Nine and a half hours in San Francisco

Monday, May 31, 2010

It’s been a good few days in California. I arrived after my overnight flight feeling jetlagged and exhausted but I took a whole day off from being a tourist and got to sleep in, do laundry, manage a bit of shopping, blog, and make dinner for my hosts. It was great, and the jetlag hasn’t been nearly as bad as I was expecting.

First though, a brief diversion about my trip from Japan to California. I mentioned that I stopped in Vancouver to have coffee with friends so I’m honour-bound to include them here because I promised Steve, and he’s been a faithful blog-lurker since Day One. Also, he bought me a latté at the Starbucks. Rob and Steve: It was great seeing you guys, thanks for making the trip out to the airport. I hope you liked the green Kit Kats

Rob H, Me and Steven G., at the lovely Vancouver Airport. The photo is not great, because Rob managed to find the one guy in the Vancouver airport who, when presented with my camera, could not figure which way to point it and spent a few fumbling moments with the lens pointing at himself. So the fact that there’s a photo at all is a minor miracle.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled California blog post: On my second day in San Jose I got up at a more reasonable hour and caught the train into San Francisco for a day of proper tourist business. Because at least for a little while longer, that’s what I do. The train from San Jose to San Francisco took about an hour and a half, and I arrived in town at 11:00 am. It was a strange feeling to get off the train with no guide book, no map, and no plan. Perhaps it’s a bit sad, but as soon as I walked past a bookstore I jaywalked over and hit the travel section (California shelf). I came out a few minutes later with a tiny, cheap guidebook, an excellent map of the transit system, and the personal advice of a woman in the travel section. I felt muuuuuuch better. Brimming with confidence, and with my transit map in my lap, I boarded the “F Market” streetcar and headed for the seashore.

Inside the “F Market” streetcar

I got off at the stop for Pier 39, which is a popular tourist destination, if your idea of tourism is buying craploads of cheap tourist tat of every description and eating until you can’t move. There was no doubt I was in America. It seems that the whole northern tip of the peninsula on which San Francisco sits has been turned into one long street of shops and restaurants, with very occasional alternative diversions. Even after having been in the retail heaven of Tokyo, it was a bit much. There was one store called, I’m not kidding here, “Who You Callin’ a Crab?” which sold nothing but crab-related products. There were several stores selling only wacky socks. And if you wanted anything you could imagine with the Golden Gate bridge on it, well, let’s just say your search would not be arduous.

Pier 39 did have one non-consumer-related attraction, though, and it was a good one: sea lions! It’s not clear why the sea lions have chosen to hang out on the docks near Pier 39 – they used to sun themselves on a place called Seal Rock, but gradually migrated to Pier 39 around 1989. I thought they were fantastic – cute, and ungainly on land, but incredibly lithe in the water. And I couldn’t believe how they were able to get themselves up onto the floating docks – they seem to just launch themselves out of the water.

Video of the sea lions at Pier 39

After that I wandered along the Embarcadero, and I admit I did a bit of shopping. I bought a pair of jeans! I haven’t worn jeans in almost a year, so I was a bit giddy when I found a pair that fit properly and weren’t nearly as enormous a size as I feared. And now I can walk around in my jeans feeling like a normal person instead of a cross between a Mountain Equipment Co-op catalogue model and a hobo. It’s great.

My walking eventually led to Ghirardelli Square, which is where the famous Rice-a-Roni Streetcar turns around to head back across the city (though it’s more properly known as the Hyde-Powell Streetcar). I thought about taking a ride but the lineup to get on was ridiculously long, so I decided this was going to have to be one of those must-do things that just didn’t get done. Luckily Ghirardelli Square is also the home of the Famous chocolate makers, and the site of their flagship store where they give away free samples of Ghirardelli chocolate to anyone who walks in the door. Nice place, even though the woman at the ice cream counter gave me some advice that was in direct opposition to the information on my transit map. I scarfed down a few more squares of free chocolate and then followed my own counsel and was able to find the right bus stop and the right bus to take me to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was my next stop.

The bridge was excellent and well worth the bus ride, even though I was accompanied an obnoxious herd of thirteen-ish year old boys who spent the whole time talking loudly, posturing, and generally being as unpleasant as thirteen-ish year old boys can be, which is to say very very very very very unpleasant. Bridges in general are a favourite of mine, so a classic like the Golden Gate Bridge was a real treat. I especially liked the cross-section they displayed showing what the main cables of the bridge are really like – they’re HUGE! You really don’t get a sense of that when they’re hundreds of feet away.

This cable is just over three feet in diameter and is made up of 27,572 individual strands.

I also walked out onto the bridge itself and took approximately 732 photos (all on Flickr), and had a very nice visit.

