Date night in San Francisco

Steph was occasionally blue during our few months after settling in San Francisco — homesick, scared, a little bit lost. One night she seemed completely flattened by the pressures of her job, and I thought a movie might brighten her spirits. We hadn't been to a theater since Grand Island, Nebraska, but Siskel & Ebert had said something good about some movie, so I asked her on a date.
When I checked the showtimes in the paper, though, we had only about half an hour to get to a theater that was more than twenty blocks away. We would need good "Muni luck," and Steph didn't think we could make it. We crossed our fingers, and the right bus came at the right time. The bus was overcrowded as usual, so we stood for most of the ride, but we made it to the theater and to our seats just as the lights darkened and the film began. It was an enjoyable movie with snacks we'd snuck in, and the night out was just what Stephanie needed. We came home in a much better mood than we'd left.
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I remember hundreds of date nights with Stephanie, and date mornings, mid-days, and afternoons, or perhaps thousands — picnics, parks, short walks and long hikes, movies, coffee shops, dinners out, camping, more and more, in California, in Missouri, and in Wisconsin. Let's spend today in California.
Some of these recollections are yellowed with age, and some still sparkle in vivid detail that's delightful to recall and relive. None of it could possibly be of interest to anyone but me, but of course, that won't stop me from writing it.
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We never did parties — they're basically a roomful of strangers, and for both of us, mingling with people we didn't know was more of a hassle than a pleasure. And yet, when Stephanie's boss at Exploratorium invited all the employees to a housewarming party at her new place, and told everyone to bring their significant others, well, Steph felt she had to accept.
There's no amusing anecdote here, no real story to tell, so I don't know why I'm telling it. But we found the address on a map, made our way on Muni to some corner of the city where we didn't often visit, and we attended the party. We brought a bottle of wine, which was well-received, so Steph must've picked it out. And the party was exactly what we expected — a couple of hours of uncomfortable chit-chat with dozens of strangers, which added up to a whole lot of uncomfortable. Even the memory makes me shudder. Stephanie pulled it off, though — she sparkled all night, and picked up political points for being there. I did less well, but I don't think I embarrassed her.
On the Muni ride home, we had less to say to each other than we usually did, because we were both completely "talked out." Having used more than our quota of words that evening on other people, we had none left for each other. The next day, though, we talked at length about how much we hated not so much the party, and certainly not the people, all of whom had been cordial and friendly; but we hated the very concept of an entire evening of social interaction with strangers. A conversation with one stranger while you're waiting for the bus? Okay, we can handle that. But thirty conversations with thirty strangers? We can do it. We did it. But it wasn't fun.
"We're not 'people people'," Stephanie said.
"Well, we knew that already," said I, "but it was a work event and you needed to attend. You did great, by the way."
"Well, thanks," she said. "And you're right, I pulled it off. I don't think anyone there knew that I wasn't having a good time."
"That's the whole point of going to a party, right? To have a horrible time, and to make sure nobody knows."
"Near as I can approximate, yeah, that's the point of a party," she said. "You know what? The person I prefer to spend time with is you, and my parents once in a while, and a very few old friends. But this thing we just did? The 'party' thing? Uh, let's not do that again."
And we never did. There were a very few family get-togethers, and we attended a block party once, and one time we had dinner with her boss at a different job, but never again did we attend a party at some acquaintance or co-worker's home. Among a million other thank yous, I thank you for that, Stephanie.
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The few concerts we attended were almost all free shows at public parks, where we could quickly evaporate when the crowd started gnawing at our nerves. Other than that, we never did bars or night clubs or concerts, with one delightful exception.
At the invitation of a friend from my workplace, we once attended a jazz performance at a bar on Grant Avenue in San Francisco. The place was mercifully "no smoking," else I'm sure it would've seemed like we'd time-traveled to a beatnik scene from the 1950s. The setting was dark but not blind, the drinks were good, frequent, and not terribly expensive, the band was spectacular and played for hours, and when they passed the hat we dropped in twenty bucks (quite extravagant, for us back then).
I don't remember what bar we were at, but using the internet to look through pictures of Grant Avenue bars, I think it was the Savoy Tivoli. Wherever we were, we had a terrific time. My co-worker was supposed to meet us there, but she didn't show up, so it was just Stephanie and I. Perhaps that's why we had such a terrific time.
