Wednesday, September 24, 2003

On the road

Can't resist the temptation to blog for the first time on the road. I'm in San Francisco for the week, ostensibly to do a story and conduct other writerly business, much of which has fallen apart or never materialized. But here I am. This is the second full day being here, as opposed to the day getting here. I spent most of yesterday in Berkeley. The second theme of this trip is Buddhism, in that the story I'm doing is on the ongoing program of Buddhist related arts events in the Bay area (also in LA, NYC, Boston and other places.) And in that I'll be spending one night at the San Francisco Zen Center.

I had two interviews scheduled in Berkeley, one of which actually happened. (Later I got an email from the editor at the SF Chronicle I thought I was doing this story for who had changed his mind-the old "no more freelance budget for the year" refrain. I'm visiting the Chronicle offices tomorrow, to meet people I have already written for, some I haven't, and one old acquaintance I haven't seen in xx years.)

After the interview, which involved seeing a new exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum, I went down to Telegraph Ave. to check out the changes. I lived in Berkeley for a few months in 1969, and Telegraph Ave was where I hung out. In memory it is all bookstores and cafes, but even if it was then it certainly isn't now. There is one place that is still there, that has been there continuously,as I've noted on other visits. It's a little Mexican restaurant, called La Fiesta, on a corner across from Cody's Books. I remember this restaurant well. I used to go in there, order coffee and sneak as many chips as I could, while reading (I specifically recall Lawrence Durrell's Alexandrine Quartet, the memory of which is flavored by those chips and that coffee.) There were street people then too, and I was very close to being one. I had a place to live but very little money, so the kindness of the waitresses there, not only to me but to street people worse off, is something I clearly remember.

So I had dinner there, and the food is still great, plentiful and very cheap. I don't imagine it's a gourmet paradise but I'm fairly peasant in my tastes, and a taco, a tostada, beans and rice that filled a big plate, starting with a generous bowl of soup, was all the dinner I could eat, and it was under $7 (though more with taxes and tip.) I don't know if the ownership is the same, but the d├ęcor is-same tiled tables and iconic art on the walls.

I stopped in Cody's then, inquired for the rest rooms (I guess because of the prevalence of homeless people, restrooms are at a premium here now too; every town is becoming Urine Town, where you have to pay to pee.) I also confirmed that Maxine Hong Kingston was reading there on Wednesday night, as the SF Chronicle said. Turns out that was wrong, she was reading in a half hour, on Tuesday night. Plus it wasn't this bookstore-it was the Cody's on 4th St. I got directions, but the person giving them must have assumed I was driving, because it turned out to be a long, long way. I eventually caught a bus after walking a few miles. I got there in time for the second half of the reading, and hung around until the line of people getting books signed had dwindled. I had reviewed Kingston's new book for the Chronicle but had never met her. (The review is over at http://booksinheat.blogspot.com )
So I did talk with her very briefly. She had liked the review. She said "I felt I was understood" and further, thought it was well written.

When I was younger I delighted in writing scathing reviews, and I still am pretty blunt about deficiencies I find, usually in books I am assigned to review (I try to choose books I want to recommend.) But these days my point of view is generally that if a book is "awaited"-that is, by a known author and people know about it, and are already wondering if it's good or not-then a negative review is legitimate. That book is, in a sense, news, and that information is sought. But when review space is limited and now that life is especially short, I don't see the point of picking an unknown book and bashing it. But I think the real difference-if it is a difference, let's just say it's certainly more conscious now-is that I really want to get across what I believe the author was trying to do, and what the book does say, at least to me.

That' s perhaps a long way around of saying that I can think of no higher compliment, as a writer as well as a reviewer, that someone saying "I felt I was understood." As a writer, I know how important that is, and how rare.

Whatever happened to signs? It's pretty difficult to get around without them, but they are generally hard to find. I noticed this first on the BART system. Signs are hard to find, the maps are in the wrong places, there is poor indication of what trains are going where and in which direction (no Uptown/Downtown as in NYC or Inbound/Outbound as in Boston). So I spent a lot of time getting places and being lost.

Still, it's a city, you know. Coming back from Berkeley I saw people obviously coming back from a baseball game cross paths with people obviously going home from the opera.

So now it's off to make reservations at the Zen Center, try to find someplace that sells phone cards (I forgot mine, of course) and visit an agent in Orinda.