Shanghai—6 March 2009
On Saturday I decided I would make a more extensive nighttime search for the heart and soul of San Francisco. At this point I wasn't expecting much, but then if you don't search for something, you're never going to find anything. I'd rather try and fail than not try at all. And sometimes you don't find what you're looking for but something else, and it isn't such a bad thing. So with this lame spirit I headed from Lower Broadway over to Jonell's over on Jones and Ellis. Not so much because that is where I wanted to be but because the drinks are about as cheap as they get. It was also a good starting point.
Tonight the place was about half full. Behind the bar was not just nervous Lee but another bartender as well. I had spotter her a couple of days before when I passed by Jonell's. Wearing a pink knit cap with a visor, she was standing by the door smoking a cigarette. She looked at me and smiled a little. She wasn't young but she wasn't old either. Lee was older, 50 something. But I didn't go in then. Now she was in back of the bar. I ordered a whiskey and instead of saying "ice" I said "bing." She didn't say a word, just filled the glass with ice.
I guessed right. She was Chinese. I was a little surprised that she didn't look at me when I said "bing" instead of "ice." But she didn't seem to notice.
He name was Mai and she was from the northern part of Beijing. We talked a little about the Chinese economy versus the US and the buying power of the Yuan in China and the buying power of the dollar in the US. In China you got a lot for your money; in the US you didn't. All the time we talked, she kept glancing toward the door watching the street outside. She had picked up Lee's edginess, I guess. And tonight, with the usual customers using Jonell's for doing business, there was cause for some edginess.
She said she lived alone and paid all her own bills. By this she meant to say, I believe, that she understood money. She had been in the US for about 16 years. Now I'm starting to glance around too. I'm noticing some odd behavior of a customer. There is a guy who has come in several times, appears to unlock the restroom with a key, though it is not locked, then goes in for a long period of time, after which Lee goes over and cleans it or takes out the trash. I don't get it. Wo bu dong. But Mai doesn't seem to notice this. She is keeping an eye on the street. There is the same animal program on the one TV but it is about lions this time, I think. I'm not sure what is on the other TV. I have no interest in lions and I seem to have exhausted the economic discussion with Mai, who suddenly does a few sexy dance steps in back of the bar, a burst of youthful feeling, I think; so I decide to move on down the street.
I steer a wide path around Club 441 and head straight for Turk and Taylor and Club 21. Frank starts pouring the Jack Daniels as soon as I'm in the door.
"Bing, jing," I say.
For some reason he always remembers Jack Daniels but never the ice. Thinks I drink it straight in large glassfuls. A nice image but in fact I'm a light drinker. I would never make it all over town otherwise. Finally I spot John. He is growing a beard that makes him look older. Or in its current state, scruffier. It's the reason I didn't spot him sooner.
John lives on the top of Nob Hill near where I used to live. But he prefers to drink in the Tenderloin. He's in the theater business. He does equipment setup. I think he must be very good at it. He was a serious student at Berkeley years ago and is still a serious thinker, the type you run into in Caffe Trieste. At Club 21 he is known as the "egg head" because of his brain power. He is great relief from meaningless conversations. He steers straight to the hear of a matter. His brother is dean of students at one of the UC campuses. But John gave up on academia years ago, I believe. He is an independent thinker, which many academics are not.
He asks about my trip from Paris and I mention the problems with airport security. He tells me about an incident with his 94-year-old grandmother. Security took away her jam. This is on a domestic flight. What is a 94-year-old woman going to do with a jar of jam? It was home-made, a gift.
John's brother, who has a little more money than John, recently bought the latest Blackberry. So he gave John—or should I say Poor John?—the old one. Sounds good except that Johns says he doesn't want all those features.
"All I want to do with a phone is make a call and talk with someone. I don't want to spend two weeks reading a book about my phone or going to class. Am I asking too little?"
"Apparently," I said. "Don't you want to receive text messages?"
"No, just make a call. Tell someone I'm going to be late and relax about it."
I confessed I had some of the same problems.
"It's marketing," I said. "The same thing is true with computers. Only more so."
I told him about the problem I had had earlier in the day. I went down to Golden Gate Perk but it was closed. It was Saturday and on a slow Saturday downtown, Amy closes early. But I was desperate to find out if the wire transfer from France had gone through. I went over to Cafe Claude and asked Horacio if he knew of another place close by. He said he thought Starbucks across the street on Kearny had Internet access. I went over to Starbucks. They did but you had to sign up with AT&T to use it. Who wants to do that? I started to go back to North Beach but then decided to go over to Le Central to see if Dave knew of a place. Will, another Le Central bartender, was also there. He said they had free Internet access on Union Square. Haleluija! But then I realized that I did not have the battery in my Hewlett Packard laptop and there would be no electrical connections on Union Square. Without the battery my laptop is too heavy. With it, it is like carrying bricks around town. I realized I was not going to find any "creative solution" to this problem and resigned myself to being one of those unfortunate people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Did I have money? Didn't I? Only the bank knew.
Frank starts to pour another one, this time with a handful of bing, but I know it is time to go. I have had enough.
I am feeling pretty good about the city as I cut up Powell Street towards Union Square. Normally I would take a cable car loaded with tourists up the hill—it's fun to me every time—but they are a little pricey for a guy on a pizza budget. I feel a little nostalgic as I pass Marquad's Little Cigar Store, now a hat shop of the trendy visor type; I smile as I pass Fcuk, or the French Connection UK; and I think of whiskey as I hear the noise from the Golden Dust Lounge but pass it by. Up ahead is Union Square, and further up Powell I see Harry Denton's Starlight room at the top of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, not to be confused with the Westin Saint Francis. I climb the steps to the park, sit on a bench, and take out my ailing Nikon. I'm going to see if it is up to a shot of Harry Denton's. I'm focusing on Harry Denton's when suddenly there is some one standing in front of me.
