45. JOB #2...and 'The City'


Down the street from the Academy was Flax's, an extraordinary two-level supermarket for art supplies.  Flax's carried everything an artist might dream of, and more.

If I got a position there, I could purchase all the painting supplies I would want...at a significant discount.

As was becoming my custom, I walked in and told the unwelcoming, formidable woman at the desk that I was looking for a position and had an MFA and a great art background.  The answer, as usual, was: 'You and everybody else in the city with an MFA wants a position here.  Sorry, we don't have any openings.'

With uncharacteristic confidence, not knowing that the woman I was talking to was the matriarch of the Flax clan, and, out of desperation, not taking no for an answer, I asked if I could talk to the owner...who happened to be her son.

Reluctantly, she directed me to his office upstairs.

Philip Flax greeted me with a smile, but gave me the same answer I'd heard before...'Sorry.'  However, he happened to be a nice man...with curiosity.  He asked me about myself, my experience, and my past.  In the course of our conversation, I don't remember how, we got around to the subject of wine...apparently a great interest of his.  Unexpectedly, my time at the Ranch House came in handy.  Forget about art, wine was something we BOTH could talk about...

Mr. Flax hired me fulltime...not because I knew a lot about art, rather because I knew a little about wine.

There was an array of interesting people that came into Flax's.  It was THE art supply store in the City.  

One day I was up on the mezzanine when a friendly, heavy-set man dressed casually in a black turtleneck and sport coat came up to me asking for help.  I immediately recognized the distinctive voice that boomed and resonated from the back of his throat: it was Charles Kuralt, a television broadcast commentator who was doing a documentary series called 'On the Road.'  In this program, he went around the country in a motor home interviewing 'ordinary' people who did extraordinary things.  He came into Flax looking for materials to frame a photo he was going to send to one of the humble, 'ordinary' but extraordinary individuals he had met and interviewed on his journey.


Never having lived in a city, I wasn't aware of the possibilities and opportunities it offered.  I discovered there were innumerable parks, museums, theaters and cinemas, cafes, record shops, and incredible bookstores (my favorite recreation, resource, and place to hang out).

One day I walked out of Flax on a lunch break and there was a crowd gathered in the wonderful record store next door.  I walked inside to find two opera giants, Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti, signing their record album.  A few weeks later, I walked into Brentano's across the street and found pianist Andre Watts signing his albums.  The city was full of excitement.

The first week in the city, I took my break at Flax's and walked across the street to Brentano's super bookstore (three floors of inviting books).  My first purchase was a wonderful, comprehensive monograph of Vincent van Gogh's life and art.

As I had no interest in television, I read a little of my new Van Gogh book each evening after I returned from work and had prepared my dinner.  Like a wonderful movie...or novel...I didn't want it to come to an end.  Thankfully, it lasted for many weeks.  His life became an intimate part of my own life experience.


Some sounds that I heard are unforgettable and bring back a million memories everytime I think of them:
  • The high-low, deep moan of the fog-horns from the bay.
  • The shrill sound of doormen's whistles echoing through the canyons of the streets.  (These were used to flag taxis in the quaint age before mobile phones, Lyft, Uber, etc.).
  • The early morning echo of banging trashcans as the refuge trucks zipped along the streets.
  • The 5am 'wake-up call' of the whirring cables beginning to hum to prepare for pulling the cable cars up the steep hills.
  • The steam radiator clanging and hissing as the boiler heated up.
  • The familiar, welcome melodies local radio stations used to 'sign-on' and 'sign-off' morning and evening...warm, friendly, and comforting.
All this in a world before 'smart phones' and computers.  In those days in the 1970s, life was slower and more immediate.

People looked out to the world and experienced the vivid reality of it, not being glued to a screen or sending 'play-by-play' text messages.  People sat in cafes, talking with each other, and, if they were alone, perhaps quietly reading a book or newspaper...or taking notes, or writing a poem or novel.

