We could live beside the ocean,
Leave the fires behind,
Swim out past the breakers,
Watch the world die.
Everclear, Santa Monica
Time passes, measured only by the heat on your skin, the water surrounding you, the gentle, constant rise and fall of the ocean. There’s nothing beyond this, the beach and the boardwalk and the country behind rendered it down into a blurred obscurity, a piece of scenery you can see but feel no need to reach. That’s behind you.
In front of you is purity, the simple elegance of sun meeting sky meeting sea. Water that was ice cold ten minutes before is body temperature, supporting you even as it keeps you honest, each swell never quite breaking but always threatening to. The waves break further in but here you’re out past the breakers, in the territory of the song. Here there’s the water and the motion and you taking the shape and form of both.
Here there’s no time. Here’s there nothing but time.
This is the place you’ve heard the songs talk about, the moment of blessed nothing, of absolute union with the elements that comes from being out in the swell. Sensation and tactility become all, the heat on your shoulders, the gentle, curved hold of the water on your body, the velcro of the boogie board cuff on your wrist. That’s all there is because that’s all there needs to be.
Then the waves crest further out, the wall of water rising in front of you and just for a second you’re reminded of when you first got here, watching the wild seahorses break taller than you stand and being aware of every inch of your body and how fragile it is. You remembered the last time you did this, at a different, burlier beach. Remembered missing a wave and instead of it sliding out in front of you, it picking you up by the ankle and spinning you, underwater, through a full circle. You remember thinking about panicking. You remember you didn’t.
You turn, the water rising into a wall behind you and you jump and kick forward and now, now the beach is falling away beneath you as the hand of the sea grabs you and picks you up. Now the sea horses are on either side of you, the water foaming and bubbling and dancing and you laugh and shout and scream with the sheer joy of it because now all the sensation has fallen away and all you can feel is speed gifted, motion given. Now all you can feel is MOVE.
You get dumped on the beach and straight away the water is sucking at you, dragging you back. You stand and it’s clumsy and you absolutely do not care because you’re laughing so hard and so is she. You look at each other, check you’re both okay and then race back out, timing your movements with the waves, heading for that spot where everything collapses to the long now, everything falls away bar sensation, that spot before the wave crests, before you and the sea play together, racing each other to the beach and not caring that no one ever gets to win.
Hours pass. You neither notice or care until a bodysurfer, a man trying to ride the waves using his own body rather than even the tiny boogie board you have, complements you. ‘You guys are crazy! Been out here forever!’
Forever lasts another hour or so, the pair of you out on the waves, under the sun, complete. Then you decide it’s probably time to head in. The waves are breaking further in and further down, the day’s getting on. You watch her kick off for the shore and follow, content to feel the sun on your back and the water beneath you.
And then you notice how far away she is.
And then you notice you’re not really moving.
And then you remember being turned upside down under the water at the other beach and suddenly, the weight of panic settles on the board under your arms. It’s still a beautiful day, she’s maybe 50 metres away and it shouldn’t matter because it does because you’re not moving and you should be and-
You keep breathing, you keep kicking. You make a small amount of progress but it’s costing you. Nothing much, not yet, but the long now is no longer the infinite now and you know you can’t do this forever and, unbidden, countless episodes of Bondi Rescue start replaying in your mind. You think about your body, the parts of it you don’t like. Stupidly, part of you wonders how you’ll look, pasty and terrified, being hauled onto the front of a rescue board.
You keep breathing. You keep kicking. You put the stupid, pointless body image crap behind you and let it float away into the Pacific because, ironically, all it is is dead weight. She turns and sees you, asks how you are and you say, with typical English restraint, ‘I’m not making much progress.’ With typical Californian pragmatism, she turns in the water, starts moving with you, encouraging you. You’re not panicking. Neither is she. All this is is a thing. You keep breathing, you keep kicking.
She tells you it’s a dead zone and all you have to do is keep moving, which you do. Sideways as well as forwards but, slowly, you are moving forward. You put your feet down, for the second time, and feel nothing. Panic yells at you from further out and you ignore it.
You stand up, board under one arm and feel, just for a moment like Aquaman crossed with Kirk Douglas. Up and out of the surf and she meets you, smiling, a hand on your shoulder. ‘Congratulations, you just survived a battle with the ocean.’
It takes twenty minutes for your breathing to slow. It turns out that the tidal motion often carves out horizontal troughs in the sea bed that nulls the motion of the water aside from the side ways current created by the trough itself. All you can do when you hit one is pace yourself, keep moving forward until you’ve passed over the trough and then let the tide carry you all the way in.
