Whither the sea lions? That’s what’s on the minds of many here in San Francisco these days, no less than the vanished Nigerian head of state has puzzled citizens in that corner of the world. They disappeared a couple of months ago from their gathering place on the now abandoned boat docks at the foot of Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf, after the Disney parks the third most visited tourist attraction in the United States. Disgusting and malodorous as they were, lolling about and barking, plastering the docks with guano, occasionally slipping into the Bay for sustenance, these creatures were, apparently, the big draw on the pier, an open-air, rectangular hell of T-shirt, junk food and gee-gaw shops. There is absolutely not one single reason to visit Pier 39 unless you are a conspicuously unimaginative family with small children and a camera from Terre Haute, Indiana on holiday.
I called Poluszny, my friend the retired cabdriver. He knows many things. ‘Paolo,’ I said, ‘where did the sea lions go to?’
‘How the fuck should I know, Aug? What’re you asking me for?’
‘You know about stuff like this.’
‘Lemme make a couple phone calls and get back to you.’
There are a number of theories abroad about where the sea lions have gone and why. Among them is El Niño and the warming of the waters in the neighbourhood of San Francisco Bay; that there was an overall decline in sea lion food in California this past summer, most especially herring, triggering a die-off of baby sea lions as they were weaned from mother’s milk and transitioned to a fish diet. Those who subscribe to this theory maintain that many of the local sea lions have migrated north, specifically to the sea lions caves off Florence, Oregon, 500 miles up the coast, which is rich in anchovies.
Bollocks, say other informed commentators. The water temperature and fish stock hasn’t changed much at all. The same thing happened 20 years ago when, en masse, the local sea lions moved from Seal Rock, off Ocean Island on the seaward side of Golden Gate Bridge, a few miles east to Fisherman’s Wharf. No one seems to know how that event came to pass, either.
‘Aug, I was talking to a friend in North Beach,’ Paolo says, calling me back a bit later. ‘Seems a sea lion named Leo hangs out in the back of Gino and Carlo’s, usually mid-morning. I gather he’s not too communicative and none too friendly, or sober, for that matter. But you might give it a try.’
Gino and Carlo’s on Green Street, not far off Broadway in North Beach, is decidedly not a tourist bar. It’s for locals, and mid-morning for seriously bibulous locals. The smell hit me well before I spotted Leo, all 900 pounds of him, nursing a beer at the back of the bar, foam clinging to his white whiskers. I introduced myself. ‘My name is August Kleinzahler and I have been asked by the London Review of Books to ascertain the whereabouts of the sea lions who have vacated Pier 39. It is an admirable journal with a select, well-informed readership, a readership that’s most interested in the ecological significance of this sudden migration.’
Leo looked up from his beer with a somewhat stunned gaze. He focused on me a few seconds, taking my measure, and said: ‘Go fuck yourself.’
This was not promising so I did what I customarily do with large, recalcitrant, dipso sea-going mammals, I ordered up a couple of shots and brought them over to the table and slapped them down. ‘Forgive my bad manners, Leo. Please, if you would, join me in a quick shot, won’t you? I’d like to put things right.’
Leo gave me an ugly look, drew the shot glass close with his flippers and banged it back. ‘Get me another one, you worthless little cocksucker,’ he said, baring his teeth. I obliged. He banged that one right back, too. I’d have gotten him a third but Leo was ready to spill. ‘I don’t fucking know where they went and I don’t care. It’s none of my fucking business and none of yours either. I will tell you why I’m here and not there, though.’ There was a long pause. ‘I can’t take this whole casual-wear bit anymore.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ I asked, rather startled.
His ferocity seemed to die away, replaced now by something like disappointment and fatigue. ‘I’m totally dragged out, man. I can’t take the fleece and jeans thing, the nylon windbreakers, this fanny-pack business. I can’t. Much less adult women in running shoes. Ugh. It’s an affront, an aesthetic affront. I’ve had it with the slovenliness, the indifference to fashion, is what I’m trying to tell you. These people don’t give a damn what they look like. It’s killing me, man, killing me. I just can’t make that scene anymore. That simple. Can’t make it. Can’t deal with it. And I’m not the only one, believe me. Now go tell that to your big shot friends in London and fuck off…’