Back in the Beat days with my boys Kerouac and Ginsberg, something happened in San Francisco that made people all over the nation emulate those gone dudes, their roadtrips and drug-taking, their embrace of the Eastern religions, their wild partying and sleepless weeks. I think there’s still a sense of that, pretty-strong actually, in some subcultures across the States, but I think their barometers are off, their senses dulled. If folks back in Kansas or anywhere else want to emulate this San Francisco lifestyle, they’re gonna have to clean up. Maybe it’s this whole “retro” phase, that they’re trying to copy to the old antics and dress and ethos, but I’m not so sure. Either way, San Francisco has moved on. People here are normal, classically liberal, but conservatively so.
They’re normal. So! normal. Exceedingly and unapologetically normal. They’re so incredibly normal, it’s hard not to think of it as different.
I want to get back to this topic, back to my brief survey of the populous of San Francisco, because there definitely is the underbelly, the castes and hardcore subcultures (I saw a guy wearing a plastic holster and cowboy capgun, the kind that I begged mom to get James and I, his with the black handle, mine brown). But I’ll get to that later. Before I get too far along, I’m going to return to this morning:
It rained last night, very lightly, but my new tent kept almost all of it out — even without the rain fly! I was amazed and pleased. I did partake in the pancake feast, but only had two since there was no one to talk to; I must have been too early.
With the gray sinking low and dropping a little rain, I sped past any other possible stops between Point Reyes and San Francisco and quickly found myself at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Last night, in my reading, I learned of a youth hostel out in the Marin Headlands, on the quiet, undeveloped north side of the Golden Gate. So after stopping at four or five different vista points, all offering very different perspectives of the bridge, I found the hostel, tucked back onto a quiet hill. It’s one of many similar buildings from a previous military encampment. This particular building served as the infirmary in its original days, but has also served as a communications center for the Nike Missle Site and an officer’s quarters. It is quite large, as you might imagine, but comfortable (and cheap at just 18 dollars!).
I slithered back along the twisty roads through the headlands, back to the foot of the bridge, where I wandered around some old Army Batteries (this was an important part of the coastline, obviously), took lots of pictures and video. I took my time and admired the bridge and the city tucked in right behind it, the islands in the bay, including The Rock, Alcatraz, and the distant cities of Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda across the bay.
I had noticed a huge red sign, a military sign saying something about no trespassing, dangerous site, or something like that, in front of an old Nike Missle Launch Site. The sign showed that it was only open on the first Sunday of each month, for just three hours starting at 12:30. And since the inbound trip across the Golden Gate costs five bucks, I decided to mettle the next half-hour away at the vista points until the site opened.
I didn’t really know what to expect, which is a good thing because I wouldn’t have got what I expected anyway. For the most part, it’s a self-guided walk around a dozen restored buildings and vehicles and areas, with a single piece of paper to explain each thing. I flew through most of it only vaguely interested. But at the actual launch site, where the huge missles were raised from the underground magazine, pushed along rails to the launchers, and then tilted upright (to 87.5°), there were a few park “employees” — men who served at sites similar to this one throughout the Cold War and who were instrumental in the tedious restoration of this site (of the forty-some missle launch sites in the U.S., this is the only one to be restored). The men, one in particular, was very expressive, almost curt at times, about the entire process of launching a missle, how the missle worked, what warheads were available, what procedures had to be followed, and so on. It quickly turned into a fascination, something I wanted to know everything about.
Just briefly, I’ll pass on a few things I learned. Over 25,000 test launches were done. The missle would actually break the speed of sound before it left the launch pad — the device that holds it in place was capable of restraining 30 Gs. The missle would cover 4000 feet in the first 3.5 seconds, eventually hit 28 miles straight up before turning toward its target. When working on the missles armed with nuclear warheads (they had three sizes of nukes at each site — the largest having twice the power of the Hiroshima bomb), they had to follow extremely strict procedures: No one person could ever work on the missle by themselves, and even when multiple people were working on the same missle, each had to be in sight of the others. If one person dropped a bolt or a tool, everyone together would have to walk around and pick it up together. The punishment for not following the procedure would be simple: you’d be shot. And indeed, one U.S. solidier was shot — and killed — for this offense when he remained on the open side of a missle, while the others had moved to the other side, following procedure. I’d like to know more about that one.
Then it was on to the city. I admit, I didn’t have a very good feeling about it. I pictured traffic-clogged tiny streets and human freaks ambling all over. Car horns and creeps. Perhaps not that dim of an expectation, but whatever it was, I was totally blown away by San Francisco. It quickly grew to be one of my most favored cities, one that I plan to spend a year or so in before I die. Yes, I will live in San Francisco one day.
