Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Young Heart by the Bay

 I’ve been criticized sometimes for dwelling in the past, focusing my writing energies on that long forgotten period of lost youth, unrequited love, wandering ambitions and unfocused goals. That theme has crept into two of my novels and a number of my blogs. Sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant but always present.

I plead guilty. And after observing some of the lives around me, I am more than content to continue fighting that long slow slide toward mediocrity. Without dwelling there, I think I can revisit my past, reflect on the good and the bad planted there and still relish my present situation.

I thought about that when I read Scott McKenzie’s obituary in the San Francisco Examiner a couple of weeks ago. It’s a heck of a thing when one song can perfectly encapsulate the soul of a city. San Francisco has two such songs.

The first was “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett. Tony’s song, although great make-out music, was really for the old guard. The more mature, three-piece suit and formal dress folks who sipped martinis and talked race horses. That was their world. Mad Men, anyone?

On the other hand, Scott McKenzie’s song helped define my generation. Or at least a large part of my generation. It gave San Francisco its moniker as the epicenter of the 1960’s counterculture. The city has always been a kind of border town, attracting both freaks and fearless alike. It still harbors that open, accepting attitude for folks of all kinds. Boulder, Colorado, boasts a bumper sticker which reads, “Keep Boulder Weird.” San Francisco has been weird since its gold rush days.

Scott’s song was able to capture that very brief period in 1967 when flowers were in bloom and flower children captured our imagination. The sixties was a magical time at the Presidio of San Francisco and San Francisco in general. I was very lucky to experience both of them briefly when I was in the service and stationed at the Presidio.

Without really knowing it, I was experiencing the whole pre-hippie era, mixing and mingling with hippies and diggers, black panthers and anti-war activists, Berkeley intellectuals and disciples of the Age of Aquarius. All from the security of an army bunk at the Presidio.

The Presidio of San Francisco (originally called El Presidio Real de San Francisco) is a former military base located on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula.

Originally built as a Spanish Imperial Outpost from 1776 to 1821, the Presidio was the Spanish empire’s northernmost military outpost. In 1821, the Presidio changed from Spanish to Mexican sovereignty. Then during the Mexican-American War in 1846, the army took over the post and occupied it until 1972 when it was included within the boundaries of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. In 1996, it was formally closed and transferred to the National Park Service.

I only spent a very brief period of my lost years at the Presidio. It was between the summer of 1964 and spring of 1965. I had just left basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (affectionately known as the armpit of the army) and was being transferred to the Presidio of San Francisco (romanticized as the country club of the army, which it was!). I would later be transferred to Fort Polk, Louisiana (correctly known as the a…… of the army).

As an Information Specialist in the Command Information Office, I had a nine to five job and plenty of spare time to explore my newly adopted cityscape. The view from my office was spectacular. For the relatively brief time I was there, I managed to pack in a lot of experiences. Unfortunately I only captured a few of them on film.

Before the service, I had never been out of Minnesota, flown in an airplane or done a cross country road trip. San Francisco opened my eyes to a wondrous new world all around me. It defined the beginnings of my wanderlust and a quest to answer those long dormant hunger pangs.

In a very short time, I became one of the wealthiest men in my barracks – in service lingo. I had a library of over 100 paperback books available for lending out, a record collection of: 45 rpm hits, a Vespa motor scooter and most importantly, a second job at an art theater.

That job earned me almost one hundred dollars a month after taxes. I was saving my army pay of eighty dollars a month and only spending part of my secondary income. I was the classic big fish in a small khaki pond.

The Larkin Theater was an art house theater that specialized in foreign films. Most of the time, two girls and I ran the place. At least the owner let us believe we did. My job was ticket taker, usher, janitor, Saturday morning phone secretary and overall gopher. The two ticket takers (whose names I’ve long since forgotten) were high schoolers working part-time until they could squeak through 12th grade and move on to cosmetology school. Our backgrounds were similar and we became comrades in the arts.

I absolutely loved my job. It was my first introduction to foreign films, which I love to this day. Ninety percent of my films from Netflix are foreign films.

In 1964, Haight-Ashbury was just a nondescript street corner in a rundown part of town. I went there many times to hang out with a couple of ex-servicemen. They had girlfriends upstairs and weed in the fridge. And a lot of very strange visitors. A quiet night was lounging in their hammocks, drinking cheap wine and listening to jazz or pre-psychedelic rock and roll.

