“School scenes or slapdash sightseeing
may harbor visuals that can be
far too penetrating for words.”
“Just remember—downhill, turn them in…”
“Uphill, turn them out…”
Parking just off Chestnut Street was a lesson in the harsher inclinations of Russian Hill topography, in acute and obtuse challenges to the physical plane. Foreigner’s ‘Long, Long Way From Home’ reverberated out of Sydney’s dashboard stereo as we prowled Jones and Leavenworth Streets in search of a reasonably proximate parking spot. To what, I still wasn’t sure, but sweeping vistas of the bay bridges, Alcatraz Island and Telegraph Hill kept me gawking like a Kansan conventioneer while she cursed her way up and down auto-crammed neighborhood arteries.
We rocketed faster than a runaway semi up a concrete-walled ramp into a klatch of costly apartment houses climbing further up Russian Hill. She finally landed this mid-block squeezer with a descending view of the Fisherman’s Wharf tourist ghetto—rear load shifting, small easels and canvasses tumbling from her back seat, our heads jerking forward as if we were first car on the Bobs, roller coasting to a turnstile stop. Then came this back and forth on curbing the Audi Fox.
“That’s parking in San Francisco, flash,” she said, key locking her steering column, yanking hard on the emergency brake. “If you don’t chock your wheels right, the meter maids will ticket you, sometimes even tow your rig away.”
“Yeah, well, I guess I’m OK on flat ground over by your place, huh? At least until I can blow town…”
“Never can tell. And worst case the brakes fail, your heap breaks loose, takes out some traffic and a storefront or two.”
“Filled the master cylinder before we left Boulder, checked it again in Salt Lake.” I helped her straighten up her fallen belongings, scooping up my jacket and the Urnie’s bag. There we left things, with simultaneous slamming of her front doors. “Where we off to, anyway?”
“Famous last words on the brake front,” she chuckled, toting several blank canvasses and a pair of fresh smocks. “And prepare yourself to be…institutionalized.”
I was just grateful to alight on solid ground, however slanted my stance and pronated my steps. Boulder had its hills, all right, but here my toes felt like they were pushing through the tips of my hiking boots. Still, I was stunned by this sloping panorama of hills, islands and wind-whipped bay around them. All streets let up and downhill from here, vehicles large and small struggling accordingly. Homes and condo/apartment buildings wedged into the Russian Hillside—straight-roofed no matter how steep the angle—so that foundations fronting at garage level often ass-ended three stories up.
Syd pointed out the most striking, palatial of the digs—the ones with sculpted little gardens and roof deck pools. Halfway back down Chestnut Street, a swarm of Hondas, Vespas and ten-speeds were chained up to bike racks on both sides of a grandly chiseled, Romanesque portal, violet clematis adorning its mosaic tiled spandrels: the otherwise ivy-vined entrance to the Gateway Institute of Art.
“This is my school, professor,” Sydney boasted, as we passed through the shadowy, arching entryway. “Dates back to the 1870s, founded by leading artists of the West. Even has a major fresco by Diego Rivera in here.”
“Nice courtyard,” I squinted into a concentrated patch of sunlight.
“It’s positively Florentine,” she pointed out a blue and yellow tiled fountain that served to focus student activity center yard. Cloistered walkways framed the gushing, carp-filled fount, lanes clogged with specious artistes, flyer-saturated bulletin boards and a running exhibit of splashy paintings—rough, abstract-at-best images of satyrs, lightning bolts and unicorns. “I’ll admit, these pieces aren’t all to my liking, but you can’t knock the 99.9% pure undergrad energy. Let’s get some java…”
A main hallway tunneled beneath the Institute’s central building, a red-tiled block of poured concrete busting with tall, angled windows and skylights. Suddenly, it opened to a sun-drenched terrace filled with milling students, muralled walls and rusting metal sculpture fusions of rakes, hoes, worm gears, chicken wire and ulcerated mufflers. Beyond, a bay panorama, bridge tower to cantilever, a dead-on view of Alcatraz, the Richmond-San Rafael span and East Bay refineries, a fleet of tanker ships sprinkled all about.
