, Monday. Just keep being vigilant about the village gents.”
Two working gals flapping gums, snapping gum—they were demo marketers standing out front of Body Essence in black clinic aprons, dabbing out samples of guava and jojoba après-bath butters on the wrists and backhands of most every young woman passing along Chestnut Street. From the reputedly cruelty-free, enviro-friendly store itself, fragrances of pineapple facial wash, eau de elderflower eye gels and other nature-based lotions floated out via bubble machines as the pair worked through the essence of their personal lives between swipes of the fruit-flavored tongue sticks.
Drifting over from the far side was a thick chocolate wisp courtesy of CocoaJones and a cheery zephyr of Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc from the indie Wine-Merchant Club—all folding into an intoxicating out-of-body mixture as we walked along, a delectable, sensorial olfactory fondue glace goo.
“Uh, oh—sounds like women trouble to me…”
“Wouldn’t know about that, doc, how about you?”
“Me? Not so as I can tell,” Reese Paulen replied, quick to resteer the conversational flow. “Perhaps they are suffering genderal role disfunction.”
“Or just a supply-demand differential, if you ask me,” I said, tensed and preoccupied, jargoning up, jumping on the opening to more promising hectares, namely fertile female ground.
“Ah yes, could be all about the numbers, and how one negotiates them,” Paulen said, passing on the sample dab, just as soon getting off this chick trip. “But what was that you said about survival only getting you so far?”
“I mean hey, survival—all well and good,” I said, waving off the same dab, reminded that I was having enough trouble holding down so clashes of my own. “But then what?”
“Why, how about those Middle East peace talks, hey? The much heralded Road Map, final status agreements,” he winked, taking in the vapors. “Retread that threadbare old standby: a two-state solution…separate nations living side by side in peace and harmony—all that Oslo jazz.”
“But think about it. You said yourself it’s been 60 years since the UN plan and WOI armistice already, 90 years since Balfour” I replied, caught between wanting to tune this out, and bound to hear all about it. “You’re like, pushing 59 now, and really think that will happen in your lifetime?”
“Now, isn’t that what they have been saying about your Ireland?,” he blinked at my offhand factoids. “These things do take time…”
“Yeah, but Ireland isn’t still arming to the teeth,” I replied, side stepping an overnight accident of gastric proportions, determined to look away. “And if what you say is true, it hasn’t been paddling in such a sea of hatred, or throwing up more permanent walls, er fences, in the bargain…”
“Granted,” Paulen said, following me around a pool of binge-barfing splatter still sun baking—all pink and orange and chunky brown—into the sidewalk. “But that’s assuming you actually have an honest broker, and someone with whom to bargain.”
Even sweeter was the Sesame Street serenade piping forth from the nearest of two cute-as-a-panda-cub shops catering exclusively to the Marina’s swelling diaper and toddler carriage trade. Several young mothers had gathered around Jacque & Jill’s, serenely rocking the precious cargo in their tri-wheelers and jogging buggies to the Barney theme, staring with gleeful anticipation into its playhouse store windows—storybook displays of preppie and teenybopper threads in miniature sizes, trendy Polo and Kate Spade looks, classic RL ensembles in pre-junior 6, garnished with gingham backdrops and faithful reproductions of antique play toys.
Other glowing twentyesque mommaries-in-waiting gushed over the larger front windows of Cuddles next door, which appeared to embrace infants and newborns, comparing their lactation coaches. Its rainbow-striped façade framed cartoon mannequins in baby frocks and crib wear, dangling celestial fuzzballs, stuffed animules and crocheted blankies, Dr. Seuss book sets, scattered Big Bird and Teletubbie nursery playthings. Nowadays, this stretch of the once preternaturally swinging singles district was bloomin’ preggo with Pampered rug rats—we could just about smell the rash cream and talcum powder. Newborns abounded, snugly tucked and strolled, adorable as a Huggies calendar on pictorial parade.
