I wrote this piece a few years ago, and consider it one of the best things I’ve written. I’ve never been able to get it published, though, and I’ve finally decided that, fuck it, blogging counts as publishing. So I’m publishing it here. Enjoy!
Land of the Lotus Eaters
It’s January, and I am on the beach near the old Doggie Diner with a crowd of about four hundred, watching a twenty-foot-wide pile of Christmas trees go up in flames. The Cacophony Society is here, and a bunch of Burning Man people, and the usual gang of easily-entertained freelance thrill-seekers. There are old hippies and young hipsters and a multitude of late-thirties Generation W’s like me. There are people dressed in practical warm clothing, and people dressed in red leather bell bottoms, and people dressed in strings of Christmas lights. People have brought boom boxes and musical instruments, and flame-throwers and fireworks, and weird gadgety toys they made themselves. Some of the Christmas trees have been treated with fire-retardent chemicals, and these let off huge, billowing clouds of beautiful toxic smoke when they burn. Some of the trees still have plastic stands attached to their trunks, and we admire the cool melting-plastic formations, oohing and aahing like ten-year-olds, or perhaps more like Beavis and Butt-Head. Whenever the fire starts to die down and we think it’s all about to be over soon, another group drives up with another Christmas tree, or two, or six, and tosses it/them onto the bonfire, to wild cheering and uninvited commentary on their tree-tossing technique.
My friend Nicola and I begin to feel bad that we didn’t bring anything, not even a tree to burn, so we start thinking of songs to sing that have something to do with fire; but we’re giddy from the heat and the wind and the brandy her friends Julian and Anna have brought, and all we can think of is “London’s Burning,” which for some reason just seems silly. I wonder aloud what would happen if you tossed glass into the fire, and Anna immediately begins to scheme for next year, making elaborate plans to lay down a pattern of colored glass bottles under the trees before they get set on fire. We run into my friend Marian, who has brought a flask of vodka-and-olive-juice martinis to share, and she and I reminisce about the first Christmas Tree Burn we went to, when the tide came in and swept a chunk of still-burning Christmas tree out to sea.
A rangy woman with a waist-length braid begins firedancing in the receding tide, swinging lighted torches on long chains in complicated loops and ellipses around her body; we gape at her in silent, open-mouthed admiration, speaking only to warn her when a wave is coming, and to whisper to each other that if you watch the torches and then shut your eyes real quick, you can see trails. I glance down the beach and see a line of four or five more firedancers, stretched out along the coastline like a string of Japanese lanterns. My skin is glowing from the bonfire and tingling from the January chill, and it now begins to glow and tingle with the rare and familiar feeling of epiphany. I am physically bursting with the joy of being exactly where I am, overflowing with the sense that this is why I am here, here in this particular place as well as just here, alive, in general. I say to Marian, “You know, San Franciscans waste time better than anyone else in the world.”
It feels like the inside of a pearl, this city. There is a vagueness to it, an unreal quality, or perhaps just an unlikely one. It feels like one of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities, somehow all the more fantastical for being real. I would say that it feels like a city made of dreams, except that would be a trite and awful thing to say; and besides, it isn’t only my own dreams I’m living in. It’s a group dream, a dream of the collective unconscious, as if all the urban-utopian imaginings of all the people who live here were laid on top of one another like transparencies, and the resulting image were somehow made flesh. It is a city of transplants, made up by people who came for something — Paradise, the Golden Land, Queer Mecca — and, not finding it, decided to invent it, or work towards it, or perhaps just act as if it were already here. It is a city of people who genuinely think that they want to be, can be, and indeed should be, what they wanted to be when they grew up.
An artist friend who lives in New York City wants very much to move to San Francisco, but fears it would hurt his career. I asked him once if this was because there were more galleries in New York, more dealers, more of an art scene in general, and he brushed my question off; yes, yes, he said, of course that’s true, but it’s not what he meant at all. What he meant was that life in San Francisco was too pleasant. He feared he would be drawn into it, the life of doing what you like and what you think might be fun and what seems important to you at the moment, and he feared that his art would suffer as a result. I knew immediately what he meant. It’s true, I told him; it’s so easy in San Francisco to forget about goals and ambitions and just eat the lotus. Only now I think about that conversation, and I have a hard time remembering exactly why a lifetime spent eating the lotus is supposed to be a bad thing.
