Home Is Where I Say It Is
There's no place like home, Dorothy said. Maybe not for her, but I say there's no place like homes. A long read about searching and belonging and not. And being at peace with that.
You’re not from California, are you?” the middle-aged checker in Albertson’s stopped scanning my groceries and asked the young girl bagging them.
“Oh, no!” the girl shrank back. “I’m a fifth-generation Idahoan!”
I hadn’t been listening to their patter, but their tones drew me. It was like Californians were cockroaches they wanted to stomp. Like I was a cockroach.
I wasn’t unsympathetic. For years new residents to Idaho, many from California, had been increasing traffic and driving up property values. Anti-outsiderism wasn’t new to me. People wrote letters to the editor complaining. Californians who didn’t change their license plates got flipped off. One tone deaf Idaho politician promised to build a wall and make California pay for it.
While I understood and even shared frustration over the effects on Idaho of inmigration, the volume and vitriol of their putdowns offended me. It pointed out that according to many, I’d never belong in Idaho.
Standing at the checkstand, impatient people with full carts behind me, it had already been a long day. I’d picked up too many things I hadn’t planned to buy, things I’d have to put away at home. I couldn’t hold my tongue.
“Well, ladies,” I said politely. “I’m from California and my money is paying your salaries,” My lips smiled. My eyes didn’t.
The checker was sheepish. “Would you like help out with your groceries?”
“Why, yes, I would. Thank you,” I said. Like butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth.
Why do people exclude others, I wonder? If I don’t belong in Idaho, where do I belong? Not in California anymore. I gave up my native-state citizenship when I moved away and didn’t return. Still, living in another state I’ve felt disloyal to the place that raised me.
Today, back in California for a visit to San Francisco’s North Beach with a group of travel writers, I’m thinking about these questions when I’m interrupted by the ticket taker on the ferry that will carry me across the Bay to the city beyond.
“The San Francisco ferry is like the US mail. Always runs,” recites the man at the entrance to Larkspur’s Ferry Terminal as from a script. “Even during a pandemic,” he adds.
“Were you here during the Flood of ’82?” I ask. He shakes his head. They didn’t run then.
I worked in San Francisco in January of 1982 when a three-day storm hit the already-soaked Bay Area, dumping over 16 inches of rain. Public facilities and more than 7,800 homes and businesses were damaged to the tune of over $280 million. Bridges to the north, south, and east were closed, and ferry terminals were buried in mud and water. There was no way in or out of the city.
I was 25 and soon to be married when I left my hometown in Mendocino County, California to live in the North Bay and commute to a job working for rascally tax attorneys in San Francisco. Now, long married and living in Idaho, I’m going back to spend the day in North Beach, the neighborhood where I took refuge during the flood. I’ll try to focus on North Beach as it is today, to be a blank slate, but memories travel with me. I hope they’ll be catalysts for new ways of seeing past, present, and future.
I look past the terminal gate and note that the ferry at the dock is the Mendocino, a good omen. Flags snap in the breeze and nearby traffic on Highway 101 hums. Idling, the ferry’s engine sounds like a Harley Davidson under water. The Bay at low tide smells like rotten eggs. As the ferry moves off, I face into the wind, look beyond the estuary, and take out my journal. I will write to remember and to make sense of perplexing thoughts.
Leaving Larkspur, I sit on the fore deck remembering as we pass the fortress that is the maximum-security San Quentin Prison. I have history here. My brother served time here on a drug sentence. Notorious murderers have passed through too: Charles Manson, leader of the Manson Family, Cary Stayner, who murdered three Yosemite tourists and beheaded a park employee, and Charles Ng, believed to have raped, tortured, and murdered as many as 25 victims.
At a seminar at San Quentin once, I toured the cell blocks. I saw the mint green walls of the gas chamber, folding chairs in a semicircle facing thick glass windows, and inside, a massive green metal chair with straps. I listened to a heartbroken grandmother talk about her daughter, unborn grandson, and their convicted murderer, her son in law. Does he watch the windsurfers skim over waves just like the ones that covered his wife and son a few miles away? I hope so.
No one’s windsurfing in the waters off Angel Island as we merge into the current of the Golden Gate Strait rushing into the Bay between the San Francisco Peninsula and the Marin Headlands. I shelter out of the wind with my journal and jot notes about what I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Until my thoughts carry me back to Idaho.
Where do I fit, I wonder. If not Idaho or California then where? I scan the horizon, half-expecting some heavenly chorus to answer but the only thing I hear is the sound of the Mendocino pushing its way into the wind.
