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Creek Running North
July 02, 2003
Where am I?
Walking near my office in the North Beach section of San Francisco this week, I passed two men standing on a street corner engaged in animated conversation. Not with each other. They were both yelling into cell phones, flailing arms, eyes flashing. One was giving what seemed to be an impromptu negative performance review to a co-worker; the other was repeating — as if to persuade himself that he meant it — "If she doesn't want to go out with me anymore, that's fine! No, that's fine! If she doesn't want to go out with me anymore, that's fine!"
North Beach is a real neighborhood, a true and authentic place, despite a recent influx of chain coffee shops and CD stores. It's a destination for travelers from around the world. Browsing the shelves at City Lights bookstore, standing in line at Molinari's deli, or elbowing past the espresso addicts at Caffe Trieste, it's hard to imagine yourself in any other place. The ambience, the rancid trash smells, the spent newspaper rolling past the strip joint barkers fix your location in the Beat Capital of the World, and the crowds of young Central European tourists at the hostel down the street are moths drawn to that flame. If there's a capital P "Place" in a California city. this is it.
But these guys weren't here at all. Communication lifted them from the corner of Broadway and Kearney and deposited them at the other end of the phone call. And where was that? Market Street? Omaha? Hong Kong? Didn't matter: the people they were talking to weren't really there either.
I have to suspect that's part of the reason we flail to define what a sense of place is. Before the telegraph, when communication traveled at the speed of a horse and no faster, media lacked the immediacy required to fully lift us out of the place we sat in. Letters and newspapers took weeks to cross the US; reading a poignant missive from your one true love no doubt still transported you across the miles, but always there was the knowledge that Emily or Malcolm or whoever had written the letter a month and a half ago, and was today, potentially, in a completely different frame of mind. Or married to someone else. Or dead.
Two years ago, Becky went on a 16-day raft trip down the Grand Canyon from Lee's Ferry to Diamond Creek. During that 16 days, we talked once — when she reached the phone at Phantom Ranch, and miraculously caught me at home. I missed her far more than was seemly for a husband of more than a decade. If she'd taken a satellite phone so that we could have talked each night, I'd have little memory of those weeks other than of sitting in a room with a phone to my ear, trying to imagine her campsite each evening.
At it was, the longing I felt amplified my current location to a degree that was almost painful. I think of her trip now, and suddenly I'm standing at the bayside promontory where my missing her was a dull ache, or planting the native sages I bought to surprise her on her return. Place became "where I am and Becky isn't."