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stories >> 1998 - 08 - 20

City Lights

     I'm sitting in front of a Starbuck's in San Jose, slowly sipping on some latte mocha frappa something, and watching the kid in front of me change the letters on the movie marquee. He's got the signage laid out on the ground, and he's using some sort of telescoping suction cup to take down the old letters and put up the new. To make a good connection, he slaps the suction cup down hard, punctuating his work with a repeated series of smacks. I like this kid, and I like this noise. The gun cracks of the suction cup hitting the side walk bode a good start for what promises to be a frenzied trip to San Francisco.
     I've been in California for almost a week now. Last weekend I was in sleepy Sonoma, putting in a brick workout (a bike followed by a run for the non-triathlete) and buying a half case of wine to send back to Jim and Jamie in celebration of Sam. This week I've been in San Jose, exulting in the uber-geekdom of the Programming Republic of Perl, remembering my other trips down here to SJ while visiting my man Thom at some long lost Mac development shop. I think it was my the last time here that Thom's boss took the three of us up north along the coast in a tiny little airplane, flying us within a thousand feet of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the Presidio.
     Well, the conference is over, and earlier today I bought something called The Rough Guide to San Francisco to lead my wandering steps. I thumb through, call up a couple of the more offbeat hotels, and get told that there's some sort of restaurant equipment convention in town and that I might just be out of luck finding a room. Ever faithful, I call around some more and I end up staying at the Ramada on 8th and Market, right downtown and a reasonable $99 a night.
     So here I am, in the filtering sun of a late afternoon, listening to obscure salsa music coming from the Starbuck's speakers and trying to pay attention Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe. I'm reading about W.O. Gant's seven week trip to California, "Gant's last great voyage." By now I've become more amused than bemused by this constant muttering of the Road Gods in my ear, but I still blink in surprise to read that Gant and I share at least one deep dream: "The West for desire, the East for home." Desire indeed. Crack crack crack goes the kid putting up his sign, chunka chunka chunka goes the salsa beat behind me, and I start grinning an idiot travel grin and recall the only Spenser that I could ever remember:

     Where Pleasure dwells in sensual delights,
     Mongst thousand dangers, & ten thousand magick mights.

Ah, San Francisco. Here I come.

     Boom, boom, boom, and I'm up highway 101 aiming straight for the heart of San Francisco and relying on my own dumb luck to be able to find my hotel and anything else I'll need. The little green Cavalier I've rented is a huge step up from my sad Leper soaking back home in Austin, and I've bought a Van Morrison tape to spur me along the road. "Oh Baby, please don't go!" I holler out the windows as I blow past car after car after car. The drive's not so long from San Jose to San Francisco, but old road habits require that I stop and fill up my half empty tank. I pull off at some likely looking place, end up driving all the way down to some marina on the east side of the peninsula, and get turned around and end up under the highway until I finally find a gas station. It's prepay, and I've never seen anything like it. The gas pump soaks up tens and twenties like a gluttonous Coke machine. I feed a ten into its hungry maw and fill up my trusty Cavalier. I wonder vaguely where I am, until I look around and see a sign saying, "Redwood City Athletic Club" and nearly jump out of my skin. I look a little more closely, and I see a Land Rover dealership nestled in behind the Athletic Club. Freaking Road Gods. Unhappy with me ignoring their W.O. Gant references, they bludgeon me with this. Damn.
     Click. The pump has grudgingly doled out its ten dollars worth of gas and is glaring at me balefully to feed it another bill. Lucky for me though, the Cavalier needs hardly any gas and it's filled to bursting on its ten dollar meal. I glare back at the disgruntled pump and start my little car, pointing back north and fumbling around the radio to find something good.
     The first song I heard last weekend was "Crazy" by Seal, and the next I remember was some cover of Little Wing as I drove across the Bay Bridge, with the guitar notes as cold and clear as an imaginary snowfall. I already love SF radio. Austin radio's so lousy, so boring, so dessicated, that for the first few days I think I'm in radio heaven. The sun's gone down on this Thursday night, and I'm hearing some song about "how about them block rockin' beats?" Cool, cool, cool enough, and then some song by a band called Local H comes on:

     You heard that we were great
     But now you think we're lame
     Since you saw the show last night

