From the monthly archives: "October 2012"

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.


Oct. 10, 2012—-

HANNIBAL, Mo.—We all live on an island.

Sometimes you just have to sail away on a stream of consciousness.

Capt. Steve Terry has been at the helm of the Mark Twain Riverboat since the summer of 1977. That is a lot of ups and downs along the Mississippi River.

From April through November the boat sets off from the landing at the foot of Center Street in Twain’s quaint Hannibal, Mo.

Towards the end of summer I jumped in my car in Chicago, drove to Springfield, Ill., cut west on I-70 and a little more than four hours later I landed in Hannibal. I was attempting to extend some sort of fading dream.

The easy going river, the limestone bluffs and the plainspoken people made for one of my summer highlights.

Capt. Steve Terry never thought he would be a riverboat captain.

Terry, 53, has lived his entire life in Hannibal. His parents Jack and Reva were in the accounting and tax business. Terry graduated Class of ‘77 from Hannibal High School and immediately went to work in a Hannibal grocery store.

“One day the assistant manager of the store thoroughly made me mad,” Terry said in while sitting in the ship’s bridge. “So I quit. I thought, ‘I did something really cool,’ but I’m walking down the street and I go, ‘Man, I quit my job!?.’ A couple days later my best friend told me they needed a deck hand at the excursion boat.  I came down here and met with Captain Harry Eskew. He took me for a boat ride. I thought it was cool. He asked when I could start.”

Terry started the next day.

“I never filled out an application,” he said. “And that was in July, 1977.” Terry got his pilot’s license at age 19, making him he youngest pilot on the river.

Terry said growing up was mighty uneventful in Hannibal (pop. 17,880).

“I probably didn’t pay attention to the river until I was about 14,” he said as a freight train whistle sounded on the Norfolk & Southern line.

The train was going somewhere Terry had never been.

He waited for the noise to subside and continued, “I had a friend whose Dad had a boat and he took us on the river.  I was hooked.  Back in those days the town had a Fourth of July celebration where you built your own raft and raced it from the railroad bridge to the river front. We never came close to winning the race but  I just enjoyed being on the river. I don’t know what the pull or tug was that got me down here.

“This is not what I intended my life to be, but it is what it is. I thought I’d be an industrial arts teacher. Now I think about how many times I’ve gone up and down this river. From ‘77 to ‘80 I was a deckhand, in ‘80 through ‘82 I was chief pilot of the company, from ‘82 to ‘93 I was relief pilot.”

Terry became general manager and pilot in 1993.

In 1997 Terry and his wife Sandy bought the company from Capt. Robert Lumpp of what was then called The Mark Twain Riverboat Company. “I grew up on this river,” Terry said as he looked out an old boat window into his past.

 *                                             *                                                *

The most famous celebrities to ride the Mark Twain Riverboat have been Al and Tipper Gore, who took a trip down the Mississippi as part of Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

“We picked them up in La Crosse, Wisconsin,” Terry recalled. “He, Tipper, the Liebermans and their ENTOURAGE. That was five days of ‘Really cool but I’ll never do it again’ type of thing. You learn from experience.”

Like the photo op of the Vice President steering the boat.

“The mantra was that he was taking control,” Terry said. “For 15 minutes he stood there and stood there doing nothing. When they were done his wife comes up, ‘Al, get out of the way, I’m steering it.’ And she stood up here for an hour and a half barefoot steering the boat. She had a grand old time. With the cameras off they were really cool. They were just like me and you sitting here talking and enjoying ourselves. Then when the cameras turned on, man, Al Gore turned into plastic.”

It took five days for the Mark Twain Riverboat to meander from La Crosse to Hannibal. The boat does not have sleeping quarters, but the second deck was converted into two apartments for the Gore gang. During extended periods of time the ENTOURAGE would motor coach into a river town for a hotel.

I picked up the double CD “Mark Twain Words & Music”  for my non-ENTOURAGE solo drive back to Chicago. The project benefits the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal. The CD features Clint Eastwood as Twain, Jimmy Buffett as Huck Finn and Garrison Keillor is narrator. Music by Sheryl Crow (a killer version of “Beautiful Dreamer”), Emmylou Harris and others are edited within the spoken words.

Many passages caught my ear, but I smiled when Eastwood as Twain read:

High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”

I teared up at Twain’s prose. This wouldn’t have happened a few summers ago, but something is changing as I cruise through middle age.

“Tom Sawyer was required reading here in seventh grade,” Perry said. “I believe required reading is wrong, but I did it because I was in school. Truly, as I got into boating ‘Life On The Mississippi’ became my favorite Twain book. I  love biographies and autobiographies, but in ‘Life in the Mississippi’ as he describes what he went through to get his license, a lot of that still happens today. We have all the electronic goodies they didn’t have. We don’t have to memorize every tree on the river like they did. But at the same time if you’re a newbie in the pilot house and the things Bixbie did to Twain—yeah, it’s still there.”

Bringing the boat into the landing was the most challenging hurdle for Terry to cross. “These boats always land perpendicular to the current,” he explained. “No other company does that. Everybody lands parallel.  That was tricky. I had to learn spacing, angle, speed and wind conditions. Wind is the thing that changes your life fast. I love a southwest breeze. But the guys I’m training hate it because you have to work a little harder. There’s no way you’re going to crash in the dock in a south wind. You’re always thinking two moves down. It’s like a game of chess.

