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.
Fourth Street between Mission and Market Streets in San Francisco’s downtown is a crowded, frantic place that moves at a breakneck pace. Walking up Fourth towards Market you find that there’s really no straight line so you zig zag your way through the darting crowd. You don’t stroll here; neither do you meander or shuffle; you simply let yourself get caught up in the swirling, boiling maelstrom of people who have places to go and had to get there yesterday.
You’re walking north-ish and once you’ve snaked your way through the rushing throng to Market Street you’ve arrived. This is the main channel that carries the fleets of busses above and the subway trains below; all expelling the masses, the schools of humanity into the urban sea. Market is the eye of the public storm. It’s the grand stage, the center ring, the headliner of the show; the place where you can catch the diversity, the poverty and riches and the clean and corrupt. Here’s where, with a single glance you can catch sight of the charm and the misery, and the plain and eccentric. It’s all here, The City in a nutshell, or as visitors from the less avant-garde climes might call it, just plain nutty. Take any random afternoon:
- Smack on the corner of Fourth and Market sits a big red canopy. It’s Annie’s hot dog stand where Annie, or more likely one of her minions, is doing a brisk business selling hot dogs, pretzels and other salty grub. Between customers Annie, or more likely one of her minions, is immersed in her cell phone, oblivious to the hastening multitudes that churn around her. She caters to a wide range of the urban herd that stampedes past; shoppers, tourists and that businessman who’s careful to skip the mustard in favor of avoiding a stained tie. All except the wheelchair bound man parked next to the canopy. Like many of The City’s unfortunates he holds a worn cardboard sign that asks for a handout and wishes you the blessings of the god who’s abandoned him.
- A few feet away from the hot dog stand a guy is running a shell game. Look, there’s a winner. He picked the shell hiding the pea. The man behind the shells hands the player a wad of money and they play again. The operator swishes the shells around and when he stops the player picks the correct shell and collects another wad of bills. The player’s skill is amazing. He makes it look easy, and it is easy if you’re a shill and nothing is really won or lost. This player isn’t here to play, he’s hard at work; bait to attract the minnows to the shark’s jaws. He’s looking for the gullibles who think they can beat the game that can’t be beat; to strike it rich on a downtown city street. One of the shell guy’s crew approaches me and gives me a friendly but ominous warning to refrain from taking pictures. Understandable I guess. If you’re running an illegal shell game you probably don’t want your image taken.
- On the other side of Fourth Street a small crowd sways to a trio playing some lively blues and further on a Michael Jackson impersonator twirls, moonwalks and lip syncs to recordings of the King of Pop. He’s good at his craft but let’s face it – he looks kinda creepy.
- A pair of Hispanic women peddle bacon wrapped hot dogs cooked over a small propane grill. From the looks of it, their little operation doesn’t have the city’s official stamp of approval but that doesn’t matter to the customers who stop for a dog and a soda. The smell at this tiny operation is much more enticing than the smell coming from Annie’s big red tent; these two ladies have bacon. It’s that heavenly and seductive siren of bacon and sausage on a grill and it takes all the willpower I can muster to keep from buying. After all what could be better than nitrites wrapped in yet more nitrites. Pork fat rules, baby!
Market takes you both east and west. To the east is the financial district and then a short walk to the busy bayfront better known as The Embarcadero. Here you can catch a glimpse of a suspension bridge disappearing into the bay fog.
The Embarcadero takes you from the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark on a three mile long arc along the bay shoreline to Fisherman’s Wharf. On the Embarcadero you find tourists coming and going out of the nearby Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero Center. Crowds stroll among the many street vendors who offer jewelry, photos, paintings, tie dyed shirts and all manner of other crafts.
Below, Two views from Embarcadero Center. Left – Looking west up Sacramento Street. Right – A scant few of the rows upon rows of office windows.
