Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane has died at 74. I remember visiting a friend in San Francisco back in ’01 and going to Vesuvio’s for a beer as I worked my way around North Beach. Lo and behold, there was Paul Kantner at the bar, just a few chairs over from me.
Day 13: “Do you know the way to San Jose?”
San Francisco – The Mystery Spot – Carmel
So a sad morning dawned – it was time to leave the Bay Area and head south. I wish I had more time here – I missed some friends, though I suspected I would’ve anyway, and I hadn’t quite the time to really sink back into the rhythm of the place, but who knows: maybe the moment had passed anyway. Still, I can’t say that I packed up without a slight sense of melancholy.
We did have one last thing to do, though: the cable car. You will have seen it on TV, in the movies, and most likely in every photo of San Francisco you’ve seen. Hell, Tony Bennett even sings about them in one of his best songs; the one memorable scene from Metro has a cable car, and overall, it just says SF.
Anyhoo, we showed up early; having been on the car many a time before, I nearly gave it a miss to catch up on some z’s, but thankfully I realized that was a fucking stupid thing to do and got up. It’s easier when you’re not particular about hygiene. Showerless at 8:30, we hit the Powell Street station.
The cable cars are awesome; you get to see a lot of the city, and you won’t suffer weary calfs. We got seats facing out, which was perfect, except for the family who suddenly appeared and jumped the handles to block the otherwise wonderful view. Now, I must say it was temping to give mom a nudge and see her scraped off on some truck, leaving me with an undiminished view of the city (and I should add that she really brought the experience down), but I am too decent for such things. Thus, I merely spent the ride hoping she would fall off or get mauled somehow, but rest assured, gentle reader: Nothing bad happened, but still…a guy can dream, right?
Anyway, we left the Bay and headed southwards. I misread the map and we ended up in suburban Palo Alto; I think Steve Jobs lives in the area; we then made our way past Cupertino where Apple’s impregnable fortress in located at One Infinite Loop. I nearly asked Stig do take the exit, but came to my senses.
Our first stop, therefore, was the Mystery Spot just outside Santa Cruz, another place I’d been to prior. Nearly 21 years earlier, actually. It’s notorious for doing weird things to your senses, like messing with your equilibrium, making you grow or shrink, and generally seeming to have a uncommitted relationship to the laws of physics. It’s difficult to explain; different stories have it that it’s some sort of magnetic pole, or that there’s an alien spaceship buried there and my favorite, that it’s all a mass hallucination. There’s a cabin built on the precise Mystery Spot, and it’s all weird angles and messed-up planes. You can’t quite find your balance in any way that makes sense, and you get dizzy pretty quickly. Maybe it’s a trick, but it’s still wonderfully done. I approached it from the sceptic’s point of view, but damned if I saw the seams.
We got the full tour, replete with terrible jokes from the tour guide, who looked like a scrawnier Shia Le Boeuf. I was alarmed to be surrounded by Frenchmen, but…oh, I can’t be bothered to make a joke here. Anyway, everything worked as announced and it was great fun.
After that, it was an easy ride down to Carmel-by-the-Sea. Clint Eastwood used to be the mayor of this little burgh. As a kid, I had a t-shirt with Clint in full Dirt Harry mode that said “don’t litter, punk” or words to that effect. Street signs are scarce in Carmel, so thank god for GPS. There wasn’t that much to do, so we ended up watching the Home Derby in New York (Josh Hamilton knocked that shit on its ass.), then went to see “Hancock”. It was a mellow way to end the day, but I have to admit that the Mystery Spot had been trippy enough.
Day 11: “High on a hill, it calls my name”
(DISCLAIMER: There are few photos from the days in San Francisco. I have already photographed everything multiple times, and decided to give my back a rest. So sue me.)
Following a night of some revelry, the wise choice seemed to be to sleep in, but traffic is traffic, so I was forced to give up around nine, which led to some writing. Man, I do love traveling with a laptop.
