Golden Gate park was just down the hill — she could walk to it easily. The Golden Gate Bridge could be seen directly from the windows of all of their rooms as they were on the wing that looked directly out to it. There was a group of thirteen of them living there that summer — all having won scholarships to the Academy of Art on Sutter Street downtown — a bus ride away each morning. Lone Mountain College, where they all were staying, was way up on a hill and to get to the bus stop behind it required walking brakes to keep from flying down it — it was very steep. It was not something to look forward to, getting back up it.
A group of nuns were residing at the end of their wing — one of which was on some kind of sabbatical whereby she would decide whether she wanted to stay or leave her order and they thought they saw her with a man or men, coming and going from her room. It could have been her brother, but there were rumors he was not. The nuns were quiet but they were witness to several of their not so quiet shenanigans — youthful drunkenness one night — fool-making — up and down the hall and in and out of the Lavatory, it was called, where they all shared toilet and showering facilities.
The scholarship didn’t cover room and board but whatever they paid the college to stay there included changes of sheets and towels — if you could schedule things just right — and meals — also requiring getting there on time.
Coming up the back, the same way they went down to catch the bus, required getting someone’s attention to let you in the door at certain times. Leaving was no trouble. There were a few other odd, assorted people renting rooms there that summer and one of them was Tuffy — a dark-skinned fellow everyone loved who they all were quite sure was gay. Often, for some reason, Tuffy was there to let someone in — all that was required was to shout up to his window…”Tuuuuffyyy, Tuuuuffy!” Down he’d come to let you in.
One afternoon, probably a Saturday, because she was the only one taking a Saturday class, she couldn’t get Tuffy’s or anyone’s attention and had to scale the side of the hill of dirt and rocks and missed the lunch buffet by minutes — missing lunch was a big disappointment.
It was a wonderful summer — one that she would remember forever. She turned eighteen not long after arriving and it was her first time away from home, requiring a plane ride — something else that was a first. It was a short flight, just 45 minutes or so, so they didn’t get very high and she found it fascinating to see the ground look so much like a patchwork quilt. It was $36 for a round trip ticket and her mother bought two trips, one for her friend who would go with her to help her get oriented because she had been there the year before.
Because her friend came with her, they shared the room at first and then when the friend finally left, staying longer than she should have, she had the room to herself. It was six weeks of spellbinding magic in total.
The dorm arrangement was akin to a social order but the Academy was pure art and there was the smell of oils and linseed and freedom permeating the air through and through the five stories of an old downtown building. It was Heaven. The elevator had a velvet sofa in it — but most everybody took the stairs because they were a lot quicker.
Her favorite class ended up being the one on Saturday. While all her fellow scholarship friends were off getting new shag haircuts or having some mundane normal experience or shopping — she was sitting on the floor with her teacher learning how to stretch a canvas. The teacher was on crutches and had trouble with his legs but made no bones about getting on the floor for the best way of doing it. She took notes so she would remember.
She made a few friends and probably a couple of enemies and met some boys and lost one to the girl next door who would when she wouldn’t — but it was all part of growing up and learning how to love life and find her passion. She would never be the same. One of her friends back home was sure she would come home snooty for having had such a wonderful experience — but mostly she just came back with more muscles in her legs from walking.
One of the things that stood out to her while she was there, navigating steep hills on foot or on and off buses was that all the ladies of San Francisco wore nice shoes when they should have been wearing brogans with suction cups. There was a lot of styling going on and she found this very unique shoe shop that made shoes by hand — The Knack. She was determined to have a pair. They were probably $80 which was a fortune to her, but somehow she managed to eek it out of her measly purse holdings and wore those shoes to death for years and years thereafter.
She wore and wore that summer too. Little did she know what her high school teacher did when he made sure she had all the brushes and Conté Crayons and anything else he could steal from school supplies to send with her — that it would change her life. The fact that he had the confidence in her to start with to make her get the portfolio together to send off for competition and all his careful nurturing for the two years that it took for her to work up enough material. He knew — it was the perfect thing for her to do at that point in her life. “You need to loosen up,” he’d always tell her. She’d find out exactly what he meant and how to do it at the Academy where they all had to try to control long bamboo sticks with chalk attached while standing, or draw without looking at the paper or lifting the pencil, or sketch nude models in seconds. He knew. She had control issues that were part of insecurities that would get some fixing going off to an adventure in artful living.
Mr. Danielson. Everybody loved Mr. Danielson. Everybody was in love with Mr. Danielson — he was an angel sent from heaven — but he was in love with his wife — which made him even more beautiful. He was a beautiful man, inside and out — tall with a full beard and mustache and curly hair, trim and beautifully proportioned and spoke softly and leaned over carefully to show you how to do things. He always had an apron on that was slathered with paint all over — he wiped his brushes on it. She will never stop being grateful for the chance of him in her life. Everyone that knew him said the same.
San Francisco. It’s impossible not to leave your heart there.
She went back somewhere near ten years later and drove around just looking at the spots where she had been. She went again many more years after that when she was nearby taking classes for a company she was working for. She could remember it all.
Her mother used to speak of her own days of living in Goose Bay, Labrador and would say things like “those were the best days of my life.” She knew by then what her mother had meant. There’s just something about freedom from things that inhibit that sticks with you and informs the rest of life. Art, Mr. Danielson and San Francisco had come together like a perfect storm to set her out in life just right.
Art, in and of itself, hadn’t ended up being her life but it had informed it at every turn and just the experience of being brave and going on that trip had made all the difference. Some girls mother’s wouldn’t even let them apply. She had had a mother that liked freedom. She had been lucky there too.
Life wasn’t over yet and she still had longings of stretching canvas and of oil paint and linseed. Maybe she’d find a way to be brave again and do it.