Persiflage

William Masters

William Masters is a former secret service agent who has retired to write his memoirs from his home in San Francisco

Although the doorman at the Saint Francis Hotel had warned Margaret that all the cab drivers were busy cruising around the Moscone Convention Center, earning a fortune from the five conventions simultaneously booked in the City, she insisted that he blow his whistle again.

“Madam, the only thing this whistle will bring is a dog.”

Margaret refused to accept the reality. Here she stood, in front of the Saint Francis Hotel, at Union Square in San Francisco, and she couldn’t find an empty cab.

“Then call me a Limousine, please.”

“I will if you are willing to pay the $150 minimum fare for a single passenger.”

“I’m meeting my grandson at the Veterans Hospital. Can I get there by bus?”

“Yes. Take the 38 Geary. It will literally drop you in the Hospital driveway at the emergency entrance across from the regular hospital.”

“Thank you. Where can I board the bus?”

“Walk half a block,” he said pointing to the nearest corner, “and turn right. That’s the Geary bus stop.”   He looked appraisingly at her.

  “The fare for seniors is fifty cents, madam.”

“Oh, thank you.” Margaret said. She covered his gloved hand with a dollar bill.    

“Oh, thank you,” he replied, imitating her patronizing tone. “Make sure you hold on tightly to your handbag when you sit down on the bus,” he added for free, and turned to the next hotel guest in line.

Margaret did not follow the doorman’s directions to the bus stop. Instead, she decided to stroll around Union Square. She crossed Post Street to   enjoy the Saks Fifth Avenue window displays. Although Margaret had never found much that she liked for herself at Saks, she admired the work of its window designers. The last window she passed featured three brunette mannequins standing at parade rest. Each mannequin bore the painted look of smug indifference and each wore a different style of full length mink coat. Silently, Margaret vowed to herself that nothing would ever induce her to step inside a Saks again.

Margaret turned right onto Stockton Street, and walked a block to the Geary Street/Stockton bus stop.  Shoppers, who would normally have taken a cab, waited uncomfortably, forced to carry their own packages, as they looked impatiently down the street for the bus.

The brutal looking north wall of the new Neiman Marcus department store blocked Margaret’s direct sightline.  Across the street to her right stood the old I. Magnin flagship building, still looking regal, dressed in its white marble façade, now vacant, except for its top three floors used by Macy’s for storage. Across from Macy’s the former Liberty House Department store had morphed into Macy’s Men’s’ Store. Shopping around the Square would never be the same.    

While waiting for the bus, Margaret fondly remembered the year when she and her late husband flew from their home in Pasadena to the City for the opening of the opera season. Margaret had purchased a gown from I. Magnin’s.  She welcomed all the attention the staff offered to her while she took the entire day to prepare for the evening: the final fitting of her gown, a late morning appointment at Elizabeth Arden’s for a facial, a massage, a stop in their hairdresser’s salon followed by a leisurely lunch at the Zuni Cafe, then back to her hotel for a nap, followed by her later return to the fourth floor of Magnin’s where the staff dressed her and applied evening makeup. The visiting women from New York City liked to taunt the old guard sales ladies by chiding to them, “Nothing can really be wrong with one’s life as long as one can shop at Bergdorf Goodman.”   

The noisy arrival of the bus pierced Margaret’s bubble of recollection. As she climbed the steps into the bus, the tide of annoyed and aggressive pedestrians from the waiting crowd pushed her hard against the driver’s protection bar as she dropped 50 cents into the fair box. Turning around, Margaret felt herself pushed toward the rear sections of the articulated bus. As the bus started, she instinctively grabbed an overhead passenger bar. Jolted, then startled, she dropped her handbag. For just a second she couldn’t locate it. Panic sprouted.

“Here Ma’am. Take my seat.”

Margaret felt a tap on her shoulder. Turning around she saw a young sailor, dressed in gleaming whites, rise from his seat with her handbag. “You better hold on to this.”

“Thank you young man,” she replied with a depth of relief she had not experienced for some time. She clamped her fingers tightly around the straps of her handbag.

“It’s my pleasure. Please take my seat. I hope some day someone else will do the same for my grandmother.”

The bus jolted to a stop, the original bus stop the doorman had pointed out to Margaret. The sailor pushed his cap slightly forward with his left hand and with his right hand tapped the knee of the young woman seated next to Margaret.

“See you at eleven, Abby.” The sailor leaned forward, pressed his lips to her ear and said, “My dearest Abby,” then lowered his lips to her neck, as his breath fanned her hair.

Margaret tried tactfully to ignore such an intimate moment. Then the sailor disembarked through the back door of the bus.