After Stig woke up, we dragged ourselves over to Columbus Avenue. I had a hankering to go to City Lights Books. Last time I was in the store, I was up in the Beat section looking at the literature, when the door to the back room opened and Lawrence Ferlinghetti walked out. He gave me a distracted look and was gone. It wasn’t exactly a rock n’ roll moment, but still. For a beat entusiast, it was pretty grand as far as such things go. Anyway, coming here is just as much a force of habit as anything else, but I really like this place. The basement contains a ridiculous amount of both porn and conspiracy theories, for example. How can you not love it?
After that, I dropped by the candy store further up on Columbus to buy some saltwater taffies.
Anyway, as my shopping needs were taken care of for the moment, we headed over to Coit Tower. The tower, which doesn’t look phallic at all, na-hah, provides a great view of the city, although you first need to get up there, which is quite a trek in the heat, and even more so with a bum foot. Halfway up, I realized why I was in such good shape five years ago.
We cut back across after that, climbing up Lombard Street. You know, the really crooked one you always see in the movies? There was a ridiculous amount of tourists there and everyone were taking pictures.
After that we headed down Hyde Street, which was a strain on my ankles. The Norwegian Seamen’s church is here as well, overlooking the Bay. I can’t imagine how much this piece of real estate costs. We headed in, just to look at the view from the patio. I thought back, remembering waffles and lemonade on the patio on many occasions.
The Wharf by day is still a tourist trap. The Bush guy was still here, scaring tourists witless as they pass by. The sea lions had taken a summer vacation, it seemed. The Wharf was milling with tourists buying stuff, jamming the cafés and stores, and after the open expanses of the road so far on the trip, I started feeling vaguely claustrophobic. After Stig finally got his clam chowder, we fled back to the hotel and chilled out. It was Saturday, though, but we weren’t up for more heavy drinking, so we decided to catch a movie instead.
Since I hadn’t been in San Francisco for four years, I think I did reasonably well navigating from memory – my compass seemed fairly intact as well – but every now and then, I mess up. Like now, for example. On our quest to go to the movie theater to catch the indubitably awesome Hellboy II: The Golden Army (SPOILER: it wasn’t that awesome), I forgot to take into account that we’d moved a few streets down from where we were supposed to start out from. This meant that we had a nice stroll trough the Tenderloin after dark, which isn’t an entirely wonderful experience.
I’m not sure how dangerous it’s supposed to be there (I’ve heard it’s pretty safe), but being surrounded by addicts, hookers and throngs of shifty-looking dudes sizing you up may not be your idea of a good time. I do know that there are tons of people living there who have no problems, and given the amount of bars there, you know the area is better than its rep. Still, it can feel hostile, so you tend to walk faster than normal, especially when the guy with the crazy eyes sizes you up and starts ranting about fuckstoked butterfly gub’mint spooks.
The way back from the movie was less scuzzy, although the ladies (and boys) of the night were somewhat more prominent than I remember them being.
Day 10: “You’re gonna meet some gentle people there”
San Francisco was always a place for the mystics, it seems, and so you have the Beat trail, and of course the hippie trail to visit. And that trail takes you to the Haight-Ashbury area. We got on the bus at Market and watched the Tenderloin wreckage with great curiosity and some sadness. I keep wondering whether or not there are more homeless people around than there used to be when I lived here. Perhaps I’d gotten more used to it back then, but I don’t think so. It’s sad either way.
We decided to go to Golden Gate Park first, then walk back some blocks on Haight. Some other tourists, all the built like brick shithouses, asked me how many more stops there was to Haight-Ashbury. I told them we just passed it. They all ran off the bus, but the bus driver shouted “You’re not there yet!” and they got back on, sending me dirty looks. “Better not get off at the same stop as them,” said Stig. I concurred, and we ended up waiting until they exited the bus.
Luckily, it was out stop anyway, so no harm done. “You know, I didn’t lie – we did pass Haight-Ashbury back there,” I said. “Yeah, but do you think they’ll believe it?” replied Stig. Fair enough.
Golden Gate Park is humungous, but the first part seems unappetizing thanks to all the hippies and derelicts milling around. Neither of us are in the market for pot, but that doesn’t stop every peddler in the park from asking if we want to buy. We didn’t go too far in. There’s much to see in the park, if you’re of the horticultural bent, but for us, the head shops on Haight were more tempting, so we slinked back out of the park and headed for said shops.
