‘I sat in the Delhi airport and watched the big electric clock in the departure hall that tells passengers when to board. I thought I imagined that time was moving in fits and starts: 1:12 a.m. for fifteen minutes, then 1:27 for another twenty, 1:47 … Closer inspection revealed that the clock was not plugged in, and its digits were being flipped manually by a little man in gray overalls whenever the mood took him.’
— Jonah Blank, Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India
‘SF is what the freedom-inducing utopian metropolis was mapped out to be: which is to say, more open, tolerant, funked-out, colorful, strange, unorthodox, thoughtful, nature aware, baffled, contradictory, and kaleidoscopic than any other city in the nation. It is equal parts beautiful and annoying, frustrating and wonderful. Perhaps this is why we seem to be so hated by sundry hunks of ‘Merka. We get it right, even in how frequently we get it wrong.’
— Mark Morford, SFGate.com
Hmmmmm. Slumming in SF for a vacation. Interesting choice. If you’re lucky this summer of 2002, you might arrive just in time for both « Barry Bond’s 600th career home run » or « Oakland’s 70th murder of the year ». Or maybe both.
My first advice is that, SF being just like downtown Washington, DC, where buses tend to wipe out the old and the slow, be very careful crossing the streets. Our smack-the-pedestrian rate is down this year, but still appears to be trying to keep pace with Oak-town’s homicide rate. And, as always, one should certainly watch out for those DWA’s (I’ll let others explain that acronym to non-Californians), to wit:
True story: This afternoon, I was sitting in my chair, doing what I do every afternoon at 3, namely, scattering resumes from « Seattle » to « Vermont » like so much bird seed while being endlessly amazed at just how much trouble « a little boy named Beaver » can get himself into, as well as endlessly pondering what would possess a woman to vacuum while wearing high heels and a string of pearls (not to mention allow her youngest child to be named after a swimming rodent – and just why is Ward always so friggin’ uptight?), when I heard a short screech, followed by an almighty and hellacious bang.
Well, I thought, it’s someone else’s turn to visit « the fine UCSF trauma center », rated the eighth best hospital in the empire! Sure enough, David came panting up the hill shortly thereafter; he had been in « a Muni bus » down the hill coming home, when a little old DWA man decided to make a left-hand turn from northbound Seventh onto westbound Lawton.
From the far right lane. Across four lanes of traffic. On a red light. In front of the northbound oncoming #44 Muni bus.
While the bus driver had quick reflexes and managed to stop the beast in time (thus sparing us all a scene of neighborhood carnage), the oncoming southbound cars on Seventh did not. Result: Squished Daihatsu and simply higgledy-piggledy afternoon traffic – the loony bin – er, I mean ’« Laguna Honda Adult Rehabilitation Center »’ – having just let out the shift change of Nurse Ratcheds – er, I mean, ‘mental health care professionals’ – a few blocks south.
Yet, undaunted by the scene confronting him, the Muni driver waited for the green light and then simply maneuvered his bus gallantly around the accordioned Daihatsu, let out David at the appropriate stop around the corner and went on his merry way. Which is possibly the first time in recorded history that a Muni driver was concerned about keeping to schedule. But I digress.
Not knowing where (or indeed if) you, dear reader, visited in SF before, I have a few suggestions:
First, take a look at « SFGate ». They always have something there interesting for turistas.
Even better, be sure and investigate « The SF Bay Area Guardian’s ‘Best of the Bay 2002 ».’ There’s a plethora of recommendations, including, if one is so inclined, the best nude beaches.
Hint: One of the best of the nude beaches is just to the west of the GGB and goes by the name of « Baker Beach ». Just be sure and remember the BB rules:
First, the beach runs below a high cliff, on top of which are tourists with cameras and binoculars who are supposedly there to ‘catch the spectacular view of the GGB’ [wink, wink]. If you don’t mind possibly ending up on the internet, well, then go ahead and « doff the CKs ».
