Leaving…

 

I am moving back to France. Not an easy decision, but in the end, the need for change won out. It was time, as my friends at 826 Valencia put it, for a new adventure. There are other reasons, of course. The high cost of living in San Francisco becomes a greater burden as I age and my ability to make money diminishes. The result of a lifetime of decisions made for reasons that did not enhance my bank account may just be that I cannot continue to live in this city I still love. So it goes. I can live with that.

The ascendance of the abominable Trump had something to do with it, but not very much, and, after all, I may very well be faced with President Le Pen, another malignant nightmare.

I was able to overcome election despair because volunteering at 826 gave me hope. The people who run this program are doing something terribly important by helping the children learn to think independently and inspiring them to express their thoughts. Teaching a child that what he thinks and feels really matters is an important step in countering the growing racism and misogyny that threatens us all, and the cynicism that allows it to happen. If I had even the smallest hand in helping a child find her voice, I will have done something worthwhile.

The booklet in the photo is indeed a treasure chest for me but the treasure is not in the memories, it is in the future of these bright and beautiful children who can create a world better than the one they will inherit. When Barack Obama was elected I thought we had achieved a significant milestone in our achingly slow climb out of the slough of genocide and slavery in which this country was born. Certainly the last election was a major setback but it doesn’t have to be fatal. I look at these children and realize their gift to me was a belief in the cyclical nature of progress. They can take back the future and we can help.

So I leave here with very mixed emotions. I do believe it is the best thing for me but I’m saddened to leave my very good friends and the extraordinary effort of hope that is 826 Valencia. I will, I must, find another way to contribute.

Resist. Persist. Act.

©2017 Ron Scherl

North Beach Flaneur

Walking north on Kearny from downtown, the landscape changes at Sacramento Street: building heights go down, sunlight finds the street, pedestrians are older, and noodle shops replace office towers. Portsmouth Square is the open space in this densely crowded Chinese neighborhood, a living room for multiple generations, but it sits above a parking garage, easy to miss when walking under the pedestrian bridge on Kearny.

After passing the Chinatown Campus of City College and the House of Nanking, North Beach begins at Columbus, with Coppola’s Café Zoetrope, followed by two poles of the bar culture: the Comstock Saloon and Mr. Bing’s, both closed in the morning. Up the street to Jack Kerouac Alley, the corner of Vesuvio and City Lights, and across Columbus: Spec’s and the new Tosca. This was the center of the world when I first lived in North Beach: browsing books, reading in the basement, and drinking Negronis and Americanos before making the almost sobering trek up Vallejo Street to a room in a house long since replaced by pricey condos. Vesuvio was open for the morning drinkers but not for me today. City Lights is still the welcoming, quirky bookstore it’s always been and an hour uncovered two non-traditional histories of Paris (research) and a noir titled Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette, an author new to me.

I took my books to Café Puccini for a coffee among familiar faces to which I couldn’t add names, probably never knew them. The faces were older, of course, softened by age and memory. I tried to place them here, or another café or bar, but no luck. I nodded and moved on.

Molinari’s, the last Italian deli; the unique and indispensable Mario’s; Il Pollaio; Washington Square, the neighborhood lawn; Liguria bakery, sold out as usual by 11; the line at Mama’s, an unexplainable phenomenon that has persisted for decades; the rebuilt Joe DiMaggio playground; Gino & Carlo’s.

Liguria

Mario'sPlaygroundLunch at the new Original US Restaurant. More than an exercise in nostalgia, this is food from the Italian grandmother you always wished you had. All the other old neighborhood restaurants are gone but the family somehow managed to put this back together, covered the walls with photos of the old place and the family who made it special, and brought back a small piece of the neighborhood.

USRan into Supervisor Aaron Peskin and asked him if he was enjoying being back in City Hall. “I’m having fun,” he said with a wicked smile that left no doubt. Aaron loves to stir the pot by extending the progressive agenda as far to the left as possible. He’s good at it, and it’s a useful service to our complacent, liberal city.

People complain about obscene rents, Airbnb, the lack of grocery and hardware stores, shoe repair replaced by yet another restaurant for tourists, and all the usual urban ills, but there’s still a neighborhood here if you’re willing to look for it.

664AWalked past several doors that used to mean home, then back down Columbus to the bus that would take me there.

Sunday Morning

Easter Sunday to be a bit more descriptive, and I set off on a walk to the Presidio to see Andy Goldsworthy’s sculpture: Wood Line. The last time I came here was the day before I left for France, not knowing for sure if I’d ever be back, so this piece resonates with me more than most.

Presidio: Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy
Presidio: Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy ©2013 Ron Scherl

Today I was glad to be living here, appreciating a city that could create the beauty of the Presidio out of a former military base, and at peace with the changes in my life.

Wood Line is one of two Goldsworthy pieces in the Presidio and the one I find more effective and evocative. Like much of his work, Wood Line speaks to the intersection of human and nature in defining this space through the placement of eucalyptus logs in a sinuous pattern through a gap in the forest created when the eucalyptus planted by the army overwhelmed the native cypress trees.

He’s created a memory path, a long and winding road that also acknowledges the future in the changes that will inevitably follow. The line has a clear beginning and end, but the sculpture is more about time than form. Nature will determine the ending.

I came home to an email telling me of the death of Richard Schwartz, my oldest friend. We met in high school and while we would sometimes go years without speaking, we were always friends. Richie was a New Yorker, one of those people who couldn’t possibly live anywhere else. He was born on the Lower East Side, but spent most of his life in Queens and that was where he belonged. Richie and his wife, Heidi, travelled extensively, but Queens was home. It was where I always pictured him and the only place I ever saw him. He was formed by New York and part of what makes New York what it is.

Yet, unlike his city, Richie’s life was quiet: husband, social worker, traveler, and collector of what is undoubtedly the world’s greatest collection of Don Quixote tchotchkes. He was a private person, devoted to his wife, and not much of a communicator to the rest of us. He knew my family much better than I ever knew his. When he spoke about himself, unfinished sentences left just enough ambiguity to make me believe I wasn’t getting the full story. Our friendship may have been incomplete, but never ambiguous. He was my friend and I will miss him.

Presidio: Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy
Presidio: Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy ©2013 Ron Scherl

Home?

In yet another example of my spectacular gift for good timing, I’ve returned to San Francisco at the peak of an apartment shortage: highest average rents ever and fierce competition for what’s available. Rental ads list proximity to Google and Apple shuttles and warn you to come armed with all three credit scores, bank statements, pay stubs rental history, references and the name of the surgeon who will remove your right arm for use as a security deposit.

This is truly a nightmare. Think for a moment about 300 square foot studios in dodgy neighborhoods for $2000 per month. There, you didn’t need to think for very long, did you? But if you’re looking to live here, you have to consider it.

iPhone-0372I went to look at a place the other day that was a steal at $1900. I’ve seen prison cells that were larger. What was called the bedroom was a windowless cube that could accommodate a queen-size bed, but absolutely nothing else, so I’d have to crawl into the room from the bottom of the bed because there was no space on the sides. Then, I’d need to fit living room, office, dining room and clothes storage into the other room, which didn’t leave any space for me. And I put in an application and didn’t get the place.

iPhone-0362Then we have the guy who wanted to break his lease but didn’t want to tell his landlord yet because he might change his mind, so he puts an ad in Craig’s list offering to rent an apartment that he had no right to rent and wastes half a precious day of searching.

Scams are plentiful and sometimes clever: there are many excuses for not being available to actually let you see the apartment before forking over the “holding deposit.” Some are unavoidably detained on business in Zurich, others have been called to do the Lord’s work in Alabama, in some cases the photos shown are not of the actual unit available, and then there’s Stacy for whom I always seem to be second choice: The good news is that the rental is still available! We had a tentative agreement from the first person we showed it to, but now it seems that they changed their mind, so we need to lease it as soon as possible. You were the second one to email me about it, so its only fair to give you the first shot.” And to rise to the top of Stacy’s list all I need do is click on the mystery link below.

The search goes on but there are few open houses today because the local boys are in the Super Bowl. I can use a breather.

