COME ON EVERYBODY, CAN YOU DO THE TONGA?
I’ve been a traveler most of my adult life.
Not a tourist, mind you, a traveler. Travelers buy books and candles when they're on the road; tourists buy t-shirts ("Darfur is for Lovers!") and underage hookers.
I'm not a traveler by desire, however, as much as by design; as a B movie maker, I've been flown all over the world countless times by producers in search of a tax credit or an imploding exchange rate to help stretch our budgetary dollars across the fragile skeleton of the script. Usually these places are either in the middle of or just coming off a period of political unrest; there's nothing like a collapsing currency to encourage the locals to let you make a movie in their backyards.
From African huts -
- to Caribbean beaches;
from London bathhouses -
- to Parisian monasteries (and THAT’S a story for another day…),
I have felt at home in many places but, in truth, I've never had a place that felt like home.
So it was bit disorienting that morning when the Boyfriend came strolling down a San Francisco street, suitcase in hand, and said, quite simply, “I thought I'd better come and take you home.”
I’d like to think it’s because he loves me, and not because of the drunken two a.m. phone call where I pledged to “never sing karaoke while standing in the fountain at Union Square again”.
Either way, he’d hopped the early flight out of PSP and made it to San Francisco a scant hour and a half after the departure of Dr. Wong, whose other life as a purveyor of mixed beverages to Canadian drunks required his presence back in Vancouver.
It certainly doesn’t take a Jonathan Swift to see the irony inherent in Nelson’s situation; basking in the applause and glory of a movie audience heralding his remarkable performance in a popular film franchise one moment, and then slinging such charmingly named fruity cocktails as “The Siberian Panty Remover” to slobbering Bus and Tunnel types at a neighborhood booze can the next.
But such is the lot of the Canadian actor. With the typical enforced socialism of the “Land of the Silver Birch, Home of the Beaver”, I am saddened to report there is simply no room to raise one's head above the 49th Parallel. Canadians don't really like success; they look upon it as hopelessly garish, as if you'd worn a red hoochie dress to a funeral and you weren't the one in the box.
Case in point: our film “On The Other Hand, Death”-
- currently being toasted at film festivals around the world, supported by a national advertising campaign and given a healthy dose of media attention across the United States, was actually filmed in Canada, directed by a Canadian and starred Canadian actors, one of whom, Margot Kidder, is an honest-to-Superman icon.
So how much press did it receive upon its release in Canada?
Zero. Nada. Nothing.
It was simply dumped onto some national pay-per-view channel, to languish and eventually die like so many prophets in their own land before it.
I suppose I should have expected it, really. Unless you make a documentary about the plight of alcoholic owls or a pre-Confederation period piece featuring yet another nameless Canadian "hero" who walks ten miles in the snow with no shoes on to deliver a treaty and then eats some oatmeal before having a nice nap, nobody's going to pay attention to you up there anyway.
But sadly, I - like most of my fellow ex-pats in the film business - couldn’t possibly care less. It’s only Canada, after all; always a Backlot, never a Bride.
When people ask me why I left my native land ‘lo these twenty years ago, to call America “home”, I usually say “the weather”. That’s actually a lie. The truth is, I left the land where I was born because of the cold.
In every sense of the word.
And so our Dr. Wong, a man who in any other country in the world would be a Movie Star -
- went back behind the Maple Curtain to continue pouring over-taxed hooch down the Free-Health-Care sucking gullets of the Empire Loyalists, while I decided to drag my BF along on a tour of the dark cinematic wonders of San Francisco.
For me, of course, “Film Noir” is an evangelical calling and the Golden Gate City is Mecca; this is not to say EVERYONE shares my passion for visiting the alleyway where Brigid O’Shaughnessy “did in” Miles Archer in “The Maltese Falcon” -
- or the street named after the creator of my beloved Thin Man characters –
- the series to which our own Donald Strachey movies owe so very much –
- but if you ask me, if SOMEONE loves another SOMEONE enough, then that first SOMEONE should be very happy to traipse up ANY number of staggeringly steep sidewalks in order to see “that famous apartment building”-
- where Bogart traded quips with Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in search of a black bird -
- without complaining.
