Friday, February 23, 2007
I left for Mexico with a three-pronged job offer from a PR company - to work full time as an account manager for corporate clients, earning 'real money'; to work full time writing, mostly for government clients, earning quite good money (more than you get in the arts), to work three days a week from home writing, mostly for government clients, same money as second option.
I emailed my emissary from the Good Job Fairy (ie. the potential employer) to take up the three-day option, at the end of last week. And got a cryptic 'I'll think about it and tell you within a week' reply, even though she'd approached me and made me an offer. Now, she's talking about freelance work, as if no job was ever offered. The week is up.
Scenario two: A few months ago, I heard that a former employer of mine was unhappy with my replacement, talked to some people who knew them, and was called in for a meeting about getting my old job back. They were very keen. A timeline, salary and working conditions were discussed. I quit my job. Around the appointed time, they told me that my replacement wouldn't quit and they'd given her three months probation, that they were really sorry but they'd let me know and hoped to offer me a different position when I returned from Mexico. Two days ago, I heard that the replacement quit, and expected to receive an offer. Nothing. Silence. I've asked the right people, and it seems they will advertise. I have swallowed my pride and emailed asking whether they are still interested in me, but am not holding my breath. I don't quite understand what is going on here. And I am so frustrated, so incredibly offended, that I am spending my holiday fuming at the moment. And sitting at an internet cafe (a small, hot tiled room with fluoresecent lighting) killing time and checking my inbox every two seconds in the fervent hope that I will hear something from someone.
It seems that my Good Job Fairy was in fact a Bad Fairy in disguise.
And instead of feeling invincible and in demand, as I did only recently, I feel whatever the opposite is.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Monday February 12
6am. I wake up in the dark to the buzzing of my hotel phone. I blearily put it down and start to drift off into my customary ‘five more minutes’ of sleep. Luckily, I remember with a jolt that I’ve given myself twenty minutes to get ready – and I have a Greyhound to catch.
Literally jumping out of bed, I’m straight into the shower. It’s as I’m shampooing my hair that the next part of my brain wakes up. I’m supposed to have visited the front desk at 6am and asked them to call me a 6.20am cab! Hair streaming with shampoo, water dripping onto the carpet, I stumble across the room and dial reception. Task complete, I’m back to the shower.
I’ve just emerged and wiped the weeping mascara from my eyes when the phone buzzes again. My cab is early. Luckily, the driver waits until the allotted time.
Grey-bearded, dressed in a plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans, my cabbie greets me at the front desk with a nonchalant hello as he relieves me of my bags. Everything about him is laid back. I sit shivering in the back seat, leaning my forehead against the window for my last tour of the city I’ve fallen for. He chats about where I’m from, then, after confirming that I’m a visitor, gives me an impromptu guided tour as we drive, pointing out historical buildings and other sites of interest. He has lived in San Francisco all his life, and it sounds like it.
A scattering of homeless people are huddled about the entrance to the Greyhound building. I hurry past them, my bags leaden on my shoulders and back. Somehow heavier than when I arrived at San Francisco airport, though I’ve hardly acquired anything.
I’m terrified that my money still won’t have cleared into my bank account, and that I’ll be stuck here until it does. I could miss my flight to Mexico. But to my relief, the ticket transaction goes smoothly, and I’m ready to go.
‘Where’re you from?’ asks the friendly attendant, after shaking her head at the ‘crazy’ who came before me. (‘We always get the crazies in the mornings’)
I tell her.
‘Ohhh’ she says, in thick Southern tones. ‘That’s why I couldn’t understand you - your accent’s so strong.’
On the bus, I choose the very back seat. It’s three seats across, and I can lie down pretty comfortably if I decide to sleep. I’m exhausted, of course, but I’m excited about the trip and want to see as much of California as I can. There are two routes –the quicker one travels inland; the more scenic one along the coast. I specifically checked when booking my ticket last night that I would travel the coast.
We cross the Bay Bridge, and quickly I’m on foreign ground, somewhere I’ve never been. The suburbs of San Francisco – the real suburbs, rather than the inner-city districts and outlying towns I’ve travelled. I’ve found myself wondering where the ordinary people live – the taxi drivers, the hotel clerks, the waiters and shop assistants - given the high prices of both real estate and rent. The answer, of course, is here. From the freeway, it’s dingier here, less trees, more industrial areas, but it’s still attractive. There is still a plethora of charming wooden Victorians, even interspersed among the apartment blocks, factories, self storage facilities and Burger Kings. Picturesque green hills rise up above the suburbs. The more we drive, the more palm trees we see. As we enter San Jose, our first stop, just an hour away, we pass three car dealerships along the road, all with enormous US flags streaming atop tall flagpoles. There seem to be as many tall buildings here as in Adelaide.
We pick up new passengers in San Jose. As we move on, despite my initial determination not to miss a thing, my body takes over and I stretch out across the seats, head resting on my satchel, and sleep.
Hours later, I am awoken by the driver announcing our lunch stop. I sit up excitedly to catch my glimpse of Santa Barbara, our scheduled lunch stop. I expect sea and sprawling mansions (wasn’t there a trashy daytime soap to that effect called ‘Santa Barbara’?) Instead, I see a mini village of fast food outlets, in the middle of nowhere. We are surrounded by endless brown fields, distant mountains looking down on the Burger King that is to be our lunch stop. Maybe this is on the fringes of Santa Barbara?
I decide I really do want the map of California I’d browsed and discounted back in the Greyhound station. Briskly, I walk in the opposite direction, to a nearby service station. As well as the curious array of American junk food – similar to ours but slightly different – is a revolving stand stocked with state maps. I choose one and a packet of red licorice bites, after screwing my nose up at the packets of beef jerky (strips of dried processed meat). I ask the attendant, a tired-looking doughnut of a woman, where I am.
‘Coalinga’ she drawls, looking at me like I’m an idiot.
None the wiser, I head back to Burger King. I really don’t want to eat here, but it’s my last chance for a meal in a while – maybe my only one. So I reluctantly line up and ask for the cheapest and smallest thing on the menu, a Whopper Junior ($1).
‘Is that all?’ asks the girl at the counter.
‘Is that all you’re having for your meal?’
She mumbles something I don’t quite hear, so I hand her a dollar bill. She glares at me wearily.
‘I SAID that’s a dollar ten cents.’
‘Ohhh. Sorry. Tax. Here.’ I can’t get used to the idea that you have to add tax onto the marked price of everything here. At least that didn’t happen to us, I guess. The girl looks at the ten cent coin I have hastily given her and sighs.
‘I need more than one penny.’
I feel sorry for her – obviously my brain is still asleep on the bus. She looks at me silently as I fix my mistake, and continues to watch me as I walk away.
Sitting down to eat, I look at the menu. It’s got the same Whopper/Cheeseburger staples as back home, but otherwise it’s pretty different. I’m struck by one particularly gruesome looking item. For the kids’ meal, they have two alternatives. The standard cheeseburger, fries and Coke. And a trio of oddly shaped three-pronged chicken nuggets, strawberry-flavoured applesauce and Hershey’s chocolate milk.
Above the counter, an indicator that perhaps the campaign against obesity (advertised extensively in San Francisco) hasn’t hit here yet. ‘We serve burgers for breakfast!’ the sign cheerfully proclaims. On the bus, I’ll read in the local paper, ‘The Fresno Bee’, that childhood obesity is a real problem here, as part of an article about widespread school non-compliance with the compulsory twenty minutes per day of physical education. Why? Mainly due to poor air quality often making it inappropriate to be exercising outside.