"The park is closed," he says.
"Go away," I say.
"The park is closed. You have to leave," he persists.
Is he one of the disturbed people who hang out on around Union Square, or is he for real? He is wearing a light windbreaker and a barrett. The windbreaker is red. There is nothing official about him. I stand up and turn the camera on him. He starts to walk off. Now I see it says "SECURITY" on the back of his windbreaker. But then half the folks these days are wearing T-Shirts or caps or jackets that say "SECURITY." Still, he could be. I'm sure Marquad's Little Cigar Store sells them. He's off his meds, buys one, then it's just a few paces to Union Square. Is that the story?
Suddenly he turns on me. He says he's going to "break my fucking camera" if I shoot his picture, then he lunges for it. I back away and he misses the camera. I have dodged him once but what if he tries it again? Does he have a knife? I don't want to get stabbed by a lunatic.
I get on my cell phone and dial 911; he pulls out an old brick-size Motorola two-way radio and fusses with it. They don't sell those at Marquad's so I'm beginning to wonder.
What is going on here? Is Union Square now a park? And if so, is it patrolled by some kind of rent-a-ranger who thinks he can do anything he wants? The news has been full of the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police on New Year's eve. Had it not been for "citizen journalism" nothing might have come of it. Was this then police reaction? Was "breaking your fucking camera" the solution to the Oscar Grant problem?
Police response was baffling. 911 would not send out anyone until I could tell them my cell phone number. Right off I didn't know it. It was a new phone, and I have three cell phones: One for Paris, one for Shanghai, and one for San Francisco. The reason for so many phones? Yep, you guess it: incompatibility of networks and phone systems. The industry loves it.
I got out a notebook of phone numbers, bank account "user IDs," secret passwords ... and finally read it to her. Some fifteen minutes later two officers casually walked up. They had a brief conversation with the guy in the red windbreaker and barrett—it appeared that he was "security" and that Union Square was legally some kind of park—then asked me to leave. I left. They never asked a question, never showed any concern. Had I been a casual visitor from out of town, what would my impression have been? Poor, to say the least. Would I have wanted to return to San Francisco again? Probably. It's a beautiful city. But I would have thought little of its police department.
One constructive suggestion to the city of San Francisco: If you're going to put someone in charge of security, make that person look official. Do the cops show up dressed in casual wear? No. Give the guy a jacket and a badge. And tell him what he can and cannot do. Specifically tell him that he cannot break tourists cameras. That could cost the city a lot of money. Johannes Mehserle is going to cost BART a lot of money.
Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling really good, something comes along and destroys it? Seems to be a rule. Emotionally I was now back on safe middle ground. But that's okay with me. I know the highs, I know the lows. They are like the weather, ever changing.
The next few days were hot over in North Beach and places were crowed with tourists. Mario's Cigar Store was too crowded to get in; ditto Caffe Trieste. I was looking for a place to write because of a noisy session in the hall of the Golden Eagle. Il Pollaio on Columbus seemed to have some space by the window. Maybe this is the way you discover new places. Your old spot is too crowed to go into. I ordered a glass of house red and the waiter, who also looked like the manager—it's a small place—brought me a basket of bread and butter too, "on the house."
I watch the sandwiches coming off the grill—juicy hot beef and chicken. I smell the smells, listen to the conversations, hear the laughter, and witness the rapport of the waiter with the two hispanic guys working the grill. Customers don't just pay the bill and leave; they come up and offer praise to the kitchen. I do some writing, drink wine and eat bread, then pay my bill but say I will be back. The waiter-manager: "I take care of you." How sweet those words sound sometimes.
When I returned to the Golden Eagle, the party was still going on in the hall.
It was at this point that I determined I would not be getting access to my money in the Bank of China. I was going to have to go back if I wanted to convert my Euros and spend them. Also, I was told at the language schools that it was the "slow season" and there would probably be no work until Spring. I couldn't afford to wait for Spring in San Francisco. It looked like returning to Shanghai was my best choice.
Womende fandian you liang canting.
Notre hôtel dispose de deux restaurants.
Our hotel has two restaurants.
One of the highs of my stay in San Francisco was a visit from my granddaughter, Isabella, from Spain. She is eleven months old, so of course my daughter came with her. They live in Puigcerda in the Catalonya region of Spain. Puigcerda is up in the Pyrenees mountains, about three hours outside of Barcelona by train. The official language there is Catalan, so that is what Isabella will learn in school. In Puigcerda, Spanish is also spoken, along with French and English. But at this point in time, Isabella is speaking baby talk—Qwa, qwa, qwa, bwu, bwu, bwu—something like that—and making various gurgling sounds in the throat. She is expert at dropping things off a table so that you can pick them up and she can drop them off again. It is sort of like throwing a ball for a dog.
The evening before I was trying to think of a good place for lunch with her. This would be her first meal in San Francisco and I wanted it to go well. At Capp's Corner I asked if they had a high chair. "Of course we have a high chair," I was told. Silly question. It's an Italian, family-style restaurant. So Capp's it was.
I was not sure what Isabella would eat but her mother solved that by placing a single meat ball in front of Isabella which she poked with her index finger and occasionally picked up pieces and got them in her mouth, all the while sucking a single spaghetti noodle into the corner of her mouth. Three quarters of the way through the meal the chef came out to meat his youngest customer, and the two got along quite amiably. She also got along very well with the elderly ladies having lunch together at the next table. When it came to desert, the waiter brought us spumoni—on the house—and Issie soon had it smeared all over her chin. I could not have been a finer first lunch in the city. I pronounced here a "restaurant kid." If you are brought up in a family that loves going to restaurants, you know what a restaurant kid is.
