THE SOUND OF THE CITY

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

 

The Golden Gate

The Golden Gate

Our ancestor, Joseph Billiou, first ventured to Northern California in 1856, long after the gold rush had peaked and the “easy money” was gone.  Thus creating the family motto:  “Always a day late and a dollar short”.  Despite failing to make his fortune, Joseph set down roots and our family became one of the lucky ones who could call the Bay Area “home”.  To us, and most other families in the region, San Francisco was the centerpiece of cultural, sporting and culinary experiences. I was also fortunate enough to earn a living in the Financial District for more than 20 years.  San Francisco has always had a unique vibe – welcoming people with divergent backgrounds and talents while maintaining a sense of unity and cohesiveness.  But it would appear “The City” is changing, in large part due to a 2011 decision by the supervisors to offer generous tax breaks to any tech company willing to relocate to San Francisco.  As a result, the companies are gobbling up real estate to establish a presence there.  Thousands of “techies” are moving to the area for work.   The result is that the housing market, which has always been expensive, is now downright ridiculous.  New condos are going up in some of the older, “less desirable” neighborhoods which has resulted in evictions of people who have lived there for generations.  And to add insult to injury, there is no affordable place for them to go.  San Francisco, it would seem, is on the brink of reaching Venezuelan levels of wealth inequality.  In the past four months I’ve seen three documentaries covering the changing dynamics – all of them were depressing.   After watching the last one I became nostalgic for the city that once was.  And for some reason, I thought about the song that was an anthem for San Francisco for more than 30 years – “The Sound of the City”.

KSFO in its heyday

KSFO in its heyday

The song actually wasn’t a song at all.  It was the jingle for what was then the powerhouse radio station in the region – KSFO.  From the late 50’s until the early 80’s the station was owned by the singing cowboy, Gene Autry, and was billed as “The World’s Greatest Radio Station.  Particularly in San Francisco”.   In those days San Francisco had five TV stations and AM radio to cover news, sports and entertainment.  Autry quickly maximized his crown jewel by hiring a Murderer’s Row of disc jockeys:  Don Sherwood, Jim Lange, Del Courtney, Jack Carney and Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins.  Autry negotiated broadcasting rights with the 49ers and the Giants and had two legends, Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges, call the games.  Back then TV and radio stations had the good sense to sign off for a few hours in the wee hours of the morning and Autry wanted a jingle to use as the station went dark each night.  So in 1960 he commissioned the multi-talented Johnny Mann to write one for him.  When the song was first aired people thought it had been recorded by the Four Freshman, but in fact it was sung by eight studio singers in Hollywood, the most famous of whom went on to be the voice of Tony the Tiger.  The result was a beautiful masterpiece: the Sound of the City .  When you click on the link you will hear a lyrical song, reminiscent of a softer time when fun and bonhomie reigned supreme.  It is now the ringtone on my phone and each time I play it for a native of the Bay Area the person becomes misty-eyed.

The inimitable Don Sherwood

The inimitable Don   Sherwood

How did a song – and a radio station – become so ingrained in our psyches?  Well for starters, as I said, our entertainment choices were pretty limited.  But more importantly it is estimated that two-thirds of people living in the Bay Area during the 1960’s tuned in to listen to the bibulous Don Sherwood every weekday morning.  He was the Pied Piper of the Bay Area, with his throaty, cigarette-tinged chuckle that made even his reading of a Yami Yogurt commercial sound just the slightest bit dirty.  Each morning people gathered around the water cooler or the gym locker to talk about what prank Sherwood had pulled off during the morning commute.  That’s assuming, of course, that he had even bothered to show up for work.  A native-born San Franciscan, he was the product of two alcoholic parents and suffered from the disease himself.  It was a crapshoot each morning as to whether Mr. Sherwood was “not feeling well” that day.  But his show was so popular that even on the days he didn’t show up for work, his sidekick Carter B. Smith garnered higher ratings than the competitors.  Sherwood’s manic personality was hard for management to control and his wisest bosses never tried to make  “Donny Babe” conform.  After all, part of his appeal was his irreverent humor and his running gags.   No idea was too outrageous.  He once instructed everyone to crank down their car window and turn the radio up full blast.  He then broadcast the blare of a police siren.  Law enforcement reported a spike in fender-benders that morning but the gag had everyone laughing for weeks.  On another occasion he told drivers that on his command they should all turn left.  That stunt created havoc all over the Bay Area, particularly for the foolhardy souls who were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge at the time.  In 1961, when he challenged the young Jim Lange to a foot race from Stinson Beach to the Ferry Building in downtown SF, more than 60,000 people lined the route.  What was the attraction?  It was because KSFO, and Sherwood in particular, made people feel like they “belonged” to a community, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