The wind deposits a sticky, salty residue on my skin, clothes, and my tongue when I open my mouth wide to see if I can taste it. Looking out the ferry’s forward-facing windows earlier, I’d seen large salt crystals and spray that smudged the outline of San Francisco into a fog bank. Crystals would form on me too, I suppose, if I stayed on deck long enough. We reach San Francisco first.
Overhead, gulls wheel and screech, greedy for scraps of fish and chips or sourdough bread. I look around for the city I see on the news, the one with excrement on the sidewalks and drug-addicted people everywhere, but it’s not here. Not today. Instead, a street musician plays Hotel California on his electric guitar for tips and a woman sells toddlers’ embroidered sweaters handmade by Ecuadorian women.
Walking up Washington Street toward North Beach, I pass small islands of greenery and massive towers of steel, granite, and marble. I pause to admire ornate wooden buildings built before and after the 1906 earthquake. A.P. Giannini funded the rebuilding here even as he established his Bank of America. North Beach. Little Italy. I can almost see Italian immigrants working on the docks next to the Bay, almost hear the cheers as a young Joe DiMaggio and his team play baseball in a vacant lot. Here are the Vesuvius, Cafe Trieste, and the City Lights Bookstore. There’s history on these streets. Mine too.
For three nights during the Flood of 1982, a friend’s out of town boss let us stay in his apartment below Coit Tower in North Beach. I don’t remember much about the hillside apartment except stairs. We walked 14 blocks to work in the Financial District and back, sloshing through flooded streets in water-logged clothes and stretched-out leather shoes. The cold rain whipped and plastered our hair to our cheeks and we struggled to keep our umbrellas right-side out. The first two nights we plotted an escape to the North Bay, but on the third – with the prospect of so-doing imminent – we went to dinner.
The empty-except-for-us family-style New Pisa Restaurant wasn’t fancy. It served home-grown hospitality on tablecloths. A man greeted us when we walked in, I suspect it was the owner, Dante Benedetti. Over his lifetime, Dante sponsored more than 50 baseball teams and in 1939 was called “Mr. Baseball” by Joe DiMaggio when the University of San Francisco named a baseball field after him. He was credited with saving Little League almost single-handedly and was the inspiration for Dante’s Boys, a foundation that today supports underserved Bay Area youths in sports and life coaching activities.
I wish I had known about him then. Dante gave us a table by a large window facing the street. All I knew was that the New Pisa was warm and dry and that it served hot bread and butter, thick minestrone soup, pasta, and red wine that colored my teeth. Though I later lost track of my friend, I never forgot the New Pisa.
I’m curious to see if it’s still there and pause to search on my phone. It’s gone out of business. On the corner of upper Grant Avenue and Vallejo Street then, it later moved to Green Street. Dante died in 2005, and soon after it closed. All that remains, I learn, is a mural honoring him in the alley off Green Street. The mural shows a baseball team, a playing field, angels in the clouds, and Dante’s favorite proverb:
“If you are proud of where you came from, you’ll always know where you’re going, and you’ll take pride in everything you do.”
The proverb stops me in my tracks. Belonging again. Or rather, not belonging.
Dante was born, lived, and died here. He was a a man worth admiring, as was his loyalty to North Beach. But filtering the proverb through Idaho’s exclusionary lens, I hear the parochial notion that the way to succeed is to be an insider, to live in one place forever. Having some history in a place isn’t enough. Only continuous from-the-beginning history has merit. It’s too late for me.
Ugh. I disagree. And even if didn’t, I can’t go back. Not here and not to Mendocino County. I left them a long time ago. I’ve lived so many places since that I’m not sure where home is anymore. If Dante’s proverb is right, what hope do I have of ever succeeding or belonging anywhere? I don’t like these thoughts. So I decide to avoid Green Street and find the original New Pisa, the welcoming place I remember from so long ago. In spite of Dante’s proverb, I think finding it might speak to me, teach me someting about myself. What other than old history, I don’t know.
Two men walk up Columbus Street toward me, one older, one younger. They appear Italian, at least their dark hair, olive skin, and eyebrows do. The older man walks erect, like one accustomed to authority. He speaks quietly and his hands move as he talks. He holds his gestures close to his body as if by suppressing them he can’t be overheard. The younger man, shorter and stocky, leans in to hear. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but they look like they might know the neighborhood. I stop them.
“Excuse me, please.” They look at each other, surprised. “Can you tell me where the New Pisa Restaurant was?”
“Yeah,” says the older one, glancing toward the younger. “Dante’s place. Up on Green Street.”
