“When I see a guy lighting a goddamn cigarette as I come round the corner, I see a guy who ain’t taking the bus into town!” exclaims the bus driver, a competent black woman, who even as I feed my four one-dollar bills into the machine, is ramming the big, whooshing box up the ramp on to Route 101, heading north for San Francisco. “City of Industry” is the slogan picked out in big, white letters on the hillside ahead — presumably it’s some sort of riposte to “HOLLYWOOD”, but I doubt the Los Angelenos can read it at this distance.
It’s pointless to explain to the bus driver that this is a guy who’s down to three cigarettes a day, after a lifetime spent flying around inside a blue-brown cloud. In previous columns, I’ve animadverted on the way the space-time continuum is graduated by smoking, but now I’m down to three the shifts are dizzying: I was last embodied in dank Toronto, then I winked out of existence for a few hours, before being beamed down a white paper tube into smouldering California.
I’m absurdly happy. I may not be undertaking my favourite form of airport transit — walking — but I have eschewed the cab, and that has to be a good thing. Cabs suck: they’re the real culprits when it comes to urban disorientation. You aren’t merely hiring a car and driver — you’re hiring the cabby’s local geographical nous. No matter how hard you try to concentrate on where he’s taking you, you still end up subsiding into foggy supposition: this is somewhere you don’t know, and he’s going the long way round this agglomeration of ignorance.
But take the bus, and the mere act of finding the stop, looking at the route map, and then negotiating your way from the city centre stop to your hotel, will begin to make things legible. Dusk is falling as I turn the corner into Market Street, and I’m still happy to be reading the city, so happy that I swerve into a bookstore and buy a copy of Great Expectations, because I’m certain I have them.
The following morning the weather is set fair, and I resolve to walk to Sausalito. It’ll be a modest enough 12-miler from downtown San Francisco, dog-legging over the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course, I don’t have a topographic map, and although Nob Hill is in my face, I can’t find a way round it. I slave up the famously vertiginous streets, listening to the chains of the funiculars rattling beneath my feet. By the time I reach the North Point I feel like Herbie in The Love Bug. My bonnet is flapping, my oil is leaking.
It’s Sunday and the esplanade is thronged with walkers, joggers, bikers, crackpot preachers, and those ubiquitous denizens of American cities — in many ways their most typical inhabitants — the homeless, who have been tossed by the rampaging bull of commercialism, and compelled to wander the streets pushing shopping carts piled high with their fucked-up chattels. I bet they know where they are, though.
Up on the bridge there are still more walkers. Indeed, it occurs to me that this is more ambulatory activity than I’ve ever seen anywhere in the States before — except Manhattan. Perhaps this is what Americans need to galvanise them: something really big — but manmade — to walk over. Halfway across there are emergency phones advertising: “Crisis Counseling” (sic) “There is Hope. Make the Call. The Consequences of Jumping from this Bridge are Fatal and Tragic”.
The “tragic” is a nice touch, no? It places even the most commonplace suicide on a set of monumental proportions, enacting a Gotterdammerung of awesome scale, leaping from the very strings of this monumental lyre, as Aeolus himself strums them. But then again, presumably that’s why the most commonplace suicides are drawn to the Golden Gate, and the “tragic”, far from dissuading them, is likely to be the final confirmation of the rightness of their actiooooooooon!
Grim thoughts dog me as I double back under the end of the bridge, then trudge through the precincts of a coastguard station and on into Sausalito, where the houses are more shingled that anything has a right to be — unless it actually has shingles. There are these wooden excrescences, then there are the gift shops selling china knick-knacks and T-shirts, and “art” galleries shoving hideous daubs in my face.
I slurp down a dozen indifferent oysters at Spinnaker’s on the quayside. Dusk is falling across the bay. I feel moderately satisfied: at least I know where I am, even if the woman at the next table is having a nervous breakdown, sobbing noisily into her clam chowder. On the ferry back to San Francisco, the day-trippers light up the night sky with their camera flashes as we cruise past Alcatraz, imprisoning the empty penitentiary in their steely little boxes. Forever.