We continued driving up the coastal highway and arrived in San Francisco in the late afternoon. The freeways around here are mind boggling. An engineering feet to intertwine them all above and below each other in a hectic maze of transit. We had heard on the news and on the front page of the newspaper that a 16 wheeler trunk carrying a lot of gasoline exploded on top of one of the Oakland freeways. The freeway collapsed and a fire erupted as you can very well imagine. Unfortunately this bit of the freeway is essential for those traveling from San Fran to the East Bay via the Bay Bridge. The news was reporting horrendous traffic delays, we were a bit squeamish.
We found our hotel after a bit of GPS and one way street confusion. I had a quick shower which was not as quick as I had anticipated. This shower had a lengthy poster in the bathroom discussing how to properly turn it on properly. Lets just say unbenounced to me the walls of the shower stall were outfitted with Jacuzzi like jets that when turned on, blow a small body off their feet. Who puts jets on the wall of a shower stall? After I had successfully figured out how to use the high tech shower we decided to walk around town rather than actually drive as we would see more that way and avoid the stress of one way street confusion. We walked down Post to Union Square, the shopping district. I am ever so pleased to announce that I purchased the last pair of Thanaz Diesel Navy wash 30-30 jeans in the store. Purchasing new jeans that fit like a glove is one of the most satisfying feelings any short and stubby person such as I can claim to revel in. We walked up the street pass the famous pyramidal Trans America Building and through China Town.
We arrived at Washington Square located in North Beach, home of the cities Little Italy district. We found a great restaurant on a corner called Pomodoro. We sat along the east wall of the restaurant against a sprawling mural of the interior of a San Fran cable car. The floors were a Dutch black and white checker which contrasted nicely with the red motif of the furniture. We shared a Hess Monterrey Chardonnay bottle and I ordered a plate of vine ripe tomatoes, Buffalo mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, olives and basil. My entree was a bowl of ravioli dizucca: roast butternut squash ravioli with Parmesan cheese, brown butter, fried sage and crumbled amaretti. Our seats gave us an excellent vantage point of the square and busy pedestrian traffic on the street, I had missed people watching as I so often did by myself in Europe. The restaurant had a set of beautiful brass double doors and featured a centrally located open kitchen which I thought worked perfectly for the hustle and bustle atmosphere inside the kitchen and outside on the streets. We walked down the street to Mara’s Italian Bakery which featured mouthwatering pastries and sweets in their large store front window. I ordered a scoop of dark chocolate gelato and we sat outside as we watched the night overtake the city. A gaggle of skateboarders zoomed down the sidewalk and taxi drivers honked along the main street. We hailed a cab and amazingly we were at our hotel in minutes, they drive
fast up and down these steep streets let me tell you.
I barely slept last night. It was officially the last night I had to sleep in a hotel room with my dad. He snores like he is trying to win some sort of international prize for outrageous snoring noise levels. I woke up at 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep. He was chirpy as ever in the morning and I staggered through the hotel room to get my things together. I realized as I sat in my passenger seat how much I would miss the voice of my new found friend Hertz GPS Neverlost. I punched in co-ordinates and we were driving through the Civic Center past the huge domed City Hall building in no time. Even with the GPS, driving can be confusing. Market street creates a confusing diagonal with the rest of the horizontal and vertical street grids. After much confusion and wasted time we finally made our way to Alamo square. The square is a beautiful park that overlooks the city and is surrounded by the cities quintessential Victorian homes.
The morning was windy and I could smell the aroma of freshly cut grass. We drove north, up and down steep hilly streets and I turned up the radio as I heard Parker Posey, one of my favorite actresses being interviewed on the local station. Apparently we were in the city right during the San Francisco Film Festival. We arrived at Pier 29 and paid $14.00 for a full day parking spot. We walked along the street, past the Coit Tower on Bay Street to Pier 33.
