7am. A time I very rarely see unless someone is throwing me an hourly wage, but, since I was traveling towards a city I have not visited since I was a kid, I was more than happy to oblige with the early morning wake up call. I was going back to California, back to the home of the 2010 Major League Baseball World Series Champions, and residence of Rapper, Rappin-4-Tay. I was going to San Francisco.
I was informed by Time Magazine that San Francisco is the most European city in all 50 states. But why the comparison? Was it the graffiti art scene similar to that of Berlin? The designer clothing boutiques remnisant of Milan? Or was it the fine cuisine usually associated with Paris? After a week in the city, I thought, I was bound to find out.
After a ten-hour plane journey I arrived at my destination. My hotel, Park 55 Wyndam, was perfectly located a stones throw away from Union Square, in downtown. As I walked into the Piazza I experienced a feeling of déjà-vu, maybe because it was the place I stayed the first time I visited, or maybe it was because I remember it from Hitchcock’s Birds and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. I don’t know. But what I did know, even in my first couple hours of being here, was that the people were unusually friendly. Unusual to me, a European, who is not used to strangers sparking up a conversation at pedestrian crossings, bus stops and tram stations. This kind of behaviour, in London, I mused, would only garner filthy looks.
These amiable drifters seemed ‘normal’ enough, but there was a slight catch to their sociability that irked my consciousness as I walked around the perfectly paved plaza. These people were desperate, not for my friendship nor for my conversation, but for money, crack, booze and food. I’d stroll down the street to a soundtrack of ‘Can you spare some change?’ usually preceded by ‘Where are you from?’ as a hook into the former question. I guess I could have been in Barcelona where, after 7pm on Las Ramblas, you fight your way through an army of down and outs.
But, as I turned out of main downtown and around some corners towards Chinatown the homeless seemed to disappear and what appeared instead was an influx of high-end clothing shops such as Prada, huge jewellery stores blended in with American Apparel and independent clothing stores such as Black Scale in amongst the clean line architecture. Was I in Rome? Maybe. It was late, I called it a night.
7am. Again. I headed to the tram stop and boarded the Powell and Hyde Street tram, which took me through Chinatown and down to Pier 39. I grabbed a coffee and croissant from a small café before heading down to the water to eat with the seals. With only a handful of seals left at this once thriving spot, it was slightly disappointing.
A last-minute dash along the boardwalk was required as I rushed to board the 10am boat across to Alcatraz. I did the classic tourist hustle and opted for the fifty-minute audio tour. I was treated to some surprisingly informative insights about this national park, once home to some of America’s most notorious criminals. And I was in absolute awe when I was welcomed into the bookstore by none other than Deidre Marie Capone, niece of the legendary mob boss, Al Capone.
She was giving a talk on her new book, Uncle Al, which she hopes will clear the family name from any wrongdoing. Her short talk about Capone and his depictions in popular culture, most notably Boardwalk Empire, cemented this place in my mind as an All-American landmark. Gangsters from all across the US had taken residence in this prison – from the prohibition era right up to its closure in 1963. There was nothing European here.
I headed back to the hotel where I was meeting Jennie and Isidoro, colleagues from a modest Californian journal I write for called InterviewFest. With the weather hitting the high twenties there was only one thing to do, head to the beach. They took me on a whistle-stop tour of the north-westerly areas of the city right to the outskirts of the Golden Gate Park and finally to the coast. As we sat and watched the surfers whilst snacking on sandwiches, crisps, salsa and, in my honour, Newcastle Brown Ale, I was reminded of Kinderdijk in the Netherlands when I notice two huge windmills rising above the trees from inside Golden Gate Park.
Heading back in-land we stopped off at a decidedly French café aptly named Le Bread. All the food there was prepared fresh and was patriotically adorned with red, white and blue (in the French flag formation). Obviously I could not resist an éclair.
The only thing to do now was to head up to Haight and Ashbury for Happy Hour, some pool and more beers. We parked alongside Buena Vista Park and walked down the steep hill to the long stretch that is Haight. This proliferation of retail establishments is littered with smoke shops stocking an assortment of bongs and pipes, as well as clothing stores offering everything from streetwear labels such as Stussy, FTC and RVCA to a huge range of independent vintage stores, evoking the bohemia of Amsterdam.
We settled in a local dive bar, the Gold Cane Cocktail Lounge, where the Baseball World Series blasted from the television and it would seem that, from the plaudits coming from the pundits, this was the best game ever to be played in the history of baseball.
A few games of pool later followed by a debate about Joy Division and New Order and I was left to wonder about the ‘San Francisco is Europe’ comparison. Deep in contemplation, I realised that this was going to be a difficult one to resolve, that is until I noticed that the bar was now choking under the fumes of potent marijuana smoke, and I remembered – I was in California after all.
Contributing Writer: Ryan Holmes