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Sunday, January 28, 2007


San Francisco - A Look Back

Nick's Bar in "The Time of Your Life" * A Wide-eyed Immigrant in 1969 * Clea Bertani

Watching a video of the Broadway production of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, I thought of the City -- the late Herb Caen's Baghdad by the Bay -- that I fell in love with.

In 1969, when I took the bus on weekday mornings from the old SP Depot at Third & Townsend, Third Street had a decrepit look. Pawn shops were prominent. If you walked on Third toward downtown, passing Brannan, Bryant, Harrison, Folsom, Howard, and Mission, you could not escape the smell of cheap liquor, urine, and unwashed bodies from groups of people who hung out at street corners. Those days some old timers referred to it as Frisco. That has become passé. Didn't sound right. To me it was always San Francisco.

Third Street today is very different. The City has changed, become gussied up. It looks prosperous, very expensive to live in. But it is a magical place with breathtaking views. Herb Caen wrote in one of his columns that "San Francisco has the charms of Sydney, the style of London, and the rascality of Paris". Don't know about Sydney. I have been to Paris and London. Nothing comes close to the feeling I get when returning home to the Bay area I look down upon San Francisco as the aircraft begins to descend.

The Time of Your Life (1976) TV,DVD
© Amazon.com

The scene of Saroyan's play, The Time of Your Life, is a bar (Nick's Bar) on Pacific; the time 1939. A gritty place patronized by a cast of characters that gave the feeling of quintessential San Franciscans. Something quite believable about Harry, the mysterious, wealthy man ably played by Brooks Baldwin. Patti LuPone as the "2-dollar whore" Kitty Duval, was just right. If the City still has a bar like Nick's, chances are that the man behind the counter would be close to Nick in The Time of Your Life. Benjamin Hendrickson was real as can be. Kevin Kline did well in a cameo role as the longshoreman McCarthy.

In declining the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1940, awarded for The Time of Your Life, William Saroyan said that "art could not be patronized by wealth". The Human Comedy(1943), a movie based on a William Saroyan story, is another one that I remember. A small farming town in the San Joaquin Delta affected by war. Sixtyfour years later we have small towns in America suffering from losses in another war that is now raging in a far-off land, a war that America was led into by use of deception and lies.

My love affair with San Francisco began long before I arrived in California. Movies that I watched back home left indelible impressions. Among them: Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). I didn't think then that I would be working in San Francisco, walking and driving on streets that I had watched on screen.

Kindness of Clea Bertani

San Francisco and its people were hospitable to me. I found a job, I found friends, and I discovered the charms of the City. Good restaurants, China Town, small book stores, the aroma of good tobacco at Grant's on Market Street (I used to be a pipe smoker before I started training to run marathons). Bali's Restaurant on Pacific was a favorite. The lamb shanks were superb. Mme Armen Bali had autographed photographs of ballet dancers on the walls. She counted Rudolf Nureyev and other Russian ballet stars among her friends. Peggy Knickerbocker's 1994 article, The Old Stoves of North Beach, is a mouthwatering trip through San Francisco's North Beach.

Clea Bertani is someone I have a special reason to remember. Clea worked for Waterman Steamship Corp. Before coming to America I had sent out about a dozen resumes to companies in the ocean transportation business in San Francisco. Among the few responses was one from Clea Bertani. It was not the usual "regret" letter. Clea wrote that although Waterman didn't have any opening, The Guide, a local trade weekly, was running an ad for an operations assistant that might fit my background and that she had forwarded my application to The Guide. My application included a local address and telephone number. A few weeks after my arrival I received a call from the company that had advertised in The Guide. I followed through and got my first job. Some days later I walked into Waterman's office to thank Clea Bertani. She was warm and friendly just as I thought she would be when I read the letter that she took the time to write to a stranger in another country.



[Totally off topic to the current topic]

I came here while looking for the original (i.e. Turkish) version of Ziya Pasha's 'beyit (a two-liner poem). And, I was pleasantly surprised to find one here.

IMHO [emphasis on 'humble'], somewhat a better translation might be something like this:

All I have taken is a drop. No more.
The undiminished ocean still crowds the shore..

Though, I am translating from memory.I have read the original years ago (I am Turkish, but the 'beyit' was in old Turkish) but I can not locate where i have read it or where I can find it again.

Anyway, here is another one you might like --which is more or less in the same vein:

For thirty years my watch [has] kept ticking, but I
Busy flying a kite, unaware of the sky..

Necip Fazil

[ original:
Tam otuz yıl saatim çalışmış ben durmuşum
Gökyüzünden habersiz uçurtma uçurmuşum

Anyway, 'musafir' (written as 'misafir') in Turkish means a guest, an esteemed visitor. Probably a Persian word. And a very nice alias.

{I apologize for the off-topic. I just thought I'd drop a line or two}
Ah, William Saroyan. Yet another one of my idols. Wrote one of the great koans of all time: "No foundation. All the way down the line."

Never had the luck to visit San Francisco even though sister graduated from Berkeley. I suspect, however, that were I to ever get there, I wouldn't leave either.

Musafir comes from the Arabic word Al-Musafir which means the traveler.
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