“Well, it… Well, it was,” I say, “but it was on Grant and Vallejo when I was there and now I can’t find the old building.”
They exchange nods. “Yeah,” the older man says. “It was there too. That’s right.”
I smile and thank them. The younger one winks at me like a lady-killer, the older one points me uphill, and they go back to their conversation. I wonder if they’re Mafiosos or preoccupied men or both.
Up the hill at the corner of Grant and Vallejo, there’s one building that looks like it could have been the New Pisa. The building is the color of table wine. It has a diagonally-set entry facing both streets. There are two bay windows on the second floor, and on the side, up Grant Avenue is a door with a narrow transom window above and triangular-shaped trim on top. It’s home to a bar and possibly, a restaurant.
Like many such places in North Beach, it has an outside dining platform next to the street. There are no identifying signs on the building but on the first floor is a restaurant/bar I’m told is called The Showdown. I’m not sure this is the old New Pisa but go inside anyway.
“No, this place has been Basta Pasta, the King Cha Cha, King of Thai, Tamarind Hall, and a bunch of other restaurants,” says a man at the bar with his back to me. Turning around, he finishes, “I don’t ever remember the New Pisa being here.” No one else does either.
I look around, trying to imagine The New Pisa and Dante here but can’t. It’s no cozy, family-style restaurant. It’s not charming. There’s a lot of empty bare wood floor where candle-lit tables should have been. The bartender tells me it’s unlikely the New Pisa was ever here and someone else at the bar, his head in a beer, mumbles, “Check out Green Street.”
The California Fish Market Restaurant on Green Street is supposedly where the second New Pisa once was. It’s a bright, airy place with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. Inside are stark white walls, sleek counters, and a modern back bar. I see no trace of Italian North Beach ambiance. Serving sustainable seafood, the menu also promises that good things come to those that wait. I wonder if that means service is slow here. Perhaps. The restaurant’s empty save waitstaff and kitchen workers.
Despite the mural on the outside of the building (at which I’ve only glanced) and a sign above the door advertising The Dante Benedetti Hotel, no one there has heard of Dante or his restaurant. The chef suggests I look further down the street. I leave and circle the block, frustrated, before returning to the corner of Grant and Vallejo.
I pull up an old photo on the Internet and compare it to the building in front of me. There’s a diagonal entry. The side door to the empty office space above Grant has the same transom windows and trim. This is it – The New Pisa! But when I go back into The Showdown to share the photo, they’re only slightly more interested.
“Someone in The Saloon next door may know more,” the bartender suggests. “It was the first bar in San Francisco.”
“Just be careful,” he cautions as I leave. “I think the Hells Angels own it.”
As anticlimactic as finding the New Pisa is, I’m still searching for information about it and Dante, so I go next door.
The Saloon first opened in 1861. A dive bar with dark impenetrable windows and a metal accordion gate folded back on one side of the front door, it’s said to have survived the 1906 Earthquake because of a fire station nearby and a popular whorehouse upstairs. It’s quiet now, but I imagine at night it’s rowdy.
From outside it appears deserted so I walk in like a boss. Inside it’s long and narrow, dimly lit, with four people inside: two older men sitting by the door, a bartender, and a woman sitting on a stool in the back. A raucous place in repose, I suspect, it’s seen dalliances, dances, and fights. None of these are happening now. I ask the two men by the door if they remember the New Pisa. They glare at me.
“Ask Susan,” the bartender points down the bar away from them to the woman.
Susan’s next to the dance floor and an empty stage. She tucks her hair behind her ears as we talk. “There aren’t any Hells Angels here, but be careful of the two guys up front,” she warns.
Susan’s on her third drink and running a tab, she says. I assume there will be a fourth. She’s drinking something I don’t recognize: pale pink liquid in a tall glass with a few chips of nearly-melted ice floating on the surface. She’s lived in North Beach a long time, she says, but she talks more about Montana, where she was raised and having another drink.
She knows nothing of Dante, or the New Pisa. I wonder if she exchanged her home in Montana for The Saloon and why but don’t ask. I like the The Saloon and Susan but there’s more for me to see in North Beach. It’s time to move on. I tell her I’ll try to get back before I leave North Beach, but don’t. She probably won’t notice.
I stop nearby at Caffe Grecco for lunch. Like most of North Beach’s buildings, it’s old, with large windows, tall ceilings, and tile floors. Conduit on the ceiling runs power to large overhead fans and handsome light fixtures. On the mirrored back-bar are bottles of Italian syrup. A line of customers snakes along one wall. They order espresso, salads, and pannini while eying the brightly lit display case of desserts. I’m tempted too until I see three old men sitting at a small round table and leave the line.
