Latest Posts by Eric
Hidden in plain sight on one block of Columbus Street in the middle of last bastion of old Italy in San Francisco’s North Beach district are six dining locales offering hearty Italian fare. When tourists and friends come to San Francisco asking for some “authentic” San Francisco Italian dining, I always steer them to this one stretch of the Corso Cristoforo Colombo.
Now, we all know that these restaurants are tourist traps. But as traps go, they’re darn tasty and reasonable in price. There are many more restaurants in North Beach besides these, but I point these out because they’re all on the same block, two on one side of the street and four on the other.
Sitting at the south end bestriding Columbus Avenue on Vallejo are Colosseo and Trattoria Pinocchio. North of the two are, respectively, Calzone’s and Caffe Puccini. Then there’s Caffe Greco up from Puccini and holding up the north end is Panta Rei.
Having tried all of them, I can now offer through this blog a one-stop shop on which one to go to, depending on your moods and needs. First thing first, we can discard Caffe Greco because it’s hardly a restaurant. Caffe Greco is really just a coffee shop serving Illy coffee, which I like, and various pastries. I’m not even sure they serve alcohol, as I’ve only been there for the coffee and croissants.
Before I lay out the pros and cons of the remaining five, I should mention that there are many other ones south of this block: Stinking Rose, Franchino’s Mona Lisa and several others closer to Washington Square and other parts of North Beach. But, as I say, this block is chock-a-block with five great restaurants, battling each other for supremacy and to be able to call itself the Capo di tutti capi on Restaurant Row.
Let’s start at the south end. Trattoria Pinocchio is probably the most high end among the five with a fairly expensive menu and boasting fairly grand sounding items. The interior has a very clean, noble feel to it. The food is good, but not commensurate with the prices. Perhaps the difference goes to the ambiance, which felt a bit too snobbish for me. Maybe I ought to try it again just to be sure. Pinocchio has outdoor seating, but in this case, I would much prefer indoor seating because of the supposed ambiance.
Pinocchio is the go-to place if you’re forty-plus and want to make a great first-date impression. Probably not a great place for a family of four. Be prepared to shell out no matter what.
Across the street is Colosseo (top photo). Prices here are more reasonable. The servers are much more friendly. I’ve been here a few times and can’t say enough good things. Great food. Their fettucini is really ribbon sized: nice wide pasta that just mingles perfectly with a cream sauce. The servers, especially the bartender, are really friendly and easy to chat with. Never a sourpuss anywhere. Now, I’m not claiming the others have bad service personnel. None do, but Colosseo excels with the human touch.
Colosseo is where you’d go after your first date. Say, your sixth month anniversary or even a night out on the town with the spouse and the kids are locked away with nanna or a sitter. Secret for guys: go here several times to chat up the servers. Then bring your date here after you’ve been to other places and get friendly with the servers. They’ll wing man you that evening. Can’t say if it would work for the ladies.
Back to the east side of the street, we come to my favorite, Caffe Puccini. Caffe Puccini is actually the least fancy of the five with the smallest most basic menu among the five. They only serve pasta dishes: no Bistecca alla Fiorentina and the like. Also, they only serve beer or wine for the alcohol. All the others have a full bar and bar seating. Puccini doesn’t have a bar seating area.
What makes Puccini my favorite? Well, it’s the least tourist-trappy among the five. It’s really a regulars’ place of dining. You will often see police officers come in for coffee and a quick bite while glancing at the big screen to check the Niners’ or the Giants’ score. While they do have a steady stream of tourists coming through, I am there frequently enough that the staff know me and I see a number of very familiar faces. In fact, I’ll probably drop over there later today to watch the game and have a bite.
Another reason Puccini is a personal favorite is because of Puccini himself. The opera composer, that is. There’s a juke box to the side and every once in a while, we get strains of Luciano or Placido singing che gelida manina or nessun dorma. It warms my heart because my ears aren’t pounded with loud heavy-beat music that almost all other restaurants around the city pumps out.
While Puccini, for me, is my place of comfort and solitude, I see plenty of large groups or families coming in. It’s because they’re the cheapest among the five and have a very familial feel to the place. No wingman help here, but definitely mamma Puccini will get everyone settled and comforted by the end of the meal.
