The maps of our memories fray like fine gauze
By Jim Miller
We are where we are from. Place, our place or “home,” gives us a sense of rootedness and identity, but it is also transient, always moving and changing as we ride the river of time and space.
Some places are fundamentally grounded in a central idea of what “home” is, of what defines a locality—the people in such places hold fast, perhaps futilely, to some notion of what it means to be there.
Not us though, not here in San Diego where history and tradition outside of empty tourist spectacles are cast off like a snakeskin and our sense of place is transformed by the whims of boosters and marketing schemes, sometimes erasing whole communities in the service of civic marketing.
The political and economic reality of this is a kind of top-down class war where the Disneyfication of select areas of the city, downtown in particular, results in the wholesale dislocation of the poor and homeless and the eradication of the last vestiges of grit.
But, beyond the obvious political implications of this process, it is interesting what affect it has on the historical memory of a city and, more specifically, individual peoples’ sense of where they are.
As someone who has lived in and around downtown San Diego for several decades now, I walk the presently hyper-gentrified streets haunted by the ghosts our city’s past.
Once, when I had the pleasure of hosting San Diego’s literary lion, Oakley Hall for one of his last readings at City College before he died, I chatted with him about how he felt walking the streets of his youth after being away for many years.
His answer, given with a wry smile: “It’s all gone.”
Indeed it is, and even those of us younger than Hall was at the time have seen our city relentlessly remade to the point where you’d have to write a novel a year to keep up with the landscape. The maps of our memories fray like fine gauze.
Thus, we are lost at home.
But we write with the illusion that we can capture a moment in time and keep it from falling into oblivion along with all those lost places, people, and things that came to shape that fragile entity we call the self.
So, in the service of honoring some old ghosts of the not too-distant past, I offer ten moments in places that no longer exist in downtown San Diego:
Stopping for the smell of sausages grilling and slowly rolling on display in the window of the hot dog stand next to the entrance to the California Theatre before heading in to see Lou Reed.
Listening to the playful cursing and sandpaper-rough laughter of sunburned fishermen getting drunk in a bar by the waterfront after coming in with a big catch.
Weaving through the bustling crowd at the old farmers market while looking for a good bag of cheap avocados, smiling at the stout women who worked the stands.
Loving the sharp taste of bad black coffee at 3:00 AM in the 24-hour diner on Broadway.
Watching a pack of sailors, still in their crisp, white uniforms, flooding into a Gaslamp strip joint after the barker called them over.
Waiting in line to buy tickets for the Greyhound Bus by the row of seats where sullen old men watched the scratchy little black and white TVs attached to the chairs–everywhere faces like Robert Frank portraits.
Eating navy bean soup at a greasy spoon off Market where your elbows slid if you leaned on the counter.
Sitting by the door of the bar where I worked, hearing the sad tales and elaborate lies of the barflies and prostitutes, none of them true and all of them true at the same time.
Walking the streets as twilight bled into night, getting hassled, hit up for change, still moving along, lost in the lights and shadows and feeling as if anything could happen like a noir novel murder or a Tom Waits love song—dangerous, mysterious, bittersweet, and full of deep-grained blues–nobody was there to be seen, all of them now lost in time.
Reading this from Kafka in the thick dust of the back upstairs room of a used bookstore: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
This is the final column in Jim Miller’s “summer chronicles” series based on the Brazilian model. In that literary tradition, a chronicle allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.