California, Day Two

Today, I ventured out to San Francisco. After meeting with Bart for breakfast and getting some tips from him about how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge and some of the other things I might want to hit, I took off in the pickup truck I rented (it was the cheapest thing available, and it was that or maybe an Expedition, which is so expensive that filling up the gas tank for that requires like a co-signer, a passport, and notarization of various imposing documents in triplicate). I stopped by a bookstore at the very cool mall in Palo Alto to get a map of San Francisco (would you believe ten smackaroonies for a map that doesn’t even fully obscure your windshield when you open it up all the way?). The map turned out to be worth every penny.

From the mall, I struck out heading north on Highway 101, which apparently runs from Seattle down to Mexico, with the bridge as my northernmost and intended first stop. Lucky for me, 101 takes you straight through to the bridge, though there’s a little dicey city street negotiation on the way. All in all, it was very simple, though, the only real hitch that I began to get really low on gas in the middle of SF, and there wasn’t exactly an abundance of gas stations (if I had rented the Expedition, I’d’ve had to stop to fill up every 100 yards, which with all the notarization and draining of blood from turnips and rending of garments and removal of arms and legs would have become time consuming and logistically/physically problematic in a hurry). But I found one at last and continued on my journey. I knew I was getting close at one point, but I forget whether I had caught a glimpse of the bridge or just saw a sign saying the bridge was close or just heard the humming chorus of bridge angels above the traffic noise, but whatever the case, I tried calling both M and my parents to let them know that I was almost there.

Which sounds just absurdly dumb, I know, but for anybody reading this who doesn’t know me, let me explain that I have a bit of a bridge fetish, with the Golden Gate bridge as the primary object of that fetish. It’s actually more a “feats of engineering” fetish with bridges as a special interest and this bridge in particular as the sort of Platonic ideal of all things bridge. Illustrating the breadth of my infatuation with the bridge are the following points:

  • One of the cool “smart” TV stations a few years ago played a documentary about the bridge over and over again, and I watched it over and over again, memorizing facts and being generally sort of obsessive about the whole thing.
  • A few years ago, I bought a sort of artistic rendering of a schematic of the bridge and its terrain and measurements that hangs on my living room wall across from the second piece in the series, of the Brooklyn Bridge, which I bought shortly after making the first purchase.
  • My parents one Christmas managed to lay their hands on a canceled bond that was used to raise funds for building the bridge. I’ve been meaning for years to get the thing framed (it’s beautiful and looks like big old money in all its green-inked ornament), and M finally found a frame last week that would allow you to see both sides of the bond, so it’ll be hanging on the wall soon.
  • Umm, I called both my wife and my parents as I approached the bridge to tell them that I was about to cross it, and it felt almost as if I was calling to say I’d just won the Tour de France or something.

So yeah, it’s sort of a fetish, and boy was it indulged today. The bridge is freaking huge. Its whole length from beginning to end is more than 8,000 feet, and the actual span over water is most of a mile. As you’re nearing the end of the bridge, trying hard not to veer into other lanes because you’re looking up at the amazing towers and cables, you see a sign telling you that the curb-side lane goes to Vista Point. I opted for that lane, which took me to parking and a vista (surprise) overlooking the bay and giving a nice length-wise view of the bridge. I hung out there for a few minutes getting the view from afar, but then I took off for the bridge itself, which conveniently has nice big railed-in sidewalks designed to accommodate tourists, bikers, etc. I walked from the north end of the bridge to one of the towers, stopping frequently to look up at the cables and pausing for a few minutes at the tower to sort of take in the grandeur of this astonishing structure. The rivets holding the thing together have heads the size of golf balls, and from the tower (but at road level, of course), it takes eleven seconds for falling spit to become so small that you can’t tell whether it’s hit the water or is just too distant to see. The huge cables for the bridge are composed of a sort of honeycomb of bundles of small cables. If I remember correctly, each bundle has something like 81 maybe quarter-inch cables in it, and then the bundles are bunched together into a huge cable three feet across that is then spiraled around by a single strand of the small cable. In total, there are 80,000 miles of cable in the bridge. The vertical cables are substantially smaller, about the size of my fairly beefy upper forearm and impossible to even come close to getting one hand around unless you’re Andre the Giant, and each vertical strand that seems to be one strand from afar is actually four of them arranged in a square with six or eight inches between the corner cables. When you’re close to the end of the bridge, you can grab one of these vertical cables (also composed of smaller cables twisted together) and yank it back and forth really hard, and though it doesn’t really move, you can tell that it’s sort of vibrating just the tiniest bit all the way to the top. If you lean against the outside rail, it hums and vibrates with the rush of traffic, and if you cock your head back to look up to the top of the towers, you feel like you’re going to pitch over backward into the bay. From the bridge, you can see Alcatraz sitting right there in the bay, and beyond that, the Bay Bridge, which I didn’t go on and which isn’t quite as impressive as the Golden Gate bridge, but which really is a pretty nice bridge in its own right; and while I was there, I started a quick informal count of the sailboats on my side of the bridge and stopped at 70 with plenty more to go.

