By: Brian Shinnick
It’s our second day in town. We head to Napa in two more days.
I look up at the big yellow and red sign and ring out, “They got In-n-Out Burger here? Yes. Ma, you gotta try one of these burgers. They’re fu—“ and as I’m midway through a word she slapped off my tongue many times as a teen, she looks me dead in the eye, “uhhh-ntastic. They’re fantastic. I’m telling you.”
She nods with a cautiously approving glare, “That’s right, Booshkers.”
We’ve spent all day together meandering through Chinatown, bargaining for knickknacks and faux kimonos for my sisters and their kids. Every now and again I’d look over to find Mom burrowing into a giant pile of silk slippers looking for size 9s. For all the time she’d spent in Hong Kong she never really understood that shouting your words slowly does not make your language any more translatable than alphabet soup.
“ME NEED SIZE NIIIIIIIIIIINE-UH.”
Meanwhile, I just kept chowing down on Hi-Chews (a Japanese Starburst-type candy) looking for the back alley opium dens and fast handed games of Russian roulette. I’m a huge advocate of Chinatowns, and all Little (Insert Country)’s for that matter.
“We’ve gotta find one of those herb shops, you know. You know, where they have all the herbs and there’s someone there that tells you what they’re supposed to do and then you pick the ones you want and they put them all into a blender with Chinese ice cream and they give it to you and you drink it and you’re better. You know?” she tells me looking across the small street scanning for the strange place she’s describing.
She goes on, “Yeah, you know.”
“There’s a Jamba Juice like two blocks that way,” I say pointing over my shoulder.
“No, it’s one of those magical herb medicine shops.”
“Wait, are you looking for an opium den too?”
“What?” she glares. “I need an immune boost, Booshkers.”
“You aren’t sick, Ma.”
“But I could be better! Your immune system can ALLLLLLL-WAYS use a boost!” She flies her pointer finger high in the air with an excitement for health like she’s a grade school nurse. “Wahooo!”
We find the type of shop she’s describing, only I think she had a different picture of it in her head. The dingy little place smelled like a rundown pet store with walls of tea powders and big vats of unrecognizable herbs. These places are useless to anyone who cannot speak the language. She was talking to one man asking him loud, enunciated questions about immune system issues anti-oxidant facial rejuvenation powders while he puttered around pointing from big jar to big jar saying, “Is ginseng. Is ginseng. Is…?…is ginseng.”
We leave empty handed.
“They must have been Korean,” she purses her lips to the side.
“Yeah, I don’t think so.”
We leave Chinatown and head up Columbus Avenue to one of their hundred Italian restaurants for a bite. Mama Bear is a little tired and a bit disappointed that she couldn’t find her herbal immune boost, not to mention she still hasn’t been on a cable car. Today is her birthday, and I’m doing my best to oblige her requests…while not strangling a street performer out of familial frustration.
“You ok,” I ask sincerely.
“Yeah,” she sighs.
“Are you tired?”
She wobbles her hand of spread fingers side to side, “Ehhhh.”
“You wanna get a drink? I know a spot you’d dig.”
“Do they have champagne?”
“I’ll get an Uber.”
Pier 23 Café is a locals preferred hub in an despicably touristy part of San Francisco along the Embarcadero of piers. The joint is a little smaller inside with a twenty-foot bar, a few hi-tops, and a long line for either bathroom. San Francisco sun spills into the room from every window illuminating the warm yellow painted interior. The music playing is good fun and everyone is smiling slippery smiles and rubbing elbows. Immediately I love this place. My mother loves this place. We should get drunk. Hell, the lady is 58 glorious-years-old today. Let’s get drunk.
It’s hot out. It’s hot in. The barroom is sweaty and alive. It’s Friday afternoon and we’re all just playing to the vibe the city is giving. I walk outside for a cigarette—yeah, four days is long enough, folks. We’re sitting outside while Mick and Keith are jamming a ballad to Satan’s humility, I’m guzzling my sixth warm beer, sweating bullets beneath my shades. We can’t stop laughing. At everything. It’s magical.
“You’re sunglasses are silly,” she says. “They’re too big for your face. You look like a fly.”
“I like them.”
