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A Writer's San Francisco
A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul
By Eric Maisel, Vanessa Brown
New World LibraryCopyright © 2006 Eric Maisel
All rights reserved.
THE VIEW FROM BERNAL HILL
I'M AMERICAN BY BIRTH but an urban writer by nature. My true homes are Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, San Francisco, and the world's resonant cities. I am calmest in a Paris jostle or a Manhattan stampede and edgiest hiking a mountain trail or shopping at Wal-Mart. Everything in the universe may be equally spiritual but not equally congenial to a blue-state person like myself with a horror of orthodoxy and of the grandiosity of ordinary people.
I need cafés, video stores that stock independent films, and bars where everyone is an outsider. I need bookstores, small parks with a comforting glimpse of the concrete beyond, and markets filled with people speaking languages I don't understand. I need a place with more knowing smiles than blank stares and more wry asides than hate-filled sermons. I need a place a full standard deviation above the mean. I therefore choose to live in a village neighborhood of San Francisco where, when a house catches on fire, half the people who rush out to watch are Spanish-speaking ladies and the other half are working-from-home lesbian graphic artists.
The neighborhood is called Bernal Heights. Many of the homes are Edwardians from the post-Earthquake years of 1907 and 1908. This area of San Francisco, anchored by Bernal Hill and bounded on the west by Mission Street, on the east by Bayshore Boulevard, on the south by Ale-many Boulevard, and on the north by Cesar Chavez Street, is reputed to have San Francisco's best seismic properties. The well-heeled middle class of 1907 built homes here after the Great Earthquake to take advantage of its bedrock, then abandoned them after World War II, as the Latin population of the Mission District encroached. Gangs flourished, and lesbian couples arrived to buy affordable homes.
Now it is in transition again as "Noe Valley families," young urban professional couples with a small child, an infant, and a dog in tow, further gentrify this sunny spot. These young families come here because of their dogs — a little joke, but a half-truth. Bernal Heights is the dog-friendliest San Francisco neighborhood, since Bernal Hill is an off-leash heaven for dogs and their masters. The Hill boasts 360-degree views of San Francisco and dogs by the dozens, trained to be civilized at local dog manner classes. For the dogs it is a mixed blessing: very little poison oak but many foxtails.
Bernal Hill soars five hundred feet above the surrounding roofs of Victorians and Edwardians. You can spy the Golden Gate Bridge to the west, Mount Diablo to the east, and all of the Mission and Downtown directly in front of you. It is the perfect place to watch the fog roll in and the last place the fog gathers. People come here from all over the city to watch the Fourth of July fireworks, as might we, if fireworks moved us.
Ours is an Edwardian flat, the second floor of a two-family home, that lives large at 950 square feet. It has a double parlor, that traditional Edwardian feature, a sleeping bedroom, a bedroom/study, a single bathroom, and a large eat-in kitchen that we use as our primary living space. With its tall ceilings, generous windows, good light, and million-dollar view, the kitchen is where my wife, Ann, and I drink wine and catch up. We have a pair of director's chairs by the window, a small table in between, and greenery, freeways, and the Bay beyond.
Since it faces east, the kitchen is sunniest in the morning; as the earth moves, the double parlor at the western end of the flat begins to warm up. In the afternoon the living room sofa is the place to nap — if we napped. We have a string of small Christmas lights wrapped around the banister, one white orchid on a stereo speaker, and Ann's raku vases on the tables. The street outside is sunny and windy, the doorbell has a ghost in it and rings of its own accord once every two weeks, and my mother's cane, which she uses on visits, doubles as sculpture.
To see my creativity-coaching clients, I walk down the hill a block and then head west three short blocks to Progressive Grounds Café. I pass the upscale vegetarian restaurant, the Catholic church, the senior center, the yoga studio, the blues bar with live music, the Italian bistro where we are mocked for ordering so little (one pizza to share and two glasses of wine), and Red Hill Books, named for the time when Bernal Hill was a hotbed of labor organizing and Communist sympathizing.
In good weather, which is virtually year-round, I meet with clients out back, where a two-level patio smelling of jasmine is home to thirty-something Bernal ladies-who-lunch, delicately munching on the best falafel, hot-pressed in phyllo dough rather than stuffed in pita bread, and to students studying. There is always sun, and there is always shade; the Arabic torch music playing inside doesn't reach outdoors; and the stillness, punctuated by light conversation, is palpable.
