Outside The Bubble

For those of us lucky few living in San Francisco, traveling outside The Bubble can be an alarming experience. As Herb Caen famously wrote, “San Francisco is seven square miles surrounded by reality.”  Nowhere does this strike home more than a trip to The American South.


I’ve recently returned from the Gulf Coast of Alabama where I went to spend a long weekend with my father and his wife.

Once upon a time, this coast was a sleepy backwater of fishermen, pecan farmers and easy living off the land.  All of this life is gone.  Ugly condominiums hastily thrown up over the past twenty years line most of Alabama’s pristine white beach Gulf Shore.  From the beach road there are few openings where you can even see the water. Originally a haven for lesser snowbirds who couldn’t afford or didn’t care for the tonier parts of Florida, the Alabama Gulf Shore today has become the vacation mecca for nearby residents of Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee who lack their own expanse of “sugar sand” beaches. This coast isn’t called the Redneck Riviera for nothing.


Every chain known to man lines the coastal strip, along with local honky-tonk competitors hawking t-shirts, surf boards (I’ve never seen anyone actually surfing), the “best gumbo” in town, bottomless beer bottles, girls in bikinis, fun parks and arcades, even a new zip-line attraction soaring over little more than a parking lot.  The only thing missing is gambling.  You have to drive over to Biloxi to lose your money.

Much like Las Vegas, the coastal tourism industry has spawned a burgeoning local population, which in turn has brought the commercial infrastructure to support the growing needs of a new community.  And, as with my father, those early snowbirds who came to the Gulf Coast thirty years ago to escape the harsh winters of the Midwest, have now retired to golf course enclaves benefiting from low taxes and hot weather.  The occasional hurricane doesn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

Then there are the churches.  There are miles and miles of roads where every other building appears to be a church. All the usual suspects are well represented: the prevailing Baptists, along with Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, 7th Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Christian Scientists, and countless churches of unknown-to-me sects—the New Life of Christ, Family Revivalists, New Beginnings, Family Tabernacle, White Dove Ministries, Victory Life,–the sects are endless. Most are poor looking with dire signs proclaiming things like “Eternity is a long time to be wrong.”  Fundamentalism appears to be rampant.  Crosses are everywhere. I’ve never seen a synagogue.


Yet there are a few places that resemble the old, original Gulf Coast before it was spoiled by progress sand developers.  Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is one such sanctuary:  7000 acres of bird watcher’s paradise, nesting sea turtles, and humid trails snaking under the scrub pines and along the sea-oat dunes, a reminder of what the Gulf Coast once looked like. There are backwater rivers where alligator eyes sparkle at night.  Even in the manicured golf resort community where my father lives, nature breaks in. Osprey, Great Blue Herons and Ibis fish the man-made lakes; alligators occasionally emerge on the fairways, Cottonmouths curl on sunbaked patios.  Gruesomely, by father’s Bichon was taken by a coyote from his backyard.


Leaving The South turned out to be as depressing as the ruined Alabama coastline.  I was scheduled to depart Pensacola on a noon flight, connecting in Dallas, and arriving at 5:20pm in San Francisco. As we approached the airport I was notified by American Airlines that the 1:00pm flight had been cancelled due to mechanical problems, and I was rebooked to depart at 3:15pm, with my Dallas connection also changed to coordinate with the later arrival.  My new arrival time in San Francisco was 7:45pm.  No problem.

My fellow passengers and I boarded the small American Eagle plane for the 3:15 flight.  Before the plane left the gate, the pilot announced that there was a small mechanical problem, requiring the airport engineer to replace a switch.  The repair would take no more than five minutes.  All good, except that it took over an hour to find this engineer, and during the wait one of the flight attendants had “timed-out.”  She had to be replaced and, adding insult to injury, her replacement was in Dallas and had to be flown into Pensacola.  Dallas!  We were on our way to Dallas.


