Book Review: Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit

Phrenological San Francisco (page 128-129)

Phrenological San Francisco (page 128-129)

Rebecca Solnit begins her book with this quotation from Thoreau:

“I have traveled widely in Concord.”

Concord really isn’t that big a place to “travel widely” in, but that is the argument of Solnit’s Infinite City: every place contains an infinite number of “maps” with which we travel, and within her book Solnit creates a unique, intriguing, and entertaining series of maps of her city, San Francisco.

Now, you know you are in heady territory when in the first three paragraphs Solnit makes multiple references to Borges and Calvino, both fantastic cartographers and creators of worlds that have never existed. Yet, Solnit is every bit as imaginative and perceptive. She reveals a given place (San Francisco) in ways that had never been categorized before and introduces new perspectives on the city that have never before been imagined.

In her introduction, Solnit explains her method thus:

Every place is if not infinite then practically inexhaustible, and no quantity of maps will allow the distance to be completely traversed. Any single map can depict only an arbitrary selection of the facts on its two-dimensional surface… . For Infinite City, this selection has been a pleasure, an invitation to map death and beauty, butterflies and queer histories, together, with the intention not of comprehensively describing the city but rather of suggesting through these pairings the countless further ways it could be described. (I also chose pairs in order to use the space more effectively to play up this arbitrariness, and because this city is, as all good cities are, a compilation of coexisting differences, of the Baptist church next to the Dim Sum dispensary, the homeless outside the Opera House.)

And this is how the book works. The “arbitrary selection of facts” are surprising and unconventional. There are maps of industries and bee migrations and “tribal neighborhoods” and gang-lands and right-wing bastions and bygone areas of entertainment and carousal.  And the pairings are both startling and sensible. For instance, the map entitled “Poison/Palate: The Bay Area in your Body” is accompanied by Solnit’s essay “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Gourmet.” In both, the reader is given a map of the major dumpers of toxins into the environment (often food and wine growers) and the sites of delicious, food providers. (Often the two overlap.) The key to the map gives symbols for EPA SUPERFUNDS, Poison Sites, Palate Sites, Poison/Palate Sites and Wineries.

Poson/Palate: The Bay Area in your Body

Poson/Palate: The Bay Area in your Body

The population map–the current population not the map of those who have left and those who are arriving–is set up as a “tribal” map.  The expected ethnicities are cited–the Chinese, the Irish, the Korean, the Mexican–but they are accompanied by neighborhoods where the “tribes” include skateboarders, people with ties, transgender people, etc.  Again, this is accompanied by a moving essay by Solnit about the ever changing population shifts of her city.

Tribes of San Francisco

Tribes of San Francisco

But it is the pairings that are the most intriguing. One map, entitled Death and Beauty,  tracks the murders in the city during the year 2008 and the locations of Monterey cyprus trees throughout the city; another entitled Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders lists salmon streams, hatcheries and viewing sites along with the location of Zen monasteries, schools, and core sites; and still another, entitled Monarchs and Queens, reveals the locations of various butterfly locations and queer public spaces.

Monarchs and Queens

Monarchs and Queens

Each of the twenty-two maps are jewels of color, design, and information.  They are beautiful, as are all of the illustrations throughout.

While Solnit did not write all of the essays that accompany the maps, she did write the majority and her fellow essayists are similar in spirit, similar in the way they look at their ever-changing city. In a recent piece for the London Review of Books entitled “Google Invades” (February 2013), Solnit bemoaned the changes that have occurred in her city with the influx of Silicon Valley money.  She felt that the variety in the city’s fabric–in its economics, its life styles, its ethnicities, its politics, and its arts– was being leveled and watered-down with the influx of cyber-millionaires. The city–not just a neighborhood– was being gentrified.

Solnit sees her city, San Francisco, in many, various ways, in multiple perspectives that have accrued layer after layer through the years that she has lived there. These views are both nostalgic and forward-looking, while still very much ensconced in the present, no matter how ethereal that might be.  And while some of these layers may now have physically vanished, they remain in her memory, in her view of the city.

And they remain in this amazing, attractive, and addictive book.


