Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Come to Mama

Once, when Tumwell and I were in need of a new apartment, one such became vacant on that iconic street (to some) in San Francisco named Castro. I was highly reluctant to move to a location that was well known as THE gay street, (Harvey Milk was sometimes called "the Mayor of Castro"), but the man offering the apartment had inherited it, and had little need to make a bundle, so the price asked was $350 per month, pretty good even back in the mid '70s. This was an excellent apartment with fireplace, two bedrooms, wooden floors (which proved not to be such a boon, since the girl upstairs habitually wore wooden clogs and had no carpets) and, in the end, we took it.

Not long afterward, a friend of ours invited us to come along to a party in the 24th Street area. Twenty-fourth Street was the center of an interesting population, a large component of which were women who had been hippies ten years before and who had begun to rise in the world, while in firm denial that they had changed in any way from the free spirits in used clothing that they had once been. Hippie-dom was a deeply felt political and social movement for many, but it was also undeniably a fashion movement for many fellow travellers (Much the same as one today finds "gangstas" in leafy suburban cul-de-sacs . There were a load of kids from the middle class and upwards who would have been aghast if any of the goals of the movement had been achieved at their expense. While perfectly happy to see their parents taught a lesson, they felt quite otherwise about learning the same lesson. As the years passed these women kept wearing denim but had begun paying two or three hundred for their jeans, kept the long hair but paid plenty for the styling and so on. One fashion accessory that was surprisingly common in the immediate post-hippie years was a grammar school-age child that was partially of non-white blood. The few black women involved in this scene tended to achieve the same degree of style by having a white boy- or girlfriend, although in some ways just being black was fashionable enough. Twenty-fourth Street was dotted with little specialty cheese and butcher and boutique-y type shops and darling little restaurants where one could get things that ten years earlier one would have been highly reluctant to eat.

Nonny, our hostess at this party, was of the artisan/Earth-mother type. The true Earth mothers of the day were overweight, wore flowing dresses of some vivid print, let their hair hang long and free and liked to bake. The artisan sub-species however, such as Nonny, were slim, weathered-looking, brown and, like Nonny, wore their hair in styles that kept it at bay while they fixed gutters or made pots. Nonny had a long black braid laced with a few white hairs that hung down to her waist in back. She was the very picture of the popular idea of an American Indian woman and probably would have been delighted to be mistaken for such. She invariably referred to Bob Dylan as "Bobby" (no last name); one could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that he had just had brunch with her the week before.

The party was one of those pot-lucky sort of affairs full of whole grains and home-baked breads and things that looked like meat but weren't, over which everyone was expected to exclaim delightedly. Although this was primarily an adult party, there was a child or two present whose parent or parents believed in the theory that children should be included in everything. One little girl, who was determined to find something that went beyond the permissible, was wildly annoying; I recall her walking up to a strange man and asking, "Do you like farts?" Alas, she was no match for her parents, who were determined to tolerate anything she came up with (and to wither anyone present who felt otherwise about the extremes to which a child could go) so she failed to attract the punishment she so richly deserved and so determinedly sought.

At this party we met Nonny's inner circle, three of whom turned out to occupy separate apartments in two matching wooden houses that sat further back from the street than their neighbors within a block of Tum and me, on Castro Street. Since the friend Roger, who had brought us to the party was a school teacher and one or, perhaps, all of the three were fellow schoolteachers, Tum and I and our closest friend Barbara merged our social lives with theirs for a period of time. It was one of those odd social things, where in many ways I didn't really like the ladies, yet there was a fair amount in common (including Roger himself, who was a very good friend to Barbara, Tum and me) and we ended up being invited to dinner parties at one or the other of the ladies' apartments fairly often. I usually dreaded going, (not my kind of food just for starters) but I always went.

