Fog city heart
The schedule at Yoga Tree yesterday only said “vinyasa”, not “transformational experience”, so I was not at all prepared for what was about to happen. First of all, the room was heated, something I’ve never been keen on trying as I find flowing yoga styles to be sweaty enough anyway; secondly, our teacher Elise kept us in there for nearly two hours, pushing us to a point where more than one person went diving for their mats to wait out a few poses until they could breathe again. But somehow I was managing to follow, as I stretched and pushed and sweated more than I have in my life. By the end I had lost all perspective on space and time but I felt so oddly energised, so charged. I left the studio in a buzz, suddenly ravishingly hungry, feeling like a disciple of a new religion. Hello world, I am a yogi.
Ely and I went to Biscuits & Blues in the evening, where the Fat Tuesday Band whipped up a storm of New Orleans classic funk and blues, accompanied by the undeniable Edna Love. And today the wind has taken a break from whipping through the streets of San Francisco, luring us outside in shorts and skinny cardis. I picked up food at Tu Lan (Those imperial rolls! I could live off those.) and headed out to the Legion of Honor. I wasn’t sure why as I wasn’t really in the mood for classical art, but the idea had kept surfacing over the past week so clearly I was supposed to go. This is the sort of reasoning I do now, after a month out here, where it’s not just me making the decisions but a city that seems to never let me down. And this time … the Legion of Honor is a beautiful building with a neat collection of European art, including some great works by Auguste Rodin. But the reward for going all the way out to Ocean Beach came once I decided to hike out to Land’s End. Standing out by the Legion I could see the little lighthouse, down in the distance, and encouraged by the novelty of my twinge-less ankle I started climbing. The labyrinth I had in mind is by Mile Rock Beach, built in stone where the peninsula reaches the farthest into the ocean. In the spirit of my reconnected hippie roots I walked through the maze to the centre, sitting down in the middle to the most spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was deep red against the blue sky today, and I don’t know what it was that happened next but it felt like magic.
“Let me just wrap this up by telling you a little something about magic. Everything in my life up to this point I created with my mind. I pre-visioned it, and now here I am, living in the painting that I drew with my mind’s eye. Everything is going to plan, and I’m pleased. I created it with my head, and then with my hands, feet and mouth. There’s nothing magic about magic.” [Molly Laich wrote this, but I wish it had been me.]
I’m leaving San Francisco today. My month of magical thinking is coming to an end, and I was hoping I’d feel like going home by this point but I really don’t. I hear summer has finally come to London though, which is a blessed relief, but I have caught a travel bug big time and oooooh. I never thought I wanted to go off on my own before, and as a card-carrying introvert I never thought I’d enjoy talking to strangers and meeting new people as much as I do now. Maybe it’s this city, these “49 square miles surrounded by reality”, that’s working their spell on me. London has such a sassy way about it, it’s so sharp and cool, and this place is anything but. I have loved being in a city where you can reach out and dream a little, where people believe in a little magic and when you say that you do, what you get in return is a knowing nod.
Some things I will change once I get home:
* I will do yoga, twice a week. This is the most important thing, and I believe the key to everything else.
* One day a week I will work exclusively at steering my work in the direction I want it to go.
* I’m putting in place a few routines to deal with stuff that’s boring, such as timekeeping, cooking, cleaning and washing my hair, so I can stop fussing about it.
* I’m taking some of this city’s beautiful spirit home with me. San Francisco gave me a fantastic experience, just when I needed it. And as you get what you give, I’m hoping that London will provide for me too, if i let it. The triangle inked into my arm is just in my line of sight.
… I am on the airplane now, after a last coffee at Caffe Trieste, a last sandwich from Molinari’s, a last trek up Ina Coolbrith Park and even one last free ride on the cable car back to the hostel. I walked quickly to the Bart station, thinking that I have to leave now before I start to cry. In this endeavour I’m afraid I failed. I was the last person to board the flight, running down the corridor as I heard them cancel the bag removal order, and then to twist the knife, the plane did the most spectacular low fly-by over the cloudless San Francisco peninsula before we headed east. This month could not have been more perfect if I had dreamt it up. I’ll be back soon, but I make no guarantee that I’ll be able to leave again. San Francisco: if you want me, I’m yours.
