Monday, April 16, 2012

San Francisco

San Francisco. On my other blog I resolved to go to a place I had never been before I turn 30. Last year I decided that the liberal enclave by the Bay was the place that would fire my imagination going into my 30s.

I got a window seat for the ride from LA to San Francisco and I spent an hour looking down at the sea and the rocky coast. What is it about California? Whenever I go there I can see why everyone wants to live there.

I was going to be there a day ahead of my friend who was coming in from L.A. I was alone and nervous so I kept going over the sequence in my head -- get off the plane, get my bag, catch the tram to the BART station, buy a ticket to the Powell Street station, which cost exactly $8.10.

Waiting for the tram to the station I held on to my suitcase and looked around. It was an elevated outdoor platform. The sun was shining brightly. The decor was white, there was a leafy plant in a large white pot to brighten it up. A nice touch. I sniffed the air and it smelled Really, I'm not kidding.

It was about a 30 minute ride into the city before I emerged unto Powell Street and the whole world changed. It was like a cartoon to me of what a big city should look like. Big buildings with world brand names like The Gap, Forever 21 and J. Crew all around. A constant stream of people walking by the windows. Streetcars going by to my right. The turnaround for the trolley car yards away from me. And lots of homeless people who are not afraid to come up and talk to you.

(From Wikipedia: "The city of San Francisco, California, due to its mild climate and its social programs that have provided cash payments for homeless individuals, is often considered the homelessness capital of the United States, together with Los Angeles." That explains a lot.)

My first conversation with a San Franciscan was with a black man giving me directions, unsolicited, as I stood there with my backpack and suitcase on wheels, taking in the scene and looking slightly puzzled as to where to go next. He told me some directions I already knew, though I felt obligated to give him a couple dollars when he asked for a tip.

I wheeled my suitcase to the hostel, my home for the next four days. My French roommate was friendly and highly intelligent. Unfortunately I think I annoyed the hell out of her because all she wanted to do was sleep off her jet lag and I kept opening and closing my locker. Ah, the joys of communal living.

I walked through Chinatown on my way to the Beat Museum, the first destination on my list. Chinatown kind of reminded me of downtown El Paso, though with about a million more Asian people. The fresh vegetables practically glowed in the afternoon sun. A slightly rancid fishy smell at some of the shops reminded me of the back of a grocery store.

Then there was the Beat Museum and suddenly I'm in hipster San Francisco. Here were the altars to Allen Ginsburg, Neal Cassady and of course, the great Jack Kerouac. In the back was a small theater playing a video with friends and former girlfriends of Jack Kerouac talking about his life, his successes and failures and why the fame drove him crazy.

The museum itself was very beat, a low-budget operation with prize displays of one of Jack Kerouac's sweaters and a 1947 Hudson just like the one Neal (aka Dean) and Jack drove across the country in On the Road.

My favorite meal in San Francisco was Thursday afternoon at Caffe Trieste. I ordered a double espresso and a hot turkey sandwich, and sat at my tiny white table next to a man wearing a yarmulke and some cops who were discussing -- *poetry* *gasp*. Here it finally hit me, wow, I am in *San Francisco,* a place where being an urban intellectual isn't some silly pipe dream. I went to many cafes in San Francisco but there was something very genuine about Caffe Trieste. This place was no cartoon.

Then City Lights Bookstore, the greatest bookstore I've ever been to, where I spent a couple hours salivating over the books and magazine rack and just being amazed that such a place exists.

My friend C. arrived Friday afternoon and we took an evening tour of Alcatraz. Alcatraz is a place I would describe as scary beautiful. There couldn't be a place with a more beautiful view of San Francisco, the bridges and the bay. The island itself has this stoic beauty about it, all steep and rocky and green. But no prison can be called beautiful with the cell blocks, watch tower, solitary confinement area and general air of hopelessness. A tour guide said a prisoner once said the worst thing about Alcatraz was the view of freedom so close by.

The Golden Gate Bridge exceeded my expectations in every way. It's so long and so tall and the rust red color (officially International Orange) made me want to smile inside every time I looked at it. It is the perfect color. I almost got run over Saturday morning by cyclists on the bridge who apparently take their ride very seriously. Once I figured out how to stop on the bridge without getting hit by a bike, the views from the bridge of Alcatraz and the city are the surrounding area were breathtaking. I loved walking on the bridge. The bridge is 1.7 miles long and we didn't go all the way across, but we did get close enough for me to wonder what was on the other side. In my mind Marin County appeared as some rocky green coastal paradise where rainbows appear daily.

Fisherman's Wharf was a little too touristy for my taste, with no decent seafood at a decent price. I did like seeing the beach and the piers and the ice cream sundae shared with C. at Ghirardelli Square was heavenly. There was a jazz band playing with a drummer who was just a kid, and I think the kid was the reason that a crowd had stopped to watch.

We took a cable car back to the hostel that evening. I told my friend that a cable car really took you back to the San Francisco of the 1910s or 20s. I couldn't believe that the drivers manually turned the cable car around at the end of the line, just like in the old days. And the wood-paneled inside of the cars seemed original, definitely not designed for the girth of 21st century passengers. The ride is slow with lots of vibration, and it's nerve-wracking when you look out and see just how steep the decline is. Ah, but it's fun to ride in a packed car with all the other tourists looking out the windows, absolutely delighted to be riding this thing.

My last day in San Francisco C. and I went to the tiny Paris Cafe for huge croissant breakfast sandwiches. I asked her if she wanted to go back to Paris, but she gave a "been there, done that" sort of answer. She said once you've seen one big city, you've kind of seen them all. Yes and no. Despite their similarities every city plays a different song. San Francisco takes natural beauty and quality of life to the next level.

I spent the last of my time in San Francisco walking around Haight Street. Hippie culture has always fascinated me and I was eager to see where the summer of love happened. Ah, but I was disappointed. I imagine a hippie from the '60s wouldn't recognize this neighborhood with its upscale, tourist-oriented shops. Cartoonish is the word I'll go back to to describe it. It was too clean and too bright and shiny to have any sort of authentic hippie vibe. Also, this was a Sunday so the street was very empty, aside from a couple kids with dreads, and nuns and homeless people, not hippies, occupied Golden Gate Park. Still it was fun to see the psychedelic signs and shrines to Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and George Harrison.

A street over from Haight were beautiful Victorian row houses. How do these houses withstand earthquakes? I wondered. I walked until I got to Buena Vista Park, probably the most beautiful park I've ever encountered. Huge trees offered shade as I walked up steps until I got to a point with an unimaginably beautiful view of San Francisco. I could see what seemed like every house in San Francisco and even out to the Golden Gate Bridge once more. It brought me peace on this Sunday and was the perfect end to my trip.

I missed out on the window seat on my flights back and also forgot I had stowed away most of my magazines in my suitcase. So I pulled out the Kindle and finished my book about happiness, The Geography of Bliss. After traveling around the world, the author comes to the conclusion that place doesn't matter so much, happiness is purely relational. Family and friends are important to happiness, money matters less than we think and we should have trust and gratitude. Shocking! I wanted to request a refund from Amazon.

But surely if there was any place one could be happy it would be San Francisco. For the flowers in the air, the sunshine, the peaceful vibe, the beats, the water, and the color of the bridge. As Jack Kerouac wrote in the original scroll for On the Road, "It was okay with me once again I wanted to get to San Francisco, everybody wants to get to San Francisco and what for? In God's name and under the stars what for? For joy, for kicks, for something burning in the night."

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