On a recent perfectly sunny, crisp fall afternoon in San Francisco, I joined an expedition of 15 fellow travelers at City Lights Books for a most unusual walking tour. Â The event was one of many others in the Carnivale Pataphysique, a “divergent inquiry exploring the anomalous antinomial syzygy of the clinamen of Pataphysics.” Or, Â less cryptically, a weekend of celebration to commemorate the work of Â 19th C French author and playwright Alfred Jarry, organized and sponsored by City Lights Books and the Mechanics’ Institute Library in connection with the publication of Pataphysics: A Useless Guide, by Andrew Hugill. The laws of “contradiction, cryptic meanings, and concealed subtexts” were on the carnival menu, with circumambulation being among the prescribed means to enlightenment on the aforesaid laws. The tour was just that, aÂ circumambulation of the imaginary, overlaid on the streets of San Francisco, overlaid in turn on the streets of Paris, as imagined by Jarry.
Starting at Shakespeare & Co Bookstore (aka City Lights), our trusty guide Peter Maravelis led us on a path through Chinatown alleyways to our first stop, the Amorphous Lake (aka St Mary’s Square). Once there, our officiants (a bride wearing a quiver of arrows, a man in a wetsuit and flippers, and another in rubber boots) proceeded to inflate an enormous balloon from a hydrogen tank worn as a backpack. We were treated to a short lecture on antique submarine instruments. Â Then it was onto the next stop, over hill and dale, to The Great Church of Snout Figs (aka Wo Hei Yuen Park), for a bout of poetry and marvelous silliness courtesy of actor Leonard Pitt.
Stop number 3 was up the Vallejo Steps, half way to the top of Russian Hill, to the Forest of Love (aka Ina Coolbrith Park). More reading, of prose this time, accompanied by a choreography of toothpicks lined up on a briefcase, and two men walking carefully on the curved cracks in the asphalt of the path. All the while being treated to one of the most glorious views in San Francisco, from Russian Hill to Telegraph Hill, and overlooking the bay.
Enough time to catch one’s breath before embarking for our next stop, the Fragrant Isle, (the very tippy top of Russian Hill). A concealed subtext pointed to the path up the steps and through the green parroted forest. Another breath catching moment, accompanied by poetry reading and breath taking views.
Down again, Russian Hill that is, and up again, Telegraph Hill this time. To the final and most magical stop of all, the Land of Lace (aka Jack Early Park). There, Hazy Loper treated us to music, wailing and plaintive, of docks and dockers and love gone wrong. Silk and lace, feathers and mirrors hung in trees and shrubbery. When it was all over, the cherry on the cake was the view from the balcony of Jack Early Park, Â as good as any crow’s nest at the top of the tallest ship in an ancient harbor.
I didn’t learn anything in particular about what I saw, its history or its importance to society, in those four hours of striding over this crazy topography that is San Francisco, in the company of mostly perfect strangers, part serious and part giggly. To my surprise, I happily abandoned the need for meaning, gave it up to the wind and a sense that I was walking a path of joy with a truth all its own.
Blessings upon the steps of San Francisco, the cracks in the paths, the parrots that break our reverie, and the courageous characters that coax us out of our familiar ways. Â Irrational exuberance, San Francisco style, lives in a cottage on Telegraph Hill.