Tag Archives: north beach

The Unexpected

15 Apr

I am not always happy about the unexpected, but sometimes what I do not anticipate comes to my rescue. Wednesday, March 4th, was a dismal day. I cannot even remember the reasons for my dark mood as the day bore on. But by the time I was ready to relax for the evening I headed over to Cafe Trieste, near my room in North Beach. I enjoy their inexpensive house cabernet sauvignon and that single glass of wine can mellow out any mood I may bring with me to their space. (Their menu prices went up across the board recently, so they no longer serve the cheapest glass in the neighborhood.) They also have a juke box with interesting and varied fare, from vintage rock’n’roll and near contemporary operatic offerings to engaging Italian pop.

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Sometimes a group of poets sit together and recite their verse to each other. They are a fixture at the cafe and have probably been sharing their fussy lines since they first found each other. I try to sit away from the sound of their droning tonality, but the cafe this particular evening was given over to a most extraordinary revel.

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The first Wednesday evening of the month is host to the Ned Boynton Surfer Roma Band. You can also listen to Boynton play a lilting guitar on the juke box. The Surfa Roma Band is a changing ensemble from month to month. Of the eight members I listened to with great pleasure, there were musicians playing mandolin, accordian, guitar, bass, bongos, congas, and cymbals.

What was utterly charming, though, was the impromptu pairings of dancers, people who knew this event and each other. Their delight was a delicious extravagance. I was warm and beaming by the time the musicians disbanded.

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One week later I was expecting one of my clients to fulfill our volunteer garden outing on Alcatraz Island. There is a long history of gardening on the Island. In its earliest European American phase, Alcatraz Island was the site of the West Coast’s first United States military defense point. This was during the Civil War. Military wives established gardens during the second half of the 19th century. I have heard tell of one hundred-year-old rose plants still existing within the gardens. Certainly garden cover can be seen on every side of the Island and is shared by gulls, egrets, geese, ducks, pelicans, and other birds. We discovered a dusky brown newt recently.

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My client and I, just getting to know the terrain, join a large group of volunteers, some of whom have devoted their weekly visits to this rocky eden for many years. We both enjoy the activities and setting. Having heard a weather report on rain, though, the day before, he chose not to garden.

Thus I was free to not work on my birthday. Having thought about my sixtieth over the years, I had promised myself to do something big. But, alas, without money, I had to content myself with errands left undone because of a busy work schedule. Then mid-day my friend Nancy called to ask if I would accompany her to see Hugh Masekela in concert that evening; the ticket holder had dropped out. Yes! I had not heard his music in years. This was an extraordinary invitation. The concert was held at University of California, Berkeley Zellerbach Hall, a gorgeous space.

Vusi Mahlasela, a renowned singer/guitarist, shared the stage with Masekela and a band of musicians formed for their 20 Years of Freedom concert tour. Masekela played the trumpet, flugelhorn, various percussive instruments, told stories, sang, and, with Mahlasela, broke into impromptu knee-bending dance.

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Perhaps the longest piece, Stimela or Coal Train, was the most riveting, with Masekela speaking the beginning lyrics as a poem: “There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi / there is a train that comes from Zamibia and Zimbabwe / There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique, / From Lesotho, from Botswana, From Zwaziland, / From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa. / This train carries young and old, African men / Who are conscripted to come and work on contract / In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg / And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day / For almost no pay.” Masekela added sounds of the trains, the workers, the inside of the mines, creating a presence of scene that was palpable. One could feel the very air of movement within those mines. By the end an incredible thing happened: the audience stood up, practically springing from their seats. But this was not a moment when an audience stands to clap. This was a moment when no one knew what had just happened, to their senses, their reasoning, their place in the world.

Masekela is 75 or 76 years old today. He is an exuberant man, as powerful as ten men. Nancy and Hugh showed me the way forward from sixty. Something big had happened, indeed.

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As a final note, I recommend a small, unassuming space in North Beach for live music. Melt, at 700 Columbus, just off of Washington Square Park, offers delectable items such as fondue and Welsh rarebit, salads and wine, but also hosts jazz almost nightly. This is one of the few remaining places for jazz in the city, which the owner, a musician himself, acknowledged to me one evening. And perhaps, if you visit, you will have a chance to hear a very talented pianist named Jibril Alvarez, who organizes sessions there.

Welcome to the Hungry Neighborhood

1 Oct

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Upon arriving at an SRO in North Beach on July 1st, I assumed I was leaving behind the interior noise of a hotel housing miscreant behavior. As with the drug addict whose name I’ve blocked from my mind, four doors away, knocking at my next door neighbor’s door at any hour of the morning; when Jose did not immediately answer, she would speak through the door as if the barrier were a mere inconvenience to the conversation she was determined to have. Sometimes Jose would wait a very long time to respond, perhaps hoping she would go away, but in any event prolonging my misery. Of course, miscreant may be too harsh a term. During the course of sixteen months at the St. Clare I met really decent people, people who, like myself, had become unmoored from the stability in life many others take for granted.

The interior of this SRO is quiet. My neighbors are for the most part older Chinese Americans who live peacefully and treat their neighbor with respect. Their children are grown living with families of their own in the East Bay.

Yet, ironically, the noise, although not internal to the building, surrounds it on almost every side. Besides the boisterous camaraderie I hear emanating from the interior of The Basque Hotel restaurant and bar across an alley, the street noise along Broadway is exceptional at times. This is a block with five nude lady businesses on or close by: Little Darling San Francisco, Condor Topless A-Go-Go, Roaring 20’s (with a Play Girl Love byline), Hungry I Club Topless Entertainment, and Garden of Eden (“A Taste of Paradise” just beyond the entrance). Granted, the barkers and occasional show girl standing near an entrance are discreet in their greetings; “hey buddy, come in and relax a little” in a familiarly coaxing manner like your best friend offering a Bud during televised football or your mother tempting you with fresh-baked cookies.

The noise results from the fact that these businesses attract a host of miscreants along the sidewalks, people who will spend half their evening under the neon canopy of the block. They are predominantly male. They don’t always get along with each other.

I cannot imagine a single one of these businesses having an iota of the breathtaking artistry of Crazy Horse saloon in Paris. (For a look at a visually stunning, yet at moments tediously long, documentary about the Parisian pleasure stop, see the 2011 film of the same title, directed by Frederick Wiseman). My own experience by comparison pales. I have seen many go-go boys at small bars attempting gyrations as if unseen hands were moving them through physical therapy following hip replacement. The exception was Splash! in Chelsea, equipped with an actual shower behind the main bar, where the boys always put on a show.

North Beach, though, is a haven of many small quiet blocks. I am glad I arrived.