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Archive for the ‘San Francisco’ Category

Earlier this week, National Public Radio ran a show on the new exhibit of paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. The artist whose works they are exhibiting is one of the French Impressionists, but not a household name like Renoir and Monet, with their reproductions hanging in dentist’s offices and motel rooms around the country. Gustave Caillibotte hardly ranks with their fame, but he is, in my estimation and apparently the curators of this show, their equal in talent. I saw Caillibotte’s paintings at a heady time for me. It was San Francisco in the late 1980s, and I had recently finished a novel, now tucked away in a drawer, that an agent was shopping around to the publishing houses whose names were on the spines of my favorite books. I felt ready to leap into a new world in a city that seemed forever fascinating. Because my novel was about an unknown impressionist painter in the late 19th century, I felt a compulsion to visit the big Impressionist show that had come to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The other paintings at the show melt away in memory, but the painting called The Floor Scrappers and the one of the rooftops of snow covered houses viewed from the artist’s Paris studio are still vivid. The Floor Scrapers is roughly 6 ft. by 5 ft., filled with a golden light. It does not have the kind of hazy brush strokes of typical Impressionist art, but it does have the light. The story goes that this was a new studio his wealthy father was remodeling for his young artist son. The three men refinishing the floor have removed their shirts in the heat and they are immersed in their work. The artist appears to admire their skill as they strain against the plank floors. I was so moved by the paintings that I went home that day and wrote a poem about View of Rooftops. I tried to put myself into his thoughts as he painted, staring out the window at the white roofs in the gray winter light. It reminded me of the scene in Hemingway’s memoir of Paris called A Moveable Feast where he describes the cold room that he rented in order to write and how he carefully shaved the tips of his writing pencils and put a few pieces of coal on the stove to cut the chill. Caillebotte’s most famous, almost iconic, painting is called Paris Street, Rainy Day. The beautiful wide street of the new Paris, the triangular building in the distance, and everyone strolling along in the misty rain under their identical gray umbrellas – you are there in the moment, although the year is 1877. That is what I hoped to convey in my own writing – that sense of being there in a particular moment in time and the way it felt. I don’t know if I ever found that, but it always seemed the most important thing in writing or in painting. I think we will be able to go to this exhibit next month when we head south to visit my family in South Carolina. I think it will bring back memories of that summer in 1988, when my wife and I, newly married, saw the Impressionists in Golden Gate Park.

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We visited Boston this past week to see my older daughter who is working over the summer between her first and second year of graduate school there. Our younger daughter stayed with her sister, and my wife and I got a hotel room in Brookline, a nice neighborhood within walking distance of the universities and nearby to shops and cafes.

The hotel was in a 19th century brownstone with fewer than a dozen rooms, all high ceilings and big windows looking out onto the street. Below I could see joggers in the rain and young people waiting for the train that stopped up the block.

Everywhere, everyone was young, like in that movie Logan’s Run where everyone dies when they turn 30. I thought constantly of that poem by Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

On Saturday morning we walked through some of the neighborhoods near Brookline, taking stairstep walks down to the streets below. Everywhere the young women carried their yoga mats rolled up and hanging by their hips, coming or going from a class. The young men, sleek and tattooed, filled with attitude and energy, stroked their smart phones on the trains, chatted in line with their dates waiting for a café table.

There are more than 50 colleges and universities in metropolitan Boston. It seemed like we walked past at least a dozen – Boston College and Boston University, Northeastern, Berklee School of Music, schools of technology, the arts, medical schools, small liberal arts schools and campuses that spread for dozens of blocks – my daughter’s college, Simmons, known for its library science and archiving master of science degree, and next door to a beautiful small museum built in the early 1900s for a woman, Isabelle Gardner, who collected art from around the world and brought elegance and culture to Boston’s North End. As we wandered through the rooms of art, looking down on the interior garden, the rains came heavy beyond the windows and we watched pedestrians struggle with their umbrellas in the wind.

We walked for miles through the city, through the public gardens and the Boston Commons, along the Freedom Trail, past Paul Revere’s statue and the Old North Church where the lanterns were hung at the Revolution’s dawn. We took trains everywhere we didn’t walk, clanking and grinding on the turns, old but efficient, like me, maybe.

When I last spent any time in Boston, I was 22 years old, on a road trip for a long weekend, and I knew nothing, not like these sophisticated youth with their bright minds and cosmopolitan sheen. I had never set foot in a fitness club or ordered a meal in an Indian restaurant. I thought of tattoos as something sailors got on a drunk on shore leave. You got a hair cut from some barber who could do a crewcut or a trim, and sneered if your hair was longer than his. But even then I liked the city, the first all-science fiction bookstore I had ever seen, the first Irish pub, the same trains, and the feeling that something life-changing could happen around any corner.