Bird of paradise
Tien Hau is the oldest Chinese temple in the US, built in 1852. It is located on the top floor of what looks like a residential building in a Chinatown alley, and this is not a place to sit in quiet contemplation. This is a working temple, where busy ladies sit along the wall folding paper, which visitors buy to burn in the fireplace. The ceiling is covered in red and gold lanterns, with dangling messages attached, while every surface is covered in icons and incense. The smoke fills the temple before escaping out the open door, taking the prayers along with it.
You can’t stand on a corner looking contemplative for long in this city before someone asks if they can help you, or alternatively, if you can help them. In Chinatown, an old man who saw me standing on the curb asked if I was looking for somewhere to eat, and when I said yes he offered to show me somewhere. He thought I was brave to come to San Francisco alone, but he came here alone once too, from Hong Kong. “This city gives you wings,” he said, as we walked up to a little restaurant on Stockton. He used to be an engineer, then an English teacher, and now he teaches philosophy and theology in two languages; “Oh if I had kept diaries I’d be famous,” he said, cracking up. He pointed me to a seat in the restaurant and came back with a plate of food for me, and as I ate we talked about books and languages. I asked if he had a family but he has other priorities: “For 31 years I have not held a lady’s hand. I like to be in the library, but I would come home and she would ask, are you married to me or to the books?” He leaned forward, his eyes lighting up: “I like ideas.” The trouble with people is that we all come from such different places, he said: “You are the kite, they are tugging at the string. They have to work hard to keep up with you.”
I think it’s called synchronicity, this feeling. That’s what Ely said as I was going on about how everything seems to be happening faster, like when you are on a bike and it’s soaring downhill and you feel completely in control, and the lights turn green when you want them to and everything just flows. We were having food at Burma Superstar in the Richmond last night, arriving at pensioners’ dinnertime in order to beat the crowds that invariably form outside, swooning over the tea leaf salad, the mint chicken, the beef curry. It’s manna from heaven, this place. That tea leaf salad! I have no words to describe what goes on on that plate, just that it came from the earth and has been touched by magic. But the synchronicity. Usually when I feel like things are speeding up it’s not a good thing, as I’ll be constantly scrambling to catch up, but now … maybe it’s because I’m in full holiday mode, having officially given up on doing any work until I get home, meaning I have nothing to do other than to walk around and ponder these things. I’m a little amazed at this holiday feeling, even though it was sort of the plan, but it’s been so long since I’ve thought about other things than work that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to put it away. But as they say, a little freedom is a dangerous thing. I’m in Maxfield’s House of Caffeine again, by way of Dolores Park, about to go over to Yoga Tree in Castro for another vinyasa class. Happiness is a sunny day. But right now all I can think about is how I want to go on the road, on and on, because a month is just enough to show me a flash of what it could be like. I never thought I wanted to go travelling on my own, but now, as I’m plugged in and the impulses come thick and fast, the thought has taken root.
Yellow, blue and international orange
It seems I am heading into full wind-down mode. “Sitting on the dock of the Bay, watching the tide roll away,” that sort of thing. A great many good songs are turning out to be about San Francisco. Today went by in a big, sunny shrug: another jeans-clad meeting in the morning, pottering about downtown, and then drinks with Kasey from Oklahoma at the Owl Tree. This city gets cold when the sun goes down, but it warms up into the evening, which tonight was all rooftops, stars and sliver moon.
