The San Francisco Treatment

Here’s video from my most recent story, told on August 26, 2017 at The Auld Shebeen in Fairfax, VA as part of Better Said Than Done’s “Vacation and Other Disasters” show. Learn about the disastrous day trip to Monterey I incurred during a San Francisco vacation in October 1991. My narrative falls necessarily into the realm of creative non-fiction because 26 years later I remember only the basic sequence of events, not actual conversations or the finer details. My first draft, presented at rehearsal 2 weeks before the show, was basically a memory dump with a tentative framing device. The notes I got from my fellow storytellers helped me fill in some gaps and solidify the frame. In the interest of time and cohesiveness I had to compress some timelines, leave out some details and alter others. Along the way I gained some insights about why things played out the way they did all those years ago. I’m pleased with the final product and it got good feedback from the audience and my fellow storytellers. I’ll shut up now so you can watch the video. When you’re done and if you care to do so, read on below for a behind-the-scenes look at the actual events.

Welcome back. I hope you enjoyed the video.  Now you can board the tour bus — no cheesy celebrity imitations allowed — for a reality tour.

Cast of Characters
Jonathan and I are real and are siblings. We grew up in dysfunction and although we were never super close, we feel closer to each other than we do to anyone else in our immediate family. Doug and Ellen are also real and Jonathan and I and were in different levels of romantic relationships with them. At the time we ranged in age from late 20s to mid-30s. “Ellen” is a pseudonym, in large part because she doesn’t get any redeeming qualities in the story. One of the insights I had as I wrote the story was that her passive-aggression might have happened because she hadn’t wanted to go on the daytrip with us, possibly because she had to study.  There might have even been some drama between her and Jonathan that caused them to be so late in picking me and Doug up.

That said, Ellen’s petulant insistence on getting coffee at her place 30 minutes away when she and Jonathan had already kept Doug and me waiting for an hour and 45 minutes, as well as Jonathan’s tacit complicity, is what set the tone for the day. Doug checked out pretty much at that point too. He had a right to be angry at being jerked around of course but like Ellen he refused to do anything to make the best of an uncomfortable situation.

In the first draft I’d assigned “Ellen” the name “Allison” after running her real name through a fake-name generator. It seemed fitting since my mother had told me that had Jonathan been a girl she would have named him Allison. But as I read the story aloud “Jonathan and Allison” failed to roll neatly off my tongue. The fake-name generator then suggested “Ellen” and I went with it. It was easier to say out loud and it gave me a chance to exact some harmless revenge on an Ellen I’d known a dozen or so years ago who’d been especially nasty to me during and after a social situation at her home where I’d been humiliated to the point of utter despondency.

In my memory I only hear Doug and Ellen talking, which is why I leave Jonathan mostly silent in my story. I think he felt torn between wanting to be a good host to me and Doug and not wanting to get on Ellen’s bad side. He, like me, felt uncomfortable around conflict and often responded by shutting down.

Timelines and Relationships
Doug and I had been “casually dating” since 1989, nearly 2 years before our fateful San Fran trip. I said so in my first draft but at rehearsal it caused confusion. It would be too long of a detour to explain why our relationship really was still superficially casual enough after so long that we didn’t consider ourselves a couple. We mainly went to dinner and/or movies and only occasionally fooled around. Doug worked in the film industry as an electrician and a grip. He worked on several Hollywood films shot in the DC area as well as locally produced documentaries and training films at places like Quantico and the White House. He also worked lights for national news outlets’ DC bureaus. This meant long work days for him as well as occasional extended travel and this would cut into our scheduled together time. A standout is the time he had to cancel a dinner date because while he’d been working lights one day at the Anita Hill hearing, Thurgood Marshall resigned from the Supreme Court, meaning Doug would have to stay and work the coverage of that event. I was disappointed about dinner but it was kind of cool that an event of national import had an immediate impact on my social life.

I’d won the airline tickets at my company Christmas party in 1990, not at the 4th of July 1991. Again, it would clutter up the storyline too much to explain how Doug and I could have planned a “getting-to-know-you” San Francisco trip 10 months in advance. In truth, I chose to use the tickets with him because my only other relationship at the time was a long-distance romance with a guy who was also involved with someone else, making travel with him tricky to say the least. In 1991 we didn’t use the phrase “it’s complicated” to describe relationships but complicated is what it was.

San Francisco wasn’t the first trip Doug and I took together, either. A year earlier we’d done a weekend drive down to Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg for some history overload. That went well but as we drove back home on I-95 North Sunday evening I was put off at how angry Doug got at the traffic. It wasn’t a surprise to either of us long-term area residents that it would take longer than usual to get back home but he groused about it like it was an unforseen inconvenience. I wish I’d’ve known at the time how that anger would return on the road to — and from — Monterey.

The last time I saw Doug was when we parted at National Airport after our San Fran flight. A few days later he sent me flowers at work with a card that said “Thank you for San Francisco” but neither of us made an attempt to contact the other after that. There was no overt animosity. We both just realized we’d run our course together.

