Center of the Universe (62)
Confessions of a Call Girl
Part III: William Holden Gets Off
The Gary thing is really heating up. When I’m not calling Flo to arrange our next interview or dinner date, she’s calling me to obsess over Gary. Because when I say Gary is part of the Sorellas family, to Flo that’s a sacred bond.
The thing is, our dear, sweet brother got laid off a few years ago from his tech gig, after getting laid off from another a few years before. And now, at the age of upper-middle-age — apparently, not the most appealing life-phase to the tech overlords — he’s been unable to land a new gig. When the unemployment checks timed out a few months ago, a cascade of woe threatened. Now, in what could be some kind of end-game, the Russian landlady’s been sniffing around and, to top it off (or bottom it out), his dripping bucket of a station wagon threw up its transmission, leaving Gary dependent for transport on friends — like Flo, mostly Flo — and the scattershot bus schedule.
The Gary thing is what’s got Flo worried sick. And it’s a bad situation, no doubt. We’re all worried, the whole Sorellas family. And everyone’s doing what they can to help — not a bit of it lip service. (And on this, if you have a car to sell cheap or an apartment or room to rent, or could use a little computer help from a guy with 30 years in the field, let me know.) But, again, I mention Gary in a story about Flo because that kind of caring is the best part of the story. Beneath the impish surface of our Fairfax Flygirl lie depths of that special empathy we first heard about in Catholic school, Flo and I, the pure, sweet love known by the Greek word agape. Not to be confused with the English word describing when your jaw drops open — like when you run into your favorite movie star in an elevator.
And if you’re wondering what happened with that, well, it seems Flo’s agape finally got the best of her. Overcome by fellow-feeling for the kneeling (cf. part II), she never went down to the Stratocruiser’s bar, never said hello again or goodbye. And eight hours later, William Holden got off at the last stop, Manila, never to be seen again, at least not in person, not by Flo. And after five years of flying pro, the freshly former stewardess descended from a Pan Am Constellation in a city where the Northwest Stratocruiser didn’t go and, in pursuit of a more auspicious future, joined her cousin in the Sunset District.
There were boyfriends in San Francisco — though none were movie stars. And they were maybe fewer than if her mother hadn’t moved in a couple months later. Or if Flo hadn’t been such a rare blend of old-fashioned — demure, private, cautious — and defiantly new — the self-described “black sheep” of her family. Because even in the early Sixties, before second-wave feminism, here was a woman who fervently believed in independence, in making her own way, having her own job, money, car, apartment ($55/mo, a block from Golden Gate Park), her own lusty appetites and bawdy expression, and not being dependent on a man. As we talked, I thought it all added up.
“Feminist?” she repeated. The notion didn’t offend, but wasn’t anything she’d ever pondered. “No, not really. I don’t think so.” The truth of it, I came to understand, is she wasn’t so much ideological as idiosyncratic, not feminist, but fully and impishly Flo.
There was one serious boyfriend in San Francisco — Flo might not go along with that word serious, especially after it ended badly. But the relationship did sustain, more or less steadily, for three years. She met him at her second job in San Francisco, working as a clerk/typist for, it so happens, an elevator company, Otis. Her first job (of course, as an ambitious, independent-minded proto-feminist she was constantly on the hunt for a better gig) was at 350 Sansome St., which, I pointed out to her, is only three blocks from Duncan Channon at 114.
“114 Sansome?” she said excitedly, casting her eyebrows high. “I worked there, too!”
Anyway, it was at Otis she met Douglas — though he didn’t work there. A vendor, perhaps? She’s cagey. He was a gringo — an “American,” she calls him, adding “I never dated an Asian.” He was only a few years older, but had already been married and shared custody of a young daughter. Which was not a problem for Flo — “I became friends with the daughter.”