I paused to soak this all in while Syd handed me her supplies, then stole into the sprouts and granola café. They were a curious lot, these could-be Calders and Matisses, furtively debating aesthetic sensibility while bagging midday rays salted with chill ocean breezes. Content seemed not nearly so important as mode of expression—adolescent, Freudian expression, sophomoric rantings and purges. These were not tidy exercises in pat intellectual progression but intense, animated clashes in which histrionics held sway over the linear empiricism I’d just nominally mastered at CU.
What was the point of logic, after all, among dabblers and dilettantes who wrapped themselves in pinks, purples, orgeats and turquoises? In bush pants, berets and bandoleros? Paisley and pompous in black humor and bright, candy-striped hose? Sassy, overweaned brooders, I thought, who pursued emotional deviation so devoutly they couldn’t see their folly for the sun and deep blue sea? How could those so frivolous fancy themselves so germane?
Glimpsing Berkeley across the bay, I quickly checked my academic bias, wondering whether a social science graduate really had any stronger claims to pertinence. Round and round, probe and probe again: Did any of this convolution stack up to a reheated cheeseburger to go? Before I could answer that, Syd returned with a tray of take-out coffees.
“Isn’t it so stimulating here,” she glowed, hustling me up some steps toward her studio space. “Can’t you feel the creativity?”
“Gotta tell you,” I struggled with the smocks and canvasses, balancing the Urnie’s bag precariously on top. “I just see a bunch of flakos taking themselves way too seriously…”
“Hah, you should talk. I’ll write that remark off to ignorance, toots. You’ve much to learn, no matter how many sheepskins they’ve plastered to your keister.”
As we reached a second landing, I gave up any hope for a witty retort. Still, I was quick enough on my feet to notice the bare bodies baking on sundecks all about Russian Hill. “Hell of a view—for January, that is.”
“That’s where I’ve gotten some of my best figure studies,” she sniffed, waiting for me to push open a metal fire door. “An alum bequeathed a mounted telescope to the roof. The inscription claims that’s where he gained his most valuable insights.”
We passed several secluded exhibitions of landscape photography and watercolors before treading down a long ramp leading to the ground floor sculptorium. There, the chaos of color and raw innovation overwhelmed me. Within white cinderblock walls, graffitied to pale a New York subway car, young stonecutters finessed soggy mounds of clay into their peculiar visions of life and limb. They toiled amid half-finished forms, skids of bulk casting body and random clumps of aborted plaster that stuck to the slab floor like milky cow chips on cold winter mornings.
Shipping crate shelving stored the plastic-wrapped evidence of convictions abandoned and concepts disapproved. Still others served as work tables, coated with dried clay and spray paint—covered like everything else with a two-inch thick dusty crust. A mongrel aroma of clay and resin turned to sweet sawdust and varnish as Syd guided me through the wood studio, rotary saws singing and clamp presses bracing a multitude of unfinished forms. Cassette players crossfired nascent Blondie and aging Velvet Underground across the cluttered workbenches, but all that music died the moment we entered the metal sculpture morgue.
Two heavy steel doors masked a dank, garage-like stall seared by fire-tipped acetylene torches dueling in white-hot creation. Goggled demons in red bandannas and army jump boots aimed their flaming nozzles at the end joins of a four-foot tubular coil, which joined other scrap metal into some abstract extrapolation of a jet-lagged time machine. Their torches reflected off welding tanks and grated benches like Vader’s death rays, and cast startling light on a scattered menagerie of twisted iron creatures—grotesque gallstones in perpetual passing.
“Christ, where you taking me,” I yelped, over the crash of a mis-brazed coil and slamming of lockers.
“So much for the nickel tour,” she beckoned, “humor me a bit further.” Another iron door sealed off the inferno and accompanying fumes, delivering us to a short, sunlit stairwell leading to the whitewashed wooden variety. “There…”
Syd opened the padlocked door, back of which was triple thick with years of paint splatter. But that blanched in comparison with the floor and walls beyond. “My studio, the whole baby’s mine! Welcome to my world.”
“Whoa,” I gasped, eyes burning. It looked like an Earl Sheib spray booth after a labor dispute. A deep breath yielded a free-floating aroma of lacquer, wood stain, shellac and enamels.
“You’re impressed, right?” No need to flick on ceiling lights, as the room was sunnier than a New Age solarium in Santa Fe.
