I've posted a lot of pretty pictures of California and have had fun writing about what was in them. Today is a different story.
This is not a cloudy or a stormy day in San Francisco as seen from our apartment. This is a day when the city and much of the Bay Area are enveloped in smoke from the deadly Camp Fire 200 miles away.
In less than forty-eight hours, the Camp Fire destroyed the town called Paradise ("nestled among the Ponderosa pines") and became the most destructive fire in the history of California. That's saying a lot after last year's wine-country fires. As I write this, the wind in Butte County has picked up and over 100,000 acres are blazing.
Here in the city, we are experiencing four days of "very unhealthy" air quality. Flights have been cancelled at SFO. All are advised to stay indoors with the windows closed. Fortunately our temperature is in the low 60s, so we're not tempted to open up and let a breeze through.
In the photo, the sky is gray at 1:15 p. m. The tall buildings in the picture are two blocks away. On the hillside beyond, we can see every single house on a clear day, not so much today.
Simultaneously two major fires are burning north of Los Angeles.
Climate change plays a part in postponing our rainy season and encouraging these giant firestorms. According to officials at Cal Fire (the state's fire-fighting agency), another cause is people building houses on the edges of the forests.
To protect those houses, we have put out every small fire for decades. In doing so we have not let the forests go through their natural cycle of burning underbrush. Now, when a fire starts, extraordinary amounts of fuel are on the ground.
When I spend a morning or afternoon at the Presidio introducing people to Andy Goldsworthy's Tree Fall, this is the view I have to the north.
The big tree is the Centennial Tree planted by the U. S. Army in 1876 to mark America's 100th birthday. Since the Army still occupied this place in 1976, there is a Bicentennial Tree nearby.
The building with the red roof is the Visitor Center for the Presidio in its present form as a national park. Back when the Army was here, it was the brig. It still has the bars on the windows.
On the waters of San Francisco Bay, sailboats are out most any day when you don't see white caps. They seem to get along just fine with the cargo ships that come through on their way to the Port of Oakland.
The mountain is Angel Island, which was used to quarantine people from China after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. That law was in effect until 1943. Laws passed in 1952 and 1965 outlawed excluding people based on race or national origin.
The views to the east, west, and south are also interesting.
We went down to Santa Barbara for a few days to visit friends and catch a concert with Pat Metheny (more on that later), and we stopped overnight in Morro Bay on our way back to San Francisco.
That big thing in the back is Morro Rock, a volcanic mountain (aka lava plug). From the motels near the edge of the bay, it's about a twenty-minute walk out to the base of it. Astonishing as it is, it is one of nine in the area. The road out to the town passes several of them.
The other fun thing to do in town is walk along the docks and visit those little dark things floating in the water. Here's a closer picture of one:
The California sea otter, once on the verge of extinction, has rebounded nicely along the central coast. Further north and further south, commercial fishing won't tolerate them, but people have found it in their hearts to allow these scrappy little mammals a little space in which to chow down on abalone.
FOR GUITAR GEEKS ONLY: Back to that Metheny concert. He opened the show playing solo on that 42-string harp guitar custom made for him by Linda Manzer. It's four instruments in one, and he makes good use of it. A real crowd pleaser.
He played most of the show on his Ibanez signature model, a real workhorse guitar.
He brought out the Roland synth guitar for one number. His solo sound like horns. That was pleasant.
For me the real treat of the evening was the nylon-string archtop he used for a soulful solo and a couple of numbers after. Nothing flashy. I think non-guitar players may not have been aware of the difference. But I heard a range of expression not available on the others.
,I knew it would be fun to see Tea with the Dames (British title: Nothing Like a Dame), but I didn't know how much it would mean to me.
In this documentary film, four great actresses spend an afternoon talking about their lives and careers. They are: Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench.
It was fun because they and the actors, directors, and playwrights they worked with were the artists I learned about when I took courses in British drama in college and grad school. They were the artists we saw on stage when we visited London.
So it was wonderful to hear them swap backstage gossip and reflect upon the roles they played. It was intriguing to hear them talk about their friendships, rivalries, and husbands.
But the part that mean the most to me began when Eileen Atkins recalled riding to a theater for a performance and feeling so afraid she wanted to die in a crash rather than go on stage. In the conversation that followed, all the others spoke of feeling terrified every time they went on stage, or in front of a camera for a scene in a film or TV show.
These are the greatest British actresses of their generation, trained in some of the greatest theater schools in the world. If they could feel insecure about their work, I thought, no wonder I've been skittish about putting my first two books out for the world to see.
By the way, it helped that we could see the film in the Clay Theater (1910), a lovely old neighborhood movie house.
