Rediscovering a Landmark

Until recently, if I had wanted a restful getaway, I would not have chosen San Francisco or any big city. Getting away meant heading out of town, usually for a coastal inn. I wanted the leisurely pace and ocean views of Mendocino, Pacific Grove, Carmel, or Big Sur.

Consequently, we didn’t rush to use the gift certificate that my husband’s daughter had given us over a year earlier—a night at the Mark Hopkins. However, each time we talked to her, we could sense her disappointment. A gift hasn’t been received until it’s been used. Finally, we booked in for a November weekend.

Nearly dark when we drove up the circular driveway (we had spent the afternoon at the De Young Museum looking at Hokusai’s prints and woodblocks), the brightly lit lobby offered a warm welcome on a cold night. The doorman opened the passenger door, and my husband turned over our car keys, the last time we needed them for 24 hours.

The bellman carried our two bags inside, and we followed.

I made a quick inspection while my husband checked us in. The Nob Hill Lounge and the Top of the Mark were the only cocktail areas; there were no shops, except a newspaper stand. I couldn’t help making comparisons to the Fairmont’s extensive offerings.

After checking into our room on the 9th floor, greeted by classical music playing on the radio and a lamp already turned on, casting a welcoming glow, we unpacked and returned to the lobby.

I’d always viewed the Mark as the Fairmont’s poorer cousin, the Fairmont having a huge lobby, lots of shops, several restaurants, an outside elevator, and flags from several countries out in front, snapping in the wind. I never would have chosen to stay at the Mark.

I suggested we have a drink at the Fairmont and perhaps dinner, returning to the Mark for dancing later at the recently renovated lounge at the Top.

It didn’t take us long to realize that the Fairmont seems slightly vulgar after the Mark’s quiet elegance, the décor calling attention to itself, marble pillars and facings on the outside having no place there. It’s pretentious.

We quickly walked through the place and gratefully returned to the Mark, delighted to sit in their light and airy, tastefully decorated lobby, sip a glass of Pinot, listen to the woman playing modern jazz in the Nob Hill Lounge, and watch the elegantly dressed people attending a wedding reception in one of the ballrooms. Walls of mirror reflected a massive crystal chandelier, healthy in-door palms, and arriving guests.

Even the least costly wine on the Nob Hill Lounge menu was good, the service attentive. Not feeling like a heavy dinner, later we decided to have supper in the Lounge where we could continue to enjoy the Argentinian piano player and the waiter who had been giving us such good service.

Again we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food and its presentation, and the prices were modest—not overblown. I had Caesar salad, crab cakes, and rolls. Michael had salmon and lentil salad with rolls. It was a perfect choice for a light meal and only cost around $12 each plus our wine.

After, we returned to our room to relax before ascending to the Top, delighted to find a bottle of Perrier chilling in a champagne cooler, apples, and chocolates waiting for us. A welcoming touch.

I hadn’t been to the Top of the Mark for years and remembered the room as being decorated in heavy red velvets and pseudo French colonial style. Now the décor gives a feeling of light and space, not calling attention to itself, featuring the unbeatable view of the San Francisco Bay area.

After paying the $10.00 per person admission fee, my husband slipped the Maitre D’ a five dollar bill, and he immediately ushered us to an empty table, tucking the reserved sign into his breast pocket and bowing.

The view and the music were worth the expense (we quickly figured out that the Maitre D’ puts reserved signs on the tables so he can “sell” them to savvy customers, the only glitch in our weekend). We ordered an excellent Muscat and savored the sophisticated sounds of the dance band, the female singer doing old standards like “Kansas City” as well as newer numbers.

The clientele was mixed ethnically, and all ages were represented. Dress was just as varied, from jeans and tee shirt to suits (in the old days, men had to wear ties or turtle necks). The smooth hardwood dance floor is big enough to strut your stuff and small enough to encourage nuzzling.

No one hustled us for drinks. We could people watch, star gaze, and dance, a lovely end to the day.

The next morning, while relaxing in bed before room service delivered our breakfast, I had more time to look around. The night before I’d delighted in all the dazzling lights I’d seen when I opened the curtains, but now I had a different vista, an excellent view of the Bay, sky, and clouds, lots to feed the imagination.

Though we had a standard room, it was very comfortable, the furnishings imitation French empire, walls covered with a blue/gray textured paper. Even the bathroom was wallpapered.

Room service sent our breakfast promptly, along with The New York Times, served by a gracious older man who was unobtrusive at setting up our table. We’d ordered fruit, croissants, yogurt, and juice. More than enough.

After a leisurely morning, we reluctantly packed our suitcases. Though our stay had been short, we’d given ourselves over to the place, enjoying the prompt, attentive service and general pampering only a first-class inn can provide—and the unpretentious graciousness. As we were leaving, my husband said, “I feel like we’ve been in another country.” I agreed.

P.S. Some of these details may be dated, but the general spirit of the place remains the same.


Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.