The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

My mother named me after the street that we lived on: Waverly Place Jong, my official name for important American documents.” ~ From The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan.

Waverly Place

I guess it was around 30 years ago when I read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, her wonderful yarn, actually a series of yarns, about the lives of four immigrant Chinese mothers and their four daughters. The story goes that one of the moms, Lindo Jong, named her daughter after the street that they lived on – Waverly Place.

When I first read The Joy Luck Club I was aware that much of it is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. What I didn’t realize is that there is an actual Waverly Place until I stumbled on to it many years later. That is so cool, I thought. When I walked that short, colorful little alley it was as if I was permitted for a few brief moments to enter the story. I enjoyed the book so much that I reread it years later and then was sorely disappointed by the movie version.

Waverly sign

“At the end of our two block alley was a small sandlot playground with swings and slides well-shined down the middle with use. The play area was bordered by wood-slat benches where old-country people sat cracking roasted watermelon seeds with their golden teeth and scattering the husks to an impatient gathering of gurgling pigeons. The best playground, however, was the dark alley itself.” ~ From The Joy Luck Club.

While many of the businesses described in the book are fictitious, there is indeed a playground on Waverly Place, the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground, built as a WPA project and originally named Chinese Playground. The book’s description of the alley itself as dark belies its actual appearance. Compared to most of Chinatown’s alleys, Waverly place is wide and airy. The buildings, festooned with flags and lanterns are a vivid palette of colors.

Waverly Place is notable for its bright colorful buildings, flags and lanterns and vibrant colored balconies.

Waverly building and palm

Some of the buildings on Waverly Place are constructed colorful bricks.

Waverly Brick buildings edit

The Murals

Chinatown is rich and alive with murals; colorful, gaudy and often reflective of the history of this unique neighborhood and of Chinese culture.

A martial arts legend christened Lee Jun-fan was born on November 27th, 1940 at Chinese Hospital in San Francisco. The world has long known him as Bruce Lee, the young man who brought martial arts films into the movie mainstream.

Forty-six years and a legion of martial arts films later, Lee’s classic Enter the Dragon can still claim some of film’s most extraordinary fight scenes. Muralist Luke Dragon has commemorated Bruce Lee with a brilliant mural at the corner of Grant and Commercial Streets in Chinatown.

Enter the dragon

At the corner of Grant and Commercial on the side of the Eastern Bakery in Chinatown is a mural of Bruce Lee painted by Luke Dragon.

After taking in the colorful mural go into the building it’s painted on, the Eastern Bakery. It’s the oldest bakery in Chinatown. Quaint and plain inside it turns out some scrumptious moon cakes.

The Bruce Lee mural replaced one of my favorite Chinatown murals that depicted fighting dragons. Below is a detail from that now defunct work.

Dragon and bird

At the corner of Sacramento and Grant is another Luke Dragon mural. The mural features Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King. Sun Wukong is a Chinese figure who first appears in the Chinese novel Journey to the West. Legend describes Sun Wukong as having supernatural powers bestowed on him through Taoist practices.

Monkey King

At just about every street corner of Grant Street you can find a mural. We came upon one that depicts a blank eyed Lady Liberty as a Buddha next to an eagle with a dragon’s neck. It’s an interesting work and I don’t imagine that it satisfies either Buddhists or self described ‘Muricans who fancy themselves patriots. For my part it doesn’t bother me in the least.

Lady Liberty

Ross Alley

Ross Alley Mono

Ross Alley viewed from Jackson Street

But for one tourist attraction, Ross Alley is, like many of San Francisco’s alleys, unremarkable. A few small businesses, a tagged door that opens into a benevolent society and a few spaces that are up for rent. The most prominent occupant is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, where you can stand in line to go a few yards into the little bakery, watch ladies stuff fortunes into the cookies and then horseshoe your way back out with a free sample. If you want to take a picture it’ll cost you – a buck if memory serves.

Ross Alley Nam Assoc Mono

The tagged entrance to a benevolent association

Ross Alley has some history behind it. The oldest alley in San Francisco (as opposed to a regular street), Ross recalls the popular historical Chinatown; the dark one that describes Chinatown as a haunt for opium dens, gambling parlors and brothels and what the city’s white population might have termed the mysterious secrets of the “celestials” (a term often used in 19th century America when referring to the Chinese).