I'm laughing out loud at this song, with something about the bassist being as "drunk as he could get," and remembering all those shitty shows that Doug and I endured when we were kids... some band called Kinetic Dissent, in particular, who wouldn't play the one song that Doug and I wanted to hear even though we were the only people on the whole place who had come to see them instead of one of the other bands. "All the kids hold a grudge" goes the song, and they won't wear our t-shirts now.
     Highway 101 ends right in the heart of downtown, a fact I learned much to my frustration one Sunday afternoon years ago. On my way up to Sonoma last weekend, I had bombed through the middle of the city, pointing my poor Cavalier's nose up into the sky on those queasy hills to atone for my lack of planning and my inexhaustible getting-lost ability. Tonight, though, I've got a pretty good idea from my collection of inadequate maps of where the Ramada's going to be, and I see it shining right on the corner of 8th and Market as advertised. Inside, the lobby is all gold plating and slick gray marble and dark dark wood, gleaming and brooding like its been there for a thousand years. I've been assured that the rest of the hotel doesn't live up to the promise of this swanky lobby, and I find it to be true when I finally find my room, 263, tucked up tight against the stairwell in the back of the hotel. I can look out from my window onto a sea of air conditioners. The ceiling is huge, at least twelve feet, but to make up for it the bathroom has the smallest functional sink I've ever seen in my life. Think gerbil, or maybe guinea pig size. Think water fountain. Think airplane sink.
     Ah, hellfire.
     Thumb, thumb, thumb through my Rough Guide and thumb, thumb, thumb through my copy of the Observer or one of the other SF papers. I'm struck that the city seems extremely interested in hooking people up: the pages are crammed with "Romance Night" ads of dance lessons, group dinners, what have you. Earlier I heard a woman on the radio wanting to meet a married guy because "married guys don't try to posses you." And the woman who gave me my reservation asked if I was just by myself, and I laughed telling her "Unless I get lucky" and she laughed back telling me, "Well, this is San Francisco." I guess it makes sense: a lazy and permissive city full of young, rich people. What better mixture?
     Thumb, thumb, thumb and I decide on three destinations tonight: the Millennium, a swank vegetarian restaurant; Backflip, a swank bar; and some place called "Il Pirata", just because they claim in the paper to be playing "techno" tonight. Let's see what big city techno music's all about. The first two are allegedly within walking distance of where I'm at, and I figure I'll take a cab down to the third.
     The door man has no idea where Millennium is, so I wander out into the night of what's pegged down on my map as "The Civic Center," basically where town hall is, etc. I wander up and down 8th street, for some obscure and obstinate reason leaving my guide book back in the room where it can do me no good. I finally spot Millennium, about two blocks from where the Ramada, and I walk in and look around for someone to serve me. It's 9:45 now, and it takes awhile for the host to come around. "Howdy," I tell him.
     "Hi," he says. "I hope you're not hungry."
     "Well, I was hoping I could get something to eat. Am I too late?"
     "Let me see. We might be able to do soup and salad."
     Sounds great to me, and I remember reading somewhere that SF shuts down by 10:00. Good Lord, I think. What's up with this? You can't eat after 9:30? Hmmm.
     But back comes the host, and he leads me downstairs, and Millennium is as cool and swank as I could have hoped for. Lots of white marble, lots of rusty looking copper, mirrors tilting precariously off the walls, and everyone around me is so, so young. And gay. Gay gay gay. I never really thought about those myths you're raised with, that SF is full of gay men blah blah blah.
     Ain't no myth. SF is full of gay men.
     Well, at least Millennium is full of gay men, or at least full of what appear to me to be gay men, and the place is so cool, who's to blame them? When the host swings back to take my order, I tell him "Well, I guess it's soup and salad" with a big goofy grin. The soup is some carrot ginger deal, and the salad is some anonymous but fantastic collection of greens and vinegar. I eavesdrop on the conversations going on around me: at twelve o'clock and nine o'clock, there are two huge parties laughing and lisping and discussing work and discussing life. At three o'clock there's some guy cut out of a surf bum magazine, who appears to be holding down some sort of painting or carpentry job, and his beautiful girlfriend is gently chiding him for trying to pick up the bill. Dead behind me, at six o'clock, is one of those mirrors, and I can see my solitary self reflected back and forth in the mirror in front of me off into infinity, a quiet island in the midst of this humming humanity. O, San Francisco. O, the humanity :)
