Saturday, July 22

California, month six | that great strong land of love

Apartment twenty, early January 2017. C arrives in a rainstorm, late the first evening, and we brew tea immediately. The new place is a mess: floorboards awash with scattered q-tips and dustballs and broken clothes hangers, strange objects huddled in corners (a china monkey money box, an elephant-shaped watering can, a half eaten bag of cough drops, a dented can of chopped green beans), the rooms heavy with the cloying odour of a four-week full bin. All day I'd cleaned and unpacked. I wiped, dusted, sprayed, filled bag after bag with rubbish, and swept the floors with a plastic orange brush I bought at the Japanese dollar store. When I'd arrived that morning, shoulders burning after carrying my bags up to the second floor, it took all my willpower not to sink into the bottom bunk's bare rubber mattress and sob. Everything was so dirty, and I was adrift in unfamiliarity again. But instead I put on some music, rolled up my sleeves, and got to it. By the time C's at the door, the rooms are a little more habitable, and when I hear her moving about in the living room, putting the kettle on, it already feels like home.

Peace and sun, those first few days. Golden hour is ridiculous from the window of our new room. Last semester I could see the Sather Tower and used its hourly peals to structure my day; now I can watch the hills behind campus, the way they reflect the sun at dawn and dusk, the way the small houses at the top wink in the dark.

Day trips to the city. Waiting for the bus with 7-Eleven coffee and donuts.

Loafing at the top of Bancroft with thermos flasks as the sun dips. It's warm enough to sit outside, though you'll need a scarf. It doesn't feel like any January I know.

Getting tangled in freeways on the first few half-marathon training runs.

Saturday afternoon at the farmers' market. Everybody outside in warm blue. Herb bundles in bicycle baskets, a girl in dungarees with fruit under her arm, that sort of thing. Fresh bread and sunshine. So far, January in California feels like April in England, and I am very much ok with that.

When Trump's sworn in nobody wants to look. I'm at work, anyway, and I have to make smoothies for a bunch of Trump supporters. The peanut butter scoop shakes in my hand. Later we race down Telegraph towards Oakland to catch the tail end of the inauguration day protest. Police in riot gear wait along Oakland's peripheries as the protestors head towards the city centre, yet all is peaceful: downtown we're met with free pumpkin pie, not tear gas or stun guns. The air isn't charged the way it was on election night, not raw with pain, yet the voices are louder, more defiant.

The following morning we make signs from cardboard boxes raided from the recycling bins. NASTY WOMEN UNITE. VIVA LA VULVA. GRAB 'EM BY THE PATRIARCHY. The San Francisco bus is full of students: it almost feels like a school trip: there's not much traffic on the bridge: a parade of children forced on a pro-life march drift past the bus windows and we all get angry: and then we're in a one-hundred-thousand strong crowd at Civic Center, a damp fierce knot of umbrellas and battered signs and fists. It's International Women's Day. In the dusky rain we march and sing, and are filled with hope.

'I refuse to call him president,' says the elderly lady sitting next to me at Caffe Strada a few days later.

Solace, as ever, is sought in the words of my favourite poets. Thousands of miles away in Australia, Bruce Springsteen speaks out against Trump's Muslim Ban. 'America is a nation of immigrants,' he says, 'and we find this anti-democratic and fundamentally un-American'.
And then there's Langston Hughes:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed --
Let it be that great strong land of love
Alternative coping mechanisms are also available: homemade cocktails (White Russians and hibiscus gin), playing every song that ever existed, dancing on chairs into the wee hours. Federer winning the Australian Open, his eighteenth slam at the age of thirty-five. Saturday evening at the marina with friends, sitting on the rocks by the water to witness a sunset too beautiful to hold on to. Faces and hair lucent with golden light.

Most of all though, a visit from my mum.

