Getting older has just made me dance a bit faster. I’m always ready for one more taste, a new touch, a new smell, a good mystery, a little more rock ‘n roll, a smear of bright paint or the sound of a fresh tongue. It’s part of why I travel, usually solo, meeting up with good friends or finding new ones who were strangers somewhere.
Early spring of ‘13, I boarded a plane headed to Asia Africa and Europe. That trip, all one hundred and ten days and nights of it, was just one more twinkle in a string of bright lights that started – with Bruce.
After years of living or traveling most of the U.S., it was time for me to cross that international line. But where? Canada? Too close. Mexico? Not yet.
I was looking for travel inspiration when I landed on an announcement of Bruce Springsteen’s upcoming tour. I’m a huge Springsteen fan. I could feel my heart buzzing, looking down the list of cities and then landing on Bilbao. Bilbao, Spain. Well, that’s where I was going.
I arranged for time off the job, told everyone I knew where I was going and what I was doing. I was excited.
So, two nights before Thanksgiving, 2007, I left for Spain’s Basque country. Late night flight, dinner at midnight flying over who knows where. We had turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. A nice Chardonnay, a few walks up and down the aisle, a little nap and, voila! Just after breakfast, we were landing at l’Aeropuerto de Bilbao.
Stepping through immigration and security, returning locals and international lines were separated by red velvet ropes. A few folks just couldn’t get through fast enough, though, as I thought, would you like a little wine with that whine?
I grabbed some local currency from the airport ATM, and camera in hand, I walked out the revolving glass door into the sunny crisp air of Bilbao straight into a cab to the City Centre. I was a kid in a candy store. My Spanish/English dictionary was my new best friend.
“Perdone, por favor, dos ‘batteries?’” I asked the clerk, smiling politely.
“Miss, I speak English. What would you like?”
Exploring courtyards, plazas, alleyways, shops with their doors wide open, waterfronts in Bilbao and Donostia, San Sebastian, the second city I visited, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
I’d just boarded a train one morning from Bilbao to Donostia, I watched a young man, about my oldest son’s age, get up from his seat to come sit across from me.
“Excuse me, Miss, do you speak English?” Ferdinand asked.
“Si, I speak English, me llamo Kathleen,” I answered, nodding and smiling.
“You are American! My premier English conversation with American,” he replied enthusiastically.
Ferdinand announced he was ‘pleased to enjoy practicing English’ with me. We talked about Spain, the booming economy, giant construction cranes everywhere. He worked as a caregiver in an ‘Old Folks Residence’, plays piano, is an artist. We discovered that not only did he resemble my son, they
share the same birthdate. Sadly, he shared that he’d just left his parents’ home, ‘I’m gay, Kathleen, and my parents cannot accept me, even after five years.’
We truly enjoyed our brief 2 1/2 hours together on the Euskotren, our adióses a mix of good fortune and sadness when we reached the end of the line.
My soul soared through Donostia and Bilbao. Historic stone churches, cathedrals reaching to the clouds. Mass sung in Latin by a priest with the voice of an angel. Sunshine warmed my shoulders as I meandered along wide boulevards beneath bare trees stretching up from earth, fur-wrapped women chatting and window shopping, their leather high-heel boots clacking on the cobblestones.
Sweet, fresh pastries in what turned out to be the same bakery my good friend visited 30 years earlier. Porcelain cup & saucer, café sitting atop a tiny marble table as I scanned the local newspaper.
Scrumptious tapas, so many flavors and sizes and textures, in a wide assortment of bars, cafés and restaurants. Ordering from menu la Español, I was often laughingly surprised at what appeared on my plate.
One beautifully clear evening, rambling along the Donostia pier, I walked into a quaint seaside restaurant. It was early, no other diners at the time, the owner at the front was cheerful, talkative, welcoming.
Soon enough I was seated in a window seat, watching folks here and there in the small working marina across from me. Relaxing with a fine Cabernet, dinner arrived. Black ink squid resting on a bright ball of white rice, served by my own private English speaking waitress courtesy of the owner who had engaged me in conversation about, what else? San Francisco.
Oh, and I went to a concert. After ten days of warm and comfy hostels, a bit of rain, trams, trains, buses, jamón, pescado, cheese, vino, bread, bookstores, benches and museums. Yes, the Guggenheim, with a timely Special Exhibition of ‘American artists’. Ha ha. It was time to see the Boss.
The train to the concert was awfully quiet. Too quiet. I soon realized I was on the wrong side of the Nervión River, on the wrong train. Fortunately for me, two locals, a bit of English, and a little Español
put me on the right train. Jam-packed, fans of all ages, laughing, raucous, music blaring on a boom box. And I was right there with ‘em.
Cigarette smoke filled the arena. First stop, the bar. Excitement filled the air in voices from everywhere.
I met Kasa when I got to my seat, a quiet mid-40’s English speaking Japanese businessman sitting to the right of me. Several young and wild Spaniards in the seats front of me, an empty seat to my left. Perfect.
Kasa owns several Eric Clapton guitars he’s picked up in charity auctions, he’d attended every Springsteen show on the tour so far. We were so thrilled!
The show opened with ‘Radio Nowhere’, the Boss covered the stage. Kids in front, and me, jumping, screaming with delight. I turned to Kasa, who was grinning ear to ear, standing and tapping his fingers to the rhythm, wrists bouncing at the base of his thumbs, his brown
with delight as
the crowd ROARED
…………….… B R U C E !!!
