I know, I know, it is fashionable to not like California. Liking California is a bit like admitting to a serious Abba fixation: there is not a soul that doesn’t feel a frisson of glee at the opening bars of Dancing Queen, but anyone with a shred of self respect does not admit to it in any kind of company, decent or otherwise. I love California. Abba still makes me want to slit my wrists, but I guess my being an oddball is hardly a secret.
I’ll admit it, there is a lot of lip service in this state I adore, with its wild sage, its gold rush town legends, its rocky mountainous wild river flowing north, and its southern desert town charm. A lot of lip service to kindness, a lot to liberalism in its big cities while its small towns, some very isolated, like the one up on Sawyers Bar, on the Forks of Salmon, are more conservative and generally much poorer – not to mention cut off from the liberal rich push of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, Stockton, San Diego and Redding.
This does not always translate to an equal and appropriate amount of action. Los Angeles with all its star studded blue-in-the-blood democratic kudos and sway, is currently torturing its homeless: they are liberal until poverty is camping on Venice Beach and dirtying up their gold-paved streets. They even threw the homeless out of Echo Park! Warren Zevon sung about being strung out on junk in Echo Park 45 years ago. The homeless have been in that park forever. It is there space. Their home. The city decided to gentrify and throw people out of what is, culturally, their space, and it disgusts me.
It disgusts me enough to almost not blame the rest of America for saying such wicked things such as that they wish a big earthquake would split us off from the contiguous United States and drift off into the Pacific ocean. After all, there are only Californians in California, so the joke goes: only Tom Hanks, Paltrow and Depp, and their disjointed from reality ilk. Only the liberal. Only the irritating amongst us who like gun control, vaccines and a half-assed social responsibility, crystals and gluten free pasta when they don’t have celiac disease: this is what it means to be Californian in the cities, according to the stolid and republican, those that live outside and judge the state on reputation not on the reality of living within its boundaries. It is not the rural expanses that make up so much of the land around the oasis of lip serviced liberalism in the cities. According to the outside world we are kooky, flakey, used to the sun always shining, highly inflated house prices and spoilt almost disordered culinary fashions. New York has the hip where people go to see and be seen I suppose, but we have the French Laundry – field to table gloriousness. Just watching a TV show on their operation makes me hungry. Not that I could ever afford to go there, nor could they probably accommodate my celiac or my veganism. This is the state of golden winter suns, gold on the streets, gold in the fields and gold in the pockets…or so the propaganda goes.
The truth is we have extremes of wealth and poverty: I came here for sanctuary. I came here for the weather. I came here for help…and I got it. The reality is even within the cities, there is a vast chasm between the haves and the have nots. No area is homogenous. There are pockets of inhumanity. There are wells of immense care, devotion to making society better, and if that is not possible, tearing the whole fucking lot down and starting again.
It is hot today. This is my first dog days of summer on the bay. I came here in November, just as the warm weather was fading away, running from the gloom and constant rain to the north, running from an escape that had gone rotten. I suppose for the glorious fall weather, the atmospheric fog of winter, the spring bright warmth, I am going to have to tolerate some heat. I don’t like the heat, I get sweaty and frizzy and blinded by the brilliance. San Francisco is the perfect mix of bright and cool. The weather suits me here. I cannot wait for this heat to fade away back into the anniversary of our arrival, and I can get back to staring out gloomily at the shrouded city, and the fuzz of moisture falling, highlighted by the sodium glow of the street lights. I prefer to live life in shades of grey. This is my California. Not the volcanic landscape near Tule Lake, not the saddle and wagon vibe of the eastern gold rush towns that have been decimated by fire, not the lurid glow and draw of Los Angeles.
In my California a woman stands smoking at the curb watching the flow of the traffic, the tobacco smoke her substitute for the absent fog, blinking at a bright San Francisco that the both of us wish would fade back into grateful haze. This city is too much in focus in this bright annual indian summer heatwave. The sun becomes a giant burning ball spotlight, defining our failures and highlighting the grime and the suffering.
The fire escapes of these older tenement style apartments remind me of New York, especially in this summer brilliance and unrelenting heat. Flaking paint, fragile looking, rusted, insecure….dangerous and hoping never to be used. If this summer torture doesn’t stop I might have to give mine a shake and see if summer actually sets the city ablaze (yes, I know I am being overly dramatic) if the metal escapes are merely evocative and decorative, or if they actually have a practical purpose. I suspect they look useful, but crack under pressure – a little bit like me.
The pine trees grow lush and green, evergreen, no chance for fall time colors and leaves hiding some of the city’s sins. The heat rises from the sidewalk. Tourists with suitcases looking for fun, mingle with the homeless hauling their lives in theirs. The city only values the rich and transient. Only one type of traveler is worth anything to the powers that be in San Francisco: the type with money, not the kind who actually live here, pushed from street to alley to the grave. Swept clean by bloodied hands. There is more blood on the hands of the city, than Lady Macbeth could ever hallucinate turning the seas of the ‘green one red’.
Two people wearing purple glide on scooters down the road instead of the sidewalk. It is my turn to say they must not be from round here! Truly a danger sport! I predict a grim future for the tourists, as much as an unendingly grimy one for the homeless. I would ride the trolley down to 47th, in honor of Lou Reed, except I don’t think the San Franciscan one goes there. I don’t even know what is on 47th. I do know it is as bright there as it here here, and I don’t like it at all. I am not in the mood for brightness. The least the world can do is to have the respect to be darkly foggy, and it can’t even manage that.
The girls in the short skirts and giants hats are sporting as they jog along the meridian that tends towards heat, but is mostly moderated by a marine layer. Blue skies mock me. California takes it’s toll. The sun brings out the worst in me. I long to be drunk and lurching, shouting back at the crackheads, amped up, fully charged up. I get a deep dark longing for something faster to match the world that has heated up around me. I am a solar powered baby. Emboldened by the heat, and cut down by self doubt and an intense sadness that I can’t shake off. Lou is whooping about having a foggy notion along with his cooling calamine lotion, but it ain’t cooling me off any. Outside two men are having an IMPORTANT and LOUD chat just under my window. Bro! Dude! M’man! They can only speak in CAPITAL LETTERS. I want to send them to the fucking CAPITAL punishment chamber for disturbing my sunday morning. Instead I put on the Banana album and let Lou take ’em on. Black Angel Death Song ’em into taking their masculine mutual appreciation society indoors. Glass smashes over the speakers, but they do not take the damn hint. I might have to go Metal Machine Music on their asses, but I adore the little old lady who lives above me and sweeps the stairs every day.
I settle for the calming influence of Ocean, an outtake that should have been an intake (Gold, 2015, remastered). “I am a lazy sun. I never get things done. Here comes the waves. Down by the shore.” I long for the sea to wash the heat away from my beloved city and get back to the usual foggy business of life on the bay. I wonder where it is turning brown and gold and red? I wonder where it is turning colder? I wonder where out there is tutting at our Californian gold-flake ways?
I have a foggy notion we might be doing all this burning and heat-stoking for a few more weeks yet. I need a quieter day.
Let’s do it again!