Sunday, July 26, 2009

Like Shootin' Fish in a Pork Barrel!

The following is a humorous shard of gimcrackery I wrote in the late 1990s for an e-mail column I had then. A recent review showed it still had the capacity to cause the heart to trip with laughter. I’ve updated it with photos and a little tweaking. And I do apologize to the Senator in question: His intentions and goals were good, but his method made him an irresistible bulls-eye and me grateful that I am not a politician.

Dear Honorable Elected Representatives:

It has come to my attention that Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) awhile back pushed through a bill designating Lake Champlain, a somewhat large body of water located in his fine syrupy state, as an additional link in the chain of what are known as the Great Lakes: Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. This despite the fact that Lake Champlain is vastly smaller and separated by hundreds of miles of dry land from the nearest Great Lake, that being Lake Ontario.

Lake Champlain

By having Champlain designated as a “Great Lake,” Senator Leahy has gained access to funds for the conservation and management of those very Great Lakes for his own state.

I am not complaining. I am not bitter. Nor am I jealous. But I do feel somewhat unjustly neglected, for I too live very near a body of water that I truly believe is an integral part of the major ecosystem known as the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Farallon Islands

This body of water, though, to some, small and insignificant, has played a significant role in the historical ecology of the Farallon Islands, undoubtedly long before my discovery of it a few years ago.

I am speaking of the body of water located in my bathtub.

Renamed “Lake Burchfield,” by me in my honor, this previously unknown, but nevertheless significant, body of water was discovered by me when I took possession of my apartment in June 2002. Located in the rear left of the bathroom, just behind the toilet, Lake Burchfield is six feet long, three feet wide and two feet deep at its deepest. Fed by streams from the High Sierras, it drains into the Pacific Ocean a few miles from my home and hosts a unique ecosystem of extremely rare (and, dare I say, precious) microorganisms of a type and beauty found nowhere else in the
entire marine environment.

Lake Burchfield

Shortly after my discovery of this mysterious and complex biosphere I invited a select group of distinguished marine biologists over to study Lake Burchfield. Though they disagree somewhat with the “lake” designation, (Dr. H.P. Heckerbooper, for one, said,
“puddle” might be a more accurate appellation) all the scientists firmly agreed that they had never encountered an environment quite like the one encountered in the teeming shallows of Lake Burchfield.

Several newly discovered species have already been written about in numerous distinguished scientific journals (unfortunately of pitifully small circulation), including:

-- the extremely rare Thomas voracious, a bacteria whose diet consists entirely of soap particles

-- Tadus moronicus, a previously unknown genus of mildew, exclusive to plastic white shower curtains

-- and finally, the first sighting ever of the elusive and controversial Circuitous smudgus, the wondrous creature responsible for bathtub ring.

I won’t even go into my toilet, since there’s nothing in there but alligators anyway.
(and boy do I have the scars to prove it ka-boom!)

In addition, with the help of the experts noted above, I have introduced several endangered species of rare fish into this environment in the hope of restoring their devastated populations for future generations. To date, I have admittedly met with little success, but I am currently working with several marine environmental groups on a proposal to declare Lake Burchfield a major link in a chain of new Pacific salmon runs, provided we can get the fish to swim up the pipes.

In addition, I am currently breeding a unique subspecies of guppy, Invertius poissonus, known for its unique habit of floating upside down for the latter part of its life cycle.

Now: All this takes money and it is with this in mind that I am beseeching you, my elected representatives, for funds to continue my strenuous efforts to preserve, protect and study the amazing, unique hydro-scape that is Lake Burchfield. By designating it as part of the Farallones National Wildlife and Marine Preserve, Lake Burchfield will surely qualify for assistance under the National Sea Grant Program. In anticipation of this qualification, I have registered myself as a University.

Of course, many critics may call this “pork barrel,” but that, of course, is because the money is not going to preserve the wildlife in their bathtubs, which they themselves have never seen fit to pay attention to until I came along. It is in response to these accusations that I solemnly promise to sell Lake Burchfield to the Nature Conservancy upon my departure from this area.

I am in need of funds not only to continue the scientific studies, but also to protect the very environment itself. Already there are threats to build condos along the shiny enamel shores of Lake Burchfield. Indigenous species are under threat from various invasive creatures, including the deadly voracious Billus gatus, a microorganism so vile and pernicious that it has already devoured an entire fleet of plastic boats and neutralizes all dandruff shampoos.

Another Deadly Invasive Species!

Without funding, I may be forced to sell Lake Burchfield to rapacious developers and the incredible world that lives and thrives within its watery depths will be lost forever to future generations and leave nature a little poorer than I found it.

I am currently in negotiations to rent closet space on K Street and am ready with cash bribes for you to defend my cause! Checks should be made out to “Lake Burchfield Preservation Defense Fund.”

Please help, before, once again, another beauteous pocket of nature is gone for good! Remember: “Extinction is Forever (But Not if You Give Me Money!”)


