It is a different city on the corner of Jones and California than it is just one block down on California and Levenworth. Just a few short blocks away the Tenderloin sits, wondering what misery the new crackdown will bring, but if there is any misery on Jones and California, it is of a richer and more genteel kind. The windows are more ornate, the buildings have awnings which are not tattered, and lobbies which are expensively lit and luxuriously appointed. The hotels advertise parking spaces (141 parking spots left, but no room at the inn for those who really need it in this bitterly cold winter of ’21), and their exclusive eateries sit mostly forlorn and unpatroned, the lights on, but no one home.
I had decided to go out for a walk today, after spending the morning working on a short story for a competition. I have a massive push planned for 2022, pieces being worked on for submissions to magazines and publications, and generally seeing if I can possibly make a writing career work for me, so the Boy and I can stay in our apartment, and life doesn’t fall apart for us both. I don’t want to let him down. I need him. He needs me to pull a miracle out of the bag after my time and energy got so wasted this year by a ridiculously awful individual who seemed so credible.
I needed to see the sea, and after pulling on nitrile gloves, a kn95 mask and my slip on busy floral vans, finding that the Boy didn’t want to go out today, and still needing some air and a walk, headed out for a walk. I didn’t know where I was going. Anywhere. Anywhere outside. I have no desire to risk my life in crowded areas with people unmasked and uncaring. I was going to go down Polk and towards the sea, but got turned around after a crazy guy decided to chase me down the street, and I ran down a street I didn’t know. I presumed, as I do, that I would find my way back, and could just head vaguely towards the water. Somehow I ended up doing a massive loop, got disorientated, and then eventually found myself and my bearings on the borders of Chinatown in North Beach that announced itself in red lanterns and a sudden concentration of Asian jewelry and knickknack stores.
A man played Christmas songs on a wooden flute, which sounded out of time and place, Christmas having come and gone already; elderly men lit firecrackers in the road, the sharp cracks and flashing fire making me jump out of my skin scared for the occupants of passing cars, while small chubby faced children pointed and yelped in glee. The shops were full of customers, and life seemed to go on more or less as normal. A little subdued, slightly quieter than I would expect, perhaps, but still rumbling on as New Year’s Eve does. An old man shouted about the bao buns he had for sale, and tigers in paintings, tigers in jade, tigers in fabric and tigers in the eyes of the passing strangers, announced a change in the regime from dependable ox to the brave big cat.
I can’t eat bao buns, or pizza slices. I can’t eat out at all thanks to my serious food allergies, and for once I felt it hit home hard. I wanted a boba tea and a slice of cheesy deadly wheaty pizza or a stick savory bun or plate of steaming dumplings.
Instead I walked down the street, stared at some plants in a sweet little store, got lost again, and eventually remembered I wanted to see the sea. Getting lost and having no sense of direction has it’s benefits. I walked out up Kerouac Alley, and promptly turned the wrong way, not towards City Lights, but instead downhill, finding the best little teeshirt shop in San Francisco. It’s proprietor told me he had been open since 1969. Hendrix on the wall, signed albums on the shelves, not for sale, but for happy appreciation, and a stellar selection of shirts. I hope I can find the place again. I bought the Boy a Floyd shirt, and stood and talked to a couple of elderly hippies that told me stories of Janis and Jimi. We put the world to rights, for half an hour or so, working our way through the internet, the coldness of modern society, the sweetness of Janis, the bitterness of the pandemic, and the wonder of two guitars, a bass, a drum kit and a good singer. I felt recharged, rejuvenated. I felt accepted. I felt like I belonged. I felt like San Francisco was saying hello to me. North Beach, man. North Beach. It has always been where it’s at. I might have found the kernel of the city within it’s beaten blocks, and felt recharged and embraced. These are my people. These are folk who care about folk and instead of bitching about the trash or the shit or the unhoused or the state of the City can stand with me, and say “man, I love San Francisco…” and I do. I really do.
I am home.
My legs were burning and my mask sweating from the inside, but since I was so close to the Beat Museum stopped by and thumbed through their used books. I found a copy of Warren Zevon’s autobiography. The guardian of the museum chattered with me a while, noting that he just knew, he knew he really knew that someone would appreciate that book. The book went home too. I wove back down Kerouac avenue. I still hadn’t seen the sea, and that was meant to be the whole reason for the walk, but I had found a perfect tee shirt for the Boy and met people I was glad to meet. I got lost, and found my happiness.
A man sat drinking out of a bottle of red wine in Kerouac alley, hipster hat on his head, thick long beard. I smiled and wondered if he was a ghost, but he was just another acolyte looking for inspiration in the North Beach air. He looked my way drunkenly and I looked back at him. In a different time and place I would have stopped and smiled, but I huddled into my mask and passed him by.
Weaving past the coughing crowds in China town, holding my breath past sneezers and expellers of infected air, I found California St again, and stared at the impossible climb: steep and long and hard. I couldn’t spring for a taxi, so looked around, and seeing the street empty, took my mask off so I could breathe, letting it swing from my wrist, and started hauling ass up and up and up and up hill. Having climbed halfway up it, I turned around gasping and cursing my fucked up back and badly healed legs and realized there she was. There was the ocean. I could see a small sail boat bobbing on the blue expanse. There it was. There was what I had come out for after all. It was perfect. I could go home.
Decending California, and heading into the ‘Loin, watching the blocks get dirtier, the laundromats ply their neon trade, the people look poorer and more downtrodden, the air smelling of skunk and gas leaks and bodily odor, instead of the corner of Jones and California Christian Dior cologne and hope and excess, I felt strangely at peace. I had a door to open. I had heat to turn on. I had my son sitting there waiting for me with a cup of tea at the ready. I had the new year to stretch before me. I had it all waiting. I had my own hard won luxury. I had it all.
I gave the kiddo his new shirt and he ran to his room to put it on, beaming, then dragged me to sit down finally, after a three and a half hour walk, and put on the Beatles documentary. I watched Paul compose Get Back, and sighed. Life can be beautiful after all, if you just let happiness be.