Friday, September 24, 2010

Four Days, Four Poems

In Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom,” a character moves to a new city. He walks, exhilarated, through the streets. Franzen describes the character’s heightened sense of awareness like this: “Each encounter was like a poem he instantly memorized.”

I get that. I do that, too – take mental snapshots of new experiences, unexpected moments, here in San Francisco. Following are some of the snapshots, the poems, from this week.

Just got home from a hike to the Bonita Point Lighthouse in the Marin headlands, the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Once a month, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy holds a hike on the night of the full moon so participants may watch the sun set over the ocean and the moon rise over the city.

Wow – all this, and the night was downright balmy, with no wind and no fog! Everything about the evening was beautiful, though not as poetic as it might have been. The hike from the trailhead is just half a mile, on paved road, part of which is relatively steep. Up until this very morning, visitors who made the trek were allowed to cross a suspension bridge to the actual lighthouse and to stand there at the edge of the continent. This morning, the bridge was declared rusty and unsafe for passage, so instead we hung out just this side of the bridge, admittedly still quite close to the edge of the continent.

When we gathered in the parking lot – maybe 25 of us – a male red-tailed hawk (so I was told) was preening itself on top of an electrical pole. The bird’s mate was perched high in a tree not far away. After the hike, driving back to the main road from the trailhead, I saw six white-tailed deer and a morbidly obese raccoon. In between was the stunning sunset and moonrise.

Also, we heard a great tale about another tour group that emerged one sunny afternoon from a tunnel in the hillside near the lighthouse to find not one, not two, but 10 turkey vultures sitting in a row on a the fence that runs along the trail. One wag quipped, “Must have been a tour for seniors…”

Last night, I attended the infamous “Beach Blanket Babylon,” a musical review that pokes fun of local and national leaders and celebrities. The concept for the show dates back to 1974 and apparently it has garnered rave reviews ever since. (In 1983, Queen Elizabeth saw it, and she loved it.) Ten talented actors zip nonstop through outrageous song parodies and short skits, all while wearing outlandish wigs and high headgear that accentuates the musical barbs. I was lucky to be there with nine people celebrating the birthday of a friend, and we all laughed throughout the show. Fun!

Wednesday night was not fun – or funny. Here’s the background: Placido Domingo will sing the title role in “Cyrano de Bergerac” at the San Francisco Opera this season. No single seats are being sold for the run; you have to buy season tickets. Okay -- I selected a series of three shows and bought seats way up in the balcony, because I want to hear Domingo in person.

Wednesday evening I took the train to the Opera House, went to the free pre-show lecture and settled into my seat for the performance, which was Massenet’s “Werther.” Right away, I couldn’t hear very well. It was really warm, up there by the ceiling. I found the set annoying. And the story, set in Germany in the 1700s, struck me as silly.

During the pause between the first and second scene, I asked the guy sitting next to me – a longtime subscriber -- what he thought. “I can’t really hear them, and that’s unusual,” he said. He also agreed that it seemed unusually warm. And he laughed, nodding, when I said I thought the characters were all crazy. I left at intermission, and I was not alone.

By the time I got to the street, I was alone. I guess the others got into their cars and drove away. My plan was to catch a taxi. In the first 10 minutes, I saw only three taxis on the very busy street where I was standing in front of the opera house. I called a cab company and was told a cab would come get me. None did. After waiting 15 minutes, I called back. The taxi company put me on hold and never answered. I considered calling a family member to rescue me, but I have not previously flunked cab-catching. I have found taxis in the rain in New York City and in an ice storm in Washington, D.C. I was determined to find a cab – and after 15 more minutes of standing around, I did.  

The next day, Susan told me that it’s not unusual to have trouble getting a cab. The city, she said, does not issue enough taxi medallions, and that’s how current cab drivers like it. I don’t like it. This is an international city. Finding a taxi outside the opera house on a busy street should not be a challenge. Instead, cab drivers should be fighting over those who sneak out at intermission.

Another transportation dilemma – somewhat related – sprung up Tuesday night, when I attended my first meeting of the Bookworms Nature Book Club at the California Academy of Science, which is in Golden Gate Park. We read John McPhee’s excellent “Assembling California” (in the book, McPhee calls this area “lithospheric driftwood”) and the meeting was lively, just as meetings were with my old Friends of Tyson Nature Book Club.

I took two buses to get to the meeting, which was actually three bus rides from my apartment -- but I like walking to Cole Valley to catch a bus or train there, so I did. When I got to the museum, I asked the woman at the desk about taking a taxi home. “Cabs can’t find our back door here in the park, and our front door will be locked when you leave,” she said. “If you call for a taxi, you will wait at least 30 minutes – and that’s if they can find you.” (Foreshadowing!)

Resigned to taking three buses home – and a little uneasy about tromping round the park at night -- I walked to the stop with a fellow book club member whose car was parked just past the bus shelter. She offered to wait at the stop with me in the dark, deserted park, but a bus arrived seconds after we arrived. Good thing. The sign at the shelter noted that the next bus would arrive in 30 minutes.  Next month, I will drive to the meeting, and park in the park – though the Academy website warns that cars parked in the park are often vandalized. That risk beats dealing with a bus that rarely runs and taxis that aren’t available.
Franzen’s character learned, as have I, that not every encounter – or poem – is beautiful. Still, I love where I live and I even love that when I get on a bus or a train or the rapid transit system, I am never entirely sure that I will actually get where I am going. That’s exciting!

More on Franzen: His brother, Bob, was in my graduating class in 1966 at Webster Groves High School. We had over 600 people in the class, and I did not know Bob Franzen. However, Jonathan Franzen (Class of 1977) and I have something odd in common. We both are on the Webster Groves High School Wall of Fame (see Ever since I read Franzen’s “The Corrections,” I’ve been suggesting (half seriously) that Webster take me off the wall, as Franzen deserves a bigger space. He’s such a gifted writer and a compelling storyteller!

On that note, I am curling up with my Kindle and reading until I finish “Freedom.”  

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