Sunday, April 1, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012 Part Seven: In Which We Leave San Francisco, Eat Towel Guard, and Get Robbed

Here's how to get into San Francisco's De Young Museum for free. I woke up on Sunday, packed, and said good-bye to my gracious hostess Lori in Petaluma. Not long thereafter I was catching up with friends over brunch in Marin County. They had to rush off to work afterwards, and suggested I spend the time between the present and the time I had to check into my airport-area hotel (I didn't want to risk driving from Petaluma to the San Francisco airport, filling the car up, turning it in and making a 9:15 flight all during rush hour) driving around the newly-opened Presidio and checking out the De Young, which, they thought, had undergone some interesting changes since I was last there. All very good suggestions for a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon, I thought.

I approached the Presidio in a kind of haphazard fashion. This large former army base had always nestled at the San Francisco end of the Golden Gate Bridge, and had been largely off limits to civilians since around the time of the Civil War. Of course, officers were allowed to have their families with them there, and there's a kind of surreal suburbanity to a lot of the place, with looming pine trees, a lush green humidity coming out of everything, as well as barracks of various kinds, a large hospital, a parade ground, an airfield, and an old cemetery. The whole thing was decommissioned some years back, and turned over, from what I can tell, to both the Parks Service, which is turning the historic buildings into a kind of Museum of the Presidio, and to private interests, who have already turned the officers' quarters into private homes and apartments. A large hotel was about to open up and, down by the waterfront on the Bay, lots of private businesses have opened up, the whole thing being seamlessly joined to the city's Marina district.

I should have taken pictures, because it was very cool, if a bit creepy, and I made a note to spend more time there next time I was in the area to learn more about this part of the city where I lived for 13 years but was never allowed to see. A posting here, or to the officers' yacht club on the other end of the bridge at Horseshoe Bay, must not have been the most hellish thing the Army could do to you during the Vietnam era, something which occurred to me every time I spotted these places while going between my house in Sausalito and San Francisco back then.

Next stop was Golden Gate Park, which I eventually found (I wasn't used to starting from where I exited the Presidio, and had to roam around some before I found a place where I could orient myself), and made my way to Ocean Beach, where I snapped a picture of heavy surf, the Cliff House, and a surfer in Blur-O-Vision and then discovered I could e-mail it instantly to a friend in Texas:

No idea why it didn't turn out better, but trust me, all those elements are in the picture. I could probably plead expressionism, in that it was cold and windy and I can still feel it looking at that shot.

From there, I kind of randomly made my way into the park and eventually the museum complex of the De Young and the Academy of Sciences appeared. One thing my friends had told me was that there was a huge underground parking facility there now, which really helped a lot. What they hadn't told me was that the De Young had gained an odd nine-story tower. But sure enough, there it was. I crossed over the plaza between the two museums, and found an old Chinese guy, grinning like a fool, playing "Jingle Bells" over and over on his accordian. Well, or something approximating it. Just right for late March.

I'd been warned that the main visiting show was Jean-Paul Gaultier, since struggling art museums -- and non-struggling ones, for that matter -- have found out that big fashion shows bring in visitors by the score, and this one seemed to me to be both a no-brainer and something I had no interest whatever in seeing. Still, there was the rest of the museum, and judging from the way others in line were dressed, J-P would be where the crowds were. I walked to the end of the line and suddenly heard my name. Out of nowhere, Andrew and Ani Roth, old friends from Berlin who'd escaped even before I had, appeared, looking happier and healthier than I'd ever seen them. They turned out to be De Young members, scored me a guest ticket, and, chattering away to catch up on old times, we got on the elevator to the panoramic view from the tower.

