28 December 2008

Home Again

24 days. Three and one half weeks. 576 hours. 34,560 minutes. 2,073,600 seconds. That's how long I spent in California, and I was painfully aware of every one of those units of time as they were subtracted from my life. By the last couple days, it didn't seem to matter anymore, as I had lost the will to live as well.

Perhaps I exaggerate just a bit? After all, although Northern California is not my favorite place to be, particularly not in winter, it's hardly the Gobi Desert or the battlefields of Darfur. It's not even blizzard-wracked Wisconsin or, heaven forfend, the stinkier parts of New Jersey.

And in fact, quite a few joys and blessings were bestowed on me during my time on the Wrong Coast: I got to spend time with my lovely family, I saw friends like Janelle, Kristina, Patrick and Erika, who I only get to see occasionally, and other friends like 327 Dave, Jesse Michaels, Michael Donnelly, and the world-famous Kamala, who I almost never see.

The trip cost me almost nothing, as I stayed with my mother the entire time, which meant I was also able to be with her not only for Christmas, but for her 90th birthday party, which was pretty awesome (I spent most of it sitting at the table with the 80-something mostly Jewish ladies, kvetching about public transportation and/or the lack of it in most American cities. One of them had spent the first part of her life in Brownsville and Canarsie, and we were able to fill a good half hour just reminiscing about the names and routes of the old subway lines in the days before they were folded into the MTA.

The fact that I was waxing nostalgic, almost to the point of teary-eyed wistfulness, about the New York City subway system might give you some idea of how out of place I felt in California, despite having lived there for some 30 years of my life. I couldn't travel two minutes on BART, the Bay Area's laughable (to the point of making you want to cry) excuse for a transit system (the old ladies of course remembered the Key System, which for the first half of the 20th century served the same areas as BART now dis-serves at a fraction of the cost and, believe it or not, with greater efficiency, until it was bought and demolished by a subsidiary of the auto industry) without thinking fondly of far happier times spent on the subway.

Yes, it might be a bit noisy, dirty (though not nearly so much as it used to be) and occasionally chaotic, but the New York subway is also far more likely to get you where you're going (and, not nearly so often the case with BART, which was designed with suburban auto drivers in mind), someplace where you'd actually like to be, in a timely and affordable manner. For instance, if I want to hop across the water to Manhattan, I'll walk a couple minutes to the subway stop, and either pay $4 for a round trip ticket, or, far more likely, use my monthly unlimited ride ticket, which makes the average cost of a round trip to the city something like $2.25.

Not so if I want to go to Frisco. First it's a 10 or 12 minute walk to the station (and my mom lives CLOSE; many people in the East Bay suburbs might have a half hour journey before they can even get on a train). Then it's $7.50 for the fare, with no discounts, no monthly tickets, nothing. You have a quick errand downtown, or just want to meet a friend for coffee in the Mission? You're $7.50 in the hole before you even start. And don't even mention wanting to stay out after midnight. Jesse Michaels, Kevin Seconds and Mike Park were playing a show in Frisco a couple nights before Christmas that I might have liked to go to (fortunately I'd seen the same combo at Gilman earlier in the month), but in addition to the club (Bottom of the Hill) being located a half hour's walk from the nearest BART station, I would have had to leave before the second act was halfway over to avoid being marooned in the crappy streets of San Francisco for the night.

And are they crappy? Yes indeed. Not quite, it's only fair to say, as crappy as they were a couple years ago. The heroin sellers at 16th and Mission are not quite as ubiquitous as they used to be, and in fact I walked through quite a few neighborhoods I once would have qiven a wide berth after dark without feeling particularly insecure. I found myself wondering if a couple years of the rough and tumble street life of New York City hadn't inured me to the less than stellar quality of San Francisco hoodlums, but it's more likely that because New York is in general much safer than San Francisco (let alone Oakland, Berkeley or Richmond), that I'd grown accustomed to being able to walk the streets without being constantly vigilant.

Which may not have been the best idea in some of the places I visited, but as I said, nothing untoward happened. Unless, of course, you count the nagging, low grade squalor that seems to accumulate everywhere - or, I should say, in the handful of places that more than a handful of people gather. Most of San Francisco, especially after dark, is practically deserted, and in those few spots with a semblance of night life - the 16th Street and Valencia corridors being a notable example - have a rather desperate Third World ambience, replete with beggars and junkies and other street people trying to flog bits of scavenged and/or stolen merchandise that they spread across the sidewalks. I found myself wondering who on earth was going to buy a pair of stained green trousers that had been lying - all night? for several nights? - on a 16th Street sidewalk in the on-again, off-again rain mingled with the spittle, footsteps, and tossed cigarette butt of the several hundred drunken roisterers who'd passed that way one or several times (several times being the likelier number, since once you stroll more than a couple blocks, there's nowhere to go but to turn around and walk back again; it's the same in the Castro, Union Street, and whatever else passes for a nightlife district). I mean, not just who's going to buy them, but who would then follow up by putting such a pair of pants on? In fact, I never saw any of the street vendors sell anything, but they seemed quite content to sit there and do their bit to bring a little bit of Kinshasa to Baghdad by the Bay (Herb Caen's old encomium seems far more prescient now than it ever could have in the long-ago decade - probably the 30s or 40s - when he coined it).

