Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco’

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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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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An old friend stayed with us for a couple of days last week. April was visiting her brothers in Vermont and flew down for the weekend. We had been good friends in San Francisco, but that was over 20 years ago. Time flew and we had changed. What was gray hair now was then brown. We were undoubtedly middle-aged.

April was at our wedding and at the hospital for the birth of our first daughter. We flew back to California for her wedding to Jim, which took place on a hilltop in Marin County overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There was drumming and West Coast hippie celebration, some kind of native American vibe that was cool and caring. As we used to say about church – I came to scoff but stayed to pray.

Earlier this summer we met April in North Beach in San Francisco when we went west to be at Eric’s deathbed and to arrange his affairs as best we could. Even in the swamp of emotions that my wife felt for her younger brother’s sudden death, it was good to spend time with April in a little Italian café on Columbus Avenue. She had taken the train across the Bay from El Cerrito where she and Jim had bought a house some years ago. There was hardly anybody we knew who could afford to live in San Francisco anymore.

In those days we frequently had parties at our little railroad flat on Fair Oaks Street between Noe Valley and the Mission, two of the sunnier neighborhoods in the city. We would crowd 15 or 20 people into the living room and kitchen with lots of good food and wine, and we would carry on long and serious conversations about books and politics, philosophy and poetry. They were the kinds of conversations I have not had in a long time.

April remembered those parties with fondness more than 20 years after the events described and recalled them to us on her visit. I miss those old friends even now. I liked all of them. They were all smart, but not full of themselves. They were good companions and kind hearts, and I wish them well.

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High in the Berkeley Hills, above the campus of the famous university, is Tilden Park. The road up to the park winds through residential neighborhoods with million dollar views of the San Francisco Bay and the towers of the white city across the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge like spider’s web hanging between the headlands of Marin and Fort Mason that once guarded the city.

Once above the houses the road dives into a wilderness of forest and trails and in the center of the park is the beautiful lake with a sandy beach for swimming, where the radicals of Berkeley brought their little children to play naked in the sand.

Sometimes in summer, when the city was chilly with fog, we would drive up into the hills with our own small daughter and soak in the sun by the lake. Though there were beaches much closer, the water was too cold for swimming, the Pacific Ocean too rough. When the fog poured in and the city streets turned into twilight canyons dripping with chilly mist, we would take Grizzly Peak Boulevard up to Lake Anza and break out into the sunshine and see the fog below, moving fast like clouds across the bay.

I had not thought of Lake Anza in 20 years until the other day when I read the opinion of the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney that the view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge was one of his Seven Wonders of the World. He said:

“I remember this view on a particular summer morning when the sun was striking the white terraces and tower blocks of the city, and I had a huge sense of the wonder of what man and woman have built. It was a moment of epiphany, something akin to Wordsworth’s revelation on Westminster Bridge.”

I’ve seen the city and the bay from many angles at many times of the day and night. I have seen it in summer and winter, in fog and in starlight. It is a magical city, filled with lucky people who do not always realize their luck. Every beautiful sight is free, from Telegraph Hill to Golden Gate Park, from Valencia to Lake Street and the step walks down Russian Hill to North Beach. Even the bums on a park bench on the Embarcadero have a view a king would envy.

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Unreal City

My first impression of San Francisco was of fog and mean back streets, small, tired shops with steel bars on their windows, blinking neon cocktail glasses advertising hole-in-the-wall bars where furtive, colorless people drifted out and scurried away into the fog.

I got off the bus at the old Seventh Street station in the Tenderloin, the shabbiest part of the city, at around midnight, and started walking. I had an envelope in my pocket with the address of a friend. I must have thought I could find her apartment by looking at street signs. She lived on 28th Ave., which is across the city and out halfway to the ocean, but I didn’t have a clue at the time.

A man in a blue Pontiac asked me if I needed a ride someplace. I asked if 28th Ave. was anywhere nearby. No, he said, but I can take you.

That was in 1974 and people still hitchhiked back and forth across the country in human waves – long-haired, booted, standing at roadsides with signs saying “L.A.?,” “San Jose?,” “Seattle?” And no one expected to be dumped on a dark logging road and never heard of again. All that is as gone as bell bottom jeans and the Blues Magoos.

