The Heart of Friendship

I spent a week in San Francisco at the end of June, bathed in temperate breezes and surrounded by beauty: alabaster palaces draped in purple bougainvillea and oleander, marinas of white sail boats p

Jul 6, 2005 at 2:06 pm

I spent a week in San Francisco at the end of June, bathed in temperate breezes and surrounded by beauty: alabaster palaces draped in purple bougainvillea and oleander, marinas of white sail boats perfectly balanced, tacking into the blue bay. On the sidewalk, slender figures glided by on bikes and rollerblades in trim fitting sports clothes and expensive shoes.

Beamers and Hummers were everywhere. As my old friend, Becky, who was my host, said, "Just another day in paradise."

San Francisco is pristine (no half-eaten pizzas thrown in the street), polite (the neighbors don't curse you and try to shake you down for money), palatial (even the homeless sleep in splendour in the park). The Golden Gate Bridge, beautiful and graceful, is the gateway to this small enclave of luxury.

Nothing drives up a price tag like scarcity, and in San Francisco, where land is scarce, the buildings are wedged so tightly together you couldn't slip a dime between them. In Chinatown, families share apartment buildings, sleeping and working in shifts, shopping for poultry and chicken feet (a great delicacy) in open shop windows.

At City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had huge anti-Bush banners hanging outside the building, and nobody arrested him. (Actually, they did arrest him back in 1956 when he published Allen Ginsberg's Howl, but with the help of the First Amendment to the Constitution — still viable in those years — he beat the rap.)

The bookstore went on to celebrate the brilliant, subversive writing of the '50s generation: Jack Kerouac, Ferlinghetti himself, MFK Fisher, who came from north of San Francisco, Alice Adams' early short stories. These days, Ferlinghetti could sell matchbooks with the name "City Lights" on them, and that's branding!

At the bar next door to City Lights, you'll still see giant posters of Janice Joplin singing at the Filmore East. Jazz player Stan Getz used to play the vineyards in Napa Valley. Some wine, some perfect roses, a breeze like a caress and Stan, with his dog at his feet, played concerts in sensory splendor. In the '80s I got to hear him in a small bar right across from Washington Park on Columbus Avenue.

Robin Williams lives in San Francisco, and just for the heck of it Becky drove me by the Mrs. Doubtfire house where he did his "drag" movie, as they call it there.

My mother brought me to this city when my father was stationed at the Presidio during World War II. I was just 18 months old, and my mother, who had never been out of Henry County, Tenn., took me on a cross-country train. She was terrified.

She got a job at a Chinese restaurant (her southern accent completely perplexed the Chinese, and she had to write down every word so they could understand her). She managed to rent an apartment on Fells Street (she couldn't do that today). If real estate was high in the War years, nowadays it's out of anyone's reach but the wealthy.

Not to worry, though. San Franciscans have Proposition 13, which is sort of like rent control in Manhattan. In this fertile crescent with its virtually perfect climate, there is an accumulation of wealth beyond the dreams of kings.

I like to visit Becky in her environmental splendor. We eat out a lot, go to Real Foods where they have vegetables and fruits I've never seen, even at Tony Sparto's. Mostly we talk about politics, memories, Bluegrass and West Viginia, which is her home.

Becky is smaller than I; her head just reaches my shoulders. She used to have long, thick shiny brown hair, parted in the middle like a hippie, like Ally McGraw in Love Story. Her hair is still thick, but the brown is liberally laced with gray, and her hair is cut in a dutchboy style.

We got to know each other in the '60s at the Forum apartment complex in Clifton. One summer she went to Europe on a student rail pass, and I found Bluegrass in a little bar on Main Street called Aunt Maudie's.

Becky loved Bluegrass, but when she finished her master's degree she moved to Boston to work for Gillette, then to San Francisco with Sam, her "significant other." They settled on Russian Hill in a small, pleasant house with a tiny courtyard in the back. They have a beagle named "Blue" who has an inscrutable expression and "food issues."

Around the house, Becky hums or sings under her breath. She and Sam tune in my Sunday night radio show on WNKU-FM on their computer, and we keep up with songs we like.

It's fun having a friend so long she remembers your old hairstyles, your old boyfriends, your family. I liked what she said about the "years falling away when we were together." I thought of the petals of an artichoke, because it takes so long to eat them, one by one, until you're there again at the heart, at the juicy marrow of the friendship.

Whether you're 30 or 50, rich or poor, that's the real stuff of life you want to keep as long as you can.

KATIE LAUR: Her column appears here the first issue of each month.