ON THE BUS, OFF THE WAGON
by Hilary Hodge
[photo Rich Niewiroski Jr. via Wikimedia Commons]
[published: March 12, 2012 (7:30 PM PST)]
We spent the weekend in the city, in San Francisco. We had the pleasure of visiting my partner’s best friend, a bartender, and his boyfriend, also a bartender. Like all bartenders, they are aspiring to other titles but find the trade very lucrative. It was a weekend of indulgence.
As a writer in the city, I couldn’t help but see the romance of the Beat Generation all around me. As I watched Muni buses and cable cars pass, I thought about the almost-Beatnik Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and considered his observations about what it means to be “on the bus,” a kind of commentary about living a purposed and held existence. (As a San Francisco aside, the book is also the defining reference for the band-name “Furthur,” the Grateful Dead continuation band.)
Our friends live in an apartment with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge that most people only get to see in movies. They live on the top floor and have roof access. Getting to stay there was like being royalty, or, at the very least, like having a ton of money on prom night.
It was a stark contrast to my day to day. My life aspires to a zero carbon footprint, or even higher. My partner and I reuse almost everything we can, recycle what we can’t and have the wisdom to know the difference. Like so many like us, we think about where our purchases come from, how many petroleum miles it took to get to us, and we forego a number of things due to its costly impact on the environment and future generations. Coffee and chocolate always present a moral dilemma.
My partner and I adhered to almost none of it this weekend. For one thing, we drove to the city. We ate Thai food, with its off-season vegetables and imported delicacies. We shopped, deciding on Spanish wine, even though we have some of the most esteemed wines nearby in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, many of them organic and/or biodynamic. We did, however, buy local cheese because the Cowgirl Creamery kicks ass, but we cancelled that out with a chunk of Spanish Manchego as well. We had coffee and chocolate. Our hosts spoiled us, insisting on paying for things we in no way could afford. We obliged at every opportunity.
We did touristy things, even though our proximate upbringing didn’t warrant the need for it. We had fallen completely off the conservation wagon. We visited the Walt Disney Family Museum, a tribute to the life and art of Walt Disney—an amazingly beautiful tribute to both. Every art aficionado should witness its splendor. For me, the treasure of the museum is a letter from Diego Rivera to Walt Disney about the art and craft of cartoon drawings. Not known to most people, Walt Disney was highly esteemed by his artist colleagues. There is even a picture of him and Salvador Dali out boating together. But whether for high-brow art experience or just for a day of childish fun, it is a museum not to be missed. We also visited the Japanese Tea Gardens, which has one of the most amazing catalogues of bonsai and ornamental tree-crafting anywhere in the world. The care and attention to detail that has gone into the maintenance of such wonder is without a single lack of detail. The grounds make me want to aspire to a more meticulous gardener in my own doings. I can’t say enough good things about both locations. We took pictures in Golden Gate Park and sang in a tunnel near the Academy of Sciences. We even found ourselves at a few bars, a couple of times at the Pilsner Inn. What fun! It was pure guilty-pleasure.
As a sustainability writer, I feel I should find a way to make an excuse for myself. The liberal guilt should kick in at any second. But I will be honest: I have no excuse and it was really, really fun.
I recently started reading “The Dirty Life” by Kristin Kimball. At one point, the author, a New Yorker and self-proclaimed “city girl,” laments to her almost-husband about their state of “poverty.” He aptly replies that, “We're smart and capable people. We [Americans]live in the richest country in the world. There is food and shelter and kindness to spare. What in the world is there to be afraid of?” If I ever needed a reminder of that, this weekend was it.
Due to unforeseen circumstance, my partner and I have lived on $16 for the past 3 weeks. We dipped into our “apocalypse food supply,” eating canned food and dried beans and rice. We recently moved so, having no vegetables planted in our own garden, have had to settle for the already-planted Swiss Chard for nearly every green vegetable at any meal. High in iron though it may be, chard gets boring. We recently branched out and foraged for Miner’s Lettuce for a green salad. Unforeseen poverty begs necessity. Still, was a very nice salad. And it was a good test of our foraging ability and food-storage choices. We got bored but we didn’t go hungry. We are truly blessed to live in the country of one of the greatest experiments of man and womankind.
This weekend’s adventure was the polar opposite to our sense of scarcity. Our dear friends aren’t exactly the San Francisco Nuevo Riche. They aren’t programmers or financiers. The glorious apartment that they inhabit comes from a number of years working as the building manager, and a few moves as different apartments became available. Our dear friends are very much “working class.” But they are working class in a different sense of the term than I have recently come to know it. What I understand now, that I maybe didn’t understand before, is that the working class in urban American, is much, much different than their counterparts in rural America. Again from the book, “The Dirty Life,” Kristin Kimball notes that people in cities, even internationally, have more in common with each other than they do with their own rural countrymen. I have to agree.
I worry about whether or not my just-planted lettuce made it through last week’s snow; our city friends worry about whether or not their cab driver is charging them a fair fare.
If I could file a single complaint about the view from their balcony, it would be the serious lack of foliage. Aside from the trees along the sidewalks and a few parks in the distance, the color green was all but lost. There were empty roof tops as far as the eye could see.
On Sunday, when we were reluctantly ending our stay with them, we had a lot to discuss. I told them about the New York City transit that has started to maintain bus-top gardens, a project of New York City designer Marco Antonio Castro Cosio’s graduate thesis at the NYU. The project and its foresight is, indeed, “on the bus” and (just for the fun of another literary cliché), pushing the envelope further.
For a city that is consistently ahead of the curve when it comes to progressive issues, I was very surprised to see the significant lack of edible or roof-top gardens, especially because the surrounding areas are so gung-ho about food security. There was a glaring amount of unused space that could easily be put to productive food-growing, or, at the very least, made out to be a wonderful space for flowering plants and ferns. Organizations like the Friends of The Urban Forest are working to bring San Francisco up to speed on the part of the “green revolution” that actually includes things that are green, but efforts towards growing have to involve the entire community and cannot fall on one organization or another. We all have to take stock in “greening” our communities.
I will be glad to return to my rural home, a place of community involvement in all senses of the term, a place where so many things grow green that it has to be a part of everyday life.
By the end of our trip, I think I had convinced our hosts to work out a plan for a roof-top vegetable garden. We had already pointed out several edible plants at the park where they held soft ball practice. It may take some effort, but I have visions of sugar plums dancing in my head…or at least a few tomatoes. For all the art that the city of San Francisco has to offer, there is a host of empty canvases on the roof tops of many buildings. The possibilities for gardens are endless.