Time was, free-fall adventure and carnal opportunity knocked up and down Chestnut Street, marriage and family could wait. Today, for those fresh out of college, knocked up nuptials and tied-down routines looked to be priority one, as though there were nothing on earth better to do than comfort feed and breed…which they could do just as easily in the cul-de-sacs of Danville or Morgan Hill. J & J’s chatty windowshoppers soon pushed their bundled payloads down Chestnut, toward the teeming preschooler playgrounds at Moscone Park and Rec—alas, that Mayor George R. Moscone Park and Rec.
“How about bargaining with someone like the Palestinian Authority?” Still, there was another part of me that said, enough already—what’s with this all Mideast stuff around here? I was getting dizzy and gaseous at the thought. “Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, or whatever…”
“Such as it is…” A sociologist like Paulen here might label this burgeoning phenomenon the gentridomestication of the Marina neighborhood—that is, if he had noticed it at all. “Though tell me, how can you trust a doddering political hack with an Arab alias…”
“Dunno, but he is the Palestinians’ elected leader, right? At least in the West Bank,” I said—point, counterpoint, nevertheless. “And he does seem to support your two-state solution—at least in theory…what alias?”
“Ah, yes—however, note that I said two-state solution, not three-state,” he said, “Not dealing with the Hamas terrorist regime in Gaza who drove Fatah out, which still vows Israel’s total destruction. That would be bargaining with the devil and philistines.”
As any lingering traces of newborn colic screaming and panty waste faded somewhat on down Chestnut. Cuddle’s nursery music track gave way to the Wine Club’s bubbly banter and laughter from across the street—although that smooth vivi-vibe was abruptly broken by the smoky diesel rumble of a passing SFFD Engine Company—its crew of bored, buzzed up firemen in full turnouts, on the mid-shift prowl.
From here on, the street turned rather schizier—accent on the Chest, ditto on the nut. Old school, new school: ancient, living phantoms drifted from Starbucks to Starbucks in search of the daily news, picking up around nose-to-the-keyboard TXTers who were tapping blindly away, redlining their mental bandwidth. We stepped advisedly aside, as they plowed on through us, opposing Crackberries, iPhonies and all—hawkish iPod and Nano snatchers milling, scavenging similarly about.
Healthy habits, nasty habits: crushed fruit aromatics from the Jamba smoothie shop conspiralled with the choking contrails of sidewalk cigarette and cigar fiends—gluten-free melded with sugary junk. It was all good, then, festa su che…
A stocky Italian delivery guy wheelhauled stacked cases of DiStefano Extra Virgin Olive Oil from a tomato red wholesaler truck, shouldering his load mightily across our path, pushing strong under a carnelian and green awning into ‘The World’s Tastiest L’Ital Deli’. Donato’s was a scrumptiously preserved vestige of pre-Depression times, reeking proudly of cured and aged garlic, onion and Mortadella. Framed in a Deco detailed, black tiled storefront, this was a genuine old San Francisco family deli in the archetypical North Beach sense—one of the last true iconic owner-occupied artifacts of an earlier Marina District.
Paulen and I paused to pore over vine-laced windows fat with boxed Parigi, sugary Balocco wafers, bars of Parugina chocolates, jars of pickled mushrooms and grated parmesan, hanging slabs of Aurichio cheese, assorted boxes of caprese, crema gusto and Bonomi Savoiardi. Sprinkled among them like Bolognese Christmas packages were tidy tins of glazed date cakes, Sardinian sardines on a bed of raw Rotelle, Rotini, Fiori and rainbow elbows, next to cellophaned cannoli and Torrone.
A multi-colorful eye and mouthful, no denying, especially with Tournadot bellowing out the deli’s operatic portal—which Mr. Olive Oil now wheeled through, likely with double-parking citations on his mind. Past show window posters of placid Tuscan and Campanian countrysides, beyond a cross-generational queue of nibbly neighborhood aficionados clutching their order numbers, we could soak in a cramped, cluttered feast of Italian staples and delicacies.
