San Francisco Bay by Harold Gilliam

I’ve spent the last few days relaxing at my friend Scott Constable’s rural retreat in Sebastapol. Scott and Ene are in Sheboygan working on their residency at Kohler and kindly invited us to chook-sit and enjoy their wonderful house and garden.

San Francisco Bay by Harold Gilliam

I’ve spent a chunk of my time reading San Francisco Bay by Harold Gilliam. Gilliam was a journalist with the SF Chronicle and published this fascinating piece of what would now be called Environmental Journalism in 1957 (the year of my birth). He has an illustrious career of journalism and authorship and the Bay Institute named their “Harold Gilliam Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting” in his honor.

Gilliam’s book is a incisive snapshot of Bayarea mid-last century. A potent mix of factual reporting and poetic writing with just a pinch of coldwar jingoism for flavor.

I was particularly drawn to his chapter on the age of ferries on the Bay.

“For more than three generations bay are residents by the tens of thousands sailed across the bay to work in San Francisco every morning and back again at night. But the ferry ride was far more than a means of getting to the job. It was a twice-daily social period, a convivial gathering, a respite in the day’s routine only remotely approximated by the modern coffee break or cocktail hour. In more than a figurative sense the passenger ferries were floating clubhouses. The regular commuters were members of well-defined in-groups with long established totems, taboos and folkways.

The Daily Voyage

Each scheduled sailing had its own clan of passengers who caught the same boat at the same time, observing the same rituals, every working day in the year… They rushed down the loading ramps a few minutes before sailing time and some habitually went into the dining room for breakfast or to the lunch counter for coffee, others to the main cabin of the boat. Each had his regular seat, reserved for him not by any legal right but by immemorial custom – a tradition violated by a newcomer only at the risk of ostracism. The supreme offense was to take a seat left vacant by a commuter who recently had made his last long journey into the fog.” 


“They ought to bring back the ferries” is an inevitable observation whenever the traffic congestion on the bridges is discussed… Officials claim that the return of the commuter ferries would be uneconomical. They assert that the demand to bring back the boats – like the fight to preserve San Francisco’s cable cars – is motivated more by sentiment than hard-headed analysis of the economics of transportation. In this respect they may be right. But it is understandable that sentiment plays a part in the attitude of bay area residents towards the  ferries. for the boats were a unique social institution. Admittedly they lacked speed and efficiency, but they also lacked some other elements of more modern transportation – the high-tension frenzy of rush-hour car commuting, the nerve-fraying lane-to-lane-infighting among drivers who know each other not as human beings but only by make and model…

The intimate experience of the boat ride, of the bay and its changing beauty created a mood of easygoing friendliness, geniality and camaraderie which undoubtedly helped mold the character of the community. Quite possibly San Francisco’s reputation as a city of serenity and vision is due inn some degree to the effect on three generations of that twice daily journey across the waters.”

This description of congested bridge traffic is from more than 50 YEARS AGO!!

All in all its a great read from front to cover. I recommend picking up a copy!

Thanks Scott. And thank you Mr. Gilliam.  91 this year!!

Harold Gilliam

Emigrant Spirit – bamboo canoe by Tom Huang

My friend in Tom Huang just finished building a sweet bamboo canoe inspired by the ‘Emigrant Spirit’. Watch the great video of its inspiration, construction and launch!

His website is a treat.

(Depending on your connection speed, playback will be smoother if you start the video, pause it and then let the video download completely before resuming playback)

Pirates at the Bulb!

At the end of January, on another trip to the Bulb, I was reminded of how rare this kind of open space is in San Francisco or any large western city. Practically all public space is codified, sectioned off, programmed, bounded by civic codes and laws, sanitized, bureaucratized, and unwelcoming to any sort of non-official interference. The Bulb on the other hand, is an anarchic theater of improvisation and surprise.

Two years ago there was a fully staged performance of the Tempest at the bulb for a week. You had to wander around with the players to experience the whole event as it was conducted all over the Bulb. Or  you could just drop in and out as your pursued your own mercurial adventure wandering about in the warm evening air occasionally bumping into the Shakespearean shinanegans.

This trip I discovered a troop of unlikely pirates constructing an ad hoc flotilla of leaky vessels using pallets, yoga mats, water bottles, rope, sticks, whatever. I watched them build a couple of craft and then launch them optimistically towards the Barbary Coast.

Lashing down the deck - the life jacket is an excellent idea!

'Plastiki' eat your heart out!

Destination in sight!

Raising the Jolly Roger

Next stop, the flesh pots of the Barbary Coast - Arrrrggh!

The only trace left behind.

My friend and fellow sculptor Lawrence LaBianca sent me a link to a short film which reminded me of this optimisitc but doomed flotilla. The film made by Behn Zeitlin appeared in Wholphin #7 – a DVD anthology of engaging short films.

Voyages often end up where you might least expect. The preparation, departure, transit  and company you keep is as important as the destination reached.

(Depending on your connection speed, playback will be smoother if you start the video, pause it and then let the video download completely before resuming playback)