There are moments in our lives that transcend our everyday existence. The mundane becomes sublime for an instant and we know that something special, maybe even magical, has happened. Defining what it is that has happened is something else entirely. Joy, satisfaction, happiness, contentment, and my personal favorite, peace, may all be part of it, but ultimately fall short. These moments have to be treasured and held close. Their rarity demands it.
When my sons were born I held them and they opened their eyes and my ugly mug was their first glimpse into this world. As much as that may have sucked for them, it was a moment of transcendence for me somewhat akin to Paul on the road to Damascus. As those tiny eyelids fluttered open and I saw the first flash of blue from their beautiful eyes I was in that instant no longer the man I had been. It may even have been when I truly became a man. Nothing would ever be the same again, my new role transcended what I had been, and I knew it immediately.
Not all transcendent events are as dramatic or as life altering, some just lift us out of our daily grind or let us know, for that exact moment at least, all is right in our world and we are right where we should be. On a trip to San Francisco, my first ever, I had one such moment.
After one day in the city I felt at home. I fell head over heels in love with the place. All of the songs I’d heard, poems I’d read, books that I had devoured that mentioned San Francisco came to life for me. I could almost even stomach that caterwauling Journey song. Okay, that may be going a bit too far, but I definitely understood the sentiment much better.
On the day before we were to leave, my wife and I tried to squeeze in as much of the counter-cultural landmarks of the city as possible. We were going to visit Haight-Ashbury and the Castro that afternoon, but first we went to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s legendary City Lights Bookstore and then Vesuvio.
As is sometimes the case when traveling, we were trying to get a lot of things into one day. I was wondering if we could get it all done. Sweating from walking up hills and carrying my wife’s camera equipment, I noticed that the neighborhood was getting seedier. Down in the pit of my stomach I started to feel a tickle of adrenaline-fueled aggression building. Centuries of fight or flight genetics were kicking in and I was too damn tired for flight. Not exactly a great way to start our day’s adventure.
I don’t know what I expected of City Lights, but it didn’t initially fit the bill. It was much smaller than I’d anticipated and reminded me of that funky second-hand bookstore every city seems to have in an old gentrified part of town. You know the one, some empty-nester ex-hippie woman takes an old house and crams it with every book she can find and hangs out her shingle. You walk in, she hovers and wants to talk, maybe brew you some undrinkable tea, then proceeds to glare when you trip over her stupid cat. Somewhere between the 1st floor and the 2nd that started to change. There was no glaring old hippie lady, I didn’t see any cats, and I started to notice the photos and posters on the wall. On the staircase and in the upper room I got what I had come for. This is where the authors that so inspired me lived, and my mood was improving. For the record, I would easily rank it as one of the 3 or 4 best book stores I have ever been in.
We spent the requisite time and money at City Lights and then crossed the alley to Vesuvio. Dark, old, solid, slightly seedy, but with a sense of place, it had a working class hero intellectual feel to it. In a word, it was perfect. My kind of beer joint. I instantly knew why Neal Cassidy had fallen in love with this place, and why so many of his friends had followed him there.
After a quick look around, my wife went off to take photos and I ordered an Anchor Steam. Sitting at a table with a window view of the mural across the way, I took a good pull on my beer and cracked my newly purchased copy of Howl and the moment hit. I read the famous opening lines of Ginsberg’s opus and realized that the music playing was Coltrane. The line from “On the Road” came to me. “Everything is fine, God exists, we know time.” For a fleeting moment I really did know time. I was not only looking out the window at an alley named for the author of that line, I was sitting in a spot he had likely sat, probably drinking and reading just as I was. Not just Jack Kerouac, but all of the others. Cassidy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Huncke…each had probably inhabited that spot. That moment was sublime.
I think that wine fascinates me because it sometimes has hints and promises of those moments in it. It can be in the way that light plays and sparkles as a richly colored red swirls around a glass. Or maybe as the aromas begin to separate and distinguish themselves in the nose. I have experiences tantalizing promises of transcendence in the finish of a wine, or in the way that a perfect pairing of food and wine combine to create sensations never before felt.
Maybe that is why, of all of the things we drink, wine has such mystique. For those of us who take the time to get to know it, to fall in love with it, it promises us transcendence. So we chase that promise.