Bellingham by the Bay

Hopes and fears at Christmas

Back in June 1995, 100,000 people paraded down Market Street to the Ferry Building to see a show honoring Herb Caen.

The weather seemed to approve. It was a gorgeous day. Not a cloud in the sky. Joel Gray brought an orchestra from New York, Huey Lewis and the News sang a capella hits from the 1950s, and Walter Cronkite provided praise for his old friend, describing his amazement at such a crowd turning out for a newspaper columnist.

Marcia Brandwynne anchored a live broadcast on Channel 5. I was hired to provide color commentary.

“What is Walter Cronkite doing here, Bruce?” Marcia asked on the air.

“Cronkite,” I explained, “met Herb when they were both correspondents during World War II. They flew in B-25s, on bombing runs over Germany. They remained friends over the decades.”

I recited that from memory, and I was very grateful when Cronkite told the same story from the stage. Yikes. To contradict Walter Cronkite would have been worse than blasphemy. … Later, lunch was served for a couple dozen guests on the patio at Flicka McGurrin’s Pier 29 restaurant. I was seated between two San Francisco legends: football great R.C. Owens and Carol Doda, the woman who introduced topless dancing to the city, and to the world.

Carol was truly one-of-a-kind. She died of kidney failure last month at the age of 78. It seems indecent to mark the age of a woman who was a real survivor — indefatigable — getting through the travail of working at Broadway’s Condor Club, navigating mobsters, hordes of lecherous men, and SFPDs vice squad, as well as bearing the weight of silicone-injected 44D breasts that were once insured by Lloyd’s of London. When Carol took her top off that fateful night as she sat on the Steinway grand at The Condor, you knew the 1960s had arrived. The Summer of Love wasn’t far off. … “Carol was so sweet, so kind,” Diane Weissmuller recalls. “She was a bundle of positive energy, never cruel to anyone.” And she was funny. Amazing for someone who endured all sorts of vulgarity. … After the dancing days danced away, Carol opened a lingerie shop on Union Street. I’d drop in sometimes, but there never was anything in my size. Carol never lost her penchant for performance, singing regularly with her band at Gino & Carlo in North Beach. Yes, she was indefatigable, truly one of a kind. …

Former Mayor Art Agnos is recovering from open-heart surgery. He’s doing well, I hear. Art officiated at my wedding to Susan Bolding in 1990. Being of Greek extraction, he had me stomp on a water glass, wrapped in a napkin, during the ceremony. Nice Mediterranean touch. … I believe in Art’s durability. He survived being shot twice by the Zebra Killers in 1974. Art was a social worker on a sidewalk on Potrero Hill at the time. Always the public servant. We must applaud the Trauma Unit at San Francisco General Hospital for saving his life. … Speaking of hospitals, I offer a shout-out to St. Francis Memorial … St. Mary’s … and CPMC in Pacific Heights. I’ve been to all of them this year because of chronic heart trouble. “I think we’re gonna run out of ambulances for you, Bruce,” quipped a paramedic as I was transported to St. Francis. I’m grateful for the S.F. Fire Department, too. Good guys. … I think I could write hospital food reviews at this point. …

“What would St. Francis of Assisi do if he learned San Francisco was named for him?” I once asked Father William Myers. “I don’t know if he’d laugh or cry,” William said tersely. … Sometimes I think living in San Francisco is like enduring a bad marriage. There’s occasional abuse, but I keep staying here. It’s been 45 years. … One of a kind? Caen used to write “Only in San Francisco” items. I noticed that there’s a plaque in the sidewalk in the Tenderloin honoring Alex de Renzy for bringing pornographic movies to town. The newly opened Tenderloin Museum on Eddy Street (I saw the ever-attentive Herb Gold checking it out last month), six years in the making, displays artifacts that recall San Francisco’s days as an “open city,” when the Tenderloin provided “prostitution, gambling, and drinking.” Come to think of it, the neighborhood hasn’t changed that much. … Drinking? Oh, yes, I remember. Early one morning the then-captain of the northern police station, Ann Mannix, rang me. “Sorry to call so early, Bruce,” she explained, “But I have to go to a funeral this morning.” “Anyone I know?” I asked. “It’s our former chief, Alex Fagan. If you drink, Bruce, don’t quit,” she suggested. ‘Alex stopped drinking, and he was dead in two weeks.” … I’ll keep it in mind. …

It could have been a wonderful life: The director of the famed Christmas movie, Frank Capra, lived in the old Eddy Hotel in the 1920s. Today it’s the Drake Hotel. Capra managed to get out of the Tenderloin. He was a great success in Hollywood. It’s a Wonderful Life will be on TV at Christmas as long as there’s Christmas. … Among my holiday faves, Bill Forsyth’s Comfort & Joy, and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story. I spoke to Jean years ago and asked if he could give advice “to a young writer living in San Francisco.” … “Get the hell out of San Francisco!” he barked. “It’s too seductive. Ever hear of a successful writer living in the Virgin Islands?” …

I love Nob Hill. I make sure I wander through Huntington Park at Christmas, if only to see the gingerbread house in the lobby of the Fairmont. Yes, that mysterious, secretive couple is in the darkness of the park. They sit on a bench, away from the madding crowd. The San Francisco Girl’s Chorus is singing Christmas carols. The couple clutch each other tightly, aware of the dangers in the world, but glad to have each other. It’s a good time to be in love. “Will it be a good Christmas?” she whispers apprehensively. “It’s going to be great,” he replies assuredly, holding her hand. We are going to make it the best Christmas.” … I could swear I can hear angels singing. Must be the eggnog. …

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. He says the Virgin Islands look better all the time. Pester him at [email protected].

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