Straight across from Puccini is Calzone’s. Now this place is a revolving door tourist-trap restaurant. It’s almost a Vegas spectacle, the way they move people, food and drink around. There’s a long stretch of outdoor dining area, which is de rigueur for this restaurant as opposed to the others. Hey, it’s almost Vegas, baby, and you can’t be seeing without being seen. Calzone’s prices are also very good and has a great mix of items in the menu.
Food is great (OK, seriously, how can anyone mess up Italian food, right? so this should go without saying) and plenty of options on the drinks.
Calzone’s is definitely the place to go if you managed to get a room upstairs at Hotel La Boheme. Have fun, you two. Groups of couples can also benefit from this locale because it just oozes conviviality like no other. You’ll have a fantastic time here, and hey, the food’s great too.
Holding up the fort at the north end is Panta Rei. This wedge-shaped restaurant hints to the modernity and fashion of downtown Milan. Very modern and eclectic look and feel, not neon-ized like Calzone’s, but very euro. The patrons here are also a younger crowd. You can bring a date here, as long as you don’t plan to get any later that evening, because there’s very little intimacy here. On the other hand, everyone here, from the servers to the patrons are all Italian-model sexy. It’s like the place where all the magazine models go after a shoot, so there’s the eye-candy aspect of the place. There’s a full bar with crazy cool bartenders – you know, the ones that works up the crowd because the crowd is young and energetic. The food is quite good. I’ve not sampled everything on the menu, but the linguine nere – linguini in black squid ink, is my particular favorite here. The menu is more outre than the others with their fairly standard Italian options.
So there you have it. Let the battle royale begin, and beviamo!
Arthur Guinness was born on 1725 in County Kildare (it’s true, wiki it!). At 27, he started a brewery in the outskirts of Dublin. After working it for a few years, he went into Dublin itself and took out an amazing 9,000 year lease, effective 31st, December 1759 (with rent control, I hope!) on a four acre brewery at the famous St. James’s Gate. He is, of course, famous for creating the popular Irish dry stout beer.
This evening, I had the pleasure of experiencing some of the Guinness brewery’s new products. Over at Terra Gallery in San Francisco’s South of the Market district, the Guinness company held a tasting that is worthy of the Guinness name. These events are usually quite fun: lots of drinks – all for free – get to mingle and chat with interesting people, and get to listen to some interesting tidbits about the company and their upcoming new product launch. Now, an important note. I am a fervent drinker of the “food in a glass” that is Guinness. I drink other beers, certainly, but my go-to at any respectable dining or drinking establishment is a wonderful glass of Guinness. I am not here to endorse this product in any way.
I arrived at the gallery slightly ahead of opening, so I stood in line along with about two hundred others. After a few minutes wait, the door opened and we proceeded to enter the event. This event was invitation only, so I had to produce my confirmation code, which I did. Then, for those with the boyish or girlish young looks, they got carded. We old fogies went directly to the hand-stamp station. We all were given a Guinness coin. That coin was for our one Guinness drink. “One glass?” I thought, “Where’s the tasting with just one glass?”
I sat at the center bar and got my glass of mother’s milk. I then cruised over to the snack table and whipped up a small boat-shaped plate full of popcorn. Popcorn and beer: a decent mix. I walked about and chatted with all the other invitees. You know, the usual mind-numbing chit-chat about nothing. The crowd skewed mainly to the younger end of the spectrum.
About 15 minutes in, our emcee came on stage to give up the run-down on the happenings at Guinness. He explained the history of Arthur Guinness and his 9,000 year-old lease at St. James’s Gate. One bit of trivia, courtesy of Mr. Emcee is the time to make the “perfect pour”: 119.5 seconds. Then came the perfect pour contest pitting two members of the audience. The two guests were given a chance to play bartender and pour the perfect glass of Guinness from the tap. Our side won and garnered the largest cheer (warmly benefitted from imbibing that glass of Guinness a few minutes before).
The two guests also played a few rounds of trivia. For example, Guinness also owns Smithwick’s and Harp Lager. A glass of Guinness poured on top of a half-glass of Smithwick’s is called a blacksmith. Guinness atop a Harp lager is a Half and Half. Well, our side’s contestant, Ken, won the pour and the trivia question (ably abetted by members of our side who are Guinness trivia connoisseurs.
Then came two additional tastings. The first was the Guinness black lager, a new product line. For me, it had some zip with a very refreshing mouth feel, but lacked any interesting taste. It felt like drinking carbonated water with a touch of coloring. Zippy but devoid of the expected bitterness that we expect from Guinness. The second tasting was of an existing product, the Foreign Extra. This one is a good one. It also had the zippiness of the Black Lager. And it also had a nice bite in the taste. I will seek this out in the markets, not so much for the former.