This is the right place for a coach to meet with a writer. It is also the right place to write. It has a perfect tattooed Zen ambience, a place where body piercings and inner calm meet, where an idea, any idea — a really stupid one, a salacious one, a radical one, an excellent one — is supported by strong coffee, a brick fireplace filled with toys, and a shelf of free books to borrow or steal. Nature gives us thirty years or a hundred, a quill pen or its equivalent, and odd thoughts that need to settle on paper or else turn to dust. In Bernal Heights, they settle nicely.CHAPTER 2
THE BOHEMIAN INTERNATIONAL HIGHWAY
SAN FRANCISCO AND PARIS are sister cities. They are not connected by architecture, class structure, or climate. They are not connected by their shellfish preferences (in San Francisco it is crab, in Paris it is mussels), their history (Wild West provincial versus urbane royal), or their museums (San Francisco has no Louvre, Musée d'Orsay, or even Pompidou). They are connected by being two of the world's very few bohemian meccas. Each is an important, well-marked stop on the bohemian international highway.
In "The Beat Generation and San Francisco's Culture of Dissent," Nancy Peters explained:
The idea of bohemia caught the imaginations of writers in early San Francisco with Henri Mürger's Scénes de la Vie Bohème (1844), which depicted life in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Although class society in San Francisco bore little resemblance to that of Paris, the city's writers were not blind to the obvious attractions of la vie bohème and reveled the nights away in Montgomery Street bars and restaurants. A bohemian community developed in the 1880s and 1890s around the intersections of Pacific, Washington, Jackson, and Montgomery Streets. When the Montgomery Block building emptied out, artists and writers moved in. Over the years, more than 2,000 of them have lived there, among them Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Frank Norris, Margaret Anderson, and Kenneth Rexroth.
The bohemian ideal hardly parses, since it is made up of contradictory urges. There is the urge to feast and indulge, the urge to wildness. At the same time there is the urge to witness for the culture and to speak truth to power, the urge to seriousness. There is the garret urge for solitude and the café urge for messy interaction. But even if these urges clash, producing a novelist who would love to witness for the culture if he weren't currently blacked out from vodka or a poet who would love to be capturing grace on her laptop if she didn't have Grace in her lap, a coherent picture emerges, as coherent as a Cubist painting.
It is a picture of a wild, serious bohemian with few natural habitats, one of which is Paris, one of which is San Francisco. To be sure, she may have to spend years in some uncongenial place in order to tend to her dying father or pursue her nonwriting career, she may fail to break free of her birth community and never leave the confines of her town, she may be seduced into living here or confused into living there — in short, she may find himself far from her natural habitat, pacing her cage like a lion in a zoo. But she knows where she ought to be.
The tourist says, "I love San Francisco! Fisherman's Wharf, you know, and the sourdough bread! Oh, and the Golden Gate Bridge!" The writer says, "I love San Francisco" and then shakes his head. What he loves are its traditions and permissions. He loves what City Lights Bookstore represents, its history as a Beat supporter and safe haven that is at least as poignant as Paris's Shakespeare & Company's. He loves the roasting coffee smells of North Beach and the fact that he can write freely here, that his freedom is protected, if not guaranteed.
He loves the iconography of the Summer of Love and the Free Speech Movement, the protests, the tear gas, the symbolic rebellion, the rock and the jazz, the Jefferson Airplane, the radical energy that, unlike its Parisian expression, was not dogmatic Communism but the expression of basic constitutional principles of the sort that terrify politicians. It is now fashionable for almost everyone, hippies included, to shake their heads at that period and say, "Bad trip, man!" Revisionist history has it that there were no principles involved, just acid, debauched sex, and a kind of extended spring break. But revisionist history has it wrong. For a little while America had partisans.
The writer loves the fog as it pours in; he loves the sun when the fog pours out. The rest of California is Beach Boys country, but San Francisco has that moody thing going, those blues notes wrapped in moisture, an atmosphere that tempers California dreaming and makes life more real. But he loves the sun, too, that Frisbee-tossing, forehead-baking golden sun that prevents the loss of eight months of the year to winter. The fog brings reality, but it is still a California reality, one spent outdoors the whole year round.
Maybe he can't say what he loves — maybe it is just a feeling in his heart. It is a feeling that a writer gets in Paris, so powerful that I felt compelled to write a book about it. It is a feeling that a writer gets in Greenwich Village, on a bench in front of Keats's house in Hampstead in the north of London, in the darker parts of any city where outsiders and artists roam, in places where a pen is a sacred object and not something to be feared or scorned. It is a feeling essentially about freedom; secondarily about creation; and together about the freedom to bleed art.
There is a bohemian international highway whose rest stops are separated by long distances and legions of philistines. All along the way writers will wave to you and cry, "Say hello to San Francisco when you get there!" They know that you are going home. It is their home, too, one of their homes, and more like home than the place where they currently reside. It is certainly possible to live in a place where diversity means two or three kinds of orthodoxy. We have all lived in such places for as long as we could tolerate them. But how we itch to escape them and return home to a place like San Francisco.CHAPTER 3
SOUTH OF MARKET
DATELINE 1966. When I wheeled my armored personnel carrier down the rutted road between grassy minefields I felt the joy that only a nineteen-year-old can feel, a cigarette between his lips and a 30-caliber machine gun poised behind his ear. I should have been in the higher turret, manning that machine gun and monitoring the other three armored personnel carriers in the platoon, since I was acting platoon sergeant. But as acting platoon sergeant I got to designate myself as driver. I just loved to wheel that beast down those Korean back roads.
