Tag Archives: 2008

San Francisco, Part 3

Sunday June 22, 2008

Bernal Hill was just as beautiful as I was hoping it would be. The views were incredible, the air was fresh, and it was the perfect place to read while I nestled in the grasses.


Bernal Hill


Bernal Hill

On my way back down I saw a familiar sight – houses crammed so close together that you probably couldn’t stick a finger in the space left between them. But these houses were on a particularly steep hill, so the steps leading into the second house put the first house to shame. By the time you got to the third house, you had to climb nearly an entire storey to knock on the front door, and the fourth house had a step ladder. Wait – what? It turns out that the house was under construction, and the step ladder wasn’t the normal means of getting in. But you wouldn’t have guessed by the slope of the street, and if it hadn’t been a stepladder, it wouldn’t have looked out of place.

Today I decided to go to the beach again, but not the same one – there’s another beach on the northern shore of San Francisco that looked small enough to dissuade most casual beach-goers. I set out from the Financial district, walking beneath the massive office buildings and the upscale Starbucks that cater to their occupants. At one point I happened to look up, and I was absolutely astounded. Never in my life have I ever seen clouds move that fast. It was disorienting. I thought of filming it – the clouds must have been pushed by the jet stream, because they were scooting along at what must have been several hundred miles an hour. Then I decided to stop acting like an awe-struck country boy, and adopted a cool and indifferent demeanor.

My walk along the shoreline brought me to Pier 39, and by now I was terribly hungry. Pier 39 is the perfect place for hungry people, but only if you’re wealthy – overpriced restaurants compete to feed the tourist flock on their way back and forth from Alcatraz. But I’m pretty far from wealthy, and overpriced food offends my sensibilities. Nevertheless, my stomach was growing strident. So I did the only thing a reasonable person can do – I scavenged. Amongst all that gluttony, there had to be at least a few people unable to finish their meals. In fact finding them wasn’t too hard – the hard part was getting the food they left behind without their table-neighbors or the waitstaff noticing. Because while some people might be appalled at the amount of food we throw away, and most people agree that the hungry should be fed, scavenging still hasn’t crossed into the realms of social acceptability. However I managed to grab some leftover french fries without too much shame before I stumbled upon some folks conducting a customer survey – not only was it a taste test (free food!) but they were going to pay me $20 too! This was fabulous. Sadly, I probably wouldn’t meet their criteria – I wasn’t from the area, and whatever consumer trends they were trying to test, I probably wasn’t a participant – but I could lie, if I wasn’t too obvious about it.

They started out by asking me where I was from. “Oakland,” I said – entirely false so far, but looking good. Then they asked whether I ever got pre-packaged salads in the supermarket (I may be lazy on occasion, but I’ve never been too lazy to make a salad!). “Sure,” I said, “when I go shopping with my girlfriend.” Then they asked how often, and this was tricky – I didn’t want to appear too transparently false. “Twice a month?” I guessed. “Oh that’s too bad!” they said – they were looking for folks who bought them 4-5 times per month. “Oh, you know what?” I said. “I think we DO buy those salads more often, like 3-4 times per month.” “Three or four?” they asked. “Four,” I said. And like that, they were convinced – they passed me on to the second interview stage.

I couldn’t believe it – I thought my gaffe made it shriekingly clear that I was making this stuff up. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet – the issue now was how much agency I had over the salad-buying process – was I my girlfriend’s plus-one or did I call the shots? “We buy them together,” I said, cleverly maintaining story consistency. Bad move – following a call upstairs, I was told that they were looking for the real decision-makers, not half-assed pansies who needed help to buy their salads. I was a salad reject.

In retrospect, the lesson is obvious – there really is no point beyond which you should not suck up to the people conducting a consumer survey. If they ask you how often you brush your teeth, you probably can’t go wrong with “Ten times daily.” If they ask what you think about Goodyear Tires, “They featured prominently in my wedding,” might be an appropriate response. Asked which brand of aspirin you prefer, you’d curry favor by reminiscing about your grandma’s homemade aspirin soufflé.

On my way to the beach I encountered some progressive graffiti that made me think about agency in a different light – how culpable are we, as citizens, for the actions of a government we do not support? It’s difficult to define, but the question kept me company as I trudged up and down San Francisco’s steep inclines.



Incidentally, port-o-potties are everywhere in San Francisco. It’s wonderful; it’s like a public service. Obviously they’re intended for the construction workers revamping gazillion-dollar homes, but there’s so many of them in the upscale parts of San Francisco that I felt compelled, on a purely economic level, to help rebalance the scales in favor of demand.

