Monday, May 22, 2006

The Wild Spirits of San Francisco

In a sense, the place is wide open, but not in the way the New York and Baltimore and Washington used to be wide open--vulgarly, garishly, hoggishly. The business is achieved with an air, almost a grand manner. It is good-humored, engaging, innocent. There is no heavy attitude of raising the devil. [...] It is a friendly place, a spacious and tolerant place, a place heavy with strangeness and charm. It is no more American, in the sense that American has come to carry, than a wine festival in Spain or the carnival at Nice. It is cut off sharply from all the rest of this dun and dour republic.
-- H. L. Mencken, _The Baltimore Evening Sun_, July 21, 1920

San Francisco is a mad city--inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people whose women are of remarkable beauty.
-- Rudyard Kipling, _From Sea to Sea_, 1889

San Francisco is perhaps the most European of all American cities.
-- Cecil Beaton, _It Gives Me Great Pleasure_, 1955

I watched The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill the other night, and caught myself sneering at it, and then caught myself feeling a smidgen remorseful for sneering at it. A stereotypical Left Coast child-man, indulging in his quarter-century old identity crisis, finds a semblance of purpose in life by bonding with a flock of released pet conures and their wild-born offspring. A long time ago, I would have resonated to the guy's off-beat empathy; now, I'm just embarrassed and sad and yes a little scornful for him.

Yet, I retain enough of my youthful sensibilities to suspect that, maybe, there's a note here to which I've become tone-deaf. St. Francis is one of the most universally loved saints for a reason, after all. This story of a man, waiting around for his apotheosis to fall in his lap, running out of chances for a meaningful life, who finds a way to make an emotional connection with the world via this anomalous flock of parrots, has certain obvious parallels, no? I myself was becalmed in the sea voyage of life for awhile, and the breezes that finally filled my sails were no less unexpected (though much less interesting).

I spent my last $800 driving my mom's piece'a junk Ford Fairmont cross country to San Francisco and back one summer. Met up with a woman whom I had a painfully adolescent crush on for the longest time, though she was gracious enough to accept me as a friend. The city definitely had nothing to do with my formative environment--but I could see how it could be a lure and a solvent on people's identities, how someone would willingly hover over the brink of homelessness, working intermittently at odd jobs for years, just to stay there. Had I stayed there...well, who knows? Love, like sunlight, shines in through every chink. Maybe I'd be in no position--or mind--to sneer at an itinerant lover of wild parrots.

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