Prose from Poetry Magazine

San Francisco

Grounded at last.

by W. S. Di Piero

Habit is a stabilizing psycho-biological compass. I have a major one: to take a walk as soon as I get home after even a short flight, not just because I don’t have a car and the ground is where I feel ready to deal with the things of the world, but because when I’m up in the ether, I feel physically incomplete. Locomotion makes me more palpable to myself, fleshed out, self-locatable. So I observe the habit, climb three flights to my apartment, drop my bags, walk back down the stairs, then down the hill through my neighborhood. If I’m still travel-dressy, I buy my lettuce and avocados at the corner market or plant myself in a cafe wearing suit and white shirt or whatever I wrapped myself in before departing that now-nearly-forgotten-wherever. In my now gentrified but casual neighborhood, you walk the streets dressed how you like. Thirty-year-old nano-captain-of-industry types with 1.5-million-dollar two-bedroom houses stroll about in cleverly logo-ed T-shirts and (help them, somebody) flip-flops. Some neighborhood regulars go in costume. One swaggers like a Mad Max vet in a long cape that looks shredded by cat’s claws: beads and wing-nuts swing from his imperfect, droopy braids, and the catcher’s shin-guards strapped to his legs gleam like greaves. I walk on by, suited up, and feel grounded at last.

*     *     *

Several weeks ago. I brush my shoes, go out, walk up my hill, then up an even steeper hill where I get an open-fan view of the East Bay and the Oakland seaport’s horsy white shipping cranes, the most elegant public sculpture in the Bay Area. From there to the Castro is downhill and nearly all stairways, some that literally skirt people’s front doors, so down I go to the flats past the Castro Theater (if Josephine Baker were a movie house . . .) then down Market to the Safeway to pick up more lettuce and avocados (and vodka). A broad-faced, late-middle-aged man with the comportment of a tribal chieftain, a fat snake of dreads trussed to his head with hemp twine, waits to check out half-gallons of soy milk. At the cheese counter a pair of leathered hairy bears bicker over triple creams. A middle-aged pee-wee in wrinkled suit and white shirt, the unmedicated voices in his head now given full voice, harangues two women who moments ago were stabbing half-cartons of eggs at each other. The cereal aisle, bright as the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, cheers us all on with its infinitude. By now I can’t breathethe visual overload is cutting into my air supply. But I wouldn’t have it any other way (assuming I could) because one task of city walking is to separate one thing from another. Urban walking trains us for storytelling, yes, but my Safeway experience is a speed babble fever dream. I don’t own a camera: having to choose this or this chokes me up.

*     *     *

Walk enough and you feel San Francisco physically alive in you; its topography tightens through your hamstrings, quads, and Achilles. It guarantees astonishment, too. You live here for years and are still caught unawares by a body of water between buildings, stood on end like stage scenery, or by a tilted sidewalk that rises skyward until it becomes all the horizon there is. Steve McQueen went for a midnight motorcycle ride while in town to film Bullitt and next day told the director that when he crested hills his bike wheels left the ground. He could fly. So they discussed shooting a car chase.

