My San Francisco is a series of posts that describes my own personal relationship with The City. My San Francisco pieces might be photo essays; they might be life stories or they could be commentaries. They might be a combination of some or all three. My impressions won’t necessarily be paeans to San Francisco; it’s a beautiful city that often dons an ugly mask. These pieces will always have one common theme; they are my expressions of my personal San Francisco experience.
San Francisco and I. We’ve had this long term relationship and its, well, it’s conflicted. You could describe it as one of those love/hate things. There are those times when I pay a visit, maybe have a lunch or dinner date and flatter her for her beauty and charm. And then there are those other times when I don’t want to have anything to do with San Francisco; call her vile names, overbearing and pompous, phony, getting by on a worn out reputation of beauty and class. I tend to blame the bad times on San Francisco’s bad behavior, or what I consider bad behavior. Usually it’s a traffic jam.
And then I go on a rant that usually goes something like, “Oh sure, you’ve got the nice bridges that everybody likes but you can’t be bothered to clean up your own poop. Try negotiating that minefield of yours you call Market Street. Oughta change the name to Crapper’s Way. And seriously can’t you take better care of your ride? I mean the cable cars are nice and quaint, even if it is hard to catch a ride especially in the summer when you cater to all your out of town admirers. But those busses; my old beater red truck is in better shape than your busses. And dude, you are seriously far too high maintenance. What’s a guy gotta do to just to spend an afternoon? Win the lottery?”
“You don’t care what I think do you? If I decide to break it off you always have other admirers who go through hell, high water, a traffic jam on the Bay Bridge and a gauntlet of aggressive panhandlers just to have lunch at a sidewalk cafe and then take a stroll to one of your time honored bakeries for tiramisu and a cappuccino. Oh and you have those pretentious guys who take out a second on the house to have dinner at some celebrity chef’s joint. Okay I have to admit it. The food’s good. Like really good. Really, really good.”
“But you don’t care about my tirades because deep down you know me for what I am; a weak-kneed wimp who’s going to break down and shamelessly come back and then you’ve got your hooks in me again.”
That’s how it goes with me and San Francisco. What was it, a year ago when we got mired in a downtown traffic jam and it took an hour just to get on the bridge to get home? I told Cora in no uncertain terms, “We’re NEVER coming back to this dump.”
She just sat there patiently looking at the queue of cars, frozen as far as you could see and probably thought, “Yeah, right.” Because she knows that I’ll always waiver. She knows that for someone who generally hates cities I love The City. The. City. That’s what we call it. Just check out the old school uniforms that the Warriors wear from the days when they played in San Francisco. Their logo was The City.
I met my wife and got married in San Francisco. My son was born and baptized in San Francisco. I worked in San Francisco for ten years and I’ve gotten all shook up by its earthquakes.
I’ve lived and died with the ups and downs of San Francisco’s sports teams. I’ve dined there and gotten ploughed in watering holes from dives to the Fairmont Hotel to sports arenas to sitting on the sidewalk by Winterland Arena drinking cheap wine while waiting to get into a Grateful Dead concert.
Maybe it’s only fitting that in the city that helped to immortalize the word “psychedelic” I took my one and only ill advised acid trip. After staying awake all night conversing with historical figures, dead relatives and assorted demons and praying to any deity who would listen to make it all go away I got up out of my tortured bed in the morning and thought it would be a good idea to go to work. I drove to pick up my girlfriend Linda for work and after driving back and forth and up and down the block to find her place I finally stopped in front of the building I usually knew by heart. Clearly annoyed and knowing my proclivities she got in the car and asked point blank “What did you take last night?”
So months after my last, “I’m never going back again rant,” and as the holidays drew near and Cora and I found ourselves alone again on Christmas I suggested that we go to the Christmas service at Grace Cathedral.
Grace Cathedral marked my latest reconciliation with The City. Grace, built in 1934, is a grand Gothic with a powerful pipe organ that fills a great hall lit by the sun’s rays, multi-colored as they filter through the magnificent stained glass.
Cora is Roman Catholic and I’m Episcopalian and while she usually attends her own church she rarely turns down the grand service at Grace, especially when it’s dressed for the holidays.
Okay, maybe I should own up to something. I don’t actually live IN San Francisco. I don’t have the financial horsepower to live there. I used to live there, back when you could live paycheck to paycheck and said check only contained three figures. No that was not a typo. Three figures and you could live in The City. Three.
I live in Hercules now, a little bedroom community about 25 miles northeast of The City but I’m a shameless name dropper. Sure, I’ll admit it. I’m sponging off of San Francisco’s prestige. Take for instance those times when we’re on vacation and the server or clerk asks the obligatory, “Where y’all from?” I almost always say, “We’re from San Francisco.”
Now before you dismiss me as a San Francisco charlatan there is a practical reason for my seemingly fraudulent claim to be a San Franciscan; no really there is. I’ve found that when someone asks where I’m from and I respond with “Hercules” I’m met with an “Oh that’s nice,” delivered from a blank, questioning stare that has “Where the hell is that?” written all over it. Answering with San Francisco avoids having to provide a geography lesson. The fact that it’s all accompanied by an unrepentant snobbery is mere coincidence.
“Where y’all from?”
“We’re from San Francisco.”
“Oh what a beautiful city.”
And even if The City is in my doghouse I might add, “Yeah we really love it. Especially that skyline.”
How complicated and convoluted is this relationship? For decades I’ve tried to cajole Cora into a retirement in the country, you know, like Montana or Wyoming. And for decades it’s been a non-starter. But strangely enough if I had the chance and the resources I would absolutely move back to San Francisco. With the exception of Rome, Italy it’s the only city I would consider living in. In the end I’ll always have a love affair with San Francisco even if it’s denizens can be hoitytoity, the streets dirty and stinky and the politics sometimes beyond silly. How silly? I remember back to 2010 when the Board of Supes passed an ordinance that took the happy out of a McDonald’s Happy Meal by limiting the toy giveaways. And why? The supe who wrote the bill, Eric Mar, was having trouble dissuading his young child from wanting a happy meal. Dude, control your kid.
San Francisco has never had to call me back because she’s always known that I’d waiver. I can’t count the number of times I’ve caved into the pleasure of standing in line for an hour to get into Tony’s Pizza just to watch Tony Gemignani’s tattooed arms flinging the dough that will soon become the best Margherita pizza in the world. And then savoring each morsel of that deletable pie and going into mourning after the last bite.
Or it could be any of the other charms that entice me to gut out a traffic jam on the freeway and over the bridge to go on an expedition to seek out that ridiculously expensive and rarely found but highly prized gem, a parking place.
A visit to Chinatown on a frigid February night watching the Chinese New Year parade or dropping in any other time of the year to get dim sum or duck or a pound of Chinese barbecue pork and just take in the culture on Stockton Street and the touristy kitsch on Grant.
A Chinese New Year Dragon
Occasionally we do the touristy thing and visit Fisherman’s Wharf.
Strolling through the ridiculously expensive but oh so colorful and delicious Embarcadero Farmers’ Market.
Sometimes it’s a visit to my old haunts at the west end of the city where I lived. Colorful eclectic Clement Street.
And there’s always those bridges. Often a pain to cross but a visual treat from any angle.
A few years back I actually looked into the price of a flat in the North Beach section (the Italian district) of town. The good news was that we could afford it. The sobering news was that we would have had to empty our bank accounts, liquidate our 401K’s, never take a vacation (even to Fresno) and survive on ramen and Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat.