Saturday, February 10, 2007

California, here I am

Thursday, February 8

It’s nearing the end of my first day in San Francisco, a day in which I’ve been alternately excited, confused, charmed and terrified.

As the plane drew below the clouds and the city came into view, I was so impressed that I actually gasped. One minute I was staring at the airplane flight screen, sighing with impatience over the lack of a view, the next I glanced at the window and saw the bay and the hills stretching below us, swathed in fog. And looking just the way I’d always imagined them, only without the sun and blue skies I associate with California. As the plane rolled across the tarmac, past the sign for San Francisco International Airport, I actually shed a tear, I was so excited.

I had so much faith in my streetwise abilities that I decided to save money and catch the train to the city rather than a cab to my hotel. I was confident that I’d find the way to the hotel once I hit the city. I had the address, I had a map, I was happy to hail a cab from the city centre.

What I didn’t count on was culture shock. After all, the US is pretty much the same as us, only more so, right? Well, not quite. For one thing, the traffic heading in the opposite direction to what I’m used to threw me – I realised I was trying to hail a cab on the wrong side of the street. Then I panicked and wondered if there was a protocol for cab hailing that I wasn’t aware of. The relentless rain combined with the three bags I was struggling under didn’t help, and neither did the fact that I’d been travelling for nearly 24 hours.

As I stood at the edge of Market Street, peering into the rain and squinting at my tourist map, a tall black man in a hooded rain jacket called to me from across the pavement.
‘Do you know where you’re going?’
‘Do you know where you’re going? Do you need a hand?’
He, too, was holding a tourist map, but I sensed that he wasn’t a tourist. (For one thing, he wasn’t the least bit flustered. For another, he was sensibly armed with an umbrella.)
‘Um, not exactly’ I admitted. ‘Well, I mostly do. I’m going to the Renoir Hotel on McAllister Street and I’m just trying to hail a cab.’
‘You can get that streetcar down Market Street and then walk.’ He pointed at the bustling street ahead, then looked back at me. ‘How about I hail you a cab? It’s not far for them to take you, either.’
I followed him to the street corner, as he asked me questions about what I was doing in San Francisco and where I was from. He stuck out his arm as a cab rolled by and it pulled to a halt.
‘Thank you so much.’ I wondered whether I should tip him, then wondered if that might be offensive.
‘You wouldn’t have any small change to spare, would you?’
I scooped up all the coins from my purse, neither remembering nor caring how much they added up to, and shoved them at him as I threw my bags into the backseat of the cab.
‘I haven’t worked out what these are, but you can have them.’
I was so grateful to be on my way that I was more than happy to pay for it. It was suddenly obvious to me that this was how this man made his living – and that was why he was standing on the corner outside the train station with a tourist map.
‘He shouldn’t have asked you for money’ sighed my cab driver, shaking his head. He checked the address with me and shook his head again. ‘That’s a bad area’ he warned. ‘Good hotel, bad area. There are some bad people there. Be careful.’
And, within a minute or two, we were there.
‘That’s $4.95’ said my cab driver. I handed him a ten dollar note. ‘So, how much change shall I give you?’
‘How much change?’ He looked at me meaningfully.
Fuck. Tips. I had completely forgotten about the US and tips. In fact, I couldn’t remember for the life of me what percentage it should be. Ten? Twenty?
‘Um … um … Now, let me think …’
My driver shot me a sympathetic look and passed me a handful of notes.
‘This should do’ he said. ‘Have a good holiday. Take care.’
Inside the hotel, I counted my notes. He hadn’t taken a tip at all.

My cab driver was right. It looked like a pretty bad area. As we approached the hotel, the street front quickly segued from glossy shopping malls (Bloomingdales, Brooks Brothers, Old Navy, a gleaming upmarket Westfield Shoppingtown) to Payless Shoes, 7-11 and finally, opposite the hotel, a gaudily lit strip club next door to a beaten-up department drugstore with boarded up windows and a ‘For Lease’ sign on the wall. Similarly, the passersby were no longer predominantly white and well-dressed, but predominantly black and obviously down on their luck. Clusters of moody-looking young men gathered on either side of the road, in front of the drugstore and the cable car line. This was not the funky city location I’d envisaged from the website.