Which is exactly what you did. You didn’t panic, you didn’t over exert yourself, you just kept breathing, kept swimming and got home. Things could have gone differently and if they had, she would have come and got you. They didn’t, so she didn’t, so now you sit under a parasol, trying to ensure your pasty English manflesh doesn’t turn into bacon whilst she sleeps in the sun and absorbs every iota she can get.
And you can’t stop looking at the waves, and the null spots you think you can see. You can’t stop hearing panic’s cries get quieter as it’s carried out to sea and most of all, you can’t stop looking at that place you lived this afternoon where time stood still. The simple elegance of sun meeting sky meeting sea. You know it’ll be months before you can swim out past the breakers again. You know that doesn’t matter. It’ll be waiting for you, like it waits for everyone. That’s all there is. That’s all there will ever need to be.
This is a coffee urn. It’s the one on the far right hand side of a stack of four, in the Fremont Panera. Panera is a chain of bakeries and coffee shops that litter the Bay Area, sort of a higher end, slightly more folksy Starbucks without the relentless drive to make every empty lot’s industrial uniqueness part of it’s own.
This is a very important coffee urn to me. Because this is the coffee urn that I drank from (Not literally, from a mug, but you get the point), my first morning in California.
Well, to be fair it’s the coffee urn in the spot that the one I first drank from in California sits in. It might not be the exact one, after all, they have four urns working all day and I’m not privy to the vagaries of Panera’s urn scheduling system. But it’s the one that was in the spot this morning so it gets the tumblr post written about it.
This is my third visit to the US and in that time I’ve stood 40 plus storeys above Times Square and watched the city that never sleeps do it’s thing, I’ve wandered the halls of Conventia, the temporary nation state that Indianapolis’ heart consists of and I’ve dashed from shadow to shadow in Austin, a city so brutally, relentlessly cosmopolitan and odd that the traditional, corruption-riddled legislature almost seems embarassed to be there.
Oh and I went through Minnesota briefly, where, for reasons passing understanding we had to cross the border, pick our bags up, recheck them and then get back on the plane. I love all these places, and the radically different character and geography in each, but there’s only one place in the US I consider home; California. Last Summer, the first Summer Marguerite and I lived together, was the start of something amazing. In the space of ten months we would move to the UK, Marguerite would work a brutal 60 hour week legal course, travel to Paris for a mediation contest, acclimatise to both the frequently miserable English weather and the frequently paradoxical little differences in culture and I’d find myself adjusting to a new work environment, new priorities and a growing sense of peace with my own body image and my own eccentric career path. It’s been I love all the other places I’ve mentioned but California is a home, where the others were destinations and this urn is a bi part of the reason why. The first morning Marguerite and I lived together in the apartment here, she took me out for breakfast here. I was still smarting, still raw from the events of the last couple of years and still mildly amazed that America was real, and not a really impressive movie set. She sat me down in here and we drank coffee and ate an orange scone and a quiche and an asiago cheese bagel with egg, bacon and white cheddar and then…we got on with our lives. Lives that have included visits to those other places I mentioned, a concert in Dublin, multiple concerts in Nottingham, a trip top Paris for Marguerite, a series of gradual increases in success for me. Most importantly, it’s involved a trans-atlantic move and Marguerite adjusting to her new life at school and working insanen 60 hour weeks. That will, soon, calm down but the hard work, and the things she;s learnt from it, will always be with her. As will I.
We went there for breakfast this morning. An orange scone, a quiche, an Asiago bagel and coffee from that urn.
The second reason that urn is important to me by the way is that I’ve spent a day working out how to draft this post and use the bottomless coffee urn as a metaphor for why America is so successful. Which is a horrible, horrible metaphor that it took me three cups of hazelnut coffee to realize.
Panera, I salute you. A nation stands upon your shoulders. And it’s feeling AWAKE.
So let’s talk about air travel. I wrote the first draft of this piece a few days ago, but I’m not entirely sure when. You see, I wrote it whilst we were traveling from the UK to the US, in that indeterminate smear of time where your own personal perception becomes unstuck from the clock the world keeps itself on, the long now with occasional cookies and coffee. It’s all terribly Sapphire and Steel, just, somehow even more polite.
Long distance air travel is an extremely odd thing, and becomes even more so when you stop and think about what you’re doing. The seat I was in when I started writing this piece was right at the back, on the left, of a 767. It’s a gorgeous plane, top of the line, wide seats, wider aisles. Which is fortunate because you’re going to be spending nine hours in there.
