Panama Gets a Letter from San Francisco
This is kind of a rant and should be a blog
post, but since I don't have my blog yet
and I feel the need to VENT...and only vent
to good friends...here it is.
Note: If the first part bores you, feel
free to skip to the end re my encounter
with the North Beach Nazis.
Friends ask from time to time if isn't
lovely living in San Francisco? And yes! I
know! This is "material' and how do I think
Kerouac and Sylvia Plath got their starts?
There's this annual thing called "Bay to
Breakers" and I'm not sure what it is
because I have trouble reading news that
doesn't interest me, but I think it's a
cross between a run/walk and a parade that
goes from the Bay to Ocean Beach.
(Note from Panama: That just about sums it
For BTB, folks usually dress up in "funny"
costumes like Tinkerbell or cheerleaders
(and those are just the high school
girls...some guys run nude). (Another note
from Panama: Some of the GUYS dress up as
Tinkerbell or cheerleaders. We are talking
about San Francisco)
It has little to do with this story other
than when I went out this morning with the
intention of having breakfast at my fave
Vietnamese place in C-Town and topping it
off with my fave coffee at Caffe
Trieste...I hoped to avoid weirdness.
On the way down, I didn't see many
merrymakers. The buses were fairly empty.
I'd brought my manuscript for a mystery
novel that I'm trying to finish.
Three things happened of note:
1. Chinatown - Vietnamese Restaurant
I'm the only one eating. A middle-aged
Chinese lady walks in and asks the
proprietor for a job. It's all in English.
She first says, "Or would you rather have
They chat and when the applicant states
that she speaks 3 languages (Cantonese,
Mandarin, English), the proprietor grabs
her and they sit.
The applicant looks happy and relieved
while they talk. Then the proprietor--an
energetic friendly woman--tells her that
she won't pay by the hour. It's a 12-hour
day, seven days a week and salaried. Open
9:30, close 9:30. Stay to clean up.
It's family owned, she explains. That's how
they work. And they are independent of
economic times because Vietnamese food is
cheap to make. (They've just raised their
prices 50 cents).
I can see the applicant sagging at this.
She repeats it. "Twelve hours? Ohhhh..."
I'm sitting there with my pot of tea,
having eaten the wonderful noodles and pork
dish they serve. Kind of lounging, and
hyper-aware of how I must look to working
Asians. Who sits and does nothing?
Of course I worked all day yesterday on a
press release for a client...But I think
even that wouldn't be classified as "real
work" to someone who works those hours in a
As my ex-sushi boyfriend once said: "In
this business you don't count the hours.
You count the days." Meaning how he viewed
time off. "Day in. Day out."
2. North Beach
I pay my bill and continue through C-Town
to North Beach for my Bohemian cup of
coffee where I can read my manuscript in
peace and artistic ambiance.
Caffe Trieste is a BoHo hangout. There's a
wall of photos which include one of Coppola
typing on a typewriter in the corner -- the
first draft of "Godfather." And supposedly
Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al. used to
congregate there to sip the cheap wine and
act poetic. Card-carrying old socialists
still peddle their papers in there. It's
the only place in SF where I feel at home.
It's been over a year since I first
discovered the cafe.
In the past month or so, I've started to
get to know the hoi-poli, the Caffe Trieste
royal fixtures, who have called that place
home for decades. Well, really only two
folks: George Tsongas and Fanny Renoir.
George is a brilliant poet and author of
several books (including one re Caffe
Trieste). Now in his 80s, he has a new book
coming out next month.
Fanny is a gregarious artist and
Jill-of-all-talents. Artwise, she's the real
deal. I like her art (painting, collages),
and she sells it. It's pretty low priced.
And she is also a writer. She put together
a lovely book about the Beats in North
Beach that's sold at City Lights bookstore.
Long story short, the past month or so,
I've been occasionally bumping into them at
the cafe. George tends to sit at the same
table in his fedora, reading the sports
page. He's introverted as hell, but with a
merry twinkle in his eye. Wry sense of
humor. And a stillness that comes partly
from being hardly able to move.
They live (separately- they aren't
together) upstairs in a hotel that is full
of the cafe hoi-poli. Fanny had told me
about a documentary and coffee table book
made by a Japanese woman who simply
approached and did it.
It's called "The Hotel Upstairs."
I read some online and thought the
author/filmmaker looked down on her
subjects. Especially Fanny, who she
referred to a "street vendor who claims to
be an artist."
When I sat with Fanny, she was warm and we
connected. One day she hugged me on the
street corner saying bye. Another day, we
chatted so much, George excused himself,
"Well, I'll leave you two ladies for a
moment" and went shopping for dinner. When
he came back, we were still deep into
She'd asked me to come visit her a couple
weeks ago when they had the "Art in the
Alley" exhibition. The wind was cold and
she was dolled up in a knit poncho. Her
booth had lovely collages that she'd made
the night before to "have something to
sell." And she had wonderful little antique
chachkis that I would have bought if I'd
have any money.
We had fun. I took pictures of her. At the
next booth was an artist I'd met at the
cafe who lives in Wine Country with her
Amnesty Intl. husband...and they were happy
to see me.
So I felt connected. Rare in SF. But there
I ended up buying a little framed collage
from Fanny Renoir, entitled "Icons of the
Thunder" for $5.00. She considers herself a
"beat." One of the last remaining.