This place cracks me up. The words over the door say, "The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute." It is a serious institution in that field. But then there are those oval windows above the entrance.
I've wondered if the institute just happened to buy or lease a building with that eccentric, but strangely appropriate, feature. Or whether they had this one built and went along with a whimsical gesture by the architect.
The history on their website refers generally to raising funds for buildings since its founding in 1959, but makes no mention of this particular building. However, they do use an image of the windows in the background of their header.
Accidental or deliberate, this is another of those instances in which reality is not believable. If any novelist set a scene at an eye research facility and described it as having a pair of oval windows, most readers would say, "Do you expect me to believe that?"
Last weekend we went to our favorite place for breakfast. When I was done eating, I looked across the street and noticed the morning light was beautiful on the buildings and the tree.
I started snapping, noticed people were walking by, and managed to catch the woman in the baseball cap in front of the red doorway.
When I got this picture up on my computer screen, I noticed there was a second woman just stepping out of the shadows on the right. She wears a headscarf and carries a yoga mat.
Baseball Cap is wearing yoga pants, so maybe she is walking to a class at the place Headscarf has just left. But Baseball Cap doesn't have a yoga mat. Maybe she's going to another kind of exercise class.
Of course, Headscarf could be carrying that yoga mat as a distraction. She might have been hiding in that dark doorway, waiting for Baseball Cap to walk by, intent on attacking her.
If so, she has a problem. Again, when I got the photo up on my computer, I noticed Baseball Cap is not alone. Look just behind her front foot and you'll see another foot. Someone is walking next to her.
Did Baseball Cap get word that headscarf was laying for her and bring backup?
As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."
Argonaut's website says it offers "fine and rare books in most fields." That is a fine business to be in, and a rare one. It's been around since 1941 and is now operated by the son of the founder, Robert Haines, jr.
The shop gets some tourist trade because it appears in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, or, rather, the original Argonaut did. It was six blocks away on Kearny street. And, in fact, they didn't film the scene with Jimmy Stewart in the store. Rather, they recreated the inside of the store on a soundstage in Hollywood. Still . . .
Haines still does a thriving business, as you can read about in this recent interview. It seems that in the era of ebooks, fine and rare books are valued more than ever. Haines tells a great story about the store's more recent brush with fame. It seems Danielle Steele, a San Francisco resident, dropped by one day.
True confession: I've never seen the inside of this store. Most of my books are paperbacks, nothing fine or rare about them, except the stories and thoughts inside. However, I have an idea for getting someone a gift so I just might walk through that door in the next couple of weeks.
I saw this stairway and liked it so much I had to take its picture.
It's in the Metreon, a building in downtown San Francisco where Ann and I had gone to see a movie. The wall of green outside the windows is the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, a lovely place to linger if you're ever in town.
It reminds me of the one in the Museum of the African Diaspora, which (come to think of it) is only one block away.
Stairways like this are not hard to like especially for a guy who prefers to take the stairs and counts himself lucky in being able to do so.
But for me, they are more than just pretty. They are somehow theatrical. When walking on them, I see people outside the building and they can see me. I feel exposed, but somehow aloof at the same time.
Such a stairway might serve well for an important scene in a story. A pursuer (sleuth or assassin) might spot the pursued. The pursued might feel safe from the pursuer, but only if he can get to a higher floor and hide.
Hmm . . .
This view of the Golden Gate was taken from the entrance to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, an art museum in San Francisco's Lincoln Park. We are looking into San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean at our backs. Worth noting: if you sail under the Golden Gate Bridge, you've already sailed past about half the city.
This narrow opening to the bay was called the Golden Gate long before the bridge was built in the 1930's. One might assume it was given that name because thousands of ships rushed through it during the Gold Rush, which started in 1849. But in fact this strait was given that name by John C. Fremont in 1846. He saw it as a "golden gate" to trade with Asia.
These waters outside the Golden Gate are known as the graveyard of ships. At low tide pointed rocks look like rows of teeth on either side. At high tide, they lie hidden beneath the surface, waiting to rip open any vessel that strays outside the central channel.
Because of this danger, bay pilots take control of any ship entering or leaving the bay. They must learn the topography of the strait and and study the currents driven by the tides. But their knowledge is not enough to ensure safe passage even when aided by GPS.
Sometims at night, as we lie in our beds, we hear the fog horns like a chorus of tubas warning the pilots to beware the graveyard of ships.
San Francisco is a good city for bookstores. There's the legendary independent store, City Lights, in North Beach. There are other much-loved indies such as Green Apple Books and Browser Books. There are a couple of local chains: Books, Inc., and Book Passage. There is the venerable source of fine books, Argonaut Books.
