Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Peter G. Timkins

The January Of Doing Funny Stuff concluded with a great day in The City, followed by my first-ever viewing of the Paul F. Tompkins Show, during my first-ever visit to the San Francisco outpost of Yoshi's, a jazz club and sushi restaurant.

It was a gorgeous day, so I decided to head up early and enjoy all of it. For me, "enjoying" is usually synonymous with "walking around in". I caught BART up to 16th and Mission, and cut directly west along 16th. I'd consulted a recently-gifted book called "Stairway Walks in San Francisco", and followed its suggested route in my approach towards and through Corona Heights. I feel like I keep saying this, but I think that the views from the top of Corona Heights might be the best you can get of eastern San Francisco. It helps that it was a perfectly clear day, and the Bay was a gorgeous shade of blue. You're much closer to downtown here than in my previous favorite spots, like Twin Peaks, and so you can appreciate a finer level of detail, including clear looks at individual cars and trolleys and streetcars moving around. You have complete, unobstructed views of The Mission, SOMA, and the Castro, along with the western face of Potrero Hill, most of the Financial District and the northeastern hills, and the southeastern quadrant of the city. Plus, there's an amazing full-on look at downtown Oakland; from this perspective, Mount Diablo rises directly behind the skyscrapers there, which is a very cool effect.

Totally jazzed, I continued along the stairways, then broke off to cross over to Buena Vista Park. This is several times larger than Corona Heights. It's also a lot more wooded, and has more paths, which generally run in concentric rings with some stairways (yay!) running more or less straight up. More awesome views could be found from the top here; the trees meant more obstructions than Corona, but from certain spots you could catch the Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio.  As an extra-special bonus, a bunch of friendly dogs were frolicking around on top of the hill; some of them demanded to be petted, which I gladly obliged. Good doggies!

I worked my way down the north side of Buena Vista, crossed Haight, and over to the Panhandle. Being such a great day, folks were out in full force along the paths here, running, cycling, and walking like me. I went through a long loop, east to the end and then back west, before crossing over into the main part of Golden Gate Park.

I've visited GGP many times before, and I doubt I'll ever get tired of it. Not only is it huge with tons to see, but it's also regularly changing and improving. On this trip, I made my first-ever visit to the Conservancy of Flowers; I didn't make it inside, but even outside there's a gorgeous collection of flower beds. Since this was Sunday, JFK Drive was closed to auto traffic, and huge numbers of people were thoroughly enjoying the park. For the most part cyclists were staying on the road while pedestrians claimed the full breadth of the shared walk/bike lanes.

I continued looping my way west, and eventually made it to what I'm now thinking of as the Museum Campus. I was last here several years ago, when the new home of the California Academy of Sciences was under construction; that project is now over, and the result is a perfectly formed jewel. The de Young museum continues to impress with its modernist architecture and wonderful outdoor sculptures and gardens. Next along in the ring, an outdoor amphitheater connects to the history of the park (it was erected in 1900); on this day there were no shows, but a talented amateur was playing a flute while several picnickers listened with appreciation. In the center of the campus is a recessed, tiered set of walkways and gardens, with a fountain in the middle. Finally, on the south end, the new Academy building was doing a brisk business.

The building looks nice; a bit big and blocky from a distance, but they do a lot of stuff with glass to open it up. I still haven't been inside; I've heard good things and am a bit curious, but at $30 per ticket, it will probably be a long time before I head there. Regardless, though, it really transforms the area from "The deYoung and Friends" to a full campus. The Japanese Tea Garden is now almost an afterthought, you need to hunt around for it.

I was tempted to make this my lunch spot, but decided to press on to Stow Lake, figuring that, hey, water is nice! The lake was indeed pleasant, and quite busy; the median age of visitors here skews several decades older than the rest of the park, and I suspect that many of them are native San Franciscans. I walked around for a bit, started to eat on a bench facing the water, then relocated to a nice little picnic area set farther back from the crowds, within sight of a waterfall. I had some leftover homemade pizza (Cook's Illustrated's recipe for thin-crust), a banana, and some homemade peanut butter chocolate chip cookies.

