When Waze blandly informed us that it was twenty-five minutes to our hotel four miles away, I knew that we’d arrived. My husband and I had been talking about taking a trip to San Francisco for years – both when we lived across the bay in Marin and when we moved back southward – but distractions always arose even when we planned to travel. Santa Barbara was closer now that we lived on the Central Coast. Big Sur was more restful. But Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests were coming to the Exploratorium and I was determined to see them up close and personal.
I worked for a client in the PacBell Building for a while in the 1990s so objectively I knew what the traffic was like. But as we crept off the 101 and threaded through back streets and train stops and onto Market I confess I was glad I wasn’t driving. SoMa’s main thoroughfare boasts such a confusing proliferation of lines and colors and signs and wires that as we struggled to find our hotel without running over a bicyclist or getting hit by a bus I began to think it would be just as effective to pave over it all and stamp on the street, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” When we pulled up in front of The Palace on the corner of Market and New Montgomery I could have hugged the valet. Never have I been so glad to watch my car recede into the distance, not to be seen until we left for home on Sunday morning.
That did, however, leave me standing naked before the city, a girl whose more typical idea of vacation is meat grilling on a hibachi and a bottle of wine on the deck of a rickety cabin by the Big Sur River. Sidewalks the width of highways were packed shoulder to shoulder with pedestrians, and their voices and the rumble of cars and public transit bounced echoing among the tall buildings as if several prides of marauding lions had been unleashed on the streets.
The hotel was blessedly quiet by comparison but found new ways to intimidate. The marker on Google Maps that we’d triangulated on for convenience proved to be a block-sized behemoth whose doorman ushered us into a lobby where twenty foot marble columns marched in severe rows flanking velvet chairs and crystal chandeliers. In the chairs and beneath the chandeliers well-dressed patrons drank English teas from silver teapots and picked at tiny sandwiches and petit fours. The concierge desk boasted three suited assistants and the most prominent feature of the “casual” bar was a Maxfield Parrish original.
At least the room was less ornate, all simple, clean lines and soothing monochromes. It was small, as rooms at the Palace go, but thoughtfully decorated with black and white photos of narrow caves opening onto stormy ocean vistas and steamer trunks for that compact utilitarian stateroom vibe. After a swift Google search of how much to tip a bellhop – we usually travel light enough to manage for ourselves but camera bags and San Francisco’s unpredictable weather left us more heavily burdened than usual – and a quick unpacking I was able, if not precisely ready, to face the city.
The People Going Somewhere
For someone to whom passing a single person on a morning walk with the dog is unbearable congestion, San Francisco in late afternoon was daunting. I felt like a grain of sand in a riptide. I ran into tourists who abruptly stopped to take cell phone pictures and got run into by tourists who abruptly started walking as they put their cell phones away. I dodged – or occasionally failed to dodge – any number of texting locals. I caught my first ever glimpses of selfie sticks in a native habitat. I learned quickly not to look at people who put themselves smiling in my path unless I was willing to give them money.
We all flowed through the impassive, imposing city, a place that straddles time. Brick and stone buildings from the turn of the twentieth century stood cheek by jowl with slender towers of glass and steel. Beneath the ornate granite-columned entries to once-mighty financial institutions hung the perky neon signs of tech companies. Pristine Teslas waited silently at intersections for cable cars with peeling paint to rattle past. McDonalds on Market lurked in an understated building, and above the bright lights, strappy tops and mesh bodysuits of a national fast fashion retailer the marquee forsook its usual arabic numerals for the more old world Forever XXI.
A pigeon crapped down the front of my shirt two blocks away from the hotel. I couldn’t make heads or tails of when to cross the streets and when to wait because the relationship between the lights and the actual flow of pedestrians was loosely coupled at best. In my shorts and topsiders and (slightly pigeon stained) river driver shirt, no makeup and hair pulled back in a wind-battered ponytail I felt like a provincial beside the young women – so very young – in their little black dresses and well-coiffed hair, owning the sidewalks in their four-inch stilettos. I wondered why I hadn’t just rented that cabin by the Big Sur river.
From the rumble of conversation all around me I picked out a soft voice behind, male and British-accented saying to his companion, “Shall we have a bite of pizza to keep the wolves from the door?” I passed a club like something out of an old Miami Vice TV episode, all beautiful people inside laughing over drinks and two imposing men in navy blue suits and black shirts and thin black ties a more effective barrier to entry than the sturdy door behind them, hand-picking the worthy and rejecting the rest. I wandered the four stories of a Williams-Sonoma and pondered why Union Square looked smaller and more crowded than I remembered from when I had been there years before. I dodged scaffolding and construction cones and wondered how in a city with a population density of over seventeen thousand people per square mile there could be anywhere left to build.
