Published: September 8th 2012September 5th 2012
San Francisco is a city of lights and shadows. In the morning, the dense fog rolls in from the Pacific, chill and atmospheric, the skyscrapers half-imagined forms that loom out of mist-draped piers lolling with sea lions. You walk through an ever-emerging landscape, damp and trying not to shiver, and imagine how this coast appeared to the hopeful gold-hunters who disembarked here in their millions desperate for the lucky find that would strike it big.
Then, by 11.30am, the fog disappears, the sun burns brightly, you remove several layers, and start seeking shade in the shadows that have suddenly materialised. Sunny California, the land where dreams are made, appears as if by magic.
The city is made of neighbourhoods. There’s North Beach, the Beat-poet hangout that retains its cool with alternative bookstores and independent cafes, the Mission, colourful with graffiti murals and rainbow flags, the Haight, festooned with wedding-cake decorated Victorian mansions, and Chinatown, full of narrow (for San Francisco) alleys and parks inhabited by large groups of old men intently following some kind of card game. Even the Financial District, with its skyscraper banks, is home to a tiny Redwood Grove right next to the iconic
Transamerica Building, where office workers picnic in a Japanese-style garden. You’ve got to love a city that makes that kind of statement. It certainly doesn’t act like its popular image as the capital of the West Coast: the roads are quiet, the buildings are low rise, and everyone is friendly.
And I mean everyone is friendly. I don’t think I chatted to a New York local once – in San Francisco I had had so many conversations even in the simple journey from the airport to arriving in downtown. Having climbed out of the BART station at Embarkedero at 7.30am on my first day, loaded down with ridiculously heavy backpack, I was speculatively eyeing the Hyatt hotel opposite trying to guess my chances of them allowing me to use their luggage storage room in return for a hefty tip, rather than me lugging the bag all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf to store it at the tourist office. A man selling newspapers asked if I was ok, and laughed when I told him what I was considering:
“Unless you got $400, $500 a night for a room, they ain’t gonna store your luggage for nothin’”
I was English:
“Hey, how’s the Queen?”
(At this point I resisted the urge to boast that when I’d had lunch with her a couple of months ago she was on great form). We then discussed the weather (ah, familiar English territory).
“You see that flag up there? On the Ferry Building? Well when she’s blowin’ like that means it’s gonna get hot later. I can taste it. In San Francisco? Always bring a long sleeved shirt and a t-shirt to work with you”
He was right – I did the English thing and unwittingly sunburnt myself later that afternoon.
Hilly in an incredibly higgledly-piggledy way, San Francisco’s gradients suddenly climb or drop as if Ellen Page was creating an ‘Inception’ dreamscape around you. The grid-pattern of roads seek to ignore this anarchy of landscape by making no allowances whatsoever for it, streets simply climbing at ridiculous angles up sheer slopes. I pity the Californian learning to drive in San Francisco, having seen one mid-sized van simply lose power on one particularly malicious hill and just start rolling backwards. What’s more, one of the primary means of getting up and down these 45
degree slopes is by ancient cable car, it’s passengers hanging on off the sides like on South Asian trains, it’s only means of braking a cumbersome hand brake operated by a sweating conductor. The things can’t even turn around under their own steam, and have to be manually swung around on a revolving platform by the aforementioned conductor. Great fun to ride though.
All that climbing of hills tends to make you hungry. Fortunately, San Francisco is a culinary capital reflecting the diverse communities and cultures that have formed it’s makeup since its earliest days. I decided my usual quest for national delicacies should not be blunted by the fact that American food is more familiar to me; after all, here was a chance to indulge. Toasted bagels with cream cheese, pumpkin pie, clam chowder, sourdough bread, banh mi in the Tenderloin, and of course, Starbucks… here was a menu I could get to grips with. Even more excitingly, I was very kindly being hosted by an old friend in Alameda during my stay in San Francisco, and Cameron is an *amazing* cook. I am adding to America’s obesity rates as we speak.
Cameron grew up in the
Bay Area, and provided a fascinating insight into many of the cultural and behavioural quirks I saw around me. He describes San Francisco as an island of tolerance and social liberalism like few other places in America. This was borne out when, sitting on a bus, a man in a wheelchair, either completely drunk, or completely crazy - probably both - caused a complete ruckus whilst trying to board, holding the whole bus up for ten minutes. When safely embarked, he then continued to sing raucously and rave at fellow passengers, pretty much all of whom clearly thought it was great value and joined in with the general melee. Even in Britain (where we are all a bastion of liberality and helpfulness, right chaps?), this would have been greeted with frowns, ‘tut’s, and a general retreat behind newspapers.
On the other hand, odd discrepancies sometimes showed. I had booked myself on a tour of Alcatraz, the notorious island prison marooned between Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge. The fog once again added drama to the scene as the ferry pulled in to the dock and the passengers began the zig-zag walk up to the cell block mounting the top
of the island. Following an excellent tour depicting the malaise, desperation and depression of life in a high-security prison when punishment was the only aim, there was a temporary exhibition on the merits of rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration. As part of this, there was a case study of five men who had been imprisoned for a murder in the early 1970s. Each had done between 25 and 30 years of imprisonment, and now, a decade after their release, were model pillars of their community. A message board had been provided so that people could add their thoughts on the exhibition. At least 60% of comments were statements like:
“They should be locked back up”, “why didn’t they get the death penalty?”, “did their victims get a second chance?”
2,226,800 adults were imprisoned in the US at the end of 2010, with one in 13 adults under correctional supervision, and 1 in 10 children have a parent on parole, on probation, or incarcerated. The number of African Americans in prison, on probabtion or on parole, now outnumbers that that were enslaved in 1850.
The Bay Area may be a beacon of light at the western end of
the world, but it is undeniably part of that larger paradox that is America. As I drove over the stunning expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge the following morning however, it’s rust-red struts fully visible for the first time and glowing in the sunshine, my spirits were as high as they could possibly be. If America is a paradox it is certainly a beautiful one. And it has excellent not-quite capital cities.
Many thanks to Cameron, Lis, Scott and Andrew for their wonderful hospitality, conversation and unbelievably delicious repasts!
There are more photos below