Sunday, December 25, 2011

Something else lost

Driving down 17th Street the other night, I passed this building on the corner of Florida Street, catty-corner from Project Artaud.

Project Artaud was one of the original factories converted to live-work spaces in the Mission District, a conversation which took place in the 1970s and which in addition to providing living spaces for dozens of painters, sculptors, dancers and actors, birthed several performance spaces and studios which are still lively places to go see art. And it's still a collectively-run building with many of the original artists -- now in their 60s and 70s -- still living and working there.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a performance artist and used to go to Project Artaud all the time for rehearsals and performances, a restaurant opened in this building. You can still see the sign -- Moxie Restaurant-Bar -- though the restaurant closed a long time ago, at least fifteen years ago, and some kind of architectural or design firm has been there ever since. Back when the restaurant was open, I not only could not afford to go to it, but I was too intimidated to do so. I felt bars and restaurants required a certain gravitas and adult presentation, and in many cases I was afraid to go into them, especially if a friend of mine hadn't brought me to them first.

So I never made it into this restaurant before it closed. And driving past it the other night, even though I drive past it several times a week (because 17th Street is a convenient cross-town route), it suddenly struck me as never before that the restaurant was not only closed, but closed long ago, so long that it belonged to the distant past when I was a performance artist and went by that corner several times a week not to go cross-town, but in order to do my art. And all that seemed very long ago suddenly, and it is: 20, 25, 30 years ago. It wasn't about the particular restaurant as the exact geographic spot that 17th and Florida represents, or more accurately, that it represented to me in the 1970s (even before I came to San Francisco) and 1980s and which is now so far in the past. More than anything else it represents my youth, my fresh, untrammeled notions and ambitions, my pure heart.

I remember going to Project Artaud during my first few days in the city, to the street address, because it was where Mangrove [8-minute video] had their studio, and Mangrove more or less encapsulated the whole reason I came to San Francisco: to do Contact Improv and perform. And even more before I went to the contact jam on Vancouver Island a week later, where I met the local contactors for the first time, I had that single piece of information: 499 Alabama, the address of Mangrove [Google Books page from the book "Sharing the dance: contact improvisation and American culture" by Cynthia Jean Novac]. The building turned out to be a large factory building that had been converted to studios and lofts: that was Project Artaud. And while the door at 499 Alabama was locked, other doors into the building were open, and I bravely went in and wandered the halls, looking at the bulletin boards outside studios and theaters where I would one day perform. And while I didn’t see any dancers and didn't actually run into a single soul, I was on a pilgrimage and just being there was enough. That’s what I mean by my untrammeled ambitions -- not careerist ambitions, but spiritual ones. My pilgrimage was not even about what I would one day do; it was about who I would one day be. And all of it -- all the performing I did, all the love affairs I had, all the adventures and rejection and ecstasy and pain -- was still in the future.

I've felt nostalgic pangs before, but they had never been as sharp as the pain I felt at the moment we drove past the former Moxie Restaurant. And my painful feelings were for a restaurant I'd never been to, but which represented, when it was still there, something I could aspire to. Back in my 20s, and really until my late 40s, my life was aspirational. I felt success and fulfillment were still in my future. I might, through a combination of talent and luck, become a more well-known performer or writer; I might, when I finally acquired sufficient gravitas, go to a cool jazzy-looking restaurant in an artsy neighborhood. By contrast, now my life is limited in other, more painful ways. I no longer think there's much chance I'll become a well-known writer, or even publish a novel. In fact, I measure out the rest of my life in the number of (probably unpublished) novels I can still finish before I die. Maybe four or five more.

This feeling of limited horizons and chances is, of course, a characteristic of middle age. Maybe the prime sign of middle age. And I'm probably lucky I didn't feel it this sharply before now.

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