I try to use the ATM on the way out, but it’s entirely in Spanish, and I can’t understand it. I don’t make much of an effort either. I’ve already noticed that the employee signs in the restrooms are in both English and Spanish. Apparently (I learn later), rural California is densely populated with illegal immigrant farm workers.
Back on the bus, I inspect my map with a growing sense of trepidation, looking along the coast for Coalinga. I don’t find it. Much examining later, checking against the road signs that fly by my window, I figure out what has happened. I’m on the wrong route. This bus is going inland, not via the coast.
I am both furious and devastated. That explains the farmland outside my window. And the lack of Santa Barbara mansions.
The worst thing about it, the thing that leaves a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach (that and the Burger King) is that we have passed through my mother’s birthplace of Merced while I was asleep. If I knew we were going there, I would have stayed awake for it. I try to tell myself that at least I was there, if not conscious for the experience, but it doesn’t help.
And I have missed the coast. Instead, I get a view not unlike Adelaide to Melbourne. Neverending stretches of dry farmland. (Only no sheep here, and at least there are hills beyond the farmland to look at.) After staring angrily at what I think are wheat fields for a while, I resign myself to my fate. At least I’ll be in San Diego sooner.
Back to sleep again. When I awaken, we’re in the mountains. The best view is from the other side of the bus, so I lean into the aisle and crane my neck to see. Rust red and forest green scrub cling to the grassy mountainside, which is sprinkled with rocky outcrops and topped with mists of fog. Trees are sparse. A queue of trucks crawls along the freeway far below the mountaintops. The mountains recede to the background again, as motels and palm trees briefly take over the roadside. Then, the mountains return to the foreground, but rockier, sparser, now sandy coloured with sprigs of green scrub. An expanse of wild grasses carpets the roadside. We pass through Los Angeles National Park, where the scenery closes in on us for a stretch: higher, greener, closer. Here, everyone on the bus press their heads to the windows, pull out cameras, or contort themselves to peer out of the opposite side of the bus.
Then: we’re on the outer fringes of LA itself, the mountains once again in the background, where they’ll now stay. I’m eager to see LA, but from the windows of the Greyhound, there’s not much to see. Lots of palm trees. Vast freeway system. Yellow school buses just like in the movies. Billboards and fast food and road signs.
The Greyhound terminal in downtown LA is our last stop. It is surrounded by graffiti and nondescript buildings. Signs shout: ‘NO LOITERING’ and ‘NO WEAPONS’. Then they list all the weapons you’re not allowed to carry, in great detail. Also: ‘NO DRUGS’ and ‘NO ALCOHOL’. I’m here for one hour before I transfer to my bus to San Diego.
Limping under the weight of my bags, I stagger from the bus to the waiting area for my next bus, on the opposite side of the terminal. At the canteen, I ask an aproned attendant slopping food into metal trays about finding a newspaper. She shakes her head at me and darts across the room, tapping another aproned attendant on the shoulder. She doesn’t speak English. I am getting closer to Mexico. The English-speaking attendant tells me I need to go outside, back to the opposite side of the terminal, to buy a paper from a coin-operated machine. I can’t be bothered.
I drag myself back to the designated waiting spot for my bus and collapse on the front row of plastic chairs. On one side of me, an obese black teenager in a hooded jumper and jeans is stretched out across half the row of chairs, asleep. On the other, a withered Latin American woman with a cane sits quietly, her shoulders stooped forward. Opposite, sit a couple I recognise from the bus ride here, dressed comfortably in blue jeans and sweatshirts, large backpacks by their side. A leathery Latin American man sits beside them, with a much younger woman. His daughter? His wife? He wears a shirt tucked into blue jeans, a gold buckled belt, and a large white cowboy hat, with cowboy boots. I’ve seen a few men walking around the station dressed similarly.
A young girl, early twenties, appears before me. She reaches for my cardigan, folded on the seat beside me, then looks at me as I look at her.
‘Oh. Is this yours?’
‘Have you seen my jumper?’
‘Oh, no.’ She looks both worried and annoyed.
‘Did you leave it here?’ I think she must have left it by accident.
‘I gave it to an old lady here to hold. Did you see an old lady?’
‘But she was here. You must have. With a cane?’
‘Oh, yes, I did.’
‘Well, where did she go?’ She looks at me expectantly. I can’t believe she gave her jumper to a stranger, obviously wandered off for a while, and is now annoyed that the stranger isn’t here, waiting for her. And is annoyed with me for not keeping an eye on the stranger.
‘I don’t know.’
She sits next to me, talking half to me and half to herself about her predicament. I don’t know what to say. The obese teenager rubs his eyes and sits up.
‘Oh – there she is. Bye!’ The old lady is coming towards us, the jumper outstretched. The young girl leaps up to take it and darts off again to chat to a security guard.
In a burst of colour and exuberance, a pair of middle-aged black women come striding across the station, talking and laughing excitedly. One wears a scarlet dress and a floppy white hat, the other also wears a bright dress. They burst through the doors to outside, shouting and exclaiming. Heads snap up all over the terminal. There is hand waving and noise outside, animated conversation with the bus drivers, and they come crashing back through, sending the doors flying in their wake. They are still laughing, and I glimpse a bus driver looking after them in wonderment. He, too, is laughing.
When I board my bus, the two women are just ahead of me. As I move down the aisle, the woman in red is stopped before me, talking loudly to her friend and waving a video camera. She sees me and moves aside.
‘Look at this!’ she bellows. ‘They won’t believe this back home. They don’t have buses like this in New York!’ She is taping the bus interior enthusiastically. A very young couple with a baby in a portable crib move past me as I settle. I notice a young black man with a plate-sized gold dollar symbol hanging from his neck board the bus. He also has long dreadlocks. The New York woman is leaning into the aisle, swinging her camera toward the back of the bus. She pulls a face.
‘I’m not looking at you boy!’ she whoops. ‘I’m filming the bus. Why’d I want to film you? I don’t think so!’ She catches my eye and I laugh, too, turning to nod at the man I think she’s speaking to, sharing the joke. He seems to be laughing when I glance at him.
I’m keen to get the best side of the bus for the view this time, feeling I made a bad choice on the trip from San Fran. I try to calculate which side of the bus will look onto the coast, looking back and forth, asking the couple behind me – the ones from the trip here. They don’t know. The bus is filling up. I peer at the seats behind me, looking for spare seats, wondering if I can switch if I need to. I keep an eye on the seats as they fill. The bus starts (nearly full), and I settle back to enjoy the ride. A loud voice comes from behind me.
‘Hey, little Red Riding Hood! What you lookin’ at, hey? You never seen a black man before?’ Mocking laughter. I glance around, wondering who he’s talking to. I feel sorry for whoever it is. No one in red.
‘You like what you SEE?’ comes the voice again. ‘You want a little CHOCOLATE, do you?’ More laughter, tinged with menace. A few moments too late, I realise he’s talking to me. I’m wearing a cardigan with a hood. He must have thought I was looking at him when I was looking around for seats. And now it’s too late to explain. I feel very uncomfortable, as if I’m being watched. Especially when there is mumbling and then another loud voice.
‘A bigot? Which one is she?’
‘That one sitting there with the can of MACE in her bag. Ha!’
‘I see her. MAN, I hate bigots.’
I’m tensed up, and yes, clutching my bag to my lap, but though I try hard to ignore it, to watch the scenery with a nonchalant air, it’s hard. I feel terrible, even though I haven’t done anything.
Gradually, the mumbling recedes into nothing. Night falls. My view drops away into blackness and stretches of neon light before we’re even out of Los Angeles.
