I am feeling kind of blue and decide to go for a walk despite ominous gray clouds I see from my window. Over the years I have noticed that a walk can cure many problems. I'm quite certain that a lot of psychiatrists would be out of work if their patients only knew about walking therapy.
I hit the street at Jones, between Sacramento and Clay, and for a couple of blocks all is well and I'm beginning to feel on the brighter side. I head up Jones towards the Bay. But then at Jones and Pacific the rain begins. First there are only a few tentative drops, then it begins to come down hard. I duck into the entrance to an apartment building and get out my umbrella. I like rain but I do not like this rain. It seems mean-spirited.
On Broadway, heading down toward North Beach, I pull my umbrella down low over my head and stay close to the high, stone-block restraining wall, avoiding some of the wind-driven rain. Two young guys have stopped under a tree by the wall and are waiting for the rain to let up. In the street the water flows in sheets, and there are now big puddles on Taylor where Broadway meets it. Down below, North Beach looks simply like any other place in the City: wet, colorless, unfriendly. The sign for Big Al's might as well be the sign for a towing company, not an adult book store.
It is the last day of 2002, and there are a lot of people out on the streets because of the holiday, but I do not sense any cheer about the day at all. People march drearily or huddle in doorways wearily. I turn left on Powell—the Imperial Tea Court is closed and dark inside—and cut over to Vallejo not knowing why. I had planned to walk straight down Broadway toward Big Al's and Enrico's but something in my brain had twitched at Powell and I turned left.
At Stockton and Vallejo I see through the window of Victoria Pastry Co. one empty table and go inside. Maybe hot coffee, a pastry will pep me up but I have my doubts. A feeling has set in and I think it is going to take more than coffee to dislodge it. Nevertheless I order coffee and, since they are out of pastry—it is late in the day—some spice cookies. It is steamy inside Victoria's and warm but the mood is more restless than cheerful. I watch the umbrellas passing by the windows jostling each other. They appear to be held by robots.
Okay, I guess I'm in a mood today but I can't seem to help it. What is it all about? Do I need a shrink or just a drink? Was it President Stupid? I read in the paper that the government is saying that obesity is a threat to national security. I blush in shame for my single-issue government. I read an amusing statement by Thomas Steinbeck, John Steinbeck's son: "If you're going to elect Elmer Fudd to be president, you can pretty much be sure that you're going to have a long stretch of bad luck." And maybe depression and some other things. Or was it the governor? Was he getting us all down? His gray hair says it all: the doldrums. Or was it a friend who was driving me nuts? In this regard, I probably need a guardian, someone to say, "No, not this one. She is deadly." Or was it just the weather? I doubt that! Had something then gone wrong it my brain? Was a chemical reaction occurring? Was the hypothalamus excreting some kind of dark inky substance into the rest of my brain, making me see only the dark side?
I tell myself to stop it, and I think about Victoria's. It opened in 1914 and they are doing their best to not close in 2003. A lot of businesses in North Beach are in that position. It is an Italian bakery specializing in wedding cakes, fancy pastries, and cookies. Just recently they adapted to "changing consumer demands"—I don't think those wedding cakes are selling as well as they did in the 1950s—by putting in tables and selling specialty coffee as well: lattes, cuppaccinos, you name it. It seems to be a hit, and not just on rainy days. Now here is something cheerful: I predict they will be in business for at least another year. I wish I could say that about my brain.
I walk down Vallejo to Columbus, picking up my pace a little and hopefully my mood. Columbus is busy with tourists and the restaurants are full in the early afternoon. I am surprised, but I guess it is the holidays. Nowhere, however, do I get a sense of celebration. The barker in front of Mona Lisa looks more like a funeral director than someone trying to entice people to come inside to eat. It is as if people are simply spending, like money, the last day of the year in the prescribed way. The smiles I see are more like smirks and the laughter I hear is nervous.
Let's face it: What we are doing today is spending time. We are letting the last drop of blood of the old year bleed away until the new year kicks in. When it does kick in it's going to need a "stimulus package," if not defibrillation, to survive.