We then had to leave the plane.  Because the plane was so small, all carry-on luggage larger than a briefcase had to be valet checked.  We had at minimum a three-hour wait, meaning of course all Dallas connections were missed.  Nearly all of the sixty passengers had connections.

Are we having fun yet?  Oh, no—fun began when we discovered that American Airlines had only one representative supervising two different gates.  So, instead of checking new flights to replace the missed connections, the unfortunate woman had to deal with arriving and departing flights from both gates, running back and forth between the two.  During the intervening minutes, she attempted to take care of us, searching for late connecting flights out of Dallas.  Meanwhile there were passengers who wanted to bag it and just go home.  But they couldn’t because there was no one to take all of the checked bags off of the plane.  These folks were not happy campers.

Outside a gale force tropical monsoon was raging.  Rain was coming down in black sheets obscuring the far side of the runway.  The airport was close to shutting down.

Eventually, the Dallas based flight attendant arrived and our flight was now going to take off.  Only a few people had had their Dallas connections resolved.  At this point the frazzled—but stupendously patient and friendly—AA rep announced, “Please just board the plane and deal with your connections in Dallas.  There’s nothing more I can do.”  This AA rep deserved the highest possible commendation!

I arrived in Dallas long after the last flight to San Francisco departed. American provided a voucher for a night in the airport Ramada Inn, surely the worst one in the Ramada chain.  The only dining option was a 24-hour Denny’s across the highway.


I’m not sure it’s even snobbish to say I’ve never eaten at a Denny’s.  To me it represents the nadir of American restaurants.  My imagination however wasn’t even close to the reality.  Never, ever, have I been to a more woeful, doleful, sorry approximation of a roadside eatery.  I’m willing to entertain the possibility that this particular Denny’s was not representative of the chain in general.  After all, it matched the wretchedness of its near-neighbor Ramada Inn.  Perhaps this was American Airlines’ idea of a joke on its stranded passengers: pay for lodging and a meal, but make the experience as miserable as possible since the circumstances that caused the unexpected overnight were so bad the traveller was never likely to fly AA again anyway.

My Denny’s was vast, empty, cold, not very clean, and staffed by very tired and rundown women.  These ladies—all were women, telling in and of itself—had all seen better, younger days.  Their hearts weren’t in it anymore.  Glacial slowness prevailed.  My waitress lacked affect, expression, much less a smile.  Her speech was as slow as her gait.  I felt badly even ordering.  It seemed possible that this Denny’s was exploiting those who might not have been able to secure a better job.


A Denny’s menu is illustrated with photos of all the food items.  I assume this is because a portion of its clientele can’t read.  Not wanting to consume 1500 calories on any of the entry items, I chose the “healthy choice” option of an avocado and romaine salad, along with a cup of delicious looking chili.  My waitress informed me they were out of avocados, so I switched to the apple and spring mix salad.  When the chili arrived it looked nothing like the picture in the menu.  In fact, it wasn’t really chili at all.  It was chili-flavored broth with a few desultory kidney beans floating around.  The salad, arriving about twenty minutes after the chili, had no apples.  I asked the waitress what happened to this key advertised feature, and she said she didn’t know, perhaps they were out.  AA’s $11.00 coupon was more than sufficient to cover the cost of the meal.  By the time I left, I was the lone diner.

I was booked on the first flight out of Dallas to San Francisco the next morning, departing at 7:00am.  All went smoothly until once on board.  First the safety video had to be played three times because during the first and second showing, a passenger had been in the rest room and the FAA requires everyone to view the safety instructions.  Then, the pilot comes one and begins his message with, “I don’t know how to even tell you this…”  Based on some complicated logistics necessitating the plane’s computer program being updated once a month, and this plane having to proceed on to Tokyo from San Francisco, there was no time to switch out the program so it had to be done in Dallas.  This would take three hours, during which time we had to remain on the plane.  So three times in two days I was on consecutive American Airlines planes troubled with mechanical problems.