Jonathan and Ellen did break up too, only not “two months” after the Monterey fiasco. I don’t remember exactly when it happened. They were together at Christmas 1991, when they flew back to Cleveland to see their respective families. I drove up from DC and so I saw them at my parents’ house. We didn’t talk about Monterey that I recall. I do remember that Jonathan got very angry at me when I was stuffing stockings on Christmas Eve. I put some mini chocolates and a small wrapped gift for our grandmother into the stocking I thought was hers and Jonathan, seeing this, asked what I was putting in Ellen’s stocking. “Oh, this is Ellen’s? Whoops.” As I said this I fished the gift out of the stocking and put it in a different stocking after verifying the second one was indeed Granny’s. When I turned around Jonathan had left the room and later that night he knocked on my bedroom door and laid into me about excluding Ellen by taking the gift from her stocking. I tried to explain that I had left the chocolates in the stocking for Ellen so she’d have something from me but that the gift was specifically for Granny so I moved that. He didn’t or wouldn’t understand that and was low-level hostile toward me the rest of the visit. I felt awful about it. Again, hindsight now suggests that there was some drama going on between them and he was taking some of it out on me. When Jonathan and I had had our one-on-one sibling time back in San Francisco he’d remarked a few times, jokingly or so I’d thought, about how he’d be “in the doghouse” if he spent too much time with me and, more to the point, away from Ellen. They were definitely not together anymore by Thanksgiving 1992, and Jonathan had moved back to Cleveland by then. Alone.

What’s more, I’d met Ellen before that Sunday daytrip. She and Jonathan had dated when they were in high school. I was away at college so my only contact with her was during the summer, and then very very superficially. I knew her name and had seen her in person briefly once or twice before she and Jonathan went off on their dates.  They hooked up again when Jonathan was visiting Ohio from California and Ellen moved out there to live with him. I had been living in DC for several years by then so it’s fair to say that there was room to get to know Ellen on the way to Monterey.

There Was Conversation But It Only Added an Extra Layer of Terrible
Most of the car time was silent and so was lunch, but some conversation did happen. Ellen put down her textbook during the pumpkin festival traffic jam and we talked a little about the fire news, which was unsettling from the get-go. Ellen or Jonathan mentioned a friend or neighbor of theirs who lived in the city but whose landlord lived in Oakland. They were aware of a clause in the friend’s lease, and maybe in their own, that gave the landlord the right to evict the tenant and move into the property if his own home became uninhabitable.

Since we were already talking about a disaster, talk turned to the mass shooting that had happened on Wednesday October 16 at a cafeteria-style restaurant in Texas. That news had cast a pall over the week, especially since there was conjecture that the gunman had been inspired by a similar shooting in the movie The Fisher King, then in theaters. It turned out that Jonathan and Ellen had gone to see the movie the night before and they’d both been disturbed by it. They may have even suggested that their inability to sleep later led to their not waking up on time on Sunday, making them late to pick us up. I was sufficiently creeped out that I didn’t see the movie for several years and even then the association with that awful week of national news and personal travel made for difficult watching.

I’ll Think About It Tomorrow
As I wound up my story onstage, I left out a visual image from when we where in the car driving back to the city after dark. I think in the moment it didn’t match the rhythm so I passed over it without thinking twice, although I had left the line in every time I rehearsed the story. But it’s a strongly lingering image from the time so here it is: As we approached the city with our heads and hearts full of angst over the fire news, the sky above was glowing a dull ominous red. It reminded me of the sky in the Gone With The Wind movie poster.

In Case You Were Wondering
I don’t know whose idea it had been to go to Monterey. I want to say it was either Doug, who’d mentioned the aquarium while our trip was still in the planning stages, or Jonathan, who hadn’t been there yet in spite of living nearby for so long.

Also, I don’t think the aquarium had a giant squid. It just seemed like a funny kind of exhibit to name. We needed the comic relief at that point, both on the day and in the story.

Speaking of comedy, the stand-up comic Doug and I quoted to each other all week was Kevin Meaney. One of the bits we especially liked was about how the super-hot the filling was in McDonald’s apple pies and that they should be labeled “Warning: Lava Inside.”

I don’t remember the name of the coffee place Doug and I liked. It wasn’t a chain as far as I know. I recently found a great robust blend in a small pie shop in rural Virginia that reminded me of the “serious” blend we enjoyed in San Fran.

I likewise no longer remember the name of the town that was host to the Woodstock of pumpkin festivals, although I remembered it for a long time all the same. Google tells me that the entire countryside between San Francisco and Monterey is simply lousy with pumpkin festivals. I guess we were lucky to only encounter the one.

To the best of my recollection aided by Google-fu, the whisky bar in Sausalito was Paterson’s, now apparently closed or operating under a different name. Doug had something that was 40 years old, I had something that was 25. The joy of that taste experience was an oasis of wonderful and one of my fondest memories of that week, and indeed of my entire relationship with Doug.

Truthier Than Fiction
So now you know the rest of the story. I had a conversation about the ethics of creative non-fiction before the show with another storyteller, who was agonizing over having to make up a detail because they simply didn’t remember the truth but needed that piece of their story, which like mine took place over 20 years ago. That storyteller approaches the craft like a news reporter, so fudging details doesn’t come naturally. As I’ve shown above, I don’t have a problem rearranging or inventing story elements if necessary so long as the result conveys the essential lesson learned from the events being recounted. Through the lens of time and the wisdom of my, ahem, advanced years, a tale of a trip gone horribly wrong is now an account of luck, optimism, and, yes, disaster.

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One Reply to “The San Francisco Treatment”

  1. Nice story, and the backstory history was fun.

    Sometimes fudging a few details, as long as the emotional impact remains the same, is good in non-fiction storytelling, IMO.

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