I slid into a booth at Puccini and Pinetti’s and over a carpaccio appetizer, an excellent risotto and a bottle of French wine watched the city roil and churn behind the comfort of thick plate glass. And suddenly in a moment of relative quiet – for happy hour was in full swing and there is only so quiet the city ever gets – I gained some small insight into the place and my own place within it.
To be in Big Sur is to walk among what God or the Big Bang – as you like – set in motion aeons before you were born. Humanity may creep among the tall redwoods, the deep valleys, the sun and fog-blasted peaks, but its foothold is small and tenuous and with storms and fires and avalanches the daemon of Los Padres issues stern reminders to keep it that way. The road to it may be a minor miracle of civil engineering but the restlessly slumbering hillsides constantly threaten in their tossing and turning to send it crashing to the ocean floor far below.
To experience Big Sur at its fullest I find it best to open the angle of my vision wide, to exult in the vastness and the oldness and the wildness and the knowledge that things endure beyond my mayfly of a life. Responsibility and routine fade into inconsequentiality amidst the rustling breezes and the susurrus of the river. The mind grows emptier, the heart more tranquil, the barriers between self and other more permeable.
San Francisco was another beast altogether. Trying to take in everything all at once quickly led to wanting to huddle in the hotel with room service. But nursing my wine in Puccini and Pinetti’s I began to pick out small details and patterns. The buses kneeling down to let the elderly and disabled disembark more easily. The inordinate number of pedestrians pulling wheeled valises behind them. Our young waiter, eager for his upcoming visit to Manhattan but confident that nothing about it could compare to his city. Though it was still late afternoon the sun was already setting behind the mass of tall buildings, its last rays turning the long runs of fire escapes to copper and tinging the chirpy multistory poster for the latest Ice Age movie an eerie blood red.
To survive the city’s sensory onslaught I needed to look at it through the narrow lens of a kaleidoscope. For it was relentless in its humanity, expressed in the glass and the steel and the concrete, the trains and the buses and the bright taxis, the commerce and the sea of men and women swarming over and under and through it all. And to not drown in the overload I needed to pick out those single bright, distinctive details to focus on: a vegetable stand in Chinatown here, a Nepalese food truck (sadly closed for the day) there. Or to take a deep breath and dispassionately observe those patterns: the flow (never ebb) of the shoaling crowds on Pier 39, the jerk and sway of riders (myself among them) trying to keep their balance on the standing room only Muni buses.
And beneath that relentlessness lurked the feeling that this brief life you live is nothing more than what you make of it, and to make the most you must wring activity out of every waking instant. Every moment spent in repose or reflection is a moment wasted, a moment that should have been spent propelling forward into the future this wondrous monument to human intelligence and ingenuity and determination. For the city doesn’t sustain itself but must be perpetually nurtured, by the bankers and the builders, the engineers and the artists, the tourists and the hoteliers.
And the seeming chaos of the city, of all the people always going somewhere, is still the opposite of entropy. For even in their disparate desires they share a common if unspoken and perhaps even only dimly glimpsed goal: to experience the exhilaration and pride of being in a place where Nature has been largely swept aside and told, “We humans can do it too. We can build a Grand Canyon, a Zion of concrete and steel that endures over centuries, against the ravages of fire and flood and earthquake. And we will do it with the tenacity of the ant, and the strength of the lion.”
The People Going Nowhere
But as robust and indomitable as the city might have seemed, entropy still skulked along the sidewalks and lurked in the doorways. And I began to suspect that the exhilaration and purposefulness that so enthralled me were at least partly an illusion constructed of currency, of my ability to afford a hotel with a doorman and a table at La Fusión where with the wave of a credit card the waiter would happily set down fontina empanadas and a flight of ceviche and an amusing glass of sherry. If I couldn’t imagine myself into the Ritz-Carlton residences on Market I could envision a little studio in a less tony part of town, with a fire escape that glowed copper in the early setting sun. And if perhaps it was a fantasy, it wasn’t an utter pipe dream.
The city is a promise – of aspiration, of ambition, of success or just new experiences hard-earned or casually bought – but that promise sometimes fails. And when it does, what is left?
Two men playing steel drum and guitar in front of the supersize Walmart, a trio with a drum circle by a newsstand and shoe shine booth. An elderly Japanese man playing a kokyu on the broad sidewalk in front of the Exploratorium. An elderly black man playing the trumpet part of a Schubert serenade accompanied by a chamber orchestra on boombox. All had small buckets in which the occasional passerby threw a coin or two. All of them were, in fact, quite good. Had they harbored different ambitions, imagined quite a different kind of life? What kept them tied to the expensive, difficult city now that those ambitions had faded?
