Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Memoir Outtake: Baker Beach Bliss

photo by Juan Alvarado Valdivia, 2005

The city was scorching, afternoon temperatures reaching the upper seventies (which is considered hot in San Francisco any time of the year). Paola suggested a trip to Baker Beach. She was a sucker for the beach, which I always found endearing. I was still reeling from the horrendousness of her birthday three nights before. I gladly accepted her invitation. I was beyond grateful for it. In the four months we had been together, she had already been witness to three instances in which I drank myself to a state of oblivion. A significant part of me felt I didn’t deserve to have a tranquil afternoon at a beach with my forgiving girlfriend. 

While we drove through the city to Baker Beach in Paola’s sporty Mazda, I felt a sense of peace. Validation. I felt like a mangy mutt, picked from a pound, given another chance to prove it can be a good pet. As she drove, I held Paolita’s hand over the automatic shift. When I looked at her, wearing the big, round sunglasses she often wore, I began to believe I might have finally found the love of my life. Perhaps I had found someone who believed in me so much that she was willing to overlook those mad, drunken incidents? Those eruptions that helped to scare a few women away.

At the beach, Paola and I laid our blanket down among the couples and youngsters that had congregated there. We took off our shirts to bask in the sun. Paola wore a sporty bikini. She asked me to rub sunscreen on her back. I was eager to please. I angled my legs out like a scissor while she sat in front of me. When I finished rubbing the lotion onto her back and shoulders, I leaned over to kiss the back of her neck. She smiled and turned her head. We gave each other a quick peck on the lips. It was the kind of kiss that seasoned couples gave each other before saying something like “Bye honey. I’ll see you at dinner.” 

Sitting side by side, Paola and I surveyed the beach as we ate the burritos we brought. We watched a dog chase a tennis ball into the waves. A boisterous group of hipsters ran about the shore, chucking a spiraling football into a group of their friends. Behind them, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Peninsula loomed, beckoning to be photographed. Once we finished our greasy burritos, Paola and I took out our reading material from my backpack. We read to the sound of the lapping waves.

Though I had slept plentifully the two days before, I fell asleep with my body curled toward Paola. My copy of Bolano’s The Savage Detectives was tucked against my tummy. I awoke with a shiver. A cool wind blew over the beach. Paola was sitting cross-legged, reading The New Yorker. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and asked how long I had been asleep.

“Like half an hour,” Paola said. “I didn’t want to wake you.”

I felt sluggish instead of re-energized. Must be the chemo, I thought. Finally doing a number on me. I rubbed her back and kissed her shoulder before I put my shirt back on.

“Are you feeling cold?” she said.

“A little,” I said, putting a forearm out to show the hairs that stood. She gave a chuckle.

“You wanna get goin’?”

“Sure, in a little bit. Whenever you want to leave.”

With my arms stretched behind me, I stared past the murky waves to the lush green Marin hillside across the bay. A blanket of gray clouds was blowing in. The beach had become half empty since I fell asleep. People were flapping their blankets free of sand, gathering their empty six-packs.

I turned to Paola and looked at her for a few seconds while she read her magazine. I leaned over and kissed her cheek.

“I love you, sweetheart,” I said.

She smiled.

“I love you, too.”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Shit I Learned in New York City

me took this picture!

Last week I spent an exhilarating, bedazzling week in New York City reuniting with friends. It was my third trip to one of the world’s greatest cities. (I would argue that it’s the only great metropolis in the United States.) I learned a few things while I was there:

What’s a Suicide drag?
My good friend Chris and I hunkered down at a gay bar in the West Village called Pieces. (We’re still unsure how it got its name.) Around two or three in the morning the karaoke deejay and our emcee—a tall, muscular, irreverent drag queen—announced that they would hold a “suicide drag.” For the next fifteen minutes or so, the deejay played a relentless medley of high-energy dance songs while the limber drag queen proceeded to dance up and down the entire bar as though she was born in three-inch heels. It was quite a performance.

Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” has intricate verses
After one too many gin and tonics I said fuck it, I’m singing “Unbreak My Heart.” If you heard the song a thousand times like I did during my formative junior high years, how can you possibly forget the chorus? But even before I stepped on the stage to sing in an overly dramatic and awful Eastern European (or Russian?) accent I suspected the verses would be unexpectedly more complex than the chorus; it had been years since I really listened to the song. And boy was I right. I butchered those verses, but I nailed the chorus! (In this regard, Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” is a kindred karaoke selection.)

The High Line = lovely
Being the good man he is, my homeboy, J-Oro, told me and my homie, Chris, that The High Line in the Meatpacking District is supposed to be sexy. And it was. If I didn’t need to stock up on DayQuil and cough drops, I think Chris and I would’ve gladly walked the entirety of the High Line.

view from The High Line
Life can sometimes be all about timing, and, it can also be about vantage. While we walked along the former rail tracks, I was amazed at how much more beautiful and interesting the surrounding canyons of buildings and Manhattan skyline appeared a mere twenty-five feet above the ground.

