David L. Ulin
Marin Headlands. Earlier that year, perhaps in April, we spent a Saturday afternoon climbing in the Marin Headlands. Was this the same day we went to Green Dragon Temple in Muir Beach for tea and lunch? We did not sit zazen or read the sutras, but I can still see us pull up before the square construction of the zendo, piling out of the car as if the journey was much longer than seventeen miles. For as long as we stayed—an hour? maybe two?—I imagined what it might be like to live here, to stay behind when the car left and shed the concerns and ambitions of the world. Even then, however, I knew that I would never be able to sit still long enough. Maybe this is why we ended up circling back to the Headlands, all that dirt and grass. We spent an hour or two crawling over the concrete batteries dug into the hillsides, the residue of two world wars. And yet, was this so different from where we had just been? No, just another place for turning inward, not toward stillness, silence, but to ourselves, our fantasies. That day, I felt like a ten-year-old again, wanting to fit myself through the narrow gun slits, to sit inside, protected, hidden from the city and its claims. Later, I would read a book, Jim Paul’s Catapult, about two friends who get a grant to build a medieval siege weapon and shoot stones from the Headlands into the sea. In a way, what Paul is describing is its own form of meditation, its own mechanism for stepping outside time. This is how I felt a lot during those months, as if time had slowed or slipped or grown elastic, as if there were time enough at last. That this turned out (how could it not?) to be another illusion is, of course, the point—not just of memory but also of all these sites and artifacts, which I could not, which I still cannot, move beyond.
Old Waldorf. Our first weekend in the city, a group of us took blotter acid, ended up in Golden Gate Park. Many hours later, we crept out of the park and meandered from the Haight through Hayes Valley, the Civic Center, deep into the Financial District, where there was a club on Battery called the Old Waldorf, owned by Bill Graham. Battery, batteries, the city and its defenses, military or cultural, through which time moved as liquid essence…or maybe that was the drugs. We went to the Old Waldorf often, that or the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway, where we heard SVT, Vital Parts, the Dead Kennedys, Jim Carroll Band. We were in the middle, on the seam between two eras, wannabe hippies (we weren’t old enough) lit on fire by punk. My last night in the city, ten weeks after that trip to Andrew Molera State Park, I stood atop the Stockton Street tunnel with my best friend and his girlfriend, smoking cigarettes after one last show. Below us: the crush of Sutter Street, its delis and massage parlors; while up there the three of us, we lingered, shrouded in the fog of leaving, aware that our time had come. Who had we seen that night? It could have been anyone—Jorma, Carroll, even Jerry Garcia who played, when he was in town, once a month in North Beach at the Stone. The next morning, I packed the last few items in my backpack, locked my apartment, and left the keys in the super’s box. The air was chilly, overcast I want to tell you (although that may have been internal weather), and I remember shivering a little as I stepped onto Haight Street and waited for the bus to take me to the Transbay Terminal on Mission and Howard, where I would start my journey home.
Sutro Tower. I had a dream once, during the months I lived in San Francisco, of dancing underneath the Sutro Tower, that vast three-pronged transmission standard that overlooks the city from a hill not far from Clarendon Heights. I could feel the buzz of all those broadcasts, all those voices, all that electricity pulsing through my body, lines of energy. The closest I ever came to making something like that happen was one night at Twin Peaks, where a group of us came to drink and get high and dance to the boombox someone brought. The Grateful Dead or the Dead Kennedys, Jerry Garcia or Jello Biafra, Sutro, sutra, Freddie Mercury. When Queen played Oakland in July 1980, the singer came to party in the Castro, just over the hill from where I lived. That summer, everybody looked like Freddy: tight jeans, bandannas folded neatly into rear pockets, close-cropped haircuts, mustaches. “Terminal” was still a word we might use to describe a bus station; it had not yet become a harbinger of fear. A decade afterward, Mercury was dead, like so many of the men in that neighborhood, who I’d encountered on the sidewalks or when I took the bus. I don’t mean to offer up an elegy, but I want to remain clear about what I remember, which is this: I remember something that felt like abandon, the sensation that anything I could imagine might come true. I remember grace, or better yet elevation, from the Headlands to the tunnels to the hills. I remember feeling that time had erased itself even as I understood that time kept passing, that it always would. I remember that as much as I wished otherwise—Green Dragon Temple, Greenpeace, Andrew Molera State Park—I was just a visitor here.
David L. Ulin is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.