Bellingham by the Bay

What’s fair is fair

Life is unfair,” says my old friend, Tom Constanten, “but once in a while it’s fair in our direction.” I try to keep that in mind when I think of T.C., as the many devotees of the Grateful Dead call him.

Yes, he played with the Grateful Dead. And I was honored to play music with him on Sedge Thomson’s radio show back — as someone said to me recently — “back in the day.” That was out of Fort Mason on KQED-FM. Now Sedge has a terrific show called “West Coast Live” on that great station, KALW-FM. Back in the day. Disturbing expression to an aging cat as I. I must be aging when I use the term “cat.” Very sixties. Very beatnik.

You will remember that Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik,” much to the chagrin of the North Beach counter culture coterie.

Oddly lots of young people have approached me to say something to the effect of “Gee, I saw your book. Did you really write things for Herb Caen?” This is from a gorgeous young lady, quite young, on Nob Hill.

She adds, “My father got so excited when I told him. He loved Herb Caen!” I am grateful she left her grandparents out of the mix.

“Memory has no respect.” That’s what Federico Fellini wrote in 8½. When Marcello Mastroianni delivered the line, we were confused, moved, and amused, as kids watching the film. Now, there’s an artist.

There are many artists alive and well. Even an aging cat as I take notice. A great artist will always confuse one. And make you come back for more.

One is Sharon Anderson, the arbiter of the new American Surrealist movement, who writes for this publication. So is Toni Romero, who runs a restaurant on Polk Street called Dunya. He makes magic with his cooking crew simply out of his fingers. San Francisco is filled with magic. Sure, there’s danger here on occasion. Sometimes you have to keep your head down and hope for the best. It looks easy — but as Jean Cocteau said about ballet dancers: “If you get too close, you’ll smell the sweat.”

I’m not afraid of the sweat.

And I am not afraid of the smell of failure. I guess the best part is when the heart keeps beating, and we try again. Yes, but, Gawd, what a sweaty mess. Yes, I picked up that “Gawd” thing from Herb Caen.

Speaking of Herb, his longtime associate, Carole Vernier, just got out of St. Francis Hospital. Carole, with some lung trouble, is much on the mend. I thought of her when I dropped by Tommy’s Joynt. Susie and crew used to boast about how they served 256 brands of beers from around the world, all in alphabetical order.

“I went there with a friend from the Chronicle,” Carole told me. “We decided we would drink all of the beers. We only got as far as the Bs.”

Carole, as far as the Bs, is doing much better. She’s home now, here on Nob Hill. I am grateful for that.

I know that some smartass (that is I) once wrote, “The minute you start counting your blessings, you’re really screwed.”

I don’t believe that all the time.

In fact, I really don’t believe that at all. Let’s not confuse sarcasm with sincerity. Let leave that to the Surrealists. That’s their job.

The funny thing about wandering around this town is absorbing the glee, the dazzlement that visitors encounter. I love hearing their conversations. For example, three stunning young gals at the Hotel Monaco cackling about their upcoming plans to get their friend married. And concocting their own aspirations. Some things, it seems, never change. Yes, sometimes I am the invisible man, just eavesdropping on beauty. One gets to be a certain age, and one becomes invisible.

Yes, I always wanted to be invisible — but of course — I wanted to be conspicuous at the same time. It’s an ever-present silliness. But perhaps that’s why I live in San Francisco — yes, for 42 years — because I want to disappear and be observed all at once. That’s the wonderful contradiction of San Francisco. Perhaps life, unfair or not, gives me that opportunity.

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. Give him a fair shake at [email protected].