Bleecker Street Pizza Rules!
Being the good man he is, my homeboy, J-Oro, took me to Bleecker Street Pizza last year during my now-annual pilgrimage to NYC. (I’m a fortunate man.) Back then, I didn’t see what the big deal was about their pizza; I thought it was above average but nothing to text home about.

I’ve seen the errors of my ways.

This time around, I ordered a slice of pepperoni. Fuck me it was good. Now I get why their walls are covered with pictures of celebrities such as Mike Tyson, Edward Norton, Steven Tyler (who can probably fit two entire slices in his Sweet-Emotion-singing mouth), and Susan Sarandon.

Dear god, that was the only slice I ate during our three-night stay in the West Village. That feels atrociously blasphemous, man (and now my tummy is displeased with me).

Jimi Hendrix and the Alice in Wonderland Sculpture
Like many tourists, Chris and I wandered all about Central Park. We visited the delightful Alice in Wonderland sculpture on the southeast end of the park. We ended up hanging out there for a half hour in hopes of snapping some pictures without these annoying kids whose parents allowed them to treat the statue like a jungle gym the entire time. Anyway, a few days later, my buddy Justin told me that one of the rejected Electric Ladyland covers was a picture of Jimi, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding at the sculpture. I couldn’t believe it! Observe:

Jimi and The Kids!
Had I known, I would have been hellbent on cradling next to the area where Jimi chillaxed. Oh well—para la proxima.

McSorley’s is My Kind of Place (Even Though I’m Not an Irish Lad)
One of my sweet coworkers encouraged me to check out McSorley’s, the oldest Irish tavern in Manhattan. I’m glad we made it out there. The place still feels authentically historic. It was a bit of a trip to linger in a joint where so many famous dead fuckers, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy “Bull Moose” Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant Woody Guthrie and my boy, Hunter Thompson, once roamed.

Student ID = invaluable!
After this trip, I have determined that I need to make a counterfeit student ID for myself. I can’t pass on its savings! Por ejemplo, Chris and I snagged two mezzanine tickets to Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love for a total of $54. Without a student ID, the cheapest ticket in the house was $75.

(Oh, and the play was cool. Sam Rockwell was outstanding and I’ve never seen a play with such exceptional usage of lighting.)

The Guy Who Works the Elevators on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building is a Gem
I wanna invite this man to my next party! He was great; he was a white dude in his late forties/early fifties. A bit on the portly side. Sported a classic New York accent. While Chris and I waited in line for the elevator to the observation deck on the 86th floor, this guy worked the lines for VIPs and folks exiting the building. I wish I can remember what he said to this kid in line, but me and Chris were just smitten by his banter. Honestly, I could’ve waited in line a good twenty minutes just watching and hearing this guy work all the tourists.

I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost thirty years and I can tell you that our region just doesn’t produce this kind of charm. Something about old school New Yorkers, man.

We Still Savor Sunsets
Up on the 86th floor observation deck amidst a ring of humans who were also totting photographic equipment, the sun set over New York City. The sky was clear azure. A cool zephyr blew. Chris and I couldn’t have timed our visit to the Empire State Building any better.

As the sun completed its descent, I noticed that the west and south ends of the deck was where most folks congregated. People were taking pictures of one another and the sunset with their digital cameras or cell phones. A few snapped pictures of themselves with a selfie stick. 

Despite our technological advances, despite the awkward human behavior it has helped to induce in recent years, we’re still a species that is mesmerized by a gorgeous sunset. That made me smile while I took pictures of people taking pictures of themselves. Many of us seem to be in a rush to become a cyborg, but we’re still human inside.

Hearing Old People Curse is Beautiful
This realization started back on my JetBlue flight into JFK. I sat beside an adorable man in his late seventies. (Once our plane was airborne, not before, but after, he put a blue beret over his peanut of a head. I thought it was one of the cutest things I've seen lately.) During our flight, I believe his wife accidentally cranked up the volume on his headphones when she rested her elbow on his armrest with the control console. “Ah, man. This fucking thing!” he said in response. I had to turn toward the window so he couldn't see me giggling.

And then, as Chris and I gallivanted about Manhattan, we overheard several elders—men and women—curse during their conversations. Maybe it's me, but every time I heard them curse it made me smile. It was nothing crude; it was just their typical banter—and I loved it.

Here in the Bay Area—unless I'm hanging out in the wrong places—you just never hear old folks curse amongst themselves in public. Never. And it's a shame. Old folks around here just seem too PC and polite for my taste. 

