The Old Heart of San Francisco

The fog in San Francisco is named Karl.  Karl has his own Twitter account and LinkedIn profile.  He’s famous here, shrouding the iconic Golden Gate ‘til it’s lost in the clouds, causing the sky to glow in the evenings.  City lights trapped in the haze.

Even during mid summer, fog blowing in from the marine layer in the Pacific cools the city to an average 65 degrees during the day.  It’s never too hot and never too cold, with lows in January around 45 and highs in August around 70.  A friend living in San Francisco described the weather as “Should I take a hoodie today?  Hmmmm, I dunno.  And it’s like that every. day.”

The west coast is comprised of transients.  East-coasters and midwesterners who wake up one morning, look at a map and say “today’s the day”.  This can be said of Washington and Oregon as well, but those areas tend to collect the outdoors oriented.  Those seeking lush forests and mountains to climb up, up, up.  California grabs the dreamers.  Southern California claims those with glossy magazines in their hands and sandy beaches in their eyes, while the north calls the would-have-been-hippies.  Those that want the houses near them to be candy coated in color.  That actually desire a city that curls up in fog during the evenings and is released at daybreak.  Born again everyday.

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Zara must be the most beloved human on the block.  She runs Cafe International in the Lower Haight, right on Haight Street.  As we’re sitting on the back patio covered in murals and potted plants, she points up towards the bella donna flowers draping over us.  She tells us how in the 70’s hippies would steal the buds since the plant’s flowers are hallucinogenic.  With a cigarette moving between her gesturing fingers she speaks in an accent (Ethiopian?) about kicking The Grateful Dead out of her cafe.  “It damages the plant, you know?  And I love that plant”.  I don’t think I love anything in the city as much as this woman.

On weekends the cafe hosts an open mic night.  The MC for the event is a guy wearing suspenders, circular glasses, and a hat with an actual feather in it.  16-year-old-me would have swooned terribly.  He introduces upcoming acts through a mixture of rapping, old-timey radio announcing, and inaudible signaling.  A long haired man in skinny jeans holding a violin and a gorgeous curly haired gent clutching a notebook take the floor.  The violinist begins striking strings violently.  His instrument screeches while his friend yells over the chords “My lover tastes like sunrise, I lick and lick but am still hungry.  Her nipples like two demanding goddesses.  Her ass like a firm plum”.  I can’t tell if they’re serious, but it’s so entertaining I’d spend every Friday at this place if I lived here.  As all this is going down I sip an iced coffee with handgun shaped ice cubes, and a Lagunitas IPA.  Zara’s taking orders nearby, calling everyone sweetie and doll.

A Tarantino character serves us at The Saloon.  White, disheveled hair hangs limply down to his shoulders, and his denim shirt is unbuttoned halfway down the chest.  There’s no way he’s shy of 60.  Using few words, he takes our order, plunks three bottles of beer onto the wooden bar for us, and walks away without another word.

The only other bar patrons are a midget and two women on crutches.  This is not a lie.  This is a bar that has been in constant operation since 1861.  That survived debilitating earthquakes and the great fire of 1906 because according to Wikipedia, “Historians have commented that establishments which housed or served alcohol seemed to get preferential support from firefighters.”  Where shanghaiing took place, a common practice at the turn of the century where drunken men would be kidnapped and sold as sailors.  After a man signed on board a ship, it was illegal to leave before the voyage ended.  So get a man intoxicated, forge his signature on the sailing documents, deliver him to the ship, and collect your finders fee.

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Not much bar revamping has taken place here within the last hundred years.  The space consists of a wooden floor, a wooden bar, a few wooden tables, and lots of booze.  A makeshift stage is against the wall; it’s a ducttaped piece of plywood propped up by a few plastic crates.  Two forty-something year old men are perched atop, playing Neil Young songs on their guitars with shit-eating-grins on their faces.  Throughout the night they mixed it up by playing a bit of Steppenwolf and the Stones, while the dwarf nearby stomped enthusiastically on the floorboards, and even twirled his crutch-wielding friends.  It was one of those evenings that you just want to encase in a snowglobe.  So surreal, so lovely, and something you can never come back to.

The duo’s last song was dedicated to our party of three young girls.  We were hearty clappers and sat directly in front of the band so we were pretty hard to miss.  Nodding at us they said they’d play something newer for the youngins in the bar.  The result?  “Losing My Religion” by REM.  As soon as they began playing, I knew I’d never disassociate that song with this moment.

In my snowglobe universe there is a dwarf that just twirls and twirls, two pairs of boots stomping in unison on dusty floorboards, and a light snow that falls on everyone’s shoulders.  I am Holden Caulfield, and somehow a dirty bar became my Natural History Museum.

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While the oldest bar in the city is The Saloon, the oldest standing structure is San Francisco’s Mission Dolores.  Established in 1776 by two men charged with bringing Spanish settlers into California, the mission was named after a nearby creek Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, which translates to “Our lady of sorrows”.

DSC_5451It’s the week of Dia de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, and an altar has been created in the basilica.  These ofrendas welcome spirits, and the marigolds I see resting on images of the departed are said to attract souls to the offering.  Colorful paper flags are hung next to the cross that Jesus is being crucified on, candles flicker, and skulls are placed throughout.  In American culture we wear black and weep in front of granite slabs as a way to honor the dead.  This holiday involves picnicking on the graves of those gone.  A way to share candied pumpkin with a loved one on the day their spirit is able to return to earth.  The holiday takes place on October 31st, the same day as Halloween in the US.  A day for telling ghost stories and fearing the dead who return.  Dia de Los Muertos is about throwing a fantastic party to welcome them.

