At long last, the last day of the meeting. It always comes with a collective sigh of relief because people at work have been forced to hang around each other for too long. To consume work almost non-stop. Meetings and presentation and administrative affairs and so forth. Now, it’s time to get out. Get away. And get away from each other. Unfortunately, we were still stuck working in the registration area for the last few hours, which gets so painfully empty, though curiously, still finds some exceptionally last minute stragglers who have come to pick up their registration materials.
By the mid-afternoon, Tom and Matt had boarded a plane back to Orlando and Phil has disembarked another plane in San Francisco. Having no opportunity to do any sightseeing, we would stay in town for another day or two, get our California fix (as the kids call it), and then fly to Montana for a week to visit his parents.
I thought we were all set, but I could see that ending the meeting, and switching hotels was not quite the easy transition I had imagined. Phil found his way to the metro station downtown near the hotel. Although at that point we were only about four blocks apart, it would be about an hour, and a needless taxi cab ride until I heard from him again. Exhaustion was kicking in for both us, and tempers were starting to flicker. When he did finally arrive, and hats were officially thrown in the ring, so to speak, I picked up my suitcases from our temporary offices and we hitched a cab ride to the gates of Chinatown to the Grant Hotel. Our taxi driver, a young guy, politely bombed down the steep streets of San Francisco and pulled out in front the gates to Chinatown. It was a charming little hotel in Chinatown, I figured, from what I saw when passing by when Tom and Matt and I were out walking one night. Though, this was not actually the Grant hotel we were staying at, which, the lady at the front desk probably gets a lot. “Are you sure you have the right Grant hotel?” she asked me rather sternly. We just dragged our suitcases up three blocks of a steep hill. I am really hoping this is the right place.
Actually, the hotel was around the corner, on the other side of the Chinatown gate. Near a male strip bar. It was a small, presumably family-run hotel. Nothing fancy. There was a mother-daughter team at the desk. The mother looked like one of those characters you see on TV who never laugh. In fact, was one who might never even remark “that’s funny.” Short, punctual, and few words. Her daughter, equally efficient, and probably around our age, seemed more laid back. It’s a small hotel and I wondered if at one time, these were cheap efficiency apartments, maybe in the 70s or so. Where people paid like 20 bucks a week to stay and ate dollar pizzas and chinese takeout around the corner. It was a clean room, and we did find it on the cheap, so we surely got our money’s worth. Though, my only complaint, aside from the brick-wall view outside of our picture front window, was that the shower was built to the floor and, with the floor getting soaked any time the shower was in use, the smell of mildew was very apparent. Aside from that, we had the conveniences of free wireless Internet connection, the generic Continental breakfast (a phrase which should really be outlawed for lack of meaning), and it was convenient to bus stops and metro stations. It wasn’t a bad start.
Phil, enjoying the glorious view of the second floor from outside our hotel window.
After a few hours of recharging, we left the hotel and started out through Chinatown, then to North Beach, stopping at the Pasta Pomodoro for dinner again, and chatting with the British waiter who believed us to be Europeans, or at the very least, Canadians, which made more sense, Phil was wearing his trademark maple leaf jacket. A mistake and friendly conversation which, fortunately, resulted in extra servings of bread and of course, menu recommendations and insistence on wine as a drink substitute since they were, mysteriously, still out of beer. (See How Are Things on the West Coast, Part 3).
After dinner, between further strolling towards the concentration of evening summer tourism — Fisherman’s Wharf — we somehow stumbled upon the notorious Crooked Street, which is this one block of street constructed in an perfect zig zag of roadway. All day long, people are driving down it at 5 mph or walking down it, meeting the party of picture takers at the other end. We drove it, too, when we rented a car on our last day in the city, though Phil lost the footage on his iPhone, not having yet learned to back up the data. Strangely enough, the Crooked Street (“The Crookedest Street in the World”) was designed in the 20s with the idea that the zig zagging (switchbacks) would enable cars to handle the steep grade of road. Though, if you’ve walked around San Francisco, especially up around the Presidio and Pacific Heights neighborhoods, they all seem pretty hard on getting around in a vehicle. Hard on people, too. You certainly won’t find many fatties out that way.
Driving in SF.
The Crookedest Street in All the West!
