Heart of the City Archives

The sand dunes that were once familiar to San Francisco's landscape appear to have returned to swallow the Golden Gate Bridge as the demolition of Letterman Hospital continues in the Presidio. Detail
My Funny Valentine
by Hank Donat

People sometimes ask me, "With all our problems, how do you know that the character of the City will endure?" I tell them I know the essence of this great place will thrive the same way I'll know it's spring even though I lost my favorite Victorian box tree to a November storm. The scent of jasmine will tell me. The golden light that bathes my face when I wait for the 45 Union in North Beach will tell me...

The west bound 45 Union that whisks the San Franciscan over Russian Hill is an E-ticket ride. It's just like Space Mountain, with one exception - on Space Mountain they strap you in. The new high-tech buses with the electronic voice that calls the stops and nags riders to stay behind the yellow line and yield seats to seniors need an update to keep in step with the changing landscape. In the Presidio, the voice of Monica Electronica calls, "Next stop, Letterman Hospital," which probably sounds a good deal better than, "Next stop, great big hole in the ground." Having felled the former military hospital with a wrecking ball, workers are grinding the ruins to dust. The resulting sand dunes will temporarily mark a striking return to a feature that once gave this area its, well... character.

The small, unseen finches that nestle in the trees of Cow Hollow tell me that the character of the City endures. If, according to the lore of a particular cultural phenomenon, San Francisco is the future headquarters of Star Trek's Federation, then why are the trees on those shows always silent? Captain Kirk ought to take a walk down Baker Street between Union and the Palace of Fine Arts and ask himself what's that mysterious music emanating from the willows there. That's the sound of San Francisco, Captain, along with foghorns, a sweetheart's lilting laughter, and an alto sax...

Character is a word that's used a lot around these parts. It's assumed that if you have it, you are one. Emperor Norton was a character with character. Here was a man who went a little mad after he lost all his money, so he printed more and never spent another U.S. dime, though he frequented the finest restaurants and hotels. Who's crazy?

Lily Tomlin has character. The comic legend, who's currently on the boards at the Theatre on the Square with her still relevant "Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe," appeared at the Plush Room recently to speak on behalf of San Francisco's Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation (www.richmondermet.org). This is a mostly volunteer organization founded by Barbara Richmond and Peggy Ermet, who each lost her only son to the disease. The foundation raises funds for service providers through its "Help is on the Way" cabaret events. 

Lily, who is buoyant with energy, actually appears to bob on two feet while standing still. After celebrating the good work of Richmond/Ermet with Lily and others including the restaurateur Stu Smith and New Conservatory Theatre's Ed Decker, I confided to Lily that at my house "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" is a favorite among Tomlin films. "Oh, sure," said Lily with a bounce, "You're the right age. People your age sing 'Galaxy Glue' in my face all the time." Demographically identified as younger than a Laugh-In fan but old enough to have seen 9 to 5 at the drive-in, I had to cop to knowing the first and second verses to "Galaxy Glue," a jingle written by Tomlin's partner Jane Wagner for Charles Grodin's ad exec character in "Shrinking Woman." However, we all left the singing that night to Plush Room chanteuse Wesla Whitfield...

A person who's ahead of their time can be a character. Betty Coriarty was the City's first female truck driver when she started running delivery routes, 50 miles a day around the streets of San Francisco, in 1945. That was Betty, now 78, riding the old Playland carousel with her daughter, Terri Craib last week at Yerba Buena Gardens. In the 1950s, one of our dailies wrote a feature on Betty titled, "Pert Blonde Drives Truck," which detailed the adventures of this vivacious mother of two. Still pert, Betty retired after driving for Railway Express for more than 20 years and later retired from a second 20-year career as a traffic control officer. Back then you could call them meter maids, though Herb Caen called Betty "whistle-bait." 

Betty, a multiple Nation Safety Award winner, told San Francisco drivers long ago, "Think of what you're doing then do it. Indecision causes half the accidents." She also said that men were better drivers than woman, but fifty years later does this pioneer still think that's the case? Her answer, a resounding, "Yes!" Betty is a Ms. San Francisco whose not afraid to speak her mind...

So there you have it. As long as there's an invisible finch with a song to sing, buses that thunder over impossible hills, artists who care, drivers who swear, and a North Beach breeze with alto sax and scent of jasmine, San Francisco will always have character, and characters, of course, will always have San Francisco.

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Copyright 2002 Hank Donat
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