“He (Capt. Eskew) passed away a couple years ago but he would come down and ride with me two or three times a year. We’d share stories. It took me two years to get my license and that’s pretty fast, especially for a boat that’s seasonal.”

The Mark Twain Riverboat runs through Nov. 15 and begins cruising again on March 15, weather permitting. I will try to return to Hannibal one more time before the snow flies. The 36th Annual Autumn Historic Folklife Festival takes places Oct. 20 and 21 in downtown Hannibal  and the “50 Miles of Art Studio & Gallery Fall Tour” rolls through the towns of Hannibal, Louisiana and Clarksville on Nov. 5 and 6.

The Mark Twain Riverboat operation is as quaint as Hannibal itself.

During my weekday visit Sandy was manning the gift shop as her husband was attending to a mechanic from St. Louis who was replacing an engine part in the boat. Sandy Terry is also accountant for the business. Their daughter Jenna is office manager and runs the gift shop.

Don’t miss the souvenir bottle of “genuine”: Mississippi River water. I  bought a bottle for my riverboatin’ bud Bill FitzGerald.

Capt. Terry and his souvenir booty. (D. Hoekstra photos)

Jenna also sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at that evening’s Hannibal Cavemen’s baseball game in the Prospect League. Their daughter Megan is a kindergarten teacher in Hannibal and her husband is in charge of the riverboat’s food operations.

To get through the off season Steve and Sandy Terry also run a tuxedo rental business.

And a photo business, which is also used on the boat.

And a catering business.

And Sandy works in a non-profit that helps kids going through cancer treatment. Sandy is also from Hannibal.

“We live just north of town on the farm she was raised on,” her husband said.

 I wished I was as grounded as the Terrys.

*                                               *                                         *

The spirited connection I made with Mark Twain Riverboat had to come from the fact the boat was built by Strekfus Streamers in St. Louis, Mo.

Some of my best memories of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival were concerts on the historic five-deck Riverboat President, where I saw Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, King Sunny Ade and others on midnight cruises.  Strekfus built that boat, too. After doing time as a casino boat, the Riverboat President is now resting in pieces  somewhere near Yazoo, Miss.

“Strekfus also did little boats like this,” Terry said. “They kept Dubuque (Ia.) Bolt and Boilerworks in business by building small boats. I think there were seven boats built off of this hull plant.”

The all-steel Mark Twain Riverboat holds 350 passengers. She is 120 feet long and 33 feet wide. A hull extension was added this year, a mandate by the U.S. Coast Guard.

“America is getting heavier,” Terry said. “When this boat was built in 1964 the average adult weight was 140 pounds. Now we have fifth graders that aren’t under that weight. The average adult weight now is 185. Boats and airplanes have to use that figure when they build or remodel so we’re allowed 350 passengers.”

Like its bigger, older and now discarded sister President, there is live music on the Twain riverboat. The jazz ensemble Ben Bumbry & the Messengers plays on weekends. “You have to be careful when you use the term ‘jazz’,” Terry said. “They play ‘Satin Doll’ and all kinds of different charts. But a lot of people locally don’t like jazz, so I can’t get a jazz cruise to fly. If I have a moonlight cruise with ‘live entertainment’ they’re happy. If I say it’s a ‘jazz cruise’ it scares them away.

“Strekfus was the first to have jazz on the river,” Terry said “A black group from New Orleans played New Orleans Jazz and it migrated north on the river.”

The riverboat has a classic jazzy wood steering wheel.

“You look at the coloring on the spokes,” Terry said while looking at the wheel. “That is not stain. That is the oil from years of our hands.”

Terry’s ride is nice and easy. “On a good day, downstream, no passengers, wind behind us, I might get 12 miles an hour,” he said. “When we put on the hull extension, you make longer but not wider, then you go through water faster. So we picked up about two miles per hour just by adding 10 1/2 feet. We’re not designed to get there in a hurry. We like to give people nice, relaxing trips on the river.”

The riverboat leaves the dock for a mile and a half round trip, heading upstream before turning around and going down stream. The boat travels to Cave Hollow at the Mark Twain Cave Complex and then back to town.

“Mark Twain and tourism is about the number two industry in town,” Terry said. “Manufacturing is still number one. General Mills has a huge plant here with a work force that does a great job. There’s a chemical plant north of here and a cement plant that used to be the third largest in the world. Not now.

“The casino idea was brought up three different times and voted down three different times here.  Casinos can be a good influx of cash  for a city but at the same time it brings in a different element that maybe you don’t want. The closest one is 30 miles north of us in La Grange (Mo.)  I spent 10 years on the visitor’s bureau board in Hannibal and I was president for seven of them.

Riverboat President in later years (D. Hoekstra postcard)

“Sometimes it’s hard to get the idea across that visitors are good for your town. We have a lot of visitors from Utah. They’re on their way to Navuoo (Illinois) to visit the Mormon Temple. The Mississippi River plays a big part in their religious heritage. Tourism is good for this area.”

Especially if you need a realistic escape down a romantic river.