Friday, January 13, 2006

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

Jan. 9. 12:32 p.m. On Interstate Five, north of Route 46, East of the infamous site of James Deans' fatal accident.

A desolate trailer park has a few scrawny palms and eucalyptus trees shading empty plots. There is only a single forlorn trailer and two RVs. The trash cans are a freshly painted light blue; everything else looks windworn and like it's been backed into a few times. The Hartford Sentinel announces Home Garden is getting a health center. All of the music for sale is southern rock/country or cumbia, save for a single Cajun cassette. The other side of the display stand features the biggest beef jerky I've ever seen-- leathery sheets the size of a page in a paperback novel.

It seems the perfect place to put on Phideaux's Fiendish CD, in this desolate landscape.

Endless rows of leafless reddish brown trees lift their boughs in supplication to a sky sealed off by fog.

In waves, the trees wash by, perfect rows and perfect columns.

The brown and amber fields appear so barren when I think of the beauty of the Salinas Valley over Christmas, seemingly only a free hundred yards to the West over the Ciero Hills. In actual distance, Soledad and Gonzales are over 60 miles away; the low hills obscure mountains further on. A rare break in the hills reveals their grey silhouettes.

At last bands of green mark the hand of man alternating with the hand of nature on the hillsides.

Strange machinery speaks of science proudly doing for nature what it cannot do for itself next to fields summoned back from their winter slumber.

The sign at the rest stop proclaims we are in "PETAREA." The rest stop is almost equidistant from Mexico and Oregon, two thirds of the distance from Nevada to the ocean.

Loma Prieta, the epicenter of the 1989 earthquake, is nearly due West; Manzanar due East.

There are far more shades of green than brown here; a canal slovenly delivers the element more precious than gold: water.

This seems the one place where all races may mix freely -- if courtesy guarding caution could be said to be free.

Now our hills are a hand-tinted relic of early photographs. Ponds to the East shimmer in an endless promise of bounty all the way to the horizon.

We are gazing down upon the promised land; more than once in the past the floor of an ocean. The vastness of the San Joaquin Valley is beyond comprehension. How the settlers-- whether Spanish or American-- must have felt to come over the mountains and see this! All of England could fit here. It would seem improbable anyone must live elbow to elbow with their neighbor anywhere on this Earth.

A ranch house offers a passing glimpse of an early farmer's prosperity. The pre-Victorian home has settled into itself, an elegant if impractical alternative to the more modern homes with wood siding not yet weathered. It seems improbable the newer homes will ever match the grace of their predecessor.

The time worn grooves of roads no more than ruts appear picturesque-- from the smooth-surfaced modern superhighway. Even the wooden fences are more aesthetically pleasing --if less efficient barriers-- than their chain link descendants.

Yet, into this sylvan landscape must intrude the occasional cell phone tower, a necessary evil of the present age interrupting the symmetry of the pastoral scene.

The most jarring sign of the imminent end of this verdant paradise and our approaching the city is a golf course, a garish affront to nature and ironic given the poster back at the rest stop warning against the introduction of non-native plant species and the havoc they can wreak.

The horizon is marked now by fields sprouting suburban homes as the preferred crop. Urban detrius appears --still in bits and pieces-- out of sight and out of mind of the developers and residents of town.

Jan. 10. Clyde, California. Next door to my sister's new home, a sad excuse of a flamingo that has seen better days adorns the front yard, along with a statue of a little dog lifting it's hind leg for all eternity on it's own little fire hydrant. How quaint.

The orange tree has more ripe fruit on it than can be counted. Clover has taken over both front and back yards --a magnet for bees, my sister tells me. Japanese maple were lovingly planted in front of the house. Pine trees --two of which are enormous-- are in the front and back yard. A walk made of broken pieces of concrete and stone leads clear through to the street in back.

Jan. 11. San Ramon. The San Francisco local television news is a hoot. For such a high tech savvy region of the country that produces so much of the information delivery software in the country, the Bay Area news programs are still so provincial it's downright funny.

I'm hoping to get to pop into Cliff's Variety store in the Castro, if anywhere, once we get into The city. So many place familiar to me are gone or changed now. Medium Rare Records is still there, but whereas it once was the preeminent gay diva record store without par in the country --or the planet?-- now, alas, it is given over entirely to dance music. A sign of the times. It is still the ultimate incomparable shop for what it offers both professional DJs and music aficionados near and far, but don't look for that obscure 78 of your favorite cabaret singer from days of yore. Not that I have anything against dance music, I love it in fact; but this was my one resource for anything and everything Eartha Kitt ever recorded.

No place can anchor the long distant past with the present as Cliff's Variety store. Cliff's, perhaps alone in The City, is still as it always was: a wonderland of discoveries up and down every aisle, whether you are rehabilitating an entire home, finding that perfect gifts in housewares for a wedding or housewarming, or just looking for a rare retro toy for a present --or for yourself. Especially for yourself. Who needs a mall for comfort shopping? Cliff's has it all--right down to the kitchen sink! As much a landmark as the facade and sign for the Castro Theatre, Cliff's represents the neighborhood, a microcosm of The City as a whole.

You can get the fabric to make everything from new drapes for Tara to Scarlet ball gown, or outfit the costumes for an entire show. Then there is the stationery department-- yet another store within a store, with the hardest to find of office supplies like one would get from a mom-and-pop establishment but aren't to be found in a big box office supply store.

The plan includes trying to get to a
meeting on this trip, whether in while in The City or in San Ramon. I brought with me the entire meeting schedules for both San Francisco and Contra Costa counties.

Another kind of certainty I can look forward to is the ingenuity with which
local artists depict San Francisco. In no city in America do as many residents treat their town as member of the family, or have as many images from postcards to magnets to fine art and photographs in their homes. The locals probably buy more images of The City than all the tourists ever will. Floridiana has long been recognized for it's collectible kitsch, but for so small a place, The City has all other places beat. The mystique of San Francisco probably even extends to extraterrestrials.

Not long ago, I tried to describe to someone what it was like to witness the visual onslaught of AIDS in the Castro and LA's gay ghettos. The scene around the Castro has changed so much from the 1980s in a way that defies description. It is not --will not ever-- return to be what it was like before AIDS, but it has come back to life anew in it's own inimitable San Francisco way. Though the battle against the encroachment of chain stores has been lost left and right around the Castro, it is still the Castro without a doubt.

Where was that little picturesque corner grocery store that was so San Francisco, and yet so European? It was the quintessential blend of continental ambiance and San Francisco style. There is probably one in or another such place in every neighborhood in The City. Turns out it was the New Upper Terrace Market at 17th and Uranus, on the way to my brother's new home across from Sutro Tower --yes, right across from the base of the tower!

At 12:28 p.m., we finally pulled out of my sister's home in San Ramon, to make it as far as the Bishop Ranch shopping center on the other side of the freeway.

The Hotel Carlton is just too cool. It has a perfect "Rough Guide meets Lonely Planet with the amenities of Conde Nast" vibe to it. Even the room key cards are have cool multi-culti photos on them. Kitty Carlisle Hart is performing on the next block at the Empire Plush Room.

Jan. 12. 8:20 a.m. Well, the morning meeting at Church and Market is one more item on the itinerary that I won't make it to. I woke up just as the meeting would have been getting started. I might not make a meeting this trip at all, it seems.

10:00 a.m. Get Lost, the ultimate travel store on Market Street, Cliff's and any other stops I wanted to make will just have to wait for the next trip. The car was broken into last night while parked on Hyde at Sutter. Nothing was taken, although they rifled through everything. A number of other cars were hit too. We spend the rest of the morning getting the paperwork for the insurance company to fix the window at the SFPD Central Station on Vallejo. At least I get to peek in City Lights bookstore while getting a piece of cardboard for the window.

Jan. 13. 2 p.m. West Hollywood. We're back home in LA. Damn, but it's nice out--on the hot side of warm tempered with a breeze to ease the transition back to LA.

A reality TV crew is filming on the field at the playground at Cahuenga and Santa Monica. The bus passes by a youth with a shaved tattooed head and a huge snake around his neck, then a plus-size black tranny hooker in a tasteful black cocktail dress.

A silver Rolls Royce glistens in front of the Amazon pet shop. The bus driver is listening to Elton John's "Levon" on the radio.

The Joan & Melissa LIVE "Red Carpet Royalty Tour" bus rolls by.

Tourists roll down the window and ask, "Hey, where's Rodeo Drive?" from their car on San Vicente.

As I leave the library, I come around the corner in time to catch the most spectacular sunset framed by palm trees. A seagull cries overhead. Is LA trying to win me back? I don't want to be yearning for a San Francisco that is more illusion than real. A full moon hangs low in the Eastern sky... perhaps this is not the Friday the 13th to be out and about, even as I see locals and tourists alike descending on Boystown for happy hour.

The beautiful people are gathering like wildebeests at a watering hole.

Just as I have discovered over the holidays that the 9 a.m. meeting at the West Hollywood Recovery Center is far less pretentious (and easier to get a seat at) than the Sunday morning meetings across the street at the Log Cabin, now, too, I make my way in search of a new Friday night meeting.


Ron Gutierrez said...


Thank you for offering Angelenos such a literate, pensive, and honest blog. I just came across it yesterday and it was a nice way to get reintroduced to you.

As I try to travel almost exclusively by train and bus myself I found that aspect of your life easy to relate to. You also share many age specific ruminations that were reassuring to see expressed here. Plus you a fellow Gilmore Girls fan!

Might I bend you ear over some coffee at the Cuban Cafe sometime?

Cosgrove Norstadt and Jeff Foote said...

I must disagree with your assesement of Medium Rare Records. While it does have lots of dance music, it is also filled with TONS of hard to find music or out of print music. This store continues to be the FIRST place I go when looking for music. It is independently owned and deserves to be supported!! I LOVE THAT PLACE!!!