I’ve heard a joke about this: that New York is where people go if they have talent and ambition, Los Angeles is where they go if they just have ambition, and San Francisco is where they go if they just have talent. I laughed like a harpy when I first heard the joke, and I still remember it, even though I don’t think it’s strictly true. I think San Franciscans do have ambition. I think San Franciscans’ ambition is to be happy. And I think we’re willing to devote a great deal of hard work and sacrifice to realize this ambition. San Francisco may be one of the last places left where people still believe in the perfectibility of the human soul.
I am deeply and passionately in love with this city, in love with it in a way that, until a few years ago, I had never quite been in love with another human being. I feel about it very much the way people feel about their beloveds; magnifying its virtues, excusing its faults, imagining our future together, defending it from critics even when they’re right, feeling hurt and bewildered all out of proportion over its betrayals, and missing it like a major organ when I’m away for too long. My partner once suggested that someday, in the unspecified distant future many decades from now, she might possibly want to live someplace other than San Francisco, and I immediately felt a deep cold lurch in the pit of my stomach at the thought of having to choose between my two lovers. When people I know talk about leaving the city for someplace greener and quieter, they usually mean Vermont or Oregon, Montana or Minnesota. When I imagine leaving the city for someplace greener and quieter, I’m usually thinking of Berkeley.
This is definitely a sexual passion as well as a romantic one. Living in San Francisco is like having an adventurous, curious, wildly kinky, constantly horny lover, with an unlimited imagination, a passion for the extreme, and a near-complete willingness to try anything at least once. There’s a flirtatious quality to the life here, an erotic energy diffused throughout the city like pepper in soup. It’s not just the sex parties and the strip clubs and the clean, well-lighted places for sex toys (although God knows those don’t hurt). It’s the cheerful nonchalance, the playfulness, the casually prurient interest in other people’s sex lives… casual prurience being about the only kind of interest in other people’s sex lives we accept here, apart from academic research and plain old nosy curiosity.
It’s just different here, is all. The assumptions about sex, the standards, the very definitions of the words; it’s all shifted, off to one side, away from what in most places is seen as the center. San Francisco is the city where you have to explain exactly what you mean if you say you’re monogamous, since that means such different things to different people. San Francisco is the city where a friend once explained that she and her boyfriend weren’t kinky, they were just into nipple clamps and cross-dressing. San Francisco is the city where I begin sentences by saying, “I ran into so-and-so at a sex party last weekend,” and the person I’m talking to nods politely and waits for me to get to the point of the story. San Francisco is the city where a high-profile local political consultant was given a 50th birthday bash featuring performance artists buggering each other with liquor bottles and cutting pentagrams into each other and pissing on the open wounds — and the local news coverage over the next few days focused largely, not on whether this had been shocking or immoral, but on whether it had been politically prudent. “Was this entirely wise?” pondered the columnists. “Could this hurt his political career?” The most commonly-voiced piece of actual criticism dismissed the event as tacky and in poor taste; and the most strongly-worded criticism I heard derided it for being hopelessly out of date. “Oh, please,” I heard. “Pentagrams? That is so heavy-metal. That is so Church of Satan wanna-be. That is so five minutes ago.” There was a startling shortage of moralizing; it was clear that everyone at the party had been a consenting adult, and this is a city that gets the concept of consenting adults, down to the nuclei of the cells of the marrow of its bones.
Which is one of the main reasons I moved here, and probably the single most important reason I stay. Sexual tolerance can be dangerously habit-forming; I’ve grown accustomed to being able to tell almost anyone I meet that I’m bisexual, or non-monogamous, or a former stripper, or a sadomasochist, and reasonably expecting a fair degree of acceptance. And I don’t know if I could ever again live in a place where I didn’t have that expectation. I’m familiar with the assumption that this tolerance, this “no big deal” attitude towards other people’s sex lives, means that San Franciscans are jaded, blasÃ©, that we’ve lost the capacity to be excited and surprised and moved by sex. But being relaxed doesn’t mean being blasÃ©, and acceptance is not the same as a jaded palate, and it is entirely possible to remain un-shocked by sex and still get pretty darned excited by it. I worked for many years as the toy and video buyer for a small mail-order sex products catalog, and sometimes I was asked if being exposed to smut and sex toys all day ever made me bored or numb. The best answer I could give is that no, watching as much porn as I have hasn’t made me bored with smut. It’s made me bored with bad smut. Good smut still has the power to move me to tears. And I see that attitude a lot in this city. San Franciscans aren’t bored with sex; if anything, San Franciscans are obsessed with sex. We’re just bored with…well, with boring sex.
(End of Part 1. The second half will appear tomorrow.)
Doggie Diner photo by Atlant.