* * * * * * * * * *
Nothing really happened, so I don't know why this vignette is so intense in my memory this morning, but it's as clear as it of happened twenty minutes ago when instead it was twenty years. Stephanie and I were waiting for a bus on Van Ness, after seeing a movie at San Francisco's Galaxy Theatre, or perhaps at the Regency across the street. It was a foggy late afternoon or early evening, and it was a joy just being around Stephanie. It was a long wait for the bus and we didn't mind. We were chatty and happy and laughing, and it felt like a romantic date though we'd been married for at least a couple of years by then. I've seen a lot of couples who stay together long after the romance has ended, but our romance never ended.
A bus eventually came, but it looked uncomfortably overcrowded, packed like luggage jammed into a suitcase but poking out the corners. Neither of us liked crowds or wanted to ride home standing up and breathing some strangers' arm pits, so we continued waiting and that bus rolled away.
The next bus had some empty seats, so we hopped on board and began the short but herky-jerky ride toward Van Ness Station, where we switched to an N train to take us home. All the way we talked, about the movie, about a co-worker at her job who'd been acting like a jerk, about the bums always visible out the window, about whatever was on our minds — nothing much, and everything in the universe. When we stepped off the bus it started to lightly rain, and without umbrellas we kissed on the sidewalk alongside Duboce Park. I remember that rain, that particular spot where we stood, and especially I remember that kiss.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Let's go to the zine show," she said, so we went. It was a big convention space somewhere inside Golden Gate Park, a cavernous room where a hundred or more zinemakers had set up folding tables, and were hawking their creations. We bumped into our friends, Joe and Shawna, and had lunch with them.
We weren't selling our zines at this event, we were buying. Steph and I each bought a dozen or more zines we'd later review in Zine World. We schmoozed with a few zinesters we already knew, and even with strangers. At least for Stephanie and I, all the awkwardness of meeting people faded quickly, when we were talking with strangers who shared our passion for the underground press.
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As a special treat, our first few years together, I would occasionally take her to my favorite low-cost restaurants in low-rent sections of the city, places that would make an edible omelet for a few dollars less than Denny's. Steph was a good sport about this; she ate her meals and treated the staff politely, and we were always good tippers, which I reckon is especially appreciated at restaurants in the slums — and most of the restaurants I'd been to in San Francisco were in the slums.
But Steph had a different philosophy of food, and she slowly, patiently worked to enlighten me. "Why settle for an omelet that simply edible, if we can go to a better restaurant and eat an omelet that's exceptional, for just a few dollars more? Or better yet, we could actually pay less than even at a cheap restaurant — I could make us an omelet that's exceptional?" And she did.
Her thinking was that the purpose of a restaurant is to serve food substantially better or different than you'd have at home. If it wasn't better, then why eat it? And if it wasn't different, then why bother? So when we dined out or ordered out, it was almost always a cuisine or a dish that she was well outside her formidable kitchen skillset. Which brings me back to something I've mentioned before — she was adventurous. She was a great chef at home, and at restaurants she introduced me to twenty different cuisines I'd never tried before.
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Part of the joy of San Francisco was an endless diversity of people and things to do. We loved the thorough mix of ethnicities. You name an ethnic group, and they're living in San Francisco, often in a neighborhood where they're in the majority or close to it. As the song says, "The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky / are also on the faces of people going by," and if you don't think that's a good thing then San Francisco isn't where you want to live.
We loved it, though. In San Francisco, you're interacting with a wide variety of people — black, white, mixed, Asian, native, Hispanic, gay, bi, straight, disabled, on and on. It's just more interesting than someplace where everyone is the same. It's an ongoing reminder that there's no such thing as an ordinary person. We're all a little bit unusual, and that's a good thing.
You'd hear every language in the world while riding the buses, and Steph and I once witnessed a bilingual argument with enthusiastic gestures and body language, between someone hollering in Russian and someone hollering back in French. After we reached our destination and got off the bus, Steph told me from her knowledge of Russian that the French guy had inadvertently stepped on the Russian guy's foot. "Excuse me" doesn't translate?
