Having left the leafy riverside idyll of Monte Rio we hit the road for San Francisco. Much to Fred’s delight we crossed into the city via the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. It was a damp cool day which was very welcome as we were squeezing our San Fran experience into 24 hours, with a single night stop on Mission Street.
San Francisco accommodation is horrendously expensive so we had booked into the cheapest hotel we could find. Fortunately, it was between the two districts we really wanted to explore; Castro and Mission. We pulled into the onsite car park and were greeted by abandoned mattresses and other detritus. One of the mattresses had scrawled on it “Need Milk Ed” which amused us, I think that was the emotion that passed through us…. The back of the hotel was covered in graffiti, quite brilliant graffiti, that started to give us a real sense of the area we had booked into. A man wondered on the roadside with a door jack, circling a car, whilst talking on his phone. We were unsure if he was repossessing or just acquiring. Five minutes of debate about the safest spot to park the car ensued. A horrified Fred took in his environment; his love of the USA, and his intention to take citizenship, started to wane….
We pressed the buzzer on the door of the hotel and were let in through the metal grill door. Mission Street had been one of the most salubrious of districts in the past. Magnificent buildings, like our hotel, lined the broad road. Now it is one of San Fransisco’s few streets not to have been gentrified. It’s a street that the homeless and the ‘just avoiding homelessness’ occupy. El Capitain, our hotel, was an enormous grand building, with sweeping staircases and large open landings. It was, however, a beautiful woman worn out and trampled down. The bone structure remained but the facelift was long overdue. The residents were a mixture of hostel travellers, the elderly and infirm with nowhere else to go, and families between places. A stern notice on the door of the communal kitchen warned that any fighting would result in a ban on using the kitchen, note it did not threaten eviction.
Our room overlooked Mission Street and, whilst the sheets were clean, it was the first place that made me reach for the antiseptic hand gel. Black sticky light switches and unidentifiable markings on the bathroom wall were not for the faint hearted or those anywhere on the OCD spectrum. I got my flip flops out and gave Fred a handwashing lecture. All bags out of the car, we decided that the best place to put our stuff was in the bath and then insert the door stop alarm under the bathroom door. Having done all we could to secure our things we stepped into Mission Street. Fred was agog as we passed dozens of truly tattered homeless and mentally ill. One poor older man on the corner of a street was covered, down his back, in his own vomit. In the midst of this we felt very safe and no one bothered us, but it was a sad experience to mingle amongst this disenfranchised population.
Dean wanted to find the street art and we soon came across Clarion Alley, famous for the most stunning murals. Political, amusing, inspiring, and intellectually fresh we lingered, despite the horrendous smell, even on this cool day. Dean came across Gypsy. A lanky ginger haired bearded street artist, also homeless, he had his work propped up in the alley. For company he had a mangy dog and two rats. The albino ‘Squeak’ had searing magenta eyes and was lazing around Gypsy’s neck, ‘Bubble’, Squeak’s mother was asleep in her open cage. We chatted with Gypsy for a bit, and I think I got a bit high. I wasn’t smoking but he was. Fred beamed and giggled. I think this was because he got to hold and stroke Bubble, any other explanation would make me a very irresponsible parent that might require social services involvement.
A change of direction and we came into Castro. A more different environment you couldn’t imagine. The old wooden and brick townhouses beautifully restored. Colourful frontages and stunning interior décor that only our gay friends know how to do. Of course with this comes heart stopping real estate prices. We passed one building advertising a 1 bed 1 bath apartment to rent. We had to re-read the price a couple of times. $6,400 per month. Two blocks between skid row and the unaffordable.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around Castro, having lunch, visiting the gorgeous Delores Park which gives you a vista over San Fran to the bay, and popping into shops. Dean found a tiny bike shop with a delightful owner who gave us a detailed lecture on Luggs, the bit on the bike frame that fits the bits together (best to look it up!). I think he could have stayed there all day but I dragged him away and we headed back to Mission. Not having had a wax in 6 weeks and due to hit LA in a day I searched in vain to find somewhere to do all the bits that needed tidying up. I could get my eyebrows done and lower leg but nothing else. Dean thought it was because of crabs (not mine). So I continue to rock the 70s look. I’ve decided that I’m going to make it a feminist statement, and ignore the fact that I look like the old ladies at Newark Swimming Pool, who no longer have the flexibility to reach previously accessible places, or who’s consorts are immune to the prevailing modern requirement for all women to be hairless below the eyebrow……
Fred on the other hand did get a haircut. We found a wonderful Mexican establishment (most commerce on Mission Street is Mexican run) where the grandma gave him a number 1 round the sides. Great care and attention was paid by Rosita who only charged us $5. In Castro we had been quoted $40 in a number of places. We gave her $10. As we sat watching his cut take place, in an old barber’s chair, we were smiled at with amusement by the Latino clientele who were clearly unused to gringo tourists stepping into this community hubbub. It was lovely, friendly and different. What you travel for.