Wicker baskets of antipasto and biscotti, numerous white-skin salamis, hung like stalactites or bass clef quarter notes from Donato’s Savona-muralled ceiling. Straw paglia bottles of Chianti and ruby port lined a sidewall, surrounded by familiar red and white cans of Amaretti di Saronno Lazzaroni. Singing clerks in black bowties and crisp white shirts and aprons manned a store-long counter topping plenteous deli cases. Like a chorus of rising tenors and baritones, they machine sliced the provolone, trimmed house-roasted turkey and sugar-cured ham, heaping cold cuts of Bresada, Sopressata and Zampino on time-worn chopping boards. Above the crew swayed fennel sausages, coppa and linked luganaga. Some servers slathered mayo and mustards onto fresh foccacia, leaf lettuce and raisin Biroldo.
Other Donato dons cleaved lengths of sweet crunch and hard sourdough sandwich rolls, binned beneath a back wall lined with gallon cans of Sagra olive oil and bushels of raw penne and rigatoni, as they deli-counter karaoked ‘Nessun Dorma’. Apprentice dons reached for call-numbered tickets between big chunks of grissini, large balls of caciocavallo, even larger glass vessels of bulk ceci, canellini, tondini and Borlotti. In all, enough to stir cognoscentric culiningus right there on the spot.
Our near miss with that stout dolly pusher prompted a rumination on the concept, the taste and flavor, the overall premise and raison d’ etre of olive oil. Paulen touched upon the whole breadth and applications of olive extract, the nature and pleasurable nuances of olive oil: The physical, virgin stuff, of course, squeezed out of fresh olive paste near the point of Italian harvest—primo Tuscan blends, not mere tasteless, deodorized rancids cut with lamp oil. More broadly, we surveyed the epicurean manifestations and machinations of olives, ultimately, the gestation, roots and branches of olive trees—and inevitably, the holy genesis and geopolitical implications of certain olive trees in particular…nice, brief break in the two-stated discourse though it was.
“You know some of the best olives also come from Bakka Valley, the so-called West Bank,” Paulen said, a counterbalancing aside, while he perused, somewhat longingly so. “Like out around Bilin and Nablus to Jericho…”
“Rrr-right…isn’t that one of the few natural things the region has going for it these days. If only the Palestinians could still work the crops, without the settlers’ burning and trashing anyway?”
“Yes, well…a bloody lot the Palestinians have done to make a robust industry out of it over the years,” Paulen said, “and you can’t lay that at Israel’s feet.”
“Hey, I’m not trying to blame anybody.” I averted to the colorful Grolsch and Tsingtao Beer billboards crowning storefront rooftops across the way. “I’m just pointing out that don’t they say that’s because even their gnarled olive groves have been taken away from them? Anyway, that’s what I’ve heard on a lot of TV interviews… though I guess it’s mostly from the Palestinian side…”
“Of course it is, Herbert, if you’re tuning into Al Jazeera and BBC…”
“Me? No way. Still and all, you talk about Israel’s survival—don’t the Palestinians need access to their own Roman olive trees to survive, as well?”
“They have access, believe me,” Paulen dismissed, taking note of overdue barmaid of Kardashian proportions jiggling hastily toward Milligan’s Lounge. “They have many dunams of access…”
“Well, you’re the one doing the studies,” I counter-punted. So, OK, maybe I’d just deliver him to the Palace of Fine Arts jazz gig…just leave him there with Coleman Hawkins or Pharaoh Sanders and be done with all this. “I guess you’d know more about that than I…”
Deeper into Donato’s lumbering deli line, increasingly famished customers were tempted all the more by a cheese case of such pungent varieties as Brescianella, Teleme, Kasseri and Piave Vecchio. Further along, spicy al dente pasta varied from Fedelini and Farfalle to Orechietti and Perciatelli, with riso pastina and gigli nastrini for gusto measure. Patrons who had finally reached the head of the line could savor aged wooden cheese wheels of Rocca Reggiano and Locatelli Pecorino, sampled in diced nuggets on marble tasting boards.