“But since I am neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.” … I’ve been reading my Joan Didion book after carrying it around with me for over a week meaning to get around to it, but this city has had me so distracted, so charmed. She is such a beautiful writer, though. I hope that reading her will make me better, by osmosis or some such thing. I’m in the Mission again, which is where I keep feeling like going, slouched into a sofa at Ritual Coffee Roasters. My afternoon beer, in the shape of a local brew called Fat Tyre, is sinking me into the ground, but I feel oddly connected, if that’s the right word. My new triangle, nestled into the crook of my left elbow, is slowly losing its inky crust, becoming a part of me. I feel the way about this tattoo as Martin Amis did about the title of his book ‘London Fields’: “There are two kinds of titles - two grades, two orders. The first kind of title decides on a name of something that is already there. The second kind of title is present all along; it lives and breathes, or it tries, on every page. … [This] is the second kind of title.” Most of my tattoos are like the first kind, as they represent something that has already happened. Even if they didn’t at the time, they do so now. Maybe the triangle will slip into the past too, somewhere down the line, when I’ll be absent-mindedly fingering a new shape, cooing over its meaning. But for now the triangle is very much happening: the climb, the push, the reach; not what I can get, but what I want.
The weather is the same every day: a windy sun, coating the city in yellow and blue haze. My eyes seem to be lightening, but I think it’s just my hair changing from the sun. Time is blurring as I am slowing down, leaning into it, but at the same time I feel so aware. I went to Sightglass Coffee in SoMa, which is hands down the most beautiful coffee shop I have ever seen. At Yoga Tree in Hayes Valley I stuttered through a hatha flow class, jittery from the caffeine, but it still left me in better shape than it found me. I am cultivating an addiction. And speaking of which … I went with Ely, who is passing through San Francisco before going to live in Canada, out to the Marina in the evening, to witness the birthday celebration of everybody’s favourite landmark. The fireworks soared across the span, raining white stars into the bay, before the sky exploded into orange to celebrate 75 years for the Golden Gate Bridge. And even now, hours later, I can feel it in my bones, just how much I love this city.
One day, if I do go to heaven, I’ll look around and say: “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco”
Oooh I am very much in love this city today. It’s sunny, I’m slouching around in shorts and everywhere I go is playing such good music. The brat kicked off a bit this morning about having its serene little world disrupted by the influence of other people, but what can I say; after twenty days of virtual solitude I am reassured to discovered I am a social creature after all.
As I was waiting for my class to start at Yoga Tree I realised I’ve been away from yoga for three years. That is an embarrassingly long time to be meaning to get around to something. Jeremi with an i ran a hardcore little vinyasa session, which the hilly peninsula has left me capable of following but still has me horrified at how inflexible I’ve become. Yoga Tree runs dozens of classes a day all over this paradise city, and I’ve pre-paid two more in order to try and nail down a habit before I go home. I have a strong feeling that yoga is the key to a lot of things for me right now, not just for the sake of some calm in what I have realised to be an insanely crowded London, but also because it’s really hit home how my previous lack of fitness was making me tired. I was stuck in winter, cardigans pulled tight, moving slowly. This city makes me want to be good to myself.
Down on 24th Street the murals come thick and fast in the so-called El Corazon de la Misione. There is so much colour in this city, especially down in the Mission. Now I’m at Ritual Coffee Roasters on Valencia Street, another contender for the prototype of the freelancing world. I’ve got a bag from La Taqueria by my feet, and it’s still sunny outside at 7.30pm. … After a couple of weeks here I wondered if I was beginning to wear out the reasons I keep wanting to come back to San Francisco, whether it belonged to a younger version of myself. But now I know that what I needed to do was to peel off another layer of the onion, to get more engaged with things, take part and get to know people. Now a new San Francisco is happening to me, it has the same flavour as before but it’s fresh and new. I know what it is, this feeling, because I have fallen in love with a city before. I know that it is too late to stop it and I have no choice; it will happen all over again. I will leave my heart in San Francisco.
