Saturday, November 19

California, month three | your lows will have their complement of highs

In between the hours of 25 degree heat - on the occasional rainy day, when the sun sets earlier after the clock change, or when I take short cuts through the woods to class - campus gently reminds me that it's autumn. Fall in California is more of a marketing concept, a commodity, than the season of yellow leaves and first frosts I'm used to. There's no need for gloves, no Dickensian foggy evenings. I'm in shorts. The cut from hot day to cold night is abrupt. 

Suddenly there's talk of Thanksgiving, and going home for winter break. I can count the number of lectures left for each class on two hands, and the craggy silhouettes of deadlines loom. Even though semester's been going since August without a break, I'm not ready for it to end. Feels like I just got started, man! It's this subtlety of season change that's allowed the end of fall semester to sneak up on me, when I'm still walking around with iced coffee pretending it's summer. Everything is as fresh and exciting as those early weeks in August. 

I remember thinking this would never end / Even when you're gone, your eyes running through my head

One Saturday morning, men in small cranes string Christmas lights in the trees along Telegraph. I've almost forgotten Christmas exists. The John Lewis Christmas TV advert, a British 'tradition' I can't stand, is released the day after Trump's triumph, and my Facebook feed is a battleground between the two events. I don't understand how a commercial can generate such excitement (Holidays Are Comin' not counted), let alone when the world feels like it's fallen into the abyss. 

In late October, before all of that, my pa comes to California. It's a good opportunity to do some of the tourist-y things I've been putting off: the Golden Gate Bridge (it lies a little outside the city and is a real ball-ache to get to), Alcatraz, cable cars, Lombard Street, Ocean Beach. I get to explore Berkeley's watering holes too. Early one evening we sit in Jupiter's courtyard as fairy lights flicker on and speakers crackle out Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and, happily, Bruce. 

Dad's brought me decent chocolate from home (side note: for a country known for its sweet tooth, why does American chocolate taste like bitter powdery mulch?), as well as the jeans I'd forgotten to pack, and a yellow raincoat to make the wet weather more bearable. It rains a lot during his visit. There are warm days too, but we catch the ferry to Alcatraz in persistent drizzle. Perfect conditions for visiting a creepy old prison on a rock.  

I can’t figure out, though, why San Francisco still sits strangely with me. I like the city a lot - you’d have to be crazy not to - but I don’t feel that immediate kinship I felt with New York, Philadelphia, Glasgow, Copenhagen. Something about the place doesn’t fit, somehow, and it takes me a while to realise why. 

It's to do with timescales. San Francisco lacks the familiar footholds of these other major cities: their age, their social and cultural history, their locations, their very reasons for springing into existence. These older cities rest on securer foundations. Civilisations date back hundreds of years, and populations spawn due to geography, trading opportunities, international relations, territorial power wars, and the ambition and vision of early settlers. Though urban growth accelerates madly by the late nineteenth century, societies have long been present in these places, slowly and surely knitting themselves into the bone of the land. 

San Francisco however, albeit for similar reasons of geography and ambition, grows out of a ‘get rich quick’ mentality. It grows fast and unsteadily, like a teenage boy with limbs too long for his body, so much so that the place is a city before it even has any permanent buildings. Sure, Catholic missions exist long before gold glints from the East Bay hills, but they've little inclination toward urbanity. The early settlers of San Francisco arrive in 1849 for the gold, for the lure of wealth without years of work. Their vision doesn’t rely on stability, and they don't have decades of trade, culture, and language behind them. Just a mining axe slung over their shoulder, long boots to avoid the muddy walkways (no time to build sidewalks), and the glimmer of fortune and fun in their eyes. 

I also believe that growing up in London has conditioned me to love and look out for a certain kind of grit that San Francisco lacks. The grit of bricks worn and discoloured by centuries of smoke, of old streets faintly crowned with new blue skyscrapers, of the buildup of dirt in underground stations, of marble steps gently eroded by centuries of scholars’ feet, of greying net curtains on grimly lit council estates, of the greasy spoon that’s been there a hundred years, of noise, dirt, danger, poverty, rattling trains, dust, pollution, disorder, street talk, life.

It’s not that I miss the British Museum or anything. But San Francisco dissolves my familiar points of reference. I have no footholds with which to traverse this new city. All I have is what I can see before me: a city of inexperience, of shining buildings and sloping streets that reflect the pink streaked skies with the freshness of a child’s gaze.

And then there are events that take over regular life in ways you can't predict. Election night and the day that follows: one of the strangest twenty-four hour periods of my life. 

On the afternoon of the eighth of November, I sit in hot sun on the terrace of the Free Speech Movement Cafe, studying. The first results roll in. Trump's got an early lead, but that's ok, it's small. Later I'm in the library, trying to read for a class. But as the sun slips, Trump's lead increases. 'I've got that Brexit tingle,' somebody tweets. This surely isn't happening... is it?

I can't read another page. I can't read one word without the itch to refresh the election live-feed. I go home. I eat some almonds, but they stick in my throat. I've got a bad, bad feeling. It's like a billion tense Federer Wimbledon finals, a billion 2015 Tory exit polls, a billion Brexits. I can't sit still and suddenly I'm back out in the dark streets. I join friends in front of a giant screen on campus and we stay there for the night as our hopes dwindle. Sproul Plaza is jammed with students camped out on the cold brick floor. There are ear-blowing cheers every time Clinton wins a state, but when she loses them... at first, the boos are loud, but they get quieter, more fearful each time, until there is just this depressing dead shock. Normally when these kind of events reach their climax the place gets busier, but as it grows evident Trump's got it, the crowd begins to thin. At one point a gloating trail of Trump fratboys passes the screen, roaring like beasts, their hour come at last. The crowd deafens them, but their red caps remain bright in the darkness. It's not enough. 