“I dunno, this place isn’t academia, it’s more like an asylum,” I shook my head at yet another study in apparent chaos. “I’m more used to demographic tables, print-outs, nice straight desks—a little chicken scratch on the blackboard, maybe, but…”
A Rorschach test as wall coverings: The only things orderly about her studio were the windowpanes—square-framed floor-to-ceiling panels that saturated the room with available rays. They opened to a narrow Mediterranean balcony; elsewhere, they angled up to the white broad- beamed ceiling, to yawning skylights cranked by long, swaying pull chains. The windows so prevailed that even her paintings came on second glance.
“Careful, you’re speaking of the place I love,” Syd held up paint-caked coveralls and a frayed Castagnolo cyclist hat. “The Institute has long been a hive of Abstract Expressionism and the Figurative Movement. Harry Jacobus studied here. David Park, Mark Rothko and Diebenkorn have taught in these same classes. This isn’t Moony arts and crafts, flash—this is all about serious fine arts in all their forms. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were photography instructors here, Dorothea Lange, too. Know who else was a student? Annie Leibovitz…”
“Wow…” These names barely registered, but I wasn’t letting on. “Um, so how do you manage this? You’re not even enrolled here anymore, are you?”
“Let’s just say the head of the department is an avid admirer of my work…”
“Must be a rabid admirer…” I downed some coffee, cream and two sugars, then helped her crank open some windows.
“It once belonged to Athren Guildersol,” she gestured, opening the French-style balcony doors. “He was San Francisco’s leading painter in the post-earthquake days. A refugee who came over from Holland, was one of the early faculty pioneers. This was his personal studio until he croaked. Then the school boarded it up for, like, 50 years. Now undergrad assistants are even assigned to tend its memorial balcony and garden. The space has gone to honor students ever since the refurbishing, only to those showing ‘unusual promise’.”
“Shucks,” she bowed and winked, slugging at her to-go coffee cup. “Can’t hold back genius…”
The small, sun-warmed balcony overlooked a side yard garden of azaleas, tulips and peonies, not to mention soaring sunflowers and strategically scattered contraband with five-finger leaves. Center bed stood a stone seagull sculpture atop a green patinaed metal pedestal, with a commemorative plaque reading ‘Albert Tobler’ at its base. Beyond, Fisherman’s Wharf warehouses spilled to the shoreline, where a blue and white container ship steamed in, stacked to the masts with shiny new Datsuns.
“How do you get anything done with a view like this,” I roamed back into her studio, to its nose-smack of fresh acrylics and oils, clumps of the chromatic spectrum squished like butter pats about the floor, fixtures and walls.
“How do you get anything done in the Rocky Mountains? Discipline, toots—organization and discipline are just as important as talent.”
“That so…” Could have fooled me, for the space looked like Galveston after hurricane season. Finished canvasses stood lined up like LP record jackets in one corner. Walls not covered by pushpin sketches and canvasses in all stages of development was caked with inert color, while her ironstone-tiled floor was paint saturated to deep, muddy amethystine.
Here, Jackson Pollack met early Jasper Johns. Stools and ladders alike bore a common color-crazed glaze as though they had not been cleaned since Guildersol’s wake. Work tables and sagging overstuffed furniture, folding chairs, rag bins and file cabinets: nothing escaped the variegated spray, save for the huge rolls of rice paper, Mylar and acetate under splatter sheets of plastic. They were the media, after all; they would bear their hues in due time.
Yet more scattered than color were the tools of her toils, and everything seemed to be in the cans. Ajax cans, thinner cans, turpentine cans, Pepsi cans, Krylon spray cans—Gold Classic oil pints and quarts sealed with wax paper or open and dried solid as a snowy Sierra trail. They were everywhere, hidden behind matte boards, ganged atop piles of charcoal paper and vellum sketchpads. And everywhere the cans were, they were crammed with soaking brushes.
Syd went on to explain her system between sips: She bunched her spotters and red sable Grumbachers in Planter’s Peanut cans, her squirrel brushes and Langnickel fan blenders in 16-ounce Oly cans, her Robert Simmons acrylics and French Bristle Filberts in party-size Pringles tins. She’d scarfed restaurant supply soup cans from the school cafeteria for her Chung Kings, Morilla #595 sky washes and Goliath white sables.
