I’ve never seen the sky this colour in the years I’ve lived here, somewhere between Methyl Violet and Lobelia Blue. It has an unreal feel to it, like the old Stereoscope cards from the 1950s. And it comes on the heels of two nights of unprecedented lightning strikes that went on for hours, like slow-motion, erratically staggered strobe lights, along with the distant rumble of thunder. There is, very rarely, every few years, a bit of thunder and lightning during the summer in San Francisco, but I can recall nothing remotely like this. A high wind has suddenly kicked up, ominously bending the large palm in the backyard, freighted with decades of unpruned dead fronds and bedizened with thick ropes of trumpet vine with its orange flowers.
The enormous, blinking radio tower on Twin Peaks is half-hidden in mist, as it usually is this time of morning. And the N Judah streetcar rattles and squeals in and out of the tunnel below every fifteen minutes or so, as it routinely does, except on weekends and holidays when the intervals between trains are longer. I have woken to its sound and fallen asleep, often late, to the last train in the very early morning, for nearly 38 years now. Much else has changed around me here, but these two, the streetcar and mist, have not. I suppose they have become more a part of my identity than I realise.
The two most famous graduates of the Horace Mann School for Boys, class of ’67, were Barry Scheck, of O.J. Simpson ‘dream team’ fame, a lawyer who became expert in the use of DNA evidence in criminal defence cases, and William P. Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general. He previously held the post under the late George H.W. Bush. Barry and Bill at the age of 14 were almost entirely recognisable as the adults one reads about or watches on TV. Both boys, so far as I remember, entered Horace Mann in the ninth grade, as a handful were allowed to do. Most of us started in grade seven. We all were required to wear ties and sports coats and proper trousers. I remember Barry in a tweed jacket, a small-ish boy, my size, carrying around an outsize and packed-to-bursting briefcase. He was very determined, and academically aggressive. Bill was then, as now, a pleasant-faced, pillowy-looking boy.
In the spring of 2009 I received a phone call from someone who worked for a programme on the Travel Channel called No Reservations, of which I had never heard. He told me they were planning to shoot an episode in San Francisco over the summer and would I be interested in appearing. As no one had ever asked me to be on television before (or since), I said: ‘Sure.’ I was told that the star, Anthony Bourdain, had borrowed a copy of my book of essays, Cutty, One Rock, on a long flight to Sri Lanka from one of his staff and liked it so much he wanted to have me on his show. ‘That’s nice,’ I thought to myself.
In 1977, at the age of 51, Hugh Hefner endured an existential crisis when he found himself choking on a metal Ben Wa ball, one of a pair that had been in his girlfriend Sondra Theodore’s vagina in order ‘to enhance her physical sensations’. The ruler of the then considerable Playboy empire ‘fell back on the bed, choking and unable to breathe, and was about to lose consciousness when she squeezed his chest and finally dislodged the sphere’. (I’m quoting from Steven Watts’s 2008 biography, Mr Playboy.) ‘Is this what it has all come to?’ Hefner later wondered aloud. Then: ‘What will all the newspaper headlines in the world say tomorrow morning?’ Finally, regaining his composure, he asked: ‘Are we getting this on videotape?’
He’s back, like Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, and with a brand new book, Understanding Trump, his 28th or so, and hard on the heels of his two 2016 thrillers, Duplicity and Treason (written with Pete Earley). Newt Gingrich – one of the three amigos, along with fellow failed politicians Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, who hitched their wagons to the star from Queens during his campaign for president, all three desperately jockeying for the position of vice president or secretary of state, only to be spurned and humiliated – is back in the mix.
As King Ubu from Queens makes ready to take the presidential oath of office, assuming the ‘leadership of the free world’ and the computer codes that unlock America’s nuclear arsenal, the Pollyanna in me would like to remind those hiding in their basements with an eight-year supply of protein powder and Green Giant corn niblets that when Ronald Reagan took office at noon on 20 January 1981, the prospect of an extremely right-wing B-movie actor and longtime shill for General Electric entering the White House was hardly less surreal and unnerving than what we face now. True, Reagan had served two terms as governor of California (1967-75), but we here in the Golden State are still digging ourselves out from under them 42 years later, during which time vast sums of money have been transferred from the state’s resources for health, infrastructure, education etc. to the wealthiest 5 per cent of individuals.
Ron White is a comedian from Texas who delivers his monologues, to large crowds, in an amply tailored suit with an expensive bottle of scotch on a small table at his side. One of his most famous routines is ‘You Can’t Fix Stupid’. He’s speaking, unkindly, of his ex-wife and cosmetic surgery, not the body politic, but throughout the 2016 presidential campaign the title of his disgruntled riff has looped in my brain.
When you’re listening to jazz in, I would argue, its greatest and most significant incarnation, a folk-based, body-based chamber music recorded during the 1950s – Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane et al – it was probably recorded by Rudy Van Gelder on analogue equipment in his parents’ living room in Hackensack, New Jersey, a room specifically designed for their son’s sound recording and where he made use of hallways and alcoves to tease out acoustic effects. By day, Van Gelder worked as an optometrist in Teaneck. He died yesterday at the age of 91.
Basil Bunting wrote his long poem Briggflatts over the course of 1965, much of it while on the train commuting from Wylam to Newcastle, where he worked as a subeditor on the financial pages of the Journal, then part of the Thompson newspaper empire. Bunting had published nothing in the previous 13 years, nor had he written any poems, as such. Aged 65, he was struggling to support two children and his second wife, Simia, whom he had brought back with him from Persia to Northumberland in 1952 after being expelled by Mossadeq.