Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Koffi and The Patio Cafe

In the fancy Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs, away from the main tourist downtown...

...at the corner of Alejo and Palm Canyon...

...there is a collection of designer antique shops called The Corridor (click here for their website).

Though one store specializes in Chinese antiques...

...that needs to sell its stock of faux Chinese tomb soldiers...

...most of the stores specialize in weathered Mexican furniture and objects that are often quite beautiful and not outrageously priced.

Even better than the stores, however, is a local coffee and pastry shop that was opened in 2002 by a couple of Palm Springs residents (click here for their great website).

It is usually packed to the gills in the mornings with customers...

...most of them gay men.

Even better than the upscale coffee shop is the central courtyard...

...with its huge lawn and picnic tables, where you can sit down and gossip with friends or read leftover newspapers (The Los Angeles Times and The Desert Sun along with a myriad of free gay rags).

The place also hosts a free wifi network so you see a cross-section of folk working on their computers and checking their email...

...when they are not fending off the multitude of dogs begging for treats.

The courtyard is a bit off the beaten path so you need to know about the place, but I can't recommend it highly enough.

The atmosphere reminds me of the Patio Cafe, an Arcadian place in San Francisco's Castro District during the late 1970s that similarly was a coffee and sandwich joint where you could take your goods outdoors to a beautiful lawn surrounded by flower beds.

Also adjoining the hidden back lawn and garden was a wonderful bookshop whose back doors led to a wide wooden staircase where beautiful young men would sprawl all afternoon with novels and capuccinos.

The lawn vanished soon enough and was replaced by a large outdoor restaurant for most of the 1980s and 1990s.

It was still called The Patio Cafe, and was quite successful, until the restaurant and the warren of hippie shops surrounding it were closed by the infamous Les Natali, who seems to be the Walter Shorenstein real estate mogul of San Francisco's gay world, shutting down places for redevelopment and then never reopening their doors, probably for tax reasons.

But let's not speak of dark people or dark things for the moment, and instead celebrate an oddly beautiful, spontaneously created hangout that reminds me of a vanished San Francisco Eden.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Flintstone Rocks and Desert Rats

We drove about 40 miles northeast from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree National Park...

...mostly to get a photo of Tony in his Gay Mafia T-shirt.

When people mention Joshua Tree National Park, it is usually with a tone of wonder in their voices and it was easy to see why.

The huge boulder formations popping up all over the high desert...

...look unreal...

...as if they have been assembled for another attempt at a live-action "Flintstones" movie.

We drove through about a quarter of the park, praying there wouldn't be car trouble out in the middle of some very lonely roads...

...and stopped at "Keys View," a terrifyingly windy lookout point where the vista stretched back to the Coachella Valley.

We drove back to Palm Springs through strange, bleak looking desert towns...

...like Morongo and Yucca Valley...

...passing a woman in need who looked too scary for the offer of help.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Giving Thanks for Golden Light

In 2001 I documented the world in photos and text for 365 straight days, editing the results into PowerPoint presentations every night. The project was eventually turned into 52 half-hour TV shows that ran on the public access station in San Francisco a couple of years later. "FotoTales," as it was called, also turned out to be a prototype for this blog.

November in Northern and Central California is subject to something called "tule fog," a dense, low-lying blast of water and air that changes texture every five minutes.

You can have fifteen feet of visibility one moment, and then the sun will be streaming through the mist in the next moment.

I played golf in a tule fog earlier this week at Lincoln Park, a San Francisco municipal course surrounding the Palace of the Legion of Honor Art Museum.

The poorly maintained course is bordered on three sides by cliffs fronting the ocean channel that leads to the Golden Gate Bridge, which can usually be seen from the vantage point above.

The place is like a poor man's Pebble Beach with even better views.

On the November day in 2001 when these photos were taken, the dense fog and the sun were creating light effects that looked unreal, as if they had been designed for an operatic stage.

The best effect was saved for the long, narrow 18th hole that led to the clubhouse.

The sun started shining between trees and mist and it looked for all the world as if God were speaking directly to us.

On this day, I give thanks to golden light.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Deputy Dawg

On Sunday there was a large line of men (with a few token women) in front of Bill Graham Auditorium in San Francisco's Civic Center.

They were waiting to take a four-hour written exam as part of a hiring process for the San Francisco Sheriffs Department.

I wished them all luck and privately hoped they would do better than their counterparts on the San Francisco Police Department which is one of the most outrageously lazy and overpaid groups of municipal employees in the country.

They refuse to get out of their patrol cars and actually interact with citizens, let alone engage in any proactive work such as a stakeout in a high-crime area. For instance, in the Civic Center every night, there are car break-ins galore and the broken glass from car windows looks like a fresh snowfall every morning. When my neighbor Holly, whose car has been broken into eleven times in the last three months, expressed her outrage to the Police Department, their official response was "maybe you should move to the suburbs." I'm not making this up.

