I Only Came for the Spaghetti
On the snowy morning of February 2, 1988, I left Pittsburgh International Airport bound for San Francisco. Puxatawney Phil had just seen his shadow and I wasn’t about to stick around for six more weeks of winter. I boarded a plane heading west to a land I had never seen before. As the USAir plane lifted from the runway, I watched the snow covered Pennsylvania hills recede from view. My emotions oscillated between sadness, excitement and apprehension. I was leaving behind my friends and family and everything I had ever known. I was going to California to start a new life.
I was thirty-one, leaving home for new experiences and adventures. I was moving to San Francisco with two suitcases, $300, and a return ticket dated a month from today. I knew no one there. But the fear of never leaving Western Pennsylvania was greater than my fear of the unknown. After seven years as a welfare worker, I was leaving behind a caseload of senior citizens that had never ventured farther than the West Virginia border, which was only twenty-five miles away. Unless I took the initiative, I would spend the next forty years just like them, growing old in the same area where I was raised, never exploring the world or realizing my dreams.
The five-hour flight was a moving geography lesson. The plan passed over places that I remembered studying about in grade school textbooks. The Mississippi River. Iowa. The Rocky Mountains. I saw the shadow of the plane as we crossed some of the country’s highest peaks. The mountains looked close. Too close. The pilot helpfully pointed out landmarks as well as dutifully announcing the altitude. I was vividly reminded of how much I hated to fly and my fear of crashing.
When the seatbelt sign came on and the plane prepared for landing, my heart was pounding. I looked out the window and saw green hills, a welcome sight after leaving Groundhog Country. I searched in vain for the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the few San Francisco landmarks I knew. I heard the landing wheels come out and I looked out the window at…water.
Now I was really nervous. The green had disappeared, only to be replaced by a blue watery mass that I deduced was the San Francisco Bay. I tried in vain to remember what the flight attendant had said about what to do in case of a water landing. I couldn’t swim. I looked around, but no one else seemed to be disturbed. The plan continued to descend as I looked out of the window in horror. At what seemed like the last possible moment, I saw a small jut of runway appear to come out of the water to meet the descending plane. One of the things that my guidebooks didn’t tell me was that the runway at SFO extended into the Bay. My stomach returned to its proper place once I felt the wheels connect with the California concrete.
In the shuttle from SFO, my head bounced from side to side as if I was watching a tennis match. There were people and buildings everywhere. I had never lived in a city before and I wondered if I would be able to survive in this strange environment. I was the last passenger in the van. The driver told me that the Pine Street rooming house where I had a reservation was in something called the Financial District. He assured me that it was a safe neighborhood and he wished me luck.
I stood in the back of the elevator as a grizzled older man manually closed the elevator cage. It appeared that most of the hotel’s residents were single men. As I walked down the dark hallway to my room, I was invaded by the faint smell of urine. The room did not have a bathroom, only a small sink. I did not look forward to sharing facilities with my new neighbors. If the shower was not appealing, at least I could wash up in the sink.
As soon as I shed my Pennsylvania winter wardrobe, I went outside to explore my new neighborhood. The temperature was in the 60s, which was balmy compared to the cold and snow I had experienced only a few hours ago. I took a deep breath. The air was a mixture of grease and auto exhaust. There was a McDonald’s three doors away. At least I wouldn’t starve. I gazed in awe at the vertical streets and buildings that rose to the sky.
On my first full day, I took a bus to Fisherman’s Wharf, the only other landmark besides the Grateful Dead House that I remembered from my guidebook. I got off at Pier 39 and walked toward the water’s edge to look at Alcatraz Island. The whole scene was surreal – the hazy sky, the shining water, and the crowds of people buying overpriced trinkets. I went into a bakery to get my first taste of sourdough bread. The sourness of the fresh bread filled my mouth. It had a strange but appealing taste. Strange but appealing, just like San Francisco.
After finishing the bread, I walked down the street, taking in my new surroundings. There was a young blonde woman sitting at a table on the sidewalk. At first, I thought she was another street vendor, but the only things on the table were flyers and brochures. As I passed the table, she caught my eye.
“Hi! How are you today?” Her perky, bubbly tone was a welcome surprise. I hadn’t talked to anyone except the dour Temple Hotel desk clerk since my arrival.
“Fine. How are you?” I glanced at the literature on the table.
“Just wonderful!” She extended her hand. “My name is Sandi. What’s your name?”
I shook hands. “Beatrice.” I wondered why she had stopped me.
She eyed my clothes. “Where are you from?”
I looked down at my jeans and jacket. Did it show that I was from somewhere else? “I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” I wasn’t really from Pittsburgh, but it was the nearest big city.
She smiled and handed me a flyer. “How long have you been in San Francisco?”