On Jessie Street
One of my favourite things about this trip has been that there has been no rushing. A few times I’ve had meetings or departure times, but mostly I have been free to doodle along at my own pace, no need to make any decisions or compromises. I didn’t realise before how much I hate to rush, and how much I childishly rebel against it. So I’ve always thought I was naturally a bit lazy but here, with no agenda, I run around like … like a person who runs around. And I’m starting to hit the part where I start thinking of what I want to change when I get home. As far as I can tell yet, this time it’s about being deliberate; doing things because I want to and not because I think I should. Oh and going back to yoga, for good this time. So say we all.
Other things from yesterday:
* The Pinecrest Diner, with Ornella after the burlesque show. This is a 24-hour establishment with blond wood, low light and padded booths, very Nighthawks at the Diner. We ate American food at midnight and now it’s on my hips.
* The Japanese Tea Garden in the Golden Gate Park. I like this place, with the bonsai trees, the pagodas, brown rice tea and mochi, and the big Buddha.
* The Columbarium. This little stately home for cremated remains was built in 1898 in what is now a quiet residential area. It is full of stories in a way a cemetery will never be. The round building, painted in purples and greys, has four floors of niches for the dead and their favourite belongings, complete with messages from (and sometimes dedicated room for) those who are still alive. Photos, stuffed toys, trinkets, a passport, a teapot, Pride flags, masonic crests, flowers, letters: “Jeannette, you never have to worry about leaving San Francisco! Love, Michael” It’s remarkable, but I’m not sure I like this trinket-laden approach to the great beyond. I don’t think it’s very … European. But I guess it’s up to each of us.
* At Blue Bottle on Jessie Street in SoMa, drinking my first glass of cold-brewed iced coffee. I’m not sure it’s any better than hot-brewed on ice, but it’s definitely more caffeiney. I’m writing this at 5pm and it’s basically all I’ve done today. Except that I spent an hour at the Spic’n Span launderette, and now the sky is blue blue blue. I hear the weather in London has been rubbish pretty much the whole time I’ve been away, and I am so grateful I didn’t have to deal with that. It would have been lacking in grace. Speaking of which, I found a picture taken of me just before I left the UK, and I look grey. A certain summer child really needed the light. … I’m grateful for that too.
* John Irving, literary legend, was interviewed by Michael Krasny on the stage of the Herbst Theatre on Tuesday night. And if anything’s going to make me want to read long stories again it’s going to be John Irving. In One Person is his 13th novel, and I really look forward to it as it sounds excellent. Irving always starts his books with the final sentence, and while he doesn’t like talking much about his current projects he told us the ending of his next book: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.” Irving speaks like he writes: he’s long-winded, opinionated, hugely intelligent, and funny in unexpected ways. He wrote his first four novels part time, and he said he found it really hard to make the transition to full time author when he was finally able to do so financially. His thoughts would wander after three hours of writing, but eventually he learned how to write for eight hours a day. He didn’t say how, so maybe it’s the purview of geniuses. But I am hopeful.
* And now it’s tomorrow - Day 21 - and hostel change again, I’m in Starbucks waiting for check-in to open, and then Ornella and I will go to Tu Lan and then down to the Ferry Building and sit and look at the Bay Bridge. I’m listening to Jack White’s Blunderbuss, which continues to blow my mind, increasingly so, with every new track. On and on and on.
“We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost - not necessarily in that order.” [John Irving, In One Person]
The art of the Teese
Dita Von Teese put on a squeelingly awesome show on Monday night, first taking the roof off the excellent venue that is the Fillmore, and then rendering us utterly speechless at her sheer perfection. She is so elegant, so lithe and so subtle, making you think that oh, so that’s what striptease is supposed to be like. I didn’t think I would be able to see the sold-out show at first, until it turned out my roommate Ornella is a Parisian burlesque starlet with friends on the cast, meaning we got complimentary tickets. Strip Strip Hooray featured six other performers too, plus MC Murray Hill: Dirty Martini, Selene Luna, Monsieur Romeo, Catherine D’Lish, Lada and Perle Noire. All spectacular in their own unique ways, but Dita, she sets the standard. The martini glass, where she splashes around in the water; the powder compact, where she dusts herself down; the mechanical bull, where the entire audience gasped when she finally swung her impossibly white legs over the top, lowering herself down slowly, slowly, before everything went pink - on the stage and in our heads. And then she took it one step further with an explosion of pink glitter, raining over the world. I couldn’t really see how she could top that with her final act, but she managed, and jaw-droppingly so. I, however, have run out of words to describe it. Sheer and utter bliss.
