Bellingham by the Bay

Polka dots for Christmas

It occurred to me the other day how many things from the past always seem to come back. Mostly bad things — T.B. …yellow fever … Tom DeLay. Some things remain incurable. But it’s not all bad. I’ve noticed how polka dots are back in style. They seem to be everywhere on the streets of San Francisco. Or perhaps it’s just me. I see all sorts of things this time of year — real or not real. “This is what I call White Toyota Syndrome,” observed Keven Guillory, with whom I worked at KQED radio all those years ago. “That’s when you buy a white Toyota, then all you notice are white Toyotas on the roads.”

Polka dots are an undying, capricious beauty. They remind me of the old family photos and my mother in her polka-dot dresses, just like the famous movie stars of the World War II era — Ginger Rogers … Betty Grable … Alice Faye. Just like the songs from that time, such as, “When the Lights Come on All Over the World.” They have an indefatigable lyrical bravura.

“I love to wear polka dots,” says Jane Bartlett, a young attorney who was watching football on the telly at McTeague’s Saloon on Polk (not polka dot) Street. “Polka dots just cheer me up.” Gawd knows we can use some cheering up.

By the way, there’s a great photo of Bob Dylan, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg hanging in City Lights Books, home of the Beats, the non-Beats, and the post-Beats who never really wanted to be Beat in the first place. In the picture, Dylan is wearing the coolest polka-dot shirt from Paul Sargent’s Greenwich Village. … Gosh, nostalgia is claiming my soul. … In my days as a kid in the Village, I met some great people. Richie Havens was one of them. He died the other day. He was a different sort of musician — a black man who was also a folkie. He stole the show at Woodstock. Another great fixture of the Village was Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground. He died at the age of 71. The loss of Lou, a real genius, is incalculable.

I have traded the Village for the Marina, Pacific Heights, Nob Hill even, and the Tenderloin — part of the great San Francisco segmentation. Walk five blocks, and you’re in another world. I heard a tour guide on a double-decker bus the other day. He advised the tourists, “Always avoid the hills in San Francisco. Try to walk around them instead.” Either he was kidding or, as Herb Caen would say, he is clearly “unclear on the concept.” The Loin is an interesting territory. It makes the rowdy East Village of New York look like Disneyland. “I love the Tenderloin,” says Herb Gold, the most famous and enduring writer on Russian Hill. “I lived there for a while. There were always great stories that I collected. Made a nice piece for the New York Times.” … Oh yes, there are many stories from the Tenderloin, but many of them are not printable — certainly not for the faint-hearted. Like Calcutta, much of life in the Loin is played out in the street. Everything is for sale. Yet, many families are growing in the Tenderloin, amid the maelstrom, and there is a great sense of people looking out for each other.

The people at the downtown Senior Center and the kids at the Tenderloin School painted an elaborate cityscape mural on O’Farrell and Jones, a terrific neighborhood project. The venerable Christian Science Church next door soon will be demolished to make way for condos, an all-too familiar San Francisco story.

One of San Francisco’s best portrait artists is Jack Keating. His many faces are appearing at Chow Restaurant on Castro & Market. Thanks to Jack, I now know what Pearl S. Buck looked like. I’m sure that Ms. Buck, author of The Good Earth, would be grateful. Jack’s spot-on portrait of Oscar Wilde has permanent residence at O’Reilly’s Pub on Green Street in North Beach.

Kep Rawls, the splashy doyenne of California Street, was a little nervous about a hip replacement, but she’s fine. Hep Kep will always be hip, and will be dancing better than ever. I never asked her about polka dots, but I think I’ll let it go at that. Otherwise, I may be stooping to three-polka-dot journalism. Knock it off, Bruce. …

Michael Feinstein will be headlining at his own club in the Hotel Nikko on New Year’s Eve. Over the years, Michael has recorded some terrific tunes from the Great American Songbook. (After all, he was the protégé of Ira Gershwin.) One of my faves is a song by Burton Lane: “I look in your eyes, and suddenly it’s Christmas …” Yes, Jews can celebrate the Christian holiday, too. Sorry to tell you, Governor Palin, but there is no war on Christmas. Sure, some are unhappy with the commercial exploitation of the holiday — and even the political manipulation of the holiday. But few people want to obliterate Christmas altogether, as Sarah Palin suggests. She says it’s a plot launched by “angry atheists.” I could never be an atheist. There are no holidays. And who would hate Christmas? That’s like hating ice cream or the Beatles. Impossible.

Again, the soft, white holiday lights adorn the trees in Huntington Park. The Girls Chorus angelically performs carols, singing about mankind’s hopes and fears. The clerics and the politicos offer conciliatory words of advice on how to remain calm in a turbulent world. The gurgling fountain with the marble turtles remains a fixed point in an ever-changing city. Silhouetted away from the crowd and the rituals of this night, near Sacramento Street, is that couple I’ve noticed over the years. Showing little decorum, I shamelessly strain to hear what they say to each other.

With her hand in his, she murmurs, “Will this be a good Christmas?”

“The best,” he says quietly. “When I look in your eyes, it’s always Christmas, my sweet.”

“Will next year be better?”

“I am sure of it,” he replies. “Besides, you’re wearing polka dots. That’s a good omen. We can’t lose now.”

Polka dots for Christmas. That’s a cheerful notion, I think to myself. The night — with its music and the lights — is breezy but mild. The lantern at the entrance of the Pacific Union Club creaks and groans in the wind. Some say the spirits of broken-hearted lovers haunt the park. It’s a good time to be in love. I walk off Nob Hill somewhat restored. And it’s a good time to be hopeful. Hope, Maurice Kanbar reminds me, is the most important thing we have. I hope you have a grand holiday. …

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. Find him at [email protected].