Northern California and Ireland, sea lions and selkies, and a powerful poem

I am not the first to make the comparison between the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California and Ireland. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It is a magnificent landscape, full of crashing surf and rock-strewn fields, dramatic cliffs and rolling mountains. The hills are more “golden” than green, and the roadways have much fewer sheep and doubledecker tour buses, but yes, it very much reminds me of the west coast of Ireland. Every turn in the corkscrewing highway offers another extraordinary vista.

But it is Goat Beach which is perhaps the most memorable. Goat Beach sits where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. In July the river flow is feeble, but it is then–between March and July–that the area is a breeding ground for sea lions.

By July the sea lions have already pupped and the adult ones seemed quite tired. At first, it is a bit jolting to see twenty to thirty adult sea lions asleep by the rivers edge. It looks as if they have all been slaughtered. But then a fin rises to slap a companion or another waddles to find a more comfortable position. They are just resting–and continue to do so for the rest of the morning.

But the seal pups are another story. Frisky and active, they plunge into the crashing surf of the Pacific or slide into the muddy waters of the Russian River. There is something fascinating about these creatures: their sleekness, their eyes, their movement.

A stamp from the Faroe Islands featuring a selkie emerging from her skin.

Seals and sea lions have long played a part in Norse and Celtic myth.  The legend of the selkie is perhaps one of the most famous and there are a wide variety of stories about them.  These creatures are seals when in the water but humans when they go upon land and emerge from their sealskin. And while there are numerous variants on the stories, there are basically two version of the selkie myth: one female, one male.  The female selkie is often a beautiful woman who is  “captured” by the man who finds her, unable to return to the water because the man has taken possession of her discarded skin.  The male selkie is also renowned  for its beauty and charm when it comes upon land and sheds its skin, and he is often noted for his ability to satisfy the unhappy and dissatisfied women of the area.  Fairly often, these women bear his children, usually children with some sort of “deformity” or oddity about them. These women too are in possession of the creature’s skin.

I can immediately think of two wonderful movies that deal with this myth.  One, is a 2009 film, Ondine, featuring Colin Farrell (and my personal favorite actress Dervla Kirwan from Ballykissangel)  and the other is an older film from 1994 called The Secret of Roan Inish.  Both are well worth finding, however you find your movies these days. And both deal with the female version of the story.

Anyway, so I am reading The Guardian online this winter and I come a cross a video of the Scottish poet Robin Robertson reading his poem “At Roane Head.” It is a powerful poem, and perhaps the most powerful reading I have ever witnessed. In it a woman cares for her four children. Her drunken husband has disowned them–for they have seal-like characteristics as well as human. At the tragic end, the woman returns the seal skin to her lover.

Here is the video.  Give it a view–I find it very powerful.


A river of wine…and a clueless wine drinker

So we move up from San Francisco to Napa for a series of private parties. The drive into the Napa valley is impressive, acres and acres of vineyards, rigidly straight rows of vines that climb up mountainsides and spread out for as far as one can see.

We got there Friday afternoon, in time to go to party number one.  The reception was held in The Backroom, a wine store in the town of Napa proper. It was hosted by Chateau Montelena. If you don’t know Chateau Montelena–and I certainly didn’t until someone pointed it out to me–it is the winery that famously won the blind-taste test against French wines, the “Judgement of Paris,” the first time a Napa wine ever won on the international scale and certainly the first time such a wine had beaten out the French wines. The story is the basis of the movie Bottle Shock, starring a delightfully snooty Alan Rickman.

Anyway, a “variety of wines and heavy hors d’ouevres” was what was listed on our invitation, and it ran true to what it said. When we walked in, we were brought to a table and offered a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon which was to be paired with a skewer of mozzarella, basil, and cherry tomatoes. There were seven other tables with rows of various bottles and different foods–steaks, chicken, vegetables, polenta, cheeses, chocolate truffles–and we were to go from one to another for the next four hours. We tasted them all–many of them over and over again.  The night was capped when a jeroboam of the Montelena Reserve was uncorked.

