Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass…”
One of Angela’s childhood best friends lives in San Jose. Her name is Stephanie and she grew up in St. Louis two houses away from Angela’s. Stephanie came to visit us in Seattle shortly after her son Henry was born. At that time it was just she and Henry. Now she has a partner named Enid, and Enid and Stephanie have together adopted a little girl named Zoe, whom they call Zozo.
We hadn’t seen much of Stephanie since then, and none of us had ever met Enid or Zoe; we saw Stephanie in St. Louis years ago when Angela’s father died — she happened to be in the old city for Christmas visiting her family. She also popped in on Angela one day last year while she was in town and met Millie for the first time.
It’s been a tough year for us, death-in-the-family-wise; my sister, who was not old, died exactly one year ago, and since then, we’ve lost a cousin, two uncles, and an aunt, all of whom were not young. All of these passages have left us feeling…well…feeling how that feels. One of the things Angela and I have agreed on lately is that we want to make more of an effort to visit our farther-flung loved ones, because there isn’t really anything more important than your friends and family, and life is short even when it’s long, and you never know. I have been particularly remiss in this regard. In my youth I considered myself something of a traveler, but it was all for the sake of adventures in which I made the easy acquaintance of numerous interesting and worthy people, only to fail to stay in touch with them. I certainly have never been keen to get on airplanes just to visit people. I actually developed a fear of flying as an adult, when I learned that they only engineer aircraft to barely overcome the forces that would like to pull them to the ground, and that the reason for this is cost-savings and market competition. Each time a plane takes off and lands successfully, it’s just 10 cents surplus of being a miracle.
We decided to visit Stephanie and Enid and the kids. Stephanie’s mother Cheryl and step-father Brian would be visiting at the same time, and Stephanie’s family had been like a second family to Angela. Since it’s just two hours from Seattle, San Jose would be a good starter flight, not only for me but for the girls. San Jose is not normally a hot place, really, and at this time of year not even particularly warm, but the Bay area was having a really nice weekend for the first days of Spring during a year when California is experiencing record drought, while Seattle and the northwest have been experiencing such uncommonly heavy rains that an entire mountain along the Stillaguamish River, after twice the average monthly precipitation saturated its loose soil of glacial till, fell down athwart the river last week and destroyed the small town of Oso in a matter of seconds (the dead so far number 30; rescuers are still searching for survivors, and a dozen people are still missing).
Our purpose was to just hang out. I didn’t know Enid at all, but I know Angela and I’ve seen her and Stephanie when they reunite, and I figured my weekend would be mostly entertaining all the children while the ladies yak-yak-yakked. I didn’t mind this, really, but I underestimated both my spouse and our hosts. When Stephanie asked Angela what we’d like to do while we were visiting, Angela said that she herself would be happy to sit around tall cups of tea and just catch up (see?), but noted that “Matthew gets dragged to St. Louis and hangs out and no one has ever even taken him to the Arch.” At hearing this, Stephanie and Enid hatched a plan with Stephanie’s mom whereby the kids would stay at the house with Grandma Cheryl (Brian would be flying in later that night) while the four of us would drive up to San Francisco and have dinner at…well, you just wait. They could not have chosen a more Matt-friendly outing.
Unfortunately, I was only half thinking of a blog post while we were away, so I only took a few photos, which include only one of Zoe and none of Henry. I’m only posting this because I wrote it, and I only wrote it because I felt like writing. Not great reasons for publication, and I apologize for that, but once again I fall back on the fact that my girls may someday value any jottings that describe family adventures. So here we go.
I’ve Got Lots of Friends
We got into San Jose midday after an easy flight that would have been absolutely trouble-free had I not accidentally left my Buck knife in the backpack I was using for my luggage, which is also the pack I hike with and is thus equipped at all times with the Ten Essentials and their many non-essential cousins. And actually, the flight was a dream; it was only my passage through Security that was unsmooth. They saw it “clear as day” on the monitor as the pack went through on the belt, but they couldn’t find it to save their lives and asked me to come over while they rifled my underwear — this was just to embarrass me apparently, because even though I knew which pocket it was likely to be in I was instructed that I was not to touch the pack while they were looking through it. After five minutes, they checked a pocket they had checked once before and — voila! — there it was. I was lucky. They let me mail it to myself at the small cost of $12 shipping and a trip backward through Security accompanied by two guards to the mailing station, a brilliant little airport amenity that exists solely as a mercy to people who are absentminded enough to attempt bringing cutlery on jet airliners.
