Arts & Culture

On Mazel Tov Mis Amigos and San Francisco

Every time I travel to San Francisco my affection for the city grows.  There is a degeree of similarity to New York (enough to make a New Yorker feel comfortable) in the intensity of the presence of culture and in … Read More

By / September 2, 2010

Every time I travel to San Francisco my affection for the city grows.  There is a degeree of similarity to New York (enough to make a New Yorker feel comfortable) in the intensity of the presence of culture and in the city’s ethnic diversity.  But San Fracisco is very much its own beast.  One of the things I like most about the place is the visibility of grit: San Fracnsico’s underbelly is showing in a way that is not really true of New York anymore.  I hardly ever see homeless panhandlers on the streets of Manhattan. I haven’t seen a street walker in Mid-town since I was a child seeing scenes of depravity in Hell’s Kitchen out the back window of the car.  While I am not advocating a return to the "good old days" of vice and crime in NYC, there is something off-putting about the invisibility of poverty.  It’s not like there aren’t any poor people anymore.  They’ve just all been pushed out of the public view, and that is unnatural.  The Baal Shem Tov said the rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich.  That’s a bit of a paradoxical mind-twister, I suppose, but there’s much to it.  It’s dehumanizing to never see the lives of others.  It impoverishing on another level to never look eye to eye with want.  It makes it easier to get lost in the self-serving self-absorption of bourgeois living.  And byt the way, I don’t care if you’re a starving artist or a broke student or your out of work at the moment:  if you have an apartment in New York City and your looking at a computer than you’re part of the bourgeoisie.

I went out for breakfast in a greasy spoon, which is something I like to do.  It was your average small diner, most of the establishment taken up by the counter.  The Golden Cup. Owned by a Chinese family.  Nothing fancy about it.  I don’t think they even had a bathroom, at least not one that was visible.  I ordered pancakes and a cup of coffee.   The waiter, a middle aged man in a clean white button-down shirt who looked he was probably also the owner, leaned down in towards me looked me in the eye and slid a newspaper over to me.  "Want the paper?"  he asked me.

Ofcourse I wanted the paper.  The owner/waiter knew with the certainty that comes from years of close contact with the world at large refracted through the prism of a contained public space that what a grown man sitting alone at the counter of a diner needs is a copy of the paper.  He knew it as certainly as a jailer knows the hour of the execution of a condemend man and as completely as a batter knows the sound of the ball hitting the bat.  At that one moment I felt that the man on the side of the greasy spoon counter knew me better than anyone else in the world.  He knew my secret melancholy, the enui and pale romance of travel and the lonliness of being away from my family, the pleasures and disappointments of adulthood, the intensity of feeling and the need for escape that mark a life.  And he knew how to make it all disappear and how to let me put on the mask of adult masculinity, how to let me be a man sitting in a coffee shop.  Everything normal.  There was a kindness in the simplicity of the gesture.  I usually associate greasy spoosns with a degree of toughness, and somewhat expect to be mildly abused by the wait-staff.  But that’s in New York, and I was in San Francisco and things are a little different here.  There’s a little less to proove and a little less cause for senseless anger.  It was refreshing and beautifully human.

That night I played at Yoshi’s, the wonderful San Francisco jazz club, as part of the Idelsohn Society’s recreation of the 1961 album Mazel Tov Mis Amigos.  The album was made by a bunch of great Jazz and Latin players, including Doc Cheatham and Ray Barreto, playing Yiddish standards.  It was certainly a commercially motivated project, but the old record is very cool and the recreation concept is unique and fantastic.  The band was led by Arturo O’Farell, a great pianist and arranger and a lovely human being. Featured on the program were a bunch of special guests, including the legend of Fanya records and of the classic New York Salsa scene of the ’60s and ’70s, Larry Harlowe.  And I sang four songs. 

The highlight of the show was the reunion of the Burton Sisters, an Andrews Sisters style vocal duo who had worked the borscht belt circuit back in the ’40s and ’50s.  They hadn’t performed together in 50 years.  It was pretty remarkable to see these wonderful and sprightly ladies singing together after so long.  They were  wonderfully excited to be on stage again.  The audience was really moved by the experience of hearing them and seeing them.  They gave them several standing ovations.  It was really lovely.

Then I went back to my hotel room and packed my bag and took a shower and swallowed two aspirins and went to sleep.