Letter from San Francisco

by Thomas Beller


891 beach st, san francisco, ca 94109

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

Several weeks have passed since I rushed around among cities on the West coast doing readings for the Salinger book, and still the event that stands out most vividly came from the end of the very first night, at the House of Nanking in San Francisco, one of my favorite restaurants anywhere and certainly one of the best Chinese food places I’ve ever eaten in.

I had planned to do a little synopsis of the events in each city with an eye towards how other places in America responded to 9/11, but shortly after returning to New York I saw a performance by the comedian Marc Maron, freshly returned from his own book tour for The Jerusalem Syndrome. Of America’s attitude towards New York he said: “New York is like the girl at the office who was raped. Afterwards everyone comes up to her and says, ‘Are you okay? I’m so sorry… we were all watching through the window but we couldn’t do anything..'” This seemed a much more succinct way of putting what I was going to spend several pages getting at, so I abandoned the project. What follows is a report on my couple of days in San Francisco.

The House of Nanking (919 Kearny St. San Francisco, 415-421-1429) is a tight little room down the street from City Lights books and in the shadow of the Bank of America building. I was there with Kip Kotzen, the co-editor of “With Love and Squalor,” Michael Sledge, Adam Fisher, and an editor, to be known as The-person-who-can-not-be-named– all of us pouring in at 10:30, just before they closed. Towards the end of the meal I struck up a conversation with a couple of guys in shirtsleeves and ties, sitting to my right. They had gleaned that I was from New York, having overheard us. The guys worked in commercial real estate. Apparently the San Francisco market had taken a bad hit. I forget the numbers. But I was happy to hear about it, and they were happy to report it. I’m always happy to hear first hand dispatches from the world of business, for some reason.

Then one of the guys asked me what it was like to be in New York on 9/11. His exact words were, “Was it bad?”

There was a rustling of silverware across the table. Kip had gathered some utensils together in his hand and was looking away with an expression of disgust, as though he had just eaten something sour.

For the next several days I contemplated the appropriate response to this question:

“Was it bad?” I should have said.

And then I should have:

a) thrown some food on his white shirt, and said, “Is that bad?” b) poured hot tea on his head, and said, “Is that bad?” c) stood up and started punching him repeatedly in the face while screaming “Is this bad?” over and over d) calmly replied, “No, not too bad really, kind of like a snow day but with ashes instead of snow.”

Of course I did e), none of the above. I think my response was to blink at him a few times and finally say, “Uhm, yeah, it was pretty bad.”

The conversation ended shortly thereafter and Kip was appropriately disgusted and vehement about the whole thing, whereas it took me about twenty four hours to start to get upset about it.

Other than that exchange, the whole day had been pretty great.

I went straight from the airport to the offices of Wired Magazine, where our host in San Francisco, Adam Fisher, works. He took me for a tour of the neighborhood. We walked through a park right near his office that had once, he told me, been the red hot epicenter of the dot-com boom, where every other person sitting on the grass was a millionaire. Now its residents were a combination of dozing bums and lunching office workers. We walked past the building that had housed Wired’s first office, and which also housed Might magazine. Then a stroll down the waterfront past the baseball stadium, all so peaceful and pretty. The sun was out, the air slightly gauzy.

The reading that evening was at Black Oak Books. It’s a new branch for the store, whose main outlet is in Berkeley. It’s located just up the block from the venerable City Lights. Kip and I drank Martini’s down the street and then headed over for the reading. Black oak Books is sandwiched between some strip clubs and porn outlets. We joked about this but did not go in. Maybe if we were going to read from a book about Jack Kerouac it would have been different. But there is no overt segue between smut and J.D. Salinger.

It was just Kip and I reading – we would be joined by the amazing and elusive Charles D’Ambrosio in Portland, Seattle, and LA, and also by Aimee Bender in LA – and it went well. The decent size crowd seemed interested, and then the funny looking guy in the front row raised his hand for a question. He had a hair lip, and was hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. He had light, sandy hair that was thinning, and was wearing shorts. All in all he looked like a psycho with a major Salinger chip on his shoulder and I was eager to hear what he had to say.

“I’m in the state college and I’m there with people who are taking loans out to get through school and have bills to pay and are working two jobs an I just want to say what planet is Holden Caufield on? What problems does he have? He’s just some rich kid who thinks he’s got problems but he doesn’t know anything about problems and he goes whining on about it and”

This went on for a while. I was delighted and in the end I said, “Well, that’s a good point. Does anyone in the audience want to respond to that?” And several people did. Their point seemed to be that people with money have problems, too. I was glad not to have to offer this as a defense. The disheveled guy, meanwhile, looked a little winded and had a slight exhausted smile on his face. It was as though he had traveled a thousand miles to deliver this opinion. It was the incredulous look of someone who had just got laid or performed a long planned assassination. He seemed happy and almost bashful, as though he couldn’t believe he had actually done it. I wondered if this was the conclusion, the catharsis, of some long held grudge, ever since he was forced to read the thing in high school and all the twats who tortured him about his hair lip had loved the book and went on and on about it in class…

After that Kip and I went for a drink around the corner at a huge, vaguely Italian place called Tosca. We were joined by Adam Fisher and Michael Sledgef. I had announced the presence of Michael to the audience. I told them about how great his book, “Mother and Son,” is, and afterwards I stood around with the nice, bearded store manager, Lewis, and exhorted him to order copies of it. “Mother and Son,” is a family memoir set in Texas, incredibly beautiful and real.