Amoeba Records is pretty great, if you’re old-fashioned enough to enjoy scouring through rack upon rack of CDs looking for a good bargain or just some random CD you want. I was only supposed to look for some Jellyfish material, but ended up with a whole bunch of other stuff instead. But hey, why the hell not? You kids with your fancy Internet connections and iPhones and broadband and torrents just don’t know what you’re missing, mark my words. (Now get the hell off my damn lawn.)
I never thought I’d buy a Grateful Dead t-shirt, but I did. It’s really cool, to be honest. But no way did I think I’d ever buy a Grateful Dead t-shirt.
We decided to forego searching for the houses where Charles Manson, the Dead and Janis Joplin lived (not all at once, people – three different houses). As I told Stig I’d been there before and that they’re just regular houses. Somewhere I have a stack of photos of them. In hindsight, they weren’t worth all the bother of finding and photographing, nor the expense of having them developed. (You kids with your fancy digital cameras – back in my day, we used film that had to be developed with chemicals…now get the hell off my damn lawn!) Instead, we headed for Alamo Square and the painted ladies.
Now, the painted ladies, for those who might wonder, are not hookers (see day 8), or not anymore, at any rate. We’re talking about a row of loverly Victorian houses all lined up in a row. Well, not quite. The painted ladies is a term referring to any of the Victorian house in SF painted in bright colors, but the ones on Steiner Street by Alamo Square are the really famous ones; in the 80’s, these were whored out to the opening credits on the horrible show “Full House” (yes, I’ve seen most episodes, as far as I’m aware.)
Later on, we hit Vesuvio’s once again, to see some of my old friends, then larged it up a bit at the Bubble Lounge, where we met up with Stig’s cousin and some friends of hers.
Day 9: “Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”
Napa / San Francisco / Alcatraz
I have to tell you: Sonora was OK, but the next bit was, at least for me, what I most looked forward to. The adventure part of out trip was pretty much over by now, and from here on out, we would cruise southwards on the coast, ogling surfer girls and maybe exposing our white, pasty bodies to an indifferent world. Though probably not in the Bay Area.
First stop, though, was Napa Valley. We decided to drive via Napa just to take a look; I pushed for the Artesa winery, which really is a gorgeous structure. It’s quite distinctive, literally built into the hillside, organically incorporated into the scenery. The wine is probably good too, but I don’t know enough about the stuff to tell you.
We arrived, and Stig was duly impressed with the scenery. Artesa also has a fantastic view of the surrounding area, and it feels a bit like standing in the future looking at old, venerable French wineries. Of course, it’s a pretty young industry in these parts, but they have the idyllic part down pat. As we entered, we were greeted by a gorgeous Russian girl who told us where the tasting was, and also that there would be a tour soon. “Cool,” we said. The inside looks like a cross between a swanky bar and an art gallery. Most other wineries go for a faux rural-Europe look, but Artesa takes it to the other side of the spectrum. And then some.
The last time I was here, I have to admit that the wine-tasting was my least favorite part. I don’t remember the other wineries we went to, but I do remember I didn’t quite care for the wines at Artesa, no matter how gorgeous the architecture. Still, I am older and wiser, and at the very least I’ve seen the bottom of far more wine bottles by now than I had then, so I decided that I must try. Stig had declined, preferring to drive. I was prepared to take over, but he was adamant. (I’m starting to suspect he doesn’t like being the passenger. Works for me, though.) I stepped up to the bar and asked for the different tastings. A very beautiful girl behind the counter gave me a quick rundown of the various sample menus. I went for the basic menu, because it appealed to my simple and unrefined sensibilities, and it was also the cheapest.
The girl gave me a quick explanation of the wine’s “personality” between glasses. I took my time with the wine and observed her. I felt like a creep, unwashed and unshaven, in a skanky t-shirt and shorts, but what can you do? I said to Stig “Man, she should have been in the bar last night. I so would have gone for her.” I paused, then continued: “Who am I kidding. I’d never have the nerve.” “No,” concurred Stig, “you wouldn’t”.