All in all, it was a great night and I got to learn a few things. Maybe I’ll win the Guinness World Record for knowing trivia about Guinness.
Cecil Williams, the Reverend Cecil Williams, leader of Glide Memorial Church for many years created one of the most internationally respected non-profit organizations that help the homeless and the hungry. Reverend Williams retired in 2007 but the Glide Memorial Church and the Glide Memorial Church’s homeless outreach program still continues under the direction of many dedicated people. This year, I decided to try my hand in helping out, so I signed on for some volunteer work. I signed up to help this week, but didn’t realize what I was signing up to do.
What I signed up for was to help set up Glide Annual Holiday Jam, where all the big wigs of the city, plus everyone else who wants to see and be seen attend. The professionalism of the set-up crew was unbelievable. On the first day, I chose to help with the decor plans.
There was a really cool table setting design using old 45 rpm records and LED tea-lights. In the meantime, another of our volunteer crew climbed up to the rafters to install the lighting. Our supervisor from Winslow, Sandra, was a bright young woman from Fremont. “I’m planning on moving to Florida to study staging design,” Sandra told us while we worked feverishly on the table settings. With us were Kathy and Kate. Kathy is a former mergers-and-acquisitions wall street person while Kate is a sophomore at San Francisco State studying microbiology. It is this rather disparate group of people that come together to volunteer their time and effort and bring their unique skills and knowledge that makes volunteering at Glide such a wonderful experience.
Our task for the day was to create 210 table settings. Each setting was made up of a 45 rpm disk, a special Glide Holiday Jam record label applied to the record’s center. Then the 45 was taped to the top of an opened glass cube, which had a purple streamer paper encircled in the inside of the cube, and an LED tea-light placed in the middle. Kathy and I did the labels while Sandra and Kate wrapped the inside of the cubes with the streamer paper and placed the tea-light in the middle.
They handed the cube to us and then we also taped the 45 to the top of the glass cube. As expected, the first few cubes took some time to set up. After a short while, we all learned how to perform our individual roles better and better. One of the interesting thing one learns when working with one’s hands is that, very quickly, one develops a sense of rhythm and skill in doing the task. Soon, we were all humming along nicely as we finished set after set. In due time, we filled up one table with the 45-on-a-glass-cube set, forty such settings on the table. Then another forty settings on another table. Then another. Then, stacked atop the existing settings as we ran out of tables to store them.
We then broke for lunch and chatted some more while figuring out our next steps. We needed to place the settings on the actual dining tables, but have to wait for the table cloths to be put on first. So in the meantime, we went around to check on the secondary tasks.
Mine was to fill up the forks and paper napkins for the vendors’ stations. Kathy was working with Kate down in the kitchen. At around 3 PM, the table cloth crew came in and dressed up the tables. We then set our settings on the tables, three to a large table, one to the small tables. (Sandra’s mantra: “odd number of settings work better than even numbers.” Listen to her, she’s an expert.) We didn’t turn on the LED tea-lights, because that would have drained the batteries. So the tea-lights still have to be turned on the next day, together with the placing two drumsticks through the center of the 45s and into the glass cube.
Day one was done with minimal volunteering help, as ten no-shows slowed the scheduling of completing the tasks.
I wasn’t scheduled to return the next day, but since I was available and enjoyed the first day, I went back to help out. Since I was the only volunteer who returned, I was deputized as assistant supervisor since I know what was going on. I led a group of volunteers to help complete the table settings.
Now, we just had to put the plates and utensils and napkins for each seat. Some were already done by other staff members, but not all tables were fully set. We had to walk through all tables to check for missing utensils or drinking glasses or whatever else was missing.
After that was completely, we had to return to the tables after one other server mentioned that the extra drinking glasses should be placed on the end of the table away from the common walk areas, so they people won’t accidentally knock them down. So I and four other volunteers walked through the whole room again, rearranging each table’s extra glassware to a safer location. This sounds like a bad supervisory leadership, as it caused redundant work.
We finished eventually and I headed downstairs to the kitchen area. There was more work to be done: 200 boxed meals for the VIPs. I and Stan worked on popping open the cardboard box lunch carriers. Two other women stuffed a green filler paper into the bottom of the box. Oops, a mistake as the paper is supposed to go in “random” looking, not neatly folded to fit into the bottom. So I stopped setting up the boxes and helped re-do the filler paper. Then, I placed a plate on top of the green paper.
