Sometimes you have to go back to go forward. Tim Cahill
“The San Francisco ferry’s just like the US mail,” says the man watching us scan prepaid commuter cards at Larkspur’s ferry terminal. “Always runs. Even during the Pandemic.”
“Were you around for the Flood of ’82?” I wonder. He shakes his head. “They didn’t run then,” I say.
I remember because I worked in San Francisco when a three-day storm hit the already soaked Bay Area on the afternoon of January 3rd in 1982. It dumped rain for three days: Marin County got over 16” and tides were already high. Flooding, mudslides, and debris flows damaged over 7,800 homes and businesses, causing $281 million in damages. Ferry terminals were flooded with water and mud, the bridges were closed, and there was no public or private transportation out of San Francisco to be had, north, south, east, or west.
I was 25 then, that age when the sense that anything can happen is not hope but a given. Soon to be married to my finance who was two and a half hours away in Mendocino County, I had a lucrative temp job in the Financial District working for two rascally tax attorneys. Now forty years married to that fiancé, I’m headed back to San Francisco on a ferry with travel editor Don George and 11 travel writers to spend a day in North Beach.
This will be my first trip to San Francisco in years, and though my memories are indistinct, as much as I’d like to be a blank slate, the past insists on coming too. I decide I’ll allow it to speak to the present and if I’m lucky, I think that by the end of the day my past and present may inform my future.
I look past the man at the entrance to the terminal and see that the ferry at the dock is the Mendocino, a good omen. Flags snap in the breeze and the distant traffic on Hwy 101 hums. At rest, the ferry rumbles like a Harley Davidson. Even if I couldn’t see it, the smell of the Bay – brackish water, rotting vegetation, and salt air – would whisper this place’s location to me. I turn my face into the wind, take out my notebook, and the ferry pushes off the dock.
Leaving Larkspur, several miles in front of the thick fog bank that obscures the South Bay, we pass San Quentin prison, a place I know. Twenty years ago, at a leadership seminar there studying the development of the criminal mind, I had epiphanies I still think about. I remember the mint green metal walls of the death chamber, folding chairs set in a semicircle facing the thick glass windows of the chamber, and a heavy metal chair with straps for the condemned. I think about Lacy Peterson’s mom crying, telling us how it felt to have lost her daughter and never-born grandson. And I wonder how it feels to be convicted murderer Scott Peterson watching from a prison window as wind surfers skim over waves that once washed over his family’s bodies.
The cool breeze propelling the wind surfers and buffeting the Mendocino leaves a salty, tacky residue on my face, hands, and tongue. Salt crystals have formed on the window in front of me, blurring the form of San Francisco under the big sky. They’d cover me too if I stayed on board long enough. We reach the dock before that happens.
Outside the Ferry Building, I look for the San Francisco that I read about in the paper, the one with excrement on sidewalks and drug-addicted people everywhere. They aren’t here today, but are likely further downtown. Here, for tourists, a street musician plays an electric guitar – Hotel California – for donations and an Ecuadorian woman sells bright colored embroidered sweaters for toddlers. I wish my grandchildren were still young enough to wear them and then I pray that they never end up on the streets of San Francisco.
As we make our way up the hill toward North Beach, Don shares what he sees: the greenery of an urban park with palm trees, granite canyons of buildings next to the occasional ornate building built before the 1906 earthquake. He stops to point out a small redwood grove obscured behind a tall wall. He tries to charm our way in, but a sign says and the doorman concurs, it will reopen in 2023. We pass Francis Ford Coppola’s ornate Zoetrope Building, the once infamous Condor Club where Carol Doda displayed a “perfect 36”, Molinari’s Delicatessen, and the City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Café, in their heyday, hangouts of beat poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac.
Today, the sun is bright and the streets we walk are pleasant. There’s no trash and, in the morning, no crowds. The only tourists out are riding in open-topped double decker buses. During the ’82 flood, no one was on the streets unless they had to be. A friend’s out of town boss let us stay in his apartment below Coit Tower. Walking there from the Financial District, I remember low charcoal-colored skies, sloshing through flooded streets in my expensive leather shoes, cold rain whipping, my long hair plastered to my cheeks, and my gray wool pencil skirt clinging to my body. I fought to keep my umbrella right side out at every cross street. We spent three nights in North Beach trying to figure out how to get home.