All of the ferry’s to Alcatraz leave from Pier 33. During the busy holiday seasons, summer and spring you have to book Alcatraz tours at least a week in advance. Seeing that I am a seasoned and well versed traveler I had booked our tickets about a month earlier on the Internet. We waited for our time slot to be called and got in line for our ferry San Fran bay adventure. Once on the ferry we realized walking can be a challenge when the floor is moving dramatically from side to side. My dad chirped “we need a stiff drink just to walk straight,” as we walked up the stairs to the top deck of the ship. The ferry trip is a short 15 minutes and provides excellent views of the city, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Once arriving on the island we walked up the steep path up to the Cell house. We were given an excellent audio guide which told whimsical and frightening stories about the history of the prison. I actually jumped several times as the sounds of slamming jail cell doors and gun shots blasted through my headphones. We walked past several of the cell blocks, solitary confinement cells, the recreation area, library and an interesting display on the most notorious criminals such as the Birdman and Capone. We walked outside, around the lighthouse and stared out at brilliant views of the city as we walked down towards the gardens. Father made an interesting comment regarding the fact that the island would be better entitled “Bird Shit Island,” due to the copious amounts of bird turd all over the ground. As we waited in line for the ferry back to the city I did a bit of people watching. I was fascinated by three 25ish year old blond Swedish men decked out entirely in Ralph Lauren. I
miss Scandinavia perfection I do believe.
We walked to pier 39 Fisherman’s Wharf an incredibly touristy section of the harbor. The smells running out of the restaurants and sweet shops were to die for. Crepe shops, clam chowder sourdough bowls, doughnut factories, chocolate shops and shrimp and seafood restaurants lined the Disney like Wharf. We noticed a huge group of Japanese high school students and realized how short Asians truly are, I felt like a giant walking beside them, it was incredible. My father’s insistent and compulsive behavior regarding the purchase of post cards has about driven me insane. He has to stop at every single shop on the street (in any city we are in) to browse postcards for purchase, kill me now. A highlight of the Wharf brought the kid in me, The Candy Barren had over 50 bins full of different Salt Water Taffy flavors. As you may remember I already bought a one pound box of taffy in Santa Cruz. I felt compelled to purchase another pound at this place as they had Jelly Belly type flavors such as: banana cream pie, candy apple and buttered popcorn.
On the other side of the dock a consistent honking rings through the air as hundreds of sea lions laze in the afternoon sun. We ate lunch at Wipeout Bar and Grill (a quarky Surfing California theme). I had a banana strawberry milkshake and the Wipeout Burger: bacon, blue cheese, fried onions and pickle. A smile crossed my mug as Sheryl Crows song All I Wanna Do is Have Some Fun, played on the loud speakers. After lunch we paid for a three hour cable car tour of the city.
As we drove past the harbor front we saw a hilarious street performer with a small sign that read “Live Impressions”. You basically ask him to impersonate anyone and he’ll do his best job for a fee, what a hilarious idea. We drove past the old cannery district to the Palace of the Arts which overlooks a cute man made lake full of white swans and ducks. The tour was freezing, we were sitting on benches that had zero glass protection and the wind was brutal. We sat beside a family from Mexico City and two students from Minnesota. We made several stops to take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. Our final stop was at the Golden Gate Bridge information center and gift shop. My dad and I had been joking throughout the trip about buying my mother the tackiest and most corny gift possible. We debated buying really cheesy snow globes (it doesn’t snow here) of a neon pink painted Golden Gate Bridge. We figured there must be thousands of these snow globes on mantel pieces all over Asia as it seems like they were selling like hot cakes to the Japanese and Chinese tourists. As we drove back to the pier we passed through the cities 32 acre military cemetery. Row upon row of white tombstones sitting on green rolling hills. We drove past the quintessential San Fran Victorian houses on Bay Street. I was so excited to learn that the term Bay Window comes from San Francisco’s Bay Street. It was hard to get natural sun light into your home off Bay Street so people pushed windows out of their home and added two panes of glass on each side to increase the surface area of the window. We drove through parts of China Town and the center of Japan Town. By the time our streetcar came to a complete stop I was exhausted. For the last three hours I had been bracing myself in order to prevent myself from sliding up and down the as we went up and down the mountainous city streets. I suggested they install harnesses for future tourists.