It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and after meeting everyone and hanging out for a bit, I decided to go find a sorely needed cup of coffee. I had previously mapped out San Jose’s used bookshops — what? of course I did that — and it turned out that our hosts lived only four blocks away from one of the city’s best, Recycle Books, and there was a local indie coffeehouse hard by called Crema (there was also a Starbucks and a Peet’s, but I like to keep it small). So while Stephanie fired up the barbecue in preparation for dinner, Mara and I headed out, I afoot and she on a borrowed scooter. I didn’t have much time in the bookstore, but we got Mara Bone #9 (Crown of Horns) and even though Angela had brought some artisan chocolates as a hostess gift, I bought a copy of Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a book of short stories that occupies, in hardback first edition, an honored place on my bookshelf at home. I thought Stephanie or Enid, or both of them, would enjoy it. I almost bought, but did not, a nice hardback first of Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, not only because I had never heard of the book and so was undergoing that consumer uncertainty that sometimes strikes when you’re holding something that might be a treasure but might also not be, but also I was traveling and didn’t feel like hauling it (or having airport Security consider such writing a dangerous weapon or something unAmerican and therefore confiscable). The prices were reasonable, but it wasn’t a steal, so I passed. Probably a mistake.
Stephanie and I and Mara and Zoe walked the dogs that evening, and in the dark we passed the Rosicrucian Museum, which, gosh, that startled me. I read about the Rosicrucians either in an Umberto Eco novel or else that ridiculous little book about The Davinci Code, and somehow I had either forgotten or not realized that the order was real. I read their sheet and frankly, I was pretty much in agreement with their outlook. It was all about practicing peace personally in order to achieve peace globally. I can think of less constructive credos.
If You’re Going
Stephanie and Enid’s house is beautiful. Full of art, bright colors, lots of light coming in the windows into rooms where people enjoy life. It’s a craftsman bungalow that was originally as small as bungalows originally were (in Seattle we talk of Craftsman bungalows but they are two and three story affairs and always were, so they aren’t really true bungalows).
We spent the morning there over a long breakfast of bagels and lox and cream cheese and fruit. I asked the kids if they wanted to go find a playground, since the sun was out again, but Millie and Zoe, who are only a year apart in age, were playing at something and not available for a long walk, so Mara and I hit the road again and ended up at San Jose’s famous five-and-a-half-acre Municipal Rose Garden, which has more than 1,300 plantings representing some 189 varieties.
It was early in the year so there were only a few in bloom, but we got the map and I went around to each of the ones marked as particularly fragrant and stuck my nose in each one that was in bloom. Just because that’s how I think life is to be lived. What else are we doing here? Some of the roses’ names were familiar to me from my days in the nursery business. Sunsprite, Givenchy, Double Delight, Secret, Just Joey.
Henry, who is now 14, had a little league game at midday, and in fact pitched for the first time since he was very small. He was nervous about it, doesn’t like pitching, and while he walked a few more than he’d have liked, he also shut down the batter’s box when the bases were loaded by striking out the right players at the right moments. We were all proud of him.
Enid drove us up to San Francisco in the early afternoon. It took an hour or two to get there and we drove around a little along the Embarcadero before turning in toward the financial district and pulling up in front of the Tadich Grill, San Francisco’s (and they claim, California’s) oldest continuously running restaurant. This is a place I could write an entire post about. The Tadich Grill opened during the gold rush of 1849 as a coffee stand. It has changed names once, changed hands a number of times, and isn’t on the same street it used to be on, but it’s the dining establishment that San Franciscan’s consider their quintessential restaurant. It’s just one big room cloaked in a dark wood mantle; the side walls of vibrant yellow ochre are very high and innocent of decoration of any kind. They don’t take reservations, you just have to come and hope for the best.
Until a restaurant acquires a little prestige, at least local prestige, it can’t sensibly require reservations. To require reservations is to claim such popularity that more people want to dine at your eatery than it can accommodate. But the Tadich Grill is one of those places that achieves über-popularity and comes full circle, refusing to take reservations no matter who you are. “Your guests may very well have to stand in line waiting for a table,” says their website. “If they are famous, important, or influential people, they will still have to wait.”
