City of Salt

I stepped out for a look around earlier today, getting fairly well drenched in a summer rain storm. Afterwards, I felt like I was in a sauna and finally had to come back to the hotel to cool off. Adapting to the heat and humidity will take me a little time after the relatively cool, breezy San Francisco area.

I used to live in Salt Lake City years ago when I was 15. In fact, I was a “teenage runnaway”, hitting the road and hitchhiking all over the west. I settled in Salt Lake City because I met some people who gave me a place to stay until I found a job as a waitress is a small cafe. Naturally, I lied about my age, telling everyone I was 19.

I have always had ambivalent feelings about Salt Lake. It’s a beautiful city, not too big, not too small, nestled at the foothills of some incredible mountains. If you watched the Winter Olympics earlier this year, then you know that Salt Lake is one of the favorite ski places in the country.

However, Salt Lake has a dark side – an underground population that exists in the streets and the backways, usually ignored by the good citizens of the town. While it’s true that all cities have underground populations, Salt Lake seems to have people who are either Ozzie and Harriet or Undergrounders – no slightly left of center, somewhat in, somewhat out people such as, well, myself.

When I lived in Salt Lake City years ago I was part of the Underground, hanging with kids who did drugs and partied all night. Once a friend OD’d on speed and we had to rush him to the hospital. The ambulance pulled up to the ER room, the nurse came out, took one look at my friend, and told the drivers to take him to the county hospital. Luckily he didn’t die because of the delay. But if he had, I suppose the good people of the City would think that it was one less Undergrounder, one step closer to God for the city.

I remember walking all night with a guy named Blue and looking up at the gold figure on top of the Temple, thinking that if the city was truly based on the foundation of God and brotherhood, why were I and my friend walking around all night, carefully steered away from the ‘good parts’ of the city by the police. You could die knifed to death in the city as long as you didn’t bleed on the sidewalk in front of the Tabernacle.

Today when I was out and about I could see the changes in the city, particularly from the Olympics. Salt Lake has a new light rail system, which is nice. There’s a large new outdoor mall near the city, which I’ll try and visit later this afternoon. Lots of new shops, but many of them look closed.

I also noticed people wearing clean khaki shorts and cotton blouses, hair conservatively styled, several children in tow. Clean cut, wholesome Americans who most likely vote for Bush and fly the American flag from their front door, their reading restricted to those works that bring comfort and feelings of peace and tranquility.

In between the good people were individuals wearing spiked collars and shaved heads, black t-shirts, jeans riding low until the cracks of their butts showed. Haunted looks in their faces – lone wolves trying to find the rest of the pack among all the sheep.

Pardon me—whose unwanted baggage am I tripping over?

The storm had cleared and with it took much of the humidity. The temperature was still warm, but manageable. Best of all a gentle breeze was blowing down off the mountains.

I went walking around Temple Square, drifting in and around wedding parties, tourists, and Mormon Sisters who were helping folks. I walked by one Sister and she gives me a big smile, asking how I was doing and if I needed help. I realized I was next to the Tabernacle and had hoped to hear the Choir sing. When I asked the young lady about choir performances, she not only gave me times when they were playing but enlisted the help of another sister to work out a strategy for me so that I could get excellent seating. They worked with the precision of enlisted soldiers determined that I, visiting from San Francisco, had a chance to hear the choir at its best (tomorrow morning, be there early, sit in this location – got it, Sergeant).

I also splurged on a horse-drawn carriage ride throughout the city – I am a sucker for horse-drawn carriages. My driver, Emily, obviously loved the city, and the horse, Cleo, was young and very spirited. I had a wonderful trip, not only seeing what really is a beautiful city – a unique city – but also talking with Emily and enjoying the antics of Cleo (who does NOT like loud rock and roll by the way).

After the ride, I asked someone on the street for directions and she not only pointed me out where I needed to go, but also took me by the arm, walked me to the end of the street and literally pointed out the building I was looking for, chatting with me the whole time about making sure I see the Beehive house and the Joseph Smith Museum and…and…

Sometimes we can view things, people, and places through glasses shaded by past trauma and sadness. Rather than rose-colored glasses, these are smoky at best, fogging our vision and impacting on our interpretation of what we see. When I walked out this morning, comparing the City of Salt with young memories, all I could see was Ozzie and Harriet on one side of the street, Undergrounders on the other. This afternoon, I took the glasses off and I saw a city made up of Undergrounders and Ozzie and Harriet, true; but I also saw people like me, like you.

I walked around downtown enjoying the beauty when I noticed a crowd gathered around a group of young women with harps. These were students and friends of Elizabeth Smart the young girl kidnapped from her home June 5th. They were performing at a concert to raise awareness of Elizabeth’s kidnapping and to provide support for Elizabeth’s parents.