Sunday February 9 (Part Three)
The tour bus can drop me back at the hotel, but I’m not about to go back to my self-imposed prison while the sun is up. Especially when it's my longed-for Californian sunshine. Instead, I vaguely plan to explore the Presidio, an old military base that is now a National Park, and its own lawn-covered district overlooking the bay.
The Presidio, like the city itself, has a rich history. It became a Spanish military base in 1776, then belonged to the Mexicans after 1822, when Mexico won the territory from Spain (along with the rest of California as well as contemporary Mexico). In 1846, the United States took over the territory, and the Presidio became a US military base, where it was headquarters for Pacific operations during World War II. It became a National Park in 1994; its buildings now used for a variety of purposes, from the community arts centre at Fort Mason, to George Lucas’s headquarters for (his special effects company) Industrial Light and Magic in another set of buildings, and a tourist information centre and café in another – the former Officers’ Club.
Quite apart from the historical interest, the district boasts a handy walking trail and magnificent views. I enter from the border of Pacific Heights and Marina, where a laminated sign and map greet me: ‘Welcome to the Presidio’. I walk by a series of red-rooved white stucco buildings, through a stretch of park navigated by a thirsty-looking creek marked by a sign: ‘Recycled Water’. A group of teenagers sit atop a cluster of grey boulders by the creek, shouting excitedly as they share a picnic lunch.
Soon, predictably, I am lost. I want to see the military cemetery I passed in the tour bus earlier, so I’ve made that my goal, my destination. I’ll see what I see along the way. The cemetery looked spectacular from the road: a forested hillside lined with identically sized white tablets, the sunlight reflecting off them through the trees.
I stand atop a hill, frowning at the latest tourist map I’ve picked up. It folds out to poster size, and I have it fully unfolded, turning it one way, then back, looking for both where I am and where I’m going. A passerby, a young guy with a Northern accent (ie. not Californian, not New York, not Midwestern), stops to help. He’s probably my age, in jeans, a black band t-shirt and jacket, and a beanie with sunglasses. Maybe Seattle? He looks like he could have auditioned for Pearl Jam or Nirvana.
‘Where are you going?’ he asks.
I tell him I’m looking for the cemetery.
‘Hmmm. I’ve just moved here, so I’m not sure but …’
He looks at the map with me, standing beside me to see what I see.
‘Ohhhh, here. If you follow Lincoln you’ll find this Visitor’s Centre.’ He points. ‘They’ll have a better map for you. And it looks like the right direction.’
I thank him.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Well, have fun.’
A few steps on, I’m feeling lost again. I pick my way through the soggy grass, taking a shortcut, then to stone steps that lead to another pathway, a likely-looking one. I pass a row of tall eucalypts on the way. Gumnuts litter the ground, along with fallen leaves of varying shades. I smell them like I’ve never really smelt eucalypts before, in Australia. At home, they’re just normal. Here, they’re like a letter from home. I bend to inhale them. When I straighten, I see two middle-aged women in sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers heading my way.
‘Excuse me’ I start.
They look a little annoyed at being interrupted.
‘Um, I’m wondering where I am and if I’m going the right way.’
‘Well, where are you going?’ snaps one of them, trying but barely managing to be polite.
‘To the cemetry.’
‘Ah, you’re fine. Just keep going! Bye.’
And they gratefully walk on.
Of course, I quickly wander off my path again, but it’s okay. I find other treasures I wasn’t looking for. Plaques along the path telling the history of the Presidio, including one marking the site of the original Spanish Presidio. This walled-in cluster of buildings served as the northernmost outpost of Spain’s New World colonies for almost fifty years. It was from this spot – and Mission Dolores, a church still standing three miles away (appropriately, in the Mission district) – that the city of San Francisco was built. I stumble across a beautiful old chapel (or, at least, one built to look old) next to the site of the original chapel, in the process of being excavated. And the views …
The forest I’m drinking in was planted by the US military in the late 1880s. It’s hard to imagine a government or military planting a forest in the midst of a city today. The forest, which grew from 400,000 seedlings of eucalyptus, cypress and pine, was intended to provide contrast between city and military post. Formerly, the windswept area was covered in scrubland and sand dunes. Eighty-nine per cent of the Presidio is open space. It’s odd to think that this wealth of public space and natural beauty is here as a result of the area’s long military history.
Finally, the Visitor’s Centre. I try to remember why I’m looking for it, then realise I don’t really need another map (though a lesson in reading them may be another matter!) Oh well. By now, I’m interested in seeing what’s there, anyway. There’s an exhibition centre, more historical information, the promised map (which is really very good), free information booklets. Some really very tasteful souvenirs, including some art deco prints of San Francisco. And some fascinating books. I consciously decide NOT to browse. Free stuff in hand, new map in jeans pocket, off I go …
I must be doing something right, because I am asked for directions a few times. (‘They think I’m a local’ I beam to myself.) A few times, I’m actually able to help. Maybe it’s my new purposeful stride. Well, if there’s one thing I know, it’s navigating a city on foot. I am utterly seduced by the sunshine, the hills, the ocean below, the glimpse of The Bridge. Even the angles of light are impressive.
At the cemetery, I realise that I just wanted to see it up close, not wander the graves. I am alone, it’s deserted – and I only have today to see the city. I venture through the gates a little way, then turn back and stand admiring it from the outside. It really is a beautiful sight. All those symmetrical white gravestones illuminated by the sun, lined up along the grassy hillside beneath a canopy of pine trees. It’s like a giant has sown a vast field of teeth in the forest. While I am admiring the graves, a car pulls up and a pair of blondes in big sunglasses ask me the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe they think I’m pondering a dead relative.
This is the only cemetery within San Francisco’s city limits, due to the high value of real estate here. San Francisco’s major cemetery is in Como, a nearby small town. Approximately 2500 people live in Como; a million or more are buried there. The local police cars bear bumper stickers that read: ‘It’s nice to be alive in Como’.
Confidence blazing, basking in the warmth and sunlight, I stride my way into … getting lost again. This time, I misread the map and veer off the walking path that leads back to the waterfront, and onto the main road. All of a sudden, there is not only no walking trail, but no footpath. I am edging along the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere – at least no houses, no shops, no casual passersby – wondering how to find safe ground again. Cyclists and the occasional car clip by. The abundance of nature is no longer soothing, but slightly confronting. Finally, I come to a corner where a bus stop materialises, outside what looks like a gated community. Seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears and stands beside me. I ask her if she knows how to get back to a footpath, but she looks annoyed.
‘I’m just catching the bus,’ she says, in a heavy French accent.
I stand and examine my map. When I look up, she has disappeared. A sixtyish man in a polo shirt tucked into casual trousers trails past the ‘residential area’ sign and stops near me. I try him. He is visiting, but looks at the map and tries to help me nonetheless. He says he had the same problem earlier, where the footpath suddenly disappeared on him. We work out where I can go, through the stables across the road and over another road to Crissy Field, and Golden Gate Promenade. He wishes me luck as I leave. The bus pulls up, and the French woman unexpectedly reappears from the bushes.
At the stables, a lone mother and son are squabbling about the son’s proximity to the horses. The smell of horse manure mingles with the scent of eucalyptus. Dirt gives way to ankle-deep flowering bushes, a field of them separating me from the road. A path winds its way through them, but only wide enough for one foot. I trudge through, one foot in the bushes and the other in the path, until finally I’m back on track.
I have reached a bizarrely formal pet cemetery, located under the freeway and marked by a small wooden sign. Once again, it is strangely beautiful in the shifting sunlight, with its tiny handwritten stones and snarl of wildflowers. It turns out that this is where military families buried their pets. Another sign reads: ‘The love these animals gave will never die’. Mostly cats and dogs are buried here, but also a few goldfish, iguana and parakeets.