Directly across from Margaret and Abby sat three grey haired women dressed in identical black suits. These very old women had deep creases in their faces, like ancient excavations. The women all wore black cotton gloves. The gloves covered numerous bumps spread across their thirty digits, like a line of warts and boils camouflaged for public travel.

“Oh, he’s such a handsome boy,” said the first old woman.

“But totally without inner significance,” added the second.

“He will lose his way and be unable to find you in time tonight,” smiled the third.  The old ladies sat, vastly amused, their bodies in constant motion, unable to sustain a second of stillness.

The young woman, at whom the old crones had aimed their bitter darts, replied, “I’m sure not one of you was ever young or pretty, ever had any grace or subtlety. No man ever looked at you with ardor or called you his mother or his dearest. I hope you will all dwindle, peak and pine. You’re just three old hags riding the bus during daylight.”

As the young woman laughed at the old ladies, her laughter bounced from head to head among the other passengers surrounding the old ladies. Almost immediately those passengers broke into a chorus of derisive laughter striking the old women like a spray of buckshot.

When the bus made its next stop, the three old women rose in retreat to leave. As the last woman descended through the side door, she turned and pointed a crooked finger at Abbey, “He won’t show up tonight, dearie,” she said with a final cackle and disappeared from the bus.

Without knowing why, Margaret turned to this young woman, “He may be late, but I believe he will come.”

The young woman turned to Margaret.

  

“Thank you. I’m certain he will.” 

Then, as though Margaret’s remark had turned them into confidants, the young woman continued speaking to her.

“I recently returned from studying abroad in Spain. At the end of the term, three girlfriends and I made a safari to… Gibraltar with the intention, if not the nerve, to bag some foreign boy-toy types. One night while flaunting our bodies in a boisterous bar, we found ourselves the only women with about 20 U.S. Navy submarine men on shore leave. Talk about erotic fantasies materializing on cue. A lot of cruising and heavy lidded stares passed among the men and us while hormones launched and crashed throughout the room. Before the flirting became unfathomable, a sailor suggested we all go dancing. With many hands tactfully guiding us, these sailors led us a few blocks away to a dance bar.

“We danced our hearts out. We danced our shoes off. We danced until our clothes dripped with sweat and we were almost ready to drop. Then a strange phenomenon occurred. In between dances, the sailors began showing us pictures of their girlfriends or their wives. Even their parents. One sailor showed me a picture of his dog, Thurber! 

“Not once during the evening had anyone made a lewd remark or inappropriate gesture directed at us. We closed the bar. We felt the pleasant exaltation of exhaustion, ready to return to our hotel. The entire group of sailors escorted us through the narrow, dimly lit streets, singing Anchors Away, and saw us safely to our doorstep. Now, every time I see a sailor, I feel my skin buzzing and”, she winked, “my hormones racing.  This is my stop. So long.”

Immediately, an older woman, who had been standing, took the newly vacated seat next to Margaret.

“Hello,” she said to Margaret.

“Hello.”

“That’s a beautiful suit.”

“Thank you.”

“Chanel?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t afford suits like that no more. Now that I’m retired and gotta pay more and more of my own medical expenses. Until recently, after I saw my doctor, I could always use the lab at the hospital for tests she ordered. Now, forced to use this HMO, I have to take this bus out to Twenty-Fifth

Avenue just to have some blood drawn. It’s because the HMO contracts with this particular lab which does the blood for a lot cheaper than the hospital lab. Even when the hospital sent out the blood to another lab, at least it could draw my blood and save me an extra trip.”

“Well, you know,” began a woman sitting across from them, “In this lab out on Twenty-Fifth Avenue, all the staff is young foreign people. Most of the former senior lab people got fired because they made such big salaries. All these young foreigners work for cheap. My niece used to work there. When the new operation took over they offered her a job, —- at a thirty percent reduction in salary! When she declined the offer, the unemployment department refused to pay her any benefits.”

The woman next to Margaret continued, “I had to change my doctor of twenty-two years because she wasn’t part of the HMO I was forced to take. Seven years after I retired, my medical coverage was degraded to this HMO. I couldn’t afford no other choice. So now I gotta use this new, unsympathetic doctor who looks at me when I arrive for my appointment and tells me ‘You’ve got 15 minutes, Doris.’ I am 72 years old and he doesn’t even call me Mrs. Coringer. The bastard.”

The bus now stopped on a corner across the street from a Kaiser Medical Center. Almost half the bus passengers disembarked including Margaret’s complaining neighbor. Margaret wondered why she hadn’t waited until she reached Twenty-Fifth Avenue.

