Saturday, May 29, 2010
May seems to slide by always. Is it because it is spring? Better weather? Or because my birthday forces me to leave all personal missions slide, and I stop and breathe in life?
I sat down on a stone ledge beside San Francisco City Hall to rest in the sun before meeting Paul Harmon for dinner. While not terribly tired, I fell into the antique position of the weary, elbows on knees, eyes fixed on the ground before me, thoughts wandering while I saw only the legs and feet of those passing on the sidwalk – scuffed work boots and spattered work trousers; perfectly shiny black dress shoes and creased dark business trousers; tennis shoes and jeans; a family where the little glrl, in my line of sight, questions me with her gaze. I was making a film of shoes and legs, but it was time to go, and I stood up, faced at that moment with an African-American woman, not very old, whose hair stood out in all directions, perfectly round, like a dandelion when it has gone to seed. She was singing a soft, sweet song. “Beautiful,” I said, of her song and of her face, for her eyes were luminous, like someone having a vision. Seeing her only briefly as I was on my way, I walked to the other side of the street, and felt compelled to look back. I saw that she would follow passersby, like a magnet, following the next person after each one ignored her, turning to the next person approaching from the opposite next direction, herself going back and forth in both directions, doubtless hoping just her song and her face would cause them to give her a hand-out. She held an empty Coke bottle in front of her, close to her chest, as if it were a sacred chalice.
Now I had an appointment to meet, but I regretted not giving her a coin, and I regretted not giving her some suitable amount to justify asking if I could take her picture. Many people would see that as exploitation, but, for one thing, I do not feel different from her, as I have been close to where she is, although not quite that mad and usually begging only for a cigarette – desperately needing money for a meal, but more desperately in search of affection, and a cigarette is the nipple of a love that belongs to the phantom of smoke. But, those memories almost faded, I felt it would be wrong to NOT record her strange beauty – to record an image of our age or our world; or to photograph Persephone returned to sunlight with no-one there to remind her who she was before she had entered the underworld, or how to return to life now. It is gross, of course, to see myth where the reality is rough and real.
Some of us live on the edge of the world of the desperate; cannot be ignorant of them for even a day; cannot forget the social crime that is their misery. We watch murder in slow motion, and only because it is not as abrupt as a gunshot or a stabbing from a knife does our society fail to see that it is murder of the worst kind.
May slides by, and in another day or two, I see another woman I should have photographed, selling her art along the Embarcadero. It is Saturday, and some of us do tai chi on a pier near the Ferry Building.
It is cliché but true to see that a city is a stage, everywhere a theater, and its citizens are actors. As usual, in an age of economic depression, the street acts and musicians become more amazing.
With the white tents of the vendors nearby, in the space at the end of the Ferry Building, I see a man seeming to be made of newspaper – hat, suit, seeming to be made of newspaper, tailored from newspaper, and even his face was partially covered with newspaper – an immobile entertainment.
There is a band playing for money. And each week there is also the young man from Witchita who is the classic one-man band, like someone who is a living mobile. His singing and his playing are good, and people are impressed by that, but also fascinated by the energy it takes to be a one-man band. With ropes tied to his legs, he can beat the drums hanging above him as he plays his guitar and leans forward, when not singing, to blow on the harmonica. Other sound makers are taped or wired to him.
Walking back along the Embarcadero after tai chi breakfast, I come across the other woman I should have photographed – a willowy, young African-American woman, draped in beautiful silk dyed in shades of blue, seated on the ledge that runs parallel between walkway and the Bay. Her tiny paintings lie on the walk in front of her, held in place by inkwells and other objects, for it is a very windy day. Paints of all hues are in the many cups of a paint tray, and she is painting one of her tiny, detailed paintings, seemingly indifferent to the wind that is whipping everything about. If she is mad too it is with her vision that she tells me about when I kneel in front of her and her paintings, and we speak of how it is to be possessed by vision, whether poet or painter or auto mechanic.
One of her little paintings is picked up by the wind and flies along the Embarcadero, and it keeps leaping away from me as I run after it, but it does not go into the water, and I catch it and bring it back. She thanks me but seems so much in her own world that everything could blow away and she would remain tranquil and preoccupied. I cannot pay the price for the painting I like most, and at the same time I am admiring another one. What seem like abstractions are comprised of marks that to her are code for specific meanings. As I ask the prices, she says I should pay what I can. We talk more, sharing some spiritual sense, and she says, “Follow your heart. You like those two? Take them please.” She picked them up and handed them to me. “I could only give you – “ She interrupts me, ”Take what your heart needs.” I give her less than the cost of one of the paintings, but I do take them both away. I hope to stop and talk to her again. Perhaps I will bring her a poem.
On Justin Herman Plaza, teenagers seem to be auditioning in groups of four:
Between stopping to jot in my notebook or stopping to take a photo, pulling things out of my back and stuffing them back, it is rare that I do not lose something. In this case, it was my new BART card for trips underground (under the Bay) between Oakland and San Francisco. After discerning the loss as I prepared to return to Oakland, I walked back to a table on the edge of Justin Herman Plaza, and was correct that I had lost it while sitting there. It lay on the table where I had been sitting in front of the man who was sitting there now. “I left this here,” I said in tone more tentative than assertive. He smile without rancor and said, “I found it there.” He pointed to the cement beside the table. “O.K.?” I asked as I reached for the card. “Oh, yes,” he said amiably, as if there was no question that I was right to retrieve the lost card.
How many time, as I got up from a BART seat, has my cap, that should have been stuffed into my bag, fallen on the floor, and someone has called after me, “Sir – you lost your cap”? Where is the cold inhuman city I hear about?
Returning to Oakland I see a blue bust of a woman, and I finish the little collage that is a purposeful "waste of time."
I slide through May, and the two Pauls and Fred treat me to the classic birthday lunch – on the deck beside the Bay, at Sam’s on Belevedere. Then we walked along the water.
Some more impressions are visible if you click above on the title of this section.