52. I Love San Francisco!

Pan Am ticket Jan 1959Friday the 30th of January, 1959, it’s 5 o’clock in the morning and I’m in; it’s all or nothing, here goes!  I collected my one suitcase from baggage claim and stepped outside the terminal into the foggy San Francisco morning …and I about froze my butt off! 

Hailing a taxi with nothing exact in mind save for searching out accommodations, I inquired to the driver about his fare into downtown San Francisco.  He said it would be about $7.00.  I had no idea at the time SFO’s proximity to the city proper.

And as all I had in my pocket was $15.00, seven was a bit too rich for my blood.  I quickly found out I could take a bus into the city for much less than half.  Now that I would be at ease with and to be exact, it was just over one dollar.

I arrived into San Francisco at the bus terminal just above Market Street.  Then I tried the taxi thing again and this time, much more reasonable to my wallet was the fare.  I asked the driver to take me to a hotel.  

And I quickly added, ‘In fact take me to an inexpensive but decent hotel please.’  This didn’t seem an unreasonable request to me.  After a little bit I began to feel as though the driver was taking me ‘for a ride’ and so following my gut I told him to stop right there, I paid him and I got out.

This turned out to be just before 3rd Street, on Howard Street.  I looked around as to my surroundings and almost directly in front of me I saw a little 3-story hotel with a mini-market sided up next to it.

I picked up my suitcase off the sidewalk and pushed my way in through the front door.  The interior was dimly lit but thankfully it was much warmer than outside to be sure.  I heard a male voice ask if he could help me.

While the lobby was a little questionable in appearance I knew I had to at the very least, ask the question.  And so to the blanket-wrapped figure sitting behind the desk I asked,  ‘Have you a room to let?’  

A beanie covered head belonging to a little old brown man, emerged from the blanket showing a somewhat wrinkled face.  I said in my surprise, ‘Hey!  You are Indian.’

He looked me up and down with squinty eyes and quickly replied, “And you are Indian too!”  Familiarity in this case was good for me.  

He offered me a key to go upstairs to the 2nd floor and see if that room -he gave me specific directions- would suit me.  “You can leave your case down here if you wish.”  Once again my comfort resurfaced, I accepted the key, left my suitcase on the floor at the reception desk and went up the stairs to the second floor.

I turned the key in the lock of the door marked 32 and stepped inside.  I saw right away the window and walked over to it to see what I would see.  It faced the street below which only moments ago I was standing on.  I also noticed that dawn was upon the city.

Looking back into the room I saw there was a smallish area that had a tiny sink with a mirror over it and a little 2-burner electric hot plate thing on the counter.  I was glad to see there was a tiny refrigerator.  

I saw a twin bed, slightly larger than average in one corner and no other furniture.  No chairs, sofa or table to eat at.  Don’t ask, it’s alright.

There wasn’t a shower or toilet in the room, that would be shared and it was down the hall.  There was one per floor and fortunately, there was 3 or 4 shower stalls, sinks and toilets so all in all, not a bad set-up.  Besides the majority of residents were male.  Maybe the female renters if any, were on the top floor.

For what it was, it was cosy and I liked the room.  Nothing would take away the happy feeling that was spreading throughout my body.  A whole lot of concern was melting away.  I closed the door, locking it and returned to the lobby.

“Will you take it?” he asked me eagerly.  ‘Yes I think I like it very much but how much rent are you asking for?’ I replied with hope that I could afford it.  The warm-faced Indian man, now without the blanket wrapping stated, “It will take $1.00 per night.”  Done!

I was quite pleased to hang on to that room key.  “You do not have to pay me now.  The end of the week will be fine,” he said to me after learning that I needed the room for an extended period.

He shook my hand and told me his name.  It was Lalit and he was the owner.  He happily offered me a few dishes and some pots and pans which he went behind the curtained doorway to retrieve.

Lalit also provided me with information; I was to bring my bedding down about twice a week when I wanted fresh sheets and clean towels.  There was a couple of Chinese laundry houses around the neighborhood for my clothing, barbers, grocers and Five & Dime stores all over the place.

Anything else I would need, he courteously said in Hindi, “Just ask anytime.”  Amazing how differently I felt after all this, it was great.  

I took my case upstairs and freshened up at my little sink.  I checked out the washroom facilities after I unpacked.  My next goal was to visit that little market next door.  I realized I was craving my Indian food when I first walked into the lobby; I suspected a slight curried scent in the air but chalked it off to missing home.

I went into the little mini-market next door.  It was ran by a nice middle-aged Chinese man.  I was happy about the contents of his store, real glad he was there.  In a small meat case I found some cut-up chicken and some other meats.  

There was a small produce table where I got the onion, garlic, cilantro, ginger and potato that I needed.  I grabbed some salt and pepper.  I was very happy to find a tin of Madras Curry Powder and a small bag of basmati rice.  My bill came to $1.75.  

I returned with my shopping and Lalit seeing the grocery bag in my hand, smiled.  I went right upstairs and immediately began preparation of my ingredients.  Before long delightful smells filled the little room.  In fact it had also seeped out into the hallway.

It wasn’t long before there was a knock on my door.  I answered the knock and there stood two young guys, staring at me as though in a trance and then I noticed they seemed pleased by the smell in my room when the door opened; it was like they hit the jackpot or something.

They quickly introduced themselves as a couple of Indian gents, brothers to be precise, from Toorak … as in Fiji, who followed their noses to my door.  How ‘bout that!  I invited them in, I portioned out my meal in thirds and ate it with them.  We shared our stories and a little friendship was born; my first one in California.

