I’d seen her sitting on a blanket outside of Café Trieste when we arrived in North Beach last Thursday. A small garage sale scattered around her. When she walked in to our show half a block down Grant Street the next day, I had to ask her. Do you paint sometimes? Are you sometimes kitty corner outside the old hardware store?
She used to sit in that spot she told me, twenty years ago…
I wondered if she remembered, she didn’t, so I told her the story…
Erin and I had driven north to San Francisco the week before Christmas. Emily was less than a year old, and had fussed through the three hour drive. Erin lay down on Tony’s couch with Emily to nap, and Chi and I took a walk down Grant Street. Chi was almost seven.
As we turned the corner past the old hardware store we came upon a woman sitting on a blanket painting. Trinkets and treasures were spread across her blanket, but Chi was transfixed by the paper and paints…and the pools and swoops of color that trailed from her brush.
Would you like to paint, she asked Chi. Yes, he did want to. He crouched down on the stoop and painted a group of fish wandering under a blue sea. She appreciated Chi’s work, and as he handed her the completed painting he said “Sheww…I needed that.” She and I were both charmed.
He painted another and another; she generously shared her paper, her paints, her patience, though it seemed she would have had so little to share. When Chi was done with his works, we returned to Erin and Emily, and I never forgot her kindness.
Now, here she was in our humble show, I was telling her the story of the boy she had befriended so long ago. She obviously didn’t remember. She obviously was a person who befriended hundreds of bored or agitated boys and girls, and soothed them with her attention and her art supplies. But as I told her this story, and pointed behind her to the wall of Chi’s artwork tears were streaming down all our cheeks.
This is his show, I told her. This is the legacy of inspiration you provided.
Coming to North Beach, we hoped to bring Erin and Chi’s work to a San Francisco audience, maybe to sell a few paintings to make the trip worthwhile. What came about was so much more. So much richer than anything we’d planned or hoped for.
Grant Street is a gritty and grey urban environment. The creative life is largely the musicians who play jazz and salsa, flamenco and samba at the half dozen bars in the three block business district.
But North Beach has another legacy. It was a magnet and a beacon for beats and wanderers of a time. Many came here following a golden vision of the California experience, the Beat scene, the freedom.
Some lived the life for just a time, but others became entrenched. It seems they lost sight of the possibilities of life. The grey grime on hands and clothes matched the grit on the sidewalks and in the gutters. They had not come here to get stuck on a street, but to be set free, then found themselves ensnared.
Many of those who visited our show at Live Worms Gallery on Grant Street in North Beach could not have afforded one of Erin’s printed cards, let alone her original works. Several just came in I’m sure for the cheese and crackers and sparkling wine our opening afforded them.
A few looked around the room at Erin’s vast works and Chi’s urban geometries and it was like they saw a vision of that path they had meant to follow. Wasn’t that golden glow beyond the horizon, beyond place, just what had brought them here so many years ago. It wasn’t gone. It just wasn’t there for them.
Several of the local people thanked us as if we were missionaries bringing ‘the word’ not peddlers bringing our wares.
The people of North Beach welcomed us, and befriended us and enriched our weekend beyond any ledger tally.
Thank you Alistair for making us so welcome. Thank you Fanny for sharing your paints with Chi so many years ago. Thank you Benjie and Benito for sharing your ringing guitar styling. Thank you to all who visited our gallery over the weekend.
We will be back, and we may have a fabulous time, but it can’t surpass the warmth and welcome we felt from the neighborhood. From those who might become patrons, and those who had so little to share, but their kind words.
Monday morning came. It was time to pack up our paintings prints, cards and photos and return to Big Sur. Three hours later the walls were stripped of the 65 paintings we’d hung. The row of new still-lifes Erin had painted were safely in a box. Everything was neatly packed in our Chevy Van to return to Big Sur. We looked back at Live Worms, an empty store front. It almost seemed like a dream…