Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Telegraph Avenue - Berkeley, California

"It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world” ~Oscar Wilde

I had planned to reenact one of my favorite weekend pass-times in Berkeley, which is to stroll Telegraph Avenue, peaking into shops, admiring the dreds and piercings of the rail hoppers, envying the stylish eyewear of the professors, eavesdropping on the students gossiping evenly between Christopher Marlowe and whose sleeping with whom, before getting a book at Moe's books and then crossing the street to read it at Caffe Mediterraneum.

But in January Telegraph isn't as interesting as it becomes in summer, so I did the reverse and started at the cafe. In the upper floor, at the book exchange, I found exactly the book I had meant to purchase at Moe's, but better, because the copy I found was free, hardcover, and signed on the front page "Joe Greco Jr, February 23, 1948." The book in question is The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury.

My books have yet to arrive from New York, and I still haven't finished that book, the Skid Road, by Murray Morgan, a history of Seattle's first 150 years. However, I also don't have it with me, so I wouldn't be finishing it anyway.

But now in Berkeley and working in San Francisco, I thought I would read some of another historian. What Murray Morgan did for the Northwest with the Skid Road and the Last Wilderness (amazingly good books, both of them), Herbert Asbury did for San Francisco with the Barbary Coast.

Most famous for his book Gangs of New York, Asbury directed his attention to the seedy underside of San Francisco. Although he wrote during the first few decades of the 20th century, he was keenly interested in the time period from roughly 1830 to 1890, which is to say the time of greatest migration and displacement for all peoples of what is now the US.

Here is the beginning:

"The history of the Barbary Coast properly begins with the gold rush to California in 1849. If the precious yellow metal hadn't been discovered in the auriferous sands of the Sacramento Valley, the development of San Francisco's underworld in all likelihood would have proceeded according to the traditional pattern and would have been indistinguishable from that of any other large American city. Instead, owing almost entirely to the influx of gold-seekers and the horde of gamblers, thieves, harlots, politicians and other felonious parasites who battened upon them, there arose a unique criminal district that for almost seventy years was the scene of more viciousness and depravity, but which at the same time possessed more glamour, than any other area of vice and iniquity on the American continent."

I haven't read as good a beginning to a book since "Call me Ishmael."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

From the Vault: Baltimore Amtrak

Driving northeast PA + central NY

I borrowed a car and headed out from my parents' house to visit my sister's family outside Syracuse. I-84 thru Scranton to i-81 at Binghamton, then to NY 80 and 20.

It was a pretty sight. Rolling snowy hills of woods and farms, cleverly hiding - in winter! - the snaking railroads, the cookie-cutter houses, the junklots. Trees in fluted shapes from their competition for light. A low, dishwater grey sky hid the sun. A smoggy mist of woodsmoke and dew shrouding the river valleys. The great eyesore of the interstate highway humming beneath me. Good, grey places, befitting my monochromatic palette preferences.

I feel a fondness for this country, Pennsylvania and whatever else there is of New York north of Rockland. I don't want to say patriotism, as I don't feel particularly patriotic about the US. I'm not proud to be an American, I merely don't mind it. It's just something that happened to me. Besides, patriotism is about nationhood, and a nation is a people. There aren't many nations I gladly call myself member of. But a country, a country holds a people, or peoples, and I've enjoyed every country I've been to, though I've encountered some unpleasant nations occupying those countries. (mostly lesser, petty principalities of the NO TRESPASSING variety)

This country though is familiar from childhood. Oddly, in reflection, I am surprised at how much of it I have seen from this identical thoroughfare. How many hours tallying up to months - years? - of time have I whiled away inside of an automobile? How many errands dragged along to in infancy, coming along for the ride because I couldn't be left at home? Looking out the glass window, the fluted trees, the rolling snowy hills, the droning interstate. Strange the things we get wistful for.

I think most people feel at some point a desire to go back to where they had been a child, if only for a brief while. To the familiar topography and simplicity and looming dark confusion. To the maternal feeling of belonging to a place. It's like what William Burroughs said in 1950 when asked what he would like for dinner. ("A Lake Huron bass from 1920) Personally, I wouldn't mind spending an afternoon in 1992. Provided I would not be required to go along grocery shopping or be obliged to wait in the car.

Just before crossing the state line, I listened to the second half of a hockey game broadcast from Binghamton, not out of any real interest in the sport aside from nostalgia. When I was an undergrad hockey was the only sport that people actually went to see. Of course, there were few alternatives for spectators, as aside from swimming and track the college lacked all other athletic affiliation. Hockey was the sole incarnation of grownup capture-the-flag on menu. The game fizzled out of reception shortly after it was won in a decisive goal an Ontario guardsmen snuck past a Quebecois goalie in the American league.

After that I just let the radio scan thru for nearly a half an hour, playing a slurry of country-western-rockabilly-Jesus, gradually settling onto conservative talk radio, till I got disgusted at the rage and contempt of the host and switched to liberal talk radio, till I got bored at the polite delicacy of panel and let it cycle again. The music stations trotted out the old garage metal of the 1980s like they would never go away, with an occasional dip into the most insipid pop of the present day. I cantankerously switched off the radio.

There's a danger in going back to the place you last lived as an adolescent.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

From the Vault: New Orleans

New York - looking at Manhattan from Brooklyn

More than any other city, New York is the metropolis we like to see destroyed. It's been inundated by rising seas, subsumed in snowstorms, shaken in earthquakes, blown up by aliens, savaged by giants, flooded with ghosts, and been the very battle ground of good versus evil. It's expected that whatever the lineup of next summer's thrillers, in at least one of them, New York will sustain some hefty damage.

But really there could be more diversity of destruction, not just in location but method. Perhaps if there were an exit poll of movie goers, and you were asked 'if you enjoyed this cataclysm, would you mind taking a few minutes to answer some questions?'

What was most satisfying about seeing New York destroyed?

Would you like to see New York destroyed again?

How would you like to see New York destroyed?

If you could suggest another city to be destroyed on film, which would you choose?

In what ways could we show a more multi-cultural, global perspective?

For myself, I think I enjoyed most New York when it was bombarded with meteors in the movie Armageddon. Oh, mind you, it wasn't a good film, just enjoyable to watch the beloved and bally-hooed cap of the Chrysler building get lopped off by space debris. Though, in honesty, Vancouver is the city I'd most like to see hit by asteroids. All that glass...

However, I would enjoy seeing San Francisco entirely and simultaneously dissolve into atoms and settle into a shroud of colored fog on the hills. And I would like it very much if every edifice in Saint Louis sprouted legs and scurried away, the famed arch last seen high-stepping the prairie, cozying up to a flock of Dakota windmills. The residents of Chicago could wake up to find themselves in a pinwheel-fitted paper city which blew over onto cornfields, while Toronto became overnight stacks of fruit and jelled aspic.

Abroad, Paris maybe could undergo a series of severe hauntings, because isn't that what we expect from Old World architecture? Maybe its statuary comes to life and starts carving sculpted paramours from the tamer marble, bringing down impressive collonades of the beaux-arts. Rome just sinks into itself, collapsing like a pudding. London took the hint and became fixed onto postcards and dispersed itself via the post before it could be levelled, bits of its paper shrapnel stuck to refrigerators and cork boards the world over.

The European cities are not only full of people, but cultural fountains and historic repositories. It is more emotionally engaging to fret over the destruction of artistic masterpieces than the collapse of wall street high rises. And, for Americans, there is the worry too for a hero. Will Bruce Willis even try to save the Trevi Fountain?

I still think it could work, though when these cities have been shown in film in moments of trial, they've largely been historic ones because they've actually undergone the sort of ugly chaotic upheaval we assign to fictive monsters for our own cities, even though New York has weathered unrest from within (the draft riots of 1863) and without (2001)

Further and further. Lest we confine attentions to the glittery urban areas of the world and deny the third world its chance at onscreen fame, there are plenty of cities of in developing countries which could be destroyed - Delhi, Cairo, Shenzhen, Bogota - but to see these metropoles undergo the sort of stern emotional demolitions regularly foisted upon New York seems cruel and unnecessary. We might laugh or cringe to see Miami done away with, but to see the same done to Mumbai would be sorrowful. We would shake our heads as the flames or floods licked up the slums. Those poor people, we would say. No, there couldn't be much satisfaction in that.

But New York could take the blows, rebuilding every time from the rubble, its too-big-to-fail, candy-apple, trashy self rising up from the debris. It will just have to go on being hollywood's king martyr, getting smashed, wrecked, crumbled, folded, stomped on, torn apart, burned, swallowed, and sunk over and over and over.

Friday, January 4, 2013


My credit card expired a few days before, I spent the last of my cash to get some film processed into prints, and I had a few hundred dollars in my bank account, total. I hadn't even taken the bus back from the developer because I didn't have enough change to take two buses that evening and I had to be at Seatac by 8. 

I had been thinking as I walked back to Wallingford that maybe I shouldn't spend so much money during the next month. But what exactly did I spend money on? Mainly rent, groceries, and bus fare. I couldn't really cut that stuff out. So the three remaining items which made the dollars in my wallet flutter hastily away were film, coffee, and books. I got a windfall of books from a roommate, so with a little will power, and a well-used library card should be able to avoid any more literary expenditure till February, maybe even March.

Then there's coffee. I like the good stuff. If I just enjoyed drip I could make it at home, but I like a latte, just one, just a little one, 8 oz, single shot, whole milk, with a well-poured leaf. I won't go just anywhere, either. I've got standards, and there are few places that have met the measure of what I like. I don't just mean flavor, but presentation. Whoever is whipping up that drink, well it doesn't hurt if they've got nice eyes and good skin. I think it's perfectly justifiable to prefer one coffeeshop over another based solely on how ogle-able you find the waitstaff. And I probably spend, over the course of a year, something around 7, 8 hundred dollars on fancy, frou-frou drinks. I could just stay home and have drip, if I liked drip, or just drink more tea. I like tea. I have about a half-gallon of it a day. There's only so much caffeine the brain can take. But this petty luxury, why not keep it? What great adventurous joy can I even afford? Why not keep this modest extravagance, this $4 peep show?

There's the barista at Zoka who has impeccably nice teeth and fastidiously shaped eyebrows. The upside-down peace sign tattoo on the neck is a bit much, but the neck itself is exquisite. Svelte, muscular, slightly translucent. Maybe that's why the tattoo, to draw attention or else uglify that natural bit of beauty and consequently make it more attractive. The way some men feel about legs and mini-skirts, well, that's how I feel about necks and low collars.

Then there's the crew at the Ugly Mug, every one of which could be a model for a shampoo commercial. Long, ebony tresses or sculpted locks and blemishless skin. The baristas at Miro, who also have quite smooth skin, perhaps because Miro is a tea house and they take in less saturated fat. And Trabant, which has a staff which is professional, mature, and hirsute. Trabant is the only coffee place I go to because I like their drinks.

And the atmosphere of ideas, everyone ticking away at their private chunk of rough granite, hoping to make that soaring draft, that shining poem, that transcendent song, that excellent translation of the sutras. This company of toiling artists. That's the good stuff. I would hate to give that up.

But...film. Yes, I could cut back. It costs about $45 to buy film, get it processed, scanned, and printed. I could just not buy any of that stuff, but that seems crass. I can't imagine Michelangelo saying to his admirers, 'sorry fellas, no more painting. It's gotten rather pricey,' or Shakespeare telling his patrons 'the new folios will have to wait. I don't feel like buying any more ink.'

I walked past the friend I have who sells the street papers. I write friend, but she is, of course, a friend of a friend, and even that position may be tenuous, to judge from the response I received when I mentioned to our circle that I had seen her selling the Real Change.

"Oh, her, yes she's been down on her luck. It's a bad situation and that's really all I can say about it."


"Yes, but that's nothing new. I don't really know what's happened to her. It's been more than a year since I've seen her anywhere besides outside the QFC."

A friend twice removed, perhaps. I friend to the second degree, or third. A facebook friend. She waved at me and greeted me by name as I came up.

"I haven't read this one," I said. It was a new edition, printed the day before.

"It's got a good story on Ari Shapiro," she said.

"The White House correspondent for NPR, right?"

"Yeah, that's right. It's a really good interview. He's seen some stuff."

I pulled out a dollar for the issue while we bantered. I could barely afford to keep my head above water, and here I was giving money away. But there are limits to thrift.

As I got on the bus for the airport, the city became suddenly, startlingly distant. The skyline just a paper cutout, the windows lit but uninhabited, the cookiecutter, paint-by-number shops all closed. Everything so sweepingly monotonized, so completely shorn of individuality to a conglomerate shopping mall, a rambling Ikea, a colossal Starbucks. I remember Boston looking just that way when I left it, like it had turned its back. Do all cities swiftly turn so mundanely hostile just before you're about to leave?

Stow the bag, line up for security, take off the shoes, adjust the time, turn off the phone, put on the shoes, walk to the gate, get on board....

The flight attendant passes me a packet as I go thru the door. A snooze kit, the lettering says, "everything you need to help you doze off faster." I open it and find a pair of earplugs and a sleeping mask but no suicide pill. I jam the earplugs in and marvel how they dampen the sound of the engines and nearly block the banal familiarity of the flight attendants - enunciate the consonants, smile at the vowels - but in no way diminish the screams of the pouting infant several rows behind me. I check the package again, but no, this is it. Jet Blue does not believe in assisted death even for the comfort and convenience of its passengers.

I looked out the window as we taxied to the runway. It was snowing. Well, technically it would be classed as 'wintry mix' which is about as close as Seattle ever gets to snow. But 'wintry mixing' sounds like what the Romneys do at Aspen. What's the word for that?  Apr├Ęs ski? Well anyway, when i looked onto the wing i didn't see Mitt & Liz shaking cocktails with the Kennedys. So let's say it was snowing.

The screaming baby continues to register its indignation and I go thru my preflight panic, wondering how this origami crane of folded aluminum foil is going to get me to New York, and why the stewardesses always refuse to give me a drink before takeoff, and how this time I will try harder to not feel like a failure when I sleep in my childhood bed - my only New Years resolution.

I suck air hurriedly, shoddily into my lungs with the enthusiasm of a swimmer recovering from a near-drowning, trying to get myself high on something before this hermetically sealed tube foists me onto the sky.