Five expensively overdressed women, only a few years younger than Margaret, boarded the bus. These heavily perfumed women all wore hats and gloves. Margaret pushed open the window above her seat. Noticing Margaret’s suit and gloves, one of the women assumed a kinship and sat close to her.

“I suppose you couldn’t find a cab either? My friends and I are on our way to the Legion of Honor museum to see the Impressionist exhibit. Is that your destination?”

“No. I am going to the Veterans Hospital to meet my grandson and take him out to dinner.” 

“Well, if you are planning to visit your grandson, tell him about the exhibit. The museum is practically next door to the Veterans Hospital. Nice to have spoken with you.” The woman turned around to re-engage in conversation with her friends.

“Have you heard that Lucy Harbinger has returned home from her European vacation?”    

“No,” snapped one of the other women forming a crocodile smile. “Did she bring the baby back with her or leave it in Paris?”

“I believe she left the baby for adoption with some French agency, hired a trainer to get her body back into shape and only then returned, with a San Tropez tan and a trunk containing a new Paris wardrobe.”

“Well,” began the fourth woman, “Now her mother can help her shop around for a husband. Lucy must be pushing 25.”

“Do you think one of the Faulderon boys would do for her?”

“Absolutely not. Too wimpy and vanilla flavored. Those boys have floss for backbones. Besides, they don’t look like the type to satisfy Virginia’s daughter. Lucy is a rather florid type with an appetite for basketball jocks and body builders.”

“So many of those boys formerly lived in neighboring Woodside.”

“Yes, so many of those Woodside estates sit empty these days.”

“Lucy’s family hardly has neighbors anymore. I heard that the mother sold some of her Fresno real estate to finance one of her legendary garden parties to which she will invite a half dozen 30 year old Silicon Valley multi-millionaires in front of whom she will parade Lucy. And then…it would surely be inevitable that the inevitable would happen,” the prophetess said.

All the ladies laughed as the bus stopped at 34th street.

“There is our jitney to take us to the museum,” the first lady reported to her friends. As the ladies carefully climbed down the steps to the street, Margaret called after them,

“Ladies, have you heard, Netherfield Park has been let at last?”

As she laughed to herself, Margaret noticed that the only remaining occupants on the bus looked like patients: men wearing casts and exposing heavily bandaged areas of their bodies; men with canes and crutches; men looking downbeat and depressed while the inside of the bus echoed with coughs and sneezes as it pulled up to the emergency entrance of the VA hospital and stopped amidst warning signs of the new and continuing construction. 

The group of veterans sitting in the back exited from the rear door, but Margaret walked to the front to exit the bus via the front door whose steps were less steep than those in the rear exit.

As she began to step down, one of the veterans already standing on the sidewalk offered his hand to her. Margaret took hold of it as she descended the stairs. She noticed that he had a prosthetic right leg.

“Thank you, young man.”

 

“Where you headed, ma’am?”

“To infectious diseases to meet my grandson who works here five days a week in a resident rotation from UCSF.” 

“You’re lucky. ID is on the bottom floor as you enter the hospital portion directly across the street, turn left and left again. I’m getting an upgraded prosthetic today.”

The alarmingly young looking man laughed and gave Margaret a mock salute. “Hope it fits better than this one,” he said smiling back at Margaret as he entered the clinics building.

Margaret followed the young man’s directions to the Infections Disease department. She walked briskly to the information window, but before she could speak, the young woman behind the glass asked,

“Hello, are you Mrs. Christensen?”

Margaret nodded.

“How do you do? I’m Linda Low.”

“How do you do, Ms. Low? How did you know my name?” 

“Your grandson told me to be on lookout for his grandmother, a smartly dressed 74 year old woman who refused to dye her hair and still walked as if she were a marathoner. When I saw your rapid turn and energetic stride into the corridor, I called your grandson to alert him you had arrived. He’s mighty anxious to see you. He’s called me three times in the last twenty minutes to make sure you were not waiting here.”

“Thank you,” Margaret replied and noticed a picture of what looked like two dozen red roses on the small, 15” flat screen attached to the receptionist’s computer. “Is that your screensaver?” Margaret asked Linda.

“Oh no, it’s a virtual bouquet sent to me by the employment agency that found me this job.” And then, looking at Margaret for confirmation, said, “I heard that in the olden days, employment agencies actually sent real flowers.”

Still tightly gripping her handbag, Margaret walked to a nearby sofa and gratefully sat down to wait for her grandson. She had left her marathon days behind her (in the olden days), but she could easily pass for a sixty-two year old.

She had not seen her only grandchild in two years since attending the funeral of his parents, both killed in a car crash. Margaret had been estranged from her son and daughter-in-law for many years prior to the crash and rarely made appearances at their home, seldom seeing her grandson, but always sent birthday and graduation cards containing two, one hundred dollar bills. She always received a thank you note, glad that she could afford such an extravagance and always considered it money well spent, better than spending money on jewelry or gowns for opening nights at the opera.