We once ate cheap but delicious burritos at a Mexican restaurant out in the Avenues that was run by a nice Korean couple. Or maybe it was cheap but delicious kimchi at a Korean restaurant run by a Mexican couple. Sorry, it's been a long time, and all I remember clearly was that it was cheap and delicious, and the ethnicities weren't what you'd expect.
In San Francisco, even television is diverse. With just rabbit-ears and a TV set, you can watch Mexican shows in Spanish, and Asian shows in Japanese and Korean, Tagalog and Mandarin. It's wildly more entertaining than the blandly American stations broadcasting in every American city, and it made simply "staying home and watching TV" into some highly enjoyable date nights.
Iron Chef was a show we looked forward to every week — an insanely overwrought and super-stylized cooking competition. It later became all the rage, and there's now a long-running American version. Back then, though, it was only a Japanese show, only in Japanese (with subtitles, thankfully), and we seemed to be the only white people in the city who knew about it. Best kept secret!
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Another thing we loved about San Francisco was that there were hundreds of walkable neighborhoods, and so many unique shops or destinations all around the city that you could visit someplace utterly unique every day of the year and never come close to seeing all the city offers. Getting wherever you wanted was always easy; there's a bus or a train in ten minutes to take you in any direction.
And the flip-side of that equation is that was so much to enjoy, right in our own neighborhood, all within easy footsteps. Lower Haight Street was a few blocks away, full of shops and cheap restaurants, and Market Street and The Castro with their almost-endless charms were a few blocks in the other direction. It seemed everything was within walking distance, and our walks were usually quiet, night or day, with no worries about safety or crime. Steph once was nipped by a tiny raging schnauzer stretching at its leash; the dog didn't even draw blood, and its owner profusely apologized — and Stephanie and I decided some years later, that was the greatest moment of peril that either of us had faced in that neighborhood.
There were several good and affordable restaurants within a few blocks of home. Axum Café — Ethiopian food on a budget. Squat & Gobble — crepes were their specialty, though Steph liked them more than I did. The International Café — coffee and pastries extraordinaire, sometimes with live musical performances. A one-man sandwich shop offered the world's finest ham sandwiches at a reasonable price; we sometimes packed a few for baseball games in Oakland. There was a Mediterranean place where we ate once, and it was good but mostly they became our go-to place for French fries; it was a three-block walk to get there, and I could surprise Steph with a tall sack full of fresh, hot, greasy, delicious French fries before she'd even noticed I had gone. There was a barbeque place with a giant pig on the sign, as required by tradition; I liked the place, but Steph found the food and the restaurant too smoky; her clothes reeked of pig and smoke even after we'd come home, so we only went once.
In the other direction, on Market Street, there was a Mom & Pop Italian place we went to several times, with somewhat garish décor and perfect pasta. Across the street in The Castro, an excellent breakfast at Orphan Andy's. Another block down Castro, there was a terrific hamburger palace, the name of which I've forgotten — but they're highly recommended! Stop by and tell them Stephanie & Doug sent you!
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Listing those restaurants might fool you into thinking that we often ate in restaurants. Well, we didn't. In San Francisco, a city famous for its excellent restaurants, we ate at a very few reasonably priced places, and only when we were ahead on the rent — once a month, or twice, rarely, if we were extremely flush. That was all we could afford. San Francisco is an expensive place to live, and the prices eventually chased us right out of town.
Much more frequently, we went to neighborhood groceries and came back with ingredients which Stephanie would magically turn in to a week's worth of breakfast, lunch, and dinner in our crazy kitchen across the hall from the apartment. She was marvelous at that magic, and she could turn five dollars of cheap groceries into a pretty terrific "date night" at home.
Often it was dinner and a movie, courtesy of Naked Eye, an excellent, overstuffed store selling zines and renting videocassettes you couldn't find anywhere else. At Naked Eye we rented hundreds of old movies we'd never seen before (thanks, Steve; we always remembered you fondly after we'd moved away and your store went out of business).
Also in the neighborhood, there was a fascinating junk shop, and a small but needed grocery store, a hot-dog specialty shop, a few charming-looking bars that we never set foot inside. Many times our dates were simply Stephanie and I strolling the sidewalks of Haight Street, or Market, or the Castro. And those were wonderful dates.