“What are those squished-up silver tubes all over the place,” I snipped, grabbing one, and a fistful of burnt sienna. I gazed as well upon unspent tubes of viridian, vermilion, cerulean blue, madder carmine and titanium white wasting away about floor and tables. “They look like played-out toothpaste, just lying around, drying up.”
“They’re my oils, and they’re not all drying up,” she tossed me some paper towels, then danced toward a coat rack, which instead held her array of paint-smeared palettes. She grabbed one randomly and pushed it at me. “See that? It may look like slop to you, but to me it’s order—the remains of a skin tone I worked three hours to get right. Maybe these tubes aren’t 100% used up, but they were there when I needed them. Whenever I need them again, I’ll get more.”
“Christ, what a waste…” I pulled several more paper towels to dry my hands.
“The whole process is a waste. Drawing, painting, sculpture—it’s all a waste, but that’s OK,” she asserted, setting the palette aside an easel with two unfinished, yet already identifiable figures, which looked to have been abandoned in haste. “I mean, what’s creativity? It’s bringing order to chaos, right? How can that not be wasteful? When imagination is the route to God. Anyway, even thinking and analyzing can be a waste of energy. What’s it solve, just confuses things even more. Actually doing is infinitely more productive.”
“Hey, it all begins with thought, doesn’t it,” I asked defensively, drinking heavily from my lukewarm paper cup.
“Art is spontaneity,” she maintained, pointing toward her sketches and canvasses. “It’s feeling more than reason. Once I crank up, I don’t stop—maybe for hours, maybe all night. At that point, the last thing I worry about is what’s left in a damn paint tube, even if it’s Bellini or Blockx Belgian. When it comes to inspiration, paint’s cheap.”
“That’s why thinking, writing is so much cleaner, and exact,” I rallied, balling up the paper towels, hitting a jump shot into the trash bucket.
“So who says verbalizing the human condition is any more effective than visualizing it? We’re both observing, interpreting. I just happen to believe that I can touch, affect more people with one painting than you can with a hundred boring dissertations. Art, vision—that’s what fires people, flash, not quotes and footnotes!”
“An oversimplification if I’ve ever heard one,” I huffed, backpedaling toward a bluejay on the balcony railing to toss my cup in the bucket.
“For that matter, I believe you could do so much more for mankind with your photography than with all the sociology in the world. If that’s what you really want to do—help people, help them understand—do it with your camera, not some dumb theory or study. You’d have so much more potential that way.”
“Uh, let’s see some of your stuff,” I diverted, unable at the moment to conjure up any empirical evidence to the contrary.
Syd led me through a process of pencil sketches, rubs, watercolors and oils that charted her advancing mastery of the human form—bold, brilliant renderings of dancers, gymnasts, still figures and mild erotica. She was even better than Melissa’s portrait, which I now shorthand thought of as ‘Moon Glow”, showed, her talent and style verging on intimidation.
“This is what six years of study here and in Europe will get you,” she glanced over her shoulder at the large canvas-in-progress presently on her easel. “You won’t believe what’s next…”
“Is that…” I looked more closely at the two unfinished figures, one squatter, the other tall. “Your roomies?”
“Yep, I’m calling it ‘Muttie and Jeffrina’.” Point made. With that, she tossed her cap and coveralls onto the lumpy sofa. “Plus I’m already tissueing some ideas for my new body of work, kind of an Olympics thing. C’mon, let’s hit the lounge. We’ve still got our gyros to wolf down.”
“Why not just eat out on the balcony,” I pointed, clutching the Urnie’s bag I’d set on her workbench. “Toss some scraps to Tobler’s memorial seagull, or the real ones squawking in that palm tree over there.”
“Pig out in front of Athren? Have some respect.” She grabbed the bag from me, feeling it for any remaining warmth. “Besides, the lounge has a humongous deck with a beverage bar. I’ve got it covered, dinero-wise. We can check out that amazing Diego Rivera mural on the way.”
“Naw, come on, right out there, quick and easy. Then I can try calling Boulder.”
“Try that again? Please, again with the respect.” She gestured to a small concrete planter box flush with peonies at the far corner of the balcony. After we closed the windows and all, she led me out of her studio, preparing to lock the white door behind us, then held up. “Who do you think I was sleeping with just before I left for Italy? Oops, which reminds me, I’d better water dear Athren down good before we go…”
“Ever give one a go?”
