Time keeps on spinning said Steve Miller, and this week was more true than most. It was that dreaded day we old(er) people loathe so: a birthday. Part of the dread comes from the question, "so what do you want to do for your birthday?" This ranks right up there with other blood-curdling questions a man can face, such as "Do you notice anything different?"
What do I want for my birthday? Well, usually here is where the inevitable snarkiness sets in. How about a "3" in front of that number instead of a "4" to start? Except for the fact that in all honesty, I feel better at 47 than I did at 37, which is sort of weird. How about better eyes? That one I will cop to. Since fourth grade I have been fighting a losing battle with my eyes, to the point now where newsprint (I am 47, I can say "newsprint") has to be at the exact distance from my face where I can read it or it turns into gibberish. This happens with or without glasses, which I find doubly annoying, but my girlfriend finds wildly amusing as I ratchet the paper back and forth until it hits the right spot.
Seeing the past, however, is never a problem. I was out with some newspaper people last night and soon was waxing nostalgically about the fact that San Francisco used to be a four-newspaper town, and a rough one at that. The headquarters of three of the four dailies were at the same corner, which probably made for some very uncomfortable moments. What is now Sears Restaurant on Powell used to be a bar called Tiny's, where numerous late night fights would break out over who had scooped whom that evening. Those battles that were not settling with swinging, ink-stained fists were taken outside for the pennies.
I have said this before, and I will say it again: we do not lag pennies in San Francisco, we pitch them. And in wee hours of the morning (thanks, Frank) the newspaper men would pour out of Tiny's to settle their differences by pitching pennies at the cable car tracks on Powell. The winner was whoever got their penny closest to the slot without it going in.
As we get older, the past gets more interesting, doesn't it? At 7, I was a bouncing Town School boy, racing around Alta Plaza Park, wearing very unfortunate combinations of clothes as San Francisco peered out from the '60s towards the new decade. Every time I see turtleneck shirts I grimace a little about that time, although not as much as I do when I think my father's brief experiment with mutton-chop sideburns. Birthday dinner if I remember correctly was Bills' Hamburger's out on Clement.
Seventeen. Oh boy, that was a weird year. Finishing up boarding school, flying back and forth across the country during vacations. South of Market was just starting to get going, and a mysterious character named Doctor Winkie was opening up nightclubs all over the place. My favorite was Caribbean Zone, with half an airplane crashed into the upstairs. The cool part was you could actually sit in the airplane and watch the madness unfold below. (Or so I heard, because of course I was 17.) Birthday dinner that year was with Tommy Toy, and his ethereal minced squab.
Twenty-seven. Working down in the valley, living with my buddies in San Francisco. The days of Julie's Supper Club, the Oasis and Southside south of Market have now been replaced with Broadway and Johnny Love's. We go to Harris' for our meat lover's nights, and I am the only person who remembered that it used to be Grison's. We also had a great Chinese restaurant we went to on Polk that was the epitome of the greasy spoon. Then they renovated the place and the food was never the same again. I am hoping the same fate does not befall Sam Wo. Birthday lunch was at Pier 23, looking over the bay and falling in love with the place all over again.
Thirty-seven. Pretending to be a grown-up. House, job, kids. Places from my past come back into focus as I take my son and daughter to Alta Plaza to play, just as I did 30 years ago. Geronio's grocery on the corner of Jackson and Fillmore is now Gino's, but the laundry and shoe repair place are still down the street, and the Elite Café continues to anchor the "other" side of California, across from Ruth Dewson's hat shop. Grand Central is now Mollie Stone's, and Antoine Alliaume has sold Curbside Café to one of his waiters, which means one of the best Caesar salads in town will remain.
And now forty-seven. The town and I are still together, although we are both a little ragged around the edges. New places open in the spot where an old place used to be. Trader Vic's is now Le Colonial. Stars is now shuttered. The Hippo, Ernie's, Enrico's, Vanessi's, Moose's have all morphed into something else. But Bill's Hamburgers still rests in its spot out towards the end of Clement, at the edge of the fog, where the sand dunes used to roll down to Fleishhacker Pool, the largest heated salt-water pool in the world. Through it all, Bill's is still there. And the city is still here. And 47 years later I am still here. I think it's time for a burger.
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