We decided to drop the tour and head for one more winery. So we left Artesa and headed for Calistoga for lunch and maybe another tasting. There was some confusion when Stig plotted in the address on the GPS and we ended up on Calistoga Avenue in Napa City instead of Calistoga. Stig, when I pointed out the discrepancy: “Fuck. OK, let’s haul ass for San Francisco instead.”
We headed for Fog City (I hadn’t told him this nickname for San Francisco yet) and were going to come right across the Golden Gate. Stig was pretty excited, as was I. The Golden Gate is one of the most recognizable pieces of architecture in the world, and it looks beautiful as it rests over the Bay. The view isn’t bad either, and if we were really lucky, we’d see a jumper. I wasn’t holding my breath, though.
But back to Fog City, because it certainly lived up to its name that day. “How far to the bridge?” asked Stig. “I think we just drove onto it,” I replied and pointed to the pillars that were suddenly on both sides of us. It was one of those days. You couldn’t even see the top of the bridge, it just faded into a grey void. “You’re kidding, right?” said Stig in exasperation, “I thought I’d at least get to see the damn thing!”
As we drove into San Francisco, the fog started to clear, and most of it was soon gone, though it was still overcast, that slate grey San Francisco sky hovering above. I was utterly delighted. We also had fun driving – I had forgotten all about how you can’t make right turns, so you have to make three left turns and so on. We missed the hotel twice, though to be fair, the second time around, we just couldn’t find it.
The hotel was spartan, with one of the oldest elevators I’ve ever ridden in. We decided to take the stairs for the rest of our stay, as neither one fancied getting stuck between floors in that ancient contraption (which would still be preferable to plunging to our deaths, but still)
We headed over to the Fisherman’s Wharf, which is a nightmare, but that’s where the Alcatraz ferry is. We were on the Alcatraz night tour. I’ve been to Alcatraz a few times before. It’s great fun, to be honest, but this would be a new experience.
Everybody knows something about Alcatraz; movies like Birdman of Alcatraz, Ecape from Alcatraz and Michael Bay’s greatest moment of pyrotechnical glory, The Rock (which also features a geographically impossible car chase) have used it to great effect, though one doesn’t need to seek out fiction to enjoy the fantastic history of the place. While it’s most known far its tenure as a prison, it has been a military base, and it was occupied by native americans in the 60’s (they offered to sell it back to San Francisco for some beads, apparently.)
These days, it’s just a tourist attraction, and all the focus is on its prison days. Of course, this is the most fun part, so go with it, I say. You get to walk around the cell blocks with an audio aid on your head. The tour is narrated by some of the old guards and the odd prisoner or two. They’re great fun to listen to, and it’s probably the best production of its kind that I’ve come across. “Now, you will find yourself at such-and-such place,” goes the narrator on the tape. “Walk towards cell number 107 and TURN LEFT!” And you do it. These guys aren’t fucking around. It adds to the already oppressive ambience of the place, but it also shows why these guys were picked to be guards there.
It’s a good tour, no doubt about it. It also has the added benefit of a great view of the city from the ferry. It was even better at night, the pretty San Francisco skyline all lit up, the Bay Bridge to port, the Golden Gate to starboard. (That would be left and right, incidentally)
Back on the mainland, we found a restaurant that was still open, and I enjoyed fish n’ chips while Stig went a bit further and ordered a seafood platter, and I was somewhat agog as he was served what appeared to be a troth of clams and other maritime morsels. After that, we walked back to the hotel via Columbus Avenue. I was surprised to see it was nearly dead; it was always hopping, or so I thought. Still, it was a thursday, and after eleven, but come on. Still, the Mission was too far away, so we stopped by Vesuvio’s for a pint of beer, then headed back to the hotel to rest up after a long day.
(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love & Understanding
A great thing about the current protests is the recycled nature of it all: with even the presidency being second-generation, there’s not even any need to make new signs. Just grab the ones you have lying around from 12 years ago and you’re good to go.
