Imagining A San Francisco Wall

At the end of December, our initial six-month sublet here in Berlin ran out, so we packed up our stuff and went back to Czech for the holidays. Then, a few days into 2012, we drove back from Prague and — boing— straight into our new flat, located in a section of Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood known as ‘Die Rote Insel’ (the Red Island).

Die Rote Insel is called an island because it’s a triangular region surrounded by train tracks on all three sides, so one must cross a bridge to gain access. The ‘red’ part comes from the fact that it was historically a leftist stronghold and was allegedly the last part of Berlin to hold out against Hitler’s local political machine in the 30s.

One local attraction is this weirdo gasworks structure that looms over the neighborhood:

Another noteworthy thing is that we’re about half a mile from where David Bowie and Iggy Pop did their famous mid-70s sojourn:

Here’s the oh-so-bland-and-unassuming building where they lived:

What this all is getting to is a meditation on the weird east-versus-west dynamics that persist in Berlin as a result of the Wall. As part of the former West Berlin, Schöneberg is now considered to be a bit of a snooze— friends of ours who live in hipper areas would assume slightly restrained expressions when we would mention that we were moving there (sort of like if you were to mention that you are moving to the Inner Richmond). And, yet, back when Bowie lived here, it was pretty much as swinging as West Berlin got. You had Kreuzberg to one side, which was slummy and punk and Turkish, and then Schöneberg, which was the gay district. I had originally guessed that the neighborhood’s gay identity stemmed from its relatively close proximity to the Wall— as such, I imagined that it was a kind of untamed borderlands where anything went. But, I’ve since learned that gay affiliation stretches all the way back to the Weimar Republic-era… so, never mind about that.

So, that’s the weird contradiction of Schöneberg: a relatively risqué, eastern area of a larger, boring western area. Seemed edgy at the time… but is looked down upon by all the hipsters in the former East. On the one hand, this all seems unique to Berlin and its particular dynamics. And yet… it also reminds you of Noe Valley if you squint your eyes. In fact, it’s really easy to imagine a similar partition in San Francisco, given the exaggerated east-west divide and the cultural disdain with which people in the neighborhoods to the North and East view the western part of the city.

As a reminder, here’s how it worked in Berlin:

In my imaginary history, here’s how San Francisco was partitioned in 2005, dividing the MGDR (Matt Gonzalez Democratic Republic) from the secessionist RGN (Republic of Gavin Newsom) and tearing apart countless families and community institutions in the process:

As a virtual island in hostile territory, the RGN is naturally cut off from bridge access and can only be accessed by plane, helicopter or hydrofoil. The West gets the Golden Gate Park, just as West Berlin got the Tierpark… but the East gets the heavily-armed Presidio (i.e., Mauerpark).

And, in the analogy, Schöneberg is roughly outer Noe Valley, which sounds… about right!

Children and Alcohol: Together At Last

[Note: this post was originally written for another Mission-oriented blog, hence the direct references to San Francisco audience]

Raising a child is a breeze in Berlin thanks to the wide availability of kid-friendly beer gardens. (Note: a ‘child’ is a small human who has not yet achieved adult stature— I was a little unclear on this concept myself until I left the Mission.) Take, for example, Prater Garten on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauerberg: the space looks like about eight Zeitgeists stitched together, only without the whole ‘mistaking rudeness for authenticity’ issue that’s been haunting Zeitgeist for years.

Then, in the back, is a fully-equipped playground where you can semi-neglect your daughter or son while you enjoy sophisticated adult beverages nearby. Kids, in my observation, seem to eat this place up: first, they get to enjoy running around in the kid-sanctioned area… but then there’s also the illicit thrill of venturing out into the ‘dark side’, where grownups are presented in various states of alcohol-amplified enthusiasm.

Finally… you know you’re in a land of lessened litigation-culture when there’s a disused diving tower in the back of your local beer garden:

My friend tells the story of being at a kid birthday party at Prater when one of the children suddenly materialized on top of the diving stand. That’ll sober you up in a hurry.

