Peregrinations (A San Francisco Threnody)

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After trying to improve my handshake technique all morning with incomplete acquaintances — hardly a step above comfortable, plundering down a small alley of brick tattooed with the faded paint of long-gone advertisements, while a lean-to shack’s skin of sheet metal soaks up some rays — I find myself sturdy for the moment. Giant gunmetal-gray smokestacks rise like wizened sentinels in the distance over the tops of a few condemned transient hotels. Empty chain-link-fence-bound fields covered with vibrant green grasses and the unchecked growth of myriad varieties of weeds dot the landscape here and there between strange abandoned farmhouse-looking places whose water-damaged wood walls are pocked with termite scars and rot.

I am walking along Minna alley, somewhere around 7th and 6th street. I’m not sure. It seems that something is not right with my eyes. The wind is brandishing a machete. A trilling whirl snaps up some space in my head. Dizziness reigns.

A buzzing hum. Trolley poles and an electric whir.

There is a bus suddenly. I board from the rear. The plastic bucket seat holds me like a ladle. My shoes scrape against the sparkling grip-tape floor. There is a high-pitched alarm-clock-like beeping at stops. My eyes are misbehaving. At the top of the hill at Clay I scamper off and walk east.

Then the Transamerica Pyramid is shooting up above it all with its spire of aluminum panels, its obelisk body of crushed quartz and thousands of panes of glass shimmering in cascades of coruscating brilliance and shooting out blinding slivers of refracted sunlight.

Something better happen soon.

Clouds cruise along like battleships.

Watching a daytime moonrise over the Transamerica Pyramid’s spire of aluminum panels from the top of the hill at Clay and Jones. 3,678 windows, concrete wings, and a glass cap at the top which lights up white sometimes. A rhomboidal frame between skyscrapers shapes a cut of the bay bridge. I shoo away a few butterflies. I swat at a hummingbird.

I need a drink.

My hands are shaking like somebody deep in the throes of Parkinson’s. There is a listing to my movement. Scuttling along, avoiding dog shit whenever possible, I lumber on down Clay’s steep slope.

Kids just let out from school are running on the sidewalks, screaming and cackling, their footfalls like soft drumbeats on the cement. The sky’s hanging around, peeking out in soft blue pastels through milky strands of clouds, making me think about van Gogh in Arles, alone and painting and slowly going insane. Don’t ask me why. These things just happen sometimes when I look at the sky too long.

A woman with a cello strapped to her back marches towards me. I can smell musty umbrellas in the atmosphere.

The sad brick tenement on the corner of Clay and Powell always with laundry hanging on the fire escape, its iron rusted body wrapping around the building like a coiling snake, the wet t-shirts and underwear and unbelievably thinning threads of pants always dripping on people walking by below where there is a Laundromat with dryers, which obviously nobody living up above ever uses. I walk on the other side of the street to avoid the downpour.

A cadmium-yellow brick building stands tall and pristine on the corner across the way, its paper-bag-brown eaves outlining the distinct waxy bloom of the freshly painted sides. Clay slopes down gently before its precipitous drop towards Grant. The sidewalk is stained with a mass of purple berries, splotches of tar, and some dog shit that I luckily notice just in time to do a little hop-step over.

I stare up at buildings, their pragmatic fenestration of glass rectangles all lined up in neat rows.

My eyes dart here and there among the building tops and settle on one anachronistic building in particular there on Powell with its beveled roof; those large leaning rhomboidal windows; the scratched argent smokestack sprouting from the top; brushstrokes of white mortar stains on the exterior where it was slapped between the bricks haphazardly during the Taft Administration, and where it has now dried like a Jackson Pollock on the brick façade. Some of the weathered bricks are crumbling towards a sun-bleached pasty hue and look a bit like dried chunks of Swiss cheese, while others are smeared with a coal-like black from years of exposure to soot and car exhaust — badges of courage from the accretion of petroleum distillates over the last hundred years or so.

A weed-choked crack in the sidewalk almost trips me, but I catch my balance and right myself just before almost tumbling downward and possibly into a convoluted somersaulting roll all the way down the hill. I probably look like a crazed James Brown impersonator going to pot in slow motion. I stand there on the corner and breathe and stare at the faded gules letters on the yellow Jack Jair Realty sign jutting out like a Bowie knife stabbed into the sharp edge of the building across the street.

