When I was in junior high school, a teacher made some remark about boys dancing with boys: "Maybe in San Francisco," she said disparagingly. I didn't know anything about San Francisco, but I wanted to go to this place, where such queer things were possible. This was my first real visit--as an adult--and I loved San Francisco. I don’t know how anyone can actually afford to live there, but then, I’ve only been able to live in London because I got a lucky break. For the few days we were in San Francisco, I loved it. Though not as much as Portland, where we spent even less time.
The bus pulled into San Francisco around 7:00 in the morning. The new terminal is still being worked on, so there are no facilities there—not even a bathroom. (More so than on previous visits to America, I was discovering the scarcity of public bathrooms, all in an attempt to exclude non-customers.) Luckily, our Airbnb had a locker downstairs in the kitchen, so we schlepped our backpacks over there and locked them up. Then it was off to the cable cars.
San Francisco’s cable cars (not “trolleys”) are the last manually operated system of their kind in the world. Like so many other iconic things in the U.S., they were slated for demolition, but as long ago as 1947 a woman named Friedel Klussmann organized citizens’ opposition and saved the cable cars. She used facts—the revenue from this unique attraction was more than the cost of upkeep. Today the Hyde Street cable car turnaround near Fisherman’s Wharf is named after Klussmann, and when she died in 1986, cable cars across San Francisco were decorated with black.
My impressions of 1970s San Francisco, the mecca of gay liberation before AIDS, are shaped by Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. His characters rode the cable cars as transportation, but today, most riders are visitors rather than San Franciscans—certainly on the Powell-Hyde line. The wooden platform on which the operators turn the cars around by hand is something to see. We had all day so were happy to wait in line for our ride.
Every time the brakeman clanged his bell, I expected to see Maupin’s characters or those from the movie What’s Up, Doc? That’s the kind of city San Francisco is: we feel we know it because we’ve seen it so many times before. I was glad to be riding rather than walking up Nob Hill, though impressed that, now as a century ago, the cable cars were up to the task. A lot of Nob Hill did not fare as well when the earthquake struck. And this was just one of the times San Francisco has been faced with destruction; in the 1950s plans were made to crisscross the entire city with freeways, changing its neighborhoods beyond recognition. It will not be a total surprise by now that in this California city, citizens revolted at the plan, and were successful in organizing public transit instead. There is actually a statue in honor of the Freeway Revolt.
One thing we all know about the Bay Area is that it is foggy. The fog had cleared by afternoon, though, so we got off the cable car at Fisherman’s Wharf and got some clam chowder with sourdough bread. Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown are the only places I remember visiting the one time my family came to San Francisco, when I was fourteen. I remember Mom hustling us across what now seems quite sedate for a city street, saying that we should have Tennessee license plates hanging around our necks, to warn people what “rubes” we were. You can imagine how rice wine for sale in Chinatown blew my mind later that same day. I don’t think I’d ever even seen alcohol for sale, let alone something Chinese.
The next hill, we had to get up under our own power. This was the block of Lombard Street famous for its switchbacks—and flowers. Amazingly, they still let people drive down it.
We were ready to get back and check into our Airbnb. Next door there was a Pakistani-Indian restaurant. It was loud and clattery, no ambience whatsoever, but it was also full and cheery. The guy took our order and cooked our food right within view. It was wonderful, and cheap as far as San Francisco goes. BYOB.
The next day was quite warm, so we risked sandals to walk around in. I think it was for this reason that the Hare Krishna at the corner of Haight and Ashbury thought we’d be into meditation and vegetarianism. He was not uninteresting to talk to, so I did. It’s not every day you meet a Swiss Hare Krishna. Well, maybe in Haight-Ashbury it is.
This is the neighborhood where you can still see a Jerry Garcia mural on a wall and Janis Joplin souvenirs in the window. The Summer of Love was so brief, and yet I had to visit this iconic area, because it’s part of the national consciousness—at least for me. My parents were about to celebrate fifty years of marriage and although they weren’t hippies, they passed on to me a love for some great music of that era. Not to mention the records themselves.
