John Hersey described in exquisite reportage how in the weeks following the Hiroshima blast the survivors were afflicted by devastating changes to their bodies. They did not understand yet what had happened to them, but their hair was falling out, they were weak, they were vomiting. What had happened to them? Matter had simply given up its energy. And they had found themselves in the line of fire. What is it about our 21st century relationship to this process that, in both its most fully expressed and its diminished form, yet strikes us still?
Anna came up for the weekend from Hopi. I met her at SFO and we took BART and the bus back from the airport. I wanted her to revel with me in the public transportation. We napped, so tired were we, and we awoke and ran to the corner theatre for the last showing, period forever in this city, of Departures, and afterwards bussed and largely walked to the Thursday night fete at the California Academy of Science. We ate hand-raised free-ranged pork tacos and watched a physics teacher be pressed between two beds of nails with a cinderblock placed on top and then hit full force with a sledge hammer. The physics teacher shot a ping pong ball straight through a beer can with a self-designed vacuum gun and sucked in a gas heavier than air so that he sounded like Darth Vader. If only to be a gear head in this city of cities and assume sufficient marginal command over matter and energy to have it do your bidding, creating magic so that all you need do is enter a destination into a telephone and the device divines your current location from the miracle of satellites and geographic positioning systems and can tell you that you need only walk 100 feet to your right and in three minutes a magical Miyazaki-like bus will materialize out of the darkness and carry you home safely to slumber.
The next day Anna accompanied me to my treatment, she witnessed the bolting, the zapping, the incremental burning of skin, she met the rad RN and the first year resident, and reminded me to keep sterilizing my hands. We walked up the block and peeked in the shuttered storefronts – the Czech bar and Mani + Nanny salon, and returned on the 38 Limited Geary to the Red Bike and dang if they didn’t make a perfect shot and I ate a peanut butter and jelly and banana sandwich with extra peanut butter and I think I could taste just about most corners of it, so happy was I. We took the bus to a thing called the Metreon and we watched Harry Potter – part of it was in something called 3-Dimensions. And I thought, man, maybe I should adapt a screenplay that has no character development and no narrative drive and just seems to go on and on with bearded wizards and murky cinamatography. It can’t be that hard. Maybe I could also start an international chain of electronic stores – those things seem to make money. We had dry drinks at the Redwood Room with my cousin Inta and ate Faux Gras – chicken instead of goose livers – that tasted of metal, metal, metal. It was night and then day and we just wanted trash so we lay in bed and we watched old episodes of Lost. We took our laptops to the Apple Store to replaced an old battery with incomprehensible innards that could no longer hold a charge and replaced some missing keys, except the replacement keys were in both English and Kanji. You see, we could just walk into a store in a place called downtown, we could just go there and we could sit with someone and they could fix it. We didn’t have to drive 5 hours to Phoenix. Anna typed “Excellent Coffee” into her phone and it told us to walk three blocks to Blue Bottle. The phone knew (no, not the phone, but a vast disaggregated database and some Software Agents that could parse the word ‘excellent’ and through some statistical arbitrage glean) that that was, in fact, the place to get the most excellent coffee. And not Starbucks or Tully’s or any other joint. And it was a miracle in itself that Blue Bottle even exists. I watched a girl with zen precision and calm, dose, pack, and pull a shot so perfect in form that I wanted to cry. It is so hard, so incredibly hard, to do anything, even the most simplest of things, with perfection. I was so happy for her, so proud of her, for being able to do it. We bought two cream puffs the size of billiard balls. We split one and gave the other to a man (god he needed a cream puff) standing outside.
Later we lay in bed and you see, there was this thing called The Internet, and a speed, it’s 6 megabits per second – it can even be 10 or 15 megabits per second in this city – and with this speed, and this thing called The Internet, you can hit a virtual button in an application and a few minutes later have possession of the “Cold Cuts” season 5 Soprano’s episode, and get this: you can watch it. Just like that you can watch it. And in the middle of the episode, if you get hungry, really hungry, and you want a cheeseburger, you can type the words “Bill’s Hamburgers San Francisco” into your phone and hit another virtual button and a phone number appears and the number dials (except there are no more dials anymore, nothing even remotely like that, instead something called Software transmits a sequence of something called Bits to a 5E Switch through a series of handoffs between cell towers. It’s all energy, all different states of energy that have been encoded with vast amounts of information) and then you’re talking to a man at Bill’s Hamburgers – he’s not even beside you; he’s actually somewhere else a few blocks away- and you can tell him that you want two cheeseburgers and you ask if the fries are handcut, and my god, he answers, yes.
So then, you and your wife, you can put on your shoes and scarves and walk out into the cold mist. It’s 10:30 at night by the way. 10:30 in the middle of the friggin’ night and there’s a place, you can walk there, and it serves burgers. Perfect burgers and handcut fries. Outside your door is not just endless desert and buttes and stars and darkness, but instead buildings, and a movie theatre premiering Inglourious Basterds, and the hiss and roar and of the 1 California sucking from the overheard wires its elixir of energy that propels it on until it disappears in the foggy darkness. And then, there it is, Bills Hamburgers and the man is there, but in flesh and he hands us the grease spotted bag in exchange for crumpled green paper and soon we are home back in the same bed, taking bite after tasteless bite while Tony Soprano avoids and evades and shouts at Dr. Malfi that it wasn’t his fault that he hadn’t been there to help his cousin Ton on the heist 17 years ago, he would have been there, christ he would have, but he was jumped by a bunch of motherfucking cocksucking jiggaboo bastards. And you can wish that you could write, hell – deliver, a line so ugly that it perfectly expresses a person’s character. A line, a mountains of lines, written and delivered over seven years that dove so low (Oh Mary-Elizabeth and Barbara, you’re both going to hate me for this) that they emerged on the other side as arguably some of the best writing ever in the American language.
The next day, Anna dried herself off after her morning shower. We lay in bed and she turned to me. She had looked at the towel in the bathroom.
You’re losing your hair, she said.