Finally we took off, making our way to San Francisco, albeit three hours late.  Despite cold, foggy weather, The Bubble never looked better.  With all the joys of the city back at hand, I was grateful to be home.  I wish I didn’t have to leave again tomorrow morning for two weeks in New York.  At least it isn’t The South.


Books In My Life

This past Friday I sorted through about 2500 books imprisoned for the past three years in a storage unit in Westchester County, New York.  They ended up there following the sale of my house after the divorce.  Sixty-four boxes of these books were donated to the Mt. Pleasant Library in nearby Pleasantville.  I mailed seven boxes back to myself in San Francisco.  My son David helped me sort, load and deposit these boxes at the library, saving my back from breaking—as well as providing emotional support to let go of the past.  We spent a happy day together. I’m immensely grateful for his help.


Nearly twenty-five boxes of books are still in the unit, along with furniture, dishes, a trunk, a large box of letters, tools, framed pictures, and bins of things I no longer remember.  I have no need for any of this, and regret having not disposed of it when I moved out of the house.  Another trip, or two, will be needed to finish the task of clearing the space.

Still, I was sad to give away so many books, collected and read over a lifetime. I once had the antiquated, and absurd, idea that a “gentleman” had his own library, representing evidence of sophistication and learning.  Clearly I had read too many 19th century novels, all of which ended up in the mass give-away.  These books also provided evidence that I was different from my father, a successful engineer who preferred shooting large animals to reading a book.  The only book I remember seeing him read when I was growing up was William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, perhaps not so unexpectedly since he had briefly served at the tail end of World War II.  (The war ended as he sat in a ship at Fort Mason in San Francisco shortly after he enlisted.)  I know today in retirement he reads popular fiction in between watching sports on television.  He gave up hunting only a few years ago, although occasionally goes fishing.


I realize there’s a good deal of snobbism in the previous paragraph.  My thousands of books are serious books: literature, history, politics, poetry, art, culture.  I would no sooner buy a drug store novel than a bag of fried pork rind.  The books I saved are all valuable to some degree, a few very much so.  I was an English major in college, and obtained a master’s degree in Anglo-Irish literature.  The only gun I ever touched was an over-and-under shot-gun for shooting skeet, a “manly” sport mandated by my father who was a champion skeet shooter. (I hesitate to admit I enjoyed the sport, and the tweedy country club trappings that went along with it.)


Giving away so many of my books, while so evidently a necessity, touched memories and emotions I’ve harbored for decades.  There goes Middlemarch, unwisely assigned by Miss Wilson in 9th grade! There goes all of senior year in high school’s English class, great novels taught by Sewickley Academy’s one Ph.D., Dr. Robb, our cynical, heavy smoking, Smith and Yale educated, much-loved teacher. I won the English Prize at graduation, and achieved the highest verbal SAT score in the class (while objectively a high score, the distinction wasn’t much, given we were only fifty in the class.)  The evidence started early.


Giving away my college books was harder.  I associated each book with a class and a professor and a time in my life that was academically filled with happiness while personally painful. The books from five English courses I took with Larry Hall; from all three courses with Franklin Burroughs, Bowdoin’s soft-soften Southern professor who taught me Chaucer and Milton. Among the books I saved are two he wrote.  More difficult yet were the books from C. Douglas McGee’s Literature as Philosophy course, the most influential course of my college experience.  In truth I own nearly all of these in finer editions than I had in school: George Santayana’s The Last Puritan, Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus and The Magic Mountain, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.  In my final paper I wove Elliott’s Little Giddings together with my mother’s attempted suicide, the first time I told anyone in the four years since it occurred in front of me. Learning this, Doug and his second wife Phoebe gave me much-needed solace and remained friends for the rest of their lives. Doug’s sterling ship captain’s whistle, engraved “CDM Bowdoin Alumni College ’65  Tace Explicuit”, which Phoebe gave me after Doug died, is one of my fondest treasures.