Mandatory shot of me at the Golden Gate Bridge

Back on the bus again (minus thirteen-year old boys) and my next stop was Golden Gate Park. (Note to those of you not familiar with San Francisco geography, as I was until I arrived: Golden Gate Park is not named after the bridge. In fact, it and the bridge are both named after the Golden Gate, which is the name for the opening into San Francisco Bay. Hence, when the channel was bridged, they called it the Golden Gate Bridge.) Golden Gate Park is a big rectangular green space on the western side of the peninsula, similar in shape to New York’s Central Park, but 20% bigger – just over a thousand acres. I walked from the bus stop at the centre of the southern edge of the park, past Stow Lake, a Japanese Garden that I declined to pay $8.00 to enter, a lawn bowling club and the large, open Bowling Green. I was having a nice walk towards the east end of the park but at the very end things started to get a bit dodgy. I think there’s a fairly large community of homeless people who camp out in that area, and there seemed to be some vociferous conversations going on among a few of them that were vaguely worrying. I sped up a bit until I was walking right behind a normal-looking couple who I estimated could be counted on to point the police in the direction in which my unconscious body was dragged if things turned ugly, and made it out of the park without incident.

That landed me at the end of Haight Street, hippie central in the 1960s and still home to spaced-out oddballs of all stripes. I had a really nice supper there at a funky café (though in fairness everywhere in Haight was funky) where the young guy behind the counter asked me for I.D. when I ordered a beer, thus instantly catapulting himself to the status of Favourite Food Service Professional of All Time.

See what I mean about the funkiness thing?

After supper in Haight I kept walking, aiming for Castro, and went past a nice park and up some very steep hills. It turns out the route I chose required me to climb a fair bit, only to descend precipitously a few blocks later, but I guess that’s just life in San Francisco. Still, the steepness of the streets was startling. Some of the sidewalks even had shallow steps.

If the street had been leveled, this is how slanty the houses would be.

Castro was a great neighbourhood – the heart and soul of San Francisco’s big and lively gay community. I was there on a Friday evening and the whole place was just buzzing – people out on the streets, packed into restaurants and bars, and chatting with friends. It was easily the friendliest, most comfortable part of San Francisco that I visited and I found myself wondering if there might be a job opening or two worth considering in the Bay Area. The vibe was really nice.

The rainbow flag which flies over Harvey Milk Plaza, peeking out from behind a block of Castro. The plaza commemorates the San Francisco city supervisor and gay rights activist who was assassinated in 1978. (You know: the guy in the Sean Penn movie. And don’t try and tell me you were all “Oh-yeah-Harvey-Milk-I’m-up-on-that-noise” BEFORE you saw the movie…or is that just me?)

From Castro it was another ride on the streetcar, which included a free performance by a couple of San Francisco’s more colourful characters. Then I had a short walk down 5th Street, which also turned out to be… colourful, so I was happy to see the bright lights of the CalTrain station before the sun set completely. An hour and a half later I was safely back in San Jose and ready for bed. It was a good day in San Francisco, though a ridiculously short amount of time to see anything but the barest snippet of the city. I’d definitely like to go back some day, especially if young food service professionals keep implying that I’m under 21 years old, and they’re still giving away chocolate. I mean what’s not to like?


Kathryn said...

I think you've seen more of SF in one day than I have in a couple of visits. Although I have seen the sea lions- surprised you didn't mention their distinct odour!! Phew!
By the looks of the photos, you have found the worst that American food has to offer...Fair Food. I hope you carry a portable defibrilator in the bag.

FLF said...

OK, so now I see you are coming to the end of the travelling. It is 6:30 am here, and just what do you think I am going to do with my morning coffee if you stop blogging...?? So, the challenge is out... find a new blog idea, and I will be there with you. Welcome home!

Anonymous said...

It was really great to see you and I am honoured to "make the blog".
And the green Kit Kat was a bigger hit than you may realize. I gave half of it to my 11 year old daughter who saved it for school the next day. In elementary school currency, a green Kit Kat is worth about a trillion dollars.

As with everyone, I will be very sad to see the blog go. Your posts have definitely been "appointment reading".

Steven G.

Jerry Pritikin said...

It's Ironic that you chose the 800 block of Duboce Street at Alpine Terrace to walk down from Bueana Vista Park. The houses on the slant are right across from where I lived.
The building below the Rainbow Flag on Castro Street is where I used to display my photographs... at the time it was a bakery shop in the mid-1970s, now a Pizza place. I was lucky to be there when it was not expensive to live or take a vacation

Viviane said...

"Equipment Co-op catalogue model and a hobo" that could almost be a commercial. LOL! thanks Pam.

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