The Golden Gate

by Bruce Anderson

On a chilly January afternoon in San Francisco, at the top of a long flight of wooden stairs leading down to Baker Beach, the cold and rain having excluded the usual exhibitionists who destroy the stunning natural visuals, I look out at the Marin side of the Golden Gate and think of Weldon Kees, poet and original beatnik, who had driven to the Marin end of the bridge on Monday, July 18, 1955, parked in the view lot, walked out onto the bridge and jumped.

Another writer, MFK Fisher, said she'd always fought off an urge to hurl herself over the side whenever she was walking mid-span.

Me too, and I'm not suicidal, and not that these random memories are relevant to the rest of this personal geography, but like most people I can't stop what runs through my mind at certain sites, and this is what first runs through mine whenever I see that inimitable bridge.

As does my most vivid bridge experience ever when I was on driving across the bridge with my father one afternoon in 1952. As the fog howled through the Golden Gate, the hood of my father's lime green junker of a DeSoto cab he’d bought for 100 bucks complete with jump seats between the driver and the princely plush leather of the rear thrones, suddenly flew up and over the side of the bridge.

"Jesus Christ!" he exclaimed. "Did you see that?" Couldn't have missed it, pop. 

In another memorable commute the old man had run out of gas on the bridge on his way to work, then he ran out of gas again on the bridge on his way home. "You again," the tow truck driver had said. "I think you just set a record, buddy."

A few years later, as a not so keen teen, I sped across the bridge from Marin to San Francisco one night with a carload of hilarious classmates, and right on through the 25-cent tollgate without throwing the 25 cents in the collection basket, careening on into the Marina where a small army of cops jerked us out of the car, shoved us around, righteously yelling that we were "a bunch of little assholes," wrote the driver a huge ticket, took our names, confiscated the car, and told us to get the hell out of their sight forever. "Or else."

Or else what? Even then sanctions were mild to non-existent.

The Indians said that San Francisco Bay was once a great inland lake secured at its narrow Pacific mouth by a continuous land mass from Marin and San Francisco out to the Farallones. The Indians said a lot of things, most of them ignored or dismissed as myth, but on both sides of the Golden Gate the fractured geology seems to confirm the Indians' long memory of a stupendous earthquake that opened up the Golden Gate to the Pacific, and it is fact that in 1880 to make the Golden Gate safely navigable a huge rock, perhaps the last remnant of the ancient, single landmass that joined Marin and San Francisco, was dynamited out of the channel, its obstructing remnant more evidence that Marin and San Francisco once were one.

And I think of everything else the bridge means to me, all the times I've crossed it, and the time I crossed it and kept on going north to Mendocino County, the least chronicled area of all of the United States, where I went on living, mostly, for the rest of my days.

But today, looking across the narrow mouth of the bay from Baker Beach, I can almost smell the acacia-sweetened air of the lambent, late winter Corte Madera where, when I was a child, immigrant Sicilians raised cows in their backyards and white Russians shared their home brew vodka with their neighbors. The Sicilians called the Russians Molotov and the Russians called the Sicilians Mussolini, and they all belonged to a volunteer fire department that threw a big 4th of July drunk and barbecue after an inter-departmental water fight between the Corte Madera and Larkspur volunteers with their firehoses washing each other down Magnolia Avenue. "Negroes" and "mongols" were not allowed to buy or even rent property anywhere in the county except in Marin city, the Sausalito shipyard suburb that came with World War II. 

And Mount Tamalpais, the serene green sentinel looking down on the accelerating events beneath it, as always, eternally indifferent.

By 1970, the symptoms of the last illness were becoming clear — class and race warfare, drugs, random violence, the seemingly endless war on Vietnam, feral children, bad feeling everywhere. Name your pathology, it was up and running by 1970, busting on upfield, eluding all its old tacklers, straight arming convention, galloping along through the gathering dark.

By 2007 there was another endless war underway and new, more ominous symptoms of the rolling collapse joined the old ones — water shortages, mysterious plagues, geologic cataclysms, civil strife, fire and ice.

I wanted out and north I went, all the way to Boonville, to Mendocino County, the big empty where the remnant Indians had begun their ghost dances in 1870, and what they saw coming was a great cataclysm that would shake the earth free of the white people who didn't know how to live on it, and the great god Taikomol would bring all the Indians back to life for a great restoration of the true people of the earth, while the people who had brought the great sickness down on these true people and their abundant earth would be gone.

Bruce Anderson writes for, edits, publishes, and owns the Anderson Valley Advertiser


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