I’ve never seen the sky this colour in the years I’ve lived here, somewhere between Methyl Violet and Lobelia Blue. It has an unreal feel to it, like the old Stereoscope cards from the 1950s. And it comes on the heels of two nights of unprecedented lightning strikes that went on for hours, like slow-motion, erratically staggered strobe lights, along with the distant rumble of thunder. There is, very rarely, every few years, a bit of thunder and lightning during the summer in San Francisco, but I can recall nothing remotely like this. A high wind has suddenly kicked up, ominously bending the large palm in the backyard, freighted with decades of unpruned dead fronds and bedizened with thick ropes of trumpet vine with its orange flowers.
The enormous, blinking radio tower on Twin Peaks is half-hidden in mist, as it usually is this time of morning. And the N Judah streetcar rattles and squeals in and out of the tunnel below every fifteen minutes or so, as it routinely does, except on weekends and holidays when the intervals between trains are longer. I have woken to its sound and fallen asleep, often late, to the last train in the very early morning, for nearly 38 years now. Much else has changed around me here, but these two, the streetcar and mist, have not. I suppose they have become more a part of my identity than I realise.
In the spring of 2009 I received a phone call from someone who worked for a programme on the Travel Channel called No Reservations, of which I had never heard. He told me they were planning to shoot an episode in San Francisco over the summer and would I be interested in appearing. As no one had ever asked me to be on television before (or since), I said: ‘Sure.’ I was told that the star, Anthony Bourdain, had borrowed a copy of my book of essays, Cutty, One Rock, on a long flight to Sri Lanka from one of his staff and liked it so much he wanted to have me on his show. ‘That’s nice,’ I thought to myself.
I took a walk in the forest the other day, a national forest. I’m not, customarily, big on walking in the forest unless there’s a Hansel and Gretel Bar & Grill about 300 yards in, but I’m glad I did. It was an uncommonly sultry April afternoon for San Francisco, and windless, rarer still.
It recently dawned on me that the volumes of collected poems popular these days in trade publishing are often a literary auto-da-fe. Are there a dozen people who have read The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara or The Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg from cover to cover? On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Lunch Poems and Howl, first and still published by San Francisco’s City Lights Books, have been prized and pored over by throngs of happy readers for decades.
Whither the sea lions? That’s what’s on the minds of many here in San Francisco these days, no less than the vanished Nigerian head of state has puzzled citizens in that corner of the world. They disappeared a couple of months ago from their gathering place on the now abandoned boat docks at the foot of Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf, after the Disney parks the third most visited tourist attraction in the United States. Disgusting and malodorous as they were, lolling about and barking, plastering the docks with guano, occasionally slipping into the Bay for sustenance, these creatures were, apparently, the big draw on the pier, an open-air, rectangular hell of T-shirt, junk food and gee-gaw shops. There is absolutely not one single reason to visit Pier 39 unless you are a conspicuously unimaginative family with small children and a camera from Terre Haute, Indiana on holiday.
I called Poluszny, my friend the retired cabdriver. He knows many things. ‘Paolo,’ I said, ‘where did the sea lions go to?’