Our day of walking, which ended at Golden Gate Park, had begun at San Francisco City Hall.
|City Hall, with Zak Ové's sculpture Black and Blue in foreground|
It’s awfully grand—looks more like a state capitol building to me. We were there because I’d read there’s a statue of Harvey Milk under the rotunda, but it was a weekend and City Hall was closed. So we went down to another iconic neighborhood, the Castro, where there are memorials to Milk everywhere.
If you haven’t seen the Sean Penn movie and don’t know the story of Harvey Milk, you can do no better than to read Randy Shilts’s The Mayor of Castro Street. That is how Milk styled himself. He wasn’t the first or only openly gay politician in the world, but what he told gay and bisexual Americans was that we must come out. That being our authentic selves, in front of our families, our neighbors, the people we buy from or work with, was important and would make a difference. Milk was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone in 1978, having served less than a year as a city supervisor, but he was prophetic. The speed with which attitudes have changed in the U.S. can be plotted along a direct line: from fewer than 25% of people saying they personally knew a lesbian or gay man in 1985, to more than 75% saying yes by 2013.
So I had to have a drink in the Castro, once we found a bar with a mixed clientele. People watching is as much fun there as anywhere.
The Castro Street neighborhood is adjacent to the Mission District, San Francisco’s oldest, so we walked there too. I was impressed by the size of the Women’s Building and the fact that it is still so busy offering services, nearly forty years on.
|Mural, Women's Building|
By contrast, T. thought it was kind of sad that there’s still a need for those services.
Between that and the relentless poverty, she was getting a little depressed by San Francisco. Luckily there was a food truck nearby. Food trucks are legendary on the West Coast, appearing first here, then on another street corner, and offering some of the best (and least expensive) food in the city. We were almost put off by the fact that they took no cash, only cards! But the sisig, a Filipino meat made into tacos, looked and smelled so good that we made an exception.
The Mission San Francisco de Asís itself is the oldest building still standing in the city, and dates from 1791. Much of the construction was done by conscripted local Natives, Ohlone and Miwok, who died en masse in measles epidemics. More than five thousand are thought to be buried in the graveyard, where there is a belated memorial to them. More positively, there is an affirming synagogue around the corner in the Mission.
|Sha'ar Zahav in Hebrew means "Golden Gate."|
Nearby Dolores Park has—you guessed it—a hill, with good views of downtown San Francisco.
The next day T. wanted to visit Sausalito, on the north side of the Bay. I think it was more about getting out of San Francisco than any particular reason to go to Sausalito, but the real attraction for her was the possibility of biking there. Once again, she got me on a bicycle, and we made our way (gingerly, in my case) to the waterfront bike path and over the Golden Gate Bridge.
It was worth doing. Even into Sausalito was mostly downhill—so downhill that I’m afraid I never really let the bike go, because there were constant warning signs to go slow. (By the way, what’s happened to adverbs? Is slowly no longer a word used in American English?) We got a wonderful Mexican lunch (vegetable tostada with Dungeness crab and shrimp) and, when we’d walked around a bit on our sore legs, stood in line for the ferry back to San Francisco. This was where T. pined for the efficiency of the slow boat in Laos, where loading and unloading were as fast as anywhere else in Asia. On this ferry, all the bikes just went in an enormous pile, and many of the passengers seemed to have no idea how to walk a bike without entangling themselves with others. Also, they would not stop ringing the bicycle bells! T. said maybe they had special needs but I think that’s giving them too much credit. What they needed was not to be jerks.
We’d gotten 3-day transit passes which were very convenient, if only because we didn’t have to think before jumping on another bus or streetcar. San Francisco has streetcars like Toronto, distinct from the cable cars. In fact, one of the old cars I spotted was still branded TTC: the Toronto Transit Commission.