After a quick refresh in our room we headed out again to find some food. Turning north on Mission, to get a different take on the street, we stumbled upon the Mission Street Community Market which takes place every Thursday. The street was closed to traffic and musicians provided the backdrop for the food stalls. International flavours abounded, reflecting the melting pot that is America. We bought a trio of Arabic flatbreads to eat on the go as starters. We watched the breads being kneaded, thrown and shaped using a hessian cushion, and then cooked on an inverted black spherical cauldron. A huge wrought iron vat was being used, across the way, to make popcorn. Hand stirred, using a 3-meter-long spatula, by a man wearing a welding visor. The sound of the corn popping was quite shattering. Having watched this heavy work, and videoed it, we felt obliged to buy some for later as pudding. We left the market and passed through more shops in the area of Mission that had the chi chi touch applied. No homeless here, just the affluent middle classes. Just then a blackout occurred. Traffic lights and shop lights all went out. Restaurants shut until further notice so we found ourselves a bookstore with candles. We browsed in the dim romantic light. With no room in our backpacks for books we found titles to download onto our Kindles later.
Finally, we came to a block with power. A run down Senegalese restaurant was full, always a good sign. Just in time for ‘Happy Hour’ we got the $20 meal of 2 courses and a cocktail. Fred got Coke and chips with Guacamole. Language had tripped me up again…. Tortilla chips (very good) arrived rather than the ‘fries’ I should have ordered for him. Fortunately, the food we had ordered for us, Senegalese stews and curries, went down well with him. We got treated to the sight of an enormously tall and imposing policeman sat at the bar, weapons holstered, enjoying a break and the food of his homeland. Full as we could possibly be, Fred nearly asleep after a tiring, at times challenging, but fun day, we hit the sack to the sounds of the street just waking up. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep but a few screams of glee and laughter were all I heard before I was gone.
We all woke early and decided to have breakfast out. Dean had found Mission Beach Café with good ratings for breakfast. Rather than an interesting dive, it turned out to be a rather salubrious breakfast restaurant. Great food and service justified the price. The high net worth clientele chatted over food. Then in walked four construction workers that could not have looked more out of place. It was like the start of a bad joke. In walked a Mexican, an African American, a towering burly tattooed white man, and …. Sat next to us they struggled to get service until finally the Mexican, who appeared to be their boss, with gold teeth called over to one of the Mexican cooks passing through the restaurant and remonstrated with him in no uncertain terms. The manager hurriedly attended to them. We exchanged smiles and a joke with them about Fred’s stunning pancake plate. We pondered after if they were over sensitive or if they had experienced a different service, we remained split on this.
We packed up and left the Hotel before checkout time and set off on a driving tour of the districts of San Fran we hadn’t covered on foot. We didn’t like Haight, too touristy, but we did admire all the architecture that we saw. Dean directed me to the windiest (winding not windy!) road in the world. A vertiginous residential street that starts at the top of San Fran and drops down to near the harbour. Lined with tourists taking pictures of this landmark I kept my hand on my handbrake, one slip from any of the cars on this narrow street would have caused a major disaster! We passed through the harbour district, stopped on a pier, took wrong turns, and then finally hit the freeway out of San Fran. As we did so we left the damp cool climate immediately. Hot California opened back up again.