After returning to ground level, we parted, and I quickly discovered that the De Young hadn't gotten any better in the years since my last visit. They've spun off their top-notch Asian collection to another building downtown, and now the central collection is called The Americans. You start by having to make a choice between going right or left, into the Indian collection or towards the European-American art collection, which is clever, because either choice will foster guilt. Guilt drips all over the captions, with, for example, a painting of Mount Vernon in 1833, the year a bunch of women got together a fund-raising campaign to save it, the first such effort of historical preservation in the young nation. The house is clearly in bad shape, and probably a number of these paintings were made to show potential donors. None of that is in the caption, however. Mount Vernon is described as "the slave plantation" of George Washington, who owned many "enslaved persons." Never mind that the plantation system ran on (legal, regrettably, but legal nonetheless at that moment) slavery. And what's up with "enslaved persons," a locution I also encountered at the Oakland Museum? Doesn't "slaves" sound much worse? And, "slave plantation" owner though he was, Washington was hardly Simon Legree. Nonetheless, his slave-ownership is mentioned in the caption before his Presidency. It's just this relentless righteousness that I found oppressive when I lived in California. Mind you, if you choose the Indians to start, you'll not only get the extermination guilt, but what seems to me to be a false equivalency between the artifacts there and the more self-consciously created art pieces in the other wing. It wasn't like that. These curators should be forced to read 1491. It'll make them spitting mad, but the fact is, these were very different societies than exist in our world today.

Satisfied that the level of the collection was still mediocre (although there's nothing as bad as the Renaissance Madonna and Child that caused a friend of mine straight out of art school to erupt from giggles to outright laughter years ago -- I had to steer her out of the gallery), and just enjoying it for what it was, I passed the rest of the time wandering hither and yon and finally had exhausted the place and myself. I got back into the car and, after some more wandering through the park, exited on 19th Avenue and headed to the airport motel.

Because I'm an idiot, I didn't print out the address, and as a result, the nice gas fill-up I'd made wound up nearly a quarter-tank down by the time I reached the place. (Hint: there are two South Airport Boulevards, one of which is, logically, south of the airport, filled with lovely scenery of the Bay, over which departing flights take off, numerous hotels, and no Travelodge. The Travelodge, it developed after I'd driven for over an hour in and out of SFO, was on South Airport Boulevard north of the airport.) It was also the most tawdry joint I've parked in since the whorehouse in Nîmes (no longer there) or some of the oil-crew motels in southern Louisiana during the '80s oil boom. The freeway was about 200 feet from the room, the clerk didn't know how to make a key ("Oh, yeah, I used the old system."), and about the only nice thing was the huge Samoan wedding which was breaking up just as I arrived. What a sad place to have your wedding banquet.

Fortunately, my favorite Zen nun picked me up in her Prius (first time I'd been in one of those) and drove me to dinner not long afterwards. This was to be at the Little Sichuan Restaurant in San Mateo, where there was supposed to be a large menu of hard-to-find authentic items. And there was: where else on the planet will you have the opportunity to try sautéed towel guard? But there it is, right on the menu! The question, of course, is what is towel guard and is it okay for vegetarians? One of our party, who's been eating at this place since he was a teenager, had deciphered the Chinese, though, and it turned out to be green loofah, which is, after all, a squash that's edible before it develops its skeleton. I wish the menu had said that, because "towel gourd," which is what it probably meant to say, is equally inscrutable.

The menu sure wasn't. Man, extraordinary Szechuan cuisine is to be had here -- and this was the first of three amazing Szechuan meals I was going to have on this trip. (And towel guard, smooth, bland, and juicy, makes a great palate-cleanser after each highly-spiced dish). It was a great way to end my week in California -- good food, good people -- and I pretended the noise of the freeway was really the ocean or something.

* * * 

I'd been curious to fly Virgin America from SFO to JFK, and overall it was a pleasant experience: $169 for the flight, which is certainly budget friendly, and if the "Italian sandwich" I had cost $9, that's reasonable, given that it resembled actual food and tasted like it, too. The only big disappointment was the wi-fi, $14.99 and spotty and slow. My time would have been better spent reading and not trying to respond to a request from a friend for where to stay in Berlin. My answer got eaten by the cybersphere, she panicked and booked a place you couldn't pay me to go into, and I hope she'll be all right. 

Things went a little pear-shaped, to say the least, in New York. Disappointed with my experience at the New Yorker, I'd booked a Times Square-area hotel, the Millennium Broadway, on PriceLine. I was in something of a rush: my pal Dickie Landry was playing at the Guggenheim, a solo show, and he'd originally told me this was on the 27th. It wasn't: it was on the 26th, the day I was flying in. The plane got in at 5:30, and the show was at 8: I had to get into the city, book into the hotel, and get uptown before it started, which didn't leave me a lot of time. In my haste, as we got into Manhattan, I grabbed the wrong bag -- it was also bitterly cold and I wanted to get inside -- and I got to the hotel at about 7:15, only to discover I'd gotten the carryon bag of some guy from Turkey. It was a Ralph Lauren bag, so I knew it wasn't mine. 

