Back in the days of Lookout magazine, nearly every issue carried a column known as San Francisco Beat, which gave an account of goings-on in and around the city, heavily laced with scorn and vituperation directed at anyone or anything that failed to measure up to – oh, how shall I put it? – my admittedly sometimes stringent standards. On a few occasions, I’d write a longer and hopefully more thoughtful piece in which I’d muse on the general state of the city, for better or worse. Those of you who are used to hearing me bag on San Francisco at every opportunity won’t be surprised to see that I was already at it way back in the 90s when I still lived in the area; those of you who are tired of hearing me bag on it might be surprised to hear me actually say a couple good things about the place.
This article was originally published in issue #39 of Lookout magazine in the summer of 1994.
A long day’s journey into San Francisco… I’m sometimes tempted to give up writing about San Francisco altogether. I don’t go there that often, and only occasionally bother to keep up with the Frisco dailies, on the theory that the Bay Guardian, the SF Weekly, and the East Bay Express provide cheaper and less time-consuming ways to insult my intelligence.
In fact Frisco might have been completely absent from this issue if some tourists from England hadn’t turned up a couple weeks ago and asked me to show them around. Always eager for the opportunity to blacken the city’s reputation in the eyes of visiting foreigners, I immediately took them in hand. We got off BART at the Embarcadero station, and set off across the plaza, which seemed to be in a state of great chaos.
About half of it was taken up with some sort of athletic activity, something along the lines of a vast Budweiser commercial, dozens if not hundreds of disgustingly healthy-looking white people bouncing volleyballs or something of similar roundess. The usual skateboarders were in evidence too, their territory greatly reduced and their surliness commensurately increased.
Aidan and Katie had greatly divided opinions on the Vaillancourt Fountain. She thought, correctly, that it was an atrocity against art and the public taste (please don’t call the oxymoron police on me); he found it “interesting.” Earthquake rubble has a certain charm too, don’t you think? Still, I’d just as soon it not accumulate in my vicinity.
The main pretext for this visit to San Franciso, in addition to seeing the sights, was to purchase some wind chimes for my house. Yes, the ones that go ding-a-ling-ding all day long and drive the neighbors nuts. I don’t have a lot of excitement in my life. Listening to bells ring aimlessly is about as dramatic as it gets. Anyway, Chinatown seemed like the place to go.
I’ve been to Chinatown enough times that very little about it seems remarkable, but it’s different when you’re seeing it through the eyes of a stranger. If you’re like me, memories come flooding back of a time when it was all new and wondrous. In my own case, it was a warm, sort of misty October night in 1970, when Grant Avenue was lit up with red and green paper lanterns, and the place was positively swirling with people celebrating some sort of festival.
Some San Francisco natives, or at least some people who’d been in the city a year or two longer than I had, were guiding me around and enjoying the sight of my eyes lighting up in amazement. They didn’t have this sort of thing in Michigan; nor did they have the hallucinogenic variety of marijuana that we’d smoked in a garbage-choked and rat-infested alleyway somewhere between Grant and Kearney.
Around two a.m. we ended up in the steamy and smoky (yes, in those days) upstairs at Sam Wo. Because of the decor, or the room’s shape, I imagined I was in the cabin of a steamboat far at sea, a reverie sharply broken by the bellows and guffaws of Edsel Ford Fong, the waiter whose loud insults and patronizing treatment of white customers earned him big tips and legendary status. Geez, this is starting to sound like a Herb Caen Sunday column. Yessiree, folks had more style in those days, and the hills inclined more gracefully to the bay, and we were never going to grow old etc. etc…
Back in 1994, Aidan and Katie waited patiently while I examined the esthetics of every available wind chime in the China Bazaar and found them all wanting. Another thing that was better in the old days, I guess. Meanwhile some sort of dancing dragon went by to the accompaniment of a great deal of crashing and (to a Western ear) arrhythmic drum beats. I thought the Englanders would be impressed with that, but no dice. Apparently dancing dragons are a regular occurrence in North London, either that or they’re too far beyond the pale to register.
We strolled as far as Maiden Lane and Union Square, over, not through the Stockton Tunnel. I attempted to point out some of Sam Spade’s haunts, to no avail, since I was the only one who had heard of him. Then down into North Beach and the Caffe Trieste. At least they’d heard of Kerouac, Ginsberg and a few of the other subterraneans who’d been known to congregate there, but Aidan seemed more impressed that San Francisco cafes, unlike those in Berkeley, still allowed smoking. I myself was bemused and gratified that for the only second time in 25 years of visiting the Trieste, the counterman greeted me in an unmistakably friendly manner. Had I finally been accepted into San Francisco society?
Then it was up the Filbert Steps to Telegraph Hill, always a sure bet to wow the visitors. The wind was cold and howling, typical of June, but it didn’t bother the flocks of tourists photographing each other in varying configurations with the Golden Gate and Alcatraz and the East Bay hills for backdrops. Aidan and Katie were no exceptions. I didn’t even mind it that much, except for the ferocious wind, and the way the sun kept getting in my eyes.
We clambered down the side of the hill via my favorite route, which had been made a good deal more difficult by some bozo’s decision to install a fence across it. Wandered through the bleak, bland and treeless Marina, then backtracked up Russian Hill and over to Nob Hill as the sun was going down. Noticed with great dissatisfaction that Grace Cathedral was radically defacing the whole block in front of it, including pulling down the elegant little Parisian style convent or whatever it used to be. What great improvement can we expect to see here: a parking structure? Mini-mall? Religious theme park?
Still, it’s hard to remain curmudgeonly when the sky turns pink and gold and even purple, and all around you, above and below, the lights come on in dazzling configurations of purpose and vanity. Sometimes, just for a moment, all is forgiven, San Francisco is young again, and everything is possible.
Everything, that is, except getting back to the East Bay without first threading one’s depressing way through the menacing fringes of the Tenderloin and down the desperate, tawdry corridor of Market Street. I tried explaining how glamorous it had been at one time, but ended by recommending various books and movies so Aidan and Katie could see for themselves that our downtown had not always resembled the seedy back streets you expect to find somewhere behind a bus station.
Even with that unsettling conclusion to our afternoon and evening out, I had to admit that much of the several miles we’d walked had been pleasant, even exhilarating. It was something of a letdown climbing the stairs out of the downtown Berkeley BART station. Usually I hit Shattuck Avenue with a sigh of relief, but this once I almost wished I were still in San Francisco, at least for a few more hours.
It wasn’t exactly like falling in love all over again, but at least for a while I remembered what San Francisco had meant to me over the years, and why, despite all my complaints, I still care so passionately about the place. I might even go back there again one day.