That is what I want to do. I want to write the words that will guide the waters away from fear, towards goodwill, hope, and what’s right.
That was the final thought I had in my last blog post while sitting on a park bench. Today, I’m sitting at a desk, grading stacks of essays. At that time, I was teaching a composition class during the winter quarter (sometime during the months of January and February). Teaching this class….was brutal. Three-hour class sessions, meeting
four days a week. Every evening consisted of me and a small mountain of work. Technically, I’m writing, and, technically, this is the job I’ve always wanted, teaching students about writing and exposing them to great authors. Yet, it doesn’t take much to remind me that this is a job, which means you wake up, go to work, go home once you’re done, then do it all over again the next day. I don’t know if Faulkner or Melville ever found themselves in this position. What I do know is that one thing we three have in common is that we knew we had opinions and wanted to write about them. (well, they did- I just write in a silly blog) Near the end of that semester, I heard about Paul Auster, one of my favorite authors (as mentioned in one of my first blog posts) doing a public speaking event in San Francisco. On the train ride home, carrying another pile of essays to grade, I thought, You know….maybe this is just what I need. Maybe letting my thoughts ruminate away from all of this for a bit can help me put this semester into perspective, putting away this existential dread. Shortly after, I bought a plane ticket, an AirBnB (my last AirBnB, if I may be glib for a second), and took off. Once I was on the plane, I thought to myself, Teaching this course made me really value time and learning how to pack as much in a day as possible. This is a post on my three days in San Francisco.
It’s about 5:30 in the evening in one of my favorite cities. All of the ligatures of work, and grading, and this need to constantly study, suddenly snap. Slowly, I find myself getting immersed into this city. I stay in a small room in The Mission during my stay. The sounds, the way the light breaks over buildings, the best burritos in the world. I dropped off my stuff, got my phone out, and looked for the first music venue I could
find. Los Angeles is an amazing place for music, yes, but San Francisco…it feels like Punk is still alive. All of their venues are as makeshift as they come, some taking place in dilapidated buildings or in chapels whose followers stopped showing up. I found a show that was also a fundraiser for homeless women, while also fighting back against the proposed Tampon Tax. The show was called Let It Bleed: A Rock and Roll Tampon Drive. (I’m not making this up- here is the link to the site and its fundraising efforts) The show I found was showcasing an LA band (Dead Sara)- as much as I wanted to leave, LA still found a way to remind me where my passion for music originated. I was dancing, meeting people, getting smashed by people jumping and down. It was these motions, bodies moving with their energy back and forth, that helped ground my thoughts. Rock music has never felt so clear. This is exactly where I need to be right now.
The concert was amazing- I saw few other local bands that I’d never hear about if it wasn’t for this show. (Wax Idols, The Tambo Rays) I had no idea dancing in an abandoned Chapel would be so fun! I was fortunate enough to stay walking distance from where I was staying. Walking back, going down Valencia St., there are rows of food carts, cooking bacon-wrapped hot dogs and peppers. People congregated around them like in the days of soda shops and car meets. I met some really interesting people, chatting while grease rolled down my sleeve from my hot dog. I’ve had this experience a multiple of times back home, only with taco trucks and Vermont Blvd. I was no longer connected to Los Angeles, yet all of its best parts still found me. What I love about cityscapes is no longer about what they uniquely offer, but how accessible they make finding them. I’m walking, slightly stumbling, into my room, looking forward to tomorrow; a feeling I have not had in a long time.
I wake up in small bed without a blanket. That feeling in the morning when your eyes start adjusting to your surroundings takes way too long. It’s Sunday morning in San Francisco. I have plans to meet with friends who live here, but that’s way later in the evening. I’m lying down, wondering about what the day will look like. I’ve had this feeling before, too. But this time, it didn’t come from a sense of curiosity and wonder was not present. Why am I here? What am I looking for? Why was it so imperative to leave and hang out here? I thought the concert took care of these thoughts? But I’m here now, in one of the most gorgeous cities, so why think about this? I get up, get dressed, and become a tourist.
I walk around The Mission, slowly venturing into Height-Ashbury district. It’s a really gorgeous city. Everyone is out. (and I mean out) Every Sunday, there’s a LGBT pride festival. It’s like a Farmers market with rainbow flags and a DJ. A lot of people show up to these events. There was a guy walking around wearing solely a penis cage. This isn’t something I regularly see in LA, but it’s offering a strange sense of relief. Everyone here is being who they are, and no one else. It’s a nice kind of genuine. I keep walking around, have lunch (a prosciutto sandwich that is so expensive, I have to rethink where to meet with friends tonight), and take in the city. I turn a corner and see some really great architecture. Great architecture does a good job reminding you about the achievements of man. I stop and take a picture of a row of houses on a hill. Right as the camera clicks and takes this moment in time, a really strange feeling come over me. This is why love this city so much- it looks pretty. But who lives in these houses? When were they built? Did they see the fire? All of a sudden, I felt like I was on an island with villagers who spoke a language I have never heard of. All of this beauty can’t replace the familiar, walking in a city knowing you’ll never come across a face you recognize. It was about six in the evening. The shadows on the buildings were growing tall and scary. I walked back to my place and got ready for dinner with a friend.
