Embarrassment of Riches
(or Superior) California has it all, I reflected last Friday
as I placed a bottle on a road map and gave it a spin. No
matter where it ended up pointing--even to Turlock--there
was a place worth visiting for a couple of days. Mountains
and seashores, lakes and valleys, cunning little $200-a-day
resorts--here is a wonderland that has it all and had ~better
stop talking about it because it isn't even May and the highways
are already bumper-to-sticker. On second thought, perhaps
it is better to pull the covers over one's or two's heads
and forget the whole thing. As W. Somerset Maugham once said
with a gentle smile, "It was such a beautiful day I decided
to stay in bed."
Our blessed and absolutely incomparable part
of the world has always been keen on le weekend. Almost everything
is within driving range for a two-night stand, which is so
much classier than a one-nighter; on a two-nighter you can
really establish a relationship, her socks in my tennis bag,
my shorts in her jewel box, much laughter as you wait for
room service. Besides, "getting away for the weekend"
is such a tradition. A changing one. Now it starts on Thursday
and runs to Monday. That leaves Tuesday for recovering--and
exchanging underwear--and Wednesday for working. Can capitalism
survive the one-day week?
The No. Calif. weekend is freighted with
memories. As a kid, I listened to Capt. Dobbsie on the Shell
ship of Joy, singing "Highways Are Happy Ways (When They
Lead the Way to You)." An automobile ad rhapsodized on
"The Call of the Open Road," a romantic idea illustrated
by girls of impossible perfection, hair streaming in the wind,
driving their open coo-pays (rumble seat extra) down a two-laner
toward an immense setting sun. Somewhat less glamorous, we
roared from Sacramento to San Francisco in a Dodge touring
car with disk wheels that reverberated with wolf-like howls.
The exciting destination was the Carquinez car ferry, our
escape from the hot, boring valley and introduction to the
excitement of lapping waves and shouting gulls. In 1939, hay
still growing in my ears, I stood at the Mark bar and marveled
as a young man with a great tan said on a Friday eve, "Well,
so long, old sport." We'd already read Fitzgerald. "I
think I ll borrow Dad's Rolls and motor down to Pebble
for the weekend." I'd never heard anything so grand.
I kept spinning the bottle on the map. It
pointed to Sonoma. Great place for a weekend. Only an hour
away, no matter how bad the traffic. Salamanders alongside
rushing creeks, David Bouverie's round pool, M.F.K. Fisher's
perfect hospitality, the Kangaroos of Tom Rooney, or, as we
laughingly call him, "Kanga-Rooney" and "Marse
Supial." The Napa Valley and Claude Rouas adding courts
and bedrooms to his Auberge du Soleil. Only Mendocino (trillium
growing in Russian Gulch) and Tahoe seemed too far. At last
the bottle pointed south. John Cardiner's Tennis Ranch in
Carmel Valley. Pebble Beach and memories of Sam Morse--a weekend
in 1938, when Salvador Dali threw a party in Sam's old Del
Monte Hotel, a wrecked car stood upside down in the lobby
(live naked girl underneath), Clark Gable and Ginger Rogers
up from Hollywood, saloonkeeper Dizzy Gomez the guest of honor.
"Cost me $50,000," complained Sam. That was 38.
How much in '85 dollars!
The main problem with driving south is San
Jose, which threatens to become The Blob That Destroyed Northern
California, if it hasn't already. How can something so nothing
go on so long! Sannazay, yeah. Sannazay is probably bigger
than S.F. already but who cares. Nobody goes there. It's simply
"San Jose --Next 51 Exits," or whatever, on the
freeway and traffic keeps right on going, albeit at about
five miles an hour. Smogville North. Off to the right I could
see a vestigial skyline but nothing to get excited about.
