fleet week, blue angels

It is a perfect October day: warm, blue-green-and-golden light poured over every scene like a potter’s glaze.

The long, green strip of the Panhandle is dotted with people at leisure: couples in each others’ arms, men and women pushing babies in strollers, drummers, cyclists, athletes, bench sitters. The constant roar of traffic is a dull and distant backdrop.

In the midst of this comes a shattering sky-filling scream, a sound that momentarily seems to take all of the surrounding air for itself, leaving you gasping. Then the jets are visible, flying like shaftless arrowheads through the air, or as if the sky were flesh on a body inside which we lived, and we could watch as some unexpected knife pierced through and ripped it open.

Through the gash left behind by the Blue Angels’ passing, other things come into view: a filthy man in rags, muttering angry curses, a child bombarding a squirrel with rocks, a wall-eyed girl beating futilely on the arms of a man pinning her down.

The screaming machines that a moment before seemed an absurd intrusion in the idyll have forced their logic on us. Once you accept that logic, you are in its sphere and you will close your eyes to anything.

What the Blue Angels’ roar eliminates, what their presence really protects us from, is the impermissible idea that our life in this world might have been wholly otherwise.

the irish have risen (to the top of nob hill)

This weekend the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising was celebrated with a concert at Grace Cathedral. In that grand space the words rebellion, oppression, socialism – set to a new operatic score – reverberated down the chilly nave, absorbed in the folds of the comfortable flesh of a flush-faced, suburban crowd.

Interspersed with the cantos of high style were some old country laments – pipes, flute, harp, fiddle, drum. Plaintive and joyful at once, heartrendingly beautiful. The music of exile and loss to which you must dance. Composed by people whose names are gone forever from our collective memory.

From these heights (the biggest flag you ever saw atop the Mark Hopkins Hotel across the park) Jones Street plunges down to the darkest trough of the meanest city blocks, where the hopes of the new Irish come to grief at the hands of the cops, politicians, and bureaucrats with the lyrical names.

All true human music is the sound of exile. Our comfort surrounds an abyss; our freedom is only an absence. Let us at least keep making music, then. The streets are rivers of music, and rivers flow where they will.

the messengers

I went to Ocean Beach and it was gone. In twenty years i had never seen this: the surf crashed directly against the base of the enormous dunes that buffer the shore, behind which the Great Highway runs. The shoreline road was empty for as far as i could see, preternaturally so at midday, until i realized that it might have been closed because of flood risk from the king tide, or blowing sand from the wild winds.

I stood atop the dunes, where one or two other solitary persons pensively regarded a deep, multilayered line of storm clouds roiling landward, a study in pattern formation. The wind exhilarated me; it was full of high portent. This is only the beginning, it said. Go and hide inside a world of pixilated screens for as long as you think you can: put on those chintzy goggles, strap computers to your wrists, stuff headphones in your ears, or infuse the physical world before you with algorithmic animation projected onto a piece of expensive eyewear – but I will be howling outside through every crack in your shoddy sand castle walls, and you haven’t yet seen the least of what I can do.

It wasn’t speaking to me personally of course. (That’s madness.) It was speaking to the ages to come; i’d be long gone before the prophecy it whispered was fulfilled:

When the wind blows
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall

How well everything works now! i thought as i rode back on the streetcar docile and omnipotent. The massive cranes moving up and down atop the new high-rises. The lights come on, go off, in sequence, as other machines tell them to. My credit card! Food, medicine, plants for my garden – i got all these with a promise made upon a small piece of plastic-covered circuitry. All these people i’ve never met from all over the globe are providing me with everything i need for a comfortable life, instead of storming the gates of their rulers’ palaces, to get back some of the wealth they are hoarding, most of which exists only as two digits, zero and one, in a dimensionless realm of similarly insubstantial promises. The Emperor’s New Stock Options…

The faces along the bar
Cling to their average day
The lights must never go out
The music must always play –

Lest we should see where we are
Lost in a haunted wood
Children afraid of the dark
Who have never been happy or good.

