Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Fundamentalist Concludes His Pilgrimage

Catch up with this series here.

While on the middle of the Bay Bridge, my brother turned to me and said, “This was the bridge that collapsed during the ’89 earthquake.” By the time we were driving down Van Ness, his disconcerting comment had long been displaced in my mind with a child-like glee that I was finally in my Promised Land.

Driving to San Francisco from Vegas the day before had been somewhat anti-climatic. The state of California itself occupied a place of mystique in my mind; and when I passed that “Welcome to California” sign, I breathed a sigh of relief and allowed myself to get caught up in the emotion of reaching the end of my pilgrimage. Except I was still in the middle of the Mojave Desert, which is beautiful in its own right, but goes on and on and on. It’s hard to hold on to a premature emotional dénouement for miles and miles of desert. And then I reached Barstow, and thought, “Yes! This town is California.”[1] That recharging of my drama batteries carried me over the beautiful and wild Mojave Mountains. But Bakersfield was waiting for me at the base of the mountains, and all joyously tearful excitement shriveled upon realization that I had possibly discovered the country’s shittiest town. So, by the time I merged onto I5 northbound, I was tired of driving and my rapture at arriving in my Promised Land had petered out. Besides, California was one thing; San Francisco was another thing all together – my rapture could wait.

I left my car at my brother’s apartment in Antioch, a bedroom community about forty miles east of the Bay. The plan was for my brother and his wife to drive me to the hostel at Fort Mason; I would spend the week in the City; and then I would take the BART back to Antioch[2], and spend Saturday evening and Sunday with my brother and his family.

After checking into the Fort Mason Youth Hostel, I walked the few blocks to the famed Fisherman’s Wharf. At the time, I don’t think that “famed” would have been the adjective that I would’ve used to describe Fisherman’s Wharf and its tourist filled tourist traps. Unlike the youth hostel in Denver, there was no creepy bizarreness at the Fort Mason Youth Hostel to cause me to be uncomfortably comforted by Western materialism, chain restaurants, and fanny packs invading my Promised Land. The Fisherman’s Wharf was not the San Francisco that I had driven 2,500+ miles to experience. But, it was too late to begin exploring The City[3]; and I was hungry. 

I have to say, though, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the buskers perform and visiting the many boutique art galleries that dot the area. The sea lions were an unexpected treat. I even enjoyed Ghirardelli Square. I mean, who doesn’t like a piece of free chocolate? And, I had heeded Mark Twain’s advice[4]; and so the cold wind blowing off the bay didn’t bother me. All in all, my first evening in my Mecca was relaxing and enjoyable; and being around tourists, I was able to regain some of my self-righteousness. I returned to the hostel content and looking forward to finally visiting Haight-Ashbury the next day.

The little, fold-out tourist map of The City that I had picked up turned out to be slightly misleading. And, by “slightly misleading,” I mean tried to kill me. According to that homicidal map, the Fort Mason Youth Hostel was only about eight blocks from Haight Street; and then, after a right on Haight, the Haight-Ashbury District would be right there. I don’t know how many blocks it was to Haight Street, but I can assure you that it was way more than eight. You see, I was too busy trying to catch my breath from walking up what turned out to be a giant hill from Fort Mason pretty much all the way to Haight St. to be able to be bothered to count how many blocks I had traversed[5].

Even though the temperature was no higher than the low 70’s, I was sweating quite profusely by the time I reached Haight Street. I bought a bottle of water at a corner market, sat on a bench by the side of the building, and lit a clove cigarette. The clove was a mistake. I barely had time to enjoy the first puff when I was assaulted by two hippie-ish women. They cussed me out for polluting their city, their world, and themselves. Taking my cultural cue from the hippies in Asheville, I explained that what I was smoking was not a real cigarette but a clove; they didn’t care.[6] They were so incensed, they blocked my path when I got up to walk away and refused to move until I had put out my clove. Beating up two hippie-ish chicks[7] was not on the agenda for my first full and glorious day in The City; so, I put out my clove, and angrily walked away fighting the un-feminist urge to use the pejorative “bitches.” On top of the fact that I viewed myself as a feminist, the use of that term so close to Haight-Ashbury seemed extra blasphemous.

I walked down Haight Street stewing over the fact that my first interaction with true San Franciscans, who I thought were my people, was incredibly negative and embarrassing. Almost immediately upon my entrance into my Promised Land, I was made to feel like an outsider. Walking down Haight Street I began to wonder if I was a fraud. And then I saw The Gap.