     I finish off my dinner, another waiter comes up and taunts me when I tell him I don't want dessert, and I just laugh with him. I soak up the rest of a glass of wine, and whisper as much benediction and blessing as I have on all these people crowded into this basement underneath sleepy, precious San Fran.
     Zooma, zooma, out on to the street and trying to find Backflip. It's supposed to have some sort of nautical, or at least swimming pool theme. But I'm wandering around and around some street called Geary and the local fauna is starting to look pretty sketchy. I mean, really sketchy. Two guys come up to me, trying to hand me some literature, and they start calling me "Smiley." So I just smile back, and one of them asks if he can come visit me. "Uh... maybe" I tell him, shaking my head incredulously. "I'll have to ask my husband" he calls to me as I cross the street and start to give up hope on finding this Backflip place.
     Somehow, I've ended up back on Market, near Union Square. After trying to figure out how the BART works and giving up, I decide to walk on back home, forgetting about Il Pirata. I'm looking around distractedly and kind of notice that 8th and Market is in some sort of Tenderloin district. "Girls Girls Girls" are flashing at me from every sign, and I notice that I have the distinction of being near "Crazy Horse II" or some such shit. Whatever. I'm getting tired now, and a little depressed after all the pan handling and porn, but I can see the Ramada straight ahead. I pick up the pace, thinking of nothing but my tiny sink and my warm bed. But then I slow it down, thinking, "Dammit, I'm in San Francisco, and I'm going to go to this Il Pirata place after all." I hail a cab passing by and pile in, telling him "16th and Utah."
     Il Pirata turns out to be a tiny little bar located in the Portero projects (or at least the cabbie tells me so). There's some three or five dollar cover to pay, and they hand me a flyer for their big party in a few weeks. I fold it into my pocket, and as advertised they're playing some sort of groovy trancey techno music. There are only about twenty people in this place, way too few for me to feel comfortable drinking and dancing, so I float up to the bar and order a Sapphire and tonic.
     Hmm, hmm, hmm. The people on either side of me are not at all interested in talking, so I start watching the wide screen. There's some bizarre movie called "The Poet's Coat of Arms" or something. Really, really weird shit. There's some talking statue, some guy in rock climbing shoes and a French Revolution looking wig, lots of jumping through mirrors and peeping through keyholes, people flying around the room, what have you. I order another drink, and as I glance up the movie's showing a hand written note that says, "Help! I'm Jean Cocteau and I'm trapped in my own movie!" Ah, French Surrealism. No wonder this is so messed up.
     So I order another drink, chew on my straw, watch the movie, and laugh at how screwed up it is. Eventually, I look down from the big screen, and the guy sitting between me and the movie is looking at me confusedly, asking what was I saying to him? I tell him, "I'm just watching the movie, my man."
     He holds his arms out, palms facing me, and says, "I'm super straight, man."
     I laugh, and tell him, "I think I am too, bud, so don't worry."
     I forget his name, but we get to talking, and I tell him I'm a coder, and when I ask what he does, he says "Roman blinds."
     "Roman blinds? What does that mean?"
     "I'm an interior designer."
     "You're an interior designer and you're straight? That must be an anomaly."
     This guy thinks that "anomaly" is the funniest word that he's ever heard. He buys me a drink and introduces me to some of his friends. We hang out some more, talking about nothing, and as he gets up to leave, he claps me on the shoulder and tells me, "You will be very lucky in San Francisco."
     Thanks, my man. I turn back to have one last drink with bartender. We jaw about his recent trip to London, where his girlfriend is, and I finally ask him to call me a cab. The cab rolls up, and I'm on my way back to the Ramada and a long night's sleep.