My Urban History professor, Doctor Gelber used to call that sort of thing “pop” history. It’s the history that you see in the travel guides that focuses on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and Chinatown as a dark mysterious lair, of smoky back rooms, drug drenched and sexually exotic.
Pop history likes to ignore the fact that Chinatown was a sanctuary from systemic and violent racism and a haven where the residents could practice their religious and societal customs and trade in goods and services common to their culture. That’s not to say that Ross Alley was sinless. Even before Ross Alley was enveloped into Chinatown it was known for housing gambling dens and bordellos.

My own personal history with Ross Alley recalls my early 20’s and began with Sandy. Sandy was a tall (she could almost look my 6’1″ self in the eye) slender Korean-American girl who grew up in upper middle class Davis, a comfy, bucolic university town just west of Sacramento known for tennis and for being bike rider friendly. A pretty good portion of Sandy’s childhood was spent learning to play tennis at one of the exclusive local clubs.

Sandy and I had a dilemma. I was a runner and unless it was on a tennis court she had no interest in running. She on the other hand was a very good tennis player and most of our games consisted of Sandy shagging my errant shots. She had a serve that I lost about the time it left her racket, screaming like a missile into a tiny corner of the service box. I usually caught sight of the ball again where it rested near (or in) the chain link fence that surrounded the court.

But for the times we slept together Sandy and I considered each other as “just friends.” Besides the aborted runs and tennis matches there was kite flying at the Marina Green, an occasional dinner out and movies. Driving home from Rocky (the first) I tried to convince Sandy that there was an important underlying theme in Rocky and maybe we should see it again to analyze it. Sandy, who was whip smart and levelheaded, thought that I was full of shit. Turned out that she was right. The only underlying theme in Rocky was a lesson in how to turn a nice little story into a franchise in order to make buckets full of money at the expense of chumps wanting to see the same movie seven, is it seven, or eight or nine, I’ve lost count, times over.

Both of us realized from the start that there were issues that put a lid on any sort of romantic long term relationship. First of all Sandy was a single mom and secondly she moonlighted at a strip club. The latter wasn’t a major problem for me except for the fact that I thought Sandy was one of the most intelligent people I knew and could’ve been doing something else. But I’m not one to judge that sort of thing. As long as you aren’t hurting people in the process you do what you need to do in this world to get by. Sandy figured that if she had IT, and she sure did (she’d done some modeling for Macy’s), then she might as well put IT to good use. It was the single mom part that wasn’t going to work out. She was doing fine as a single mom but we both knew that I wasn’t yet father material and she was cool with that.

