I struggled to conceptualize what I’d seen, my stomach sick and pounding. I tried to empathize with it. I tried to understand it.
Was this San Francisco? Was this the transfigurement of urbania? Anything packed and pumping enough, enough people, people producing trash, excreting it, forgetting it as best they can.
What would happen if I even went to New York City? I’d go insane.
I tried not to palpitate. To let the numbness of the locals surging along fill me, too. No one wanted to stand out. Let the void of a packed cityscape take its toll. No one wanting to stand out with a million people stacked on the shit of another million.
I try my Metro card at the turnstile. The light Blinks Red at me. I sigh, and try it again. Red, Red.
Bak, Bak, Bak.
I whirl around.
BAK, BAK, BAK, BAK.
Who the fuck is talking?
“HEY, YO. YOU. YEAH YOU.”
Enough awkward rotation and I finally figure it out: there’s a chubby, stubbled Asian guy standing in a roomy glass box, looking something like cumbersome riot gear. He wields a finger menacingly and stabs it at me.
“THAT’S A BART CARD,” he chokes, muffled by the box. He looks desperately annoyed and I back off the turnstile. I am thankfully uncrowded and located a dispensary of new and better metro cards. Two more dollars. This will be adding up.
I return to the turnstile and try the new card. Green. I look over at the gatekeeper as I pass through, wondering if I’ll see encouragement or relief. It’s a strangely reflective move, a reaction of Stockholmishness to the sole human contact I’ve really had in San Francisco thus far. I think also a reaction to authority. Even if was really nothing more than an aggressive fat man in a box.
But, no. My new friend seems not to notice me or my success. As I pass through, he sits in the box, reclined and wheezing, mouth agape, eyes glued to his IPhone, which he picks at with his pointing fingers.
I board the light rail. Same as the BART, nearly everyone has headphones popped into their ears or bulging out of them. The rail then does two things I do not expect: first, it emerges completely from the ground, rumbling slowly along above the surface. Pedestrians pass us by with ease, our snail pace winding through more rundown chain-link squalor.
Secondly, every few minutes, the rail would very causally shut off completely. The lights would go dead and any electric sounds would cease abruptly. No one would react. Then, as if nothing at all were particularly strange, after sitting in the dark for a few moments, the lights would whirl back on and the rush of conditioned air would shrill into the rail car. No one thought this was odd. We went on our way.
Church & 24th St. I am surprised, as a great mass of the passengers get off, too. They’re all young or professional looking. Stylish side bags, attractive and expensive clothes, and kempt faces all flowed from the train on the sidewalk, scattering their powerwalks in all directions.
Within a paltry few blocks, it was clear something was severely different. Gone was the graffiti. Gone was the homelessness. Gone was the dross and dregs. Gone was the abject despair.
Suddenly, shops and store fronts were “quaint”. There were no liquor stores, only wine bars. The names were unoffensive puns. Colors were pastel and paisley. No one walked the streets looking desperate, hungry, or afraid.
Hadn’t I gone less than two miles? Not dashed between satirical dystopias. Was this San Francisco? Where was I?
Questions of “where” were not left ambiguous for long as I found myself in “Folio Books”, in an attempt to be literary.
“No-y Valley,” the speakers at the live reading regularly repeated. “No-y Valley, “No-y Valley.”
The “No-y Valley” (or the “Noe Valley”, as the various bookmarks and flyers seemed to claim) was apparently important enough of a thing to have a “No-y Valley” Writers Reading. What did I know. They served green soda bread and Irish cheese and beer and Jameson for free. The store was brimming with ancients in kitschy greens. I spotted only one guy vaguely close to my age, and had mixed feelings as he went up as a member of Standford’s Creative Writing Program to be the first reader of Irish Literature. He read shortly from “The Death of the Heart”, a novel I had never heard of, but was terribly stuffy and boring. I got little sense of its Irishness of it, mostly some old world sensibilities and muggy Victorian manners.
The crowd would “mmmmmm” loudly and knowingly at potent name drops or lines read which were likely intended to be profound and pretentious.
The next woman was a female journalist who read from a female writer of dark nonfiction. Edna O’Brien maybe? It was hard-felt and personal, and the ties to the work were beautiful indeed.
The third man used the words “gay Irish” in so many repeated contexts in conjunction with one another, I thought it was intended to be a joke at first, and when the phrase: “I am gay Irish short story writer and I am going to be reading a gay Irish short story,” emerged from his mouth, I laughed loudly and alone, the sound drifting over the puffy haired heads of the audience.
“No-y Valley”, “No-y Valley”. More mmmmmm‘s.
A soft-spoken old man with a Brooklyn accent told a long-winded story about how reading T.S. Eliot had saved his life while being drafted in Vietnam, then proceeded to move on to reading WB Yeats. Maybe there was a connection with the initials somehow lost on me.
A young female writer of children’s books stood up and mangled an Irish fairy tale. The less said the better.
Finally, an anti-climatic reading of an Irish play. Not J.M. Synge, unfortunately. Nor did they ask for volunteers, like I privately hoped. No, it was a mangled, boring voicing about some Irishman returning home after twenty years of “wandering” and no one really liking him anymore. Think it was supposed to be funny.
I wanted to drink, to reveal, to forget. But bar crawling is not the same without camaraderie and fellowship. These are things I lacked. To what tremendous degree, I couldn’t have yet conceived. But I was alone, holding someone’s empty hand in a city of a million people forgetting and drinking far better than I was.