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Going Downtown

This morning on the 38 Geary inbound in San Francisco a woman, head down reading a book, was wearing a black velvet floppy hat with a button that had a message. Dear Jesus, it began. Immediately I was disgusted as I often am, that a place as progressive as this city could have so many Jesus freaks who seem to want to relinquish independent thought about the world and how it works — to give up a questioning mind, that which makes life so absolutely wondersome. Then I read the rest of the lines underneath: Please Jesus, Save Me From Your Followers. I laughed out loud. A good start to the day. What was it Mark Twain said about Christ? If he was on earth today he'd surely not be a Christian. I need to destress more, not worry about “success” as much, about getting a new job, and one of the best destressers I know of is to take a run in the park. Money is only everything.

After the run around Stow Lake and up the hill, I sit down on a bench behind the hedge abutting the lake near the turtle log, next to two elderly women, both healthily stout. “Emiliya,” one of the women says, extending her hand to shake mine. “Violetata,” says the other, and I shake her hand. Emiliya is wearing dark wraparound sunglasses, has pale skin, as all the Russians I meet in the Richmond District do, has graying hair with traces of red dye in its outer reaches, and her English is exceptionally good. She wears loafers with no socks, kicks one off to show me she's not bothered by the cold. She pulls up her blouse and outer sweater, baring her stomach. “See, nothing under here either.”

Emiliya says she left Ukraine 16 years ago, “never expecting to see Violeta again.”

“Fifty years we've been friends. She lives in Santa Clara and comes up to visit me here. I like cold and she likes warm. I have to have my windows open.”

“So what happens when she comes to stay with you, she can't have heat?” Violeta smiles at this. She has a cane and her eyes show she's experiencing pain.

Emiliya pats Violeta's shoulder fondly. “She stays in the bedroom and turns on the heat. In the rest of the apartment I keep the heat off and the windows open. Then, when she goes out, I go in and open that window too.”

“Every day for two hours, sometimes even three,” Violeta says, pointing at her friend, “she does exercises. Nobody can bother her. No interruptions. Every single day.”

“You must be a very disciplined person,” I say.

“No, I'm a very lazy person. But I make myself do it so my legs and arms move.” Emiliya bicycles her legs back and forth, shucking a loafer off in the process.

“I think you've got the right idea.”

Violeta looks askance at this.

Emiliya says she was an English teacher in Russia and now in San Francisco where she's taught immigrants from all countries. She gives lectures about city history, is going to give one at the Goldman Senior Center at Geary and Palm the next day on the 1915 Pan Pacific world exposition. It covered over 600 acres, Emiliya says, in the general area along the waterfront that Fort Mason occupies with one entrance to it on Van Ness Avenue.

“You have to keep busy. Life is short. I study the history of this city, I make notes on it, I memorize it, and give talks.”

Violeta says she never intended to leave Ukraine, but her daughter won a green card in the lottery. Violeta had no relatives left in Russia so she emigrated also, two years ago. Back in Ukraine she says people move through school classes staying with the same people, from lower grades through college.

Emiliya looks up at Strawberry Hill from which I've just descended.

“Did you know there is a big cross up there?”

“No, I've never seen a cross out there.”

For years I've wanted to know the story of these Russian immigrants who are all over the Richmond and have their own grocery markets, heavy on the meat deli and exotic liquors, along Geary and outer Clement Street. The language barrier kept me from this, and here are a lovely couple of dear friends, one of whom speaks good English.

Emiliya writes her name and phone number on an old AARP envelope and gives it to me. Would she have an interest in accompanying me to the new gallery show at the California Historical Society on Mission at Third Street?

“I would love to, but on Monday I'm leaving for two weeks in Hawaii.”

* * *

Winston Churchill said of success: “It's the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” What discipline he had over his own thoughts, even more admirable considering he was a man known to drink hard liquor in the morning. I think about this view whenever I'm involved in an effort I can't propel forward in the least, I remind myself that the process itself has worth, and its own grounded value. To reach the goal would be a fine thing, but don't dis the hours and days spent in the process, there is immense worth in salutary blocks of struggle, each step of the journey is the journey.

With the economic crisis, alternatives narrow. A past common fantasy of my friends was to retire or escape to living cheaply in Mexico. Now that Mexico has exploded in grisly drug gang warfare and kidnappings that option is off the table.

I went to North Beach to Puccini's hoping to run across Elvis, better known as native San Franciscan Conrad Doral who my painter friend Farley told me has breakfast here with his always companion sister. He is known as the Elvis impersonator. I had just been reading something in a small journal written by one of Elvis's high school classmates who said on the bench at football practice Elvis couldn't sit still, he was as jittery as when he played guitar later. Elvis's family lived in a housing project but his religiously inclined mother instilled honesty and generosity in him and he wanted to be a success to take her out of poverty.

Farley went to Doral's performance at the Beat Museum on Broadway in North Beach. After the music Conrad stayed while they showed the famous film of Jack Kerouac doing his iconic reading from “On the Road” on Steve Allen's TV show. After the film, Doral, who was raised in the Mission District, asked, “Who's this Jack guy?”

Doral was trained as an electrician but has opened shows as Elvis for Linda Ronstadt and others. He has said that his only wish is to perform as truly and as closely as he can to Elvis's original performance and only performs Elvis's million-selling songs. His sister and he are in their late 40s or 50s and with his sideburns and likeness to El, people pause to look at him now and again to get a closer look. He wears, he says, the later Elvis costumes, the ones with tassels and glitter, and no matter how fancy they have to be, Conrad's mother sews them.

Doral and Mary have their breakfast from time to time at Puccini's, coming over from the Mission where they still live. I want to tell him about my Elvis trivia discovery — I found the modern-day urban tribute to the music God — a big “ELVIS” has been cut into a sidewalk on the north side of Irving Street between Ninth Avenue and Funston and there is a discrete “Elvis” carved in the north sidewalk almost halfway between 21st and 22nd Avenue on California Street, and near Guerrero on 16th Street there is an “Elvis” scrawl. If there is a trivia question with local import this might be it. But for some of us it's no less intriguing than baseball statistics are for others. It keeps me walking the city. I like to start from the Beat museum because they've got a bathtub of paperback books, literally, and occasionally the bathtub has a fine sampling of true crime taking a bubble bath for only $2 apiece.

I stay in Puccini's having a mozzarella on sourdough, planning on meeting friends I haven't seen in a while. I wait for them at an outside table and across the street down from the Hotel Boheme, I see the small, bent over forms of Millie the flower lady, a North Beach inhabitant I remember from the 70s when she used to sell roses to nighttime patrons in Vesuvio and Specs and the bars on Grant and Green streets. On the first Friday of each month blues singer Lisa Kindred does a late afternoon show of swinging blues at the saloon and once Millie came in and danced gingerly with one of the elderly gentleman. She is in her late 80s, maybe 90s by my figuring, and looks like she's intending to dive over the divide in a state of North Beach grace, maybe there in the saloon, one of the few places where the patrons might have the decency not to call an ambulance unless she requested. “I always come in to hear Lisa's band,” Millie told me.

When we walk around I see empty storefronts on Grand Avenue, the first time I've ever seen empty storefronts in North Beach. At the top of Grant Street I take my leave and take the Filbert Street steps to the right, thinking of walking up to look at the Coit Tower WPA murals. Lillie Coit, a home girl, paid for Coit Tower. Lillie Coit, I've read, had been engaged about 15 times, shot a rifle, played poker, drove a carriage fast and recklessly, and wore a pair of underwear with a “5” on it in support of Fire Station #5. She had her hobbies too. A forward-looking woman. A true Frisco woman.

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