Posts Tagged 'california'

SF in 55, From PP: 10 Thoughts

Workin hard

Yesterday I was sitting on the electric white cushions at Blue Pumpkin, eating a sundae and streaming full episodes of the Colbert Report (hey, gotta stay informed). While it was buffering and stalling and generally annoying me, I checked my FB feed and saw a link to this video: “1955 San Francisco Footage Shows City As It Once Was.”

I clicked on it. It was, for a Bay Area native, immediately captivating—an old-timey travel video, the narrator’s voice like something off a grainy old variety show. The camera’s strapped to the hood of a car, as it rolls through streets I knew, but suddenly didn’t know—that seem too wide, too clean, gleaming in a way that seemed too stereotypically California.

I watched all 20 minutes, headphones on, the riverside stretched out behind the glass windows—from the corner of my eye, even that looked too clean, too sunny, too picturesque, from two stories up and behind a wall of glass. Was San Francisco ever really as quaint as the 1955 video made it out to be? Was it a rouse, or is it something the city lost somewhere? Is it a little of both?

I wondered that, and other things. Such as:

1. How’d they get rid of all the fog? How’d they manage to film this on that one clear day? They must have been waiting weeks.

2. Where are all the homeless people at Civic Center? What ever happened to those flowers?—they look so cute.

3. Is it still that green? Is the sky really that blue? That’s changed, right? Or have I just forgotten already?

4. The buildings are shorter and whiter, lay on top of the land like powdery snow.

5. Fisherman’s Wharf when there were still fishermen there, boats docked behind the grottoes. That must have been really cool. Do tourists still expect to find it that way? Is that why so many people still go? Are they disappointed? Do they feel like something’s been lost? Like they’ve been cheated, and they’re not sure by who? Cause I do.

6. Playland by the Sea—like Santa Cruz, but in San Francisco. How cool would that have been? Why did they tear it down, again? Did it burn down, like the Sutro Baths? God, the Cliffhouse sucks now.

7. People in dresses and suit jackets and head scarves and hats—everyone so well-dressed. Was it really like that, or did they just pick the money shots? Was the city really that white, or did they just edit out everyone else?

8. Old cars: like a clean Cuba. The narrator keeps saying one of the best things to do in the city is “drive its many thoroughfares.” Was that really a highlight, or could they just not think of anything better? God, SF traffic sucks now.

9. A ride down Market Street, the Ferry Building at the end of the road. It stands out, doesn’t get dwarfed behind the skyscrapers and trash and clutter. Old marquees and shop signs and street cars—at least they’ve kept one thing.

10. Why have I still never ridden a cable car?

But at the end of it, I was sold: I wanted to leave Blue Pumpkin, leave Phnom Penh, hop in my time machine, strap myself to the hop of an old car like some kind of fucked-up, wind-tossed hood ornament, and cruise through a city I know, in time when I didn’t know it.

So I guess the ad worked.

The Keeper, Yuba River Character Study

Didn't take a picture of The Keeper. Though he apparently doesn't mind. So here's a Flickr photo instead

He stood like a masthead on the wooden deck and yowled at the river.

His shirt flapped open in the breeze. The stomach was hard, muscles like little knots and skin tough as old leather. Cargo pants and sandals, not-quite-Birkenstocks. Eyes as spooky-clear and sharp as the river water, blazing from behind a scraggle of hair: shoulder-length gray and a light-socket beard that seemed reminiscent of those old miner photos, made you wonder if he wasn’t the descendant of some wayward band of them, a man born into the wrong era, or the last living vestige of an era that’s dying, been dying, might already be dead.

“He’s a dyin bread, for sure,” Alicia said as we tromped over the dirt path, stepping sideways so our worn old sneakers wouldn’t skid us into patches of poison oak. “Like a real-life troll gate keeper.”

Backpacks and coolers and limp plastic flotation devices—we were rolling 22-deep, a smattering of tattoos and a trail of cigarette smoke rode up from Oakland for an annual camping trip.