It was in the last few days of 1945, when Mr. Frank Shea was found cold and shivering one morning outside City Hospital. Pastor Dayton noticed Frank, helped him to his feet, and with the help of a nurse on her way in, they carried Frank off the sidewalk and into the hospital. 60 years old, skinny as a rail, Frank had a thin smile baring his broken soul, a deep strong voice, deep dark circles masking his jaundiced yellow eyes, and stringy dark hair hung over his forehead.
Cirrhosis, a result of years in alcoholism, take a lot of men like Frank, living hard. He’d moved to San Francisco long ago, soon after the big Quake. Work was aplenty then and he bit off a piece of everything ‘til he hired on to the Railroad.
“Frank, are you awake?” asked his nurse, smiling, “here’s a sip of water.”
Frank was dying. Difficulty swallowing, not eating, fragile, shallow breathing. Nurse Ginny knew it wouldn’t be long. No family noted in his chart, he was all alone. His head turned toward Ginny.
“That you, Nurse? Did I doze off again? You’re a blessing, you are, sitting here with me. Why in hell don’t you marry me, Ginny?”
The nurse chuckled, “If you and I were going anywhere at all, Frank, I’d jump at the chance. Talk with me a bit. About Gertie, you were talking Gertie.”
Nurse Ginny was about the same age as her patient. Short hair, curious hazel eyes, pretty, a few wrinkles here and there. She sat on a cold metal chair, leaning over to catch Frank’s hushed words.
“Gertie came to me just the right time when I was tired, lonely and in the bottle. My sister Susan wrote, wanting to know if I could put up her girl. I remembered her girl Gertie, from before I moved on out here. She was a cute little sprout then, when she first come to Susan after Gertie’s own Mama died. When Susan wrote me, Gertie was 19, she’d won a Beauty Contest, got herself a train trip out here.
“She sure wasn’t the little girl I remembered. All grown up, little spitfire with a golden heart. Some ‘o that gold rubbed off on me, ‘n I quit drinkin’, we fell in love and we got hitched up. I had a few years on her, ‘didn’t seem to matter,” Frank said, blinking his eyes, “’til I ruined it all, couldn’t stay off the bottle,” he went on, his eyes tearing up.
“One day, though, I never forgot. We were out to Ocean Beach. Gertie all snuggled in fur, pretty green chapeau over her dark wavy hair, hair so soft I could run my fingers through it like a breeze. Her eyes were just like yours, yes they were,” he said, peering into Ginny’s eyes.
“That was the day she told me we were having a baby. Oh, if I could only get those days back. Just one more look at that picture.”
Ginny smiled, “So Frank, you’re a father. Well, well,” she sighed, “What picture?”
“A stranger on the beach snapped it, with Gertie’s fancy camera. It was a day. Gertie carried that picture in her handbag every day from then on. Every day. Our picture.”
Frank sniffled, turned his head and he just dozed off.
Ginny sat there a minute, thinking over what Frank had said, wondering about his family.
She walked up the hall to check on her other patients. Twenty five year old Charlie had been a prisoner of war, captured at Wake Island, she heard, back to the U.S. only a few weeks now. He’d come in dehydrated, skin and bones, shattered left arm, likely from the rickets. He had rusty brown hair, bright blue lonely, searching eyes, it seemed, after long being lost in the camps. His sadness slowly melted away, though, as the Red Cross girls came in every day to cheer the troops. Maggie, he was sure sweet on her.
Maggie was sitting on the edge of Charlie’s bed when the nurse walked in.
“Nurse Ginny! We have news for you!” Charlie quipped, trying to raise himself to sit, impossible with his casted arm hanging from a rope and a chain.
“We’re getting married, aren’t we, Honey?” he piped up, looking up at Maggie, his hand around her waist, “I knew it the first day she walked in here, ‘kept coming back every day. It’s a happy day, Nurse! Soon enough she’ll be Mrs. Thomas and she can toss that Shea moniker right out the window.”
“Well, that’s wonderful news, you two. Maggie Shea, that’s a nice Irish name. You sure you want to give it up?” the nurse asked, laughing.
“Yes, Ma’am, I’ll always be a Shea at heart, my grand parents all came here from Ireland.”
“Well, lucky for Charlie they did. Have your parents met this young man yet?” Ginny asked, looking at Maggie’s hazel eyes, her dark wavy hair, pretty face, wondering about her last name.
“She was here yesterday. Mother thinks Charlie’s wonderful. Father, I haven’t seen him in such a long time. He was a drinker when I was little, my mother worried so, we moved across the bay. I know he’d be happy for me, want to walk me down the aisle.”
Ginny replied, “Of course he would. I’m looking forward to meeting your mother when she’s here again, before you go home, Charlie. Maggie, what’s your mother’s name?”
“Gertie,” Maggie said, reaching into her handbag, “Here, I have a picture, would you like to see it? My mother gave it to me on my 18th birthday from her handbag to mine. She never stopped loving him, she told me she just couldn’t sit and watch him killing himself.”
Ginny held that picture in her hand, looking into Maggie’s eyes, like her own, seeing again her beautiful wavy dark hair. She could feel her heart racing.
“Maggie, this is Ocean Beach, isn’t it? This picture looks a tiny bit older than you are.”
She was fingering the photo, a lump in her throat.
“Maggie, come with me a minute. There’s someone you need to see. Just for a moment.”
Charlie stared at the nurse.
“What’s going on?”
“We’ll be right back,” Ginny replied.
Ginny took Maggie’s hand in hers, gripping the picture in the other. Walking quickly and quietly, she pulled a confused and silent Maggie down the hall.
Frank’s door was pulled shut when they got there.
“Just a minute,” Ginny whispered to Maggie.
The nurse walked quietly into Frank’s room. She realized it was too late for Maggie, and too late for Frank.
That ‘one last look’ wasn’t meant to be.