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Beneath the Skirts of a Gothic City

Posted on 2006.12.01 at 14:55
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After six years, I finally made it back to San Francisco. God, the city is beautiful, and I so needed a break from the routine. Many parts of the city have continued to gentrify, which means it's far more safe to walk around Union Square and the Mission at night. It's astonishingly clean now, but the downside it that there are a hundred more Starbucks there than when I visited six years ago (meaning there are a hundred less cafes with unique Bohemian atmosphere), and most of the remaining sex shops and liquor stores on Market Street have been replaced with massive corporate retail shops that flash through the delicate brick and marble facades in shining, neon glory. But the magnificent architecture remains, a mix of Victorian, Gothic, Edwardian, Federalist and contemporary--the varied styles sometimes fused into the same building.

The visit reinforced my impression that San Francisco is a feminine city. It’s feminist, to be specific, but feminine none the less, as opposed to New York City (the only other metropolis that has earned the right in America to simply go by "The City." Manhattan, which I love the way only a bad boy can be loved, strikes me as a massive, masculine, megalopolis of squared-off phalluses, overwhelming and looming like a Calvinist version of God. Of course New York has those magnificent gothic skyscrapers, but they are overwhelmed and subjugated by steel and granite shafts so immense that you cannot see their crowns when you stand at their feet. If San Francisco was a literary character, she’d be the Countess Olenska from the novel, "Age of Innocence"--decidedly not innocent, but decadent, Baroque and self-assured, and empowered by her eclecticism and defiance of expectations. And who would epitomize New York City for me? Stanley (played by Brando perhaps) in "A Streetcar Named Desire".

I went back and revisited some of the buildings and streets that I used as locations in Blood Bound, a book which I abandoned for several years and am now rewriting.   Much to my joy, very little has changed in the areas I wrote about. Where things have changed, I don't want to update my book, because in most instances the city is less gritty, and I want to maintain that tone of gothic edginess. I understand why W.S. Burroughs lamented the disappearance of the piss-gutters in Les Halles--it wasn't the pissoirs he missed, but the underbelly atmosphere that stood in such contrast to the beautiful architecture and gardens of Paris. Still, there is much to appeal to a man’s shadow self. You just need to seek those places with more intent.

Polk Gulch is still a dangerous area at night, but perhaps slightly less scary than it was. That said, one night when a friend and I were walking through the gulch to try to find a Goth club*, I felt an oppressive sense of danger, and a building anxiety which can only be described as dread. It was the first time in a long time that my spine tingled and adrenaline surged as a "you should not be here" message flashed inside my brain.* * I could feel my pupils dilate to maximum diameter, to that black-pit, wide-eyed state where I was trying to keep everything peripheral in focus. I noted the minutest shifts of the jagged skirts of shadow, cast by the too-few sulphurous street lights, where mostly mad, homeless people muttered and laughed to themselves.

I felt a thrill as I lost myself in those strange shops off the main drag of Chinatown, but I couldn't find the same shop with the dried snakes and glass cases full of reindeer antlers and beetles that I wrote about in Blood Bound. I did find another old apothecary's shop where I bought half a dozen dried sea-horses. We ate incredible food at some greasy mom-and-pop Dim Sum shops, so wonderful that angels wept for lack of mortal appetite.  The best shop, on Jackson Street, was crowded with formica tables, around which huddled elderly Chinese men.  They sat sipping hot tea and argued heatedly with much excitement.   We sat at the back of the shop by a plastic Buddhist altar lit with red electric candles.  The humid air was suffused with the scents of cooked shrimp, ginger, and yeasty buns of steaming dough filled with barbequed pork.  Ah, I salivate just writing about the place!

One thing that I noticed I had completely neglected in BB, is the public trans system, which runs beneath the city like a network of arteries. The sounds of the BART trains rushing through the tunnels late at night is so haunting and lonely, and strangely stirred my soul. The sound when the train goes under the bay to Oakland is like no other in the world--like a chorus of lost souls singing not in harmony but in unison. And the throats that give voice to the chorus? Hollow, cold, and ribbed with steel.

One sad coda--an absence that nearly broke my heart. The "Where the Wild Things Are" theme park closed a year before I returned to the city. The absence hit me as hard as if I'd returned to Paris, only to discover that Notre Dame had been razed. Poor playground of the lost boys--Max you will always dance with the beasts in my heart.

*I soon discovered that, like San Diego, the Goth scene in SF has dwindled significantly. LA is the center of the shadowy ruins right now, despite the fact that like Sabbat, LA’s most impressive Goth/Industrial club, Dungeon, shut it's doors this year.

**The last time I felt this was when Justine (Moschus) and I got lost in downtown LA. We were trying to find our way back to a gallery with an exhibit of Clive Barker’s paintings. Hoards of homeless men stared us down as we drove along abandoned warehouse fronts, their eyes seeming to size up every passer-by as prey. These were hardened men--angry faces with expressions less hopeless than cruel. In contrast, the homeless I encountered in San Francisco seem much more to be victims than victimizers, people who had "dropped out" or been abandoned by family, and mostly incapacitated by mental illness, as opposed to those who been cast out of the penal system and hardened by drugs and poverty.


wicked witch of the west
herkind31 at 2006-12-23 22:07 (UTC) (Link)
it's no wonder you're a writer. everytime you write the word soul, i know that you mean it, unlike other writers. i want to go traveling with you. you would see things i wouldn't see, smell things i wouldn't smell, hear things... take me with you!
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