After I finished up, I wandered over towards the waterfall. There's a large stone cross above it, and I was curious about it. It turns out that it was erected back in 1894 (!), in honor of a priest from the Church of England who served as Sir Francis Drake's chaplain. The inscription covers both front and back of the cross, and tells how this guy led the first English-language prayers on the West Coast.

Checking the time, I decided it would be good to start heading back east; in all of my walking, I hadn't even reached halfway through the park. On my trip back I took a more southerly loop, closer to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. This included the back of the California Academy, several very large fields and athletic areas, a lawn bowling club (with signs that sternly forbade playing bocce ball), and so on. I returned to the Panhandle, re-crossed Haight, did Buena Vista Park again and got acquainted with a new set of doggies, then resumed my long-delayed Stairway Walk from the book. This took me along Buena Vista Drive East (which has many gorgeous houses), down Roosevelt Way (also has gorgeous houses), down the Roosevelt-Henry stairs to Henry (which, you guessed it, has gorgeous houses). At Castro I swung south, crossed Market, then made my way back to the Mission.

It was a pleasantly warm and sunny day, and I was in the Mission. You can guess what that means: ice cream! I've long heard glorious tales of Bi-Rite Creamery, and knew that this was the perfect opportunity to try for myself. As with all popular Mission places, it was a bit of a scene, with a line that stretched to the end of the block. Still, I didn't have to be anywhere soon, and it was a thoroughly pleasant day, so I pulled the New Yorker out of my bag and read while I patiently waited.

Bi-Rite makes all their own ice cream, and do some really interesting flavors. There are a handful of familiars, like vanilla, chocolate, and cookies and cream; there are a few popular upscale flavors, like roasted caramel with sea salt and mango; and there were some fascinating originals, like roasted banana and ricanelas (cinnamon with snickerdoodles). I was fascinated by the latter, and opted for a single cone with ricanelas.

Bi-Rite is cater-corner from Mission Dolores Park, so I crossed the street and ambled through, licking my cone. The park was full, as is always the case on sunny weekends. It's an extremely chill scene; people plop down their blankets and hang out, reading or talking and enjoying the sun. A few people were playing music, and some folks nearby would dance. A children's playground was packed with young-un's, and the smell of marijuana was a little less strong there.

The cone lasted exactly long enough for my slow walk through the park; I disposed of it, then picked up 20th Street and continued east. I had just one thing on my agenda prior to heading to Yoshi's: I wanted to check out Borderlands, a science-fiction and fantasy bookstore, near 20th and Valencia.

It was quite cool. It's a little smaller than I was expecting, but stuffed with great books; and, since they only cover a few genres (horror in addition to sci-fi and fantasy), there's a much higher probability of finding something good. The store itself looks great as well; it may be the cleanest used book store I've ever been to.

They have newer books towards the front of the store, used hardcovers farther back, and used paperbacks at the very rear. They do that awesome independent bookstore thing where the staff (seems like two guys) write notes about their recommendations, giving a few sentences describing a book and why you should check it out. These seem to be very effective; in most cases, the books they referenced were no longer on the shelves.

I spent about half an hour in there, half-listening as someone (the owner? the clerk?) chatted with a series of customers while I scanned the shelves. I started by looking for a few favorite authors of mine - Neal Stephenson, Robert Anton Wilson, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin. Unfortunately, I already own pretty much everything that they've written, but I was happy to see the books that they had. I was toying between buying a new copy of Neverwhere (just about the only Gaiman novel I haven't read yet) or Masks of the Illuminati (a less-popular successor to Illuminatus! and the Schrodinger's Cat trilogies; it sounds fascinating, it's supposedly about Albert Einstein and James Joyce teaming up to solve cosmic mysteries). However, I eventually found two used books that I wanted. In a bit of perfect timing, they had Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends; I had just started You Suck the day before and was coming to the realization that it was a sequel, so with BF I would be able to get caught up. Along with this I got William Gibson's Burning Chrome, which has been on my radar for years and bizarrely isn't carried by any library nearby.

It was now just a bit after 4:30, so I headed up Valencia back to 16th, over to Church, crossed Market, then jogged over. Google Maps wanted me to go up Fillmore; for a change of pace, I decided to head up Steiner instead. Steiner proved to be a bit more residential, and was a pleasant, relatively quiet walk up and down the hill.

Yoshi's San Francisco was built in connection with the new Jazz Heritage Center, which is part of a revitalization effort taking place in the Fillmore district. It's absolutely gorgeous. When you first walk in, you enter a large lobby that holds rotating exhibits; right now, it's a series on a Jewish-American artist. I walked around and peered at the reproductions. The history is pretty fascinating, all tied up with the horrors of World War II but also referencing back to the historical role that Jews played in earlier events like the Revolutionary War. I think that there's also a separate jazz museum area, but I didn't explore that.

I picked up my ticket from the box office; my awesome brother had scored reservations, which gave me a guaranteed good seat at this sold-out show AND a voucher for dinner. I headed into the restaurant, which is probably the best-looking dining area I've been inside in The City. I talked with the incredibly friendly host, who offered me a seat in the restaurant; I ended up sitting in the downstairs lounge, with a view of the flat-screen television showing the Jets-Steelers game. Yes!

The menu is similar to the Oakland Yoshi's. I was tempted by a lot of their dishes, but eventually decided to have the sushi; after all, it's amazing, and, as I was startled to realize, I haven't eaten any sushi in nearly six months. I got one of their sashimi combination plates, along with miso soup, edamame, and a Sapporo.

Of course, everything was delicious. They do a really interesting presentation of the sashimi: instead of just offering the standard soy, ginger, and wasabi, they scatter around a handful of flavor pairings. There's a wedge of lemon, a few thin radish slices, some nori, and a fascinating yellow gloop that I couldn't identify. The sashimi itself is excellent, although I did end up wishing that I'd ordered nigiri instead.

I milked my edamame and my beer as long as I could, keeping an eye on the game and another eye on the time. When I started watching, the Steelers were up 24-0; by the end, the Jets had mounted an amazing but ultimately unsuccessful rally, locking up 19 unanswered points. I finished the last of my beer and headed in to the club.

Hooray for reserved seats! Yoshi's (both locations) has an interesting policy, which is basically first-come first-serve, but you can reserve a seat with certain actions, like having a brother pay for your dinner. I wanted in about five minutes before the show and claimed my seat: second row from the stage, on the left side, with mostly a full-on view but able to see the piano player's hands. Score! The two other reserved tables at my table would remain empty for the whole night. Double score!

The show opened with the band walking out and taking up their instruments. Piano, drums, guitar. They started jamming. Paul F. Tompkins began addressing the audience. "Greetings, ladies and gentlemen! It is I, Paul F. Tompkins, of the Paul F. Tompkins show! Look around as much as you like... you cannot see me! But, do not fear. I am not a disembodied spectre, speaking to you from beyond the grave. I am merely standing behind this stage curtain!" And so on.

I just loved Tompkins' voice, here and throughout the show. I've seen and enjoyed his work on Mr. Show, and caught a handful of YouTube clips from him, but haven't followed him too closely otherwise, and so was surprised and impressed by the show.

The overall structure is kind of like an old-timey variety/vaudeville show, but with modern sensibilities. There were a few songs, including some from the band, a few solo pieces from Tompkin's Very Special Guest Tom Brosseau, and one show-stopping number with the whole gang. Tompkins did some comedy bits, mainly conversational storytelling, and kept up a pattering showmanship throughout. He also had some skits with his Very Special Guests: Neil Patrick Harris and Gillian Jacobs. Yay!

A few random memories from an excellent show:

I don't want to repeat too many jokes, but I figure his SF-specific bits are unlikely to be performed again, so: from his post-opening-song monologue:
"Thank you, San Francisco! I've heard that your one-sided rivalry with Los Angeles is continuing well. You know, the rivalry that we choose not to participate in; but, I think it's terrific that you guys are keeping up your end of it. I was riding in a cab yesterday, and learned from the driver that this isn't just a rivalry with LA, but with all of Southern California... and that includes San Diego. Really? San Diego? Let me just let you know, you guys have already won, whatever weird competition you think you're having with San Diego. I mean... what do you say when you meet someone from San Diego?  'Hey, you! Yeah, you guy from San Diego!  Nice... zoo!  And, nice... water zoo. Pfft... typical San Diego. Having two things.'"

I hadn't heard of Tom Brosseau before. He was quiet and pleasant, and a great singer and guitarist. It wasn't until about halfway through his first song that I realized it was also really funny. He had a complete, dead-on sincere thing going the whole way through, so even once I started to suspect that he meant it to amuse, it took a while for me to be sure. There really weren't any laugh points during the song, and while the audience clearly appreciated it, I'm not sure that we ever "got" it.

Neil Patrick Harris was excellent. Tompkins introduced him, and early on described how much he had enjoyed his role in Undercover Brother. I was delighted by the shout-out, and think that Tompkins was short-selling the movie... yeah, it's dumb, but it's a really fun kind of dumb, even beyond the (great) scenes that NPH is in.

For this section, they competed in a brand new game: Reference-a-thon! (Note: I don't remember what it was actually called.) Each one tried to stump the other with obscure references.

NPH: "Luca Braci sleeps with the fishes."
PFT: "Ohhhhhh..... mmmmm.... argh.... I should know this! Is it... wait.. gosh. I don't know. I'll just say 'The Godfather.'"
NPH: "That's right!"

PFT gave the quote "Soylent green is made out of people! It's people!" That kicked off an angry and heated exchange. First of all, as NPH pointed out, the quote is "Soylent Green is people! It's people!" He then got PFT to confess that he hadn't ever actually seen the movie, and so had no business referencing it. PFT defended himself, saying that he'd heard enough to understand what the movie was about, and preceded to give a capsule summary of the film. "Right?" he hopefully asked. NPH shrugged. "I don't know, I haven't seen it either." Which led to an increasingly violent series of recriminations, and a fear that they were plunging headlong into a dark future the same as what may or may not be depicted in the film Soylent Green.

It was pretty awesome.

Later on, PFT started in on a big, brassy, Broadway song covering major legal battles. "BROWN versus the BOARD of education!" He was interrupted by Gillian Jacobs, who walked out in her jammies, reminding PFT that they had a slumber party that night. PFT suggested crank calls; GJ reminded him that crank calls were mean, and suggested prank calls instead. They called that one boy who Gillian likes, and lots of giggling ensued.

This spun out into an increasingly crazy, surrealistic series of statements, ending with Gillian's tearful confession that she was, in fact, a bird with hollow bones.

The absolute biggest part of the night: EVERYONE came  back on stage to join together in performing one of the standards: "That's Not My Name" by the Ting Tings. It was AMAZING. And hilarious; I don't think people ever stopped laughing. They did a stunningly good job, too, throwing far too much talent into aping this pop hit. And it wasn't just a song, it was a performance. Tom gently crooned into his mike; Gillian gave this amazingly cute little scowl and half-shake of her head whenever she announced "That's not my name! That's not my name!" PFT led off and ended the song with a kind of slide-whistle thing, and joyously led the singing throughout. NPH and Gillian played off of each other wonderfully. (I think that NPH may not have been miked; I'm not sure if this is actually the case, and if so, whether it was deliberate or not.)

The evening ended with a very, very, very long (but funny!) farewell from PFT while his cohort twinkled the ivory. He went all over in saying his farewell. He thanked everyone (including his crew, and Yoshi's crew, and SF Sketchfest, and so on); he also thanked us for being such a wonderful audience. We stayed quiet for this part; it's rude to applaud yourself, right? He continued with something like, "You've been such a wonderful audience. I wish we could spend eternity together. And now we can!" He dramatically gestured up towards the ceiling. "Release the cyanide!" We all laughed and applauded. PFT giggled. "That has to be the weirdest reaction I've ever gotten from an audience. Who would have thought it would be so easy to start a cult?"

It finally ended, and after a standing ovation and final curtain call, they headed out. The whole evening felt like it had gone by really fast, but checking my watch, I realized that it had been about an hour and a half. I seem to get that experience every time I go to Yoshi's, and I suppose it's a good sign: I'm having so much fun that I'm sorry to see it end.

I worked my way back down to 16th and Mission, and was pleasantly surprised to only run into a single obnoxious drunk on the whole way. I think I might try to do this in the future and avoid the mid-Market gauntlet to reach my standard Civic Center station.

Anyways, it was a great cap to a nearly perfect day. Thanks, Pat!

1 comment:

  1. Your genetic credentials are firmly intact, with appropriate references to the particulars of the day's meals. Well done.

    Oh, and the account of the performance is really evocative. Made me wish I had been there with you!