“Sorry, not my speed.”
“Looks like a gas of a ride to me…”
“That’s for them, not us.”
Rivera’s Depression-Era mural laying heavy, pitas and hummus heavier yet, we soon developed a taste for something sweeter; although baklava was nowhere to be found on her Institutional grounds. So Sydney wheeled us over to Union Street, and a fresh produce grocer at the Mason Street corner. I car-sat her idling Fox while she picked through bins full of off-season fruit, chatting with the counter clerk like a lobbyist at a committee hearing. She bounded across bus and delivery van traffic with a pink plastic bag full of organic dessert: green grapes for the gastro, Gravenstein apples, their green-red spotted roughage being good for the teeth; tangerines, good for the soul— high lean carbo, low glycemic overall. Strapped back in, she gunned up Russian Hill, instructing me to get pickin’—which I did, knees pressed firmly against the Audi’s dashboard. Plan was, we were headed for some perfunctory sightseeing, one grape at a time.
“But I’m them, kinda,” I said, “aren’t I?”
“Not with me you’re not…”
Upon reaching the hill crest, I ventured a look at the sweep of San Francisco Bay from here, how glassy, boxed apartment buildings dipped down Union Street to North Beach then back up again toward Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill—a great white wave that seemed more poster than real—like this was the oilcloth backdrop you took the snaps against, not a neighborhood in which people actually lived. Ahead of us, a carpet of city north rolled out from Swensens’ famed ice cream corner down all the way west to Cow Hollow, the Marina, then the Presidio treeline and the sea. But Syd munched a couple of table grapes I fed her and instead hung a hard right onto Hyde Street, meeting up with Rice-a-Roni placards affixed to the ass end of an outbound cable car.
“Damn,” she flared, leaning on the horn, railing at a slow rolling trolley that, along with an opposing inbound streetcar, was all but blocking our way. “The shlubs, they’re bulging with tourists, and creep along like they own the place.”
“Uh-huh,” I was too taken with the anachronistic cable car itself to start complaining. Bell clanging, waving riders strap clenching and hanging off the sides: The trolley swayed and bucked slowly along, a Hupmobile on a freeway. That it still existed at all was miraculous; that it still actually functioned absurd. “Well, I for one could climb aboard. I mean, how can you get pissed at a museum piece like this?”
“Antique, shmantique, hold on tight.” She shot around the trolley through a sliver of wiggle room between it and the inbounder. “We’ll hit Lombard later…there’s lots of other crooked stuff to see going on here”
In any case, I could hardly catch a freeze frame of The World’s Crookedest Street as we darted along the stretch of Russian Hill townhouses and tennis courts past Filbert and Greenwich, glean barely a snippet of sinuous Hydrangea beds hemming a congested stream of snaking, braking autos inching downward to Leavenworth. “How…later?”
“Say what?” She honked and horned her way down Hyde to Bay Street, where she swerved around another of the bell-ringing jewels, into an oncoming lane of gargantuan tour buses. “Just try to get anywhere in a hurry around this town. Forget it. These blasted cable cars may be great for touristas, but half the people who live here would just as soon send every last one of the little buggers to L.A..”
“Hell, ship them to Boulder, we’ll run them to Denver and back.” I didn’t press it, nor could I bear to keep track of her racy maneuvering, instead fixing straight ahead on the clamoring Hyde Street Pier at the base of this brakedrum-burning hill, with ghostly Alcatraz Island structures above and beyond.
Syd aced into a leveled off truck zone on North Point Street, then revved sharply before cutting the ignition, as if announcing our arrival. “There, that wasn’t so bad. And it’s just past delivery time, so we’re home free. You must be a lucky charm, flash. Unbelievable.”
“Ever think of moonlighting as an ambulance driver?” I pried my fingers from the handgrip, fruit bag trapped between my feet.
“Can’t stand blood and gore, you know,” she said, killing Rose Royce’s ‘Car Wash’ on the radio, motioning us to lock up. “Oh, remind me to explain the color curbs when we return here to Foxy.”
