Bellingham by the Bay

No worries: It’s all uphill from here

When I find myself in trouble — those occasions are more frequent than I would like to admit — I take a long walk along the water. That’s the Marina Green to Fort Point and back again. That usually relieves my relentless anxiety. But certain city blocks will suffice. Hyde Street between Clay and Union … Upper Grant Avenue in North Beach … the serpentine trail up to the Palace of the Legion of Honor. That’s where Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker sits and ponders, What the hell am I doing here? Good question. I’ve been in San Francisco for over 40 years and still haven’t a clue why I’m here. But I know it’s a great walking town with its famous hills that intimidate the faint of heart. 

Herb Gold, the literary prince of Russian Hill, turned 90 last month. It has much to do with his daily walking regimen. And keeping the juices flowing by turning out more than 30 books. … Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher, poet, and Patriarch of the Beats, turned 95 in March. He, too, keeps a habit of swimming and walking. Lawrence observed: “The dog trots freely in the street and sees reality …” Poets and dogs are notable walkers. The Wall Street Journal’s Amanda Foreman discovered that WordsworthColeridge … and Shelley were devoted walkers. Walker. It’s even my middle name. I’ve not driven a car in 29 years. Thomas De Quincey was sure that Wordsworth’s daily constitutionals contributed to “what is excellent in his writings.” … “Back in the day,” the sagacious Nicole Huebner likes to remind me when I habitually invoke ancient times. Hitting the bricks is not exclusive to artists. The other day I saw Board of Supervisors President David Chiu in a business suit on Polk Street, riding to work on a bicycle. It’s something he does regularly.

Deborah Kerr barked at Richard Burton about walking in Tennessee Williams’s Night of the Iguana, “Shank’s mare, Mr. Shannon, shank’s mare!” That means walking. In New England anyway. Night of the Iguana — surely it’s about reptile dysfunction. Well, lots of other dysfunctions.

Jaywalking cannot be considered a legitimate form of exercise. But you can try telling that to the traffic judge when you get a $67 fine. Pedestrian deaths are way up this year, so are the number of citations being handed out. The SFPD, which issues the tickets, says the fine will be cut in half if you go to court. All the same, that’s a fortune for some living in the Tenderloin, where the greatest number of tickets are issued. Why is everyone in such a hurry these days? Where are they going so urgently? Jean Cocteau said we are all “on a locomotive racing toward Death.” Why not slow down? Maybe that thought belongs back in the day, too, Nicole. But just in case, everyone, don’t jaywalk. In the Midwest, back in the day, the term “jay” was applied to a moron or an idiot. With the advent of the motorcar, the term “jaywalker” and  “jaydriver” caught on. … Stu Smith was not fond of walking, but in his 73 years he accomplished more than many pro athletes do. I first met Stu in the 1980s when he ran a restaurant in the Financial District named Zott’s. Later on, at another tavern he owned off Market Street called Harpoon Louie’s, Stu explained that he ordered his staff to keep a glass filled with vodka and grapefruit juice in every corner of the saloon at all times so Stu did not have to walk too far for a drink. “I’ve decided that I’m going to drink myself to death,” he told me. He had just been diagnosed with HIV. But Stu did not drink himself to death. Instead, he poured himself into organizations like Shanti …the LGBT Task Force … the Castro Country Club, which supports struggling addicts and alcoholics. He also worked with the SFFD’s Toy Program, Positive Resource, and the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation. He spoke freely about his sobriety and his alcoholism. How many people he saved can’t be counted. … Yes, Stu was one of a kind. San Francisco can claim a few.

Rick Wilkinson’s Book Stall is on the one-block long Trinity Place. It’s not really a bookstore. “I like being on the sidewalk, mingling with the people, locals and tourists alike.” On hand, he has portraits of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by the ubiquitous Jack Keating. “A book stall takes me back to Paris and London, where they still flourish,” says Rick. … Around the corner, another one-and-only business: Nicky the Barber has his unusual shop inside Cable Car Clothiers. Yes, inside. How about a new suit and a haircut to match any period of history, such as the Roaring Twenties or the punk look? That back-in-the-day style. Nicky the Barber is at 108 Sutter. … Earl Darny runs the wonderful one-of-a-kind bakery in the 1700 block of Polk Street. Part of the bakery is an antique shop, Sweet Antiques, guided by Richard Pullano. … Down Polk Street is Brownie’s Hardware, which has been operated by Steve Cornell’s family for three generations. Not just a hardware store, Steve keeps a treasure trove of mid-Polk history in the window. The larger collection is in the basement. Steve is retiring — but the store and the museum will go on. It’s a terrific glimpse of what happened to San Francisco back in the day. … Old-timers who gather almost daily at the Golden Coffee at Sutter and Leavenworth like to talk about what they heard and saw back in the day. Sid Bloomberg, now in his 90s, knows all sorts of bits about the big stars Barbara Stanwyck Bette Davis … and Lana Turner. Sid worked in Hollywood. He’s often with James Grant. Overhearing their chitchat is gossipy and fun. … There’s Tony Cahill, a safe deposit box for forgotten stories — he’s a WW II vet who volunteers on the Jeremiah O’Brien. … Jack Powelson helps people but in his own subtle way. … Jack is still working at an Oakland law office. He’s a generous fellow, they tell me. … Peter and Mary Lee, Golden loyalists, have been coming here for 10 years precisely at 7:15 a.m. You can set your watch by it. … The omnipresent Jack Keating, another scrambled egg regular, produced a picture called Lunch Counter. Choy Choy and Nancy Zhen keep the Golden Coffee on course from the kitchen seven days a week. It’s a real old-fashioned coffee shop where the news is analyzed with the intensity of the Rand Corporation. … The Downtown Senior Center on O’Farrell is honoring its 60 to 70 volunteers with a lunch on April 27. A good time to honor the center as well.

The one-and only Sid Caesar died in Beverly Hills in February. His old friend, actor Joe Bologna (who’s married to the hysterically funny Renee Taylor, yes, The Nanny’s mother), sent me a description of Sid’s funeral: “A lot of laughs and a lot of tears,” writes Joe. “Renee and I spoke. After the other speakers, Mel Brooks et al., we got back up and asked for everyone to celebrate Sid by sending him off with a standing ovation. Everyone jumped up, then clapped, cheered, whistled and bravoed for, must have been a minute; and, I had the feeling that had Renee and I not wound it down, they would have continued the cheers, claps, whistles and bravos for the rest of afternoon. It was very moving.” … These are the people who really walk the walk. …

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Bruce Bellingham is devoted to outdoor exercise, particularly racing through money. He is the author Bellingham by the Bay, and invites readers to contact him. But don’t get too close. Bruce is given to inexplicable outbursts … [email protected].