As I tried to buy the collage, she held it
for a long time saying, "Oh, this is my
favorite." It was on gold foil with a hot
pink painted design and in one corner was a
picture of a woman's sad face. I asked who
it was and she said, "I don't know. I liked
it because she looks like she's lost her
"Like me," I said. She said yes.
A couple days ago, I went to the cafe when
it was close to a hundred degrees (which it
NEVER is in N. Beach). I brought organic
red grapes for George and Fanny, hoping to
see them and cool them off.
Neither was in sight. After a while, a
woman that looked like Fanny except she
wasn't wearing glasses, appeared outside
talking to some guys. I'd never seen her
body before and it looked like the body of
a young girl. The wind blew her salt and
pepper hair, and she looked quite nice.
After a while, she came in, following a guy
who showed her a TV set that he had on a
table. She said she'd take it. They left.
But she returned and as she passed me, made
brief eye contact. I said, "Hi." She
murmured a faint, "Hi" the way you would to
someone you can't place. And then left
So anyway today...I had the encounter with
these fucking Nazis (which I'll come back
to) and finally decided that the safest
place for me would be at home. As I'm
leaving Trieste, there she is again: Fanny.
Or someone who looks like her. Maybe a
Could it be that without her glasses she
can't see me?
She's talking to a good-looking, tall,
younger guy, and I walk up and say hi, and
she doesn't look at me, just keeps talking
to him. So I say hi again, and she says
something to me quickly about "setting up
I get in her face and say as nicely as I
can: "Aren't you Fanny?" She says yes. I
say, "Don't you know who I am?" She says,
"Yes. But I'm setting up my business
(waving her hand at a bag of stuff on the
sidewalk behind her, against the
wall)...And when I'm doing my business, I'm
a different person."
It really threw me. I know not to take it
personally. But there was so much to chew
I've been thinking a lot lately about
"maya"--illusion--when it comes to people
I've known who figured prominently in my
life. How much of it, as time goes by,
turns into "Johnny, I hardly knew ye."
In my early years, I bought into a lot of
people's beliefs and adopted them as my
own. Most of these beliefs are still my
own. But every one of the rebels and
iconoclasts whom I once admired or even
begrudged, have moved on into new and very
The last time I chatted with Fanny and
George, I told them that I liked them
because they are "authentic." Now I wonder
what just is authentic anyway?
Turns out all the world really is a stage.
Marlon Brando told Connie Chung in an
interview once, "Everybody acts every day.
No big deal."
3. The Nazis
Just got to Caffe Trieste and I'm standing
in what I've come to think of as The Most
Liberal Place on Earth, waiting for coffee.
The line is super long and super slow,
because of all the celebratory Bay to
(thankfully, no nudes or tutus).
Conversation overheard is often clever.
Recently I heard a guy say, "When teen
girls are committing suicide because of
interactions on MySpace, they're the
canaries in the coal mine, man."
There's a guy behind me in a black T-shirt.
Looks like he works out. Kind of young. Not
quite a skinhead. Blond hair clipped close
to his head. Carrying a laptop. A Chinese
guy breezes in and says to him: "Aw, the
news, man...I'm so fed up with everything,
I'm ready to move back to China."
Turns out they're bent out of shape about
the Calif. Supreme Court ruling re gay
And they go on and on about how disgusting
it is. And it's going to come out that the
SF Mayor is bi-sexual and screwed his own
son or nephew of something. Then they talk
about "heard about any new gun laws they're
trying to pass?"
"You oughta come with me to an NRA
meeting," says the Chinese dude. "We gotta
lobby. They've got this bill they're trying
to push that would make you register even
your ammo. It'd have a code on each bullet.
Like if you and me are at the shooting
range and you run out of bullets and I loan
you one, and you use it. I could go to
"Oh, that stinks!"
and on and on, while I wait in the slowest
line I've ever been in at Trieste.
Wonder of wonders, after I get my coffee, I
snag a window seat at one of the little
round tables that are lined up there. Then
the person to my left leaves and, you
guessed it, the black shirt guy sets up his
laptop there and sits down with his coffee.
By now the Chinese guy has gone. And a big
older guy with a booming accented voice
sits with him.
The fun begins. They rehash the whole gay
marriage thing ("I don't care what they
do," the younger guy says. "Just leave me
alone. Their lifestyle makes them diseased
and they act bizarre..."). The older one
says--in what I take for a German
accent--"Dey are trying to shove what dey
want down our throats."
I'm on the verge of saying, "You mean like
you're shoving your opinions down mine with
your loud voice?"
Another older guy pulls up a chair and they
whisper for a while. Then he goes.
The younger one reads news off the laptop
out loud in his pear-shaped tones.
I'm actually getting some editing done on
my manuscript but it's slow going. But I'm
stopped cold when the younger one says
casually to the older one who is ranting,
"They can always be assassinated."
He says it a couple times, "At least we
still have that option in this country."
I look up at them. The second older guy has
gone. But the guy with the accent looks at
me and starts in about something, I don't
know what. Like he's making a case for how
messed up this liberal town and country
are, and I'm going to nod and agree.
"Which Nazi are you?" I ask. "Are you with
the German Nazis or the South American
There is a pause. He says, "I am from
I say, "Ah."
The young guy isn't looking at us. He's
looking at his laptop.
The older one starts ranting in my face,
like explaining it to me what he's against
and why...and I say quietly, "If you don't
leave me alone, I will go complain to the
guys behind the counter and they will put
They fall silent.
Then the older one says goodbye to his
friend and the latter says to him quietly,
"It's okay. Just do the work."
How was your day???