Seven years ago today, I checked out of the Hotel Rex in Union Square and took a taxi to 2211 Taylor St. in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. There I met my youngest brother. We sat, on that clear May morning, at the cafe across the street with an angel on its awning, drinking coffee and waiting for a moving truck to arrive.
The night before I had left 3 years and one graduate degree in Austin, Texas. I had moved. To California, to San Francisco, to the neighborhood of the Beats and hot marinara sauce, where Joe Dimaggio first picked up a bat and cable cars rattled up Columbus Avenue beginning at dawn.
I had to moved to San Francisco, to the neighborhood everybody thinks of when they think of San Francsico.
North Beach and I lasted two years. In April of 2002, I bought a 3-room condo across town in Haight Ashbury, the other iconic San Francisco neighborhood, the neighborhood of Ginsberg and Garcia, of patouli, and cut rate weed and homeless kids gathered at the entrance to Golden Gate Park. If North Beach is where all of San Francico goes to remember, Haight Ashbury is largely where they went to forget.
I won't be in this neighborhood forever but they may lay me down someday in this city. We fight and make up. We hate each other in our own pigheaded whirls of anger. But I always come back. The place still nourishes me, still reminds of that here I live the life I'm meant to, and still tells me why I should.
Gary Kamiya, a Writer at Large for Salon, had a fabulous piece some months back about North Beach and how the neighborhood seems to hold the city's collective sense of longing, of wanting there to be a Golden Age to remember and mourn. Truth is though...
There never was a Golden Age. North Beach has been dining out on its myth forever. We're nostalgic for Jack Kerouac? Well, guess what -- Jack Kerouac was nostalgic for Jack London, and Jack London was envious of Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Louis Stevenson thought that Mark Twain got there first and ate all the candy, and Mark Twain -- he just wanted to be back on the Mississippi. The first Chilean who stumbled up Telegraph Hill and nailed a plank on Alta Street 150 years ago sat there looking out over the Bay and said to himself, "This Is It!" in big mental neon letters, and we've all been reciting that same smug mantra, the slogan of the Alan Watts Realty, ever since.
The thing I hate the most about San Francisco is its brattiness, its endless contention that things are terrible now and with it, the assumption that there was a "then" when they weren't. It's a spoiled child attitude, one born of having it all yet more content to have a chip on your shoulder about most of it.
The thing I love the most about San Francisco is everything that makes us spoiled to begin with. It's a charmed life we lead when we can bitch about the lost soul of one neighborhood when there are 9 others in a 49 sq. mile radius that could vye for that same honor.
We don't see it most of the time but when it counts we do, on breathtaking days like today, on anniversaries also like today, and when we wonder if we could, in both good faith and thoughtful intention, live anywhere else.
We know the pot of gold is bogus, but we still keep going there. We've been doing it for years -- as young men, not so young men and now not young men at all. We keep heading to North Beach, keep turning left on Churchill Alley out of the Broadway tunnel, even though in those 30 years we have never yet once hit the jackpot, felt the supreme high, made the scene, danced the dance, met the chick, seen the best minds of our generation doing anything, let alone walking through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.
Maybe it's ok I spent this evening in Marin, north of the city, having dinner with my friend Holly. I always leave our time together ready to take on the world but I want to lay the first brick in the home castle here. I want to mount the army here also, close and feed them, and have them over to the home castle on my birthday.
I like to leave here, even on special days. But only when I know that love will bring me back.
But it doesn't matter. There's always next time. And when you finally begin to understand that there ain't going to be no next time, that this is it, that's OK. You don't need North Beach to give up its secrets because you know them all. Because you're on the corner of Grant and Green in this sad old Italian valley beneath its two guardian hills looking down like kindly old paisans, and the waves are lapping down at Aquatic Park to the north and the filthy numberless alleys of Chinatown lurk to the south, and the glasses in every bar are full and Broadway is stupid jammed with John Dos Passos sailors and the Palmistry sign is reflected in the upper windows of Vesuvio and the parrots are flying above Washington Square and the Mason Street cable car rattle-clatters onto Columbus and you're at the dead center of town, the bull's-eye, where you've been a thousand times before and where you will always return, where you left your heart, and where you found it.
Happy Anniversary, San Francisco and your crazy, wicked ways. Sleep it off. I'll see you in the morning.