California Part X: Quirky, Creative San Francisco

Frequently on our travels as we visit great cities around the country and around the world, we are struck by how dull DC is in comparison. Believe me this is not a revelation to us and there are indeed many fascinating and wonderful things about living in DC. But man, oh, man does it lack the creative heart of so many other cities.

In our wanderings around the Hayes Valley neighborhood, we came across Symposium Great Books Institute. It is one of the dozens of cool, creative shops you can find in Hayes Valley and no doubt one of the hundreds you find spread across the city. The stock and staff at Symposium focus on the Classics. (That’s right with a capital ‘C’) Not only do the sell the Classics, but they hold discussion group classes on them as well. With space at the back of the store for a big table for folks to gather round, customers and staff come together for a little literary discussion.

It is the kind of place that you could imagine the legions of well-educated types who call DC home could really get into if they could only tear themselves away from reading politic science and political biographies. In fact Symposium is run by two graduates of St. John’s College in Annapolis, just a hop, skip and a jump from Washington. Offering only one course of study and one degree, St. John’s is a “Great Books” school where all students pretty much follow the same curricula of reading and dissecting the major works of Western Civilization. For the classics of Eastern Civilizations students can head out to the Santa Fe campus for a Master’s degree.

Getting Connected

For five years I worked in an office building at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC. For those who don’t know the place, it sounds kind of picturesque. On the one hand Pierre Charles L’Enfant was, after all the man who mapped out Washington’s crazy but beautiful street grid. With its criss-crossing avenues his plan not only lines up some amazing sightlines, but also created hundreds of little squares, triangles, and circles that help give DC its distinctive look. On the other hand, you have the word “plaza” which in this country is pretty much synonymous with ugly, wind-swept, patches of charmless concrete–examples of the worst kind of post-war planning and design, or equally monstrous suburban shopping centers. (Foreign variations of the word like the Italian piazza, the French place, or the Spanish plaza, and their physical manifestations are everything that American Plazas are not. Beautiful, full of life, etc.)

Long story short, in a city of amazing neighborhoods and open spaces, L’Enfant Plaza, is easily one the ugliest and souless parts of the city. It is a ghetto for federal employees entombed inside each day for 8 hours, and virtually deserted after hours. It is disheartening to see tourists from all over the country and the world emerge from the Metro station only to see the ugliness of the area. I used to have to fight an overwhelming need to apologize to them and explain that the rest of the city is not that ugly. I was always quick to offer directions to tourists looking in vain for the Air and Space Museum or the National Mall, hoping that my friendly help would make them forget the ugliness around them.

But wait you say, L’Enfant Plaza is home to the works of some pretty famous architects like Marcel Breuer, I.M. Pei, and Edward Durrell Stone. Methinks that their works are part of the problem. They seem to have believed more in the purity of their designs than they did in the need for humans to use them. Stone perhaps made the best effort by creating an open courtyard with a fountain and seating that was home to a weekly farmers market and providing the only outdoor space that was even remotely hospitable to the folks who work in the area. But even that small gesture will be lost now that the owners have stripped Stone’s facade off the building and plan to enclose the outdoor space to increase their rentable square footage.

But now I work in Old Town Alexandria. I have a longer commute, going from DC out to Virginia and staying on the Yellow Line about 20 minutes longer than I used to. But oddly enough the longer commute is actually more pleasant. Besides the fact that I have more time to read, I also have the opportunity each day to make a connection with the Potomac River. Each day as Metro emerges from its tunnel on the banks of the Potomac, I look up from whatever I am reading to take in the river. I notice how the water looks each day (blue, green, brown, calm, choppy, littered, clean), who is on the river (security boats, crews from Georgetown or one of the other colleges), what the weather is doing (dramatic clouds down river with a sliver of orange light peeking out), which way the planes at National are landing (ocassionally having one pass right over the moving train), checking out how bad the commute is for all of the fools crossing the river in their cars, and a million other details.

Observing all of this from my climate controlled Metrorail car, I feel so much more a part of the city and connected to life–in a way that seemed impossible when I worked at L’Enfant Plaza. Even as I think about the things people throw into the river, the invasive snakehead fish that are now populating the waters, the raw sewage that overflows DC’s antiquated sewer system, and all of the polluting runoff from cars and over-fertilized lawns, I can’t help but feel hopeful. Its volume of ever-changing water allows me to think about the endlessly renewing possibilities of life rather than the monuments to the failed idea that abstract concepts turned to concrete are more important than the needs of the human soul.


A couple weekends ago the other Mr. MyPorch and I went out to Bethesda, Maryland to a stereo repair shop and ended up having a blast.