All of these ladies were single Moms; whether never married or divorced I was not certain in Frieda or Star's case, but I know that Belinda had been married to Jake about whom I heard much, but never met. Star was involved in theater and for much of the time I knew her, was in rehearsals for one or another show. She had a slim early-teen-age son with rather wild kinky blond/brown hair - although I suspect it was kinky from Semitic, rather than African origin. Frieda had a teen-age son and a daughter about ten. The son was eventually thrown out for stealing his sister's radio to sell for money to buy heroin, and was then taken in by Star, which may have been a one-up move on Star's part; the ladies were all militant feminists, but more than that they were MOTHERS, in the most capitalized sense. Much of their conversation involved theories of mothering, and statements that began, "As a mother, I...". I learned of the son's addiction only after an incident when an angry and armed young man came to Star's door looking for Frieda's son, who had apparently burned him in a drug deal, to find Star's son alone at home. Although no violence ensued, Star was somewhat shaken. My friend Barbara was horrified at the risk to which Star had put her son (not to mention the example being set daily by Frieda's son) and urged Star to move immediately to protect her kid.

"Well, I can't right now," Star explained. "I've got the show coming up," and went on to detail a number of things that apparently presented more inconvenience than her son's life merited. The odd thing about these mothers was that despite their endless discussions of mothering, they had no thought of putting theory into practice. And, anyway, "It's not like he's an addict," Frieda said, indignantly. Say what?

Most eloquent of all in matters maternal, was Belinda. She was a tall woman of Scandinavian ancestry with the face of a Bassett Hound. She dressed in true Earth mother style: I never saw her in a dress that did not sweep the ground. She and Jake (who was, needless to say, a black man) had four of the most divinely beautiful children that I have ever seen. These ranged in age from Krishna who was 17 down to Ravi who was probably about 9 or 10. All had lovely honey-brown skin, enormously large eyes framed with lushly black lashes, softly curling black hair, and the two older boys were very tall. The second boy Rama was easily one of the ten most beautiful people I have ever seen. The remaining child, third in order of age, was a girl named (sigh!) Kali. It spoke volumes about Belinda's sense of mothering, that she would name her daughter after the Indian goddess of death. I would (and did) equally question the wisdom of raising these beautiful boys - who because of their height looked older than they actually were - on a block of Castro adjacent to the business area of that heavily gay area. While I know very well that gay men do not run around raping and recruiting, I nonetheless question the choice of location, since the street was busy with all sort of hi-jinks at that time. A gay man seeing these beautiful young men in that area could naturally assume that they were there for a reason. On the other hand, I know many women in San Francisco, including my friend Barbara, choose to live in gay districts because they tend to be safe (for women) and with the constant presence of people in the streets, there is usually someone to ask for assistance if any unpleasantness does occur. So maybe that was Belinda's logic, if logic she used. Still, I think I would not have exposed a boy to quite such a busy block. Believe me, if one can afford an apartment on Castro, one can afford one plenty of other places. Then again, as the Haight had grown dangerous, Castro's easy tolerance in some ways made it the successor to the Haight-Ashbury, even for the non-gay. And you could always score some weed from people a good deal less threatening than some of the Haight's current denizens.

Belinda was, without question the slowest moving human being I have ever known. A ground sloth could have given her a half-mile lead and still beaten her in a three-quarter mile race. An elderly Cadillac driver on a cellphone would have seemed like a fast-moving blur to one moving at Belinda's pace. Seeing her at the end of our block headed for our apartment, Tum and I could enjoy a leisurely meal, a short nap and awaken refreshed in time to greet her at the door. Despite her rate of flow, she still managed to visit us rather often for a time, no doubt to escape the demands of the brood about which she was so fond of theorizing motherhood. Cut from the rest of her herd of mothers in arms, Belinda could be somewhat entertaining, so we were happy enough to welcome her visits.

Not infrequently, her conversations touched on the manifold failings of Jake, although as is so often the case with women in her position, the children were passed off to the iniquitous Jake whenever Belinda needed her space, which was most of the time. Apparently, among other things, Jake had an alarmingly bourgeois attitude about parenting. "Oh, Jake is all hung up on the kids having a good breakfast," quoth she one day in scathing tones. In all the time I knew Belinda, I never once remember all four kids being at her home at once. Those damn men are sometimes pretty convenient for a woman who dedicates herself to mothering politically.

