Big Birthday Memory #22 : Flowers in Their Hair

haight bw lgNOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day  until the end of May. Today – from June 11, 2007.

This morning the New York Times told me that the San Francisco Summer of Love was 40 (forty!!!) years ago. No, I wasn’t there. I was still in college, and that summer I was working a the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh, Pa, taking pictures in various buildings and helping with community organizing.

It was the days of VISTA and there were volunteers all over town, working with residents to learn how to budget, how to prepare nutritious food, child development and work skills. It was moving, exciting work – a job I’d gotten for myself after the director initially told me that “no nice girl from Smith belongs in the projects.”  He was from the original public housing establishment and a great teacher, once I convinced him I wasn’t some Muffie prepazoid.

But the Summer of Love… my boyfriend was out there – his family lived in Berkeley – and it all looked so romantic.  I was far too committed to what I was doing – and too much of a coward to ever tell my parents I was going.  I also knew that hanging around stoned was not the way to help people who couldn’t help themselves – and that was what I most wanted to do.  Even so, it was tough thinking that all the action was “out there” and I was on the shores of the Monongahela River in Head Starts and food banks.

steelmillnight2 lg
Between my house and “downtown” there was a bridge that went through the famous Homestead neighborhood where the Pinkertons beat up the steel strikers so brutally.  Crossing between a smoking mill with a red aura generated by molten steel and the Mesta Machinery plant, it rattled and clanked with age and instability.  Ever since we were little we had called it the “rickety bridge.”  I loved it.

One day that summer, somehow emblematic to me of the whole three months, I was driving along and, just as I began to cross the bridge, Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Goin’ to San Francisco” came on the radio.  At first I smiled, then – suddenly – without warning, I began to cry.  I ended up sobbing, almost unable to drive.  I still don’t know why.  The song was moving, of course, and very seductive, but now as I recall that day I think I was also crying for the side of me I couldn’t allow to rule.  I loved the ideals of the counterculture, adored the music and light shows and communes and home-made bread — but either my fear of the risk or my commitment to politics or both kept me home.

It was probably better.  I later left college to work in the anti-war campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy – a risk more suited to my nature and dreams.  Even so – remembering that day, which I do, with particular intensity – I’m still sad – for what I may have missed, for what the movement disintegrated into, for those shiny dreams that even then seemed a bit naive.  You know that old Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that ends: It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.  True then – and sometimes, just as true now.

When the “Homeless Problem” Lives Next Door

Homesless 112015Homeless, homeless, Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake  – Paul Simon

This is the alcove between our house and the building next door.  Our neighbor has been here for a couple of months now and we have to figure out what to do.  This being San Francisco, we are all – to varying degrees – terribly uncomfortable with the decisions tied to such a situation.

For a long time those of us who were most uneasy hoped we could just let him stay.   We live right at a busy bus stop though, and there’s a 4-year-old upstairs from us and a preschool across the street.  And I remember…

We lived in Manhattan, on Broadway and 79th St, in 1970’s and 80’s, when the city, and many of its inhabitants, were broke.  Homeless New Yorkers were placed in “welfare hotels” – beat-up old places nobody wanted;  there were 3 or 4 of those within blocks of our building.  An island with trees and some greenery divided the uptown/downtown sides of Broadway.  Many lost souls slept there too, especially where we were, above 72nd St. – and on the sidewalks and benches.

Once after school, when my older son was around five, we stepped off the bus on Amsterdam Ave, right outside PS 87’s playground, to find ourselves two steps from a man sleeping on the sidewalk next to the playground fence, his penis hanging out of his pants.  Other times the men (they were mostly men) suffered serious mental illness, yelling at voices none of the rest of us could hear.

Because the circumstances were so troubling, we worked to find ways for our kids to feel even a little bit empowered to help.  They always wanted to offer money.  We asked, if they did want to help, that they provide food, since so many just bought alcohol with spare change.  They did this often – buying a bagel or some juice at one of the neighborhood  bodegas and passing them on.  We also got involved with Paul Simon’s Children’s Health Fund, which sends medical vans and doctors to New York’s underserved neighborhoods.  In the 80’s the vans spent much of their time at family shelters and welfare hotels.  Our younger son chose it as his portion of family donations for years.  No effort, however, eliminated the fear.

