The International Writers Magazine: One Day in the Bee
San Francisco Days
One of the pleasures of retirement is having a second cup of coffee after breakfast. I was doing this while reading the morning paper, the Sacramento Bee, a sad shadow of its former self, as, I suppose, am I.
When you’re of a certain age, you start to read the obituary pages and in time are bound to come across the name of a contemporary you know or once knew. There was a small item on the death of noted San Francisco sports writer, Ralph Foxbridge, 1935-2010, 75 years old, the dates the same as my own. A little chill went through me as my first thought of course was of my own mortality. I’d once known Ralph Foxbridge pretty well, hadn’t thought of him in years, and now he was gone.
I met Ralph at Seventh Army Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany during the Korean War when we were both stationed there. I’d been drafted after graduating from college in New York City; Ralph had also been drafted, after graduating from the University of California in Berkeley. Ralph worked in what was called the Historical Section at Army Headquarters, a cushy job for an indolent colonel who let you do pretty much as you pleased. In a short time he got me a job in his office, saving me from some infantry post that would have had me marching around in the winter snow.
Ralph was almost six feet, good-looking, hard-drinking and irresistible to the German women who worked on the post. He had what would later be called charisma. He introduced me to the pleasures of German beer and to two or three German girls, with whom I had limited success. When we were discharged we kept in touch spasmodically. After two years back in New York, working at my uncles advertising agency, I found my future closing in on me. I would be an ad man convincing an unsuspecting public to buy inferior products; I’d marry one of the many nice Jewish girls my aunt was always thrusting on me; we’d have a house in the suburbs with a weedy lawn and 2.5 kids; we’d have family dinners on Jewish holidays; my life would be over.
I recalled Ralph’s enthusiasm for San Francisco, “the greatest city in the world” according to him, and his urging to come out West. Coincidentally, one of the new hires at our agency had worked in San Francisco and told me there were plenty of advertising jobs out there. I didn’t want to stay in advertising, but that was all I knew. . I gave two weeks’ notice, endured my mother’s tears and my uncle’s warnings that I was crazy and took a flight to San Francisco. I looked up Ralph, who invited me to stay at the house he and three fellow Berkeley grads were renting. I tried to find a non-advertising job, but as I’d expected was unsuccessful in this and ended up working in a mid-size advertising agency, impressed because I had New York experience. I found a studio apartment, furnished,. learned to drive (nobody I knew In New York had a car), got my license and began my new life in California.
At the time, Ralph was a reporter for a Berkeley newspaper, but he knew everything that was going on in San Francisco. He was also engaged. When I met her, I wasn’t surprised that Betsy Clark, his fiancée, was a stunning girl, tall, brown-haired, full-breasted, with long shapely legs. Ralph and Betsy were the center of what I thought of as the Berkeley crowd. Fridays after work, the crowd would meet at a downtown bar where Ralph would hold forth on the city’s latest celebrity scandal and then we’d go off to some party that someone had heard of. The parties were always crowded with young people, everyone drank a lot, there was usually one girl drunk in the bathroom and a couple copulating in one of the bedrooms. My San Francisco life was a far cry from the one I’d had in New York.
* * *
After finishing the newspaper, and the coffee, the rest of my day went by as usual. Sally, my wife of 45 years, and I live in a retirement community just outside of Sacramento. I’d left San Francisco because after one of my ad agency’s biggest clients had abruptly left I’d been let go and I’d taken a job with a State agency. I’d then transferred to the agency’s Sacramento office, its main one, to get a promotion. I’d met Sally, who was a secretary in the agency and the rest, as the saying goes, was history, three sons and four grandchildren, and now retirement. Not the house in the suburbs and the 2.5 kids I’d envisioned when in New York, but pretty close. There’s no escaping your destiny.
Ironically, in my old age, I also had become a writer, not a “noted” one like Ralph, but I wrote two columns for the monthly “senior” newspaper that went to everyone in our community, some 5,000 households. The columns were “Favorite Restaurants,” in which I reported on eating places in our area, started when I noticed that conversation among community residents always turned to eating out, and “Observations,” which had started as comments on life in a retirement community but had evolved to comments on just about anything I took a fancy to.
I had to get my columns in by mid-month and it was time so I spent the rest of the morning writing them. After lunch, as I had some books due, I went to the local library, then across the way to my bank and then to the supermarket in the same shopping center. I’d recently taken up cooking and that night I made dinner, a simple one, steak with onions (I teared up when slicing the onions) with a baked potato and a salad. Afterwards, we went over to some friends, another elderly couple, and played bridge, something I’d taken up when I’d retired. I had good cards and thought I’d played pretty well, but when we returned home, Sally remarked that I’d seemed distracted and in one hand, when I’d had my best cards, we could have made slam if I’d made the correct bid. We went to bed after watching the ten o-clock news and I slept soundly except for my usual nightly trip to the bathroom.
