Bellingham by the Bay

The power of the pun

It all looked too easy. in a split moment, we knew the truth. Some of us went to Sunday school. Some of us never left Sundays at all. Some of us drifted away from where we were supposed to be. So we thought. And some of us realized this is exactly where we are supposed to be.

“I wish I were born in another time,” sighs Jessica Dale, who pours drinks at Lefty O’Doul’s. “I don’t belong in this era with all of this trouble, all of this upheaval.”

“Yeah,” says I, pondering the 19th century, “just think about the plumbing.”

“Well, Bruce,” she drawls, “you gotta point.”

At least she didn’t call me Brucie. … Only three people called me Brucie. That’s Herb Caen … Sharon Anderson … and Alyssa Choo, the angel who works with San Francisco City Impact in the Tenderloin. Alyssa is a nurse there. She and the whole crew have the moxie to take care of people who otherwise would be forgotten. It’s not always a pretty sight. But they have the power to believe. The kind of faith that supersedes the horrors of human suffering. I really don’t know how they do it. They do it day after day.

At least I get to slink away on Turk Street, safe from the nestle of kindness, and play the jukebox at Aunt Charlie’s, the oldest gay bar in San Francisco. … This bar is so dark I put on my sunglasses so I can see. … It has a great jukebox, a key ingredient to redemption. … Where would we be without music? R&B, Schubert, Buddy Holly — even rap, if you call that music. You know that all of Shakespeare’s villains hated music. … Doesn’t surprise me that I thought I saw old Will at the end of the bar at Aunt Charlie’s. In the words of Ian Whitcomb: “Shakespeare dead? Poor old Bill — I never thought the poor devil was ill!”  … Yes, it is November, and I feel like kicking up the leaves. Of course, it is time for Thanksgiving, and all of that sort of thing — when we are stuck with people we love — and others. Also it marks my birthday: Yes, I will be a senior citizen. Officially. An ebullient, vital, senior citizen, I hasten to add. I don’t feel 65. How should I feel? I don’t know. This is one of the many things they don’t teach you in school. That’s because the teachers are too terrified to talk about how old they’re getting.

What’s so bad about getting old? Perhaps I may pose this: What’s so good about getting old?

David Gockley, who retired recently from the San Francisco Opera, which is one of the best things ever visited upon the cosmos — said to me, “I’ll tell you, when you get older, then everything hurts.”

Gockley is a real hero. He elevated the opera beyond all expectation. It’s also true about all the people who work at the opera. They love their craft. Each person at the opera, and at all the performing arts venues in town are all artists. They are in the industry of beauty. Dedicated to the things they love.

And, you bet, there are days when they wish they could just go home, and hide.

Welcome to show business.

A young person recently offered this: “When you’re older, you have gained so much wisdom.”

Right. But when one gets older, you seem to be The Invisible Man. No one notices you until you really start trouble.

I love that movie, The Invisible Man. We have all had days when we wanted to be invisible.

Good luck.

Let’s start some trouble. Trouble in a good sense.

… Let me take you back to 1963 … and take you back to a great girl — my mother. (Maurice Kanbar and I share this sentiment: We’ll never forget our moms.) Funny thing about moms. We may argue and misbehave, but in the end, they were always right. Dammit, anyway. Beguiling, no? … Diane Weissmuller — that’s right — daughter-in-law of Tarzan, and my dearest friend in San Francisco, would refer to my mum by her given name, Jemima. I could never call my mom by her first name. Herb Caen adored my mom. He got to call her Jemima. … Mum was born in Scotland. She hated her name. She said so. She would sit at the kitchen table in Pacific Heights and tell me how she was picked on as a girl in Elizabeth, N.J. It was all about Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour boxes with Ethel Waters on the cartons. You see, racism and bullying is nothing new. …

“Then why don’t you change your name, Mum?” I asked. “Irving Berlin (another immigrant) did.” Sure, let’s build a wall, and keep out the geniuses.

“What, are you crazy?” Mumsie barked. “People like us don’t change our names.”

Ah, the old British class system. It’s still here, folks.

And so that brings us to the story of my birthday. It’s Nov. 21. I was about to turn 12 that year of 1963. Mom said, “Tomorrow’s your birthday. You can have anything you want for dinner.”

“Anything, Mom?”


“I want champagne and spare ribs.”

She gave it to me. This accounts for my self-indulgent nature.

And, boy, was I sick. I stayed home from school the next day. I watched TV in my parent’s bedroom. … My mom loved soap operas, especially As The World Turns. Then, out of WCBS in New York, Walter Cronkite broke in with the bulletin that President Kennedy had been shot. That was startling. But not as startling as to see Cronkite without a jacket.

All the same, at 12 years old, I sensed that the world had changed. It continues to change, of course. I may still love champagne and spare ribs, but I don’t have the power to change much more than ordering things for my birthday.

So I will order this — with my limited power — a sweet, good-natured Thanksgiving to all who read.

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. You may empower him at [email protected]. Follow the Marina Times on Twitter @TheMarinaTimes and like us on Facebook @MarinaTimes.