—Michael Barrish, Bug
—Michael Barrish, Bug
Inside the door of Marks & Spencers on Grafton Street, four ladies stopped by the jumpers for a break from Christmas shopping.
“How many have you at home now, Mary?”
“Two and a half. Andrew’s mostly gone, but he’s a bit fond of coming back for dinner and the washing.”
“God, it’s hard to shift them, isn’t it?”
“My eldest was 31 when he got married. I said to him, you’re not Jesus Christ. You don’t have to live with your mammy this long.”
“Should pretty boys in discos
Distract you from your novel
Remember I’m awful
In love with you.Come back from San Francisco
It can’t be all that pretty
When all of New York City
—The Magnetic Fields, “Come Back From San Francisco“
“INFORMATION GLADLY GIVEN, BUT SAFETY REQUIRES AVOIDING UNNCESSARY CONVERSATION.”
—San Francisco MUNI bus system sign
I moved from New York to California a year ago today. It was raining when I got here, and it’s raining today. The address of my temporary corporate housing was Saint Francis Place, but that wasn’t what anybody called the street, and so I spent the ride from Oakland Airport squinting not at my new hometown skyline but at its paper representation on the map my Meetup friends had given me. I traced and retraced the length of Third Street, and couldn’t find where I was going.
“Saint Francis Place. Don’t you know where that is?” The taxi-driver’s friend; the over-tipper who coaxes confidences on their hopes and fears for our adopted country, was now crabby with anxiety.
It was after midnight when we found the apartment complex. The sign outside read “Live the Downtown Life. Love the Suburban Feeling.” I staggered up the steps with twice the JetBlue baggage allowance; and not all of it in my suitcases. The concierge didn’t take her eyes off the TV as she handed over the credit-card key.
Eighteen hours earlier, on the other side of the continent, Gus of Tom’s Diner had fussed over my last Brooklyn breakfast. I shared it, googly-eyed, with a man I had met on the evening shift at a crisis hotline not long before. Between calls I’d listened to him soothe people in trouble, and his tone and dimples were enough to make me shuffle hopefully while he packed up. Oh, are you walking to the subway too?
He lived in Fort Greene, my favorite Brooklyn neighborhood, a Q Train fact that made me as woozy as a Meg Ryan ditz. He’d played bass in a band I remembered from my Boston days. He was a reformed advertising man, now a trainee therapist. He read good books, ran trails, and called his family.
“Can you…make things and fix them?” I asked him; an absurd and primitive measure of manliness that has somehow taken root in spite—or because of—my own lack of interest in the tangible. He used to be a carpenter, he said. He was American. It had never occurred to me that your chosen person could be from the inside, not the periphery. I tried to explain what it meant to be from the outside. “We like the same music,” I babbled to my best friend, though I had already faxed a signed contract for a new job to San Francisco.
We didn’t have much time to merge stories. Over breakfasts at Tom’s Diner we told and retold our short story—what he had thought when we first met; what I had thought; what he had said to his friends; what I had said. We compared a few weeks’ impressions, shaping “I” into “we” as quickly as we could. I moved my flight to San Francisco out another four days. We grinned into a cameraphone in my emptied apartment: look, we existed.
The movers had packed my coats, and I was swamped in his borrowed sweaters when we walked to Prospect Park a year ago today. It was so cold my face froze, the more so because we couldn’t stop smiling. My teeth hurt, but it only made me grin more; gazing like a newborn in the nearly-empty snowfield. We jog-trotted back to Fort Greene, whooping against the cold. Then he dialled a car service—Atlantic Avenue to Queens; Friday rush hour. We said goodbye beside the shoeshine stand at JFK.
(My mother says that my first real word, after the “dada-baba-mama” pleasantries, was “perfection.” Someone nearby said it, and I grabbed onto a guiding principle. It might as well have been “methamphetamine,” for all the promise of lasting contentment that it held. For those of us crippled by ideals, love is most possible when it’s already circumscribed by departure, or safely past.)
New York had a blizzard last weekend, while I sat outside at an Ocean Beach beer garden with friends from Limerick. The wind has picked up again in San Francisco, and the local radio presenters warn us to bundle up and bring the pets inside.
“Brr! It’s a cold one.” But it’s 45 degrees. In place of February bitching about dog-shitsicles and slush puddles, we have California’s enforced sunniness.
Like the range of weather, the scope of my life is smaller here, and dampened. Maybe it’s because I’m still new in town, or at the age when the breeders hunker down. Maybe it’s because consulting doesn’t leave much room to collect all the stories and people in this city.
Last Sunday I walked to work, up over Bernal Hill, then over Potrero Hill and down to the bay on Third Street. It was t-shirt warm, but even on beautiful days San Francisco has a way of seeming empty—car-rich and flesh-poor—and there were no walkers but me on the waterfront. I was watching the alcoholics fish in front of a giant cruise ship and thinking of Red Hook when a white stretch Hummer pulled up beside me. The driver leaned out.
“Are you lost? Do you need a ride?” he said. I said no thank-you, and smiled. I’m protected from all kinds of craziness and help by a reflexive refusal of support. “Are you sure?” he said, shaking his head, “It’s an awful long way from here to there, wherever that is.” It is.