The Brown twins (San Francisco Chronicle photo)
Oct. 21, 2012—
Every big city has people like the Brown twins.
Marian and Vivian Brown, 85 and 85, are San Francisco icons. The twins wear matching outfits and share the same hair style. They often would greet pedestrians with hand shakes, which locals believed led to good luck. For the past 15 years the sisters have sat at the same window seat at Uncle Vito’s pizzeria in Nob Hill.
Their smiles brighten the foggiest day on “Baghdad by the Bay,” as late San Francisco columnist Herb Caen called his city.
Familiar characters like the twins give every city a small town touch.
So when humble, celebrated folks encounter hard times, people respond with small town style.
I learned of the Brown twins plight during a mid-August visit to San Francisco. I read a column in the San Francisco Chronicle by former mayor Willie Brown (no relation) explaining that the women were slowing down and facing a move into an assisted living facility. Brown reported the women did not have funds to relocate in the city.
He was afraid San Francisco would lose their unique touch.
The Brown twins are the sparkling gate to golden years.
Soon after my visit Vivian Brown fell in the apartment she shared with Marian. She was sent to a hospital and is now in assisted living in San Francisco.
She has Alzheimer’s disease.
The city has rallied in support of the sisters. People have showed up on a daily basis at Uncle Vito’s to donate money for meals and cab fare so Marian could visit her sister. Uncle Vito’s owner David Dubiner has given Marian all the money along with matching funds.
“They had been in every night for almost a year and half,” Dubiner said in a phone conversation last week. “They order the same thing, the small ‘Mountain’ pizza (salami, pepperoni, sausage, bell peppers, onions and mushrooms.) They both do not love all those toppings (laughs), but they agree to get that. A pot of hot water with lemon and two glasses of house red wine. Before that they came every Monday night. They had a circuit, one night to Fog City Diner (which has a Marian & Vivian booth), one night to Scala’s Bistro (at Union Square), two nights at the Cheesecake Factory, two nights at the Hyde Street Bistro.”
“I’m protective of them because they’re our little ladies. They’re frail. I had to do something. Marian will never have to pay for another meal anyway. She comes to my place because she lives around the corner and love it but I don’t want her to feel like the only place anybody will buy her lunch is at my place. She doesn’t want to leave her apartment. It’s rent controlled and it’s amazing.
“But I don’t know how long she can afford to stay there.”
The Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco hosted an Aug. 30 benefit for the sisters.
Jazz vocalist Kim Nalley headlined and lounge acts like Pearl E. Gates and the Rebobs performed along with Pink Flamingo and the Mai Tais. Proceeds went to Jewish Family and Children Services (JFCS), which is monitoring donations.
“The twins are doing well,”: said Barbara Farber, JFCS Director of Development in a Friday evening interview. “We provide transportation for Marian to visit her sister. JFCS is taking care of Vivian’s needs and helping Marian when she needs it. The community has been incredible in helping them out. People write and tell us how they’ve seen the twins over the years in the financial district. The twins are like looking at any site in the city.
“It was a feel good for people.”
JFCS is one of the oldest and largest family service institutions in America, founded in 1850 by immigrant pioneers who arrived in California during the Gold Rush. They created an extended family, not unlike the family that embraces the sisters,
D. Hoekstra photo, Aug. 2012
Dubiner said, “Marian did not want to go to the benefit. Because she felt like who would want to see her without her sister. I told her I would take her as a date. I said, ‘You’d be surprised. People really love you.’ And they do. Now, San Francisco has a huge drag community. And just so we’re clear, they don’t like being twins…
..They like being THE twins….
“They don’t like people dressing up like them and there’s a couple guys in the Castro who dressed like them a couple of times. So when we get to the benefit there’s these two ladies dressed exactly like the twins. I was expecting it would go south real quick.”
One of the women was Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos.
“She was smoking hot,” Dubiner reported. “Her and her friend Susan Tenby. So Marian was between these two ladies who were dressed like her. At one point Marian had to go to the bathroom and Jane said, ‘Let’s go,’ grabbed her and walked through the crowd. It was fantastic. That’s the difference between people looking for publicity and people who were there to help. Jane just wanted her to be comfortable. Marian settled into her groove like she would do with her sister. She was one of three twins.
“And Marian said she never had that much fun ever.”
(L to R), Jane, Marian Susan and David in background (Courtesy of D. Dubiner)
The story of the Brown twins only touched me more deeply because I am going through the same things with my own parents, 91 and 92.
They often act like twins themselves.
I’ve gotten used to assisted living facilities, hospitals and sudden falls. I’m still getting used to a tear in my eye as I drive back to Chicago after a Sunday afternoon visit.
On Oct. 15 my brother sent me a news story about how dementia sufferers will top 2 billion by 2050, according to the World Health Organization (WH0).
This would be the worst medical disaster in human history.
At Friday night’s 60th birthday party for Chicago area clubowner Bill FitzGerald, I shared stories of aging parents with my friend and Milwaukee musician Paul Cebar. Cebar gently smiled and said, “Chuck Berry didn’t tell us about this.”
Farber said, “The best thing the twins are doing for the community right now is making people more aware of the difficulties that seniors have. Some of these seniors are only living on $840 a month and that’s all they have. Medical costs are high. If someone needs in-home care, assisted living or skilled nursing, it is very expensive. For all of us who are in our ’50s and ’60s and we have parents in that position you really have to give a hard look at what you can do to help your parents and see what services your community has to offer. We just don’t have enough good services for seniors. And the senior population is going to get much larger as Baby Boomers get older.”
Dubiner, 47, added, “This is a timely topic. I started working at this restaurant in 1985 and bought it in 2001. I’ve known the twins that whole time. I’ve seen them go from little old ladies to kind of old ladies. It is sad at times. They’ve shared the same space that I’ve shared but obviously they have seen life through much different eyes.”
David Dubiner and Marian Brown (Courtesy of D. Dubiner)
Dubiner always kept an eye on the sisters and still watches over Marian’s visits. He was a journalism major at San Francisco State University. “They are very identical but that started to change a bit as Vivian’s health declined,” Dubiner explained. “Marian being sharper than Vivian in recent years, I think that has been a constant source of aggravation between those two. But before that you had to pay real close attention to how they spoke. It was that tough to tell them apart.”
The sisters reportedly moved to San Francisco 40 years ago from Kalamazoo, Mi. According to an Aug. 31 post on Michigan Live, the sisters together delivered the valedictory address to their classmates at Mattawan (Mi.) High School, Class of ‘45. The twins also played clarinet in the high school band,
“They like to be engaged but they also like to be distracted,” Dubiner said. “Spending their lives together they didn’t always have fresh things to talk about, They liked to sit by the window, look at new cars and talk about them. I think their Dad used to be a car dealer or something. They know cars. They used to wait for whichever window table became open first, then when I bought the place I started saving one table for them.”
Now Dubiner, his friends and neighbors are saving so much more. So much more.
It’s worth repeating twice.
Readers can assist the Brown twins by visiting Jewish Family and Children Services.
Press the donate button at the bottom of the home page. To help the Brown twins, select “Emergency Assistance in San Francisco” under the Services option.