My friend Sara and I were planning on meeting at a Burmese restaurant on the North side of Oakland. This was at about 8 in the evening. At this point, the only face I saw that I recognized was the guy running the AirBandB I was staying in- an Asian guy who spent most of his day on his computer, except for when he had to use the laundry. I was really looking forward to this. Except for the Burmese restaurant part- I didn’t even know Burmese restaurants existed. And I just wanted something familiar- a burger out of a lunch truck could instantly reel that feeling in. Like the day, my desire to immerse myself with newness
was fleeting. We met at the restaurant, Burmese Superstar, a place I’ve never been to, serving food from a country I know little about, on what felt like the most awkward day anyone can spend in San Francisco. We sat down, and started to catch up. I was looking forward to this since before I came out here. I haven’t seen my friend Sara in a few years. We’re both at the age where having friends in different parts of the country is not unusual. Except at this point, I felt so jaded from today, all I wanted was a peaceful meal. As we sat down, the room was filled with smells I could not describe. I was ready to reject this place immediately. Then came the sounds- plates of sizzling food and glasses clinking. This took me back to my days working behind a bar. This familiarity made me feel a little better. Then came the food. Remember when I said I was starting to distaste the newness? That person has never tried Burmese food- it was amazing. We had Tea Leaf salad, Oh Noh Kauswer, Basil Chili Pork belly and Coconut rice. (if you want to know what these are, I highly recommend checking out their website– it’s really good stuff) We ate while catching up over the last few years, including her career changes, who she talks to, lost contact with, and her living situation in Oakland. It was kinda funny- I felt so beleaguered with all of this newness, yet right in front of me is someone who lives it on a daily basis. She showed me pictures of the woodworking she’s now working on. Her craft. It’s actually pretty exquisite. She goes over the details and it’s all magnificence, imagining creating something for the sheer purpose of taking pride in creation. I think about the buildings, the Farmer’s market, people who devote themselves to their passion, paired with the liberty to create whatever, whenever. I no longer felt intimidated; I was here, in this new space, now making the most of my time. We ended on one last round of drinks. I ordered a Negroni. I remember making these. I also love Gin. But I never really got into this drink. I only ordered because it was the only drink I recognized. It was like newness and the familiar, swimming in a glass together. I tried it and it was okay. We chatted all night until we saw servers flipping chairs and bringing in the outside furniture. A little newness was becoming more and more okay. This was exactly where I needed to be right now.
Today is the day- (Wow. I just noticed that I haven’t made a single mention of this) I’m seeing Paul Auster in conversation tonight! Today was going to be great! Little did I know how many definitions the word great will later encapsulate. Before I even wake up, I get a call from a friend from back home- my high school friend Martin is in the area, also taking a break from LA. He, a Berkley alum, is staying near the campus, so we decide to meet up there. Meeting up there has a lot of significance for me. Not only was this a school I got rejected from, but it was my first choice. It’s a beautiful campus, but I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to visit. Even though it was months ago, choosing not to apply last semester still weighed heavy on my shoulders, still wondering if that was the right decision. (I mention this in one of my previous posts in case you haven’t seen it) I go back to my place, get ready, then jump on the BART and head to Berkeley. (I’ve always wanted to say that)
I’m on the train on this foggy morning, seeing the sun slowly brighten the city. Then something strange happens- I get a strong craving for a Negroni from last night. Not the crippling-alcoholic kind of craving, but the kind when your sense of taste is exposed to something it has never tried before and wants to now bathe in it. It didn’t make sense- they were never anything special, until this one day. It was like I was now a part of something, and I needed to continue being a part of it somehow. I reach the
campus, and it all comes back- that time I first stepped on this campus, years ago, asking myself if I really want to pursue this new life. I’m transported to the time when I first thought about applying and why I think I should. I’m walking around with some of the brightest minds, where activism is alive and well. Why am I not attending this school? No matter how many times I tell myself or how many other schools I can apply to, the same question always come to mind when I visit: why am I not studying here? I visit the Doe Library and do some light reading. Within moments, it feels as if I’ve been studying here as a student for years, as if the only reason why I haven’t been researching was because I stepped out to grab a Coke. I sit back down from this figurative Coke-run, then continue reading, blending in with the rest of the students. I’m reading a book under a desk lamp in one of the most gorgeous libraries I’ve ever stepped in. I meet up with Martin and we walk around the campus. We hangout, catch up, and trade Berkeley stories, though his are more interesting than mine. As we catch up, it feels as if we came up here after our previous years of studying here together. We visit a bar a block away, and I order another Negroni. This drink is making me feel more and more welcome. I’m now anchored here, telling myself this is exactly where I need to be right now. After another round, Martin and I part. It was a nice feeling to have, this nostalgia from a time that never existed. I feel good, with Campari on my lips, the aroma still clinging on my clothes.