Fisherman’s Wharf is a huge tourist spot, although what isn’t in a place like San Francisco where it really does take more than a week to take it all in. The Wharf is, among other things, where they launch the tour boats out to Alcatraz and around the Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge (to Grandma’s House We Go). And they aren’t kidding when warn you to book book your tickets early! We settled for taking the boat tour that boasts two complete circles around Alcatraz in addition to floating along the edge of the Presidio, under The Bridge, and along the mountains. This, rather than getting to actually go up and see the prison in person, and take part in the grand tradition of glamorizing a former prison. Actually, the Alcatraz portion of that tour was mostly a laundry list of famous escapes and not-so-accurate movies they made about it. That evening we walked the seaside strip in the typically cool August air, passing a zillion souvenir shops all selling the same thing (we call this the La Chinoisery, as in the place to go for China-made trinkets), although the pocket switchblade comb was enticing enough to consider! And only consider. As in most tourist areas, we also passed loads of restaurants, street performers scratching for change, and airbrush artists who worked quickly. Before heading back to the hotel, which may or may not have required fighting off ninjas in the black night (…hindsight is 20/20…), we stopped at Denny’s where a disinterested waiter served us coffee and a sugary desert. Alas, we were not jumped by ninjas, though we did pass some shady characters in the abandoned sections of Chinatown.
Artsy landscapes in Chinatown.
In the morning, we awoke to a Continental breakfast. The Grant Hotel was surprisingly busy, considering its size — I think it was only two floors and maybe 20 rooms in all. In the meantime, although Continental Breakfast, has become a standard industry term, the industry has failed to standardize it’s meaning. The name itself whispers European roots… and presumably, European-styled pickings! Rather, we stood near a small microwave and coffee pot. Behind the desk sat an almost-empty box of donuts from the same local bakery that provided the hotel’s wall calendar. We’d have to get up earlier the next morning to beat the rush. Trying not to waste a lot of time, we grabbed some coffee, and wandered up the street, through the pristine streets of the now quiet Japantown, and further beyond, passing the woman with the butch mullet at the bus stop explaining to her young daughter that they would have to rent furniture for their new place, finally stopping at a coffee shop where the barista-in-training (if you want to be fancy about titles) nervously tried to assemble my tea and muffin order. The apprentice barista, in between serving incoming customers, was receiving training in the varieties of coffee beans. If he was willing to work nights and weekends, he might as well have become a bartender… at weddings and Bah Mitzvahs.
I hope the person who wrote ‘I Love Poop’ on the back of this Prius remembered to wash their hands before eating!
Without much of a plan in mind, other than to stick along some bus route that could hustle us over to Pier 39 for the afternoon boat tour around the Bay that we got tickets for, we wound up encountering the Presidio. We weren’t too sure what it was, and before the week in San Francisco (Tom and Matt had already ventured out this way), I had only heard the name once before, and it referred to a terrible crime drama that starred Mark Harmon and longtime movie-ruiner, Meg Ryan. Tucked just beyond pristine, million dollar homes that seem so bleached in the bright summer sun, beyond where the mobile yoga trainer van travels (for real!), there is a sprawling park. The Presidio actually refers to the Spanish fort that was passed over to the United States in the 1800s. The area was expanded and used as a military base up until the 90s, when Congress voted to close a lot of bases. The National Parks Services keeps it up, now. It looks almost like something trapped in the 1960s. A tram takes you on a 30-minute drive around the park, and there is a small section of duplexes that look in need of a little TLC. The yards have been overrun by dirt and dead straw grass, like a beach scene, though everything else in the park is carefully kept, part of it being reserved for children’s recreation. We didn’t have much time to walk down to the busy park or the beach along the Bay. It was fairly cool that afternoon, anyways, though it seemed pleasant enough for the locals, who grabbed up their beach-and-park provisions and made a day of it.
We wandered around the Palace of Fine Arts for a bit (you’ve probably seen it if you have watched the great Hitchcock thriller, Vertigo), the glare off of the dome almost blinding us. We hopped a city bus over to Fisherman’s Wharf to stand on a huge line, one going in to Alcatraz, the other going around it, and other points in the Bay. It’s a pleasant enough, substitute though, since, I imagine, a full day in a former maximum security can get to be a little depressing. Even the gorgeous day that it was out couldn’t make light of the abandoned buildings, and the razor wire. It looked sad, like the abandoned wings of Ellis Island before they underwent major facelifts. Maybe that’s why, on the cruise around the Bay, they focus on the more exciting, adventurous moments of the Alcatraz timeline. I picked up a book at the meeting that featured a blurry black-and-white snap of a sullen looking man on the cover. His head was shaved and he wore a black sweater. I forget the title of the book, but was psyched to have some reading on Alcatraz, via the memoirs of one of its former prisoners. Unfortunately, it was a memoir instead about violent football fans in England. Hooligans, as the movie made them popularly referred to.