We’d be walking through the discount stores on the Lower East Side and there would be a couple of homeless guys outside a door or on the corner.  I’d feel a little hand move into mine and, usually, squeeze pretty hard.  My husband, who worked in inner city medicine, always said “Don’t forget, they won’t hurt you; if you blew on them they’d fall over” but that information was only partly successful.  No matter how much they understood, no matter how much compassion they felt, many of these people scared them.

In other words, my personal experience with my own kids slams into my sense of that old Greater Good.  I know that a little kid getting scared once in a while is nothing compared to the ordeal the man next door faces every day but I keep remembering those small hands reaching out to mine and what I know remains, however faintly, from those daily encounters.  I know, too, that I’m partly hiding behind the interests of the lovely little boy upstairs and the school across the street.  Social services are limited by budget, so I’m reluctant to act and struggling to figure out what I think we should do.  No ending here – ending to come.

#Whiteprivilege, San Francisco Style (Not Big Things, Just Wrong Anyway)

The Street In Question
The Street In Question

It happened three times in one week; things that would have happened very differently to people of color.  First came a real, seriously sizable pack – yes pack – of teenage boys running down California Street after dark, screaming and cursing — looking maybe like all of them were chasing the first one.  Except for the dog and me, nobody seemed to care.  No one yelled “slow down” or “quiet down” in this family-rich neighborhood.  No one called the police to report a dangerous group of boys intent on making, if not trouble, at least way too much noise — and on a school night!  Did I mention that they were white?

Mt Lake trail 1
The Trail in Question

This morning, for the zillionth time, a very large off-leash dog came at our very large, protective, on-leash one. He feels helpless when he’s on a leash and approaching dogs aren’t, and gets very agitated.  When I called to the owners to please call their dog back toward them, they yelled at me!  Why does this matter?  The park trail is strictly for dogs on a leash.  Almost no one follows the rules. When we moved here, I asked our dog walker about it; she smiled indulgently and told me to “just turn around and go the other way.”  Each culprit, it seems, sees this particular infraction as ok – for them, and raising the issue would do no good.  Did I mention that they were white?

Night time crosswalk edited
One of the Crosswalks in Question

Finally, there’s this: California law requires drivers to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks.  Our non-commercial street is pretty busy despite being almost totally residential.   At least one in four drivers rush right through even when pedestrians are already into the street.  At night it’s more than that, and since they don’t see people as quickly in the dark, far more dangerous.  Did I mention that many of them are white?

We live in this neighborhood because it is diverse.  Signs in the library are posted in three languages (see below) and we hear more than that on the street, including Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Russian.  Even so, the people involved in this law-breaking  —  did I mention that they are all white?

The Library in Question
The Library in Question

For months I have had the privilege of listening to sisters of color speak and write among themselves and to the rest of us of the moment after moment, incident after incident, that are part of their lives.  Many are desperately terrifying or heartbreaking, or both.  Like the ones described here though, they are automatic assumptions of white privilege, of the right to break an inconvenient law without consequence and to censure people of color for similar infractions.  As  small as these examples are, or maybe because they are, they teach us how much we all presume, how automatically we assume it’s ok for us to break the law or the social contract.  What they haven’t taught us yet – horrible huge assault or small presumption, is how much each one diminishes us all.




This photo was taken at the closing plenary of BlogHer08 and I’ve barely covered the event at all.  There are so many moments I’d love to tell you about: readings by bloggers whose words hold incredible power; one by one they reveal intimate moments of sadness and joy, anger and hilarity.  The words, drawn from their posts, are the clearest evidence of the power of this institution, not yet five years old and already a gigantic force for good in the lives of the women who have come here.  So many more.

We’re all on our way home now;  to Austin and Sacramento and Virginia and Manhattan and Minneapois, energized for another year, ready to write and comment and commit ourselves to that which we create.  From these two days we’ve learned about traffic and writing, activism and art, gender and age tribalism, friendship, sisterhood and the joys of San Francisco.  What we gain here informs the rest of our year: makes us wiser and funnier and more determined.  And really, whatever I would have written had it not been for Sabbath obligations and general exhaustion boils down to that.  So thanks Elisa and Jory and Lisa (and Jill and Mary Margaret and Kristen and Asha and Erin and Sarah and Devra and Jill and Kari and Beth and Tekla and Catherine and the other Catherine and Morra and Nicole and Liz and Kelly and Jen and Julie ) and all the other beautiful bloggers who, when we’re all together, raise the roof of whatever building we happen to be in, and also – every one of our spirits and our hearts.




