It’s my last session before I leave San Francisco for London tomorrow. I’m feeling pretty cocky about my knowledge of SF – I’ve hopped on dozens of buses and trams and seen great chunks of the city in ten days. So I hopped on a 38 bus – a new bus route! where will it take me! with great excitement to get to the Downtown Senior Center for the last session and I am totally unprepared for where I get off. Haight Ashbury and the Mission District at night are very like Camden town where I live – young, loud, drinky, druggy. Places I used to feel at home and now make me feel ancient but not scared. But the 38 drops me bang in the middle of the Tenderloin, one of the places I was going to stay when I was frantically hunting for a hotel. At 1pm, it’s terrifying if you aren’t expecting it. “Got a dollar, got a dollar?” a tall skinny guy with red eyes asks me. I reply that I don’t. “I gotta have a hit” he says to a pusher on the corner. The pusher shrugs. This scene is being played out all over the street. There are 2 people up against a wall and I’m trying not to look to carefully but I’d swear they were “doing it”. Oh Lord. Where is the Senior Center???
And suddenly, there it is. An innocuous beige building in the middle of all this. I go inside, rapidly and find Marie, the woman from the Solera singers who suggested I come along. She tells me the turtle on the sign is the Chinese turtle, which stands for long life. It is very unlike other sessions. It starts very late, people drift in. Marie tells me she no longer sings with them as she is too busy, but she’s also not comfortable because there are lots of politics involved. Half the group would like to sing in Cantonese (the predominant Chinese language spoken in San Francisco) and the other half in Mandarin. Their current director, Vivien Chan conducts in Mandarin. The pianist comes over to me and says “I’m Sali Lu. I’m 88. From Shanghai. I been here 24 years. Social worker ask me to come play piano.”
Then it’s the break. And the party takes off. I take a group picture. Then everyone wants pictures taken with their friends. They simply stand in front of me and pose. I take more pictures than at any other session on my trip. People bring me nuts, crackers. People being me homemade Chinese cake (I make this cake!) which is very like baklava. People pass out chocolates, biscuits. So I take pictures and stuff my face.
I speak to Sue Horst the Director of the center. She tells me the Chinese Community within the Senior Center will be part of the five year Community Choir initiative I spoke to Julene Johnson about the other day. “We’re in year 5″ she said. I speak to her colleague Peggy who is in touch with a group who are trying to do a Western version of Young @ Heart – “The Redwoods” – “They’ve having a blast” she reports. Just speaking to the two of them makes me realise the longer you stay in San Francisco the more there is to discover – it seems almost infinite.You peel back a layer and more and more things turn up.
I push off into the hot street, pick my way through the bodies and jump on a bus.