2000 Words for Two Days: The Short Half of Reading Break and the Long Half of the Story in San Fran

And all it took was a little Ocean to make everything change, just a little bit.

It’s happened before, thought maybe not so quickly. Falling in love with Vancouver happened over months—falling in love with that bay, that bridge, that city, only took a second.

We’d gotten in the night before. Having found a place promising free camping at the edge of the city, we let Google maps guide us into the forests north of the bridge. Moving under a half-kilometer tunnel and past an abandoned military base– silent military houses croaking at you from the far hill—we reach an empty campground where we can only hear the crunch of the grass beneath us, see the shadows just beyond the light of our I-phones (camping in the 21st Century, eh?). Past the brush, though, with the whisper of the surf against the rocks below, we could look out across the bay at the one light: the red strike of the Golden Gate. At night, drinking tequila from a water bottle, we could have been at Vancouver’s Lighthouse Park: surrounded by the trees, across the bay to your right is the long arm of the UBC peninsula, to your left is the Lionsgate bridge, where if you peer between the bridge’s riggings, you can catch the twinkling of the distant city. Except: “well, I dunno, maybe the Golden Gate is a little taller than its Canadian friend.”

And then morning– stretching out of the tent after three hours of sleep, the golden California light catching across the rows of cracked shrubs—the smell of that desert rose and the bellow of a hundred morning foghorns met us. Climbing up around the rock pier, I saw the Golden Gate in the day, and it couldn’t have been more different. Like the Eiffel Tower, it’s an image so firmly subsumed within our media-saturated minds that seeing it properly for the first time gives you a creeping sense of deja-vu, a circling of your senses: realer than real, stranger than fiction.

The Million Dollar Shot
                                                                       The Million Dollar Shot

Then again, comparing it to Lionsgate, the Golden Gate could only exist in America: standing so tall and proud, so gorgeous and aggressive as it presses out against the western horizon—hundreds upon hundreds of cars travelling every couple of seconds. And then I knew that San Fran was gonna be different.

It only took one glance at the bridge for me to realize that.

There’s something about travelling that’s so important. When we’re in the daily grind, those big life questions don’t really matter as much—it’s never about why, always the what, the holy fuck this is due in two hours omgomg. And then the next day, it suddenly halts: the next day you’re driving towards the city you’ve always dreamed of.

Road trips offer that window on those new perspectives. After all, hello America, goodbye Data: it’s only so long that you can talk with your driving buddy about Chemical Brother’s production values or about what went on in Portland—after that, all you can do is talk about the bigger stuff, those topics always implied, never really admitted or acknowledged. And it sure makes for drama when you’re discussing them as the sun collapses on the cascade of Douglas Firs, Pink Floyd’s “Time” playing (because what the fuck else would we be listening to?).

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Travelling into California is a dramatic experience. Moving through southern Oregon, you still have rolling hills of those pine, the hanging moss, and that wood-cabiney kind-of cutesy which the Pacific Northwest excels in. The top of the Cascade mountains is state line, though, and the moment we break through those cliffs is the moment everything changes. Now, all around me are dusty hills and blue skies. We’re in California: home of the goldrush, water shortages and peyote festivals on burning plains. It might’ve been northern California, but it was California and wore that California badge on its sleeve—never has a political boundary had such a distinct geographic resonance before.

And to capture that sense of place-space behind the windshield as the landscape melts away: well, that’s the American dream, right? And so much of that Dream was incorporated, manufactured, and mass produced first right here.

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I realized that right away when, cutting up past the rocky curl of the highway the next afternoon, my friend showed us the beach—the real Californian beach. Here’s the million dollar panning shot: the mile of sparkling sand, the endless sapphire sky, the majestic crash of the waves (the sliding white curl of the surf). It’s the Beach Boy’s beach, Dustin Hoffman’s beach, 90210’s beach. A beach might be a beach, and a sight like this would always be beautiful, but when that sight’s already been incorporated in my mind, it becomes bigger than it is. It’s Hollywood (even when this isn’t LA).

That’s why the state has such an immediate resonance for me (and millions upon millions of others). Since it took twenty-two years to get me here, the image of the place balloons to proportions that will never quite meet reality. That’s why San Francisco, like Paris, will always inevitably have aspects of it which can’t be captured—it’s just a feeling, that escapes just past normal bounds. It’s the way Haight street looks at sunset, the red catching the space between the thrift/drug/tattoo stores, illuminating the Janice Joplin mural—you’ve just left a “Praise Ganesha” store run by Hare Krishnas, the incense in there has fogged your head, and for a moment it could be ’67 and you could be seeing all this for the first time. Then night closes hold and the bus shakes you back into reality. But that’s the strange pull cities like these have: for a moment you’re sharing memories that aren’t really your own.

