Portland area folks, I’ll be doing a reading at Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus on Tuesday, June 27th at 2pm in the Women’s Resource Center. About 25 minutes or so, from the blog and the memoir-in-progress, and then Q & A and some light refreshments! Spread the word! (Many thanks to the faithful reader who is coordinating this event!)
In 1967 my parents brought me with them on my father’s business trip to California. We flew into Los Angeles, where a sick pink-brown haze of smog hung over the city and washed against the surrounding mountains. We were in Los Angeles for three days, then my mother and I took the train up the coast to San Francisco to meet my father, who had flown ahead to attend a meeting.
In the way memory works, I remember bits and pieces about the train trip – that it seemed to take forever, that we wound along the coast, catching spectacular views. I don’t recall coming in to San Francisco, nor do I remember the taxi ride to the Mark Hopkins Hotel at Number One Nob Hill where we were staying.
What I do remember is dancing that night with my father in the splendid lobby of the grand old place.
My father loved to dance, and for a large man (6’3″ and around 220) he was remarkably graceful. When I was small, I would stand on his feet while he danced to the music – we had all the Ray Conniff records of all my parents’ favorites – “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” “For All We Know,” “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
Earlier that year of our California trip – I was fifteen – my father had taught me how to waltz in the front parlor of our old Ohio farmhouse. We might have danced to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” but I don’t recall. I caught on quickly, though, and let him lead me in wide swirls around the room, feeling the sweeping joy of the three/four rhythm while the floor creaked softly under our feet.
Now, as my parents and I sat in the small intimate bar at the back of the hotel lobby, where my mother and father nursed their scotch and sodas before we headed out to dinner at Lawry’s Prime Rib, a small three-piece orchestra began playing, and my father asked me to dance. I hesitated, feeling awkward and shy (did I mention I was fifteen?), and then my mother cajoled, saying “Oh, go on, dance with Daddy,” so that I got up and followed him the several feet away from the bar.
An enormous crystal chandelier sent shimmers of light across the polished marble, and the sweet sounds of the music floated after us, but I couldn’t make my feet work, and kept stumbling, my eyes glued to the floor. Finally, I looked up and saw several tables full of people, watching us with smiles on their faces.
My whole body felt wooden, my face burned with embarrassment. “Daddy, I want to sit down,” I remember telling him.
And he said, “All right,” and we walked back to the table where my mother sat waiting. “Why did you stop?” she asked, and I said, “Because I wanted to.” But that wasn’t true. I just couldn’t take all the people watching.
I never told my father that I immediately regretted the decision. I never told him how I’ve kept and tended that precious memory for all these years. I never thanked him for teaching me how to waltz, and for inviting me to dance in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins Hotel.
Last Monday I drove Roadcinante to Daly City, parked, and caught BART into downtown San Francisco. I got off at Montgomery Street and began walking toward Nob Hill. Along the way I stopped at Sam’s Grill for lunch, where a dapper gray-haired Frenchman in a tuxedo brought me some greens topped with crabmeat, shrimp, and a large prawn, all drizzled with a light vinaigrette. After I told him about my trip in 2015 to Sancerre for a language immersion class, he only spoke French to me, causing my heart to thrill but my brain to hurt.
In forty-nine years I had forgotten the steep hike up to the top of Nob Hill. How steep? Two-thirds of the way up, a taxi spun its wheels crazily, trying to get traction, sending smoke from the burning rubber tires and leaving dark stains on the pavement. I watched in horror, feeling the panic leap from the driver over to me, standing there gaping from the sidewalk. Within seconds the tires caught and the vehicle jolted up to the top.
(For the record, I checked, and the grade there is a terrifying 24.8%. But there is a steeper 31.5% grade street that is actually open to vehicles.)
Let me just say, I was not dressed to walk into a place like the Mark Hopkins. My unwashed hair was caught in a tangled scrunchie, I was without a smudge of makeup, and I wore a slouchy sweater over nylon hiking pants and carried my twenty-year-old leather backpack that is scratched and faded.
I took a moment to sit outside and wipe my eyes, thinking of my parents, now gone – my father all those years ago, so elegant in his movements, and my mother, smiling brightly, trim in her wool suit. And trying to remember myself, fifteen and dreaming of how my life might unfold, and thinking how nothing has turned out as I imagined.
And whose life has?
Inside, the lobby seemed smaller, but that is because it actually was. I spoke with a clerk who explained the old bar where my parents had so long ago clinked their glasses before taking the first sip was now a conference room, hidden behind the wall at the back.
I stood, trying to take it in. Sat on a brocaded chair for a moment to gather myself and jot some notes.
I could have ridden the elevator up to the famous Top of the Mark to see the view, but I didn’t. That isn’t what I’d come for.
I walked around, looking at old photographs of the place, turned to the center of the room and whispered, “Thanks, Dad,” and then I walked out the front door and went to stroll around Chinatown.
The next day I was gifted with a tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a fun catch-up lunch with a former college student from the campus ministry program in Boone, who now works at the aquarium. After that, I drove to Salinas and the National Steinbeck Center.
And there I met Rocinante, the modest conveyance Steinbeck drove and lived in (off and on) during his Travels With Charley.
Steinbeck’s custom designed camper is as alluring inside as I had imagined. In fact, I got a little excited peeking in there, imagining living in that space, all cozy and happy.
Salinas and the surrounding area is taken up by literally hundreds of thousands of acres of agriculture – staggeringly huge fields full of strawberries. Cabbages, romaine lettuce, broccoli, and groves of avocados and citrus, and plenty of vineyards. And workers everywhere, small communities springing up each day in the fields.
And if you felt a disturbance in the force around 6:00 pm EST on Tuesday, June 13th, it was me driving through Castroville, California. The Artichoke Center of the World, y’all!
Now I’m back in Mt. Shasta for the solstice, then heading on up to Oregon. Happy Summer, everyone!