In league with my ideas about a gentleman’s library were my notions of “the collected works” of favorite authors.  Hence, fourteen Jane Austin novels, in handsome turn of the century heavy buckram, rows of Henry James, Sir Walter Scott (how could I have endured reading all of those!); from my junior year thesis on the Bloomsbury Group, all of Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster, Leonard Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey (I kept my first editions of Eminent Victorians and Elizabeth and Essex), G.E.Moore’s Principia Ethica, memoirs by John Maynard Keynes, Ottoline Morrell, Vita Sackville-West, Clive Bell, and all the other hangers-on.

The only collected works I still shelve in San Francisco are a fine twelve volume edition of The Golden Bough and every book written by the English travel writers H. V. Morton, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, Simon Winchester, Wilfred Thesiger, among many, many one-offs.  (All of Freya Stark went to Pleasantville.)


Art books posed no psychological burden.  I felt a twinge giving away books with which I was specifically associated, such as Aperture photography books from when I was managing editor, or Corinth Press books published by my friend Eli Wilentz, owner of the sadly long gone 8th Street Bookstore in Greenwich Village. I kept all of my Jargon Society books, published by Jonathan Williams, to give to Bowdoin College. I was treasurer of the Jargon Society for many years, and through Jargon gained my friends Paul and Nancy Metcalf, Paul, an author himself, being Herman Melville’s great grandson. (Paul’s mother Eleanor Melville Metcalf discovered the manuscript of Billy Budd in a trunk.)  I couldn’t bear to part with anything published by my friend Leslie Katz’s Eakins Press.  These will have to go on another day. Eli, Jonathan, Paul, Nancy and Leslie have been dead for many years.

Still left at home are all my books from my time in Dublin, a thorough survey of everything of note written in English in Ireland.  Oh yes, among these are all the books written by the Anglo-Irish lady co-authors Somerville and Ross.  Who can’t be delighted by Experiences of an Irish R.M?  All of these remain because I harbor the wish to someday teach a course in Anglo-Irish Lit.  (Stanford Continuing Studies turned down my proposal, requiring a Ph.D., not just an M.A.)


This parting with my books in storage also lifted a weight I no long need to carry.  I don’t need all of this evidence, other than what I know, and how I behave as a result of reading these books.  The physical books aren’t evidence of anything other than vanity. In truth I shouldn’t have saved any or spent money shipping them across the country.  They will eventually have to be given away.  The idea that my sons want to inherit my carefully composed, now smaller, library is ridiculous.  Maybe a book or two, but not the thousand or so, I’m embarrassed to confess, I still retain.

I’m at a point in my life wanting less of everything.  Anyone who sees my apartment knows instantly I have too much of everything. Many things have gone.  Books sold to Russian Hill Books or donated to Friends of the Library, clothes, odds and ends, dishes, unused kitchen equipment to the Town School Thrift Shop, clothes consigned to Goodbyes, eBay and Craigslist sales. (eBay has been especially helpful and lucrative.)  Helping Adam and Rachel furnish their new apartment helped all of us.

Much more remains to go. I’m getting more ruthless and less sentimental.  Things aren’t life.  I want my life to be lighter, freer.  I want to feel the lightness, the unclogging of drawers and cupboards, the extra space, a little emptiness.  Two glass fronted sets of shelves filled with almost fifty years of collected treasures—my own small Wunderkammer—present a problem I haven’t resolved in my heart much less solved in reality.  Their day will come, and when it does I’ll know that my old, past derived, life is gone and a new surprising one can emerge.

Yet some books will be saved, and enjoyed, for many more years.  In the current issue of Harper’s, Mark Kingwell writes in an essay on the future of physical books, “ Books are my friends when nobody else can be; they offer a form of intimacy nothing else does. They do not make me a better person, but they give respite from the incessant noise of existence.”