The train ride was chaotic; there was no actual need to get a ticket at Ashby, as the kind people of BART had, by necessity, simply opened the turnstiles to let the torrent of rekindled political activism flow through. But I bought a BART card before I knew that, so I enjoyed waiting in the ticket line while a black man was screaming threats into the pay phone: “I hadda gun, I kill you, muhfuga! See, I’m a playa, knowusmayin’, muhfuga?” etc. Then he made some remark about “a bomb in his backpack” and all of us in the line pissed ourselves. Welcome to the New Year, same as the old year. No bomb went off, of course, but the sudden, irrational bout of fear brought on by your average whacked-out street bozo made me realize that it’s getting more and more difficult to embrace weary cynicism, roll your eyes and complain about the crazy world.
I brought my camera and freely admit that I went more for the spectacle of a genuine San Francisco protest rally than to make some deep-seated political statement. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the rally and I think it’s brilliant that there are still people who believe in letting their voices be heard. That, however, is not about to stop me poking fun at them. So lock up your Birkenstocks and hide your macrobiotic foodstuffs!
The Embarcadero was awash with protesters. You could hear the drums and shouting from the subway. None of the people from the Ashby station had passes, as we had all just walked through. The BART personnel had only to hear “Ashby” in order to wave you through nonchalantly. They looked at the gaggle of placard-carrying protesters, commuters caught in the rush and the curious onlookers like myself with a weary melancholy. Alas, so many unsold tickets. Yet, what a meager price to pay to sponsor the dulcet ring of Vox Populi, eh?
You have to love the city of San Francisco. The liberal bastion of the West Coast, and arguably the entire nation, there is always something going on in this place. But on this glorious d
ay, even the beggars had switched their usual signs asking for spare change to peace signs. One bum I passed was busy being interviewed by a camera crew, patiently explaining the difficulties of the current situation as it pertained to the interests of the US and the world at large, given the negative curve of the economic climate and the subsequent re-emerging Reaganism.
Now, I’d have like to have seen this place in the sixties, when there were real protests going on. Berkeley, for example, still prides itself on being a hotbed of radicalism, though its glory days are long since gone. The fact that there is a Gap store on Telegraph that hasn’t been graffiti’d, much less torched, proves that quite abundantly. What greeted me was a mass of people, but orderly, cheerful and far too clean to be any real fun. No chances of things getting out of control, then. As it turned out, the real trouble would take place the next day, when the Oakland Raiders made it to the Superbowl and, by way of celebration, the supporters decided to riot and commit arson. As you do.
I remember going to Paris in high school, as you do; I somehow wandered right into one of those student protests that the French do so well and seem to do whenever they run out of McDonalds’ to trash. You couldn’t tell before you were on the actual street. But all of a sudden, I was sandwiched between French riot police (the average French Officer Plod is bad enough; the Riot police are rumored to shave their teeth) and angry French students. Or maybe they were lorry drivers. Or farmers. Anyway, three guys on rollerblades started towards the cops. They were armed with hockey sticks that they rapped against the ground before launching off. I backed up against the wall, oddly exhilarated, and kept enough wits about me to snap a photo of the guys. I still have it, if you don’t believe me. A few yards away from the police, the Rollerbladers turned and headed back. The police took one step forward, as did the protesters. I decided to make myself scarce and went back through the alley from whence I came. Almost back on the other street, I heard a loud thump; I didn’t look back and that was that. There was no mention of the incident in the paper or on the news. To this day, I have no idea of what it was all about.
However, back to the present: There were banners everywhere decrying George Bush and the current administration, the perennial “US out of ____” placard; some anti-Israeli slogans for good measure and of course, that decade-old chestnut “No Blood For Oil” It was like time travel. I was back in junior high and frankly, I was thrilled.
Oh, there were so many of them: Former hippies, current hippies, Yuppies…old folks and young folks. It was quite a sight. I started snapping photos of the proceedings, moving alongside the great human tidal wave. As I mentioned, they were cleaner and more orderly than I strictly wanted them to be. The chants echoed of the surrounding walls and a couple of drummers kept a steady beat as the earth goddesses swayed somewhat in sync. A girl, late teens, maybe early twenties, was flagged down by a camera crew and asked about her feelings about president Bush. “BUSH SUCKS!” she screamed, and staring down the camera, she continued: “He’s such a mother—”. The camera crew seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly as the air turned a deep blue around the passionate young lady, though I doubt the footage would ever make the news.