A triangle is a spiral, and is one energy event
At the Zen Center, no one speaks before the Dharma Talk begins. Everyone just sits quietly, on pillows on the floor or on chairs along the wall, waiting for the soft bell to finish chiming and the reverend Keiryu Lien Shutt to enter. It seems very formal, but by the end I realise these routines probably aren’t there to be limiting, but to put the practicalities into a system so we can focus on more important things. And if someone forgets to bow at the appropriate moment, well that’s just the way things are. During the tour for beginners we learn how to behave in the temple, which follows the Buddhist Soto Zen tradition; what the bells mean, the rules for shoes and bowing, all explained by a soft-spoken, bright-eyed man in a robe. It takes six months just to learned how to sit, explained the reverend, and if you can’t … well that’s just the way it is that day. Keiryu Lien Shutt told us she was adopted to the US when she was eight, having survived the Vietnam war, and now she lives in San Francisco with her girlfriend. She spoke from her low wooden seat, having carefully arranged her robes around her, covering her bare feet. She took her time, her voice soft even when she made us laugh. She spoke about authenticity, about the door swinging in our minds between rejection and acceptance, about how it’s not about striving to be the best little runner … I thought about this as I left, specifically in regards to my chronic almost-lateness, and how I keep feeling like I need to get better. But somehow that doesn’t work, so maybe a different approach is in order. Guilt doesn’t motivate me, but I know that what does is the opportunity to step up. I’m not sure if that’s Zen or not; I was only at the centre for two hours. But as I understand it, Zen is a lot about seeing things as they are, to simply recognise them for what they are. I got the impression of an open and accepting religion, one where a gay minister isn’t just tolerated but no big deal, that there is no reason we should have to beg forgiveness for our very nature at every turn, that the spirit isn’t some far away place out of reach, but something that is everywhere, all the time.
Also on Saturday:
* Momi Tobys Revolution Café in Hayes Valley: espresso, wide cup, ice.
* The Asian Heritage Street Fair: Japanese drummers, dancers from Cambodia and Burma, a palm-leaf wrapped rice and banana sweet from Laos, and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice on ice, slowly melting in the sun. Then a Vietnamese man dragged out a 3,500 year old stone lithophone, proceeding to play what is one of the oldest working instruments in the world, banging the stone slabs with wooden sticks to produce the brittlest, clearest little sounds.
* Food at Spice in the Richmond was wonderful, but nothing beats yesterday’s dinner at Tu Lan in the Tenderloin. The quick, cheap Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall restaurant has sloped floors and flames reaching high over the blackened woks, smoking up the place. Oh wow.
* On Ocean Beach: sun, wind, sand. The Pacific is freezing but the surf is coated in silver. I sat and watched it roll in, thinking that everything they say about California is true.
* I climbed down the hill from the Cliff House to the Sutro Baths, the ruins of a once- grand swimming complex built in 1896. As much as I’d have liked to see it at its prime, there is something wonderful about it the way it is now, left to the birds.
At Maxfields House of Caffeine in the Mission there are big windows, tables and sofas, space to work with good wifi, massive espressos on ice and even goddamn vegan cookies. This is what the world would look like if it were a freelancing paradise with me as its queen.
