Sat 25th August 2007– leaving Auckland airport. Cheerful security people saying “I just have to pat you down with the wand, so if you’ll make like the happy starfish please… and I’ll take a look at that belt buckle, just to make sure it’s not a pot of honey.” I resist the urge to reply that I keep my honey pot a little further south.
Passport control guy wondered why we were taking such a circuitous route from San Francisco to London to Toronto. “Isn’t that a bit convoluted?” I sensibly refrain from telling him that the drug shipments were scheduled for pick-up in that order.
In the departure lounge an elderly couple ask each other “How long does the flight take?”
“What are we going to do for 12 hours?”
I bite my tongue. Joining the Mile High Club might be the end of them.
Our travel companion in the aisle seat is a pleasant young guy heading home to the UK after a two week snowboarding holiday. He introduces himself and offers me his copy of the Guardian when he’s finished with it. He begins watching something weighty and artistic on his seatback entertainment screen, and I’m shamed into changing my choice from a no-brain American sitcom to something more slightly more erudite. The flight to San Francisco passes in a blur of eyeshades, ear-plugs, neck cushions, inflatable pillows, rugs and headphones.
US Customs officials seemed nicer than they used to be. There was hardly any shouting or barking – although one teenager had his camera taken away so that an official could delete all the shots he’d taken in the queue waiting for security clearance. Later a frazzled father wheeled a pushchair to the end of the line while his fractious two-year-old snapped random flash pictures on a digital camera. We could see dad would rather face security than risk taking the camera off the kid.
A pleasant official took our fingerprint scans and photographed us. “Got any food with you?”
“A couple of chocolate bars.”
“No beef jerky?”
Dude, we’re not American, we don’t travel with bits of dead cow to chew on.
Once we were shot out at the far end of the process, we looked around to find the BART station to get a train into the city. Figured out the ticket machine and fare zones and put in $5.10 each. Not too hard so far. The train pulled away with a sudden leap of speed, almost sending us in a screaming heap of legs and suitcases. They don’t call it the Bay Area Rapid Transit system for nothing. The station names are so discreet they’re almost invisible, but we figure out the sequence and are ready to alight at Powell, after an interesting ride through the suburbs. Even the poorest housing is painted in a variety of pastel shades, and has some attempt at individualisation in the design.
We walked to Union Square, passing beggars every few metres along the street and steadfastly ignoring them as we’d been told, though I did sneak a look at some of their grubby cardboard signs. “Need cash for alcohol research.” “Need $1, please help.” “From Minnesota, want to get home.” This last was from a fresh-faced youth quite unlike the rest of the shabby unkempt derelicts. He was sitting on a very flash-looking sleeping bag that might almost have paid for a bus ticket home.
Stepping from the crowded noisy street into the cool, calm interior of the Westfield San Francisco Centre was a dislocating cultural twist. Two steps from straggle-bearded men lying in the dust was a vast empire of a mall where giant spiral escalators carried shoppers past floors of designer boutiques to spacious mezzanines with pillars, palm trees and white leather couches. A soaring domed ceiling shed gentle light over the marble floors and shapely balustrades, though its calming influence didn’t work on a volatile Italian woman who was shouting and gesticulating at her pink-shirted partner right at the edge of the atrium. We waited a few minutes to see if either one pitched the other over the rail, but gave up when the tirade showed no sign of stopping.
The mall, aside from the fancy décor and escalators, seemed fairly standard. All the usual chain-stores were there, along with major department stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdales, but reactions from locals have been mixed since the centre opened in 2006. On yelp.com’s business site are comments like:
“The Westfield San Francisco Centre is the perfect icon of American culture. Everything is sparkling, new, glamorous. Inside, though, there is almost nothing I would want, nothing useful, nothing I need. I left empty-handed, and heavy-hearted.” (B.Kaye W)
“There is really no need for a mega-mall in San Francisco, is there? We're San Fran-f%#ing-cisco...small and quirky with an eccentric, eclectic, undefined fashion sense. SMALL AND QUIRKY, people! Yikes! I wore out my sneakers walking this friggin' place.” (Kristina R.)
We didn’t put much of a dent in our sneaker tread before escaping the rampant consumerism to wander round Union Square itself. There were artists displaying their wares, and Ed was very taken with some clever wire sculptures of naked figures. After perusing the rest of the display we decided to enjoy a quiet glass of wine at a café while the sun went down. As we approached the one vacant table after waiting a while, two American ladies pounced towards it from the other direction. ‘Are you from out-of-town?’ they asked, hoping that their visitor status would gain them the coveted space. We trumped them by announcing we’d just flown in from New Zealand that morning, so they graciously conceded and wished us a happy stay. Ed went to buy two glasses of wine but returned with an entire bottle, muttering ‘it just got too complicated.’ This was the man who was persuaded to pay US$10 for a shoe-shine on a previous trip and I suspect he emits some kind of ‘easy money’ signal to those prepared to take advantage of it.
The bottle was nestled in a swanky silver ice-bucket, but the extra chill wasn’t really needed as the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. One glass was enough, and we smuggled the bottle into the camera bag to take it past the ‘No alcohol past this point’ sign and back to the hotel.
