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Archive for May, 2013


Oddly, it is only relatively recently that I became hooked on baseball.  Perhaps it was the flying rounders (the tame “British” version of the sport) bat that put me as a seven year old in the local hospital, for which I still have the bump on my forehead, which had, subconsciously, spooked me from engaging with the game earlier.

Or maybe it was the ambivalent relationship with American culture that I “enjoyed” until the mid nineties when I took that fateful first trip across the Atlantic.  Baseball epitomised the inferiority of American sport compared to games invented by the English such as association football (soccer) and, especially, cricket with which baseball has much in common.

Despite trips to San Francisco in October 1995 and then the springs of 1999, 2002 (a season which culminated in an unsuccessful World Series appearance for my now adopted San Francisco Giants), 2004 and 2006 a trip to, respectively Candlestick, SBC, Pacific Bell and now AT & T Park never occurred to me. The prodigious exploits of Barry Bonds, both on and off the diamond, relayed on KRON 4 and other Bay Area TV stations were as close as I got, and their features focused as much on his controversial lifestyle as his sporting prowess.

Perhaps the fact that we were never in the city during the regular season, and , therefore, TV coverage was limited to cursory references to spring training, may also have accounted for my indifference.  Put simply, the opportunity to attend a game just wasn’t there.

To be fair, the little I had watched on television at home had intrigued me.  The reason I hadn’t given it a chance was due in no small part to the fact that games lasted up to three hours and were relayed live in the middle of the night.  Even in the comfort of my own home I was denied reasonable access to the sport.

Our first trip to AT & T Park was in March 2008, less than a week away before Opening Day, when we saw an understandably below strength Giants team beaten 7-1 by their neighbours across the bay, the Oakland Athletics (“A’s”).  They greeted our arrival with a mediocre performance in a half empty stadium lacking in any real atmosphere, and played in a bitterly cold wind that we could not escape, wherever we moved.  But we were hooked!

Firstly, the design and setting of the stadium were, of course, beautiful and the facilities outstanding.   Having been brought up to think that the catering, if such a word dignified it, in American sports arenas did not extend beyond hot dogs, popcorn and soda / beer, we were amazed by its range and quality.  There were at least two more converts to Gilroy’s garlic fries in the Bay Area that day!  The celebrated American customer service was prevalent everywhere, and we were struck by how fan friendly the whole experience was.

And then there was the crowd,  Ok, it was only a “pre-season friendly” in soccer parlance, albeit between two bitter local rivals, but there was no segregation, in fact Giants and A’s fans sat together in our section and maintained a barrage of feisty but light hearted banter throughout the afternoon.

But why should I fall for baseball and not american football or basketball?  The affinity with the traditional long form (i.e. 3, 4 or 5 day) of cricket is the best answer I can offer – a game that unfolds slowly but subtly with periodic bursts of excrutiating excitement, a rich literature (no other games have offered more to the English language), a noble history graced with remarkable characters and an obsession with statistics and records (one of the reasons both games captivate and capture for a lifetime the male of the species).   And not forgetting the attractive spectacle of field and “flannelled fools” where pitcher (bowler) and hitter (batsman) test their skills and character on an epic scale.

So I kept a close eye on the Giants’ exploits over the next two seasons, which were modest but promising of future success.  By the time we made our next visit in March 2010 I considered myself a long distance Giants fan.  We took the ballpark tour which was fascinating, and were given the opportunity to sit in the home team’s dugout.  We bought several items of merchandise to take home, including a Tim Lincecum bobblehead that we then contrived to leave in our apartment!

The general consensus seemed to be that the Giants, with their pitching strength in particular, could be more competitive that year.  But few dared to dream then, or even through most of the regular season, of division, league or World Series championships.

Or that, throughout October and the beginning of November, I would be going to bed at home at 8pm in order to rise again at half past midnight, or, on other occasions staying awake until 5am, living every strike, hit, walk and stolen base against the San Diego Padres (in the last regular season games), Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers.  How I enjoyed the rare daytime starts which meant that they were over by midnight UK time!

And I went through the same exhausting ordeal all over again last autumn. But it was worth it!

Sporting a Tim Lincecum t-shirt, kept company by a Pablo Sandoval soft toy and with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s by my side, I too endured the “torture” and ultimate glory of those Giants’ play off campaigns.

We finally made our first MLB games last year with the early season visits of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Phillies, with Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum pitching. The outcomes mirrored the fortunes of the two pitchers over the past twelve months, with Zito spearheading a walk-off 1-0 victory whilst the ailing Lincecum pitched erratically in a narrow defeat. I have written about the experience in another blog post: http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/in-the-land-of-the-giants-and-garlic-fries/

Next month I will be back at AT & T Park for games against the Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins and I can’t wait!

Go Giants!

