19 April 2008

A Billy Pilgrim Moment

Twenty years ago, actually more, I made my first trip to San Francisco. Saying that is shocking, as the memory does not feel so old. If Old Isaac Watts is right about time being an ever rolling stream, the current is moving faster than I realized. Anyway, that first trip was on business but I booked an extra day ahead so I could look around.

One of the places I went was to Cliff House, a restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking what is called Seal Rocks. My wife loves seals, so I went there in her honor (I was alone on the trip though.) The House has a deck for watching the seals along with the restaurant and I remember quite vividly watching the seals as orcas swam nearby. Not a good thing for the seals as orcas eat them. This all takes place scant yards from a long beach which is cheek by jowl to the city. I was mesmerized.

So I resolved to go back, and did, as Route 1, the PCH, goes right up alongside the beach. The day was the first truly sunny warm day for a while, and it was Sunday, so I had to park some way down from Cliff house, but the weather was easy and the walk up the hill more than bearable. While I have been back to SF twice since that first visit, it had nonetheless been some years and so a wave of recognition came as I inhaled the air. There is something distinct about the smell of SF, its combination of fish, salt, pine, redwood, people, and plants that instantly erased the years between each visit. I get the same sensation in New York City or Austin, which also have unique smells.

My sense of smell has attenuated much over the last ten years. The natural effect of age no doubt, and in some ways a blessing. My appetite is not as easily roused now, for example, so I am not as likely to eat spontaneously. My wife says she has never had an acute sense of smell and she has never been a lusty eater.

The unpleasant aromas of life are less so as well, and yet there is nothing like a smell to capture a memory, and memory in the deepest sense of not just what I saw or felt emotionally but what my body sensed and that moment in time. Aromas are the royal road of consciousness.

My lunch at the newly and very fashionable restaurant in the old Cliff House was at the zinc bar, a plate of Dungeness crab cakes and a glass of beer. A young couple sat to either side of me – one male one mixed. The former were from Europe but I could not make out the language. The latter were local. All were young, horribly young. My waiter was practiced at spreading the linen napkin triangularly on the bar, and the popovers were hot and fattening. I ate all three eagerly.

Early that morning I had left Marina and found myself riding through agricultural lands along Half Moon Bay. The drive was prosaic as it the region was well built and therefore more about houses and businesses and the sprawly stuff you can find anywhere. This paradise is irresistible and so it is well developed.

South of SF proper, on steep hills, are cookie cutter houses that supposedly inspired Malvina Reynolds song about “little houses.” If untrue it makes sense, and proves that even in sight of the great Pacific, one can be small minded and self absorbed.

I had to drive through town, which was fun, seeing the sunny, quasi Italian ambience of working class SF, which is now impossibly expensive to buy. I turned north and passed through Golden Gate Park before crossing the exquisite Golden Gate Bridge, which appears without warning and almost catapults you across the promontory. You can’t really enjoy ride, it being so full of traffic going at a fierce clip, but a sensation remains of doing it, and of the Marin headlands on the other side, and how long it took to get beyond the northern satellites of SF, Susalito and Tiburon and their wannabee neighbors before being able to reclaim Route 1 and my real destination for the day – Muir Woods.

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