Citylights_night_2When I was in high school this was one of the places I dreamed of coming:  San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore.  Far from my home in Pittsburgh, arty, intellectual and free.  Ironic then that all these years later I’m here, usually, to visit sons ten years older than I was when I set my sights on Greenwich Village or Bloomsbury. . . or San Francisco. 

One lives here; the other’s girlfriend lives here so he pretty much commutes here from Seattle.  It’s a perfect place to meet and spend the holidays.  We came out for Thanksgiving and are here again, this time since Christmas day.

It’s been lovely, if a bit stressful: a new girlfriend for our younger one – we had dinner with her – and the pressure that comes from wanting infrequent visits to go well.  At best we see one another every couple of months; both boys wish we lived closer which makes me feel good but it’s tough that we don’t — and have not much prospect of ever moving this direction. 

Now it’s our last day and the usual burgeoning lump in the throat has appeared.  Both boys have been genuinely happy to be with us and have ditched their calendars to spend the week with us.  I’m very grateful for their attention – they think I’m nuts and say of course they want to be with us.  For some reason this astonishes me.  We do have fun – jabbering about everything from Benazir Bhutto to series television.  Lots of laughter and the additional delight of seeing the boys and Josh’s friend Amy laughing and enjoying one another’s company.  But as the time comes to leave, board the plane and fly back to our DC lives, a determined sadness permeates even the happiest of moments.  I once interviewed Naomi Foner, mother to Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal and the woman who wrote Running on Empty, a film about children leaving home in a particularly profound and complete way.  "Parenthood is the only job" she told me, "where you measure success by how well you say goodbye." 

Manifestly, we’ve done that well.  Our boys are strong, self-sufficient, productive men who are friends to one another and love their parents.  They know we’re here but know too that they can take care of themselves.  In that way, we’d be defined as successful.  But.  But.  No matter how proud I am, how grateful for their strength and wisdom, humor and goodness, I miss them. 

They are the treasures of my days and will always be, and the physical distance that prevents an easy Sunday afternoon movie or Chinese dinner and makes every visit an event is always a painful reality. 

I’ll deal with it and so will they.  It’s the way things are – and it’s certainly better to want them more than we see them than to have them sigh with relief when we leave for the airport.  And whether we’re there or not, their lives are rich and often joyful.  And so, I tell myself, at least when I’m missing them, I know they’ve become the men I would have wished them to be – for their sakes, not ours.  And that’s a lot.  It doesn’t put them here next to me — but it does send with me a quiet peace amid the sadness.  That’s really all I can – or should – travel with.  The rest — working toward and achieving what they want from their lives and moving forward in the world — belongs, as it should, to them.

Happy New Year.



We’re here to visit our remarkable,wonderful sons and having a lovely time – hence the virtual radio silence here.  Some things though, you need to share – even during a family vacation.

First of all, you always know when you come to San Francisco that you’ll see things that might elude you elsewhere, but this one is spectacular even for the capital of Blue State America.  This little guy is wearing a shirt that says "Don’t pat me, I’m working."  He’s apparently an assistance animal but we were damned if we could figure out what he was assisting in doing…   besides wheeling through Chinatown making friends.

Lucky Revolution Vegan Chinese Restaurant (outside of which the Monkey rolled past us.)   Great combination fried rice and hotpot eggplant, too

This is the site of Dave Eggars‘ tutorial project 826 Valencia, now expanding to other cities.  Author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, founder of McSweeney’s publishing and The Believer magazine, he’s built a place to effectively teach writing and communication to underserved kids.  It’s embarrassing to wander in, thinking oneself fairly cool for knowing to come here — and to discover — a gift shop!  Clearly Eggars and his crew have built something very attractive — and become a tourist attraction.

One block from 826 Valencia and across the street, this blast from the past — windows jammed with anti-war and other political messages.  This is not, of course, limited to San Francisco, especially these days, but it just seems so at home here.

Yesterday my husband announced that he had a surprise for me – and dragged me out of the hotel for breakfast.  Next thing I knew, we were aboard a cable car for the first time since somewhere around 1971, right after we got married and came to Stanford for him to finish school.  It was a great ride on a rainy morning.