Down Grant the rain stops and there are some blue patches in the sky. But it is blue that is revealed for a only moment between large passing gray clouds. Its nothing but a sullen reminder of better times, of things that have come and gone. Coming up Sacramento I see to the west in back of Grace Cathedral dark gray clouds heavy with moisture. They look like gigantic plastic water bags ready to split open. There are unlit Christmas lights on some of the apartment buildings on Nob Hill but now they seem joyless, and they will soon be coming down. How is it that something that is supposed to make you feel happy suddenly makes you feel sad?
I think of Billie Holiday singing about romance that has come and gone: "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places ... in that small cafe, the park across the way ... " My heart is breaking and my eyes are filling with tears. This time walking therapy has failed. I return to my apartment feeling about as low as you can get.
Le Central's martini is famous, but this time Toni, solid backbone of the bar and a fisherwoman as well, sets up a Pastis for me. She had mentioned this drink before. The martini comes with a carafe and a small bucket of ice, so that it is always cold. Like the martini, the Pastis comes with a small bucket of ice, Ricard in a collins glass, and a small picture of water. You mix your own drink.
The classic mixture is five parts water to one part Pastis. Like me, Toni thinks that's a little too much water. Now the interesting thing is that when you pour in the water, the Pastis clouds up. It is like a little explosion causing the clear liquid to turn murky. It is fun to watch but will not cure a serious depression.
Pastis, as you may know is, an anise-based drink with licorice-like flavor. It is the modern-day equivalent of absinthe, which was banned in France after the French lost World War I, the French blaming that loss on too much absinthe drinking. Absinthe manufacturers then reformulated the drink. Now if you like licorice, you may like this drink. If you don't, you won't. Toni tells me she does not especially like it herself. So why did she think I might like to try it? I did not ask.
I find it interesting but can't say that I exactly like it either. The problem, I believe, is just too much licorice. It's overwhelming unless you're a licorice freak. Then I begin to wonder how it would be with the addition of lemon.
"That's uncharted territory," she tell me.
It is late afternoon in the restaurant. From the end of the bar I look down it toward the front windows. It is not raining today but it is still gray out. There is a young couple about mid way down the bar having a martini and a cosmo. They are African American, cheerful looking and enjoying themselves. There is actual fun about them. I begin to think the world may be okay after all. There is a middle-aged guy named Bill dining alone at a booth midway down. He is a regular from what I can tell. And there is fluffy-white-haired gentleman up in the window seat, also dining alone and looking content. Le Central serves all day long in the best San Francisco tradition, and it is a great place to come for a long lunch in the late afternoon, either with a friend or alone. They understand the lone dinner and the need to unwind.
I ask Toni if Pastis has any know medicinal value. She looks a little embarrassed then tells me, "It's supposed to cure the runs." "No wonder it tastes like s---" I say. She gives me a look.
"How about depression? Does it cure that?" I ask.
"I'm not sure about that," she says. "Maybe if you drink enough of it ..."
I begin to think that some food might benefit this drink. By itself it seemed lonely. I order crab cake and escargot, about as rich a combination as you can get. The crab cake comes on a thin layer of beurre (butter) sauce with a squiggly little design in it, its presentation like that of some fancy desert. It is rich but the escargot is even richer. It is cooked with Pernod—another brand of Pastis—butter, garlic, and parsley. I don't know that this cheers me up but it certainly does entertain my senses. If I feel depressed, I have successfully masked it for the moment.
The happy young couple now finishes up their drinks, pays, and leaves. The whole length of the bar at Le Central is now empty but not cheerless. Soft yellow light filters down through the sky light, and I look with pleasure at the row of unopened wine bottles along the back of the bar. Toni is now thoughtful. She tells me it was a quiet year in the restaurant. Outside of the restaurant she say she did not see the usual Christmas lights, and in the restaurant the mood was lower. As above, so below; as in the restaurant, so outside. It's my new doctrine of feeling low. It's a doctrine you can drink to.
Down the street in Claude alley is Cafe Claude. I popped in there on day three of the new year to see what bartender Chris James was up to. I was no longer feeling quite so morbid. We talked Pastis, then he mixed one. I asked him what he thought lemon might do for it. He cut a lemon in two and squeezed in a table spoon or so. The drink came alive, and the lemon cut the licorice flavor down to size. The experience was inspirational. The lemon transformed something, well, not so good, into something lovely. It won't bring you out of a deep depression but it might make you feel a little better if you're down. Its worth a try, honey.