The plates, much like all other eating implements, are made of bamboo so they’re compostable. Here we are: 200 boxes, filled first with green filler paper. Then I went through each and placed a plate in each. Then, the sandwiches came. The sandwich was turkey (or chicken?) and cheese and a piece of lettuce on a small, 3-inch long italian roll. I was to open face the sandwich (so that the diner can put her choice of condiments) and rest the two pieces diagonally on the plate. Boom, I flew down the long table of boxes and filled them out.
Once done, someone else – not a volunteer – went by and dropped a mayonnaise and mustard packet. Another crew member went by after that and closed up the boxes and placed them on a pallet to bring up to the main hall. In the meantime, I took s stroll into the guts of the Warfield Theater, seeing the very bottom of the building. Its eerie silence, clean but desolate basement seemed haunted by the ghosts of past performers.
I then went back to the main hall and together with another volunteer went through all the table settings, turning on the LED tea-lights and placing the two drumsticks into the middle. That ran for about forty minutes. Then, back down to the kitchen to help with the appetizer plates. The appetizer plate consisted of a quarter wedge of brie, three kalamata olives, a few sprigs of parsley, a dried piece of bread with two slices of cheddar or jarlsberg (not clear), a bruschetta and two large prawns sitting in cocktail sauce.
This time, because it’s for all guests, and not just the VIPs, there were 800 servings of this.We had ten long tables set up with the bamboo plates filling the tables. Two volunteers held the brie tray while four others picked out handful and dropped them onto the plate. The scene was amazing. People who’ve never done this before were humming along like a well-oiled engine.
My role, as I returned after others have started, was to fill up whatever was missing. You’d think since the task is rather mindless and automatic that one couldn’t possible screw things up. But it happens. Every once in a while, there’s a plate missing a brie wedge, or missing some olives. Also the placement of the food items had to be correct. They’re not randomly placed on the plate; no, they had to be placed properly for the proper look. And, frankly, it does make it seem more appetizing when it’s nicely arranged. Time was running by quickly. We found out that someone – the head chef – miscalculated the amount of bruschetta to make. Son only the first 200 or so got the bruschetta. We didn’t have anything appropriate for the remaining 600+ diners.
Our supervisor, subordinate to the head chef, a mild-mannered and well experienced middle-aged woman, quickly made the executive decisions for what to do. That was great, because we didn’t have time to dawdle around contemplating what to feed the guests. They were already entering the theater just that moment. The supervisor decided to add extras for the dessert and hope everyone enjoyed the whole meal.
Once the main meal with the brie, olives, parsley springs, two large prawns, two slices of cheese on a toast and some with bruschetta were taken off the setting tables by the servers, we immediately placing new plates on the setting table and started on the desserts. Dessert consisted of two chocolate chip cookies, truffles, and four (count ‘em!) pieces of chocolate. It was a diabetic’s death sentence. Heck, I could even feel my pancreas work overtime from just looking at the cookies.
Again, despite having people doing very rote work, we somehow managed to miss a plate or two. Thus, we had secondary people go over the plates to make sure each plate had enough dessert elements. Now, the problem was that we ran out of plates. No problem, able-minded supervisor quickly decided on using bowls for the remaining 60 servings. Now, 200 servings of dessert, all ready to go. The servers came back down, filled their trays with dessert plates (and bowls) and ran back up to the main stage area to place the food for the guests.
After the food settings were completed, we were essentially done for the day. We could, if we chose, stay and watch the program from the loge seating area. I hung around to snap some photos, but decided to head home, feeling comfortable, slightly weary and very satisfied in helping a great San Francisco cause. For more information on Glide or how to get involved, you can visit them here.
Kikkoman has been well known in my family as the de facto choice of soy sauce. Now, I’m not a foodie and my ability to distinguish good soy sauce from bad is about as good as my ability to distinguish a merlot from a cabernet, which is to say, slightly higher than random guessing. Just slightly.
Nevertheless, the iconic Kikkoman soy sauce bottle with the red top has always been a mainstay at our home as well as the many chinese restaurants we frequented when I was a kid. Other soy sauces do seem to be either too watery or thick like molasses. There wasn’t consistency in other sauces.