As I was out there, I couldn’t help thinking back to an ambition I had once to write something about the bridge. I know Hart Crane’s already done it, or something very similar. Mine was going to be an elaborately symbolic meta-poetics piece probably positioning the bridge as a sort of Eolian harp (see the bit on humming above) but also as a built structure, as something spanning two points poetic-line-like. I think there was also going to be something about the way the cables were run, going back and forth, back and forth across the bay on a sort of suspended pulley apparatus once the first line was ferried across and how this represented the back and forth of a poem across the page. It would have been horrible and forced, and I’m glad I never managed to write it.

But there was something inspiring about being there, about seeing this marvel of engineering. I staggered around looking upward, shielding my eyes from the sun and talking aloud to myself, thinking hard about the ingenuity it took to design and build the thing, the ambition and the power of the human drive that makes things like this possible. I thought up all sorts of flowery phrases I might use in writing about the experience, and of course they faded as the day pressed on, and I’m glad of it, because then my account would have been imbued more with artifice than with truth and appreciation and the sort of boyish wonder that makes it impossible for you not to spit off the bridge even while feeling very reverent about being there (try something like this at a funeral). I could have stayed there all day.

But I had other things to do. It was close to 2:00 when I wrapped up and crossed the bridge again, and as I was meeting Bart for dinner at around 8:00, it was about time to grab some lunch. He had recommended that I hit pier 39 on the waterfront, so I got out my trusty map and wound my way over there. I was too dumb and cheap to find long-term parking, and the only meters I could find nearby were half-hour meters, so I parked a couple of blocks away and hauled ass up to the wharf, where there were booths selling tickets for Alcatraz tours and ferry rides. There was a guy sitting on the ground playing some small bongo drums with a coffee can in front of him to collect donations, and I saw little old men walking around together holding hands. There was a guy with sort of a rickshaw (not really a rickshaw but sort of a bicycle rickshaw), and there were lots of tourists with windblown hair. Bart had recommended getting some crab, so I went to a place on pier 39 called “Crab House” that was really very expensive. But I was in a hurry and didn’t want to go hunting around for another place, so I sat down and ordered a salad that I believe they called a Foggy Wharf Salad. It’s basically mixed greens with tomato chunks, dressing, and one of several meats. I got the crab, and it turned out to be a very good salad, whatever their dressing was (something with ginger in it, I think the guy said) really giving it some zing, though I don’t know that it was a $15 salad, even if at $15 it was one of the least expensive things on the menu. It was a weird sort of restaurant, with sort of hokey plastic crab decorations but a wait staff dressed very sharply and a touch on the snobby side. I plowed through the salad in about five minutes and virtually ran back to the truck to find the meter just expired. I had to pee, so I put in a couple more dimes and walked a couple of blocks over to make use of the Sheraton’s fine facilities. On the way (this is the only reason I mention the bathroom trip, my body functions probably not generally of great interest to anybody reading this account), I passed two gentlemen in Hell’s Angel-like garb, but one of them had a necktie on under his leather vest and jacket, and it was a really incongruous, memorable image.

