Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Big Sur Summer of Love Semicolons of San Francisco

Labor Day in the USA is the ceremonial end of summer. Days are noticeably shorter, and the patio furniture in the big box stores is sprouting clearance signs. The fiftieth anniversary of the “Summer of Love” was this year, and I spent the week of the Labor Day holiday in san Francisco. The “Summer of Love” was long over and I got a nasty little summer cold.

Curious residuals of a “Summer of Love” marketing campaign dotted the city. Sheltered bus stops had “Summer of Love Trading Card” posters, and a couple of the shuttles at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) were decked out in contrasting flower power paintjobs. At the SFMOMA I was tricked by an Andy Warhol print into following a Lichtenstein around a corner where I lost close to a quarter hour staring at an enormous Chuck Close portrait of Roy Lichtenstein, but I think those were more likely residuals of that famous summer’s artistic sensibility than of a targeted marketing campaign.

I was staying in Embarcadero, and from my hotel room at night I could almost make out the Ferry Building from reflections in the mirrored glass across the street. A large backwards PORT OF SAN FRANSCISCO sign tinged with the neon red that faced the bay. The ferry building houses a marketplace of attractive eateries; the champiƱones empanadas at El PorteƱo Empanadas were awesome.

I hit the city with no real plan beyond a vague set of possible destinations. Perhaps the best formulated of these was to hit the famed City Lights Bookstore up on the border of North Beach and Chinatown. I wanted to buy an attractive copy of Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur”.

The “Summer of Love” was the long Labor Day weekend to the Beat Generation. “Big Sur” is the story drunk on alcoholic madness that comes to a head over a Labor Day weekend less than a decade before the “Summer of Love”. It was published just after Labor Day in 1962. John Steinbeck would win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962. Alcoholism would kill Kerouac in October of 1969.

I have yet to finish reading this new copy of "Big Sur" all the way through . The words demand to be savored, and I want a bongo playing in my head to sync the rhythms of his words to my pulse.

"Big Sur" begins with Kerouac entering San Francisco with elaborate secret plans concocted with his friend, and founder of the City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The plans dissolve into the mundane liquid logic of booze and alcoholism and Jack escapes to the south into the land where Henry Miller had written “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” just a few years earlier. Miller lived for 18 years in Big Sur, and the summer that Jack Kerouac visited Ferlinghetti’s Big Sur cabin was living just a dozen miles south.

Hieronymus Bosch captured in pigment, in the right-hand panel of his famous triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights", the emotional jumble of basal human horror like that revealed during the Delirium Tremens .  His oranges are found in the left and center panels.

I entered San Francisco from the north.

I, like many people, have enjoyed misattributing the quote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” To Mark Twain. This year, when I looked over at San Francisco from the Marin headlands, the temperatures in the city were over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot anywhere, but hellishly hot for San Francisco.

The heat had burned off any fog that thought of forming; the Sutro tower tempted from behind a haze of smog like a Kaiju lure. There was a giant ship full of shipping containers generically labeled “China Shipping Line”, but no Godzilla.

I arrived in San Francisco without a plan, but it is hard to loose a weekend in a haze of espresso and Hetch Hetchy water. It is a city that begs the stroll into a walk and the walk into an exploration. Each day put more than a dozen miles onto my shoes.

If that week-long weekend of past-tense and future punctuation defines the sentence of my life I suspect the nature of that punctuation is like a semicolon.

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