Steve and I are just back from a full six days in San Francisco. And I mean FULL. We crisscrossed the city from our North Beach base to Land’s End and the Golden Gate Park; we took in a whale sighting tour of the Farallons, a documentary, and a poetry reading; spent about six hours at City Lights bookstore; ate Italian (three times), Vietnamese, tapas, dim sum, steak, and dungeness crab (three times)—and mini donuts. We saw pelicans and cormorants and even a glorious shimmering hummingbird, which was flitting in a bush at our last stop on the Fisherman’s Wharf, waving us farewell. We saw sea lions, a whale (well, parts of one), and hundreds of seals.
And the Bay, the ocean, surfers, sun, sun, sun.
And we read and read, and sat and sat, and walked and walked.
Here is how we spent each day:
- Monday: Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach. Dungeness crab for lunch. Sea lions. Pier 39. Art: browsing and buying original wood carvings from local artists; gawking at Ertés, Picassos, Dalis, and all manner of other utterly out-of-our-reach original artwork at the fancy galleries. Dinner in North Beach (Michelangelo’s); watching the kids trick or treat at the restaurants and shops; City Lights.
- Tuesday: Golden Gate Park. The Japanese Tea Garden. The Botanical Garden. A too-long walk to what turned out to be an extremely good dim sum restaurant (Ton Kiang). A bus ride back to the park. A frustrating, but ultimately successful, pursuit of Lake Stow: California isn’t much better than New Jersey regarding signage; walked past the damned lake twice. Dinner in North Beach (Trattoria Pinocchio). Very tired feet.
- Wednesday: Lincoln Park. Legion of Honor. Land’s End Trail. Louie’s. Cliff House. Ocean Beach. Sutro ruins. Breathtaking and haunting and beautiful and thrilling. Long bus ride home; rest, reading. Tapas in Mission district. More rest, more reading. (We don’t lack for books.)
- Thursday: The Farallons. Rain, mist, cold, mild seasickness (very unexpected, that). SEALS! Hundreds upon hundreds of seals, which I was able to see thanks to my brand-new binoculars, which I love. And one gray whale, evidenced by blow holes and glimpses of its back. And hundreds too of weird little birds called Murres, which are related to penguins. Dungeness crab lunch at Pier 39 (after the nausea passed). Home. Nice nap. Reading and relaxing. North Beach dinner (our favorite, Sodini’s Green Valley Restaurant: delicious, and a vivacious and engaged waitress who made the meal still more wonderful). Full and exhausted.
- Friday: Miscellaneous culture. First real breakfast of the week (Caffe Greco: yum). Brisk walk and shop through Chinatown. Balboa Theater to see documentary about the Sutro ruins. Vietnamese lunch. Bus to Market. Walk to Powell and Bush to check out availability of tix for Ferlinghetti poetry reading at 7 p.m. Bus to home; change. Back at 6 to stand on line. Reading at 7. Dinner at 9 at John’s Grill (where Sam Spade ate).
- Saturday: Hitting and revisiting the highlights. Another delicious breakfast (Café Divine: a frittata-type creation on foccacio). Bus and streetcar to farmer’s market at the Ferry Building for walnuts and asian pears. Streetcar to Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. Yet another crab, this at Fisherman’s Grotto. Molineri’s for a sandwich to eat at the airport for dinner. City Lights. Final glass of evening sherry at Hotel Bohème. To airport. Home.
And here are the highlights—what we liked best, what will stick longest, what we brought back with us:
- Our room. As we did three years ago, we stayed at Hotel Bohème in North Beach, which is cozy, friendly, and utterly seeped in Beat history. Last time, our room was in the hotel’s rear, just above the next-door bakery’s ovens. Every morning, the smell of the baking bread woke us. This time, though, we had a room of honor—Number 204, Allan Ginsberg’s preferred room when he would stay at the hotel (upper left in the photo). Such fun! Mother said to check the floorboards in case he left anything unpublished behind.
- City Lights. We went twice: once downstairs for nonfiction; then upstairs for fiction, art, and poetry (and a bonus: watching the Occupy Wall Street March through the window on Saturday in the rain, all those people, cars honking in solidarity, and a fervent belief in change emanating from that place and the people browsing in that place—oh to believe). What a terrifically eclectic selection of books—meandering through the book titles, as the topics shift subtly from linguistics to psychology to dysfunction to paranoia. This is what bookstore browsing is meant to be: discovering unlooked-for, unheard-of treasures no Amazon search could capture. I was so impressed by the taste and intelligence and shrewdness underlying and guiding the collection; it bespeaks an egalitarian open-mindedness, a humor, a wisdom.
- Lincoln Park and Land’s End and Sutro ruins. This was a part of San Francisco we had overlooked last time: this intriguing corner edge above the park and to the coast. The Impressionist collection at the Legion of Honor and its special exhibit on Camille Pissaro’s people were so interesting. A huge collection of Rodins; my favorite this time was The Mighty Hand, which looks like a strong, surging body implicit in the taut fingers and tensed wrist. And the view around the museum! The Golden Gate to the northeast; the Bay, the rocks, the water to the west. We followed the mile and a half Land’s End trail, all shady trees and dazzling, dizzying views. And at the end of the trail, at the base of the cliffs, the ruins of what had been the Sutro amusement complex. Spooky as anything called a “ruin” is, even in brilliant sunlight. We were so intrigued! And when we ate lunch at Louie’s, above Cliff House, we found a postcard advertising a documentary on Sutro’s, set to open on Friday. Which brings me to…
- Serendipitous excursions. So there we are at Sutro’s, intrigued by Sutro’s, and there is actually a brand-new documentary about Sutro’s. What luck, what serendipity. So there we went with all the old-timers, who remembered swimming there, going to the museums there (and more serendipity: dime store museums are one of the topics covered by the book I’m currently reading which I bought this week at City Lights). We love to leave ourselves open to chance, to spontaneity, to circumstance and happenstance like that. And then, after that, to go to the poetry reading featuring Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder and owner of City Lights, ninety-two years old, and by chance, reading a new poem on Friday. And we, seeing a little blurb in a little local paper, took the chance and were able to see a legend up close. Amazing. And each of these serendipitous excursions took us to unexpected places. The Sutro documentary led us to a most lovely Vietnamese restaurant, where the owner patiently and kindly showed us how to make rice paper rolls—kind of Vietnamese burritos. And the poetry reading, instead of being an aesthetic, detached evening of art and culture was instead a fulcrum of political passion, as both poets—Ferlinghetti and Jack Hirschman—along with moderator Peter Selz, who is also ninety-two and an extremely distinguished German expressionist art historian, launched into a lively discussion of the Occupy Wall Street movement. We were so impressed; these men were so alive and vibrant and engaged and committed and obviously on top of the issues of the day. Quite unexpected; quite stimulating.
- Happy to come home to Asbury. When we last went to San Francisco, we fell in love with its neighborhoods, its quirky and outgoing residents, its vistas and views, its markets filled with glorious local foods, its nonchain restaurants filled with character and individualism. How sad we were to return home to staid, stolid, boring suburbia. And now— and now, we don’t mind leaving so much. In fact, our new hometown meets and matches San Francisco on almost all fronts. Okay, we don’t have the dazzling hillsides and bustling ports and phenomenal hills. But we got the food, we got the attitude, we got the hometown vibe, the idiosyncratic neighborhoods, the nonconformist spirit. We’ve got the rough and rocky Atlantic, every bit as mysterious and picturesque (when it chooses to be) as the Pacific. We’ve got fog and mist and chill and damp. We’ve got arty committed young people—and old ones, too. And we’ve got, I must say, even better Italian food.