That’s the first thing you have to remember about air travel, especially if it’s something that frighten you; you are static. The speed and altitude that you’re at is so huge that you simply stop perceiving it. You spend nine hours waiting to be somewhere, and it’s a credit to Delta especially, the airline we flew with, that they carefully don’t key you in on the time. The meals are all carefully anonymized as they fly you into the sun, the long day doubling in length and time standing still. It’s a poetic image if you want it to be, suspended above the Earth, a temporal still point, waiting for the planet to rotate to your destination.
Which brings us to the next question; what do you do to pass the time? Marguerite sleeps. Basically within minutes of the wheels going up. It’s not rock solid sleep, she doesn’t punch straight through but she naps quite peacefully for most of the flight. Me, I take things a little differently, because of my stature. I’m 6’2 and I’m broad shouldered with it and that means the extremities of my body have some negotiating to do with the plane. If you’re tall, get an aisle seat, because you’ll get slightly more leg room. The payoff for this is if you’re broad shouldered, like me, then you’ll be bumped by every trolley that goes past but it’s not that big a problem. One of the best compliments ever paid to me was a steward on a trans-Atlantic flight who, after barging me for the sixth time said ‘I’m sorry my man, you’re built like a quarterback, there’s nothing I can do.’
So instead of sleeping, I read, and write 400 or so words about air travel and watch movies. Because there are a lot of fun distractions loaded into the seat in front of you believe me. Delta have the best library I’ve seen, somewhere in the region of 40 new to newish movies, a smattering of TV shows and music, almost all of which is free. You’ll get offered headphones when the plane first takes off to plug into your armrest so you can get the audio track. Get ahead of the game, bring your own, they’re more comfortable and they last longer.
And believe me, I get my money’s worth. I watched Broken City, Pitch Perfect and The Expendables 2 on the way across the Atlantic and it killed the time quite nicely. I have this weird thing with Mark Wahlberg movies where they’re sort of totemic items for the trip. The first trip out I made, last May, I watched Contraband. The second trip out, in June, there was no Mark Wahlberg movie and it was a god awful flight. This time it was Broken City, and the best trip so far. I just hope Pain and Gain or Transformers 4 have hit the airline circuit by next year.
And believe me, there is an airline circuit. The old gag on the Shaun of the Dead DVD where they showed you the airline language track for Pete’s infamous F bomb isn’t quite the case anymore but there are still changes made. They’re weird and insidious too. Expendables 2, for example, is still a pretty coherent, cheerfully brutal piece of flexed mancake action cinema,. Lots of punching, a whole bunch of CGI blood, stabbing, explosions, old men who should really know better, Bruce Willis and Terry Crews visibly realizing how much better they are than this, the whole nine yards. However, there’s an entire action beat missing where they crash Barney’s flying boat (Which now and forever more will be called the Expendaplane) into a mine filled with Plutonium and even as I write this, I realize why a plane crash sequence may not be something you want to watch on a Trans-Atlantic flight.
I should probably have figured that out earlier but, well, I have been on a plane for 13 hours.
Also, I may need to re-watch Pitch Perfect because, unless the secondary love interest is a secret serial plane crasher, I’m confused as to how that sub plot just sort of wandered off.
Regardless, there’s a lot of stuff to watch, or listen to, or generally distract yourself with. Which brings us to toys. Mp3 players, ipods, ipads, anything with an airplane mode? Keep it on that. Not because you’ll hurl the plane from the sky like the fist of an angry god (Well not just that. And, really? Do you want the deaths of you and your passengers to be blamed on your addiction to Angry Birds Space?) but because roaming charges are the 21st century’s version of a protection racket. A good friend of mine took his iphone with him to Canada for a convention a few years ago. He made no calls, used no internet outside the convention centre wifi and was hit with a roaming charge of £950. Now, he had this lifted firstly because it was bullshit and secondly because he’s a small claims court prizefighter second to none, but don’t put yourself in that position. Our next trip we’re looking at PAYG Sims for the other side of the Atlantic, but, right now we’re just wifi hopping. And believe me, you can. Look.
This is a screengrab from my phone, sitting outside one particular extrusion of the Starbucks hive mind. Each one of those WiFi hubs is a local store. At least three of them are accessible by the general public, including the password locked ones.Silicon Valley does free wifi right.
There is one last thing we need to talk about; panic. You may want to. Here’s the thing; do. Spend a lot of time the night before (After you’ve fully packed, of course) thinking about the absurdity of what you’re about to do; literally flying in the opposite direction to the flow of tim, 40,000 feet abov the Atlantic and Canada, in a pressurised tube.
You’re going to feel claustrophobic.