We then hit the baby swings in Washington Square—yes, they have swings there just for babies—and took a walk over to Trader Joe's on the edge of Fisherman's Wharf, passing Dimaggio Park on the way over and also the new location of Fior d'Italia, San Francisco's first Italian restaurant, and passing Citizen Chain bike shop and the Cheese School on the way back ("The Cheese School?" my daughter asked but for once I was at a loss to supply my kid with an explanation), and finally ended up back on Columbus at Puccini's for latte and Italian soda. Not a dissonant peep came out of Issie the whole time. She seemed to love it. She was a bit like having a new puppy. She attracted people and brought out smiles in everyone, from old men and women who probably had grandchildren to young women with only a dream of someday having children, assuming they could find a steady boyfriend, maybe even a husband, in this shifty city of emotional highs and lows. Even the old Italian guys who hang out in front of Puccini's came inside to have a little chat with Issie. Slowly we strolled down to Stockton Street, and Issie and Trisie got on a bus and were gone. It could have been heartbreakingly sad except that it was a day to remember and I knew I would see them soon in Puigcerda, and we would do the same thing there in another language.
I'm a little spooked. I've had this idea since I came back to San Francisco of visiting the Bush Street bars and a few others that hold an emotional charge for me. I either had girl friends who worked at these places or hung out in them enough that they were like part of me. Then I deserted them and went elsewhere. Well, not just elsewhere; I left the country. But why exactly the emotional charge? I can't quite say. It is not rational. But I wanted to see if I could rid myself of that, if I could make these places real and new to me. I determined that I would make the rounds of at least a few of them.
A few days earlier I had stopped by Tosca's and Richard the bartender barely recognized me. We used to talk regularly. It was an eerie feeling. Does time really erase all memory? When we die ... I won't get into that. But then there was the opposite response of Eric Shifrin at the Fairmont Hotel: A big grin and "Welcome home, buddy." The warm and the cold, the yang and the yin. Maybe that is the way it is supposed to be. One person leaves you cold for another to warm you up. Would you feel warm if you never felt cold? Probably not. Would you be clear and sober if you were never drunk? Think about that, all of you "clear headed" people who never take a drink.
Late Saturday I had a couple of bourbons and headed over to Bush Street. I went into Yong San Lounge first. Shy Christina, better dressed than ever before, was there in back of the bar. It appeared she was working nights now; before she had only worked days. She is Korean and her response to anything was always very subdued on the surface, but I think below the surface she was very sensitive. She related an elaborate dream to me one time about someone dropping off two children at her apartment. It had bothered her so much that she went to the library to get a book on dreams. She showed me the books—she wasn't really a reader—and asked me what I thought the dream meant. I took a sort of Freudian approach suggesting that perhaps she was engaging in some kind of, you know, risky behavior that could, you know, ... But no, this was wrong. She didn't take risks and especially not with sex. Then I took the other approach. I suggested that her life needed some romance and that the children might be seen as the product of that romance. She had too much trouble picturing the romance to see that it would produce anything other than guilt and frustration. Then I took a third approach. I gave up. I said I have all kind of dreams that don't mean a thing. Perhaps her dream was of that sort. But in her quiet way she said she didn't think so. She really wanted to know what it meant.
Well, it was really nice to see Christina in back of the bar rather than Lynn, who was there the last time I was in town. Lynn spooked me. She is Chinese and I have not seen her for a long time. In fact, it took me awhile to figure out who she was. She used to work at Sports Bar on Geary. I hung out there a lot one time because of her friend Windy, also Chinese, who worked the bar. In fact, despite myself, I really fell for Windy. I went in the beginning because I liked her and she amused me. I bought her drinks but kept a distance. Then she suggested that we might go out. I didn't really respond to it. But it surprised me. Why would she, a pretty Chinese girl, want to go out with me? Well, yeah, sure, I appeared to have money compared to the other riffraff who hung out there. Actually, at that time I was making a study of the sex industry in San Francisco: strippers, "masseuses," who at the time were mostly Korean prostitutes but pretty nice girls if you got to know them, and bar girls, or as the police called them, B-Girls. Those to me were the three broad classifications of the sex workers in San Francisco. Of the strippers and masseuses, almost none of them had boy friends. It just didn't work out with the profession. But the B-Girls often did. They were perhaps in the best position. I learned a lot about Windy. She worked another bar south of Market. I went down there. I took more than a professional interest in her. I should have drawn the line but after awhile I did not. The problem was this. I got to know her and like her in the course of probing her for information about herself. I became a victim of my inquiry. Laugh at me if you want, but this is what happened: I saw that she was a gem. And what do you do when you find a gem? Throw it away? Sure, you could do that. I thought about it. Then I went out on a couple of dates with her. I got to like her more and more. She had depth; she had passion; she had personality and presence that you don't get from a college education, TV, Hollywood movies, and web surfing. So many of the women I meet are simply clever or are playing an age-old ritual game of cat and mouse. Can she bait your? How was your response? How do you rate on a list of requirements that never includes "Do I love him?"
At the Sports Bar she was mostly drunk. It was her job. She made money by drinking with guys. That's what you do if you are a B-Girl. And the owner, Brenda, pushed the girls very had to drink with customers to increase sales. One time Windy was so drunk I had to hold her up when we went across the street to get something from her car. Another time she bit me in the throat so hard I thought she was going to puncture my skin. This was her idea of a good-bye kiss. Her drinking left her out of touch with most people's reality but put her in touch with another. It gave her depth, but depth at a price. The bad thing about it was that she was killing her pain without ever knowing what it was. She was divorced; she had a six-year-old son in China; she had no profession, really; she had no direction ... A few days of sober living would have been good for her. I'm not against drinking but I suggested at least once that she cut back. I told her it would make her puffy and fat, if nothing else, and spoil her looks. She laughed at me. I don't think she cared. She'd rather go up in flames.
I finally broke up with her. I thought she would ruin my life along with hers. And maybe I did a cowardly thing. I used an excuse to break up with her. She had a date with another guy. It was not big thing. She often went out for fun. But I told her I didn't want to see her anymore, that she wasn't good for me. She called for awhile but I wouldn't see her. Life went on but in fact I missed her all the time. I had cut my own heart out when I cut her out of my life. I worked and wrote and went on but when I stopped everything seemed empty. My sacrifice gave my work new life. It had to or I wouldn't have survived. But without her I was missing something real and vital. I was as though she had become part of me. My heart knew and didn't forgive me for it. So I guess that was part of the spookiness I was feeling about the Bush Street bars and a few others. I was afraid that if I ran into her I would simply fall apart. She wasn't the only one like this, but Windy was the main one. For me she was a once-in-a-lifetime woman. Sounds stupid. I know that. I'm laughing at myself with you. But that is what she was.
I think what I was trying to do now on Bush Street was "desensitize" myself. There is a psychological principle that says if you expose yourself to something that bothers you, or causes anxiety, that thing will lose its power. It's nothing new. Goethe in his notebooks describes a process he applied to some of his own fears: He was afraid of heights, so he went out daily and stood on the tower of a tall building. He was afraid of loud noises, so he went out and listened to military drum rolls as soldiers marched. He was afraid of blood, so he went to the university and watched surgical procedures. He claimed to have completely cured himself of these anxieties. I have my doubt that the "cure," if it was a cure, was complete, or that it was even completely desirable to affect a cure. But I think I was up to something similar on Bush Street. I wanted to at least reduce my reaction.
Judy, the owner, was there at Yong San too. She said hi and said that I looked thin and then walked off. She wasn't happy with me and I sort of knew why. She was a good-looking Korean woman and I had taken a tentative interest in her when I first met her. I think the feeling was mutual. But in the beginning she had a boyfriend. Then one day she didn't and she told me she "needed a man." I suppose she had me in mind. But I didn't go in for awhile. Then one day I went in when business was light and we sat at the end of the bar holding hands under the counter, her leg pressed against mine. It was a very fine pure feeling of love mingled with desire. But I didn't really want anything more than that feeling. It was like first love and I wanted to keep in that way. Tell me I'm crazy but what I did was this: I again stayed away for awhile. So to put matters simply, I think Judy was mad at me for not following through on what, more or less, amounted to an offer. She was punishing me for it.
On the way out I went over to where she was sitting at the middle of the bar talking with another woman and said that she had changed her hair. She had. It was longer now and cut differently in front. She had a rather rigid style before.
"No, it's the same," she said and went back to her conversation.
Yes, I had really failed with her. But I still like Judy. If I went back and talked with her, I think she would soften up. She's a nice person. (San Francisco Perspective: Lawyers, Hills, Dumplings, Young-uns ...)
I walked down Bush Street, past Summer Place, which was open and thriving with a young crowd that had recently discovered it; past Sushi-Man, which was shut because the owner had had his throat cut by someone who was mentally ill and off his meds, a real tragedy when you read the owner's life story; and the Nob Hill All-Male Nude Review, which I have never visited and probably never will though I am curious about it; and towards Chelsea Place near the Stockton bridge. And I started thinking of Windy again.
Windy didn't work on Bush; she worked at Sport's Bar down on Geary. But Bush Street brought back memories none the less. I remembered how she started crying one time and could not stop. First she was mad about something and accused me of following her—I wasn't—then she broke down and started crying and she could not stop. She was giving me a ride home from the bar. When she pulled up in front of my place, the tears began to flow. I don't think it was about any one thing. I think it was about her whole life. It was a sad life, really. As I said, she was once married and had a young son in China. She had come to the US, I suppose, for a "better life." But I'm not sure she had found it. Maybe working in a bar on Geary Street and having a lot of male attention seems, in the beginning, like a better life, but I'm not sure that it is. She was in her late thirties, not old, but not young anymore either. But she had a wild thing in her too. I remember sitting at the bar with her one time when a drink did not show up soon enough, and she flung her glass down the length of the bar much to the surprise of those sitting at the bar. It was like something out of a bad Western. At other times she could be very thoughtful. She lived in a garage apartment over in the Sunset. There was single rose growing outside her window. She described it to me like a poet.
She didn't have a college education but then she wasn't burdened by one either. She was an independent thinker, open to whatever did not cause her too much pain. And despite her drinking, I think she was opening up more and more.
The first time she came over to my apartment, after dinner at Gulia's Castle and dancing at Harry Denton's, she stripped off her clothes to show me her body.
"See, I have good body," she said, refastening her bra. Then she abruptly left, telling me, "Windy never have boyfriend. Don't want lose self."
She was not at all the sex pot you would think she was from seeing her operate at the Sport's Bar. But she was erratic and needed someone to really give her attention. Short of that, she needed a therapist. I once suggested the latter to her. Unfortunately, I wasn't the person for either of those roles. I had my own job to do, which amounted to freely running around town and getting into a lot of trouble so I could write about it. You laugh. But that is a fairly accurate description of what I do. Que faites-vous dans la vie? Je trouve la difficulté. It's a process of discovery. Few want the job these days. They want happiness; they want money; they want to manage other people. I had given that up long ago. But it did not prevent me from imagining another life for myself and realizing what a gem Windy could be if I gave her the attention she needed. All this made me feel sad.
So maybe that is why I'm spooked by some of my former hangouts. I'm afraid I'm going to run into her and fall apart.
With that thought in mind I walked into Chelsea Place. Always reminds me of Dashiell Hammett and "The Maltese Falcon." The setting is perfect on Bush Street near the Stockton Bridge. Nearby is where Brigid O’Shaughnessy was supposed to have shot Dan Archer. I never have to use much imagination in describing the locale here. I just think of the scene in the book. The bridge, the hill where Dan Archer falls when he is shot, now under the Green Door Ecstasy Massage parlor ... I think there was more fog back then but Chelsea Place has changed little. There are the old paintings, one of a naked Asian lady with large breasts, her posture very erect posture. It's a make-you-horny painting. My apartment on Bush Street came with a painting like that. I finally took it off the wall and put it in the closet. And there is the basement room under the sidewalk that used to be a bookie operation. A former owner said when he bought the place back in the 60s there were some 200 phone lines running into the room. Upstairs in the back room there is also a fireplace that once, undoubtedly, burned out the chill on foggy days.
Jennifer, a Chinese woman, now owns Chelsea and, like other bar owners in this part of town, hires extra "girls" on Fridays and Saturdays to create a livelier atmosphere and increase sales. I once wrote a story about one of those girls, which she saw and liked at the time. She is photogenic and it had a lovely picture of her in it. Then some of her relatives saw the story and found objection to it. The didn't like the "B-Girl" part of it. But that is what she is. I portrayed her, however, in the most positive light. Didn't make any difference. She wanted out. So I changed her name and the photo. But it is too bad; it was a nice story. It is sad when someone is trying to be something they are not and fail to recognize their real virtues. But a lot of people do that, probably even me at times. In her case, she had a new boyfriend who was a doctor. In addition to the objections from her relatives, she thought that if he saw it his delicate feelings would be offended. Not likely; it didn't say one bad thing about her. It was all positive. Anyway, that incident had turned the lights off on our relationship and I was happy, in a way, that she was not working this evening. She had changed and I didn't like what she had become.
A new addition to the weekend "girls" was a Korean girl named Heimin. We talked about travel and Beijing and Shanghai ... Heimin is a student from Seoul and she said she had an art project involving industrial design. I mentioned the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design a block away on Sutter Street. Few people seem to know that it exists. Now I'm not big on commercial art but this place really has some nice work. It is the best of the best of the best. The last time I was in I was looking at wine bottle labels. Before it was classic electric toasters. Good design, even for commercial products, required talent. While these artists may have aimed low in the broader scope of the art world, they hit the target in the world they chose to work in.
I walked back to North Beach happy that I ventured out but not completely satisfied with myself. Had I aimed too low? What if I had continued that relationship with Windy? What if we had married. I don't know.
One nice thing. I walked into Bix's on Sunday and as soon as pianist Don Asher spotted me he began playing "Fly Me To The Moon." It's one of my favorites, along with "Someday" and "Don't Explain."
After that and a few words with Don—I didn't want to have to buy a drink—I headed up to North Beach Restaurant. It was the usual crew plus a guy at the bar who was getting drunk. That was unusual at North Beach Restaurant. It's not that kind of place. Tony's just a few doors down is. Maybe he spilled over from there. Hogan came by. He's a big guy like Jack Nicholson the actor and can handle anything. In his youth I think he must have been a wild man, maybe even a brawler. But he has aged gracefully and chose a non-confrontational approach.
"Hey, this is a quiet place," he said in a hushed voice.
"Wanna step outside?" the guy asked, but only sort of jokingly.
"No," said Hogan, drawing up and back. "I'm a Buddhist. Ommmm ..."
I began to go "Ommmm," then so did the guy who had had too much.
He decided to go outside for a smoke. I began to tell Hogan about lunch with Isabella at Capp's Corner. He has a granddaughter too.
"Yes, they are little hams, aren't they?" He went back to the dinning room to check on a table.
I told Billy that I was keeping the guy down. I felt a little sorry for him and did not want to see him get thrown out.
After about five minutes the guy came back and we talked softly. Ten minutes later I left him there at the bar. I hope all went well and he got home okay.
On Monday I was into my third week without money from the banks and was growing bitter. Monday was also Martin Luther King day and Golden Gate Perk was closed, forcing me over to Cafe Roma in the early afternoon.
I concluded more and more that banks are a trap. Put your money in the bank and good luck getting it out. It was no longer your money, it was their's. In the evening I went back to Caffe Roma to check accounts again but Caffe Roma was closed. I stopped by Enrico's to hear Lavay Smith, who is heavily influenced by Billy Holiday. So much so that you're not sure who you're listening to, Lavay or Billie. But I didn't hear Lavay sing or Billie; Lavay was at the bar drinking with a customer. I guess that is Billie Holiday-like too. While I was waiting for Lavay to stop drinking and start singing, a guy at the bar told me that Caffe Trieste had Internet access. Later in the evening I passed Enrico's again and heard Lavay singing "I Only Have Eyes For You." But she dragged it out, repeating "I Only Have Eyes For You" several times, giving me the impression that she really did not have eyes for anyone. Once is enough if you mean it. At Trieste I am cursed with the old "Acquiring Network Connection" problem—no connection is ever acquired. I'm about to give up when Sam, a quiet thoughtful black guy, comes over and helps out. But I'm sure my IQ is higher than his. It is, isn't it, Professor Shockley?
I was beginning to become a refugee in my own country. Money was running out and I was constantly on the move, making one tough decision after another just to avoid living on the street. It was no fun. I began to think I had better get back to Shanghai as soon as possible where I had money and there was still work. True, Bush would be out in a few days and Obama in, but no matter how smart Obama was he couldn't cure the problems caused by Bush & Buddies any time soon. It was going to take years.
The irony of this did not escape me. I couldn't make a living in my own country. While a few years back I had a small but dynamic internet publishing business that supported itself off of contracts and advertising on web pages, now there was nothing. The big players in the business would no longer do business with the small players; they were offshoring everything. The "global economy" was their explanation but the real reason was profit. They could save money with lesser-quality products and increase upper management salaries and Wall Street profits. Bush & Buddies had stood by, knowing well what was going on, and done nothing. What wasn't oil, "smeared, bleared with toil," didn't matter. As a slogan, two words, "global economy," were worth billions. As far as corporate bosses went, all that mattered was that products were sellable, with the usual disclaimers for almost any use under the sun. Quality was not an "issue," only salability. "Known issues" was the way you got around quality problems. If the consumer didn't know about a "known issues"—there were thousands of them—it was because the consumer was stupid. People were now hooked on the Internet; it was like a drug. Let them wait for the connection. Let them restart their machines every twenty minutes if that is what it took to avoid an expensive "patch." So what if the slogan "Invent" of the largest computer manufacturer in the world ought to be "Fix" or "Debug"? People would put up with it. They had no other choice.
Call me naive but I then asked myself this simple question: What were the effects of all this technology, even without the "known issues," doing to people? What was the effect on their minds and emotions?
Some of the effects were simply mind-numbing. The technology, much of which only half worked, got in the way of any real thought. It operated like a vast bureaucratic process that stood in the way of critical thinking and emotional awareness. Despite all the power offered by the technology, one rarely got to the final step of putting it all together and forming an opinion. Why? Because computers do not really think, despite the suggestiveness of such product names as The Thinking Machine. Consider the political process. People have the information. They have much more than they need. The are informationally obese. They simply don't know what to make of it. How else can you explain the last administration in the United State.
We are so close to the technology—it has become part of us—that we don't quite see its effects upon us. But I should stop here for a moment. Technology is a very broad term that has meant different things at different times. It can be applied to a hammer and a chisel for chipping stone, to computers and networks for communications. But in all cases it implies a kind of focused skill. The etymology of the term comes from the Greek τεχνολογία, with combines two elements: "craft" or "art" or "skill" and "saying" or "doctrine" or "theory."
Today we have all kinds of technologies, including the hammer and the chisel, the spatula, and the fork and the spoon; but it is computer and electronic technologies—what some call "high tech"—that most people associate with the word "technology." It is pervasive and invasive, and of course it is used to make more of the stuff. It is different from spoons, which are not used to make more spoons. While such technology used to be confined to business and scientific applications, now a vast consumer market exists.
Now there is nothing wrong with the doctrine or theory of a craft or a skill, and there are many useful products created by such application. But at the same time, there are many frivolous ones that are nothing but the art and craft of marketing. Here we have a generation of products that no one asked for or ever wanted. We have applications for cell phones that no one uses or has the time to learn. We have computers loaded with software that has barely been tested and causes compatibility problems. Let me give just one example.
On my Hewlett Packard laptop, every time I try to put it into standby mode I get this message:
First, I don't have a Bluetooth device running. Second, isn't this a pretty basic function that the "HP integrated module" is interfering with? Did they ever try to put the machine into standby mode before selling it? The equivalent problem with an automobile might be that it won't idle. Kind of serious, don't you think? But this is just one example of a slew of problems that literally millions of consumers run into. I already mentioned the "Acquiring Network Connection" problem. Search Google on this one and you will be flooded by people begging for help with no definitive solution to their problem. Try this, try that ... but none of it works. Meanwhile, Hewlett Packard is mum on the issue, as if it were not even "known." If they were an automobile manufacturer they would be subject to a slam-dunk class action law suit.
Start almost any project and you will soon be dealing with computer "and/or" network problems. Bureaucrats love it; it ensures that they have a job. Many educators too; it means they don't have to think.
But suppose you do get a little time, undisturbed by technical "glitches." What are you dealing with then? Often a lot of silly products with names that ought to give them away but don't anymore because we have all gotten used to a steady stream of nonsense. Take the names "Google" and "Yahoo!" Shouldn't they be a tip off.? Now I will have to admit that Google is pretty good. They are clean and know how to stay out of your way, and their software seems to work far better than that of their competitors. Bravo, Goggle! Then take a look at the Yahoo! "portal." What's it all about, Alfie? In your face, in your way with attitude. No wonder they are having problems.
Then we have the "social networking" companies, like Facebook, with little companies trying to feed off them by developing applications from their API's. I'm sure some of them are very nice but I'm sure some are pretty lame. When you are a little fish feeding off a big fish, and the big fish is a jellyfish with a name like Blubber, the product is going to be limited. One "cool app" based on another "cool app" is not likely to be cool; it is more likely to be flaky.
Whatever happened to the useful tool? The butter knife? The spatula? The non-stick pan? Would you rather eat pancakes or see your "social profile"?
I was sitting over at Caffe Roma the other day trying to check my bank account—I was hoping that the French bank had completed the wire transfer—when I began listening to the young woman in back of me, who was conducting business in the cafe. She had it right there; office space is expensive these days. It seemed that she was a recruiter for a startup. A young man showed up and sat down at her table. They were both to my back.
"I see that you've worked for Sun Microsystems," she said. "What did you like best about working at Sun, and what did you like the least?" It was straight out of the recruiters' handbook.
He told her: He liked the challenge of ...
"We're a pretty new company and a little more fast-paced than Sun," she said.
I don't remember his exact words but they were frantic, nicely conveying the impression of a person who was of the fast-paced type.
"We're looking for a team player who can hit the ground running...."
Now he sounded like an utter conformist as he described how he had quickly "owned" certain problem areas at Sun.
I would have thrown him out on his ear, or sent him down to the Hungry i for a reality check, but she seemed to like him.
"And as a prospective employee, what would you expect from us?" she finally asked. Last question in the handbook.
Hmmm, dangerous question, I thought. Be careful what you say here. You can't really say that you'd like to be paid on time but you'd like to be. You can't really say that you'd like to be treated with respect but you'd like to be. You can't ...
"Uh, well, I went through the dot-com bust, and I'm looking for a company that is not only dynamic but stable ...."
Not so bad, though he was sounding like a veteran of foreign wars, which didn't quite suit a guy of about 27-years old.
I looked at my online account, which had taken five minutes to load. The wire transfer had still not taken place. Damn, damn, damn ...
As I packed up my gear to go, I saw that he was quite a handsome young man. I think he had the job.
Technology was not all bad. Don't get me wrong. But making defective products, then charging on to make more of the same, is deeply irresponsible—as deeply irresponsible as the actions of those who created the current financial crisis, leaving millions of people without jobs, money, and homes. But again I say it: Not all technology is bad.
I have recently been reading George Orwell's book of essays, All Art Is Propaganda. I had not read essays in a long time. This was a delight. He essays are cleanly written, sharp and critical. I don't think anyone reads essays anymore. They force you to think, and few like to do that; they prefer to "surf" for information. Reading All Art Is Propaganda lead me to get a copy of 1984, which I've never read. I knew the idea of the book but I had never read it. I didn't find it very interesting. Orwell was right in terms of issuing a warning; but as a prediction his book is off. 1984 came and went and Big Brother did not take over, at least in the form he had in mind. In fact, now we have Little Brother, the "citizen journalist" who watches the police, the government, and any other organization that would abuse the citizenry and perpetrate fraud. But we do have another version of Big Brother, so Orwell is not all wrong. We have "security" everywhere. We have networks and passwords. We have banks that guard your money like it was their own, leading you to wonder whose it really is. We have "intellectual property" that has nothing to do with the intellect or property. We have marketing slogans that roll of the tongue so easily they sound like they mean something. We have self-canceling blogs instead of solid journalism. The politicians love it because they can neutralize anyone's ideas. But even the citizen journalist is suspect. Does owning a cell phone and recording a video of a crime make you a journalist? What's it take to be a "citizen mathematician"? A calculator? The list of Big Brother's offspring goes on and on. We are all a little drunk on this technology but show no respect to the real intellectual workers who created it. We sell their jobs to the lowest bidder. We kill the goose and sell the body parts for quick cash. We are a confused people who have lost their way. We are as glutted with information as we are obese and yet we know nothing and our bodies are sick and dying. Let us pray, or better yet, think. It's not easy. We have created an object-oriented prison of the mind in which we cannot write a single line of code without first defining a vast system architecture. Can we draw a single rose? Not without a fence and a house and some trees. It's against the rules, Little Bro.
So maybe I'm exaggerating a little. But ask yourself: How much?
Wo xiang neiyi.
Je veux des sous-vetements.
I want underwear.
But now I come to something pleasant. In the course of wandering around downtown, I stopped by the Weinstein Gallery on Geary. There are a number of Weinstein Galleries, the one on the corner of Geary and Powell the biggest private gallery in the city. I don't know how Roland Weinstein does it in these hard times but it is still there. But the gallery I stopped by was the one up the street closer to Mason and the Pinecrest Cafe, where you may remember that the cook, a few years back, shot the waitress because she made a remark about some runny eggs. Some people are sensitive like that. It pays to know who you are dealing with, or with whom you are dealing or ... Well, you get the point. Anyway, my eyes were attracted by a striking image in the Window, so I went inside to investigate. I should have guessed. It was a new piece by Brad Noble. All of his pieces are different, so it is hard to say, seeing a single piece, this is the work of Brad Noble. That is not the way he does things. He is a little like the former cook at the Pinecrest: unpredictable.
I inquired. Good news. There was a show coming up and Brad, who is from Missouri, was coming out for it. I got an invitation and put the date on my calendar. I'm a Brad Noble fan.
Thus it was, about a week later, that I found myself at the show held at an upstairs gallery on the corner of Powell and Geary. It was a big show, with two large rooms filled with Brad's work over the last year. I took a low-key approach, got a glass of Champagne, and quietly wondered the show while most other people socialized with occasional glances at Brad's work. I started a second round of the show when I spotted Mrs. Noble. She was now pregnant and with a big belly but looked great. I had met her a couple of years before at another of Brad's shows. (Bush, Butts, Bombs, Blood.) I was planning to talk with Brad of course, but sometimes you can learn more about an artist by talking with the spouse. I remember talking with Andre Martin de Borros' wife awhile back in Paris. She told me he was an "absolute bastard," then laughed. She meant when he was working, or some of the time. She said it in front of him and he did not deny it. He has no problem working with people in the studio because he knows how to ignore people when he wants to. I was privileged to have him stop his work one day and sit down and talk, then have his wife come down and talk some more and tell me he was a bastard. She is a very lively and expressive woman and he is a very fine artist.
But Mrs. Noble didn't tell me Brad was a bastard. She told me he worked long hours: Monday through Sunday, 7 in the morning till midnight. That is how you transform things; that is how you start with one image, let it take on a life of its own, listen to it, talk to it, transform it, or assist it in its transformation, seemingly spontaneously, and in a "hypnogogic" state—one between sleeping and waking where forms are clear or real but do not obey the normal rules of the day. The results are what could be called "dreamscapes." This is part of what makes Brad's paintings so interesting. There is no rigid content to what Brad does. He is not like Picasso reworking the cube into a thousand different images. If the image in the dream wants to become a cube or a rectangle or a line or a point or a circle, it has to tell him that; he can find a way. But rigid geometry, preconceived shape, is not the starting point, and usually not the endpoint. He waits, I think, until something happens. Then he is ready. But that takes time. You have to hang with a piece, prod it from time to time, talk to it, until the magic happens. That, I would guess, is the reason for the long hours. The other reason is to create perfect pieces in a technical sense. I asked Brad later if he were ever completely satisfied with a piece. He admitted he was not. But at some point, he said, you just have to stop. I understand. Going beyond a certain point, a piece can actually go downhill. There is a time to move on. Or as poet Joe Smith says, "I abandon pieces." And as you discover with age, perfect works aren't perfect. A little imperfection is a good thing. You can get it right the next time.
Mrs. Noble does not suffer, she says, from Brad's long working hours. She is fabric designer and a hard worker too. He does come home for dinner and they talk in bed late at night. I'm relieved!
Brad's father was also there. He is a big sturdy guy like Brad and a commercial artist from Southern California. He looked quietly pleased.
What were the most grabbing pieces to me? "Exposure," originally named "Mind Beyond Meat," was one. In the foreground is the pale body of a woman with breasts that are beginning to sag. The pelvis is elongated, bulging, and muscular. In the background is an exposure of just her face with eyes that look like they are trying to lift off a heavy weight. There is symmetry between the eyes of the exposed face and the breasts of the body in the foreground.
There is also "Third Party," where a naked young man and woman sit at opposite sides of a room with a small window. They looked charged with desire. But in the window is the face of a woman wearing a shawl.
There is also "Lucid Dream Lab" where a woman sits on a red mat on a desert plain, arms wrapped in ribbons and legs spread far apart. Her ribs look like ribbons of bones. There are clouds overhead but some light in the background. What does this all mean? What is it about? It is speculative. You see what she sees but you don't see her face? So what is she feeling? Are the ribbons on her arms pulling her apart. Are they snakes? And the spread of her legs? Is it a kind of openness to life that is pulling her apart? Who knows? It begs one to speculate.
There are others like "Stronghold" and "Quagmire" that are speculative and moving.
One final word on this show. How does Roland Weinstein do it? I have been to four of his shows. Each was a wonder. But even in hard times, this was maybe the best. Located on the corner of Powell and Geary several floors up, there was a magnificent view of Unions Square and Powell Street lit up at night; there was wonderful music in bright beautiful rooms; there was champagne and hors d'oeuvres. Plus of course the work of Brad that lead to real conversations. Good show, Roland Weinstein! No one in this town seems to pick artists like Roland does, and no one puts on classy shows like this. This is the stuff that makes San Francisco still a great city.
And what am I doing at such a fine event? I, who could be out on the street in a few days? My own life had become speculative and dreamlike. Was I part of Brad's show and didn't know it? Were people seeing anxiety in a face that otherwise seemed calm? Was I Chaos and Ambiguity, or Chaos and Resolution, themes of the show? Could they be sure? What would the title be? "Hidden Layers"? "Dubious Expressions?" "Unseen Woe?"
But two days later a kind of miracle occurred. I was taking stuff over to my storage locker in the Mission, prepared to face the street for awhile, when I checked my bank account. The transfer had occurred. Oh wonderful day, marvelous city. I'm as light as a feather, as happy as an angel. O great life full of promising things to come. I could proceed now to deal with my other problems that had been shoved aside by the greater needs of food and shelter. Things were not good, but it was now possible to say that things could be worse.
Out of humility, later that night I went over to Washington Square and sat in the dark on one of the benches facing Saint Peter and Paul. I had a swig from a bottle of "2 Buck Chuck" before I went, so it wasn't too bad. But I got a taste of what I had been facing. To be honest I felt a little guilty that I didn't have to face a day or so out on the street. Many people face it daily, so why couldn't I for a couple of days? Still, I was happy to not have to go through with it.
I spent the remaining days wrapping up business in San Francisco and making plane and hotel reservations for Shanghai. I would look for an apartment when I got there. I also made a final round of The City: Le Central to see Dave, Les Joulins Jazz Bistro to see who was ever there, and Club 21 to see Frank and "the boys." At Les Joulins, who was ever there turned out to be Charles Unger and Greer Rocket. Charles beamed when he spotted me at the bar. This guy just radiates. In a "Heart of San Francisco" award, he would get a really big one. I talked with Greer about his plans to play his horn in Amsterdam. He's done it before and, like a lot of musicians, loves it there. I've only been through the airport a few times but loved the rich smell of tobacco. But I suppose that will be history the next time I pass through. Better for people's health but still I will miss the rich smell. I finished the evening with donuts and coffee from Happy Donut and a sandwich from Vietnam. My heart overflowed. I was living in a dream.
But I didn't get out of San Francisco without an additional run-in at the bank. This time Bank of America. I had a family trust check that I wanted to cash—it was on a Bank of America account—and carry over to my own bank across the street. I didn't want to have problems with the Bank of America while living in Shanghai. Bank of America put up a fuss over the signer of the check, even though the signer was on the list of approved signers. In fact, I was on the list of approved signers though I had not signed the check myself. It took all morning to get them to realize they were going to have to cash the check. It was the law. Then I was off to Shanghai. If I were lucky, I could continue living my dream—Shanghai is an enchanting one—without so much speculation. I might even be able to write a word or two in a clean, well-lit room.