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String of Pearls

A string of lights disappearing into the mauve mist of a pre-dawn winter sky. That's my first memory of San Francisco. It came at the end of a cramped, drowsy ride on a Greyhound bus that loped through the night down Interstate 5 from Portland.

The wheel hum, abruptly rising two octaves as the tires bit bridge bitumen, woke me. Groggily peering out the window, I saw a gray blur. It took a moment's focusing to realize that the fog was not in my brain but beyond the window pane, big thick pillows like wet wash hanging from the bridge stanchions. Within it, smudges of light that faded with distance, faint pearls of a long necklace stretching across the Bay. I had arrived. It was Christmas vacation my senior year of university, 1965, my first trip beyond the forests of Oregon.

But then, having begun so hopefully, the picture goes blank. I think I remained awake but no further images have engraved themselves in memory. Perhaps the fog was too thick to see anything except the gauzy contours of the city's towers. Then, the bus rolled into an anonymous station and my friend drove me to Stanford where we spent a week with his parents. A string of lights, vaguely remembered. Not much to lure me back to the city decades later.

The next year, I left the U.S. and followed my fancy west to the East. Asia became my home and aside from short visits to Portland and two long stays in New York, I neglected to return to my homeland for 30 years. San Francisco was my natural gateway since trans-Pacific flights called there.

For my few days in the city — usually fumbling through numbing jetlag — I stayed with a friend, a juggler named Ray Jason. I'd met him in a Shinto temple hostel in Takayama at the foot of the Japanese Alps. He was traveling the world, juggling and absorbing every circus or street performance he encountered. In Bangkok, where I was living, I'd taken him to perform in the open-air Weekend Market and he'd drawn enthusiastic crowds. Every couple of years after that, I'd flop down in his Steiner Street apartment in transit to and from Portland.

Not once did I regard San Francisco as anything other than a way station. It was too...American, too fey, too smug, and too cute. It lacked the cultural viscera of New York, or the underside that might have lent it some excitement. It was fine for a stop, but not for a stay.

But then Asia began to lose its allure. Or I began to tire of naivet?, din, and chaos. The erotic exotic that had lured me to the East was being cemented over in a frantic effort to mimic the developed West. But it was an ersatz modernization. Although its gleaming facade suggested efficiency, its glass walls cloaked the same disorder that had imbued bazaars with their charm. But this concrete and anodized glass was charmless and, ultimately, soulless, concerned only with filling its pockets, not its spiritual wells. Perhaps it was my advancing age. Maybe I was merely seeking a cocoon as one does when he grows weary of traveling. I also needed to find out if I was still an American, and the only place to do it was...America. But where to start looking for myself?

I considered the heartland but I'd been away too long to link with it and its self-satisfied introversion, its celebration of itself achieved by blinkering itself to everything outside its immediate ken. I'd seen too much, knew too much, knew that in the end I knew nothing.

The Midwest, East Coast, and South were equally alien. Settling there would be like emigrating to a new country. I had spent years acquiring a new culture that in the end turned out to be nothing more than a veneer. I wanted to fit, to slide like a peg into a hole. That was possible only by returning to my roots. I'd have to find them on the West Coast.

Seattle and Portland were eternally shrouded in gray. Los Angeles mirrored Asia's anarchy and gaudy materialism. Shrill, focussed on fame and dross, lacking geographic or spiritual anchors, L.A.'s burnished surfaces concealed psychoses foreign to my spirit. I needed to live somewhere willing to admit that it didn't have all the answers (or that it was even necessary to have them) but found joy in the search for them.

I wanted a city that was embedded in nature, that reached to Asia as well as Europe. I wanted to be surrounded by a few people who plunged fingers deep into soil instead of skittering across the surface, concerned only with movement across broad expanses, who were not terrified they would sink into quagmire if they paused for a moment.

San Francisco seemed to embody quietude. The reasons could be quantified, I suppose, but in the end, one's bond to a place transcends logic. It is an ineluctable tendon binding a city with a soft spot deep in one's gut. The city enveloped me, made me part of it, excused my foreignness after three decades. It held both the clear, cold light of sun and the murky uncertainty of mist. In a city of perpetual fog, there can be no certainties. Even its fog was distinctive. Contrary to Sandburg, it didn't come on little cat feet, it sloshed in like a sopping moggy slogging indoors from a storm.

In San Francisco, I could rest in the bosom of cosmopolitan city or cross a bridge and disappear into a forest. It was the land, it was the sea, it was ponds, parks, and city streets that ran at crazy angles, horizontal and vertical. It was the scent of Asian rice and the aroma of European bread, of green tea and black coffee, of cordite from Chinese firecrackers and perfumes from Gay Pride parades.

It was a city of endless options, of peoples and hues from odd pages of the atlas, speaking in tongues, blending ancient and modern cultures. It ran from the spread sheets of the financial district to the occultism of the Haight, through a wealth of genders and persuasions. It was individuals pursuing personal pursuits but always with an Asian tolerance that allowed great numbers of people to live in close proximity and share precious space.

It was Asia and Africa and Europe and a sprinkling of the best of America. It was a place to stretch a leg and exercise a mind, to bask in hard sunshine and shelter from rain and mist, an indoor-outdoor kind of place, a cosmos in a polity.

Ultimately, it was a string of pearly lights that began at one's feet and faded with distance, disappearing into the fog, beckoning one to follow them into the unknown, just to see where they led. It was home.



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