Under Lockdown in San Francisco

August Kleinzahler

The enormous, blinking radio tower on Twin Peaks is half-hidden in mist, as it usually is this time of morning. And the N Judah streetcar rattles and squeals in and out of the tunnel below every fifteen minutes or so, as it routinely does, except on weekends and holidays when the intervals between trains are longer. I have woken to its sound and fallen asleep, often late, to the last train in the very early morning, for nearly 38 years now. Much else has changed around me here, but these two, the streetcar and mist, have not. I suppose they have become more a part of my identity than I realise.

The streetcars – I think nowadays of German manufacture, sturdier and less noisy than the former Italian-made model – have a capacity of around two hundred people. Since the lockdown they’re often close to empty, carrying maybe two or three forlorn souls who dearly wish they weren’t obliged to be aboard, headed to this job or that, probably not a very pleasant or remunerative one.

The local shops in what’s these days called Cole Valley, a fashionable, techy enclave in the Haight, are closed but for the grocery and pharmacy. What restaurants remain open are only allowed to do takeout. San Francisco County and the other Bay Area counties are officially on lockdown, but you can walk your dog or yourself, or shop, without incurring a police shakedown.

I am routinely on lockdown, or semi-lockdown, given my predisposition and age, but I’m growing increasingly restless and ill-humoured. My wife, who works busily in her ‘office’ in the front room, every so often emerges to check on me and says: ‘You all right?’ ‘Fuck off,’ I tell her.

I have gone through all the novels in English of the French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, whom I ardently recommend. I began reading him when I saw that Jean Echenoz, the Fred Astaire of contemporary fiction, wrote an admiring afterword to one of his novels. And now I’m going through the novels of Ross Thomas because Manchette admired and translated him. I recommend his crime novels as well, especially if you like Raymond Chandler, though not so ardently as Manchette. Also, the Penguin Portable Jack London, whose elemental tales of life and death among gold prospectors in the far north, up around the Yukon and Canada’s Northern Territories, I’m rereading for the first time in nearly 55 years, and with abundant pleasure.

My buddy Emerson, housebound across the Bay, is rereading the novels of Trollope, which he seems to find soothing in these parlous times, and provide an almost inexhaustible distraction. But after briefly dipping into The Way We Live Now and the 775-page expanse that ensued, I quickly realised Trollope was a bridge too far. Every so often to amuse myself I turn on the radio to the local sports talk station and and listen to the dunderhead chatterboxes scrambling to fill their three-hour slots with the entirety of American sport shut down. It isn’t pretty.

My wife says to me: ‘Why don’t you go take a walk?’ ‘Yeah, yeah,’ I tell her. My sister in New Jersey, fast approaching the age of 79, tells me over the phone, in what sounds to me like ghastly glee, that Italian doctors are letting everyone over 60 years of age with the virus die without treatment. For reasons that bewilder me, my sister regards herself as immortal. ‘I have no underlying condition,’ she boasts triumphantly.

We here in the Bay Area have been assured by most experts that the level of infection and mortality rate will be equivalent to Italy’s in around a fortnight’s time. Timor mortis conturbat me.


  • 21 March 2020 at 2:55pm says:
    Maybe if her concerned question hadn't been greeted with "Fuck off" your wife might have corrected your ridiculous error about the N Judah schedule? (And it shouldn't matter, but I'm a 77-year-old San Franciscan.)

    • 21 March 2020 at 4:00pm
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @
      Error now corrected (15 seconds changed to 15 minutes). AK noticed before you did but I was slow to make the change. And I really should have spotted it yesterday...

  • 21 March 2020 at 3:55pm
    David Ings says:
    I was fortunate enough to be in New York in 2018 when you recommended the exhibition in Manhattan of George Tice photographs. I had not come across him before and am very grateful to have seen his beautiful prints.
    So I shall follow up your book recommendations with an expectation of pleasure to come.

  • 21 March 2020 at 9:49pm
    Michael Wolfe says:
    I appreciate your Man on the Scene description of Locked Down San Francisco. Looking forward to updates!
    To reading recommendations, I might add Barnaby Rogerson’s amazing Eland Books Catalogue, which collects 100s of the 20th and 21st century’s very best travel writing: perfect for the housebound reader with itchy feet. Just enter those 3 magic words in an Internet search box: the thumbnail descriptions alone will carry you away.
    Michael Wolfe

    • 23 March 2020 at 6:16pm
      Nick says: @ Michael Wolfe
      Yes, I'd like to hear more on a semi-regular basis too.

      @editor - there are a number of blogs that are great as one-offs but seem to lend themselves to becoming brief, regular updates. Is this something that can be explored ?

  • 22 March 2020 at 11:52am
    Joe Morison says:
    I’m not surprised you weren’t captured by dipping into ‘The Way We Live Now’, his longest novel. Trollope did the big stuff, finance and politics; but his heart and soul were in the parochial, and never more sublimely than in the ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’. They are books that make one glad to be alive because they contain such a fundamental goodness, I can’t think of better reading for the self-isolater. They start with ‘The Warden’; the eponymous hero is a personification of the virtues at the heart of Trollope’s vision, pure joy.

    If you’ve got an iPad or iPhone, you can download the Books app and get all of Trollope for free.

    • 26 March 2020 at 10:31pm
      Mat Snow says: @ Joe Morison
      My grandma steadied herself during the six years of World War Two by reading every Trollope she could get her hands on. I am not sure that the war was quite long enough for her to complete the task.

  • 1 April 2020 at 2:10am
    Joanne Ward says:
    I look forward to your updates and enjoy your contributions to the LRB.
    But: you should never say Fuck Off to your wife.
    A wife

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