That’s a GOOD thing.
For two reasons, firstly because claustrophobia tends to mean you shut down a little bit and secondly because, you’re 40,000 above the surface of the Earth. Space is NOT what you need.
Think about all of this. Scream, cry, panic, do what you have to do but do it the night before and write yourself a blank cheque for it because I promise you you’ll get bored and stop of your own accord. Think of it like how much better you always feel the second you’ve vomited; get this out of your system now, then relax, sit back and try and get some sleep. Because what’s waiting for you on the other side, is more space than you’ll ever need and once you get past the panic, you can see the flight for what it really is; an adventure.
I’ve had few experiences odder than sitting in the middle of the Californian hills, the sun setting and turning them a deep gold, and watching a Noel Coward play. The California Shakespeare Company’s 2012 season is in full swing and Blithe Spirit, Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy, is the latest production to grace the Bruns Amphitheater. The building itself is an astonishing contradiction, a digital watch in a fossil bed, that balances elegance with functionality and the technological demands of theater with the need to fit in to the surrounding countryside.
It’s named for Lt George Bruns, an Air Force officer and wrestling champion who rode horses through the Sierra Valley, the location of the theater, and who weas killed in an automobile accident not long before he was scheduled to ship out to Vietnam. It’s built back into one of the hillsides, the stage itself not quite the lowest but definitely the focal point of attention. The stage is in turn framed by the hills behind it and is built out over the valley. Treetops poke up above the top of the Condomine house and, when we saw The Tempest here earlier in the Summer, Ariel was carried off stage by black clad stage hands and disappeared down a set of gantry stairs into the night. This is theater, not without artifice, but far more in touch with the world around it than I’ve seen before, even at the Globe.
Mark Rucker’s production neatly uses the natural surroundings to make the already rarified atmosphere of the play even stranger. Coward’s willfully eccentric prose is an odd fit for the California hills but Annie Smart’s set design anchors it supremely well. We see a living room, a dining room and a set of stairs to a floor that doesn’t exist, a ghost house, ready to be haunted. The two smartest sections of the set are the ones which aren’t immediately apparent, though. The ‘garden’ behind the house not only gives Madam Arcati somewhere to bicycle to the rescue from but also frames the unusual pair of single doors that lead out there. These are a delayed punch of a set piece, serving no purpose except making the audience wonder why they aren’t French doors until the closing moments of the play. There, the mood turns flat out horrific as Ruth and Elvira, both dead, both bitter, circle Charles in opposing direction, spitting the truth at him before stalking off through separate doors. Both dead, both married to Charles, neither happy about either of those facts. This sort of encoding of the plot into the set is continued in the glorious final scene as Charles leaves the house as the two women shake it apart with their ghostly fury, Smart’s set featuring spinning lampshades, toppling tables and books leaping from shelves.
Moving from the natural setting to the theatrical one and from the setting to the cast, this is a superficially light, almost inconsequential play. There’s almost a confessional element to the title, Coward using Blithe to imply light, fluffy, a confection of emotions and blisteringly fast, blisteringly funny dialogue. It’s certainly possible to perform the piece like that but Rucker and his cast find a lot more dramatic meat on the bones, and the end result is a play that always makes you laugh, but sometimes makes you laugh with relief. Tension is rife throughout the piece and the audience’s sympathies shift over and between the four central characters. Charkes, played with clipped British precision by Anthony Fusco is initially a sweet man who has found love for a second time with Ruth after both lost their spouses. The opening scene of them preparing for the séance is sweet and naturalistic in that way that all couples, and all survivors of bereavement, have. You’re grateful to have someone by your side, grateful that you don’t have to fight anymore. But as the play goes on, and Charles’ layers are unpeeled, he becomes less and less sympathetic. Coward, and Rucker, both look the idea that he loves both woman square in the eyes and don’t find him wanting for that but do for almost everything else. Charles knows far more than he lets on and the revenge he chooses to take is through attrition rather than action. He’s a man both too cruel and too beaten down to take direct action, and the moment where Ruth accuses him of playing an elaborate trick neatly implies a history of psychological cruelty. Despite all this, Fusco plays him as a resolutely likable, if increasingly cold, man and his rapid fire exchanges with wives dead and living is a pitch perfect piece of comic timing.