China Beach itself was everything I’d been hoping for. Named after the Chinese fisherman that plied the Bay in the late 1800s, the beach was small enough – and the riptides dangerous enough – that people largely seemed to stay away. It was nearly deserted when I arrived, which suited me fine – I found a nice rock to sit and read on while the sound of the waves and the smell of the ocean kept me company.


China Beach

Eventually the question of dinner became too pressing to ignore. The Eritrean restaurant I’d picked out was several miles and steep inclines away, and by the time I got there, it was already past eight. The sign on the door explained they were closed on Sundays, and again I discovered that a restaurant and I lacked the proper rapport. This was disappointing.

I decided to make another run for the Afghan restaurant at its new location – perhaps it could be redeemed. Along the way I passed through a mini Chinatown that isn’t listed on any map and Japantown, which is listed prominently on every map. The contrast between them was striking. The Chinatown may not have been the official Chinatown, but it lacked none of the bustle, vibrancy and color of the original – in fact, it may have been even more interesting for its lack of tourists and the hanger-on shops filled with crappy do-dads. Meanwhile the posters in Japantown assured me that “Something different is here,” but if so, they did their best to hide it. I saw buildings; I saw highways; I saw the normal city people and the normal city bustle. But I didn’t see much that seemed Japanese. Maybe they’d already taken the town in for the night, or maybe the name had historic meaning that didn’t reflect on its current status. But I didn’t see much that seemed worth remembering.

By the time I got to the Afghan restaurant’s new digs, it was nearly 9. Was I too late? Thankfully not – the doors closed at 10, so I had plenty of time. And the food was worth dwelling on – it was frighteningly delicious. Inspired by the Kite Runner, which I read recently, I ordered a chicken kabob, which was preceded by homemade bread and three chutneys that reminded me of pompadums. However the bread was warm and succulent, and the chutneys were different (and far tastier) than anything I’ve ever had in an Indian restaurant. The meal itself was worth taking a picture of, complete with sides of spinach (so flavorful!), rice (delicately seasoned – the best I’ve ever had), grilled vegetables and a slice of pear.

As if that wasn’t enough, the meal was accompanied by some unexpected entertainment – the conversation at the table closest to mine. It started out perfectly fine – the guests (two Brits, a South African and an American, all apparently meeting for the first time) spoke mostly about the world and their travels, and their mix of accents lent the conversation a cultured air. But as I grew distracted from my reading (I’m a sucker for world events) I found myself listening to a rather shallow, whatcha-gonna-do defense of Mugabe – and the South Africans for coddling him. Then they moved on to Blair, who I learned was “a great leader,” a “smart guy,” and “one of the best things to happen to Britain,” all spoken in tones of quiet reverence. “That’s the main thing I hold against Bush, to be honest,” one of them confessed; “he buggered it all up.”

By this time I was taking notes and trying not to giggle.

Eventually the conversation turned to Guatemala because one of them worked for the World Bank, and she was explaining her project – trying to build independence and self-reliance among the export weaving community, which is predominantly female. Why we’ve somehow decided that when small artisan communities need more independence, the best people to call are the multinational investment banks is another question; the point made by her companion at the table (an international photographer, apparently) is that the people of Guatemala are devoid of culture. “When God was handing out cultures, Central America was off using the restroom,” he said. He went on to explain his point, which mostly consisted of repeating it. However he added that Guatemalans were becoming Americanized, and that they were unhappy in their poverty, unlike the Cambodians, who were happy in theirs. When the World Bank woman pressed the gentle point that Guatemala had suffered 30 years of war, he was unmoved. “They don’t have music, they don’t have art, they don’t have literature. They don’t have foreign investment – for good reason. The best outcome for these people would be to become nothing.”

Stifling my laughter left me red and breathless.

I might sound insensitive here, as bigotry is usually too ugly to laugh at. But this didn’t strike me as bigotry; instead it seemed like the ramblings of the ignorant elite, too besotted with their own pomposity to understand the world around them. This is why I laughed: they were mocking themselves.

By the time I left it was late, and the streets were largely silent. My last few moments in San Francisco were spent walking back through a shuttered Chinatown on the way to the metro, burning bright but silent.