The path across the road, at Crissy Fields, leads to Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Cyclists, joggers, tourists, families savouring the last of the weekend: it seems that half of San Francisco is here. It doesn’t feel crowded though; it feels pleasantly companionable. Soon I hit a beach, along with public toilets (hooray!) and the Warming Hut Café and Visitors Centre. (Coffee, I think.) It turns out that the Warming Hut has burnt down, so instead of drinking coffee and eating my first food of the day as planned, I walk the jetty awhile and then settle on a stone wall along the sea, admiring the views (the bay! the city skyline! the bridge!). Couples walk hand in hand or picnic on the sand, children wade in the shallows, and an intrepid few surfers are in the waves, minimal though they look.
I’m too tired to walk to Fort Point. Instead, I hook up my iPod (for the first time this trip), firmly put away my camera, and decide to enjoy the scene like a local on my way back to the Marina, and the bus back to the hotel. I only break the rules and pull out my camera a very few times.
Sunday, February 9 (Part Two)
Next stop: Sausalito. In the sixties, it was the home of Jack Kerouac and his Beat buddies (though everywhere in San Fran seems to been a pitstop On the Road, if you believe the hype). I think Jack lived on a houseboat here.
Our friendly tour guide points out the houseboats as we pass, a handful of boiled sweets dropped at the edge of the bay. Musk pink, lemon yellow, peppermint blue. Approximately 500 people live on these houseboats. The seven original houseboats, dated 1914 at the earliest, are still docked there, indiscernable amongst the cluster. They sell for ‘hundreds of thousands’ of dollars, though it still costs between $650 and $1300 per month to tie them to the dock. Houseboats are considered personal rather than residential property, so loans attract a 25% interest rate. Our guide chuckles to himself as he tells us that we’re viewing the boats at low tide. As the tide rises, the water levels can rise to flood these floating homes. They do look romantic, though.
I’m sure that the houses in Sausalito sell in the millions. The hills around the bay and rising up behind the main street are covered with crisp white and soft pastel Victorian mansions, framed by a pleasant jumble of trees and shrubbery. Pines, eucalypts, even palm trees. The wharves, like those in the Marina district, are neatly lined with luxury yachts bearing genteel names. The seaside paths and bustling main street are packed with beautiful people enjoying the sunshine. Cyclists, joggers, dog walkers. The tracksuited and pony-tailed exercisers seem most likely to be locals – they pound the pavements with the smug satisfaction that they belong to them. Tourists – like me – walk about gazing in wonderment at the spectacular surrounds, dipping in and out of the souvenir shops, art galleries, ice creameries and cafes along the main street. San Francisco winks from across the water, the cityscape laid out before us in shining silhouette against the sun.
I snap my camera madly, frantically checking my watch. I have just 45 minutes here and once again, I’m paranoid about being left behind. I could easily catch a ferry back across the water, but I’ve just checked my bank balance and my last transfer doesn’t seem to have cleared yet. Funds are short: and tomorrow morning I’m off to San Diego, on a Greyhound I haven’t yet paid for.
Panting, camera swinging wildly, I climb the stairs to the bus just in time for the ride home.
‘Okay, it’s Miss Mel-bourne …’
And we’re off. A man in a black suit and bow-tie crosses the street in front of us, absentmindedly swinging a brass-topped cane. He is wearing a top hat. Our driver uses his appearance to make a joke, something forgettable but kind of funny at the time. He is less amused by the torrent of cyclists whizzing alongside us.
‘The main difference in my time living here is the increased number of bikes,’ he grumbles ominously. ‘I see A LOT of stupid behaviour.’
Through the hills and beyond the town we go, the driver pointing out a former restaurant site, once owned by Sausalito’s most infamous mayor, Sally Stanford - a former Madame who apparently threatened her way into office with the line ‘I’ve been under half the politicians in San Francisco, and if you don’t help me, everyone will know about it’. Or something like that. She was made Vice Mayor of Sausalito for life on her retirement, after many years of government. She ran six times before she was finally elected. It was once quipped that 'the United Nations was founded in Sally' Stanford's whorehouse', because at the first UN meeting in San Francisco (1945), many of the delegates were also her customers. Part of the negotiations took place in the brothel's living room. All very fascinating.
Soon, we’re in the Marin headlands, where the Golden Gate Bridge rises suddenly before us. There is a collective gasp, as there was on the ferry yesterday. It looks different today, in the sunlight, but still equally magnificent. This, the driver triumphantly tells us, is the surprise destination he mentioned earlier. He will park here, on the hill, and give us ten minutes to take photos, or just admire the view. We spill impatiently from the bus, eager to use our time fully.
Blue skies and cotton bud clouds fill the skyline closest to us. As the bridge inches closer to the city, the clouds darken and a filmy haze descends. Ant-like cars and bicycles are visible from where we stand. A handkerchief-sized yacht sails blithely under the bridge. Sunlight crystallises on the water. It is impossible to capture the sight as it looks to the naked eye, but I spend my ten minutes trying. People are camera-swapping again, having their pictures taken with the bridge. I ask a nearby cyclist to oblige, and he happily does, taking three shots to make sure I get a good one. His accent sounds Canadian, and his admiring gaze is that of a visitor’s.
‘That’s my favourite place in the world, that is,’ sighs the driver as we roll away, heading for the bridge itself. ‘And I’ll take any excuse I can to go there.’
Minutes later, we’ve crossed the bridge (one of 65,000 cars per day, we’re told) and reach the toll gate, near the end of our journey. The woman at the booth greets the driver like an old friend.
‘How many times you been over today?’
‘First time today. Only time.’
She jokes with him a moment more before waving him on with a smile.
‘Well,’ he says, leaning into the microphone with a low drawl. ‘The chicks still dig me.’
I give him a nice tip, despite my own low funds and his home in Marin County. Maybe the chicks do dig him.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Sunday February 9
The alarm clock is set to wake me up early, at 7.30am. Since I enjoyed my ferry tour so much yesterday, I’ve decided to book another tour; this time to the redwood forests at Muir Woods and the seaside town of Sausalito, which faces San Francisco from across the bay. It’s easier than I thought to make a last minute booking. As I wait for my 8.30am hotel pickup, I decide that breakfast would be a good start to the day. Though I sit down and accept a menu from the hotel restaurant, the food being served around me doesn’t look so good, I already know the coffee is awful, and I don’t have much time. I decide to brave Market Street. No luck – but it’s good for my self-esteem to have tried.
The tour bus that picks me up is empty. Strange, I think. Surely I’m not taking this tour alone. That would be kind of awkward. The driver speaks to me occasionally, addressing me through a loudspeaker. This too, I think, is strange. We are heading for Fisherman’s Wharf, where I’m to buy my ticket and board the official tour bus. I reply politely to every announcement: thank you, that’s good, I will. As we pull up in front of the ticket office, I am shocked and dismayed to see a stream of people file off the bus behind me. From the upper deck. I didn’t realise this was a double-decker bus. (If I had, I’d have been on the top deck, too.) I imagine the driver’s puzzlement at my replying to his every announcement.
Our driver for the morning takes our tickets as we board.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks matily. ‘Melbourne? Well, hello Melbourne!’
He offers the same greeting to each passenger in turn. When we’re all seated, he goes along and checks that we’re all there, calling each of us by our city name. It’s how he’ll refer to us for the rest of the trip. Impressively, he remembers everyone correctly. As we begin to drive and he starts a running commentary, I sigh inwardly, expecting to hate this part of the trip as much as I did yesterday. I fumble for my iPod. But quickly, before I can block him out, we wins me over. He’s cheery and upbeat, selling us the city, but he’s also quite genuine and charming – and the facts and anecdotes he trots out are actually pretty fascinating. This tour guide is a born storyteller.