And then there is G. F. Wilkinson Books in the financial district. This picture shows the entire store. It occupies three retail display windows, which, I assume, are available because the fast-food place that occupies the ground floor of the building didn't need them.
About a year ago, Rick Wilkinson (seen above) decided to retire and it looked like the store would close. But some of his customers formed a collective and took over the store to keep it open. A similar thing happened to Borderlands recently.
And it's not just bookstores going non-profit. Sam's Grill, which had been slinging the hash at Bush and Belden Streets for 147 years closed briefly and was reopened by customers who bought it and started running it.
Apparently we're entering an age when only tech and financials can make a profit. But people gotta eat, and people gotta read.
Several times I saw this bicycle parked in front of the place where we go for breakfast once a week. The painting depicts the Palace of Fine Arts, which is near the cafe.
One day I struck up a conversation with a guy wearing bicycle clothes, and he admitted to being the artist, John Paul Marcelo. We had a nice chat about his work. I especially admired the way he captures the effect of fog to make peripheral elements of the picture recede from the main element.
I didn't ask any of the obvious questions, because they seemed to answer themselves.
Why does he ride around with the painting strapped to back of his bike?
It's the only way to carry it when travelling by bicycle.
Why doesn't he cover the painting to protect it?
This way he advertises his work.
What if it rains?
Then he wouldn't be painting outdoors.
What if it gets scratched?
He can repair it.
The only question I can't answer is: Why don't we see more of this?
San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora does many things right. It's within walking distance of several other small museums and one big one (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). It's programming is varied and innovative. The staff is friendly and helpful.
It's architect also got several things right. The front of the building is a three-story window. It showcases stairways that take the visitor to all three levels. I love stairways flooded with daylight, and, if they have a view, so much the better.
The view from this stairway features a visual stairway of buildings across the street, two-story, four-story, six-story, skyscraper. I love the idea of a museum that puts a frame around a piece of the city, allowing me to see it as a work of art.
It helps to know that the lovely, two-story, red-brick building is the home of the California Historical Society, which includes exhibition spaces for history and the arts. Their programming is also excellent.
The Presidio is not a collecting museum, but it mounts remarkable temporary exhibits. Its current exhibit, "Exclusion," has had a higher attendance than any in its history.
The title refers to the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during the Second World War. On July 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, which authorized the creation of military exclusion zones "from which any and all persons can be excluded "for protection against espionage . . . and sabotage."
On the strength of this, and without due process of law, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt issued orders forcibly removing and incarcerating 108,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U. S. citizens.
In the 1980s, under the Reagan administration, the federal government reviewed this history and unequivocally stated that, "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership" had motivated the incarceration, not "military necessity."
The Presidio in San Francisco was the army base where DeWitt was stationed. The desk on display (behind the red sign in the photo) is the one on which he signed these orders.
A lot of folks think Dashiell Hammett had the Hunter-Dulin Building in mind as the location of Sam Spade's office. The owners of the building lay claim to this distinction with a display by one of the entrances that says, "Traced to historic 111 Sutter Street by following directions and clues woven through his novel . . . Sam Spade remains in residence at his 'office at Sutter and Montgomery.'"
It's possible. Construction on the building began in 1925 and was completed in 1927. Hammett's novel, The Maltese Falcon, was published in 1930.
To be sure, I would want to look for the "directions and clues" in the novel, and I would like to find out what buildings occupied the other three corners at Sutter and Montgomery in the late-1920s. I'm not sure when I'll get around to those tasks.
Meanwhile, I keep in mind an observation by my friend, Gloria Lenhardt. The lobby of the building is luxuriously appointed with several kinds of marble and brass elevator doors. Did Spade and Archer attract high-end clients whose fees would pay rent in a posh new building? That seems doubtful, but maybe Hammett was trying to reflect some glamor on his private eye.
I was having coffee in the Potrero Hill neighborhood one day when I looked across the street and saw Golden Gun Investigations above Bloom's Saloon. My first thought was that someone had put those words and that phone number on the window as a spoof of San Francisco's private eye culture.
After all, private investigators usually don't advertise themselves as guns for hire. Also naming anything "Golden" is an obvious choice in a city created by the Gold Rush and defined by the Golden Gate.
But apparently there really was a Golden Gate Investigations. A little Googling revealed its address was more recently in another neighborhood. A little more Googling revealed that they are now out of business.
That means the owners of the building decided to leave the name on the window anyway. For that we thank them. The inscription adds character, though the neighborhood is not short on that commodity.
I like to think the new tenant occasionally wears a trench coat and a fedora and stops downstairs for a shot and a beer on a foggy night.