“You’re a fly, like that movie.”
“I was adopted, wasn’t I?”
“Remember that movie with Jeff Goldblum and he turns himself into a fly and he throws up all the time. What’s that movie called again?”
“No, silly. The fly movie.”
“Nooooooooo.” Another champagne arrives for her.
“Good Will Hunting.”
“Was he in that?”
“Law & Order.”
I slap my knees and shake my head, “Well I just have no idea then.”
We sit silently for a moment looking at the other patrons get loose. “I don’t think I like that boy’s hair cut,” she whispers.
“That boy you’re referring to is a 40-year-old man. Anything else you’re realizing you don’t like?”
“Yeah I could see that.”
Four hours later and we’re back at the hotel. Drunk. Mama Bear is complaining she is hungry. I go downstairs and discuss dinner options with the concierge. He is a nice gentle little fellow. I come back up to the room after thirty or so minutes have passed. Mama bear is wrapped beneath the covers. Her shoes and jean jacket are still on.
“Ma,” I ask, “you asleep?”
She mumbles from beneath the white comforter, “No.”
“Are your shoes still on?”
“Are your shoes still on?”
I sigh, “Wait did you eat that whole big bag of chocolates? The Ghirardelli ones?”
Her bed is littered with chocolate wrappers. Littered. She ate the whole bag. “There’s two wrappers in your hair, Ma.”
“Nuh-uh,” she whispers falling to sleep.
“Who ate the chocolates, Ma?”
“Ummm,” she pauses, “that bad maid did. She’s bad.”
She sleeps. There is no dinner.
The next morning she decides we should have an independent day and before I can nod my head Yes, she’s gone back to sleep—probably dreaming about Jeff Goldblum picking her up in an Uber. “Hi I’m Jeff Goldblum, star of the 1986 classic The Fly. Please buckle your seat belt.”
I love exploring by myself. I love getting lost. After I spend the better part of the morning guzzling coffee like Gatorade at halftime and finishing a little writing session in the hotel lounge, I set off downtown. It’s hot out again and when I reach Davis Park I stop to enjoy watching the Chinese dance-aerobics-movement-meditation-awesomeness that seems to be taking place all over the city. It’s just a clutter of Chinese women slowly dancing in unison with a leader guiding the movements in front, all to the tune of what sounds like a South Pacific version of Celine Dion. I sat for quite a while and watched pleasantly.
Much of the day and evening is spent at City Lights Bookstore, a most famous purveyor of words on page. I kept asking other patrons of the store how I should spend my night. Everyone has a different opinion where I should go—this bar, that bar, live show here, bay cruise there. I ask each person where the real San Franciscans go, you know, the born-n’-bread chaps. No one seems to have been living here long and before I know it I’m in a geography class: “Oh, I’m from Oregon.” “I actually just got here a month ago from Kansas City.” “My boyfriend is a granola farmer and I’m from Novia Scotia.” “Is…is ginseng?”
Around 9 o’clock, after buying three books, a karma bracelet, two cheeseburgers and a ginger ale, I stroll into a local establishment for a libation. Vesuvio Café is a North Beach staple. The building itself, inside and out, looks like a kaleidoscope had premarital relations with a 1920’s gin bar. Stained glass and paintings and Beat memorabilia smeared across every inch of wall gave the darkened, cramped room a cozy feel and before I can even pull up a stool I feel like I’d found San Francisco. “Beer, please.”
After some small talk with the two bartenders, I pull out my Moleskin and begin jotting some liquored notes about the evening, this place. I raise my head to breathe and to my surprise there is someone sitting next to me. It’s a small statured women wearing a wildly free-flowing green dress/blouse-thing that is tied with a sash above her waist. She is wearing knee high cowboy boots and this straw beach cowgirl hat that’s falling apart on her head. Her hair is bright bright red.
“Hello,” she says politely.
Oh, this girl is into me. Quick, be James Bond. No. Be Sinatra. Negative. Be Johnny Depp. Yeahhhh, Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp should do a Vietnam movie. Get back on track. Be smooth. Be Depp. Here we go, aaaaand let the smooth talk flow: “I’m with my mom,” I reply with beer spilling from the corner of my mouth.