Today is Sunday, it’s sunny and all I want to do is to go to Dolores Park and lie in it. But one thing. I had a brainwave the other day, and I think it’s the feeling I’ve been circling in on since I got here. And what it is, I think, is that I’m finally started to feel like an adult. As in, it’s been happening over the past year, but only now that I’ve had a moment can I recognise it for what it is. That word means different things to people, but for me it’s about feeling like this life is my own. That I am not floundering aimlessly anymore (controlled floundering is ok!), that I am on track with my work, that I am capable of doing it and other things too, when I put the push on it. That I am at home in this body, that I am able to recognise what I want, along with the confidence to go after it. That I trust my own worth enough to walk away when it’s not right. This is what being an adult means to me, and being here, all by myself, I’m realising I no longer feel like I’m at the dress rehearsal for the real thing. There’s lots more to work out, of course. But it’s happening, right now, and it’s not half bad. Not half bad at all.
[Also today: triangle, ink, energy event.]
You’ve got to find the fire somewhere
There’s a haziness about the air in this city, it coats everything with a slightly surreal fuzz. You see it on sunny days like today, when there’s no white fog drifting between the building, just the yellow sunshine, equally tangible at street level. All my photos from days like this have a vagueness about them; nothing is sharp.
Today was a funny little thing, hampered by patchy sleep and various aches and pains. This morning I couldn’t find my phone in my bag and it turned up under the bed; yesterday I left my key in my shoe and it appeared in reception. Something’s at work. Cranky, achy and unable to sleep, eat or get the wifi to work with me, I sought refuge in Starbucks, which soothed me with caffeine and technology. After burying my nose in a burrito (the brat wanted spicy beef and extra salsa today, appalled at the state of the world) I walked up to the Cable Car Barn on Nob Hill, where the cables for the city’s three lines are pulled through for repair and supervision, loud and smelling of hot metal. I meandered down slowly through Chinatown and North Beach, ending up at Fisherman’s Wharf. The wild sea lions living there make this tourist trap worthwhile; it’s great fun watching the giant mammals sunning themselves in their velvet coats, barking and play-fighting on the pontoon dock.
But I’m thinking this little experiment has turned a corner. The need for silence and unplanned days, which seemed like it could go on forever, is starting to fade. Yesterday I found myself tentatively making some plans for my remaining time here, and by next week I think I may even be ready to sit down and think about work. I’m at the halfway point now and while I could just walk around for the next two weeks, I’m starting to feel like the city wants me to make a contribution. I think San Francisco is asking me to be a part of her, and as they say in Mexico: “To the table or bed, you must come where you are bid.”
I made my meeting on time and that’s the important part, but I’m thinking the fact that I almost let myself be late is an indication that I am no longer on holiday. Here, across an ocean and a continent, my old self has caught up with me, willing buses through traffic as I have bad habits to make up for. But it was such a good meeting, with one of those rare companies whose vision leads to how technology is ultimately a question of how we live our lives. I’ve had this feeling once before, about a fantastic little company which may well solve the energy crisis one day. And today’s company will change how companies innovate, and ultimately, how people work.
I spent the rest of the day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). This is an excellent art space with several temporary exhibitions in addition to the core collection. I’d been looking forward to the Buckminster Fuller show, The Utopian Impulse, keen for more from the man who kept wonderful saying things like this: “A triangle is a spiral, and is one energy event.” Fuller’s futuristic designs from the 1960s now have a fantastic retro feel, both in terms of looks but also thought; people used to think we’d have all these fantastical things by now, like flying cars, self-sustaining eco homes, world peace, even. A ‘radical idealist’, Fuller conceptualised things like the internet before anyone knew what it was, in the belief that greater access to information would be beneficial to solving humanitarian problems. Looking at Fuller’s patented innovations made me wonder why we don’t seem to dream of these things anymore. Or maybe we still do, but somewhere along the way our dreams seem to have become smaller.
The SFMOMA’s general collection has several great modernist works, often on the minimalist side, which I love. Clifford Still’s bold canvases with their saturated, fiery colours; the big Rothko, bright red on top, popping out at you over the dark blue bottom patch and burgundy background. Cy Twombly’s scratched chalk on black, contrasted by Brice Marden’s black square swirls on white; Andy Warhol’s ‘National Velvet’, with repeated prints of Liz Taylor on horseback, her hand casually in the air as if she’s just swept her hair back.
American contemporary artist Mark Bradford was a new discovery for me at the SFMOMA. As I walked through the retrospective the canvases kept getting bigger, all the way to the gigantic plywood ark Bradford made for New Orleans after Katrina. It is difficult to describe Bradford’s work, which is made from layers of pasted and scraped papers, posters, billboards, maps, creating these overwhelming and messy … somethings. When it works, the cacophony is transcended, magically. “You’ve got to find the fire somewhere,” said Bradford. I sat in front of the large, sprawling canvas called ‘You’re nobody (til somebody kills you)’, which was nailed to the wall, frame-less. I kept tracing the patterns with my eyes, completely unable to describe what I was seeing. But something was happening, and I found myself reluctant to leave.
“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Mark Twain never actually said this, but today I got to do so, shivering in my two layers as the wind whipped up Market Street. I mean, I’m well aware of the city’s microclimates, and living in the UK, the country of four seasons an hour, you’d think I should be fine here. But I’ve never been in such a changeable place in my life. T-shirts in the morning, double-scarves by sundown today; yesterday it was the opposite. The pattern remains beyond my comprehension, and my bag is full of clothes.
I slept in till 9.30 today, earning a chippy comment from the Boy about how form is temporary but class is permanent. It seems this 8am habit wasn’t the new me, it was just jetlag. I walked through the Tenderloin in search of lunch, thinking that if this area is rough, then Hackney is downright dangerous. But after a few more blocks I realised that the Tenderloin is different: the number of homeless people on the streets there is remarkable. Second only to Los Angeles, San Francisco has the biggest homeless population in the US, estimated between 5,000 to more than 10,000 people, so there’s a fair number of street people all over the city. But in the Tenderloin, someone will ask you for something about once per block. In addition to sheer volume, the state of people is also quite alarming: they often have a handicap, are clearly on drugs, muttering to themselves or shouting at others. Emotionally it’s overwhelming, and intellectually it’s remarkable how such a small area can hold so many disenfranchised people, quite literally huddled together in doorways and on streetcorners.
Other things about Tuesday:
* I took the bus out to the Upper Haight, where the beat lives on. Or maybe a more fitting metaphor is how the clock on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets is permanently stalled - at 4.40pm, bong o’clock.
* It happened again, at Coffee to the People, that thing where you ask for a double espresso and they ask how big it should be. As I’ve already provided sizing specifications as I understand them, I have no more words to offer.
* I walked up Cole Valley, which is serene and cute and offers good vibrations at Cole Valley Café. All the more residential areas of this city are full of fantastic shop signs that look like they were put up in the 1950s and left untouched. Lots of launderettes, Mom & Pop stores, plus speciality retailers like hardware shops. Especially the cinema fronts are amazing, with their retro-futuristic flashiness.
* The walk up to Buena Vista Park got my heart pounding, rewarded by views reaching all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. This was topped by Corona Heights, which was even steeper and offered views even more sweeping, all over the Mission and downtown, all the way to Oakland, even.
I took a shot and wore jeans to my meeting today, which panned out perfectly as the startup founder I was interviewing said he found it a bit off-putting when people arrived wearing suits. The entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t do pressed trousers, it seems, and that’s fine with me. Afterwards I took the bus out to Japantown, stopping at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, a fantastic modernistic church from 1971. Four sweeping concrete pillars meet in a point, high up above the altar, creating an incline lined with strips of coloured glass. It’s one of the most unique and impressive churches I’ve ever seen, and I’d argue it is far more interesting than Grace Cathedral which is basically a knock-off of the old French style. On the windswept Japantown plaza I walked past the minimalist Peace Pagoda, before visiting the Konko temple. Inside the sparse room, with its low ceilings and blond wood, the reverend explained how the Konko faith sees the heaven and the earth as integral to the human experience; we are both these things.