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And, just like Paris, that imagined city constantly juts against real life: the grime of a real city, seven mill strong. That first morning, after packing up camp, we drove across the golden gate, feeling about as majestic as possible in a car—the growing hills of the city, the ersatz towers rising and falling with the roads, the golden conservatory and the flitting sunlight between the fog. But then, as far into the center as Union Square, you’re plunged into the dirt, the noise, and the smells of the city. Garbage hits your nose one second, sewage the next, and then—suddenly—a patch of desert roses. I suppose in a city as dense as San Fran this makes sense: the city’s like two Vancouver’s stacked on top of each other, and the sheer volume of people and towers upon hill after rolling hill often made me more disoriented than any other city I’ve been to. And the vibrant, unique colors of each building just came to further accentuate the accumulated filth of smog and garbage and mess. The human footprint and the American city.

But those old American cities, with their Gothic Architecture, their experience, their crime, their aggression, that electricity in the air which pushes you to believe that—despite everything else—anything’s possible. It’s a Wednesday night, and of course we’re going out (we are tourists), but everyone else seems to think so too, packing the bars midweek the way Vancouver can’t any day of the year. I haven’t felt the concerted energy in a city before—that restless bustle—since wandering through pre-recession for Chicago. You see it as prominently in boisterous stores of Union Square as you do in the dens or alley-restaurants of China town (the wide yellow brocade faces like it’s 1920’s Shanghai; the sparkle and ensuing smoke because it’s Chinese New Year, when the screech makes me think that the Earthquake is really happening).It’s that hunger for the bigger and the flashier that’s always just a little more pronounced in American cities.

And its flipside—the have-not’s—is equally pronounced. The rampant homelessness in San Fran is on a scale larger than any other I’ve been to. So while there are some similarities to Vancouver’s homeless–like the way the warmer climate attracts homeless from other places and thus gives a skewed picture of generalized depravation–the differences outweigh the similarities.

First: it’s bigger, even after adjusting to pop. density—makes sense in a country with a history of very little in the way of health care, education, or social service support when you don’t have a big company to support your insurance (granted, Canada’s becoming more like this now, but it’s a new trend, so it’s hard to talk about effects yet).

Second: it’s racialized. For all of my talk of the ‘energy’ and ‘promise’ of the city, I have to qualify that this is  coming from a twentiesomething white guy who’s allowed to dream—who sees possibility in every billboard or office window. Meanwhile, taking the wrong turn to the scant streets of the Tenderloin district and I’m the only white guy past the cops lurking in their car at the corner. It makes everything that happened in 2014 real for me. Once again, I have to qualify that such systematic and racialized poverty is very present in Winnipeg (for Indigenous peoples), but in Vancouver it’s less the case (and hey, maybe Vancouver’s the unique one).

Third: it’s violent: gun culture reigns supreme in the Tenderloin, something which was always apparent, whether it was the visibly protruding handles as a deal went on, or when a man threatened a woman he  seemed monetarily involved with using a gun.

It’s all a little surreal. The media’s done such a successful job transforming all of it: they weren’t real people, just pimps and gangsters, and I was supposed to be (and probably really was) scared. But here it was, playing out before me.

And I wouldn’t have seen any of it if I hadn’t gone down the wrong road on a trip to get some food. I guess in that respect it is similar to Van: the city’s done a very good job keeping it away from the Good Normal Folks, the business people and the tourists. Whatever business These People decide to do is best done in the darkness. And once I got my food, I’m able to choose a different route, and then go back and see all the nice and fancy places that can calm me down. That’s what I’m here for, right, to take pretty pictures?

Not pictured: any of that
                                                                    Not pictured: any of that

In such a condensed period, to travel through all of that is to ride the wave of the dizzy heights and depraved lows; so many sensations cycling around me that this blog took three weeks longer than it should’ve (2000 words for two days). 2000 Words for Two Days. It’s only in a city the size of San Francisco could all the promise, the drama and overall fuckedupedness of the capitalist system swirl together in one expanse. Canada has it, and so does France, but no one quite does it like America. It’s too large for someone with my limited experience and writing capability to come to capture or really understand, but someone’s already come very close.

On the second day of the second floor of City Lights Books I read Ginsberg’s Howl for the first time, in the same room it was first performed to its enraptured audience. I couldn’t have picked a better time. Reading down the verses, a chill of understanding sank through me. He got it—the “supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz”– understood the way I never could, gone through the Hell of the unwanted and came out the other side. And in a relentlessly scathing poem mostly focused on San Fran, it’s the poem itself that renders the city gorgeous. Wandering back into the sun—the reflection off the Transcontinental Pyramid blinding back—I was dazed and shaking, but also understanding something or other of everything circling and cycling around me. As usual, it’s an artist who show me what to see.

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In two days we drove out in the middle of the night after seeing an excellent SXSW band, and I left the city like I’d left that store—a little dazed, a little changed, in ways I couldn’t and still can’t quite articulate. Maybe if I spent more time here, I’d come to make my own impressions—impressions and improvisations, rifts and recordings, of everything rushing past me. But for now, it’s Ginsberg’s San Francisco. And in a city so-overfilmed by movies, it’s amazing that his voice rises above the clamor of the rest. Maybe when I go back I can add to it.

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