Thursday, July 3, 2008

In the Outside Lands

That's what this district where I write was called, before the gabled houses began going up around the 1890s. The Spreckels mansion's around the corner, across from Buena Vista Park, and down one of hundreds of slopes a few minutes away, Haight-Ashbury's already been traversed a bit with the boys, as we arrived mid-afternoon today and they needed lunch. They turned down a vegan-type "Coffee for the People" on that fabled corner, and also a couple of other retro-period joints as too expensive, settling finally on a rather woebegone pizza place that sold it by the slice with a soda. At least the pieces were fairly sized, and lots of skater teens waiting in line, so it's probably the most affordable eats around here. Leo approved of his pesto flavor and Niall made no complaints as he stuffed himself industriously.

Anywhere that the weather's in the mid-seventies in July I'll love. My friend Dan, who's at Glencolmcille now and who I met last summer there, reports that it's windy and rainy, and perhaps the dazzling sun that keeps the shades drawn an ocean and an intervening continent away as I type this will fade.

We're staying in the only owner rental we could grab so late, at Central and Buena Vista West, a beautiful setting and a place I envy greatly. It's a playwright and author's bottom floor of a flat. From the posters of his own work evident, he has published essays in a picture-book of SF, and he framed Sandow Birk's imaginary War between the Californias "Smog & Thunder" playing card set of his satirical posters in WPA and WWI and WW2 propaganda styles. Birk signed his copy of the booklet of his museum paintings on the same, lavishly drawn in some florid populist faux-primitive, semi-muralistic style mimicking the Mexican War, Civil War lithographs, and 19-c political cartoons, somehow mixed with that po-mo hipster sensibility that the owners of this flat represent perfectly, at least in its chillier, more organic, and probably vegan aspects. Birk's Chinese general in a Giants cap rallies Fogtown, while my side gets a pregnant Latina as its icon.

Many of the shelves are packed with Northern Cal history, but for that monstrous megapolis down the Left Coast, I note only Jack Smith's "The Big Orange," Peter Theroux's "Translating L.A.," and advance proofs of the cheerily titled "Smogtown" as entries for my hometown. A signed shot of him from '86 with a food-faced hors d'oeuvres that purports to depict Herb Caen, next to visage of its eager maker the gentleman owner of this modern-day manse, alongside the smiling scribe of the hometown paper himself-- counterpart to Jack Smith in fact from my own neighborhood that Smith called "the poor man's Bel-Air,"-- adorns a nook. There's poor people somehow eking it out around here, across from the park with signs prohibiting overnight camping, where we pass heaps of clothes anyway, a pink and purple church with youths lining up outside for I assume assistance, and of course the Haight two blocks away and the Grateful Dead's house printed (by the cartographers) along with "Hunter Thompson's Crash Pad" on a well-worn and pen-scrawled map that's crumpled up on the bedstand table.

Still, for all my affection of this city, which I find myself happy in since it's July and drizzly, where Niall walks proud in Dodgers cap and where I will have to do the same in two nights at the game, I feel a bit of bemusement. Yes, I hail by cruel accident from the hated rival half-barrio cold-beer, half-lotus hot-tub land four hundred and sixty-five miles down the coast, where I bet it's near a hundred. Yet, the defensiveness of the postures in evidence as I scan these stuffed digs amuse me. You would not go many an Angeleno intellectual's home and see it bedecked with such parochially municipal boasts. However, my admission may in fact prove our host's superiority, for what smart guy in L.A. would have, well, so many books on where he lives to begin with? Not to mention a spread curiously devoid of magazines except the current Vanity Fair with Angelina Jolie on the cover boasting about how sexy being pregnant makes her feel, and lots of opera CDs but no popular music I can find.

We all know that unlike S.F., nobody outside of a movie star's spawn or a few gangsta rappers wind up being born in L.A. anyway. Here, said spawn's attending the Lycee Francaise, and has the textbooks to prove bilingual literacy. It's a smart people's fortress against an illiterate society and an increasingly dumbed-down class of those of us who should know better. But, the wealth that must be amassed to sustain a career of an evident poet-- a book about his sojourn in the South of France alongside his picture book of SF that he wrote the essays for and posters of his new play that had a staged reading in Marin last month-- I have no idea how this can generate income to afford this, to me, practically palatial residence, one-fourth of an old Victorian baron's estate though it may be. I suppose I am mystified by worldly ways, the workings of class and possibly inheritance.

This house and its family thrive amidst long vacations and dinner parties and book signings, and I realize how marginal my life is, despite or because of my Ph.D., to this rarified existence that makes this certainly a far distant planet from my own cluttered study a few hours and a long drive away. I also cannot detect what the missus does. It's all internal evidence about the man of the house. There are a few differences here atop the storied roofs from our humble home, which must be sweltering. No bathtub stopper, no place to park, no washer & dryer at least that we can use (yet this ain't a cheap flophouse), and no place to store our clothes. It's as if friends left us the keys to their place, and/or we wandered in to be squatters.

Still, it's elegant in a very lived-in way. The books are well-organized, many alphabetically within genre. For a small city, the interior space manages to feel more abundant than it would in, say, London. Refreshed always, the light's enchanting. I only can wonder what this apartment would have sold for in 1967 and then 1983 and now. The game that so many pursue in California-- real estate for all of us who never stop coming here, and when we get here up and move about to somewhere else in this always desirable and quite temperate niche by the Pacific. So, we can pretend for a couple of nights that we can play as elegant residents by the Bay after our cabin in the redwoods stint at Mount Hermon above Santa Cruz and our subdivision saunter in Cambria so far.

The host's family off in Europe and I bet France from other titles on shelves, and a signed kitchen framed photo of a chef, Paul Becose, who Layne recognized as deserving his cordon bleu. Their fridge calendar shows that when they will return, they will soon be in Santa Cruz, continuing what appears to be a busy routine of soirees hosted or visited with names of couples, a recent high school graduation, and apparently more excursions to escape or profit off of the lookie-loos like ourselves. Strange to think you go on a trip to get away from where others go to get away. We'll enjoy it while the fantasy lasts, a couple of days this Fourth of July weekend.

Photo: North from the park towards you know where and the Marin Headlands. Buena Vista Park

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