Sunday 26 September 2021

1988 San Francisco

29.10.88 San Francisco

9.45am  Work done yesterday, I am free to wander.  Writing is a slight problem though: I do not feel entirely happy about my back.  I have therefore come to the Hyatt at Embarcadero, and sit amid the totally de trop splendours of its lobby.

For example, the glittering lifts descend like golden dew drops, smooth and fluid.  Fountains plash, with the water pouring over the basin's edge in an unbroken sheet.  From where I sit the lights catch it and make it look like some crude plastic sheet.   The design of this place is curious.  Two sides of the triangular shape are sheer, and have small plants every 18 inches or so, turning the face into a field on its side.  The third side hangs out over the lobby at 45 degrees.

I walked over this morning to the Civic Center, down Taylor to Market Street – some of it pretty insalubrious.  Many homeless on the streets, more blacks here than elsewhere.  The UN Plaza full of homeless on the park benches.  Despite its grandiose architecture – totally inappropriate really – the place looks squalid and grubby.  The opera house and art gallery are simply dumped here: there is no sense of organic architecture.

One characteristic feature of San Francisco is the cable cars.  Not so much their quaint appearance, but in their absence the constant complaints of the cables which run beneath the streets.  It sounds as if the trolls of Nibelung are working away.  The often very steep hills – real Lake District up – transform the city, which is a grid system like New York, but looks nothing like it.  

I took the BART  – eventually.  First, it took me ages to work out how to buy a ticket.  Next, the station platform had no map telling me where I was going.  The BART itself is a strange mixture: poor and plush.  Thick carpets and comfy seats, but only lower socio-economic groups using it.

In the Cable Car Museum.  There are large wheels – "sheaves" – which circulate the closed loop of steel.  Cable cars grab this as they move.  The museum is like a circle of hell: huge, antiquated pieces of equipment, thrumming steadily.  

Back by Civic Center (alas), but the promise of Ethiopian food is too much.  Not yet 7pm, and already busy.  After beginning here, I then went to the bookstalls near Union Square, then back to the Museum of Modern Art.  Pretty poor.  Partly because the place is being renovated; but the exhibition of Chicago architecture very poor stuff.  Lunch at the café – the same artsy and uncomfortable chairs as the Design Centre.

Then on to the City Lights bookstore.  A gem.  Lively atmosphere – even chairs and tables so you can browse at your leisure.  City Lights publishers its own books, quite heavy stuff.  I was weak and bought Vikram Seth's book of poems – pre "Golden Gate" – and Ruskin's "Stones of Venice" – abridged, alas.  He seems to rabbit on about Santa Maria Formosa a lot….

I look up from my books – and see clear blue sky.  San Francisco is transformed.  I rush out, and go to Telegraph Hill.  The view is stunning, especially of the bay, stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge – a rather dull red colour – to Oakland Bay toll bridge. Hundreds of sailboats plus tankers et al.  Berkeley and its campanile visible [Honey wine tastes like cough mixture]. The rolling hills of San Francisco with their buildings: it's hard to see them as hills.  Sir Francis Drake must have felt pleased with himself claiming this bay: big and beautiful.  Now, bridges everywhere.

I decide to ascend Coit Tower on the hill.  It closes as I get there.  I sit and look, almost deciding to go back down to Fisherman's Wharf.  [The bread has the texture of cold foam rubber.]  I stay on the Hill for about an hour and a half, then descend towards the cable car on Powell.  No luck: full.  I walk up the amazing incline.  One bonus: the Cable Car museum (see supra).


I am totally knackered.  I have been walking for hours all day.  I woke early – clocks went back during the night – ate early, one of the big advantages here: you can eat anytime; then walked.

First up to Union Street, to see the Victorian houses.  Up incredibly steep streets – there was a race today in the brilliant clear blue sky – to practically the top – past rather decaying versions then to the genteel part.  Reminds me of Boston.  Shops – clothes et al. - nicely done out, surprisingly posh.  Everyone out for their papers – San Francisco Examiner, in about 15 sections, and weighing over a pound – and their breakfast.  Everybody seems to eat this meal out.  Parenthetically, John Dvorak has a Q&A in the San Francisco Examiner: rather feeble, I thought.  I like the Examiner; nice typeface, good style.  But they came out for Bush…

It is a picture: the neat wooden houses and shops, no two alike, the curving hills, the blue sky and radiant early morning sunshine.  Then down to the shore.  Foolishly, it being such a nice day, I decided to walk to the Golden Gate Bridge.  All the joggers are out – hundreds of them.  I am tempted to join in.  Out at sea there is a race: Indian-type canoes – about ten crews.  

Oakland is misty, but Alcatraz (= the pelican) is clear.  The bridge looms ahead, bright red.  I pass marinas chock full of boats.  Rich people/lifestyle here.  After about an hour (more?) I reach the bridge.  I am surprised that it would be so easy to leap off – and am vaguely tempted by that self-destructive devil within.  What is more frightening than looking down is looking up at the four cables every so often.  I have this urge to shimmy up them.

Golden Gate Bridge is big.  I walk less than halfway across and even that take me many minutes.  I see the Pacific for the first time (is Bali in the Pacific? Probably.)  Looking back downtown, the view is interesting: the skyscrapers, Coit Tower, the various hills.  Sausalito looks close, but I am already pretty tired.  In vain, I look for a taxi.  Finally, I find one, and go to Golden Gate Park.  It is much further than I think – thank god I didn't walk as I contemplated.  To the de Young Museum – quite one of the plainest buildings I have ever seen.  Lots of people milling around.  More joggers.  Lunch in the Museum.  Sitting outside in the courtyard and, the sun streaming down… not bad at all.  A quick tour.  Quite good Yank stuff, a few good Brit pix – the rest dross.  Everything seems so token and incomplete.

Outside to hear the Sunday brass band finish with a medley of tunes from "The Sound of Music".  Then wandering around.  The Arboretum, the Japanese Tea Garden, the hothouse, paying for most things.  The park is very big, full of people.

Because of the hour, the sun on the way down now.  Shadows lengthen.  I walk east the length of the park.  No bus, not taxis.  Foolishly, again, I decided to walk through Haight-Ashbury, along Pine Street, to the Civic Center.  It is a long, long way.  It is noticeable how past the green exterior of the Golden Gate Park, the neighbourhood turns crummy.  Am I too near the Western Addition?  Well, I make it, exhausted, back to the hotel.

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