Travel Blog: Joyless In the Streets of San Francisco

Day 1

2/20 4:20 AM CST. Scramble out of bed like buckshot zombies. Terrible hour of the day. General Mitchell Airport at five in the morning is a place for shadows and insomniac trolls. Stumble through the airport lugging 300 lbs. of backpacks and carry-ons.

Waiting for the plane, I am harassed by unsettling presentiments; can’t shake a vision of the 2019 NBA All Star Game starring Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo representing the Mavericks and Knicks respectively. So worried the Bucks are going to fuck this up. “Now boarding zones 2 & 3 for flight 1249 to San Francisco International Airport.” Other than worries about the fates of black giants, it's an uneventful flight.

San Francisco. The city is happy to see us. They throw a four-hour parade featuring scores of Chinese/American school children running around as segments of long, colorful paper dragons. The determination on their faces is undeniable, as is the efficiency of their dragon’s pattern. Scene is repeated ad nauseam by armies of similar children. There are congressmen, aldermen, city supervisors, the mayor and vice-mayor (should they be in the same parade?), the DA and assistant DA, real estate moguls and pageant winners on the backs of sports cars. There are firemen and policemen. It is much like Algoma’s Shanty Days parade but with firecrackers instead of candy. After a while, our bodies are unable to withstand the crush of the crowd any longer – a million people descend on Chinatown for this thing –and we slip into Oolong noodle house for some okay food and terrible service. When we reemerge an hour later, the parade is still going on. We are dumbfounded. We hike it back to the hotel.

Day 2

We are staying at Fisherman’s Wharf. There are tourists everywhere. They make me hate my own kind. Everywhere on the water there are fish houses and crab shacks. I pass on the seafood. I am allergic to anything that lives in the water. My boy and I eat corndogs from a sausage stand while the girls opt for fish and chips and fried calamari. There are many street performers. I hate that sort of thing. There are homeless people scattered about, supine on benches, just now being stirred by the bright morning sunshine. They sleep pretty late around here.

We do a tour of Alcatraz. Quite interesting. It would be cool to spend the night out here, without all the tourists. Maybe sleep in one of the cells and listen to the wind howl and moan through the hoary old stone building – Scooby Doo style. I’d probably piss my pants. Anyway, I’m sure there’s not much chance the authorities would allow it.

In the evening, we make our way over to Bird & Beckett Books and Records in Glen Park district. Eric, humble proprietor of B&BB&R, has agreed to let me do a reading during the intermission of a set by Jinx Jones and his Jazz-a-Billy All Stars. Just stepping out of the Uber cab into Glen Park, we feel good. Nice, laid-back neighborhood. The crowd at Bird & Beckett is a good mix of old timers (who had no doubt seen their share of weird shit over the years) and art students dressed in all black. The wine is flowing. There are cats roaming around (literal cats as well as jazz types). Jinx Jones plays some blues and country and rockabilly twang. Well done, Jinx. He’s backed by a real reputable jazz combo – fancy socks and San Francisco beards. About the time I’m feeling real humbled, I have to step up to the stage. Eric introduces me – I’m news to the group assembled here – and the crowd acts interested. I stumble through a scene from chapter 15. The crowd is polite. I’m proud of my family. With their newly purchased Warriors gear, gum chewing and fearless air they might’ve bopped over from the East Bay, working class and tough. Well . . . we’re working class, alright – toughness yet TBD. A nice lady takes my hand afterward and says sweetly, “you did a good job expressing how hard it is to be a writer.” I take it as germane to the content of the reading. No back-handedness intended, I’m sure. So goes my big turn in San Francisco. I make a note to see if there is any room in the Beat Museum on North Beach.

Day 3

A day of heavy sight seeing. Bus tour, trolley car, chocolate factory, etc. I wear my Joyless House Publishing t-shirt around hoping maybe the logo will sear itself into someone’s brain.