I could glimpse the river from the path: slick green between these flat, broad boulders, like a long line of really crooked molars. It was hot—Northern California hot, which isn’t really that hot—and each spot I saw along that Yuba River looked perfect, picturesque, a postcard of Sierra-Foothills pristine.

“The best spot is further down,” Chummy called back. “But we gotta to pay The Keeper.” And he smiled at the joke and people called out “Keeee-per” and we laughed.

“It’s the OG dude,” they’d explained, “that’s got one of the best swimming spots on the river on his property. There’s a fence and shit, a sign telling you you’re on private property, but you keep walking down and you get to this shack he built down there, where he lives and is always kinda hanging out. And you give him a couple beers or some weed or something, and listen to him talk for awhile, and he lets you pass.”

“I once took a photo of him,” Matt had said, “that I was gonna mail him, to some PO Box he’s got somewhere. I never did,” shrugged, “but he wrote the address down on one of those discharge papers they give you in jail—you know, we’re they’ve written down everything you have in your pockets and shit. It was all like: ‘$1.17 in change, a bus ticket, a pint of gin…’ Homeboy’d just gotten out of the drunk tank like the night before.”

“That guy is cool as shit,” Moe’d added, grinning. “The Keeper.”

And we tromped and skidded down, and sure enough: a wooden shack and the sharp glare off a tin roof and a gang of chickens clucking and a grizzlied old man standing in a semi-squat hollering at it all.

It seemed like a continuous stream of somewhat-intelligible drunk babble that we’d happened to walk in on—I could imagine him going on and on, with or without an audience, talking to himself and the chickens and the rocks and the river that didn’t ever stop flowing either.

“See that there,” pointed to a little fenced-in patch of green, “I call that My Feeble Attempt To Grow Something,” and yowled in laughter. A rooster yodeled back, as though in response. “Here you can hear the roosters crow all day long, yep. I been here, watching this tryin to grow—” pointed at the green again “—and haven’t left in damn near three weeks. Just had some people passin through to give me a few beers and some LSD from time to time and that’s all I need to live, you know what I’m sayin?”

Sadie opened her bag and handed him a few cold beers.

“Well alright, alright,” The Keeper said, nodding. “You are officially no longer tourists, you are guests, welcome. The only rules are that you bring back your cans and that you remember to come back, cause—” a pause here “—if you didn’t, it’d break my heart.”

“Yessir!”

“Keep coming back, it works!” The Keeper called out and laughed as we shuffled by. “And be careful on the rocks, watch your step—these are the most difficult steps you might take. Twelve steps, my own twelve steps,” and howled again in laughter, a not-quite-crazy kind of laughter that got swallowed by the rocks and the river and passing of the river, as we marched on to our swimming spot.

If No Man Is An Island…

Alcatraz Night Tour—wandering around the haunted empty of an old institution, relighted and relabeled, black signs with white letters. All hard lines and sparse materials—cement and steel—littered with the footsteps of tourists, the little echoes we carry in our shoes and our voices and, in some of us, our hearts.

Because you live here, you’d never done it—because there was always some other chance, some other day, any day, it turned into no day, never. So when Nick said he was going to Alcatraz, fuck it, you said you were going too.

So you roved, like everyone else roved, wearing your headset and listening to the gravely voiced narrator of the audio tour, a well-cast choice by any measure. Former prison guards and inmates read their recollections, giving the tour more weight, more significance than it would have otherwise had.

You stopped in front of the steel doors to the solitary confinement cell, and listened to the weathered voices recall what they’d done to wait out the time in the blackness:

But if you would close your eyes—like right now, close your eyes, seal your eyes off with your hand—with a little concentration, you can see a light. And pretty soon that light will get brighter. And you’ve gotta concentrate on it—not a short while; it takes time and practice—but pretty soon you can almost put your own TV there, and you can see things and you can go on trips—and that’s what I did.