How My First Weekend Back In Europe Was Spent On A Houseboat in South San Francisco

Hey, another travel misadventure! You would think I’d already had enough this year.

This time, my own smart-alecky tendencies were largely to blame. Explanation: my friend Will works as an engineer for United Airlines, so he is able to give me so-called ‘companion passes’ that allow me to fly standby for a fraction of the normal ticket price. The ‘companion pass’ racket is a real roll of the dice— sometimes you wind up in business class; other times, you wind up not getting on the flight altogether. However, in my previous seven companion pass forays, I’d only missed one flight (and with minimal consequences), so the overall risk factor seemed pretty small.

So, I arrive at the airport on Thursday at noon, ready to try my companion-pass luck— and wind up being the only person who doesn’t make it on the plane. It’s a really lonely feeling to watch an entire crowded boarding area worth of passengers gradually make their way onboard, only to be left at the end with a vacant room behind you and a bunch of shrugging flight attendants facing you. You spend the entire boarding routine in a heightened state of Zen powerlessness, futility commanding the last straggling passengers not to show up at the gate so you can get their ticket,  then gradually slouching into a soggy-beanbag-shaped crescent of defeat as they appear one by one in the closing seconds. One thing you learn from this experience is that the kind of people who show up at the gate to board an aircraft at the very last second really ARE the most disorganized goofballs that you’ll ever see in your life. It’s hard to stomach the fact that this specimen of abstracted doofus has supplanted you on the airplane until you remember that they actually bought a ticket and you didn’t.

Missing the one flight seemed benign enough… but then the next flight to Frankfurt was cancelled, and that’s where my troubles really began. Soon, it became apparent that I’d run into a virtual wall of oversold flights, and wouldn’t be getting out anytime soon. After having spent most of my stay in the Mission at this point, I wisely switched gears at this point and spent the next few days with my airline friend Will, who lives just 15 minutes from the airport. His place is The Libertine, a sailboat docked off the South San Francisco Marina:

His girlfriend Colleen, a flight attendant, lives in an adjacent houseboat that she calls The Sanctuary— but Will refers to as The Wild Thing— that was my home for the next three nights:

Thus began a strange three-day regimen: two trips per day to the airport that I decided to treat as though I was a devout Muslim and the airport was the local mosque— i.e. don’t question it, just do it. Stand in line, check in, robotically go through security, read Keith Richards’ Life while everyone bustlingly loads onto the plane, then stoically accept the news that the plane is full, text Will, walk out to the pickup area, jump into the van and get driven back to the marina for another few hours of rancho relaxo… then back the airport for another attempt… then off to the city for nighttime antics.

With the notable exception of these futile, ritualistic airport trips, the rest of my stay was spent in a hazy condition resembling a mixture of Gilligan’s Island and quaaludes. I made a feeble attempt to help Will with fixing up his boat, but then soon retired to a lot of this:

Here’s a typical dinner on the boat, before heading out into the city:

Finally, after a fifth failed attempt to get on a flight, my impatience and desire to see my wife and son became insurmountable, and so I jumped online in the airport… and managed to find a flight from SFO to Dusseldorf the next day for $500. Thank Allah God for 9/11! How weird it was to enter the airport this time as a fully-entitled patron, full of all the normal assurances of boarding the plane, no longer playing the heady razor’s-edge game of airplane roulette. A mere 30 hours later, I was back in Prague, reunited with my wife and child. And then, 24 hours later, back in Berlin again.

See also: How My First Night In SF Was Spent At The Frankfurt Hotel Airport Bar

Three Dorketeers

Halfway through my San Francisco trip, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Johnny O of Burrito Justice and TK of 40goingon28 for a few drinks, where we formed a dorky Three Blogeteers-type roundtable of sorts. Also, KevMo from Uptown Almanac made a cameo appearance in the beginning of the evening. It was a lot of fun— Johnny I’d met before, but TK and Kevin were fresh acquaintances, and all are great guys to have a beer with.