When we were buzzed enough, I’d climb aboard my Vespa and weave my way back to the Presidio, hoping that neither cop nor curb would curtail my long ride home. I’m embarrassed by my actions now but back then it was all part of the lifestyle of any service man on the loose in the big city.

With my Vespa under foot, I began exploring the city. Flying up and down the hills, I rode through the Marina, the Palace of Fine Arts (before restoration), Nob Hill, Market Street, Golden Gate Park and the beach. Just to name a few. Back then, I was probably riding too fast, drinking and driving and never wearing a helmet. Fortunately, I survived the stupidity of my youth.

I traveled up and down the coast on weekends, south down to Half Moon Bay and north up to Sausalito, Stinson Beach, Mount Tamalpais and the numerous World War Two fortifications across the bay from the Presidio.

Back then, Sausalito was just a small town across the bay. It began as a ship repair yard during World War Two and grew exponentially after that. By the early sixties a lot of the Beats had migrated from San Francisco to Sausalito. They hung out in the dank dreary bars and coffee shops that dotted the waterfront.

Everyplace I’ve lived, visited or hung around has had its fair share of characters. The Presidio was no different.

My entrepreneurial skills were nothing compared to the young dark-skinned fellow who always had several girlfriends in his posse. He lent them out to friends and associates-for a price. We thought he was quite a businessman back then. Today you’d just call him a pimp.

There was the natural born hustler who worked evenings attending to the mainframe (pre) computer in company headquarters and then did other people’s KP duty (kitchen patrol) five days a week. His going rate was $25.00 dollar cash per day, non-negotiable. He always had willing takers lined up outside his barracks door. That’s $500.00 cash per month – back in 1964. And he didn’t pay taxes on it either!

I befriended an angry black man who hated whites. Go figure. He liked me because I wanted to be a writer. He was a writer and felt a kinship to my vernacular struggles despite my pale skin.

I envied the two GIs whose sole job was to travel each day to Sausalito to maintain the general’s yacht docked there. They were even allowed to take it out for a cruise just to test the engines. I begged to go along but they always refused my request. Something about their Golden Egg.

There was a German immigrant who got drafted and meant to better his English while serving his new found country. While he practiced his diction on me, he introduced me to the arts in San Francisco. Together we attended numerous plays, art gallery openings and museums. We saw “Fantasticks” and the song “Try to Remember” broke my heart thinking about someone back home. My friend was a lot smarter than I was but I think he found in me a willing student to learn about the arts.

We had an illustrator in our barracks. He and I would get into heated arguments all the time because he hated Joan Baez. Who doesn’t like Joan Baez? Other than that, he was an incredibly talented artist and great guy in his own right.

I befriended the intellectual of our group of malcontents. Evenings and weekends, he was flipping Victorian houses, ‘Old Ladies,’ before it became trendy. He invited me to join him in his real estate ventures. Like an idiot, I said no because I had a real job. Besides, who makes money by fixing up old houses in San Francisco and then selling them for three to four times their purchase price?

We always laughed at the fellow who got blind drunk every weekend. We thought it a bit obsessive but not particularly out of character for the characters around us. Strange how attitudes change over time. Now I feel nothing but compassion for him and wonder what must have become of him.

But most memorable, was the young female recruit in my office, who was working her way up through the ranks (literally). She preferred officers, especially the married ones whose wives were in other states. She had no shame. She was a working girl. And very good at what she did. Mind you, her typing skills were atrocious. Not that it mattered very much.

My stay in San Francisco ended all too quickly with marching papers to Louisiana and an end to the wonderful fantasy world that had been all mine for that brief period of time.

I’m grateful I was able to capture on film some of those moments if for no other reason than to use them as screen savers and as an excuse to reflect back on a time when peace and love ruled the world and a kid, full of wild ideas, lived briefly in that city on the bay.

The Girl with Seven Suede Jackets

She was born on a dirt farm in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska. Rental property that barely paid the rent and put food on the table. Her father worked the field’s everyday and her Mom tended their home. It was bare bones living but it was a good life.

The family moved to another farm when she was eight years old. By then she was getting up early in the morning to help her father milk the cows, sling hay and keep the bulk tank spotless. She was the eldest daughter doing what was needed to be done to sustain the family.