“I have some questions,” I offer, and then explain, “I’m a writer. May I sit down?”
I’ve demonstrated appropriate deference so they make room.
“Michael slept with Marlon Brando,” Al says grinning, leaning forward and pointing to the man on his left. “And Paul Newman.”
Al, I learn, is in his eighties, a former criminal defense attorney, and it seems that Michael regularly holds court here. We circle like amiable canines, no hackles raised but alert, reading each other. Finally we have an unspoken understanding. They’re from North Beach, I’m not. They’re cool, I’m under consideration. After some back and forth they accept me, because I’m a woman, a listening ear, or a writer, I don’t know.
Al and I begin to play a game. I lay down flattery cards in exchange for his stories. Al ups the ante, saying that Michael also slept with Rita Moreno, was a mobster in New York, and a longshoreman.
“Michael’s got two books on Amazon,” he continues, holding up a screenshot on his phone as proof. I try to imagine Michael doing all of these but can’t.
Michael’s spare with answers to my questions or more likely, hard of hearing. He’s 96, a small man whose body is settled back into itself in his chair. His nose is hawkish, and his skin translucent. He wears a suit. His cane leans on a chair next to him. In a satchel at his feet are drawings that he pulls out at Al’s prompting. They look suspiciously like the book covers on Al’s phone. The waiter brings Michael a bagel thick with cream cheese, thin slices of smoked salmon, and a sprig of dill. Only Michael eats.
“You should write a book about your life,” I prompt Michael before Al recaptures my attention, reminding me that Michael’s books are fiction. Al reminds me he’s a lawyer, referring in passing to mysterious “celebrity clients”. Like Kim Kardashian, I ask? No, not like her, he says. Did he know F. Lee Bailey, the attorney for kidnapped heiress Patty Hurst, I probe? He knew of him. Al seems to think he’s winning our game.
I shift my attention to the third man, Diego, a poet with a twinkle in his eye. He shuffles through a stack of poems in his backpack while Al and I parry and Michael looks on and blinks. Diego hands me a copy of one and I realize I’ve interrupted his audience with Michael. He’s been patient but distracted so I disengage from my game with Al and push back my chair thanking them.
It’s time to catch the ferry back to Larkspur. I leave with regret for the stories I haven’t heard and retrace my path down to the harbor pondering this day in North Beach. As I board the four o’clock ferry, the Mendocino again, I sit at a table in the front of the boat and take out my journal. The muse dictates in staccato. I didn’t know what I was looking for when I came here, I write, but I found it.
Dante, the Mafiosos, Susan, and the men in Caffe Grecco are at home here. I am not. These belong here and to each other. Together they are a tightly-woven cloth, each of them a unique and colorful thread in a blanket that covers North Beach. In Idaho, the checker, the bagger, and the politician are threads in a similar tightly-woven cloth. Will I ever be such a thread anywhere. Do I want to be?
I reframe Dante’s proverb. Where I’m from is not as important as where I’m going. I belong to what’s in front of, not behind me. I belong where I want to belong.
It wasn’t the New Pisa I came to find but Dante’s proverb. It was a catalyst to reconcile the conflict between my present, past, and future. Though Dante’s home was his compass, maybe as travel writer Pico Iyer says, “home is not a piece of soil but a piece of soul”. Maybe I’m not a thread in the fabric of a single place but am instead threads in many different pieces of a colorful quilt. A quilt that covers every place I’ve ever been and every place I ever will be.
Dante, the others, and native-Idahoans revel in an identity of place. I revel in an identity of places. Their worlds have well-defined boundaries while I flow like an amoeba: wherever, whenever, and with whomever I please. Perhaps none of us is wrong. We’re just different. And maybe we should all just let that be. Let each of us decide for herself where she belongs.
From now on, I resolve, home is where I say it is. I won’t be dislodged from or bound to any place unless I choose to be. Home is not where I’ve been, where I am. Home is where I’m headed. It’s aspirational, not sentimental.
Satisfied, I lay down my pen, close my journal, and look out across the water. The late afternoon sun kisses the waves on the Bay. A rainbow appears dimly, just out of reach in the mist off the Mendocino and I remember that pots of gold are said to be at both ends. While claiming them, like belonging, is tempting, I know now that what I seek will never be found in any one place. My home, I realize, is in the hunt: chasing rainbows.
I belong wherever I am and wherever I’ll be. I used to belong in California and one day I’ll have used to belong in Idaho. Ultimately, I will keep hunting. I belong with those who chase rainbows. And they belong with me.
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