Saturday, August 23, 2008

Psychedelic Cattle

It's morning again, and again I'm washing my shoes. This is the ritual. This is how summer passes wraithlike through San Francisco, in a barely perceptible, stubbornly sticky coat of red-brown dust. In pitchers of Radeberger, in Porta-Potties full of bats.

The word Zeitgeist, a good German word with more than a hint of the Enlightenment about it, is almost translatable, and what it can almost be translated to in English is the spirit of the times. It's one of those words we know or pretend to know if we read the New York Times on Sunday, and pretend to not know if we really like motorcycles. But if the Zeitgeist was ever a spirit of the times, it would have to be the times of a soaring NASDAQ and resurgent cocaine chic and that glorious self-delusional high of not quite winning in the Boom. Of having more than you should, but less than you could, and in any case having it all built on a tower of some flat, syrupy artisanal homage to England.

But that wasn't really the moment. Zeitgeist was full every day then, even on the fog-bitten cold nights, and everyone could always afford enough artisanal British Columbian weed to tough it out. Some of those people still go, but the easy money's gone and the people who got theirs have bought houses and acquired offspring and a habit of not taking them to bars. The Zeitgeist is a spirit, that's as clear as Everclear, but it's not the spirit of the times.

The bartenders, mostly, are still the same. The modern primitive Webmonkey addicts have moved on, and the tattoos have settled back to the honest pedigree of a drunken night out. The ugly people have sway again, and on those warm afternoons when a breeze of gorgeous hipsters wafts over the benches you can close your eyes and remember that the crowd was pretty ugly during the dot-boom as well; it was just much better off.

Now it's back to basics, in a way. Back to people who like to ride bikes; does anyone even remember the bike-messenger fashion? Back to people who like their motorcycles more than their Ducati-branded leather jackets. Back to the rest of us too, loving it and hating it at the same time, thrilled to be drinking a fine Ossi beer in the sun in a cold town, thrilled at the focus on conversation, at the constant pickup that's rarely more than a flirt, at this tiny drop of down-market European civility in such an unlikely place - and in the same heartbeat appalled at the blandness, the lack of ambition, the hesher grunts and the standing water breeding unknown tropical diseases - and terrified, always terrified of those bats.

So maybe Zeitgeist is the spirit of timelessness, or of San Francisco's way of letting a beer sit through two generations of newcomers and still drinking it. Or maybe it's just psychedelic cattle.

(I wrote this for Brice, probably over a year ago, and mailed it to him, but his e-mail was broken that day. I just ran across it again, and I don't think I posted it anywhere, so here it is. And the bats idea was from James. )

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