And then one day Sandy quit the strip club and told me all about her new job. Seems that she was moonlighting at a bar in Chinatown and “why don’t you come down and check it out.”
The Rickshaw Lounge (where Sandy was the new hire) was located on Ross Alley, a one block long back street paralleling Grant Ave and bordered on each end by Jackson and Washington Streets.
On a winter night in the 1970’s, Ross Alley was a dark, dank place pocked with ruts and potholes filled with rainwater that reflected the few dim lights in its close confines. Here the bustle of Chinatown was muted and the only sounds were of a distant siren, an occasional car passing along Jackson or Washington or of voices and the clacking of mah jong tiles in the upper floors of the alley’s drab buildings. If your notion of Friday night fun was to shiv an unsuspecting fool taking a walk through an alley then Ross seemed to be the place for you.
The Rickshaw was the absolute last word in dive bars, only with an Asian twist. Right across the alley from the Rickshaw was another dive bar Danny’s Dynasty. Both were located dead center of the narrow, shadowy lane; just a half a block to cover but on a dark night seemed like a mile long no man’s land. A little knot of young men were standing and chatting in the shadows near the clubs. But for the occasional glow of a cigarette you would hardly know they were there.
This was just after a time when two feuding gangs, the Wah Ching and the rival Joe Boys had made headlines in the local news that culminated with a shooting that left five people dead at the Golden Dragon restaurant on Washington Street, just yards away from the mouth of Ross Alley. The Rickshaw was in essence, in the middle of the shit and frankly I thought Sandy a little nuts to be exposing herself and me for God’s sake to this danger.
I have no idea how I made myself go down that alley the first time. I imagine that I waited for someone, anyone, to show up so that I could innocently tag along in their wake as they walked point.
Entering the Rickshaw one found a little room that, despite the layer of cigarette smoke was well lit by dive bar standards. It had a welcoming appearance that belied the intimidation just outside in the alley. Or maybe the relief of having passed through the alley just made it seem that way. Just inside was a little fountain, a faux waterfall trickling into a little pool. On the left as you entered was the bar, tended by a chain smoking Chinese barkeep named Tony. A row of little black tables and chairs ran down the right wall into an alcove at the back of the room where there were more tables and a few bar benches upholstered in red vinyl with black stains and a few tears; the classic motif for that sort of place that’s probably classified as something like, “early modern honky tonk.”
I ordered my usual drink of choice, Jack Daniels which may or may not have been Jack Daniels. According to legend just about any brand of liquor that you ordered at the Rickshaw had its true origins from a well bottle. In the case of whiskey, Jack Daniels was probably Ten High in disguise. Sipping my Ten High disguised as Jack Daniels I followed the custom required of any newcomer to a bar, that is I glanced around as covertly as possible without drawing attention to myself as a new arrival.
The crowd which I took to be all customers was a mix of a few Asian men and one or two Caucasian men, all a good 10 years or more older than me, and a whole lot of Asian women. Sandy spotted me at the bar, came over and sat with me for a few minutes and explained what you could loosely term the house etiquette.

I learned from Sandy that the women were in fact not customers at all but employees with a simple job description: ask a customer to buy her a drink, usually tea or a soft drink, and then engage in polite conversation. There was no obligation on the customer’s part but if he chose to engage, custom called for him to tip his temporary companion. That was something that I didn’t have the financial horsepower for so I simply sat quietly at the bar, sipped on Ten High disguised as Jack Daniels and established myself as the barroom cheap skate since I was turning down offers of conversation left and right. It was to me an extraordinary experience that I found out many years later actually has a name – a hostess bar.

After a period of not hearing from Sandy I went back to the The Rickshaw to see how she was doing. I ordered a Jack Daniels, aka Ten High, and asked one of the ladies what was up with Sandy. She told me that Sandy hadn’t lasted long at The Rickshaw. She thought that Sandy had gone back home to Davis.

My guess is that, given the culture of that workplace she probably had trouble fitting in. Sandy may have been of Korean descent but she was basically American suburbia. Most of the women there spoke to each other in their mother tongues; Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese. Sandy didn’t know enough Korean to ask where the bathroom was. Or maybe she went back to craft a new beginning. She could’ve been an attorney, or a high powered accountant or a VP of just about anything and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that she’d become any one of those. In any case I’d seen the last of Sandy.

I walked down Ross Alley during a recent visit to Chinatown. It didn’t seem quite so foreboding as I’d remembered it. On the contrary Ross Alley, decked out in lanterns and banners, is downright inviting. I walked the half block to dead center of the alley and there was no longer a Rickshaw or a Danny’s Dynasty. Both spaces were empty and up for rent. There was not a trace of either of the dives. They could just as well have been something I’d dreamed up.

Because of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, Ross has become something of a tourist attraction. The San Jose Mercury describes Ross as one of the top attractions in Chinatown and for the life of me I’ve no idea why. With the disappearance of The Rickshaw and Danny’s Dynasty and no more shady figures lurking in the shadows it’s lost its charm; just another nondescript San Francisco alley.

The tour guides play up cat houses and card dens and ignore Ross Alley’s appearance in the movies Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Karate Kid II, and Big Trouble in Little China, They also don’t tell the story of a barber on Ross Alley who was reputed to have cut the hair on some famous heads, among them Frank Sinatra, Matt Dillon, Peter Ustinov and Michael Douglas. They don’t tell the story about the little dive hostess bar where John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Billy Preston stopped for cocktails in 1964 after a concert at The Cow Palace just south of The City.

