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
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.