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How would you feel if you walked into a restaurant this evening and were immediately greeted by the head waiter admonishing you in a broken English Chinese accent to “sit down and shut up”, then ignoring you completely or, if you were lucky, hurling the menu at you?  Oh, and don’t make the mistake of requesting an English translation of that menu if you want to avoid a further volley of vitriol. And if you are a woman, or have women in your party, keep a close eye on that waiter because he is prone to grope female customers (the only time he is likely to crack into a smile).

So how would you react?  Walk out?  Ask to speak to the manager?  Post an adverse review on TripAdvisor?  Sue the restaurant?  Punch the waiter’s lights out?

Well, that is likely to have been your experience had you visited the Sam Wo restaurant on Washington Street, between Grant Avenue and Waverly Place, in Chinatown during the decades following the second world war.  And it is equally likely that you may have chosen to dine there in the express hope that you would be on the receiving end of such appalling service.  Indeed, being insulted at Sam Wo became as much a “must do” San Francisco experience as drinking Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café or driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Your tormentor would have been Edsel Ford Fong, the “world’s rudest waiter”, who, in the words of Stephen Jay Hansen in his excellent The Other Guide to San Francisco – or 105 Things to Do After You’ve Taken a Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf, “baits and berates male customers and shamelessly hustles every woman who enters his domain.  He’ll throw you a load of chopsticks with a brusque “Dry!” or spirit away your date to help him wait on tables.  He’s a refreshingly irreverent wit and an absolutely crazed madman”.

It’s No. 58 by the way (of the things to do that is, not a dish on the menu).

Fong, who was born in Chinatown on 6th May 1927, was an imposing figure measuring six foot and weighing 200 pounds, sporting a severe crew cut hairstyle and wearing both a long apron and permanent scowl.  He exploited his reputation brazenly, criticising customers’ menu choices, getting orders wrong (deliberately?), slamming food on the table and spilling it over the customers, refusing to provide knives and forks as alternatives to chopsticks, removing plates before the customer had finished eating, and reacting angrily to tips that didn’t exceed 15% (surely such an entertainer has a right to expect more?!). Unsuspecting white tourists were particularly fair game for his most patronising and scurrilous comments.

Herb Caen, the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist, was a regular patron of Sam Wo and an amused advocate of Fong, repeating Edsel’s finest insults from the night before in the next morning’s edition of the newspaper.  Fong would respond by proudly waving it at anyone in the restaurant who was interested or wan’t, it was all the same to him.

He died in April 1984 but his legacy lives on in many ways, not least in the occasionally churlish service still prevalent at Sam Wo today, though it lacks the panache brought to it by Fong.  A series of club-level Asian food stands at AT& T Park are named after him, and his status in the community has been visually commemorated in his inclusion in the 200 foot long, 7 foot tall “Gold Mountain” mural depicting Chinese contributions to US history, painted on the side of an apartment building in Romolo Place near the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach.

Fong also appears in  Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin and was played by Arsenio “Sonny Trinidad” in the ensuing miniseries.

I’ll finish with an excerpt from the book where our heroine, naive Mary Ann Singleton still fresh out of Cleveland, and taken to Sam Wo’s by bumbling private investigator, Norman Neal Williams, bears the brunt of Fong’s ire:

“Hey, lady! Go wash yo’ hands!’

Thunderstruck, she turned to see where the voice had come from. An indignant Chinese waiter was unloading plates of noodles from the dumbwaiter. She stopped in her tracks, stared at her accuser, then looked back towards the rest room.

The sink was outside the door. In the dining room.

A dozen diners were watching her, smirking at her discomfort. The waiter stood his ground. ‘Wash, lady. You don’t wash, you don’t eat!’

She washed, returning red-faced to the table. Norman grinned sheepishly. ‘I should have warned you’.

‘You knew he would do that?’

He specializes in being rude. It’s a joke. War lord-turned-waiter. People come here for it.’

‘Well, I didn’t’”.

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As children, we develop strong affinities with certain characters from the books we read, sometimes because we can relate to their experiences, but more often because they fire our young imaginations. For me, it started, understandably, with Alice, Pooh and the Famous Five, but, in my teenage years, I graduated onto Hamlet, Pip, Elizabeth Bennett, Heathcliff, Leopold Bloom, Huck Finn and many others.

But it was later in life, when I discovered the Tales of the City series of books by Armistead Maupin, that I met the most attractive and extraordinary character of them all – Anna Madrigal, the green fingered-transgender landlady of the “crumbling, ivy-entwined relic” called  28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill in San Francisco.  Her courage, warmth and humour (and taping of joints onto new tenants’ doors) have inspired and delighted in equal measure ever since.

The stakes were high, therefore, when I first saw the Channel 4 TV series. Could any actress possibly play this woman? I was surely destined to be disappointed.

I needn’t have worried. The glorious Olympia Dukakis, due to be awarded with her Hollywood Walk of Fame star as I write this, was born to play her.