I learn the story behind yesterday’s Bush Man encounter. Apparently, he hides behind his branches and jumps out to scare passers by. He’s been doing it for twenty years. The Ghiradelli building? It was the home of a famous chocolate factory, now it’s a restaurant and café complex. The Marina District was formerly a swamp. When the city was reconstructed after the 1915 earthquake and fire, the resulting debris was pushed into the swamp, creating landfill, and the Marina District was built on that landfill. The Palace of Fine Arts was never made to last. It was originally made of Plaster of Paris, but a local millionaire liked it so much he paid to have it restored so that it would become permanent. I noticed yesterday that locals are raising money to have it restored again, with on-site signs imploring visitors to ‘Help Save Our Palace!’
We cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, home of Muir Woods. Today is the first sunny day since I’ve been in San Francisco. Blue skies and golden light reign. But fog still clings to the green hills of Marin County, resting on the peaks and nestling in the troughs from afar. The bay shines below us and the wooded hills beckon.
Marin County, we hear, has the second highest concentration of income in California, though its population is just 235,000. (The highest is Orange County.) Over one third of the area is national parkland. The driver tells us that he has lived in the area for thirty-two years. I can’t help but wonder how he can afford it.
Blue gum eucalypts tower above the road on either side. Apparently they were brought to California as part of a land scheme because they grow tall and fast, but proved useless, as they’re unusable as building material and provide fuel for forest fires, burning easily. Hmmm. Yes they do. They are beautiful, though.
Redwoods, on the other hand, are relatively fire resistant. Their average age is 400-800 years, and their average height is 180-240 feet. The tallest tree in Muir Woods is in Bohemian Grove, which we will get the chance to visit.
We park by the entrance to Muir Woods, marked by a hanging wooden sign and a small booth where you pay $3 to enter and receive a map. We have one hour to wander as we please. I don’t have the words to describe how beautiful the forest is. Trees stretching far, far into the sky above, carpets of ferns and undergrowth, a gushing river spilling into intermittent waterfalls. Mossy branches yawning over the river or against the sky. Sunlight filtering through the trees in shifting columns. Walls of moss and fallen leaves. This is the best thing I’ve done since I got here. I could easily spend four days just in Muir Woods.
I’m keen to see Bohemian Grove, featured in one of my all-time favourite novels (or series, more accurately), Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. In one of the books, the main characters camp in Muir Woods and the climax revolves around a ritual performed by an exclusive secret society - in Bohemian Grove. More interesting, perhaps, is the other context in which I have read Bohemian Grove immortalised in print. Jon Ronson’s Them, a brilliant work of reportage in which Ronson infiltrates various cults and conspiracy theorists, also climaxes in Bohemian Grove, at a meeting of the same secret society. The society (I forget the name) is made up of international world leaders, in both politics and business. George Bush is a member. Bill Clinton was a member. Once a year they camp in Muir Woods, let loose and behave like children, and stage an Owl Burning Ceremony in Bohemian Grove. It’s kind of a college frat boy thing, only for grown-ups. Ronson actually watched the ceremony take place, confirming the myth.
The real Bohemian Grove is much smaller than I thought, a stop on the trail. I imagined a ring of trees the size of a football oval, not a small wooden sign and a space the size of a suburban backyard, surrounded by railings. It is beautiful, but I can’t imagine any kind of ceremony being held in such a small space. Maybe it was in the hills behind the fenced off area? I take photos anyway, including one of me standing inside a redwood with a hollow as tall as a building.
In the midst of my wandering and mad photographing, I get nervous that I’ll miss the bus, and sprint back to the carpark. I’m ten minutes early, but most of the others have obviously had the same thought, as the bus is half-full. It’s not surprising, as our driver has told us emphatically several times that he will leave exactly on 11am and that if we miss the bus, it’s a $60 cab ride to Sausalito, the nearest town. Not that cabs are easy to come by here. A woman from Wisconsin tells her companion about her son’s move home after breaking up with his girlfriend and her hope that he’ll meet a nice girl at church. She’s urging him to advertise on dating sites, too, but he won’t. She remarks that it’s Sunday today, and she’s missed church.
‘This is my spiritual experience today’ breathes her companion.
NOTE: I just googled Bohemian Grove. There's another one in California, owned by the Bohemian Club. Oh well. I thought it seemed odd.
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 café 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.’
‘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.
Saturday February 8 (Part Two)
I leave the ferry with a strong curiosity about the parts of the city I have glimpsed from the water – particularly the seafront and the enormous dome visible above the houses there. Maybe it’s a Russian Orthodox church and that’s the Russian Hill district?
I decide to follow the walking path along the sea and see what I find, starting at Fisherman’s Wharf. Moving past the tourist mecca of Pier 39, with its aquarium and ice-cream and souvenir barns and corn dog stands, I walk awhile before I push past to a different kind of tourist attraction: food. Below signs proudly proclaiming ‘Crab Season’ are a jumble of stands serving up crabs, calamari, fish and clam chowder. Piles of fresh crabs, still in their shells, sit alongside steaming hot plates. White-aproned stallholders serve a steady stream of customers, who stand around eating from paper bags. I’m tempted, but want to keep moving.
Past the restaurants; some seafood, some Italian (featuring seafood, and even clam chowder, on the menu). Past the rows of yachts and fishing boats. Past a black homeless man sitting quietly on the sidewalk, wearing a hat stuffed with eucalyptus branches and a sign written on cardboard: ‘THE WORLD FAMOUS BUSH MAN’. As I pass, wondering what it’s all about, I hear a scream from behind me and turn to see a blonde pony-tailed woman clutching her chest and staring at the Bush Man, gasping, laughing nervously. She doesn’t look scared, just as if she’s had a shock. Moments later, another scream, another woman looking at the Bush Man in the exact same way. What did he do?
Finally, I’m at the end of the wharves. Opposite is the Ghiradelli building, which I’ve photographed from the ferry. I’m not sure what it is, but I see people eating at what looks like a café up there. A coffee sounds good. I cross the road - and detour into the Maritime Museum on the corner. Then, I climb the hill to the Ghiradelli sign. This spot is also where the cable cars start their journey up Lombard Street, ‘the crookedest street in the world’. It’s the one you’ll see on most postcards and images of crazy San Francisco streets, lined with expensive-looking Victorian houses. This cable car is also the one you’ll see on postcards and brochures about San Francisco, illustrating its quaint ways of getting around. The cable car is wooden, with a red roof, and passengers sit behind a railing on two wooden benches, each facing the street from the middle. I’m almost positive that this is, in fact, used only by tourists. For one thing, it costs $5, far more than the $1.50 charged by all other cable cars (which look more like Melbourne trams) and the bus system. For another, it travels a scenic route, not a quick-way-of-getting-somewhere route.
The view from the Ghiradelli centre is amazing. I’m looking down on the sea, over a tiny stretch of beach beneath a cascade of white steps. I move to the steps to take my photographs, then follow them down to the beach. The sand is brown and gritty, like Melbourne’s city beaches. In the lightly falling rain, the beach is nearly deserted, apart from a couple of people walking their dogs. In one direction, the wharves I’ve come from; in the other, a hillside bend bordered by towering eucalypts, and a tiny wooden wharf with a single red boat moored there. Forget coffee, I want to see what’s around that bend. Camera around my neck, umbrella over my head, I head off. Occasionally, someone on a bike whizzes by me and up the hill. I’m impressed. Some of these people are obviously tourists: their bikes have the sign ‘Blazing Saddles’. They rent out bikes by Pier 39. When I passed, they had a lot of bicycles banked up. The rain is not good for business.