Virtually champing to order, the numbers-in-waiting were then whetted by simmering vats of minestrone stock, the hand rolling of Donato’s fabled ravioli, sheet by sheet. No less hyper-salivating, we nevertheless gave way to sated customers emerging like freed hostages with picnic baskets of chicken or prosciutto and arina on panini sandwiches and dolci biscotatte, clear wrapped party platters of sprigged Taleggio, Grana Padano, Crostini, Asiago Fresco and pasta-stuffed, triple-crème brie—all with plenty of Ruffino to wash it down—say, at the Palace of Fine Arts, Stern Grove or high atop Mt. Tam.
“Epicureanism for the ages,” Paulen nodded wistfully, with a torn look of fond remembrances, and somewhat a trace of paterfamilial pride. He recalled his father often bringing him here a lifetime ago for more Italio-cultural grounding, along with take-out paneforte, gnocchi and tortellini. “I can taste the Sunday cacciatore and spumoni all over again…” Still, another part of him looked like he was conjuring Mussolini as well as a bout with heartburn or psychic indigestion.
And yet, the deli’s opera was still inspiring, its crespone and fritatta still saucily aromatic all the way out Donato’s doors—good thing we remained pretty well noshed up from the bagelry. Turning away, I noted as how a lively sidewalk jazz combo was tuning and soundchecking there across Chestnut, in front of the renovated Marina Theater and drug store complex—Spanish style new mainstay of a district back on the make.
Even the Brinks truck idling out front of Apple’s latest computer store seemed to keep to the nano beat—loading to the axles with fresh iPhone take, from polishers and nutJobs already cueing up around the block to drop plastic for the latest small screen gems. The Mac palace over there stood firewiring next to a local camera shop that had been hereabouts since Brownies and Baby Rollei 127s/Zeiss Box 120s were state of the photographic art, only to be going by way of optimized pixelation.
For my part, I could picture lounging with North Beach beats at Caffe Trieste, gorging on linguini in Napoli, haggling over leather goods in Firenze, squeezing into that ol’ Fiat 500 for the ride from Catania up to Mount Etna’s volcano crater, molten lava overflowing the olive groves. It was Mediterranean manna, after all, with no dictatorial father figure to spoil things. Then a cardboard caballero pickup truck rumbled up from the Mish, loaded with stacked carton flats, high plywood bed extenders gang tagged beyond recognition—honking around that double-parked deli supply truck with the Amaretto banners on its sides. ‘Acuerdate’ Tejano, followed by some doleful narco corridos, ripped 130 decibels through the reconquistos’ tinny dashboard speaker, primered mal dentes on seemingly every fender and door: blood colors flying, serious trash and scrappers aqui. It brought back images of fix-a-dent trucks that used to roll through Marina Green’s dead-end parking lot—our wrecks and clunkers so far beyond repair. That was about then we sighed, turned fully in the moment on our way.
“Herbert, ain’t it?” Strange, but no stranger, this guy was a senior bike messenger delivering the goods from a beat-out Timbuk2 bag, fat tire wheels on a rewelded, stretch frame Schwinn. Crabber Don had curbed up on a BofA run, foghorn blowback from the past. Wild eyed, grayed hair standing on end, he lurked in an all-weather outfit of worn winter pea coat, tattered turtleneck and high-water blue sweat pants and oversize basketball hi-tops from some Purple Heart shelter. The guy apparently still had good days, on his meds, picking off his pigeons with Doppler precision to fund his morning caffeine jolt. Off his meds, on bad days like today, he got off schedule and bearing, and passersby got this muddled earful.
“Huh, Crabber,” I asked, startled as I was by the lurching middle-aged figure who was nearly vaulting over his handlebars, nearly spitting his few remaining teeth.
