Friday, August 31, 2007
A year ago I wrote about the death of the son of some really good friends. He was at the Burning Man gathering in Nevada at the time, and this is the anniversary; the event is happening again now. Our friends are drawn to it, to see what it is that their son loved so much, as a way to connect to him. More than several decades beyond the demographic, they really want us to join them for some sort of mutual support. So we are. As some may already know, it takes place in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada, in a dry lake bed, where the soil is hard-baked and cracked, crunched into dust by the feet of tens of thousands of celebrants, and wind-blown into faces. Bring masks, they recommend. Be prepared for 105 degree heat, and for the fact that other than porta-potties, nothing is provided. For fifty-one weeks of the year, it's as empty and desolate as the moon. Not, I need to admit, my preferred milieu. We're only going for a day, having opted against tents or campers. The idea is just to get the feel of the place, to mingle with the crowd. Our friends are bringing some of their son's ashes.
So at the moment we're in San Francisco, our home for seven years (with a couple away for the Vietnam War) when I was in training, thirty years ago; it's the first time I've been back in a very long time. We've met our friends here, and will be driving to Reno for a night on either end, the hot spot in the middle. I'm expecting to be close enough to heat stroke and exhaustion that I'll not be able to appreciate the beautiful naked bodies that are a hallmark of the event. (If I'm wrong, I'll let you know.)
It's amazing how little the city by the bay has changed in the past thirty years. The downtown is different in places; and the street cars now traverse Market Street under ground, which is nice. But the neighborhoods look just the way we left them. Store fronts reside under different signage. Our favorite ice creamery is now a Thai restaurant. But the San Francisco streets and the homes thereon are as they have been and, seemingly, will always be. I loved it then, and do still. Near the med center we saw men and women walking around in scrubs; I felt a desire to approach to see if they were surgical residents, or OR people. To tell them I'd been there, too. I knew the place, I was like them. But I didn't.
Golden Gate Park is a treasure. Some of the buildings are different (notably, the de Young Museum is entirely new, and not particularly attractive: but it has a tower with a spectacular 360 degree view). The grounds, the roads, the trails -- much travelled by us in those days -- remain as they were, and beautiful. When we lived here (it pains me to say we actually bought the little house we'd been renting, and sold it when we left. If only.....) we had a guy come to help us clean up the unexpectedly deep and narrow back yard which included a tall cypress tree. Having cleared and pruned, we then maintained the yard as a personal refuge from the city and the fog as it often cat-footed to our front door, but didn't dog us in the back. Abutting a shoulder of "Tank Hill," which is an appendage of Twin Peaks, our yard looked onto a barren hillside, alone, and felt like an oasis plunked into Arizona. We had a pond into which I implanted a little fountain, aerating some goldfish and lily pads. The guy I mentioned was an old man -- twenty years older than I am now. We found him in the phone book under AA Landscaping. Good marketing plan. When much younger he'd actually worked under John MacLaren, the original landscaper of Golden Gate Park, helped plant the place. Chester Christiansen, his name was, and he tore through our overgrown place (the previous occupants had let it go, to say the least) like a helpful hurricane, discovering terraces and tiles, weed-hidden shrubs and plants. He even brought us some of his own flora, gratis. (Like everyone else, he was taken with my wife and her enthusiasm; not to mention her knowledge of the plants we had and wanted.)
I can't say the place feels like home any more: it's been too long. But I can capture the sense we had once, living here. Some big cities have a more friendly feel than small towns. Here, there are distinct and identifiable neighborhoods. We had one of our own, once, where we knew neighbors, merchants, and secrets.