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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Vanishing Boy of Pacific Heights: The Barbershop (Sans Cedric the Entertainer)



On a sunny Saturday in the spring of 1970, I was playing catch with my friend Mark on the sidewalk in front of the house Mark and his family lived in on Clay Street in San Francisco. Mark was two years younger than I was and black, and we had been good friends since I forced my acquaintance on him the previous summer. In the meantime, we had had various adventures, most of them innocent, a couple of them stupid. The stupid things were mostly my idea.

We hadn’t been playing catch long when Mark’s father, Rip, approached us. Mark’s father was a big man—at least by ten-year-old standards—and had a deep and rich baritone voice. He was, at the time, the Executive Director of the NAACP in San Francisco, and was the kind of person who didn’t have to raise his voice to gain your attention or to persuade you that things were going to go his way. Especially if you were, say, ten.

As he approached us, he called out, “Mark. Time for your haircut. Let’s go.” Mark, as I recall, didn’t complain or whine, he just turned to follow his father. And Rip looked down at me. He said, “Len, you can come along too, if you’d like.” Happy to be able to extend my time with my friend, I agreed and followed them to their car.

Mr. R.—believe me, I never even began to call him Rip back then—took us on a bit of a ride. I was expecting to go to someplace in the neighborhood, but we were, instead, going to one of the less upscale areas of town. In fact, we were going to the ghetto. We were going to a part of The City called Hunter’s Point.

The building was old, as I remember, and the windows of the barbershop were huge and old-fashioned. It was the stereotypical poor black barbershop with old men sitting around jawing about anything that came to mind. As we walked in, the place went sort of silent. White boys weren’t frequent visitors to this locale; at least that’s what their stunned silence led me to believe. Mr. R. greeted everyone and the greetings were returned, but the boisterousness that had held sway on our entrance was no longer present.

It must’ve been early afternoon, because the Giants pregame show was on the radio. Russ Hodges was interviewing somebody and I listened and soaked in the distrust and confusion that was radiating at me from every part of the room. Finally, the game began, and the atmosphere lightened as we all took an interest in the contest just starting probably not more than a mile from where we sat.

I don’t remember whether I said something or if someone asked me or if it was just apparent by my demeanor when he came to bat, but the mood of the room changed toward me thanks to Willie Mays. I came to realize that all of us in that barbershop were united by one thing: We were in love—in a nice way—with Willie Mays.

Leo Durocher said that there are five things that a ballplayer can do: hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw. And Willie Mays could do all five with grace and verve. He was an artist. He was amazing. He was my hero.

Mr. R. gave me a wonderful gift that day. He taught me, through the medium of experience, what I had thought all along, that there is no gulf so great that we cannot bridge it, no difference so stark that we cannot find some common ground. A middle class white boy and a group of poor black men could root together for the same thing and cheer together for the same man. I’ve never forgotten it.

And so I say thanks to Mr. R. for the experience, and to Mark for being a better friend to me than I was to him, and to Willie for being Willie.

17 comments:

Robert G. Margolis said...

Len,

This is a kind and generous reminisce, and nicely told. NPR should add your voice and ability to craft memories and events into stories to their regular repetoire.

I resided in San Francisco, once upon a time (the time being 1983-1984), so I know Clay Street and Hunters Point; my two feets have trod both, in fact. It's more than 20 years ago--was I even born yet? I think to myself. I was in, call it, my second childhood, my mid-twenties, and crossing neighborhoods and their different city cultures, making mini-pilgrimages to places, even objects, things, I'd heard or read about, I had "bridge" experiences of the kind you relate; not surprising, maybe, for a place known for its Bridge (which I walked across and back several times, each time released into imaginary solo flight over the Bay). I even attended one game in, then still used, Candlestick Park and its many moods of wind. Willie Mays was retired by then--as were by then many of the trading card players of my first childhood, but he, singularly great and glorious in his art, played on in my memory. As, clearly, he does in yours.

Stephanie said...

I'd never heard that story. You tell it beautifully and it makes me love you even more. So I guess I really did do a good job with your bithday gift, huh?

Len said...

Here’s the funny thing: I haven’t set foot in The City since July of 1970. I’ve been in the airport a couple of times during layovers. I’ve been in other parts of California. But San Francisco has a special place for me. It’s where I became me, where my basic thoughts and attitudes were formed.

Thanks to the generosity of my wife and a sudden change of fortunes, I have the opportunity of going to see The Firesign Theatre when they play in San Rafael a week from Friday. As a result, I’m going to have to drive through San Francisco, right through the center of it. I wonder if I’ll see my former self, the Vanishing Boy of Pacific Heights, walking the streets, lost in thought. As the sage said, “Could be, could be!”