And it was an echo, the sound of a memory reverberating from some place inside. It was a night you’d stored away: summer, warm, the window open, the leaves cutting the streetlight into a thousand broken, dancing pieces. He laid on his side, held you under his arm, and you said you couldn’t sleep.

“Let me show you a trick.” And he said it softly—strangely soft, you’d thought, the way we’d whispered as kids in our hiding places, the places only children can fit.

“I used to do this when I was little, when I couldn’t sleep.” He rolled onto his back. “You put your thumbs against your eyes—you’ve got them there?—and you push. Not hard, but not light either. And keep pushing; don’t stop.”

You didn’t. You didn’t stop pushing.

“And eventually you see it.”

“See what?”

“Lights. Shapes. Anything. You go on a trip.”

And he got real quiet, and you listened—listened to the horrible silence and waited for your own show, your own little light parade. You saw only faint traces, dim colors, a couple gray buzzing lights.

He rolled back on his side, towards you. “Where did you go?”

You looked down, ashamed, though you weren’t sure why. “I don’t know. I don’t think I went anywhere.”

And he didn’t say anything, just traced your belly with the tips of his fingers—the fullest part of your belly, the part you hate and pinch and suck in in front of the mirror—and you felt so fucking lonely you thought you might die, that some part of you might die.

And it was the same feeling, standing there, alone with your headset in a silent group of wanderers. Like being a tourist in someone else’s loneliness—or rather, the ruins of someone else’s loneliness, what was left after the guards had gone and the light—now strange and harsh—had returned. Listening to their tricks, the little games they played (Your dad telling you, “Sometimes I’d bite the inside of my cheek, slowly, until it’d start bleeding and I’d play with it.”)—the ways they’d learn to escape, if only for a moment, into some place so deep inside that some piece, it seemed, never came back.

You blinked. You pushed the rewind button and the voice stuttered, restarted, and you listened again. And it was his voice, inside this other voice, and you remembered how you’d put it in a poem—or, you’d tried to put it in a poem, but it’d never amounted to anything, never quite fit, a parenthetical metaphor you weren’t quite sure related, or how it related, until right now, here, under the institutional glare of a tourist attraction, Alcatraz.

You half-smiled—what else was there to do?—and continued on with the tour, walked through the door in the steel bars into another emptied room.

Boiler Room, Angel Island

Abandoned by time but not escaped from it. Rust and debris, peeling paint and the pages of old magazines, broken glass so old its become smooth. Like some dim chamber of our hearts, we climbed into the boiler room.

Angel Island is full of abandoned buildings, the crumbling concrete and sagging frames of old military structures. A big mound in the middle of the Bay, smack in from the Golden Gate, the island is more than brown grasses and hiking trails. It was a detention center/”immigration station” during the Chinese Exclusionary Act, then an Army Post during World War II, later a missile center. Now it’s a state park, filled with picnicking families, kids on field trips, tourists on Segways.

Summer in San Francisco...

It’s nice to spend a day roaming around, out in the middle of the Bay—packing a sandwich and riding the expensive ferry and taking the long, gentle walk around the perimeter. But what I love most about Angel Island are the abandoned buildings.

Some are open to the public, stairways smashed out so there’s no chance of climbing up into the desolate upper stories. You wander around the ground level, the empty gutted rooms, staring up past the chicken scratch graffiti, wishing you could poke around the dusty remains above, crunch your sneakers through the silence.

Other buildings are fenced off, doors bolted and windows shuttered, large signs warning of the repercussions of trespassing. The grass grows up around these buildings, consuming them; sometimes you catch shadows in the broken windows and they look like your own.

We circumvented a large, fenced-off building, found a spot relatively hidden from the main path. It’d been a long time since I’d hopped a fence, wedged my toes between chainlink and landed ankle-sharp with a laugh.

We tiptoed towards the building.

The boiler room. Heavy, huffing machinery now silent, steamless, bellies swollen with the memory of a howl. Old basins and the criss-cross of empty pipes, useless and buckled. Nameless parts of an old operation. A map on the wall of where tools once hung.