I have personally never met a Republican who served in the army. I'm sure there are some — there must be, as a statistical matter. All the Republicans I've ever met, including those in my extended family, would have loved to serve, except that some darned thing or another prevented them from raising their hands. I am not saying that they were cowards, hypocrites, or liars. But I am surprised at how small an effort they made to overcome their circumstances and land themselves in a nice pair of fatigues. Given their rhetoric, I would have thought they would have tried harder.
Conversely, it is funny how often bohemians enlist. Maybe it is a form of irony. Maybe it is about adventure. Maybe it is our way of acquiring experience. Maybe we have nothing better to do, having flunked out of college or arrived at some equivalent empty moment. Maybe, though in love with freedom, we also love to march. Maybe we actually care about the "American experiment" and would like to see it continue. Who can say? I can only speak for myself: for some set of reasons I wandered into the recruiting office on Times Square one summer day in 1965 and enlisted.
So it was that I ended up at Fort Ord, an army post two hours south of San Francisco on the Monterey Peninsula, where I did my advanced infantry training during the winter of 1965 and the spring of 1966. Now it is a campus of the California college system, but then it was the place where you got ready for Vietnam. During the week I would fire recoilless rifles, grenade launchers, and machine guns; on Friday evenings I would head for San Francisco. Sometimes I hitchhiked with a buddy, and sometimes I took the special bus, filled with GIs, that ran express from Fort Ord to the Greyhound Bus Terminal south of Market, dead square in wino land.
I stayed in fleabag hotel rooms from which, in the fifties, Beat writers moved laterally to equally grim working-class quarters. Jack Kerouac described his room and his mental state in "October in the Railroad Earth," published in i960: "And there's my room, small, gray in the Sunday morning, now all the franticness of the street and the night before is done with, bums sleep, maybe one or two sprawled on the sidewalk with empty poorboy on a sill — my mind whirls with life, my whole soul and concomitant eyes looking out on this reality of living and working in San Francisco with that pleased semi-loin-located shudder, energy for sex changing to pain at the portals of work and culture and natural foggy fear."
I wasn't writing yet. I was about to turn nineteen and hadn't a clue about life. The previous year I'd flunked out of college, gone on a road trip, and then enlisted. Coursing through me was the raw stuff of youth that manifested as pure enjoyment of firing weapons, a trickster urge to shoplift and give the loot away, and, of course, sexual desire. In a few months I would be in Asia. I knew that I was going there, knew that I was in limbo, knew without quite knowing it that everything becomes surreal while you wait to ship out.
I walked Market Street. Like tourists and locals today, I couldn't decide if Market Street was San Francisco's main street. If it was, with its discount stores, McDonald's, and grim, littered, unremarkable ordinariness, it lowered the city in your estimation. For me, it was San Francisco, and when I veered off it I veered south, toward the homeless and the lost. Now South of Market has multiple meanings, including once-prospering and now-defunct dot-coms, leather bars, and swank designer hotels, museums like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and enough culture to earn it a fancy new SoMa appellation (which, however, no San Franciscan uses). Then it mostly meant down-and-out.
I knew seedy San Francisco first. Probably most writers who come here come here poor and know the Tenderloin better than Pacific Heights and noodle restaurants better than the Garden Court. Market Street seemed a step down from the Lower East Side, and South of Market, with its winos and derelicts sleeping head-to-foot like daisy chains, felt like Damon Runyan gone really sour. Some nights I would have to jam a chair under the doorknob against the alcoholic commotion in the corridors. Our barracks at Fort Ord, with its polished floors (because we buffed them) and its clean urinals (because we scoured them) seemed luxurious by comparison.
Could I have lived and written South of Market? Who can say? In the history of writing, writers have come from every class and circumstance. It is a trick of dualistic thinking to say that only the poor writer, steeled in the streets, will write, or that only the comfortable writer, not worried about starving, will continue to write. The fact of the matter is that the only writer who will write is the writer who writes. He will write one-armed, blind, or with a billion in the bank. He will write in a good suit or naked at his makeshift desk. He likely will die younger if he is poor, for all the obvious reasons, but that is a separate matter. If he is a writer he will write, whether atop Nob Hill or South of Market.
Excerpted from A Writer's San Francisco by Eric Maisel, Vanessa Brown. Copyright © 2006 Eric Maisel. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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