A tall, dishy looking young blond, carrying a backpack and still wearing his white coat and name tag, turned the corner.

“Grandma,” the young man eagerly called out. He dropped the backpack and kissed, then hugged Margaret. “I’m so glad you came.”

The dish’s name tag read Dr. Donald O. Christensen. The initial “O” stood for Osgood, a middle name he justifiably hated and successfully concealed until both the Veterans Hospital and UCSF protocols forced him to include his middle initial on his name tag, which he had to wear while on duty.

He had discovered during his rotation in the pediatric wards at the UCSF Medical Center that most of the children from about seven years old picked up on his initials, often giggled, called him Mr. Doc or Doctor Doc and appeared, for some unknown reason, vastly amused. These younger children liked to finger his name tag, feeling the tactile sensation of the raised letters. The older children sometimes asked if it was a test, but they usually laughed anyway.

Donald grudgingly admitted to himself that his hated middle name of Osgood had found a beneficial role in his life. 

This then, was the grandson who took hold of Margaret’s hand, waved a cheery good-bye to Linda and led Margaret out the front door of the hospital.

“I’m actually parked quite far away. If you sit on this bench and wait for me, I’ll get my car and pick you up here in about 10 minutes.” Donald left his backpack next to Margaret and jogged toward the five story parking structure, by passed the temporarily closed elevator (closed for a city-wide, mandated annual inspection of all elevators open for public use); ready to leap the five flights of stairs to the top where he had parked his new 1979 Honda Civic.

Margaret felt ashamed that she had communicated less with her grandson after her husband’s death. Her late husband had always emphasized to her that no matter how badly their son and daughter-in-law behaved to them, such behavior made no excuse for less communication with their grandson.

A year ago, without any discernable reason, her grandson had begun writing a series of Dear Grandma letters.  After asking about her health and general well-being, he inquired how she spent her time, what hobbies she had, what films she saw.  He included a paragraph about work at UCSF and his rotations at the Veterans Hospital, listed the films he saw, asked her if she was computer savvy and tactfully inquired if she dated anymore since grandfather died. He sent various photos of himself including, his self confessed favorite, dressed in a wet suit, holding a surfboard standing in the sand of Moss beach. He always signed his letters, using his DOC moniker.

At first reluctant to respond, Donald’s letters beguiled her and she began to answer. Writing with a fountain pen, in an exquisite longhand on Crane stationary (100% cotton paper), she wrote that she was healthy and mentioned that the only time she even saw a computer was during the annual visit with her accountant. The dating question alarmed her and she simply ignored it, although she admitted to occasional dinners at restaurants with other couples and infrequent lunches with other women from a rapidly diminishing pool of contemporaries.

In the past three years she had seen Julia, a film about Lillian Hellmann (which only made her want to see again the movie version of Hellmann’s play, The Little Foxes, as part of a Bette Davis retrospective), watched Coming Home because she thought it was part of her duty as an American citizen, was charmed by Breaking Away and confessed that she could still appreciate Ray Scheider’s body in All That Jazz.

Donald pulled up to the bench on which Margaret sat. Before he could walk around to open the door for her, Margaret had comfortably seated herself, still tightly holding on to the straps of her handbag.

“It’s such a beautiful Indian summer evening that I am driving us down Hwy 1 to Half Moon Bay for dinner.

Margaret appreciated the full moon’s enhancement of the coastline and ocean as she listened to Donald’s various future plans and the announcement of his engagement to a beautiful anesthesiologist named Kate.

“We’ve both applied to UCLA Medical for positions. If our fantasy comes true, we can both practice in Southern California where the climate will welcome our bare feet on a patio as we drink coffee beneath the warm, morning sunlight.”

They arrived at the Wave, a trendy ocean view restaurant in Half Moon Bay, in time for their 7:30 reservation. Once seated, Margaret ordered a vodka martini made with whatever brand of vodka was the current rage that season among the younger set. After her one martini, she relaxed the iron grip on her handbag, flexing the bent fingers of her left hand. During dinner Margaret listened with increasing pleasure to her grandson’s future plans.  And while listening to the verbal blueprint for his future, she felt reconnected to the world.

Feeling energized, Margaret stood up. She asked her surprised grandson to do the same. She grabbed his right arm, pulled his head down to meet her lips and planted a kiss on his cheek.

“Now,” Margaret said as she sat back down in her chair, “I am going to do something I haven’t done in fifteen years.”

“What, grandmother?”

And smiling out loud, she answered, “Order dessert.”

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