We crunched around, slats of wood and indistinguishable debris, the flattened beer cans of some lost era. There’s something about crumbling places that make you whisper, a kind of reverence—not just for what has passed, but what has remained, aged and weathered and somehow still standing.

It reminds you of your own ragged heart, those places you’ve closed off, chained off, boarded up and shut. But they’re still there—forgotten, maybe, but not empty, bloodless pipes waiting, dreaming of steam.

And sometimes, something goes traipsing on in there, flicking lighters and echoing voices and leaving new footprints, in a place you swore no new footprints could go. A place you swore was sealed shut and secretly dying.

We trespassed into the abandoned boiler room, then stepped back out into the dim squint of a fog-heavy noon—our lives.

Sunday Morning on International

Sunday morning on International Blvd. A sidewalk laced in fog, car exhaust, the sick-sweet smell seeping from panderias. Little girls in patent-leather shoes, dudes crouched and smoking and speaking in Vietnamese outside the street shop: “Good tattoo ain’t cheap, cheap tattoo ain’t good.” The rattle of shopping cart wheels, the bark of fenced-in dogs.

I’m running late. I’m going to the 11am meeting at the In Between, a beat-up converted barroom now filled with folding chairs and faded banners, where we sit and curse and laugh, talk about God and booze, “hmm-mm”ing and “uh-huh”ing and drinking cheap coffee that stains our teeth. I love that place, its dusty corners and dying plants, the sag of the window frames.

I pass the bright blue letters of Iglesia de Buen Sabor, a storefront church with white bars over its frosted windows. The tambourine rattle and exalted voices of its congregation pours out the open door, from a faceless place—always black inside, when looking in from the street.

I make eye contact with a man standing in front of the doorway. He has a look of well-groomed desperation: cheap suit, overly combed hair, shoes shining like little black teeth. He’s got one crippled arm, bent and with a tangle of underdeveloped fingers; he cradles it next to his body as though he were holding an infant, or a small injured bird. I give him the half-smile and nod of a hello in passing.

He steps towards me. “Hello,” he says. “My name is Juan Carlos…” he continues on with a couple more names, surnames and second middle names. He leans his small hand towards me.

I pause mid-stride, take his small hand. “Right on, man, good to meet you.” It feels limp and strange in my momentary grasp, and I try to amend my handshake, make it softer, let it fit the contours of his curled-in fingers. “I’m running late, though—” I start to step away.

“You have a lot of joy in your heart.”

I stop, look at him with a slightly cocked head. “Thanks.”

He nods, smiles, then steps back into the black swallow and tambourine roll of his doorway.

I cross the street and squeak my own door open.

Southbound

Fog so heavy

it wept

the dust from my windshield

/

what I’d carried with me,

wore on me,

up and over

a road soggy with night—

always becoming, becoming

just up ahead.

/

So this is driving

across the Golden Gate—

yellow halos,

the swallow of white,

pillars into nothing,

and beyond

the railings—black, black,

the hiss of black

underneath the stereo speakers,

whispering, “this is the end

of the continent”

/

and you can’t even see it.

The Americanness of Garlic: Weekend Wedding Part III

We rode down the line, past the line, through it: the slice in the sky where the fog stops and the blue begins.

The California Coast and the Central Valley: there’s more than just a fog bank that separates the two. They’re culturally two different worlds. One is liberal, cultured, Priuses and windbreakers all year round. The other is hot, flat, migrant and dusty, rumbling trucks and fruit stands, too-neat rows of too-green produce lining the highway, whipping past your window in a monotonous flipbook, eye-numbing and strangely hypnotizing.

To us coastal folks, the Central Valley is a hazy strip of heat and pesticides, a nebulous region of towns we’ve heard of in passing, maybe driven through, but never really experienced past a gas station or two. Which is why Gabe and I had decided to stop in Gilroy, a typical agricultural Central Valley town, on our drive back to the Bay. That, and the garlic.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival is one of those things I’d heard about my whole life, but never been to. I wasn’t even really sure where Gilroy was. It’s one of those small-town events that put the place on the map, gives it some sort of name recognition to city folk. You get the feeling that the whole town lives for Garlic Festival weekend, that it’s their moment to shine—or more accurately, to waft.

We snaked along the single-file traffic leading to the parking lot. Everything was agriculture: produce stands, the Garlic Shoppe, a garlic restaurant, garlic paraphernalia. People with coolers stood on the roadside selling bottles of “ice-cold water, $1 here, $3 at the festival.” The town was amped.

We tromped across the dirt parking lot, past port-o-potties and shuttle bus lines, volunteers with bull horns, in towards the banners and balloons and cloud of cooking garlic.

It wasn’t cheap: $17 to get in. It didn’t matter. We were in it to win it.

At first, it was kind of disappointing—all the usual festival stuff: cheesy craft booths and “funky” bands, frozen lemonade (not garlic-infused). I was expecting some sort of kitschy throw-back vibe, a state fair kind of atmosphere. I was expecting uber-ridiculous, inventive garlic food, garlic everything.

But as we wandered more, went deeper into the booths and stands, the subtler ridiculousness revealed itself. And then we found this:

A flaming garlic effigy. How metal is that?

We went for it. We didn’t care that everything cost $5 and the lines were long and the sun was brutal. We wanted the full experience.

That’s right—garlic ice-cream. This is one of the festival’s great claims to fame that I’d heard about. And it’s ice-cream. So I had to have it. Oddly enough, they served it in a half cantaloupe. Not so sure about the culinary success of that, but I could appreciate the eco-friendliness.

Shit yeah!

Gabe was obsessed with finding deep-fried garlic. When he succeeded, we sat down on a hay bale and indulged in our treats (dipping deep-fried garlic into garlic ice-cream: amazing). One of the bands had broken into a cover of an obscure, early Johnny Cash song. As the families trundled by in the afternoon heat, there was something really sweet about the whole thing, something All-American in a way that I once scoffed at.

And then we found this dude:

Nothing like a man in drag resembling a human garlic nut sack to really get the party started.

While most of the booths were of the folk-art and rip-off variety ($20 for a flattened glass bottle window hanger), there were some hidden gems in the rows of awnings:

More vaguely scrotal goods

“The Originals”—thank god! None of these impostor custom toe rings.

This one goes out to all the vegetarians in the house...

“Gourmet Alley” was the closest thing to the state fair vibe I found. They seemed to serve all the same fare as the rest of the festival; the fonts on their banners were just of a more dignified variety. There was a cook-out section complete with demonstrations and seminars, where local hot shots flexed their garlic prowess. It was all proudly and unironically sponsored by Foster Farms (complete with chicken-shaped balloons bobbing overhead). We may have only been an hour and a half from the Bay Area, but the food culture was was a whole nuther world: purely All-American.

And in a way, beyond the deliciousness of garlic, that’s what I been looking for, hoping to find at the festival: America.

There’s a kind of beautiful part to participating in a culture, in mainstream culture. Growing up in a city, and especially in a place as distinct as the Bay Area, you don’t get a lot of chances to indulge in Americana—we’re all about film festivals and Critical Masses and dirty punk shows in dingy warehouses.

But there’s this American mythology, this agrarian life, a “simple life,” that’s always been there: a vague background noise, aired on old sitcoms, tucked into dusty paperbacks, into the heart of the big, wide country that I fly over and past, but never stop in. I’ve never experienced it, never lived it, observed it from a distance, as the Other.

I think us city people feel alienated from that culture. We judge it (“uneducated, small-minded, uber-Christian bigots”), and are afraid it was judge us (especially if we’re something other than straight, white, native-born). There’s a kind of deep distrust—“that isn’t me, can’t be me, not ever me.” There’s something lonely about existing in something other than the predominate culture.

It was nice, for an afternoon, to feel like in some small way, I can be a part of that too, that that’s in me as well: America. Never thought I’d say that.

And sweating garlic for the next day and a half was fun too.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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