Chicken curry & rice, the brothers Shekhar and Ramesh, a safe room for myself – predicting a new beginning in America and well, I had a great first day.

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4. Friendships and a Conch Shell 🐚 Lamp

Oh you can imagine my joy and Stéphane must’ve seen that all across my young brown face.  He invited me to join him for some refreshments in the officer’s lounge and well I certainly was up for that; what a privilege this would be!  I recall he spoke briefly into an intercom.

About 20 minutes had passed, I was completely relaxed and absorbed into my surroundings when a knock came upon the door.  It was a steward.  He wheeled in a cart laden with delicious looking cakes, sweet treats, sandwiches, fruits and soft drinks.  Oh you know I was in heaven; what pure delight for this young man that I once was.

Stéphane and I spoke of many things.  I asked him so many questions yet he remained patient with me, answering all that he could.  A delightful friendship was indeed born and from then on whenever he returned on his ship to Suva, he brought gifts for me and occasionally for my family members as well.

He brought for me shirts, tins of nuts, a colorful beaded belt from Hawaii, tee shirts, socks, a few muumuus for my mother and my sister-in-law and a pair of American sandals I remember well.  He treated me just like a little brother.

I brought Stéphane home a few times for visits and always a delicious meal with the family.  When I first met him, he was single.  He eventually married and permanently resided to Hawaii.  He remained a family friend for years.

My nephew years later, would stay with Stéphane and his family many times whenever he went to Hawaii.  Monsieur Vieuxmaire, a wonderful soul indeed!  I had felt it before and it proved to be a good lesson in trusting my first instinct.

In the meantime my brother although employed full time at the local watchmaker and jeweler’s shop, would make Tortoise shell buttons, watch bands, cuff links and combs on his time off away from the shop.  He had set up a specific crafting area for this in our home.  He also made the most beautiful Conch shell lamps with shells he’d find along the shore.

I’d sell these by way of a mobile cart, which also housed a glass case, made particularly to display the jewelry and special items.  At the end of each worked day I’d leave my cart inside my brother-in-law’s business garage, the one that’s near to the docks at the Port of Suva, remember I mentioned it earlier?

One Sunday morning as the day passengers disembarked from the ship to visit Suva, a nice couple approached my cart.  This in of itself was nothing different than usual but they were taken in a good way, with all I had on display in my cart.  After a few moments of eyeing the goods they told me they’d revisit me on the way back to the ship, later in the afternoon.

Thinking nothing different, I went about my vending.  The day ships had a five o’clock evening sailing time.  It was sometime after 3 in the afternoon when I spotted that same couple and I could see them heading in my direction.  Along their stroll back to the ship they stopped to visit some of the other vendors.

At last they arrived at my cart.  They looked over the remaining items in my case and then the gentleman asked me, how much did I want for everything on my cart.  I opened my mouth to respond but no words fell out.  To be honest, I had no idea what to say either.  I finally managed a reply, ‘Everything?’

He responded, “Yes, how much for all of it?” Again not sure of exactly what I should say, out came $350.00 and that’s when he smiled, reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of American dollars.  He began counting each bill into my hand; one, two, three, four and I’m thinking now, ‘what to do?!’

I realize I cannot break a one hundred dollar bill and as I looked into his eyes, I’m sure he saw my slight distress.  After placing one more bill on the stack in my hand, he assured me that the $500 is the final price he’ll pay for the entire contents of my cart.

I know I don’t have to translate to you just how much money that was in those days!  I happily wrapped all the goods in the newspaper that I kept just for this purpose -still a bit of disbelief going on here- and they lovingly placed the items into their bags.  They even got the last Conch shell lamp and I have to say here, this was the best treasure of all the things that my brother crafted!

In parting the gentleman handed me his card and said, “Keep in touch ma’boy!” His voice was soothing, warm and sincere and I could feel it.  They walked away towards the ship and of course I immediately closed up my mobile shop.

Even after the fact, I am still unbelieving the recent stroke of fortune!  I wheel my cart over to the garage and was immediately questioned by my brother-in-law as to my completely empty cart.

I proudly told him that I sold everything today!  He smiled, “Very good.”  I then caught the bus to go home.  Later that evening when I saw my brother, I gave him all the money.  As I’m sure you can imagine, he was completely surprised.  He then gave me some pocket money and well, it was a good day for us all!

I had kept a box; you know a safe place for my collectibles, personal treasures and whatever.  Well in that box I had placed the card that gentleman gave me.  It must’ve been about 1950 when I pulled that card out of this box and as I looked it over, I asked myself, ‘What is this J.C. Penny anyhow?’  It was near instant that I realized there was one person who would know for sure.

So the next time Stéphane was back in Suva I asked him about it.  He informed me J.C. Penny is a chain of department stores in America.  Wow!  My mind was blown.  I shared the story of that day with him.  He said that person could have been any one of the store’s many corporate level employees by the sound of my description.

Stéphane also told me he loved knowing that he had a really wonderful friend and welcoming family to visit in the lovely Fiji Islands.

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Hello.  Thanks everyone for your patience this evening.  It took a while to get this post up due to technically challenged equipment but next weekend’s timing should be back just fine.  I hope everyone had a perfect Thanksgiving.  Until next Sunday evening then, take care!

>Tortoise shell items: We want you to know as knowledge comes into daily practice and with age we can hope, wisdom comes along; neither of us support harming animals.