Out on the Razzle in America

United Kingdom
Freelance writer, literary graduate and minor lad. In America for pleasure, not business. I've never been before, so I thought I should. Should I have done it all at once? Can it all be done at once? Only one way to find out...

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Sunny / Foggy Frisco

I am undecided about San Francisco. I am unable to comment on the weather, aside from noting that it is foggy in the morning, sometimes later, and that occasionally searing heat moves through the city, before being replaced by a cold ocean breeze, depending on where you are. The downtown is flat, the rest is not. Despite being a strategic location, I maintain that whoever thought of building a city here, rather than just a fort, is a lunatic. It is the hilliest place I have ever been, and I refuse to live here.

The reaction to the populace is seemingly hard to pin down. We arrived over the Bay Bridge in the evening, stopping for dinner on the edge of Chinatown and the fashionable strip-club district, a strange mix of seediness running into bistros and restaurants. Crackheads and beggars abound throughout the city, though are far worse in the shopping areas and are almost non-existent in the suburbs over the water like Sausalito. Mind you, it is hard to tell who is a beggar, who is a beatnik, and who is just dishevelled; many of the homeless read works of literature, many of the council workers wear ripped, unwashed clothes and sport rough beards, and many of those pushing shopping trolleys are clean shaven. It is impossible not to judge the city without taking into account the number of homeless, or apparently homeless. It is not a bigotted view, or one with any agenda, the fact is that the number of wandering, muttering people along the streets is far higher here than anywhere I have ever been in the world.

Not that all the people mutter of course. At a baseball game, the tickets to which a lovely man on the bus gave away for a mere $10 (he had bought a load months before, and they were $50 on the door), we were seated behind a large man who periodically lept from his seat to roar "YEEEAAAAARRR! GO GIANTS!", before high-fiving his slightly shaken wife. And not all of the people are that dishevelled; a very high proportion of the city is unfeasibly muscular (mostly the gay proportion), and an awful lot of the womenfolk are very attractive, regardless of whether they are dressed 'alternatively' or not. The whole experience is a shock to the system, and it is very hard to register whether it is a nice one.

California itself is a shock of course. The moment you enter the state, everything changes: Audis appear from nowhere, the driving standards plummet, fruit trees spring up across flat land and the population becomes very, very orange. The old ferry terminal in San Francisco is very nice, now hosting a range of organic and high-end nibbles and healthy options amid florists and gelatoes. There is the occasional rummager of course, in San Fran, bins appear to be far more temporary storage facilities than waste deposits, but the overall effect of the ferry building is very nice, very clean, very Californian. Quite what Californian is, not culture or refinement, a little more like self-awareness, but not quite, is yet to be decided. San Francisco should not be taken as a standard of course. It is far from normal.

On that note, having drifted through Castro, (I intentionally avoided the word 'cruised' there) and its rows of boutiques, coffee houses and occasional group of men frolicking in tutus, we went off to Golden Gate Park, to meander around the Japanese Tea Garden while moronic tourists attracted squirrels and rats with little nibbles of fortune cookie, only to be surprised when one of the filthy rodents nips them. We took the bus back. You could take the cable car, but these days they only do a small, show loop, and do occasionally get stuck on the corners uphill, necessitating a push from an enormous pick-up with a rubber bumper.

If you can navigate the multiple suburbs there is a wealth of places to see that will pull you back into affection for this difficult city. There is sunny Sausalito, reached by bike over the Golden Gate Bridge, where a marina full of yachts bobs around before rows of expensive houses, hotels and restaurants interspersed by the occasional fish and chip shop, art gallery or coffeehouse. Or there is the west side, full of chinese but without the tackiness of Chinatown, the long Ocean Beach and its dunes, or any number of the uphill neighbourhoods. Throughout the city are bars, restaurants, shops, views, walks and spaces that would be perfect for a date. Until a smack addict tells you about the pollo loco that sent him crazy, and demands his panda back.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing that happened throughout my stay in San Francisco was in the beer garden of a Beach Chalet in the park's ocean side. While sipping a real lemonade and recovering from the hike up the dunes, we were approached by a musclebound thirty-something and his rampant, blonde toddler. Having passed a wry comment about the young ladies that had just been talking to my brother and I, the gentleman sent his slim yet buxom wife to the bar with the child, placed a thick joint, half-smoked, on the arm of my chair and winked, "here's a little home grown to get your evening started. You boys have a good night, it's good shit". It certainly smelled like it, everything it touched turned to weed, including my bag.

Very cool, very Californian, right up until the moment that the police did a ticket check at the station and requested to see my hostel key to prove that I was indeed foreign, and had not used an overdue ticket to cheat the fare. Somehow managing to flirt our way out of a fine, and not wave a stench of marijuana under the policeman's nose, I got home without any trouble and dumped the offending item in the nearest bin; even in California, some things are more trouble than they're worth.

Next stop LA, and having only heard bad things about it, I expect to be pleasantly surprised. Bracing myself for security, I have already been scanned, x-rayed, finger-printed and retinally checked. Hopefully they don't have drugs dogs, my bag still stinks.

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