Friday, August 24, 2012

To Risk Forgetting

At the very moment I am starting this blog, I am waiting to go on a ride. A ride at sunset on a bike so large that it can pin a man down. It has been a long time since I tried organizing my American life back into words and it occurs to me that strangely, it is somehow more difficult to process with jobs, and apartments, and responsibilities slowly rolling into view. I think about the highlights, the small things: the bus ride that got me here. On the way, I saw a man on a unicycle at a stoplight and a restaurant where people have to order their food as though they are praying. The West Coast of America often seems so polluted with quirkiness that it feels deliberate.

The effect should be that everyone is so wonderfully offbeat, that everyone else is free to be themselves, but that is not always true. And in my first few weeks in this city, I find that I am more shy and reflective than I am ready to tromp along the pathways of Lake Merritt wildly spinning my fire poi. I am approaching this new city perhaps with a little hesitation.

There is a hat shop along Haight Street in San Francisco that has been a family business since 1895. Sure, they might have shops in all of the major American cities now (including the one that I just left), but there is something warm and personal about the staff that help my mother and I pick out a hat for her husband in the Goorin Brothers hat shop that makes me feel very comfortable, even gabby with the smartly suspendered employees.

As so often happens when I am shopping for someone else, I end up shopping for me. I pluck at brims along the rows of plump mushroomed gatsbies all in a stack or leather-molded fedoras when I come to the women’s sale section and find a fawn colored drop-pin hat with a tiny trim of black polka dotted ribbon.

When you are already deeply wading through moving debt, it is easy to convince yourself of one more frivolous purchase and of all the things that I have acquired over the past several weeks (sauce pans and their lids, ashy blue pasta bowls, a sofa, hangers, a grown-up-person television), somehow this is the most important.

Sometimes, for me, a piece of clothing is the place that I’m inhabiting. When I buy it, I remind myself of where I am, who I could be here. When I was in Paris, it was a black pencil skirt with tiny slashed pockets angled in just at my hip bones. When I was in Swizerland it was a string of blue beads that I found next to a postcard rack at a street market for four dollars. When I was in Gibraltar it was a ripply pink dress with the thinnest coffee-colored belt to match the polka dots. It went well with the wind that came off of the Mediterranean.

People recognize these pieces on you – they are the things that people comment on: “what a nice dress,” they say, “that necklace suits you,” “I love your scarf.” And, it helps, of course, that you do look fabulous in these things.

Here, in San Francisco, it turns out that “me” is a clean white cap that looks both retro and hip. It is the color of my sleeping cat’s fur. It comes close over my ears, somewhat muffling the already garbled loudspeaker voice of the bus that conveys me and my mother back to the Beaux Arts ferry building at the end of Market Street. It is soft and the brim is just enough to keep out the sun. The woman across the aisle from me on the BART to the East Bay leans forward and smiles conspiratorially, “I like your hat.”

In City Lights booksellers, by contrast, there is a general air of amused sentencing. I overheard a UC Berkeley boy flirting with a girl by giving her a quiz, questioning her on Alice Munro’s short stories and the cashier high fives me when I correctly identify the music as “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” from Kill Bill as though I’m an initiate in his club. But upstairs is a second floor nest dedicated entirely to poetry with a view to a building where white stone figures are spreading their arms wide in some sort of transport of ecstasy or simply appearing to pull taffy between their outstretched hands, delightfully out-of-place statues that would be better served on a church in an older country. I purchased a copy of Jack Gilbert and a fresh sheaf of postcards.

These little selections of life become your impressions and then your beliefs about a place, about yourself. For instance, I will not be surprised if my first few weeks here come down to a crème brulée gelato purchased in the North Beach area that led to a small plot of picnicking green in Washington Square within pealing distance of Saint Peter and Paul’s cathedral which chimed briskly (almost mechanically) on the hour. Lying there in the grass with a breeze and sunshine all muddled up in my wrinkly warm shirt, I put my head on my purse and this half hour nap may become all that I remember about that afternoon, that day, these first few weeks here: listening to the well-oiled bells with my eyes closed in the sun.  

I’ve been contemplating “forever” (as I tend to do) and wondering about all of the unmourned terminated things out there in the world. The last bus ride on a discontinued route, expired sloshy bottles of cream leaning as cross beams in the garbage, the last time an old woman goes outside to fetch her mail. Sometimes I think that I hold the permanent so holy simply because it is a monument to all of the finality that will go out of the world unnoticed. Potentially my own. And all of the things that I will forget in this year of firsts and explorations and meetings and partings. No ceremony to their departure from my memory. But I suppose that is what is required of a person willing to change, the readiness to forget and not preserve everything, but carry forward only what is necessary.

The ride we end up taking at sunset is through Tilden Park. He tells me this and I smile bemusedly. Simply the promise of a motorcycle ride is enough to get me out of the house, but I imagine that it is going to be a rather tame (and brief) outing when the destination is a park. I picture a plasticine playground with woodchips, maybe a dog run and a tennis court. If I’m lucky there will be a climbing rock with a view.

But it is not that kind of park, Tilden is one of the oldest parks in the area that takes in not feet of territory, but acres. 2,079 acres to be exact that are a shelter and sanctuary to natural wildlife and flora. It takes over 200 maps on their site to give comprehensive coverage of the area. Though none of this is apparent as we’re approaching the park along Canon Drive with its washed out two story houses built against the rock, blurry in the mist and I am dubious in spite of promises that it is a beautiful park. It is not until we are within park grounds and out of sight of the suburban Berkeley Hills that a sudden, incredible expanse of ridges with trees reaching far into an rolling bank of mist pouring through the sky that I realize this is not a park, but a separate world. And this is, perhaps, when I begin to fall a little bit in love with California. The park receives millions of visitors a year, but it was not a place that I knew was there to be found.

Although the afternoon and evening in the East Bay have grown gray and overcast, the ride through Tilden Park is a curvaceous, expansive journey that seems to cover about four different climates. I was shivery cold as I clung to the back of the driver and moments later was sweating under my helmet in the evening sun. The road swept out at drastic angles and flooded down into ravines, valleys, and reservoirs. The hills were seeming waves of movement in scrubbed greens and golds.  The kind of hills that people imagine when they think of California wine country. Its tall-reaching trees in the fog remind me of mournfully brisk mornings in Hawaii, its sweeping hills with comprehensive vistas remind me of walks in Andalusia Spain, in its shadows I can recreate the mossy rainforests of Washington State. It is like so many places that I’ve visited and like nowhere I’ve ever seen.

The instinct I have is to pull out a camera, get it all on film, process it and preserve it, but I am glad that there is no camera and that this is not an option. Because I will have to actually be here instead: leather jacket wind-beaten on my body, long dips and arcs with peek-a-boo views to lower lakes and distant peaks. I can’t go back to this moment on a Facebook post or photo album, so I have to be here now instead and risk forgetting it.

But I don’t think I will.