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San Francisco, Part 2

Saturday June 21, 2008

I’m writing from a cafe deep in the Mission district, which is known as the Hispanic part of town. I’ve already wandered through a good portion of it, but my wandering isn’t finished: there’s a park here called Bernal Heights that I want to see, and maybe read in; for some reason the pictures speak to my love of fields and open plains, even though I know it must be surrounded by the city bustle:


Bernal Heights Hill

I’ve also found the place where I plan to eat tonight – a Cambodian restaurant, apparently the only one in the city. I’m excited – is Cambodian food a mix of Thai and Vietnamese? Or is it completely unique and different from either one? I think a thorough investigation would probably take more meals than I have time for, but at least I’ll get a glimpse tonight. There’s also a Senegalese restaurant nearby (well, 12 blocks away, but that’s nothing) and a plethora of Latin and Mexican cuisine, usually combined in some variation of “Salvadoran and Mexican Cuisine,” “Nicaraguan and Mexican Cuisine,” or something similar. Many of these places are small, and probably family operated. I’d be tempted to try them if there wasn’t something more original nearby, and if my stomach felt better prepared for what I assume will be heavy and greasy foods. So far, the only thing I’ve had to eat so far today is the latter half of a Russian cheese pastry I bought yesterday, but I feel confident in its propriety. Instead I think the trouble comes from wandering long distances in the heat and the sun, but now that I’m resting I feel a bit better.

The Mission district itself is definitively Hispanic. There’s the people, of course (though there’s certainly a fair number of Caucasians, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans) and the restaurants, but there’s also the murals; murals are everywhere. Some are hidden on side streets; some proudly cover vast walls on the main thoroughfare; one even graced the walls of the McDonald’s I passed. Like most Latin murals seem to be, these are vibrantly colorful, filled with primary yellows, bright blues and greens and reds. The unapologetic color reminds me a lot of India, and contrasts sharply with the usual American affinity for neutral colors, uncontroversial whites and greys and creams. Like most Latin murals, these too seem filled with action and movement that I couldn’t begin to decipher. One mural depicted what looked like a teenage farmworker, the sun illuminating vibrant greens in the fields behind her. She bore a peaceful expression, despite the barrels of the guns pointed at her from the foremost edges of the mural, the unknown gunmen hidden out of view. Perhaps this is because she was protected by two large hands, also of unknown origin, facing the guns down with their palms and filled with moral authority. I don’t know the actual meaning of the mural, and I don’t even know if the people who live here pay any attention to it, in the way we often ignore the things that we’re already used to. But this was just one of what must already be a dozen murals I’ve seen, all of them beautiful.

There’s also graffiti, of course, and trash blowing aimlessly on the streets, and rundown buildings. The marquee of a shuttered theater advertised “For Sale” and nothing else, with no clue how one might actually pursue the offer. Discotecas, dollar stores and pigeons abound. Pigeons! What did the pigeons do before there were cities? At times the streets remind me of New York, with their grungy streets, tightly crammed shops and anti-crime garage door frontages. At times this place reminds me of the old market of Bhopal, when the sidewalks are crowded with colorful wares and every inch of every shopfront seems to burst with things to sell. But there’s an element of San Francisco here as well, as when a critical mass bicycle procession passed by, guided by comically tall bicycles and bikes trailing boombox trailers.

Other cultures are mixed in here as well. There’s the “Authentic Middle Eastern Goods” store that I wandered into, which indeed struck me (well-versed as I am in these matters) as suitably authentic. An “Old Jerusalem” restaurant advertised Baba Ghanouj and shwarma platters, as two patrons sat, European-style, chatting in wrought-iron tables out front. A “Hellenic Greek” (is there any other kind?) store caught my eye, and I wandered in. Of course there was Greek-looking statuary, and tasty-looking food in foreign-looking packages, and dictionaries. Dictionaries? I made a careful circle of the place, and even briefly thought about buying some Greek coffee, before I made to leave. Then I saw the hats, and you may know how soft I am about exotic hats. These were Greek Fisherman’s caps, apparently, though certainly tourist-ized to make them more regal and marketable to an inauthentic audience. They were gorgeous, particularly the grey ones, and I asked to see them. Sadly the only colors they had in my size were black and navy blue, so I bought a black one, and I’m pretty happy about it (the price was reasonable, and the quality looks excellent). It’s wool so I probably won’t be able to wear it until the weather changes, but now I have another strange hat to add to my collection.

Although I haven’t been wearing a hat here, I have been complimented on my “Slavery” shirt, which attracted the attention of a Greenpeace direct-dialoguer (“Do you have a moment for Greenpeace?”), of course, and someone walking by who said “right on!” and asked me if I’d heard the good news – that Nike had finally agreed to stop using child labor. I hadn’t heard the news, and I’d be dubious even if I had, but a friendly street-passing hardly seemed the right venue to get into details. Yesterday I was stopped by a fellow who seemed to want to do exactly that – he asked me the purpose behind the shirt, and why sweatshops were called “sweatshops” (“Do they not have HVAC or something?”) and what people were actually supposed to do about it. He asked all this while squatting on a bare space of sidewalk to use, in true hippy style, a little wrench on a faucet spigot, wetting a cloth to wipe his face with (obviously he was used to this sort of thing). I’m afraid I didn’t have many answers to give him, both because I’m not up on the issue and also because I’d already walked 15 miles that day, and I was sweating and tired. So the exchange was a little awkward, compounded by the awkwardness of talking to someone who seemed high. But suffice to say that progressive shirts seem to strike a positive chord in San Francisco. Who would’ve guessed?