Thomas Burchfield

(All photos by author; boat by Elizabeth; cat by Flo)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Up in Sam Spade's Room

Bill Arney still remembers that day, watching the building manager’s key slide into the lock, seeing the door open into a narrow hallway, and then that hard left into apartment 401.

Bill couldn’t believe his luck at being here in this very top corner room, overlooking the siren-haunted Tenderloin jungle on Post Street in San Francisco. It was in this 275-foot square studio that Dashiell Hammett, one of genre fiction’s trailblazers, lived from 1927 to 1929 and wrote three of his masterpieces: Red Harvest¸ The Dain Curse, and The Maltese Falcon.

Sixty-four years later, on a day in 1993, it became Bill Arney’s home.

Of Hammett’s novels of crime and intrigue, it's the Falcon that has a direct link to apartment 401. With some re-jiggering, Hammett re-imagined his own place as private eye Sam Spade’s digs, the claustrophobic set for the final confrontation between the gang of murdering schemers and gamy dreamers who await the treasure they believe (except for knowing cynical Spade) will mark the triumphant end of their quest.

When I first saw it in 1994 during one of Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett tours, shortly after meeting Bill at one of the many parties celebrating all things Hammett at John’s Grill (where I also met Hammett’s surviving daughter, Jo Hammett), I was nonplussed at its smallness. It was far short of the quasi-palatial spread Spade occupies in the John Huston-Humphrey Bogart 1941 film version.

Bill told me the story of how he found this obscure but essential corner of San Francisco literary history via e-mail and during a couple of the informal farewell cocktail parties he’s been holding there during July:

“I came to San Francisco from Illinois with a one-way plane ticket, two suitcases, and one job interview. I was staying with an old college friend in Menlo Park for the first months. I got that job and began work in September of 1981.

“That winter of '81–'82 was very rainy. So, I was typically seen on the city streets in a fedora and trench coat. A friend at work introduced me to Dashiell Hammett's writing, and I began reading his short stories. In the summer of 1982, I discovered the Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, conducted by Don Herron. One of the stops on the tour was the corner of Post and Hyde Streets, where Don pointed to apartment 401 at 891 Post as the place where Hammett had written his breakthrough work, The Maltese Falcon.

“Eleven years later, in November of 1993, I was breaking up with a long-time girlfriend. I needed a new place to live—fast. One evening I was coming down Hyde Street in a taxi, and I recognized 891 Post Street from the walking tour. There was a ‘For Rent’ sign on the building. I made the cabbie pull over so I could write down the phone number. Apartment 401 was the first unit showed me by the building manager. I took it for $525 per month. I was there for Hammett's 100th birthday on May 27, 1994. In his honor, I woke up hung over that morning.

“It wasn’t until that next summer that I found Don Herron again. He was across the street with another of his batch of tourists. I ran down to join the group and told Don that, if he was there again the following week, I would have #401 cleaned up for his tourists to visit. I've been hosting Don’s tour groups ever since.”

When Hammett moved here, the building was still fairly new. “I have a copy of the building plans,” Bill says. “The drawings are dated 1917, so the building must have been erected in that year or shortly thereafter.”

To Hammett, who returned only a few times to San Francisco once he departed in late 1929, apartment 401 may have been only been another of the many places he lived in San Francisco, but in the world of literary mystery, the place he lived in and re-imagined is a something of a sacred space (though not to its landlords).

Little is thought to have changed since Hammett moved out eighty years ago, according to Bill: “As far as I know, the only remodeling was done in the kitchen: new cabinets, stove, refrigerator, and counter. Everything else was just paint. Also, the west windows were originally like the north. The entire set on the west for the whole building eventually rotted out from the afternoon sun and were replaced with aluminum sliders. The old spots for the original window hardware are still visible.”

Bill’s years as caretaker of this site may be drawing to a close. Thanks to this crumbling economy, he’s been laid off from his architecture job and with few immediate prospects on the horizon, the day may come soon when he’ll walk out the door of 401 and lock it behind him for good; another of those pieces of the past that makes the present worth living may be lost.

He was originally set to leave at the end of July (off to the rural life in San Rafael with wife Laurel), but a generous neighbor covered an extra month’s rent. Still, while Bill (and others) are mulling over schemes for keeping the apartment intact, he’s not optimistic:

“When I leave the place, the building management will no doubt do what they do to every vacant unit: They’ll paint all the woodwork I’ve stripped over the years. Worse still, they’ll remove the Murphy bed, the Murphy bed door, the original toilet, and the original claw-footed bath tub. All these they’ll throw in the trash. I’ve made some unanswered inquiries with San Francisco officials, hoping to protect the unit with some kind of landmark status, but it never came to anything. The rent will jump from the current, rent-controlled rate of $680, to at least $1,500, based upon my observations of other vacant unit pricing in the building.