Next stop, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which took a while to get to because I kept taking wrong turns and going around the wrong block and missing the turn into a parking lot and so on. I finally got there at about 3:30 and didn’t leave until closing time at 5:45. It’s an amazing museum with lots of really cool pieces, and I wish I could remember the names of some of my favorites. I really like a lot of the abstract stuff, and I find paintings that have paint just gobbed on thickly very appealing. There was one such painting in grays and black with paint several inches thick in places that looked more like a wall sculpture than a painting, and its explanatory blurb said that there were some 500 pounds of paint on the canvas. I saw pieces by Mondrian, Picasso, Rothko (underwhelming), Matisse, O’Keeffe, Warhol, Kahlo, Pollock, and other famous names that elude me for now, but there were also lots of really cool things by people I had never heard of (which doesn’t mean much because I don’t know much about art). One exhibit featured design as art and included a motorcycle, various chairs, and a Macintosh titanium G4 as pieces. Another was a tall (I’m talking 30 or 40 feet tall) room with the sound of running water and a sort of clumsy paint-by-numberish forest scene on most of the wall space (with the unpainted edges actually trailing off into the outlines and numbers of a paint-by-numbers design). Then there’s a window high up with prison bars and blue (sky) visible outside. The water turns out to be coming from a big sink attached to one of the walls. There’s also a box of rat poison under the sink and stacks of bundled newspapers lying around. It turns out that each separate element of the combined piece is listed as a separate piece, but they all coalesce to form a jarring and humorous exhibit. You walk into the room and find yourself looking up the high walls and hearing the water and then chuckle as you see that the water’s coming not from a babbling brook as the walls might suggest but from an almost industrial sink. Then there’s the prison and the idea of being trapped in this forest and this fractured reality. I found this one to be very satisfying and memorable. At one point, as I was walking away from some cubist pieces, I found myself wondering if there’d be anything by Duchamp, and no sooner did I turn around than I nearly knocked “Fountain” off its pedestal. Very cool. There were so many things I wanted to remember and document from this experience. It was just so visually and mentally stimulating to see this wide array of art, much of which defied decoding in any usual comfortably structured way. It’s really hard not to try to attach meaning to art and not to try to map abstract pieces to processable reality, but once you realize that these aren’t necessarily the objectives, it can be very pleasurable just to look at pieces of art and enjoy their visual offering.

It was starting to get dusky when I left the museum, and I wanted to start back for Palo Alto before it got too dark. I wound my way back to 101 by a different route than I had taken in (my location now being substantially different), passing through some slummy areas complete with limb-deficient men on crutches and in wheelchairs hobbling/wheeling themselves out from under overpasses through stopped traffic looking for donations. This sort of ruined for me a feeling I had begun to have during the day that San Francisco was a sort of perfect city, easily navigable with lots of neat shops and attractions and some really cool architecture and as far as I had seen no bad areas or crazy people lying possibly dead and covered with newspapers in the middle of the sidewalk. I’m floating on this cloud of satisfaction and riding off into the sunset when here comes this toothless guy with one of the legs of his dirty jeans rolled up into a hollow nub having a hard time managing both his crutches and his donation cup. And after him a guy missing an arm. And after him a guy in a bathrobe wheeling his chair along with his one good leg and looking really haggard and probably sincerely in serious need. I can’t really doubt that these guys have a legitimate need, but it puts me now in mind of the gypsies in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which by the way Disney royally fucked up and you really ought to read the actual macabre book, which is good and ultimately disturbing in an “A Rose for Emily” sort of way that, well, Disney won’t be going there any time soon) who have like prostheses and other elaborate ways of making people think they’re cripples when in fact they’re just making a living by playing on people’s sympathies. (And then there’s also an X Files episode in which there’s this little scabby legless Indian guy who scoots around on one of those boards you slide around on under a car while doing repairs and who crawls up into people’s asses to sort of use their bodies for a while until they’re pretty much drained and then I guess he’s back on his squeaky little auto-mechanic apparatus again.) But as I pass these guys, feeling both guilty and a little angry (for various reasons), it occurs to me that of course every city, and especially major cities, have these areas. San Francisco, with its hillsides lined domino-like with white houses, with its sort of quaint wharf area and its trolley cars and electric buses and manageable streets and awe-inspiring bridges, with its many beautiful cultures, its thought-provoking art museum, with all the great things that San Francisco has and is, it is of course still a big city, and, like my own provincial little Knoxville, it can’t all be sunshine and flowers. Even Knoxville has a homeless shelter and people shivering under overpasses.

It was a great day, maybe one of the most satisfying I’ve had in years because of the bombardment of ideas and spectacles. One thing I had hoped to do but opted not to in the end was to run by the City Lights bookstore, which Ferlinghetti founded and can apparently still be found at sometimes with his red pickup parked outside. I stopped by Borders in Palo Alto tonight and read a little bit of Ferlinghetti to make up for the loss. I’m considering trying a run down to Monterrey for a little Cannery Row pilgrimage before I leave on Wednesday, but I’m not sure it’ll happen. Whether that pans out or not, today’s activities have made the whole trip very much worth my while, and I can’t articulate adequately how glad I am that I managed to put aside my worries and venture out.

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