Every path I follow today is taking me somewhere unexpectedly interesting, and breathtakingly gorgeous. The bend in the road takes me to a park overlooking Fort Mason. It’s an old military installation, now converted into a community centre. It has a theatre, kids’ art classes, language lessons, a bookshop, conference rooms. A series of red-rooved Spanish-style adobe buildings stretches out below me, bordered by wooden piers and the ocean on one side and green lawns on the other. I wander the park awhile, photographing a statue of a weeping Virgin Mary, then climb down.
I follow the seafront, which soon turns into generous lawns and equally generous walking and cycling paths beside the road. On the other side, a line of Victorian mansions overlooks the sea. At the furthest point of the coast, the Golden Gate Bridge is visible through the fog. I am amused to note how many of the mansions are flying the American flag, and how many of them boast prominent signs about their security systems. One particularly patriotic house has a US flag and a Californian flag flying on either side of a US flag painted on the housefront. Small and tasteful, of course. This, I later learn, is the Marina district.
The waterfront stretches on like this, reminiscent of Albert Park/Middle Park/St Kilda. Joggers and cyclists frequently pass me. They are film star perfect in their designer sportswear and sneakers. I am damp and frizzy-haired in my black sheepskin boots, bedraggled blue jeans and black hooded cardigan, peering eagerly out of my rain-flecked prescription glasses from under my $3 umbrella.
Where the lawns end and a wharf houses yachts with names like ‘My Lady’, the path goes on into a national park area, Crissy Field. This is where the beach starts again, on the other side of a marshy stretch of lawn. My feet sink into it with a series of squelches as I cross. When I reach the beach, I look back and realise that I really want to explore another sight.
Where Crissy Fields begins, on the other side of the road, that mysterious dome looms large and close behind a screen of trees. I go back to see what it is. It is the Palace of Fine Arts, originally built for a world exhibition in the early 1900s. Next to it, seemingly in the same building, is the Exploratorium, a science museum. The building is amazing. Faux-Roman columns rise, dusky pink, towards the golden dome at the top. Weeping willows and Japanese blossoms, also dusky pink, grow at the building’s base and along the man-made lake at the foot of the dome. A fountain sprouts from the lake. The scale of it, more than anything, is awesome. This enormous structure in the middle of an inner-city suburb.
A young man jogs by in a Ripcurl sweatshirt. Briefly, I want to grab him and ask if he’s Australian, but of course I don’t. (I think they might have Ripcurl here now, anyway. It probably just means he’s a surfer.) I recall The Husband telling me that he did something similar in Guadlajara, stopped a man in the street wearing a Socceroos t-shirt.
On my circuit of the lake, I am asked by a French woman if I know how to get into the Palace of Fine Arts. I tell her I’m looking too, and she thanks me and disappears. After one entire circuit of the building, I am bamboozled. Finally, I venture into the Exploratorium. It is packed with families and squealing kids. I ask a woman at the snack bar counter how I get to the Palace of Fine Arts entrance. She looks puzzled.
‘No’ she says. ‘This is the Exploratorium.’
‘Yes, but how do I get into the Palace of Fine Arts?’
‘There is no Palace of Fine Arts. I think it used to be here.’
‘Oh. Really? How long ago did that happen?’
‘I don’t know.’ She looks annoyed. ‘We’ve been here a long time.’
The odd thing is that all the tourist maps and guidebooks still list the Palace of Fine Arts, separately to the Exploratorium. I guess they’re referring to the building itself. Still, it seems strange. As I head for the main road, the one away from the beach, I see the French woman in the distance. She looks annoyed.
I start the morning with a phone call from The Husband, who tells me that he has decided to go back to Guadalajara. The new university is too much like a country club, he says. The grounds boasts rolling green lawns like a golf course and a swimming pool and the town of Cholula has nice cafes and bars as befits a university town catering to rich Americans. But it’s not the experience he wants. I am relieved, to tell the truth. One of the many things that kept me awake last night was the niggling feeling he’s not happy in Cholula and that he would soon wish that he’d stayed where he was.
It’s wonderful to hear his voice, especially because I haven’t had a real conversation with anyone in the past few days. I remember The Husband telling me something similar when he first arrived in Guadalajara – that his longest conversation in the first few days was with a street kid who asked him for money.
This morning, I decide to forgo my distaste for obvious ‘tourist’ activities and take a ferry tour of the bay that I’ve seen advertised on Pier 39. I catch the F tram from Market Street directly to the wharves, determined not to be sidetracked. No one approaches me for the brief moments I wait outside the hotel – a good sign. Maybe I look less vulnerable today?
It is not yet raining, for the first time since I’ve arrived, but the seats of the ferry’s upper decks are still wet. Most of my fellow passengers are a large group of Japanese tourists, all clad in yellow Alcatraz rain ponchos. I’ve seen them for sale at the souvenir shop next to where we bought our tickets. I watch as one mother brings out a towel and wipes the seat dry for her family to sit down. So organised! I fumble in my bag, but the best I can do is a free tourist booklet. I fold it out from the middle and do my best to mop up my seat. Ink smudges on the plastic bench. I sit awkwardly on the booklet, and try to ignore my damp bottom.
Tinny nautical music blares from the loudspeakers above our heads. As the engine starts up, the music stops and is replaced by something worse. We have a ‘ship’s captain’. A fake, recorded one, something like ‘Captain Ahab’, who talks with lots of ar hars and mateys, and seems to have confused his persona with that of a pirate. Or maybe the one-eyed fisherman from The Simpsons. I try to tune out the annoying commentary and just focus on the bay. It’s not hard. The waves are choppy, a biting wind whips about us, and rain threatens overhead. But the view is incredible and despite Captain Ahab, I am thoroughly charmed. I feel all the stress of navigating the city fall away. Here, I have paid someone to be safe and secure for an hour (okay, and to see the bay), to have someone else decide where to go, what to see, how to get there. When the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly looms up before us, dramatically throwing off the fog as we near, I am entranced. It is just magnificent. I don’t know quite why – it’s a man-made structure, just a bridge - but it is. I only half hear the fake ex-bridge worker who has joined the fake captain to reminisce over his labours.
The tourists – me included – go crazy with our cameras. We rush the bridge of the boat, politely jostling for position. Up against the railings, we stumble from one side to another to get the best view, ignoring the lurching waves and the sea spray. The others hand their cameras back and forth to get their photos taken with the bridge as backdrop. I sorely want to, but am too shy.
Next stop: Alcatraz. It’s bizarre to think that I’m actually looking at this mythical evil place, former home of America’s worst criminals. The inescapable prison. The new voice (a ‘former prisoner’, this time) talks about the agony of seeing home just across the shores, but not being able to reach it. Wow. I hadn’t thought of that, but the Promethean agony of it captures my imagination. It’s incredibly clever, really. The Americans seem to be geniuses at psychological torture (think: Guantanamo). I look over at San Francisco and put myself in the prisoners’ shoes.
I find myself zooming the lens in as far as I can, trying to get as much detail as I can as we pass. I’m still doing it when I see the other ferry, the Alcatraz ferry, land on the island through my viewfinder. I am determined not to go – too gruesome, too ‘true crime’. But I have to admit, if I’m honest, that I really, really want to.
As I leave the boat, I notice a subversive sticker, ‘Boycott Alcatraz’, that has so far gone unnoticed by the tour operators. It looks new. I make a note to try googling it later.* I want to find out the reasoning. I know I think Alcatraz tours are creepy, but I can’t articulate why.
