Mystery lovers are gathering in San Francisco today for the annual celebration of crime fiction, and I’m at home in New York, missing all the fun. To make it worse, the San Francisco Bay Area itself is one of my favorite places in the world. The Bay Area consists not only of what its inhabitants call “the city” (shocking as that is to New Yorkers, who think “the city” can have only one meaning), but also of East Bay, including Berkeley (which in its hippie heyday many called Berserkeley) and Oakland; Marin County to the north (beyond the Golden Gate Bridge), the home of est, hot tubs, Mount Tamalpais, and Muir Woods with its giant redwoods; and the Peninsula, including Palo Alto, San Mateo, and a host of other towns. Even San Jose, almost fifty miles to the south, is considered part of the Bay Area.
In fact, I can’t help wondering if Bouchercon will be as convivial as usual, or if participants, instead of hanging out and bonding at the con, will slip away to sightsee and visit friends. If I were there, I know I would be torn. I made my first trip to the West Coast in 1975, a little late for the Sixties, though I managed to catch the trailing edge of it. I traveled on a hippie bus called the Gray Rabbit. I wore blue denim and brought my guitar along. I stayed in Berkeley, first in a cousin’s communal household and then in student housing, in a suite along with several graduate students including a seismologist. I gave my very first poetry reading at a grungy coffee house on Telegraph Avenue, which abounded in street people (whom nobody called “the homeless”) and street vendors. I experienced my first full-body hug from a woman friend (would you believe we didn’t hug yet in New York in 1975?), my first hot tub, and my first clothing-optional social event. For years afterward, I thought one could only do these things in California.
Thanks to my seismologist roommate, I became fascinated by the fact that San Franciscans went about their lives knowing that “the Big One,” ie an earthquake as severe as the one that almost destroyed the city in 1906, might come at any time. I imagined the inhabitants of Pompeii before 79 AD as very much like the San Franciscans, going about their business with just enough denial not to consider moving elsewhere, even though they knew it was going to happen one of these days.
My most recent California visit was in 2008, the occasion my first mystery book tour. The Bay Area is rich in mystery and independent bookstores. I did talks and signings at several of them. At Book Passage in Corte Madera, my competition was Salman Rushdie. You can still see the photo of the two of us on my website. At Dark Carnival in Berkeley, I struck up a conversation with a customer who, it turned out, lived at Greyhaven, the SF and fantasy community started by Marion Zimmer Bradley. As Bradley herself told the story, her friends and family were sitting around one day, and somebody said, "Who needs to go to a writer's conference? We've got one right here around this table!" At M Is for Mystery in San Mateo, where the friends who showed up included at least one fellow therapist, we put the chairs in a circle and had a wonderful discussion. I was featured at one of Janet Rudolph’s famous At Homes in the Berkeley Hills along with Simon Wood and Michelle Gagnon.
Various circumstances kept me from Bouchercon this year. But I’m sending a big virtual hug to all the readers, writers, booksellers, librarians, and mystery aficionados gathered at the Hyatt Regency for the next four days. I wish you all a wonderful time—and I have no doubt whatsoever that my wish for you will come true.