Friday, July 16, 2010

The Widow of Nob Hill

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from California Living
San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

August 2010

San Francisco has changed. It's so sad. Of course we've managed to save a few things. It was a lovely performance tonight, wasn't it? Verdi, Verdi, where would we be without you, Verdi? So passionate.

I'm fourth generation San Francisco, you know. But I've told you that, haven't I? Strange. Very odd being part of the hills, so to speak. I certainly am as old as the hills. Oh yes, I am. You'd rather walk a young beauty, wouldn't you? Oh yes, you would.

You are a perfectly charming young man. A perfect dear for taking me to dinner tonight. And the opera. How should I ever have gotten out of the house without you, Jeff? Jeff, that's a lovely name. So masculine and assertive.

My husband's name was Arthur. Now that's a substantial name. Arthur. Oh he had a good life. He did so much for The City. A really splendid man, Arthur. It's a good thing he's not here to see what those Vulgars are doing. Vulgars -- that's my descriptive for people who have no taste. Taste, cultivation, they're frightfully old-fashioned and unhip ideas, aren't they? Everyone in blue jeans and work shirts and trying so desperately hard to look hard up. It's such a bore.

I have always worn what I thought was beautiful, whether or not it was in style. I wish some of those little dears would have the courage to dress individually, instead of in that pseudo-individual look, which is getting positively sickening in its repetition.

Ah, but San Francisco's elegance is a thing of the past. We're relics, my dear Jeff. Anachronisms, living in a city that could be first-rate if it would only take itself in hand.

Now, I have never for a moment believed that a beautiful woman couldn't be interesting. Why should one expect less from a city? Here we are, the major cities of the world abdicating their responsibility for greatness, our civilization virtually peeling and crumbling, and San Francisco is primping and dolling itself up as though beauty were more than skin deep.

But I'm raving, simply raving, my dear sweet Jeff. You're probably thinking how awful it is to have to think about how awful things are. Your whole life is ahead of you. Ah, I should have been born a man. I envy you. I'd show the world what San Francisco could do. I'd do battle for my fair lady.

As a woman, a widow, I do what I can. But it's nothing. Nothing. I am not the grande dame of San Francisco. All I can do is my bit for the opera and the ballet and the symphony. Yes, and the museums, and my charities. At least, I tell myself, I can help keep our institutions alive. I meet with my friends. We talk. We decide. We do.

I think, if I were younger I'd rebel. I'd do what the young women are doing today. Run for congress, fly a plane, start a business, become a surgeon. My daughter and her friends, they're active, every one of them. Busy doing real things. My grandchildren will do even more.

I was a rebel in my time, you know. I wore short hair. I drove a car, I was violently against Prohibition. I fought intolerance wherever I encountered it. People knew where I stood.

What is a tired old woman with an annuity supposed to do -- backpack with the twenty year-olds? I'd look even more ridiculous than I do now. Yes, it's true. I am ridiculous. But what are we doing standing at the door. Come in, Jeff. Come in. Let me fix you a cup of coffee, or a drink.

There, that's better. You like the view? It's even more beautiful during the day. Views help us see outside of ourselves, don't you think? That can be a disadvantage, too. It's so good to come home. I am comfortable among my old things. An antique with her antiques. I like them because they are the only things I know that are older than I am.

Sit down. Sit down. We are deliciously alone. My housekeeper doesn't sleep in any more. She's wonderful to me, comes in every morning. She keeps this place so organized. It's much easier to take care of than the house on Jackson Street, but still there's much to do. She is a very good cook. Not as good as Felice was, I'm afraid. But then who could be?

Felice was marvelous. She could prepare Filets de Soles Orientale, Langue de Boeuf Choucroute, Ris de Veau Bonne Maman and mince pie as good as Escoffier himself.

Oh, but it's obscene these days to think of food like that, isn't it, with the prices so astronomical. I don't know how people do it. I have been so lucky. Daddy and Arthur took care of me. I have tried to be worthy of the pains they took to see I'd be comfortable.

Those are my grandchildren. In those little gold frames on the piano. They're much bigger now. Those pictures were taken two years ago. Good children. Not a bit spoiled like I was. Irreparably spoiled.

What shall it be? Coffee, tea -- or brandy? You're a dear. It's right over there. Just seven little drops for me. It's unbecoming for a relic to get drowsy, and that's what too much brandy does to me. It used to make me sexy. How sad to think of those bygone days!

Sometimes, to keep myself from falling asleep right in front of my guests, I play the piano or sing. Don't look so frightened. I'm not going to torture you with that.

I had a little training. Some talent, I suppose. But not enough to pursue. Just enough to appreciate what an artist must do to develop her art. Have you heard the new opera finalists? The winner is a genuine talent. So effortless. Such depth of understanding.

It's clear tonight. My, how the lights sparkle. The skyline has changed so, I can't tell you what it does to me. No, I'm not for preserving a glorious past. The past was not always that glorious. But it's frightening to think how quickly things move today, how much power can be brought to bear on this fragile city. It can be transformed in no time to something altogether different.

Life was so much easier for my great grandfather and my grandfather. All they had to do was pit themselves against the elements, test their strength and wits against the land and against other men. It was like a sort of club in those days. Everybody out for the same thing. There was no question that it was right. It was only a matter of how to accomplish your goal.

But today everything is so much more complicated. The whole world is a tightly related little village. You can't ignore the consequences of what you do. People must work. People must live. You can't dictate what should be done, what can't be done. You have to work it out.

Do you think it will work out, Jeff? You're so young and handsome and strong. You've got hope and faith and confidence, don't you, Jeff? You don't believe that we should cultivate our garden, do you?

Are we in a spiritual depression? It isn't all pleasure and self-indulgence, is it? Life can't be simply a matter of easing pain and having fun, can it? Everyone wants to go sailing or walk the beach. That's all very well, but we need a clashing together of ideas in San Francisco, don't you think? There's such a desperate longing for tranquility. Except, of course, for those who are angry. But anger isn't very inspiring, is it?

It's all so difficult to comprehend. Oh dear, I am getting far too philosophical. Look at the time! And you have been sitting there so patiently, listening to this monologue of mine. I'm so glad we were introduced, Jeff. I'm so glad we've had this opportunity to get acquainted. We're going to have other opportunities. Of course I have my box for the season. Next week I will be going with my little group, though. But soon the symphony will open. Then the ballet. Then, of course, the Spring Opera and Stern Grove concerts.

Tomorrow I'm going to my Mozart group. Then in the evening to hear the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. I just keep running, running, as long as my strength holds out.

Perhaps, if you're free, we can arrange to spend another lovely evening. Meanwhile, I must plan my trip abroad. There is so much to do you wouldn't believe it. I really should have a secretary.

The brandy is getting to me now. It's such a bore getting tired. I'll be up at the crack of dawn tomorrow. There's the flower show, if I can squeeze it in. I suppose I shouldn't be greedy and try to do too much.

Once again, dear Jeff, thank you so much for a lovely evening.

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