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  • Continued from Tour de Farce: A Bird in the Bush

    Chapter 3: Lady in Waiting

    Driving west through the Mojave desert that August was memorable only for its insufferable shimmering heat, amplified by the purring box housing the van's six-cylinder engine that squatted between the front seats, and a lack of A/C. Thankfully, our suffering mitigated a bit by Barstow and Bakersfield, and was swept behind us when we joined the traffic on I-5 heading north. Eager to get to the Bay, we opted not to take the scenic, romantic and treacherous coast road. I had been there, done that, and so knew it always takes longer than expected.

    Along the interstate, we pass by a scenic river. I pull over to take a picture. I grab my view camera and film packs, clamber up to the roof deck, compose the scene and shoot it. While I'm up there I notice we're parked by a magnificent Yucca plant in full bloom. I want to shoot it from above, but I can't get the right angle without falling down, so I ask Jay to come up and hold my legs so I can dangle over the flowering plant.

    Just then a Highway Patrol car pulls in behind the van. The officer gets out and saunters over without us noticing him and says, "What seems to be the trouble here? There must be some trouble or you wouldn't be in an emergency-parking-only area." Jay, who's still sitting on my legs, looks over his shoulder and says "Oh, hello officer. My friend just stopped to take a picture of these flowers." "So I see," he says, walking around to my side of the van to address me. "So Ansel, can I see your artistic license?" Before I can reply, he adds. "Hurry and finish up and move on. You can't stay here." So I say "Yessir. Will do," quickly snap a shot, and we get back in the van. Pulling out, I tell Jay "I guess that was our welcome to California."
  • Late in the day, we crossed the Bay Bridge in rush hour traffic and struggled down Route 101 to get to the airport. Jay couldn't stay to play as he had to go back to work in Boston. So he got a standby seat on a red-eye flight and I turned around and headed back to the city.

    My plan was to buzz over to Oakland to crash at Paul's place. Paul is the bachelor stepbrother of my Cambridge bachelor buddy Larry, who by day worked for a state agency and otherwise enjoyed drinking, smoking, gambling and girls, but not necessarily in that order. Most weekends he fled to Reno to play blackjack. It being late Saturday afternoon, and not wishing to tear Paul away from his pleasure seeking, I decided to look up someone I knew in San Francisco.

    I had an address and phone number for Eric, a good friend of my ex-roommate Steve, whose company I had always enjoyed. He didn't answer his phone, so I drove over to his neighborhood and parked on his street, hoping to snag him when he came home from wherever. I was pretty hungry, so I walked around until I found a cheap Chinese restaurant and ate some hot and sour soup and Moo Shi Pork. I called Eric from their pay phone, but he still wasn't answering.

    Arriving back at Eric's apartment house, I found an attractive redhead sitting on the stoop. I asked her if she lived there, and she replied that she had come from out of town looking for her girlfriend who lived there, who also wasn't home. So we waited together and chatted. She had graduated from college in June and had come hoping to find work in the city. She had no other friends there and wasn't sure what to do next, so I offered to let her stay with me in my van if it came to that.

    Soon after the sun set, the lady accepted my offer. So I ushered her into the side door, lit the gas lamp and shut the shades. After sharing a drink, we took off most of our clothes and got into the double sleeping bag spread on the little sleeping platform. We cuddled briefly, but she soon feigned sleep, so all I could do was to pet her and try to sleep myself, a difficult proposition with such a bird in hand.

    I awoke to find my bird had opened the cage and fled. Perhaps she found her friend, but Eric never turned up. After calling him once more in vain, I decided to visit North Beach and Chinatown before hopping over to Oakland. Espresso at City Lights Bookstore followed by Chow Foon and insults at the esteemed yet disreputable Sam Wo restaurant (1912-2012). The insults flowed from renown abusive chief waiter Edsel Ford Fong (1927-1984). This heartfelt testimonial from a patron captures the ambiance of the place:

    It was 1979 (at 20 years old) and I was a roller skater. My friend grew up in SF and knew all the best spots and Sam Wo was "The Best". We would skate through the kitchen and the 6 or seven men would hurry us up the stairs to the 2nd floor. We got lucky on one particular day and got a seat. Mr. Fong instantly made me wipe the table get water and even fill water for the other tables. Then he threw the order ticket on the table and had me write down the orders. I handed back the tickets and he threw it down and said "ADD IT UP!" Then the food would come up thru the wall on a pulley system from down in the kitchen and Edsel would order me to deliver the food. I have enjoyed sharing this story with many over the last 30+ years. Thank you Edsel Ford Fong and Sam Wo's for blessing me with such a lovely memory.
  • Sam Wo was forced to close last April after repeated health code violations. The owners have started a foundation to solicit donations to rehabilitate it, are trying to have the place declared a historic landmark, and hope to operate it again soon. I wish them well, but nobody can ever replace Edsel.

    I phoned Paul from Chinatown and found him at home. He was happy to receive me, but had unwelcome news. My long-lost girlfriend Kathy, who had written to tell me she was visiting with Paul and who was the main motivation for my trip to California, had taken off about a month ago. My consolation prize was an unopened letter for me from her, sent from Colorado. Another bird had flown the coop.

    Continued in Tour de Farce: If at first you don't suck, try again

    @image 1: Unidentified river in north central California, 1973 © Geoffrey Dutton.
    @image 2: San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge at Night, looking toward San Francisco, Calif. Pictorial Wonderland postcard by Stanley A. Piltz, sent to Mrs. Effie Lovette of Dixfield Maine, postmarked Fairfield Calif., Nov. 27, 1953.
    Image 3: Abusive Sam Wo waiter Edsel Ford Fong and his fans, 1982, from Wikipedia, cropped.
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