     I wake up the next morning and it's one more glorious California day. I'v left my window open all night, and the sea of air conditioners has blown a sweet soft breeze in through my curtains all night long.
     It's one long Autumn day, here in California. Stretching on and on in a long quiet twilight. My travel book tells me that temperatures don't get much more than 80 nor much less than 40: just right for the Falls that I am used to. Chilly enough to warrant a jacket, with just a hint of sun burn crispiness left in the air when you step out of the shade. I wonder how I'd fare in California. I'm always a little bit crazy in the Fall and the Spring; it's only in the Summer and Winter that I can think straight. Here in San Francisco, where it's Autumn 300 days a year to my Southern senses, I would be perpetually dazed and useless.
     I look at my watch and see that it's August, I look at the trees and see that they're still green, but those thousand natural shocks unspoken in the environment make me think that it's Fall. The wind just doesn't blow this way in the Summer; the light doesn't get in your eyes like this until the Fall; the air doesn't smell like this, people don't dress like this. I keep expecting to smell burning leaf piles and see folks cutting into jack o'lanterns. Faux Fall, siempre otoņo.
     Hmm, hmm. Time to quit brooding and go out.
     Thumb, thumb, thumb to decide what I'm going to do today. I'd love to run a race while I'm here in California, and I figure that I'll try out the local running store to see if they have any information. I look up one in the phone book and see that it's all the way across town from me, down a little bit south of Golden Gate Park on 9th boulevard or something, who can remember? I happen to have scrounged up a bus map from the night before, and I see that the number 7 "Haight/Ashbury" is going exactly where I want to be and I decide to catch it.
     On the way out the front door, I see the door man from the night before and fill him in on the location of the Millennium. He thanks me, and I dodge across the street to the bus stop. The number 7 is supposed to stop here, along with five or six other bus lines, but I watch and watch the buses come and go, and there's not a single one for Haight. I see the weird neo-modern Jetsons's looking Market Street trolley going up and down four or five times and I start to get a little discouraged. But, ah, finally the bus shows up and I feed it my dollar and I'm off across town.
     I sit down next to a teen aged girl who looks me straight in the eye and says, "Hi." She's with four or five other kids, and they look like they've fallen out of some ancient hippy movie. Scraggly, unkempt, mellow. They talk back and forth and it comes out that the girl next to me is from Illinois and is headed back tomorrow. Of all her friends, not a single one is a California native; they're mostly from that raft of midwest states who's "names begin with I." After awhile, she turns back to me and asks me where I'm from. "Texas," I tell her.
     "You don't sound like you're from Texas."
     Ah. Okay.
     "You smoke bud? You can buy bud on the street in Haight Ashbury."
     Great. I figure if she's going to play me up for the hickoid Texan, I might as well take it for all I can.
     "Really? I hear that you can see hippies up there, too."
     She gives me a condescending stare, then turns back to her buddies to pass the time away. I absently turn my attention off to a couple of five year old kids riding the bus and swearing up a blue streak.
     So I ride the bus all the way to the end of Haight, right past the Ben & Jerry's and the Gap that's at the corner of Ashbury. I walk back up Haight a little, dodging the pan handlers and trying to find a place to have a cup of coffee and a bagel. I pick up a bottle of water from some natural foods place, wander past a boutique called "Dharma" that turns out to only be selling clothes, and finally settle into some innocuous java joint. I slurp down my coffee and read The Guardian or some other aggressively homosexual paper, laughing all the way through my bagel because the writers are so hilarious in that Dan Savage kind of way. The sun's shining down, and I figure it's time to go find this here running store.
     So back down Haight, wandering through Golden Gate Park. As I get closer to the ocean, the fog and clouds are condensing around me. The park is gorgeous, and I think back to April and running that 5K race in New York's Central Park. I'm thinking somehow to myself, "Great cities make great parks," or maybe "great parks make great cities," and I have this crazy vision in my head, of some vast and hidden fulcrum spread from coast to coast, with sprawling Golden Gate Park teetering on one end and twisty, crusty Central Park balanced on the other. Like some kind of kid's gyroscope, I can see the parks spinning back and forth, twisting the lever first one way and then the other. I keep wondering what this crazy vision means, and I keep thiking "what's at the center?"
     The vision thing humming in my head, I stroll down past Kezar Stadium, which I remember from some old Dead Kennedy's song, and I think about Jello Biafra, lead singer of the now defunct punk band and still an angry young man all these years later. I remember how he ran for mayor of San Francisco, with one of his platforms being that people would have to wear clown suits while in the financial district downtown. I shake my head to think about it. This is the downside of the 300 days of paradise: living's gotten a little too easy here in California. It reminds me of visiting Puerto Rico, and being struck by how lazy everyone was. If you don't have to work, most folks won't; here in California, there's no annual snow shovel, no annual summer purgation, just a whole lot of time on your hands to do what you want. I don't think it's a mistake that so many self-actualization movements are born and seeded out here. It's a living testament to Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs.
     Jello, I think to myself, you really need to find yourself some real problems to deal with.
     On and on, past Kezar, past the running store (where I find out that there is no race this weekend in San Francisco, imagine that), and down down the park all the way to the Pacific ocean. The cloud cover is thick and gloomy now. I walk all the way down to the shore and stick my foot in the water, suddenly realizing that I've been coast to coast in the past four months, with a stop at the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico all for good measure. I look north along the coast, up towards Stinson Beach where I made a stop a week ago on the way down from Sonoma. I remember distinctly reading somewhere that you shouldn't wear a black wet suit to swim here in the Pacific, because the sharks tend to mistake you for a sea lion.
     Back up the beach, and there's some sort of retaining wall built out of old tires and telephone poles. I lean up against the tires in between the countless empty forty ounce malt liquor bottles and I feel the heat trapped in the black rubber warm my tired back. I close my eyes and doze a little bit by the sea.
     Eventually, I rouse myself and start to walk back eastward towards my hotel. West for desire, East for home.

