Wildsam Field Guides just released its San Francisco edition, which includes interviews, illustrated maps, an almanac, and personal essays. Below, the poet August Kleinzahler writes about living in the city by the bay.
Cold steamy air blew in through the open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two. —The Maltese Falcon
The neighbor with the bad dog fiddles with her helmet and adjusts her front bicycle light before pushing off downhill in the fog. It is late for a bicycle ride, after ten P.M. Her dog throws himself against the glass of the front window behind the curtain, nearly strangling himself with snarls and a torturous medley of barks. She is headed west, in the direction of the ocean or park. There are dangers to be found this time of night in both places. But she is a fog chaser, and deepening night is best with the wind up and the cold, damp smoke blowing in off the sea at twenty knots. I can spot them, fog chasers, after so many years here. You might even say I’m such a one myself from time to time, especially when I find myself feeling more than a little remote from “society.”
In the daylight hours, walking her vicious companion, occasionally bending over to pick up its stool with a small, white, plastic baggie, one can see it in her eyes—the eyes of a fog chaser—haunted, darting about as if pursued by some threatening inner phantasm. She will rarely, if ever, engage the eyes of any stranger walking past, even as her creature takes a murderous lunge in his direction, gargling delirium at the end of his leash. But not mine—my eyes she will always look directly into, appraisingly and with a sneering displeasure. She knows that I know.
She had seen it at a matinee towards the end of her last summer in Charleston, late July, before moving west to San Francisco. To escape the terrible heat and humidity, and just escape, she’d been attending quite a few matinees in that air-conditioned multiplex, those couple of weeks after she’d quit her job and before heading out.
We were standing at the bus stop, just across from what was then the Rock&Bowl at the foot of Haight Street, just twenty yards or so from the park, across Stanyan. It was late August, mid-afternoon. We could see the fog blowing in the way it does, along the ridge to the south of us, across Twin Peaks, Tank Hill, and the Sutro Forest behind the Medical Center.
She trembled. “You’re cold,” I said, wanting to put my arm around her but hesitating. We had only recently met, almost immediately after she arrived here by car, a long drive west with a friend. She was still rattled by it all: the drive, the break-up, the mess left behind—most everything, really. Presently, we would become lovers but not quite yet.
“No,” she said, pausing a few moments. “I’m frightened.”
“Frightened?” I asked. “By what?“
She seemed loath to say, embarrassed, I suppose. We said nothing for a minute or two. Then she said, “The fog.” I was puzzled, taken aback, really, but didn’t reply. Again she was quiet for some time. “You know, The Fog, that horror movie. I saw it back in Charleston at the matinee right before I left.”
“What happens with the fog in that movie?” I asked.
“Nothing good,” she said, turning to look me in the eyes, now clearly frightened and drawing close. “Nothing good.”
It’s way out there on the avenues, the north side of the park on Balboa, maybe a mile in from the ocean, hardly any other shops around, maybe a tiny corner store or acupuncturist in the vicinity. It’s a tiny place, with a big red sign above the glass front, Shanghai Dumpling King, with Chinese characters festooned all around the English like an aviary of tiny exotic birds.
It’s bleak out there on the avenues this time of year, and gets bleaker still the closer you get to the water, and blowing. Nobody out on the street that doesn’t have to be. There is a bus line runs along here but only seldom. It’s not a good part of town to be waiting for the bus, not the back end of summer, I can tell you. You could compose half a sonnet sequence about the fog and wind and cold in your head while waiting for one to come by; that is if you’re not stuck living out here in this godforsaken part of town and happen to know the schedule by heart.
The windows of the restaurant are fogged up by the steam, either side of the glass. It’s very quiet out there on the avenues, except for the low roar of wind, but inside the restaurant is all noisy plate clatter, talk, busy-ness. It’s always jam-packed.
Do you remember those warm spring twilights back east, playing Little League, the smell of hickory or white ash, cowhide, grass, your cotton flannel uniform, stands filled, and you coming to bat against Kenny Ray, the most feared pitcher in the league, big as a grown man and mean as hell, looking down at you from the mound with menace and contempt, the catcher behind you chattering away, saying nothing very encouraging? And somehow you get the head of your Louisville Slugger, the sweet spot, smack dab right on Kenny’s fastball and drive it deep, deep to right center, all the way to the the foot of the cyclone fence, deepest part of the outfield, crowd screaming, dugout screaming, Kenny looking like he just might jump right off the mound there and start chasing you down as you run the bases, probably throttle you to death.
Well, that’s how they taste, the xiaolongbao, those Shanghai soup dumplings, when you bite into one of those plaited little darlin’s, nippled at the top, the steamy-hot broth inside spurting into your mouth, bringing along with it the flavor of the pork, shrimp and chives stuffed inside. And then you know, for sure, for dead absolute certain, that in this cold, remorseless, fog-obliterated, windblown wretched old world that somewhere out there, close on by the ocean, and if you know how to find it, there is this, this.
Steam rises from the wooden cistern. He unwraps the towels from my feet and begins digging deep into the tissue of my instep, working the Adrenals, Duodenum, and Hepatic Flexurs. It is near the end of the day, Sunday, and the end of a long week. The fog, which had never once burned off over the course of the day as it sometimes does this time of year, if only for an hour or two, has begun thickening, the Big Smoke Machine out there on the Pacific switching on as it always does at this hour, blowing in reinforcements down the flat, shop-lined corridor of Geary Boulevard.
There is some pain, occasionally sharp, as he probes deeper and deeper, exploring what time, misuse and neglect have wrought upon my inner organs. He says nothing, and never looks up from his ministrations, grave-faced, in total concentration, emitting only very occasionally a muffled sound that rises from the base of his throat, suggesting perhaps some grim revelation, one best left unnamed and unspoken.
Presently, he moves to my toes, pinching and pulling, raising—in his mind’s eye—something like a primitive MRI or CAT Scan image of my Pineal, Hypothalamus, and Axillary Lymphatics. But the pain he studiously inflicts, while holding fast to the methodical regimen and sequencing of his ancient art, is never, not at any single moment, entirely divorced from acute pleasure.
The bars have emptied, or begun emptying, today’s ballgame having recently concluded or the outcome inevitable. It is early yet for the restaurants, but in some of the Chinese places families have already begun gathering for their early repast, and in others the kitchen staffs, likewise, sit around large tables and grab a quick meal before the dinner rush begins. The street is largely empty now. It is an in-between time, one of several in the course of the day, and when one turns a corner from one of the side streets onto Geary at this particular hour, the wind abruptly meets you and pushes you backward as if a stern rebuke to never entirely let slip from your mind the record of all of history’s misfortunes.
Winner of the Berlin Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, August Kleinzahler is the author of ten collections of poetry, including most recently, The Hotel Oneira.