One evening we ate at a restaurant called the New Pisa, a small Italian family style place owned by Dante Benedetti. I didn’t know then, but Dante was a much-loved restaurant owner who died in 2005. He coached baseball at the University of San Francisco, held the record for most games won until 2012, and changed the lives of countless tough city kids. He was a philanthropist, someone who gives to others out of what he has.
The New Pisa Restaurant was empty the night I was there, though a Facebook post notes it was often frequented by “cops, robbers, politicians, socialites, celebrities, and old timers”. I remember Dante as a warm man who greeted us with good food and a bottle of house red. I can’t say why but today, finding the New Pisa has become my quest. I search online and learn that it moved to Green Street after I ate there and is closed now for good. I see a picture of a mural in Jasper Alley on Green Street. There’s a baseball team in it, a playing field, and angels in the clouds. Dante’s favorite proverb is there too: “If you are proud of where you came from, you’ll always know where you’re going, and you’ll take pride in everything you do.”
Everyone I meet in North Beach is proud of their neighborhood and their place in it. I jot down the proverb in my notebook and continue searching for the old New Pisa. I meet a man on the patio of Café Trieste who remembers only that the painter of Dante’s mural, for a joke, painted the man’s name on the back of one of the players’ jerseys. I keep searching.
“Excuse me,” I stop two men walking up Vallejo Street. They’re preoccupied with their conversation, surprised I’ve interrupted. “Can you tell me where the New Pisa Restaurant used to be?”
They look like Mafia, the younger one is attending to the older, but I’m on a quest and we’re in a public place.
“Yeah,” says the tall one, his accent like a godfather. “Dante’s place. It’s up on Green Street.”
“Well, it, well, it was,” I stammer, “but it was by Upper Grant and Vallejo when I was there in 1982 and I can’t find it.”
“Yeah,” they agree, looking at each other. “It was there. That’s right.” The young one winks at me, and they point me uphill. I still can’t find it.
I ask old timers in a bar, and someone else mumbles, “Yeah, go to Green Street,” so I go there. I think of it as the new New Pisa. I see Dante’s favorite proverb on the side of the building. There’s a new restaurant where the New Pisa had its second incarnation and the interior, they tell me, has been redone. It smells like fish, not focaccia or fegato, the liver that one old timer told me he liked at the New Pisa. Neither the waiter nor the chef in the new restaurant have heard of the New Pisa or of Dante and this is not the old New Pisa. So they point me down the hill and I circle the block, confused, before deciding to return to the corner of Grant and Vallejo.
There, I pull up an old photo of the New Pisa and see it’s right in front of me – a bar where I’ve been twice rebuffed is located in the old New Pisa Restaurant where I had dinner more than forty years ago.
A website describes it: “The New Pisa, as one reviewer suggested, “…brings to mind the essence of all that North Beach was when ‘Jolting Joe DiMaggio’ was a young man working in his family’s better known restaurant closer to the Wharf.” It was also a place where a young student could get spaghetti dinner for $5, plus a buck for a jelly-jar glass of cheap Italian red.”
I go back in armed with the photo. I’m welcomed this time because I have answers for them. They tell me it’s been Pasta Pasta, the King of Thai with a rooftop restaurant, Tamarind Hall, and before the bar, La Pantera Café, but they still don’t remember the New Pisa. Before long, their attention spans end and they suggest I seek out old timers next door in The Saloon, the first bar in San Francisco.
“Just be careful,” they warn. “Hells Angels own it. It can be a rough place.”
I walk into the Saloon like I’m a regular. My quest has emboldened me and only the bartender looks like he might have a motorcycle club patch. It’s a dim place with just four people in the bar, a bartender, two older men tucked in behind the door, and one woman in the back alone. At noon, the bar has the appearance of a raucous place in repose. There’s more floor area for walking and dancing than there is to sit. It’s seen too many bands, dalliances, dances, and fights to count. None of those are happening now.
I ask the two men sitting up front if they remember the New Pisa. They barely look up. The bartender says I should ask Bonnie, sitting on a stool by herself in the back of the bar. She has long gray hair that she tucks behind her ears as we talk. There aren’t any Hells Angels here, she says, but I should be careful of the two guys up front. I don’t ask why. Bonnie’s running a tab, she’s on her third drink – something pink – in a tall, narrow bar glass, and is happy to talk. I learn nothing from her about the New Pisa or Dante. I wish I had more time there and regretfully take my leave, but it’s lunch time and I’m expected to join the others at Caffe Greco down the block. I tell her I’ll try to get back there but I don’t.