As I stood in that space between where Danny’s and the Rickshaw once plied cheap booze disguised as the real stuff I felt a sadness over their passing. Those storefronts are empty now but inside those shells lives volumes of stories, many of young women who had found themselves at loose ends in America and were doing what they had to do in this world to survive; chatting it up with men who paid them for their conversation.

A young tourist couple strolled past me, she reading from a guidebook that probably told of gambling dens and bordellos. I was tempted to stop them and tell them that over 40 years ago there was a hostess bar at that very spot, where friendly, pretty young ladies from across the Pacific captured lonely men in conversation; a place once visited by two of The Beatles. They probably would’ve dismissed it as the ramblings of an old fool.

I’d visited the Rickshaw a few times and chatted with the ladies; all nice girls who often talked about “back home.” It seemed like a hell of a way to make a living but I’m not one to judge that sort of thing. As long as you aren’t hurting people in the process you do what you need to do in this world to get by.

Looking down Ross Alley

A hardly foreboding Ross Alley

You know the Lady’s a lot like Reno
She ain’t got a heart
And she don’t care when your down             ~ From, Reno: Songwriters: Dale Wayne Harrison / Hugh Rush Dillon / Timothy Michael White / Trent Carr

Let’s establish something right from the start – it was one forgettable road trip. The saving grace was that it was just two nights and relatively close to home. After six months of retirement and having taken only one trip I suggested to Cora that it was time to take one of our not necessarily semi-annual, semi-annual trips to Reno. It’s usually once in the fall and once in the spring/summer but what with illnesses, injuries and putting a dog to sleep Reno had been off the agenda for a couple of years.

Before we get too far along in this, let me introduce you to Reno, if you aren’t already acquainted. It’s a dump. Wait, let’s clarify that because I don’t want to insult the good settlers of the self-proclaimed Biggest Little City in the World. The part that used to be a major attraction, the Strip, is a dump.

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The second post in a series about the treasures and trash found in an oak rolltop desk that had worn out its welcome. The first chapter, THE OAK DESK PART I. BORN AND BURIED describes the desk’s birth, brief life and death. 

My oak desk was gone, it’s splintered remains scattered about the landfill on the seedier east side of Richmond near San Pablo Bay. It was now left to the scavengers who root through the debris looking for a reclamation project or, even more ignominiously, a target for pooping gulls.

The desk that I’d hankered for, for years had become a catch all for trash and treasure until finally the time came for us to all be put out of its misery.

After euthanizing it with a drilling hammer all that was left were stacks of letters, documents, mementos and just plain stuff strewn around the bedroom floor. I found photos that dated from the 1930’s to the 2000’s, some faded and close to tatters and others in amazingly good shape for being around 75 years old.

Included in the cache were photos in envelopes and tattered albums that depicted two families, my mother’s in Rome, Italy and my father’s in Salt Lake City, Utah; families that would be forever tied by war. I found photos taken in Italy, as hostilities in Europe were breaking out, a few taken late in the war and a number of photos taken between 1945 and 1947. Continue reading

“Everything happens for a reason.” Corazon – My wife.

“Everything happens for a reason.” That’s been Cora’s mantra for the nearly 40 years that we’ve been married and I imagine goes back to the years that she spent in a convent. I’ve always taken it to be an insufficient bromide that marginalizes everything from my broken ankle that kept me from running for over a year to floods and famine.

“Everything happens for a reason,” she would offer and I would ask her to give me the reason. She often couldn’t and so I would call BS and declare a hollow victory.  Now I’m not so sure. I’m not calling BS on Cora this time. A recent string of events that seemed so random at the time seem to be uncannily tied together. Maybe things do happen for reasons that either manifest themselves or that we are simply left to ponder over in their mystery. 

The singular, jarring event was when I unexpectedly learned of the death six years ago of a young Korean woman who, many years ago and before meeting Cora, I had been deeply in love with (the story is told in a post bearing her name Nana). I was crushed and all the emotions that I felt when our relationship had suddenly ended 41 years ago came surging back.

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“Through an eye with teary edges,

My brain swears this can’t be real.

