Welcome to Fog City

Once every year or two I make it to some place so overwhelmingly fascinating that there isn’t enough time to transcribe all of my collected thoughts and feelings into any organised blog format. Last year I was completely blown away by my visit to South Tyrol and that never made it online. This April having found myself in San Francisco I pledged to try to carve out some lucid narratives from this immersive pea soup of a city.

Pea soup is a good place to start seeing that SF is referred to locally as “Fog City” on account of its routine morning envelopment in the clouds that roll across the bay. This moniker seemed apt even as my plane descended over the bay, although it was actually cloud cover that lent the effect of glowing circuit boards through a dry ice mist, like some opening sequence to a film in the Blade Runner genre.

San Francisco opening credits
San Francisco opening credits

Prior to my departure I realised that I was casually aware of more points of interest in this city than almost any other US city, perhaps barring New York – my only previous US destination. Here’s a list of things most people in a British high street might have heard about:

WordCloud

About how many other US cities can you name eight defining characteristics? This is a multidimensional city in the truest sense, and over the week I came to realise that these headlines barely scratch the surface. I’ll aim to share some of my experiences with you…

As a visitor the first thing that strikes you is the hills. Having studied in Sheffield I know what a hill looks like but SF seems to consist entirely of them and they can be crampon necessitatingly steep. It takes a stubborn insistence to persevere with the US grid system in such terrain but I’m glad they did because of the many fabulous viewpoints you get from hilltops down the plumb-line straight Romanesque roads.

All roads lead to Alcatraz
All roads lead to Alcatraz

Another side effect of “mountain living” is a local regulation that requires all parked cars to point their wheels into the curb, as a failed hand break here is going to end badly.

Hand brakes need a hand
Hand brakes need a hand

Not that there’s necessarily a need for a car here as there’s a pretty good public transport system within the city area at least. Aside from the regular bus and tram options there are three charming “Cable Car” routes whereby 100 year old wooden Street Cars are hauled along rails via a subterranean moving cable that the driver engages to or disengages from to effect movement. It’s astonishingly simple and effective.

Rules of engagement
Rules of engagement

Once a staple of public transport but now used mostly by tourists a trip on these venerable old timers is certain to plant a broad smile on your face.

The old ways are best
The old ways are best

The service started 140 years ago and it is remarkable to think that the United States didn’t exist 100 years prior to the opening of this line. Just as impressive is that the cars manage to ascend these inclines at all and what a pleasure to be able to stand on a running board with the wind in your hair as the car clangs it’s way from Union Square and on up toward Chinatown.

Springtime cherry blossom in Union Square
Springtime cherry blossom in Union Square

The sun is out in Union Square and so is the cherry blossom. This is the kind of urban escape that so attracts city workers, offering a space to unwind during a lunch break, meet friends, read a book or sit down with a coffee and watch the world go by. The clang of the street car bell is meant to alert pedestrians but I suspect locals consider it more a comforting anchor to the history of this resilient city – a soundtrack to San Francisco.

Welcome to Chinatown
Welcome to Chinatown

As the street car hauls itself up the hillside I know we are approaching Chinatown before the red lanterns come into view because there are strained strains of what turns out to be an old man attempting to play unsuitable western music on his Ehru stringed instrument. It’s charming for the first 3 seconds but he sticks at it. Even in the depths of the most awful tat shops selling alcatraz fridge magnets I can make out the refrains of Happy Birthday and (inexplicably in April) We wish you a merry Christmas. Then there’s a gunshot followed by silence. In my murderous head.

I'll give you a tip: Stop playing
The cat strangler of Chinatown

Chinatown is kind of what I expect, and highlights for me were the grotesquely tasteless furniture shops (glass table suspended on dolphins anyone?) and the elderly Chinese people chatting away in the street. The fruit and fish shops were a fascination also, although I remain mystified that a community can sustain so many self service laundries…

Kitty heaven
Kitty heaven

Onwards and upwards, the steep incline leads onto the North Beach district which has an altogether different feel. The area has packed in a lot of history. It once attracted leading figures from the beatnik generation including Jack Kerouac and though these times are long gone they are not forgotten. Many famous people have lived here including celebrity couple Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. Today it’s the strong Italian character that dominates although not in the same overtly tacky way I experienced in Manhattan three years ago.

A strong cultural identity
A strong cultural identity

The Italian community has been here for many generations and it’s just like any other pleasant neighbourhood except with cafes, restaurants and churches you might expect in the grandmother country.

St Peter and Paul catholic church
St Peter and Paul catholic church

The coffee houses and pizza outlets here are superior and numerous. They provide fuel for the final ascent up the now impossibly steep Filbert Street leading to Telegraph Hill. Here you can catch far reaching views between the trees to skyscrapers, endless blocks of low-rise, the bay bridges and – just about – Alcatraz. Atop the hill stands the iconic Coit Tower built in 1933, a lookout post funded by the remarkable Lillie Coit who left funds for the development in thanks to SF fire fighters.