Douglas taught Flo to drive, escorted her to her driver’s test and advised her on buying a car. Not only did an automobile represent a milestone on her journey from the privations of Occupied Shanghai and Postwar Tokyo, Flo’s boyfriend happened to be living across the Golden Gate in Marin — Larkspur, to be specific, another redwood-swaddled tiny-town, a few miles from where we sit today, former home of Janis Joplin, still home to the Silver Peso, Marin’s finest dive bar (some say its last, but they’ve never been to Nave’s). Douglas had been intrigued by an ad in the paper, and so, after they stopped by the showroom, Flo took a chance on an unknown foreign marque for $600, at a time when most new cars cost a grand. In addition to trekking to Marin, she used it to commute to her insurance job downtown — when parking downtown wasn’t so dire — and to her admin job at San Francisco Community College. Or was it the gig at Folgers Coffee? Or at Safeway? Or was it when she was still at Otis, but moonlighting Saturdays as a “call girl” at Sears & Roebuck?
“It was a Gogomobil, a German car,” she said.
“It was smaller than this.” The diminutive Flo indicates the coffee table in front of her and maybe half the throw rug. “I could reach from the steering wheel all the way to the back window — ”
“To open the air vent?” I interrupt.
“No. To turn the nozzle to release the extra tank of gas!” Her dark eyes spark. “Oh, it was black, black with a bright red interior. Such a snazzy looking thing!”
Flo exults in the power and liberation of auto ownership. “I was completely in control. I really knew how to operate my Gogomobil — including the extra gas tank. And because it was only this big” — again, indicating the coffee table — “you could park it anywhere. Sometimes I would come out in the morning, and the guys next door had lifted the car onto the sidewalk. And when I’d park it at Otis, I’d come out at the end of the day, and the guys there would have picked it up and turned it backwards.”
You don’t have to know much more about how cute the car was — or the girl.
Later I google the Gogo and, after some confusion — there’ve been a number of similarly named ventures in the interim — am presented with a picture of the perfect ride for an imp — or a Shriner — as dimensionally comical as the first-generation Mini Coopers (before BMW super-sized them). Leafing through the Google images, it’s easy to see why Flo fell in love — at least, with the car.
But before long — despite love and because of it — she would need a better, faster set of wheels. No matter how adorbs, the Gogo could barely make 45 — “And that’s downhill on the Waldo Grade!” — which was not only frustrating to an imp on the go-go, but often below the minimum speed limit. Besides, Flo was spending more and more of her days motoring up 101 to Larkspur. With Douglas’s help, she disposed of the Gogo and picked up a new ride that was fully highway-legal and, not coincidentally, the same as Douglas drove: a Volkswagen Bug. It was almost as cute as the Gogo. Almost.
It was around this time, of course, that something went wrong between the lady and her boo. She’s not overly interested in talking about it, hinting at infidelity (his). Still you have to suspect more, judging by the psychic bruise. “I was bitter,” she says, sounding like she still is. But Douglas apparently had a bruise of his own and, a few years after the breakup, would kill himself in Mexico. But even as she was falling out of love with the bad — later, sad — boy, she was falling in love with the beautiful locale, and a friend in local real estate took her to an even more affordable town, five miles further north, where in 1970 Shanghai Flo took top prize in the American Dream, picking up a two-bedroom house on a hill for $18,000.
It’s the house she lives still, three blocks, as the trajectory flies, from us. Same hill. While Fairfax today is merely the echo of what Fairfax was then — specifically then — it’s a strong one. That’s why people still call it a hippie town or “Mayberry on acid.” But when Flo moved in, it was the full-throated heyday of all that, as musicians, artists, writers and other impractical seekers — three years after the Summer of Love hype had jammed the city with hairy hordes, along with tourist buses to ogle them — abandoned the Haight for exurban elbow room, many ending up on the west flank of Marin, just before the land turns into parks and farms, for the same reason Flo did and, a decade-and-a-half later, we did: $$$. There was nowhere cheaper within theoretical commuting distance of the city. But Flo’s were the halcyon days of the Sleeping Lady Cafe, where hippie icons held court — Garcia, John Cippolina of Quicksilver, Roky Erickson of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, who recorded an album there — just down the block on Bolinas from Caledonia Records, run by Van Morrison’s parents, the era of the famous baseball game on Central Field between Dead and Airplane, the start, also on Bolinas Road, of Wildwood, now the biggest supplier of tofu in California (no small thing, in California), and Good Earth, an impossibly dense little health food store next to a 1930s gas station (later to transform into Sorellas) that would become the world’s greatest hippie supermarket, teeming with a Star-Wars bar of snowy-tailed Aquarians, craggy punks in blurry ink, old yuppies, fresh techies and anti-vaxxers alike .
