Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Way to Market Station

Miss Templeton, my correspondent from (as my wife mused on our way Monday again down South) the "Northern California [which] has always treated us well," asked me to post here about my impressions of The City. Strange attraction, ever since seeing it at the age of ten on my first trip there or anywhere. Despite what my spouse and I agree is a marked humorlessness (compared to us; Leo noted how I laughed at parts of "No Country for Old Men"-- Yeats reference, no?-- last night when nobody else in the theater made a peep, even though it was a Coen Bros movie; it takes a lot to make me audible, although "Pulp Fiction" memorably inspired similarly risible moments amidst a funereal congregation) among the denizens of PC SF, I could live there happily. The fresh air, brisk wind, gentler sun all invigorate me. My recent trips to the Pacific Northwest the past two Octobers have only strengthened my longing to roam towards greener and cooler climes. When Layne'd ask me where I'd like to be if money was no object, it and Galway (despite--like SF come to think of it, or LA-- its increasing congestion, Eurotrash, and monocultural commodification) vie for the top spot. And both, recent findings confirm, drew me in long before I realized my maternal bond and the power of nature over my nurture in the dusty smoggy chaparral far to the south and west of these coastal ports and foggy harbors.

I sure could stay in my second dream city at the Hotel Vitale, across from the Ferry Building and The Embarcadero, tucked near the Bay Bridge, as my second suite. The feng shui ambiance, the earth tones, the giant bathtub, even the porn-track chill-out ambient CDs that they had playing in the room for turn-down (Earth, Wind, Fire, Air: the first one chthonically sluggish, the airy one stuffed with sighs, and the other two will have to wait until next time; "The Reindeer Room" Xmas mash-up will never have a next time): all this spoke of a certain quality that this boutique hotel aimed at and took down blissfully. I knew we were the intended demographic for this shrine to tasteful profit discretely but definitely purveyed. While not spawn ourselves, I imagined this site attracts such; the classical station that sponsored the holiday fest at the Embarcadero Center immediately north and delayed our dinner at Sens again showed an all-out celebration that a small city can better energize than the sprawl that separates so many of us in the Southland Basin (what a piquant term for our topographical shelf).

The scene at the hotel bar (a subdued El Toro Stout, but I figured it might have been a local brew?) that night where Layne and I retreated post-dinner with Jerry & Anna reminded me how little I get out on the (any) town, and how sheltered my daily routine is from the realms of venture capital, internationally deployed affluence, and black-clad indulgence. The party across from us looked and sounded like 1.5 generation Chinese children of privilege; the constantly expanding one next to us might have been Lebanese but we had no idea of what was said but I did catch a bonjour and some version of "salaam" in the salutations. The hotel's booklet proved markedly thoughtful. For, rather than a xerox of local churches to pray at or pizzerias take-out menus or a postcard, it mused over the array of choices-- where to lunch and dine for a week, fourteen places in all reviewed; wine country tours; the usual New Age messages; predictably quirky sights evinced an intelligent awareness of the charm of this opulent Baghdad by the Bay.

Then, as the midnight banging by a shouting derelict of the metal Angel sculpture immediately below our window commemorating two men killed there in the dock strike on "Bloody Thursday" 1934 reminded us, the contradictions of a hotel offering free yoga classes with the past of a decidedly more raucous port of call remained. Gazing out from the eight floor down on a stoic palm in the mist along the shore in the park where the Ferry Building meets the Embarcadero Center, I entered my "tree pose" Sunday morning. As I perched, I thought of Anna & Jerry getting ready to go to Mass. The generations of Irish in the City, the shift from the past to the present. A church bell did ring, but I could not tell where.

I looked out at the streetcars in the haze from the fitness room, and thought of brawling longshoremen and Pinkerton men with guns. My adopted family, from mines, railroads, tenements, and factories. Me, the introverted Ph.D. with an increasingly pantheistic, agnostic, or devout mindset depending on day, meal, or mood. Teaching immigrant techies at one college and ESL fashionistas at another. Grafting a new branch, or twig, or root, of my family tree into my own search for identity. Coming to a city that had always beckoned me in my own hunt for books, for ideas, and for stimulation. And now, the morning before, beginning in that same hotel's lobby, my own journey within had deepened and joined a new tributary.

