27 December 2007

The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent...

Most people have heard Mark Twain's crack about the coldest winter he'd ever spent being a summer in San Francisco. I'm guessing Mr. Twain must have left town before the real winter set in.

I must admit that I'm befuddled: two weeks ago in New York it was 20F/-7C in New York and it wasn't this cold. Where I grew up, hell itself (aka Detroit) was frozen over for several months of the year and it wasn't this miserable. During the four days I've been here, the temperature has been mostly in the 40s and high 30s (3-10C) and yet I'm longing to get back to New York where it's at least a couple degrees colder.

Maybe certain types of cold are colder than others? You know, the way they also say, "It's a dry heat" when they're trying to explain to you why their particular hellhole isn't as unpleasant as yours is in the summer? In other words, some quality - like the dampness, for example - makes San Francisco cold so much more obtrusive and unpleasant than East Coast cold?

Well, that theory might have some legs if it weren't for the fact that I lived in California for many years, and also in England, which has a similar maritime climate. And while I've endured terrible bouts with the cold here before, it only occasionally felt this bad, even when in actuality it was much worse, like the time in 1988 or 89 when the whole Bay Area stayed in the 20s and low 30s (-5 to 0C) for a week or so and I was hanging out at the Ashtray (aka Screeching Weasel's Punkhouse), which not only had no heat, but also had large holes in the walls leading directly to the frozen outdoors.

So why is this minor cold spell troubling me so much, and why I am hankering to be back in New York so I can warm up at last? Answering the second question first, at least in New York they have sensibly hot furnaces and radiators, and I also have put in a goodly store of long underwear, scarves, gloves and, of course, my (fake) fur hat. Here in California, where everybody likes to pretend they're in the land of the Endless Summer, such patently sensible commodities are in a short supply.

In fact, what is in truly short supply is the "sensible" bit. San Francisco/Berkeley/Oakland/El Cerrito are not sensible places. They are basically living in la-la land, but without the creature comforts you'd think were incumbent on la-la land. You want to lie around nibbling on lotus leaves, at least find somewhere sunny, warm and beachy to do it, not some desolate, cold, deserted, crime-ridden backwater.

Speaking of backwaters, Berkeley's sad slide from Athens of the West into Rust Belt-style oblivion continues apace. The anchor tenant of its "downtown," Ross Dress For Less (a couple steps up from wig shops and check-cashing joints but well down the scale from Target or Walmart) is upping sticks, no longer able to make a go of it in the elephant's graveyard for small-time muggers and feral beggars that Berkeley City Council in its wisdom has decided to turn its main commercial area into.

Writing in the Berkeley Daily Planet (it doesn't come out daily and, as you'd expect in Berkeley, is not of this planet), one angst-ridden commentator after another argues that it's not the beggars or the derelicts or the criminals that have driven businesses and ordinary people out of downtown and the Telegraph Avenue/South Campus area. It's the "lack of parking," they say, or "the internet," or "this terrible economy" (funny, that last one; pretty much everywhere else in America the economy has been flourishing ever since the early 90s, during all of which time Berkeley's shops continued to close and its street life continued to deteriorate).

It's also odd how other cities, including some with far less parking than Berkeley (New York, for example) have seen almost unbroken expansion and prosperity in their retail economies. But then Berkeley never was big on personal responsibility, or any kind of responsibility for that matter.

On the plus side, one of the cafes that still prospers is the one at the corner of Shattuck and Hearst, which offers free wireless internet and thus is perennially packed with geeks like myself. In fact, having been subjected to the 20th century indignity of dial-up internet access out there in the wilds of El Cerrito where I'm staying, it's doubtful I'd be posting to this blog at all were it not for the tender ministrations of Berkeley Espresso (and the coffee's not bad either).

No big ups, on the other hand, for Telegaph's long-standing bastion of beatnik, hippie and punk culture, the Cafe Mediterraneum, which much to the chagrin of A. Cometbus and myself, was closed on Christmas Day after decades of being a reliable refuge for the footloose and disconnected when all else was barred to them. Anyway, it wouldn't be Berkeley without me bitching about it, so now that I've done my bit, I'm going to pack up my laptop and BART it back to El Cerrito and bury myself in blankets until it's time to return to the comfort and sanity of Brooklyn.


erika said...

Oh Larry. You spent a comfy warm evening at our house and even had your own personal lap dog to serve as a sort of heating pad. I've had the heat cranked all day. Toasty! But yeah, it's cold.

joseph said...

"...and now it's cold outside
and the rain is pouring down."

I'm a California native and have no pretense about the weather. It's bitterly cold today. I sat in an unheated church this morning for two hours. I can't imagine that sitting in a meat locker would have been any colder. (I was attending a funeral - I'm not a lunatic masochistic member of Opus Dei.)

I'm not surprised to hear that Ross on Shattuck is closing. Barnes & Noble vacated since your last visit. And how many years ago did Eddie Bauer (also on Shattuck) abandon Berkeley? The space is still empty.

I live in Berkeley and completely agree...the City is a shell of its former self. The internet, economy, and parking are not to blame for the demise of downtown. Things started going downhill the day Patty Hearst was abducted and only worsened when the Lookout! shop on University vanished. Of course, the swelling homeless population and proliferation of street thugs aren't helping matters.

Larry Livermore said...

To be fair, Erika's house was warm and so was the dog (but it was a very little dog, and once the rain started last night, it got a little warmer. But today, I note, it's warmer in New York City than in San Francisco.

As for downtown, thanks, Joseph, for pointing out some of the other businesses that have already gone missing. I think I forgot to mention yesterday that the doof responsible for economic development in downtown Berkeley was quoted as saying that this was "an excellent opportunity" to replace Ross Dress For Less with a better quality tenant, as if tenants of any quality were lining up to fill the vacant storefronts already strewn across downtown like missing teeth at a hillbilly convention. I'm surprised he hasn't proposed a "medical" marijuana dispensary or three, since his tenuous grasp on reality certainly indicates he's been regularly partaking in the stuff anyway.

autolux said...

ooops, left a comment in a very old post

i really like it here

Psmith said...

Mark Twain never actually said that quote, by the way.


Chris A. said...

"Comfort and sanity of Brooklyn." Right. Why does Williamsburg get a pass when Berkeley doesn't?

Larry Livermore said...

Who is this Snopes guy, and why do people always take his word for everything?

I see very little similarity between Brooklyn (Williamsburg incuded) and Berkeley. Yeah, there are some people who look like dirty, deranged hippies in Williamsburg, but for most of them that's a fashion statement, not a way of life. Brooklyn is safer, more friendly, warmer (well, indoors, anyway), has shops and cafes that stay open past 8 pm, and when you get on the subway, it takes you to a real city, not sad little San Francisco.