So where were we going? I had no idea, so I followed the stream. It took bloody ages to get from Embarcadero to Powell. I was getting tired if Birkenstocks and purple shawls. I decided to stop by Virgin Records. Hey, why not? Gotta stimulate that economy, you know. It was interesting to be in there. I could see the moving masses outside, but there was no sound, except for the usual bland R n’ B moaning on in the background. Should I look for Pete Seeger or something? Nah. Elvis Costello will do the job just fine. I paid and left. The sound of dissent hit me again and once again, the current swept me along. Having reached a saturation point (after all, there’s only so many pictures you can take of a bunch of people who aren’t even thinking of rioting), I decided to spend the last roll of film taking photographs of girls instead. It was less than successful. My lovely, yet unwitting subjects kept getting obscured by well-intentioned protesters.
At some point, there was a guy with a megaphone. There’s always a guy with a megaphone. He was getting properly worked up and I thought “This is more like it.” He sounded like a mix of Zack De La Rocha and Abbie Hoffman and made people sit down for some reason. Probably trying to incite some sort of civil disobedience. He handled the megaphone deftly, with the power and passion of the born rabble-rouser: “Let’s take the power back! Show the fat cats in Washington! We are not mindless sheep!” he shouted: “We are not mindless sheep”, replied the crowd in unison.
At long last, it became obvious that City Hall was to be our ultimate destination, which I should really have guessed. A veritable ocean of people had gathered there, so it was a total pain to move around. Vendors had set up shop, selling overpriced water and greyish hotdogs to hungry and dehydrated idealists. A group of people was sitting around singing “We Shall Overcome” while another bunch were meditating for peace, the sweet smell of pot hanging in the air. Most people wandered around aimlessly, though, many of them twirling their dreadlocks and looking generally confused.
The PA system started blaring and coughing. A guy (was it the same guy?) started talking whil
e everyone around started cheering; he sounded incoherent and bonged-out, so at least that was in the true spirit of the Sixties. After some mumbled exclamations, and some fairly enthusiastic responses, they managed to fix the sound somewhat and I got an comprehensible earful: “Please give it up for woman warrior poet Bonnie Raitt!” I had no idea if she was actually there or not, but she came on the PA and warbled about how the world could see that not all Americans were gung-ho types. (To be honest, most of us know whenever there is a large demonstration like this, since we read papers and stuff. Some Third World country papers have better foreign coverage than your average US one. No offense; it’s just the way it is.) The song that followed was an egregious, written-on-the-way-over number that went something like “Hey boy / The world isn’t your toy / There’s just too little joy / Waa-aar” It was every bit as rotten as Paul McCartney’s post 9/11-ditty “Freedom”. which is no mean feat. I love McCartney; worship the ground he walks on, as a matter of fact, but that song was just too far a slide into banality, even for me. Following that, somebody painfully respectable that I’ve never heard of came on and talked about fasting, Gandhi, and how fasting for a day and giving the money saved to the good cause could save lives and so on. Just thinking about this made me want to take off and go get a steak and a beer, which was what I eventually did. Joan Baez was apparently there, dancing with passersby: Sadly, I missed that. The march was over: I’d done my part. It wouldn’t change a thing, I suspect: The most perfect expression of social protest would be to overthrow the government, which obviously wasn’t going to happen that day. How would we all get to Washington on that short notice, for example? Still, an even dumber Bush in the White House is a sobering thought and the possible Armageddon even more so. The idea of Saddam Hussein with nukes is pretty scary, to be sure, but let’s face it: India and Pakistan having a few of those babies too isn’t much more comforting. Not all of us can count on being reincarnated, you know (although with the post-Armageddon options being either mutant or cockroach, why would you want to anyway?). “The world is nuts” will be my clever endnote. Then I left the crowds behind for the scowl of an Irish bartender who I apparently didn’t tip enough.