But i was happy walking home in the soft rain. It felt like a blessing – rather this cool, gentle rain is what priestly blessings were invented to imitate and supersede. Then across the street and a little way behind me i heard a shriek – an unearthly sound. I glanced back and a man stood there with something strange in his stance. I couldn’t see him well, half hidden behind a parked car. But as i looked he turned his face towards me and it was young and impish, filled with a hideous, staring grin. The eyes wide and yellow-white as eggs on a brown plate. He seemed possessed of a dreadful joy. He shrieked again, an indescribable sound. And then he began to cross the street toward me, in the midst of the roaring traffic. He loped as if his uncontainable joy were forcing him to dance. Cars swerved to avoid him.

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy…

I turned and walked on as fast as i could, breathing in panicked gasps. I heard his shrieks intermittently behind me; no matter how quickly i moved, i couldn’t get them to sound any farther away. I was almost running, scrambling up the steep hill. I didn’t dare to look back.

I was nearly home before i couldn’t hear the shrieks anymore. I kept thinking i would turn around and see him loping after me, desperate to give me the message with which his madness filled him. Here, this is for you.

The next day a mild sun shone; i went out to take a walk. I walked down the hill, stopped at the store, came out and there he was at the bus stop.

He beamed with joy, and shrieked.

Only the beginning

the chronotope: mission dolores

There is a rough circle of people standing in front of the church, holding a banner. One man is chanting, a staff with a bird’s claw at the end gripped in his hand. Another man is holding burning sage, releasing fragrant smoke as he moves within the circle. The rest of the people are somber and silent.

Cars crawl along the street, slowing so drivers can gawk.

On the banner is the name of a man who founded a system under which a hundred thousand people died for the sake of the church – not this physical place, but the timeless, placeless entity that binds this world to an unseen one in worship of a murdered god. Five thousand ancestors, the people are told, who were taken from their homes forever and brought here to work for the glory of the church, lie uneasily under the street where they stand. Now an unending line of cars crawls over their bones.

Suffering that has never been redressed is being redoubled as the bells toll for the new sainthood of this man of the church. The women and men who speak, or pray, or sing, speak of suffering. Suffering that happened three hundred years ago or more imbues their present lives. For “the past is never over, it isn’t even past,” another man once said, speaking of all people and their suffering.

What is a ghost but the remnant of unacknowledged, unredressed suffering? So not only this street but all the streets of the city are filled with ghosts. The city builds and builds, in a frenzy, desperate to escape the past, but the past follows, like a bell on a running dog’s tail.

Both the suffering people and the church claim to speak in the name of their religion. One religion preached unending gratitude for this world and its life-giving bounty, the other preached that it was a vile skin to be sloughed off, a kingdom of death. One believed that place was all – the place the people lived was instilled with the deep time from which they had emerged and into which they would return one day. The other believed that place was nothing – the whole world must be conquered and utterly transformed, to avenge and vindicate the murdered god.

The knot of people will disperse, having witnessed their suffering. The church will stand, the canonization will stand, the cars will rush along into the future. The hatred for the unbuilt world that has created the city will go on building it higher and higher.

But the place, the time-space in which the suffering occurred will not disappear. The people who recognize it will recognize one another and persist. Whether they whisper or shout, “Junipero Serra is no saint,” they will not relent.

Ghosts have lost time and place, but the people are alive because the time-space gives them life. And they acknowledge it, and are grateful. Though the built world teems with ghosts, they have shown what it is to be alive.

after a reading at city lights bookstore

Read in commemoration of Csaba Polony, founder, editor and publisher of Left Curve magazine, at The Emerald Tablet, North Beach, San Francisco, July 9, 2014.