But my heart’s another story.  Yes my heart’s another story.”     – Another Story.  Song and lyrics Gabe Marshall and Bryon White

If there is an upside to writing it’s in the therapeutic value. 

I was originally intending to write a post about my maternal Italian grandmother, Nonna Maria. Sometimes circumstances lead you to a fork in the road and you find yourself compelled to veer from your intended route.

Maybe it was fate, or as Cora puts it the good Lord had a plan; or maybe it was just dumb luck. I guess I’ve told this story a hundred times if I’ve told it once. I was working in a retail hardware store at Fourth and Mission in Downtown San Francisco. Across Jessie Street, which was less street and more alley the company kept an office building/warehouse. The retail workers often went to the basement warehouse in that building but rarely to the third floor office. It was late 1979 and I’d had some sort of business in that third floor because I remember bounding down the stairs, throwing open the door and then slamming on the brakes to avoid knocking over the new hire. There was the awkward pause followed by that awkward little get past each other dance. You know the one where you try to get past each other and then end up sliding right back in front of each other? I remember exactly what she was wearing. Tight designer jeans, a purple sweater and impeccable makeup that complimented her clothes. I turned and watched briefly as she started up the stairs and promised myself that I would take her out. Cora was a head turner. Even after we were married and she was working as a bookkeeper for a dental office in the Mission District she would tell me about the men who turned to look at her, sometimes calling out to her. She was a head turner.

Before Cora there was Nana. She was my original and only other head turner. Any other women I dated, I did so after being acquainted for a while. Nana was originally from Pusan (now called Busan), South Korea. Busan is a port city in South Korea’s southeast corner.

I didn’t know any of this when she seated me in the little Japanese Restaurant located in San Francisco’s Richmond District where she worked as a server. What I did know was she was a head turner and she wasn’t sporting a ring, not even the strategic cheap one to keep creeps like me at bay. So that night I started conjuring up this grandiose plan to ask her out. I didn’t know how I was going to go about it but I was certain of one thing. Any plan that could leak out of my little mind was hopelessly doomed because my own logic dictated that there was no chance and no reason for a girl that beautiful to consider giving me anything beyond what her job required; friendly service, my food and the check.

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Many of us likely have a place where their life’s history is stored, oftentimes without knowing that the historical treasure even exists – until it’s uncovered. It might be an old trunk, boxes in the attic or a pile of shoeboxes. Mine was a roll top desk. This is part one of the story that was revealed over the course of sorting through the contents of that desk. 

It’s gone now, that oak roll top desk. It was left to molder in that potter’s field for unwanted furniture – the county landfill. After 20 years it met an inglorious end; no ceremony, no final words. Well, maybe there were some last words but they were only testimony to the indignity that fine old piece endured throughout its lifetime. Words along the lines of, “Finally got rid of that big old bastard.”

For years it sat under the bedroom window, stacked with papers, books, business cards, clothes both clean and dirty and a collection of miscellaneous stuff and junk that I never bothered to file away or throw away. It was a hoarder’s paradise. The judge and jury of the domicile, my wife, sentenced it to exile and in the end there were no witnesses for the defense. Even I, the once proud owner turned my back and dropped a dime on it. The desk had worn out its welcome.

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The Urban Dictionary defines “word” as well said; deemed to be something influential or of great intellectual power. It’s slang. My dad was all about “word” and words. For dad words were “word.” Words were truth, were influential, were of great intellectual power. 

To dad, a man who shot at people in war, words were the ultimate power. To him they were more potent than the 30 caliber machine gun he wielded as a B-17 waist gunner. Ironically he would never have been behind that gun had a former Bavarian corporal not understood the potential of the word and brandished it to lead the world into a second global conflict.  

Dad finished high school in Utah and then found himself in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho working for FDR’s, CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) followed by odd jobs and then the Army-Air Corps in World War II. At some point in his young life and I couldn’t say when or where, dad discovered words. He read the classics and he read history and he read about politics and he read philosophy. 

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Classic dad in an easy chair. A book, a pipe, a bottle of Cognac. Taken at my uncle’s flat in Rome, Italy

And then he wrote. Continue reading

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