Jessica Kitchens, as Elvira, clearly relishes one of the best first entrances in theater, sweeping through one of the garden doors dressed in a magnificent white dress, hair to match. She’s a whirlwind of decadent energy, throwing herself around the house she died in with absolute abandon and wry charm. She has the most delicate trajectory of the three leads, starting as the implied wronged party and making her way through playful, flirtatious and sweet to out and out disturbing. The moment where Charles realizes she’s trying to kill him to steal him from Ruth is beautifully played by both, especially her protestation that the way he puts it makes it sound ‘beastly’. This is murder as an expression of love, a way of winning the game of society and Elvira has no problem with it, as long as she’s the one who gets to win. As the play continues, though, she transforms again into an embittered, desperate woman trapped with her foe for eternity and more concerned with rubbing Charles’ nose in the dirt than spending her life with him. Her return is their marriage in microcosm; a flare, moments of happiness and bitter grinding recrimination and Kitchens shows us it all in a performance brave enough to be unsympathetic when called upon.
Rene Augesen has one of the two hardest jobs in the production. Ruth, Charles’ current wife is stoic, pragmatic and completely incapable of understanding what’s going on, at least at first. She has comic timing that’s the equal and more of the other two leads, and has some wonderfully arch moments with Madame Arcati and Edith the maid in particular, but Augesen cleverly realizes that the true meat of the role lies in its dramatic potential. Ruth is a woman losing her husband to the dead, a woman later murdered by her predecessor in the role, and Augesen lets us see every inch of her evolution. The scenes where she’s frantically trying to reassure Charles as he tries to reason with her and Elvira at once has a real air of panic and tension to it and Augesen smartly realizes that the humanity of the role is key to the play. Charles is damaged by events, Ruth is changed forever, and her final scene is magnificent. She and Elvira stalk in opposing circles around Charles, their voices rising in a symphony of bitterness and recrimination before stalking out, apparently, back to the afterlife. Ruth is unhappy, then she dies, then she at least has a chance to move on and of all the characters, she remains the most sympathetic. Here’s to better classes of dinner party in the after life.
Those three roles are the whirling dynamo of bitterness and stiff drinks that the production is powered by but Rucker cleverly fills the cast out with equally impressive talent. Kevin Rolston and Melissa Smith as Doctor and Mrs Bradman are a neatly realized counterpoint to Charles and Ruth, Rolston and Smith playing them as a cheerfully stolid couple, secure in their beliefs, their social standing and each other. They have very little to do, but do great work with what they have.
Rebekah Brockman as Edith the maid is one of the production’s secret weapons. She’s instantly funny, without saying anything, every time she’s on stage, her vocal timing matched by some of the best physical comedy I’ve seen on stage in years. She reminded me of Pauline Quirk’s magnificent turn as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, the same earnestness, the same focus and the same complete inability to move at the same speed as everyone around her. During the final scene, she’s required to faceplant during a trance and Brockman attacked the move with such naturalistic relish she got applause for it. A real comic talent to watch out for in the future.
It seems appropriate though that the performance that stuck with me most was the outsider, Madame Arcati. Domenique Lozano is given the Lion’s share of the production’s comedy and makes every single element of it better. She arrives like a tartan-cloaked Mary Poppins, all jolly hockeysticks and strict dietary requirements and leaves just as breezily, just with chaos in her wake. Her method of getting into a trance; one part Charleston, one part very slow motion polite 1920s breakdancing, is a wonder to behold and for most of the play Madame Arcati is a very British kind of clown. She’s completely sincere, completely jolly and completely convinced of the abject seriousness of her work. She’s the target of Charles’ massively ill-fated trick, she’s viewed as the help by Ruth and Elvira delights, grumpily, in showing Madame Arcati her abilities. All of them exploit her, none of them take her seriously until it’s too late and somehow, despite all this, she maintains her cheerful demeanor. It’s a delicate balancing act between holy fool and self confidence and Lozano definitely comes down on the side of self confidence. I’ve met Madame Arcati, or women like her, many, many times and Lozano’s performance is as uncanny as it is endearing.
Which brings us back to the Californian side of this equation. Coward is so quintessentially British that this is a production that will rise and fall on two things; the speed with which his trademark rapid fire banter is delivered and the accents. The banter is there and there perfectly, each line crammed with information and double meaning even as the next is stacked over it, an elaborate music hall routine of regret and recrimination. The accents are at least as good, and I was listening with very discerning ears. There were three syllables in the whole play that sounds American, each one going by so fast you were reacting to them after they’d faded. The rest was exactly as it should be; clipped, precise, funny, bitter and desperate.
