Hill Street Blues

The doldrums are no match for geezers at Top of the Mark followed by choralists in Grace Cathedral

There has to be a phrase for feeling nostalgic for things that never were. Or maybe that is actually the very definition of nostalgia. At any rate, that was the mood I was in: I had a bittersweet longing for a connection to the past. Normally when I'm feeling that way I can pull out an old Pretenders album or something, but this time I wanted to go back even further. Yessir, all the way back to my old railroad baron days when Nob Hill was a dirt road full of promise.

Nob Hill used to be the center of S.F. nobility after the Industrial Revolution. Now Nob Hill is sort of the Disneyland version of a millionaire's neighborhood: a semifictional tourist trap where the women are rich widows in Chanel and manservants walk the Shih Tzu. For about $12 a ride, you can board a mai tai at the Tonga Room in the Fairmont, or a martini at the Top of the Mark in the Mark Hopkins. Cordial stuffed shirts will help make sure you watch your step when entering, charming waiters will strap you into an $80 bill before you know what hit you, and you'll leave with a souvenir cup.

But man am I a sucker for these places.

I walked into the Top of the Mark like I owned the joint, which I always do when I feel like I'm underdressed for a place. If worst came to worst, I would lower myself to saying I was a backup singer for Lenny Kravitz, who was playing that same night down the street. Musicians have a license to look like shit. (Actually, so do writers, but only highly successful ones.) I needn't have worried, however, because I immediately saw a young couple with his and her backward baseball hats enjoying a drink.

The Top of the Mark's selling point is the view, a panoramic vista of the city high atop the 20th floor. The interior design leaves much to be desired; it's sort of a circa '85 Radisson theme that is more "continental breakfast" than Continental. I sat in a booth overlooking Grace Cathedral and the rest of the northwest corner of the city. My waiter approached me cautiously. He was slim and darkly prim, looking something like an apple-head doll on stilts wearing slightly crooked pants. He never smiled at me once, not even after I gave him a codependent $10 tip.

I waited for those nostalgic feelings to arrive. Sitting alone in a restaurant with a martini always seems to make you feel kinda Breakfast at Tiffany's.

But nothing was coming. If anything, I felt like heading over to the Hemlock or something. But I decided to be patient. A pair of elderly couples arrived, celebrating one of the women's birthdays.

"Oh, what a lovely idea this was!" exclaimed one of them, settling herself into her chair.

"Yes, a fine idea," said one of the men, opening the wine list. I thought people only talked like that in '50s sitcoms. Ooh goody, just the people I needed to sit by me. They had obviously known each other for years, were out for a night on the town, and were over 70. I could already smell the secondhand nostalgia. Sinatra came on the sound system.

They began talking about where they used to live in the city, saying stuff like, "Do you remember Louie Morgenstern? What a crackup!" and so on. Then one of them threw out the phrase "Haight-Ashbury."

"Oh, we used to drive visitors there to look at the weirdos," said the lady with the birthday. "And that's what they were, weirdos." The rest of them concurred. So much is written about the hippies that the squares are usually left out of the picture. But do they not have just as rich a history?

"Remember that time I dared you to get out of the car?" chortled one of the husbands. I pictured them in safari gear in a Jeep, the women's flips poking out from under their pith helmets and the men in tiger-print button-ups. I had an overwhelming urge to walk outside in the rain.

I paid and left, sinking down down down in the elevator and emerging into the gray street. Dead ahead was Grace Cathedral, the holy place wherein Courteney Cox got married. I couldn't believe my luck -- on this evening there was to be a concert given by the Pomona College Glee Club in the church. I pictured homosexuals wearing candy-striped blazers and straw hats singing songs with lyrics like "I've got a chica in Chico, 10 cents a dance!" The perfect end to a perfectly nostalgic night!

On the eighth day the Lord invented the flying buttress. Cathedrals that use them want the parishioners to feel like the sanctuary is being held up by God. Grace Cathedral has butts-a-plenty, and I added my rather sizable tuchis to the fray in row 15. There were about 100 people there already, and glancing around at all the academic types and women in flowing cotton clothing, I wondered if this was the kind of glee I wanted. Then I saw the program. The first song listed was "Sing Wee and Chaunt It." Hmm ... an ode to baseball legend Pee Wee Reese sung in a barbershop style? Then I looked down further: "Ave Maria," "Come Let's Rejoice," and "Les Fleurs el les Arbres, OP. 68, NO.2." Oh shit. Just as I was about to get up and make haste, the choralists came out; shiny college faces both male and female. Squares. They began to sing. Choral singers always have the same look on their faces, like they are cautioning you not to step there. Well I stepped in it all right, and couldn't extricate myself until the lengthy midperformance applause following "Des Pas Danse L'Allée" by Maurice Boukay. Believe it or not, loosely translated, the words were quite nostalgic:

Fall, memories! Slide leaf over leaf;

Cover her steps with your dying gold.

Other flowers will come to weep their scents!

But she who gathers them will not come again!

Into what silence, along what path

Did she pass one fine evening?

Er, um ... California and Taylor streets?

 
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