Bagna Cauda

Thing is, when it works, it works well. I can insert myself into areas of San Francisco with almost surgical precision, vis-à-vis public transit. In fact I could see it, the target area, more or less clear in my mind. The touristy garlic restaurant, Stinking Rose, making its bold kitschy Italian-esque statement on Columbus Avenue. For, yes, I’d seen it, and felt that the very novelty of it was worth a try. After all, how can one go wrong with garlic? But as for the transport, everything went precisely as planned. And how gratifying, even if the rush hour extends the bus ride from the train station to an astonishing 30 minutes. Still, pretty damn cool the way I tell the driver where to stop. Columbus and Stockton, being my guess. And, it turns out, that is the actual Muni designation, the message that flashes on the digital bus screen. Pretty good when you consider that Stockton Street and Columbus Avenue do not actually intersect at this point. Technically, it is Green Street where the wheelchair lift actually deposits me. But this is how one gets the general drift of things, the spirit or essence. Two important streets on a bus route converge. And if the map is confusing, roads angling oddly, this is the general idea. Stockton & Columbus. And here I am.

Oh, it’s a little different. Actually, Columbus Avenue at this point is steeper. The sidewalk is narrower, and for a wheelchair it’s a bit of a slalom to get between the café tables. Across the street the Condor is still in operation, the sign looking very much as it did 50 years ago, when topless bars were still a novelty. Even the two small red lights still illuminate the busty nipples on the blonde. End of an era, the last of its kind…I don’t know, but it’s still there. And perhaps if you’re visiting from Pocatello, the exposed breasts of the Condor waitresses may be worth the price of admission. Whatever. North Beach. Historically an Italian neighborhood, unless you happen to be from Italian Italy were as one native described it, the district is entirely Sicilian. The café where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg hung out years ago is still serving espresso. Just up the street, the side street. Columbus Avenue and its garlic restaurant, that’s where I’m headed.

And so is a wedding party. That’s why I’m here. Jane is officiating at a marriage ceremony in a nearby hotel. And then the guests are heading here, Jane and I included. Although a subsequent test reveals a minor hitch. I am early, very early. The 6 o’clock dinner reservation actually 7 o’clock. So what to do? Well does it occur to me to have a coffee at Café Puccini across the street. But honestly, it’s too late in the day for caffeine. It’s even too late in this particular day to maneuver an espresso cup and a book with a single hand. Why not just pull into some sidewalk cubbyhole and read for a bit? At first, I try this by one of the restaurant’s side doors. Then, tiring of this spot with the crush of pedestrians, I roll up to the corner and park my wheelchair in front of a gated driveway.

In fact, hitting the tilt function, I recline my wheelchair briefly, lifting one leg and propping it against an adjacent wall. When I tilt down, the leg remains elevated, one of the keys to a long quadriplegic life, foot swelling being what it is. I am deep into South Florida hijinks, my Hiaasen novel reaching its climax, when I see something odd. A man in a sports car is angling up the street pavement and toward me. It is an alley, after all. I watch him unlock the gate and drive his car into a North Beach mews. He maneuvers the car into a very tight garage. The latter being in very short supply in this crowded quarter. Gated, hidden and mysterious, it has a James Bond flavor to it, this alley and its secret parking. Back to the novel. But not before I glimpse streetlife from a slightly different angle. An old Chinese woman is rummaging in a dustbin. What can she be after? Cans to recycle? No, she happily pulls three enormous baguettes out of the restaurant’s garbage can. Not an ounce of embarrassment, in fact open pleasure, even pride at this find. A reminder that she comes from a country that has known real starvation very recently.

At seven, I roll inside the Stinking Rose. Directed to the wedding party in the very back room, I even see Jane and the empty space beside her. Someone has thoughtfully removed the chair. Who are all these people? Two are married, less than an hour ago, but the others? It’s all a little confusing. This is the first male-male wedding reception I have attended. Gay marriage, long anticipated in San Francisco, has only become legal within the last year or so. Still, it’s not just the sexual orientation that is confusing here. Both of the grooms have been previously married – and have brought their offspring. One of them, the thirtyish policeman sitting opposite me…his wife at the other end of the table. And the other groom with his two teenage daughters…and his ex-wife. The young policeman hailing from Louisiana, a particularly macho redneck portion of that state. But everyone here and happily participating. Celebrating. And it doesn’t take that long to get into the spirit of things. Which is embodied in this outpouring of garlic.

Just the starter, for example, a sort of bagna cauda that seems to have substituted more garlic for anchovies. In fact, it’s nothing but roast garlic and olive oil. I have this along with a garlic version of salmon. Concluding with, incredibly, garlic ice cream. Meanwhile, Andy sitting opposite me, extols life in Louisiana. He is a deer hunter and produces pictures to prove it. One after the next, skeletons, heads, antlers. His smart phone is full of this stuff. And he is full of tales of another part of the country. Very rural, his corner of Louisiana. As for life in law enforcement, very dangerous. He tells me that he has lost six friends in the line of police duty. I doubt that he is 30 years old, possibly only his late 20s.

I say that I am a shooting victim and add that there are too many guns about. He agrees with this. But actually there is not much either of us can say on this topic. It’s like discussing epidemiology while the bubonic plague is rolling across 14th century Europe…all beyond anyone’s control or understanding. Still, he tells me that shooting victims like me keep him going. We are why he’s in the police, he says. I believe him. Completely. He is open, artless, utterly sincere. And concerned about his own future and his own safety. He has a family. He shows me a picture of his uniformed self, sporting a badge and a gun holster, wearing dark glasses and holding his baby.

His colleagues back in Louisiana know of his trip West. Who will kiss whom is the question on their lips. But even in this I can see how things have shifted. His Louisiana police mates sound more curious than horrified. And considering the violence they face from armed meth enthusiasts, not to mention backwoods psychotics, gay marriage does sound pretty tame. In fact, the only thing that really isn’t tame is the garlic. The 45 Union bus pulls up within minutes of our arrival at the stop. I am self-conscious about breathing. There are other people on the bus. But we’re way beyond anything a breathalyzer could detect, Jane and I. We are steeped in garlic, easily having consumed two or three heads each in the course of one salad, one fish entrée and, of course, the garlic starter. I don’t know what it all means, this evening, but it has been long, and now it is over.

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