Vying for attention, a hippy lady interspersing flute music with poetry reading in the vain attempt to connect to bemused tourists onlookers who weren’t really getting it. Sharing her astral plain nearby a bearded man tries to engage passers by in environmental discussion while wearing a cardboard tree secured to his head with a band. This side show makes for an entertaining departure and hints at an environmental subculture in these parts. It may also be a sign that light drug use has finally caught up with these two.

If you're going to San Francisco...
If you’re going to San Francisco…

A steep walk down the steps leading east of Telegraph Hill reveals an unexpected delight and perhaps the highlight of an already dazzling day. A tree shrouded corridor links the gardens of beautiful wooden hillside homes into a hidden kingdom of tranquillity, light years from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life. A local man encourages me to explore a small communal garden and as I sit on a bench amidst flowers interspersed with quirky ornamentation a cacophonous series of squawks herald the arrival of vivid green and red parrots. My, what a racket, but they are as beautiful and characterful as they are rumbustious.

House on the hillside
House on the hillside

I later learn that these are famous fellows, immortalised in Mark Bittner’s film “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”. This retrospective research also leads me to think that the man who welcomed me to this magic grotto was – Mark Bittner. And then – a sublime moment to cap it all. The parrots have departed leaving only the sound of wind in the trees and a shaft of warm sunlight beams generously through the treetops into my little world, where I am joined by the tiniest lightest hummingbird. It hovers for a few seconds, wings ablur, body stationary, as if pausing for thought, before darting off in pursuit of early afternoon nectar from the intensely perfumed orchids dotted around in the undergrowth. Did that just happen?

The Sky’s the limit

Hooray for the weekend! Is it really? Every day here has felt a little bit like a weekend and now it’s here for real. A quick pit stop at my 108th corner deli for tea, WiFi and fruit and I’m city bound.

Top Of The Rock is the name given to the observation desk atop the 80 year old Rockefeller centre on 5th Avenue. It is one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan at 70 floors and it is accredited with the best views over Central Park and Midtown. Nowadays it is best known to the average American because Saturday Night Live is filmed there. The lift journey takes 43 seconds and there is a light and sound show on the way that leaves me recoiling with flashbacks to Hollister (see yesterdays blog entry).

View north - Central Park
View north – Central Park
View south - midtown
View south – midtown

The views are commanding even with todays slight haze. It is a worthwhile trip but if I’m feeling a little underwhelmed it is because you are so high that it all seems unreal. Nothing is close enough to allow you to feel vertigo.

Bottom on the Top Of The Rock
Bottom on the Top Of The Rock

It’s the same “show” on the lift down which is a pity because it is begging for a Monty Burns voiceover: “Smithers, release the hounds. Throw these peasants off my property”. It does leave me with that churn them in, throw them out feeling although really they are just being efficient and everybody makes you feel welcome.

Fifth Avenue is closed to traffic for a street market and it’s unclear whether some thing is being celebrated or whether they do this every Saturday. It provides a pleasant enough stroll south if you don’t mind the developing sensation of walking through a cartoon chase sequence. It’s the same dozen stalls repeated ad-nauseam on each block.

Lunch in the cool green oasis of Bryant Park is regenerative. It provides a soothing contrast to the surrounding monolithic madness that can’t fail to capture your heart. Sure, you can still hear the traffic horns but you can also hear birds and the sound of water flowing from the park fountain. A carousel takes kids for a ride. Men play boules beneath the shade of the trees. It’s a magnet for anyone wanting to escape it all and prams, picnic rugs and newspapers set the tone here.

Lovely Bryant Park
Lovely Bryant Park

The park hosts numerous events throughout the year including outdoor cinema and fashion shows. I almost sit in a free chair next to a chain smoking middle aged woman. This would have been a mistake. The next guy comes along and sits there only to be subjected to her life story including tales of her monsterous husband, a guy I increasingly like the sound of. This is the time for that legendary NY rudeness. “Look lady, quit your jibber jabber. I couldn’t care less.” – is what I want to hear the guy say. Truthfully you can’t feel snappy in a place like this.

Relaxing in Bryant Park
Relaxing in Bryant Park

I’m leaving when I see a guy with a laptop and I ask them if there is wireless connectivity in the park. “Sure, I sometimes work from here”. Now that makes me jealous!

One hop to Union Square where by chance there is another market – a more organic affair than on 5th with produce for sale. It’s a smaller space than Bryant Park and there is less only a thin strip of threadbare grass but it’s a people magnet all the same. There’s a queue in the NE corner snaking into the newly opened Nordstrom outlet that’s been hyped on local TV this week. They sell branded items at discount prices – presumably end of ranges, awkward sizes and the clothes the designers regret cobbling together at the end of a long day when they weren’t really concentrating. Being English I am conditioned to join the queue.

Feeling a little edgy. Tired? Dietary pay back? It’s crowded everywhere, there are slow people in my way and I would like to be rude to them but can’t bring myself to do this. Time for a change of scene.

