1950s Archive

Roughing it with Gramp

Part XI

Originally Published May 1953

I never see San Francisco without getting a bang out of the hills wrapped in mist, the houses clinging to their steep sides, the gray-silver skies, the sweep of sea on the Golden Gate. It's like no other city I've ever seen, and yet it stands like part of a culture that is the East and that is Europe. It's like nothing else in California, certainly not the daffy pace and the fruitcake complexion of Los Angeles and the lesser breeds in Brentwood and points south.

I can remember that day in 1919 when Gramp, Mama, and myself, in our trusty Studebaker, came to the Oakland ferry station and looked across at the city of San Francisco. It was a few days before Christmas, and we looked across the lead-colored bay at the populated hills, the fog already dancing on the rooftops, and the deep green of pine trees clinging to one shaggy hill; and over it all the guttural gawk of sea gulls, shoplifting along the water front.

“Big bastard,” I said, copying Cramp's Army talk.

“Don't point,” Gramp said. “Yes, it's a fine place. Let's get on the ferry and get going.”

Mama shivered and wrapped herself in Gramp's bearskin coat. “Hot water is what I need, lots of it, and good soap and crisp clean towels.”

“Now, Sari, let's remember we promised to get in touch with Mrs, Jake Beekman.”

“People,” said Mama, as we drove onto the ferry, “get in the way too much when we want to see a country.”

“Don't talk as if this isn't America, Sari.”

“How's your gout this morning?” Mama asked.

Gramp snorted, blew wind through his mustache, and looked at Mama as if trying to see the secret, cunning corners of her mind. Cramp's gout had been real bad, and his big toes were still hurting him. But he knew it was his own fault, and he didn't need Mama to remind him of it. But she did when she wanted to make a point against Gramp.

“My gout, damn it, is fine; it's doing great on every toe I have. It's a family gift, like long noses and gray eyes. Stevie will get it in time, so don't gloat at an old man sinking away.”

The ferry was running in the shreds of mist, and the harbor horns were making sounds deep in their throats, and everything was dotted with wet spots of water; this is the best climate yon will find in Frisco, when the weather is what the natives call good.

Mama said, “Don't beg for pity, Gramp. Where are we staying?”

“The Palace Hotel. It isn't what it once was, but in its day it was mighty fine, the best thing here besides the Barbary Coast.”

“Can't we stay at a modern place?” Mama asked, showing that even in 1919 people threw the word modern around like a loose shoe.

Gramp lit a fresh stogie as the ferry clanked into its slip. The gate came up. the horses started to clatter off (in those days the wagon was the solid truth in transportation), and Gramp followed, the car growling with power and fury.

“Think Stude will lake the hills.'” I asked.

“We'll find out,” said Gramp. And we shot into traffic and took the highest, steepest hill I had ever seen close up. It was just a city street-standing on end-but Stude just purred and shifted gears and took it like it was a walk in a country garden. Mama turned a little green and said, “I feel ill.”

Gramp said, “It's the height. Breathe through your nose, and watch nut for eagles. Up this high they can carry off a full-grown woman.”

But there weren't any eagles, and while I was glad that Mama wasn't carried off by one, still it would have been exciting. Of course, any eagle that got Mama in his claws was in trouble. Mama wasn't much over five feet, and the most beautiful strawberry-blonde in America (it's no secret she was one of Charles Gibson's models and one of the first “Gibson Girls”), but Mama was a fighter-she had to be, with Gramp running the family and Papa a fashionable failure in the real estate business.

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