I stagger my way down the declivitous grade towards Stockton, avoiding the eyes of the other people who are walking towards me as much as I can, flitting from one thing to the next: pigeons roosting on nail-ridden fences, a fading advertisement painted on the side of a building reading only “WHY?” in giant white and blue letters, a gnarled tree branch, the red-paper confetti-like shrapnel of exploded fireworks’ debris and smashed-flat cigarette butts littering the sidewalk, stagnant fungus-lush gutter water, small children running downhill across the street, the weather-scarred gray Golden Star Radio sign with its unlit red and white lead-glass tubes bent into the shapes of letters, the ashen moon still hanging like a big old eye in the sky (probably a bit crapulous from the night before, it has forgotten to go back into hiding and is homeless and lost in the cerulean world like a feather adrift on the ocean), a squatting barefoot man in a tissue-thin t-shirt smoking a cigarette on a fire escape, a rotten peach covered with patches of white fungus lying smashed and withered on the sidewalk, a flattened empty bag of Fritos, my own thin-soled shoes plodding along below me, a penny, the toilet-cleaner-blue bowl of a sudden cloudlessness above me that seems to arch on and on and on.

Stockton is overflowing with mobs of people everywhere going in all directions at once, hurrying by and knocking into each other like ants, scurrying, purposeful, making beelines for unknowable destinations. The pungent and rotting aroma of seafood and also the faint sweet whiff of sugary pastries cooking in some bakery on the corner, the bitter and unsettling stink of rancid garbage left in narrow alleys that nobody every notices except those who make their deposits there, the ancient cobbles reeking of bleach tinged with urine, and that staunch meaty smell of leftovers left out too long in the sun.

I look up over the rabble of the street and see more sad bricks, and even sadder windows smeared with grease like somebody’s taken a rag of Crisco and wiped them down, and still more precarious fire escapes festooning the stories of low-rent apartment buildings that go very unnoticed for the duration of their existence. Some windows have newspapers taped up on them to block out the bright lights of neon signs at night; and through other more obscure windows I see bras and underwear and t-shirts pinned to improvised clotheslines and on cheap wire hangers hanging from everything: dressers, bunk beds, handles of teapots. These are the windows of true poverty, small crowded rooms of squalor containing lives whose humility and bravery seems unimaginable. Blessed be those who must live on so little.

On the corner of Washington was where the Hogan & Vest Real Estate Building used to reside, with its brown cursive letters running across the smudged yellow concrete wall. Now? Now it’s just a fenced-off construction pit filled with massive cranes and all varieties of digging and drilling machines making way for the new Central Subway Chinatown Station. I peek over the barbwire: men in orange hardhats and yellow vests dot the dirt-and-concrete terrain of the mammoth rectangular hole being dug to house the station. Washington’s blocked off so you can’t go west on it from there for the time being, and I stand on the corner beneath a makeshift cross glued up to the construction site’s scaffolding and rue the loss of that razed wonderful old building with its array of small storefront businesses. I miss You's Dim Sum the most: a cluttered, crusty, grease-splattered place squeezed between a liquor store and dry goods dealer. It’s since moved on to new digs on Broadway, but — like most old, good things — once it’s gone from where it’s always been it’s never the same. Sam Wo’s tells the same story, moved from its dumbwaiter, slender three-story, sloppy cymbal-clash ruckus near Grant to a brightly lit, clean, unremarkable location on Clay and Kearny.

With a delirious spasm of pell-mell motion I speed on under the dirty awnings of small groceries and tea shops, on up to the stoplight at Jackson. Swiveling my head to the right, looking down Jackson, I catch sight of the Bay Bridge’s western span all colored with sun in the distance, the cars just tiny specks sleepily moving across it. It doesn’t seem to fit into my perspective for some reason — a misplaced conception in the landscape of my dreams.

My eyes drift over all the shop signs with their dead neon bulbs lining the street going on down past Grant — those chalky, weary, half-erased letters smeared in English and Chinese on their paling surface — getting sappy and nostalgic over Alphabet Row where all the restaurants have names like ABC Cafe and Z&Y’s, and The Poultry Block where they sell live chickens and no cameras are allowed. Then I scan over the street vendors who sell baseball hats and license plates with normal names on them and Alcatraz-themed t-shirts and sweaters and other tchotchkes, keepsakes, and souvenirs: somebody’s pathetic and commercialized idea of what San Francisco is. It all makes me sad, and I look away.

Buses go by on Stockton so crowded with people that there is not even room for air inside, and when the doors open everybody inside breathes in deep and as much as they can like somebody escaping from quicksand and gasping and spluttering for air. Onward I tread, having to walk in the street at times because the pullulating mob of Sunday shoppers is so thick that it is impossible to walk at an even gait, or any gait for that matter, without knocking down at least four or five people every twenty feet or so, if I keep to the sidewalk. Plus, I am not so sure of the current situation as to the abilities of my motor skills.