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San Francisco, Part 1

Friday June 20, 2008

San Francisco! For someone who grew up surrounded by soybeans and hay fields, my visit here was a pretty big deal. This isn’t my first time in the city – I was here for a conference four years ago – but I recently got the chance to visit again, and rather than keep the experience to myself I decided to blog it. I hope you’ll forgive the temporary gigs – eventually I’ll set up a permanent blog where I’ll write more regularly. For now, though, I just wanted to get this up quickly so I could share the experience with all of you.

Yesterday was my first full day in the Bay Area, and I spent it in Berkeley: I wanted to see what the campus and the city had to offer. In a word, the campus is gorgeous. I never knew campuses this beautiful existed – and remember, I’ve been to more than my share. If you don’t believe me, take a look:



Eucalyptus trees


They have a eucalyptus grove. A eucalyptus grove! That might not sound like a big deal to you, but I didn’t grow up anywhere near them, and this may be the first time I’ve ever seen them. They are deeply beautiful trees (I’ve always been easily impressed by trees).


More trees

Are these redwood trees? I think so, but the little plaque in the park didn’t say so. I’ve always loved trees, so redwoods – the biggest of them all – have always captured my imagination.


More trees



Several streams slice through the Berkeley campus, and the footbridges and landscaping make them all the more beautiful.







Okay, maybe my pictures don’t do it justice. But it’s a gorgeous campus, and if there’s a prettier one, I haven’t seen it.

The town of Berkeley was interesting too – a blend of upscale and hippy that wouldn’t seem nearly so intuitive if it weren’t so common.


Today was the first day I had entirely to myself, so I decided to do what I wanted to do the most – go to the beach. That may sound fun-loving, but mostly I was hoping to find some serenity: few things are quite as soothing as the wind and the waves. I wanted to spend some time with the ocean and have some time for myself.

However it wasn’t easy to get to the ocean, because the BART metro system swings away from it. The closest stop was Daly City, so I got off there. Daly City is so far south, it isn’t even part of the same county as San Francisco, and I doubt many tourists go out of their way. Why would they? It was a claustrophobic place, filled with cars, tightly-packed houses, and the occasional strip mall. In other words, the usual: typical American development, and nothing you couldn’t find elsewhere. My path to the ocean was guided by a superhighway, clogged with cars and shimmering in the sun.

The ocean itself was beautiful. This part of the beach is so far away from everything else, it’s basically empty. With the exception of a few hardy surfers, I had it entirely to myself.


My own beach.

Over the next few hours I walked along the beach, gradually finding more and more company along the way – surfers, sunbathers, families, and young people playing in the ocean. I tried wading myself, but I could only really stand it for a few minutes at a time. You know those frozen headaches you get when you eat or drink something too cold, too fast? That’s exactly what my feet felt like after a few seconds in the water. So for the most part I kept to the sand, which stretched uninterrupted for miles (though I did clamber across a few piles of boulders designed to prevent erosion). By the time I reached the end of it I was several miles from the metro in any direction. This was fine, because I wanted to walk across the city anyway – I can’t think of a better way to find the “human spaces” where people actually live. (Besides, I’m used to walking – after all, I grew up in the country without a driver’s license!) And indeed I stumbled upon something that otherwise I never would have found – a Russian part of town (Russiantown?) complete with Russian grocers, Russian dry-cleaning shops, Russian churches, and the language itself. A Russian pastry shop drew me in – by this time it was getting late and I was hungry – and I picked out several delicious-looking deserts that didn’t last long. But I didn’t eat too much, because I’d already picked out an Afghan restaurant that I wanted to try for dinner. By the time I got there, it was nearly 8:30 PM, and the sign on the door explained why they weren’t there anymore – they’d moved to Van Ness Street. Van Ness? My map said it was another two miles away, back the way I came, over the same steep streets I’d just labored over. And this restaurant wanted me to do that all over again? Clearly we weren’t on the same wavelength. To my chagrin, I found that this part of Chinatown had been overtaken by shady strip clubs (I was growing more sympathetic to the restaurant) and I asked one of the bouncers where I could find a Thai restaurant (you really can’t go wrong with Thai food). He was reluctant to let me go, and invited me back after I finished eating. It reminded me of the smutty men in New York who hand out flyers telling you that you can help “Amanda” through college if you watch her strip (…while ordering a hit, if you believe the gangster movies).

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