Dan Noyes on the local ABC news station recently did a story on the subject and you can get to a YouTube clip of it by clicking here. The best quote is from Andrew Korniej, a supernumerary at the opera whose car has been broken into repeatedly. "I think it's embarassing for the city." The out-of-shape suburbanites who tend to work as cops in San Francisco, however, have no shame. I believe living in the City and County of San Francisco should be a requirement for new hires because whatever the policy is right now, it's not working and every citizen knows it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Manon Lescaut

Puccini's early opera "Manon Lescaut" opened a 7-performance run November 18th at a San Francisco Opera Sunday matinee.

Though the music is continuously interesting, the opera has to be one of the dumber pieces in the operatic repertory, and that's saying something. The original eighteenth-century novel by Abbe Prevost was probably quite interesting, painting a corrupt French society through the tale of a good girl on her way to the convent who goes bad, and then who gets punished way out of proportion to her actual misdeeds. Think "Moll Flanders," but tragic.

The French composer Massenet's greatest opera is his 19th century treatment of the same tale, and in that version the story sort of makes sense, but the Puccini version is a ridiculous mixture of highlights from the Prevost novel and the composer's own obsession with pathetic, masochistic, dying women.

The reason to see this production is on account of the superstar diva, the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila who is in her prime and who can seemingly sing anything beautifully. She is also a wonderful actress, though you wouldn't necessarily know it from this production where she appears as a Zombie Ingenue in Act One, an Idiot Kept Woman in Act Two, and a Dingbat Victim in Acts Three and Four.

The first act is supposed to be set at a country inn populated by students, gamblers, townsfolk and so on, but in this production you can't tell if the scene is supposed to be inside or outside, and the stage is so continuously busy it starts to look like Grand Central Station, except that everybody is dressed in beige outfits. That is, except for one weird guy who turns out to be the tenor, who is dressed in blue just so you'll know he's The Romantic Hero. I'm not sure how the scene could be staged intelligently, but the solution here seemed to be "keep it moving at all costs" and it screamed "OperaLand!"

The first act also had to contend with the Sean Panikkar effect (that's Sean above). He's a young Sri Lankan in the Adler Fellows program who keeps being given tiny parts that are usually the companion, the friend, the herald, what have you, and the problem is that his voice is so youthful, lyrical and beautiful, that the star tenor's entrace is usually a disappointment in comparison. This happened last year in both "Norma" and "Maid of Orleans." In the latter, his victim was Misha Didyk, the Ukranian tenor who is also singing the lead in "Manon Lescaut." Misha was fine on Sunday, even though he oversang at times, but we wanted to hear Sean!

The second act jumps in Time and Place to Paris, where Manon is bored with her glamorous life in the boudoir at the palace where she's being kept by a rich old aristocrat. There's an endless dance instruction scene where Mattila has been instructed to be gauche and clumsy, I suppose to show that she has no real class, but the scene doesn't work, possibly because Ms. Mattila is way too elegant and beautiful to be doing Lucy Ricardo very convincingly.

The third act at the prison in Le Havre was probably the best staging, with a dozen supernumerary women being led out one by one to be branded before being thrown onto a ship headed for The New World (in other words, Louisiana in the 18th century). There aren't that many supernumerary parts for women at the opera (big scenes are usually filled out by male soldiers, courtiers and clergy), so when juicy parts like these arrive, the ladies go at them with relish. The scene was effective and the inevitable overacting was kept to a minimum except for Branded Woman Number Seven or Number Eight who was so over-the-top that the balcony standees all started laughing. (Note to Overacting Super Woman: There is a tender love duet going on between the principals to your left while your arms and legs are thrashing every which way, which is sorta distracting.)

There were curtain calls before each intermission, which used to be standard practice at the San Francisco Opera, but which hasn't existed for years. I'm curious why it's made a comeback, and a clumsy one at that. The ushers were all opening the doors in the orchestra section at the end of Act One while a hysterical supervisor was stage-whispering, "No, No, there are curtain calls!"

I last saw this opera in a disastrous 1974 production at the San Francisco Opera with Leontyne Price, who was not only unbelievable as a French coquette but who was unintentionally pure camp. And how could she not be, since the opera ends in "The Desert of Louisiana," where Manon sings her dying aria "Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata" which translates as "Alone, Lost, and Abandoned." The latter isn't even strictly true since her poor young lover has gone mad and joined her in exile to The New World. Too bad they they left the bayous and somehow stumbled into the desert.

Oh well, the audience seemed to enjoy every minute of the schlock, and Ms. Mattila is worth seeing and hearing no matter what she does, even sola, perduta, e abbandonata.