We end up in Union Square. It is hideous. Gap, Gucci, Macy’s et al. The street people are thick here. There are piles of human feces on the sidewalks and streams and puddles one can only assume are urine. We meet a fella named Anthony who wears two pairs of glasses and the strong reek of booze. I give him a handful of change and he says “we’re gonna dedicate this motherfucker to the Rolling Stones!” Okay. The next people have no change for Anthony. “Fuck you!” he screams at them. Alright. We trolley car back to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Day 4

Today we have a car rented. “For $30, would you folks like to upgrade to a Ford Mustang convertible?” What do you think, Jack? We take the Mustang over Golden Gate Bridge and up an insane, winding mountain road to Muir Park. Giant Sequoias. Good to take in some nature. Afterwards we cruise north on Highway 1. The scenery is breathtaking indeed. On our way back, we pull over and hike out to the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean to take in the sunset. Pretty, real pretty. The boy and I get carsick on the way back down the steep winding road. The girls are a little impatient with us. They have no idea how hard it is to be a sensitive male in a type-A world.

Back at Fisherman’s Wharf. We spot a rat scurrying beneath a parked car on the corner by our hotel. We have waited too long on dinner on a Monday night. Everything closed. We end up ordering in from – get this – an Indian restaurant/Irish pub. You can guess how the food was.

Day 5

Hard to believe it’s already time to leave. We have a nice breakfast. Lots of fresh fruit, which is refreshing. We hustle over to the airport to find that our flight has been delayed until 9 o’clock that night. So we waste the $ on Uber fare to and from the airport, but it does give us an extra day in the city.

We hike over to Chinatown. This time we get to experience the bustling neighborhood without the New Year’s crush of tourists. We peruse the shops, take in the smells – dried fish and ginger. The children are starting to chafe at all the walking, so we stop at a park. I’m surprised at how clean it is – especially the bathrooms. There are groups of old men playing cards and separate groups of old women playing cards. We are the only obvious tourists among several hundred in the little park. Relaxing on a bench enjoying the warm sunshine. (San Franciscan weather gets a bad rap, as far as I’m concerned.) A man in a suit sits down on a bench across from us, takes out an erhu and begins to play. An old guy in a ball cap and windbreaker comes over and sings along. The hour or so we spend at this park in Chinatown is the highlight of the trip for me. Something about Chinese, or, I guess Chinese/American culture just feels right. A certain decorum is expected. A certain emotional distance is maintained and the fact that the same luxury is not possible in regards to personal physical space is taken with stoicism. It seems that despite the constant bustle and close proximity to others, a sense of individual peace is the ultimate ideal. I’ll have to get Shaun Handlen’s thoughts on all this. Eventually, my daughter becomes irreparably grossed out by the pigeons constantly fluttering inches from her head and we have to move on.

Before leaving Chinatown, we eat at what is supposedly the country’s first dim sum house, Hang Ah. It’s tucked away in a little back alley. They make an orgasmically good chili sauce. Recommended.

We have to go back to the hotel before heading to the airport, as they were good enough to hold on to our bags for the day. When we get there we are greeted by a perfect melee. Local No. 2 is out in full force. Bullhorns and picket signs. “Boycott the Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf!” The hotel staff, in suits and skirt-suits, are lined up outside as a bulwark against the protesters. I try to gather what information I can from both sides without getting spat upon. It seems that some big investment group has bought the Hyatt and are avoiding local taxes. That in itself isn’t surprising. The crux of the issue seems to be that the Hyatt workers were disallowed to, or voted not to unionize, depending on which side you believe. I guess I don’t know enough about the situation to pick a side . . . but if anybody needs a union, it’s the hospitality industry.

We fly the fuck out of San Francisco. We land in Chicago at 3:30 am. An easy 3½ hour hop up the lakeshore and were home.

If you’re contemplating a trip to the Bay area, here are a few tips: don’t stay at the Hyatt until they get their politics in order, avoid tourist traps (except for Alcatraz), visit Bird and Beckett, and if you happened to have a lot of extra cash laying around, catch a Warriors game while they’re still the hottest thing on ten legs. Steph and the boys were on a road trip while we were in town. :(

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