We had dinner at the Café Mason next door to the hotel, where we sat in the window and tried to enjoy our meals while a beggar sat right outside holding his cup out for change. He didn’t do too badly, either, so we didn’t feel quite so guilty about ordering dessert. Just had to try the good old apple pie, being in the US of A and all. Wow, could they have made it any sweeter? Made from extra sweet apples (injected with sugar, perhaps?), a syrupy filling, sweet short pastry dusted with icing sugar, and then drizzled with a sticky caramel sauce. I looked around to see if an emergency dentist number was tacked up with the taxi cards by the payphone.
Later that night we watched from our hotel’s sixth-floor window as a woman in a wheelchair made quite good money opening the door to the multi-storey car-park opposite for late-night revellers going home.
Well fortified for our day in the city, we strolled down to Powell Station and bought a Muni pass each for $11 that let us use any Muni transportation for the whole day, including the cable cars that cost $5 a trip. We joined the queue at the turnaround, and had a thoroughly entertaining ride down to Fisherman’s Wharf. The cable-car guy was a real character, passionate about his job and full of chatter all the way. “There are two rules”, he bellowed to embarking passengers. “Don’t lean out and don’t fall off!” Boisterous, strict, yet charming, he made sure his charges remained safe at all times. “LEFT SIDE, TUCK IT IN!” he shouted as another cable car passed by within touching distance. Then he was quietly chatting up a beautiful Italian girl beside him. “Where are you from? Italy?” He smiled into her eyes. “I have a room-mate from Milan… DON’T EVER GET ON A MOVING CAR!!!” Boy, this guy didn’t miss a thing. A chastened pedestrian scurried out of harm’s way to catch the next car.
We rode through pretty streets of elegant houses, past shabbier areas with run-down stores, all the way down a steep hill with a brilliant view of the harbour with sailing boats and Alcatraz out in the distance. “Hold her hand, Sir! Take your elbow off the seat back!” Ed hurriedly complied, removing the arm that had snuck romantically around me. As we reached Fisherman’s Wharf the driver yelled “End of the line, folks. I love you all, now GET OFF!”
We did as we were told and joined the throngs of tourists wandering along the waterfront. Cheap souvenir shops jostled along one side while yachts and charter boats thronged the other, interspersed with cafés and restaurants selling mounds of crabs and other local seafood. Finally stumbling upon Pier 39, we sat down for a much-needed coffee and watched the people frequenting the hot dog stands, fruit barrows, bouncy trampolines and ice-cream stalls. Along the pier were numerous shops and restaurants (seafood, in every combination) and out towards the end a magician was entertaining the crowd with an act involving a pile of broken glass. Lured away by the sound of unusual barking, we found the famous seals who have taken over a number of the floating docks nearby. They are beloved by tourists who line up in their hundreds to photograph the brown slug-shaped animals, then reel back with cries of dismay as a gust of wind brings the stench along with the noise.
At 4.30 we queued for the ferry homewards, once the intrepid hordes of bridge cyclists had been loaded onboard ahead of us. I could only imagine the untangling that must happen at the other end when all the riders have to find their own bikes from among the carefully-piled ranks in the ferry saloon.
The sun had burned away the last of the mist, and the views of the bridge and the city were spectacular. The Transamerica pyramid building stood out boldly, and we planned to take a closer look once back onshore. A quick trolley-bus ride along the Embarcadero took us along to Market Street where we hopped off near a pleasant green park. What I’d taken at first glance for picnicking families turned out to be vagrants, dotted in groups beneath the poplar trees with their sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, and ‘San Francisco Winnebagos’ – old shopping trolleys piled with nameless bundles of worldly goods.
The city’s commercial canyons were deserted on a Sunday, except for the ubiquitous Starbucks branches, two or three to a block. No traffic disturbed our neck-craning contemplation of the Pyramid building whose white apex speared a clear blue sky 260 metres above us. The architect, William Pereira, found his design wasn’t universally approved of when building started in 1969, and the growing erection was sometimes referred to as ‘Pereira’s Prick’. Now it’s an instantly-recognisable feature of the city skyline, its likeness proudly emblazoned on many a fridge magnet and tea-towel.
We found plenty such souvenirs at the brilliant 24-hour convenience and drugstore near the hotel. Where else could you find tartan luggage straps, imitation-cheese-flavoured soy nibbles or 4-day vaginal moisturisers any time of the day or night? We stocked up on cold drinks and camera batteries instead, but had the satisfaction of knowing their entire product range was there for the browsing any time we wanted.
We took another cable-car ride back to Pier 39 in search of a late dinner, hoping to find something by the waterfront that had a view of the city lights. A funky place called Wipeout Bar & Grill was still open, and served us with a great meal among all their surfing memorabilia. A classy joint – all their condiments were presented on the tables in 6-pack beer boxes. Ed had a juicy steak with prawns and I chose a huge salmon fillet on a crunchy salad. Not a French fry in sight.
A quick trolley-bus ride took us back to Fisherman’s Wharf to get the cable car home, though the driver wasn’t as entertaining this time. At least, not knowingly. I nudged Ed at one point to show him a sign for an all-nude male review, just as the driver called the next stop. “Nob Hill!” Oh, how we laughed. Our faces were still red as we reached our hotel room, but that was from sunburn. We’d forgotten, layered up as we were in jerseys and jackets for the day, that it was still mid-summer in San Francisco and we should have put on sunscreen. Oh well.
Next morning it was time to leave the fleshpots of San Francisco to drive south along the coastal highway in our rental MX5.
To be continued...
Call back next week!