Despite the novelty of Chinatowns having worn off, we still had to stop there. We never did see Barbra Streisand or Ryan O’Neal from What’s Up, Doc? but we did see a Chinese dragon, or at least a head. We followed the sound of drums and found a band playing. Then we got some nice food, a heck of a lot cheaper than in Las Vegas!
We were next bound for Oregon, and T. had decided that this particular leg of our trip was best done in a rental car. For one thing, she wanted to drive more of winding Highway 1 along the California coast. Almost immediately there was a detour up Mount Tomales. At least, I think that’s what it was called. The fog closed in so thickly we were lucky we could see the road.
We rejoined State Route 1 near the Point Reyes National Seashore, where we’d been hiking with Bernie in July. One thing I noticed all along State Route 1 was that every town, no matter how small, had a post office prominently next to the highway. I went in the one in Tomales and was glad I did—the postmistress was so friendly, and the mailboxes hadn’t been updated in years.
Another thing I noticed was the interesting place names: Havens Heck Drive, Nameless Lane, Confusion Hill, Rogue C. College, Butcherknife Creek Road. Probably the funniest was a restaurant called the Smoking Duck, which was just a charred ruin. It had burned to the ground. Oops.
We soon realized that as scenic as Highway 1 is, it would take us a lot longer than T. had thought to get to Portland that way. But the next chance to cross over to U.S. 101 was not for another hundred miles! So we kept trying to enjoy the endless hills and sharp curves. The thermometer in the car would read 91 degrees Fahrenheit and then, an hour later, 61 F.
As we got closer to the Oregon state line we started to see redwood trees. The highways join at a tiny town called Leggett, which advertised the world famous drive-through tree. I hadn’t thought you could still do this, but since it was there, we had to.
T. was just impressed that as long ago as the 1920s, people had cut a hole through the tree without killing it. But if you thought this was kitschy, the “world famous” attractions were coming thick and fast. We quickly passed the chainsaw sculptures and various other mysteriously named trees, and even Heaven on Earth (whose cinnamon rolls were only “famous,” not world famous).
|T. for scale!|
Nothing, however, could detract from the grandeur of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It’s free and you can drive an alternate route to 101 along the Avenue of the Giants. This park contains some of California’s oldest trees, and more than half of the 100 tallest trees in the world.
We had to stop often, but of course this made our day’s drive even longer. By the time we pressed on towards Crescent City, the redwood forest was dark. I think we were too tired to enjoy this stop for the night. All the kitchens in town except Denny’s were closed by 9:00 PM, and, chilly and disoriented, I couldn’t find the extra blanket that I knew the Super 8 motel room must have. Only in the morning as we were packing up did I find it. And breakfast was included, so it’s not Super 8’s fault that I didn’t enjoy it!
The next day we reached Oregon. With a single exception, everyone I talked to or interacted with in this new state was exceptionally friendly. It can't have been a coincidence. The guy pumping our gas (you can’t pump your own gas in Oregon). The woman in the sandwich shop chatted and wanted to know how we were doing—not in that standard empty way, but as if she really wanted to talk. It was from her that I learned what we probably should have known before we went to Oregon: that there were 500 fires burning across the state. A thick haze of smoke hung in the sky. We didn’t notice it by smell; maybe we’ve just gotten used to breathing bad air. But in the Pacific Northwest, they must be used to clean, clear air.
Oregon doesn’t have sales tax either. Maybe that’s why people are so happy there. You see a price on a price tag, and that’s actually what you pay at the counter—just like England. I enjoyed the novelty of paying round amounts, like three dollars or $1.75.
We went to Portland at the invitation of my friend, Christina. When I say “my friend,” I mean a girl I hadn’t seen since high school. Through the wonders of social media, Christina, whose father's ministry briefly overlapped my family going to their church, got in touch and asked if T. and I were coming to Portland. Then she said her family would be happy to put us up for a couple of nights.
Well, you know what happens when people say that to us. Next thing we were at her front door in the City of Roses.
How much I enjoyed Portland will be the subject of my next post.