“What did you think of the hippies?”
“I stayed away from the Love Flower Children. I was afraid of them. And I was terrified when I moved to Fairfax,” Flo says. “The hippies were fighting the police at the time — in San Francisco, some of the police stations were getting pipe-bombed — and, in Fairfax, I’m right near the police station.” So she commuted to her job in San Francisco, came home and shut the door. “Sometimes I would go out in the city on weekends. But I wasn’t so sociable then.” You can’t help but wonder if the withdrawal had to do with the bruise (even as you can’t bring yourself to ask). At some point, thankfully, the semi-hermit years ended.
“And how’d you get to Sorellas?”
“In recent years, after I’d get off the bus from shopping or visiting friends, I would walk down Bolinas past the restaurant. Two, three times a year, I’d stop in. But there was no special attention at that time. The food was good, but I’d eat and pay and walk home. Then one day I stopped by and noticed they were chatting in Portuguese. I said, ‘You know I’m Portuguese.’ That was the beginning of how I became part of the family.
“You know that little table by the piano? That’s where I always sit. It’s the uncomfortable table, but right by the piano. One day Soy says, ‘Flo, I’m bringing Gary here. He’s going to sit with you.’ So it’s ‘Hi.’ And ‘Hi.’” She acts out handshakes. “And he was a nice guy, smart, funny, no bullshit.”
Now she spends so much time with Gary, I’ve married them off.
Pretty sure the nuptials happened on a Saturday. Our usual table for six had grown to ten or more, and the Nero d’Avola was flowing even more freely than usual — or I was letting it flow into me more freely — and soon I started doing this thing I do when I’m like that. It’s a shaggy-dog story of sorts, a faux autobiography, delivered freestyle, with special attention to preposterous genealogical connections among my fellow diners. I remember, as I prepared to launch, being visited by a concern that, because this was a more senior audience, perhaps not so attuned to the absurdities of post-modern humor, I might actually manage to offend someone this time. But once more, being drunk, it didn’t stop me, as I regaled the table with the tragic tale of a broken childhood home, my darling father Gary and his lovely wife — now ex — my dear sweet mother Flo. When, with a sidelong glance, I saw my pseudo-mom do a spit-take with her butternut squash soup, even as at the other end the churchmouse-quiet Rev. Kang gave out with an actually audible chortle, it was, as my real mother would say, Katy bar the door. Cleared to clown. All evening I called down the table to “Dad” and “Pops,” “Mom” and “Mommy,” and every time everybody — Kang, too — laughed. I think they laughed. In any case, now whenever Flo phones or texts, she calls me “Sonny” and signs off as “your mother.” And when she reminds me, for instance, to pick up Gary on my way to the restaurant, she refers to him, in her Britishy accent, as “your faaather.” And while I’m sure any Psych 101 student could readily diagnose my needy displays as more than just drunken shtick — a pathetic search for a mother who was a little less, I don’t know, stabby — that doesn’t mean it’s not funny.
Flo’s mother, on the other hand, was both a miracle and a saint — at least in her youngest’s rendition. But it’s the start of her journey that is truly mythic, an origin story out of Shinto scripture or superhero movies. Seeking blessings for her newborn, Flo’s grandmother tucked Flo’s future mom into a papoose for a pilgrimage to the nearest temple, climbing the long narrow, granite steps up the steep hill. Per tradition, her hair was pulled tight, and she was dressed in kimono and platform sandals (the deeply uncomfortable looking ones with the two blocks beneath). The journey, for mother and newborn, was difficult enough, the climb — “In those stupid shoes!” says Flo — exhausting. But satisfied she’d ensured an auspicious future for her first-born, Granny turned to begin the climb down. And promptly tripped and fell.
“And the baby went flying,” says Flo.
“On either side of the steps,” she explains, “there was a long drainage ditch — this is what my mother told me. Now Grandmother ran down the steps looking, looking, looking for the baby. And finally there she was. All the way down, lying in the ditch, face up — like she was placed there. Of course, my grandmother was scared to death. She was afraid to go home with a dead baby or even a bloody one. So she went to a bathouse, examined the baby, and there was no bruise, blood, nothing.”