I grabbed a taxi uptown, and endured the hate radio coming out of its speakers (what was a black taxi driver doing listening to some hate-spewing moron blathering about what Obamacare would do to "us," and backing it up with phone calls from old ladies who'd lived in the USSR?), and not only got to the museum in time for the show, but with time enough to at least skim the John Chamberlain retrospective there. Chamberlain's the guy who is most famous for working with crushed cars, and although yes, it's something of a gimmick, he was good enough at it to make you forget the origin of the materials and see it as abstract sculpture in which lurk some familiar curves and, of course, strips of chrome. There's a wonderful scary installation of chrome bumpers with black paint called "The Black Armada" here, but that's about as literal as it gets. There are imposing shapes, graceful hunks, wisps that weigh a ton. 

Chamberlain died in December, just missing the opening of this show. In his later years, apparently, he'd taken up the saxophone, and my assumption (without really knowing) is that his friend Dickie Landry may have been the inspiration for that. Dickie is someone I've known for years, a guy who's played with both Otis Redding and the Philip Glass Ensemble, as well as amassing a very impressive body of work -- visual and audible -- on his own. He's currently got a show at Salomon Contemporary in New York, and  while he was up to deal with that, he booked a concert of solo improvisation at the Chamberlain show. 

He started out on the ground floor, playing with elements, teasing them around, drawing, although not too overtly, from his jazz and soul background, creating some building blocks. Then, he walked over to the Guggenheim ramp and started his ascent. 

In no time, he was lost from view to those of us on the floor downstairs, but the unique sonic properties of Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral kept us apprised of his progress as he went around and around, becoming elegaic, drenched with soul, as he confronted the works of his late friend. The audience, too, was scattered among the works, and tracked his progress. 

(That's a kind of atypical Chamberlain sculpture from the ground floor in the corner, covered with aluminum foil). 

Finally, he got on the elevator, playing the whole time, and emerged on the ground floor, where he blasted out the last of his tribute. 

It was emotionally draining, uplifting, and absolutely worth rushing across the country to see. Afterward, the audience, a virtual who's who of the '70s and '80s downtown scene, congratulated a sweaty and tired Dickie, and I went back to the hotel talking Hindu theology with an ebullient cab driver who seemed to be the perfect companion after such a show. 

Oh, but there was this bag to deal with. It was still early -- only about 9:30 -- and the concierge at the hotel got me the central number of the Airporter shuttle. I called there and discovered that not only did they have my bag, but they were in touch with the Turkish guy. They had my bag at the bus they have parked by Grand Central, so I walked over there, made the exchange, and walked back to the hotel, happy that it had been that easy. If only it had: when I opened the bag, I discovered that my camera was gone. Now, either it had been liberated by the Airporter folks, or the Turkish guy had grabbed my bag and taken it. I have no way to prove either theory, but it was a most unwelcome discovery. 

The next day, I spent money I really didn't have on a new camera -- a better one, reconditioned, at B&H, the classic Hassid-run camera store. And that night, to test it out, I documented one reason I'm never going to stay in Times Square again. 

The action over to the right there is all of the flashing, incredibly bright lighting that's going 24 hours a day in Times Square, a place oddly devoid of character, chockablock with American tourists of a particularly repellent kind who don't seem to demand anything of the place they are except to be relentlessly entertained on a brainless level. They wander around, taking pictures of the ads and each other, and of themselves talking with actors wearing Smurf or Disney costumes, having brochures for comedy clubs and tours thrust at them, and generally circulating in Brownian motion in a way that makes it impossible to get from A to B. You don't get them in your hotel room, thank heavens, but all that light gets through the curtains. Pretty hellish circumstances, and I was undeniably happy to get to Penn Station (after yet another memorable Szechuan meal with friends) and get on the Adirondack to spend twelve hours in a train going to Montreal. 

That's where I am now, and that's what the next blog post will be about. I have to say, though: I'm more than happy this tour is drawing to a close, and I'm really longing to get back to Montpellier. But there are two more nights in New York to endure. Stay tuned. 

1 comment:

  1. As one whose family once owned slaves, I feel no guilt whatsoever. Those SF/PC museum people are shouldering the load for me.



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