I had my youth in another city, San Francisco, though it was long ago. And my life was changed around some corners, on the N-Judah streetcar, out on the foggy streets near the Pacific Ocean, and on Russian Hill on golden afternoons, following the stairsteps down San Francisco hillsides to North Beach, looking out toward the bay. Oh, was I caught in that sensual music…

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Today is the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, also known as the World Series earthquake. Not many of us remember where we were and what we were doing 25 years ago, but I remember I was sitting on the floor in the hallway of my apartment on Fair Oaks Street in the Noe Valley District of San Francisco while the building shook and glass fell and shattered and books tumbled. My feet were braced against the opposite wall, and I held hands with my five-month pregnant wife as the rumble went on and on.
Our part of the city survived the quake well and the electricity was out for hours instead of days. In the parts of San Francisco built on landfill the earth turned liquid and buildings slumped and many burned. The Marina District next to the bay burned for days and large parts of the tourist district downtown were without lights or power.
Rumors swirled in the first hours after the event that the entire Bay Bridge had collapsed, which would have been massive and catastrophic, but only a 50-foot section of the bridge fell, with one loss of life. But a large section of the Nimitz Freeway across the bay in Oakland collapsed, killing 42.
Our friend Gregor was supposed to be driving across the bridge to watch the World Series with us, but he never made it, and for many hours we thought he might have been on the bridge when it fell. He was running late and bridge traffic was already shut down.
I’ll have to ask my daughter if she remembers riding out the earthquake in her mother’s belly. What an introduction to the world.

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Up the street was the hole-in-the wall comedy club called The Holy City Zoo where it was common for him to drop in unannounced toward closing and tryout some new material. I used to go there now and then, hoping to see him, but I never got that lucky.

San Francisco in those days seemed like a small town, neighborhoods like little villages. Everything was right there within a short walk: bars and restaurants, bookstores and mom and pop groceries, movie houses and coffee shops. When I moved from Clement Street, across the Golden Gate Park to the inner Sunset District, it was much the same. Now instead of Zhivago’s and the Holy City Zoo, there was the Owl and Monkey Café, with music on Friday nights and the paintings of local artists encircling the large room with its funky wooden tables.

It was at one of those tables, sitting all on his own, that I saw the short, barrel-chested man with the large hairy forearms and mobile face. He was drinking coffee and was he reading a book? I don’t recall. It was before laptops and cell phones, so whatever he was doing he was completely there. I glanced his way a time or two but didn’t make eye contact. I recall that he sat there for a half an hour or so, and nobody came up to him. Everyone just let him alone, even though by this time he was famous for his manic comedy routines and that show where he played an innocent alien.

It was a couple of years later, and I was out on the Marina Green near the San Francisco Bay. I had ridden my bike there to get some sun, along with a few hundred others. Robin Williams and a dark haired, pretty woman holding a baby were walking a dog on the Green, and he would stop every few feet and carry on an animated conversation with the sun worshippers. He passed nearby, still talking, and he seemed happy enough. But who knows?

Running across someone with his talent and fame gave the city glamor beyond what it already naturally possessed. It was like bumping into Hemingway at a café in Paris when he was working well and before the legend changed him. I don’t know that Robin Williams ever succumbed to the curse of fame, but something dark must have hung around him like it did with Hemingway. Something that made them decide they had had enough.

Dylan Thomas, the great, doomed Welsh poet, talked about true poetry as being like a well. He would dip far down into the well of poetry to bring up a single true line or verse. Out of these descents into the depth of his unconscious, he would fashion the sounds and images of his genius. But the well ran dry and poetry became hard. His great poems lay behind him.

Maybe Robin Williams felt his manic energy fading. Some artists use themselves up in their art. Some use their art as a defense against their dread. A few go along happily and lead long and peaceful lives. I don’t know anything about him except that he lived in the same city as me at a time when we were both young, and that it was a more interesting place to have him in it.

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I just found out on someone’s blog post that the author Colin Wilson has died, apparently at the same time as Nelson Mandela, which partially explains why it did not make the news. Wilson wrote something like 100 books, all on varied topics – science fiction, existential philosophy, biography, the occult, criminality – but all with one theme:  that human beings are capable of far more than we are aware, that we are sleepwalking through our lives when we should be purposefully expanding our consciousness.

For a large part of his career he wrote about the occult, mystics, and psychic phenomena. This made many of even his most faithful fans uncomfortable. He always presented this research as just the facts as he and others had uncovered them. Still, he was willing to believe much that a skeptical mind would dismiss. It certainly hurt his reputation among the establishment of intellectuals and academics.