The anatomy of a blind ‘blog date’ is a strange one. OH MY GOD, DOES MY HAIR LOOK GOOD? First, there’s the weird phenomenon of matching an unfamiliar face to a hyper-familiar writing voice, and the unsettling suspicion that the person in front of you could in fact be an obsessed stalker who’s read all of another person’s blog and is pretending to be the blogger and you wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference. Then— more pressingly— there’s the weird disjoint of having a conversation with somebody who knows all of this anecdotal nonsense that you blog about your life (‘Oh, so, you’re familiar with my attempt to match up European countries to U.S. states?’) but is unfamiliar with some of the most basic aspects of your autobiography (where you grew up, how old your child is, etc). The closest thing I can compare it to is during the days when I was taking drawing classes and would sometimes bump into the models from the class on the street— there would be an awkward sense of ‘Here we are, having a conversation, and yet I know what you look like naked and you don’t know what I look like naked.’ In the case of the blind blog date, it’s a two way street— each person has glimpsed into the other’s boudoir— but there’s the same essential feeling that the normal order of steps by which you get to know a person has somehow been flipped around. Now, it’s not like this was actually penetratingly weird— it was basically just a beery good time during a trip filled with such— but the underlying social dynamic at work is peculiar enough that I feel obligated to try to describe it a bit.

I should add that our host for the evening was the ever-enjoyable Homestead Bar. In retrospect, this was a much better choice of location than the first time I met up with Johnny O in April of 2010. In that instance, I suggested that he meet me at Hard French, the outdoor El Rio party, since I was planning on going there anyway— this resulted in the near-slapstick scenario of two straight blog guys who don’t know what the other looks like trying to pick each other out of a huge crowd of cruising gay men. Will I ever win?

How My First Night In SF Was Spent At The Frankfurt Hotel Airport Bar

On Friday, I participated in one of the classic set pieces of human experience, the Cancelled-Flight-Where-Airline-Puts-You-Up-In-Some-Random-Airport-Hotel routine.

Here’s some timeline leading up to the calamity:

Thurs, 14:00: My travels begin. Wife, son and I set out in the car from Berlin to Prague.

Technically, this is the wrong direction. The explanation is that my wife and son are spending the next two weeks in Italy, at this terrible-sounding Czech redneck enclave there called Bibione. My wife acknowledges that it’s a terrible place, but she because she’s a good sport and her sister is super into it and so it’s a family bonding thing. I’ve announced from the beginning that I’m never going to this place, so I have two weeks or so on my own at the end of every summer. Now, it’s impossible to drive long distances alone with a two year-old, so I’m accompanying them as far as Prague, where the sister can jump in and replace me.

21:30: In Prague, eating dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.

22:45: Driving to drop me off at a metro stop. Instead, we happen to drive by Trafika bar (the bar next to my old studio, described in the Statler and Waldorf post) and I spot my friends inside having an ‘after work’ drink. Quick change of plans!

23:45: Arrive liquored up at Prague bus station, get aboard overnight bus to Frankfurt. Sleep 5 hours despite crushing lack of leg room. (The rationale behind going to Frankfurt is that my buddy works for the airlines and can get me cheap flights out of there).

Friday, 9:00: Wake up at Frankfurt Airport, the blandest destination in one of Europe’s blandest cities. Kill five hours reading Patti Smith memoir Just Kids.

14:00: Get onboard flight to SF.

15:00: Still sitting on runway, waiting for ‘mechanical problem’ to be resolved…

16:00: Still sitting on runway. Curious message comes over the intercom: ‘Flight attendants, prepare for cross-check and arrival’. Arrival? This is weird. We haven’t left yet. Why are they preparing to arrive? And why is the message intoned with dejection? Uh oh…

16:05: Flight cancellation announced. Shock and outrage ensue.