We got back to the car and drove south to the airport hotel father would be sleeping that night. We then attempted to get directions to the BART station (Bay Area Rapid Transit, sort off like the GTA’s Go Train). We ended up having to ask directions at a gas station and a pharmacy before we parked our car at the San Bruno BART station heading to Rockridge Oakland. We found the ticket machines a royal pain as it continued to deny our VISA. I knocked on the attendant door and asked for some help. She looked at me like I was crazy. The BART ticket concept is really idiotic. Once it reads your VISA and confirms it is legit it pops up a menu that shows a rate of 20 dollars. You then have to increase or decrease this amount by dollar amounts based on how much the direct travel costs to get to your destination (which appears in a confusing chart). We finally print off two return tickets and dad walks into the handicap exit. The lady indicates with a smug look that we have to walk through the turnstiles. Dad then walks through the turnstiles which have a red light glaring at him in the face (aka they are inactive) she then laughs in a concerned fashion and points to the two active green lit entrances. We were laughing really hard at this point because we looked like the most incompetent people on earth at that very moment. I listened to my i-pod (which had been neglected for the majority of my trip) and people watched on the train for the short trip to Oakland. Most interesting was the 300 pound woman with a small central tuft of hair painted indigo blue. Wild people, will be found, in Oakland.
We walked from the station to Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, a dining icon in the city. People apparently line up for up to two hours just to eat this pizza. It has appeared on Michelin and Zagat Scores and has won “best pizza in the bay area” by local restaurant news for the last seven years in a row. The concept of waiting two hours for take out pizza blows my mind, until I ate a slice! I waited outside of the restaurant with my huge suitcase, back pack and bag of vino as dad signed us up for a short 30 minute wait time. The smell of this incredible pizza place wafted down the street. It was the best smelling park bench in town I’m sure. We had 30 minutes to spare so we decided to find a cafe down the street as we were both tipping on exhausted. Two blocks down the street we arrived at an Illy Cafe and the kid said they just closed! Irate and furious I asked where the closest cafe was and he said, “five blocks that way.” In Canada, we never have to walk five blocks to the next closest coffee spot. They don’t take their coffee consumption at all seriously here.
We walked back to Zachary’s and I slowly fell asleep as I sat on the park bench outside, sniffing the robust aromatic pizza flavors was something like a drug. Once our name was chirped over the speakers we walked in to a jam packed small little bustling restaurant. The front of the house has a sizable waiting area for people picking up their take out. There is a huge black board that gives a run down on the menu. We were seated in a jam packed dining room by the window on the sidewalk. We split a Caesar salad and each ordered a Corona. This was our last dinner, we had successfully put on several pounds this trip and our final dinner here would be a glorious end. We ordered what they are known for, deep dish Chicago style pizzas. We ordered a pepperoni with extra cheese. Each table has a stool beside it. This is where they put your pizza while you are eating.
We glanced over at the pizza beside us and chatted with the ladies there. They were adamant local patriots of the restaurant and talked with the utmost pride about Zachary’s. Interestingly enough they sell half baked pizzas so you can take them home and reheat them yourself. These two small ladies had ordered a large pizza (the majority of it going home) and two half baked pizzas for their sons. We told them about where we were from and they both perked up. One of them has been to Toronto several times and the other has a son who studied art at Sheridan College in Oakville, it’s a small world indeed! Our pizza came out piping hot. Imagine a pizza that looks sort of like a really thick tart. The crust was about one inch off the table top. The pizza is constructed differently than what we are used to at home: the top is slathered with crushed tomatoes (not some nasty tomato paste) and the cheese and “toppings” are put at the bottom right on top of the crust. Forks and knives are essential tools for consumption. We ate three slices out of the six, full as all get out. My friend Amy gave my cell a ring and we met her outside the restaurant. I met her in Budapest and was looking forward to chatting and catching up that night. I gave my dad a big hug and said goodbye as we walked back to her car. I explained the Icewine debacle and showed her the bottle wrapped in massive Air Canada duct tape. We chatted till midnight at her dorm at Mills College. The College is a private all girls university which has been around since the 1850’s!