The-person-who-can-not-be-named is an enterprising editor who wrote to me several years ago asking me to do some writing for the on-line music magazine where she was an editor (needless to say, the online magazine has since folded). In her letter she told me that Lorrie Moore and David Foster Wallace and some other fiction writers had done reviews for her. She wanted me to do one too. The band was Idlewild. I wrote the review. I probably made them sound a bit better than they are because they reminded me of a long forgotten band named The Senseless Things. I had once played the drums on a bill with The Senseless Things; I have a soft spot for them and still listen to their hyper-rocking record (sounds like early Soul Asylum or Bullet LaVolta). Both Idlewild and The Senseless Things were British bands who seemed to be in love with the Replacements. At any rate, I sent in the review and shortly thereafter, having poked around her site at greater length, wrote her a note saying that I couldn’t seem to find the reviews that DFW and Lourie Moore, etc had written. Of course, they hadn’t written them, she just made that up. I’ve always been very impressed by this and we’ve kept in touch.

After drinks we all went to the House of Nanking, where we just asked them to bring seafood, and out came one incredibly delicious dish after the other, and then the business guys, “was it bad?” Kip clutching the silverware. We ended the night up the block at City Light Books. It is such a nice bookstore. It’s got nostalgia without kitsch, and it has taste and attitude, and somehow even though it’s practically the most famous bookstore in the world it feels a bit like your own secret. I ended up buying a book by some Russian guy who never had a word published in his life. The most unlucky writer ever, the book jacket seemed to say, but Susan Sontag says he’s as good as Dostoyevsky and I bought it and, as though to confirm his fate, left it in the back seat of the rented car. Perhaps someone at Avis is enjoying it.

The next morning Adam took us out on his sail boat. It was Kip, Adam, myself, and Adam’s friend David, who told me about his time in the Navy on the way over to the Marina. I was particularly interested in boot camp. David used phrases like, “nut to butt,” and said it was the most grueling thing he had ever been through. The implication was it was the best thing, too, and I believed him. We got the sailboat read and shortly we were out on the water. It was sunny, not yet nine in the morning. In the distance was the Golden Gate Bridge.

Though it feels like a million years ago now, there was a time just a few months ago when there was serious concern that the Golden Gate Bridge would get blown up. The logic seemed to be that it was, in some way, right up there at the tippy top of the Pantheon of American Icons. It also made a certain kind of sense. “This land is your land, this land is my land. From California, to New York island,” Woody Guthrie sang. The WTC. The Golden Gate Bridge. We’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Now it loomed in the distance on a sunny day in San Francisco. The wind was up and we were moving at a good clip. A seal bobbed up in the water and swam beside us for a minute. It’s smooth round head and sloping neck brown and glistening, bobbing in and out of the waves. It was beautiful. It’s motion was totally at one with its surroundings, and so was ours, the sails full of wind, the water slapping against the boat. Then someone said, “Hey, look at that.”

We all turned to look a cargo ship heading out to sea, loaded up with Maersk containers. It was, at first, somewhat difficult to gauge the size of the ship or it’s distance from us. But fairly quickly I gasped two basic points: It was very big, and it was very close. In fact we seemed to heading on a collision course. In hindsight, I’d say we were at least a half a mile away. It was moving much faster then I had thought, and it did indeed pass before us, and we rode up and down on it’s huge wake. For a moment I was afraid, however, and very glad that David had been in the Navy and knew what to do in a sail boat.

The container ship was strangely beautiful. I must have been fifteen stories high, and it was heading out to a transatlantic voyage. It was a glimpse into the infrastructure of the world, a giant cell in world’s industrial bloodstream. Terrifying and real and pretty, too.

About twenty minutes later, we were sailing beneath the Golden gate Bridge. I have always loved that bridge, but driving over it is nothing compared to seeing it from the water. Each tower is like a giant spire, and the color, against the pale blue sky, was so strange and interesting, a rusty red-orange, like a sunset, but drawn in pastel. I’m not terribly moved by architecture, usually, but I found the bridge remarkable, especially against an unusually blue sky.

Equally remarkable was the fact that we could have just sailed up to the bridge and blown the whole thing to bits. There wasn’t one shred of security around to prevent anyone in a vessel of any size to just sail up to the base of one of the towers. It was an odd corollary to all the flying I did on that trip; those guys in military uniform and with the rifles, standing at attention at the security gates. A young girl asked one for directions. I was happy they were there, but they didn’t make me feel any safer.

It wasn’t even noon when we returned to Adam’s house and settled into that day’s New York Times. The front page of the business section featured a long article about how San Francisco was losing young professionals every day. There was a run on the local U-haul outlets. The one on Van Ness usually rented six trucks a day. Now they were renting more than fifteen a day, all one way, out of town.

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