I have just googled it. It’s nothing to do with Alcatraz tours being distasteful. It’s because the tour operator refuses to hire trained and qualified union boating staff to run the cruises.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
It’s 2.30am and I can’t sleep. This doesn’t bode well for my planned 8am start tomorrow.
It’s very noisy here. There are lots of sirens in the night, some of them stopping directly below my window. Lots of shouting, too, occasionally punctuated by screams - some of it seemingly connected to the sirens. I feel safe here, in my room, but I still can’t relax. I was in the lobby for hours tonight, working on my computer and taking advantage of the free wireless. With the streets outside the hotel becoming even more unsavoury after dark, I have a self-imposed ban on venturing outside (or returning from outside) much after 6pm. So, there’s not much else to do.
My first night here, I disembarked from the Market Street tram in front of the hotel to a series of shouts from one of the men ‘loitering’ outside. ‘Hey baby! Come here!’ As I picked up my step, eyes and mind fixed on the hotel door, he continued, stepping up the menacing tone. ‘You got something I want!’ As I shut the door gratefully behind me, I made a mental note about the after dark rule.
Tonight, in the lobby, I witnessed a French family - mum, dad, two young boys – arrive, look around and leave. The little boys scampered around the lobby, climbing on the ornate lounges and playing tag, chattering in French. Their parents were occupied at the front desk, presumably protesting. They left looking angry, trailing their wheeled luggage behind them. I guess they weren’t comfortable staying in the area, especially with those two little boys. I don’t blame them! I’ve been grateful a few times that I didn’t bring F with me – for that reason.
Once, while I’m browsing routes to San Diego, a homeless man wanders in off Market Street, through the rear entrance, and looks around. I deliberately frown at my screen, and am grateful when he turns back the way he came.
Then, I watch one of the hotel staff get into a fight on the opposite side of the lobby to where I’m working. A French woman comes in, clutching her camera and a handful of brochures. At first, I think she is the same woman who flounced out earlier. One of the staff, a twentysomething now in casual clothes, is sitting chatting with his girlfriend. He storms up to the woman and tells her to get out, NOW, his voice heavy with threat. She protests. He knocks her camera to the floor where the lens cap and batteries skid across the tile. He snatches the papers she is holding and throws them to the floor, too.
‘I don’t care what you do to me!’ she spits, defiantly.
‘I’m calling the cops,’ growls the off-duty staff member. ‘HEY!’ he shouts to the front desk. ‘Our friend is back. Call the cops! Now!’
More scuffling and shouting ensues. I try not to watch, shocked and confused by what is happening. Soon after, I pack up and return to my room.
The lobby doesn’t feel quite so safe anymore. But my room is still a refuge – albeit one where the outside world rages outside my window, and three fire engines come to a screaming halt there at 2.45am.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
It seems that only the poor (and tourists, I guess) ride the bus.
I make yet another mistake when I confidently board the bus for the Mission district. Five minutes later, the driver stops the now-deserted bus.
‘Last stop!’ he hollers.
I stumble sceptically to the door and look out at a vast concrete carpark and a nondescript stretch of city street.
‘But … but … this isn’t the Mission, is it?’ It’s not. It’s Mission Street.
On the driver’s instructions, I trudge down the road to another bus stop, and another bus. An elderly black man seems to be sleeping on one of the seats, the one closest to the route map, even though the seats have been designed precisely to be unsuitable for sleeping on. (The individual seats flip down as you perch on them.) As I draw closer, I see that he is awake, barely, just not terribly conscious. He is violently shivering, even in his bulky parka.
‘You just missed the bus!’ a friendly-seeming Latino man tells me. ‘You missed two of ‘em, actually.” He brandishes a coffee in a paper cup, visibly steaming. “I saw ‘em while I was getting my coffee. It’s watery, too.’ He shakes his head and gestures at the falling rain. He wears yellow plastic workwear and a laminated card dangles from a cord around his neck. I guess that he works in construction or something similar.
‘You goin’ home?’ he asks me, and I shake my head. I tell him I’m travelling, then wish I hadn’t.
I hate this, being so suspicious of everyone. I hate the fact that the poorer someone looks, the more suspicious I instinctively am. I especially hate the way I’m even warier when they’re not white. Though, to be honest, I don’t notice many poor-looking white people here – though I’m sure they exist. Maybe my awful hotel is having an effect on me?
The bus quickly fills, and soon it is crammed with sweating, rain-damp and noisy humanity. I’m lucky to have a seat, wedged against the bus window beside a quiet, middle-aged Asian woman who talks on her mobile about her shopping in a thick Californian accent. All around me, people are talking in a cacophony of languages: Spanish, English, what could be Chinese or Vietnamese. What would Our John Howard think of all these people who don’t assimilate, but create their own communities – and districts - within the larger one of San Francisco? Not much, I suspect.
Behind me, two twenty-something black girls are jive-talking like something from a Will Smith movie, or maybe the Rikki Lake audience – N-word and all. They are loud and showy, but playful with it. When the bus is temporarily frozen, due to someone refusing to move from a step, the girls come into their own.
‘You got FIVE SECONDS to get yo’ ass off that step or I gonna whip yo’ ass!’
‘You gonna GET IT!’
‘Yeah, I WHIP yo’ back ass!’
They actually sound more like nagging girlfriends (and maybe they were – I couldn’t see who they were talking to) than queens of the street. I get the sense that they’re performing for us – like the teenage girls on my train route in Melbourne.
Mission Street shifts from plain old poor (99 cent stores, giant drugstores) to Little Central America. The signs go from English to bilingual, sometimes even just Spanish. The shopfronts change from drab and grey, some with neon lettering in the windows, to shabby but colourful, in splashes of green, red, pink. There are taquieras (Mexican cafes), El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan restaurants, fruit stores with staff chatting to customers in the doorways, a Latin American bookstore, and various travel agents and phone card outlets advertising cheap rates to Mexico, Guatemala and neighbouring regions. At the bottom of Mission Street, vast Victorian houses look down on the neighbourhood from the surrounding hills.
Surreptitiously checking my City Walks card for the area, I get off at 24th Street – and then walk back a block in the direction I came to withdraw money from the Bank of America. I use the ATM in the bank’s lobby, to be safe. Afterwards, I step away from the ATM to let the next customer through, with the feeling that something is wrong. I check my purse. No card. I turn back to the man who has taken my place.
‘You have your money?’ he says.
‘I think … my card …’
He looks at the machine, presses CANCEL, and out pops my card. He hands it to me with a smile and a courteous nod of the head. I thank him profusely, and catch him looking after me with disbelief as I go.
I have to be more careful – though I’m trying, I am.
I stop, as the City Walks have instructed, at La Taquiera, supposedly the tacquiera to eat at – the one people travel to especially for the purpose. I’m pretty sure that my father-in-law, a frequent traveller, has mentioned it. I go in. A staff member is actually mounting some kind of Best Restaurant award on the wall, which is covered in similar plaques. The customers seem to include other tourists – a Japanese couple talking excitedly in Japanese, a well-dressed Anglo woman looking around as if this is new to her.
I order a chicken burrito (for around $6) and sit down. The woman at the cash register is glaring meaningfully at me.
‘Do I pay now?’ I ask her.
I scurry back to the counter. A waitress had taken my order, so I’d assumed I’d get a bill (and need to tip). My burrito comes wrapped in tinfoil and placed in a red plastic basket, with disposable cutlery. I unwrap it and eat it with my hands, hungrily. It is, of course, enormous. I realise it is 4pm and I haven’t eaten today. Is it the best Mexican ever? Well, it was pretty good, though so was the chicken taco I ate at a deserted tacquiera next to City Lights yesterday, which was not the least bit famous. It’s certainly better than Australian Tex-Mex. (For one thing, the chicken is fresh breast meat – really good.)