Recently, I was a guest at an event learn about a new vision of Kikkoman together with Reneè, covering the soiree as bloggers.
The event was held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the South of Market Street district of San Francisco.
Here’s the nutshell: we arrived a bit late, so we missed the mingle/schmooze part of the evening. But, we arrived before any of the formal agenda-ed events took place. There was really just one item on the agenda, the showing of the Kikkoman documentary. Now, you’d wonder why a humble soy sauce manufacturer need a PR make-over and, well, so do I.
Kikkoman’s quite pristine and treat their workers like, well, like adults and colleagues. Are they branching into new markets? Going head-to-head with Heinz 57? Not quite that either, although I wouldn’t doubt that if they did go into battle against a major catsup manufacturer, they might very well win. Catsup is originally an Asian sauce btw.
Think about, it: why the weird name? In Cantonese, the sauce is pronounced, Gah-tsup. The “Gah” part means…uh, mumble-mumble (go ahead you can wiki this part) and “tsup” which means sauce. Feel free to study it up. So if Kikkoman goes back to the origins of the sauce and lay off the overuse of HFCS and other unnecessary ingredients, they’ll kill the Americanized version of an ancient chinese secret.
Anyway, we went upstairs and entered the screening room for a short presentation and documentary about the history of Kikkoman. We took our seats in the front row, as all the seats further back were all taken. The first part of the program was the ceremonial breaking of a sake cask. Various dignitaries from Kikkoman USA and major project leads from the head advertising company, Draft FCB.
According to Japanese history/lore/mythology, it’s good luck to crack open a wooden cask of sake and drink the heck out of it. I don’t think there’s a need for any history or lore to get people to agree to such a proposal.
The four dignitaries each donned a Japanese article of clothing, to symbolize the historicity of the moment, as well as use it as a splash guard for the possibly spraying sake; and were each handed a wooden mallet. After one dry (heh-heh, I said “dry”) run, the four dignitaries, at the count of three, bashed in the top of the cask. The break on the wooden top looked too good to be “bashed” in, but perhaps wood does split that way.
At the same time as the bashing occurred, servers walked by and handed each one of us a wooden square cup filled with sake.
Now, I’m no lush, nor am I some college freshman who would nod off after a cup of PBR, but the quite tasty sake (a Kikkoman made sake, by the way) hit me rather hard. I can hold my wine, I can hold my beer and I can hold (some of) my liquor, but this sake went to my head quickly and I felt the effects in short order. Luckily for me, the video documentary was just about to begin, so the lights dimmed and my nodding head wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone.
Kikkoman, apparently, is a 300+ year old company. Technically, they can’t claim that in their legal literature as there is no documentation proving the age.
But the legend, with much of it handed down through oral traditions, tells of a wife of a shogun warrior who fled her town with her son in tow. Went into the bulrushes by the lower Cairo, allowed the Pharaoh… oops, wrong legend. Well, they went to Noda, just north of Tokyo, and started brewing soy sauce. The heart of their soy sauce, that which makes is so great is the koji, a fungus which is essentially the company’s literal secret sauce. The koji is a living, breathing entity that is used to create every new batch of soy sauce. It’s the yeast that’s used to make every San Francisco sourdough bread.
The documentary talks of the sixteen articles in the Kikkoman creed. Like a typical cryptic confucian maxim, Kikkoman’s tag line is Make Haste Slowly. That is, don’t be reckless, but don’t not take risks to move ahead.
Take conservative risks, but take them. The documentary’s highlight was the arrival of Kikkoman into the lives of middle America as they set their first foreign manufacturing plant in the middle of Walworth County in southern Wisconsin, among the cows and cheese and the great farming lands.
Kikkoman made a definite impact on the lives of those who worked there, highlighting a major difference between the Kikkoman way of treating workers, compared the vulture style of, say, Bain Capital. For example, if the company had to cut expenses due to lowered revenue forecasts, all employees would see their wages drop instead of indiscriminately laying off employees. Employees knew that even the head guy got a salary cut just as well. That certainly helps morale when it’s time to ramp up when demand returns.
The highlighting of the workers at Walworth County was quite stark, especially when juxtaposed to our very recent national election where one presidential candidate’s bona fides as an employer was put to the microscope. It hits you as a viewer when you contemplate, “Why couldn’t they [Bain] do that, instead of outsourcing people’s jobs and looting their pension funds?”
