If you’re showing San Francisco to a visitor, don’t skip Alcatraz. It’s one of those rare tourist attractions that’s everything you’ve been led to expect, but also more. On the off chance anyone is unfamiliar with Alcatraz, it’s a former federal prison on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The roughest and scariest prisoners were sent there, because escape seemed impossible – even if an inmate found a way out of the prison, how would he get across the water?
Alcatraz was exhausting, because there’s a lot of walking, and sobering, because there’s a lot to think about. Stephanie and I spent hours on the grounds, walking past hundreds of empty but unchanged prison cells, and it’s simply not a place for light conversation or joking around. When we broke for lunch, our conversation was about what justice ought to mean, and how prisons ought to be run, which is largely the opposite of how prisons are run. We were entirely in agreement, and while our day at Alcatraz wasn’t intended as a test, it allowed each of us to verify that the other was capable of a deep, serious conversation. In my life, I’ve known a fair number of people who simply couldn’t or wouldn’t have gone even a few sentences into the conversation Steph and I had that afternoon.
Over the rest of Stephanie’s stay in San Francisco, I tried to show her the town, because San Francisco in the 1990s was undeniably cool and I was proud of it. The Bohemians hadn’t yet been forced out of town by impossible rents, Haight-Ashbury still had an echo of its groovy vibe from the ‘60s, and a grand time could be had for the price of a ticket on BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system – we took rides to the end of the line and back on every BART route, just to talk and hold hands, and see the sights out the window.
We didn’t visit San Francisco’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf, because that’s just a gaudy tourist trap. We did visit Golden Gate Park, because it’s gorgeous and inviting, just like Stephanie. We saw the Mission, since that’s the part of town where I lived. We had lunch in the Castro, the rainbow flag-flying neighborhood where outcasts from everywhere else gather to become each others’ families. We rode on the cable cars, halfway to the stars. We went to the zine store, where Zine World and oodles of other homemade newsletters and magazines were on the shelf.
The first movie we saw together (first of hundreds, maybe thousands) was Barbie Nation, a documentary about Barbie dolls, at the Roxie Theatre. It was my idea to see that movie; it looked interesting, and the Roxie was literally just around the corner from where I lived. We shared a big bowl of buttery popcorn, and we both thought the flick was excellent, with a lot to say about how girls are gently nudged toward gender conformity, and judged on their appearance so much more than boys are. Steph was impressed by the movie, and impressed by me for suggesting it.
So I scored points for being a feminist, which I am and always have been. Ask me about women’s liberation, and I’ll just say it shouldn’t be radical or outrageous to believe that women deserve the same rights and opportunities as men. It ought to go without saying, but apparently it still needs to be said.
We went to City Lights, the famous book store and publisher of Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and books by André Breton, Charles Bukowski, Sam Shepard, and much of the pantheon of 20th Century American literature. If you care about books or reading or the English language, City Lights is where your heroes hang out, and we spent hours there. I got lost in the basement, and we left with a bag of books for a reasonable price.
In the same neighborhood, we strolled past the hungry i (lower-case intentional), the legendary nightclub that gave big career boosts to many famous comedians, including Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Professor Irwin Corey, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Mort Sahl – on and on. We strolled past the place but didn’t go inside, because these days their only entertainment is “exotic dancers.” It’s become a strip joint with a famous sign out front.
We went to an Oakland A’s baseball game, our first of many. We both liked baseball, a lot, and I’m not certain but we may have gone to our second Oakland A’s game too, during Steph’s two-week visit. It’s the perfect date activity – you’re outside and there’s entertainment, but it’s slow-paced entertainment, without much to interrupt an easy-going conversation between two people falling in love.
This was pre-9/11, so security guards weren’t yet digging through everyone’s backpack, and to save money on concessions I packed some sandwiches – tuna, and peanut butter and jelly. She ate a sandwich and a half without complaint during the game, but told me later that the sandwiches were far too dry – the tuna needed more mayo, and the PBJs needed more jelly. Sorry, Love.