Blithe Spirit is a mercurial play, one that reflects what you bring to it. There’s a light, frothy comedy of manners here certainly and Rucker’s cast excel at that. But where they truly shine is in the moments between the laughs; the inhuman grace of the dead wives, the quiet malice of Charles’ pranks, Madame Arcati’s routines, the offhand way in which Edith’s concussion is mentioned and Mrs Bradman’s interest in spiritualism dismissed. This is a play about the moments where the veil falls away, and how sometimes what lies beyond isn’t just the departed, but the truth about the people around us. May it haunt stages for years to come.
(Photos taken with the 360Panorama iphone app from Occipital. The full panoramic versions, along with the other panoramic shots I take can be viewed here)
My favorite Greg Proops’ routine involves him talking about ‘Fuck Off Puritan’ day, the companion holiday to Independence Day in the UK. Whilst I’ve never yet managed to celebrate FOP Day, I did get the opportunity to celebrate Independence Day last week. I jokingly referred to it as Meat and Explosions Day. I wasn’t wrong.
There are three differences between Independence Day and Bonfire Night’s handling of fireworks. The first is exactly what fireworks are, or aren’t, handled. It’s illegal in California to launch bottle rockets, or aerial fireworks, without a permit because if you do, you have no control on where they land. This is a state filled with bone dry grass land so the wrong firework landing in the wrong place is a world of trouble for everybody. So much so in fact that there’s a thousand dollar fine for setting them off. Which, of course, stops no one. It does mitigate them though so bottle rockets still go off, they just tend to hurtle along at about four storeys up, like a really festive version of shock and awe.
The second major difference is in safety, both because of the bottle rockets and the distance from ground effect fireworks. I grew up in England where a wide varity of 1970s character actors spent much of the decade on TV yelling at me that if I stood within about thirty feet of a firework going off I might live as some hideously mauled shadow of the boy I once was, within twenty feet I’d die screaming and within ten all I’d see would be the bright flash and then the polite 1940s WAF angels would be welcoming me into heaven.
Distance isn’t really a factor in the US. The family members sat down maybe ten feet away and the intrepid younger generation spent the evening less than six feet away from the fireworks. We weren’t alone either, there were groups up and down the street doing the exact same thing.
The third major difference was, for want of a better word, exuberance. I’m a big fan of bonfire night, always have been, because it’s so utterly contradictory and so utterly British. We simultaneously pillory and burn in effigy a man who attempted to commit what would have been a defining domestic act of terrorism and lionize him at the same time. It’s a little reserved, a little polite, shuffled off to the corner as something for the kids whilst the rest of us turn up to a community fireworks display, watch it, eat a baked potato and go home.
In contrast, the 4th of July is exuberant, rowdy and a little martial. This is a military holiday after all, one built around a victory that defined the nation and as a result, it’s easy to understand why so many people of all ages are so exuberant. Where Bonfire Night is a salutation to a man with a big idea, regardless of how you feel about that idea, Independence Day is all about a definitive, undeniable victory. It’s a win, a cessation in hostilities and as a result the entire country lets it’s hair down.
The drive home took about an hour and took us down and through the hills back to the Bay Area. We saw fireworks the whole time, all around us, the sky lighting up every few minutes. On the way down, we talked about what it’d be like to be in Eureka, the NASA airship that operates out of the Bay Area on a night like this. The city a string of jewels beneath you, the fireworks detonating around it. The sky blooming for no one, it would seem, but you. Personal joy, personal pride, in a nation sized achievement. That’s independence day.
The bridge casts a long shadow, and fiction lies at the other end of it. It floats across the bay, suspended between two hills at the boundary of the bay area’s micro climate. As the day rolls on you see clouds start to form as the air builds up around the top of the hills, the fog coalescing and rolling down the hills in curtains. Not long after that, it hits the bridge and does the same thing, a slow motion water fall of mist, a curtain drawn across the bay, the production that is San Francisco going on behind it.
The bridge isn’t an easy crossing. It’s up hill, slightly but definitively, on the first half and down on the second, a slow crescent stretched across the bay that carries everyone but doesn’t carry anyone comfortably. Pedestrians cram onto the walkways, bikes weave their way around them or fly down the bike only route on the opposite side and the cars never stop. Other roads I’ve been on in San Francisco are veins. This is an artery, pushing a thick, tight throng of cars through to each side of the bay, keeping the blood flowing, keeping the music playing, keeping the city alive.
The bridge changes the scale of everything around it. The water looks almost nearby until you see how far away the tour boats are and that distance, and your proximity to it, is seductive. Around 1300 people have killed themselves jumping from the bridge and it’s easy to see why. Where better to make a statement than on a statement? Where better to end a life than on the terminus between ocean, ground and air? Halfway across a small electric car carrying a member of the bridge patrol passed us. I nodded to him and he nodded back. I don’t envy his job, but I’m glad he’s there to do it.
