Top Ten Sounds of Columbus Avenue, North Beach, San Francisco

IMG_033710. Hourly fire truck sirens.

9. Double-decker tour bus guides announcing arrival in North Beach, pointing out Italian restaurants on Columbus

8. Chinese radio station broadcasting at corner newsstand while newsstand owner’s wife does her morning stretches. Guy still owes me a quarter change for the Wednesday newspaper.

7. Loud, late night dance music beats from nightclub across the street.

6. Loud, late night shouts from nightclub guests running up and down the street announcing, “It’s midnight! It’s midnight!”

5. Insistent honking from irritated SF drivers forced to idle through green lights, while drivers ahead of them can’t move because someone is trying to park, take a left turn, or do the kinds of things all drivers occasionally need to do.

4. Bird song limited to wisecracking starlings.

3. Babble of languages from around the globe, foreign tourists and native SF Chinese-Americans, who sound as if they have survived for decades without ever speaking English.

2. Hum of street cleaners every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

1. Crazy old guy with the walker (a very dapper dresser, I should add) yelling “You’re a robot! You’re a robot!” to the world at large.

More from the Big Cheesy (a.k.a. “Sweeping Gooey”) Novel

frizzyWhen we left our heroine, she had just run into someone she didn’t expect to see in Paris. Remember, it’s January 1979. And she has just gotten a very bad haircut, which she is hiding under a stocking cap. Keep in mind this is  a gooey novel, though I’ve heard from a reader that ‘gooey’ may cheese off my male audience. So I’m considering making it a BIG CHEESY novel versus a SWEEPING GOOEY novel. My first concern is that it needs more cheese. So I’m working on that.

Bonnie shrank back, remembering clearly who it was she was talking to. Tom Iversen. The Tom Iversen. Graduated first in their high school graduating class — but just barely — after having slept his way through most of their senior year. Since he’d received a full-ride scholarship to Stanford University, he could let things go. And he did. He came to class hung-over, almost every morning, and tried to hide his bloodshot eyes behind cool, dark aviator glasses. His rare contributions to the classroom discussion – when he was awake — were in the form of crude commentary to anyone nearby, or cutting remarks about the teacher.

And Bonnie could hear it all. She was always placed nearby Tom, her Huber just ahead of his Iversen in the seating chart alphabet.

Even when he was at his worst, Tom was still every teacher’s pet – the golden boy who was going to make Sunray Lake, Minnesota, proud, ace his way through Stanford, become an aerospace engineer with NASA, who knew, maybe wind up piloting the Space Shuttle.  Bonnie was sure they already had the “Welcome Home, Tom!” banners printed up and ready to hang from the Sunray Lake water tower when he made his triumphal return from space in just a few years.

So he could afford to slack off.  People like Tom always could.

But Bonnie wasn’t like Tom. She couldn’t slack off.  She wasn’t sure she even would if she had half the chance. She was a bright, industrious student, and earned a few scholarships, but not enough to attend some pricey West Coast school. So she never bothered looking outside the Midwest. And why should she? Her path had never been as has clear as Tom’s always had been. And she had no one taking her on as a special project, ready to encourage her to try more lucrative, less traditional female professions. Shouldn’t she have been encouraged to think of being a rocket scientist too? Received some extra coaching to raise her college entrance test scores?

Bonnie wasn’t sure what she might have made of such encouragement. She’d never been the type of person to accept help easily, and never asked for it. She’d gotten her first job as soon as she could, working at 15 in a drugstore restaurant as cook, waitress and busboy, sometimes all in the same shift. She took the bus to and from her restaurant job, finishing her homework when the ride didn’t make her nauseous. Sometimes even when she was nauseous, she’d fake work on her homework so the local pothead on his way to the head-shop didn’t insist on carrying on his never-ending anti-government rant in the seat next to her, all the while steadily exhaling remnants of his long-held smoke at her as he spewed his nonsense. It always seemed best to stay under radar, keep your head down, avoid eye contact (especially with ranting potheads), and take care of your business by yourself.

And while she would have done better to save everything she earned for college, she had a hard time not spending all her meager wages and tips on small luxuries. Mostly art books and art supplies, which went to good use, but also the occasional cute angora sweater in pink, a color that she thought looked good against her pale, sometimes blotchy skin and didn’t make her hair look so bad. Oh and a pair of super wide bell bottom hip-hugger jeans. Or two. It wasn’t that her parents couldn’t afford to get these kinds of things for her. Bonnie didn’t want to ask.

And maybe that meant she was to blame for where she was after all. If you don’t ask for help or mentoring, you don’t get it. Instead you got angora sweaters that kick up so much static electricity that your limp hair goes even flatter against your neck and shoulders; hip-hugger jeans that quickly go out of style; and, just that day, an ugly curly, short haircut to fix the frisé frizzies. Instead you wound up at the nearest college that would take you, that your parents could mostly afford, with loans and part time jobs to pay the rest of the way.

So that’s where things stood for Bonnie Huber, visiting Paris, France in January 1979. In a few months, about when the perm grew out, she’d have to declare a major, and she still had no clue which direction she should take. And now she was standing right in front of a guy who had always had a clear sense of direction, and always seemed to have others for pushing him along when he needed to be pushed.

Bonnie shrugged off her feeling of inferiority. Tom Iversen was nobody, like all the other nobodies she’d had as high school classmates, who were all long gone from her life. This chance meeting was nothing.

“I’m studying French – and art — in Paris for the month,” she said casually, adding the “and art” part even though Mademoiselle was teaching only French. It really was a stretch to say she was studying art at all. Sure, she had a talent for portraiture and a few art history classes under her belt, but that was hardly “studying art.” She was, however, carrying a sketchpad and pencils with her, and planned to do some sketching at the Louvre. So at least she had some proof on her. Maybe someone would happen to notice her there, see that she had talent, and something special would happen in her life after all.

“How’s rocket science school?” she asked Tom casually, as if they had just run into each other at the Sunray Lake grocery store. But her voice rang out too loudly in the quiet, empty Jardin des Tuileries, echoing against the stone courtyards of the formal gardens and ricocheting back to her with false rings. It seemed like the wrong place for such an untrue tone of voice.

He shrugged. “I’m taking a break from aerospace engineering,” he said, using the more proper term for his course of study. “Taking a year off to travel.”

“Really,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound too sarcastic or envious. “How do you take a year off?” She thought that might sound rude, and again her voice was too loud, which confirmed it. She wondered whether the chemicals from the permanent had seeped into her brain, and changed her, permanently, maybe for the worse. She decided she didn’t care. “Exactly how do you do that?” she said, her voice ringing back to her a little less harshly.

“Well, let’s just say that everyone thought it was for the best,” he said.

“Everyone?”

He took a few moments to consider her question, and answered her. He was obviously taking his direction from the solemn atmosphere of the winter garden. “Mostly my advisor. My dad was against it, saying I’d hit my stride soon enough.”

Jim Iversen, Tom’s dad, was the long-time Sunray Lake high school principal. He’d seen enough kids to know whether one would hit his stride at some point, but had a huge blind spot, or so everyone thought, regarding his son.

“So here I am. In the middle of my European tour,” he said with a laugh. “And I’m completely, 100 percent lost in Paris. I just got into town and if I hadn’t run into you, I’m not sure what I would have done. I got scammed by some gypsies in a bump and run. My wallet’s missing, I lost my passport, and I’m down to my last franc. Think you can help me out?”

Interested in more cheese? Why click here,  s’il vous plaît.