“A miracle baby?” I offer.
“Nothing! Nothing happened. But my grandmother was all bloody from her fall. So she washed herself and went home.
“Then when my mother, the miraculous baby, was 13,” Flo continues, “her right hand went like this.” She makes a claw. “And she started to drag her right foot. The Japanese doctors couldn’t figure it out. And this is how I know my mother’s family were wealthy, because they sent my mother to Shanghai, which was known for all the European doctors — German, English, but American, too. And the doctors there decided that when she landed in the ditch on her right side, it damaged the left side of her brain. So all her life she had the right hand” — she makes the claw again — “and dragged her foot. She could walk — with a slight limp. But she had such stature and posture — she never looked like a cripple to me.”
The fall from the temple would have eerie reverberations more than half-a-century and six thousand miles later.
“My mother came to California to stay with me, but eventually got her own apartment and friends and mah-jong game and never went back. But now she was in her early seventies and dying. She was in Laguna Honda Hospital, in a section where they take unusual cases. Young doctors would come from all over California to study these patients. She had Syringomyelia — look it up, I’m not sure how to spell it — a birth defect of the spinal column. Most people die of it by the time they’re 40. And they certainly don’t have five kids. My mother was really an unusual case. And when she did die, the autopsy confirmed her crabbed hand and dragging foot wasn’t from the fall after all, but from the Syringomyelia.”
You can only imagine the lifelong guilt the grandmother carried. But for her grandchildren, for Flo and her siblings, learning the truth of their mother’s affliction was cold comfort, as the newly spelled scourge ravaged her with a redoubled fury.
“She was in the hospital for 10 months,” says Flo. “She couldn’t use her limbs, couldn’t even turn in bed. She wanted to kill herself, but couldn’t do it. And that ripped me apart. I wanted her to die. Because of her suffering.
“My niece, who lives now in San Rafael, used to visit my mother in the hospital. And one day she arrived and said to the nurses, ‘Where is my grandmother?’ They said, ‘She wanted to go up to the roof.’ Now this wasn’t a roof garden, just a plain roof. And my niece went up and found my mother at the edge, sobbing her heart out.” Flo’s eyes well. “She couldn’t get out of the chair to jump. ” The baby who fell from the temple, powerless to fall again.
But even in those dim hours, there was grace.
“One day a young doctor came in and began testing her nerves, running the tip of a needle up and down her arms and legs, looking up to check her reaction. At the end, he suddenly dropped to his knees — dropped to his knees! — and took her face in his hands and said, ‘You are beautiful!’ And the way he said it the tears started running down her cheeks — I’d never seen my mother cry. And then I started crying.
“You know, my mother,” she explains, “never used makeup. Maybe a little powder, a little rouge. No lipstick. Never had to. Even at 74, she was beautiful.”
After their mother died, there was a tussle among the children. There’s always a tussle. But this one wasn’t over money. “It was all because of my controlling sister,” Flo says. “So I didn’t go to the funeral. And then, afterwards, my sister’s girlfriend called me up and said” — here she adopts a mocking sing-song — ‘Oh, Flo, your mother looked so nice, with lipstick and eye shadow…’ And I said” — impish no more — “I don’t want to hear it, because that is not my mother.
“That’s why I didn’t go…” She pauses. “For another thing, I don’t believe in funerals. I find them macabre.”
If Flo is anything, it’s the antithesis of macabre, the antidote even, joyfully alive in every fiber. And always busy, driving her Honda Fit to the Novato Senior Center (directly across, I can’t help but notice, from the nursing home where Sandy was sent to be finished off) for lunch, dinner or a corny event (after weeks of dunning, we agreed to accompany her to the Oktoberfest extravaganza, where they ran out of beer after my second and were astonished anyone would want more — and even still it was a blast), to Whistlestop Wheels in San Rafael for exercise class and, corralling Gary or, finally, me to take her over the Richmond Bridge to 99 Ranch, the vast mall where, unbeknownst to this agape gaijin, the entire Asian diaspora — Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Indian, etc. — shops for fish, meat, produce, fruit, grain, booze, butts and junk food like they’re back on the ould sod. And I’m not even mentioning her once or twice weekly attendance at Sorellas, her daily radio-listening schedule (she hasn’t had a TV in 40 years) or chauffering Gary.
