I found my San Francisco again after I got off the 38 Geary bus to catch the 22 Fillmore, a few blocks from the first place I lived in the city. Looking up toward Pacific Heights for the 22 to see nothing on the way. So I started walking. My city came back to me in muscle memory as I strolled through the Fillmore, still a black neighborhood although much less of one than in my day. All part of the great plan to bleach American’s great cities of their flavor. But the Fillmore hung on, Yoshi’s there amidst the BID signs, and also a rib joint, guys hanging on the street, parked car thumping hip hop. Then up the hill, leaving the Fillmore behind, views into the city center, city hall, the opera, the library, no longer blocked by the Embarcadero overpass. My city came back: I’d walked San Francisco, tramped it, the hill opening the city from a thousand angles, never less than inspiring, I don’t know how many hundreds of miles I laid down those years. In drizzle I walked all the way down to the Mission, where I found myself in Muddy Waters, writing about old grief.
Almost twenty years ago I was pushing a shopping cart through the Safeway near my apartment in SF. I had just gotten my heart broken for the first time in my life (up to three now and counting…). And when I say ‘broken’ I mean I was broken: wheels coming off, systems failure, spewing oil, five minutes to autodestruct, the real Humpty-Dumpty all-the-king’s-horses-and-all-the-king’s-men kind of shit. It was a Shuttle Challenger break up, trail of smoke, screams and pieces spread across half a continent.
And I didn’t acknowledge it at all; couldn’t admit my own raving misery. I hated her. She was a traitor. When she called, which was fairly often, I slammed down the phone (but oh how sad I was when the calls stopped coming). ‘No I’m fine,’ I told myself. ‘It’s all good. Screw that bitch.’ My house was going up in a three-alarm blaze and I kept making breakfast in the kitchen. The smoke? Just the toast getting crispy. But who were all those dudes in metal helmets carrying hoses?
As I pushed my shopping cart down the aisle in dull zombie rage, a song started playing on the PA. It was a song I knew, a radio hit from the 70s, 'She's Gone', the Hall & Oates version. I hadn’t liked the song when I was kid – I was making the turn to rock then and didn’t have much appreciation for well-crafted R&B. But the song had been on all the time, enough to infect my musical DNA, and as it hit the crescendo of:
She's gone, oh I, oh I, oh I
I'd better learn how to face it
She's gone, oh I, oh I, oh I
I'd pay the devil to replace her
She's gone, oh I, what went wrong…
I understood for the first time that she was gone. That she wasn’t coming back. That my beautiful California girl had bolted to LA to enjoy rich-kid life and try to launch an acting career and was already screwing the semi-successful musician she would marry and divorce. That I was left under the fluorescent lights, doing a weekly task that had been a lot of fun with her and was now a zombie plod. I hadn’t cried since before college but tears started running down my face, tears hastily wiped away, because how could I be crying in Safeway to a song I couldn’t stand, a song that wasn’t even cool?
[Part II of this post - the more 'theoretical' part, can be found at the Entasis Blog].