The recent documentaries I watched report that San Francisco is becoming the epicenter of the “sharing” economy.  Which is somewhat ironic given that every picture I saw of the new “techies” featured them with headphones stuck in their ears, eyes cast downward at their phones, oblivious to the people and culture around them.  San Francisco has always been a city that changes and evolves but personally, I’ll take the “sharing” of 50 years ago – outstanding radio, a beautiful song and every once in a while, everyone turning left.

MY LAST MEAL

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

My typical daydream

My typical daydream

While my brother spends his time fantasizing about travel and hiking, I can generally be found thinking about my next meal.  He has a lot more “get up and go” than I do.  In fact over the years several people have wished that he’d get up and go – but I think that was mainly in his college days.  I’m more of a sit-down and snuggle-in person and consequently, I have way too much time to think about things – like food.  My preoccupation with eating was pointed out to me the other day (at lunch, naturally) when I mentioned something in passing about my “Last Meal” wishes.  My table mates assumed, given my near-Senior Citizen status, that I was referring to what gourmet delights the nursing home might bring my way before I pass on to my great reward.  Unfortunately, I’m not that sane.  Nope – for about the past 30 years or so I’ve thought about what my last meal might consist of should I ever be strapped in to the electric chair.

Cause for intense psychoanalysis?  Perhaps.  But I chalk it up to growing up so close to San Quentin, where every detail of a prisoner’s last requests were publicized in great detail.  Of course, that included what the person wanted as his last meal.  I was always intrigued by the food choices – and never understood it when someone requested a Big Mac.  Since then, I’ve given more thought than it deserves to what my final requests might be.  I think my obsession thought process stems from constant dieting.  How liberating to think that one could eat an entire meal without one shred of guilt about calories or a subsequent need to hit the gym!  I’m hoping that the odds are slim that I’ll actually be arrested, convicted and jailed for a major felony, so here (for entertainment purposes only)  are my requests.  Requests, by the way, that have basically stayed the same over the past 30 years.  The only change has been changing from white to red wine – for health purposes, of course.

no-knead-sourdough-2-800x560

Warm…it has to be warm.

First, I’d start with a big bowl of clam chowder from Fisherman’s Grotto in San Francisco.  I used to go there a lot as a kid and it is still considered one of the best places in The City to get chowder.  I would accompany that with a whole round of their best Sourdough bread, warm and slathered in real butter.  I know that you can get the clam chowder served in the sourdough round, but I’d rather just break off some huge hunks and dip them in the soup myself.  After all, at this point I don’t think I’d be concerned with table manners.  I’d clear my palate with a bit of fresh cracked crab.  We used to buy some almost every Saturday in season when I grew up in Novato, a luxury I didn’t appreciate until I moved to Arizona where scorpions are the closest thing we have to crabs.  Next, I’d get a crisp Caesar salad, replete with anchovies and TONS of dressing.  Next up, a filet mignon, charred on the outside and medium rare of the inside, served with a loaded baked potato.  No vegetables.  I’m not a big fan in the first place and heck, if I’m going to “the chair”, why would I bother at that point?

I could bathe in this.

I could bathe in this.

To complete this wonderful repast (and assuming I hadn’t keeled over in a food coma), I would complete my meal with an entire “All American Chocolate Cake” from Costco.  If you aren’t familiar with this delicacy I’d suggest that you hightail it down to your local Costco immediately.  It is always baked in-store, so it is fresh and moist every time.  It weighs an astounding SEVEN pounds and is about 8 inches tall.  It consists of four layers, each surrounded by the creamiest chocolate frosting and then whole thing is covered in chocolate shavings.  At one time the cake was so popular that it had its own Facebook page and followers.  Let’s just put it this way – it’s more than a dessert, it’s a conversation piece.

 

So, that’s it. I got to thinking the other day that since the probability of me going to jail is so slim, why don’t I just have my “Last Meal” and enjoy myself?  I’m considering it.  Perhaps I’ll take the plunge next time we visit San Francisco.  But since I don’t know when that will be, I’ll just start with the cake.  After which I’ll check myself into the local “diet farm” which, when you think about it, actually is like going to jail.  I could start my own reality show, “Chocolate is the New Black”.

 

THE DEATH OF A SAN FRANCISCO ICON

20130120-115021.jpgBy Suzanne Sparrow Watson

San Francisco icons generally come in steel (the Golden Gate Bridge) or concrete (Coit Tower). But sometimes they appear in flesh and blood and that is certainly the case of Vivian and Marion Brown, otherwise known as “the Brown Twins”.  The picture at left, in their bright red suits and trademark leopard coats, shows them at the height of their fame, when the world had discovered them.  But those of us who “knew them when” had known they were special for a long time.

In 1977 I started a job in the Financial District of San Francisco. It was a fun time – before über traders and panhandlers took over the streets. And, let’s face it, it is one of the best cities on Earth to experience quirkiness.  One particularly nice day I took a walk from my office on Montgomery Street up to Union Square.  Somewhere on Post Street I spotted two middle-aged women, identical in looks, dress and cadence. I did what most people do when first confronted by the Brown Twins; I did a double take, watched them as they walked the rest of the block, and then grinned from ear to ear.

Turns out that the Brown Twins came to San Francisco in the 70’s from Kalamazoo, where they were born and raised.  They were co-validictorians of their high school class and both went on to earn a teaching credential.  After three years of “that low-paying job” (as they described it), they moved to the City and became secretaries.  Except for six months of their life, they dressed identically every day.  They always lifted their forks in unison and always walked in lockstep.  Neither of them married, although they did date twin brothers they met at a twin convention back in Michigan.  The romances fell apart when Vivian and Marion unilaterally decided to switch dates.  The twins would spend the rest of their lives together – the pleasure of each other’s company was more than enough to provide them with satisfying lives.

Over the next 25 years I worked on and off in the Financial District and in all that time I never lost the thrill of seeing the twins out for their stroll.  Some people thought it brought good luck to catch the twins walking down the street.  Part of the fun of seeing them was watching other people spot the twins, usually for the first time.  The result was always the same – big smiles, looks of bemusement and sometimes a request for a photo.  The Browns never refused a request.  The picture below beautifully captures the typical “what the heck was that?” double-take that the Browns elicited:

 

image

They eventually became so well-known that they were included in all things San Francisco: socialite parties, grand openings and civic celebrations. Everything except “Beach Blanket Babylon”.  The producers said they never included an act depicting  the Brown Twins because no two actresses could ever pull off on stage what the Browns did every day on the street.  The Browns hit the jackpot in 1988 when they were featured in a Reebock commercial.  After that they became frequent guests on talk shows and were featured in commercials for IBM, Payless Drug, AT&T, Dell, Apple and Joe Boxer shorts.  Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, was so enamoured by them after they shot the commercial for his airline that he flew them first class to London for a shopping spree at Harrod’s.

But like all things in our fast-paced world, the public lost its infatuation with the Browns.  They still strolled the streets of San Francisco, in their leopard coats but they slowed down.  Finally, last July, Vivien fell and was taken to the hospital.  The doctors discovered that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  Marian, ever faithful to her sister, had been trying to care for her on her own.  The sad truth was, like many elderly people, they simply didn’t want to be apart and didn’t have the money for adequate care.  The residuals and appearance fees had dried up long ago.

True to form, when the citizens of San Francisco heard of the twins’ plight, they came to the rescue.  Money poured in to help pay for Vivian’s care, from rich and poor, famous and not famous, literally from every part of the city.  People sent money for Marian’s daily pizza, some offered to drive Marian to visit Vivian each day, others organized fund-raisers.

But in the early hours of January 9th, Vivian succumbed to her illness.   She was 85.  Which means that for the first time in 85 years, Marian is all alone.  It’s hard to imagine how hard that must be for her, literally losing a part of herself.  I hope that she can take some solace in knowing that for many years she and Vivian brought joy to anyone who saw them.  For me, the Brown Twins will always be a part of what made working in San Francisco a cherished memory.

SMALL MOMENTS – A 9/11 TRIBUTE

Saturday, September 10, 2011

by Suzanne Watson

Her message was my wake-up call.  She inspired me and changed my life forever.  And I never met her.

Melissa Harrington Hughes died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  She didn’t work there; she was on a business trip for her San Francisco-based technology firm. She was an extremely accomplished 31 year old, who had traveled the world and had recently married her sweetheart, Sean Hughes.

Many people remember her, and him, for the harrowing telephone message that she left him minutes after the building was struck by the plane.  In that message, she said, “Sean, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know I love you and I am stuck in this building in New York. A plane hit or a bomb went off – we don’t know, but there’s a lot of smoke and I just wanted you to know I loved you.”

The first time I heard Melissa’s voicemail, Sean was being interviewed by Chris Jansing on MSNBC.  Ms. Jansing completely broke down upon hearing it.  Clearly, Melissa’s final words resonated with a lot of people.  The internet site dedicated to Melissa filled with posts from people who were touched by her story.  I was among them. Somehow, with all of the tragedy of that day, her story stuck with me above all of the others.  But why?

Partly, I think in some ways I could relate to her.  I was working for a large financial institution at the time and had spent all of my life, and most of my career, working in San Francisco.  One of my positions required that I visit our businesses in New York in the Trade Center, so I had also taken business trips to the towers.

When the buildings collapsed I thought about all of the people that worked for my company.  We lost three employees that day, but I didn’t know any of them.  She was the one that stood out for me.  Her beautiful wedding picture taken up in Napa, close to where I grew up, became seared in my brain as it was shown repeatedly over the next several days.  But it was more than the pictures; it was her message.

In her voice I could sense so many of her emotions: fear, panic, bewilderment.  But mostly, in her final minutes on earth, she wanted Sean to know that she loved him.  I thought about her, and all of the people that died that day, who went off to work as they normally did.  Kissing a spouse or child good-bye, grabbing a cup of coffee, making plans for the weekend.  And none of them came home.  Plans and hopes and dreams were gone in an instant.  Sean Hughes said that he and Melissa were excited about their future and talked about all the things that newlyweds do: moving to a new home, getting a dog, having children.

Her final words to Sean started me thinking about my own life.  My husband had taken early retirement in 1996.  He wanted to travel, spend time with our new grandson, and enjoy time with friends.  I had wanted to continue working.  But I kept thinking about Melissa’s message.  What if that had been me?  Is that how I would want my life to end, without ever having enjoyed what my husband and I had worked so hard to build?

The weeks following September 11 were frightening and incredibly busy for me.  My division of the company had locations throughout the United States and for weeks after the twin towers fell we received bomb threats in major cities. I had an office on the top floor of our Los Angeles headquarters and I jumped every time I  heard a plane or helicopter go by.  After a month or so, I began to feel like this would all pass and that life would get back to “normal”.   But then I thought about Melissa.  Life doesn’t get scripted.  Although the odds of me being killed in a terrorist attack might be low, there were still no guarantees that I could escape a car accident or a terminal illness.

So in the first week of November, when all of the initial frenzy had died down, I told my boss that I wanted to resign.  We negotiated that I would stay until March 1, which I did.  I have never regretted that decision and would not trade all of the memories and experiences I’ve had since then for any amount of compensation I gave up.

Judith Viorst once wrote that it is the small moments in life that make it rich.   Melissa made me realize that I needed to grab the small moments while I could; that sitting with my husband every morning, sipping coffee and watching the news, is a gift.

So to Melissa Harrington Hughes: thank you.  Someday I hope to get back to the new trade center memorial where I can touch the steel engraving of your name.  And in the hollows of those letters, we will finally be connected.