The Jeroboam of Montelena

Giving a jeroboam some visual perspective

The next morning seemed to come very quickly, but we had to get moving, for we were to go to the Detert Family Vineyards–to “Grandma’s house” for a reception.  The Detert vineyards butt up against the Mondavi vineyards, and they provide the Mondavi winery with 75% of their Cabernet Franc crop–retaining the remaining crop for their own estate wines.

We drove up an old dirt road, parked between some olive trees, and then walked behind “Grandma’s House.”  The stone courtyard was set up with white-clothed tables and white umbrellas.  Small pots of lemon trees, pendulous with fruit, ran around the perimeter.  About thirty yards away, a swimming pool looked out over the ascending vineyards. And in the corner of the courtyard, in gleaming array were rows and rows of glasses of sparkling white wine. We grabbed a glass or two, mingled for a while and then walked out into the vineyards with the Detert brothers.  They  explained the nature of the soil, the cultivation of the grapes, and the business side of the winery, in terms simple enough for even the most ignorant of the group (me). But for me  the visuals were the most compelling. About twenty of us were standing between rows of shoulder-high vines, the sun glistening off the white wine in our glasses, and the real world seeming very far away.

When we returned to the courtyard, the table of sparkling white had been replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (the wine that the Deters are most proud of). Two long tables of food–roast beef, chicken, grilled vegetables, cheeses, breads, fruit–ran along two sides of the courtyard.  I was sure I would never eat and drink again after the night before, but I lied.  Conversation, laughter, food and wine–it is an irresistible combination.

Three hours later we were heading back to our apartment–we had to hurry though, there was another reception in less than an hour.

The reason we are in California at all is that our neighbors in Philadelphia, Rick and Laura, were celebrating their 20th-wedding anniversary and they wanted to share their love of Napa–and wine–with their friends.  Rick is very much a wine connoisseur, and apparently, is fairly well known around the wineries here.  There were several winemakers in attendance–as well as the largesse provided by the wineries at last night and this afternoon’s events. Well this later reception was hosted by them and featured wines from their own stock.  Again a beautiful setting, magnificent hors d’ouvres (to be followed by dinner), and a bottomless supply of wine.

On a table were ten double-magnums of Cabernet, one for each year from 2000 to 2009. The idea was that you were to taste them all–in order–and compare. You could repeat any particular year–many got stuck on the 2003 and 2005 vintages–or you could stay on the one you liked the best, but they encouraged you to try them all. Later in the evening, they brought out a double-magnum of Syrrah and a  double-magnum of a Gold Label Reserve Cabernet that a local winemaker had brought as a gift.

I am too ignorant about wines to distinguish greatly between any of them. I do know that they were all much, much better than what I usually buy at the grocery store.

And so, for a period of twenty-four hours, I have attended three private receptions in the Napa Valley.  I have eaten more than I eat in a week.  And I have drunk a river of wine.

And now, I am headed off to the final planned event of this Napa weekend–a Sunday champagne brunch!

A small whiskey, the Zoetrope Cafe and Francis Ford Coppola

As one travels towards the end of North Beach in San Francisco, just before entering the financial district, there is a distinctive building on the corner of Columbus and Kearney. Its iron sheathing has been oxidized a gentle green color and, in a way, it resembles an ornate version of the Flat Iron Building in New York.

The building houses the offices of Francis Ford Coppola. Aside from the production duties, the writing, and script doctoring, it is here that Coppola does all his film editing–where all the Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, Dracula and so many others were edited.

It is also where the literary journal Zoetrope: All Story is produced.  The journal presents some of the finest in contemporary fiction and one-act plays and has featured such established writers as David Mamet, Don DeLillo, Andrew Sean Greer,  Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Woody Allen,  Neil Jordan, and Haruki Murakami. (Full disclosure: I had submitted once when the magazine first started up, not realizing I was so far out of my depth.)

And on the bottom floor is the Zoetrope Cafe, an Italian bistro, featuring an Old World menu and, not surprisingly, a large selection of Coppola wines.

So last night, we stopped in for a nightcap. 

