Sam Smith, 1990 – I long avoided San Francisco because I considered earthquakes one hazard I could easily eliminate. That was before both my sons took up periodic residence there and gave me the courage and purpose that I lacked. Now, my 17-year affair with the Bay Area is being interrupted as my youngest son pursues his dreams, along with far lower housing costs, elsewhere. Some of my own dreams, though, I’ll be leaving behind, albeit admittedly only daydreams and those of the variety that break up easily like a cell phone call in the basement.
Still, over time, the San Francisco became one of the markers by which I judged my life and a siren occasionally luring me away from a hometown I all too frequently found alien, arrogant and antagonistic to the human spirit. I had even picked out the decrepit Sausalito houseboat to which I would flee when the capital became too much, provided the current owners didn’t mind.
I’m not much of a traveler; I share Dr. Johnson’s view when he was asked whether Rome was worth seeing: “Worth seeing, yes; worth going to see, no.” And when I do go, I am an ecological and ethnographic visitor, rather than an iconic one. I burn out early on cathedrals and museums but never tire of the human and natural landscape.
So while my wife went into a store in Chinatown, I leaned on a parking meter outside and watched three blind tourists with long white canes casually navigate the crowded sidewalk and stop in front of a display to ask the Chinese store owner what it was about. It could have happened anywhere; still it reminded me of a friend’s comment that San Francisco was too diverse to be polarized.
It’s also too hilly to be dull. Most cities are naturally flat and artificially vertical. In San Francisco it’s the reverse; you can stand on the hills and look down at the puny human attempts to puncture the heavens. In keeping with this reverse geometry, part of the horizontal end of town, the waterfront, got that way with the help of building rubble from the 1906 earthquake. The vertical helped create the flat.
A major attraction of that waterfront, Fisherman’s Wharf, is scorned by locals but since it was one of the first places we had visited I wanted to see it again. In 1989 a bunch of sea lions had just started making themselves at home on the docks near Pier 39 and I remembered one insolently stretched out on the deck of a sailboat.
Eventually, the sea lions would begin “hauling out” in large numbers. Now there are sometimes hundreds of them lolling about, harrumphing, and flopping on each other like members of some weird religious cult. What attracted them is subject to dispute. They may have been encouraged by the change in the herring run following an earthquake or by a sea wall that keeps the great white sharks away. As I watched them I felt a bit of envy, for there are no sea walls in Washington to protect us from the great white sharks that prey on our city.
We had unapologetically gotten to Fisherman’s Wharf by cable car. I like toys and San Francisco has the world’s largest toy train layout with cable cars and trackless trolleys and streetcars from all over that still wear the colors and symbols of their original routes. There is even a streamlined PCC car delivered to Philadelphia Transit just one year after my family moved to Philly from Washington. Every time I saw it, I wondered if it was one that I had ridden as a boy along Germantown Avenue’s 23 route.
Having the world’s largest toy train layout would be considered “inappropriate” in Washington and devoid of essential “gravitas.” To travel from the nation’s capital to a city that apparently has never heard of these words is invigorating. It brings to mind the week I spent in the National Air and Space Museum working on a magazine article. At the end, I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in the museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, “There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them.” You don’t meet many people like that in Washington. There are a lot of them in San Francisco.
And it wasn’t just the moving machinery of San Francisco that fascinated me. I keep note of jobs I would like if I ever get bored with my present occupation. On the list have been things like piloting the General Jubal A. Early, a ferry barge, across the Potomac River at Poolesville back when the pilot house consisted of one overstuffed armchair in a corner of the deck. But I also wouldn’t mind joining the exclusive guild that runs the cable cars. Seldom is rugged mechanical movement accompanied by such humor, hauteur, harassment and hospitality.
One conductor, at the end of the line, pulled out his thermos of coffee and a sandwich and, using the cable car bench as a chaise lounge, pretended not to notice the 50 or so passengers waiting to board who, in turn, were trying to ignore the not very good guitar player making not very funny allusions to their lack of fiscal support as they waited. The guitar player was one of the few grumpy people I ran into this time and he thought he was just being ironic. There was, in casual contact, far more friendliness than I find in Washington anymore.
While Washington’s downtown is dismally conventional and desiccated, San Francisco’s is more like an untended garden. San Francisco gives the impression that it is against the law to tear anything down. The new seems to be stuffed into leftover space. DC used to have that feel. You could go into an old office building and expect to see Johnny Dollar come into the narrow hall from behind one of the dark wooden doors with a glazed window. You don’t find those kind of places in downtown Washington anymore; people who think they’re serious prove it by being exactly like everyone else who thinks they’re serious. Which means the quirky, the individual, the comfortably archaic no longer have a place.
The people are the same way. Downtown in San Francisco, I noticed a man in a unflawed suit mainly because he seemed out and about in the wrong city. On the crowded sidewalks, there is indifference, there is suffering, there is style and there is pretense and hyperbole, but the pompous and the rigidly conventional seem rare.
Then there’s the politics. For example, the Green Party candidate for San Francisco mayor got 47% the last time. I’ve never lived in a place where 47% of the people agreed with me on something that important and different. When I left San Francisco after a visit, I would sometimes think that I should move there. Until there came a time when I left and thought that I should have moved there. Inertia had taken its toll.
And then the words of Willy Brandt would come back, explaining why he returned to Germany from exile in Norway after World War II: it was more important to be a democrat in Germany, he said. The same is true of Washington.
Before someone writes to tell me, let me tell you what I didn’t see, a portion of which was recently described by Chris Carlsen in the Attitude Adjuster blog:
“San Francisco is a city founded before the abolition of slavery, a city that came to be a center of wealth and power through the rapacious exploitation of cheap labor and natural wealth, especially the living critters of the Pacific Rim. . . Southern gentry arrived early and brought with them their pro-slavery ideas, but the outlaw city that grew even faster made room for a western terminus of the Underground Railroad, and gave political strength to the admission of California as a ‘free state’.
“The racist urges of the new American Californians were directed first to the liquidation of the native peoples indigenous to the quickly disappearing paradise, and then against the growing population of Chinese who were crossing the ocean to escape famine and war and stake out new lives in western North America. Vicious violence and legal repression went hand in hand until well into the latter half of the 20th century. Few remember now that the great baseball player Willie Mays could not buy a house in San Francisco when the Giants first arrived in 1958 due to racist restrictions on property deeds. . .
“San Francisco is the home to the union bug, a symbol of working class solidarity whose first expression was the white cigar makers of SF assuring customers that their cigars were made by ‘WHITE MEN.’ Local unions have a long, sordid history of racist exclusion, and the businessmen who dominate the city’s history have often turned to scabs and strikebreakers that exacerbated racial tension. So goes the history of social alienation, class conflict, exclusion, and racist hierarchy which has done as much to shape San Francisco as anywhere else in this upside-down North American society. It remains very much a live context for today’s city, though not often widely acknowledged in our self-congratulatory liberal smugness.”
On the other hand, part of the advantage of going to another place is to get away from context and deconstruction and recover the pleasure of the first impression, the casual observation, the image happily free of the pain that made it all possible.
My first impression of Marin County, for example, came on a foggy night winding our way up a road that seemed to lead nowhere, but with extraordinary effort. The road clung to the side of cliffs and mountains without concern as to whether we would be able to do the same. I was reminded of something a Mainer once told me, “I believe in terra firma. The more firmah, the less terrah.” I hunkered down and we made it to Slide Ranch, an agro-eco education center where our oldest son was interning and waiting for us in the dark at the beginning of the drive. The next morning I looked around and decided that Slide Ranch had been so named because of the likelihood that it would soon slip off its cliff and into the Pacific.
For the next few months, through conversations and letters, we absorbed some of the feel of Marin County, well enough that when my son called to say that a staffer had given birth that morning, I casually responded, “Oh yeah, did you go?” and he replied equally casually, “No there were a lot of people already and they thought the interns would be too many.”
The Bay Area treats its stereotypes the way some places care for their old buildings. Even the tourist guides are different. This by Robert Plotkin in the Coastal Traveler:
“Heretics and iconoclasts retreated and dug small pockets of eccentricity. This magazine is a guide to towns that are the Stalingrads of anti-corporate resistance. They fortunately share no resemblance to the grim post-modern cities of the Soviet Union. Many of the hippies who moved to Northern California were the scions of educated East Coast families and picked unusually scenic spots to build their utopias.
“Here, you can skinny-dip with counter-culture revolutionaries living in oceanfront redwood forest, taste the wine produced from Internet bubble profits, cage dive with Great White sharks, browse independent bookstores, chase your girlfriend down a trail, lie on your back in the grass and let the hawks teach your boy about predatory behavior.”
And here is Plotkin’s description of Bolinas, which is where Volkswagon buses used to go when they died:
“There is no sign to the town. A shadowy organization called the Bolinas Border Patrol pulled signs down until Caltrans gave up. There is a border patrol because people who move to Bolinas do so to escape corporatized America and regard the border as at least metaphysically real. . .
“Bolinas has rejected an economy based on tourism. But like a rejected suitor who only becomes more ardent. . . tourists brave the warnings because the eccentricity of the town and its resistance to tourists are what make it unique and worth visiting. It is a conundrum that hasnâ€™t been solved by townspeople. . . “I saw a man drive a stretch limo Hummer into Bolinas, where many residents have “Hummers Suck” bumper stickers on their cars. . . The stretch Hummer was chased down the street by taunting residents.”
There is one problem with all of this. I noticed it on a trip to Berkeley a few years back: those selling revolutionary literature and countercultural icons were all my age. I got the same sense this time; the revolutionary was no longer prospect but history. I recalled seeing French war veterans rolling down the sidewalks of 1950s Paris in wheelchairs and then going back some years later and not finding any. And twice on the streets of Capitol Hill in the 1960s I was stopped by black men who wanted to buy my beagle; they still thought the migration to the north could be reversed and that they could go back to hunting in Carolina. Walking around Marin County I also felt on the cusp of the past.
Then we drove towards the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore,. The 70,000 acre park was established by John F Kennedy. In present day dollars, it cost around $310 million, less than half of what the city of Washington is paying for a new baseball stadium.
Most of Point Reyes was owned in the 1850s by a San Francisco law firm which leased it to dairy ranchers. Some of these ranches still exist and they date to just a few years after the arrival in California of my wife’s great-grandfather, Charles Schneider, a 20-something immigrant from Germany who crossed the continent from Wisconsin in search of gold. He stayed enough and found enough to make it back home and open the local store in Friestadt.
Driving over the cold, wet, tough plains of Point Reyes I thought about the three twenty-somethings – Charles Schneider and his two great great grandsons – who had each come to California looking for something important. Unlike them, I had come without expectations and found far more than I had imagined. To be sure, I didn’t look hard enough to be disappointed. After all, I had more reality at home than I needed; I didn’t have to take it on vacation. Besides any place with the politics of San Francisco that also collects old streetcars and is nice to sea lions deserves some uncritical affection. I am more than glad to help.