I get dressed, take my copy of my favorite Auster novel, and head to downtown San Fran. I’m really excited, just thinking about all of the wisdom he will bestow. Will he tell us where his inspirations came from? What ever happened to Daniel Quinn? Did he ever reconcile with his father? So many questions- I can’t wait! There’s a bar on the way to the theater. I grab another Negroni in an effort to calm my nervousness, thinking about what kind of question I will ask. I’m in the theater, and everything looks fantastic. Everyone is dressed nice, also carrying books, slowly moving into the theater. I’m starting to regret not buying a closer seat.
I enter, and….it’s pretty empty. There’s not a lot of people. I’m upstairs in the balcony, but I contemplate moving down to sit closer, nervous about anyone catching me. I move down, and nope- no one cares. Not a single look of suspicion or judgement from anyone. I’m now about seven rows away from the stage now. This shouldn’t deter me. I came here for the words.
Paul Auster now graces the stage. He sits on a very comfortable-looking chair across from someone ready to interview him. He starts talking about his new book. I’m hoping to hear about his writing process and what life is like through his eyes. With every passing sentence however, my hopes to become as great a writer as he is withering. I am not listening to his astounding thoughts nor any kind of insight on the secrets of the universe. This is a man who writes to make a living, no different than a factory worker pressing sheet metal. He’s very good at what he does, telling stories through prose, but he is also ultimately not the Sage I thought he was. For him, writing novels is like designing a computer board- it’s a very complicated feat, and to do this well takes time and practice, yet it will soon be mass marketed, delivered to thousands of homes for
people to use at their leisure. I think about what I told myself right before leaving for my trip, about being a writer, and think, Is this what a writer is? A guy who talks about books he has no emotional or philosophical impingement with? Whatever the answer was to that question, there was this truism I had to accept- this is what a successful writer looks like, and if this is what I want, I should be looking at this as inspiration. I mean, people paid money to see him speak. That’s successful……right? I wasn’t heartbroken or let down; I just felt an emptiness inside. I’m looking directly at what I want, at someone who has what I wish to accomplish, and now I don’t know if I want it. He discusses his new book, and the praise he’s been receiving, but at this point, I have no idea if I’m interested in listening or not. One of my literary idols, here, a stone’s throw away, and I can now see who he is. He’s not Atlas, holding the world on his shoulders, or Dos Passos, a revolutionary for the people; he’s a guy who’s really good at writing novels. That’s it. The discussion comes to an end. Everyone exits the building. There’s a small booth for book signings. This is my last-ditch effort to find some wisdom hidden in his discussion. His signature is a squiggly line drawn downward on the cover page. No words of inspiration, “best wishes”, nothing. I leave and catch the BART back home. On the way home, I see a bar and think, “Maybe another Negroni!?” but my heart says, “You know what? Let’s just go home.” I get to my place, and start eating leftover Burmese food. For years, I’ve had problems sleeping, but tonight will be the first night I go to bed, hoping I don’t fall asleep too quickly, ending my trip on this note. As fatalism states, all things must do what they are designed to do. This day, this trip, is now at its end, and I have no power to stop it.
I came home and work started right away. I had so many mixed feelings about what I want to know and what I should keep pursuing. My Spring semester started as soon as I came back from my trip. Teaching was now my priority, even though the questions I had still lingered over me like specters. When I wasn’t teaching, they consumed me, demanding me to engage with them. But how? All seemed lost. I have no answers and more questions. Weeks fell off the calendar like brown leaves in the Fall. This was time I could use for studying, or writing, or doing something productive, but how can you when gravity is perpetually crushing you down? What can I do with these defeated efforts? I needed some kind of sign. One day, about a month into the semester, walking down the hall, two people walked past me, one with a scent of sweetness, and the other, a slight spice. This combination made it feel like I just passed a speakeasy where Negronis were on special. That scent transported me back to the sweetness of San Francisco. Soon, like a pinball hitting bumpers, I finally figured out what this trip was about. Visiting a new space, exploring a city, spending time in a gorgeous library, tapping into my love for literature. I’m on a journey, and this newness is something I need to accustom myself with, for better, or worse, or maybe a few yuk-yuks. That was, and even now with this new contemplation of questions, is exactly where I need to be.
The semester is now coming to a close, which means it will be summer, then Fall, and that means application season. I’m now working on my essays, studying for that dreaded GRE test, and examining other programs out there. I’m opening myself up to new possibilities, including non-PhD programs like an MLIS degree (Library Sciences), or programs where my research can fit in a new a different way, or maybe even and MFA program on writing. (This blog has certainly made that a new possibility) At this moment, I’m preparing for any and all possibilities, hoping to land something. I don’t know if I will be the next Paul Auster, but maybe being the next Rolando Rubalcava isn’t so bad right now. I don’t know what this new direction will be, but for the next few months, I’m okay with this not-knowing part. This is where the Negroni comes in- it’s really hard to describe what it tastes like (some currant, with bitters, but also has some citrus?), and it’s even harder to describe how I become so fond of them, but I like them. That’s all that matters right now.