Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Sentimental Journey

Our traveler spends a week with friends in high places.

By Leonard Gill

AUGUST 16, 1999: 

Dear Diary:

Saturday

Wake up early, wondering: how to go without a cigarette for the nine hours it is about to take to get me from Memphis to Chicago to San Francisco, where cigarettes, I fear, are not even sold. Buy a carton on the way to the airport on the advice of my level-headed brother-in-law. And then the shocker, at the gate, on a TV monitor, tuned to CNN. J.F.K. Jr., wife, sister-in-law. Whatever's happened has the look of news, but not a single passenger is paying the least attention. No audio. Lift out of Memphis, wondering, but not about smoking.

Two seats over, a man (in his early 30s?), tense, asking the flight attendant just when he can get a beer. Gets beer, turns, and asks if I have ever been on a wild-pig hunt. Tell him I have not. Says he is from Chicago, a printer who's just spent a week, his first, in the Deep South, training other printers in some new technology. His host yesterday invited him on a pig hunt. He was too polite to say no, and 24 hours later is still in a state of (his phrase, not mine) "culture shock," the state being Mississippi. Cannot wait to get home to his girlfriend, his dog, his cooler, and his front porch, he says, but not in that order. Wish him well; he, me.

Exit plane at O'Hare, enter a tunnel with seizure-inducing neon overhead, and find broad daylight and a skycap. Ask if it is okay to smoke. Yes, according to this skycap, a cigarette hiding in the cup of his hand.

Chicago to San Francisco: stare at Michelle Pfeiffer for 90 minutes, no headphones.

San Francisco: airport to city. Dusk. First impression: buildings built where buildings have no business being.

Hotel, where I'm hooking up with friends from years ago -- a married couple with their 10-year-old daughter and a mutual friend from Atlanta -- is nice, too nice. Know at once I cannot afford it. Follow a couple, in their sixties and sporting English accents, off the elevator. I'm looking for what is supposed to be my room, two steps behind them. We march single-file down corridors. Stop before a door; couple stops too. "This is my room." "It is? It can't be," according to couple. "We should know. It's ours." Recheck my key, and they are right and laughing when I disappear.

Find friends and head for an Italian restaurant called Cafe Tiramisu, and it's very good. Can't afford it. Charge it. Step outside, into an alley, where a group of young, European types are also assembled -- all of them smoking.


Sunday

Breakfast at some place near Union Square called Sear's, which is famous. You know it's famous because the wait at 9 o'clock on this Sunday morning is close to an hour and no one waiting is from San Francisco. Atlanta friend is disappointed waitresses are not wearing the pink uniforms he remembers from years ago. Woman serving us says, yes, it is a shame, and returns to our table with an old uniform in hand. Tells friend it's his. Generous tip.

Walk to SF Museum of Modern Art. Great building, two great shows: Tibor Kalman and Bill Viola. Ten-year-old is bored stiff, wants to go shopping. Walk to something called the Metreon: brand-new, noisy, mallish, hideous.

Group splits along gender lines: mother and daughter to Gap Kids; men to eat at a place Atlanta friend remembers from years ago. (On subway: man next to me turns and asks if I've "ever taken anyone's eyes out." Tell him I have not.) Reach Caffee Luna Piena. Wait is only 45 minutes this sunny Sunday afternoon. Hamburger okay. Eat outside on deck. No smoking. What about the table next to ours, where four people have just lit up? Told by waiter that table is in the smoking section.

Back to hotel, outside hotel. Destination: Sausalito. Calmly smoking. Then a scream from the wife in our party. Turn in time to watch a car traveling south down Powell upside down. Ask doorman to call 911.

Hail taxi and tell driver to step on it because we are about to miss the last ferry. Lots of group-bickering, sarcasm, laughter, with 10-year-old holding her own. Exit cab with cabbie muttering "tough crowd."

Sprint to ticket counter, where a woman is putting everybody under the gun -- asking agent if there is good bird-watching to be had in Sausalito. Woman gets a non-answer and shuffles off. Ask agent for five tickets. Forget the tickets, she says, run. Last to board, and immediately sea-sick. Ferry has not left dock. Good scenery, yes, and another dinner at another Italian restaurant that I cannot afford. Charge it.

Back outside hotel; the hour: whatever. Group splits again along gender lines: ladies to their room, gentlemen on their feet for a nightcap. Follow friend who is not from Atlanta in search of a bar in some alley in the financial district he remembers from years ago. Walk for 30 minutes in widening circles, then demand we enter the first bar we see, which we do. This doubles the number of people inside the bar, including the bartender, who is engaged in a dice game with one of his two customers. Bartender "loses," takes his shirt off, smokes a cigarette, and puts his shirt back on. New round of arguing between friend from Atlanta and friend who is not from Atlanta, the same arguing I remembering from years ago. They leave. I stay, if only for some peace. Bartender replaces, without my asking, the tumbler of whiskey he's been serving me with a full highball. Says I look like I need it. Great jukebox. Listen to all of Lou Reed's Transformer album for the first time in 27 years.

Outside bar and on the street, pass the thinnest transvestite I have ever seen. Riveting. Hail a taxi and, before entering, ask driver if he minds my smoking. "Go right ahead." I do, then ask him to drive anywhere $20 will buy me, as long as I end up at my hotel. Oblivians' "Ja, ja, ja" in head. Cabbie guesses I am a Gemini and guesses right, but don't know what this means. Give him 30 bucks, and he tells me to take care of myself. Best night's sleep in ages.


