City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.
WE MET Greg over breakfast in a place called Posh Bagels that on first glance didn’t quite live up to its name, but on first bite did. I liked the place, as much as anything because the woman behind the counter silently handed me back the extra $50 that I accidentally gave her when paying for our bagels. I was awash with the milk of human kindness, and began talking to Greg. I asked him where home was. “Here,” he replied. But where are you from? I pressed him, curious about who actually lives in San Francisco.
“Nowheresville, Washington. Nobody ever knows where it is and it’s full of farms and cows. Everything smells of cowshit.” He took another bite of his bagel. “No one is from here,” he continued, “everyone runs away to here. Especially gay people,” he gestured at himself, mouth already full from another bite of bagel. But what do people do in San Franciso? I asked him.
“Good question. People don’t seem to have jobs. You go to West Park at 2pm on a Wednesday when it’s sunny and the ground is covered in people sunbathing, and you think: haven’t you people got jobs? Everyone’s working an angle.” And with that, he stuffed the last piece of bagel into his mouth, said his farewells, and was gone, evidently in a rush to go and work his own angle. Or at least to escape from two nosey tourists.
THIS CONVERSATION has stuck with me. More like chewing gum at the bottom of my shoe than a faithful hound, but it’s stuck with me nonetheless. I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences of the people in San Francisco and the city more generally. When I visit a place I like to think that I’m like some great explorer cutting to the heart of a place. Seeing sights. Getting inside insights. Exploding expectations. Etc. You get the picture. I can only deal with the whole travel-place-shoe-gum-problem by trying to make sense of the things I see, to weave those things into some kind of narrative. As if I could nod sagely about San Francisco and pronounce upon it with the certainty of a 19th century explorer. Clearly this is impossible.
But I realised that I still had stuff to say about San Francisco, and Greg’s comments were my jumping off place. Or the start of my angle on the city. So, San Francisco. What’s that all about?
UPON FIRST arriving in San Francisco we sought out the sights, like any other tourist. No they wouldn’t tell us what the city was about, but step one upon arriving somewhere new is, surely (or is this my father speaking?), always to orientate yourself.
The next day we actually looked at a map, which is a good job because we were planning to cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge. We wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Why did these San Franciscans get so exercised about their bridge? It was the wrong colour, for a start.
Our bike ride began down by the piers, a gentle perambulation along the waterfront, weaving in and out of tourists and joggers. After the tourist-madness of Fisherman’s Wharf, the piers gave way to streets of mismatched houses, some with turrets, some with grand old 1920s-looking fronts and others evidently owned by once-hippies, still-new-age San Franciscans, their gardens all hanging glass wind chimes and vegetables. Every house was a different colour. Not a hundred yards from their front doors, the pacific ocean lapped at marinas and boat moorings. A nearby sign helpfully warned people that they were in a Tsunami high risk zone, and advised that when the wave comes, they head for higher ground. It all felt very SF.
Further round the bay still, and the Golden Gate Bridge appears (“I told you it was orange”), small enough that you feel you could almost lean forward and pluck it out of the bay in one hand. Much pedalling and several hills later it stands above you, massive and hulking, ethereal and elegant all at once. Then you’re on the bridge and so is everyone else, pedestrians and cyclists weaving in an out of each other, all looking at the view, no one looking where they’re going, and the bay is a long long way down. Yes, it’s a health and safety nightmare.
THE THINGS that stay in the memory about a city are most often not the iconic sites. It’s the vignettes of city living peculiar to that place that stick in the mind. In the City Lights Bookshop, where Allen Ginsberg first read Howl, where Jack Kerouac hung out, and which was heavily involved in the beat movement, I remember not sitting in the chair that Ginsberg sat in, but the view out of the window of somebody’s apartment. It was peaceful inside the bookshop, but the apartment seemed chaotic. Washing was strung across the fire escape, and inside the place looked cramped and untidy. All cities are places of contrast, but San Francisco seemed at that moment to like its contrasts all on top of each other.
