SF Encounters

In Uncategorized on September 24, 2010 at 12:54 pm

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.

German Bakery

In Uncategorized on April 6, 2010 at 1:52 am

In 2002 my class in IIT Delhi was sent to Pune to take part in an ‘Industrial Trip’. It was the kind of expedition that comes armed with capital letters. A necessary part of growing up to become a virtuous mechanical engineer, and an appropriate choice in some ways. A group of confused engineering students just learning they didn’t want to do engineering much longer, invading an overcrowded town just beginning to understand what being a small city really meant.

Typically, we were distracted and inattentive and on the way to the rather grandly named Forbes-Marshall manufacturing unit, a group of us decided to slip away. Four boys, three pairs of steel framed spectacles, clutching a paper bag full of warm breakfast buns. They don’t make quite the same thing in this country, plain bread with sweet fruit bits in them. You dip them in tea or eat them with butter and when it’s raining outside they bring laughter to the soul. But I digress. This is not a story about factories, nor one about breakfast buns.

We hitched a ride in a truck carrying hay and ended up in the little pocket of first world affluence that surrounds Pune’s Osho ashram. Evidently global citizens in search of spirituality, like their brethren in Armani suits, prefer to fly business class. The incongruence of wealth aside, there was the illicit attraction of stories of sex and drugs, the color of red robes topped by blonde hair, white tunics over dark brown skin. Archers on the wet green lawns, and a cloud of blue incense smoke cutting through the winter air.

And outside, in the world of the sane, an outpost of itinerant wanderers. Bamboo roof, long dark wooden tables and air you could cut with a knife. Coffee, beer, ganja and cigarettes – seasoning the thick heady scent of fresh baked bread. The air outside was cold but the crowded café was warmed by food, by drink, by human bodies. It should have been in a Terry Pratchett novel, perhaps I just caught the German Bakery at a good time, but you couldn’t help looking around for a female werewolf and an incompetent magician sharing a mug of dark beer and a glucose biscuit.

In the hour that I sat there, a girl threw a coffee mug at someone across the room (she missed). A couple of young americans sat around eating brownies (yes maybe they were, I didn’t try any). The long haired spaniard next to me spoke of how he came to paint two years ago and never left, hugging his indian friend close. She looked like she was leaving behind a conservative family in south India for a few months of secret hedonism. Kajal paired with a nose stud, framed by curls held in check by a red headscarf. I remember thinking she was pretty and feeling vaguely resentful at the firangi, arriving to steal our women away.

Not just artists and international seekers of spirituality and yoga of course. Also college kids from nearby – middle class India reading books in the sun. Listening to Arundhati Roy turning words to music in their minds, Ayn Rand in the afternoon, perhaps Jeffrey Archer. Not to forget, Gabriel Garcia, essential accessory to the intellectual equivalent of the idle rich. Today you’d need a Mac and a Moleskine (™x2). What was I holding in my hands I wonder? Perhaps Wodehouse. I hope so. More likely Marquez though sadly.

Spaces where different tongues can speak of things that do not matter, with words that didn’t need to be said. Where the murmur of conversation is a rainbow colored tapestry. Where French touches Hindi and both become the sound of the sea. The world does not have enough of those places. Mourn the German Bakery attacks. Because long after the dead have been buried and bread is being baked again, a skeletal man in dark robes plays chess in that corner you can’t quite see from where you’re sitting.

Cafe Revolution

In Uncategorized on March 20, 2010 at 9:25 pm

I met her scribbling aphorisms,
on a grey morning i’d seen before.
Raindrops dancing in slate blue eyes,
half silent sorrow, half untold lies.

Amidst bodies on the barstools,
sinners in their pews.
A cancer in the cool blue air,
the stench of night old booze.

She wrote in search of laughter,
and meaning for her dreams.
Each heartfelt word a stillborn child,
each thought a prayer revealed.

We gazed across the vastness,
of three feet of wine drenched wood.
And felt a mutual sadness,
that shattered as she stood.

As teardrops on the sidewalk,
washed gold smoke from the skies.
The drunkard beat the trashcan lid,
In warning to the wise.