Saturday, November 16, 2013

Places are People Too.

If you've seen the footage of Batkid saving San Francisco then you're probably reading this blog post through still-teary eyes.  If you haven't, here's the short version:  The Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged for a five-year-old leukemia patient named Miles to live out his dream in epic fashion.  A sizable portion of the city of San Francisco agreed to participate yesterday in helping him fight crime and save the city while dressed at Batman.  He ran through city streets in his Batsuit, saved a woman chained to a big green detonator, stopped the Riddler from robbing a bank, captured the Penguin, and received cheers from thousands of onlookers in the city streets.  The Mayor of San Francisco gave Miles the key to the city and President Obama sent a video message thanking him for "saving Gotham."

There are a lot of heroes in this story, but at the forefront is the city of San Francisco.  When Wendy, the kids, and I spent a month there in the summer of 2012, the allure of the town was overwhelming.  We were swept up in its dynamism, enamored by its architecture, aromas, and eclectic experiences.  The people we met were precisely the kind you'd expect to get behind converting their city streets into Gotham for a day to help a child live out the unimaginable.

San Francisco was also the tipping point for me as a writer.  Immersed as I was in the city where Kerouac, Ginsberg, Twain, Chabon, Eggers, and others had done some of their best work, I began to get the itch to write my stories and stop worrying about the 101 things that I had allowed to serve as excuses over the past few years.

So, it seems fitting that San Francisco is as much a character in one of my collection's foundational stories ("Jigsaw Falling") as the protagonist herself, and that neighboring Big Sur is central to a satirical look at Kerouac's sad fate ("Prozac Kerouac").

This excerpt is from "Jigsaw Falling" and tees up Lena, an L.A. photographer, and her love of the city:

Stationed on the plateau by the shore at Fort Point, Lena peered through the viewfinder of her Nikon D4. From the southeast, she could get shots that contrasted the static expanse of the bridge against the yawning rush of the bay. With the sun waning into a heavy slough of fog across the overpass, Lena clicked photo after photo. Sure, this setup wasn’t on her docket—hell, she was here to shoot a promotional bit with Giants stars Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson—but they were good sports. They hammed it up, put her ahead of schedule, and she now had the luxury of free time, something rarely afforded her by the agency, airlines, and her own compulsive personality. But tonight, she was in a city she’d dreamed of someday moving to, a dream debilitated by her being well on the south side of a seven-figure income. Still, for the moment, she was a citizen of San Francisco, if only for a few hours, and she intended to drink it all in. Gnocchi and Nebbiolo at Trattoria Contadina, the aisles of City Lights Bookstore, maybe a walk through Chinatown to photograph the contradiction of shimmering Far East lanterns against the western sky and indulge in tea and moon cakes. It was a city with too many choices, too many good ideas. 

Soon, Lena learns that she has captured a photo of a man taking his own life off of the Golden Gate Bridge and a much bigger story than just a night in San Francisco is set into motion.  

As a writer, one is always hopefully respectful of capturing a setting as precise as the City by the Bay. 
Settings are tricky.  You can describe your grandfather's old red barn and the contents within, maybe the town you grew up in, but beyond that, you're playing on someone else's turf, and they'll hold you accountable.  It's why, after being 100+ pages into writing a novel about New Orleans, I walked away from the project.  I felt vastly unqualified to capture the essence of the Quarter, especially post-Katrina.  

I met Tom Wolfe in Atlanta back in the late 90's when A Man in Full was published.  He explained how meticulous he was in making sure he got every intersection of Midtown Atlanta just right, and to be fair, he did.  Some would say that he missed out on the soul of the city in the process (Mr. Updike, Mailer, and Irving all had something to say about this) but he was on point with what Atlanta looked and felt like in that evolutional decade.  

There are writers who say it doesn't matter, just fictionalize it.  There are writers who major in journalistic verisimilitude.  But as a reader, you know if they nailed it when you read it:  Garrison Keillor's mythos around Minnesota, Joyce's Ireland,  Stephen King in Maine and John Irving's New England.  One can walk around Walden Pond today and still find Thoreau's words to remain wholly genuine, even despite the presence of a parking lot and a modest gift shop across the street.  

As for San Francisco, a writer can help us envision the cable cars on those steep inclines, but can they make us feel what it's like to live in a city that would stop in its tracks to make sure Batkid has his day?  It's a tall, commanding order.

Perhaps the greatest gift a writer can give a reader isn't to get the essence of a city or community right for their own sake, but for the sake of those of us who have never been there, and may never be.  For it is the writer who can give us a passport, however temporary, to the places we'll never go.  

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