You can always find the now ubiquitous and almost required street musician in Andean garb playing a pan flute. Seems you’ll run across various versions of the Andean pan flute player at almost any urban tourist location in the country. The music is lively and joyous; the bright notes entice onlookers to plunk down the five bucks for a CD that will get played once or twice and then find its way to a dusty stack. I think I have a dusty pan flute disc rat holed away somewhere myself.
Ferry boats from Marin, Alameda and farther away Vallejo emerge out of the fog that blankets the bay waters. The boats drop off the nine to fivers fortified with coffee and pastries. On the outbound trip it’s beer, wine or, if the day’s edge needs some industrial strength removal, a martini might be in order.
After Loma Prieta damaged the Bay Bridge I took the ferry from Richmond. It’s a pleasant way to begin and end a day. I would have continued to use the ferry but after the bridge was repaired the ferry ceased operations from Richmond and it was back in the car.
The Embarcadero has a wide sidewalk that accommodates runners, skaters and cyclists who weave around the crowds; everyone is hell bent to get somewhere. They swerve around those unfortunates who are both seen and unseen; the down and outers who have no place to go but the patch of sidewalk they occupy along with all their worldly possessions.
Heading a block west of Stockton Street from Fourth gets you past the newish Westfield Mall that looks down on the Powell Street cable car turnaround across the street. The turnaround is the beginning or end of the line depending on whether you’re coming or going.
There were times when I would use the cable cars as a regular form of transit until the tourists monopolized them and the city fathers and mothers raised the fares that screwed both the locals and the out of towners.
The tourists line up at the turnaround and gawk at the tableau that plays out on this little plaza. If Market and Fourth isn’t enough of a people show for you then hang on because Powell and Market often kicks the whole spectacle up a few notches.
One afternoon forty years or so ago I was walking across the little plaza with my girlfriend Linda when a woman wielding an umbrella took a wild swing. With a boxer’s precision Linda deftly weaved and ducked avoiding the pointy business end of the umbrella. Instead of escalating the issue we hastened along looking back at the woman who Linda figured simply didn’t like Chinese people.
At Powell and Market the cable car operators take a break; a smoke, a quick bite and a little idle talk until it’s their turn to take the little cars if not halfway to the stars as the song says, then at least to the top of Nob Hill. From Nob Hill the cars plunge down towards Fisherman’s Wharf and if you’re standing on the running board a dizzying look down might convince you that while you’re nowhere near the stars it sure seems like a helluva long way up.
When we lived in the city I owned a Honda Accord with a manual transmission. Negotiating The City’s hills with a manual is a combination of timing, skill, prayer and luck.
It’s all for sale at the turn around; expensive sweatshirts for the tourists who came expecting warm sunny California; counterfeit 49er team gear sold by an “entrepreneur” behind a folding table heaped with t-shirts that will go threadbare after one washing. Cheap jewelry, camera supplies, unpalatable eats or a quick drink. The Jehovah’s are usually here just in case you find yourself in need of god or you happen to be in “search for truth.”
Woolworths used to occupy this corner until it closed its doors in 1997 sending hundreds of workers to the unemployment line and saddening the many customers who had a tender place in their hearts for the old emporium. Woolworths’ closing marked the sad passing of the dime store era, I guess because you can’t buy a damned thing for a dime anymore. It had cramped aisles that offered a lot of cheepo odds and ends and it reeked of popcorn and whatever was frying at the long lunch counter. But it was Woolworths, a classic. I was never above grabbing a grilled cheese or a hot dog at the lunch counter. But hell in those days, on a retail salary I wasn’t above much of anything; everything and everyone seemed to be above me. That was okay though, I was young, a little too irresponsible and having too much fun. I remember during one visit to the store, I bumped into an old girlfriend, Hyun-sook, who had all but disappeared a couple of years prior having gone home to Korea. I picked her out right away by the little mole just above her lip and t-shirt that she was wearing; one that I’d bought her at one of the little shops there at the Powell Street plaza when we were a couple. We talked for a bit, a few how are you’s, good to see you’s and what have you been up to’s. I guess we had places to go and things to do and so we drifted on our separate ways. I remember that as I walked away I thought about rushing back to ask her if we could go out again, looking back to spot her but seeing only the human turbulence of the Powell plaza. Parted forever.