Thanks for the comments. I’m thinking of copying a couple of things from here, sprucing them up a little and submitting them to “All Things Considered.” It just might work! (Although I seldom do.)

Len said...

I have a Willie Mays Christmas ornament, which I was given this past yuletide season. It's one of the best things I've ever gotten. Period.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Len,

I already had the idea--about presenting some version of some of these pieces to "All Things Considered", back when you first began this blog of prooftexts to your as yet unproduced radio show. I didn't mention the idea though because I figured you'd already had it and you were just waiting for the right moment. Which never comes, of course. How 'bout now, instead?

Len said...

Robert,

As the former head coach of the Washington Redskins, George Allen, used to say, "The future is now." It doesn't make any sense, but there you go. Please do me a favor and tell me which of the things I've posted here are your favorites. That'll help me narrow the search so that i can get it down to two or three to adapt for submission.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Len,

Only two or three? NPR should, I think, be treated to a fulsome range of your voice. To wit: "The Sixties", "I'll Be In Touch", "The Call", "The Only Way I Lettered In High School","The Barbershop", and, too, a newly written piece that develops what you've already written around the theme of the manual typewriter. And, as well, why not try to interest them in an occasional series of pieces precisely about what your Blog is about (more or less or at least sometimes), that is: your writing of scripts for a radio show you want to realize in production?

Of course, I also very much like "Prospects For A New Year", but they'd probably send that one to their executive who knows how to recognize something "incomprehensible" when he sees it.

"Now" doesn't have to make sense, not at all. As Chester Psalms has said (in an as yet unpublished episode): "The present is a pretense not a tense."

Robert G. Margolis said...

Len,

I forgot to say that what you've written about the manual typewriter, and how you've used it as a theme, reminds me of poems written by Pablo Neruda and poems written by Charles Simic (from the former Yugoslavia and who writes his poems directly in English), in which they each selected different 'ordinary', everyday objects--a vegetable, a broom, a hat, and so on, and tried to 'see' it, and its presence in their experience. You're on to something similar, I think, with your manual typewriter.

Len said...

Robert,

I get the two-or-three stipulation from “All Things Considered.” In their submission guidelines, they say “Send one or two written commentaries in the body of the e-mail.” So, I’m really looking for the top two to start with and then I can rework more if they pick up those two. Believe me, I’m interested in cannibalizing as much of what’s appeared here as possible.

I can see something about a manual typewriter. I’ve also had an idea for years for an article called “Ten Things That Were Better Before.” I think card catalogues and regulated airlines were two of the ten. I’ve got some notes someplace………

Robert G. Margolis said...

O.k. then, two or three so you won't get pulled over for driving outside the guidelines:

"The Call"
"The Barbershop"
"The Sixties"

Len said...

Thanks. I'm going to cull together an e-mail submission this weekend.

C.Potts said...

You should. I'm sitting here green with envy over your writing ability.

But I'll listen proudly, just the same :)

Robert G. Margolis said...

For what (if anything) it's worth: "The Vanishing Boy of Pacific Heights" works nicely as a title either for a separate piece of story and reminisce and/or as the title for an occasional series of story and reminisce drawn from your childhood in The City. If you were one of the ghostwriters who author the Hardy Boys mysteries, it would work well as a title for one of their adventures, too.

Len said...

Since people were always telling me that I was “born 40,” it was probably more of a Hardly Boy adventure. I like your idea and will implement it immediately. I mean as a running title for a series of pieces. I always loved the name that S.J. Perelman gave to the series of pieces he wrote for the New Yorker years ago in which he reread or re-viewed the books and films of his youth, “Cloudland Revisited.” In memory of SJP, I will boldly go where only one vanishing boy has been before. Thanks.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Aristophanes, who invented "Cloud Cuckooland" for one of his plays (I forget which--"The Clouds", maybe?), probably liked SJP's title in bunches. He'll surely like the title of your series too, which, with its narrative vanishing act, will make clouds everywhere and of all kinds proud.

As a non-sequitar and as a segue apropos of nothing, I want to mention that it's 9 degrees here and, looking out my door, from where I sit, I see that, even so, there's ice melting in the sun. Put that in your cloud and vanish it!

Len said...

I forget which of Aristophanes’ plays as well. It might be “The Birds” if it isn’t “The Clouds.” We’re getting an ice storm here tonight and tomorrow. The revenge of the clouds? But no single-digit temperatures, fortunately. I won’t brag about the temps on Sunday.

Len said...

And Cindy? Thank you.