Bellingham by the Bay

The quality of mercy

Yes, it has been a turbulent season. Much of America has been driven to its knees. Getting their fingernails dirty, helping their neighbors, trying to find evidence of life — or dig up nasty things about others, or things that live in us to recognize. I’m talking about Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Philadelphia. Many others got their fire trucks and their SUVs and their semis in order and drove across state lines. Many of the rescue efforts were hampered by the loss of street signs, no existing buildings. No coordinates. Everyone needs coordinates. How else can we get home?

Half a continent away here in San Francisco, I think about losing one’s coordinates. It happened through a couple of mishaps I had years ago. It was unsettling. Oh, when I got out of the hospital (after they shored up the hole in my head, the staff cut me loose). It was 2 a.m. I could not tell west from east, my right glove from my left.

For all of the turmoil, there are stark evidences of kindness, mercy, if you will.

I love that speech by Portia (The Merchant of Venice) when she fights Shylock over that little matter of her boyfriend’s pound of flesh.

When I saw the empathy and outpouring of support for those caught up in storms and fires, I could not help but recall the way the Marina citizens rushed to help their neighbors after the 1989 earthquake. There is great trauma when one gets injured with no warning. Yes, there were people right here in the perfect Marina district who suffered great losses. Even my mother, the late Jemima Bellingham, devised a sign to hang around her neck, an entreaty to those who were displaced: “For a good time, call Jemima” and included her home telephone number. Yes, Mum had her funny moments.

The rush to aid the victims of the despicable Boston Marathon bombings reached San Francisco, too. Tommy Whalen, the co-owner of Ace’s pub on Sutter Street was among some the local businesses that chipped in some cash for Boston Strong. Others included The Bell Tower, Shanghai Kelly’s, Amante, and the North Star. It was coordinated by Tupelo. “We raised thousands of dollars,” said Whalen. “This a very generous town.”

Of course there is never enough to provide for the people who have gone bust in San Francisco. But, like the Gold Rush Days, this city is a risky bet. Is it worth it? Some play their cards better than others. And the cards can turn on you. “It’s an unfair world, Bruce,” Tom Constanten of the Grateful Dead said to me. “But once in a while, it’s unfair in your direction.”

Jane Richey, who has stuck it out for so long in San Francisco, is doing terrifically well in the fashion photography business. “Always have an LFT in your repertory,” she advised. That means a Looking Forward To. Nice. There are dark times when I consider the advice. It helps. Sometimes it helps to find your coordinates when the skies seem devoid of stars.

The other day, it was the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I know, I know. It seems just like yesterday. Jack Keating, the portrait artist, was moved by the occasion. He sketched the old fellow, and a local collector quickly scarfed it up.

I noticed someone pulled a stained, battered photograph out of the rubble in Oklahoma, Texas, and a good portion of this county. I noticed that victims of these calamities who appeared on television seemed, after their loved ones, God willing, were secured, that it was the thought of losing their family photos that created such anxiety. It’s a matter of coordinates. To have a picture sometimes brings a brightness to the heart. We all have to gain our ground and continue to live.

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. E-mail: [email protected]