Now and then a plane seemed to be headed for what the road
sign called "San Jose Municipal Airport." I'll give
them some points for restraint there. It's not "San Jose
The southern city limits of San Jose are
somewhere down around San Juan Bautista. One of these days,
Sannazay is going to be bigger than Lohs' Anggalayz and it
serves them right. Miles and miles of exits to nowhere. The
only good thing about inching past San Jose for hours is that
when you finally clear it, you're in Salinas and the world
looks brighter. You can smell the soil and feel the spirit
of Steinbeck. The spring countryside is beautiful, everything
in proportion, the way Xavier Martinez painted it. The hills
aren't too high, the trees aren't too big, the fields aren't
too wide, the valleys aren't too long. The only sadness is
that most of the roadside stands seem to have disappeared,
their sites swallowed by the ever-widening freeways. I'11
miss the hand-painted signs in farmhand shorthand: "Cukes,"
"Cots," "Chokes," "Bings" (cherries,
Springsightems: a three-day-old colt frisking
alongside its proud mother, a five-week-old goat dancing among
a dozen ducklings, mallards waddling down a road, quail scampering
across a perfect lawn. At John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch in
Carmel Valley, there are 14 courts for 14 units, making it
unique. A secret world with bowers of flowers (can't get more
California than that) down the hill from the best highway
marker anywhere, a sign reading "No Hunting or Shooting."
Not a worry in the world but something dangerous is inching
up the road and it may be Sannazay. En garde, Gardiner!
(April 30, 1985)
Moonbeam lives! Last Fri. night, ex-Gov. Jerry Brown wheels
his black T'bird into David Tonner's Carnegie Truck Plaza
in Tracy, stops at the unleaded self-service pump, inserts
the nozzle into the gas tank and puts it on automatic pump.
"American Express," he tells David and wanders off
to make a couple of phone calls. While he is gone, the pump
shuts itself off. "Nice lounge area you've got,"
says Jerry to David. "Thank you," says David. Jerry
then signs the credit card slip, jumps behind the wheel, fires
up the T bird and zooms off with the nozzle still in
the tank, ripping off the hose and causing the pump to teeter
dangerously. When last seen, Ex-Gov. Moonbeam was rolling
south on I-580 with 15 feet of hose dangling out of his tank.
Somebody should tell him.
(May 3, 1985)
THE SAN FRANCISCANS
Proud. That's what we are. Humbly
proud, modestly superior, naturally weird, sourly optimistic,
brightly pessimistic and any other oxymoron you'd care to
dredge up. Proud of our heritage, even if we had nothing to
do with it. Pleased daily and sometimes nightly that pioneers--the
dregs and the illustrious--came here only a few years ago,
as eternity is reckoned, and founded the impossible, implausible
city on mountains and molehills, swamps and shorelines, marshes
and muddy streets. The San Franciscans, reciting the grand
old names like a litany of buildings and labels--Flood and
Crocker, Levi Strauss and MJBrandenstein, Huntington, Sharon,
Stanford-d and Phelan. We know their descendants and they
are only human, having their problems, even as you and I.
But they are descended from giants and are to be treated with
care, as relics of a gilded age in the gelded age.
The San Franciscans. All sizes, shapes, colors,
creeds and ways of death, some of them better left unexplored.
White punks on dope (a classic by the Tubes), on skateboards,
on motorcycles, on the thin edge of self-destruction. The
San Franciscans live dangerously. Traffic is a snarl, with
facial expressions to match. The bars are chockablock with
people setting fire to cigarettes and drinking the transparent
white killer with an olive or twist, only a few steps away
from the embalmer. It's the San Francisco way to go, the ignoble
tradition, the earthquake mentality that flowered in the flames
of Ought Six. The Big One could come this very minute. If
you wake up the next morning with a hangover, you have paid
the price for being alive another 24 hours.
* * The San Franciscan is more than self-admired.
He (and she) is known around the world. From out of the mud
he and his forebears, principally the former, have built a
glittering city admired from afar, if not always from anear.
San Francisco, temple to tolerance, haven for the misbegotten,
safe harbor for the lost souls of faraway tragedies. Al Jolson
sinks to one knee and sings "Open up your Golden Gate,
California heeeere 1 come," but it isn't quite like that.