The bridge is a constantly evolving thing, constantly being painted to help prevent rust. Suicide barriers have just had their funding approved and looking around you can see guide rails for workmen going up the central cables, all the way to the top of each tower. Every few meters there are ladders up from the level below, the Bridge Patrol are constantly in evidence and the overall effect is one part industrial and one part nautical. It feels like a ship, one where the crew are constantly at work but only rarely visible, a constant sense of motion ambered into a bridge that’s stationary even as it arcs and curves. It’s one of the few places where the machinery of the city is visible, where the cogs and gears show and it’s all the more beautiful for that. San Francisco, a city culturally based on inclusion, ensuring the first thing the world sees is beautiful and functional. This is us, take it or leave it.
Cycling back from the bridge we stopped at Crissy Field. The ride up had been difficult, head winds all the way and the vestiges of foot traffic but on the way back we stopped and looked back. We’d set out late in the day and the sun, at 7.40, was just starting to drop beneath the bridge.
San Francisco’s polished red bones. A gateway to the Bay. A terminus. The bridge between the outside world and the city, between fiction and reality and from one side of the bay to the other. It’s potential made real; an arc of motion captured and stretched across the sky. Art that thousands of people use every day. The bridge isn’t just a terminus, it’s a foundation. No wonder Starfleet Academy is based here.
By the time we got most of the way down the piers, we were in severe need of a break. It was a Saturday, and a Saturday on Pride weekend no less so the town was packed, one of the streets was backed up, a pier had burnt down and was roped off and as a result, traffic was a mess. We walked at least as far as we rode and finally decided to stop and grab some late lunch at Boudin’s.
The first sight I had of Boudin’s was a crowd of people gathered around a window, listening to someone make a presentation. What was unusual was they were following a baker, who, on a radio mike inside the restaurant, was walking them through how sourdough is made. To one side of her was even a lobster, made out of sourdough bread, whilst behind her the bakery stretched out and up to cover a sizable chunk of the restaurant.
Boudin’s is actually three buildings in one; a remarkably well heeled bar downtairs, a restaurant upstairs and the bakery. Which is also the brewery, thanks to the unusual nature of sourdough bread. Walled in behind glass, it’s an odd space that combines a brewery, and the deep yeasty smell you associate with it, with a bakery. The reason is simple, sourdough bread is made from dough which has been allowed to sour, the yeasts continuing to work and changing the bread’s flavor and consistency in doing so. It’s fascinating material, especially as every time you make some, you save some of the dough. This dough, known as mother dough or seed sour needs to be fed with water and flour once a week to remain active and can stay at room temperature indefinitely. Each time you make new sourdough, you add it in. Once you’re finished, you keep a small amount of dough to one side to become your new seed sour. This leads to the frankly amazing, and relatively common, sight of San Francisco natives taking seed sour with them when they move away and maintaining it successfully for years.
We sat in the restaurant upstairs, out on the balcony, just across from one of the piers and a magnificently dreadful hair band who remained in full flow throughout the afternoon. The street widens and pools here, people moving in broader, slower patterns that are easier to navigate.
We were, of course, given a bowl of sourdough with butter whilst we worked out what to order. Like any harbour town, San Francisco’s big on sea food so Marguerite went for the fish and chips and I ordered the clam chowder, in a sourdough bowl. This is an extraordinarily clever dish because the chowder is both rich and thick, meaning it doesn’t soak into the bread, which is naturally tougher than normal bread, particularly quickly. The end result is you get handed what’s essentially a dinner plate sized sphere of bread with the top cut out and handed to you as dipping bread and the hollow filled with clam chowder. Clam chowder that’s both nicely peppery and made from clams that were in the bay you can see from you’re sitting not too long before you sat down. It tastes amazing too, with the bread both slightly saltier and tougher than normal but with a far more overt flavor.
I polished the bowl off in short order and was amazed to find that the soup was so good and the bread so dense that I could literally scrape the bowl dry. This is the genius of this dish in particular and sourdough in general; it’s a bread uniquely intertwined with it’s environment, precise, tasty and at the same time completely in harmony with what’s around. It’s food that’s elegant as well as delicious without having any of the artifice you’d expect. That combination, form and function, is something which we’d see in visceral detail when we got to the bridge.
The thing that’s not entirely apparent about San Francisco is how dispersed it is. I’ve written before about the way that the city is really the heart of a constellation of cities, but I’ve realized there’s more to it than that. San Francisco is a city which exists in suspension, a series of bridges stitching everything together and in turn suspending the actual city just beneath it’s fictional counterpart.