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The only thing our neighborhood didn't have was a branch of the city library system, but it was easy to take the train downtown to spend the afternoon at San Francisco's main library. Back then it was beautiful, old, old-fashioned, and just reeked of books — heavenly for folks who enjoy reading. We were there so frequently, I'm sure the staff knew us by name before we'd even flashed our library cards. We checked out vast quantities of books and some movies, and being good citizens we never had overdue or damaged materials.
While we lived there, though, the downtown library was abandoned, and a new library was built and opened, offering a lot more "open space" and a café downstairs. We judged it … fine, but not really an improvement. There are plenty of open spaces outside; in a library we want books, books, and more books, not books and open space. But the new library was wildly popular with everyone else, so ours was definitely a minority opinion.
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I'm not much of a sports guy, but baseball was always my favorite sport. Never dreamed, though, that I'd fall in love with a woman who was a baseball fan herself. It's only a slight exaggeration (and obvious sexism) to say this, but — Who knew that a woman could be a baseball fan? With Steph, I didn’t have to explain the rules or the strategy of baseball, and I never had to talk her into attending a game. She wanted to go, perhaps more often than I. She was a baseball fan before we met — just another way that I won the Grand Prize when I met Stephanie.
In San Francisco we often went to baseball games, but almost always we went east across the Bay to root for the Oakland A's, instead of staying in San Francisco to root for the Giants. 
Why choose a road trip instead of the home team? The A's stadium was many miles further from home, but it was much easier to get to — a simple BART ride — while the Giants played at Candlestick Park, a gusty, uncomfortable stadium in an obscure corner of the city, and the only bus that went there was the rather expensive and rickety "ball park special." Tickets to the A's stadium were also much more affordable than Giants tickets, especially after the Giants built their new improved ball park. And the A's never came close to selling out, so you could wander up to the ticket window ten minutes before game time with no worries.
Years later, after we'd moved to Wisconsin, the Beloit Snappers became our usual baseball date. Good prices for good seats, good hot dogs, in a charming old stadium. We must have made that 50-minute drive fifty times. And happily, the Snappers are a minor league affiliate of the Oakland A's, so you could say that Stephanie and I remained Oakland A's fans to the end.
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Stephanie and I were never legally married. It just didn't matter to her, or to me, whether we signed papers and had everything formalized. It mattered so little that we barely ever talked about our reasoning, beyond a few sentences. In our eyes and in our hearts, we were married within a few days of her stepping off the plane, the first time she visited me in San Francisco. There was nothing to be gained by going through an elaborate ritual, so we simply skipped that step.
After we'd been living in San Francisco for a few months, though, Stephanie mentioned me in conversation at her workplace. She used the word "husband," and a co-worker asked why she wasn't wearing a ring. Ad-libing, Steph replied, "I usually take it off before a shower, and I must have forgotten to put it back on."
There are always half a dozen vendors on Market Street, near the Powell Street BART and Muni station, selling costume jewelry. So on a date downtown that weekend, we bought our wedding rings — a matched set, stainless steel, with no stones and no engraving, $5 for her ring, and $5 for mine. We slipped the rings on our fingers and paid the man, then improvised some rather silly vows on the sidewalk.
It was not a major romantic moment because, like I said, we were already married. We had been married for almost a year by then. What we felt mostly, exchanging rings, was that we'd beaten an expensive tradition, for just ten bucks. We spent more than that on dinner at Burger King afterwards, but only because I had two Whoppers instead of just one.
As with the baseball, mentioned above, sometimes I marvel at my luck. Imagine finding a woman who didn't need to march down an aisle in a fancy gown, with engraved invitations and elaborate floral arrangements, and with no need for a priest or minister or even a justice of the peace. We believed very strongly in the sanctity of marriage, but that sanctity came from us, not from anyone else.
That's rather remarkable, and it says something about Stephanie. In western society, girls are taught from their youngest days to look forward to their wedding. In fairy tales and bedtime stories and pop music and Disney movies, almost any girl's "happy ending" is when she's standing in church reciting wedding vows. The only other moment that might compete, for fulfilling a woman's dreams, is childbirth.
That indoctrination is intense, and yet Stephanie was immune. The woman who fell for me didn't particularly want a wedding, and she very much didn’t want children. We were birds of a feather, flocked together.  