Caffe Greco has umbrella tables on the sidewalk but it’s gotten hot and my group is inside. The Caffe’s in old building with tall ceilings and tile floors. Conduit on the ceiling runs power to large overhead fans and art deco light fixtures. On the mirrored back-bar, there are bottles of Italian syrup. A line of hungry customers snakes along the wall. They’ll order espresso and panini sandwiches, all the while eying the large jars of cookies and the glass display case of desserts. A sign outside says “Cannoli Tiramisu Gelato”. I’m tempted, but in line to order I see three old men gathered around a too-small round table.
“Please, Mark,” I beg another writer. “Will you order me what you’re having?” He obliges and I make a beeline for the men. I have some questions about North Beach, I say, may I sit down? They make room. I have demonstrated the necessary deference.
“He slept with Marlon Brando,” says Albert leaning toward me conspiratorially and pointing at the little man next to him. “And Paul Newman!” I’m all ears.
Albert, I learn quickly, is a former criminal defense attorney in his eighties. We circle like friendly canines, no hackles raised, but watching each other. We’ve an unspoken understanding. They are cool, I am under consideration. After some preliminary questions, they find me acceptable either because I am a woman or a writer, probably the latter. I know the drill and they know I do, so we play the game. I lay down flattery cards and they tell me stories, a fair exchange.
Albert ups the ante, offering that Michael also slept with Rita Moreno. Michael was a mobster in New York, he says, and a longshoreman. He’s got two books on Kindle. I try to imagine Michael as all of these but can’t quite make the leap.
He’s 96, a small man whose body has mostly settled back into itself. His nose is beakish, and his skin translucent under a beret. He wears a suit and his cane rests on the chair next to him. His satchel at his feet contains colorful drawings he shows us briefly, the same ones I see on Kindle on his book covers. He’s eating a bagel thick with cream cheese, thin slices of smoked salmon, and a sprig of dill. The other men don’t eat.
“You should write a book about your life,” I prompt Michael. Albert reminds me he’s written several but I’m disappointed to learn they’re fiction. Albert again mentions his occupation, referring to celebrity clients he won’t identify. The poet is Diego, a man with a sparkle in his eye and a stack of copies of his poems in his backpack. He gives me one and I realize I’m interrupting his audience with Michael. While I ask Michael questions, Diego shuffles through his backpack, trying to be patient. None of them have anything to say about the New Pisa, but they, like Bonnie, are part of the fabric of North Beach.
Sensing it’s time to leave, I thank them and rejoin Don and my writer friends to debrief about our day in North Beach. We’ll write thirteen stories about what we’ve seen and done. My story already smolders, threatening to flare up before I can get to my laptop to write. We return to take the 4 o’clock ferry back to Larkspur, the Mendocino again.
On the way back across the Bay I sit writing in my notebook, only to look up and stare into the misty spray trailing from the side of the ferry. I think about Dante’s words. “If you are proud of where you came from, you’ll always know where you’re going, and you’ll take pride in everything you do.” I know where I came from. I’m not ashamed, but I am untethered, searching for but never quite finding home. I don’t know that I’ll ever find it and perhaps I’m not supposed to. I like being a vagabond.
Dante was cut from a single piece of cloth. I am a quilt. He spoke to the idea of place – home – as a compass for life, but for me, as writer Pico Iyer has said, home is less a piece of soil and more a piece of soul. Like him, where I come from is less important than where I’m going.
The people I met in North Beach live in a world with sharp, well-defined edges. Where they come from informs what they do and how they feel about what they do. Where they’re going is where they are. I live in the mist, moving here and there, edges blurred. Where I’m going is where I haven’t been and I’m proud of that. How do you like that, I say to myself. Today my past and present have informed my future.
Then, I like to think that from beyond the grave Dante looks down and smiles, pleased that his proverb has caused me to think about these things. Walking the streets of North Beach today has me reconsidering my idea of home, raising questions and finding answers that I’ll consider for a long time.
I sit back, close my notebook, and look out the window. I see that the afternoon sun has hit the Mendocino’s trailing spray just right and there’s a rainbow in the mist.