Second, the beach is segmented by groups. Running from west to east, with the furthest eastern section being the closest to the GGB, you will find: First, clothed families and SF’s very few, very lonely Republicans; Second, clothed adults (moderate twenty-somethings who recently moved here from the Midwest and are still too inhibited to visit the areas to the east); Third, unclothed straight people (evenly divided between true believing nudists and folks who are obviously uncomfortable but determined to push on regardless – oh, and don’t be scared, but this group enjoys playing volleyball); Fourth, unclothed lesbians and their retrievers; and Fifth, unclothed gay men. Those fully clothed people walking east along the beach visiting each section are just engaging in prurient and surreptitious plain old ogling.
Then there’s that secret sixth section, over the rocks and snuggled up against the bridge, but what happens there would, if described in this missive, probably highly annoy the Imperial censors. Not to mention scare you. Let’s just say that there are more reasons than the sunsets why the view off the western side of the GGB can be quite spectacular. Unfortunately, the western sidewalk is usable only by bicyclists – no pedestrians, no gawkers with Nikons and telephoto lenses – despite what I alluded to above.
Just remember that San Francisco beaches are notoriously deadly affairs; a few months back, an « entire Japanese youth tour group », standing with their backs to the Gate at Baker Beach (the western, Republican, end) for picture-taking purposes, were swept out to sea by a large rogue wave, which only the camera man saw approaching. One of them did not return to shore and has never been found. Kinda like those Alcatraz escapees back in the ‘50s.
The western side of SF is « Ocean Beach », but the gray (yes, I said “gray”) sand is often unappetizing, and the notorious cold, riptides, rogue waves and the occasional shark or angry sea lion combine to … well, rival Oakland’s homocide rate. In short, beaches are for sunning, dog walking, frisbee-flying or kite flying, not for swimming (see above photo).
What else? Well, I always recommend the drive up 101 to Santa Rosa, where you can have great « Tex-Mex at La Cantina » (on the courthouse square downtown) and « visit Snoopy’s home ice, the Redwood Ice Arena, opened by Charles Schulz in 1969 and which now houses a Peanuts museum and gift shop ». This is where Sparky hung out when he wasn’t drawing. « This past weekend saw the grand opening of his great new museum ». It’s a dilly and will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
While in SR, there’s also « a nice indie bookstore, Copperfield’s, » in downtown SR that gives much-needed relief from the big, bad corporate chains like Bore-doors and No-Brains & IgNoble. One can also drop by McDonald Avenue, the fairly unchanged neighborhood seen in Hitchcock’s 1943’s « Shadow of a Doubt », as well as « Scream » and « Pollyanna ». (What an interesting trio that is. A friend just bought Pollyanna on DVD; beyond the shadow of a doubt, it made me want to scream. Hyuck. Hyuck. Hyuck.)
Anyway. The stairs down which Joseph Cotton pushed Theresa Wright in SoaD are said to still be there, relatively unscathed. Santa Rosa was more recently the locale for the excellent Coen Brothers’ noir-ish « The Man Who Wasn’t There », starring Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand. It didn’t have a body being pushed through a wood-chipper in mid-winter like « Fargo », but it did have an execution, drunken hog-riding, and a roll-over car wreck caused by a blowjob. So hey.
If one’s visit stretches out toward the end of August, one shouldn’t miss the Tall Ships sailing through the Gate, part of the « Tall Ships Challenge », which will feature sailing vessels from around the world. It started Aug. 8 in Richmond, BC, and concludes Sept. 14 in San Diego, with simultaneous celebrations in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
I always highly recommend « Fort Point », the 1850’s fortress underneath the GGB. It’s a well-preserved fort with spectacular views. Just don’t stand too close to the edge of the Bay. The rogue waves which hit the tourists at Baker Beach hit Fort Point sometimes too. And no, you can’t get to Baker Beach from there. A chain link fence prohibits what happens on the west side from being viewed by the tourists from Dubuque on the east side.
Fort Point is most famous as the spot where Kim Novak jumps into the Bay and Jimmy Stewart has to rescue her in Hitchcock’s « Vertigo ». Those steps are still there. And by the way, ain’t no way Jimmy coulda rescued that crazy wench; either she would have been immediately swept out into the Gate, or he would never have been able to hoist her back up the steps – I mean, lord, he was a thin thing and she was a rather … buxom woman.
Love ice cream? Well, one can hit four legendary ice cream stores, which were recently « part of a unique, only-in-San-Francisco, bike-around-the-city-and-eat-ice-cream, tour ». Yum, yum, yum.