Strand’s is the bomb!
self-portrait at The Strand
¡Dios mio! The Strand on 12th and Broadway IS ASTOUNDING! “18 miles of Books” sounds about right. It blows City Lights Bookstore out of the water like Chief Brody’s bang-up job on the great white in Spielberg’s Jaws. The only bookstore I’ve seen in my life that is in the same universe in terms of size and fucking awesomeness is Powell’s in Portland.

Speaking of Bombs, Beef Stroganoff Induces Potent Gas
The beef stroganoff at Veselka is so damn good but man I think it gave me the toots. If man ever creates a methane-powered miniature rocket ship, fuck man, I think I can chow down on some righteous beef stroganoff and power myself to the moon with the rank power of my subsequent farts!

I have now visited both parks designed by the great landscape architect. Although I'm more familiar with Central Park, I humbly disagree with Olmsted. 

Gowanus—which sounds like a destitute island with unfriendly apes—is a Superfund Site!
So says my homeboy, J-Oro. And rumor is the Gowanus Canal has tested positive for the clap.


Picasso in Manhattan
How fucking bad-ass is Manhattan in its totality? Oh, they happen to have a Picasso sculpture tucked away between a few nondescript apartment towers off of Bleecker Street near Washington Square. In places like Amsterdam you have to go out to their municipal park to behold a Picasso sculpture. In Manhattan—if you’re a resident of NYU’s Silver Towers—you get to see it every time you step out of your apartment. Ho hum.

Houston Street is pronounced “How-ston” Street

The Magician on the Lower East Side = awesome!

The Magician
My last night in New York I raged with my friends Justin and Navani out in Manhattan. We stumbled upon this wonderful dive bar. The bartender was a good dude. After we left at closing time, the bouncer stepped out to hand me my camera which had slipped out of my jacket. (That would have been a vacation-ruiner.) The bar has an actual jukebox instead of one of those piece-of-shit Internet ones—and it has good shit.

That was one of the funnest nights out I’ve had in years. Sure, the surroundings have to be conducive but, of course, it really comes down to the company ye keep.

Ditmas Park is Where I Would Live in Brooklyn
A few years ago, I stayed in Ditmas Park during my first trip to The Big Apple. I really dug the quiet neighborhood then and I still love it today. The houses are beautiful. The lush canopy cover along the sidewalks makes for cozy walks. The neighborhood is a hop, skip and train away from more lively neighborhoods. It’s like being in the periphery of a mosh pit—or my kind of place.

I’ve Got a Lot of New-York-based Films to Watch
Before the trip, it began to dawn on me that there are a lot of films shot in New York due for a re-watch—films like Taxi Driver, The 25thHour (I think it’s Spike’s best film), Kids (even for me this film is fucked up), Goodfellas, Eyes Wide Shut and Rosemary’s Baby. After hanging with my peeps in NYC and reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, I’ve got some films I haven’t seen to add to the burgeoning NYC queue: The French Connection, Paris is Burning, The Warriors (Time Out has this neat list of their top 100 New York films), Midnight Cowboy (one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s favorite films), and Escape from New York.

For my homeboy, Chris, Taxi Driver is his New York film. I don’t have one but I’m leaning toward Bad Lieutenant right now but that’s because my taste for films can be aptly described as Fucked Up.

How It Feels to Get Trapped in an Elevator 
Cross that off the list of firsts this year along with picking up my first hitchhiker! And this is what it feels like to get trapped in an elevator:

Chris after we realized we were trapped.
Waving to Strangers Remains My Favorite New Hobby—and I’ve Got to Continue it
A few months back, my sweetheart and I went to Monterey for a weekend getaway. We hit up Lovers Point Park overlooking the surrounding bay. A few kayakers paddled out into the Pacific. I was feeling particularly playful that afternoon so on a whim I waved to one of the kayakers. Mari says they waved back even though I spaced out and didn’t see them. But that’s where this whole waving-to-strangers-from-far-away began and it’s been cool. I’ve picked my spots but, to my delight, I think everyone has waved back.

I got to try it out on the East Coast for the first time when Chris and I romped around Central Park. We were by The Lake where folks paddle about in rowboats. We honed in on a boat with a young couple; the young lady rowed while her boyfriend or friend or brother was consumed with texting on his phone. Chris and I thought this was a major party foul but I waited until he raised his head. When he looked in our general direction, I waved to him and he waved back. It was thrilling! And validating. Yes, I exist, and you exist! We’re alive, buddy, and look what we have to look around at!

I waved back to him just to make sure that he knew that I was indeed waving to him and that I wasn’t some cynical hipster scum. He waved back again. I thought I could see a smile on his face. I know I was.

Thanks to my friends, I carry a treasure trove of beauteous moments from this pilgrimage, but that random moment with a stranger was one of them, too. And it was free and sincere.

The Pond, Central Park (that's the dude I waved to)