Now, whenever people would tell me about a flight cancellation experience, I’d always imagined that one moment you’re at the airport, and the next you’re magically transported to your hotel room with minimal fuss. I had never thought about the logistics involved in getting 300 people off a plane and transferred to a hotel in the event of a flight cancellation before:

16:06: Everyone herded off plane. General atmosphere of stunned bewilderment: ‘Wait, you mean we’re not getting our luggage back? I have medication in there!’

16:20: 300 people standing in the boarding area, waiting for one lone United representative who is supposedly going to escort us to our hotel. When this person materializes, she turns out to be the tiniest human specimen that United could possibly have roused for the occasion. She’s immediately engulfed by the crowd, such that only the 15 people closest to her can either see her or hear what she’s saying.

16:40: The Tiny Sprite leads us to one end of the terminal where we are supposed to be able to exit. But, security refuses to allow us to exit here, so the entire group has to execute a reverse of direction and go to the opposite end of the terminal. At this point, the guy next to me calls out ‘It’s OK: the people who fell down on the way… we’ve picked them back up now!’

16:41-17:15: The Tiny Sprite herds one hundred people at a time onto the monorail to the another terminal, then across the street to a bus stop where the hotel shuttle bus ferries us to an airport hotel. I assume that 10-15% of the herd perished during this migration, but still the overall survival rate was pretty good.

During this part of the ordeal, the usual social archetypes emerged as always appear in large group dynamics:

The Insatiable Questioner: This is always a woman in her 50s with frizzy hair. Any time any authority figure appears (airline representative, bus driver, hotel clerk), the IQ begins asking a stream of questions that NEVER STOP but just morph into different topical areas of concern. The IQ needs to have it explained to her that a United Airlines representative cannot help her change her San Francisco hotel booking because the airlines rep is an airlines rep and not a travel agent. The IQ means well and will share her acquired knowledge with the rest of the herd, but is ultimately riddled with too much misinformation to be a reliable source.

There were points when I considered the possibility that if the airplane wasn’t properly fixed by the time we got back onboard, at least the world would be rid of the Insatiable Questioner after the ensuing crash.

The Jovial Jokester: A white guy in his 60s or 70s wearing either a straw hat, a cowboy hat or a Stetson hat. The JJ makes good-natured, non-edgy jokes to put others at ease and quickly acquires a small band of acolytes. I usually start out being annoyed the the JJ but eventually come around to the fact that he’s at least trying to engage the situation in a constructive way. Plus, his sunny demeanor helps quell the anxieties of…

The Quiet Panickers: These are the people who are terrified that everything’s going wrong but don’t even have the confidence to articulate their worries in any purposeful way. The QPs look around wide-eyedly, and if you make eye contact with them, they’ll say something like, ‘I think we were supposed to get off at the last terminal!’ or ‘I don’t know how we’re going to find the bus!’ You learn to stop making eye contact with these people.

The Stoic Mummies: This describes most of the people in the group, myself included. The SMs have moments of alert helpfulness but generally are trying to numb themselves and not get infected by the panic of others.

Jack Shephard Wanna-Bes: A few people who are actively trying to play heroic roles, running around and making loud, brave announcements. Screw these people.

The Legitimate Sharpie: Then there’s the one person who actually is really unaccountably good at figuring things out. Your goal is to find the LS and stick with them.

Example: on the monorail, there was extreme confusion because the Sprite had instructed us to get off at Terminal E but had pronounced ‘E’ the German way, where it sounds like ‘A’. It was the LS who figured this out and quelled a potential mass panic.

The Angry Guy: Less said about him, the better.

In the end, it took about two hours to get from the airplane seat to my hotel room, which isn’t too bad. I have to admit that once we were all installed in the hotel, a fun conviviality did emerge, just because everyone (a) is bored, (b) is at the hotel bar, and (c) has a good conversational ice-breaker. It was like an episode of Lost, only if Lost took place at a Frankfurt hotel instead of on an exotic island. Or: like an incredibly upscale version of the New Orleans Superdome during Katrina, except minus the Marty Bahamonde ‘just took a crap with 38,000 of my closest friends’ aspect. (Note: I do actually feel bad about comparing my benign experience to the horrors of the Superdome… but it was what the experience reminded everyone of.) For my part, I struck up a conversation with two San Franciscans, Houri and Will, at the bar. Later, we ate dinner with a fun couple from Discovery Bay who had managed to get installed in a conference room and had taken funny photos of the woman lounging out sexily on the conference table. So, those were my Single Serving Friends for the evening.

