She was ahead of me all the way out of San Francisco and onto the Golden Gate Bridge, where I couldn't pass her, a small Ford whose license frame had these words on it: "This rush ride is my blue dream." Halfway across the bridge, I saw a cop handcuffing a perfectly normal-looking young guy as tourists passed them on each side. I was back in California, all right, where weird stuff happens all around you and nobody thinks much about it.
My destination was Petaluma, former egg capitol of the U.S., now a bedroom community for San Francisco, which is a little over an hour's drive away. It's a much more suburban place than when I was last here in the early '70s, chauffeuring my British friend Pete Frame as he interviewed Norman Greenbaum, but traces of the past do still peep out.
It's kind of the gateway to the whole Sonoma/Napa wine country, too, which made this discovery on a streetcorner stand out.
Not a message that gets much traction in a place that's not only one of America's great wine-growing regions, but also one of the centers of its craft beer movement.
It's been about a decade since I was last in California, north or south, and in the interim a number of things I used to enjoy have disappeared. My friend Bob, for instance, a talented chef and polymath who became the art director of the online magazine Salon, died, thereby eliminating a California stop as an imperative during U.S. visits during which I refuelled on his wit and wisdom and that of his wife Lori and teenaged daughter Cady. Another loss was Village Music, the record store in which I learned a huge part of what I know about the history of American popular music. It closed its doors a couple of years back and its one-of-a-kind owner, John Goddard "retired" to selling his stock via mail-order out of his warehouse. A documentary film about the place has been shot, although I'm not in it, except in the credits, where I Kickstartered in a few bucks.
But I was determined to come to California on this journey to the States, and Lori and Cady opened up their home to me ("Petaluma is an hour from anyplace you'd want to be around here," Lori said, and she's right), so I've spent the week based here. It's a good resting place after the hurly-burly of SXSW, and it's full of American stuff to wonder at and explore. (Trader Joe's: what a weird store!) Plus, it's still not built up enough to be unpleasant: the rural and the suburban still seem to have a nice balance, unlike Marin County further south, where the yuppies just rode roughshod over everything.
The farmers are still a real presence, and there are a couple of places where you can buy a bag of dogfood for your dog or a truckload of alfalfa hay for your cattle. One evening, driving to Santa Rosa, we passed a small slaughterhouse, which Lori said had had some Nimby problems with some of the folks recently arrived from the city, but for the moment was still there, providing a local, well-inspected source of meat for those who chose to seek it out: hamburger with a history.
It's a kind of California you don't get to see closer to the bigger cities, where you can see a Mexican seafood joint with crudely painted octopi and fish on its windows and go in and get a real live vuelva a la vida, that old-time Cal-Mex seafood cocktail loaded with bits of octopus, scallops, crab, shrimp and chunks of avocado in a sauce that's got tomato juice, cumin, cilantro, and citrus in it. The one Tony served me at El Playa Azul, his joint downtown, was spectacular:
Maybe that's why I used the pseudonym Petaluma Pete in the 1970s when I first wrote about food for City, a magazine about San Francisco which my friends who worked there and I helped Francis Ford Coppola acquire. Petaluma in those days sort of signified "hick," and might have been my way of taking a stand against what I thought then to be the over-fancification of the local food scene at the hands of Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse brigade. I was wrong about that, but not about the first piece Pete did for City, in which I tried a new product that was being test-marketed in San Francisco and a few other cities in the country and pronounced it a vile brew, an utter failure. I'm not sure what it says about me or the world of food that both Waters and Miller Lite have survived to the present day and I'm willing to admit I was wrong about one of them.
Certainly the Petaluma gastronomic scene has grown with the times; the first meal I had here was in Central Market, an up-to-date joint with locally-sourced food, some of which was cooked in a wood-burning oven burning almond wood, of all things. The second meal was my own pastafazool made with a local Italian sausage, that deceptively-named only-in-America adaptation of southern Italian salsiccie. With that we had a bottle of 2003 Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville that was spectacular, complex, and yet not too subtle, in the grand old California tradition.