We went over to North Beach restaurant for late lunch. Bill is crazy about Italian food, and I like it myself. I ordered a negroni cocktail and pasta puttanesca. Bill ordered a Mezaluna martini and ciampino. We shouldn't have, but we also ordered a full bottle of wine, Lorenzo's own from his Sonoma vineyard: Poggio Alla Pietra. Lorenzo's the owner of North Beach Restaurant, if you don't know, and a few years back he brought back grapes from the Brunello region in Chianti and planted them in his Sonoma vineyard. This is his first harvest from the planting. The wine is excellent. But now let's be honest: How much work do you get done after a lunch like that?
But now the strange this is this: Despite marvelous food and the drink, neither of us felt that good. It was like a cloud of depression hung over our table, despite somewhat improved weather conditions, no particularly bizarre statements by our president the previous day, and only minor distortions of fact made by our governor.... For my part, I felt like a little rain cloud had taken up permanent residence around my head. You know those lyrics, "Good morning, heartache"? That was my theme song these days. I told Bill that.
"It's worse than that for me," said Bill. "I don't know if I want to go on another day."
"Oh, common, Bill, things can't be that bad. Nice food, a glass of wine, a lovely restaurant—what more could you want?" A lot more, I know, but I was trying to cheer him up.
"Love," said Bill. "Real love."
I nearly spit out a mouthful of Lorenzo's fine wine hearing Bill sound like this. Coming from my sarcastic and often seemingly callous old buddy, I found this most amusing but did not say so.
I waited for the story but he said nothing.
"Well?" I said. He looked embarrassed.
"Well," he said and hesitated. "Well, it's like this. Before I went up to the Eel, I was hanging out with this stripper over in North Beach. She was a kind of stupid little thing, or so I thought she was, but pretty."
Now I remembered that Bill had written an article about the strip joints in North Beach. In fact, the article had made readership skyrocket on his publication. Maybe that is the reason Gayle had kept him on payroll after he disappeared up the Eel. I wish I could get away with things like that.
"Well, stupid me," said Bill, "when I finished up my article on the strip clubs, I went back to see this kid. You know, just out of curiosity. And she seemed so happy to see me. I hung around with her and when she wasn't dancing, she'd come over and sit at my table with me. I mean, like, she would sit right next to me, close up, and then she'd be holding my hand, then both of my hands and putting her head on my shoulder. I went back and it was the same thing every time. We would hold hands like school kids, sit close, and talk. I think she was starved for affection. It turned out she really liked classical Western music, so I started bringing her CDs. She knew Mozart and Beethoven but had never heard of J. S. Bach. Can you imagine that? I brought her the Goldberg Variations. She loved it. She is Korean and her interest in Western music had only been recently kindled by a class she was taking. But her interest seemed to be passionate and genuine, and she wanted to know more and more. Well, it turned out she was no 'stupid little thing' after all."
I did not know where this was going but I let Bill continue to talk as long as there was wine in my glass. I'm sure it was leading somewhere.
"Finally," said Bill, "I asked her out. The kid is twenty years younger than I am but now we're dating. Good, Lord, am I losing my mind? She's younger than my daughter."
"So where is the problem?" I ask. "Are you saying you don't like having a young girlfriend?"
"No, no, it's not that," said Bill. "The crazy things is this. Now her job bugs me. At first I found it amusing, all these young horny guys gawking at her on the stage, but now it's driving me nuts. I guess I have developer tender feelings. I care about her!"
"And have you told her this," I ask flagging down Hogan for a cappuccino.
"Yeah, I told her—she feels the same way about me—but she can't afford to quit."
"Well," I said, "I guess you're going to just have to find some way to accept it or not think about it or something. With all the time you spend off fishing, I doubt you can afford to support her."
Bill looked down at his empty plate. "I know," he said, "I know, but I don't like it and it leaves me feeling depressed. Why in the world, at this time in me life, do I develop tender feelings, do I ..."
I had no answers for Bill. Why the bad weather, why the gray storm clouds, why an idiot for a president? I didn't know. I once had my stripper too and she drove me nuts.
Hogan, gleaming-eyed and devilish-looking, showed up with the cappuccino and I added two lumps of sugar and stirred vigorously.
"Care for a little brandy today?" asked Hogan?
"Does it cure depression?" I asked.
"Definitely," said Hogan, "but only temporarily."
"I was afraid of that."