The Streets of San Francisco, Part 3: San Frandisney

12 Jul


San Francisco has a beautiful side, too.

We emerge at the Embarcadero stop into a bustling bay front, a cool breeze and gentle sunlight. It’s mid-morning and Simone is discombobulated. She won’t nap, and we’re getting antsy. She wants to walk, sit on concrete pylons, lug her water bottle and her bunny. We move at a glacial pace. We carry her past construction sites and a chocolate factory.

A patch of mist stains the top of Alcatraz. We take it in but don’t stop walking; I’ve seen the movies, and the tours are sold out.

It’s piers and boats and tourists for a mile. It’s happy, safe, contained, and sanitary. Everyone is shopping and eating and smiling. It’s San Frandisney, and compared to the miseries of Tenderloin, we are happy to be among their sunny ranks.

We cut over through Ghirardelli Square. The air smells of chocolates. A bony olive-skinned dude practices dance moves against the fountain. He has coarse black hair, pulled into a ponytail that dangles against the nape of his neck. He’s not a good dancer, but he keeps going for it. He’s mouthing words to a song only he can hear.

We head down Columbus, through the North Beach neighborhood. It’s spectacular. Italian restaurants, a coffee roaster. We stumble into a truffle shop that sells coffee and housemade chocolates. We buy a handful and move on.

They only last about fifteen feet.


We enter City Lights. I’ve wanted to come for a decade. It doesn’t disappoint. The store is large and spacious.

And then we lose Simone in the lower level. Panic sets in. I call her name, so does Beth. The store is now an enormous maze. Ten seconds of unfiltered terror, then Simone runs over and hands me a book by Philip K. Dick. He’s one of my favorites, I own about 40 of his books, and it’s a strange thing. She runs to a large section of his books and points. Did she bring this book on purpose?

I ask her in a whisper, “Can you read?

She giggles.

I replace the book, hug her tight. My heartbeat returns to normal. We buy Simone Andy Warhol’s Colors and An Alphabet for Lonely Children. I pick up Fat City and The Story of the Eye. I consider buying Junky but I’ve already read it, and I don’t want to look like a poser to the clerk. I retrieve my bag, heavier now with the new books, and we leave.

We walk down Grant, through Chinatown, beneath paper lanterns glowing vermillion in the raw sun. Chinese everywhere, flyers for dim sum and an ice chest half full of recently killed pigeons.

I see the wannabe dancer with the long hair. I want to say hi or nod but I abstain. We don’t know each other and I have nothing to say.

We’re getting along and Simone is happy. San Francisco is a miracle, a dream. The air carries songs of peace and harmony. The people really do have flowers in their hair.

Simone in her father's arms, ignoring the squalid beauty of Chinatown.


The day gets better.

We enter Yerba Buena park. It’s beautiful. The buildings were designed by world famous architects and the grounds are a verdant glade amidst the museum district. A teenage poet on a mic knocks out a poem about menstruation and ancient goddesses while Beth chases Simone who runs at the stage. She runs past the park towards the museum of modern art, a building that is beautiful and strange, like a futuristic space cannon from a doomed race. I want to take a picture but decide against it; the building’s alien grandeur wouldn’t translate. Beth says I take bad pictures anyway, so we pause, let Simone gape at the recycling fountain water, and then head down Howard.


It’s a mistake. Howard is ugly. A non-descript street with carwashes and dingy buildings and it’s neither glamorous nor interesting.

We cut back towards Mission at 8th, and soon we are at the tail end of yesterday’s journey. It’s funny; on a weekday the casual seediness seems tame.

We pass a treatment center.

A fortyish man in jeans curses at a piece of paper; he punches the air and screams, “That’s why I don’t fucking . . .” but doesn’t finish his sentence.

A toothless dude holds up a clipboard but says nothing.

A woman smokes a Swisher Sweet without smiling.

An old drunk belts out songs in a punishing off-key.

Beth is hungry.

I’m sun-drenched.

Simone is asleep.