* * * * * * * * * *
We held hands in, I believe, every public park within San Francisco's city limits. We saw the herd of bison in Golden Gate Park. We explored the long-gone Sutro Baths. We visited all the city's free museums — there are several — and some of the ones where you pay to get in. We walked the steps of twisted Lombard Street, which is more impressive and invigorating than merely driving that famous street. We loitered and lunched in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where you could still see occasional hippies or wanna-be hippies with flowers in their hair. We picnicked in People's Park in Berkeley — land seized and effectively occupied in 1969, to prevent the University from building an athletic complex, and fifty years later there's still a park there, not an athletic complex.
What else did we do in San Francisco? Ah, what else didn't we do? We were young(ish), we were poor, we were healthy; it was a good time to be alive and in love.
One evening, I don't remember what we'd done together all day, but when we returned home we saw five or six young adults in the park, twirling torches that were aflame on both ends. Picture that as an unexpected event against a clear night sky in the city. For town or fifteen minutes we watched, transfixed as they danced in the park, the flames adding an audible crackling hiss as they spun. They never passed a hat, never announced who they were or why they were spinning fire in the park. We called then the fire-spinnin' kids! Just another night in 'Frisco.
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On the streets in the Mission District after sunset, we frequently heard wandering Mariachi bands. They stroll the sidewalks in full and seemingly authentic costume, performing for tips and performing pretty darned good. It's impossible not to be charmed, and you're a schmuck if you don't give them a few bucks.
The sound of Mariachi could be described as polka with a Mexican twist, starring a trumpet and an accordion, with a vihuela or a violin, and possibly a flute. In my memory there's also a tuba providing the backbeat, but my memory might be mistaken — at least, there's no mention of a tuba in the Wikipedia article on Mariachi.
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We always enjoyed visiting Nihonmachi, otherwise known as Japantown, in San Francisco. It's next door to a movie theater we often attended, so Japantown and a movie was a frequent date night for Steph and I.
It's a busy split-level Japanese-American shopping mall. Not to be missed is the bookstore with a large selection of Japanese books and magazines and manga and fun and games. Neither of us read Japanese, but the coolness of the place was inarguable.
The mall has numerous other exotic shops and restaurants, including US-branches of a few Japanese chain stores. There's also a big fountain that's nice. We mostly are corn dogs when we were there, but once I remember we loitered and looked at the menus in the window for a ramen place and a shabu-shabu place, before (of course) we decided to eat at a sushi place. Steph, as I've mentioned, loved sushi.
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It's something people who live outside of major cities sometimes don't understand, but it's a remarkable plus in your life to know that there's a train in ten minutes which can take you twenty blocks or twenty miles, and you don't need to own your own $10- or $20,000 hunk of metal to get around. We never had a car in San Francisco, and rarely wanted one. Sometimes "date night" was a ride on the train and back again, just holding hands and looking out the window. And since we had transit passes, those were zero-cost dates.
We frequently took the N Judah streetcar, which ran literally right past our apartment, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We never swam, even on the hottest summer days, partly because the ocean is cold and partly because nobody wants to see fat people in their swimsuits. But we had scores of picnics and walks in the sand, and spent hours reading books on a giant beach blanket. Those were good days, absolutely free and easy, a train trip to the ocean whenever the sun was shining.
Muni took us anywhere in the city, and BART took us anywhere in the east bay. One night found us at an Oakland A's game that went extra innings, and we were a little worried that we might miss the last BART train back to San Francisco. We asked a few people in adjacent seats, and they reassured us that when the games ran late, BART would hold the last train.
Still we worried a bit and it looked dicey, because it wasn't just a matter of strolling across the walkway and getting onto a train. We were strolling across the walkway with thousands of other people, and waiting in a very long line to get onto a train. And then the train doors closed, and whoosh, the last train home was on its way without us.
As usual, though, BART had everything under control. They sent a follow-up train which wasn't on the schedule, to pick up the last of the stragglers. We never figured out whether that was a special service because the game went extra innings, or whether BART does (or did) that every night, just to prevent people from being stranded overnight far from home. I've always hoped it was the latter. That's something a well-run transit agency should do, and BART usually seemed quite well-run.