With the ninth book of the series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, scheduled for release later this year, it seems a good time to ponder some of the most memorable statements from the great lady. Here goes:

1

Mrs Madrigal smiled. There was something a little careworn about her face, but she was really quite lovely, Mary Ann decided. ‘Do you have any objection to pets?’ asked the new tenant.

‘Dear……I have no objection to anything’.

 

2

‘Help yourself to a joint, dear, and don’t bother to pass it around. I loathe that soggy communal business. I mean, if you’re going to be degenerate, you might as well be a lady about it, don’t you think?’

3

Mine’s (her favourite year) 1987,’ said Mrs Madrigal. ‘I’ll be sixty-five or so….I can collect social security and stash away enough cash to buy a small Greek island.’ She twirled a lock of hair around her forefinger and smiled faintly. ‘Actually, I’d settle for a small Greek.’

4

He felt a surge of recklessness. ‘What would you say?’

‘About what?’

‘The end. Your last words. If you could choose.’

The woman studied his face for a moment. Then she said: ‘ How about…”Oh, shit!”‘

5

‘Some people drink to forget,’ said Mrs Madrigal, basking in the sun of her courtyard. ‘Personally, I smoke to remember.’

6

‘How can Anna Madrigal be an anagram for Andy Ramsey?’

‘It’s not.’

‘But you said….’

‘I said it was an anagram. I didn’t say what for.’

‘Then what is it?’

‘My dear boy,’ said the landlady, lighting a joint at last, ‘you are talking to a Woman of Mystery!’

7

‘Oh Mona, we’re all damned fools! Some of us just have more fun with it than others. Loosen up, dear! Don’t be so afraid to cry…or laugh, for that matter. Laugh all you want and cry all you want and whistle at pretty men in the street and to hell with anybody who thinks you’re a damned fool!’ She lifted the wineglass in a toast to the younger woman. ‘I love you dear. And that makes you free to do anything.’

8

‘I can’t trust you.’

‘Yes, you can. I was a weasel of a man, but I’m one helluva nice woman.’

9

‘Girl? gasped Mona.’ ‘You’re a woman!’

Mrs Madrigal shook her head. ‘You’re a woman, dear. I’m a girl. And proud of it.’

Mona smiled. ‘My own goddamn father…a sexist!

‘My darling daughter,’ said Mrs Madrigal, ‘transsexuals can never  be sexists!’

‘Then…you’re a transsexist!’

The landlady leaned over and kissed Mona on the cheek. ‘Forgive me, won’t you? I’m terribly old-fashioned.’

10

She was sixty now, for heaven’s sake……Sixty. Up close, the number was not nearly so foreboding as it had once been afar. It had a kind of plump symmetry to it in fact, like a ripe Gouda or a comfy old hassock.

She chuckled at her own similes. Is that what she had come to? An old cheese? A piece of furniture?

She didn’t care, really. She was Anna Madrigal, a self-made woman, and there was no one else in the world exactly like her.

11

She tugged his earlobe affectionately. ‘I want what’s best for my children.’

A long pause, and then: ‘I didn’t know I was still part of the family.’

The landlady chuckled. ‘Listen, dear…when you get this old lady, you get her for life.’

12

The landlady knelt and plucked a weed from the garden. ‘ Sounds to me like you’re matchmaking. I thought that was my job around here.’

Mary Ann giggled. ‘If I find anybody good for him, I’ll make sure you approve first.’

‘You do that,’ said Mrs Madrigal.

13

Mrs Madrigal took it all in stride, but drew a deep breath when Mary Ann had finished.

‘Well, I must say….you’ve outdone yourself this time.’

Mary Ann ducked her eyes. ‘Do you think I was wrong?’

‘You know better than that.’

‘What?’

‘I don’t do absolutions, dear.’ She reached for Mary Ann’s hand and squeezed it. ‘But I’m glad you told me.’

14

‘Hey,’ he blurted, ‘you should grow your fingernails long.’

Now on her hands and knees, Mrs Madrigal looked up at him. ‘Why is that, dear?’

‘You know, like those housewives in Humboldt County. Works much better than tweezers, they say.’

She handled this clumsy inanity with her usual grace.

‘Ah yes, I see what you mean.’ Falling silent again, she searched until she found the tweezers, then stood up and brushed her hands on her skirt. ‘I tried that once….growing my nails long.’ She caught her breath and shook her head. ‘I wasn’t man enough for it.’

The last time we saw Anna was at the end of Mary Ann in Autumn – a frail old lady who cannot trust herself to pour a cup of coffee, a stroke survivor who puffs (admittedly “demurely”) on nothing more risqué than a vaporizer. But she still plays girlishly with her wayward hair and wears garish kimonos, and  is able to dispense sage advice to her “family”.

I almost hesitate to open that next book when it arrives.

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