Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers’ Along Came Betty crooned into my ears as my coach left the Greater Los Angeles Area. Warm wind-ravaged grasslands began to cling precariously to surrounding semi-desert mountains, through which Highway 5 threaded. It would be indulgent to describe plunging to the near and cruising to the far through this inhospitable but still beautiful, golden grassed and sparsely populated countryside with more than two words: very good. “No man or woman knows him or herself better than he or she,” I introspected. “Of discovery, destruction, remembering and forgetting, is the personal journey of life composed. And it doesn’t end with death, but is instead woven into the stories of those who linger after us.” The coach slowly ate away at the darkness hanging over San Jose, Palo Alto, Redwood City, San Mateo and, finally, San Francisco. Then I walked from the coach station bemeath Market Street to the USA Hostel on Post Street, in the Lower Nob Hill area. It was late. It was dark. San Fran was a glorious, fitfully sleeping unknown. I checked in to the hostel and, amazingly considering energetic expectation boiling within me, fell asleep after only one Budweiser.
In the morning I began walking north, then east, then directly north again, and finally through the Chinatown gate. I always expect Chinatowns in any city to be more bustling; more full of noise, smells and Chinese music. But no. The Hollywood sheen is almost always thrown off to reveal a place, though filled with different looking and sounding people, that is not vastly different to any neighbourhood anywhere. I bounced lazily between locations dictated by my Lonely Planet USA, though not necessarily in the same order printed. (Jack) Kerouac Alley was a real though underwhelming highlight. Some bum was sitting in the way of my photo of a wall mural featuring the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco so far really did have a not simply imagined lingering Beat feel to it. A certain at once non-conformist yet tolerant atmosphere. I spent an hour inside the Beat Museum roughly at the intersection of Broadway Street and Columbus Avenue. Little surprised me, though I did spend some of the hour in an old chair by a donation box, reading about people who had found their places at once within and without mainstream culture. Walked back south-west. Bought a large (small) pizza for lunch. The free San Francisco Guardian was an interesting read, especially its mentions of rent control – a concept foreign to me, perhaps due to ignorance as an Australian. As far as I could tell, the whole point of rent control was to encourage creative but low-income types to remain living in San Fran by way of rents kept low, so that by living there cheaply they could maintain the city’s cultural wealth and uniquity. Could have spat from recollections of paying $100 per week to live in a Labrador, Gold Coast glorified hovel with two other people while studying my journalism degree. Walked to the Embarcadero wharf, which perpendicular to the Bay Bridge faces across the bay toward Berkeley and Oakland. Lots of fat tourists. A few bums. More of the former and less of the latter, than in LA. I found my way to the north of Grant Avenue, then walked south past North Beach and Telegraph Hill’s famous colourfully affluent hill-hugging-houses to Coit Tower. But had to pay for the tower’s panoramic views of the city and surrounds, so decided to skip it. That evening, Tom the Hawaiian dental conference tourist and I wandered in search of jazz to Chinatown’s California Street Top of the Mark bar and Cathedral Hill’s Van Ness Avenue The Rrazz Room – but both turned out to be too bourgeois and not playing jazz. Ended up at the Aces Bar, only a short walk from the hostel, not because I was particularly interested in a sports bar. Instead because it reminded me of the biker bar by the same name that used to sit on the second floor of the Broadbeach shopping complex overlooking the Gold Coast Highway and Convention and Exhibition Centre. Used to, I say, until it succumbed as most of the Gold Coast’s old pubs have to the creeping cataclysm of charmless stainless steel, glass and marble taverns. Back at San Fran’s Aces, the 49ers (NHL team) won, which apparently didn’t happen all that often. Their Giants baseball team, on the other hand, was into the playoffs (finals). Drank a Guinness, a Scotch, and tipped dollars each. Everyone left after the game. It must have been a Thursday. Thursday, October 18, 2012, to keep things chronologically in perspective. I conversed about politics with Tom, then we both retired back to the hostel. Saw a guy puke in a stairwell back at the hostel. Apparently, according to my notes, I became surprised to learn that French and Belgians spoke separate languages. Then, as a finale to the paragraph, simply: “Drunk.”
In the morning I was particularly happy I’d achieved that basic human need (well, at least probably more often for men) other than eating and sleeping which I hadn’t for a few days. Then I stumbled out into a chilly but thawing Post Street, wearing sneakers, shorts, my Quicksilver Pro 2012 shirt and a flanno (flannelette or flannel shirt). Returned to the Embarcadero, but turned this time south toward and under the imposing Bay Bridge, and past a quite random, large bow and arrow sculpture adorning the esplanade. The city felt as I expected it should have: overcast but not terribly cold. Apparently Mark Twain once said the coldest summer he ever spent was in San Francisco. So I guess the same unpredictability could also be said for its winters. Kind of like Melbourne, perhaps. In fact, San Fran felt comfortably similar to Melbourne, with their shared laissez faire atmospheres. Buildings both commercial and domestic were older yet no less full of character south of Market Street. More bums too; lots of people talking to no-one, yet not exactly to themselves. Drunken or hungover demons and angels struggling to be heard in one of the few places on earth they might just have succeeded. The constant threat of an earthquake sending them all tumbling into the bay or ocean must turn some strange gears in San Franciscan minds. Well, that, or illicit drugs. Not being a visual artist, I’m glad San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art was the one American art museum I chose to visit. I’ll say only that the plentiful paintings, photography, installations and sculptures were “relevant and progressive”. 3pm clicked over and I had still not made the hipsterish Mission District. I’d concluded from reading local street press that the best chance for a good night out lay north of it, on or just off Market Street. So it was potentially convenient that, if I happened that afternoon to get drunk, pass out and sleep there, I was planning on making it my Saturday morning exploration starting point, anyway. I did end up missing the Mission, and headed up through the City Hall area, just south of Polk Gulch and Tenderloin. Despite City Hall’s impressive Georgian-style splendour, I remained “largely uninspired”, apparently. “Beer is a massage in a can. Smoke enters and exits me hour or two-hourly like a dangerous yet entertaining friend. I must find and smoke some weed at least once before I leave this city – preferably from a lofty vantage point. I already exhibit more confidence at street crossings than a lot of apparent locals. Long-distance unspoken companions gather behind me like they’ve found their momentary urban shepherd. Or perhaps they’re considering picking my pocket.” Everything seemed symmetrical or deliberately asymmetrical in San Fran. Fierce if healthily anarchistic intelligences lay behind every bohemian building; every paint-splatter garden. That Friday night I visited Market Street’s Swedish American Hall, of all places, to see Jason Lytle play. The man looked as if he’d just been fired from a long-haul trucking company, but sent aching flowers of musical philosophy from his acoustic guitar and clavichord. He was more down-tempo than I expected, but leagues better than The Miggs (more like “The Muggs”) playing their so generic it’s almost Christian rock at next-door’s Cafe Du Nord. One of The Miggs was wearing a Jim Morrison t-shirt. So sacrilegious it was obscene! With songs like I May Be Limpin’ (but I’m comin’ home), Lytle’s performance was in almost every way different to, but still somehow so alike, New Zealand songstress Bic Runga’s performance in Bangalow that I’d seen a few months earlier. After returning to the hostel, I tried to burn with a cigarette lighter my locker padlock out of its plastic casing. Then when I went outside for a smoke, the fire department turned up. This freaked me out a little, until I realised it was a coincidence and they were headed next door for some other reason.