CalTrain is a beautiful ride, too, and we were often on it. That's the commuter train that runs between San Jose and San Francisco, with stops every few miles along the way. It's very retro, with loud locomotives and two-level passenger cars with old-fashioned over-padded seats and conductors walking the aisle saying, "Tickets, please." Palo Alto station in particular, just feels like you're stepping into 1945. When the train pulls into the station, clanging its old-style warning bell, you half-expect to see soldiers returning from World War II, greeted and kissed by their ecstatic girlfriends.
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The Castro Theatre is a swanky old-time movie palace, with a single, gigantic screen draped in thousands of dollars worth of velvet curtains. It was an easy walk from our apartment, they regularly screen old movies from the 1930s to the 1990s, and that was the "sweet spot" for Stephanie and I, so it was often our date destination.
If you've never seen a movie in an old-time movie palace, well, you just don't know what you're missing. It's the opposite of the modern multiplex, where once you've stepped inside you're basically in a box — a big room with seats and a screen.
Step into the Castro and you know you're in the Castro. Everything is old, but classy and in generally good repair. The auditorium is huge, and there's only one. The balcony is open, or at least it was open for every show when we lived in San Francisco. The restrooms are spacious and clean, and it's the same porcelain that your grandfather might've pooped into so it might be stained. And a bit before showtime, an organ rises from the orchestra pit, the spotlight illuminates the man on the bench, and he begins to play.
The pipe organ is there because silent movies needed a soundtrack, and the theater dates back to that era. The  organist is David Hegarty, who must be almost as old as the theatre, but dang, he's still good at what he does. He plays the mighty Wurlitzer before every evening show, and the sound is so beautiful they sell CDs. The selections played for any particular show are curated, so it might be the score from the movie you're about to see, or Asian-themed music if you're seeing an Asian movie, etc. And Mr Hegerty's performance always ends with "San Francisco," theme from the 1936 movie San Francisco, starring Clark Gable and an earthquake. Perhaps you know the song —
San Francisco, open your golden gate
You let no stranger wait outside your door
San Francisco, here is your wandering one
Saying I'll wander no more.
Nobody in the crowd sings along; it's just the pipe organ playing the tune. In my head, though, I always heard the lyrics. Those lines of poetry seem to elegantly say "Welcome home!" to the many, many people who've come to San Francisco to reinvent themselves. Two of those people, of course, were Stephanie and I.
* * * * * * * * * *
There are (or were) several other theaters in and around the city that frequently showed old movies — the Red Victoria on Upper Haight Street, the Roxie on 16th Street, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, the Stanford in Palo Alto, and maybe a few others I've forgotten. Before streaming and piracy became ubiquitous, there was no better place and time for catching all the old classic movies than San Francisco in the late 1990s. We had monthly schedules for all the retrospective theatres, tacked to the living room wall.
For one night only, there was an old movie playing at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, and it was a movie Steph hadn't seen so I suggested. Can't tell you what movie because I've completely forgotten, but it would've been a "classic" along the lines of Casablanca or Mildred Pierce or The Wizard of Oz. Let's say it was Sunset Boulevard.
"Hey, Steph, want to see Sunset Boulevard? It's playing in Oakland on Friday night."
"Sure! That sounds like fun."
What I didn't tell her was that it was showing at the Paramount. That's another old-time movie palace, like the Castro or the Stanford, fully restored to its original glistening grandeur — but even more so. Your seat at the Castro, being 90 years old, might have a loose spring or a rip in the fabric, but the Paramount is a non-profit with, apparently, some serious financial backing. Everything is always immaculate, amazing, and in perfect repair. It looks like tonight's their Grand Opening, every night.
You will find no rust on any of the almost-century-old doorknobs, no drip stains in the men's room sink. It has more than 3,000 seats, all of them plush and none of them ripped. Shake the curtains and there won't be dust; it's cleaner than your underwear. There's an enormous, steep balcony, a bar serving cocktails, couches in the ladies' lounge, and ushers in fancy uniforms who'll show you to your seat. As beautiful as the Castro is — and hey, the Castro is beautiful — the Paramount makes it look like a barn with a projector.
These days the Paramount is used mostly for plays and concerts and such, but they sometimes schedule an old movie, and when they do, they try to fully recreate the old-time experience. When the interior lights dim, they'll show a cartoon and a newsreel before the feature presentation. There's even an emcee who stands on stage and spins a giant wheel, awarding prizes to randomly-selected patrons. The wheel they're spinning is, we were told, a leftover promotional device that was regularly used at the theater in the 1930s. Whatever you're envisioning as I describe it, the Paramount is more impressive than that. It's first-rate; stepping into the Paramount is almost exactly the same experience your great-granddad had when he took your great-grandma to the movies, long before you were born.
Anyway, that night, Stephanie only knew that we were going to see a movie. It was just after dusk when BART brought us to Oakland, and from the subway we climbed the stairs, emerging to see the Paramount's 10,000-watt marquee and neon overpowering the evening moon and stars. Steph later told me she felt chills up and down her spine when she first saw the building, and I'll admit, that was my intent – to Wow her with a capital W.
A few years later, Steph's parents visited, and she took them to see Singing in the Rain at the Paramount, and it wowed them, too.
* * * * * * * * * *
We were once walking many blocks from downtown and far from our own neighborhood, when we saw an older couple waiting for the cable car, at a place where the cable car doesn't run. They'd been fooled by fake tracks, painted on the asphalt for some movie that had recently been filmed on location. We overheard this older couple (well, they were probably younger than I am now) complaining to each other about how long they'd been waiting for a cable car, and Steph spoke up. She explained the fake tracks, and pointed these people in the right direction to find real tracks, and a cable car.
Stephanie was a much nicer person than me. The Doug from back then probably wouldn't have said anything. Heck, I didn't say anything, did I? I would've kept walking and perhaps snickered a bit under my breath, about clueless tourists. Well, that was early in our marriage, and many years of exposure to Steph's niceness rubbed off on me. These days I would say something. I'd be helpful and human, and say pretty much what Steph said. She made me a better man.
* * * * * * * * * *
One weekend we had a car. We had rented it for a road trip up north to Marin County, where we saw Point Reyes and Mount Tamalpais, and Stinson Beach and some bits of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Having never seen any of the area before, we had a lovely day and a half, went on three extended hikes, and saw a deer so close it could probably smell us.
That was a wonderful weekend, but we (or rather, I) had a weird moment with an odd man on the wooden trail to the lighthouse at Point Reyes. Something was stirring the soup in his head, and he would not shut up about President Clinton. I was never a big fan of Clinton's, nor was Stephanie, but who wants to listen to some stranger rant about politics? He was hiking — alone — and giving everyone on the path a running political commentary, against the scenic backdrop of the Pacific Coast.
"Hey, dude," I finally said, after several minutes of this.
And Steph whispered in my ear, "Doug — don't."
Usually I listened to what she said, but this babbling boob had sapped my patience. "Do you think you could possibly shut the hell up? We're in a national park here. Enjoy the scenery and give Bill Clinton ten minutes off."
The stranger who wouldn't shut up suddenly was quiet, and stopped walking, and turned to wait for me, a few steps behind him. His face was remarkably red, and at first I thought he was furious, or perhaps sunburned. But, no, he was just embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he said, quite gently. "Have I been talking out loud? I didn't mean to." And then he turned and resumed walking, without another word.
Discussing it later, Steph and I decided that he was probably a bit off in the head, dealing with issues, or whatever's the polite term for a wingnut these days. "Doug — don't" would've been a better, and kinder strategy. Stephanie had been right, as usual, and I told her so.
After all that hiking, we should've been exhausted by the time we returned home, but we weirdly weren't, so on Sunday night we drove down the Peninsula to the Burlingame Drive-In, where we saw Notting Hill. It was a bit better than your ordinary romantic comedy, with one particularly poignant moment: a woman has recently become disabled, and her loving husband carries her up the steps of their home.
At the time we thought it was sweet, but years later, after Stephanie was in a wheelchair, we saw that movie a second time. We had forgotten that scene was coming, and when he lifted her, Stephanie needed to pause the movie for a few minutes to cry. And then she said, "Doug, that's you. Life is difficult and I can't walk, and you are always here to carry me up the stairs."
That's one of the sweetest things she ever said to me, and she said a lot of sweet things. I should mention, though, that she meant "carry me up the stairs" as a metaphor. I'm a wimp. I could barely lift Stephanie, only in emergencies, and I never carried her any distance at all.
She carried herself, always with dignity.