Then there were the people lost in their dreams and nightmares for whom the city might as well not exist. A man – perhaps? the build was suggestive, anyway – with a face completely obscured behind two bright green bandannas walking with the exaggerated cadence of a flamingo. A woman dressed in nothing but a king-sized olive flannel blanket. It wrapped around her like a sari and trailed behind her like a wedding gown, and a black band with points like a crown secured it to the top of her head. She drifted down the street like a lonely banshee, catching the idle eye of coffee shop patrons as they sipped their morning lattes and ate their thick-sliced, radish-whorled avocado toast on the sidewalk patio in front of Mazarine.
And a neatly dressed woman standing in front of the entrance to an underground BART station, intoning with careful elocution, “I am speaking to you about Mercury. I am speaking to you about things you need to know. I am speaking to you about Mercury. There is life on Mercury. I am speaking to you about Mercury. There are aliens from Mercury walking among us.”
A few different neural pathways firing in different patterns and she could have been a motivational speaker, a salesperson, a director of marketing. Perhaps once upon a time she even was. But now she is an obstacle in the path of other motivational speakers and directors of marketing, walking briskly to their offices or ambling down the street on their well-earned vacations. An indictment of the people going somewhere, too busy or too distracted, too resigned or too uneasy, to spare her a glance. Or perhaps too afraid, in the depths of their souls or its analog, that there but for the grace of God or a shift of chemical balance go they.
In its own way, the Exploratorium’s Strandbeest exhibit mirrored the schisms I felt in the city. On YouTube the beests are eerie and elegant, as if the ribs of half-built ships stole the leg bones of their boatwrights and escaped for a leisurely stroll on the shore. Sometimes their lanky, wild-haired creator strides ahead or aside of them, at others he nudges them forward from behind. Seen in what Theo Jansen intended to be their natural environment, their forms ever more intricate and fantastical, it’s easy to believe the pronouncement of a museum placard: Strandbeests are perpetually evolving, creating a lineage that stretches across decades. Older species succumb to time and the elements, becoming fossils.
Up close in a warehouse, the mystery is largely stripped away. The majestic beests become assemblages of PVC and cable ties constructed in a Rube Goldbergian fever dream. The “bladders” that store energy for movement are plastic water bottles hand-filled with compressed air, and without the wind to aid them in propulsion they can only take a few stumbling steps forward at a time before a young docent must give them a push to get them started again.
The Strandbeests are without doubt a tour de force of engineering and a monument to patience, but statements like “The first simple nerves appeared during the Vaporum epoch…Nerve cells have since multiplied and diversified” have the whiff of madness and delusion to them; at best they’re merely twee. The beests are works of art, they are mechanical marvels, but they are not self-determining, self-sustaining creatures. They are not, as Jansen likes to claim, mutating or evolving: their increasing complexity comes from their creator’s hands and mind. Much as he wants them to be creatures going somewhere – striding along the shore, evolving through the ages – they are in truth creatures going nowhere. In truth not really creatures at all.
Back to the Garden
I grew up in Los Angeles and was never fond of it. As a child everything was too far away and everyone too dangerous for my parents to let me venture out much on my own. When I visited New York as a teenager the first thing I saw as we reached the Manhattan side of the Queensborough Bridge was a corpse wrapped in a sheet guarded by a single bored police officer. This did not improve my opinion of tightly packed batches of humanity. So whenever I had a chance I escaped to the ocean, the forest, the desert, the mountains.
But now, well into adulthood, I can appreciate the allure of the city. In the age of cellphones and connectedness where an app guiding me to the correct Caltrain station or Muni bus stop is only a click away and it’s nearly impossible to get lost, I can let myself sink into the excitement and the bustle. But I still felt a palpable sense of relief when on our last day we stepped into Golden Gate Park. Although the line for the Japanese Tea Garden was long, once inside the bulk of the visitors seemed to crowd into the tea house, so I could wander the paths and admire the stylized naturalness surprisingly unmolested – a state of affairs even more true for the 55 acre Botanical Garden.
I can appreciate San Francisco, even fall in love a bit when I’m there, but in the end I don’t think that I could really live with it. Because when all is said and done I prefer balancing on the knife edge between going somewhere and going nowhere, of activity and contemplation, and the crush and swell of relentless humanity makes that – for me at least – too difficult to achieve.