Catching up on the long overdue tale of a summer trip… To review: Picture it. San Francisco. August 2009. A hotel. A business meeting. Name tags. Number 2 pencils. And newcomers exploring the city in the down time.
During the weekend, Matt and Tom had been wandering the streets of San Francisco while I working at the meeting in the afternoon. One of the neighborhoods they passed through was Japantown. We had hopped a crowded bus out there one afternoon so they could return to the annual street festival spread along the main road. “Street festival” usually meaning local, canopied merchants selling pop art t-shirts and pottery and beaded things, food vendors selling messy barbecue on Styrofoam plates, and a cover band. Fairly standard things, although the band outlasted the dismantling of the vending tables and we took seats near the stage to watch the cover band in amusement. The cover band that featured one male and one female singer played through a string of disco and new wave hits that compelled most of the middle age people out of their seats and into the aisles to dance. Even two ladies who must have been in their 70s didn’t seemed bothered by the boom of the stacked speakers as they stood in the corner near the stage to dance.
Primo Beer will get you lei’d!
Being in Japantown is a lot different than Chinatown. The distinctions may well be a microcosm of the real differences between Japan and China. Japantown, like the larger Pacific Heights neighborhood where it sits, is pure, pristine urban-suburbia; a small section of the city with clean streets and perfectly trimmed hedges. There’s a mix of gyms and condos and cafes and Japanese cultural institutions and symbolism (a 5-towered Peace Pagoda, for example, marks the neighborhood’s center as a memorial to victims of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It is white collared. And it’s also rather unique – Japantown San Francisco is only one of two official Japantowns in the country.
On the other hand, Chinatown in San Francisco is the oldest Chinatown in the country, and it’s age is very apparent. It’s very blue-collar, like what you seen in Big Trouble in Little China (which was filmed in San Francisco’s Chinatown). The streets are grimy and crowded with tourists browsing cheap souvenirs. Walking around late at night, we saw frazzled old women dragging out huge garbage bins from the stores, passed by dark gated doors to clubs or loud people speaking Chinese behind them, and even saw drunks pissing in the street. In the afternoon, clothes were strung out from apartments above the stores and it looked like old photos of tenement housing. Though I’m not pointing this out to criticize Chinatown, but merely point out what a contrast it is to Japantown.
Raising the red lanterns in Chinatown.
We’d taken a less crowded bus over the North Beach neighborhood for dinner, which is just beyond Chinatown, its own boundary being an intersection lined with buildings covered with 60’s-era illustration that made the strip joints advertised within them seem rather comical. (Many of the clubs were used in Dirty Harry). While sandwiched between Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach actually was at one time a beach. The main drag along the North Beach neighborhood is something of a Little Italy, except that the strip is almost entirely filled with nothing but restaurants. The busy street and the elegant towers of a Catholic Church nearby create a facade to an otherwise indistinct section, which may say a lot about more than San Francisco, with commercial sections being a neighborhood’s defining characteristic.
Aging boobie bars along the North Beach/Chinatown border.
By this point everyone was exhausted and we slowly made our way through the weekend crowds and aromatic sirens. Tom had heard about a place called Pasta Pomodoro, mentioning that it was a chain, but a relatively affordable place that got rave reviews in one of the travel blogs he’d come across. Perhaps evident of how busy the restaurants get on the main streets of North Beach during the summer weekends, the waitress politely cautioned us that they were nearly out of everything on the menu. Even beer. Tom had enjoyed the bread so much that, before the main course was served, she offered to bring more, but then remembered that they too were out of that now. We ordered pasta dishes, and the food was good, but I’d never been in a restaurant where they had run out of food before and we were only there around 8. Like the Cinecita, a pizza place two doors down where Phil and I had lunch one afternoon (he would arrive in town later in the week), there was a common decoration scheme: posters and photo decoupages from Italian movies. And, thankfully, not from the limited repertoire of gangster movies, but actual Italian cinema, and especially (what I presume is) the nation’s most iconic film, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Phil and I had gone back to the Pomodoro when he first arrived in town on the last day of the meeting. We had wondered from the hotel, back through Chinatown, and up through North Beach before straying further to Fisherman’s Wharf. And, now, even at the calmer mid-day hours of the early evening, Pomodoro was still out of beer and some things on the menu, though after striking up conversation with the British waiter, who presumed us to be Europeans (and then, Canadian at closer glimpse of Phil’s Maple Leaf jacket), we were rewarded with extra bread! By the end of dinner, we settled for hopping on a bus rather than hoofing it back to the hotel, and those unlimited bus rides that come with the city tour pass came in handy. We were back at the hotel just in time for Matt and I to run over to catch the last hour of a small reception for our association’s fellowship program, though by that point I was already long exhausted and falling asleep at the white-covered table in the back of the room while my coworkers tried to uncork a bottle of wine with a dinner fork.