I mean, Dad.
Around her neck, at the outermost layer of her intricately layered — but ever smart — attire (sometimes, on an extra cold night, underneath one puffy vest is another), she wears the All-Access Pass to her chock-full days, emblem of her unstoppable enterprise, a beyond-waist-length necklace of chrome links that look at a distance like rhinestones, attached to which are her various keys, a mini-flashlight for the walk home and a veritable merkin of a dark, furry pom-pom that the incorrigible bawd is eager to describe as “my pussy.”
Which is no reason to arrest her.
Going to the bathroom is no reason to arrest her either. But that’s what they tried to pull at the Coffee Roastery — a Fairfax establishment where, to make matters worse, Flo was a regular. “When I’d get off the bus from shopping and want to recuperate before walking all the way home with my packages,” she says, “I’d stop at the Roastery and get tea. And I would use the bathroom.”
In case you don’t know, it can be complicated to go to the bathroom with all your packages and layers of clothing — not to mention all your geriatric aches and pains. “Well, one day, I’m in there, and I hear a knocking, a banging, and finally I get the door open — I was opening it the wrong way at first — and there are two Fairfax cops.”
“Excuse me, m’am. We’ve had a complaint,” said one. “You’ve been in there a long time. What’s going on?”
“I had to go to the bathroom,” Flo replies forthrightly, without embarrassment. “Is there a problem, officer?”
The problem, of course, was drugs, perennial pretext for the American street hassle. Apparently, the manager thought she was shooting up. The octogenarian with the shopping bags. Maybe she’d even OD’d. In any case, he needed his bathroom back for customers — never considering the lady he was attempting to humiliate might be one. Flo gathered her bundles and, unbowed, silently vowing never to return, marched herself home, knowing that before long she’d be sharing the story of the attempted ignominy — poking fun at herself, as much as at her tormentors — via her own potent version of social media: dinner conversation at the sisters. It was the first story I’d heard Flo tell. And after vowing I’d never return to the Roastery either, I insisted she tell it to Val and, over the coming weeks, months and years, everybody. (So, bad move, Mr. Manager.) And it was that story — its unabashed candor and deadpan wit — that led to this story, but not before it made me fall in love.
Leave it to the magic powers of the Lady from Shanghai to ensure The High and the Mighty, all three histrionic hours, shows up on TCM last night, the day after she’d told me about it. Certainly seemed like a sign that Roni and I should tune in. Anyway, after five hours of interviews, immersion in four out-of-print books (including one by Flo’s cousin about the family’s life in Shanghai) and three years of blooming friendship, my resistance was permanently breached. Or, as Flo might put it, I was beyond the point of no return.
It’s a phrase she used several times as we talked. In The High and the Mighty, it’s practically a motif — particularly in the overheated soliloquies of the haunted, aging co-pilot, played by John Wayne. I don’t know where I first heard those words (maybe at a forgotten Minnesota screening of The High and the Mighty?), but I was taken by them as a kid. As much as a warning, they sounded like a promise, implying a romantic realm of quests, tests and exotic peril. “Point of no return” was a phrase we used often in the course of our two-wheeled explorations of rural Minnesota (where the family moved after Sheboygan, before we moved to Manhattan — speaking of trajectories). Point of no return was authentic, grade-A adventure-speak to a kid. Still is, to an overgrown kid, even though I’ve learned since that, in aviation, it’s a technical phrase, meaning the more-than-halfway mark in a trip, the point where it would consume more fuel to go back than to continue forward. Which is how Flo, one-time aviation pro, was using it. Though I have to think that the grownup screenwriter behind The High and the Mighty liked it for the same silly reasons a boy in Minnesota did. Such a cool phrase. Point of no return. Seemed like it might add meaning here, too, but at this point I’m about out of fuel.
Yes, I wanted the story of Flo to explain it all — the times, the universe, the decline and fall of William Holden — but I’ve come to realize that the story of Flo, even as it has metastasized into three gassy installments, doesn’t even begin to explain Flo. Which, come to think of it, is probably all the explanation you’ll ever get from her.
The little imp.