My hitchhiking tour to the Bay Area started with a bang, one adventure after another, but real life doesn't keep such a pace. After hitchhiking from Los Gatos to Berkeley a few days ago, I honestly had nothing to write about that could compete with the futuristic drugs of Silicone Valley mogul Tom Kettleman or my enhanced understanding of old age (thanks largely to my other new friend Jim at Lakeview Senior Care). Politics, in comparison to considering a collapsed culture that needs synthetic drugs to stay coherent seemed superficial, manipulative and largely useless.
In a state of growing lassitude I arrived in Berkeley around 7:00pm and went, unannounced, to visit my old friend Beverly on Dwight Way. She lives in a cozy two-bedroom house, which is remarkable for the immense redwood tree that thrusts up from her tiny front yard, very Berkeley. The visit started on a sour note, because Beverly had read my piece on Lakeview Senior Care (see essay below) and didn't like it.
She lashed out almost immediately upon answering the door and seeing my tentative expression.
"What is wrong with you?," she demanded, looking seriously pissed.
I tried to scan her mind, but she had unnerved me, and my powers temporarily failed. After days of companionable chat with Jim, I had forgotten what hostility felt like.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"That piece of shit essay of yours, about masturbating old men."
"It wasn't about masturbating old men, with an intransitive verb," I replied, trying, unwisely, to be clever, "It was about the need for social services to alleviate the pain of sexuality in the elderly by masturbating them."
She looked at me, trying to gauge my depravity. "It was disgusting! Do you seriously think you will grow a readership by writing about old men needing to be jerked off? At your age people expect you to be serious."
I got a bit irritated and realized I could just as easily stay at the Hotel Durant. "No I do not. I don't care about growing a readership. I write what I think needs to be written. And how do you know what people want to read?"
She must have realized that I was not able to endure her harshness, and she relented, inviting me to sleep on her couch. Once, years ago, we had a fling, but it didn't last long. I think neither of us knows why our friendship endured. Sometimes people stay friends just for the continuity.
The nights on Beverly's couch and the days roaming around Berkeley were peaceful but isolated. Moe's bookstore absorbed much of my unassigned time, as in past years, but I was restless.
So yesterday I took the BART into San Francisco, for a change and also to find a fresh venue to watch the latest Republican debate, since I had promised my friend Cheryl that I would be back in L.A. on Tuesday for an interview on her radio show, In Our Times, to discuss politics, among other things (http://www.latalkradio.com/Cheryl.php).
I used to know lots of people in San Francisco, but I lost track of most of them over the years of my peregrinations. My Chinese friends taught me a lot about food. I became addicted to Now Nom Fun, a Cantonese beef-noodle soup which I could only find at a dilapidated, narrow two-story restaurant on Washington Street called Sam Wo. The beef is fatty, and somehow its flavor, mixed with certain herbs, creates a near ecstasy of taste. I used to go there twice or more a week for my fix of Now Nom Fun. I also found it relaxing how rude the Chinese waiters were. The Chinese have discovered that people become fatigued by endless friendliness and just want to be served.
Disembarking from the BART on Market Street I had in mind lunch at the Sam Wo and headed up Grant Avenue. Chinatown still has its faux opulent tchotchkes stacked up in the store windows, and of course those myriad nightmarish waving cats. I love the way Chinatown ends at North Beach- how its impact melts away as you sit in the City Lights Bookstore reading about the many revolutions our species contemplates. After a few hours in City Lights, I returned to the Sam Wo for my Now Nom Fun, where I indulged in a questionable experiment with the cashier, a joylessly efficient woman in her sixties. As I paid, I sent a feeler into her mind to see if I could find the joy in her. As luck would have it, she was a telepath! The second I had met in my life, after Jim last week. Maybe something has changed in me so that I can connect now with other telepaths.
Unfortunately my telepathic experience with the cashier was not the happy homecoming it was with Jim. She lashed out at me like an unlucky dragon, piercing my thoughts with a shrill message: "Pay for your food and get out!"
I lurched from the restaurant feeling almost mortally wounded. Needing badly to refocus, I headed down Grant for a long walk to the Mission District, where I planned to be in Best Buy's TV section in time for the Republican debate.
After about forty minutes I made it to Best Buy. Stopping in the computer section to browse online, I watched President Obama's Facebook message decrying excessive standardized testing in American schools. His face and voice betrayed more stress and anxiety than I've ever seen in him. I can't read minds from recordings, but the "tells" were there. It wasn't just that excessive standardized testing derives from his own policies; the apex of his career had become its nadir, the end-point of a cascade of abuse and self-doubt, unlike the dreams he had about the presidency when he was younger. Just one damn thing after another. He dreams now of his post-presidential career, where, he anticipates, no one will expect him to do anything.
At 3:00 I meandered into the TV department, where not one set was tuned to CNBC for the debate. I switched a few channels, as if I were a prospective customer, though there were no salespeople in TV to disturb me.
The CNBC moderators were excited to host what they felt would be a blockbuster program, with everyone on the edge of their seats waiting to see who might upset whom. The commercials were specially produced for the show, as if it were the Super Bowl. But as I looked around the TV department, there was no one watching the debate. I scanned the shoppers in other departments: no one was thinking about the debate; no one cared which candidate edged which other. Perhaps this indifference is more pronounced on the West Coast, which none of the candidates comes from, where Washington is starting to feel far away and theoretical.
The candidates were impressive masters of retention, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the percentages of things. No matter what the topic, they knew related percentages. Someone asked Senator Lindsey Graham about protecting the brewery business, and he recited several percentages of brewery related matters. I pictured the candidates pouring over long lists of percentages concerning every subject in the world- or maybe they just make them up, as my friend Doug tells me is a time-honored tradition in high school debate. At any rate, no matter what you ask the presidential candidates they know lots of percentages about it. Not that I'm entirely against percentages. I'm 45% in favor of them. Percentages denote the sizes of things, which is helpful, but 55% of knowledge should be wisdom, to inform the percentages. I didn't see that happen much. The focus of the debate was money ("Your money; your vote!," was the cynical sounding refrain). Money is fertile ground for percentages, but I would rather have heard a discussion of Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," in which Harari posits that money is a fiction, along with other fictions- religion, individual rights, empires, nation states-that helped us survive when the verities of tribal life vanished. No such luck.
I was getting bored and irritated, so to pass the time I tried messing around with the remote, recording segments and playing them back at fast forward, and I found a spooky illusion. You can try this at home. If you fast forward the presidential debates, so that the candidates arms appear to be flapping in the air with their faces turning this way and that with smiles like grimaces, it looks like they are desperately trying to save themselves from something terrible, as if they were drowning or surrounded by monsters.
Maybe that's why they run for office- they're beset with terrors. That would explain why, even though the candidates know that presidents are not happy people for more than their first few days in office, they still long to be the top person, at the summit of success. That's the only escape from the monsters. Some escape.
In summary, the pundits concluded that Marco Rubio had edged Jeb Bush, and Rubio's attack on the media was engaging in comparison to Bush's strategic reasonableness. Still, the sensation was that of watching a sit-com that had little to do with our immediate lives.
I spent the rest of the evening roaming around San Francisco, one of the world's most beautiful cities. The fog came in while I climbed Nob Hill and it was wonderful. I finally ended up back at the BART station for the ride to Berkeley and one more night on Beverly's couch. Tomorrow: the trek back to L.A. This has been a memorable trip!
All the best, Harry the Human