The old man played the drums badly; with feeling and without skill. A syncopated rhythm turning the ethereal North-African music in the background into something that belonged to the dusty world of asbestos and plasterboard we all stood in. As he played he swayed in silence, a lonely teardrop washing the lines on his disintegrating face, surrounded by the still-born creations of an unfulfilled life.
Adam and Eve bursting with the colors of a Sicilian summer. Oil on linen. A table littered with intricate calligraphic art. Ink on wood. And in the far corner of the room, the abstract geometrical shapes that had hung in the SF MOMA for months before retreating here to die. Silk prints and paper.
“I sold the twin of this painting thirty years ago for nearly fifty thousand dollars. That makes this piece worth a couple of hundred thousand.”
He paused to tug at the label on the thrift store shirt he wore, carefully pushed aside the cheap Chinese takeout he’d tried to get us to buy for him a little earlier. And then beat the drum again, swaying to a beat in his head, closing his eyes and disappearing to a café in Paris a half century ago. Slipping away for a few moments from the insane hell of a world that he imagined in his paranoia to be arrayed against him. Forgetting the desperation that led him to believe two Indian students would be buying his art and arranging for him a triumphant retrospective in exotic New Delhi.
We were standing in the midst of a small room in an old shack within the confines of a desolate naval base on the outskirts of the city. Around us warehouses rose up from gravel, beautiful and stark, all concrete and asphalt and steel. And in the distance, a vast, decrepit hulking ship, ghostlike and sinister, half enveloped by the gray wings of the San Francisco fog.
This used to be an officers mess once upon a time. Look carefully and you can still see the name painted on wood, paint peeling, letters twisted and morphed. Submarine Café it says. For some reason a piano lies outside the front door.
“They plan to make condominiums here, he told us. But until they do they’re letting us use this place. The artists of San Francisco.”
That’s the sort of detail that almost seems too good to be true, a cliché come alive. He was being too kind of course, I’d guess he was the only real artist there. For this is a city overflowing with many who accessorize a bohemian idleness with the badge of that unfortunate profession.
We must have cut a strange sight, the three of us. The most pitiful, also the most accomplished. In that small space and for that little time, as he showed us his paintings, he was once again the master of his world.
Talk to the disappointed, broken and ill for a little while and you see a mirror in their eyes…or at least I did. It is a frightening, terrifying thought, but it is not that hard to imagine. Our minds flash and quiver and dim and glow and spark and splutter and crack and heal and the question isn’t when things will fade irrevocably, but whether we might be lucky enough to die first.
I liked the old man – not for himself – but for being imperfect, for struggling, for clinging to things he’d done once upon a time, for seeing himself as brilliant still. “I am a very famous artist you know.” That is how he had introduced himself – many hours ago – a decrepit stranger in the wooden hipster coffee shop, aware he was dreaming a lie and knowing it so easily might have been true.
The bay area is a lovely home to the beautiful and successful. Its geography outlined with organic food and bikram yoga. Sunshine and startups. Mac-books and road bikes, expensive khakis and carefully overgrown hair. Stanford and Berkeley. It is a land where if you’re not climbing a ladder to someplace wonderful, you’re busy engaged in a search for your own personal zen-like equilibrium. It is a place where good people do good things, and do them well, and do them young. Where the only unforgivable sin is to fail to be confident, and secure, free of angst and doubt.
If not for the lost and lonely, the insecure and scared, the dreamers and the disappointed…I do not think you could live here long.