Northern California's been sunny and cold (right up to today, when it turned rainy and cold), and one day I met for lunch in San Francisco with my former next-door neighbor, the legendary Susie Friedman, who suggested we go to "new Chinatown" on Clement Street and see what we could scare up for lunch. We wound up in a classic dim sum restaurant with the odd name House of Banquet. (Although the website's English bit refers to "authentic Chinese food," the big sign announcing that they'd been chosen as one of the 100 best Chinese restaurants in America by some organization I've never heard about, called it "Americanized Chinese food," which may be, but certainly not in the chop suey way). The food was served upstairs in a mirrored room with a high ceiling, and we were about the only gwailo there. The ladies came by with carts laden with har gow, siu mai, and all the other greatest hits, we ordered a plate of pea shoots with garlic at our server's insistence, and we caught up. Good food, good company, and at the end of the day Susie snapped a decent picture of me just before I drove away.
Unfortunately, somewhere during that day I caught the cold that was going around the airplane I took from Texas, and so the next day's lunch, in Oakland with Charlie Haas, author of a wonderful novel about a vanished world (magazine publishing) called The Enthusiast, was much enjoyed but untasted. This was a shame, because it was at Nan Yang, whose business card claims they were the Bay Area's original Burmese restaurant, and it included a tea salad, which a half-Burmese friend once told me is called "the salad that promotes conversation." The fish-noodle soup was probably pretty good, too. The salad, though, did its work and after we conversed a lot, we went our separate ways and I spent the rest of the afternoon at art museums.
Charlie recommended the Berkeley Art Museum over the Oakland Museum, so I went there and it was evident that I was fated to go in because there was a parking spot right out front. (Actually, what it really meant was that it's spring break for the Berkeley students). The building is first-rate, raw concrete walls and superb lighting, suitable for a show of Tibetan Buddhist sculptures, approaches to abstract expressionism, or a huge show called State of Mind about conceptual art in California. That last is a good trick: part of the whole conceptual art deal is that it's not museum work, and often exists in the present. However, artists are usually not dumb, and realize that they're not going to get paid unless they document what they're doing, so we get several floors of videos, documents, photos, and other objects relating to the actions, and famous folks like Chris Burden, William Wegman (who was Californian before he was New York) and Ed Ruscha. I was rather surprised to find a section devoted to the Ant Farm, whom I knew when we all lived in Sausalito (they were down on Gate 5), but never considered to be conceptual artists because they actually made things, like their giant inflatables and the world-famous Cadillac Ranch. I still have a bunch of their documentation in my storage area in Texas, and this show is a spur to making me think it should maybe be somewhere where scholars can pore over it and perhaps come to the same conclusion I did all those years ago: these goofballs sure are fun.
The Oakland Museum, on the other hand, suffers from trying to do too much at once, at least the bit I saw. I walked in and there was a ticket desk, but it was closed, which I assumed was because the museum would close in an hour. However, there was a door that led to the floor with the art, so I walked in and spent a pleasant thirty minutes watching the museum juggle educating a pretty unsophisticated assumed audience about art, make statements about California, make statements about identity politics, and try to justify a collection that's even worse than the one I saw at the SFMOMA the last time I was here. I assumed that I was welcome, the two guards roaming around with iPads were very friendly, and it wasn't until one of them directed me to the floor below, where the history collection was, that I came to the ticket booth that was open and I realized I was supposed to have paid ten bucks to get in, as I had at Berkeley. Oops! But I had places to go, so I went and I hope the nice guards don't lose their jobs.
Tomorrow, I leave Petaluma for the South Bay, check in at a Travelodge near the airport, and leave the next morning early. (I didn't want to risk a hair-raising ride from Petaluma to the airport with a rent car to turn in). There'll be a Chinese meal, and then I fly to New York, to catch a rare solo performance by Dickie Landry and...well, I'm not sure what. The trip is half over now, though, and I'm already itching to see spring in Languedoc. But the U.S. Tour 2012 continues!