Like to skateboard or rollerblade? Well, one might just have the brand-new, half-a-million-dollar skate park near the Cow Palace all to one’s self. Built recently for ‘boarders who were tearing up city sidewalks, it’s now being shunned by them: ‘It sits in a wind-rush so ‘hella cold’ that it’s been dubbed ‘The Chilly Bowl.’ Most boarders still prefer the broad sidewalk near Pier 7 on the Embarcadero, next to the ritzy Waterfront restaurant. Which, of course, is hella illegal.’
By the way, « ‘hella’ is a California colloquialism » which I first heard from high school girls on the aforementioned #44 Muni bus (‘That was a hella rave last night, Britney!’ ‘I know, LaQuisha! That Ecstasy gave me a hella buzz!’). ‘Hella’ can be used in other situations, as well: ‘That flight was hella bumpy!’ ‘That flight attendant was hella rude when she threw that Salisbury steak at me!’ And so on.
If one is into movies, check out the venerable, ever-fascinating « Castro Theater » with a terrific and eclectic, ever-changing series of great films, the movie fan’s Mecca. It’s located on Castro between 17th and 18th, which is, by the way, the geographical center of the queer universe. If you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a performance of the Mighty Wurlitzer, the restored organ which rises out of the pit before some showings. The Castro was completely restored to its original glory not too long ago; it’s worth going just for the architecture. It also had a role in a scene of « EdTV »; Matthew McConaughey chased Jenna Elfman into one of the Castro’s restrooms. (We natives laughed at that scene; those crazy LA movie people had the chase begin in North Beach and end in the Castro – it would have been an uphill foot race of over five miles lasting, on-screen, about 30 seconds. I mean Matthew’s in pretty good shape, but I doubt he’s in THAT good shape.)
More standard, touristy suggestions:
« 1. Walk the Golden Gate Bridge » (do it now; they’re considering charging walkers $1 a piece in the future, and the toll for drivers will soon be raised to $5 bucks a car – charged to southbound drivers only). Walking the GGB is always fun; you can feel it bounce and sway as cars and trucks fly past you at 75 miles an hour close on one side and, on the other, there’s that sheer drop down to one of the world’s most treacherous ocean currents.
I admit that the bridge is beautiful and makes for perfect postcards; however, the charm and wonder of walking it escapes me. I find it about as thrilling as walking along, say, the Metro bridge over the Potomac in DC – while Orange line trains come at you from both directions. But hey! If you’re lucky, you might witness one of the many deadly head-on collisions that happen on the GGB all too often, or maybe even one of the estimated 200+-a-year suicide plunges into the Gate. Those in the know report that impact forces do the deed, not drowning, and that most victims end up, how do we say this? Several inches shorter than they were in life. Now THERE’S a vacation story to tell the folks back home!
« 2. Take the $23 Alcatraz After Dark tour ». It’s a totally different place in the sunset, less tourists, more mystery, more shadows. Colder than Laura Bush after she’s dragged Jenna home from yet another bout of underage DC bar hopping, but still well worth the trip. Be sure and go to D block, where the isolation cells are; a ranger puts you in a cell and closes the door. Fun, fun, fun. I wasn’t aware that dark could be so … well, dark. Not recommended for those afraid of blackness, tightly closed and confined spaces, 60-year-old toilets, or large, indigenous rodents. Or the ghosts of Al Capone, ‘Creepy’ Karpis or the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Bonus attraction in D block: Shrapnel and bullet scars from the 1941 prison takeover are still visible, created by an all-out Marine assault from the Bay on the rioting prisoners. Also be sure and see the papier-mache’ heads used in the Clint Eastwood movie, « Escape From Alcatraz » and the spot where ol’ ‘Scarface’ Capone gave haircuts.
Also, if you’re lucky, one of Alcatraz’s aging inmates might be on hand with a few interesting tales. The night my NorthPoint Field Operations field engineer trainee group and I went, we heard, from a nice man who was 90 if he was a day, an interesting (and surely physically improbable) tale of how one becomes a prison ‘bitch.’ Needless to say, some of the more … less-travelled … engineers were a bit … startled at the tale.