     The next morning, there's still no race, but I'm determined to run while I'm here in San Francisco. I had originally wanted to run across the Golden Gate Bridge, but now I don't want to work out the logistics of getting across town to do the run. Instead I plan out a run angling from my apartment up through China Town to North Beach and Telegraph Hill. From there, I figure I'll swing back along the shore and straight up Market back to my hotel. I have no idea how far it's going to be; four, five, seven miles. Who knows?
     Shoes on, shorts on, and I'm down and out the front door and trying to figure out the annoying angle of the streets. Here around Market, all of the streets tend to slant back into Market, and it's hard to get away from the main drag and the annoyed looks that everyone is giving me. I run past some of the places that I walked a few nights ago, through that unmistakable urban bouquet of stale urine and the startled glances of the indigenous pan handlers. I keep on pounding up to Grant street, where I turn north and set my sights on China Town.
     Thunka, thunka, thunka up the steady hill, and in front of me I see that scary old red dragon gate marking the territory that I'm about to enter. I have to swallow back a little, because everything changes once you're across. It's a very strong feeling, where the streets get half as wide and twice as crowded, the signs are scrawled out in Chinese, the noises and smells are utterly alien, and everyone around you is suddenly Asian. I plunge across the gate and instantly the sidewalks are hopelessly choked. There's more room in the street with the fatally dead locked traffic, so I dodge in and out of the fat Lexii as the driver gawk at me and wonder what this crazy kwai lo is doing running through their city. Up ahead, there's some sort of parade, with drums and fire crackers, so I angle a little west to try to skirt it. After an amazingly few blocks, I'm at Broadway, and right down the street I can see City Lights Bookstore, ground zero for the Beats. Somewhere around here is Jack Kerouac alley. Good, good Lord, I think to myself.
     But my sight is not for Beats this morning, but rather for the hill in front of me, Telegraph Hill topped by the Coit Tower, a couple of hundred feet straight up here on the North Shore. I start to plunge up the hill... quickly, quickly now, tell them how steep it got, and how you refused to give up until you reached that next cross street, with your heart exploding in your chest and still so far to go up the hill. Who knows how far up I make it before I start to walk, gasping and sweating and following the path around the hill up to the base of the Tower, looking and feeling so different from all of the other mid-West tourists slowly driving and walking up this hill. At the top of the hill, I don't have the $3 required to go to the top of the three story Coit Tower, so I stare off at what I can see from the base, which looks like all of heaven and earth from where I'm standing. Off to my right is the Bay Bridge, where I had snuck through San Francisco exactly eight days ago on my dash to Sonoma. In front of me is Tiburon, the Shark Island, and somewhere there's Alcatraz. Off to my left is the Golden Gate herself, wrapped in her fog and clouds with only the top of her spans showing through it all.
     Still gasping, I gape back across the bay again, looking at the sail boats chasing each other and the super tankers slowly pushing their way through the water and the liquid sun. I can see the Trocadero below me, and the winking heights of the Financial District. I don't think I can see my hotel from here. I hear someone next to me oooing and murmuring to her husband, and pointing out some building off across the bay which demarcates the Berkeley campus. With a soft pang, I turn my back to her. Instead I look back out at the Golden Gate and imagine the Pacific and the cloud hidden ten thousand miles of water off to the West.
     West. West for Desire.
     East is for Home.

     The next day, I've managed to snake out of a thirty dollar parking tab by cleverly only having ten dollars in cash. After getting lost in the projects again, I drop my car off unconscionably early. I pack up my one bag (another road habit: I had intentionally done laundry down in San Jose), squirrel away a birthday gift I had bought, and catch the Avis or Hertz or who knows bus down to the airport proper. Waiting for the plane, a tiny beautiful Japanese girl wearing hipster bell bottoms and platform shoes asks me to take a photo of her and her friends. I oblige, feeling self conscious in my dorky "Republic of Perl" shirt. I board the plane and sit next to a guy who claims to have designed the Diet Coke can. Really? We spend an enjoyable flight, chatting occasionally, comparing our airplane novels and our experiences, stretching our long Texas bones, making steady progress back on home.


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