I packed light, because I expected to need every bit of space in my rucksack over the day, but I took the camera. Usually I'm uneasy to take photographs when a lot of people are around, I do not want anyone to feel as if they are on display. So I have no pictures of Berkeley or Oakland. But San Francisco is different, tourists with cameras are a normal part of a street scene.
The BART train I took was the most manky example of its species that I ever encountered. It smelled as if the Great Unwashed had camped out there for a month, and the guy two seats in front of sounded busy dying of tuberculosis. I was very glad that I had skipped breakfast.
I got off the train at Embarcadero station and took a few very deep breaths. The street market was there, and inside the Ferry Building were cute little shops and small restaurants that opened to the waterside quay. A food stand sold fresh orange juice, which got the last of the stench out of my mouth.
North on the Embarcadero, the same way I had walked a month before to see the Queen Mary 2. The sidewalk and the sky looked even larger than a month before, maybe because there were less people. I was pretty much the only person walking, everyone else was jogging or riding strange scooter-like objects. A small cafe on the waterfront which had been looking abandoned a month ago was freshly painted and promised a grand opening in March. On the other side, steep, stony Telegraph Hill was rising. A few days ago, the rains had made a part of the hill come down in a small landslide -- small, but taking place in the middle of a densely populated area. Some houses halfway up the hill looked as if Christo had been there, maybe that was where the damage had taken place.
There is one road winding up Telegraph Hill in case you go there by car of bus, and a lot of stairs for pedestrians. If you come from the eastern direction, you take the Filbert Street stairs, which are really, really steep, mostly wooden, and lead through a wild, subtropical garden with feral parakeets and small wooden houses. I'd hate to have deliver the mail there. I took the stairs slowly, catching my breath and admiring the gardens, the houses and the view downhill every two dozen steps or so. I didn't take photographs, because my hands were shaking a little, and I was afraid to drop the camera.
On top of the hill is Coit Tower, surrounded by another small park. The tower, at least, has an elevator, and even on this slightly hazy day you could see all of the city and beyond. I didn't enjoy it as much as I could have, unfortunately, because the observation platform had windows locked shut, there was no breeze, and I got that strange effect that I sometimes suffer from in airplanes: claustrophobia high above the ground. I was also getting really dizzy, so after a shorter look than I had planned I made my way down again in search of food. Down meant more stairs, stone and concrete this time, and then steep streets (OMG my knees!).
West of Telegraph Hill is North Beach, which used to be at the waterfront before the city grew into the Bay. North Beach is known for Italian food, 50's Beat Poets, and the City Light Bookstore. Imagine walking down a street where every second place is an eatery of some kind, and they all smell of Italian food (and coffee). Even in Italy it's never that much at a time. In a bout of irony, I chose a cafe named "Greco" with small tables and chairs on a tiled floor, looking actually more Italian than Greek. I had a sandwich with mozzarella, eggplant and peppers which was very yummy, and a coffee, which was fine. Being hungry, I found, doesn't improve the taste of foods that I do not like or am indifferent about, but it makes food I like even better. So this was a really great sandwich. I gave it some time to settle and watched people and cars on the street, decided that there were fewer SUVs and Pick-ups here than in Contra Costa County, and enjoyed the way that the dizziness and the slight haze went away and colours flowed back into the world as if someone had opened a window.
I wandered up and down some streets, just soaking up atmosphere, avoiding steep streets and drifting generally south until I reached my next landmark, the City Lights Bookstore. Some of you might know that for all my love of books I have some issues with Literature!, so I had to overcome the slight trepidation of entering Holy Ground, so to say. But City Lights is a very non-threatening, comfortable and welcoming bookstore with a selection of books which you have probably never seen anywhere before, and a whole large room dedicated to poetry. I already regret a few I didn't buy. I spend an hour or so reading, among other things a story in an anthology that was entirely written in 2nd person (and if you are not a fanficrants regular you probably won't get the joke), parts of a book which would have been very useful as an inspiration for writing, but I didn't feel like going through customs with it (I'm a wimp), and in the end bought two books I wouldn't have bought anywhere else, and one that I just had to buy at exactly this place.
South of North Beach is Chinatown, where a Spring market was going on in full force, Grant Avenue and most of its side streets were closed for traffic, and it was so crowded that you couldn't really go anywhere -- you just drifted with the crowds. Only when I heard drums I let myself drift sideways out of the stream and watched a group of teens doing very dramatic percussion on a stage. I love percussion. Especially with big drums.