I noticed what I wanted on the shelf immediately. The whiskey was poured into the most unusual bar glass I’ve ever seen. It was more like a “petri-dish” than a drink glass, about an inch and a half-tall and 4 inches wide.  We asked if the barkeep had ever met Coppola, and she said she did for the first time that day. He told her to call him “Francis” which she said she was still a bit uncomfortable yet to do.

There were copies of Zoetrope in a corner so we brought a couple to the bar and began leafing through them when the bartender came back and with a jerk of her head whispered, “There he is.”  Coppola was chatting with the hostess, looking as if he was going over the wine stock.  About fifteen minutes later, he called to his wife who had been sitting in the corner next to us and they left the cafe, getting into an ordinary SUV.

I had seen the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti the day before and now Francis Ford Coppola this night, and there was so much I would have liked to ask them both.  But their celebrity is mostly in our minds only–their audience.  They, themselves, must go through their days and nights much like you and I, and the intrusion of strangers certainly must be tiresome. At the same time, it is also good to see these literary/cultural lions in their daily routine–to see them simply as working men, no different than the rest of us.

Still, I would have loved to have bought another whiskey, offered each a drink, and listened to what they had to say.

Francis Ford Coppola, July 12,2012, Zoetrope Cafe

City Lights, Vesuvio Bar and sighting Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I had the chance to be across the country and in San Francisco for a few days this week, and I immediately went to City Lights Books in the North Beach section of the city.  If not the most famous bookstore in America, it is certainly one of them.

City Lights was founded by Peter D. Martin and named after the politico/literary magazine he had founded named City Lights in 1953. It was the very first paperback book store in the United States. As he was hanging the sign on the store at 291 Columbus Avenue, Larry Ferlinghetti walked past and asked to be a partner. Both Martin and Ferlinghetti invested $500. Martin sold his share to Ferlinghetti in 1955.

But the financial/founding history isn’t what is important. It is the store’s place in America literary  history that stands out.

In December, 1955, Ferlinghetti and City Lights published Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. Ferlinghetti had seen Ginsberg read at Six Galleries. It was an extraordinary evening. The reading was delayed until Jack Kerouac, who after collecting donations for wine, returned with several gallon jugs. Also performing and/or in attendance were Mike McLure, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Phillip Lamantia and Phillip Whalen–all bright lights in the Beat movement. The next morning, Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram stating that he would like to publish the poem, the fourth book in City Lights’ Pocket-Rocket Series. Ferlinghetti’s telegram began: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?

Robbie Robertson, Mike McLure, Bob Dylan, and Alan Ginsberg. City Lights Books, San Francisco 1965.

Four months after publication, the cashier at the store and Ferlinghetti were arrested for selling obscene material–Howl. The case riveted the nation–and made Howl one of the most notorious/famous books of its time. The judge’s decision–that Howl was fully protected by the First Amendment–became an important precedent in the future cases against Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

And so…after browsing  the three floors of the book-store, filled with memorabilia, photos, and more than just books, I went across the alley–Jack Kerouac Square–to  the Vesuvio bar. This wonderful bar –mismatched furniture, decals, art work, cheap drinks, two floors, old posters–is a step back into time, or at least in my head. Pictures of Jack London vie with pictures of Jack Kerouac vie with pictures of David Crosby and Grace Slick. A giant portrait of James Joyce hangs next to a photo of Joyce reading the paper in Paris on Bloomsday, June 16th.

Ienjoyed myself. Spent most of the time walking around and reading the walls–the vintage posters advertising readings by a who’s who of San Francisco poets and concerts from the early days, the photos of legendary writers, poets, activists and actors, and original art both bad and worse.

And then it was time to leave.  Outside, we took a few pictures and turned to leave.  And then, as I turned to look back, there coming out of the bar was Ferlinghetti himself.  He stopped, looked around, and placed a cap on his head. My first inclination was to go up to him and shake his hand, thanking him for his long battle against censorship, imperialism, and philistinism, for his support of art, poetry and the avant-garde.  But then I decided against it.  Let a man walk out of a bar, look into the sunshine and set on his way without being bothered by an admirer.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti. photo via Flickr by Steve Rhodes