We stepped out to a row of several Hyde Street cable cars waiting to roll down to some sort of a turnaround—a Lazy Susan, Syd called it. At line’s head, we found a MUNI gripman releasing to send his trolley clacking across Beach Street, bell ringing loudly, settling onto the roundtable, where he proceeded to dismount and tug at the car’s forerail, while his conductor pushed likewise at its rear. A half-block queue of tourists encircled this revolving ritual, cheering the crew on, to the accompaniment of strolling fiddlers and banjo players. They’d play anything for a few nickels, and these pigeons seemed to be particularly fare game—perfectly captive until they could pile aboard a downtown-bound car, coughing up their cigarettes and coinage.
Sydney led us past two blocks of sidewalk artists hawking everything from sandals to scrimshaw from clothes racks, pegboards, card tables and tailgates. The crafts were fair to mediocre, and the crafties themselves were consistently weird. Yet their freedom of spirit and expression was hardly lost on me. I envied them some, especially the photographers, even though they offered nearly stock shots of boats, bridges and foggy skylines, as if their works were stamped out at some low-rent processing plant with only token exposure and cosmetic variation.
“Stuff’s not bad, but they all look like they’re from the same roll of film,” I allowed, stop-starting along the display stands like a housedog on a tree-lined thoroughfare.
“That’s what sells around here,” Syd said. “Strictly business with these hacks. Sad part is, some of them are really very talented. But all they want to do is sit in the sun and gouge people.”
“It’s a living, I guess.”
“If that’s the plan,” she nodded, toward an array of colorful depictions of Victorians on Alamo Square, downtown skyline in the background. “But think what you could do, flash. Just blow them away. I mean, you could be a real photographer here, not like these parasites.”
As the display stands and tourists tapered off, she skipped down a curving, crushed stone pathway to the bay. The winter warm sun ducked over a distant hill, leaving January’s chill in the late afternoon air. We stopped at bay’s edge, the water still and glossy this side of an arcing breakwater pier thick with rollerskaters and huddled fishermen. Orange-capped swimmers breast stroked in wide concentric circles as though warding off a heat wave. The hardier among them swam laps from the pier to a Maritime Museum collection of schooners and paddle wheel ferries.
Outside the breakwater, dying breezes stranded sailboats, and the late sun ignited Sausalito and Tiburon windows like vacuum tubes in an old Crosley floor model radio. Even the crabbers and seagulls folded up shop for dinner, along with the two-block long drag of curbside artsy-craftsies. Only the swimmers and swooners remained, as well as the odd psychopeddler hawking his latest mind-blowing revelations.
Syd fended off some annoying orange tunic-clad Moonies—even their phony bouquets—for she seemed content with where this fresh-eyed mood was taking us. Nonetheless, it did set me to wondering what the hell she was thinking. But I quickly attributed her behavior to grateful hospitality. On the other hand, after that Lovelock grab bag, who knew what was up? In any case, she denied all distracters and detractors, save one: a giggly redheaded flower child with a rasher of quick-print salvation who jammed her yellow brochures into our palms with the sure-handed snap of an all-conference quarterback.
“Universe Players,” Syd read aloud. “Says they’re putting on a performance session tonight, free admission. You game?”
“I dunno, got my stuff to get together, and this sounds like one of those…” Maybe I should have been catching one of those cable cars back to my Volks about then.
“Aww, let’s do it,” she urged, likely sensing a revelation or two of her own—as in let’s see where the sucker might take him, or the sucker might be taken by them. “I already did once myself. It’ll be good for you. We’ll even hit El Menudo for some knockout tostadas and salsa.”
“Think I’ll pass on…” My eyes were instead drawn to a corner SF Clarion news box, more specifically to a bulldog edition headline that read, ‘Investigative Series: How Cultish Redwood Valley Hi-jinx Portended The City’s Peoples Temple and Guyana. And where the movement was going from here’.
“No overthinking, remember,” her eyes lit up like Tiburon’s windows. “I say it’s a go. I’m ready for a new memory, how ’bout you?”
Resolved. Nix the tourista trip. It was Saturday night in San Francisco—her first one back, my first, period. For better or worse, it looked like we were gonna make a full-on local scene together. And god forbid, we were gonna do it in the Mission.
Care for more?
Chapter 20. Matters headed south, soon
comes an appointment with consequences,
more than a theater of the absurd. Something
else to chew on in the dark of night…