After a pit stop at Royal Ground Coffee in the Fillmore I headed into Pacific Heights to find the Swedenborgian Church. This lumber and redbrick building from 1894 is the brainchild of Emanuel Swedenborg: theologian, scientist and receiver of divine messages. The priest, just about to lead a group in bible study, was kind enough to unlock the church for me, so I could see the small, homely space: pulpit at the front, hearth at the back. Madrone tree trunks hold up the roof, and the priest pointed out how the maple chairs are made without a single nail. Swedenborgianism is founded on the belief that humans are spirits in a material world, unified by nature, love and luminous intelligence; Swedenborg called it ‘New Age’.
“It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world.” Oscar Wilde said this. Today ended up turned into something of a San Francisco free spirits tour, culminating in the Cow Hollow. The Vedanta Society is a 1905 concoction of styles with one turret for each major religion. ‘Oneness of existence’ is the basic principle of the Vedanta Society; we are everything. Last stop was the Octagon House, a remnant from a 1860s trend of building eight-sided houses to capture sunlight in a manner optimal for one’s health. All we ever want, it seems, is more light.
Hostel change day. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to book one hostel in North Beach and a different one downtown, especially as the latter is more convenient to the south-western neighbourhoods. But I was very comfortable at the Green Tortoise, in my wooden bunk. My body wailed at the change, demanding both first and second lunch, and then later it raced to a burrito place like it was the last bastion of humanity in a zombie apocalypse. The booklet the Krishna people in Berkeley gave me claims that “we are not these bodies”, but I see no evidence of this. Right now I don’t have a body so much as my body is having me. And getting it to do the work I needed to do today was like herding cats. “Come on now, what’s the next point to make?” I coaxed in my best first-grade-teacher voice, My inner brat narrowed its eyes at me: “Ok maybe. But I’m keeping Twitter open.” So maybe there’s actually three of us in here: me, my body and the brat. I am hopelessly outnumbered. “They evolved. They rebelled. And they have a plan.” … I really hope so. All I know for sure is that they want us to be alone. I had company on my walk up to Grace Cathedral at the top of Nob Hill tonight, and the brat really didn’t like that one bit. It seems I am no longer in charge of the operation.
So, a window seat in Starbucks, next to an electrical outlet, with a massive iced coffee through a straw. Why people give Starbucks such a hard time I will never understand, as they are a very, very safe pair of hands. This is especially true when I have to get work done, and today the brat was quiet, subdued by a lie-in and leftover burrito, so I finished my writing at mid-afternoon. And I thought, what I want is to go look at the Golden Gate Bridge from underneath.
It turned into a bit of a bridge-gorging day in the end, as the skies were clear and the afternoon free of fog. I went to the Presidio, out to Fort Point where the bridge soars out into the strait over your head. This was where Kim Novak seemingly met her end in Vertigo, a phenomenon I got to experience for myself as I walked out onto the bridge. It’s made from loose segments, this bridge, suspended from the towers, and you can feel them rattle as the traffic races by. It’s an incredible feat of engineering. The fence is only chest-height, aiding in record suicide rates for jumpers, and spinning heads for those who’d like to live. Hanging on to the railing I looked up at the staggeringly tall masts, shining boldly in the colour called International Orange. I leaned against the tower, looking up, out, over and then back up again. This bridge is one of my favourite things in the world.
I hiked out to Baker Beach afterwards, a bit of a trek through the Presidio but worth it as it’s one of the loveliest spots in the city. I made it out there just as the yellow fireball was starting to sink into the ocean, with only a few other people out there, walking their dogs or letting it all flap in the breeze. Bare-assed hippies aside, Baker Beach offers the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the city, and that is gospel.