We passed this – the top of Lombard Street, San Francisco’s zig-zaggiest.


And ended up here – at the famous Buena Vista Cafe.  Famous as the place that invented Irish Coffee, across the street from the end of the cable car line and just above Fishermen’s Wharf, it’s a true landmark a place we used to love.  It was so great to return and sit by the window watching this city’s every-changing tourist scene.  On this corner, it could still have been 1971 when we first came here.  There’s something lovely about a return like this especially when it’s a gift.  My sweet husband triumphant once again… 36 years after our first visit!

More pix soon.  Goodnight for now.


Of course there’s only one way to celebrate Christmas in San Francisco if you’re Jewish – tear over to the New Asia Restaurant for a little Kung Pao Kosher Comedy.  Now in its fifteenth year, this nutty evening is a great way to spend Christmas night – even if you’re not Jewish. Founder Lisa Geduldig invented King Pao for lonely and/or bored San Francisco Jews with nothing to do on Christmas and it’s now a beloved tradition and sells out 8 shows, filling a huge Chinese banquet hall and dispensing audience members to 10-person tables with names like Matzo Brei and Joan Rivers.  You can see how big it is just below.

Kung_pao_crowd_blur1_2Beyond all this, there’s also a full balcony.  The crowd is interesting – kids from Berkeley Hillel, families, couples, groups of pals and random strays.  Unfortunately, this "kosher comedy" night isn’t kosher so we went to the "cocktail" show and didn’t eat but it was really fun.  The other three acts were good, but really amazing was to see Shelley Berman, celebrating his 50th year in comedy so close to where he began at The Hungry i all those years ago. 


He now, in addition to his comedy appearances, plays Larry David’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm and a judge on Boston Legal so he’s not exactly unknown, but last night was an introduction for many clearly enchanted young people in the audience.  And he does it all with a gentle humor devoid of cruelty or crassness.  It’s interesting to me what we can forget about what’s possible not only between one another but also between a performer and an audience when there is high regard — real respect — going both directions.

Berman_blur_tight_4What that meant was that, amid the hilarity, I, as usual, landed in a philosophical and somewhat political frame of mind.  How have we come to a place where this sort of performance is so rare?  Surely we can’t be without excellent, respectful performers.  Clearly, in this hip, modern audience, there was no sense that this style was antiquated or tired.  But it’s a long way between evenings like this.  I guess a live Springsteen show is another true exchange between performer and audience.  But in entertainment, and sadly, in politics, there sure isn’t much that leaves everyone knowing they’re valuable, worthy people who’ve shared laughter and even moments of emotional connection with those in a position to "address" them.  And yeah I know this is pretty much to stand on the shoulders of a stand-up comic but I’m kind of following my head this morning and that’s where it took me.

Oh – one more thing.  Just before the show started my son pointed across the room and found one of his brother’s oldest friends – also a friend of his – a musician who’s been living across the country in Stockbridge MA, waving at us.  Each delighted – and impressed — at the other’s presence, we were very glad to see one another but, despite differences in age, geography and lifestyle, not at all surprised that each would choose to be there.


This has been a wonderful trip, and by the time this appears I’ll be returning to Washington, the city by the Bay behind us.  We’re going back at the end of December so it’s not as sad as sometimes, but when you leave your children it’s bittersweet at best.  Most of what we did was more wandering than scenic but here’s a bit of it.
Tour trolley


Balloon gladiator with sword

Apple_1 San Francisco Apple store the Friday after Thanksgiving
It was a mob scene


Apple 2

More when we land.  That’s all for now. 


It’s almost Shabbos and I have to be quick – I’ll write more tomorrow.  This city is so remarkable in its diversity of people, ideas and lifestyles.  Our kids thrive in the variety and we’re enjoying seeing them in their element.  We got back so late though that that’s all I can write for now.  More after Shabbos – tomorrow’s post, like this one, will go up automatically on a timer.


Union_squareThis is far from the prettiest part of this very beautiful city but it’s where we went walking today because it’s near our hotel. I’ll try to have better pix tomorrow. There is certainly lots of beauty here – down by the bay (as Raffi would say), coming in from the airport, atop those remarkable hills — here’s the way up on one of the ones we walked today (not so gorgeous either but for now…. that’s what we’ve got.)


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving – have a wonderful day. I’ll be back before Thursday midnight.