I mean it's not as if I didn't follow HIM all the way to that silly comic book shop across the street and stand around waiting amongst the obese and rather fragrant clientele in their "Batman Versus Superman" t shirts while he dug through the back issues boxes in search of some obscure magazine featuring a spandex clad sociopath with Ginsu knives growing out of his knuckles and the worst facial hair since Elvis did mutton chops.
But I could tell by the look in the BF's eyes, and the way he rolled them when I mentioned that Dashiel Hammett's apartment was only forty three blocks away, that perhaps I had used up my allotment of relationship currency for this particular trip. And a wise man knows when to fold his hand; fortunately , I had one last ace up my sleeve.
The Mark Hopkins Hotel.
This classic establishment is surely one of the most elegant places on Nob Hill, and dinner at the "Top of the Mark" with its spectacular view of the city seemed like an easy way to get back into the BF's good books.
Things started off a bit roughly; some day old bread was delivered to the table by accident and the fog that had rolled in earlier threatened to turn the vista into something resembling cold pea soup.
But a caring Maitre’D and a remarkable Waiter saved the day by delivering a couple of perfectly composed Belvedere martinis to our table and the evening took an immediate turn for the better when our specially created vegetarian entrees arrived just as a marvelous jazz combo struck up “Stomping at the Savoy” and some local ballroom dancers took to the floor.
It was very quickly turning into a perfect night.
And then, quite suddenly, The Tourists arrived.
Now I suppose I am in the minority, but I cannot for the life of me understand what would possess seemingly reasonable adults to plan a trip all the way to the top of Nob Hill, to ride the Mark’s beautiful gilt elevators up to arguably the most stunning view in all of San Francisco, and yet dress as if they’re standing in line for a Snow Cone at the Tennessee State Fair.
But suddenly, there they were, gadding about the restaurant, snapping flash photographs with their cardboard Rite-Aid cameras and making such delightful observations as “Ain't we up high?!” or wondering "Ya think they serve squirrel in this place?".
Yet with the graciousness inherent in only the most professional of restaurateurs, our Maitre D managed to escort these rubes out of the dining area without making them even once feel like the imbeciles that they were, and the evening resumed with barely a hitch. And should you, dear reader, doubt for even a moment that in fact “clothes DO make the man”, let me add one coda to this tale.
When the bill came, we discovered that the restaurant had covered our entire drinks charge; for those who know me, you won’t be surprised when I tell you it was substantially more than the meal itself. Upon querying the waiter, I was told that they appreciated having “gentlemen” in their restaurant, and they hoped we’d be back soon.
It was such a lovely gesture that the BF didn't even mind when I finally told him the REAL reason we'd come to the Mark --
- was because it's mentioned in VERTIGO, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant noir film of obsession and madness, as the one place in town where Jimmy Stewart's character "Scottie" couldn't drink because of his fear of heights.
Making our way across the street to the Fairmont Hotel -
- a place which, by the way, serves truly dazzling handmade Bloody Marys -
- we ventured downstairs to the legendary TONGA ROOM Tiki Bar -
- a Polynesian themed lounge, featuring a musical quartet which floats on a raft across an actual LAGOON in the middle of the restaurant -
- where I enticed my beloved to endure one final cocktail of the evening, the dreaded Scorpion Bowl.
By the time we had finished it, we had befriended – and belei’d – a charming and well-dressed couple from New Orleans who had traveled all the way to California to take a little break from what surely is still a challenging time in that most heartbreaking of American cities.
He is a teacher and she is a nurse, and although it took a considerable amount of persuasion – and at least two more Mai Tai’s apiece – we managed to pry some stories of everyday heroism out of them both. There was nothing special about their situation, they insisted to us, they were just regular tourists on vacation.
Hardly regular, I hastened to remind them; they weren’t a couple of idiots wearing “gift with purchase” t-shirts and Crocs.
Even with all they’ve endured, they’ve never once considered leaving The Big Easy, and their continued love and dedication to their home was an inspiration that echoes in my thoughts even as I write these words.
And when the floating Band Barge finally retreated for one last time that night –
- it travels undercover of an indoor rainstorm and must be seen to be believed – we decided to do the same. The long walk - or, as SOME PEOPLE called it, the "Oliver Forced Death March Through Old Movie Queen Paradise" - had tired even yours truly, and as magnificent as the trip to San Francisco had been, we were definitely feeling thankful to be returning the next morning to our own desert paradise.
To the people and things I now call home.