“It’s been a golden era in my life. Most of Hammett's surviving family members have visited the place over the years, and I count them as friends. It was designated a Literary Landmark, complete with plaque, by the Friends of Libraries, USA, in 2005. I try to be happy that it happened, rather than sad it's over. None of it would ever have happened but for Don Herron's Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour. Don is a great tour guide and a dear friend. There are not enough guys like him in the world.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gardens of Earthly Delight

I whine every time I fail to make it to the Huntington Library on our family visits to Pasadena. A leaden heaviness sweeps through the soul, as a sour sense of life’s incompleteness and time’s waste roils within.

A trip to Pasadena without visiting the magnificent library and exhibits and its sprawling lawnscapes and museums is like touring San Francisco and consciously averting your eyes from the Golden Gate Bridge. Pasadena is a cool place to visit (especially considering it’s location in low-cal SoCal), but without the Huntington, it’s only a cool place to visit.

The Huntington Library, actually situated across the Pasadena city line in wealthy San Marino, was founded in 1919 around the home of its creator, railroad magnate and book, art and cactus collector Henry Huntington (also builder of the L.A. area’s legendary long-forgotten transit system). Once nearly 600 acres, its now down to 207 acres, of which 120 have been landscaped into what is one of the premier botanical gardens in the world: 14,000 varieties of plants organized under 15 different theme gardens, each one a sweet delight to city-blistered eyes and impossible to cover happily with a single visit

(I whimper when it’s time to leave, my voice dripping with little-boy heartbreak as though being dragged away from the amusement park with so much left to see and do: “Aww, Mom! I wanna see the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales again! You never let me have any fun!”).

On our last visit, my wife and I took the docent tour to get a more overarching, systematic view of the Huntington’s grounds. The docent first led us through the Desert Garden with its fantastic, prickly, soft green jungle of cacti and others species of succulent plants: 5,000 species crowded together over 10 acres, including such odd exotics as the euphonious-sounding Euphorbia ammak.

Euphoria, indeed. Walking through the succulent forest seemed to raise the temperature on an
already warm day. At times, the baked environment stirred a dizzy sensation of caressive
otherworldliness; of impossible things made manifest, a mirror of what our souls might be like (and I do believe that Nature, humorless, devoid of nudging, winking irony, does possess or exhibit Soul . . . you may bring suit).

Our party left the ever-thirsting desert, promising to return before day’s end (a promise
regrettably forsaken) and wound our way up through the Lily Ponds, the first area planted by Henry Huntington’s superintendent of gardening, William Hetrich, in 1904: two large and three small ponds pooling on four acres, on whose olive-colored, mirror-still surfaces water lilies lazily boated under a soft blue sky.

(Water is a big issue here, a subject to be visited again in a later article).

Here, we also passed dense groves of bamboo, six of the seventy-five kinds that grow at the
Huntington. I learned that some species of bamboo are invasives as weed-like and stubborn as kudzu (in some cases, leading to dreaded infestations of pandas), but such horticultural challenges seemed to have been met here.

As you can tell from the photos (taken with a Canon Powershot) the Huntington poses itself like a louche model. You about have to stick your thumb in front of the lens to get a bad photo. The nine-acre Japanese Garden, overall, provided some of the best opportunities for lensing and even, on a crowded post-July 4 Sunday, seemed a peaceable dream.

The official tour ended in the Huntington’s newest garden environment, Liu Fang Yuan, or “Garden of Flowing Fragrance,” (which you could also call “The Garden of Scholarly Pursuit”) a ten-year project that cost $20 million and, to hearts hungry for beauty, was worth every shiny copper piece.

We’d been there before, shortly after it opened, so we didn’t stay long this time and, after a
short rest with mallards quacking around our feet, we quickly found ourselves turning back toward the tranquility of the Japanese Garden.

The photographer, with his growing affection for abstract shapes and their relationship to space,
also had trouble keeping his finger still while in the Bonsai Garden where there was too much
bright diffusing light to recreate the soaring sensation that he experiences every time he flies by
these sculpted, wizened little trees.

We ended our gardens tour in the perpetual blooms of the Huntington’s rows of roses, checked out a series of ironic, but pointed, photographs of the Colorado River system by Karen Halverson, briefly swung through the Samuel Johnson exhibit (an eccentric of overwhelming, enviable intelligence who assembled the first English-language dictionary). I rested and briefly perused a biography of the equally formidable Benjamin Franklin while Elizabeth explored “The Beauty of Science” exhibit.

Before we knew it, closing time’s shadow was creeping mournfully near. I sniffled and dragged my feet, complained to the staff about their short working hours and then wandered into the
Huntington’s excellent gift shop and bookstore, where only the bitter reminder of economic hard
times kept my wallet in my pocket and my hands returning every fondly held volume to the shelf.

We returned to Emeryville the next day. Tingeing with nostalgia, I surfed to the Huntington Web site where I impulsively clicked on their employment page and saw two openings for library
assistants. I then clicked the application page.

In this economy, we’re told repeatedly, you have to be prepared to do anything.