Although they had men friends and men were often present, certain of these ladies could no more give a man his due than they could fly. Once I recall a rather effeminate young man appearing at one of their party/lunches. "Oh, this is Teddy," cried Nonny, introducing him to us newbies, "He doesn't like himself very much, but we all love him." And everyone lovingly checked up at length on all Teddy's weaknesses and suicidal issues. It was only with great difficulty that I discovered that Teddy was a concert pianist who had played solo with the SF symphony and elsewhere. Surely, when introducing a dear friend, that impressive accomplishment might be touched upon at least once? Or am I being a little shallow here, all hung up with worldly accomplishment?

One of the more unsettling rituals at these ladies' dinners, one to which I didn't catch on at first since each case seemed to be unique before I discerned a pattern, was the ritual flaying of one of the men present. Some poor fish would brush across these ladies' political antennae with a seemingly innocuous remark and the blood bath was on. Certainly if Nonny was present, this would be the case. I am not talking about a guy making a sexist remark even by the most tortured logic. It would just be the poor schlumpf's turn that day. The ladies would go into merry mode and just would not let it drop. It would be difficult to take exception to any one of the remarks made, yet the endless whole taken together was pretty devastating, and left the target rather numb and dazed.

Inevitably, with my mouth, I was the sacrificial lamb one day. In a general conversation about this and that, I mentioned how irritating I found Sammy Davis, Jr.'s talk show appearances. Sammy had a pattern: he would trade jests with the host, and at each of the host's sallies he would laugh heartily waggling his head, slapping his legs and totally convulsing in laughter. Then after a couple of minutes of this, he would seize upon the topic covered by some joke and go all quiet and turn to the host, saying, "But seriously, Johnnie," (or Dave, or whoever)... and then relate some tale of woe or hardship that plucky little Sammy had overcome. These were never just because he was black, although that hung in the air, but some additional difficulty that even the average black person did not have to deal with. His loss of one eye, his diminutive stature, his Jewishness, his marriage to a white (it wrecked her career, by the way, not his - and when black became beautiful - and in fashion - he dumped her for a black woman). And his concern for the hardship of the average black person at the time always seemed rather faux and peripheral. He famously endorsed Richard Nixon whose 'law and order' campaign was specifically aimed putting an end to black progress in the nation. A talk show moment I shall treasure always occurred when Sammy appeared on the show of his fellow Rat-packer, Joey Bishop. The two minutes of hilarity went ahead on schedule, then Sammy went grave and said, "But seriously, Joey; a lot of people don't know that my mother was Puerto Rican." And before he could enlarge upon how that made his case uniquely difficult among those of all men, Joey replied, "Oh, really? I thought your mother was Japanese, and every December 7th, you attack Pearl Bailey!" Sammy just froze for a second, the brave-little-man train had jumped the track and there was a noticeable pause before he re-entered the knee-slapping, head-shaking hilarity mode.

But I have strayed into a byway on old Memory Lane. Back at the luncheon party, I had somehow given an opening and Nonny was the first to attack (as always) observing how odd it was that anyone could become exercised over SD, Jr. One remark after another was made over how shallow the conversation had become, and so forth. It went on and on. And whenever someone not in on the game went on to another topic, Sammy Davis was somehow inserted into the response. This went on for a very long time; I could see by my friend Barbara's face that she was aware that I was floundering in quicksand. There was never anything to refute; no one accused me of anything; they just made merry at my expense. How pointless my life must be to have ventured on such a thought! Finally Barbara called to mind an engagement she had just made up and said she had to leave. "I'll go with you," I said gratefully and we fled.

That was the last I had to do with these ladies en masse, although Belinda continued to visit Tumwell and me occasionally. She found some sort of position as a "woman's advocate" and continued her discoveries in the adventure of mothering. My friends rather gleefully collected anecdotes concerning Belinda's forays into motherhood. Once Belinda was discussing the sacred topic with Tumwell when her son Krishna was present. "Huh!" said that ungrateful son, "A hot dog and a dollar are all the mothering I've had this month."