Spring semester is relentless. The workload is final-level-Tetris heavy. 'I don't know what I'm writing,' I complain to C one night. 'I'm two letters into a word and I don't know what it's going to be yet.' Classes almost doubled, I take the early morning shifts at work. The alarm's set for that pre-7am no man's land, but as a night owl, sleep is unavoidably sacrificed. I learn to survive on five or six hours, but this hallmark of adulthood won't stay with me long: as soon as school ends and life slows down in June, my nine hour nightly dosage resumes. For now, though, daily life has changed hugely. Yet the change itself occurred unnoticed, giant and silent in the corner of some room I might've walked through once. I no longer have time to burrow deep into the frivolous recesses of my brain; every scene passes by too fast, like trying to take a picture from the window of a speeding train. I think I like it this way, though. It's true: the busier you are, the more you do, and the more you do, the more you want to do.

Mum arrives the night of the Milo Y riots. As I open belated Christmas presents in her Airbnb apartment we hear the rumble of helicopters over Telegraph. My social media feeds erupt with footage of fires and bangs. 'Berkeley's not always like this,' I feel compelled to point out more than once. The streets are scattered with debris and people smoke against makeshift wire fences, eyes bright, bodies still charged. Walking to work the next morning, the physical effects of the riots are clear in the cold eye of dawn. Anti-Trump graffiti embellishes the walls of the bank, a building made 'riot-proof' in the sixties. On campus, trees are singed black at the tips, the Amazon locker room windows smashed in, and the hulking jumble of burned tech equipment sits sooty in the middle of Sproul Plaza like some kind of contemporary art sculpture.

Mum's staying in the 'Purple House', a wood-walled ground-floor apartment in Elmwood. I love staying there with her, love the non-student perspective on Berkeley life it provides. We shop in Whole Foods and cook together, finish morning runs with coffee. I show her the campus, the streets, the city across the bay. I introduce her to my friends and my favourite bus routes. She keeps me company on coffee shop study dates and buys me the enormous slice of apple pie I've been eyeing all year. It is a special twelve days.

After days of rain, the sun returns and Mum finally sees the California I've been raving about, the clear blue skies, the dazzle at the ends of streets and hilltops. We spend her final weekend in San Francisco. Resistance posters have appeared in windows both sides of the bay, and in the Mission District, Four Barrel's coffee cups come stamped with the words 'Resist Fear, Assist Love' in rainbow ink.

Catch the bus to Haight-Ashbury. Get coffee at Stanza, or Flywheel, which sits at edge of the neighbourhood where Golden Gate Park looms dark. The Goodwill store is messy, and 80% junk, but if you hunt hard you'll find things at a tenth of the price of other Haight thrift stores. There's a real good bookstore somewhere along the street: you'll find it. Buena Vista is all steps, but catch another bus a little south, as the roads start to climb. It'll only take you halfway up; when you alight, follow Twin Peaks Boulevard as it snakes uphill, and eventually you'll reach the carpark and viewpoint at the top. Most people drive up to Twin Peaks but it's better to watch the view unfold gradually, angles and gradients shifting, until the rusted tips of the Golden Gate Bridge poke out above buildings and cloud to your left, and the entire city arranges itself around you, better than any virtual map could. You'll finally understand the confusing geography of San Francisco, how the multiple grid systems shuffle against each other, the dance of streets and hills. You'll note the physical relief of the landscape, from the smooth natural contours of the earth to the tall stubbed cluster of the financial district. The white buildings shine pristine in afternoon light, so that the entire city looks celestial. And all of it held by the water beyond.

From the peaks of the city, move to its edges: ride the Muni all the way through Sunset out to Ocean Beach, and watch the sun sink softly into the water. Everybody will stand motionless on the sand to watch, as if it's a drive-in movie. Colours will drift about and alter the look of the water, sand, and air. Deep sky blue, viridian, turquoise, champagne pink, peach, apricot, tiffany, pale indigo. To heighten the liminal magic, you have the beach's routine haze and majestic scale: the height of the waves, the sand's expanse, how the scene looks both stretched out and zoomed in, like so much of the American landscape.

* * *

Songs: month six

Fluorescent Adolescent  /  Arctic Monkeys
Get Lucky  /  Daft Punk
Wild World  /  Cat Stevens
Christmas in February  /  Lou Reed
Pacific Theme  /  Broken Social Scene
Stolen Dance  /  Milky Chance
Mother & Child Reunion  /  Paul Simon

* * *

California so far:

No comments:

Post a Comment