In the morning we drove to Berkeley University as Amy is allowed to take courses there that her smaller private university doesn’t offer. We went to her quarky Modern Celtic Language and Folklore class. I can’t believe I sat in on a Berkeley class, I enjoyed every second of it. I had to restrain myself from putting up my hand (I am a stiffler for engaged class discussion). The professor: a frumpy, portly, red cardigan wearing, circular rimmed glasses propped, tight brown bun knot, “in need of facial moisturizer” are the best descriptions I can give. We sat in antique oak chairs at the back of class. The discussion consisted of theology and Catholicism in Ireland as well as a lot of discussion about the author Yates as well as Berkeley urban legends.
After class we walked to Angeline’s Louisiana restaurant. We ordered crispy hush puppies that were dipped in a sweet honey butter and shared a bowl of Chicken Jambalaya (sauce piquant, tasso and andouille). On our drive back to Oakland we discussed terms such as Ghost Riding the Whip, the Hyphy music movement and the common phrase “I’m going Patric Swayze” (which doubles for a past tense verb describing Ghost Riding). Short but sweet: Hyphy Music is a form of rap that was invented in Oakland. Ghost Riding the Whip is an activity that these Oakland rappers are known for. They put their cars in neutral while blasting Hyphy music, and dance around the car, on the car, in and outside of the car, as the car slowly moves down the road. It is hilarious. We spent a good two hours trying to find the cities Mormon Temple as Amy said it has the best views of the city. She is directionally challenged to say the least because once we gave up on the Temple (after ending up in the city of Piedmont, the ritzy neighborhood in the area) we got lost again trying to find our restaurant!
Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles is located on Jack London Square in downtown Oakland and it is another one of the cities dining icons. It is a pure soul food diner with sparkly bright turquoise seats. Behind the bar the wall is painted with the faces of each member of the founding family. Each dish on the menu is named after one of these family members. Amy ordered mac and cheese, sweet yams, rice and kidney beans. I ordered the staple deep fried chicken with waffle, biscuit and cornbread. Most of you won’t believe me, but deep friend chicken slathered in maple syrup, consumed at the same time with piping hot buttered waffle, is a fair pair. We gobbled our food up and drove to the Parkway Speakeasy Theater to watch this years Best Foreign Film “The Lives of Others.” The theater concept is brilliant. You walk into this old school theater to be met with a typical theater snack bar which sells pints and pitchers of beer along with a full restaurant menu. People purchase their dinners in line and are given a big number tag which they sit beside in the theater. During the movie employees bring the food up to you and look for your number. Theater with dinner service? Pitchers of beer while sitting on a sofa inside a huge antique 60s theater? How fantastical is that?! The movie was also stellar, a story about a group of artists who are under secret surveillance in East Berlin prior to the Wall coming down.
As we left the theater we realized our car was on the brink of starvation, it needed gas asap. We drove to the closest station with our fingers crossed and bumped into the most interesting people. For the record, Oakland has the highest murder rate in the country, a lot of people get shot here. I decided to get out of the car as she filled up and wiped the windows. Then, this wild black woman comes running up to us, I thought she was going to shoot me. I was ever so thrilled for a juicy tell all story. She started hollering about needing to use a washroom. Oddly there were no attendants at the station. I jokingly said “the gas is all free tonight” and she grunted “I need a toilet roight now bitch.” She was the funniest person I have ever met, pacing up and down the gas station pavement waiting for the keys to open the bathroom.
We drove back to Mills and a few minutes after we arrived we were invited to a house party. House parties are a big cultural college thing over here as you can’t drink in the States until you are twenty-one. I have come to realize that Mills, being an all girls school is somewhat of a hot spot for lesbians. I sat on the stairs at this house party staring in awe at how these kids party on a Wednesday night. I’d say at least half of the girls at the party were lesbians. One shirt read “Hot Jewish Lesbian.” I felt a bit awkward initially when I realized I was about three years older than all of these girls. Then they started to play rap, apparently rap is similar to the buzz of an energy drink as the group went wild. A girl wearing incredibly short denim shorts pranced onto the coffee table and started dancing in front of a full length mirror in her high heels. Several girls started krumping, shaking their bodies to Hyphy music. All of these people were getting krunked and I was sitting here observing this insane cultural performance. I felt like an anthropologist it was great. I thought to myself “this is like out of a movie, no one at home is going to believe I saw this.” I realized I would probably never again experience such a lewd dance off so I tried to enjoy every minute of it from the sidelines.