As I leave, two cops are entering. One of them holds the door open for me and dips his head in greeting. It’s weird, but every time I see police, police cars or fire engines here, I feel like I’m on a movie set. They look like they’re playing dress-ups to me, I guess because they’re wearing what my brain processes as costumes.
I walk down to Cesar Chavez Street and take a photo of the sign for the Husband. As I cross the busy street, I look around and feel uneasy. I’m moving off the map, I think, and I don’t know if it’s safe anymore – or where I’m going. I turn back and head for 24th Street.
On the way, I poke my head into a shop that with interesting-looking books in the window. Inside, it is mostly filled with rosary beads, statues of the Virgin Mary, and other knick-knacks. I’m too shy to ask for the book I saw, about Latin American gang girls. It feels nosy, inappropriate.
I look at the Mission Neighbourhood Centre, hoping to learn some local history, but it’s not for tourists. It’s an empty-ish building with a public hall and a revolving plastic stand of brochures and flyers – for salsa lessons, an art exhibition, a Valentine’s Day concert. Once again, I feel like I’m intruding, and slip out before anyone sees me.
On 24th Street, I decide to conquer my fear of looking like a tourist and hang my camera around my neck. I’d have taken more photos if I wasn’t so wary of looking conspicuous. I walk too briskly, still afraid despite my best mental efforts. I’m afraid of the people who linger in the street, probably just residents chatting to their neighbours – but I don’t know that. I’m frightened of the blank-eyed homeless people pushing their trolleys, the slick-haired Latin boys stalking along the footpaths. Just walking down the street – I know.
I hate this. I blithely walked my son to kindergarten, in a stroller, through the streets of Footscray every day for a year. I walked past drug dealers and men sleeping in bushes by the side of the road (actually, one particular man who was there a lot, I think). I was very rarely scared – not even on the occasion that someone asked me if I wanted ‘to buy’. So why am I so jumpy here? Is it because I don’t know the territory?
Striding down 24th Street, trying to look purposeful and confident but unable to keep from clutching my camera as it swings from my neck, I think I have a flash of insight about America. (Not terribly original insight, but insight nonetheless). Imagine how it must feel to be a Latin American or African American here, to have people afraid of you as a reflex action – just when you’re walking down the street or standing around talking in your own neighbourhood. It would make you pretty angry. It would make you think: fuck you, I’ll GIVE you something to be scared about. And, why are Americans, and white middle-class visitors like me, so scared? Yes, partly fear of the unknown, the other. Partly based on media representations. Partly experience of the homeless who ask you for money on the street, or shout menacingly at you as you scuttle from your tram to your hotel. But partly guilt, too.
There’s the guilt about having money and living well when others don’t, and the knowledge they must want that, too. But also historical guilt: slavery (without Europeans, African Americans wouldn’t be in America in the first place); theft (California was stolen from Mexico in the 1800s); interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, for the good of the US government – and often to the detriment of the citizens of those countries (think Chile, Nicaragua).
Maybe we’re scared because we feel that we deserve to be punished. Karma.
And yes, I’m fully aware that this must apply equally to Australia and its indigenous people.
When I disembark from the bus in front of my hotel, I feel okay. I get a clear walk across the road: no comments, no approaches, no looks (that I notice, anyway). Maybe it’s because I spent the afternoon being scared in the Mission?
I succumb to Starbucks. That green shopfront with the white star is as ubiquitous as the Golden Arches here - if not more so. (In fact, I'm pretty sure there are more McDonalds outlets in Melbourne than here.) Escaping from the cold and the wet, I savour my small latte at a table by the window, newspaper before me. This is good. Of course, the small latte is the size of an Australian large, and it's not a patch on the coffee in Yarraville, let alone Carlton ... but it's warm, it's made of freshly ground coffee beans, and it's bought me not only a seat and a temporary newspaper but a trip to the restroom.
In San Francisco, they take their 'for customers ONLY' signs very seriously. At the tacquiera yesterday, I was handed a long wooden bar with a key attached. At Starbucks, I get a code to punch in. I wonder if they change it every day? I mean, otherwise I could write it down and use it whenever I like. They also look at me oddly when I ask to use the toilet, so I'm learning to use that ridiculous euphemism 'restroom' instead. (I'm not going there to rest though - and if I was, I'd be kicked out pretty fast. I get a knock on the door and a glare when I emerge from the Starbucks loo after five minutes or less.)
The big news in the San Francisco Chronicle is as follows:
- The death of Anna Nicole Smith, professional fucked-up party girl (former professional wife). This has also dominated the news on my hotel cable since I arrived - on approximately half of my seventy channels. The channels that don't run news are running specials and 'celebrity interviews' with people like her estranged mother and her cleaning lady.
- A San Francisco man who saved a woman from drowning in 2001 has this week suffered sever burns after rescuing a dog from a fire.
- Progress in the Pebble Beach golf tournament, where a 75 foot pine tree fell on the green, right in front of actor Bill Murray, who made an unspecified joke about it.
- A Bush spokesman has denounced the ruckus over whether Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will use a government plane to commute to Washington from her San Francisco home, calling it 'unimportant'.
It's all pretty parochial stuff, apart from the main story: celebrity gossip. So far, so Herald Sun/Advertiser. Disappointing for such a major city.
One major reason I am here is to change shoes. Despite the umbrella I acquired yesterday, I am somehow soaked to the knees, and damp to my thigh. My sneakers are uncomfortably soggy. I need boots (and was about to put them in my bag before I left the house - no matter). And I'm more self conscious than I thought I would be about looking like a tourist. Sneakers with everything is a sure sign ...
So, I detour from today's trip to walk around SF's Latin American district, The Mission, to go shopping. After my short walk around Bloomingdales on my way home yesterday, I decide to go cheap and shameless. Or at least, cheaper than Ralph Lauren and Prada.
Well, colour me pleased. I have not one, but two new pairs of shoes – some Birkenstocks that I nearly bought in Melbourne for $180 and picked up here for $40 (US), and a pair of sheepskin lined black suede boots from a line called Bear Paw. And, yes, they are basically ugh boots, but they’re so warm, so comfy … I have happy feet.
However, I did get the worst service of my life in the shoe shop. I asked for shoes in my size and the sales attendant shot me a dirty look, reluctantly followed me, and waved at the boxes.
‘They’re all there,’ he said. ‘And there’s nothing in your size. Look!’ He pointed at a few boxes to make his point, then: ‘Oh. Here are some in your size. Wrong colour, though.’ He looked some more, once again to prove his point. ‘Oh. Here are your shoes.’ He shoved a box at me and started to walk off, so I sat down on the floor to try them on.
‘There’s a chair somewhere over there, probably’ he said over his shoulder. I wasn’t sure where ‘over there’ was and decided not to bother.
At Virgin Megastore, I was very very excited to finally purchase Veronica Mars series 2.
In the US, you need to show photo ID to use your credit card. Not a bad idea, really. But unfortunately, I decided to be clever and locked my passport in the hotel safe this morning. (Luckily, the cashier at the shoe shop hadn’t much cared, in keeping with the attitude of the rest of the staff.) The Virign guy, after first telling me he couldn’t serve me, relented.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Australia. I’m sorry. Do you want to see my Medicare card or something?’
‘Ahhh, it’s fine.’
I thanked him profusely as I left.
‘It’s raining pretty hard. I don’t want you to have to walk back to your hotel in this.’
Thank god, for once, for the rain! I don’t think I would have risked one more trip than necessary to the dodgy hotel – not even for Veronica Mars.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
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.
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.