« 3. Visit Golden Gate Park » (in my neighborhood). Stay on the paths and try not to look too closely at what goes on in the bushes. GGP is safer than DC’s Rock Creek Park (at least during the day) – you’re unlikely to run into the bones of dead Congressional interns (although I do hear that Mr. Condit is back home in nearby Modesto during the Congressional break, so you just never know).
It’s also home to the « California Academy of Sciences », where you, too, can stand on a platform and experience what it felt like during the « 1906 earthquake ». In other words, it jiggles you up and down really fast and makes your lunch come out of your nose. No word on whether they also drop bricks on your head and then set you on fire so you can experience the aftermath of the 1906 ‘quake as well, but that might be included in upcoming museum renovations.
Afterwards, you can sit in the Japanese Tea Garden to collect your wits, or even use the pedal boats or canoes on Stow Lake. Caution! A dead elderly man was discovered floating on the lake face down a few months back, so, if one has a heart condition and is 88, one probably shouldn’t be pedaling or rowing boats around Stow Lake.
« 4. Shop the newly rejuvenated Union Square ». After a multi-year, multi-million-dollar face lift, the center of all things shopping recently reopened to tourists and its usual contingent of mimes and bums. It’s all there: Disney and Prada and Macys and Saks and Levis and Niketown and North Face and Virgin Megastore … as well as the piquancy of fresh bum urine and tourists buying every piece of made-in-Taiwan schlock they can get their hands on as they wait in patient herds for the « Powell Cable Car line ». (Hint: Catch the « California Street line » in front of the « Hyatt Regency Embarcadero » near the « Ferry Building » on « Market Street »; no lines, no crowds, few tourists, much more spectacular views. From the Ferry Building, a relaxing ride on the « Golden Gate Ferries line » to « Sausalito » or « Tiburon » is also a very wonderful thing.)
Union Square is where, by the way, a year ago this week I was dodging some x%x*^&# tourists from Dubuque and severely sprained my ankle. While it was potentially embarassing, none of them apparently noticed that I was sprawled on the ground; they either thought I was a bum or they were too busy craning red necks upwards, sayin’, “MA! Look at all them tall buildin’s!”
« 5. Take a walk down Second Street from Market to PacHell Park, home of the Giants ». This was my commute every morning when I was still actually part of the American work force. I love this quote in the article linked above about the area on the south side of the building where NorthPoint was located: ‘Look up the word “bleak” in the dictionary and this is what you should see.’
Still, at the end of the road is PacHell Park with it’s « SF Giants » store and museum and tribute to the Say-Hey Kid, « Willie Mays » (if you’re into baseball). It’s a beautiful facility, and unlike the corporate welfare given out to sports teams in the rest of Amurrica, it was built entirely with private funds – particularly from that evil phone company, hence its name.
Proud recent moment: « SF supervisors just voted earlier this month » not to sell out to corporate interests the right to rename « Candlestick Park ». The Park, ugly and nasty as it is, was built and is maintained by the taxpayers of the city. A rare, proud moment: Principle triumphing over the almighty corporate dollar.
« 6. Sixth Street ». Here is where you will find a richly layered, multicultural experience with sights, sounds, tastes and smells unparalleled anywhere.
It’s a veritable bazaar: Need a serial-less firearm? We got that. Counterfeit Nikes? We got that too. Cheap whores made up to look like Princess Leia in “Star Wars: Episode 4” and of indeterminate gender? Got ‘em in spades. More pharmaceuticals than Bayer, Wal-Green’s and « SF General Hospital » combined? Oh, yeah. Human drama? « Colorfully decorated pimp mobiles »? Movies which you can enjoy in the privacy of your own personal booth? Expert tutellage in « Ebonics »? We’re down with ‘em all, baby. Come see us.
Lastly, please allow me to offer my services as tour guide/chaffeur, if so needed. Lord knows I have the time. Just remember I drive as if the very demons of hell are chasing me and they’re rather hacked off about something or other. And you’re welcome to visit a rather more sedate tourist spot: My apartment. It’s not as exciting as Sixth Street or Baker Beach, not as famous as the « Crooked Street » or « Coit Tower », but it’s a heckuva lot calmer than all of the above. The most dangerous thing here is the « Beagle’s breath ». And the occasional DWA.
So, take your shoes off, set a spell. Ya’ll come back, now, y’hear?
A Few San Francisco Links: