IN EXCELSIS, IN EXTREMIS
I've been traveling in and out, through and around San Francisco all my life. One year I drove "the coast" from Seattle to San Francisco or Los Angeles eight times. One might say Highway 1, as well as 101, 5, 99, etc. are "my own back yard." If there's one thing of which I am sure in this world, it is that I love to drive coasts, any coast, anywhere, but especially The Coast on the West shoulder of America. And, of all the jewels one comes upon along the way, The City, from any facet one chooses to approach it, is the most precious, splendid, superb, rare ode to urban uprightness that can be imagined. Upright in that it cannot spread out any more. It has filled its peninsula and now must, despite its earthquake prone location, go up and up and up in height of building, soaring prices, elevated sidewalks, density of humanity, etc.
In fact, San Francisco gives the appearance of being almost finished. Soon one won't be able to make many of its areas any more charming, cleaned-up, tree-planted, historically accurate, re-painted, rebuilt, sculpture-and-water-fountain full. O Hosanna, sing San Francisco in excelsis!!!!
However, the very best thing about modern San Francisco is, perhaps, to look at it from some place else. There are probably more mind- bogglingly beautiful views of San Francisco than any other great city of the world. One can see it from Alameda, Oakland, Emeryville, and the end of Emeryville's Powell Street, Berkeley, Richmond, Potrero Point, bits of it from the Richmond, Bay and Golden Gate bridges, from Sausalito, from Tiburon, Belvedere, from the Headlands, from the bay, from the ocean, from the air, from the ferry, from Angel, Brooks, Treasure, and Alcatraz islands, from the north, from the south, from the east, from the west, and from the Oakland International Airport, as well as in the fog, in the wind, in the sun, in the rain, the heat, and in the bone-chilling cold -- all on one day if it's a fairly average day in The City. I'm sure you've heard a San Franciscan's favorite comment on the weather: "You don't like the weather? Wait five minutes."
And all the relevant locations can be studied in three dimensions, if one is inclined, like me, toward distant perspectives, at the Army Corps of Engineer's Bay Model which is housed, admission free, in Sausalito.
The City -- other cities have their nick names, San Francisco's only sobriquet is "The City." If one says, "I'm going into the city," no one from the Bay Area, no one who knows the first thing about the hierarchical status of cities would ever, for one instant, think one meant Oakland, Berkeley, or San Rafael, or any of the other two dozen, and rather marvelous, cities around the Bay. If one says "the city," in the Bay Area it means The City, and The City means San Francisco. There used to be -- and a strictly enforced, unspoken law it was -- that only low life, hicks, illiterates, degenerates, the soft-brained, slobs, know-nothings, poets striving for effect, outlanders, people from the corn belt, Martians, New Yorkers, and, perhaps, Los Angelinos ever called it "Frisco." Personally, I like "Frisco." It has a frisky sound, and I even think it has a slightly different meaning: To me it conjures San Francisco's pioneer, shoot 'em up, rough house, gaudy, glorious, frontier days. So if you mean that, that aspect that still exists in minute pockets in almost hidden places in The City, I don't mind if you call it Frisco, even though I once lived there and should know better.
None of the other Bay Area cities, in so far as I have heard, even resents the designation, the distinction, the elitist sound of such a nick name. For The City is justly famous, it is the Queen of all American cities. Ask any foreigner traveling in the U.S.A. what city they like best, want to see most, wouldn't miss if they didn't have to. Almost invariably, San Francisco tops the list.
For instance, I have never heard any objection to the fact that one is charged coming into The City, and rather steeply if one commutes via the Golden Gate -- kind of like an admission fee to the Czarina's Palace -- but no fee when one goes out to its poor cousins hanging out in less glamorous, less well lighted inlets and outlets of San Francisco Bay.
Nor have I ever heard of any controversy over the fact that the East Bay was assigned the lower floor of the Bay Bridge -- beneath the girders and the ramps and the noise with no view as one goed toward Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville -- and The City was assigned the top floor, where one has a glorious view as one comes flying in on that amazing, now permanently outlined-at-night-in-white-lights bridge. Long and graceful, the Bay Bridge sweeps one along incredible vistas into the arms of the ultimate in modern, laced-with-Victorian, urban beauty. Veiled with fog or rinsed by the wind and the rain, shimmering white in the sun -- it is the pièce de résistance of all 20th century metropolises. And, glittering at night, especially during the holiday season, when its tall buildings become star-outlined rectangles, it winks and blinks codes out toward the still 99% unexplored universe.
Indeed, San Francisco begins to rival Varanasi for the title: "City of Light." For not only do the San Franciscans have Edison's (or some say the Moor's) invention literally up one side of the buildings and down the other, but here, too, spiritual evolution, efforts toward enlightenment occupy hordes of the city's esoteric-studies-and-art-prone population. Though they recently instituted a program to make it mandatory for the homeless to levitate at night -- they are forbidden to sleep upon the ground in the parks or on any part of the public earth -- they have not yet began burning bodies on the ghats (hills or steps, of which The City is full), but give them time. San Francisco, The City, hasn't yet celebrated its 250th birthday (though some 10,000 Ohlones, they say, hung out between the Peninsula and Monterey for a fe thousand years) whereas, the City of Light, Varanasi, is, perhaps, the oldest city on earth. Encased in its velvet fog, The City is like the Kohinoor Diamond.
Nonetheless, keep in mind the bliss of seeing it from some place else. From Sausalito alone, one can view The City from a thousand places along the water front, from the hills, from the bike paths, the Marina, from hotel windows and garden benches, restaurants, and, out south of the city, from underneath or in the parking lots of, or along the sidewalks of the Golden Gate Bridge. Originally a harbor for whaling ships to take on water and provisions, Sausalito, meaning "little willow," now costs more to live in than The City itself. From it one can see San Francisco mutifaceted and all day long -- unless its fogged in. But, the fog itself displays an endless permutation of forms. At times the soft grey mass separates the tall buildings from the ground, or truncates their tops. Sometimes in the late afternoon, as the fog blows in through the Golden Gate, one can watch the city disappear block by block behind the rolling or at times slithering, oozing, languishing and luxuriant clouds of the earth. One can see The City ethereal from the Headlands. From Oakland one can often see it through the smog, or from Berkeley, at times, it shines in shafts of celestial light when the East Bay is in gloom.
One can take the ferry from Marin County and observe the placement of San Francisco among the jeweled coves and islands. Or, once in The City, one can visit a friend in Pacific Heights or walk its streets, its razor-back hills, and look from the inside out toward a setting of such awesome beauty that, as in a panorama of Paradise, one is surprised to see anything move.
However, I don't take my car into San Francisco if I can possibly avoid it because, 1) there's no place to park; 2) as an ex-Los Angelino, I go mad trying to drive on Frisco's narrow, hilly, as-pot-holed-as-New York's, no- left-turn-for-miles streets; and 3) they steal things, most especially cars and the contents thereof.
My car was stolen from California Street. A heart-stopping experience. I was there, staying with friends when I was interning on Harold and Maud. For an hour, I kept looking for my car along the curb where I had left it the night before. Kicking aside twigs, candy wrappers, a dirty handkerchief, I kept hoping I might find, beneath some leaves, sitting there still, unviolated, my bought and paid for, as well as beloved, transportation in this world.
They found the car in the Potrero, stripped of everything: wheels, tires, brakes, gas tank, great chunks of the engine. "Cannibalized" was the word the police used. They were also pleased as punch to tell me that the 1964 Riviera is the most stolen car in America.
Another time I had everything in the car filched from my locked truck in a metered, patrolled garage at Polk and Bush -- close to the Tenderloin, to be sure, but which by then had become quite civilized. My friend and I were watching the garage entrance from his fourth story window, out over his windowbox full of hyacinths and daffodils, narcissus and ranunculus -- I was waiting to run put another dime in the meter before the meter maid got there -- while the rip-off was taking place.
The thieves were after the car, but somehow between 11:00 A.M. and high noon, they didn't have time to do anything more then eviscerate the ignition switch, open the trunk via a lever in the glove box, and rob me of about $10,000 worth of my uninsured worldly goods. For the trunk was brim full of the remaining paraphernalia of my executive life in Hollywood, $300 skirts, costly blouses of silk, sweaters of cashmere, suits by Yves St. Laurent, scarves from Hermes, my passport, credit cards stored in an extra purse, a borrowed TV, new running shoes, etc. etc. and an unfinished needlepoint, stitched mostly in China and Japan, which I was designing for a 17th century Chinese Domestic Chair.
The loss of the needlepoint broke my heart. Who knows what the thieves did with a bag of wool and a partly finished canvas in blues, maroons and reds, of the oddest shape imaginable. I still pray to this day, some fifteen years later, it will somehow make its way back to be to be finished.
Peering into my car trunk on that day in '82, in addition to my financial papers, which apparently couldn't be sold for drugs or drink, I understood I had only the sweat suit I stood in, and the black "Greta Garbo" hat I had bought years before in the market place in Florence. However, after I stopped shaking from outrage, violation and fear, I came to bless that thief -- all except for the missing needlepoint -- for relieving me of the useless junk of a former existence. It was a marvelous send off into a life of voluntary simplicity. For the few remaining designer clothes I had left -- sent beforehand with my sister to Seattle -- clung to me like the gown Medea prepared for Glauce, her husband's new wife. It took me another decade to release to a rummage sale my very last fabulously expensive, red plaid, silk blouse with huge "pirate" sleeves. The only thing the San Francisco police ever retrieved was my passaport. It turned up on my next year's trip to San Fransicos -- also in the Potrero. Dealing the SFPD -- they were full of pizzaz and bon mots -- was like dealing with their role-models on TV.