We got there at about 4:00 in the afternoon, Enid handed the car keys to a valet, and we were seated immediately. The crowd arrived a short time later. The Tadich is most famous for its cioppino, and Stephanie and Angela both ordered that. We couldn’t all order the cioppino, so Enid and I both blazed some gustatory trail, she via the halibut and I by the Dungeoness crab al forno, a baked entree recommended by our waiter, an older gentleman with a vaguely European accent who was cheerful, dignified, slightly and appropriately condescending and just attentive enough. All the waiters were older white gentlemen, and probably all of them had vaguely European accents. I noticed that behind me on the wall was a thing like an old doorbell ringer, probably for getting the attention of the waiter. I really wanted to push this button but there wasn’t anything I needed.
Enid grew up in Boston and is accustomed to aggressive drivers. Unfazed by big city traffic, she took us on a driving tour of the city as the sun set. It was the perfect long moment. We drove up California to the first crest of Nob Hill and turned right onto Mason Street and passed the Fairmont Hotel. The views of the bay were startling and wondrous as we descended into Chinatown, thence over to North Beach and Columbus Avenue, where I saw the famous City Lights bookshop and almost started barking like a dog to get at it. We circled around and headed along the shore toward the Golden Gate Bridge, but turned up Divisidero to reascend into the city’s lofty neighborhoods. I was surprised at how big this city was, I mean width-wise. I thought it was just a little hill up from the bay and over to the ocean side, but it’s several hills and several miles, and the miles and hills are absolutely covered with old buildings that have escaped the development that has ravaged urban cores in every other major city in America (I don’t know, I’m just saying that; I haven’t seen that many other American cities). Anyway, with Seattle as my reference point, San Francisco seemed alarmingly vast, and I had no idea that so much of it has been preserved from the years just after their big earthquake and fire in 1906.
Enid gave us the very best tour you could hope to have by car as an introduction to San Francisco. From the top of the hill around Alamo Park, we looked over the top of the houses known as the Painted Ladies at the modern skyline beyond — this is a famous and oft photographed prospect. If there was one place I wish I’d hopped out and taken a photo, that was it. But I was content to just take it all in. From whatever neighborhood that was, we descended to Haight Ashbury, where the hippies still are, and then to Castro, the gay neighborhood, and then the Mission district, where we stopped for ice cream. In all of these neighborhoods there seemed to be restaurants on every block, none of them chains. Enid said San Francisco has a sort of anti-chain ethos. I never saw so many people eating out at restaurants in my life. Everyone in the city seemed to be on the sidewalk or sitting in a restaurant or cafe.
I Need the Water to Wash My Soul
Sunday we all went to the beach. We crossed the Santa Cruz mountains as the morning clouds were lifting and set up a picnic above the tideline. Stephanie and Enid had discovered an uncrowded beach near a small town called Aptos at the north end of Monterey Bay. We had packed swimming apparel for the trip from Seattle, but it was a cold, cloudy spring day in San Jose and we doubted anyone would be getting wet. Except Mara. I knew Mara would go in even if it was snowing. She wore her bathing suit under her clothes. There were seals up the beach in Santa Cruz, and where there be seals there be sharks. For this and other reasons (riptides, I affirmed later), I posted myself on the wet sand so that I could be in the water in a flash if Mara or anyone else got into trouble. We were there several hours and Mara spent the entire time splashing around in the surf and collecting heaps of kelp.
I built one of my elaborate sand castles with tunnels and towers and multilevel courtyards. The sun was shining but the wind was chilly. Still, when I dipped my toes in the water it was not very cold. When it was time to leave, I was overcome by an urge to jump into the Pacific. I could, I was wearing shorts. Henry had done it and had spent the hour afterward shivering. But it had been about ten years since the last time I had gone in over my head in the ocean, and I had no idea when the next opportunity would be. The others were packing up and heading to the cars. I dumped my phone, wallet, keys and glasses on the sand and removed my belt. Mara and I waded out and after advancing and retreating a few times, I dove in. It wasn’t that bad. I did it a second time just so no one could say the first time was an accident. Mara hopping chest deep reached for me and said “hold my hands, Dad, hold my hands!” I grabbed both her hands just as a wave came and she dropped down under. It was a good bonding moment that we were able to relive several times that day.
On the way back we stopped at Santa Cruz and walked out onto the pier to look at the seals that had hauled out underneath it. They’re loud and they stink, just so you know. But hey, they’re livin’ the dream, just like we are. I bet they’d say it doesn’t get any better than this.