Monday, July 27, 2009

Tom's San Francisco: Uncentered

San Francisco is several different cities occupying the same space at the same time, separated only by the frequency at which they vibrate. To aimlessly walk San Francisco, letting your vibrations move you between these cities, is to become drunk on a psychogeographic charge. It's almost disappointing to find your orientation, but if you need to do that, there is the Transamerica Pyramid: the huge, non-vibrating obelisk marking Downtown's hub. No building has ever put me so strongly in mind of how, as a four-year-old child, I was vaguely unsettled by the first time I heard the word "skycraper", and no building has ever been better suited to the title.

In the daytime, the Pyramid rises from its burly ring of foliage, spiking deep into the fog or scraping like Babel against the blue-glass sky. At night the effect is even more impressive: standing at the Pyramid's base, a simple yet effective bit of trompe-l'œil propels the building's top into infinity, marked only the beacon of its blue glow in the evening fog. While it's impossible not to mark your passage through San Francisco by your relationship to the Pyramid, yielding to its forceful pinning-down of your orientation feels in a way like capitulating: like giving in to a very old-world power, in this city that thrives on diversity and decentralised self-conceptions.

It's probably only if you resolutely refuse to submit to the Pyramid's reasoned centering that you allow yourself to be in Vesuvio, at the strip-bar end of Jack Kerouac Alley, densely-packed and covered in beautiful old-time pro-alcoholism propaganda. And nervously watching as a well-dressed yupster stands up in the crowd and screeches, urgent and terrified: "THERE IS NO PEACE WITHOUT JESUS CHRIST! NO PEACE! WITHOUT! JESUS! THE UPSIDE-DOWN CROSS IS THE MARK OF EVIL! NO PEACE WITHOUT JESUS!". He's escorted out by his embarrassed friends, who tell him, "it was good, man: you said exactly what you needed to". On the way out he grabs a patron - most are ignoring his little show - by the lapels, and you'll never guess what he yells at the guy! Oh, "NO PEACE WITHOUT JESUS"? Yes, actually.

A similar resolute uncentering may even take you down the road to the Dreaming Room, a space that frankly I am still unsure really exists. While Haight has its imported Buddha-geegaw shops, their brand-new layer of authenticating dirt perfectly rubbed through, the Dreaming Room is a large space on Columbus filled with artifacts, ritual curios and tribal offerings, some of them apparently 4000 years old. The guy behind the counter - who seems to hang out on the street until someone decides to come in and look around - assures me it is all for sale, even the owner. To this end he shows me a picture of the Dreaming Room's best customer, a Mr N. Cage of Hollywood, CA, shown purchasing some mysterious-looking doodads (though presumably not the owner).

I'm not sure on what frequency you need to be to visit the Saloon, but it's one that certainly predates the Pyramid. Apparently San Francisco's oldest bar, the Saloon is where we watch the dancefloor being utterly owned by a 75-year old fella and his 69-year-old companion, without a doubt the hottest sextegenarian I have ever met. The man, whose name I am surely misremembering as Neil, tells me he has "had some wild times". He tells me about the time he had Liz Taylor in his car, back when he lived in Hollywood and would just drive around picking up girls. (He thinks he had Marilyn Monroe in there too, back when she was Norma Jean, but isn't sure).

One time Neil shut down a casino out in Reno: "We didn't like the way they were treating a fella who won some money! So I went up to the bouncer" - Neil makes a sweeping motion with his foot - "kicked his legs out from under him! We ended up in the parking lot, you see, so I knocked the lights out, and I had the guy down and showered him with stones!" Neil makes a little shape with his thumb and forefinger to show the size of the gravel-stones which which he showered the unfortunate. "Well we got out of there" - Neil's eyes grow wide - "I found out later, the guy was a gangster! So I never went back to Reno".

Neil shows me the powder he carries between clubs to spread on the floor to make dancing easier. He throws some on the Saloon floor but explains that the floor there is so bad it doesn't help his dicky leg. He explains the woman he is with is not his wife. He tells me her husband is "a real Jekyll and Hyde, you know that movie?" (I reply, "sure, it's one of my favourite books", and instantly hope I haven't placed the emphasis on books, as that would make me sound a right wanker). Neil stays away from the husband when he's in that way. She keeps saying she'll leave him but never does. Neil pushes me out onto the floor - "get out there!" - and makes me dance with his not-wife, and I do, which is difficult as I have no idea how to dance at all, which I tell people whenever they compliment me on my performance, which I think they are doing because I did not trip her up and break her 69-year-old spine.

But I'm glad the Pyramid is there today, as it marginally reduces my chances of becoming utterly lost when I go to a movie. Marginally.


someonefromsometime said...

Great Story! You seem to be meeting a lot of strange yet colorful characters :)

Coeli said...

Gee, you really make me miss the city that keeps me as citizen most of the time! I'm so glad you're there and finding such gems; very evocative words and photos. Glad you're out gadding about with my honey, too.

Homage said...

I'm not sure who your honey is but I assure you my aim is pure.