I’ve spent a total of five weeks in the San Francisco area during the last year, and I’ve managed to visit the city itself only four or five times. Briefly put, I’ve only glimpsed the city; I haven’t really seen it.
I’ve seen — or sensed — some of the problems people have with what venerable journalist Herb Caen called Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Most of all, it’s too expensive to live there — real-estate values are beyond the reach of even the relatively affluent, thanks in large part to the dot-com companies like Google and Apple. What’s more, the San Francisco celebrated in Scott MacKenzie’s song is long-gone — if it ever really existed….George Harrison of The Beatles took one look at the Haight and got the hell out of there, and after one glorious summer the place became a hellhole filled with homeless, strung-out teens with wilted flowers in their hair.
But, still, there’s something about San Francisco and California. I’ve joined the other tourists and taken a ride on the city’s famed cable cars, all the while humming the Rice-A-Roni theme song. I’ve walked along the waterfront, looking out at Alcatraz or up at the suspension bridge to Oakland. I’ve stood on the steps where Mario Savio jump-started the Free Speech movement in Berkeley — although I’ve seen Berkeley’s bums, young and old, who are but a sad echo of the old counter-culture. I’ve crossed the Golden Gate and visited John Muir’s redwoods. I’ve sipped coffee at a café in North Beach. I’ve huddled with the ghosts of the Beats in the poetry section upstairs at City Lights. I’ve looked out at the Pacific — and, while I can’t explain the difference, I have no doubt that there’s something very non-Atlantic about the Pacific.
I’ve driven along the coastal highway to Big Sur. I’ve never seen any place so beautiful in my entire life, and I found myself wishing I could travel back forty years and have a fling with beautiful Joni Mitchell, or travel back fifty years and get drunk with Jack Kerouac, or travel back sixty years and talk about Rimbaud and Celine and Anais Nin with Henry Miller, or travel back more than eighty years and spend idle hours sloshing through the tidal flats at Monterey with John Steinbeck — and witnessing the awful oppression of the farm workers at Salinas.
I think what it amounts to is that I’ve seen enough of San Francisco and the California coast to know that at the very least I’d like to see more. And I certainly will. I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco — but I did leave a little piece of it. After all, how could I ever forget — and how could I ever be unchanged after reading it — the quote at the entrance to the Henry Miller Memorial Library in the town of Big Sur: “It was here in Big Sur I first learned to say Amen!”