A lady’s clothes-pinned underthings ripple like shredded flesh in a vagrant breeze from the 3rd story window of an ancient red-brick rooming house. The drowsy excitement of newly seen old places stirs and relaxes in my bones. Some guy with a long-handled net is unloading fresh, still-alive fish into a plastic trashcan from a double-parked truck. One flops into the street where a seagull swoops in and snaps it up in its beak. Everything is alive with bartered yelps and deft hand motions smoothing over melons and other odd assortments of strange tubers and vegetables and exotic fruit at a corner fresh-air market. Absurdity’s fled and devoured. Floral arrangements wilt in sun-splashed shop windows: another victim of gaze-less eyes. Shot shadows, forlorn and speckled with oval cracks, give way to foot traffic’s mores, gum and bird-shit stains. It’s shove or be shoved out here. After taking an irregular interval of rest beneath a clam-shell-fringed awning of an herb store; while absently listening to the beseeching surround-sound susurration of frazzled pigeons with missing toes and gnarled, dented beaks; I decide to move out and walk in the street with the crawling-along buses. In a quick spasm I shiver all over, once, and go for it.

In the street I stick close to parked cars and glance over my shoulder hurriedly every few seconds to make sure no cars are coming that might make mince meat of me before I have time to briskly heave myself out of harm’s way. I think about squares for some reason and ponder heading east to watch the old men play elephant chess in Portsmouth Square (the hands-crossed-behind-the-back stance, leaning in to the card games, lit cigarette slipped between taut lips, faces blank with some sort of somehow Baltic sadness. The crowded huddles, intense with tonal yaps, around xiangqi boards on milk crates and waxed cardboard boxes, dotting the cement topography like campfires keeping shudderers warm on a cold night), or of maybe walking back towards St. Mary’s Square, tramping around on the soft rubberized surface of the playground area and staring down through the chain-link fence at the empty lot below — filled with broken concrete slabs and thick with weeds taller than I am; and also up at Muriel Castanis’ Corporate Goddess statues on the 23rd floor of 580 California; and The Russ building and all of its Neo-Gothic regalness; and of course The Triple Nickel Cal with its 52 floors rising impossibly far above, lost in the clouds, all covered in carnelian granite, its thousands of bay windows aglow with a faint resplendence of life going on somewhere, going on still, behind them; while the boom-crush of traffic hiccups honked blurts, and screeches, and ubiquitously roars far away down in the street below — the hiss and shriek of brakes and the shrill blare of horns, reverberating bleats and pops of things going awry over potholes or other defects in the macadam, the hacking cough-like moan of exhaust, all of those remote echoes that seem drenched in city life.

The walk signal on Pacific is bleeping at me to walk, which I do, and so I stop thinking about squares and immerse myself in the midst of a burgeoning scrum of pedestrians who overflow the white lines of the crosswalk and spill into the intersection. Invectives, spit, and what I am sure are contumelious Chinese profanities are being hurled at me from all directions, as are sharp elbows and kicking feet, as I try to dodge the incessant rampage of bodies coming at me. It doesn’t matter. None of this matters. I am walking. I am walking here.

So it goes now that when I do reach the other side of the intersection I have to force my way — jostling and elbowing and giving hip checks like mad, yet not unkindly — back out off of the sidewalk and into the street again where there is more room to roam and no cars coming for now. I feel free and easy in the street. I like feeling free and easy. It beats a lot of other ways you could feel.

Just barely missing the light on Broadway, I stand on the corner with about four dozen other folks waiting for the requisite amount of time to pass until the light goes from red to green and we can all ambulate hurriedly across the wide boulevard. In the store behind me much bartering and loud argumentation goes on, unintelligible to me as I sadly do not speak nor even have a rudimentary understanding of Chinese; and the lady behind the Lotto ticket booth is harassed by a constant stream of people cramming in and shoving what they think is a winning Lotto-Scratchers ticket in her face. The Broadway tunnel is a block away, and cars accelerate out of the downhill slope of its eastbound end and speed past. I think of the many times I’ve walked through that tunnel late at night — the cement tiled walls covered with a thick smoky-black layer of grime — listening to the Dopplering reverberations of cars barreling through and wondering if the tunnel would ever end; or of those times I’d biked through it devil-may-care at insane speeds and shot out like Wiley Coyote from a cannon, going faster than any of the cars.

The light turns green. I sprint ahead of the crowd, taking the lead and then some, hustling to get across before anyone else. I do, and it feels good, like I’ve won something, that this wonderful accomplishment of being the first to the sidewalk on the other side of Broadway is tantamount to winning a triathlon. After congratulating myself on this feat, I walk past City Meats on Vallejo and Stockton (its glorious neon just spurting to life; its handmade butcher-paper advertisements for meat coating the windows), turn down Vallejo and on up to Columbus, into a less crowded purlieus, to streets that even though are filled with many people out and walking in the sun, seem almost desolate in comparison with the madness of Stockton.

I am out in the sun, out of the frigidness and stuffiness of my apartment, and now out of the windy shadows and into the warmth and life affirming sunshine.