I checked my bags and decided to hunt out one place I knew I wanted to visit: City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. The bookstore, founded by 1960s Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is famous as the old hangout for Kerouac, Ginsberg and co, but it’s also renowned as one of the world’s best independent bookstores.
So, feeling lighter and less conspicuous with just the one bag, I headed across the road to catch a tram or bus, once again having no idea to get where I was going. My plan was to get the hell out of there and figure out what to do when I hit the less dodgy part of the city centre again. As I hovered uncertainly by the bus stop, getting steadily drenched, a purposeful looking local woman joined me.
‘So, where are you from?’ she asked. I told her. ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ Damn. My own attempt at looking purposeful, or at least confident, was clearly not working. She told me to catch the cable car to Fishermen’s Wharf, tell the driver I was going to North Beach, and he would know where I should get off. She said something about the rain today, looking at me sympathetically.
‘Yeah, I thought it was never cold in California’ I said breezily, aware as I said it how stupid I sounded.
‘Well, it’s winter.’
‘I know. I guess I thought it would still be warmer. And not so rainy.’
She made a noise that was somewhere between a laugh and a snort, but not unkind.
‘Oh, it’s rainy alright!’
Her bus arrived and she caught it, wishing me luck. As I watched her disappear, I realised that my stupid comment about California was pretty comparable to people who say ‘oh, I thought Australians kept kangaroos as pets’. I blame The OC, Veronica Mars, Beverly Hills 90210, Charmed. (Yes, all quality viewing!) When did you last see it raining on a television show about California?

In the end, I got off at Fishermen’s Wharf, acting on the hunch that I could buy an umbrella at the gargantuan souvenir shop perched on the side of the road (I did). I walked around Pier 39, one of the spots highlighted in all the tourist material. I’m sure that the rain and the freezing cold didn’t do it justice, but it was still pretty spectacular, once I ducked out of the sideshow alley maze of ice-cream and sweet stalls, seafood restuarants and gift shops. I sloshed along the waterfront, breathing in the vast expanse of ocean and getting my first up-close glimpses of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, as my sneakers slowly filled with water and the sopping cuffs of my jeans somehow spread to calf level. As I rounded the corner to head back to the main street and look for North Beach, a strange yelping sound made me jump. The grey lumps floating on logs in the water momentarily squirmed, then fell still again. I realised that these were the sea lions I’d been reading about as an attraction of a bay cruise, and had assumed were way out in the bay. Actually, they lay right up against the wharf, sleekly content.

Next stop, North Beach. I’d had enough of asking (or rather, inviting) directions and of hanging foolishly about public transport. I decided to walk, and asked a girl at a tourist information beach for advice. She handed me a map.
‘It’s in here’ she said, and turned away.
I shoved the map in the bin at the first opportunity (I already had a map in my pocket) and made my own estimations of how to get there.

After a lot of walking and a bit of circling, I finally saw the sign for City Lights Bookstore, with the Beat Museum across the road. As I folded my umbrella and stepped through the door, I felt a sense of coming home. The bookseller behind the counter was juggling my waiting to deposit my bag, another customer waiting to pick hers up, and a phone call with someone wanting to organise an event or an interview. I hung back, browsing the new releases and admiring the set-up. Dark polished wood shelving, handwritten and laminated staff recommendations, and a web of interconnected rooms across three levels. It combined the trash-and-treasure feel of a second-hand bookshop, an invitation to roam, with the laid-back cool and casual literary authority of a good independent. I found the Latin American History, American History and Sociology shelves downstairs and settled in for a long browse before choosing a couple of titles. The staff reminded me of Readings Carlton in Melbourne – too cool for school, but just friendly enough to get away with it.

As I emerged into the street, I was momentarily surprised to be in a foreign city again, I’d felt so comfortable in City Lights. Still, I have to admit, the North Beach area is not so terribly different from Melbourne, apart from the abundance of taquieras.

I still haven’t had a good coffee here yet, though – and had a bloody awful one in the hotel restaurant after checking in my bags. When the waitress came around to refill my mug with another generous splashing of what could only have been instant coffee, my reaction was bemusement. Why would anyone ever want more than one mug of that dreck? In Melbourne, even hairdressers in Yarraville serve you a decent lattee/macchiatto/espresso. I can see why Starbucks is so popular here.


Melly` said...

Oh - that was wonderful! I too would of been bewildered at California cold... (Ok living in Queensland can do that to people).. I look forward to your next post! To me - the people sound at least helpful... Stay safe!

MadameBoffin said...

What's a taquiera?

I know what you mean about the unexpected culture shock and I had a similar experience when I landed in LA. The hotel I was staying at had a pick-up service from the airport, they told me where to wait, the only problem being I didn't know whereabouts that was! I was standing outside obviously looking uncertain when a man approached me in a uniform. It was almost identical to the airport staff uniforms. He asked me if he could help and I said I was looking for the green stop. He pointed it out, then his good deed accomplished, asked me for a donation to a local charity. Although it was a good cause, it's a little dodgy how they went about drumming up money!

Ariel said...

Thanks Melly - I seem to be managing it.

And Boff, a taquiera is a Mexican cafe - like a take-out/eat-in joint, generally. Mexican is the new pizza over here.

Yep, your LA money experience sounds a bit like my first homeless guy experience. A pick-up service ... how brilliant ... I will probably go to LA too. Any tips?

elsewhere said...

Hi Ariel,

I'm enjoying your travelogue.

You can get good coffee at cafe Trieste -- it's kind of diagonally opposite City Lights, but off the main road, in a lane that runs parallel to the same street.

Also -- great Chinese at the House of Nanking.

I hope you're not staying in the Tenderloin area!