The old San Franciscan, he of the Brooks Bros. buttondowns
with mind to match, feels swallowed up as he gulps down his
healer on the rocks. All of these new people --I mean fine,
but aren't things getting a little out of hand, Charlie! Not
that I don't admire Them, mind you. Hard workers. Bright kids.
They raise our scholastic average, you know. But Charlie,
WE are the minority now. Imagine being a minority! Still,
they'll never take over the clubs. Last line of retreat and
The San Franciscans, filled with prejudices,
generosity, good booze, fine wine and a reasonably expansive
outlook on life. They keep the "worthwhile" things
going--you know, opera, symphony, the like. The San Franciscan
is getting used to the homeless and the drunks passed out
on the sidewalks, but the sight still makes him nervous. It
shouldn't happen in the city of St. Francis. Money is a partial
solution. We've got a problem there, Charlie, but let's bury
it under greenbacks if we have to. This is San Francisco,
a civilized place. No riots, no barricades, no cops clubbing
the desperate. What did JanisJoplin used to sing? "Freedom's
just another word for nothing left to lose"? Well, you
know what I mean.
A great and endless show, the San Franciscans,
music by Muzak or Sony Walkman. Endless sound effects: sirens,
squealing brakes, laboring buses spewing death-dealing fumes.
A constant movement up the hills and down the valleys, along
the boulevards, through the tunnels and alleys, across the
vastly tiny city that changes character from block to block
with a different language for every one. The polyglot. Let
us never lose it, these constant pipings from faraway lands,
transplanted and still going strong, the various voices of
other worlds enlivening this hurly-burly whirlybird of a city.
A passing show: nutty messengers on bikes, lonely oldsters
feeding flocks of pigeons (love is where you find it), women
execs striding along in their walking shoes (high heels in
Gucci bags), chess players pondering their pieces on a hard
bench in Hallidie, bug-eyed kids clinging to cable cars and
each other, hotel doormen blowing cab whistles in vain, and
the joggers, always the joggers, leaving a whiff of eau de
armpitz in the salty air.
The San Franciscans, headstrong and hidebound,
nervous in the service of the myths and legends they themselves
created and love to repeat. Yesterday was a dream, today is
a bitch and tomorrow we don't care to think about, not while
there is a tonight with so many places to go, things to do,
old friends to drink with on the altar of a restless city
that lost its way. Why does it all have to be so complicated,
(September 28, 1986)
THE BIG GAME
It's Big Game Day, one of the happy November rituals. "They
call it the Big Game because it really is," I wrote a
thousand years ago, but the detractors tend to downgrade it
now as just another game between two teams that aren't going
anywhere. It's a classic, they say, only for the old grads
who remember the heroes of their youth, from Andy Smith's
Wonder Teams to Stanford's cocky Vow Boys, from Vic Bottari,
Sam Chapman and Jackie Jensen to Ernie Nevers, Biff Hoffman
and Frank Albert. True and false. There is something special
about the Big Game, and the memories have a lot to do with
it. The players sense that they are part of the mythology,
and rise to the moment. I've seen my share of Big Games, but
seldom a dull one. Something wild and crazy always happens,
the melodramatic ending as the clock winds down and the shadows
grow long across the stadium floor and you know that another
chapter is ending in the long story of a fascinating rivalry.
Could two schools be more different than Cal and Stanford!
Yet, it works.
The mood on the Cal campus on Big Game Day
is always mellow. Excitement but not tension. Strangers become
friends. At the tailgate parties, the old-timers have that
special look about them, the look of people from another civilization,
from the era when they and the world were young and life was
simple and predictable, every move preordained. They are the
lucky ones. They knew what they wanted and most of them got
it, to judge from their demeanor, their talk, their clothes,
their style. Not only that, they know how to do the tailgate
parties in the sacred lots close to the great stadium. I had
a couple of Bloody Marys with some strangers who soon seemed
like my dearest friends. Such is the atmosphere of Big Game
Day, but "strangers" is the wrong word. There aren't
any on such an occasion. "It's too bad," sighed
one Old Blue, "that Big Game comes only once a year."
Good feelings, friendly rivalries, all the wonderful cornball
stuff that keeps a way of life from falling apart.