This is the second half of this piece. It won’t make much sense unless you read Part One.
Land of the Lotus Eaters, Part 2
In general, I suppose San Franciscans are bored with boring things fairly easily. We’re certainly willing to go to great and ridiculous lengths to avoid the experience. I often think of San Francisco as the city where people do pointless things for no reason; where, indeed, the pointlessness of an activity is often a strong point in its favor. “Well, that was random,” we say appreciatively, when we see the street fair with the motorized sofas, or the abandoned building with the furniture carefully suspended out of the windows, or the crazy man on the street with the sign that reads “Impeach Coolidge.” I remember the day that I spent with a group of friends building Rome in a day (an afternoon, really), mostly out of cereal boxes and toilet paper rolls, and then taking it all down to the beach, setting fire to it, and fiddling while it burned. I remember bringing my friend Chip to the annual St. Stupid’s Day Parade on April 1st, where he offered to exchange his garish thrift-store tie with every carefully-suited Financial District guy he encountered — many of whom seriously considered the offer, and the tie, before regretfully rejecting it. It’s a Stone Soup culture, a city full of people who know there won’t be any party if they don’t bring their share of it. And it’s a city full of people making beautiful ephemeral things for no reason. Not for our careers, not for our places in history, but simply to add to the sum of beauty in the world, or maybe just to show off. There’s a living-in-the-moment quality to life here that is both profound and frivolous, like a 20’s flapper who’s discovered Zen. We are a city that cherishes its grasshoppers and looks somewhat suspiciously at its ants, griping under our breath about how their diligent work habits are driving up the housing market. We are a city of people who would love nothing more than to sing all summer and dance all winter.
But I don’t mean to say that the San Francisco ethic is purely hedonistic. I can see how someone might think that; it’s easy to confuse hedonism with trying to create a world you’d like to live in, and there certainly is a hefty dose of pure pleasure-seeking here. But there’s a political passion here as well, an almost painfully sincere idealism, a willingness and even eagerness to work long hours for no pay for some almost-certainly out-of-reach political goal. And while that may seem bizarrely out of synch with the make-a-circus play-acting I’ve been describing, I think it’s actually very much in keeping with it. The passion to create a world you’d want to live in isn’t limited to creating a world in which you personally are having a good time. It can also mean a world in which the police are not brutal, virgin forests aren’t being logged, innocent people aren’t being bombed, the U.S. is out of Iraq, and people with AIDS are not dying in the streets.
And in much the same way that twitching lunacy often lies beneath the surface of American normality, there’s a core of sanity resting calmly and firmly beneath much of this city’s out-of-control silliness, supporting it and nurturing it and making it possible, like a grant from the Therapy Foundation. The Northern California leanings toward self-esteem boostering, endless therapy, and seemingly-endless processing are wildly mocked the world over, and with good reason; said leanings are often silly and excessive, and silly excessive things should be mocked, and the most processed and therapized San Franciscans are often the most enthusiastic mockers. Myself among them. And yet I became sane here, became sane against any reasonable expectation I might have had for doing so. I often have a hearty giggle at the city’s fondness for amateur analysis; and I also have hours-long talks with friends, awkward, intimate, absurdly personal, impossibly useful talks that, at least sometimes, have an actual effect on how we think and act. I happily poke fun at the local addiction to The Processing That Wouldn’t Die; and I’m also strongly influenced by the prevailing local ethos that tells me to, for fuck’s sake, actually tell people when I’m upset with them, instead of stewing about it silently and with rather bad grace. I cheerfully mock the San Francisco indulgence in protracted therapy, even aiming a few breezy gibes at my own off-and-on years in it. And yet I see my life cleanly divided by a wide stripe between pre-therapy and post-therapy, and I look at the furious, guilt-saturated, nearly paralyzed girl on the other side, and I stare at her with pity and bewilderment — and a barely-articulate gratitude to the man whose job it was to help me set fire to her so I could crawl out of her ashes.