The following day we drove around some of the most interesting communities in San Francisco. We left just before lunch and drove over the Bay Bridge. I glanced at the stretch Hummer limo driving beside our car and eyed “Louis Vuitton Edition” on the bumper. Our first stop was at the famous Castro District. The hub of the world’s gay social movement. We stopped for lunch at Squat and Gobble. I ordered a chicken pesto crepe with roasted garlic and rosemary potatoes and a mug of coffee. The room was gay and full of lovely banter. It appeared like some sort of muscle bear convention was going on beside us as several big men congregated together over hamburgers. It turns out they were having a book club meeting. The street is really thrilling, full of big rainbow flags and interesting eateries, boutique shops and bars. We went into an amazing gay bookstore where I bought a multiple award winning book “At Swim, Two Boys.”
We walked back to the car and drove through the park past a field full of Bison. Amy explained to me that they are owned by Native Americans and each year they slaughter one of the Bison in the traditional manner in somewhat of a spectacle ceremony. We arrived in the Haight Ashbury district which I instantly fell in love with. The streets smell of incense, an indicator of the historical roots of the neighborhood (this community was the home of the hippy movement during the Vietnam War). The streets are full of hippy stores, cafes, smoke shops, fantastic hipster shoe stores and the most outrageous vintage thrift I have ever seen. We walked into the mega-thrift store Wasteland and I came out with a huge smile on my face due to the splendid purchases I was able to acquire. I tried on several graphic T’s, one which read “Thick Girls are Dope.” I tried on a few vintage Burberry sweaters, Lacoste Cashmere’s and a Penguin cardigans. I ended up buying the following: A white t-shirt that reads “I Heart The Gays,” a thin black emo tie, an antique Louis Vuitton wallet and a gold and brown D&G belt. I love shopping, but then again, who doesn’t!
Our last stop of the day was the Mission District where we ate at Bissap Baobob Senegal West African restaurant. We shared an order of Aloko (friend plantains with tamarind sauce) and drank the most spectacular beverage: a 2 month aged house infused coconut rum. Nothing like Malibu rum, this was homemade rum infused with syrup and coconut milk, to die for. I ordered Mafe which is a dish inherent to the Mali border region and features a plate of vegetables in a spicy creamy peanut sauce with couscous and chicken. I finished off my meal with Banana Flambe. Warms the heart. We drove back over the Bay Bridge (weary of the traffic conditions considering the freeway had exploded a few days ago). We got back to Mills and poured ourselves a few glasses of Zinfandel and watched the Daily Show. Before I headed to bed Amy offered to treat me to a massage (she is ever so talented now that she has completed her massage course). Today was a fantastic day full of incredibly interesting neighborhoods. San Francisco has a lot to offer it seems, a thrilling art infused metropolis.
My final evening in California was outrageously fun. Amy’s friend Ed, whom I met and hung out with in Budapest came down for the weekend from Sacramento with hands full of Colt 40. We sipped on Icewine, Chardonnay and incredibly cheap beer while watching The Real World. The drive into the city was quick and we found a decent parking lot in the Castro by fluke it seemed. We had been told the best place to dance in the Castro was at The Cafe for Full Frontal Fridays. We spent the entire evening dancing amongst magical strobe lights. There were six strippers dancing on the bar tops and for the first time in my life I put a dollar bill in a G-string. What a profound moment that was. On rest from dance fever I stood with Ed by a group of pool tables and a lady came up to me and yelled “no one else could pull off your look better than you, rock on!” Fantastic compliments such as that can be found in the Castro. We left the bar at 1:30am as we were all getting tired. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until we got on the freeway. With my head completely slack I fell asleep staring at the stars that dripped and glowed over San Francisco.