On the next day of the meeting, there was a chance to catch a quick nap before Tom and Matt got back from their sightseeing adventures around the Presidio that afternoon. The plan was to head into Berkley on the train and see my friend AG from high school who, going to med school at Case (the Cleve!), was doing a rotation at Kaiser Permanente, and staying with her boyfriend’s hermit mother. She luckily had the night off, and on the only condition that we go anyplace that serves beer (which was much needed for relaxing after long days of the this meeting drew on), we wound up at a pizza place where the waitresses sat us under a dusty staircase at a table that barely fit the pies and pitchers we ordered. Going out to Berkeley on the train is quite a shift when you’re coming from downtown San Fran. The transition is quite blatant as you pass by the land of industry (Oakland) and into the land of liberal academy. When we got off the train, there were two ragged, shoeless girls sitting on towels with acoustic guitars singing some catchy song about her “fucking boyfriend” (no, not the Bird & the Bee song, I think it was an original). Someone else naturally asked us for money passing by, and as I tried to remind my uncle what AG looked like, since he hadn’t seen her in a while, we spotted her and headed to the restaurant. We sat and chatted with usual innocuousness… work and relationships and old friends and school and future plans and traveling and the West Coast and the difference between lagers and ales, my attention eventually drifting to the table near the door where four girlfriends, probably in their early 30s, gushed at the baby who’s mother was among them, fashionably tattooed and pierced, giving that contrasting image about how having kids eventually depletes your youth. Or at least when having to care for an energetic baby all day. But they all had the appearance that they still enjoyed gatherings like these. That mommyhood had changed nothing. In fact, the mother had caught the attention of the waitress, who, also tattooed and pierced, looked a little younger than they, and (probably unconsciously) made no effort to hide her adoration of them as the mother showed her tattoos and told her that her friend did them for her, and that if the waitress was interested, she could check out her friend’s MySpace page.
McD said that since I was going to be in San Francisco, I should get in touch with her sister, Clair. I only met Clair once before (she’s a blogger, too!), at AC’s last annual Christmas episodes party several months before (which was a memorable meeting in particular because Ansu had been under the impression that she was somewhere around early college age). Although wondering if might be a little awkward, if not imposing, to ask someone you’ve only met once before to hang out for dinner or something, I figured, it’s McD’s sister, we did meet once, and it’s good to keep in touch. Text messages were put into motion to arrange some kind of outing, and on one of the days after the meeting, Matt and I hopped the train for a dinner date with Clair. Initially, it had been a little hard keeping conversation going (Talking Points, we call these), and this was the first time my brother met Clair. She had just moved out of her apartment after a “last straw” moment involving an arsonist and a fire in her apartment building (that’s in her blog, too), and on top of this, she would soon be leaving to do triathlon training in Sacramento (I think that’s where it was). With her as our tour guide, we wound up in a wonderful Czech cafe called Cafe Prague (which may or may not still be open in the Financial District, by the latest Google search). It looked like a semi-bohemian coffeehouse with purple and olive colored velvet decor, an oddly gigantic dining table that seemed suitable for a McMansion dining room, and a wall lined with benches and large pillows and tables. Placed just beyond the bustling blocks of banking institutions, it had a real authentic sort of European quality to it. A little bit isolated, a couple of locals chatting at a table off to the side, and the door left open to let in some light and chilly San Francisco summer air. A typically somber Leonard Cohen album played when we got there, and not certain why there were so many gumbo dishes on the small menu, ordered Sauerbraten for all of us because this was the one thing I was familiar with – grandma has made it plenty of times before. But it was a little different than the Braten that was served in big white bowls. The meat was drenched in a yellowish creme sauce. I can’t remember that there was anything other than meet, but nonetheless, it was quite good, and damn filling. I hadn’t noticed the burly blond, pigtailed waitress till after the album playing now changed to ABBA, and there was something amusing stereotypical and perfectly timed about that realization.
A building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, downtown SF.
Matt and I walked backed to the train station with C McD, passing along the way whatever television show will soon feature bomb squad trucks in its early episodes they were filming. (Wee! Another show about the law enforcement and/or legal profession!). Tom was off somewhere, presumably squeezing in a last minute visit to this odd Frank Lloyd Wright building downtown. It was both his and Matt’s last night in town. They would be flying back to Orlando in the morning, which (finally!) marked the last day of the meeting. By the time it was over, Phil’s plane from Baltimore would be landing.
(To Be Continued!)