September 28, 2018
San Francisco, CA
Swaying inside a crowded BART train car, I grasped a nylon strap for balance as a disembodied voice emerged from my earbuds: “Magic is the level of things that science ignores.”
I was visiting the Bay area for just a few days, and my senses were overwhelmed with newness; only fragments of this podcast about weirdness, made by Phil Ford and J. F. Martel, broke through the noise of my temporary commute. The sound got upstaged by other stimuli. Maybe I was imagining things, but the time-warping energies of local legends—Gertrude Stein, Huey Newton, Carla Bley, Boots Riley—seemed to ooze from every palm tree, every palm reading advertisement on a powder blue billboard I watched out the windows as we rolled into San Francisco.
This particular episode was discussing the famous magician Aleister Crowley. For Crowley, every intentional act counts as “magick,” which is a matter of will. I learned one of his main postulates: “Any required change may be effected by the application of the proper kind and degree of force in the proper manner, through the proper medium to the proper object.” For a magician, that’s a lot of emphasis on propriety, I thought. The episode ended when I arrived at my destination, a truly magical place: the San Francisco Public Library, which any waking person can visit for free.
I rode the elevator to the sixth floor, the Book Art Collections. I had gone there to research the history of low-fidelity sound. After checking in my backpack I sat down at a table, and the librarian wheeled over a cartful of boxes containing the materials I’d requested for my search. I began skimming them for mentions of my keywords (“medium,” “distortion”), resisting the allure of tangents because I knew I only had a few days’ time. It was a few hours in, while examining Weekly Weird News and Filth, a Bay area alt-weekly from the 1990s, when I noticed something peculiar: a profile on Crowley. Was this … magic? Strict synchronicity, like an analog algorithm? Did someone send him from the podcast to the page, or did he come of his own volition?
As I continued, other patrons filtered through the room. One man checked in a large bag of garbage at the desk. After settling in, he proceeded to ask the librarian a series of trivial questions about the display table; the featured books were cartoonishly large, and the man wondered about the minutiae of their binding. The men’s patience with one another puzzled me. At first, I thought both of them took their exchange a little too seriously: couldn’t the patron just Google it later? Didn’t the librarian have better things to do? But then again, social media has taught me to regard imagination as a sign of privilege, ignorance, or simply sloth.
Meanwhile, while reading old issues of the Oakland zine Another Room, I came across an effusive review of Telegraph Melts, a 1986 set of recordings by the Texas outsider musician Jandek. The critic, knowing it might take readers several weeks to acquire the LP, assures them that ordering it will be worth their time. He praises the music’s experimentalism: “Everything, and I mean everything is mixed way out on the prairie—trust me, he’s out there.” Looking down, I noticed that my thumb and forefinger were stained gray with viscous eighties ink. Next, in a 1994 issue of Option, Liz Phair told the interviewer she liked making music with a 4-track recorder because of how the vocals hover in the mix, just like “the Cheshire cat.” My mind glowed thinking about that funny cat, those warm vocals, this way-out mix.
As I left the library to go eat lunch, a security guard stopped me at the exit, puncturing my anachronistic daze. “Excuse me, miss, we saw you come in earlier, after we opened,” he gestured toward his straight-faced colleagues in uniform. My neck tensed up like when I’m catcalled in the street, even though I was inside. Thrown off, I patted my pockets; maybe I’d stuffed a zine inside my backpack by mistake. After a beat, he smirked through his punchline: “Say, why is it that you get to come in after us, but leave while we’re still here?”
So, he was fucking with me—telling me to get a real job, one without such flexible hours. Too disoriented to devise a comeback, I returned a laugh shaped like “fair enough,” then moved along.
Just outside the library, a group of six or seven people were gathered to use drugs together on the street. One person said soberly to pedestrians passing through, “Folks, there’s nothing to see here.” I kept walking, staring straight ahead, ignoring the needles, feeling strange. Later on, while I was waiting in line for tickets at a museum, an older woman slowly approached me and softly asked if I was alone. Cooled by the moments before, through pursed lips, I defended myself: “Why do you ask?” As it turned out, she was trying to offer me entrance for free. “It’s your lucky day,” she grinned, slipping me a spare ticket like a sack of weed, way down low beneath the velvet rope. Solitary, in that moment, was a miraculous way to be.
In the evening, while grabbing drinks at a tiki-themed bar, a few of us talked astrology and recounted our days. We disagreed: is your rising sign who others think you are, or who you secretly want to be? A friend who works at a health clinic had fielded a prank caller who rode the edge of earnestness, asking a series of bizarre questions. My friend was pretty sure they were messing with her, but not quite wildly enough to warrant hanging up. After I’d spent the day in San Francisco, her confusion made a lot of sense. Eventually the caller had asked to go on hold for a moment, and then the line went dead.
These unusual operations made me think of a class I recently taught about popular music. One of my presentations on early hip-hop began with Sun Ra and ended with Afrika Bambaataa. The common thread was the artists’ use of music to say: you think it’s strange that I’m from outer space, but not that we live in a stratified society?
One student had been obviously, understandably irritated all semester long that I, a white millennial woman, was teaching this particular course—he’d lived in New York City through the seventies, so he knew which stuff I hadn’t seen. His chosen protest that day was to sit up front and center, three feet from the lectern, kicked back in his chair with his arms crossed. Staring straight ahead, he took no notes, but I believe he enjoyed the lesson. Every so often, he would slowly raise and then lower his enormous lime green sunglasses, looking like a bug or an alien.
During the cab ride home from the bar, I recalled that class with the regret and delight of hindsight. His proper message had been calibrated properly: folks, there’s nothing to see here.