4 a.m.: What the hell is going on up there now? It’s a blupblup sound like one of those sci-fi-mad-scientist-laboratory-experiment sounds. I disapprove of the young at this hour.
I have been in this rent-controlled apartment here in San Francisco’s Haight District for 23 years, 23 years just about today, in fact. Happy anniversary. Might as well be an anniversary: I’m married to this flat. If I ever had to move, my options would be very limited, to say the least. The logical next stop would probably be a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. I can see myself now, throwing empty half-pint bottles of Jim Beam out the window at rattlesnakes.
I spend far too much of my life awake at 4 a.m., with or without the help of my new neighbors, whom I feel certain my landlord installed up there for the express purpose of tormenting me into leaving. It’s a foolish time to be awake. A normal person would turn on the lamp and read. I always just lie there, stewing in my own juices.
The day’s first streetcar comes out of the tunnel just 20 yards or so beyond my backyard fence around 5 a.m. It’s a reassuring sound, part whine, part rattle, part growl. The more recent cars are of Italian manufacture and more operatic than the previous model. It won’t be getting light until around 7. I’ll have fallen back asleep long before then and experienced the inevitable round of shameful, raucous, morning dreams. “Who are you?” I always think to myself upon awakening. I don’t know that I’ve had a single interesting or productive thought between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. in all the years I’ve been here. Maybe a line or two for a poem: I’d like to believe that.
It’s noon in London now. My friends there are thinking about lunch. “Should I have a split of red with my kebab?” they’re asking themselves. “Why not?” Terrible piss-artists, the Brits, especially my writer friends. In New Jersey, my old, recently widowed mother is reading through the Times after breakfast. Whenever she encounters anything about Bush she mutters, “Schmuck” under her breath, like a curse. It’s tomorrow already in Sydney and Wellington. The world’s news makes its way back to us here on the West Coast of America, riding a sort of reverse jet stream and settling over us in the course of the day like volcanic ash from a distant eruption: the battles already fought and decided, the deal already made, the deaths of luminaries duly noted.
It looks like rain. That’s what it customarily does here in January. Three weeks from now the cherry trees will have begun to bloom and those preliminary spring stirrings will have begun making their delicately erotic and poetic claims on my attention, as always somehow managing to confuse the two. But not yet. “Tis the yeares midnight …”
A thousand miles off the coast of China a mass of cold air from the arctic regions has moved south across the Pacific, there encountering a mass of warm southern air. That’s how it begins. I’ll spare you the low pressure troughs and Coriolis effects. Prevailing westerlies will bring it to us here on the northwest coast of California, a chain of storms: a “Pacific disturbance,” the weathermen like to call it. Sometimes you can tell when a storm’s coming in. The wind direction changes. You can smell it. If you’re downtown, the flags at the tops of skyscrapers, which are usually whipped eastward by the west winds, droop, then start to billow out toward the north. The light changes. It doesn’t simply darken outside, the air changes texture, growing denser and taking on an almost bruised cast.
The winter rain
Shows what is before our eyes
As though it were long ago
Now, you might expect a poetic epiphany out of me at this point. Or failing that, to get drunk and/or make a fool of myself with an absurdly young woman. Isn’t that what poets do? Not at all, at least not these days. Poets teach and drive Corollas with 150,000 miles on them and take their children to Suzuki violin lessons. If one of them succeeds in cornering you at a party, God forbid, he will probably tell you about his health plan and 401k. Even your accountant is more interesting, and presumably less neurotic and self-involved. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Years and years ago the brilliant and iconoclastic old Bay Area poet and reprobate Kenneth Rexroth noted that “most poets are so square they have to walk around the block to turn over in bed.”
But I like to think of myself as a throwback, an inveterate wastrel. As far as I’m concerned, the best part of being a writer is not having to go to work in the morning. Let the 28yearoldshitheadsfromstanford.com run the world. There are other pleasures involved in being a writer, to be sure, like the act of writing itself, when it’s all going your way, when you’re pulling rabbit after rabbit out of the hat—or they’re simply jumping out on their own wearing bowlers and top hats. But that sort of thing, for a poet at least, happens only a handful of times a year, if that. Like infatuations. I can’t really see the glamour of it: a bit of desultory typing and a great deal of staring out the window. It’s surely not the social life: a roomful of writers is like the last 15 minutes of a birthday party for 5-year-olds, with the mothers all running around looking feverishly for the mittens and hats.