Bellingham by the Bay

A muttering instinct

They’ve put up the Christmas decorations at the Fairmont. That means the tractor beam of the holidays is in full swing. All in all, it’s a captivating sight. One has to be missing a heart not to be moved by the out-and-out sweetness of the poinsettias adorning the entrance. Even touching to this Christmas Curmudgeon. Inside the Fairmont lobby, the most comely in San Francisco, the gingerbread house is in place. Children are excited; everyone seems well dressed and cheerful. Why not be cheerful during these uneasy times when the money seems scarce? It won’t cost us anything to spend a little hope for all good things. That’s what I keep telling myself.

You have to start off each day with a song. That was the advice of Jimmy Durante. That’s certainly taken to heart by Tom Wolfe, the chief concierge at the Fairmont. He is also the official historian of the grand palace atop Nob Hill.

“I’m making a film called A Day in the Life of a Concierge,” says Tom. “It begins with me looking at the ceiling, then playing a Schubert song, ‘Die Neugierige,’ then listening to BBC News.”

That’s the day in the life of a civilized man. Well, that’s just the beginning of the day.

Yes, they have lit all the trees in Huntington Park. But the Huntington Hotel is no longer part of the ritual; the Nob Hill Association now handles it. I will miss the Big 4’s Simon Harrington pouring hot chocolate for everyone while the San Francisco Girls Chorus warble marvelously.

“Yes, it’s a shame that we are no longer part of the tree-lighting,” says the Huntington’s Cynthia Reid. “But it’s good to know the tree lighting goes on.”

And so it goes.

And now, Trader Joe’s has opened on Nob Hill. It’s not the 24-hour operation that the former Cala Foods maintained, but it seems to make the locals pleased. Trader Joe’s is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. I miss Trader Vic’s, but that’s the old-timer in me. One night, on Cosmo Alley, I went to a party for one of Herb Caen’s books, a collection of his columns. “Bellingham,” Herb says to me, “I know what you’re doing. You’re lining your pockets with wax paper so you can steal the canapés.”

Yes, it’s an old Depression joke.These days it doesn’t seem so funny.

Here’s an unanswered question: What are you doing New Year’s Eve? That’s a great old song. My favorite Christmas album is by Big Joe Williams. What are we going to do without him? I got to meet Big Joe back in the 1970s with Count Basie when I worked at the Great American Music Hall. True gentlemen with very large diamond rings. Lucky boy am I just to breathe the same atmosphere as they. When I think of Christmas, I think of Joe Williams, and all the wonderful people in the world, past and here. My brother, Paul, turned me onto Carla Thomas when I was a kid. She has a splendid recording of “All I Want for Christmas.” My advice for New Year’s Eve, by the way, is to go to the Big 4, when they pour champagne on the house at midnight. Boy, they will be unhappy with me for writing that. “The Big 4 is the best saloon in San Francisco,” David McCullough told me. Only Mr. McCullough could call the Big 4 a saloon.

I had a birthday the other day. It reminds me when Paul gave me a birthday present when I was 12. Paul was a hospital corpsman with the U.S. Navy. He handed me a copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference, the bible of the pharmaceutical world. My future was mapped out before me, I suppose.

Pat Kelley, the Marina wonderment at the Balboa Cafe, is back from her annual two weeks in Puerto Vallarta. Nah, she’s not scared by all the violence down there. Has it changed since Liz and Dick put it on the map with the shooting of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece, Night of the Iguana? Sometimes good craziness becomes bad craziness. It looks bad right now. But Christmas has a way of superseding sadness.

So here’s a shout-out to Maurice Kanbar, the most generous man in San Francisco. And to Diane Weissmuller, who continues to regale me with stories and remind me when I cooked up Chili Chicken at the Gazebo Cafe on Polk Street in the 1970s for O.J. Simpson, and the lovely Nicole. And to Carole Vernier, who, again, is a master storyteller. To Stephen Cornell, the owner of Brownie’s Hardware, and who loves his city very much. To Josh Abik, who runs Dunya on Polk. To Dr. Harvey Caplan, who watches over Cow Hollow. To Sharon Anderson, who is a talent without limits. To Michael Rawls, the prince of Nob Hill. To Johanna Pitochelli, who makes travel available for those of us who’d like to escape from something. To Dr. Deborah Brown, a brilliant doctor and a clarinetist to boot. To Mason Williams, who sends me Christmas music every year. To all the people who keep this paper sweetly alive. It’s an act of tremendous faith: Susan Dyer Reynolds, Earl Adkins, Lynette Majer, Cindy Beckman. Thanks for having me over to visit.

I can’t help myself. The romantic beast in me drives me to wander through Huntington Park at Christmas. And this Christmas Curmudgeon listens to the landscape. It’s full of hopeful signals. That couple over there, for example. They think they’re hiding from the world. They’re holding onto each other. It seems they’re clutching each other more tightly than ever. I apologize. I can hear their whispers. “Do you think it’s going to be all right?” she asks. “Yes,” he responds, “For sure. If you keep muttering like this, I will have no choice but to love you even more. You make Christmas real to me, not just a dream.”

And, as I stagger into the New Year, my advice goes like this: You’ve got to start off each day with a song.

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. Send him a suggestion at [email protected]. He’ll put you on the playlist.