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San Francisco Diary III

A formerly closeted middle-aged gay man in the seventies: that’s what I felt like when I made peace with my desire and began seriously drinking coffee. I’d avoided it until about age 25, having feared falling into obsessive source- and preparation-related obscurantism and that tiresome pissing contest over who can drink it the least sweet. Now the pursuit and consumption of coffee, in its various forms — with an eye toward preparation, of course, and never sweetened — underlies much of my psychology of place. The brightest dots on my mental map of Los Angeles indicate coffee shops of reliable quality. San Francisco convinced me, after two or three days, that I could trust it to provide a respectable cup within a block or two of wherever I happened to alight. Having hit up a few local operations, I can recommend Four Barrel for espresso and Philz, which operates under an ethos so pure that they refuse even to introduce espresso, for iced coffee.

San Franciscans told me about Blue Bottle. I tried to heed their word. Oh, the stories about Blue Bottle’s rendition of iced coffee, brewed with chicory and so strong that they all but require you to accept their offer of milk added. The perpetual blackness of my coffee arises not from my need to feel like a Real Man — as for how I do act on that need, the less said, the better — but my lack of trust in myself to correctly add a non-ruinous amount of milk, cream, or sugar. My final interview of this trip took place at 6:00 on Sunday near the Ferry Building, which I heard contains a Blue Bottle stand. On the BART trip up there from Bernal Heights, I knew only anticipation. Imagine my surprise when I found that seemingly every business within ten blocks southwest of the Embarcadero closes on evenings and weekends — even Starbucks, of which I saw sixteen, fifteen darkened, not to mention all the Peetses. As for the evening of a weekend, well, that gave me a sense of what downtown Los Angeles must have felt like at its nadir. I would tell South Beach (for they call this shuttered neighborhood that) to get on the stick, but in San Francisco, you have only to walk a mile, and everything changes.

Certain friends of mine, not coincidentally some of the most hard-traveling ones, have a look I call “omni-racial.” Most of the places they go, they could potentially pass as a native, at least visually. (Even the most omni of them often tends to break the illusion when they open their mouths, though some are adept polyglots.) I have whatever look is exactly the opposite of this; locals approach me as a foreigner everywhere, especially where I live. Strangers standing nearby routinely lean over and ask where I’m from, or even, when I’m speaking English, “what language that is.” A security guard approached me the other week with a tentative “Bonjour?” I say this all by way of recommending Everett & Jones, a barbecue place in North Berkeley, where one of the cooks asked me where I come from. Los Angeles, I proudly replied. He reacted with pure disappointment: “Aw, man, I thought you’d say maybe Switzerland, Sweden, someplace like that.”

Literature, cinema, music, conversation, the ladies: all of these provide their own flavors of mental stimulation, each one essential in its own way. But as yet I have discovered no more high-bandwidth source of mental stimulation than taking a chunk of time and using it to simply wander around an unfamiliar city, alone, with no defined destination. You’ll find the practice sets your mind off in so many directions, few of them expected, dredging up and creatively repurposing sunken memories all along the way. Modern novels suggest the presence of more adherents than me. Think of the genre-disregarding books of W.G. Sebald; think of Vertigo‘s second story: “In Vienna, I found that the days proved inordinately long, now they were not taken up by my customary routine of writing and gardening tasks, and I literally did not know where to turn. Every morning I would set out and walk without aim or purpose through the streets of the inner city.” Think of Sebald’s living heirs, like Teju Cole; think of the first page of Open City, about the New York walks that “steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway.” I was compelled to return by BART and Muni — certainly not by cable car — but hey, same difference.

From Adam Cadre’s (recommended) writeup of The City & The City: “Because I’m never looking for a McDonald’s, I don’t bother to slot the ones that I see into my mental map. [ … ] When I moved to New York City, I left my car in California, figuring that it would be more of a hindrance than an asset; I spent the subsequent year getting around town by subway and by foot, and thought I got to know the city pretty well. Then I fetched my car to help with the move to Massachusetts, and discovered that I had no idea how to drive around New York. My sense of where things were was oriented to the subway map. I thought my favorite pizza place was far from my apartment, because I lived along the F line and the pizza place was on the Q, and getting there meant a long horseshoe trip through downtown Brooklyn. It turned out that it was a five-minute drive away, in the opposite direction from the train. And when I went there I felt like I was driving through some city I’d never been to before, because even though I recognized most of the locales I passed through, they weren’t coming in the right order.”

When navigating unfamiliar cities, it helps, in a sense, to have in hand an iPhone or similarly “smart” GPS-equipped mobile device. I say “in a sense” because, in the presence of a signal (and, in San Francisco, I learned precisely what all those who bitch about AT&T’s coverage mean), getting truly lost becomes impossible. The moments of disorientation I experienced in my relatively recent pre-smartphone life struck me as valuable, especially in Mexico City, which put other layers of foreignness above and beneath my geographical confusion, and Washington D.C., where the lostness, though mild, would tend to occur in the middle of the night and last hours. With luck, I won’t figure out how to make my iPhone work in Japan.

Can you feel total despair in San Francisco? Sure, some of the addicts, burnouts, and runaways on the streets surely do from time to time — though I suspect a percentage of them self-medicate, a practice which may contribute to their condition — but nothing in my experience of the city, on this trip or any other, suggests that a normal San Franciscan life would ever involve the starker varieties hopelessness or alienation. Only with great difficulty can I imagine any life in Los Angeles not involving routine bouts with the starkest varieties of hopelessness and alienation. San Francisco feels like a domed land, one that has insistently built its own reality, and isn’t that why people so love to visit? Isn’t that why I so love to visit? One never, or at least rarely, needs to face the silent void in San Francisco; Los Angeles sits upon the silent void. This sounds like I’m about to pull up stakes from Koreatown and drop them right back down into the Mission, but no. Speeding back toward downtown on the LAX shuttle, I understood what I’d already known: for all the malaise it can potentially inflict, no American city fills me with exhilaration they way Los Angeles does, and none fascinates me more. But some come close.

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