The streets were wide! The people normal! Everything clean and happy and friendly. Blue sun-shiny skies with fog predictably pouring through at certain points of the day — boy does that fog move! I had assumed I’d be whisked along by traffic, never having the slightest chance to look for a parking spot, so I’d concede defeat and pay twenty bucks to stop in a private parking lot. But no! Wide streets, no traffic, parking galore (& free on Sundays)!
Maybe not “galore” but I found an ideal spot without even looking, just a few blocks from the waterfront and centered among downtown and the North Beach district. I set out walking, all day to see San Francisco.
And not that there is nothing to see in SF, but there is no huge, unmissable thing. There’s Alcatraz, sure, and I really, desperately wanted to do that, but they were booked for six-days-straight, all the way to next Saturday. But aside from that, my SF reading lacked the specificity I got for other cities. It was all about “neighborhoods” and “districts” and “aimlessly wandering.” Which I did.
I started with the requisite walk along the waterfront, the Fishermans Wharf, a huge circus of commercial tourism thankfully isolated to the few blocks strung along the Embarcadero. Today was the “Street Performers Festival” at Pier 39, a showcase of all the best street acts (though I have a hard time believing it is any different any other day). There was a guy who could solve a Rubix cube in less than 30 seconds, time after time — he didn’t make much money. There was the whole usual assortment of musicians, but I stopped for nearly a half-hour to listen to some 16-year-old kid play songs he had written himself. He wasn’t a terribly great singer, not bad on guitar, but I was most impressed with his fun songwriting, some reminiscint of Ben Lee, who wrote adult-quality songs about teenage things and became fairly successful (and has dated Claire Danes for many years). I half-way wanted to buy the CD he had obviously made on his computer, but didn’t. If I see him again tomorrow, I just might have to.
I had lunch at the In-n-Out Burger, since I’d always wanted to eat at one ever since I watched the movie “The Big Lebowski”. It was very good, an excellent burger. I bought eleven dollars worth of fruit too, at a stand on Pier 39, which would later become my supper.
I hiked up to the Coit Tower, not knowing anything about it except that it was on the map with very little else. Inside are some magnificient mural frescoes, vivid in color, but I didn’t spend long studying them. Down the hill a few blocks I could see a large crowd gathered listening to music, so without hesitation I set out towards them.
It was a huge gathering in Washington Square for the North Beach Jazz Festival — if ever there was a place to study the character of San Franciscoans it’d be at a Jazz festival. But it was here that I noticed how normal everyone was, how most didn’t even have a proper tan! Exceedingly normal. At one point a guy tappend me on the shoulder and asked if I had a light. I told him “no” but soon remembered that I had a lighter in my backpack, so I dug it out. The man, maybe 30 years old, slightly overweight, nothing noticably different, nearly invisible, took the lighter and lit up his one-hitter, painted to look like a nearly-finished cigarette. He handed it back and I nodded. I wondered if I could be arrested as an accomplice. But it reinforced my little theory of normalcy: this guy, refilling his pipe from a dime bag, out here in public, in the middle of a crowd as if it weren’t illegal, was completely and illogically regular.
I took a meandering route back to my car, through the tight curves of Lombard Street (with an impressive queue of cars waiting to go down the one-block of S-curves, lined with huge displays of flowers). It was nearly 7 p.m. by the time I reached my car, giving me a couple of hours ‘til I wanted to be back at the hostel amid my nightly routine, so I devised a little driving tour so I could see the other parts of the city: the hustle and bright lights of Chinatown’s exotic shops, the towering buidlings, busy streets, and crisp suits of the Financial District, the colorful flower-power of Haight-Ashbury’s hippie enclaves, and finally the lush gardens (and golf course!) of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. I had one stop in San Francisco that could not be left unmade. I wanted to visit the site at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, the southern anchoring point, where Kim Novak made her first suicide attempt in the James Steward movie “Vertigo” by throwing herself into the huge waves, crashing into the rigid granite bolders along the shore. Tony and I first saw the movie at the Cleveland Film Festival and that’s probably one of the most memorable scenes, though I can picture lots of them, so I’m glad to have made it. I will need to watch the movie again in order to full appreciate it, however.
Now I’m back at the wonderful hostel and tired without compare. I got up at seven this morning, so 10 p.m. has a completely different meaning tonight. Tired squared. Tomorrow I’m crossing the Golden Gate Bridge one more time (for another $5) and may spend a little more time in the city, but I’m not sure what I’d be doing — a scenic drive or something. But then it’s back to Highway One and another day of coastal hugging, this time much less worried about camping now that the weekend is finally over.