Another time our friend whom we always called Judas because he had played that part in our performances of Jesus Christ, Superstar was visiting Belinda (he found her hugely entertaining) and she was specifically talking about how she believed that one should always be honest and tell one's children the truth, no matter how difficult or how adult the topic. They were interrupted by Ravi, the youngest, who asked for money to buy some ice cream. Belinda told him no, but he persisted and she said, "Ravi honey, Mama doesn't have any money," whereupon the boy seized her long and colorful skirt and shook it, causing it to tinkle merrily with the clash of dimes and quarters clinking together.

"What's that?" he demanded.

Poor Belinda - she'd have been the perfect mother if only she didn't have those damned kids.

After Tum and I left the apartment on Castro, we continued to hear occasional updates on Belinda from Roger or Judas or Barbara. I remember Barbara calling one day and telling us in awed tones that Belinda had left her position as a woman's advocate and was looking for a similar position to advocate for children. We shared a moment of silence as we contemplated the lucky children who would have such a devoted supporter. Then we heard that Belinda had moved to Marin County where she was living in a teepee set up on a ranch owned by some of her friends. It was not clear whether any of her children lived there with her; Krishna and Rama would have been grown by then, and possibly Kali also, but Ravi most likely had gone to live with Jake and his bourgeois hang-ups about good breakfasts and the like, so that Belinda could continue mothering without his interruptions.

The very last news item we heard was the most astonishing of all. Belinda had managed to break up the marriage of the ranch owners. The husband had forsaken his wife to take up with Belinda. Those who have never seen Belinda cannot adequately grasp the degree to which this might seem to be an item for Ripley's Believe It or Not.

The only explanation I can muster is Freudian: the man must have been seeking a Mother.


  1. Ah yes, it was all about love then, wasn't it even though the hippie movement with it's accept and love everyone had its own unadmitted social requirements. I didn't know bassett-houndian faces could crack the gates, but I guess the long hair made up for it. I think you lived there during the MOST exciting and cool time. I visited SF just before the earthquake that pancaked the doubledecker freeway. My son had an apartment with two Navy buddies in that area and we walked underneath that freeway to get there from the subway. Thankfully his ship was out to sea when the quake struck so they at least were safe. If I were to try to comment on all the interesting points here, I'd have to leave one longer than your blog. So many mixed feelings about Sammy Davis--SO talented an actor and a singer/
    dancer--and I always felt his voice never got the credit deserved. when he died I really felt he left a void that could never be filled. This makes me "homesick" for the 60s.

  2. I never been to SF but as always your stories make me feel as if I am right there

  3. I'm in awe of how much detail and wonderful storytelling you can pack into a post and then I slap myself and say that you've always written like this and that's whey I like you. Belinda is quite the character, but you pulled a one-two punch with the addition of the Sammy Davis, Jr stories.

  4. FLOOZ - I drove that pancaked part of the Freeway in Oakland daily for quite a time. I had just left the SF area about a month before that quake. Tumwell and other friends gave me exciting reports - One thing I never thought of - but with no electricity when night fell, people had to feel their way along blocks to get places. One friend who lived near downtown had unexpected overnight guests who couldn't get home, including his girlfriend and ex-wife. I DID live in SF for the coolest and most exciting time - dumb luck strikes again!

    SHANA - That SF is gone forever - but I am glad I can help you visit.

    MOCHA - Any time I can make anyone slap him/herself, I feel I have not lived in vain. I'd like to say the detail is all art, but it is actually the way I think - I can NOT get from point A to point B without a tour of the alphabet. I am the most annoying person to talk to (I know because I talk to myself a lot). If I were married, we'd be one of those irritating couples:
    She: Oh; last Tuesday, David and I went...
    Me(interrupting): It couldn't have been Tuesday, hon, that was the day we wash the car - It was Wednesday, I think...
    She: No, on Wednesday my mother came. It had to be Tuesday. Or Monday.
    Me: It couldn't be Tuesday - we were busy all day - And Monday was the garage sale at the Jones. Thursday, maybe?
    And on and on. All to say we'd noticed someone new moving in down the block.