Friday, February 04, 2005

The Beauty and the Dignity of the Drone are Often Underestimated

Travel stories are written in second-person imperative. (You) Book the tour. (You) See the church. (You) Enjoy the meal. (You) Buy the coconut.

It is in that spirit I am tempted to write. Those of you who live in or near a big city or even a pretty big city -- so that should be all of you -- I tell you now to spend a long warm weekday afternoon in that part of downtown where the building are tallest and the workers are best dressed, and there are plenty of those special little lunch-only restaurants where if a man comes down from one of the tall buildings often enough in the true spirit of conviviality, he becomes known.

And welcome. And cherished.

It's still a pleasant way to spend noon and afternoon if you are on your own and not in the company of one of the human fixtures of these dark lunch places with the dark wood and the antique waiters. (If you already work downtown: Go have coffee. Steal some pencils. Study needed inventions. Now.)

Simply walking between tall buildings and being walked past by the women and men dressed for office life is a spectacle. We do live in a scruffy age. Jeans, t-shirts, hair color, various rude and occasionally infected piercings, various slovenly ways of walking and talking -- I understand that the lack of finish is now the finish, and it's fine with me.

It's all just a la mode, and one style succeeds another. Each generation sheds its skin like a snake and wears another and it's all the same.


I was raised in a time when being neat and crisp was a sign of adulthood, and so I get a kind of lift from seeing the men in their suits and ties and the women in their suits and modest blouses. And, of course, you see young women showing their nice legs, wearing little windblown dresses that flatter their various shapes. They do not show their tummies the way so many of the young ladies do now. How you ever thought about how many tummies are really ready for prime time.? As an absolute number it is small, as a percentage it is minuscule.

I concede that uniforms are oppressive, regimentation is stultifying, that these towers are hives, not palaces, and that the life of the organization man or women is pretty often an anxious one. These handsomely appointed folk walking so briskly past do not seem to be smiling a great deal. But for all that I still enjoy the spectacle very much. I like to see business on parade. It reminds me of my childhood, those first trips "downtown" to go to a department store, ride the escalator, eat at a soda fountain and see all the grownups in grownup clothes. Oh I like seeing it still, if only from an anthropological viewpoint.

And when one has a friend who, as I promised earlier, is a true citizen of the place, now semi-retired, and who is waiting for you in one of those dark little restaurants at the best table in the best corner of the dining room, where we are served by Gary, whose real name is not Gary because he's not from around here, and who is 74 and who only works two days a week now just to enjoy his regular customers....

My friend is a jewel seated on a cushion of hospitality. Gary sees that my friend's wine glass is empty. He does not need to be instructed. He fills. We do not need menus. We are filled with trust and confidence. The pasta? Yes, the pasta.

My friend has so many appropriate stories because the history of this part of San Francisco is his thing. He explains that Emperor Norton, the 19th century derelict who managed to turn himself into a living treasure when San Francisco was young and raw, never paid for a meal in a Barbary Coast restaurant, at least not in one where the general refinement was perhaps in question. The Emperor would enter and be directed to a seat squarely and prominently right in the middle of things. And then the proprietor would hang by the door and if he saw a right prosperous middle-class family come into view -- Der poppa, Der mama, Der many bairns -- he would rush out and explain to Der poppa that the one the only the iconic Emperor Norton was at that moment enjoying a leisurely meal in this very restaurant, and that the proprietor would gladly place the family at the very next table. And so Der many bairns, these young San Franciscans, would have a day to talk of forever. And how could Der poppa-- who might otherwise have noticed that the restaurant was not up to his usual standard -- resist?

This and many tales of life in the Financial District were told to me. An expedition to downtown is always fun on a weekday when you are playing hooky and you really have no place to be anytime soon. You don't have to place yourself in the hands of a habitue. But it really is more fun if you can find such a guide.

I think I'll sign my friend up and rent him out. Or would that be pimping the past?

1 comment:

G Pabst said...

re: "pimping the past."

Awash in a world where the only profit is in prophesy (eyes on the prize, your stocks and bonds, your tenure track, your annual bonus) pimping the future is all the rage.

The past is a dustbin of worn out futures. But the dustbin is filled with ciphers, arcane equations and - sometimes - just plain cautionary lessons. All of which, if understood, better decode the present and, if used wisely enough, help prophesy the future.

Example, compare and contrast: the history of the US entanglement in the Philippines (1898-1913) with our current in Iraq (2003-2018?). Specious beginnings. Victories in Cuba and Afghanistan and then elsewhere...

But wait, there's more! Done well, it's plain old storytelling, the glue that holds the species together.

Pimping the past? The past could use some competitive pimping.
ps: Meanwhile the future awaits. While you call it "semi-retired," I call it regrouping for an assault on a final career. Or as a friend once said, "It's amazing how you re-invent yourself every so often." It's not a reinvention. It's simply a choice to head in another direction. And it may not be the final career, either. Those travel articles are all about "you" looking over the next horizon.

pps: Norton, I forgot to add, lived in a rooming house that stood just half a block away from the spot where we had lunch.