The Golden Gate bridge is the bridge between the two cities. It’s iconic in that effortless, almost nonchalant way only bridges seem to be able achieve; standing across the mount of the colossal bay that San Francisco wraps itself around and filled with a never ending stream of traffic, commuters moving between different districts, rendered abstract by their cars and their numbers, each one a lone signal in an ocean of traffic and possibility. Starfleet Headquarters is here, as is Eli Stone’s office, Karl Malden and Michael Douglas’ hard charging police officers, the politely eccentric men who work for Martin Bishop. All of them live in both cities and all of them take the Golden Gate to and from work.
Although I’m betting none of them bike there.
We hopped the BART into town late afternoon. I love the BART, firstly because it’s carpeted, secondly because it’s spacious and actually comfy and thirdly because it’s part of a joke in the Star Trek movies that it took me almost three decades to get. The classic era movies in particular feature a lot of shuttling between Starfleet Headquarters and orbit, as often as not carried out by shuttlepods. These worker bee ships were always a design favorite of mine and now I live in Fremont, I know why they look like they do. They’re BART trains, fitted with impulse engines, pressurized and put to work. Starfleet is nothing is not cost conscious.
Once we got into town we found ourselves outside Pier 1. San Francisco is a port on an industrial and still heavily worked scale. The piers are colossal buildings covering jetties that in many cases still service vessels. In the time we were at the bridge, for example,a US Navy ship passed beneath us and had docked at one of the piers we rode past on the way back. A single pier building covers if not a city block then a good sized chunk of one. There are over forty, lined up along a street that, appropriately, has a name that sits halfway between languages; the Embarcadero.
‘There is no social message in this artwork of oversize whimsy. It says nothing about local history or culture. The aluminum skin is a surprise amid the Embarcadero’s masonry buildings. It is what it is: a curvilicious gleam that captures the gee-whiz air of futurism past, on loan from the Black Rock Arts Foundation. The Port Commission will vote Tuesday on whether to let Raygun Gothic stay until October 2012, and how can anyone say no? This is art that sparks imagination and joy, the stuff of which vibrant cities are made.’
John King, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle
Then we found Raygun Gothic and I started grinning. Raygun Gothic is a burnished aluminium mirage that sites at the edge of the Embarcadero, a block up from a colossal stature of an arrow buried in the ground and five minutes into 1960’s future. The ghost of the Apollo program, of the moment where humanity stepped outside Earth orbit, gleams on the shore, catching sunlight and presenting itself on a sky the color of blue fire, where Eureka, NASA’s Bay Area-based airship was in mid flight. The future was here, and it had arrived in style, covered in burnished Aluminum and accompanied by an orchestra of theremins.
I’ve accreted a decent amount of cooking knowledge over the last few years. I do a pretty good pesto, I’ve got pizza dough down, I can put together a chilli that anyone who doesn’t live in California, Texas or Mexico can actually get behind and I’m starting to level up in preparing and cooking meat. However, when it comes to sheer texture, and color? I remain a vegetable boy.
That came out wrong.
Anyway, we went to the local Farmer’s Market today which is not the rural affair these things tend to be in England. For a start, it takes over a parking lot just behind the Pharmacist and across from Taco Bell. Then there’s the fact that it’s in front of one of the local graveyards and on top of that, the first stall you see bears the sign:
COME LEARN ABOUT JESUS AND BE SAVED
It’s the same basic principle as church jumble sales in the UK just a little bit more intense, as so much is over here. Buy some vegetables and BE SAVED, instead of buy some cakes, sit down and have a cup of tea with the Priest and talk a bit about God if you feel like it, no pressure, as it is in the UK.
Salvation sighted if not actively run towards, we started shopping and what blew me away was the odd combination of familiar and absolutely alien. Take for example, these:
Those are cucumbers, yet everything in my experience tells me they’re courgettes or marrows. I know at least some of this comes from ignorance on my part, especially when I saw these:
Melons of some sort I think, but look at the colors and the shapes, look at how bright they are. I love this sort of stuff especially when it’s on tables next to stuff I recognize like tomatoes and peppers. It’s like finding new words in a language you previously knew very well and it makes the words you do know sound different when you encounter them. Like these:
Suddenly you see the color and the texture, the stuff you’ve missed before. You see how these things interact and how incredibly beautiful they are in an Earthy, organic, lumpy sort of way. There’s art here, not artifice, and it was an incredibly peaceful half hour, just wandering around the market, slowly picking up what we needed. And even better, we got to eat it all too.