“I know this is San Francisco, but that’s too weird” –Anonymous
Weird? Certainly. But also friendly, fascinating, beautiful, and original. San Francisco is all these things and more. It is a group of tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf taking photos with a man bedazzled in glistening silver. It’s a group of homeless men playing checkers on Market Street. It’s a transvestite wandering the tenderloin looking for a friendly conversation. It’s a group of Giants’ fans drinking in McTeague’s on Polk and Norris Streets high fiving and clapping as their team finally starts to hit. It’s an independent music and record store on Haight Street where Elvis Costello comes to play when he’s in town. It’s the bay in the sun and Alcatraz in the distance, and it’s the fog that rolls up unexpectedly blanketing the city whenever it pleases.
I had been to San Francisco once before, in 2007 while on a cross-country trek, and at the time I was unable to appreciate all that the city was and is. Whether it was the limited time there or that I was forced to compare the city to so many others I had seen on my trip, I wasn’t quite able to get a true feel for the place and value all its nuances. On this second visit though, a longer stay and a more isolated perspective allowed me to admire so much more. On both visits, I was fortunate to have an erudite tour guide of little comparison in my Uncle Jim, a Philadelphia native who transplanted himself over forty years ago, a decade after Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs started the Beat revolution and Kesey connected it all together to the hippies of the 60s. There’s not a corner of the city nor a bus route that my Uncle doesn't know. Through his eyes and with his history of the place, the city comes alive in a whole different way. But this isn’t just about me, or my uncle, but rather what San Francisco, and our travels of any kind to anywhere can teach us about ourselves and where we live.
I arrived this time on a Thursday. It was cold and I had forgotten a long-sleeve shirt and jacket not remembering Twain’s famous quote of the coldest winter he ever spent was his first summer in San Francisco. Yet, in a major American city there is no hassle in buying something easily and affordably, even in the incredibly expensive San Fran. An Old Navy, part of a massive inner-city shopping mall in the heart of downtown, around the corner from my hotel afforded me the ability to buy a light, zipper-up hoodie for $10, which my uncle assured me would “probably rip in a week or two”. It was intriguing to me that in a city with so much character and originality that even still one could find almost too easily the mass markets of consumerist demands at the root of so much outsourcing in Nike, Adidas, The Gap, and others, all peddling their cheap goods at the expense of American jobs. I felt ashamed having come all this way and ending up in such places of ubiquity and cold marble and escalators. It wouldn’t be for long though.
The first night my uncle met me and we went out to dinner across the street from my hotel. Afterwards, we found a few bar stools in the hotel lobby bar and watched the first of three beatings the Phillies would provide to the Giants. There were $2 Heinekens for all of August, which caused us to consider staying there for my entire trip. For my uncle’s sake, I clapped quietly as Cliff Lee mowed down batter after batter, since he had turned his allegiance to last year’s World Champions many years ago. I asked him about his decision to give up on Philadelphia sports and if there was a specific turning point that caused it, and he simply explained that this is where he lives, seemingly abandoning the notion of roots altogether. I was reminded of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley where he encounters a family of drifters who live in an RV community, and the father of one family attempts to dissuade Steinbeck entirely of the notion of roots in America, being a nation of immigrants. To me this has always been an East Coast mentality and ideal, the idea that it matters exactly what state, county, township, neighborhood, and sometimes parish, you grew up in. To my Uncle Jim, and so many other West Coasters, it is much simpler. You are where you live, which is an entirely American attitude in its own right, permitting the opportunity of change and the ability of reinvention whenever the mood should strike.
The next day started with an incredible breakfast, supposedly Neoclassical, after a short bus ride on the number 19 up Polk Street. Biscuits and sausage patties and fresh squeezed orange juice and eggs over easy. My uncle said he would come to this place sometimes twice a week and after the hearty breakfast, I could tell why. We talked about sports and politics and life in San Fran and enjoyed extra cups of coffee. The couple next to us started up small talk asking me about last night’s Giants and Phils game. I kept it polite while explaining how the Phils had shut the Giants out behind Cliff Lee’s fifth complete game of the year. The conversation started because I was wearing my Phillies hat, and I encountered this amicable interaction many more times on my trip. There was a genuine passion that existed amongst the Giants’ fans, but not the same manner of intense fanaticism that one finds in Philadelphia and New York and Chicago. In America we identify so much of ourselves by our hometown teams and project so much of our identities through their success or failure. As I walked around in my Phils’ gear, it was easy to feel confident and even arrogant as they were on their way to their best road record in the team’s history, going 9-1. At the same time, there was an air of dejection amongst many of the San Fran faithful; however, they still maintained a genial demeanor even as their team was slowly slipping from first place in their division.
The rest of the day I was on my own, huffing it on foot. I wandered down to San Fran’s ultimate tourist trap at Fisherman’s Wharf. Whole buses of people, equipped with cameras and lots of money to spend, idled along through the maze of small shops, seafood restaurants and other attractions. It was a beautiful day out, rendering my recently purchased hoodie unnecessary. It was less than 48 hrs. after the debt ceiling agreement was completed, and while many Americans were certainly breathing a sigh of relief that we hadn’t defaulted on our debt and others were cursing the lack of leadership amongst our leaders, it didn’t show down on the Wharf. People laughed and pointed and simply went about their days, enjoying the scenery and spending their money. While the cynic in me wanted to acknowledge this tourist revelry as a sign of America’s troubled ignorance and apathy to serious growing crises, I also sensed that the people were well aware of these problems, but also realized they couldn’t do anything about it and decided to just keep moving on with their lives. There’s a subtle line between American ignorance and resilience, but in San Francisco I was content to believe it was far more the latter than the former, which I believe bodes well for our future.