The City Lights Bookshop was a wonderful place, with great books and great history. Its till was staffed by two men perhaps in their mid-twenties, dressed in a boho style with hair scarfs and plenty of tattoos. They literally couldn’t give a shit that we existed, and smiling seemed to cause them physical pain. I made sure that I wished them a great day when we left. I encountered this too-cool for school attitude a few times when we were in San Francisco. Why is it that counter-cultures and the places that breed it can be so intolerant of other ways of living?
San Francisco is not a place of suits. Even at the height of the early morning rush hour, there are few people in suits, even fewer in ties. Most are in denim, many in T-shirts. Stand on a London street at rush hour and you can spot the Londoners a mile off – from the way they dress, how fast they walk. In San Francisco, it’s not so easy to spot the natives.
The only people who seem to belong are the homeless. And there are so many homeless people in San Francisco. They stumble along the sidewalks, pushing all of their belongings in a trolley, or towing them in makeshift trailer-bags, or just carrying them in shopping bags. They loiter around the entrances to parks and in the squares, along the edges of streets and under the awnings of buildings. On three separate occasions I literally had to step over homeless people in the street – and this was not on quiet streets. The tide of humanity, myself included, just flowed around them. On two consecutive days I saw a man sitting next to the Powell MUNI station with a sign that said “Iraq Vet. Need a little help.”
According to the San Francisco Public Press (“Independent, Non-Profit, In-Depth”), which I picked up a copy of, two years ago the city estimated that 6,455 people lived without housing. The city-funded shelters take in 1,139 single families and up to 10 families a night – giving about 18 per cent of the homeless population a bed on any single night. Mental health problems are rampant amongst the homeless population. I lost count of the amount of times that I saw people talking to themselves or shouting at walls.
I understand that America is different to the UK, that there is no social safety net like in Europe. But this isn’t just about helping people who can’t help themselves: it’s about helping a city. Homelessness is ruining San Francisco. It increases crime, makes places unsafe to go at night and the whole city a less desirable place to be. For me, it profoundly coloured my experience of the city.
OF COURSE, San Francisco is full of natives, all of whom are from somewhere else, and they’re all happy to tell you about their city. With the exception of the too cool for school crowd, everyone talked to us. Although the moment that this really struck me was when we arrived back in London and were travelling home. Because we had big bags, we got the elevator up from the Underground instead of the escalator, and we shared our lift with a man on crutches. Standing in such close proximity in such a confined space, it seemed natural to strike up conversation. But then I realised this was London and not San Francisco, so instead we stood there in silence whilst we made our slow ascent.
On our final day in San Francisco I struck up a conversation with Chris, who was originally from Northern Ireland. He had, he told me, been in SF for “fucking ages.” When I met him, in the line for the men’s room in a coffee shop, he was complaining that there were no public toilets in the city. “They can put a fucking laser guided bomb on a target in Afghanistan, but they can’t public toilets in San Francisco.”
I asked him what he thought of the city, and he told me that he was “jaded” because he’d been there too long. “Sure,” he said, “it’s good now, but it was fucking unbelievable in the 90s. The rave scene was happening, you know? And it wasn’t so fucking expensive.”
“People say I just think it’s not as good because I’m not young anymore,” he continued, “and I’m not getting laid all the time. But I’m 46 and I’m still having a good time.” I asked him why he thought that he wasn’t having as good a time as in the 90s. Partly, he thought, it was down to the “facebook culture” of everyone being on their phones rather than talking to each other. “But partly,” he told me, “it’s because San Francisco now thinks it’s so cool. I mean, California’s cool, but it’s not that cool. People need to remember that sometimes.” Then he was next in line, and we said our goodbyes. “Happy trails,” he wished me on his way out.
San Francisco is a great city (especially for its food), but is not without its problems. Its a city of many angles, some seemingly contradictory. For me, the big test of a place is: could I live there? At first I dismissed it, and decided I could never live there. But I find myself revisiting the question, like a puzzle you can’t solve, mulling it over in my mind. Or perhaps the gum on my shoe that I can’t seem to shake. Maybe I couldn’t live there – but I seem to have taken a little piece of it away with me. Happy trails, San Francisco.