I brought her to the office where I worked, and that was a calculated risk. It was a porn magazine, and even though I only did clerical work – data entry and proofreading and such – lots of ladies might have hesitations about a man who worked there. Steph, of course, was fine with it. (By the way, my boss at that job was a great guy, and he’s passed away since then, as has the magazine, but he’d scowl at me for calling it porn – “Doug,” he’d holler, “it’s not porn, it’s erotica!”)
In Chinatown, we visited one of the many family-run shops selling all sorts of Chinese-made doodads and trinkets, and Stephanie bought a sackful of stuff to take back to Madison and give to her family and friends as gifts. What got my attention, though, was that she didn’t take an hour dawdling around the two stories of store; she briskly walked through the place, focused on an area with affordable but interesting knickknacks, and we were in and out in about ten minutes. My lady didn’t dawdle.
We ate at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant up a flight of stairs in Chinatown. Why did we go to a vegetarian restaurant, when neither of us were vegetarians? Good question, and I don’t have a good answer, except that Stephanie was vegetarian-curious at the time. Chinese cuisine, for me anyway, is mostly about the meat, and the interesting sauces and breadings and dips they prepare – for the meat. So a Chinese dinner without meat was a screwball challenge, a dare we had to accept. And guess what? The food was bland, we left most of it uneaten, and we stopped at a McDonald’s on our way home. And never again did Stephanie express any interest in becoming a vegetarian.
The hamburger didn’t get along well with the meatless Chinese food, because later that night Stephanie said her tummy was troubling her, but she hadn’t remembered to pack her preferred antacid. I offered to run to a drug store and get it, and she said, “No, that’s silly. My stomach hurts but I’m perfectly capable of walking to a drug store.”
“Well, nobody doubts that you’re capable. I’m just doubting that’s what you want to do, ‘cuz you seem to be miserable. I’m your host and your friend, and I hope you’ll let me fetch what you need.”
She relented, and told me what brand and flavor of belly elixir she preferred. I was back in five minutes, and I didn’t even have to go to the drug store; there was a tiny this-and-that shop run by an old Pakistani guy, just a few doors down the street from my rez hotel, and they had Steph’s cherry-flavored Maalox on the shelf.
How many times did I run little errands like that for Steph, and she for me, over the rest of our time together? Many hundreds of times; that’s how many. We fetched newspapers for each other, and milk shakes, coffee, medicines, stamps, fuses, whatever. I only wish I could’ve run a few thousand more errands for her.
By her second or third day in San Francisco, Stephanie and I had decided that we were together for life. We were already married, in our hearts. The only question was whether I’d be moving to Madison or she’d be moving to San Francisco, and it was answered when we went to San Francisco’s Russian area, in the Richmond neighborhood.
Steph had a degree in Russian Language, she’d spent some time in Russia, and she was more than a little enthralled with all things Russian. It’s no surprise, then, that she was double-darn delighted to walk among all the Russian shops and churches, smell Russian food, and overhear people speaking Russian on the sidewalk. We stopped at a couple of Russianesque shops, and she bought some blini and pirozhki and ptichie moloko, all of which became our lunch. Then, while we were waiting for the avtobus back to my place, she said, “I have to move here. Madison is a great place to live, but San Francisco is better.”
With the benefit of hindsight, I’d say that’s wrong. I’ve now lived in Madison longer than I lived in San Francisco, and Madison is better, for myriad reasons I won’t list here. But right or wrong, the decision had been made that day, so we started planning Stephanie’s move to California.
Two weeks after she’d flown to Frisco for a one-week vacation, she flew back to Wisconsin, and we resumed writing to each other, letters long and frequent. We made many long-distance calls, and she packed, and we made the arrangements for our re-connection. The logistics would take a few months, but then we’d have forever.
More about Stephanie.