By Lynell George
Via Open Space | SF MOMA
IF THE MOMENT were different, I would have been there, in the thick of it, shoulder to shoulder, with the rest. North Beach’s venerable gathering place, Caffe Trieste, would only turn sixty-five once and I wanted to celebrate its auspicious day. Instead, on the first of last April, I settled on a poem fragment alongside a vintage photo to post on one of my social media feeds. I augmented it with a congratulatory note, sent with love from my Southern California shelter-in-place hideaway.
Moments later, a Bay Area friend replied with a portrait of the cafe’s late founder “Papa” Gianni Giovanni Giotta, resplendent in a black stingy-brim fedora and dark sunglasses — a chin-chin across cyber distance. In a blink, the photographer who had captured that moment added a link to a folder of images (portraits, celebrations, candids), cracking open not just a world, but a feeling.
I tumbled down that rabbit hole, eagerly paging photo to photo, happy to be floating back to one of my earliest North Beach touchstones — one that always seemed to exist out of time but never out of place. It was distinctly the San Francisco I craved before I lived there, the one I’d go seeking when I briefly made my home there. I went for the atmosphere: busy conversations about art, books, politics, or plans for general ruckus. I could experience it all from my single window seat: the photos summoned the sharp aroma of a freshly pulled espresso, the majestic arias soaring from the jukebox, the harsh snap of chill that roared into the room when the door swung open for another patron or cast member.
Advancing through the frames, a half hour slipped away. An hour. More. Not until daylight fully faded did I stop myself: what sort of wish — or melancholy — sent me scrolling through scores of other people’s memories? Decades of regulars ringed around small tables, nursing the last swallow of a cappuccino; solo patrons’ eyes focused on middle distance; loose configurations posted just outside the entrance on Vallejo Street in animated conversation — stilled.
It wasn’t simply wistfulness that powered my search. Perhaps it was a shade of self-absorption or hubris, but I realized I was looking for myself. I was, without at first knowing it, hoping against hope to find some ghost of myself — part of this story, too. I was searching for evidence, not just that I had been there, but that it had moved through me.
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