As I’m visiting the sun is beginning to descend, and light through stained glass windows is casting the altar in a red glow.  Orange marigolds turn burgundy and frames containing images of the deceased are a molten gold.

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Outside, cofounder of the Mission Father Junipero Serra’s statue rests in the cemetery center.  He’s mid-stride, head downcast, eyes shut in deep contemplation.  Near his ever shuffling feet apple cores litter the ground.  The age of this place shows as tree branches weave around graves, trying to coexist with the dead.

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During the Summer of Love hippies swarmed to San Francisco, lured by drugs and music towards Haight Ashbury, the epicenter for the hippie subculture.  These days there’s not much to see on Haight.  Bars and retail shops fill the streets, as do homeless, and restless twenty somethings with Jefferson Airplane playing in their heads.  They sleep in huddled groups underneath awnings.

While grabbing pizza around 10:00pm, a young man wearing a faded canvas jacket adorned with patches ordered a slice.   As he waited for his order he took a large pile of napkins and cleaned his armpits in a corner, overlooked by Jim Morrison and The Grateful Dead whose concert posters lined the parlor walls.  Hobson’s Choice a few doors down sells cocktails by the punchbowl.  Your choice of tropical mango or blue hawaiian flavors.  As we worked on our “medium” sized bowl a man outside attempted to clean a row of newspaper dispensers.  He worked over and over the plastic with a rag, trying to clean their irreparably scuffed surfaces.

Walking through Golden Gate park you’re bound to be approached.  Not just in the usual “hey gorgeous” or “smile for me, girl” kinda way, but faint as a whisper you hear “green, green, green”, “bud, bud, bud”, “hash, hash, hash”.  It’s like Jerry Garcia’s lullaby.  If it’s not being sold it’s being smoked, and the air smells like sea breeze and weed.   Massive eucalyptus trees nearby shed their skin in multicolored layers, bark pooling in shards underneath the trunks.

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Despite a bedroom in a shared apartment costing upwards of 2,000.00, no matter the neighborhood you’re in, the streets of San Francisco are littered with trash.  Albeit interesting trash.  I stumbled across a mountain of vintage National Geographics from the 60’s and 70’s, pairs of shoes that lay in gutters, and Harry Potter hiding in bushes.  A friend of mine showed up to a bar holding copies of “The God of Small Things” and “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” which he found in a gutter a few blocks away.  I left the city days later with a book on Venice in my carry-on, a gift from the cement.

In Clarion Alley I’m called a saint.  Between Mission and Valencia nests a street covered in murals.  As I’m walking I hear a painter yelling at a college girl who’s walking away hastily.  “You can’t just steal someone’s image like that!  Pictures of me are $2.00 you bitch!”.  Five minutes ago the screaming man told me that the only way to keep Clarion alley alive was by giving him money, so I’m not feeling too much sympathy for him right now.

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I stroll through the alley then back again.  It is only one block, but it’s so much to absorb.  Two men are chain-smoking on a curb, they’re both somewhere between 45-70 years old.  Since I’m doing nothing of importance (taking pictures of my coffee with the sidewalk chalk at this point) one of the men comes up to chat.  He’s holding a cigarette which has gone out some time ago, and doesn’t let go of it for the duration of our talk.  He opens with:

“My friend and I were wondering what part of New York you’re from, cause you’re obviously not from around here.”

He asks if I like jazz.  Do I know the bar Elbow Room just around the corner?  His friend always played there.  Dead now, but was one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.  Speaking of friends, do I know of Ken Kesey?  Ya know, the writer?  They used to hang out around here all the time.  Back before the city went to hell.  Ya know who I look like?  This musician from this great 90’s band.  Starts with the word “The”.  He’ll think of it later.   Do I wanna hear a song?  He’s in a band that’s moving to Eugene, Oregon next week and here’s the lyrics to one of their songs…

This went on for some time, then suddenly I was late to meet my boyfriend a few blocks away.  I didn’t want to leave, this guy was getting into such a rhythm I felt it would pain him to break it.  But I did leave.  During a brief pause somewhere between him hanging with Timothy Leary and him being a professional fly fisher in Maine, I stuck out my hand, saying it was great to meet him, but that I needed to be somewhere.

Scott.  “My name is Scott” he says as we shake, “just so ya know”.  “Gracie”, I offer back. “Gracie”.  He mulled on that for a second while we walked out of the alley onto the street. “Gracie you’re the most beautiful girl in the world”.  Then he turned the corner and I turned another.   The cigarette still clutched between his fingers.

I doubt there’s a band, but I really really want there to be.  Because if there is, I bet he’s the most beautiful singer in the world.

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34 Comments

  1. Everyday Voices

    Reblogged this on Everyday Voices and commented:
    San Francisco is one of my favorite cities. This is a wonderful tribute to the old, pre-gentrified San Francisco. San Francisco is like its own country unto California, perched atop the hills peering out of the Bay, where everyone tries to coexist in this exorbitantly expensive city. It can be the most beautiful place on earth and the most downtrodden. There’s nothing like taking a hike up to the Presidio every morning to see ships passing by in the fog. It is a small city but contains the best pizza, chowder soup, seafood, Chinese food, curries and everything. It’s a city that tries to be kind to its inhabitants despite the sky high rents, everyone coexisting in this beautiful city the best they can.

    Like

      1. Everyday Voices

        As with most great cities in this country or around the world even, it’s a contradiction of everything. Wealth and poverty, happy and downtrodden, good and bad, all coexisting together trying to do this thing call life. I love your post. It was beautiful.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. worldpress196

    Thank you it’s fascinating and it’s the first time I discover San Fransisco with a completely different point of view . I want so much to go there , maybe next summer as my wonderful sister in low lives in Big Sur, she’s a great painter too.
    From Paris good buy ……

    Like

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