 

A nice place, but difficult to heat and the line's already forming. ©2013 Ron Scherl
A nice place, but difficult to heat and the line’s already forming. ©2013 Ron Scherl

 

Changes

David Bowie Photo
Couldn’t resist hauling out a photo of David Bowie ©1980 Ron Scherl

I’m packing up and heading back to San Francisco; 18 months in a village of 900 people is a long time for a city kid. It’s been a good and productive time. The photo book          is now in shape and being considered for publication. The all-text version is progressing and I plan to get out of town before the fictional version appears. So I’ve returned to being a photographer and also begun to discover a voice as a writer. And in a more serious vein, I’ve also become an expert pizzaiolo and make a pretty good bagel as well.

I thought for a while that I would move to Perpignan but the more I thought, the more I realized I really wanted to go back home. That’s what happens here in the winter, you spend a lot of time indoors, in your own head. Actually, it’s amazingly warm here at the moment. I just came from coffee in the garden of some friends, opened the windows and even sat on the terrace for a while. It’s a shock after last year’s very cold winter. Now that I have all the windows covered with Saran Wrap, it’s 72o and sunny.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Craig’s list lately looking for apartments and it’s like a drug. I see photos that look great and think I could be happy there, and then I feel happy, for a few minutes. As my new friend Claire said, it’s like online dating. Of course as an experienced Photoshop user, I’m very wary of the validity of the photos, although it’s much more likely that they’re photos of another apartment rather than retouched photos of the actual place. But not only are the fees through the roof, there’s enormous competition for what is available, all those facebookers, tweeters and googleites need to live somewhere and they clearly prefer the city to the valley.

Going home is a good thing, so is starting a new chapter. Going back to a familiar and comfortable place feels right, just as leaving it was right at the time, but changing circumstances and a different attitude will bring new challenges. And that’s also a good thing. One of the down sides of a small rural village is that for most people roles are defined by tradition: many of those playing bingo at the seniors club are no older than me, but their roles seem to have been pre-determined; they appear to be following a script. This is what you do when you reach a certain age. Not true for everyone, but the narrow offerings of a small village do limit options and imagination. As I write this, the 5:30 loudspeaker announcement from the Mairie is indeed about tomorrow’s “séance de loto.”

I can, of course, come back here and I will. I still have my share of the house and I have made friends that I’d like to keep. But for now, while the blog will continue, I think I’ll put my bingo career on hold.

Bingo ©2012 Ron Scherl
Bingo ©2012 Ron Scherl

Breakfast with the Giants

Breakfast Photo
©2011 Ron Scherl

Real change takes time.

You can’t hop off a plane right into a new life, at least not during baseball season. So, It’s good to know that Giants’ blackout territory does not extend to Maury, local radio doesn’t have the scores and the Chronicle is not on my doorstep. In other words, it’s new to me.  MLB-TV, coffee and a fresh baguette (finished before the photo) work fine for me.

Besides, French culture isn’t all that quick to adopt me:  I went to the bank in St. Paul today to open a new account and was told I could have a rendez-vous with Mlle. Borette next Tuesday to discuss the matter.  I’m looking forward to it.

I know I’m veering dangerously into Peter Mayle territory here, but it’s hard to avoid and if it sells a few books, why complain, or rather, why not?

Stay tuned.

 

Just Before Leaving

Sunday, the last day we had together, Barbara and I went walking in the Presidio to see the new Andy Goldsworthy piece. What a joy!  I was, as I’ve been for the last month, obsessing over details, anxious, living inside my head and maybe a bit removed from reality. Andy Goldsworthy is a great artist. He not only brings you out of your head, he brings you into the natural world through a work of art that shows us the connections we may not see when self-obsessed and not very perceptive.

Andy Goldsworth in PresidioOK. Sorry about the iPhone photo, but as I said, I was not thinking. Not thinking clearly and not getting outside my own brain cells. But this piece turned me around, made me look around and made me happy. This made everything else go away. Made me love where I was at that moment and made me happy.  So here’s a challenge to the photographers out there. Get to the presidio, spend some time with Goldsworthy and, if he moves you, make an image. I really want to see it.