“Hello Central, Give Me Heaven”

In September I moved into a huge Queen Anne mansion on the corner of California and Octavia in Pacific Heights. The owner had converted what used to be her private residence into eleven separate apartments. Her name was Carrie B. Rousseau. She had lots of cats. Her apartment was on the first floor. When she opened the door all you saw were cats — on couches, in chairs, rubbing lovingly around her swollen ankles, everywhere. The place reeked of unchanged kitty litter.

She didn’t charge much rent — forty-five bucks a month, which even back then wasn’t much — and the place was completely furnished with all kinds of antique Japanese silk screens, English China and Chinese rugs that Mrs. Rousseau and her husband had picked up on trips to Europe and Asia before World War I. Maybe it was because of the cats that she didn’t charge much rent. She and her husband had both been architects. They’d had a hand in the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. He was dead. She was lonely. She may also have been slightly nuts.

I remember sitting with her out in what used to be her living room. It had been turned into a parlor. There were couches and floor lamps and end tables. Anyone who lived in the building was welcome to sit around down there, but not many people did. Mrs. Rousseau and I talked about as much as we didn’t talk. She ended most of her sentences by saying, “Don’t you know.” It wasn’t a question. I’m not sure what it was, but she looked right at me when she said it.

Her eyes were still blue and sparkly, and the way she put on makeup was probably the same way she’d put on makeup the day she got married — circles of rouge, puffs of flesh-colored powder. She looked so innocent, so sweet, so like a blushing bride shortly after the turn of the century, with her mouth painted into a pert little pucker of bright red lipstick like Betty Boop. She had to have been in her late eighties by then.

“I went down to Grant Avenue this afternoon, don’t you know,” she said one night. “I had to order a funeral arrangement from Podesta Baldocchi, don’t you know. Another day, another funeral…they’re dying like flies, don’t you know.” Her voice trailed off. She reminded me of my grandmother.

Mrs. Rousseau knew a song my grandmother used to sing to me: “Hello, Central, Give me Heaven (Because My Mother’s There).” I used to lean my head against the prickly arm of my grandmother’s maroon overstuffed chair while she soaked her feet in Epsom Salts and sang me songs from the olden days. When I found out Mrs. Rousseau knew the words to the “Hello, Central” song, I got all excited. She wouldn’t sing it, no. She didn’t like to sing. “I have a terrible singing voice, don’t you know,” she said. But I got her to say the words out loud to me. It was a real tearjerker of a song…all about a kid calling the operator after his mother had died, probably not long after the telephone had been invented. “Central” was what they used to call the operator. The kid says, “Hello, Central, give me heaven, for I know my mother’s there. You will find her with the angels, over on the golden stair.” Then at the end he says, “Kiss me mama, it’s your darling. Kiss me through the telephone.” I forget what the operator said. What could she say?

After Mrs. Rousseau died, I read in The Chronicle that some quasi-religious New Age cult bought the place. They were going to turn it into an ashram or a monastery or a cloister of some sort, but then they tried to back out of the deal. They claimed the house was haunted by the ghost of Carrie B. Rousseau and the everlasting souls of dozens of dead cats. I’m sure it was, too. It more than likely still is.