Swelter 20

The signs were all there, a red alert of bad karma and a quiet death instinct warned against a spontaneous trip to California. All the essential discount glamour hookups had fallen apart, and given some petty pecuniary circumstances, the travel budget barely covered cigarettes, booze, and Diet Coke. In the arena of bad habits, we're a definite high-overhead situation. Also, we'd been there and done that: Our previous trips to the Twilight Zone stretch back to the golden era of 1967, traveling en famille as an impressionable young lad. And the timing, an essential art form of the good life, could not have been worse, what with Madonna celebrating her birthday. Even during the off-season, though, Miami's good enough for the ultimate Material Girl, but not, of course, for our itchy being. Like any good American, we always want more than we deserve.

And so the siren call of California -- a once-great club that has let way too many trashy people past the ropes -- beckoned across the heartland. First stop, the flatlands of Berkeley, chapter one from the diary of a wandering schlub, transformed into a charm-seeking missile inspired by Armistead Maupin and scenic masturbations such as Nine Months. Inevitably finding ourselves in a studiously noncinematic neighborhood: pawnshops and small-change scams, acid-refried hippies and Mexicans, grease pits and liquor stores of the Mad Dog school. A Tom Waits dirge come to life, interspersed with faux English pubs given to a smart-but-skanky clientele out of a 1918 anarchists' ball. Lots of professional graduate students playing darts and sipping arcane beers from obscure regional breweries, the state's newest obsession, while debating Roland Barthes and the Fluxus movement.

Within a day or two, going native in a lowlife way, taking comfort in the nifty and shitty alike. In a trance until one class-will-tell encounter, when the local version of a rich white lady (our crowd in Miami), mistook us for a dangerous prole and almost ran us over. Obviously pedestrians earn no respect whatsoever, and so we decided to live large, automotively at least, haggling for the kind of convertible that chump tourists rent on South Beach. Immediately trapped in endless freeway traffic and making every conceivable wrong turn on a tour of San Francisco, other motorists constantly lobbing epithets at the lost.

The urban jungle having capsized our visual viability, moving on up to a night in Marin County, a cross between Beverly Hills, Aspen, and old WASP Coral Gables. Handily enough, ex-Miamians Spencer Reiss and Anne Day living the cyber-California life in the even more opulent Belvedere. Among other charms, the stomping grounds of the late counterculture figurehead Jerry Garcia, who was always being arrested in his BMW on DUI matters. The town transcending the pleasant and entering a surreal dimension, our hosts talking about all the wondrous civility at work: supermarket bag boys who actually refuse tips; parents deconstructing "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" for their children at Burger King. The natives in bed early, hobby kind of people, forever riding mountain bikes, hiking, and drinking decaffeinated lattes with their muffins. We fit right in, although some heroin would have cut the existential chill.

Our saints of social engagement -- putting us up is no picnic -- arranging a wonderfully entertaining dinner at a local restaurant, the big city glimmering across the bay like Xanadu. One gentleman talking about the responsibilities of being raised in a California town called "Paradise," a New York City native describing San Francisco as "the Northeast on Prozac." From there the conversation going gloriously gossipy -- who was cute, who was disgusting, who was over -- the only resident-fame icon, apparently, being Danny Glover. Another gentleman brought in for a local sin-scene report, obligingly reeling off some insider tips on the "Balkanized" homosexual wonderland, the gay-to-play modus operandi weeding out the amateurs:

"The tea dance at the Eagle is really good, lots of leather and chaps: San Francisco is the home of the western S&M scene. From there people usually go to the Jackhammer, although you might like the Lone Star -- it's kind of a motorcycly bear bar, a place where fat guys with ZZ Top beards can feel proud. The clubs here have gotten really chatty and social, not cruisy at all, since everyone always winds up at this perfectly civilized sex club, Blow Buddies. There's a nice dressing room, peroxide in the bathrooms if you want to rinse your mouth out after sucking cock, good porn videos, and they do special things, like golden-shower parties once a month. It's very solid and decent."

The next day, too stupefied to deal with metropolitan decadence, whimsically opting to drive up the coast, amid a sudden heat wave and Ratland roadside culture: huge crosses carved out of hillsides, windmills constructed out of chopped oil drums, freaks selling tie-dyed shirts outside the "Crystal People" new age store. Here and there, gaping dutifully at the redwoods, sluggish sea lions, and disenfranchised sonic skateboard youth at a punk festival, the bucolic idyll ending with a snippy desk clerk at one free-HBO dump or another: "On Saturday night, there's not a bed to be had on this entire coast without reservations, but I guess some people just have to be spontaneous." There's always some grunt ready to make your life miserable, though our psychic body language may have indicated a certain condescension to the nonfabulous. No room at the inn, anywhere, pondering scenarios of ritualistic murder while driving back down to the big city, lost in all the quaint fog. Haight-Ashbury, now an atavistic cartoon, and then the North Beach section. Beatville cannibalizing itself with Jack Kerouac alleyways, trinket emporiums, and porn CD-ROM shops, the historic haunts decorated with press clippings. Eleven hours straight in our mobile dream machine, descending into a midnight dementia in the better club neighborhoods, calling out to stray passersby for directions: "Excuse me, can you tell me how to find a club called Blow Buddies?"

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