Let’s unpack that rather loaded statement:

  1. Bethesda, Maryland is a suburb of Washington, D.C., and, while easily accessible by both Metro and automobile, we pretty much never get out there. Living in the District and commuting by foot and Metro, it seems the only time we get in the car is to make a trip to the grocery store and the occasional trip to New York. (After almost three years our car only has 11,000 miles on it.)
  2. In our disposable, it is cheaper to replace it, way of life, who in the world knew that stereo repair shops still existed? However, lo and behold in the yellow pages–yes the big yellow book still exists as well–there were a few listed for the Washington area. The folks at the Electronic Clinic in Bethesda were as friendly as could be and their shop was chock-a-block with every kind of stereo equipment and electronics you could think of. Although some of the equipment was definitely of recent vintage, the shop was like a step back in time. Opened in 1969, the year I was born, it took me back to my youth when not every store was a chain. I also felt rather proud of the fact that I was having my 20-year old Kenwood amplifier repaired. I bought the thing when I was a junior in college, and let me tell you, I could not afford it at the time. I charged it on a credit card and felt so guilty for not putting cash on the barrelhead that I covered it with a towel and didn’t use it for about 3 weeks. Perhaps even more of a throwback, was the fact that I was getting the amplifier repaired so that I can listen to my turntable.
  3. Had a blast in Bethesda? It was great to poke around a part of Bethesda (or anywhere for that matter) that still has space for small useful shops like the Electronic Clinic. There were enough other interesting shops and restaurants that we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon in the neighborhood. One particularly nice shop we almost passed by without going in because it was such an unlikely building and location for such a nice store. Specializing in Swedish antiques, the store Tone on Tone is a spacious and calm haven of beauty. Our only disappointment was that our 1400 square feet can only fit so much furniture.

Lesson learned: Get out of DC more often.

Oh, the Buskers I’ve Known (or Death to the Peruvian Pan Flute Mafia)

A good busker can turn the crankiest of commuters (me) into the happiest of humans no matter what the time of day. A bad busker can drive me to fantasies of instrumenticide. For me the difference between a good busker and a bad busker is not always related to level of talent but has much more to do with the artistic honesty of the performer and the performance.

The worst offenders are those guys with the Peruvian pan flutes playing their crappy, amplified garbage. They generally wear some kind of “native” dress to fool the unknowing rube into thinking that their craft is somehow genuine. It may have been genuine at some point, but the fact that they seem to be in every city in the world leads one to believe that somewhere there is an academy churning out pan flute trios to terrorize the world and make big bucks for some musical pimp. (Kind of like the time Homer Simpson went to Krusty the Klown Clown College…) Since 1989, I have seen these groups all over Europe and North America. The bland homogeneous nature of their music makes them the McDonald’s of the busking world.

And like McDonald’s, their omnipresence displaces a wide variety of performers that are much more original and life affirming. The most egregious example of this I encountered here in Washington DC. At the Dupont Circle Farmer’s market a few years ago, there was a group of three junior high-aged kids playing their instruments. No amplifiers, no CDs to sell, just three kids making music and a little extra money. The following week the Peruvian pan flute mafia showed up with their overly loud amplified garbage and drowned the kids out.

The beauty of busking is that it showcases variety, creativity, and oftentimes musical expressions that have roots in the local area. I have heard buskers that have moved me to tears or made me smile uncontrollably.

Some of my favorites have included:

  • an old blind woman in Lisbon singing traditional fado music in a haunting contralto with nothing but a triangle to accompany her
  • an accordionist playing on a warm summer’s evening who made Washington DC feel like Paris on the Potomac
  • two guys with acoustic guitars covering Indigo Girls tunes in Munich.

Some of the weirdest include a gorilla playing a trumpet on the London Underground and a bunch of shirtless guys banging on boxes singing “We’re Not Going to Take It”. Some of the more annoying ones (beside the pan flute mafia) include the guys who sit for hours playing the same monotonous rhythms on some old buckets (enough already, it was creative the first 82 times I heard it…) or the guy who regularly plays the trumpet really loudly on the street in DC.

I know not everyone feels the same way that I do. Most people really don’t care a whole lot about buskers. Recently the Washington Post did an experiment by placing the world famous virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell at a Metro stop in DC and no one paid much attention to him. I am not sure if I would have recognized Mr. Bell, but I do know that I would have stopped to put some money in his case. I alight from that very same Metro station every weekday and on the rare occasion that I hear a busker as I ascend the long escalator I am immediately drawn out of my morning funk. Unfortunately, I missed Mr. Bell’s appearance but I guess that means I have an extra dollar for the amateurs that are out there trying to make a buck by making me happy.