Golden Arches

It has occasionally been said, most recently by somebody who dropped by to grouse in the comments of Alexa’s “For Just One Day” piece, that things are too dark on this blog. And—who knows?—maybe this is so. Jeebus knows we do try to be shiny happy people here. But in a world too often owned and controlled by Mr. Ha-Ha, tales of Badness will, inevitably, out.

Take the Golden Gate Bridge. Pretty in the sunlight, but pure hell to drive. I regularly negotiated the thing in the late 1980s, and was gratified to open my San Francisco Examiner one morning in January of 1987 to read that Hunter S. Thompson had aptly expressed the experience:

Driving the bridge has never been safe, but in recent years—ever since it became a sort of low-tech Rube Goldberg experiment for traffic-flow specialists—it has become a maze of ever-changing uncertain lanes and a truly fearful experience to drive. At least half of the lanes are always blocked off by flashing lights, fireballs and huge generator trucks full of boiling asphalt and crews of wild-eyed men wearing hard hats and carrying picks and shovels.

They are never gone, and the few lanes they leave open for what they call “civilian traffic” are often littered with huge red Lane Markers that look like heavy iron spittoons and cause terror in the heart of any unwitting driver who doesn’t know they are rubber . . . . Nobody wants to run over one of those things, except on purpose, and in that case you want to take out a whole stretch of them, maybe 15 or 18 in a single crazed pass at top speed with the door hanging open.

People often accused Mr. Thompson of exaggerating for effect, and even outright lying. And it is true that he frequently and unashamedly reveled in those sins. But there are no lies or whoppers in the passage above. There is only Truth.

I tried several times, working the phones, to secure an explanation as to why the bridge had been turned over to Tar Men. Never did I receive a satisfactory answer. Mostly I was assured that their presence was “only temporary” . . . but this came from the same people who have promised, ever since the bridge opened in 1937, that the bridge-toll too is only “temporary.” The toll is today $6, and it is never going to go away.

The Tar Men have never gone away, either. They are still out there. You see them, doing whatever it is that they’re doing, as you crawl by at 5 or 10 mph, the Tar Men having commandeered their usual four of the six lanes.

In my experience, the Tar Men most often surrender additional lanes during those times when the 60-75 mph wind gusts are besieging the bridge. Allowing drivers to build up a good head of speed means that when the gusts suddenly hit, it is more likely that their cars will be rudely buffeted across several lanes, if not blown over the side.

My most vivid memories of the Tar Men are from those times when I went off the rails and agreed to accompany my friend Z across the bridge and into Marin County, as it had suddenly become Necessary to play music with John Cipollina at 10 p.m. or midnight or three in the morning.

We would rumble onto whatever northbound lane the Tar Men had agreed to leave open for the night, jouncing along the rivet-studded roadway through the snickering wind and the madly swirling wisps of fog. We knew that somewhere out there were the Tar Men, but it seemed like we always arrived on them all at once, with no warning. Suddenly, there they would be: illuminated by great yellow lights shining sickly through the fog, foul-smelling smoke boiling up from their numberless vats of tar, portable generators jittering away on truckbeds, blatting forth a ceaseless infernal din, as determinedly the Tar Men pushed rakes and shovels and picks and other demonic devices around the roadbed.

When you’re subsumed in rock musicians, your perspective quickly becomes non-ordinary, so I suppose it was only natural for me to conclude, after my first or second or so midnight encounter with these Tar Men, that they were literally denizens of Hell. They pushed up through the earth from out of the nether regions, to get up to, every night there on the Golden Gate Bridge, some diabolical mischief, the purpose of which was known only to their chief, Satan, and perhaps also to his then-prince, Ronald Reagan.

My friend Z subsisted wholly on a diet of liquid and powders, and his bladder was weak, so after we survived these encounters with the Tar Men we would routinely pull into the rest area located just off the bridge on the Marin side.

Unfortunately, at some point the Authorities began shuttering the place every night, as it had been discovered that this area too contained a portal into Hell, each eve disgorging from below waves of disreputables bent on bringing all manner of degeneracy into the earthly realm.

Once they began nightly plugging the Hellhole, the parking lot of the rest area became a sort of snake’s nest of patrol vehicles. Law-enforcement officers from the vast and bewildering array of Bay Area agencies empowered to throw people into a cage, would gather there nightly to conspire and cackle; occasionally one would peel off from the watering herd to zoom back onto the highway, in order to ruin somebody’s night.