The documentary centered primarily on the business practices at Kikkoman. Yet the same time, it appeared that Kikkoman wanted to show off its product mix. So there seemed, to me, to be a disconnect between the documentary’s marketing intent and Kikkoman’s marketing goals.
After the documentary, we headed back down to the main lobby for more hob-nobbing and sampling some wonderful bites, all infused with some Kikkoman. Oh yeah, and some more Kikkoman sake (and non-Kikkoman merlots). We ate well. (see photos above). And, did I mention the fabulous sake ceremony they performed on stage? (also above)
I tried the siu mai, which were smaller and more delicate than the usual ones offered at most Chinatown dim sum restaurants. These, however, had a very velvety texture and a great taste and finish. The scallop sashimi were very good. It’s funny how many cultures have similar types of food.
The chef, a renown sushi chef here in San Francisco, described the scallop sashimi served with Kikkoman’s many sauces as a japanese ceviche. I’ve always considered ceviche as south american sushi. Those scallops were quite tasty. More importantly, to both Reneè and I, was that we had an opportunity to meet up with press people and VIPs in the food world. We met Kikkoman’s very own manager of culinary development. Helen is the one in charge of making all these tasty bites. Got to get to know her, as I can expect any party she hosts to be a feast de résistance.
In the end, it’s clear. The proof is indeed in the pudding and those delectable tidbits were proof that a little bit of Kikkoman goes a long way. For me, without a doubt, the clearest way to send the message about Kikkoman is to offer these tastings.
Below are a few videos shot of the sake ceremony, Japanese chef/intro on-site giving a demonstration, as well as an intro to the documentary film, which explains a little bit of the history and the “why.”
Photos: group and chef shot Eric Dew. Food photos and videos Renee Blodgett.
Go Kart Racer is a locally owned go-kart racing business located in Burlingame, just south of San Francisco, CA. I’ve never been to this or any other similar place before, so this was a new experience for me. I and five others went for a bachelor party event for one of the guys (not me). So, was it fun? Heck yeah!
If you’ve never been, note that this place in Burlingame is different than many other mini-car places. For one thing, it’s indoors. It’s well ventilated, so even though it’s indoors, you’re not breathing in the exhaust fumes. Good to know. Best suggestion I can give right now is make a reservation ahead of time so you don’t have to wait so long once you arrive. We didn’t make a reservation and had to wait about an hour to get our group set up. All right, part of that was because one in our group didn’t have proper ID to prove he can drive.
When you get there, you’re given a cowl to wear (and own). The cowl is basically for good hygiene because you’re sticking your head into a very sweaty, nasty, tight helmet. You’re also given a racing jumper. Essentially, this jumper ensures that all your clothing is tightly wrapped and not billowing around, possibly catching onto something or somebody, and potentially ripping parts of your body off. Good to know, good to know.
You’re also given a brief description of various warnings and flags to indicate conditions on the track. Then, you’re off to the tracks. We chose the Monza track, which is a more technically challenging course than the other Yokohama course. The course includes a little hill (not scary at all) and lots of hairpin turns. The staff helped us buckle in snug in our bucket seats, then started out engines. These go karts don’t have powered steering, so it’s a fight to change directions.
I don’t know how many of you know much about auto racing. The main strategy, if there is such a thing, is to find the most economical path and run it again and again. Of course, there are other cars on the course and that makes trying to stay on the same path interesting. We had five minutes of testing out the track before we settled into our starting slots. Those five minutes consisted of about 6 or 7 laps where we learned just how fast one could push it on some of the straightaways and how to brake and slide to avoid slowing down too much when getting around a hairpin turn.
For me, it was learning the course throughout the five minute ride and the ten minutes of competitive racing. Among our group of eleven racers, five strangers and our party of six, four of the strangers took the top finishes. Our soon-to-be groom did the best among the six of us, I was second among our party.
There was one moment where I made a critical mistake, and voila, two others overtook me (I don’t know who they were). For the most part, once you’re driving, you stay in your position. People can’t pass you, and you can’t pass others. It’s only during a moment of mistaken action that one can take advantage and speed past another car.
The bus dropped me off on Market Street in San Francisco, CA., and I walked a few more blocks south to this nondescript building with a monotone façade straight out of 1960′s Soviet Union. I pressed the intercom button.
“Name?” came the voice from the other end.
“Uh, E__. I’m here for the fitting,” I replied.