We stop to eat vegetarian arepas and cachapas and a side of plantains. It’s delicious. Simone stays asleep, we polish off the food and head back out into the day, each of us worrying about what she’ll eat when she wakes.

We look for an ice cream place recommended to us. We don’t find it. It’s symbolic; our glorious day is over. We board the BART at 24th and head home. We’re tired and happy. San Francisco has more than redeemed itself.

Still, the city feels like a symbol of winner take all capitalism; the rich live in enormous mansions in the hills, while the poor scrap it out in the public spaces, living in carts and sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes.


Beth is energized by the sun; I’m exhausted by it. She comes from Mediterranean fishermen while my people hail from the barbarian tribes. I prefer cold, dark forests, gray skies, the chill of winter, ice caves. I slather sunscreen on my face and neck. Beth struts her stuff without UV protection. She ends the day with energy. I don’t.

We travel well, with more than occasional silly bickering. I’d like to blame her for all our inane arguments but it would be a lie. As the father in Best of Youth says, “Arguing keeps you sharp.”

We stay sharp as straight-edge razors.

Two heads sitting next to the memorial to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. And me.


We spend the next day in a similar fashion: Bart to Embarcadero; the piers and tourists over to North Beach; Simone falls asleep on Beth in the baby carrier; the same chocolate truffles.

I spy Café Trieste and order a cappuccino from a crusty barrista who has obvious disdain for her customers. The place is fantastic. We sit in the window. Beth jiggles Simone to keep her asleep. I slurp down the hot drink in spite of my reflux.

Back through Yerba Buena, with the now-awake Simone and a jaunt behind the waterfall. This time we stay on Mission.

Back to great vegetarian food. Simone eats bean and cheese empanadas.

We’re having another great day. Insincere talk of moving here. The illusion of clean air, glimpses of shining water through the house-packed hills.

We head up 16th towards the Castro neighborhood. We’ve walked close to 8 miles. My shins hurt. Simone is squirrely. She wants to walk, then takes off her shoes and wants to be carried. We bop into an art gallery with artwork made by mentally ill people; the paintings are all miniatures.

The Castro area is fantastic, vibrant, beautiful, but I’m too tired to enjoy it.

We head down 17th, Beth points out an interesting house and while looking up I step in dogshit. It’s a lesson; there is no such thing as a perfect day, only close approximations to an imaginary ideal.

The BART ride is uneventful, save for Simone’s befriending of Claire, an eight-year-old French girl. Claire keeps snapping her bike helmet onto Simone’s head. Simone is in love. In the excitement, we leave Simone’s beloved bunny behind. Beth is crushed. Simone knows something is going on, asks “Ba? ba? ba?” with big, sad eyes from the back seat.


We start the last day the same as the others: we go to Café Mariposa, a gluten-free bakery in Oakland, and eat muffins and sandwiches. It’s our fifth visit in four days. Simone makes a mess, stuffing lemon-poppy muffin into her mouth, dropping crumbs everywhere. (Her diet for the trip has consisted of muffins, cookies, and frozen yogurt.) She refuses to wear her shoes. Sugar makes her happy; she runs up and down the entrance ramp in a confectioner’s frenzy.

We pack. We clean up. Beth breaks Sarah’s French press beaker, sweeps it up.

It’s back to the ordinary, banal way of things. I don’t mind.

Simone wakes up hungry, but she won’t eat. We dance around the kitchen to Rusted Root, the Traveling Wilburys, the Violent Femmes. We sing along. Simone does her arm dance thing.

“I’d be a great singer if I could only sing,” Beth says.

I hope Simone retains some memories of our trip.

Of pushing her fingers into the fountain water shining with golden, reflected sunlight.

Of running through the basement of City Lights without a care in the world.

Of walking behind a manmade waterfall while her parents held hands.

But the thing she’ll probably remember, if anything, is finding a wooden sea lion and slapping its head while laughing.


One Response to “The Streets of San Francisco, Part 3: San Frandisney”

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