Yet, sometimes I wonder. Recently I discovered a group at the University of Virginia that is trying to find scientific proof for many of the outrageous subjects that Wilson pursued – reincarnation, psychokinesis, near death and out of body experiences. Called the Division of Perceptual Studies, their website is worth a visit for anyone with curiosity about psychic studies.

Here is a reprint of a column I wrote several years ago about meeting Colin Wilson. Mr. Wilson, wherever you are traveling, enjoy the journey.

The New Outsider

On a fall evening in California in 1988 my wife and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to a book signing in Marin County.

The bookstore was in a group of one-story redwood buildings near the bay, an upscale shopping mall in disguise. The author was a somewhat rumpled Englishman in his late fifties by the name of Colin Wilson.

He stood in the middle of a group of admirers and made small talk as he signed copies of his books.  He did not look or act like a genius, though I believe he was the genuine article.  He had said so on more than one occasion, and I was willing to take his word for it.

The crowd broke apart and my wife and I moved closer. Wilson was telling some small story. When he finished I made a comment, I forget what it was, but it made him laugh. He took my book, asked for my name and signed it “with warm regards, Colin Wilson.”  I noticed a middle-aged woman standing nearby who spoke to him with an English accent.  I realized she must be his wife, the same woman he had been staying with in a London flat the Sunday morning the phone began to ring and he realized that he was famous. He was 24 years old and the year was 1956.

The book that made him briefly famous is called The Outsider.  It is part existential philosophy, part psychological case study.  The personalities it examines are as diverse and interesting as Lawrence of Arabia, the dancer Nijinsky, the writers Hemingway and Kafka, the painter Van Gogh.   These often tormented figures, Wilson says, are a new type of human being, an evolution in consciousness. They are outsiders because society does not satisfy their longing for purpose. They are extremists and visionaries, misfits in a culture bereft of ultimate values.

Colin Wilson was an unlikely celebrity.   He was raised in a working-class family and left school at 16 to work at various unskilled jobs. The summer before the publication of the Outsider Colin Wilson was living in a sleeping bag on London’s Hampstead Heath and cycling into town each day to the Reading Room of the British Museum. Then, quite literally overnight, he became famous. Newspaper reporters and television crews came banging on his door. His book shot to the top of the nonfiction bestseller list in England and was quickly translated into 14 languages.  He was widely considered to be England’s homegrown existentialist, the answer to the French intellectuals Sartre and Camus.

The Outsider made a great impact on me when I came across it sometime in the late seventies. As our society slipped into a new period of materialism and greed, the message of the Outsider seemed more relevant than ever.

The year that Colin Wilson came to California I had been married for six months and I had recently finished a novel that was being shopped around to various publishing houses. I had a secret dream that I would waken one morning to find that I was famous and that, like Colin Wilson, my real life was about to begin.

That evening was golden, one of the best of my life. After our meeting with the author my wife and I drove back toward the Golden Gate Bridge and turned off on a small, winding road that led to the Marin Headlands, a series of steep cliffs that look out over the bay toward San Francisco.  We stood in the wind on the cliff’s edge looking at the gleaming whitewashed city and the dazzling bridge. Everything seemed possible.

My novel of ideas never found a willing publisher, but my real life had already begun. A year later our first child was born.  A few years later we moved from the city. The evolution in consciousness is still on hold.

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At the moment it is 6 below zero, and the wind chill is minus 26 degrees. The schools are closed today, and maybe tomorrow, but the university is open and my older daughter and I will be going in to work in an hour or so.

If I could stay home today I would probably scramble some eggs for breakfast instead of having cold cereal. The Christmas tree is still up, so I would turn on the lights and make the room a little more festive. I would drink my third cup of coffee and look out the window at the pieces of snow blowing on the cold wind and be glad I was inside, safe and warm. I might recall those novels by Willa Cather that take place on the prairies of Nebraska when the wind is blowing and it’s 20 below and the snow has piled up above the door. Cold weather novels.

Later, I might settle in with a book my wife ordered me for Christmas about London, a kind of history and guide book written in the early fifties, just after the war. So far it is full of fascinating details – London is a burned out wreck in many places, like it was after one of the great fires of earlier centuries. But many of the historical landmarks still stand, and I’m hoping we can visit some of them next summer when we make our long-anticipated trip to England.

When everyone was awake, we would probably put on some music on the turntable, one of those records salvaged from the attic. I have been listening to old Chris Williamson albums lately. She was well known in the Bay Area in the late seventies and eighties when she was a rising feminist singer/songwriter that my women friends listened to. I heard her songs at the Owl and Monkey café and bought her albums. They remind me of San Francisco and the N-Judah streetcar that turned on 9th avenue and clattered past the café as I watched through the front window. A sweet voice with powerful emotional lyrics.

The rest of the day would be equally unambitious, and I would read my book and drink coffee and be thankful to be warm and safe from the cold, if I could stay home today.

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