Looking back on that moment, I now understand that much of my response was bound up in a self-righteous smugness directed at the two women who had just humiliated me – who made me feel like the Bob Jones University student sitting in the dining common trying to figure out what everyone else understood that I didn’t.[8] That being confessed, at the time, I truly despised The Gap and the corporate America that it stood for. Standing there glaring at that store, I felt betrayed by “my people.” But, I wanted to be fair. Maybe it wasn’t my people’s fault that the enemy had entrenched themselves in “our” midst. Thankfully, there was a vintage t-shirt store on the opposite corner. My cautiously returning optimism was quickly squelched as soon as I discovered that a used rock concert t-shirt cost no less than seventy bucks. I wandered in and out of stores, and was continually greeted with overpriced merchandise that was out of my bohemian’s budget reach. I began to notice several other chain stores and restaurants in the district. When I noticed that the people manning the cash registers in The Gap and its ilk all looked exactly like the hippy street vendors selling overpriced hemp necklaces that were the exact same hemp necklaces being sold to the tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf, it became almost impossible for me to deny the possible truth that I had bought into a false religion.

Excursion that’s too long for a footnote: The unpacking of my “false religion” tag deserves its own post, and hopefully I can work some of that unpacking into the next couple of posts when that realization began to push my face into the pig slop. But, I feel the need to step from behind the “curtain,” so to speak, and explain myself. A couple of months after this pilgrimage was over, I delivered pizzas with an actual Roma Gypsy who had been born in North Africa (I think Algiers). He rarely stayed put in the same place for long, and one of his main sources of income while traveling around was selling jewelry, mainly hippy-style necklaces, at fairs and circuses. I still have the necklace he gave me. He was a really nice guy and a true bohemian, and I was excited to meet someone who could possibly give me a little piece of solid ground in the middle of the quickly crumbling sinkhole that had become my worldview/life. He couldn’t. Mainly because when I asked him if he made the necklaces, he gently laughed and told me that factories make the necklaces, and he and his fellow street vendors buy them from wholesalers. That destroyed the romantic image in my mind of he and his fellow street vendors lovingly crafting their wares by hand. Another anecdote – my wife and I purchased my wedding band from a hippy street vendor in Berkeley. A couple of weeks later, my wife purchased the exact same ring[9] from a hippy street vendor at Fisherman’s Wharf. Whenever I tell people about where I bought my wedding ring, I feel cool and bohemian. But, it irritates me when my wife follows up my anecdote with her own ring anecdote. In my mind, the people whom I’ve just impressed with my bohemian ways are now, thanks to my wife, smugly realizing that I’m a fraud; the ring isn’t unique, many tourists are wearing one just like it. Worse, they're now thinking that the same ring could probably be purchased in a mall. It’s not my fault. I never wanted to be a fraud, and that brings me back to the “false religion.” I had committed to something that I believed in – believed in strongly. But, I began to realize that my “religion” was inescapably tied into the corporate machinery that I believed created the need for that “religion.” Those two anecdotes don’t prove that, hence the need for the longer post, but they represent a series of many events that demonstrated to me that activism is often the hobby of bored, rich, white people. Chipotle runs an artsy ad that plays on rich, white guilt, and the company’s stock goes up. Rich “bohemians” buy overpriced houses in the “cool” parts of San Francisco, Asheville, and (name a city) and sit around drinking expensive coffee and eating expensive organic food while complaining about the evils of capitalism. I had actually believed our mantra that “if you own a rug, you own too much.” I didn’t just believe that mantra, but when I walked into Haight-Ashbury, I was currently living it. All I owned at the time were my clothes, books, and music[10]; I slept on a mat made out of blankets. When I had extra money, I gave it away. I was a fundamentalist activist. My response that day was pretty much the same response a cultural fundamentalist would have if he or she walked into the administration building of BJU and found the admins drinking wine while listening to the Beatles. Excursion over.  

If you remember from my earlier post “A Fundamentalist Begins His Pilgrimage,” a girl in her twenties offered me a seat at her table. We eventually struck up a conversation. Among other things, we talked about how evilness of the current war, the evilness of President Bush, and the evilness of Christian exceptionalism. We also talked about her business, a lot. In between our mutually affirming rants about the evils of anything to do with conservative America and capitalism, we also talked about her plans to grow her business. She was a recent graduate of UCLA (a graduate design degree of some sort); and had started her own lingerie company. Now, I’m not too proud to admit that a hot chick talking about lingerie prompted a tad bit of hypocrisy in me during that conversation; and I happily accepted her invitation to a party at her overpriced apartment that night. But, after I walked away, my self-righteous indignation came back. I rebelliously smoked cloves and ate at Taco Bell the rest of my time in The City.