So I took a ride with the stranger, though I wasn’t totally stupid. I wouldn’t stop for a drink at a little bar he knew, and I stayed close to the door with my hand on the handle, ready to leap out. We drove out through the wide, fog-shrouded streets that were nearly empty that late at night, toward the ocean too far away to see. He let me off, with a last offer, at Geary and 28th and pointed up the hill.

I got over my first impressions during the next nearly twenty years as I lived in one neighborhood or another, in beautiful old apartment houses on shady streets or one room utility apartments in the rumble of downtown. The city is divided into districts, each with its own topography, its ethnic mixture and attitude. Moving from one neighborhood to another is nearly the same as moving to a new town – from the upscale European restaurants of the Marina District, to the Thai places out in the Sunset, to the Maoist bookstores of the Mission District, the Italian cafes of North Beach, to the working class neighborhoods of Portrero and the Excelsior.

These are some of the things I remember from living in that great city – the hills of Pacific Heights and Russian Hill, so steep you cannot see if there is a road in front of you as you come to the top; the golden onion domes of the Russian Orthodox churches in the Richmond District; Green Apple Books on Clement Street in the afternoon, and Zhivago’s, the bar across the street with the Russian samovars shining and the icons hanging from the walls where I read the used books I had just bought, while I sipped a bottle of Bass Ale; some French girls talking at the sidewalk café around the corner from my apartment; Filipinos speaking Tagalog on the bus going downtown; a street fair on Haight Street, crowded with freaks, and the smell of grass floating on the air; watching the 4th of July fireworks break through the fog from the roof of a twenty-story apartment building in Pacific Heights; riding our bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge and coasting all the way down to Sausalito without touching the pedals; playing tennis on Wednesday afternoons on a high, windswept public court for free with views of the San Francisco Bay worth a million dollars; riding the cable cars in winter with no tourists; reading Herb Caen in the Chronicle, and the salacious novel Tales of the City serialized on the front page of the morning paper.

Those images are like riffling the pages of a book, but the book of San Francisco is closed and put away on a shelf. It was good to be young and single in San Francisco, but it was not so good a place to try and raise a family. There was always something unreal about the beautiful city, dressed in its overcoat of fog.

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Brautigan at the library in San Francisco, cover of The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966

Most mornings I begin the day before dawn with the Writer’s Almanac in my inbox. The email contains a poem, along with some biographical sketches of writers, familiar or obscure. The other morning the name Richard Brautigan appeared, with a few lines about his life and a link to a website with more information. When I followed the link, I felt like I was tumbling though the looking glass into a different dimension, a world where forest creatures wander through a cybernetic forest watched over by kindly machines, as he recounted in one of his more memorable poems. In fact, I had tumbled backward in time.

I first saw the San Francisco Bay sometime in the early 1970s on a bus crossing the Bay Bridge from Oakland into the city. Far off there was the Golden Gate and the white city on hills, the water turning dark in the twilight. A year later I was living in an apartment on 12th Avenue and Lake Street, and not far away the reclusive author was sitting at a table in his Geary Street apartment writing about a mythic place where everything is made out of watermelon sugar.

I only knew Richard Brautigan from his photographs on the covers of the thin paperback books with names like Revenge of the Lawn and Rommel Drives on Deep into Africa, and of course, his one great success, Trout Fishing in America, which a blurb on the back cover pointed out was not actually about trout fishing. If you have seen those photographs, then you will remember that he looked like something out of the Old West, long straggly blond mustache and a beat up slouch hat, tall with round glasses, looking almost vague, uncomfortably leaning next to a dark-haired woman who was likely the subject of his poems or stories.

His was the voice of the counterculture as I remember it – gentle, naïve, hopeful. His poems are so unassuming as to almost fade into the paper of his books. They might have been written on napkins and left on a table in North Beach as a tip for the waitress. But the America of the sixties and early seventies was not anything like the way he wrote. Outside, in the world, bombers were dropping napalm on the jungles of a small Asian country, the cities of America burned, and assassins struck down our best hopes. In Brautigan’s world, a library stays open late at night to check in the books written by shy people in lonely rooms who write about, for instance, growing flowers by candlelight.

America changed very quickly with the end of the war, and the counterculture faded into the caricature that is all we remember. Brautigan lost his audience, the portal to his alternate universe closed, we moved on to a decade of polyester and disco, trying to forget the decade of rage and flowers. In 1984, I heard the news he had shot himself with a borrowed pistol in a house north of San Francisco. I hope he is somewhere now in that alternate universe, in a cybernetic forest watched over by machines of loving grace.

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(Today is Bloomsday, June 16. I wrote this piece about Bloomsday a half dozen years ago, at the beginning of the Irish economic revival that took such a fall in the Great Recession.  Now things are about back where they always were in Ireland.  Our Irish friend, Aideen, and her husband came for a visit a few years ago and got to see the beautiful valleys of central Pennsylvania where we live.  The poster of Bloomsday my wife framed for me and I look at in the mornings when I wake up.  Happy Bloomsday.)

As I sit down to begin this column it is Bloomsday morning, Saturday, June 16.  In Dublin they will have already begun the celebration of Joyce’s memorable novel “Ulysses,” which takes place over the course of a single day in 1904 and describes the wanderings of a Dubliner named Leopold Bloom.

It is a hot and overcast morning in central Pennsylvania, the kind that might be described as oppressive.   Thunderstorms are predicted for the afternoon.   We are a long way from Ireland and I have not heard of any celebrations here, so I will celebrate quietly, with a cup of coffee on the porch instead of a pint of Guinness in a pub.

I first heard of Bloomsday in a second-hand bookstore on Church Street in San Francisco.  It was a Saturday evening and my wife and I were taking a walk after dinner as we often did in those days with our daughter in a backpack on my back.  The old green streetcars rattled down the hill and light was spilling out of the open windows of the tavern on the corner next to the bookstore.   The door of the bookstore was open and people from the pub next door were standing in the doorway listening to a reading from “Ulysses”.

Inside the shop there were posters with the familiar photograph of Joyce in a hat and round, dark glasses that is on the cover of his book of stories, “Dubliners.”  Printed on the poster was the date, June 16, and the word Bloomsday.

Joyce spent most of his adult life in a self-imposed exile in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris remembering and writing about Ireland.  The culture that gave him its love of language was too oppressive for a writer of his sort.  It was also too oppressive for women, including Joyce’s wife Nora, who ran away from Ireland with him, even though she had no interest in literature.  An Irish friend, Aideen, gave my wife a copy of the biography of Nora Joyce a few years ago.  It is subtitled “The Real Life of Molly Bloom.”

When I met my wife in San Francisco she and Aideen were roommates in a big flat in the Haight district that they shared with two other friends. Aideen had gone to university in Dublin and worked as a nanny to a wealthy family in Pacific Heights.  She had grown up in the west of Ireland where her father owned a small pub.  Her speech was full of unusual words and colorful phrases drawn from what was still a predominantly agricultural 19th century culture.

Aideen introduced us to her Irish friends.  Many of them were in the country without the proper visas or work permits.  They worked in the underground economy that paid in cash for jobs like furniture hauling and handyman, and they met after work in the Irish pubs that are found throughout the city.  The pub life is central to the Irish, both at home and abroad.

A few weeks ago I heard an Irish writer interviewed on public radio.  Nuala O’Faolain was talking about her memoir, “Are You Somebody,” and I was spellbound in front of the radio by her voice and the subject, which was her coming-of- age in the harsh society of Ireland in the 1950s and  ‘60s when women were treated like servants and children like orphans. Later, reading her book, I was again reminded that Ireland was never that land of shamrocks and leprechauns, and John Wayne sweeping Maureen O’Hara off her feet in the movie “The Quiet Man,” that most Americans wish and imagine that Ireland is.

O’Faolain writes about the neglect and cruelty of her childhood, the sense of defeat bred in the Irish by their history and religion. Now there is an economic boom in Ireland and young people are coming home. The women’s movement has helped raise women’s status and some of the heavy sense of oppression has lifted.  Despite the ongoing troubles, on a Bloomsday morning in Ireland there is something to celebrate.

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