I walk on up to Green Street and past Café Trieste, which is all filled-up with tourists and ancient insane people and pseudo-wannabe-artists. Turning down Grant I laugh for some reason, but I keep moving, walking along the skinny strip of sidewalk, leering into bars open even at this early hour with people sitting inside playing darts and drinking beer and talking rot. I feel like I am in a foreign country for some reason. The Savoy Tivoli is closed. I look inside its windows and want to be in there among all that dark and old wood, but I keep moving, the sun on my back, feeling good, hearty and hale.

Eventually I end up sitting in Washington Square park, on the very end of a long bench, just barely out of the shade, and I stretch out my legs and tilt my head back looking up at the brightening cloudless early afternoon sky. I am in the shade of a large pine tree with many decrepit brown branches underneath the green needles. The sky above is cloudless, and so blue it hurts my eyes to look at it — the kind of blue that makes the soft downy hairs stand up on your arms.

The park isn’t too crowded. A few dogs are running around on the still dewy grass. People are lined up around the block waiting to get into Mama’s restaurant. Folks are lying around (supine, prone, couchant, in fetal position, limbs splayed, sunbathing with legs out straight and arms on behind head, asleep, sitting Indian style or with lower legs tucked under, etc.) on the grass in the park. People sit on blankets, spreading across the grass under the gilding of afternoon sun. Slimming shadows stretch and leak between games of catch, twirling Frisbees, croquet balls, the terse swiftness of tai chi disciples, and parties of touch footballers. The spires of Sts. Peter and Paul Church rise to the north, and I gaze up at them and wonder about God. This doesn’t last long though, as I am easily distracted. All around me the boom-crush of traffic prowls its course around the park, which is bounded by Filbert, Columbus, Union, and Stockton. The buses crawl up to the curbs and heave their weary moans, unloading off and loading on the hordes of anxious MUNI riders who pass through this way every day. The sun’s getting all over things, and many of the men have their shirts off. Two chipper souls in shorts and sandals are playing a game of badminton with no net. I sight-see over the many trees in the park: some fluff and spread out their limbs creating all kinds of fleecy shade; and others tall and thin with dangling leaves, and still others that are short and squat and look more like large shrubbery than trees. Sycamores? Manzanita? Eucalyptus? Maple? I give up cataloging my thoughts as Cypress and cigar smoke scent the air.

A wide expanse of grass runs across the park’s sloped craggy torso, and the slender trunks of willowy elastic trees rise like acupuncture needles stuck into its gut. I tilt my head back and put my arms up on the back of the bench, sliding my bottom out to the bench’s edge, as its low back is very unsuitable to this reclining position for a gangly fellow like myself. The sky’s now flecked with thin strips of cirrus clouds that spool like dental floss, and a band of migrating birds is winging recondite V-patterns in the thin, paling, salmon-tinged wash of the sun’s decline. I try to whistle, to no avail, as always, and instead start to hum When Johnny Comes Marching Home. It passes the time.

The green bench I’m settled down on is hard and long and has a short back that’s rough on my back, and I’m having a hard time keeping still or sitting in one position for very long, alternating between hunching over, leaning back and crossing my right leg over my knee, and crossing my feet at the ankles and putting my arms over the hard back of the bench — but all of these things are hard to keep doing for very long. Behind the bench there are patches of weeds sprouting here and there among a large accumulation of wood chips. I have no idea whose idea it was to spread these particles of biomass about here, and I cannot fathom why, but they cover quite a large expanse of the area between the sidewalk and the bench. An antiquated spinach-green lamppost resides close by. Its top is an opaque white orb during the day, but by night serenades the moths with a hazy sodium-yellow glow. The back of the bench has a silver metal plaque affixed to it which reads: “In honor of Elizabeth Livermore.” I have no idea who this person is, or possibly was, nor why this bench was dedicated to her, though I speculate that she may perchance be one of the founders of that dear nuclear-famous city to our east.

I check out the old Italian men who sit smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, soigné and at ease in their fusty, flood-water démodé suits on the benches by the park’s northeast corner. They tell the same jokes over and over to each other, laughing and smoking, scrunching their faces and wheezing until they come to a gentle rest. About a few first downs from me, a lady in wrap-around sunglasses sunbathes in her motorized wheelchair. She puts the back all the way down and lies there as if she were lounging in an outdoor hospital bed.

Defrosting from the fog of solitude and into the great big melting pot of the world, I lilt and heave onward.

A bunch of birds swarm over the badminton game and the shuttlecock gets knocked down in midair by one of the birds. I refrain from thinking. I just sit there staring at the sky, the grass, the trees, and listen to the sound of the wind whistling through the pine needles. After sitting there for some time and not thinking too much, I decide to get up and get a sandwich at Palermo’s deli across the street. I have somehow forgotten about that drink I needed so badly not so long ago. This is a small good thing that warms me all through. I enjoy it immensely.

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