It’s hard to explain what exactly all that has to do with San Francisco. I know there are honest, kind people outside San Francisco. I even know that there are therapists outside San Francisco. There are probably even queer-positive, kink-positive, non-monogamy-positive therapists outside San Francisco (although this city does seem to spout a perpetual fountain of them, like an endless procession of MFCC-trained Athenas springing from Zeus’s head). But there’s something different here, something about the stargazing and the storytelling and the amateur theatricals, that can give your mental health some room to breathe and grow. The local ethos of making up your party as you go along isn’t just about turning yourself into a sex goddess or a Regency dandy or Lydia the tattooed lady. It’s about turning yourself into a person who isn’t crippled by their traumatic past. It’s about recognizing when you’re about to do the same stupid, self-defeating thing you’ve done a hundred times before, and deciding that this time, you’d like to try doing something else for a change. This is a city that actively encourages people to try doing something else for a change. This is a city that thinks people should, in fact, learn to love and esteem themselves, and that doesn’t see what’s so all-fired ridiculous about that idea. And this is the city where I learned to stop loving fucked-up drug addicts and made myself capable of loving someone who, in addition to the more usual virtues of being thoughtful and decent, honest and brave, smart and funny and so fucking sexy I could plotz, is also, far above all else, wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles, more or less mentally healthy herself. I might well have met Ingrid someplace other than San Francisco (well, apart from the obvious fact that she lives here), but I don’t think I could have gotten myself in shape to love her in any place other than here.
God knows there’s an annoying side to all this as well. The city’s processing and its playfulness, the dreaminess and the earnestness, the living in the moment and the acceptance of other points of view, all of it does sometimes fuse into a vague, spacey, irresponsible, indecisive, childish, self-absorbed mush. And if you have an ounce of rationality or even just common sense, it’s like having your soul scraped on a cheese grater. I remember a particularly cheese-grating event, the time that the longsword dance team I’m with was asked to perform at a pagan rave (we were supposed to represent the element of air — don’t ask). I remember showing up at a warehouse space in the heart of the third-string dot-com district to find that the rave organizers (a) hadn’t organized any actual plans for us to dance, and (b) were so committed to the consensus process that none of them could make any actual plans for us to dance without consulting the rest of their group — thus leaving the sword team with no-one who could tell us when we were supposed to perform, or where, or what the plan was for clearing the stoned-out-of-their-minds-on-Ecstasy crowd so we could get to the place we were supposed to perform, wherever that turned out to be. I remember my friend and fellow dancer Marian steeling herself to make a few decisions with the organizers and reporting back to the team, simultaneously enraged and in stitches, with the information that one of them had actually told another, “I’m not saying that I agree with what you said, I’m just validating that you said it.” And I remember being in the crowd of ravers shortly before the sword team was about to dance, while a very sincere guy in a white dashiki instructed us all to visualize a powerful cone of healing white light rising up to the ceiling and spilling out over the city — failing to inform us which direction the cone was supposed to be pointing. (Pointy-side up or pointy-side down? It turned out later that the team had all been puzzled by this question, and that in fact half of us had visualized it pointing one way and half of us the other, thus raising to the ceiling a somewhat-less-powerful cylinder of healing white light.)
But it was a good gig for all that. The lights were all down except for the ones trained on the disco ball, and we danced in the dark with just a few sprinkles of disco-ball light flashing on the upraised swords, and our entourage told us later that the swords looked like they were moving and weaving on their own, held up and wielded by shadows. And the audience was adoringly enthusiastic (although they were, I feel compelled to remind you, stoned out of their minds on Ecstasy, some of them too stoned to understand that if a sword was suddenly thrust in their direction they should probably get out of the way, and they might well have been adoringly enthusiastic if we’d bashed our heads with our swords while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance). And the crowd made an amazing noise when we raised the cone/cylinder of light, starting with a low humming that gradually rose in pitch to a high cry, cacophonous and beautiful, sounding for all the world like the black monolith in “2001.” And even at the time, even during the worst of the waffling and the dithering and the piss-poor consensus process, I remember thinking, “This is ridiculous. This is so San Francisco. This is going to make a great story.”
I look at everything I’ve written here, and I see that it’s all a generalization. I know that it’s my perception, my experience, based on my life and the lives of my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances and colleagues and fuckbuddies. I do understand that the entire city is not made up of queers, perverts, sex workers, folk dancers, artists, activists, pagans, food fanatics, body modifiers, and historical re-creation societies. I’m sure there are people living here for whom little or none of what I’ve written is true; gay Republicans, dot-com has-beens, upscale workaholic strivers, teenage runaway junkies, the appallingly immense homeless population.