Other small upsides of the experience: (1) excellent buffet breakfast at the hotel, featuring the largest tub of bacon I’ve ever seen in my life. (2) Compellingly weird experience of getting on the same plane a day later, in the same seat, with everyone around you wearing the same clothes. (3) Fraternal airplane atmosphere, as people had gotten to know each other by this point. When you walked through the aisle to get to the bathroom, it was like ‘Oh hey, what’s up?’ … ‘Did you ever find your sweater?’… ‘Have fun at Burning Man!’ etc etc.

Major downside outweighing all above upsides: missing Friday night in San Francisco. Plus, the fact that when I finally arrived on Saturday evening, I’d been traveling for 60 hours.

Where Amazing! Means Ordinary

Next week, I’m making my standard pilgrimage back to San Francisco. Only this time, I’m scrambling for accommodation, having apparently overstayed my welcome at the usual crash pad (long story, but it doesn’t include any episodes of vomiting or trafficking exotic animals this time). As a result, I’ve been thrown to the ravenous clutches of airbnb.com, which has been a fairly scandalizing experience:

• First off, the prices people are asking for their dorky studios seem like the crazed ravings of madmen to me. Now: I have been gone awhile, so it’s quite possible that I’m being a naive country field mouse about this. Nevertheless, some of these posts do make me yearn for a jeep full of vigilante Taliban to cruise around the Mission and punish demonstrations of heedless greediness that offend Allah’s sight. The above listing for the $300 sofa, for example, includes this gem:

The couch is a two-piece, so one tall and one short person can sleep. Blankets provided.

Well, then. What about if I try to stack three short people on— does that cost extra?

(Could this— and other posts like it— be a hoax? If so, the author is a comic genius)

• My main grievance is not the price but the fact that people can’t be bothered to update the goddamn calendars that are supposed to indicate when the sublet is and isn’t available.

This means that you’re constantly making bookings that you have to wait a day to find out have been refused. The whole vibe of snooty time-wasting makes the experience feel like a virtual counterpart to the 10 minutes spent waiting at the Beauty Bar for some too-cool-for-school mofo bartender to deign to serve you. And basically makes me start to wish I’d picked someplace to go for my vacation. Let’s just move on…

• If I’ve learned anything useful from this experience, it’s that the word ‘Amazing’ apparently means Absolutely and totally nondescript with nothing whatsoever to recommend it when it’s followed by the word ‘Apartment’ in the English language. As in ‘Amazing Studio at 16th and Mission!’.

In fairness, I have to say that the most insanely histrionic claim I’ve come across during this search was not on airbnb.com but rather in a listing for the San Francisco Guest House:

I mean… OK, so…. exaggerations are par for the course. But would it surprise you if the person who wrote this simply burst into flames on the spot?

So, anyway: see you soon, SF. Me and my short companion await our stay on your magic, separable couch.

Skid Row

In case you missed the brouhaha, TK at 40goingon28 posted this tweet from noted film critic and profuse sweater Roger Ebert:

Several folks (myself included) quickly recognized this as a semi-opaque reference to the movie Vertigo, where the movie’s action is instigated by a request that James Stewart’s character visit an old friend with a Mission address– ‘skid row’, as gal friday Midge remarks. As it turns out, both references have a ‘sic’ quality to them, in that both the End Up and Gavin Elster reside in what we would now consider to be SoMa, but back in the day, this counted as part of the Mission.