Further west past Fifth Street takes you to a less attractive version of this main promenade. Sixth Street is more or less a no-fly zone. This is where you find society’s discards; a transient sleeping it off next to an empty pint bottle on the cold concrete; a far too young woman who should probably be looking forward to the senior prom. She carries a pleading sign and an equally pleading look and has a pleading little dog in tow. This is where you find many of the haunted who shuffle the streets, eyes boring into things we can’t see and shouting questions and answers at the phantasms we don’t hear. This section clearly looks better now than it was in the seventies when I moved to The City.
Back at Fourth you cross Market and its here that Fourth doglegs to become Stockton Street. Stockton runs past the high rise hotels and high end stores; Bvlgari, Vera Wang, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. It’s an area that’s not for the frugal or faint of pocketbook. There’s an urban redolence here; the sweet perfume of a flower stand, the salty steam from a hot dog cart and the bouquet of fresh coffee. There’s the aura of extravagant cologne left hanging in the wakes of smartly dressed women who dash out of Macy’s looking as fresh as they smell. With fashionable self assurance they part the waves of the masses. It isn’t all sweet and pleasing though; sidewalk steam vents belch rancid bowelish fumes from the city’s gut below and every now and then you catch the musky smell of a joint or the stench of a businessman’s cigar.
A couple blocks up from Market is Union Square; one square block of grass and concrete. The centerpiece is a long, tall column erected in 1903 and dedicated to Admiral George Dewey and his victory at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War. It’s an incongruity in San Francisco; a monument to a contrived war sitting in the middle of a pacifist city’s main downtown plaza.
Bench bound old folks sit in the plaza and watch the cavalcade. Food vendors hawking sausages, pretzels, and pricey lattes; street musicians who turn out everything from arias to chaotic clamor. Tourists assuming the selfie position of arms extended stand next to the silver painted street artist who is assuming his own frozen position; a dollar tip for the picture please. Out at Stockton and Post a traffic cop glares at the car with out of state plates that got hung up between traffic lights gridlocking all directions.
I watch a young skateboarder who launches himself from a flight of steps and crashes onto the pavement of Stockton Street. Picking himself up he looks at his buddies and alternates between moans of pain and embarrassed laughter. A couple of construction workers shake their heads, probably in amazement that the kid didn’t break any bones or get crushed under a 30 Stockton bus. Matrons satiated from a leisurely nosh at Neiman Marcus and carrying their little sacks of leftovers, strut past the forlorn homeless holding their cardboard supplications for spare change; signs that wish upon you the same blessings of the same deity who’s screwing the guy on Market Street. The dames and the derelicts avoid eye contact with the other. Maybe it’s shame, maybe it’s disdain, maybe it’s downright indifference.
When I was a kid there wasn’t a fraction of homeless that we see today. When we did pass a homeless man (we never saw homeless women sitting on the streets back then), I remember my dad muttering, “There but for the grace of god go I.” He didn’t believe in the god part, not for a minute. But he was a youth during the Great Depression and seeing the homeless (“bums” we called them back then) recalled those days and rekindled the fear of losing his job and finding himself living on the street.
On an average Union Square day you might catch a small group of protestors fronted by a small contingent of cops looking on with a mixture of patience and amusement. During my last visit the outrage du jour was Trump but he’s been an almost daily outrage for going on four years. He’s the gift to San Francisco protestors that keeps on giving.
As you continue up Stockton Street you come to the ritzy Grand Hyatt and Campton Place hotels. This is where Stockton Street disappears into a tunnel that burrows beneath Bush Street for three blocks to emerge in the other culture of Chinatown.
