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Black Lamb

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Joltin’ Joe & Chinatown

March 1st, 2014

BY ELIZABETH FOURNIER

My favorite memories of days spent in San Francisco are rich and ripe with pungency. Not in a stumbling-across-a-row-of-steamy-outhouses, death-spank way, but more of an aromatic bacon awakening after a long nap.

dimaggiotheswingOne perfectly sunny Thursday I crashed the funeral of Joe DiMaggio, the elegant Yankee Clipper. It was in invite-only service; the hubbub in the park across the street was that no Yankees had been invited. My original location was Washington Square Park, that huge green space across Filbert Street from the twin-spired Saints Peter and Paul Church. All of us fans, reporters, TV uplink trucks, city gawkers, and non-funeral invitees were sandwiched between cones on the exact chunk of grass where they had filmed scenes from Clint’s Dirty Harry, when his character was hot on the trail of the Scorpio Killer. I surveyed the park crowd a few times for George Steinbrenner.

I didn’t show up until after it started so I missed the seven limousines pulling in front of the church around ten that morning, shuttling about fifty family members and friends to the service. The word on the grass was that the presiding priest had known DiMaggio since the two grew up together, and that Joe’s only surviving sibling, his brother Dominic, would be giving the eulogy.

Even though the blocks of mourners were behind a police barricade, the crowds weren’t just lookie loos. A lot of ballplayers and former ballplayers’s kids were standing among us. Facing the church, this grassy park is North Beach’s center. Washington Square was the heart of San Francisco’s Italian enclave of North Beach, where DiMaggio spent his childhood, so many people here were neighbors with some connection or another.

We all stood in that park and all had to remark that we couldn’t believe Joltin’ Joe was right across the street. Just right there in that building in front of us. But I had to get closer. I wanted to be a part of the funeral, not just a lawn-gawker drinking a Diet Pepsi in a park.

I moved closer and resorted to obvious measures: I flirted with a security guy and he let me in the parish offices to the left of the cathedral to use the bathroom. He thought I was going to come out again and give him my number but I stayed inside the cozy cubicle, perched on my temporary kneeler of a toilet inside the church, straining to hear the majesty of “Ave Maria.” My cover was blown when Mr. Rejection narked on me and a female guard banged on the stall door. Out on the street I went. Embarrassed, but what evs. At least I got to rejoin my parkmates in time to join the chorus of shouting “Bravo!” and the spectacular applause as Mr. Coffee was carried out of the cathedral in his brown casket covered in white flowers.

One of my many working funeral gigs in the San Francisco Bay Area was a death certificate typist for SCI, Service Corporation International. I shared a smallish office in the back corner of a megalopolis funeral home in the middle of a megalopolis cemetery with three other women on a rotating schedule. I think they all puffed on their Camels and Pall Malls more than tinkled the typewriter keys. Every morning on duty I would careen my hooptie into that good space next to the typist smoking section and float on nicotine fumes into my corner chair wedged between the copy machine and the wall. And I would type. I would hit the keys to transpose the name and dates of life of a decedent, plus other vital info: education, parent’s names and their states of birth, last address, and all, then off to the doc for signature.

A little insight… a medical examiner rarely gets involved with deaths or death certificate signatures. If the death is in a hospital, nursing home, under hospice care, etc., a primary care physician or attending doctor is in charge. Medical examiners only get in the mix when a death has resulted from violence, occurred suddenly when a person was in apparent good health, occurred in a prison, or occurred in a suspicious, unusual, or unnatural manner.

SCI (Service Corporation International) is a chain. It is the McDonalds in the world of fast food burgers, the Coca-Cola™ of sodas, the Google of search engines. Let’s just call it the Starbuck's of the hereafter. SCI firms were everywhere, and I bounced around to a few of them. One day I was sent up to another of the corporation’s funeral homes up north in San Francisco as a contracted worker.

Green Street Mortuary sits on Green Street in the North Beach section of town. Funny, I don’t recall if this was the parlor that served Mr. DiMaggio that sunny day in 1999. Even though it sits in the traditionally Italian section of town, Green Street Mortuary is San Francisco’s largest Chinese funeral parlor. More than 300 Chinese families a year hire the Green Street Mortuary Band to give their loved ones a proper and musical send-off through the streets of Chinatown.

Today was one such day, so I stopped for a quick bite before walking in to report for work. The parlor sits across the street from Beach Blanket Babylon, Capp’s Corner, and O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, so the world was my rye-induced oyster. I sat in the window seat and stuffed face on the corner of the intersection between the Italian neighborhood and Chinatown. I would have totally Facebooked my minutes there if Facebook had been around. It was worthy.

I was going to be driving a livery vehicle (limousine) for a huge procession that would wind through fifteen or so blocks of Chinatown. The route would totally depend on where the person lived, if they had a business in the area, or were well known in the community. I rang three friends on the payphone on the corner since I was so early and so excited.

I sat alone for a full hour inside my stifling black limo. They didn’t need me inside to help with anything. After the service finally ended, the vehicles begin the lengthy procedure of lining up for takeoff. Green placards are placed in all cars heading through the procession and continuing to the cemetery. I load my family, and am ordered to quickly come forward and am slotted between two other limos. I can’t really see all the action because of all the tall floral sprays in the convertible ahead. The main family members are in the black convertible up front holding the large picture of Dr. Fa, a portrait of a man who looks ready to take his last ride perched up high in a sleek, low vehicle.

The hearse is backed up to the door of the mortuary, and a group of chanting monks appear to float out the chapel door. Bells are ringing, brethren are chanting, incense is in the air. It’s show time! I am giddy and beyond excited. It’s the moment we have all been waiting for. As the coffin is placed in the hearse the drum rolls sound and “Amazing Grace” wails through the rows of triple-parked cars. Enormous sticks of incense are burning, and the mourners take their final bows honoring Dr. Fa. A motorcycle escort makes sure all traffic halts and I have two hands on the wheel knowing that I will only get a quick hand signal to make my move forward.

The signal comes. I breathe and move into the procession. I cannot believe I am officially part of something I have only ever seen while shopping in Chinatown. I remember that day clearly. I was in buying some fried tofu for a portable snack at the Wo Chong Company on Washington Street, and we tourists rushed outside to see what the band was all about. Out on the sidewalk the crashing cymbals and loud drums with the green Chinese characters were a sight. I looked to the right and saw the rest of the procession snaking down the street for blocks.

So that’s how it all went that day as I drove: The band was followed by a Cadillac convertible displaying a large picture of the deceased, by a hearse, by a limousine for the family (me!), then by cars filled with friends, following an honored citizen on his last journey.

We go right on Stockton all the way to Jackson to Grant, past the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground that apparently had some significance in his life. We circle the blocks of the playground. As the cortege moves around the corner and down Sacramento, attendants burn incense and throw paper “spirit money” from the funeral vehicles. We have stopped again, so I am guessing this was his business or favorite restaurant so he can pay a final visit. The back door of the hearse is open and more paper money is flying in the air. There is so much action going on in front of and behind my big car, all playing out in the rear view mirror.

We continue to make the procession through Chinatown, honoring Dr. Fa with funeral dirges and marches, giving him a noisy farewell to ward off any evil spirits and to set his spirit free. When we pass his home on Taylor Street, windows from a walk-up are suddenly thrown open so any traces of Dr. Fa’s spirit can be released. It looks choreographed because the timing is impeccable, but this is ritual and custom and a natural way of life (and death) for this community. The procession moves through densely packed streets. Tourists take pictures. People peer out the windows of city buses. Some men remove their baseball caps. As the cortege moves back up the hill, I’m dodging chattering tourists who take photos on their flip phones.

What a day!

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Fournier | Link to this Entry

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