As we were invariably transporting medical supplies, we wanted no part of these people. So, to relieve the pressure from his bladder, while still keeping to the road, Z took to carrying with him in his van an empty Gatorade jug, into which he would deposit his liquid wastes. The product of this operation he called “Rock Juice.” Some years on, the son of Bay Area radio hate-show host Michael Savage began bottling similar liquids; the resulting swill he dubbed “Rock Star.” This caused Z to fly into a rage; he tried to sue for intellectual-property theft, and even patent infringement, but the case was thrown out of court.

Following the Loma Prieta earthquake of October 1989, a titanic struggle ensued between the Tar Men and other area Powers.

During the big shake, chunks of the Bay Bridge fell into the sea, so no one would be driving on it for a while. A sizable number of the several hundred thousand motorists who daily commuted over the Bay Bridge figured they would just switch over to the Golden Gate. But they hadn’t reckoned with the Tar Men. Pursuing their own dark, mysterious purposes, these creatures saw no reason why they should change, just because much of the rest of the transportation system in the Bay Area lay in ruins.

And so, daily, routinely, traffic leading onto the bridge backed up for dozens and dozens and dozens of miles. There were scenes of violence and breakdowns, involving both vehicles and humans. Still the Tar Men doggedly persisted in keeping most of the bridge’s lanes closed so they could eternally push rakes and shovels around. Screaming commenced, in the newspapers, and on the streets, but the Tar Men took no notice. Finally, annoyed, as if with gnats, and in an awesome display of their powers, during one weekday commute the Tar Men closed the entire bridge.

Alas, for the Tar Men, this proved a bridge too far. I have never been able to learn the precise details, but somehow the Tar Men’s total control over the bridge was broken. The previously omnipotent Tar Men were prevailed upon to, on most occasions, permit actual vehicular traffic to occupy more lanes on the bridge than they set aside for their own Hellish works. Nights still belonged to them, but during the day cars would have to be allowed to use the bridge.

As the earthquake has receded in time, and traffic patterns in the area have settled into what must pass as “normal,” the Tar Men have regained some of their former authority. But it isn’t the same. Like the San Francisco 49ers, the Tar Men have never really approached again their glory days of the 1980s.

Some years after I left the Bay Area, I landed in a law job. For no reason that I could figure out, I found it extremely difficult to finish projects. This proved something of a problem, as lawyers generally like you to complete briefs, at some point, so that they can actually be filed.

One day I’m sitting there, not completing something, when my eye lands on the large framed black-and-white photograph nailed to the wall above my computer. Left there by the office’s previous denizen, it depicted the Golden Gate Bridge, back in 1936, still but partially complete.

I took the thing down.

The Golden Gate Bridge surely looks pretty on posters, and on postcards. Worldwide it is regarded as a symbol of beauty, of grace, of promise, and opportunity. But, as with most things, where there is light, there can also be dark. Because not only is the bridge hell to drive, but after a person has lived in the Bay Area for a while, the bridge becomes a symbol of sad, because so many people end their lives by throwing themselves from it.

It is said that the Golden Gate Bridge is the number-one suicide spot in the world. And that almost everybody who jumps, nearly without exception, goes over on the side facing towards the bay, where the people are. Rather than the side looking out upon the great wide open of the Pacific Ocean. Which seems to me to confirm that it is true what they say: even in suicide, the departed are, in that act, speaking to other people.

Well over 1200 people have died leaping from the bridge since it opened in 1937. That’s only the official count, and the Authorities deliberately stopped officially counting at the turn of the millennium. Many people have gone into the water with nobody knowing about it, and their remains were never found; these people don’t “count.”

The poet Weldon Kees parked his Plymouth on the north, Marin side of the bridge, on July 19, 1955. Nobody’s seen him since. It is assumed he walked onto the bridge, jumped off, and went on to wherever one goes on to. Though he had mentioned to friends that he thought of emulating the example of Ambrose Bierce, who, restless with life in San Francisco, journeyed on down to Mexico to join up with Pancho Villa. Kees had quoted Rilke, to the effect that sometimes a person needs to change their life completely.

I like to think Kees is in the hills back here with Lew Welch, another poet, who, depressed, wandered one afternoon in May of 1971 into the woods from Gary Snyder’s place, carrying a revolver. Nobody’s seen any more of him than they have of Kees.

I think they’re where Ishi used to hang out. Swapping poems, roasting acorns over an open fire. They didn’t die at all. Nope. They just went silent. That’s all.


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When I Worked

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