At the end of the week, tired, confused, and upset, I returned to my brother’s apartment. I had no desire to go to church the next day, but I assumed that I would at least be getting a free lunch out of it. I do not remember anything about the actual services the next day. I don’t remember who preached or what was preached. I do remember, however, the genuine kindness of the Christian fundamentalists that attended that church. I remember how I was honestly made to feel welcomed and loved. And I remember playing volleyball after the evening service. I remember having fun.

After the volleyball game, a group, which included my brother and his family, went to Denny’s. Among that group was a girl who had worked with me at the Bill Rice Ranch. In fact, this girl’s parents had been on staff at the Bill Rice Ranch, and I had played on her dad’s summer staff softball team. I did not know how much she knew about my poor departure of the BRR[11], but if she did know, her demeanor to me exhibited no judgment. In fact, everyone there treated me as if we had been friends for years. I felt guilty for enjoying their company and for liking them. They were the enemy, after all - white, conservative Christians. I would occasionally say something to try and shock them and scare them away from loving me. Letting it slip that I’d slept with this girl or that girl during my trip didn’t faze them. My targeted use of cuss words didn’t make a dent in their treatment of me. I didn’t want to like them. I didn’t want to connect to them. But, like much of my pattern at BJU, I was too cowardly to make the decision. I wanted them to make it for me. I wanted that group of fundamentalist Christians to give me a reason to smugly leave knowing that I was better than them. They selfishly never gave me what I wanted. Not once did they treat me with anything but loving graciousness. And fighting against everything I believed and stood for, I wanted to love them back.

The next day, I loaded my car and begin the long drive back east. My plans were to stop at a hostel outside of Death Valley for a few days. But I didn’t. I drove almost thirty six hours straight to San Antonio. I didn’t get in my car that morning intending to drive to San Antonio. But, when I pulled my car out of the parking lot at my brother’s apartment, I began sobbing. Not wanting to leave that church and the fundamentalist Christians from the night before pissed me off. As I drove, I thought back to the business man from Miami’s words; I thought about the hypocrisy of “my place” and “my people;” I thought about my experiences on the road in contrast to my experience with those fundamentalist Christians; and I began to become angry. Very angry. The Holy Spirit would ultimately use that anger to bring me to the end of myself, but not before I was drug through the disgusting muck in the pigsty.  

[1] Barstow is a cool little town.
[2] Actually, at the time, BART didn’t go to Antioch. The end of the line was the bedroom community beside Antioch – Pittsburg. I had to take a bus from the BART station to my brother’s apartment. I could’ve probably walked to his apartment quicker than it took that bus to get there.  
[3] Very few cities are allowed to go by “The City.” San Francisco is really the only legitimate “The City.”
[4] Twain once said, and stop me if you’ve heard this, “The coldest winter that I ever spend was a summer in San Francisco.” Sidenote – Snopes states that Twain never said that. I don’t care. Snopes is the annoying douchebag that doesn’t want anyone else to have any fun.
[5] I began using the San Fran bus system after that.
[6] If I had been smoking weed, no one would’ve been bothered.
[7] More likely, getting beaten up by two hippie-ish chicks.
[8] The big difference being that very few fundamentalists ever treated me as ungraciously as those two women did. In fact, most of the ungraciousness that I have experienced in my life has NOT been at the hands of fundamentalists.
[9] She didn’t buy her ring for the purpose of our wedding.
[10] And a record player and cd player to play that music on.
[11] I know she knows now, because she read my BRR Excursion post. That, and she and I may have talked about it in the years after this night at Denny’s. She and her husband ended up being in my wedding.

1 comment:

  1. You were obviously expecting the San Francisco of the 60s - when Reagan was governor. Next time we get together, you and Calvin should chat about it. I went to San Francisco for the first time in the 80. Loved the climate. I didn't expect anything but history and architecture. When I spent more time in the 90s, and did a walking tour of the old Barbary Coast and it was wonderful. I've thought many times how great it would be to live there, but the politics and self-righteousness make that pretty impossible. Had you smoked in Utah, you would have been silently judged, and though your judges would feel pity for your choices, they would acknowledge that it is your right to make your own choices.