Bzzzt, the door unlocked and I entered. I walked up the one flight of stairs and enter the byzantine world of opera costumes. Instead of the hustle and bustle that ran through my imaginations, the place was rather hushed, with one person in an office looking over some papers. Another person walked by acknowledging me with a simple smile. I sat down at the waiting area, playing on my iPhone to while away the time.
After about fifteen minutes, a thin older man came by and asked me to follow him to the fitting room. Looking around, there was a large mirror, a hanger stand with some costumes hung on it.
“What’s his costume?” the older, Gandalf-looking man asked.
“A kuroko,” replied a younger woman, who appeared to be an intern at the costume shop.
“Ok, take off your clothes,” said Gandalf.
Uh-oh. I don’t know how others dress, but I am one of a few(? many?) who eschew the underwear. I just wear my pants with whatever I wear on top. So I slowly take off my jacket, and shirt.
“Take off the pants too,” Gandalf ordered.
So there I was, standing there stark naked. The other man came by and started measuring me all over.
“Neck, 15 inches; center of back to elbow, 17 inches…” the man called out. The intern wrote down the numbers. All dimensions were measured: crotch to floor, center of calf to floor, waist to back of knee, waist, hips, chest, chest under the arms, neck to small of back, and so on.
After all the measuring, they gave me a pair of pants, all black, and a long-sleeve shirt, also all black. I put them on. Then a pair of black socks and a pair of tabi shoes. I looked like a ninja. At the same time, I’m wondering what role in The Magic Flute would have me wear such a costume. (For those who are not familiar with the opera, there’s no ninjas in it.)
Fully costumed, Gandalf and his assistant walked around me, pinching the shirt, lifting the shoulder, pulling the sleeves downing a bit. With his white tailor’s chalk, he marked up the clothing and then asked me to change back to my clothes.
I did and casually walked out of the costume shop back to the bright daylight of the city. That was my first introduction to the world of opera supernumerary.
Our first rehearsal was in the evening. I arrived at the War Memorial with plenty of time, hoping to be oriented to the ways of the backstage world. We were the supers and A__ was our supervisor. A__ was the super-super.
“Since you’re new, let me introduce you to B__. B__, help E__ learn his way around here,” said A__.
B__ took me around the labyrinthine basement underneath the main stage and orchestra-level seating. We walked by the women’s extras dressing room, then the women’s chorus dressing room. The men’s dressing room. “And here is where you’ll go for changing to your costume,” B__ pointed out. Dressing room #7 it was. There was one big room with a table circling the room facing the mirror ringing the room, just above the table. There were no fancy lights or a store of make-up material. Taped on the mirror were names of the current set of extras and a small description of what the person has to do. At the moment, the ongoing production is Verdi’s Attila, so the descriptions include make-up and an elaborate array of costume parts.
We then walked over to the most important room in the subterranean workspace. That was the cafeteria. It’s a combination resting area, recreation room, buffet room, and preparation station for upcoming scenes. B__ left me alone in the cafeteria as he went off to attend to some details. I took the opportunity to snoop around myself some more, checking out the even lower depths of the building. Down directly underneath the center of the stage were the trap doors and entrance through the trap doors. To the left and right were racks and racks of costumes from other previous operas. In the back were the crew’s lockers. The crew consists of the riggers, the lighting specialists, the gaffers and those who move the sets around or create props.
Over the PA system came the call for all extras to meet at the stage. We fifty or so people assembled at the stage to hear from the director, H__, explain how this opera will go. It will be sung in English and have a Japanese set design. This will be a completely new production, so we’re all playing by ear to see what works, what fails and how to fix the failings.
I scanned across the floor to see who the people are. My eyes caught the eyes of C__, a soprano chorus member. She smiled and acknowledged out eye contact. I smiled back. I don’t even know who were my fellow extras, nor what my role would be, but we stood there for the next hour as H__ asked us to go through some steps.
“You and B__ will take this and walk like this,” H__ explained, tracing a curving path over the front of the stage. B__ and I would walk from stage right rear towards center, then curve back to stage right front, ending up facing back to the stage center front after walking a long convoluted backwards “S”. After we got to our spots, we knelt down and then the chorus members sang out their parts. Then that was it.
The first rehearsal was over and as I walked by, C__ came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m C__. You’re new here aren’t you?”
“Yup. First day,” I replied.
“We’re going for coffee now. Want to join?” C__ asked, ending with a sly smile.