Monday

Stupidly announce a Francis Bacon retrospective at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and would anyone else like to join me. Answer: everyone but 10-year-old. This entails a 50-minute bus ride, a hike uphill, and the discovery that on Monday this museum is closed. Approach a woman eating lunch in her car. Ask if it is at all possible we can see exhibit. No way, but very sorry. Ten-year-old is ecstatic. Eat something ourselves (my treat!) and board another 50-minute bus ride back downtown. From appearances, we are the only out-of-towners on this particular bus.

Husband, wife, and daughter not from Atlanta pack and hole up in my room. Nap time, except for 10-year-old, who is before the TV, and me before some book.

5 p.m.: Expensive drinks in a room with a view atop the Sir Francis Drake. Charge it and say good-bye to the family of three.

Head with friend from Atlanta to Russian Hill and Hyde Street Cafe. Find restaurant and find, Mondays, it's closed. Ask yuppie couple pushing a stroller where to eat. Hyde Street is overrated anyway, they say, go to Baraondi, which we do, and it's good. Our waitress, even better: ultra-chic in a shirt I'm wishing's by Zoran, from New Jersey, one town over from a friend of mine from years ago, loves Memphis, gets a cold eye from owner for sticking too long at our table.

Hit the better end of Polk Street after dinner but in immediate need of a restroom, preferably one that comes with a cocktail. Duck inside a place that looks to be clean and, at 8:30 p.m., looks to be already jumping: a piano player, a singer/emcee, some regulars. Very low-key. Then it's "Name That Tune" on the basis of exactly three notes. The crowd goes blank. Four notes. I shout something and win some candy and a couple of discount drinks. Then: musical numbers out of nowhere -- as performed by members of the audience. This is not karaoke. Untried but fine voices delivering standards. Nice, relaxing. In my pocket, a growing wad of cocktail-napkins, with scribbling (mine): "Bistro Zaré, Polk and California, next to smoke shop, stick with fish"; "Did you hear what happened to May Tag? Kelvin ate her"; me to someone named Mitch: "What do you do out here?" Mitch to me: "Nothing."; and one napkin that reads in its entirety: "Railroad tracks/Autumn/Cousin." (To pianist Michael Grove and to singer Larry O'Leno, thanks for honoring every request and the great time. And to Michael Valdez, behind the bar: You are a good man. The name of this place, by the way, is The Swallow, at 1750 Polk. Total time spent on a mission that began in search of a bathroom: three hours.)


Wednesday-Friday

Switch to the apartment of a friend from years ago. Keep the days quiet, cheap, non-touristy. Reread Mrs. Dalloway. Walk a lot. Catch cartoonist Ben Katchor at the Castro Theater. (Only Gentile in audience, but in a pinch I "pass.") Visit the Bacons. Revisit the Violas. Browse City Lights. Try like an idiot to shoot what appears to be an icy tray of eviscerated bullfrogs inside a market on Stockton. Owner shoos me away, then apologizes profusely in Chinese for getting water on my camera. Talk to author Geoffrey Fidelman (The Lucy Book) at A Different Light, where a VCR is rerunning a clip of Lucille Ball versus Tallulah Bankhead. Fidelman calls Bankhead an alcoholic and drug addict. Voice behind me calls Bankhead "my kind of woman." Come across a makeshift memorial to J.F.K. Jr. One unmoved man on the street writes: "Rich kids need to play. What did HE EVER DO? Big Deal." Watch CNN because what's showing is a big deal.


Saturday

5:30 a.m., SF airport. Then O'Hare all over again, but discover a glass cage inside the terminal and join others who are also smoking, not sitting, and looking worried. For my part, missing my dog and my front porch, in that order.

Chicago to Memphis. Man two seats over reading John Grisham. Me: not reading, thinking I'm good as home.



If you're goin' to San Francisco...

* Do smoke, but make it outside, where you will get to meet seemingly every restaurant employee, sales clerk, truck driver, and construction worker in the city. The myth that Northern Californians do not inhale is just that -- myth. This rule does not apply inside a bar called Reflections. The night I was there, a very prominent sign reading that smoking is a violation of California law might have been more effective had it been rendered in braille. The smoke was positively eye-watering. Or was everyone in this hospitable joint just asking to be violated?

* Do not wear shorts, even if temperatures in mid-July hit the unheard-of 80-degree mark. Chances are too likely in this city of microclimates that one minute you're fine, the next you're freezing. So ...

* Do carry a backpack containing: extra T-shirts or a sweatshirt or a sweater for maximum layering with a minimum of bulk. If for an instant you do warm up, rest assured an impromptu, sidewalk striptease does not qualify in San Francisco as a head-turner.

* Do not attempt to ride a cable car. The block-long line waiting to board at Market and Powell will immediately and permanently erase the very idea. Do as the natives do -- walk.

* Do get with the program and do unto San Franciscans as San Franciscans do unto you, which means mind your manners. For instance: You're on foot, at an intersection, no stoplight. You A) wait on the curb for the oncoming traffic to pass, or B) stride confidently into the street and before oncoming traffic. The correct answer is B, because in this town pedestrians have the right-of-way and motorists actually act accordingly. But do use the crosswalk. Jaywalking instantly identifies you as the inlander you are. This is a friendly city. Check the poor attitude you may have packed at the desk, where your hotel will be happy to keep it under lock and key for the duration of your stay and for the benefit of all. -- L.G.


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