We admit defeat. The shock is so surreal and sore that we're on the verge of laughter all the time. Late night dining, where we head for chocolate chip pancakes, is busy: students staring glumly at burritos, a slow scrape of cutlery, hushed conversation, everybody suspended over screens. It's when we've finished the pancakes that a television makes the official announcement, and the reality of the situation hits.

In the morning I go for a 'f*ck Trump' kind of run, expecting to be fired up with anger, but my legs just feel heavy, weary, done. Time is sluggish too. Everybody walks slowly, staring into the middle distance, or watching Clinton's concession speech on their phones. It's a beautiful blue-skied day, achingly so.

The mood at work is a charged mix of depression and laughter. Sometimes, laughter is the only way through the bleakness: this I am learning. I work with many women of colour and I wonder what they are feeling. I feel sick enough as a woman in this new world, but I am white, and I go home next summer. It's a global blow, but I don't have to directly live through this. They do. 'It's just so disappointing,' a co-worker says to me in the lift. We're heading to the basement to refill the ice. 'I went to sleep, but I woke straight up again.' Another tells me about her parents, how they told her not to believe what the media say about Trump, how she should be investigating Clinton instead, how it's all ok really. To have that kind of distance from reality is terrifying. 

Campus bristles with anger, even under this soft dazed sunshine. A deep wound has reopened - or rather, it was never healed in the first place - to reveal the blood of hatred still flowing, thick and potent. It's scary to be here and feel it in the air.

History class is given over to a cathartic discussion to try to peel apart and understand what has happened. Everybody is so astute, mature, and caring, and I wonder again, how did this happen? And then I remember the 47% turnout, the 53%  of white women who voted for him (white privilege trumps sexism, I guess), internalised misogyny, and America's endless backwaters, the places we never see, travel to, or romanticise. The people who live outside our left-wing bubble (not an intellectual bubble, though, I don't believe this is about anti-intellectualism: casting all Trump supporters as dumb is... dumb). And I feel ashamed. Of course it was going to happen.

Other classes begin with some kind of statement, about politics, time, generosity, poetry. 'Now you know why Whitman wanted a perfectible democracy, why Dickinson wanted to stay in her room, why Eliot wanted to be a mermaid,' our poetry professor says. And then the lectures carry on, because Frank O'Hara's elegiac heartbeats are actually exactly what we need, and as another professor quietly reminds us, 'there is always solace to be found in work'. 

I never realised how elegiac O'Hara's poems are, actually. And I never feel such palpable grief from a poem as I do when our professor finishes the lecture with a reading of Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets. The words feel like they were written for today, and I'm not the only one who fights back tears.

the beauty of America, neither cool jazz nor devoured Egyptian heroes, lies in
lives in the darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions 
the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth
and dying in black and white we fight for what we love, not are

The streets burn with protests every night. We find ourselves marching halfway to Oakland, before warnings of tears gas, stun guns, and mass arrest turn us back. The chants, the singing, the clapping, the horns beeping in solidarity, the red blue of police cars holding the traffic back, the smoke in the air, the warm starry night: tonight seems unreal, drunk on bitter emotion. 

Trump, you do not deserve America. You do not deserve these engaged, generous people. You do not deserve those who work long hours day in day out. You do not deserve your nation's rich diversity. You do not deserve Frank O'Hara. You do not deserve Bruce Springsteen. You do not deserve the stars. You do not deserve America.

'Something that keeps coming up in my classes this semester is the idea that progress is not linear,' a classmate says during another discussion about the election. It's true. We join the dots between the positive steps our society has made - emancipation, female suffrage, civil rights, modern medicine, nationalised healthcare, gay marriage, and so on - to construct an optimistic timeline, but in doing so we sweep past the less palatable bits in between, all the regressive shuffling backwards that occurs. To think of progress as linear is to blithely surf a wave of momentum moving in the right direction towards - what? Happiness, utopia, perfection, a sense of belonging, a sense of satisfaction, 'that place where we really wanna go', I guess. This election has resulted in that wave crashing down prematurely upon the shore and being pulled back out into the endless ocean, moving now in the wrong direction. And so we are adrift.

A couple of nights after the election, my roommate and I go on a Treat Yo Self mission for pistachio frozen yoghurt. We catch a sunset on the way home: deep blues and oranges stretching out over the bay, falling across the glittered lights of San Francisco. 

'It makes me proud, and happy,' my roommate says, and I feel the same. America looks bruised and ugly right now and its wounds run deeper than I'll ever understand. Yet at the same time, its beauty endures - has to endure. For all the pain and bitterness of the last few days, firsthand experience of the election heartbreak has also meant witnessing the sense of compassion, empowerment, and call to action that comes with it. 

Somebody tweets that a lot of us broke this week, and that trying to fix ourselves and an entire nation at the same time is like sprinting while melting. America is broken, but it's made me realise something: I want to stick around, long-term, for the fixing. I thought a Trump victory would dampen my feelings for this land, but instead I love it more fiercely than ever. 

The frozen yogurt is really good, too.

Songs: month three

The Heinrich Maneuver  /  Interpol

Always Spring  /  I'm From Barcelona
I Will Dare  /  The Replacements
Thrash Unreal  /  Against Me!
Fade  /  Kanye West
Feel So Bad  /  Ray Charles
Hang Loose  /  Alabama Shakes
I Wanna Be Sedated  /  The Ramones
Bulletproof  /  La Roux
Ambling Alp  /  Yeasayer
Cynthia  /  Bruce Springsteen
Damn Right, I've Got The Blues  /  Buddy Guy
I Want More  /  CAN