I was done for my first rehearsal, so I appreciated the opportunity to chat with some of the more seasoned member of the talent group. We went out to Peet’s next to Books Inc. It was just closing, so we decided to walked back to Max’s Opera Cafe. There were three of us: me, C__ and another soprano, D__.
“We noticed you were new. I guessed you’re gay. Are you?” asked a rather direct D__.
“No, I’m not,” I replied.
“Hah! I win!” exclaimed C__. She looked at me and we high-fived. “Ok, what are you drinking?” she continued, “I’ll buy.”
“House red is fine,” I answered.
“One house red. Merlot?” C__ asked as she turned around to look at me. I nodded approval, “and I’ll have a cosmo. Make that two. You want one, D__?”
D__ also nodded approval. “E__, so how did you get this role?”
“Well, I’m a member of the Bravo! Club, the opera booster club, and a couple weeks ago, someone posted an email saying that the SF Opera needed some men for supernumerary position in this opera. I thought that would be a fun thing to do, so I replied.
“Actually, they said no, claiming I was too short. Then they said yes when they didn’t get enough people. So here I am. How about you?”
“Oh, we’re part of the chorus. It’s almost a full time position. I have a real estate job in addition to this. I love to sing and C__ and I enjoy coming here to sing and getting all dressed up.”
“So what’s with the question about gayness?” I asked.
“Oh, you must have noticed. Most of the other extras are gay. We were just playing a game of deciding whether the new boy is gay or not.” D__ replied.
“Actually, I have no idea if anyone is gay or not. Are you?” I countered. It was only my first day, so I wasn’t scoping out people on their sexuality.
D__ looked at me with a slight shock, but then smiled at the faux-offense that my question provoked. “Not too many of the women in the talent part are gay. I’m not. Nor C__.”
Our conversation lasted another hour or so, talking about the inside stories of the behind the scenes at the San Francisco Opera. Names flew by me, explaining who not to piss off, who is the control freak, who are the easy-to-get-along-with, who never to cross, and so on. D__ mentioned this little known legend about the opera house. Apparently, in the early sixties, one of the extras was involved in a major robbery of a drug lord here in the city and stole millions of dollars.
The money was split into manageable chunks and divvied up to other members of the gang to be hidden until it was safe to get the money. That is, until the drug lord gave up searching for the money. This extra, supposedly, either hid some of the cash in the bowels of War Memorial or hid clues to the cash’s whereabouts in War Memorial. Or maybe it was Herbst Theater next door. D__ said that she had gone snooping around and have never seen anything resembling clues or signs, but the fanciful story was a fun one to tell newcomers.
We talked about the opera and discussed the merits of it being sung in English instead of the traditional German. I only know it in German and have listened to this Mozart piece for almost thirty years, so I’m quite familiar with the opera. C__ was also singing in Attila, as was D__. The Magic Flute is the last opera of the season. Verdi’s Rigoletto will begin the following season in September. Neither D__ nor C__ were slated for that one, but they’re already prepping for chorus rehearsals for Capuleti e i Montecchi and Lohengrin and Tosca to finish out the fall season.
“You need a ride home?” C__ asked, “Where do you live?”
“Nob Hill area,” I replied, “and sure, I’d like a ride.”
“And I’m taking you home, too, right D__?” C__ said. “We both live in the North Bay. I’m in San Rafael and D__’s in Tiburon.”
“No, I drove here myself today,” smiled D__, which caused C__ to glare at her with conspiratorial eyes and head twisted askance.
We three walked back toward the opera staffs’ parking lot on Fulton while commenting about the fine summer weather we’re experiencing. D__ splintered off from us to go to her car while C__ and I walked, now a bit awkwardly, to hers. C__ drove a BMW, but at the time, I couldn’t tell the model or color, given the darkness setting over us.
C__ has her own e-commerce business which she spends far too much time buying rather than selling, or so she claims. Suddenly, I noticed were heading down hill on Franklin Street. “Oops, we just missed the turn to get to my place,” I said. We were already on Lombard by then.
“Oh, sorry. How about you come back with me to my place? You have to work early tomorrow?” C__ offered, slightly speeding up to draw out the correct response from me.
“No, no particular time for work,” I answered, understanding the situation.
“Well then, I’m make you some nice cocktails when we get home, all right?” smiled C__.
Photo: San Francisco War Memorial Opera House,Opening Night of Tosca.