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.
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.
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.