I arrived in San Francisco in early 1991 and didn’t know a soul except Mark Renneker, aka Jesus of Taraval, and a nice but droning surfboard fetishist named George Orbelian, neither of whom were going to take me to the clubs, get me drunk, get me laid. Fortunately a pal of a pal introduced me to a trio of women living in a gorgeous Russian Hill apartment with a west-facing view that I still dream about. Hillary did event planning. Therese worked for Planned Parenthood. Teresa was a third-year law student at UC Hastings. They’d been in the City for years, and knew where to go, who to hang out with. They invited me to parties, took me to Nickies Barbecue, showed me Marin. In November of that year, the four of us loaded a cooler full of food and wine and went to the Bill Graham Memorial concert at Golden Gate Park, and got hammered while listening to and maybe even dancing to Santana, John Fogerty, and the Dead. Perfect weather all day, 300,000 people spread out across the Polo Field, a million carnations dropped from a plane onto our outstretched hands. Robin Williams did a midday standup set and killed.
Teresa and I dated for six or eight months. She got a job with the Alameda DA, and I was in the courtroom when she tried her first case—a lightweight hit-and-run, as I recall. She won! Kept it all cool and professional as the judge banged the gavel, but flashed me a look over her shoulder and oh she was so stoked. Went on to great things as a lawyer, as everybody knew she would.
This was a time when I was trying my hardest to be non-surfy. Never mind that I was surfing my brains loose at Ocean Beach, which in fact ramped my interest in wave-riding to new heights. Out of the water I was an undergrad plebe walking across Sproul Plaza with a Marx-Engels Reader in my backpack, and bunch of cool new San Francisco friends, almost none of whom surfed, and I just loved it. The change from my Southern California past was dizzying, almost magical. It was the turning point of my life, and it had so much to do with the fact that I was no longer swimming in a giant pack of surfers. I never went underground with my status as a surfer, wasn’t ashamed or anything, but it didn’t come up much, nobody gave a shit if it did come up, and unless I was in the water I didn’t much give a shit either.
One evening Teresa said to me, “Maybe you’ve met my aunt, Kathy Kohner.” My brain locked for a moment, the name was so out of place in this glass-fronted Russian Hill apartment with Cow Hollow lit up like a diorama down below us, and the fog swallowing the bottom half of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then my eyebrows shot up. “Gidget is your aunt?”
Teresa walked to her room, came back with an album, and showed me a picture of a handsome couple on the deck of a steamer, dressed to casual perfection, sunglasses and big smiles, elegant as can be. It was her grandparents crossing the Atlantic, getting the hell out of Berlin before their Jewishness went from liability to killing offense. This was Frederick and Fritzi Kohner, Teresa’s grandparents. Somewhere off camera was four-year-old Ruth, Teresa’s mother. Not yet born was Kathy, Ruth’s little sister, who would go to Malibu as a 15-year-old and come home with a fizzy new nickname: Gidget.
This photo below is Teresa and Kathy at a Kohner family party in 1992. I took it just before Teresa and I had a drama-free breakup (I didn’t go to her wedding a few years later, but did go to their New Year’s Eve parties; she came to my wedding). I interviewed Kathy a few years later for an article I did on Malibu, and we stayed in phone contact for a few years after. We still email now and then.
Teresa and I probably would have been a good couple if we’d stayed together—something I can say about maybe two other women while reviewing the otherwise Somme-like horror of my bachelor years. Her family probably would have welcomed me, anyway. Heck, I’m three-quarters Jew myself—not “lapsed,” exactly, because my side of the family never even got started, but still. Jew is Jew. Being a surfer for sure would not have counted against me.
I would have been related by marriage to Kathy Kohner. Gidget. Everybody’s icon. My almost-bubbe!