“Who is this…Crabber?” Paulen reached for some pocket change.
“Uh, nobody,” I sputtered, amid a surge of acid reflex, not even believing this was re-happening like this—losing my bearings, taking it on the aching dome, something to do with a cerebellum back on the fritz. Getting lighter headed at the same time things keep getting heavier. Gotta hype my thalamic to somehow process the mitigating signals. “Just somebody I came across once. Kind of a kook—a real hair trigger type—caused quite some scrums back in the day.”
“Still at it, Herbert? I know what your ass is up to, dude. So does Clifford…he’ll be glad to hear your still snakin’ around when he’s still doin’ your time,” the street stiff shouted, quickly cowering behind his ragged, doubled-up Old Navy shopping bags, flushed with hypertension.
“Clifford,” asked Paulen, staying several prudent steps away. “Clifford who?”
“Who knows? Guess it’s just a case of mistaken incrimnity…” I feared my waning Saturn Duece was reverting to a onesie.
“Sherry’s a lawyer, man,” Crabber said, pulling me away from the doorway. “Yah, she’s working on Clifford’s parole hearing right now…”
“That’s crazy talk,” I sputtered, as we shuffled along out Chestnut, deferring awkwardly to a trio of fresh ingénues sauntering along this sunny side of Chestnut in their clingy work-out threads, like super models at a Vogue magazine shoot. Gotta keep at it, damn it, gotta persevere. “Really, I’ve no idea what he’s talking about…”
“See you back in the Green, Herbert. Don’t forget to bring along the sodium pentothal,” Crabber shouted over the women’s further banter in passing, snippets along the lines of apologies proffered for being so late, misconnections by voice or text.
“Egad, what have you been up to,” doc said, “Back in what day?!”
“Aww, nothing—he’s always been a borderline socio-psycho, if you know what I mean. It’s got nothing to do with me,” I muttered, relieved as Crabber rode off with a way of his fingerless glove, desertion on my aching mind. “Well listen, maybe I will be heading back up…”
“Not on your life.” Doc hooked my arm.
“Maybe, maybe not…” Christ, buck up, snapp to. Concentrate, reshift the focus, for better or worse. I looked out ahead, internalizing the stressor, and there was that Saturn airship again, re-drifting—must have been doing about 45 m.p.h., in the general vicinity of the Presidio gate. “Anyway, you were saying about fuller Jericho access…”
“Close, Herbert. But no olive branch,” Paulen said. The women’s cross mea culpas were being laughingly accepted—so many glib rationalizations for being rude and thoughtless in annoyingly real time—mainly centering on male-propagated obstructions. “Interesting though, how some people here can seem so disturbed, while others can feign such blithe, untiring positivity, remaining so lachrymose intolerant no matter what—even more so than in Boulder.”
“Yeah, everybody’s spinning some song-and-dance spiel, into their own little worlds, trying to hang on,” I said, off guard—trying to figure out what came over me, yet knowing all too well. “It’s all coping mechanisms. zero-sum competition. Everybody’s been burned enough by the sharks and parasites to totally trust anybody else, so on go the masks.”
“That’s rather big-city jaded of you…”
“Guess some have just been at it for too long, cannonballed off the deep end,” I sighed, no less conflicted my own self. “But put a wide-open smile on your wallet, most of them will come around.”
“I, for one, am refinding it rather attractive…normatively speaking.”
“It’s not helping my headache much at all…maybe need some bedrest or…”
“So let us cure that ill right now,” Paulen insisted. “Honestly, you’re not seeking to avoid anything out here…”
“No…not, why would I?”
“You tell me…something just doesn’t add up. But let’s go for a nice long walk, shall we? For the aerobics of it—good for the mind, body and soul.”
“That’s what she said…”
“Aww, never mind…”
Care for more?
Chapter Twenty-Six. Further down a
stylish path, into the dizzying maelstrom
of issues near and far, pressing a
and maddeningly current as today…