Tuesday, February 20, 2007

From Marina to Renoir

Saturday February 8 (Part Three)

Walking along Richardson Avenue, the main road straddling the border between Pacific Heights and Marina, I sense a very different feel to that in downtown San Francisco. Despite the endless motels and motor inns, this is the home of the well-heeled, those who with no need to mug you on the street. I withdraw some money from an ATM and spot a yellow Post-It with a note scrawled on it: ‘to [Joe Bloggs], your card is at the Blockbuster’. There is another Post-It underneath. A similar message, addressed to someone else. I also note ‘NO LOITERING’ signs, security signs, and Neighbourhood Watch signs. It’s safe, but paranoid about its status. I see no loitering, and no homeless people.

The nearby shopping strip is glossy and upper-class suburban. There are nail salons, beauty salons, tanning salons, massage parlours. Pizza and cafes. A gust of wind blows my umbrella into a weird contortion and it snaps. Now, it dangles limp on one side, dribbling water down my leg. I huddle under the good side awhile, until the broken spoke jabs me one time too many. Passers-by shoot me strange looks. I bin the umbrella, struggling to close it properly once it’s in. I imagine more strange looks as I wrestle with the bin.

After searching in vain for somewhere to buy a new umbrella, I decide to move on. I don’t want to stop and eat here. The bus shelter where I settle seems to head back to the city, albeit the long way. Four teenagers sit next to me and talk loudly in faux-ghetto tones, each trying to outdo the other with how ‘street’ they are. Examining the bus map in detail to avoid eye contact with them, I realise that a bus to the Mission district leaves from across the road, on Fillmore Street. I jump up and leave, just as the bus arrives.

I was wrong yesterday. It’s not just poor people who ride the bus. It depends on which bus route you’re taking. This one travels through Pacific Heights, the city’s most exclusive district, and my fellow passengers range from immaculate Toorak types and expensively dressed college kids to the poorer citizens I observed on earlier bus rides.

The polished wood and gold lettering patisseries and cafes, Shabby Chic homewares outlets and art-house cinemas of Fillmore Street soon give way to Burger King and a BART Station. The change comes abruptly, marked by the appearance of a Goodwill store of supermarket proportions on a street corner. Before I know it we’re on 16th Street and Valencia. According to my San Francisco Walks cards, this is the home of funky, offbeat shopping. I leap off the bus just in time, seeking shelter in a second-hand bookstore before emerging to resume my umbrella hunt. This time, I quickly find one, in a Latin American bric a brac store. Another bus sails past and I decide to catch it further down the road. I run for it, umbrella waving.

It lurches, then stops. The driver smiles, and I recognise him from yesterday – the same driver who had to tell me how to get to the Mission. An older man, Italian I think, comes puffing up the steps behind me.
‘I knew you’d stop for her!’ he exclaims.
It turns out that I’ve miscalculated, forgetting that the traffic rides on the opposite side of the road to what I’m used to, but I can’t be bothered getting out. I end up back in the city, where I disembark in the arts district, Yerba Buena. Standing in the street, I realise I’m too tired to look at art, though I do detour to the California Historical Society, where I make myself not buy any books, postcards or souvenirs. Next door is an Italian gourmet grocery. Maybe I’ll buy something for dinner in my hotel room? I stand looking at the options. Pesto pasta salad, pre-made ciabattas, antipasto.

I end up boarding another bus, vaguely confident that it will take me to the hotel. It takes me to Fishermen’s Wharf, where I get off and walk to North Beach, where I eat at the tacquiera next to City Lights again. There is a tour bus parked outside the bookstore. I browse the shelves, trying to memorise as much of the Bohemian Guide to San Francisco (published by City Lights) as I can. It’s pretty interesting, but I’m only here another day. Apparently Kerouac and Ginsberg frequented Vesuvio, the Italian cafĂ© in the lane opposite here, and rock stars, including Bono, always stop by Castro, a bar across Mason Street, when they’re in town.

I go to Vesuvio and stand outside. It looks gorgeous, very Fitzroy. Slightly dingy, stylishly shabby. A collage of beats along a section of wall leave even the casual visitor in no doubt about its famous origins. The tables are all occupied. I imagine sitting there, frizzy and bedraggled in a not-so-stylish way, drinking a coffee I don’t really feel like and reading a book I’m in no mood for. Similarly, there’s no way I’m going to sit in the Castro and drink alone, not tonight anyway.

It’s 6pm, time to go home. Exhausted from my day of walking and misguided bus riding, and not in the mood to cross Market Street in the dark – or at all - I hail a cab. The driver detours through Nob Hill to avoid the traffic in the city centre, and I enjoy the scenery. Tree-lined streets, more Victorian mansions, dimly lit cafes, cosy laundromats. I ask to go the non-Market Street entrance to the hotel.
‘That’s, uh, a pretty bad area’ says the driver.
‘I know. That’s why I get a cab after dark.’
‘Good idea.’
‘My travel agent booked it. It was part of a package deal.’
‘Hmmph. I know. They shouldn’t do that. They make it look so nice on those brochures, too.’ He says this last part angrily, shaking his head. I tell him that I initially chose Nob Hill, but got this place because it was booked out.
‘Hmmph! That would be pretty different. That’s a nice place, that one.’
I leave him a good tip, and he warns me to take care.

Inside the hotel, I am hungry within an hour. I go to bed with my stomach growling.

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