Layne and I stayed in a curved fourth-floor (what fast elevators to 430) room facing the corner of Steuart and Mission towards the Rincon Post Office with its giant WPA murals full of gloating capitalists and noble Amerindians. The pioneer trek had among its bearded harbingers of Manifest Destiny a fallen and elongated dead white European male with an arrow clean through his bull's eye Christian breast. The final mural had flags of Allies united against the Axis of Evil; the hammer and sickle as prominent as Old Glory. Anton Refrigier did not sound like an artist from Moscow, but he certainly kept the strikes, the labor unrest, and the agitation endemic to the city vigorous in the largest extant (they were going to demolish it in the 70s) collection of such New Deal art in the nation. As Layne and I had met at the L.A. Terminal Annex for our first tete-a-tete, with its own murals, this symbolic and entirely happenstance juxtaposition of FDR and forging intimate bonds between loved ones, the strangers who become family, was all the more powerful and poignant. Even though the friezes in the modern addition to the building with fake-bas relief people of color and disability, sexual preference and gender from the 80s looked as ancient as the WPA ones, given the billowing hair, the giant eyeglasses, the adding machines and Commodore-era computers the noble proles in ambulatory diversity toiled over in Soviet Realism poses, hailing the triumphs of Alioto, Feinstein, Milk, and Moscone.

Walking through the Ferry Building Friday night after our arrival, I thought of Miss T strolling these same corridors among organic tomatillos and caviar and Niman Ranch burger joints. Everyone looked fit, educated, tailored, and decidedly NPR, a few homeless inevitably aside, although I am sure they would share the ideology of listener-supported public radio. At the comfortable Stacey's bookstore on Market St, the only non-franchised seller remaining that I could find after Macdonald's (I know) and the Argosy (I think) had closed in the Tenderloin adjacent and Hunter's had long shuttered its Union Square doors, I browsed among the remainders and a surprisingly extensive British history section. Wishing I could buy far more than the four cheapies I did, I allowed myself only Irish-themed deep discounts as discipline: Heaney's collected prose, "Finders Keepers," Roddy Doyle's memoir of his parents, "Rory & Ita," Chet Raymo's eclectic thoughts on "Climbing Brandon," and Miroslav Kupta's splendid coffee-table depiction of "Celts: History & Civilization," probably the third repackaging of the unaffordable 1991 giant Rizzuto-ish volume I had long craved of the UNESCO exhibition of artifacts.

I popped in and out of the California History Museum and Railway Museum gift shops in search of magnets for me or t-shirts for sons, but a tight budget kept me solvent. I walked along Market and Mission, in between near Yerba Buena Park a Daniel Liebskind (he who's designing the Twin Towers replacement?) double-cubed Jewish Museum which remained behind a construction banner. Fence around the Torah? It looked like two glassed-over Rubik's Cubes had fused into the backside of St. Patrick's. I wanted to enter this brick survivor of the Gold Rush days, as I remembered, attending my only MLA convention in 1987, it alone standing on the north side of the street among totally razed lots near the Moscone Center. But, a wedding was starting. Now, fifty-story towers loom nearby and all around you see shiny blocks: the Metreon, malls, museums, and chainstores all show a south of Market renaissance, at least if you can pay the price of admission.

On my failing iPod (the headphone wire now broke off following the battery's demise--an external one from replaces it awkwardly but for now affordably until my finances recover and the WGA strike ends our already increased penny pinching), I shuffled up a local band, The Aislers Set, with "The Way to Market Street." These indie stalwarts, led by Amy Linton, sound like Ronnie Spector covering Joy Division; while their three CDs all are uneven, at best, as on that song, they combine innocent hope with desperate isolation. They sum up the appeal of those long vistas as the fog swirls around the tops of the corporate pricks of glass and steel, the clouds that shut out the glare but also cloak the trenchcoated, scarved, and mittened figures that, so unlike my hometown, fill the elegant bars and rush past you on the canyoned sidewalks. Aislers Set sound both cocky and forlorn, true heirs to that frontier spirit that settled this peninsula a century and a half ago. I like walking in a city so tall that the sun rarely hits me while I can enjoy the day's breeze. The literacy, the civility, and the intellectual nature of SF lures me. As a child, I loved the pages of the two hardcover (bought at Fedco) Sunset Magazine picture books, one of LA, one of SF. The latter had a wonderful drawing of a cross-section line of Victorian houses, and how they followed the contours of the rippling terrain in their unending rank and file. I could spend long days learning such neighborhoods and what in the strangely familiar black-and-white names (many Irish) of its street grid already lurks in my memories as half-lived. It's a dreamlike array of towers and slopes and chill, under a sky as changeable as Donegal's.

