My wife and I just got back from California. We went out to celebrate my aunt’s eighty-eighth birthday, and decided to stay a week to check out the state. My aunt is the last one of my mother’s siblings still alive. Nowadays eighty-eight doesn’t seem that old, but considering the curse of cancer and heart attacks that has plagued my family, it is very close to a miracle to get to that age. Although she still gets around, physically age has caught up with her, but her mind is still clear. I hope when I’m her age my mind is that sharp, but I doubt it will improve in the next few decades. When I asked how she managed to stay so youthful, she said, “Keep a positive attitude, eat good Bohemian food and keep enough Manischewitz in you to pickle King Tut.” (I’m joking. She actually kept saying, “It’s okay if I have one glass of wine, isn’t it?”)
We flew into Sacramento and drove up into the mountains where my aunt lives. The first thing we noticed is California doesn’t have a speed limit. Oh, they put up signs with speed limits, but those are just so the locals can make fun of the tourists who try to follow them. If you go the speed the signs say, joggers pushing baby strollers will pass you and give you the finger as they go by for blocking traffic. The real speed limit is how-fast-will-your-car-go-mph, and that won’t fit on a sign.
My aunt lives in the mountains in the Jackson/Sutter Creek area—around the area where gold was first discovered in California. It’s amazing that anyone even noticed the gold as beautiful as the area is. As a former pursuit driving instructor, I kept thinking how much fun it would be to take a crotch rocket or Corvette and see how fast I could go on those winding roads; it would be a blast. But as a lifelong flatlander, having to drive twenty miles on those roads to get to work every day would make me crazy(er?). We had a little gathering with my aunt and relatives from all over the country that I hadn’t seen for years. It was good to see everyone again, and not once did I ask, “And who are you again?”
It’s funny the things I noticed, the family resemblance in everyone. I saw a lot of my mother and grandmother in these people. Not so much looks, although that was definitely there, but their values, at what and how they laughed and their speech cadence. I guess those are the true legacies of families: the things people pass on to their children without trying—both good and bad. (Okay, that’s way too sentimental for this blog, so moving on.)
After we left the birthday party, we headed down to San Francisco for a few days. We took a ferry out to Alcatraz and climbed the sixty-three gazillion steps to the top of the island where most of the cell blocks are. If I had been the warden, I would have made the prisoners go up and down the steps twice every day. The ones who didn’t die would be too tired to try to escape. Of all the escapes that were attempted while Alcatraz was a prison, only three of the prisoners have never been accounted for. They are the three who built a raft out of rain coats and tried to swim across the bay. They told us while we were on Alcatraz that because the water is so cold and filled with sharks, plus a strong cross current flows out to sea, that they believe all three of them drowned and were washed out into the ocean. I believed them until the next morning when we met a woman who had just swam from the Golden Gate Bridge to Fisherman’s Wharf, which is almost twice as far as the distance from Alcatraz to the shore and against the current all the way.
That night we went on a night bus tour of San Francisco. We learned a lot about the history of the city. The tour was on a double-decker bus with an open top. They took us across the Bay Bridge at sixty mph when it was fifty degrees outside. That translates into a wind chill of two degrees below the temperature where oxygen freezes solid. Something like riding a snowmobile in a t-shirt. Hopefully by July I’ll stop shaking.
The following day we took a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the city. Before we got off at Chinatown, our guide told us they expect you to haggle over the price in Chinatown. My wife’s eyes lit up. She loves haggling. She’d haggle over the price with a guy giving out free samples. (True story: The last time I went to buy a boat, my wife came along. After about a half hour of haggling over the price of a boat, the owner of the place offered her a job. He said, “I’d rather have you on my side then working against me.”) We stayed in Chinatown until a little Chinese woman said, “No more deal. You go home.” But my wife got the t-shirts she wanted.
I wanted to get off at the Haight-Ashbury district where a lot of great music and heroin overdoses happened in the sixties, but as we came to the area, there were homeless people sleeping all over in the streets, so we didn’t get off. We had a bad experience with a homeless person on the trip. As we came upon him, he was freaking out, screaming profanities at his girlfriend and threatening to beat her up. I think it scared my wife a little. I’ve been in law enforcement long enough to have seen numerous domestic situations, although I must admit that in Iowa you can usually see the woman.
We visited an aquarium, a WWII submarine and a wax museum, plus we ate way too much at way too many places. On the way back to Sacramento, we went through Napa Valley. It was nice and well-kept, but neither of us are really wine people. We got back home and I was glad to be here.
Just a few words about the people of San Francisco. The first day we were there, we were trying to find the place where we were supposed to go to take the ferry to Alcatraz. We had a small map of the area the hotel had given us, and we couldn’t even find the street we were standing on. A woman came by and just out of the blue offered to help us. She had lived in San Francisco all her life and showed us where we were—not even on the map—and where we needed to go, before she stole my watch and wallet (just kidding). On another day we were trying to find a certain coffee shop. By the directions we had been given, my wife thought it was about three blocks over, and I thought it was in San Diego. We finally stopped a young lady in a business suit to see if she could help us. She was very nervous and maybe a little afraid, but she told us where the coffee shop was before we stole her watch and wallet. The point is, as with all big cities, I think most people are generally nice. They just seem to live in their own little bubbles. They ignore everyone and don’t even look at anyone. It is as if they are on the street by themselves. Maybe that is the way it has to be, or you end up with homeless people screaming at you instead of screaming at invisible girlfriends, but I don’t have to like it.
By the way, while I was on vacation, I outlined eighteen chapters in my next novel. I just thought I’d mention it so I have witnesses if the IRS asks.