Even then there were strong influences that shaped her life. People and events that steeled her determination to make something of herself beyond the 250 acres of wheat, soybeans and corn.

She had a loving grandmother who was more worldly than most farm wives. For two years the young girl walked from school to Grandma’s house for lunch and instead of washing dishes, they played with dolls, colored, made sugar pies and pictures. A myriad of other mind-expanding experiences.

Long before women figured out they didn’t have to wear girdles every time they stepped outside, there was an aunt who pioneered early feminist Zen. She traveled the world and ran a bar in the winter. Her aunt could command a bar stool discussion with the best of her patrons. In the summers, her aunt had a gift shop up north where the young girl worked. It was there she learned how to charm the customers and make the sale, honing her business skills.

During her junior year in high school, a nun took a liking to her and told her she had to go to college. She would be the first in her family to do so. And even though there was no money for such a venture, it really wasn’t negotiable. The nun taught her how to break the rules and glass ceilings in that small town.

She was student class president her freshman, sophomore and junior year. Even though she was elected class president her senior year, the nuns decided a boy should have that position. So the young girl learned to roll with the clerical punches and still come out on top. She went to Girls State, was awarded the Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year Award and elected Sodality President. The nuns couldn’t take that away from her.

Back in high school, a neighboring farm boy came to ask her out on a date. She politely declined and suffered the wrath of her father who thought she should have gone out simply because she had been asked. “What will our neighbors think?” her Father asked her. “It doesn’t matter,” she answered. Still doesn’t.

One day the girl’s mother was cornered in town by the attorney’s wife. The townies wanted to know why her daughter, a simple farm girl, thought she could go to such an elite all girl college in the cities. “Who does she think she is?” the woman asked her mother. “My daughter!” her mother answered. And that was that.

The young girl took from all her life experiences the proposition that she could and therefore she would. If she wanted it, she would work for it. There was no free lunch but she was skilled in the kitchen. Those were giant assumptions in the early sixties, which in turn she passed on to her own children and grandchildren. No excuses, she would say, just focused determination to do what was needed to be done.

And she realized very early that she was smarter than most of the boys she dated. She still feels that way about men in general although she hasn’t dated in quite some time.

In college, she had to work almost full time while attending school as a day student. She lived with her aunt and learned to manage a tight schedule, be judicious about her sleep and still find time for student activities. She ended up student MEA president her senior year and traveled to Washington to represent the state. It was four years of sacrifice, hard work and little sleep and she excelled at everything she did.

Day students were not the girls who lived on campus. Boarders often didn’t have to work; they enjoyed time for studies, boys down the road and pondering their future career or lifestyle. Some enjoyed a preponderance of wealth.

Like the girl with seven suede jackets.

This girl had a different suede jacket for each day of the week. Different colors, different styles and all unique. It spoke to the wardrobe packed in her dorm room. For many girls on campus it was a gilded world of their liking. A few were pampered, privileged and very entitled. Others were not as privileged but still lived in a world far apart from morning milking chores and afternoon fieldwork the young girl was used to.

The young girl’s humble background and tough work ethic provided a sterling example for her children and grandchildren for what hard work, focus and determination can accomplish for a person.

Success followed her academic and business career every step of the way.

She’s been president, chair, board member or committee member of every organization she’s ever belonged to. With her it’s almost a given. She was the first woman president of her Rotary club and first female Rotary district chair. Her list of posts, appointments, awards and recognition could fill a very large book. She commands and gets the respect of every man in the group.

Businessmen universally respect her because she’s got the chops, the business acumen to deal with adverse situations, tough calls to make and focused goals to achieve. And unlike some of her professional colleagues, she has a common sense approach to conflict resolution. She’s like a mama bear in an Ann Taylor suit.

Negotiations are her forte. Her ready smile and easy demeanor belie a sharp focus on the issues at hand, a calculating mind and deep insight into the human condition. Hardly seems fair to those sitting across from her in any business or political negotiations. I like to say she will eat you for lunch and you just came for desert.

If I ever get this writing thing going for me, I’m going to ask her to negotiate on my behalf. Her daughter is an attorney. No surprise there. Between the two of them, they would make a formidable team on my side.

In another life, she might have led a breakout at the cloisters, been Ophelia’s sister, a confidant to Clare Boothe Luce and most certainly a blue stocking suffragette. Perhaps even an Amazon Queen.