The next morning I went to our community’s tennis courts (we had half a dozen) for my weekly doubles games. We had a newcomer, a sub for one of our regulars who’d just had a hip replacement. The newcomer, Jack Something,, like many of our residents, was from the Bay Area. In between points, we chatted (we took plenty of time to rest) and found ourselves recalling people and places from San Francisco: Herb Caen, the columnist, Don Sherwood, once a well-known disk jockey, North Beach with its Italian restaurants and the famous City Lights bookstore, Tommy’s Joint and on and on.
For some reason I remembered that I’d played tennis once with Ralph Foxbridge. It was in Golden Gate Park. Ralph played a flashy game, but I’d learned to play from a cousin who’d taught me the proper strokes and I won the set 6-4. I was ready for a second set, but Ralph had thrown down his racket and said, “Let’s go get some beer.” I asked Jack Something if he remembered Ralph Foxbridge, a sportswriter for the San Francisco paper, but he didn’t..
That night, as soon as we were in bed and put the lights out, scenes from my San Francisco days with the Berkeley crowd started playing in my mind. There was the first big fight between Ralph and Betsy after she accused him of hitting on another girl at the party we’d been to, a fight I unfortunately had to witness as this was before I’d bought a car and Ralph had driven me. Ralph had of course talked his way out of this and there’d been a reconciliation before he’d taken me back to my studio apartment, which after the party, seemed dark and lonely. Then there was Ralph and Betsy’s big wedding, at which Ralph and all of the Berkeley crowd had gotten amazingly drunk and I’d had to drive the best man and one of the bridesmaids back to their respective homes. After this was the first and only time I’d gone to dinner at Ralph and Betsy’s new apartment, along with three or four others of the Berkeley crowd. Betsy was nervous and knocked over a glass of wine, red of course, which spilled on the white rug, and Ralph had yelled at her. As we left after a long evening one of the others whispered to me that Ralph and Betsy wouldn’t last very long.
The next morning I went to my computer and Googled “Ralph Foxbridge.” This brought up a number of obituaries. They all mentioned that Ralph had been survived by his wife, and gave a name, not Betsy Clark. So that Berkeley friend had been right; evidently Ralph and Betsy hadn’t stayed married. The obituaries also said Ralph had been survived by his son Greg, who was now a reporter at the same San Francisco newspaper where Ralph had worked. On an impulse I sent a short e-mail to Greg at the paper, telling him how I’d met Ralph and saying that although I’d lost touch with him I was indebted to him for his help in Stuttgart and then for steering me through my early days in San Francisco. I then Googled Betsy Clark and Betsy Foxbridge but came up with nothing.
I’ve gotten into the habit of taking an afternoon nap after I’d had my fill of the cable news broadcasts and was tired of reading. On this afternoon, as soon as I closed my eyes another San Francisco scene appeared. I was in my studio apartment. It must have been a Saturday or a Sunday because I was trying to clean up. The doorbell rang and I wondered who it could be as I almost never had a caller, especially not during the daytime. I opened the door. It was Betsy Clark. She rushed in and I started to apologize for the state of my apartment, but she threw her arms around my neck and pressed herself against me. It was not an unpleasant sensation, but I disengaged myself and saw she’d been crying. “That bastard,” she said. “He promised me. That bastard.” Then she threw her arms around me again. “Where’s your bedroom,” she whispered.
A week later I received an e-mail from Ralph Foxbridge’s son Greg. There was to be a memorial service for Ralph and he asked if I could think of any interesting or amusing anecdotes that could be recounted. I read my other e-mails, deleted most of them, and spent the rest of the morning cleaning up what Sally and I call my “computer” room. Sally looked in and was impressed. I said, “Let’s go out to lunch.” She asked what the occasion was; I said, “Nothing special.”
I suppose to be completely honest it wasn’t only to get a promotion that I’d moved from San Francisco to Sacramento, although, after her one visit, I never saw Betsy Clark alone again and when we did meet I had no idea of what to say. But I thought about her a lot. After we returned from lunch, I went back to the computer and e-mailed Greg Foxbridge. I told him I’d always have fond memories of his father, but I couldn’t think of any anecdote for the service. I wrote: “That was a long time ago, a lifetime away..”
© Martin Green October 2010