Things seemed to happen unselfconsciously, without digital documentation or electronic commentary.


There were people one couldn't imagine who I came across on my walks, and with whom I shared 'The City.'

Among these were 'The Automatic Human Jukebox' that would pop up here and there all the time, particularly on the sidewalk in front of The Cannery.  The Human Jukebox consisted of a painted cardboard refrigerator carton in which sat inside a talented, if not slightly crazy and eccentric musician, Grimes Poznikov, waiting for someone to drop money in the slot in front.  Behind the closed flap window, the invisible musician would make funny comments to get startled passersby to contribute to his livelihood.

When someone took the bait and dropped in a coin, a shrill whistle blew and Poznikov would open the flap and pop out with a trumpet, blow a few bars, and just as suddenly blow a kazoo, close the flap, and disappear once more.  If someone was not satisfied with just a bar, they might drop a dollar, or more, in the slot, and the musician would then play a WHOLE phrase...or maybe even a WHOLE tune.

Along with The Human Jukebox were a wonderful array of street musicians, poets, comics, painters, and quick-draw artists.  One of my favorites was a young musician who sat on the ground performing...like Schroeder in Peanuts...but this musician sat on a Persian rug playing a tiny harpsichord, not a piano.

Other familiar individuals were a legless pencil seller who sat on a small movable platform and took up shop every day on Stockton Street on the side of I. Magnin's...

and the ubiquitous twins whose only apparent occupation was to walk together downtown dressed alike, to the nines, to the astonishment of amused and unsuspecting pedestrians.


On top of this incredible variety of experiences in the city, there was a convenient and comprehensive public transportation system.

Although I had my trusty little station wagon, parking was so hard to find that once I found a space, I wouldn't budge for days.  Consequently, I usually would walk for enjoyment and for errands close by.  If I wanted to go further, like Golden Gate Park or someplace too far to walk, I would take the 'MUNI' bus or streetcar.

For me, a hardy walker, Russian Hill was in convenient walking distance...mostly downhill...to my jobs downtown (both on Sutter Street within two blocks of each other).  However, if I were pressed for time, had to carry things---to and fro---or if I were simply too tired to walk uphill home, I would take the cable car (which I could catch, or get off, just outside my apartment entrance).

The cable car was always an adventure...

The gripmen were the elite of the MUNI.  They were distinguished by their unique dark green berets.  These daredevil gripmen were athletes, or performers, who seemed to be playing rather than working.  Going down the treacherous San Francisco hills, they would let their cars pick up nail-biting speed...and strain to pull the brake grip back at the last possible moment.

I used to stand outside on the foot rail just so I could bail out...if necessary.  Working at Flax's, I would purchase bulky things like big drawing tables, stools, huge portfolios, etc. I'd bring them home on the cable car...one hand precariously holding them and the other hand gripping the rail for dear life.

Riding the bus or streetcar was another experience altogether.  I would recognize the individuals who rode regularly.  There were the people who continually talked to themselves...in particular, an older Japanese woman who rode every day and, in an expressionless monotone, repeatedly recounted out loud the same tragic war internment story endlessly: 'On March 4th, 1942...'

Each year, during the celebration of the Chinese New Year, there was a claustrophobic crush of bodies carrying large, unwieldy cherry blossom branches home as we rode through Chinatown.

If I were riding one of the electric buses, it was common for the trolley bar to disconnect and we had to wait while the driver got out and reconnected the poles.  And if one were riding the streetcar at rush hour, there was a frantic scramble to find a seat or else be crushed in a sea of overheated bodies.

I learned that a city is really a composite of small villages...not so big and not so impersonal as one might think.  Businesses are convenient and you pass a surprising number of familiar faces each day.  Even downtown I was surprised by how many friends and acquaintances I would happen upon.

I saw the city as a big smorgasbord: materially, intellectually, and culturally it seemed almost anything was available...and possible.

This definitely wasn't Ojai.

Copyright (c) Donald Archer 2020  All rights reserved.


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