Yet, the sheer bulk and compacted mass of SF also reminds me of its introspective demands. Without an horizon or hillsides or much of a sky, you need to drive into the mind. Like London, it's a city near water yet one that prevents you from staying for long by its shore. Unlike London, or Dublin or Belfast (all four cities from my blinkered ken), SF by its libertine heritage and open-mindedness encourages you to burrow into the flesh. Where else would I pick up the paper to read a letter from a girl from the South (US not Cal) who'd never heard of "transgendered" folks until she moved to SF. She reminiscences of not one but two ex-boyfriends who then opted for that operation. Other letters railed about animal rights, proclaimed what makes the homeless better than ourselves, and chided us on the evils of whatever lingered in our habits predating the Aquarian Age. So again, the combination of idealism and ideology. You get a city full of people from everywhere else, just like LA.

Yet, in SF, you also find the expectation that such diversity rests on not celebrity, fashion, or sloth, but on the inner demands of commitment and solidarity. You may choose your faction, as long as it falls on the proper side of the red-state/ blue-state divide, but you must align and march along. There'd be no Critical Mass demo of bicyclists in LA, no Castro District equivalent WeHo Halloween Party protests (over its cancellation this year!), or no historic preservation efforts - like the Painted Ladies houses in a row-- as successful in LA as in SF, most likely. The dance to a different drummer calls all Californians, perhaps, but I think it's far less often a solo performance booked up North. In LA, it's one at the beach, another in a loft, a third in the car. While both cities preach liberty, LA rewards the hustler whereas SF invites the conniver: a subtle distinction. This Golden State blend of openness and order characterizes, in a more unforgiving manner, the distinction between the hedonism of my too-familiar Lotus Land of laid-back City of Angels and the discipline of this alternative, fortified, and severe utopia four hundred miles away.

Image: While the blog title today comes from a song on their 1998 debut, "Terrible Things Happen," here's a better cover for the SF theme from The Aislers Set latest, 2003's "How I Learned to Write Backwards." I heard it playing at Ameoba Records in Hollywood, one of the few institutions we have in common with Berkeley and the Haight. I wish we had Acme Bread here-- oh for that Onion Loaf-- and the Speakeasy Prohibition Ale I imbibed at Sens was worth the $8 (!) a bottle, almost. I nursed it the whole meal. Rivalled Belgian's Duvel or London's Young's (a brewery in Wandsworth still with its pet ram) Old Nick Barley Wine for fiery alcohol-fueled savor.

1 comment:

Miss Templeton said...

I've read this several times now! With enjoyment and wry recognition at times. But I'll tell you: after making the Saturday journey over to the Ferry Building for the Fungus Festival (inspired by your own evocation of its charms), I must confess that the weekend City is not my commuter City at all. Who were all these young parents and bright people thronging the crowded stores and stalls? Mercy!

But perhaps I can inquire about Acme Breads' shipping and gifting line. Did you see the line of "McQuaid's Celtic Chutneys" at Cowgirl Creamery? Come March, the Girls will also have their line of Saint Patrick's Cheese, which is a seasonal variety available for about three months. Wrapped in clover and using only the freshest milk of the spring.

But next time there must be a pilgrimage to Clement Street to the Plough and Stars pub for some traditional music and to Lefty O'Doul's on Union Square for an old-school lunch and a Baseball Museum of the People.

And then we'll need to get you out to 45th and Sloat to the United Irish Cultural Center and you can chat up the crusty male librarian (who has that look of a man who expects women in the kitchen, barefoot, etc.) whilst I browse around in undisturbed peace and try to find that autobiography by J.S. Le Fanu's brother than I spotted once and never found again.