I smiled back. “This is my first full day. I just arrived yesterday.”
Her smile broadened. “Great! Welcome of California. Let me tell you about our organization.” She brushed her long hair away from her face as she told me about the group.
As she talked, I looked at the flyer more closely. The name of the organization had something to do with unification. The name was familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I had heard it before. I just nodded my head and let her words float away on the bay breezes. But then she said something that caught my attention. I looked up from the table into her blue eyes. “What did you say?”
“I said that we are having a spaghetti dinner this evening. Why don’t you meet me back here at five? Then you can ride up to the house with me. We’ll eat and then have a short presentation about our group. Maybe you’ll want to join. After the meeting, I’ll be happy to take you back to your place.”
I hadn’t had any pasta for a while, especially free pasta. I agreed and she seemed genuinely happy that I was coming to the meeting. I was looking forward to the spaghetti, since my own nourishment so far that day had been an Egg McMuffin and the sourdough bread.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the area around Pier 39. I felt like I was in a Rice-A-Roni commercial as I watched people get on and off the cable cars. It was wonderful to be walking in warm sunshine at the beginning of February. I wondered what my friends where doing back home, a place that seemed a million miles away.
At five, I met Sandi and her friends. They echoed her welcoming smile, introducing themselves and shaking my hand. We all piled into a waiting van. They had recruited a few other people for the dinner/meeting and I sat in the back with my fellow novices. The van bounded up the hill over the cable car tracks. In a few minutes, we pulled up to a large Victorian house. At the top of the creaky stairs, I met more friendly faces.
After a few minutes, I started to notice a sameness to my new friends. Everyone was friendly, but their friendliness seemed artificial and rehearsed. I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, but the story of Jim Jones entered my mind. Now I listened intently whenever someone started to tell me about the group. I was invited to their retreat in Napa.
The spaghetti dinner was good, though. After dinner, everyone went into the living room to view a slide show about the group and its activities. The slides showed more happy, smiling people like the ones that surrounded me in the dark. The narrator talked about the wonderful Napa retreat in glowing terms and urged everyone to go.
But one slide was passed over quickly. The slide showed a middle-aged Asian man. “And that is our leader, Rev. Sun Myung Moon,” the narrator said. The next slide was back to more happy faces at the retreat.
The slide remained frozen in my mind’s screen. I knew who he was. I had only been in San Francisco for one day and already the Moonies had picked me up. Fear jostled for position with the spaghetti in my stomach. So all of the stories I had heard about California were true. I was being recruited for a cult! I wondered if they had put something in the spaghetti. My father had always warned me about taking anything from strangers. I could see him rolling over in his grave. But I didn’t feel funny. At least not yet. I resolved to escape if they tried to detain me. I didn’t know where I was, but I was sure I could find my way back to Pine Street.
After the slide show, I was ready to leave. I had seen enough. My new friend from the Wharf drove me back to my rooming house.
“Thank you for dinner,” I said in my most polite voice. My mother would have been proud.
Sandi displayed what I now knew was a smile of indoctrination. “I’m so glad that we met, Beatrice. You’ll have to come back to our house for dinner again. Keep in touch.”
I tried to smile back, but the corners of my mouth shook. It wasn’t easy to maintain a fake smile without brainwashing.
“I will. Thanks again.”
She wasn’t ready to let me go yet. I wondered if she had a quota that she had to meet. “We will be going up to Napa in a few weeks. You must come with us. It will be so much fun!”
I didn’t know where Napa was and I wasn’t in any hurry to find out. “I’ll think about it,” I answered in what I hoped was a sincere voice. I walked quickly to the door of the hotel. Not even the urine smell bothered me tonight. I breathed a sigh of relief as I closed the door to my room. I went to bed glad that they had not drugged me and held me captive in that house.
But it had never occurred to me to not let them know where I was staying.
When I came back from exploring the City the next day, the hotel manager informed me that my “friend” had stopped by looking for me. Sure enough, a few hours later, Sandi came to visit me and give me a flower. I was afraid to sniff the flower. I had seen “Star Trek” episodes like this. But I thanked her and begged off visiting their house for another great dinner.
My first month in San Francisco passed quickly, and on Leap Year Day, I found my first California job, in some place called “Foster City.” Even though I didn’t know how I would get there, I accepted. It was only two days before the date I was to return to Pennsylvania and I was determined not to use that ticket.
On March 3, I moved to San Mateo with my new roommate Paula. As I sat on the floor of my new unfurnished bedroom, I reviewed my first month in California. I had learned a lot. Don’t come to San Francisco with only $300. Don’t catch BART in West Oakland at midnight. Sourdough bread and string cheese can make a filling meal. And don’t take spaghetti from strangers.
(A version of this story appeared in the Banyan Review in 2003.)