Here’s the clip (click for movie file):

As far as I know, the other notable cultural references to the neighborhood are:

1. 48 Hours, where Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte visit the credulity-stretching Torchie’s Western Bar– supposedly, a straight, white, red neck strip joint. (By the way, check out this Czech-dubbed version of the scene that demonstrates the particular awkwardness of trying to find jive-sounding Czech guys to do the lines for the Eddie Murphys and Wayans brothers and other hip African Americans of the movie world.)

2. Dashiell Hammet’s novel The Glass Key. Members of an occult group break into a pharmacy in the Mission to steal opium.

3. Nabokov’s Lolita. As Humbert Humbert travels the country with the nymphette Dolores Haze towards the end of the book, he gives a series of quick one-liners listing places they’ve visited. ‘Mission Dolores: good title for book,” he remarks self-deprecatorily.

Anything I’m missing?

Getting back to Roger Ebert for a sec, here’s a photo of him from 1970 where he actually looks a tad End-Uppy:

Supply-Your-Own-Caption Contest

From a Mexican TV slapstick comedy that I caught a few minutes of in the Radioshack on Mission St. I was literally just standing in front of a TV taking shots of the screen with my phone while my friend bought batteries for his camera, hence the grainy ‘field footage’ quality of the images.

Unfortunately, I missed the comic denouement where– of course– the doctor finds a pretext to ‘examine’ the nurse and starts pawing at her bosom with his stethoscope to peals of laughter and applause. So, you’re on your own as far as visualizing a conclusion to this Chekovian little drama.

Them

Spending time in San Francisco always reminds me of the fact that there are people who sit to the left of me on the political spectrum. This might seem like an obvious point (I mean, there has to be someone to the left of you, no matter who you are), but it really only began to dawn on me about halfway through the 10 years I lived in SF. In high school, it always just seemed to me that anyone worth knowing had wildly left-wing opinions about everything (after all, this is the time to be unrelentingly idealistic, given that you never have to apply your ideas to anything remotely realistic). The social scene in my college, meanwhile, was just an unfettered left-facing stampede: if you could make a case that you were either oppressed or felt great sympathy for the oppressed, you were on the way to enjoying popularity and easy sex, no matter how vague and platitudinous your case was. Growing up in these environments, I never really felt any motivation to temper my instinctual leftism– even when I felt the occasional flicker of doubt, I basically just went along with the program.

Shortly after I moved to SF in ’96, I can remember meeting a sensitive, bearded soul who expressed a belief that OJ Simpson was innocent of the crimes charged against him and had been systematically framed by the LAPD. To this day, he remains the only white person I’ve ever heard voice this opinion. At that time, although I disagreed with his belief system, I struggled to find an explanation as to how we could see things so differently. In other words, I basically took his statements as a legitimate, authentic viewpoint, albeit one that diverged sharply from mine. Nowadays, I would simply write him off as a dogmatist, someone whose opinions– endearing as I may find them– are reverse-engineered to fit certain predetermined norms and conclusions. And while the fact that he was wearing Guatemalan hippie pants would seem to support my current perspective, the fact that I can’t muster my former open-mindedness is obviously something of a loss.

The real watershed, however, occured sometime in 2002, when a friend-of-a-friend became a transsexual and requested that we all start referring to him/her as them. As in, good news: they’re coming over for dinner. This was a fascinating test case, in that it basically pitted the very left-leaning people who made up this scene against the very, very left-leaning people. The normal lefties, while generally sympathetic, drew the line at subverting the basic structure of language to this point (and at giving in to a request that reeked so suspiciously of narcissism). Although we felt sympathetic to this person’s (these peoples’?) choices, we weren’t about to subject ourselves to this kind of mind-bending syntactic confusion. The über-lefties, meanwhile– who were surprisingly numerous, by the way– fell right into line, expressing a general attitude of Wherever your heads at, man. Their feeling was that the whole thing is totally elastic and subjective, and a basic token of friendship is the willingness to refer to your friend(s) by whatever pronoun he/she/they feel(s) best fit(s) he/she/them.

[Image: from the famous Great Ideas series, sponsored by Container Corporation of America. Designer might be Herbert Bayer– I’m not really sure.]