Perhaps after all nothing does really happen, nothing of cosmic import that is, in a lifespan, but there are these moments. One April afternoon in the early 21st century there was a reading for Left Curve magazine in the Poetry Room at City Lights Bookstore, 60 years of San Francisco and who knows how many centuries of literary history crowded into every corner of that close-timbered attic, where it’s warm, even hot, and alive with the stolid friendly enduring presence of aging bohemians still making that history in word, image, song, still tenaciously keeping it going, a flashing stream through strip-malled acres of oily asphalt and cracked plastic, and big seagulls strut the alley rooftops outside framed against a slice of city sky fading like old jeans. The air is richer in there; you don’t have the psychic daily struggle to breathe. Like walking in a hushed, dense cathedral of redwood pillars up north once, dreaming life in the world where this shred of forest still stretched unbroken for five thousand miles. It changes nothing outward, you’ll still go home and stare at the TV chattering like a senile uncle that night, but first steal a moment with these vivid, close-pressing ghosts, and hold at bay the pervading ghostliness of life in this weirdly soft, vicious time. Robert Lowell said it in the toxic ‘50s when City Lights, to be their antithesis, was born, the words no doubt encased somewhere on the shelves in that room, but why must they still be true? – a savage servility slides by on grease. You won’t be at the necessary bar afterwards for the revels, but you will walk the twilight streets of North Beach as if they belonged to you for once, heads that sense the unforced happiness that’s possible in human life even turning in the sidewalk cafes, and with a dear companion have a meal at the U.S. Restaurant, where the food’s almost militantly average– the bread’s a bit stale and the wine is sour, but better so because the tourists and poseurs never go in there even though it’s right on the strip. It’ll be quiet, like the rest of the slide back into obscurity – but we’re all in such good company there anyway, and on the way home there’s one more moment to steal of time-bound but time-transcending beauty, a movie moment of gauzy San Francisco night at the top of Taylor Street, where below in the steep distance the empty prison looms upon the bay that glitters with electric phosphorescence in the darkened, mist-softened air, and to the east down Vallejo Street there’s the Bay Bridge all lit up with a mobile light show of its own like a cartoon of carnival organ pipes, cartoon fireflies of traffic clustering and swirling brightly at its feet, and equally illuminated and self-consciously iconic is Coit Tower that you no more than Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo ever thought you’d be grateful for, but now you are, that you no more than he or his ghostly lover ever had any part in creating, any of this – but now, the faintest trace, perhaps. Back into nothing we fade, but we were here. Suddenly a memory of Castro Street in the early 1990s, the years of pages-long special supplement obituaries, another ending time in the unending fin de siècle of endings, flickering out in the tarry flood of great imperial decline: free love, peace movements, revolutions – going, going, gone – and someone had wheat-pasted a poster on the wall at the corner of Castro and Market, outside that big-windowed bar a grim wag dubbed the “Glass Coffin,” the poster just a small black square with white lettering, the brave lone quote from Sappho:

someone, I tell you, in some future time, will think of us.

up the hill, down the hill

Up the hill, someone bowed under an arrangement of sacks and bags comes trudging, wavering a little – man or woman? Can’t tell from the back. Hooded, face shrouded. Old? Maybe not,  just poor-old. Tired – yes, for sure. Uncertainty and tiredness in every step up that steep street. The bags are bright and festive, miscast on this bowed, gray back.

Out of her house, pretty white Victorian, comes a woman loudly counseling on the phone: “You don’t have to resort to your anger with him, you know. There are other emotions you can use.” No eyes behind her shiny dark glasses, scarf fluttering in the delicate breeze, mouth downturned a little. Her hand waves slightly in confirmation of what she is saying. Down the hill she sweeps, passing the climber without a side-glance, to the big car carelessly angled out at the curb.

How fortunate, that she can spend time on the phone helping with a friend’s emotional crisis! It is such a privilege not to have to carry all you have up a steep street, not to have to find the bags first tossed away somewhere and then pack everything in them and go on the weary rounds looking for another place to sit, where the dogs or the police won’t roust you, shadowed by the hood that shelters you from the world’s narrowed gaze. Not to totter with every step in badly fitting shoes but sweep along, always flowing down the hill, fixing the pain of living with your competent words, money in your purse that never runs low or out without being replenished, giving you so much time not to get old, in fact to stay in that childhood nearly forever, where what we feel so deeply, deeply matters.

the city once upon a time: etched in concrete:

James Brown 4 Prez

Women Loving Women

Free the People, Free the Haight

The Goddess is Alive – Don’t Forget!

End Racism – Never Too Soon

You’ll Never Forget John Stamet

Il faut cultiver nos jardins

And the snowshoes said to the pinecone “follow me into the forest…”

A Tree Should Have Been Planted Here

Smoke More Pot

Eye Contact is the Extractor of Rapport


Recycle Your Car (in front of DMV)

Art Above Commerce

Max Yasgur Lives

McDonald’s and World Bank Responsible for Destroying 50,000 Acres of Rainforest Daily


Time for the Timeless