San Francisco, USA

James Articles, Narratives

San Francisco, USA

Tales of the city

I left my heart in San Francisco

Hidden among the many collages and photographs plastered across the walls of Vesuvio, a bar at the heart of San Francisco, I spotted a quote by Paul Kantner of the Sixties’ psychedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane. It read, ‘San Francisco: 40 square miles, surrounded entirely by reality.’

I’d spent a day wandering among the neighbourhoods and districts that make up the city, and now, beer in hand, I couldn’t help but agree with his slogan. There was an atmosphere here that was decidedly different from other American cities.

For one thing, its weather is most beguiling. Its geography – on a hilly peninsula, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay on three sides – means that it has a weather system all its own, notorious for producing a fog that hangs over the city in the morning before it is whipped away by afternoon winds. But more than that, it is the people of San Francisco that really set the place apart. The number of different sub-cultures in various districts makes the city seem schizophrenic.

I was staying in the Phoenix Hotel, a small, simple affair just beyond the fringes of both Downtown and the Civic Centre, in a kind of no man’s land. Originally a 1950s motel, it is now San Francisco’s ‘rock hotel’, graced by the likes of David Bowie, Nirvana and Norah Jones, to name but a few. Two floors of rooms surround a courtyard scattered with surreal sculptures and an outdoor pool with a mural on its floor. For those that come to bask in the San Fran vibe, there is no alternative.

Spurred on by my night there, I headed down to Haight-Ashbury, the crossroads that once formed the epicentre of the hippie movement, to see where the love affair with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll had begun. The streets were lined with independent stores that sell used clothes, tie-dyes, jewellery and bongs, but the authenticity had been lost. Smiling tourists, punks, hippies and literati ambled along, clutching Starbucks coffees. Reality was creeping in.

The sign read ‘San Francisco: 40 square miles, surrounded entirely by reality

Even so, Haight Street was something to behold. The Victorian houses were gloriously decorated in vibrant colours, lamp-posts were a vivid concoction of flyers and posters, everyone was smiling – heck, even the buses were decorated with flowers. And when I delved a little deeper, in the used record and book stores, I found things hadn’t changed so much. They were still staffed by the same friendly owners, some in their twilight years, who were here in the heyday. These are the gentle people that Scott McKenzie sang about in 1967, when he suggested that you go to San Francisco with flowers in your hair.

A cable-car took me up to Fisherman’s Wharf in the afternoon. The fishermen had mostly left since lending their name to the northern waterfront, and it was now a tacky tourist crowd-puller. “Hurry, hurry, hurry, now boarding. Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge. See the home of Al Capone. Only $10,” called out the cruise boat captain at one end. At the other sat Pier 39, home to the most gimmicky of tourist shops and restaurants. A street musician sang ‘Only fools rush in’, but the irony seemed lost on the crowd.

The best attractions here were the Bush Man (a local who hides behind leafy branches and startles passersby), the colony of 300 sea lions that live on platforms floating between piers, the huddle of breakdancers, and the sight of brave locals swimming in the harbour. A walk along the harbour wall yielded spectacular views; in one direction the Transamerica Pyramid, in the heart of the Financial District, dominated the city’s skyline; in the other, the Golden Gate Bridge was slowly being shrouded by evening mist.

The skyline enticed me back into the city. I headed toward the Transamerica Pyramid, straight down Columbus Avenue, to North Beach. Home to the city’s Italian community, the European atmosphere drew the 1950s Beat writers to the area. Though the Beats who turned the city into a guiding light for other counter-culturalists have since left, the area retains its links to the past.

Among the pastry shops, eccentric bars, superb restaurants and dreamy hotels I found Caffe Trieste, where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script for The Godfather. It continues to serve the best espresso, hold performances of opera on Saturdays, and attract people to write their novels and scripts while the strong smell of coffee beans lingers in the air. Meanwhile, the City Lights Bookstore, which had a major role in publishing the works of the Beat poets, has retained its legacy of antiauthoritarian politics and insurgent thinking – its top floor continues to be well stocked with well-known and lesser-known works by the writers and thinkers of the Beat movement.

As I sat next door in Vesuvio, among the pork-pie hats that line the bar, discussing the purpose of life with bar-flies eager to meet today’s curious tourist, I surveyed the scrapbook history on the walls and concluded that this city’s Bohemian spirit would not be kept down.

First published: Traveller magazine, Winter 2005-2006
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JamesSan Francisco, USA