Speaking, if only parenthetically, of old San Francisco, I happened to watch The Maltese Falcon on the plane ride back to New York. I hadn't seen it in, oh, at least 20 years, and while I remembered it as a delightful throwback to the classy kind of town Caen was always singing paeans to, Sam Spade's San Francisco revisited in 2008 looked darker and sketchier than I remembered. Not a place I'd be all that keen on visiting, though still a notable improvement over what it is today; if nothing else, the villains were better dressed and spoke far more colorfully.

But before I turn this into a one-dimensional Frisco-bashing session (as if I hadn't already, you might riposte), I want to note a couple curious matters. The first, as I've noted before, is that for many years, I thought Frisco and environs were the bee's knees. They possessed, I'd swear to anyone who listened, the best weather, the best culture, the best food, the best scenery. Why, it even smelled better, I'd insist. So, it's only fair to query, as did Morrissey, has the world changed or have I changed?

Secondly, I know quite a few people, my family included who are very happy living in the Bay Area and are not on drugs (well, most of my family, anyway). I could explain that away by saying that the poor dears aren't well traveled and have never lived anywhere sensible (Detroit and San Francisco, mostly, if that tells you anything). But it wouldn't be as easy to explain two former New Yorkers who had relocated (to Frisco in one case and Berkeley in the other) and never doubted for a minute that they'd done the right thing. New York was too crowded, too harsh, too demanding, they said, though it's worth noting that in both cases their idea of "demanding" was the notion that they should have to get jobs and/or otherwise obtain money to pay for rent, transportation and the like.

Rather than continue with the sniping and the cheap shots, I'll just say that I had to accept that much of this must clearly be a matter of individual perception. California quite literally made me sick - I spent two of my last three days there in bed, unable to eat or even move to any great extent, a mysterious illness that vanished completely the minute I set foot in New York City again - but at one time, it invigorated me and filled me with the desire to do great things (while at the same time promoting the sort of emotional - and yes, often drug-induced - lassitude that made it very unlikely I would ever get around to it). But it is also home to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of happy, productive people, quite a few of whom, hard as it may be for me to believe, are former New Yorkers.

And if I needed further confirmation that at least part of this is all in the mind, I point to the most saliently unpleasant aspect of my time in California: the damp, miserable, all-pervading cold. I swear, to every one of you who emailed or sent a Christmas card with some variation of "Hope you're enjoying your time in sunny California," just be grateful that you were far away at the time, because you might have been throttled on the spot had I been able to reach you.

Yes, the sun did shine occasionally, and I was not unhappy when it rained (they're in the third year of a drought and need the water badly; see, even after all that's happened, I still have a certain bio-loyalty to my old home state), but the one constant factor was the cold. Yes, as many of you pointed out, it gets much colder in New York, but New York is a sensible city where you have winter clothes for when you need them, and once you get home, provided you're not unlucky enough to live in some slum tenement, you will have a warm, heated, well-insulated environment to relax in.

Not so in the Bay Area, where it was a constant (and expensive, for those stuck paying the utility bills) to ever escape the cold. I felt terrible cranking my mother's thermostat up to anything like acceptable levels - enough so that I'll probably have to send her money to pay the extra gas bills I helped run up - but even at 68 or 70 degrees - what is thought of in the civilized world as room temperature - all that's accomplished is that the furnace stays on pretty much constantly and the cold air leaking in from every window and right through the walls creates bone-chilling drafts.

And no, my mother's house is not particularly bad; it was like that in almost every house I visited. The only times during my three and a half weeks that I felt fully warm were a) on the BART, provided I didn't sit near the doors; b) in the shower; and c) in bed, provided I had the full complement of four blankets.

But here's the kicker: when I got back to New York, the temperature was exactly the same - 46 degrees - as it had been in San Francisco when I left. Except in New York, I was warm. I went out wearing my spring jacket with a hoodie underneath and was completely comfortable; in Frisco, I'd worn my heavy winter jacket with the same hoodie underneath, and sometimes an additional thermal fleece - actually, I rarely took the fleece off, even when I was indoors. I may have looked like the Michelin Man, but that's what it took to fight off the cold (even though, as I noted in an earlier post, some of the local nuts and/or drunks were out in t-shirts and shorts).

I mentioned this to my friend Rob, and he said, "Yeah, everyone says that cold affects you way more in San Francisco. Maybe it's because they're surrounded by water." "And we're not?" I asked. Rob, who's lived in Queens, within sniffing distance of the Atlantic Ocean for 50 of his 53 years, just shrugged. "Maybe it's a different kind of water?"

Oh well, here's to everyone being happy on their respective coasts, and here's to me being not just happy, but ecstatic, to be back on mine. Tonight I walked across town and then all the way up from the Village to Times Square just for the sheer joy of seeing people and lights and life and sanity again, and my heart was singing with every footstep. It was noisy as hell, the crowds were - well, they weren't really "crowds," though they would have been seen as such in almost any other "city" in the land - just full of life and energy and - no, actually, they were probably just going to a movie or to grab a late night coffee. What can I say? It just looked like a city is supposed to look, and functioned like a city is supposed to function. I must have been insane to stay away so long, and I am so, so happy to be back home.

1 comment:

chandan narayan said...

Brutal, dude. I feel the same way when I visit Fremont (home)/East Bay on holidays. I left about 8 years ago. I live in Toronto now, which, save for the bitter cold, is a pretty nice place...decent public transportation.