Elizabeth’s parents spoke first, not 15 feet in front of me, mother stoic, father breaking down in tears. In another place, in another time, they would be Ozzie and Harriet. Today, they were the grief-stricken, terrified parents of a little girl who was stolen from everything she knew, a family of love and taken for what reason we may never know.

And then the harp players, ages 4 and up, started playing:

Bah, Bah, Black Sheep have you any wool?

Yes, marry have I,

Three bags full.

Embarcadero

The doctor is in. I’ve prescribed myself a daily walk along the Embarcadero, gradually extending the distance until I walk the Bridge to Bridge — Bay Bridge to Golden Gate Bridge and back. Over 12 miles. I figured I’ll make my goal by end of May. 2004.

If you’ve never been to San Francisco, the Embarcadero is the road that follows the Bay, providing access to attractions such as the world-famous cable cars, Ghiradelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Pier 39. The sidewalk along the water side of the road is extra wide, providing plenty of room for bikers, walkers, joggers, inline skaters and skate boarders.

Palm trees line the road, and the sun and breeze are in your face. There’s plenty of breaks between the waterfront buildings to stop and watch the seagulls, pelicans, and other sea birds, as well as the sailboats and freighters. If you get tired of watching the water-based wildlife turn inwards toward the road and watch the stretch limos, stretch Humvees, and stretch SUVs flow past.

Near the Ferries, I walked behind three backpacking kids, tattooed and body pierced to the point that you wonder how they can hold water when they drink.

At Pier 23, a bike passes to my left, ridden by a guy in a red athletic suit, wearing a gold crown with color coordinated red velvet lining. Yesterday another bike rider had a basket attached to his handlebar containing a black cat, front paws on the basket edge, nose into the wind.

Near Pier 30, skate boarders have claimed a wide section of the sidewalk, testing their agility against the cement blocks that are placed all throughout the Embarcadero. The California rite of passage — skate boarding without pads, daring each other to wilder and wilder maneuvers. Strangely graceful. Oddly beautiful. Brainless.

Held Captive

We are a society that is progressively looking inward rather than outward. As we spend more and more time among concrete towers and experience more and more of the world through our computers, we’re relying less and less on our senses, on all our senses. We are quite strong visually or aurally, but even that is becoming more selective. Cogito, ergo sum or “We think, therefore we are” is becoming “We think, more, therefore we are, more” and sacrificing much of our sensory selves to achieve this state.

I must confess that I am not an intellectual. To me, “I think, therefore I am” becomes “I think and smell and taste and hear and see and touch, therefore I experience rampant joy at the minutiae of endless and daily variety of life, of which I am just one part.” I have no idea what that would be in latin.

And I am easily a captive to my senses.

A year or so ago I was walking with some people I worked with when several pigeons took off and started flying, as a group, around some of the buildings. I stopped walking and just stared at the display, calling out my appreciation of the flight to the people I was with. One of them returned with, “They’re just birds. You’ve seen birds before, Shelley.”

Yesterday when I walked to the subway I passed a few trees in downtown San Francisco and heard birds singing to the dawn and stopped, right there on the street, looking up at the trees and just listening to the sound. And as usually happens in these circumstances, some of the people passing me — those who weren’t on their cell phones, or hurrying past because they were late, or trying to walk and read the newspaper at the same time, or involved in intense discussions with another person — also glanced up, trying to see what I was looking at.

(It’s not very heartening to know that the majority of people around you think you’re touched in the upper works because you’re standing in the middle of the street staring up into the air, not looking at anything.)

And what of the more subtle senses? Am I overcome by taste and touch and smell?

Years ago I watched a wildlife preservationist give a talk about birds, a flightless owl perched on his arm. I chatted with the person after the show and he moved the bird a bit closer to me to provide me a clearer view of the bird’s eyes. When he did, I brought my hand up to touch it, whereupon the speaker drew back in alarm and exclaimed, “This bird is dangerous!”

“Do you always reach out to touch things!?”

Well, actually, yes I do. And it has been known to get me in trouble a time or two. It seems I haven’t quite lost that childlike aspect of myself.

People rely on their sense of taste and touch and smell almost entirely when they’re young, but seem to lose this sensory dependency as they get older. Right and wrong is explored first through taste and touch, trying to swallow everything at hand, trying to touch everything that’s new — in both cases prematurely aging their parents in the process. And when asked to try a new food, they’ll sniff it first, wrinkling their nose and rejecting the food if the scent falls too far outside of the familiar.

Younger children prefer blander foods not because they lack sophistication, but because even the simplest taste overwhelms their unfiltered receptivity. Anyone exposed to babies know that anything within the grasp of an infant is first put into the baby’s mouth, to be chewed on and swallowed if possible. I, personally, have been chewed by more babies than I care to remember, and that includes kittens and puppies in addition to human babies.

And be honest — did you really believe your Older Significant Person when he or she said the fire or the stove was hot? The first time?

Survival dictates that we learn from our senses, quickly, until we’re at an age of reason and can think our way out of troubles.

(With wars and crime and addictions to various materials, I’m not quite sure when the age of reason will hit, but I have hopes for the future.)

As we mature and rely on our senses less, we have to find larger and larger sensory inputs in order to break into the creaking, whirring, machines that are our minds.

We increase our use of spices as we burn our mouths with the hottest peppers and chilis, not stopping until we literally sweat from five-star Thai food or five alarm chili. Why use one clove of garlic when we can use 40?

We use packaged apple pie smell and packaged lemon smell and packaged “Spring Fresh Scent” and so on, until our homes and our bodies reek of undifferentiated stink.

We buy books on how to touch each other, how to touch our children, and even the appropriate way to perform a handshake. For instance, I read that before going into an interview, always go to the restroom, wash your hands in warm water and then dry them completely. When grasping hand, do so with confidence, firm but not too firm. No cold and clammy hands. No weak and tentative grasp.

We think, therefore we are. Or the Postmodern equivalent — it thinks therefore I am only if I recognize that I have the capacity of thought to appreciate that it thinks independent of its own capability of understanding that it can think without being aware of its own self and its own appreciation of self within a greater cosmic awareness.

Me thinks, at times, we think too much.

Isn’t it nice when we shut down our minds and let our child out to play?

To breath the salty, weedy smell of freshly mown hay or the rich, fresh smell of huckleberry plants in the midst of tall green pines. To close eyes and drink in the scent of freshly baked bread, or clean laundry hung out to dry. To walk in gardens of lavender and lilacs.

To taste a wild strawberry, still warm from the sun. To savor the sweet crispness of a fresh apple or the bite of good, sharp cheese. And chocolate. Mustn’t forget chocolate — the only taste known to break through even the most dedicated intellect.

To touch a stone worn smooth by flowing water and to feel its coolness and the softness of its surface. To hold sand in your hand and let it slip through your fingers. To face someone you love and move your hand slowly and gently down their face, from temple to chin, feeling the curves until you place two fingers lightly on lips soon joined to yours.

Reflections on Still Water

When I worked at Stanford last year, I used to take the commuter train to work. It was a ride of about an hour each way and I always looked forward to it. Head phones on, favorite music playing, I would lay my head back against the seat and spend the time just staring out the window.

In the mornings, as the fog was beginning to dissipate, the train would pass a small inlet. This tiny body of water was really nothing more than a small finger of the Bay, crowded under a concrete freeway onramp and surrounded by the debris of half-built and abandoned buildings, homeless encampments, and a steel graveyard.

In this inlet was an old wooden row boat, anchored in the middle of the water and unreachable by shore. As far as I could tell, the boat never moved, was never used. It had all the appearance of something forgotten or abandoned.

It became a ritual for me to look for this boat every morning and I would stare through the windows with expectation until it came into view — weathered and old, covered in peeling and dusty paint, tethered by weed draped rope in the midst of water smooth as glass surrounded by society’s throw aways. I would crane my head around trying to keep it in view as we passed, regretting that the train couldn’t go more slowly.

Occasionally, other passengers seeing my actions would also crane their heads around to see what event could be drawing such intense attention. Seeing nothing, they would resume working on their computers or reading their newspapers.

It surprised me a little that others weren’t struck by the perfection of the boat. I expected that one day I would be craning to look at the boat and my eyes would meet with another person’s as he or she turned from viewing it; I imagined that we would smile, self-conciously, in the way two people who witness something beautiful at the same moment do. Sadly, this moment never occurred.

In more fanciful moments I would think to myself that the boat was my special secret and only I could see it. However, with another sip of coffee reality intruded and I knew that others saw the boat, they just didn’t see it the way I did. Out of all the people in the world, and all the images in the world, the perfect image formed itself for the one person most able to appreciate it.

I checked the location of the inlet and the boat and I know I can find it without being on the train. I’ve thought many times about grabbing my camera some foggy morning and trying to capture the image on film or disk. However, I know that no matter how much I try or what camera or film I use, I could never capture the boat as I see it.

And I’m rather glad I never tried because now the image will stay in my mind, wrapped in the softness of time — always perfect.