We stopped in an anonymous Motel 6 off Highway 101. With a lovely pool we lazed for a bit before my, now routine, trip to Safeway where I even have a members’ card. As we went to bed at 10pm a coachload of Chinese school children arrived and set to in the pool – extremely loudly. Much to Fred’s amusement, again (see previous Canada blog) I went to the manager’s office to ask that the pool times be enforced and some respect be given to other guests. Sleep is very precious to me. In the morning the ill-disciplined group of children sat at breakfast bleary eyed. Some time ago I taught very rich children English as a foreign language. Rather like those children, this group were oblivious to others and seemed incapable of doing anything for themselves. Someone needed to call Nanny McFee…..
We hit the road again, unsure where we were going to sleep, mindful that it was Saturday high price night. Today was going to be the coastal delights of Carmel, Monterey, Big Sur and San Luis Opispo taking in yet more stunning Highway 1 scenery. One of the biggest Californian fires ever was raging in this region, covering 35,000 acres and being fought by 5,000 firefighters, started by an illegal campfire that had not been properly extinguished. Now 25% under control we would skirt it and, if the wind was in the wrong direction, would get a good dose of the burning woodland. Touchingly, we passed heartfelt handmade signs on the roadside from the residents of Carmel thanking the firefighters. These signs continued all the way down Highway 1. From Carmel onwards we passed the army of firefighters and contractors tackling this blaze. Heavy machinery lined the Highway, being prepared to dig out more fire breaks. The fire was very real and very close and we soon realised that whilst the road was open, only just, we would be taking it in poor visibility and the company of few cars.
Nevertheless, the scenery was beautiful although, with the smoke clouds blocking the sun, we didn’t get the azure coloured sea. Big Sur was strangely deserted. Normally bursting to the seams at this time of year there were vacancies all round. However, it was too smoky to stay. After a coffee and picking up a postcard for Mum (this is another place on her bucket list that I’m living vicariously for her) we headed out. Within a few minutes on the road we came to the Henry Miller museum. We should have known, but we didn’t, that it was there. Tucked into the woodland, this shady delight was a literary heaven. Funded by visitor donations there was no entrance fee, no charge for drinks, a small wooden house staffed by Literature graduates staying in tents, with a stage for performance artists, and a ping pong table, and finally the cat from ‘Meet the Fockers’ (see video below). We lingered here enjoying the slow pace and the sparsity of other visitors. We took pictures, read, played ping pong, and slowed down for a bit.
We wanted to stay in San Luis Opispo and got there about 3pm. However, it was quickly clear that we wouldn’t get a room anywhere near budget. A quick visit to the Tourist Info and a drive through the town would have to suffice. Disappointingly we had to make do with another anonymous Motel 6 on the highway. It did though come with a pool, much to Fred’s delight, and we had the obligatory pre dinner swim. With no cooking facilities, and getting bored of the rotisserie chicken and salad which we eat when without kitchen, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner out. It was Saturday night after all. With extreme luck we came upon a traditional diner ‘The Boys’. We had spotted the sign in the lot when we were pulled up at a 4 way stop. Dean had said he wanted ribs, and when I went in to have a look at what food they did there on the special board was ‘Ribs’. Sometimes good things happen just when you need them. The place was amazing. Untouched since the 60’s, it was well worn but well- tended. We all agreed we were waiting for Tarantino to shout “Action” and ‘Pumpkin’ and ‘Hunny Bunny’ stand up to the soundtrack of ‘Miserlou Dick Dale & The Del-Tones’. As the script is a bit tasty I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to see what I mean:
The story of this place is inspiring and proudly told on the menus. The current owner came to work here from Mexico with no English. He started as a dishwasher, learnt English, worked his way up, and 30 years later the owner offered to let him buy the place. He has owed it and run it with his family since 2011.
So we started with the divide of rich and poor, empowered and disenfranchised, the free and the stuck, the tarnished ‘American Dream’, and we finish (Part 1) with the up lifting happy ending of the ‘American Dream’ at work for at least one family. This was the tale of only one of our two cities, but that one city soon became a tale of two within one.
LA, well that will be a book in itself……... and as we found out LA is a tale of many worlds within a galaxy of its own that feels, as I write this from the idyll of San Clemente down the coast, like a “Galaxy far far away…….”
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx