There was a time I loved San Francisco. Having grown up in a pleasant suburban purgatory, San Francisco’s brooding weather and temperamental streets, which seemed to shift their direction and location from visit to visit, were a welcome West Coast metropole. I’ve mentioned previously that I never quite found my rhythm with Los Angeles, or Hollywood, or to a lesser degree Long Beach, but San Francisco I liked almost immediately. Over the years I’ve tried to find the seeds of my homegrown malaise, but without much success. I’m confident the fault is mine on all counts; I suspect I’m just the wrong kind of dance partner for those Southern Bells.
This last time we were in San Francisco for my soon-to-be sister-in-law’s Berkeley graduation, and although we spent less time in the city than I would have liked, we made the pilgrimage to North Beach twice and consumed a stone’s worth of pappardelle and gnocchi between us. Afterwards we introduced my son to City Lights Books, and I tried to squeeze in as much drinking as possible without forfeiting the role of responsible father.
Only my son can tell you whether that gambit was successful.
Being in San Francisco reminds me how much I love the inspired cosmopolis: London, New York, Berlin, Chicago, Seoul. Squeezing all that chattering, preening carbon together is bound to produce some diamonds. San Francisco is no exception, though now that the city feels more like an old friend than a lover, I wonder if my love for other cities will pale the same.
It’s difficult to know for sure, but I may have loved San Francisco because, as I learned recently, it has the highest number of bars and bookshops, per capita, of any city in the United States. More drinking and reading goes on in San Francisco, on average, than even New York–though you wouldn’t know it by the best seller lists. Every trip I find some new poet or philosopher hiding in one of City Lights’ many crannies. This time it was the poet Jack Spicer; last time it was the critic Greil Marcus. Most of the time it’s exciting to place yourself at the end of a long line of admirers of a “new” writer who was happily thriving while you slept unawares, but sometimes it’s demoralizing–the number of books that will never be read. Indeed, can never be read.
In fact, the number of worthy writers that go unknown by any given person should be enough to eradicate all the world’s vanity. For every ounce of pride you take in having read so-and-so, or understanding such-and-such, should disappear without a trace into the vast catalogues of learning that are invisible to you forever. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way.
Then again, I may have loved San Francisco because I loved Allen Ginsberg before I’d ever visited its concrete vales. Ginsberg–who thought of Walt Whitman and William Blake in supermarkets and tenement houses, and belonged all his life to that ecstatic troupe who, in every age, use their meager resources to inoculate the world against its crazy ape pandemic–launched himself into space from San Francisco in 1955. Beautiful Allen, who wondered “what sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open [our] skulls and ate up [our] brains and imagination?” Wonderful, naive Allen, who used poetry to argue with William F. Buckley on national television, and captured the poor sad death of his mother in the poem, “Kaddish,” so completely that her appellation became one of the secret names of God.
Say, “Naomi,” on a windy night in Paris, where the poem began in 1957, and the Seine will swell with lust. Repeat it in New York, where it was finished in 1959, and the Manhattan granite will demagnetize Wall Street. Yes, I loved Allen Ginsberg, and probably San Francisco for it, but that was a long time ago.
It’s not San Francisco’s fault, or Ginsberg’s of course; sometimes it just happens. You fall out of love. To be fair, I still love Ginsberg’s children, “Howl,” and “America,” and “Kaddish,” among others, but the man fell in too close with the chanters and the flower zombies, and lost, it seems to me, the thread of what was best about America. Look for love in the Sequoias. Get drunk on the Bill of Rights. Transmute the Gita and the Upanishads; don’t ape them. I know I’m oversimplifying. Allen still graciously accepted blow jobs, and fondled young men, but we shouldn’t forget that Gandhi learned from Thoreau, not the other way around.
It happens often, I guess, that a man’s arrows, born on a zephyr, exceed his vision. It happens, I think, that the things we make, make more of ourselves than we can make alone. Yes, these things happen. Cities and poems are works of the imagination. And there is someone to love each of them, even if it’s not you or me. Someone will see the sadness you missed, will love the mother you cannot see.
If we’re lucky, the works of our days will crowd something beautiful out of the chaotic mess of characters milling about our streets, spring some poem from Alcatraz, and set it circling about the bay.