When I left Chinatown through the dragon gate, I felt rather exhausted from the crowds and the noise and set out straight for Union Square. There are broad stone steps on one side of the square, which are just perfect for sitting on and resting one's feet. A group of folks on the square was carrying signs "Free Hugs", and hugged everyone who felt in need of it. I enjoyed the warmth of the stone, the mild afternoon air, and the fact that I was in San Francisco. Macy's is on Union Square, and a Levi's store, and I was determined to buy some clothes. I can overcome my aversion to shopping if I have decided in advance what I need and where I am likely to get it. So off to the Levi's store I went, and out again, triumphantly, half an hour later, with two pairs of jeans which had cost less that what I would have paid for one pair at home, and proved again that a low-cut waist reduces my size by four inches.
I tried Macy's next with some thought of a fun shirt to go with my new jeans, but found that everything looked like dresses for fat toddlers, or Empire garments cut off at the hip. I looked horrible in that when it was in fashion 15 years ago, and this time I didn't even like the colours. So I felt that I'd better be happy with what I had and walk down to Powell Street Station.
The place where Powell meets Market is one of the starting point of the cable car lines, the place where I had stood in line like any good tourist in October. This time, like any good shop-o-holic I barely gave the lines, the cable cars and the street performers a glance but headed straight into the store that didn't have dresses for fat toddlers in the window. And, ha! success again! (When I'm home, I will really have to clean out my wardrobe and make place for all the new stuff. And put up a new bookshelf.)
Irish Music Jam
The day had turned to evening when I headed down into the station to take a train to Berkeley. I had managed to stuff all my acquisitions into my backpack and still had some energy left, and there was a pub in Berkeley which held Sunday night Irish Music Jams. I felt I could really use some Irish music. And a pint. And some pub grub. The pub was ten blocks down Shattuck Avenue, it was not yet half past six, and the Music was to start at eight. But, I thought, I had my new books, and with a beer and some food I surely wouldn't get bored.
Now, a "block" isn't an exact measurement -- it's only the distance between two not-too-tiny streets. The walk from Telegraph Hill to Union Square had been 18 blocks: about a mile. But this one, along Shattuck, really stretched. I wondered if I was more exhausted than I had thought, but I just looked at the map: Those ten blocks are more than a mile, and between the car dealerships and the darkened houses lining the deserted street, I felt like giving up and walking back more than once -- but back might have been farther than onwards, and giving up would have depressed me. If there was no pub, that would be one thing, but I would find out!
There was a pub. And when I opened the door, there was a woman on a stage, and a room full of people listening, and a cash box set up behind the door, and the situation went totally over my head. I like walking because it lets my thoughts drift, but sometimes I have trouble getting them back. I backed out again and tried to decide what to do next, when I heard a woman calling me. She had come from the pub and noticed me being confused, and explained that the Irish music night would take place as planned. So I returned to the room, sat down at the bar, had a beer, and wished that I had anything smaller than a twenty dollar note, because the event, it turned out, was a reading for the benefit of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund. While I never read anything by Butler and am not sure if I would like it, I respect the cause and would have donated... but not a twenty.
I found the stories read well-written, but not very interesting and didn't get any of the jokes. However, the women reading had nice voices. Finally, the reading ended, people left, new people came in, tables were moved, and I discovered that the kitchen was closed except for the Sunday special, which was meat loaf with mashed potatoes and some greens. I distrust meat loaf, so I asked for "no meat" and got into conversation with a woman who would also have preferred the fish&chips.
We talked some more, then there was music, lots of fiddles, a few bodhrans and whistles, an accordion, a couple of guitars and maybe some other instruments that I couldn't quite see. There was singing, too. I didn't sing, because I didn't know any "real" traditionals, or wasn't sure if what I knew were real traditionals -- you know the joke that most Irish traditionals have been written by Tommy Makem. So I drank beer and then tea, and enjoyed the music, and at a quarter past ten I took a taxi to the nearest BART station (which was not the one from where I had walked here!) and was home at eleven with still some energy to spare. I talked with Tiassa on the phone, discovered I had a slight sunburn, checked my mail, started writing this, gloated over my new books and had another cup of tea, and finally went to bed a little after midnight, fully content with the day.