And yet the very words “I know this is just my experience” are, in my mind, San Francisco words. It was here I learned that my experience was not the same thing as the objective truth. It was here I learned that other people could have wildly differing preferences and opinions from me, and that this difference didn’t necessarily negate or discredit either of our experiences. It was here I learned that aesthetic taste was not a moral or character issue. It was here I learned, not that I should never make moral judgements about other people, but that I should be very careful, very selective, about the moral judgements I do make. It was here that I saw the graffito on the bus shelter, a rant about how AIDS drugs were a poisonous corporate/ government conspiracy to murder the gay community… followed by the words, “I think.” I almost busted a gut laughing when I saw that. Only in San Francisco, I thought, would even the most deranged political extremists phrase their rants in “I” statements.
The phrase “Only in San Francisco” gets used here a lot. It’s used both sheepishly and boastfully, with rolled eyes and indulgent smiles and smug self-satisfaction, often all at once. Only in San Francisco, we say, would the second-largest annual public event be the S/M street fair (the first being the gay pride parade, duh). Only in San Francisco would the mayor invite the news media to watch him take a shower with two disc jockeys. Only in San Francisco would the peep show dancers organize a labor union (successfully, too, with a contract and everything), and then buy the place out and turn it into a worker-owned co-operative. Only in San Francisco would the holiday event calendar include, not just a Sing-Along Messiah, but a Dance-Along Nutcracker. Only in San Francisco would candidates for sheriff and district attorney campaign in leather bars. It all adds to the self-made mythic quality, this vast and absurd and no doubt wildly inaccurate list of things we do that we’d like to think no-one else does. The only phrase that gets used more is “It’s not like it used to be.” Only in San Francisco, we say; and yet San Francisco isn’t what it was, in the ’50s in beatnik North Beach, or the ’60s in the Haight-Ashbury, or the ’80s at the peak of the queer street-activist movement, or in any decade at all before the dot-com boom drove housing prices through the roof. And yet people come here, and people stay, and ten or twenty years from now people will be griping about how the city isn’t what it used to be, isn’t what it was in its heyday, right around the turn of the millennium. And it all adds to the mythology somehow, tingeing it with self-indulgent longing, making the place feel even more like Camelot.
Calvin Trillin, a very silly writer whom I greatly admire and respect, once wrote that anyone who doesn’t think the best hamburger in the world is made in his hometown is a sissy. I happen to know for a fact that the best hamburger in the world is made in San Francisco. The Burger Joint in the Mission, if you want to know. Serving organic hamburgers made from happy free-range Niman Ranch cows. And I think that this says, not that I am a sissy, but that my hometown is not the place where I grew up.
9 thoughts on “Land of the Lotus Eaters, Part 2”
Damn you, Greta! Because I know, see, I KNOW that the best city in the world is either Vancouver or Montreal. (I’m withholding judgement on Berlin until I get there.) And yet, what you’ve written is the nearest thing I’ve ever heard to persuading me I should move to the States after all. I must definitely at least visit.
God, I can’t wait to graduate and move.
For a fabulous read about a mythical, post-apocalyptic San Francisco, check out Pat Murphy’s “The City, Not Long After.” Fresno wages war on SF and the artists repel the soldiers. It’s a blast.
Until reading this, I only had two impressions of San Francisco in my small town New Zealand brain:
1. The TV show, “Full House”.
2. My Dad’s experience of visiting it briefly in the 70s (I’m paraphrasing here, probably remembering incorrectly, but this is what I remember him saying years ago) “All the men were big, gay and buffed up and they wouldn’t speak to me because I’m short, fat and straight.” Ha.
OMS! I love the validation quote. Hey, at least the person understood what they were doing.
Now I know I must absolutely visit San Francisco. This is the best writing I’ve read all week. It’s a shame that you haven’t been able to get this published, it’s a wonderful essay.
thanks so much for posting this! it really made me smile.
I love San Francisco. And I love that it has changed and will keep on changing. If it didn’t change, it wouldn’t be the city that it is. And I love that there’s people who love San Francisco as much as me. (I had to move away for various reasons, and I miss it terribly, so I’m glad other people are dwelling there and marinating in the San Francisco-ness of it all.)
Um, and I lived next to the Burger Joint in the Lower Haight. Like spitting distance. I gained fifteen pounds off those happy free-range Niman Ranch burgers. Damn, they are AWESOME.
FYI, I AM a queer-positive, kink-positive, non-monogamy-positive therapist (as well as being all those things myself). Non-coincidentally, I live in Austin, TX 😉
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