And on your left: a picturesque view of the lovely, abandoned prison.
I always thought Alcatraz was much more isolated. It doesn’t look like it would be that difficult of a swim for any escapists who were so vigilante, and there were a few cases of those who were successful enough to make it to shore. One actually ran into a prison guard and naturally, didn’t last long on the outside. My favorite story was the one about the escape where they prisoners built an improvised drill with metal spoons and a vacuum motor, false walls, and paper machier dummies for their beds. They got out, though the official report said they didn’t survive. It’s entirely possible, there were several cases where the prisoners who escaped couldn’t get far beyond the island, given the intensity of the tide. Alcatraz was shut down in the 60s, because of the expense and the pollution of the Bay, though I wonder if part of it had to do with concerns over abuse of the prisoners. It was a place with that kind of reputation.
Inside the famous Fisherman’s Wharf bakery, where animals were magically turned into bread.
We were able to enjoy the tour of the Bay just before the fires that shut down the Golden Gate Bridge for several days. Though, there were fires raging in Santa Cruz, which we could see from the skyline as we drove out to Yosemite after touring around San Francisco for a few days. Then again, with all the wildfire warnings all over the place, it’s probably just business as usual to Californian natives.
As we were getting off the boat, we were passed by loaded yellow speed boats that promised a boat load of mostly-middle age passengers with fanny packs and visors a zippy cruise around the Bay. Who wouldn’t want to take the usual tour at high speeds?
At Pier 39, you can catch brown seals by the hundred lazily lounging on the docks. There is a seal rescue nearby that showed footage of their operation on large TV screens nearby, probably reminding the basking pups to be grateful… or in the very least to advise them on who to call in case of an emergency. The seals all crowd together and it looked like the heat were making some fairly irate, as they’d jump up and bark at each other, especially when they got competitive about impressing another seal. How cute, they’re just like humans! But, cute as they may seem from a safe distance, someone alerted us to one swimming near the shore when we were out at the beach the next day. A few people cooed at this, mostly unwise youngsters, but I imagined something more like a scene out of jaws and the people next to us, with the micro dogs, would suddenly wonder what happened to their pups. Maybe the big pup ate them! Dun dun dunnnn!!! And that’s why you don’t go swimming with seals…
Recently, however, the seals at Pier 39 made national headlines… because they mysteriously disappeared. Though later, they figured out that they just moved south.
Sunbathing Northern Monkies.
We had tickets that Tom and Matt gave us before they left town, one of those omnibus tourist passes that, for a flat rate, grants you admission to the museums and sites, and public transportation for a couple of days, and it was convenient for us, as they didn’t expire till our last day in town. One of the perks was a ticket on the trolleys, which we decided to catch a ride on back to Chinatown since we were near the end of the line. Of course, plenty of other people had this idea, too, and we waited on line at least 40 minutes for the experience. The line forms around a huge circle in the ground. When the trolley reaches the end of the line, the conductors pull it in and they spin the trolley around. Which seems puzzling because the train seems to turn without manual help whenever it reaches a turning point in the train line it travels along. But whatever the science behind it, that is how is operates.
Riding in the old trolley cars is like riding a wooden rollercoaster, since it rattles as you go up and down the hills, and with it, rattles your teeth. It made me a little nervous on the one hand that people clung to the outside of the train (probably the most ideal spot to ride for a real thrill in retrospect) and also that the trains stop in the middle of the intersection for a minute or two. With roads that steep, it’s sometimes hard to see what’s at the top till you get there (we had the opportunity to test this out when we rented a car to get to Yosemite) and sometimes, people don’t always stop for the light, regardless. Nothing like feeling like a toothless, sitting duck!
Wait… that makes me sound like an old lady. It really was ok. On to Chinatown, my good man!
Though repeating some of the restaurant choices would have been easy, we didn’t make it back to the House of Nanang, the popular, low-key Chinese resturant (“dive” is a deceptive term) I went to the first night in town with Tom and Matt. Phil got a look at the line (it was longer than the last time and not as quick moving), and then a look at recommendations via his iPhone app. We wound up just walking around the corner, found a place that had rabbit on the menu (remember dear travelers: exotic choices usually mean you won’t find the regular American Chinese food standards, but maybe something more authentic, if not better made in the end), and the requisite beer selection, and took a seat inside. By the time we finished, full in the stomach and a lighter in the wallet, we wandered through La Chinoiseries for a bit in search of what else? Cheap souvenirs! In the end, we’d seen enough of the same, left empty-handed and went back to the hotel. Tomorrow, we’d have to take the train out to the airport and pick up the rental car.