Archive for June, 2002

San Francisco Diary

Monday, June 24th, 2002

Jun 24, 2002

Golden Lie

In the popular culture my generation grew up on, San Francisco possibly has a stronger presence than any other American city. The city’s sights and Spanish architecture are as much characters in Hitchcock’s Vertigo as James Stewart and Kim Novak. Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang careened up and down its sine-wave streets in the most famous car chase ever filmed, in Bullitt. The Haight-Ashbury area was the nucleus of the hippie movement, where Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary and the Grateful Dead hung out and offered visions of psychedelic nirvana. In The Golden Gate, Alistair Maclean’s supercriminal Branson held the US President and two Arab leaders hostage on the country’s most celebrated bridge. Trouble is: I don’t remember Maclean (or anyone else I read) mentioning that the Golden Gate Bridge is not golden. It is, in fact, brick red, or as the official term goes, “international orange”. The “golden” refers to the Golden Gate Strait, the entrance to the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean, which the bridge overlooks. But then, this minor disappointment vanishes instantly when you stand in the high wind on the bridge and look out over the bay. The scale models of the bridge being hocked at the souvenir shops, though, are all determinedly golden. But that’s OK. After all, if the US Navy had had its way, the bridge would have been striped black and yellow to assure greater visibility for passing ships!

Haight-Ashbury is a bit of a letdown. But then I am there on a Sunday morning when most of the denizens are still fast asleep. Ganesha statues, posters with vaguely Indian motifs, incense sticks, elaborate smoking contraptions that could not be aimed at the mere tobacco addict…. But my music fiend friend Paddy had warned me. “George Harrison was the only Beatle who visited Haight-Ashbury during the sixties,” he had written, “and he was shocked to see ‘horrible spotty drop-out kids on drugs…bums and drop-outs…instead of the brilliant, groovy gypsy people making works of art and paintings and carvings which is what I expected…’. I agree with him. The place still looks ghastly. Remember, the Grateful Dead escaped this place and found refuge in the woods of nearby Marin County after becoming very uncomfortable with what it ultimately became, a mecca for young kids from all over America looking for LSD and no responsibility.” A young woman offers to take our photo under the Haight-Ashbury road sign, and then asks for money to buy a hamburger.

But Bullitt delivers. Oh, those roads, soaring up at 45 degree angles and then swooping equally abruptly! And Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the US: sharp brick-paved curves that redefine “hairpin bend” down a steep hillside. The reason is apparently functional (though one has a sneaking suspicion that that’s just an excuse): the curves ease out the sheer slope; if the street is less crooked, people and cars would roll down. A travel website urges me to try “get a cab ride down Lombard late at night—fast! Guaranteed, you’ll remember that ride long after you’ve left San Francisco.” After some thought, I give up the idea.

Fat Men Slim

The critical difference between US poverty and developing world poverty, points out my friend Dash, is that the poor in America are fat. The poor survive mostly on beef, which is the cheapest food available, with little access to less fattening nourishment or weight-reduction regimes. It’s a startling reality-inversion to see an obese man sitting on the pavement with a sign that reads: “Ravenous.” Takes a bit of getting used to, before the compassion returns.

Comic Relief

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has a wonderful collection, some great Klees and Pollocks and Lichtensteins, but to insensitive brutes like me, it’s also a revelation of the atrocities committed in the last few decades in the name of art. Someone has managed to fool the world that a many-times-enlarged colour photocopy of a Marlboro ad is a work of post-modern something or the other. Someone else has computer-analysed the colours of one of Monet’s luminous Rheims Cathedral paintings and outputted a drab beige-ish tone as theaverage colour, and presented a canvas painted over with this tone as a new Monet’s Rheims Cathedral! A tyre track over a sheet of paper has two creators: Robert Rauschenberg, who thought up the idea, and John Cage who drove the car that the tyre belonged to! Rauschenberg, of course, reached his pinnacle with his White Paintings, a couple of which my friend Venky and I glumly examine for enlightenment: white house paint applied evenly over a white canvas. According to the artist, these were Art, yet “not Art because they take you to a place in painting art has not been”. Well, yes, but do we want to go there? After this anarchy, it’s comforting to escape to the Comic Art Museum close by and marvel at the clean powerful lines of John Romita’s Spiderman.

Gotta Watch Out

It’s late May, and war hysteria is in full swing in the US. Perhaps as a tactic to divert people’s attention from the damaging disclosures by FBI operatives that they had provided information that could conceivably have avoided the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration is busy scaring the pants off Americans, with one senior functionary every day, from the President to the FBI director, making predictions of imminent and catastrophic terror attacks on America. Add to that the Indo-Pak confrontation, with the news channels trotting out bearded professors every night to draw circles on Indian and Pakistani maps and guesstimate how many millions will be vapourised if a nuclear bomb dropped here or here or here. Shopkeepers and cab drivers, the moment they figure out you are Indian, shed pearls of wisdom such as: “Hey man, you goin’ to war, man? India’ll win, but war is a bad thing, man.” Boris, a Bulgarian cabbie, turns out to be a keen international affairs expert. “You tink da US gives a f*** about da Afghan people? You tink Osama gives a f*** about Palestine? Man, I seen Communism, and I seen Capitalism, so I can see da truth. India gotta watch out fer itself.”