Earlier this week I visited the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park only to discover it was closed so I’m headed back now. It’s a C-list museum – small and inexpensive – so I don’t want to be too critical but it’s disappointing that it lacks narrative and engagement. You want to know the progressive history of high rise locally and globally, get insights into the iconic buildings, learn about the construction techniques and understand the cultural aspects of these mini-cities. A third of the display relates to buildings primarily based around Wall Street up to the mid 1900’s when the conurbation was growing and while this sets a social backdrop regarding conurbation growth and the drivers for supporting an increase in population density this isn’t really central to Skyscrapers, plus much of the material is dry and disjointed.

There are then some dated models and information panels regarding high-rise and skyscrapers which are more engaging but again it’s as if somebody has thrown together a bunch of material without any thought to structure or presentation. It’s still worth a visit if you are in the area and you do leave with a little more knowledge but it feels like an opportunity missed and this is clearly down to funding, plus the competition from a million and one other attractions here.

Battery Park outside Skyscraper Museum
Battery Park outside Skyscraper Museum

It is my last night, volcanic ash depending, and I can’t possible leave without visiting McSorleys. When I walked by one afternoon this week and looked through the window it was almost deserted but now it is packed. I ask the bar dude if it’s always like this in the evening and he says it’s relatively quiet. They serve just 2 types of beer – light & dark. It’s $5 for either and you get served 2 half pint glasses of ale with a liberal element of froth. CAMRA wouldn’t stand for that.

Tim and bar dude at McSorleys
Tim and bar dude at McSorleys

The dark ale is really fine stuff. This iconic pub has what amounts to a long and influential history in this city and I’m not going to attempt to do it justice here but if you google it there is a mountain of interesting information out there.

The street outside is closed for what turns out to be the 36th Ukranian Festival. I know this because a lady tells me her daughter is presently dancing on-stage. It’s a whole lot of community spirited fun with stalls selling wooden eggs, folk CDs and religious ephemera for the older generation – and there’s McSorleys for those a bit younger. I’m exaggerating a little. There’s a real sense of pride and tradition that spans all age groups – a glimpse of nostalgia for those who perhaps remember their former home and those who have just been told about it.

Ukraine folk dancing
Ukraine folk dancing

Now I’m confused. A guy is knocking out Robbie Williams “Let me entertain you” in Ukranian. There’s a girls duet that resemble the less hirsute members of ABBA but sound like the Venga Boys. It has all gone a bit Eurovision after a solid folky start to the music.

Ukranian ABBA
Ukranian ABBA

Hungry, but not in the mood for sauerkraut and dumplings. The away walk takes me back into Greenwich Village. I meet an interesting 60+ year old artist cum Forest Gump character called Rico Fonseca who tells me about his travels and bemoans that in 1965 he was kicked out of the UK when he tried to visit. He has many tales to tell and I’m sure he does tell them many times, with more than a dash of fiction most probaby.

Oh bugger, I’m back in my now-regular MacDougal street basement bar a couple of blocks away. How did that happen? I explain to Maria behind the bar that I’m not stalking her but I like the bar and I was genuinely in the area. She is a great ambassador for New York City. She hails from Russia, looks Asian, has a Spanish name and a native New York accent. We need more like her, if only to confuse the BNP.

Once again the bar delivers. Manhattanite Liz and best friend Eileen from New Jersey are funny and insightful company. Liz likes Mighty Boosh is overjoyed to find somebody else who has heard of them or understands them.

Liz, Eileen and seedy guy
Liz, Eileen and seedy guy

Then in a truly surreal turn of events a promotional guy (this time nicotine) tells me he spent 3 years living in Nottingham and used to work at the Old Salutation Inn and World Service restaurant – the former 50 yards from where I work and the latter physically adjoining my office. This bar has mystic powers.

Something has been bothering me this week. I couldn’t put my finger on it but now I might have it. People are so damn “nice”. I’m not complaining. I have met some wonderful genuine people (in this bar for instance), but where is the dissent? Where is the rebellious attitude? There is plenty of graffiti in the gents here for instance and much of it is amusing but none of it stems from reaction.

American Grafitti
American Grafitti

There is little inarticulate (or articulate) rage or mindless vandalism on display here or many places I have been. Look, I’m not trying to get knifed or share a needle with anybody but I would feel more secure if I felt a bit more insecure. I want to know that young people in a University district in a non-republican city are not swallowing what the media and society constantly ram down their throats. I get the feeling that many students here have had it all lined up for them – the career path, job at the end of it, social groups and expectations. After a few drinks when people are out talking in groups there is no shortage of insincerity on show on the streets. People should be talking about music, criticising local or world authorities, but there’s an awful lot of social posturing going on – carefully chosen words and manipulation of self image. Maybe that’s just how it looks here and now but I can only say what I see.

On the plus side the subway smells of piss. I congratulate the (presumably) gentleman who got away (or not) with this act in a busy public place. To further restore my faith in human nature the D-train serves up a girl with pierced everything, luminous green and black outfit plus six inch (I’m serious) platform shoes. She doesn’t care what the world thinks and so the balance of things is restored a little.