*     *     *

Some festival nightsHalloween, New Year’s Eve, the FourthI go out late and float neighborhoods, walking and hopping public transit, with stops in bars or cafes. (Riding transit is a kind of wheeled walking.) When I float I don’t feel I’m passing through time but that it’s passing through me, leaving behind its candy wrappers, lost shoes, cooking stains, burnt-rubber atmospheres, and muggy lights. It’s a run-on narrative composed of extremely long paragraphs, anecdotes mix-mastered into one strange mossy elixir, like the scummy, life-elongating antioxidant a doctor friend once imposed on me but which, next day, made me sick. Take it anyway, it’s good for you. Whether it’s a float or errand run or planned trek, I don’t walk to absorb local color, and I certainly don’t do it to gather “material.” If I’m moving really fast, it’s usually because I’ve made a mess of something in my life or something in my life has made a mess of me. So I take my trouble for a walk, not to sort through it but to give grievance, sadness, confusion, or rage a quickened shape and action. The broken glass of broken loves, the nauseated conviction that my own emotions have kidnapped me from my lifewalking gives momentary, cadenced containment to such disturbances. One Fourth of July, nasty of mood due to writerly aggravations, I went in search of the city’s fireworks. No, I didn’t, really, because I knew very well where they were happening. I wanted, really, to ambulate toward the shattered, plosive colors in hope that some strangeness would intervene. That night it was a dapper Indian gentleman at a bus stop playing with a moist bud of chewing gum, who said to me: “I feel fine as fog.” One Halloween I kept switching from foot to transit. On a Haight Street-bound bus, a toothless drunk boarded and greeted us all, including some bouncy out-of-towners hoping for a Haight experience, then broke into song: “I once had a horse named Sunshine / She never drank water / She only drank wine.” The tourists were having their peak experience, but when the driver stopped the bus and walked the aisle, hat in hand, soliciting contributions for the homeless entertainer, a night worker behind me got restless: “You the driver? The fuck you doing? Get back there and drive me home!” Another shining night, on foot, in this purple-gartered, doll-face, kissy city, within a ten minute stretch I got caught up in three acts of near violence, one involving a hysterical bicyclist wielding a tire pump, another a smiling stranger who walked straight at me asking the time of day but then got in my face and waved his fists, screaming about gas bills, the mayor, and me.

*     *     *

We find our own speed. Whenever somebody says I walk fast I wonder what counts for fastness of foot compared to the twenty-mile jaunts of a Wordsworth or Keats or Coleridge. And their pace wasn’t up to Audubon’s: when he describes in his journals and letters the distances he covered in a day, it’s clear the man wasn’t walking really, he was springing forward in a walking kind of way. Recently, out late after a show at the Castro, powering through some neighborhood, my date and I noticed our matching martial strides. The velocity of a stride can measure a person’s pace through the mined gardens of circumstance, through work and loves and changing emotional frequencies. Two persons walking together at speed, telling stories and breathing hard, will physically draw closer, hands in pockets, bump shoulders, and the bump might incite something unexpected and intense, or not. That night, I imagined two others walking a commercial corridor anywhere: one saunters, the other marches; one constantly looks at the mirrors shop windows create; the other, not. At home, they bicker over the number and placement of mirrors.

*     *     *

It’s hard to resist glancing at our window reflections. We check for imperfections. We evaluate the project of self-fashioning. “Where doors and walls are made of mirrors,” Walter Benjamin says in The Arcades Project, “there is no telling outside from in, with all the equivocal illumination.” Benjamin never visited New York or San Francisco; he couldn’t now say that “women [in Paris] look at themselves more than elsewhere. . . . Before any man catches sight of her, she already sees herself ten times reflected.” I get teased that I’ll see any French movie set in Paris just to watch the glassfronts. Who cares about the plot of Un coeur en hiver or Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud? I watch them to swoon over the louvered flash and revolutions of images in restaurant windows, doors, shop windows.

*     *     *

Glassfronts make a city whole by fragmenting it. The anarchic multiplicities thrill me. The N Judah streetcar stops in front of Kezar’s, my local drinking establishment. At night the bar mirrors flash back the streetcar’s windows and airplane-metal sides that are themselves smeared with reflections of Kezar’s lights washing across faces behind the streetcar windows. Benjamin again: “Let two mirrors reflect each other; then Satan plays his favorite trick and opens here in his way (as his partner does in lovers’ gazes) the perspective on infinity.” Around 7:00 PM, in winter, the trolley floods the corner with discharged passengers who speed or amble or drag their heels in all directions, going home to their secrets, some stopping in Kezar’s to drink and recite their own or others’ secrets. Walk past Kezar’s windows, as I often do at this hour, and you see your reflection in the windows and, behind them, in the backbar mirrors and, wiping across both, in the reflecting surfaces of the streetcar. Fractured illumination, slashing epiphany, darkling disclosure: versions on versions of the real. In such fugitive moments, I know I’m home.

Originally Published: October 30, 2009


On November 18, 2009 at 8:59am Janeen Lee wrote:
Wonderful walking tour. Your eye-mind connection is suffused with dry humor.

On November 20, 2009 at 1:08am Syed wrote:
And this is what I like to call a "beautiful mind".

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2009


Audio Article
 W. S. Di Piero


W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of English and on faculty in the prestigious Stegner Poetry Workshop. Elected to the American Academy of . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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