S.F. Tour II

We packed so much into Friday that I’m going to write about it over two days, otherwise this entry will become a book.

Kathryn had some chores to do in the morning, so Ash took Anna and me on a second tour of San Francisco. This one was far more satisfying because he’s lived in the area for years and supported himself through grad school by driving a cab, so he knows all the ins and outs, and the ups and downs, of which there were many. We drove in over the Bay bridge and exited at the Embarcadero, probably the only wide, flat stretch of road in the entire city. Anna and I had walked along a bit of it on our previous trip, but this time we could really see the majestic sweep of this reclaimed stretch of real estate.

We wound our way to Lombard Street. The photos don’t really do justice to the narrow switchbacks that define this little stretch of land, but the full-size Cadillac in front of us had to keep its wheel in perpetual motion to get the back end of the car around the turn before the front end started on the next bit. The whole business was even more hairy because of the flocks of pedestrians, tourists one and all, who stood in the road to take photos.

Throughout the drive we were climbing and diving on the hilly streets. Ash said he had driven a VW bus around the city for a long time. I said, “With a standard transmission?” He said, “Yeah, I went through a few clutches.” I guess so. For a truly hilarious experience, listen to the September 12 broadcast of Car Talk, in which Dan takes his wife’s CRV on a ride up Lombard Street.

I got vertigo a couple of times when we parked on the crest of a hill. It felt as though we would go hurtling into the bay, but Ash is a good driver and the Toyota had good brakes. Speaking of Vertigo, he showed us the place in the Hitchcock movie where Kim Novak winds up in the water beneath the Golden Gate bridge. We’d been driving in and out of fog, and here we were very much in it, so the distance views were obscured. The Pacific, however, showed its strength by crashing up against the rocks. (I neglected to mention that on Thursday we had driven near the town where Hitchcock filmed The Birds).

Film themes returned as we drove through the grounds of the Presidio, which is now a national park, and where Lucasfilm has its studios, right down the street from the new Walt Disney Family Museum. It’s terrific to see these old military buildings being put to use by businesses large and small, for profit and nonprofit. Would that the rest of the country could take a chapter from that book (or a frame from that movie.)

Continuing the film theme, we tried to park by the iconic Coit Tower to get out and look at the spectacular views. All the spaces were taken, and it didn’t look as though anyone was leaving. We also heard, but did not see, the parrots that live in the trees around the tower. Kathryn later told us the story of the parrots and Mark Bittner, the man who cared for them. He and his wife made a documentary of the story, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

Part way through the tour we changed from a film theme to a museum theme as we passed the Legion of Honor and the de Young. From my point of view the latter was the hit of Golden Gate Park. The Legion building feels imposing, almost intimidating, but de Young entices with its odd angles and combination of structural materials. I’d visit no matter what was on exhibit.

The weather had improved (or we had moved far enough from the water for the sun to shine through), but I was surprised at how few people were taking advantage of the open spaces and walking paths in the park. My next trip will most definitely include some time just sitting on a bench enjoying the beauty of the place.

From the park we drove to the Haight. The Universe was looking out for us as we found a parking place one space in from the corner of Haight and Ashbury. I went into the second hippie shop we found and bought souvenirs – a hat for Larry and a shot glass for my sister-in-law who collects them. For the rest of the day I kept getting whiffs of sandalwood incense from the hat. The place looked like it was trying to maintain its aura, but since the real estate values had hit the stratosphere and the place was packed with tourists, it was tough to really feel the counterculture.

It was getting on toward lunch at that point, and we arranged to meet Kathryn in the Mission (another neighborhood where Ash had lived). We ate at a taquería, munching on messy but delicious cheese quesadillas with salsa inside. I added some fierce green sauce to mine and washed it down with tamarind juice, the perfect thing to assuage thirst and cut the fire from the quesadilla.

We departed from San Francisco with a tour of Balmy Alley. This fascinating series of murals took me back to the Latin theme. I was struck once again by the beauty, violence, tragedy, and sheer power of these images. They, too, got mixed up with Like Water for Chocolate and Pan’s Labyrinth.

And with a surfeit of food and visuals, we headed south out of town.

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