Standing before the tunnel I looked up to see a trio of signs that, in a little touch of irony appeals to the basic human needs. A taco joint, a massage parlor and a cocktail lounge. It’s a wry little coincidence that Freud himself couldn’t have planned better.
The massage parlor has been there for decades under different names. If you do happen to be on the prowl for a “touch of ecstasy” you’ll have to find it elsewhere as the Green Door’s doors were shut down by the city. The Tunnel Top is a cozy little place that’s up a flight of stairs that takes you to Bush Street.
Back at Fourth and Mission you head south, past the Sony Metreon and the Moscone Convention Complex to reach blocks of new restaurants, trendy watering holes, gleaming fitness centers and apartment buildings.
There was a time four decades past when this was a section of town marked by parking lots, vacant lots, mom and pop job shops, various small businesses and empty shells. Brick buildings (now a city taboo due to their susceptibility to earthquake damage) housed businesses like Patrick and Company that sold office furniture to nearby financial district customers. Ramshackle looking cafe/diners dotted the area. Places like Susie’s, family owned and looking sketchy on the outside and maybe a little greasy on the inside offered simple fare and good service from behind long lunch counters where you sipped your coffee and quietly read the San Francisco Chronicle Sporting Green to the sound of whatever sizzled on the flattop. Those little diners are gone now, replaced by big monied corporate coffee houses and sleek bistros with piped in pop or jazz music that clashes with the din of customers who’ve long ago lost their “restaurant voice.”
Some of the area was razed by the Loma Prieta earthquake on my 36th birthday back in 1989. A lot of what nature spared went by way of the wrecking balls. Before renovation and gentrification it was all known as South of Market, a place you didn’t venture to, not because it was dangerous mind you, but because you just had no business there unless you needed some metal plated or a big print job done or a dent in your car fixed. There were simple residences here, small Victorians tucked in among the jobbers’ shops. It was a working class neighborhood in every sense.
The small industry is gone and the simple residences have been augmented by gleaming apartment buildings, all of it, old and new far beyond the means of the bourgeoisie. A segment of the new housing construction is supposed to be “affordable” but in The City “affordable” can translate into the high six figures.
Downtown and South of Market didn’t seem as keyed up forty years ago as they are now. The craziness and frenzy; it wasn’t so intense then as now. Less hurried and harried, you had some perception of the people around you. Maybe because there were no cell phones to silo you, divert you, push you, pull you; demand your location or require your immediate presence. Passersby looked at other passersby. There was eye contact and maybe even a casual greeting.
Oh, make no mistake it was crowded. How could it not be? This is where bus lines converge and that part hasn’t changed. The 14 Mission bus stops at Mission and Fourth expelling the hordes from the far southwest fringes of the City, the Excelsior District, the Castro and the Mission and everyone has a mission; work, a few cocktails, shopping, a movie, a date or just hang out and watch everyone else’s mission. The 30 Stockton emerges from the Stockton tunnel and stops at Fourth. Fresh from Chinatown the line was christened the Orient express back in the day.
Even then, The City was more diverse than most of the rest of America and this little patch was the confluence. The busses brought in the Hispanics from the Mission, the Filipinos from the Excelsior, and the Asians from Chinatown and Japan Center. From Pacific Heights came the well to do and from the Fillmore the African Americans. The gay men came in from Polk Street. That was years before The Castro became the center of the LGBT community. From the parking lots, the commuter busses and trains came the suburban workers and they all and every one mixed with the suits, the clerks, the servers, the barkeeps, the masseuses (some legal, some doing what they had to do to get by), the sightseers and the street people. It was and still is a buffet of garb, languages, dialects, religions and customs. It was and is San Francisco’s own little Istanbul right there at Fourth and Mission, a diverse quilt. It was here at this confluence that I worked my first San Francisco job; right here that I was captured and captivated by The City.