Saturday, December 4, 2010

I'm With The Band

Nan and I were playing backyard tourists 50 miles from my home, exploring the funky streets and alleyways of Chinatown and pretending I got a great deal haggling over a pair of binoculars that I later found cheaper on Amaon. While we were debating the medicinal value of dried ox testicles ($150/oz) , I was drawn out to the street by the tight rattling sound of Chinese drums (expected) and trombones (certainly not expected) in a weird cacophonic tune that sounded an awful lot like “Nearer My God to Thee”.

Slowly winding its way up Grant Avenue was a strange funeral procession-part Salvation Army, part New Orleans jazz band, leading a hearse and red mustang convertible displaying a huge picture of the recently passed on. Family and friends were walking behind throwing bits of paper, or Spirit money, into the crowd.

As the procession snaked through the throngs of people, everything stopped. I turned around and saw shop owners come out to the street, tourists stopped chatting on cell phones and window gawking, hats were removed and for a few minutes we all became mourners ourselves, respectfully acknowledging a stranger’s last mile.

When I got home I had to find out who or what this band was. This hodgepodge, almost pick up band, was a San Francisco staple for the dearly departed. Formed in 1911 and originally called the Cathay Chinese Boys Band, it played at almost every major event in the city; important funerals, Chinese New Years, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge and the 1939 Worlds Fair. In the 1940s the San Francisco Musicians Union Local No.6, convinced the Chinatown mortuaries to hire union musicians to play for the funeral processions. As the mortuaries closed the local Chinese started taking their business over to Green Street Mortuary in Little Italy. The band became The Green Street Mortuary Band and continues to play hymns and dirges for more than 300 Chinatown funeral processions a year.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a great poem about them:

The Green Street Mortuary Marching Band
marches right down Green Street
and turns into Columbus Avenue
where all the café sitters at
the sidewalk café tables
sit talking and laughing
and looking right through it
as if it happened every day in
little old wooden North Beach San Francisco
but at the same time feeling thrilled
by the stirring sound of the gallant marching band
as if it were celebrating life and
never heard of death
And right behind it comes the open hearse
with the closed casket and the
big framed picture under glass propped up
showing the patriarch who
has just croaked
And now all seven members of
the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band
with the faded gold braid on their
beat-up captains' hats
raise their bent axes and
start blowing all more or less
together and
out comes this Onward Christian Soldiers like
you heard it once upon a time only
much slower with a dead beat
And now you see all the relatives behind the
closed glass windows of the long black cars and
their faces are all shiny like they
been weeping with washcloths and
all super serious
like as if the bottom has just dropped out of
their private markets and
there's the widow all in weeds, and the sister with the
bent frame and the mad brother who never got through school
and Uncle Louie with the wig and there they all are assembled
together and facing each other maybe for the first time in a long
time but their masks and public faces are all in place as they face
outward behind the traveling corpse up ahead and oompah oompah
goes the band very slow with the trombones and the tuba
and the trumpets and the big bass drum and the corpse hears
nothing or everything and it's a glorious autumn day in old
North Beach if only he could have lived to see it Only we
wouldn't have had the band who half an hour later can be seen
straggling back silent along the sidewalks looking like hungover
brokendown Irish bartenders dying for a drink or a last hurrah....

If you’re dying to learn more about The Green Street Mortuary Band and other interesting death rituals, check out The Daily Undertaker at

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ruins in My Own Back Yard

In 1896 San Francisco opened the world’s largest glass and steel framed indoor swimming pool. Tucked away in a low beach inlet underneath the cliffs, Sutro Baths boasted 6 huge saltwater pools and 1 freshwater pool. The 2 million gallons of water were recirculated by the tides daily. At high tide the waves would come in and fill the saltwater pools in one hour; at low tide the water could be pumped in five.  At 140 feet longer than a football field the baths were almost 500 feet long and 254 feet wide.  

I remember driving by the Sutro Baths as a kid and listening to my parents talk about swimming in the heated pools when they were kids. I used to imagine what it was like in its heyday with ladies and gents decked out in neck to ankle swim wear, bobbing around in waves of the circulating pools and of kids screaming and sliding down the seven 50 foot Toboggan slides. They managed to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire, and generation after generation of San Franciscans spent their weekends picnicking on the grounds and splashing in the heated tides.

When I first saw them they had long been part of Play Land at the Beach, a huge arcade that was well into its decline into seediness. The beautiful beach had become one of the places nobody with any sense would dare venture into.  Mysteriously, Play Land and Sutro Baths burned to the ground in 1966. I remember watching the fire on TV and wondering what the big deal was. I really didn’t understand the history that was disappearing.

The ruins of the Baths have survived, jutting up from the sand like giant graffiti covered Pompeii bunkers. It is a great place to view the ocean, bird watch and climb around the cliffs. The land is now part of the National Park Service, which also takes care of Fort Point, the Civil War era military fort at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, a quarter of a mile away.

taken by Thomas Edison in August 1897.  I guarantee you’ll wish you were there.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

中国画象 Chinese Portrait

I became intrigued by a blog about Chinese Portraits today.  It is an abstract artistic depiction of a person or personality by answering "If I were" questions. If I were a flower, if I were a word, a book, a motto, a work of art.  It sounds a little like a weak amalgam of Proust’s Questionnaire, Bernard Pivot channeled by James Lipton, and a dash of the Miss America IQ test. The concept is interesting, especially with its polarizing potential to be deeply insightful or painfully moronic (Miss Universe).

I think it would be fun if, instead of writing our own Chinese Portraits, we had them painted by the people who know us well; or even better, by those who think they know us but really don’t.  I think it would feel like sitting in the back row of your own funeral to hear what our friends really think about us.

This morning I got as far as writing two colors of my own portrait. I have no idea how many other colors it will take to paint a complete picture of me, but I’ve decided to keep a running list and add to it now and then.

If I were:

A  Sound:

I would be the long painful squeek of an old spring on a wooden screen door. It has always been my favorite and most satisfying sound; better than the sound of Cheetos or bubble wrap. It’s the in and out of every day. Hurried departures and tired and deliberate entrances. There is something organically satisfying in that squeeeek as the spring stretches and complains and then the loud bang of the door against the jamb, the short recoil and repeat.

A Flaw:

I would be Impatience. The hurry up and get on with it kind. The come on what’s you point? voice screaming in my head when I’m trying so hard to listen to what you have to say but I’m actually mentally editing out 50% of your verbiage because  you use more words than are really necessary to get to the god damn point!