She still thinks she is smarter than most men.

But I’m not going to give her that one.

I married her instead.

Caskets and Carriages under the Torch

(There's got to be a Triangle Bar here someplace)

My wife has become a metal head, a steel worker and a blowtorch Nana. After a career in academia and business, she’s learning to pinch metal around stone like Giacometti and apply torching like Motherwell. She’s comfortable with heavy metal in her hands and blue-yellow flames framing her face. And she’s not alone.

She’s now hanging out in the new bohemia with other artists of a similar ilk.

Fifty years after the West Bank of the University of Minnesota harbored the disenfranchised, the hippies and other malcontents of a similar ilk, that population or their decedents have now moved to the Northeast part of Minneapolis. In an unplanned, almost organic metamorphosis of a cityscape, this unwashed morass of creativity has moved west.

Old Nordeast, an eclectic enclave of blue-collar Eastern European nationalities, has become the new West Bank.

Early in the 70s, the West Bank lost its soul. It imploded with the demise of the hippie culture and developers snuck in under the cover of HRA redevelopment. So, many of those artists moved to Lower town in Saint Paul. That lasted for a decade or two until that area started to become gentrified. So Nordeast has become the new enclave for artists.

But instead of hippies, now people of color, Hispanics, artists of every variety, house flippers, yoga gurus, craft beer specialists, software developers and other creative types are flocking to the area. A new variety of business has also sprung up whose main purpose is to breathe life into the arts for a whole new generation, young and not so young. These include art classes of every type, including metal sculpting.

Sharon got into metal work as a hobby right after we were first married. She did exceptionally well until demands on the job and a move to another state curtailed that activity. Now she’s back at it, taking classes from Vesper College located in the heart of Nordeast. Vesper is one of those non-profit schools offering classes in such esoteric areas as metal bending, torching, welding and stone sculpturing. Sharon loves it. And I love the fact that she’s found a new outlet for her creative juices.

Vesper College is located in the Casket Arts Building. Originally built as the North-western Casket Company building in 1887, caskets were still being made there until 2005. Now the five-story building houses over 100 artists and businesses such as Vesper.

Other notable nests of creativity are the Architectural Antiques Building, originally a coffee roasting plant. The Northrup King Building, originally a seed distributor for the world. The Waterbury Building, manufacturers of boilers and multiple buildings that were part of the Grain Belt Brewing complex.

“Can Love Hold On,” the song for my book trailer, was created at The Library Recording Studio only blocks away. Those studios are located in the Grain Belt Warehouse and bottling building. So far, my favorite coffee house is across the street in the Keg House Arts building. I think you get the flavor.

Now that Sharon is taking classes there, I’ll probably seek out coffee houses, cheap eats and libraries to hang my hat when she is under the torch. It obviously won’t be the same as back when I was past Sheila, hanging with Susan and hadn’t yet met Sharon. But for a part of me this feeding frenzy of creativity will ring true once again.

The rough hewn, anti-fashion, individualistic, truth-seeking individuals whom I find so fascinating all hang out there. Only now the freaks hang out at McDonalds instead of the corner drug store. It’s not as compact as Dinkytown but the atmosphere is the same. The haunts of past lives have come alive again in that charged arena. It’s almost as if inquiring minds once again scream for an exploration of life’s truths in that modern version of old Bohemia.

It’ll be like old times again. And yet it won’t be same. I know I can’t go back. I don’t want to. After my lost years, I began that long slow inevitable slide toward normalcy. Fortunately I didn’t make it all the way. So I’ll visit Nordeast but I won’t stay. I’ve earned my place in Apple Valley and Palm Springs and I’m comfortable there too.

Yet when I’m back in that other part of the world, I’d like to contribute even if I’m not willing to camp on hard wood floors or eat from a can of beans anymore. My Bob Dylan days are over…for whatever they were worth. Inspiration comes in all kinds of strange packages even in a casket shop in the middle of a confused dreamland called eternal youth.

So while I’m there, I want to soak up the atmosphere and perhaps build a nest someplace where I can just write to my hearts content. It seems like a good place to explore the recesses of one’s mind, mining whatever thoughts and ideas might be lingering there. I’ve got a lot of hard miles on that gray matter of mine. Time to go exploring again.

Strange how, after fifty years, some things change and yet many things remain the same.