Besides there being no place to park, another reason to look at the jewel of all urban jewels from afar, is that the police, though not much good at doing anything about thievery, are ruthless and relentless in their pursuit of the unfortunate who, after driving around for an hour, decides to take a chance on the cusp of the curve at the end of a block, or even that "fortunate" law-breaker who, having found a legitimate place on a hill, fails to turn his wheels into the curb. The SFPD must hire one meter maid to tail every third car entering San Francisco.
Recently a friend in Marin decided to brave the traffic on the Golden Gate -- one has to see it to believe that there is worse traffic on earth than in Bangkok -- to go into The City to a party. She drove around for an hour and a half looking for a parking place, despaired of her plans and, through another traffic jam, returned to Marin poorer only by gas, toll, and jangling nerves.
And BART? The underground, very good for the East Bay, doesn't go to Marin. However, one can catch a ride on a fairly efficient bus system from almost anywhere in the Bay Area, except, it won't let one off where one wants to get off. It will whisk one to -- it sounds ominous -- a "central terminal," where one must take a bus and/or MUNI back to where one wanted to get off on the way in. O, municipal reasoning!
Some call San Francisco The Cool Grey City Of Love. For despite no parking places, maddening traffic, the police, and the possible loss of one's worldly goods, there is hardly a more intriguing or romantic city on the planet. Many places where the great dolling-up hasn't reached the outside, one will find, are, nonetheless, fabulous within. Where else would anyone want to build a pyramid, sixty-one stories tall. It's like really wanting a child with a pointed head.
There are more people doing more odd and interesting things per square inch inside drab building then probably even in Hong Kong. One will meet people making bizarre instruments of sardine cans and bailing wire or painting bicycles in subtle shades of mauve with clothes to match or come upon some of the highest-tech, cyber-space workers and equipment yet conceived, as well as drag queens -- even today -- more gorgeous than anything ever created by Hollywood.
For, like Thailand, San Francisco, even in this era of AIDS, is famous for its tolerance, nay, even encouragement of all the wonders of human sexuality. In The City one can visit and/or taste of almost any kind of hetero, homo or any other kind of sex one might be able to dream up. As for gay life in San Francisco, the friend I mentioned before who sat with me gazing at the garage where they were stealing my former life, who looked like a patrician from the Raj, and who had been a great patron of "the baths" in their hey-day, also had a cosmic and vulgar sense of humor. He said, not long before his death from AIDS: "I moved to San Francisco to f--- myself to death, I didn't know I meant it quite so literally."
He lived, as did many San Franciscan's -- as the price went up and up and up for living in The City -- in a tiny, one room apartment that he had fixed up to resemble Kublai Khan's Xanadu, with mirrors and gold, lapis and crystal, velvets and flowers -- always flowers, no matter how insolvent he was, he always had an immense bouquet of flowers, and an utterly charming way of getting one to take him out to dinner.
San Francisco is or will soon be, like Venice, a "finished" city. So intricately and beautifully wrought, so completely filled with masonry that people will go there to visit it for its architecture, as a work of art, forgetting others still live there. I once visited a friend of a friend in Venice and inadvertently insulted her by going on and on about the "work of art" that was Venice. She was adamant that it was a "living" city and not a monument, that I was missing the point by seeing only its old architecture, its Renaissance beauty.
But pointless though it may be, that is my impression of not only Venice but many parts of San Francisco, so exquisitely beautiful, finished with flowers and shrubs and trees, and cornices and dados, architraves, freizes, reredos, flying buttresses, golden grills, gingerbread, entablatures, columns, steps, hidden gardens; the earth has been so built-over, done-to, the flora domesticated, trained, coerced and made to grow here and not there that there is, in many neighborhoods, already no room for scruff.
I happen to like the scruff of the natural unfinished world where one can stroll among the weeds, or sleep, or eat, or pee -- things one's requested not to do in a work of art. For a work of art one must stand back, look, admire, gawk. But don't touch.
I've never been to Singapore, the cleanest city, it is said, but I can well imagine San Francisco soon copying Singapore's anti-gum chewing law -- at least in the more glamorous districts. Other parts of the city can be left alone, as they haven't yet graduated from whiskey (or its counterparts) to gum chewing.
Walking in the Mission District the other day -- to visit what is officially the San Francisco de Asis, but usually referred to as the Delores Mission -- I was particularly conscious of the black polka-dotted sidewalks. Who would have thought so much gum had been chewn in San Francisco in what? -- 50 years? It's certainly not 100 years since the sidewalks were poured. And, remembering it was the city of the flower children, I thought it might, for the sake of beauty and delight, be a wonderful idea to let each child in The City paint around each black dot -- a flower. Bouquets of flowers! Presto! The flowered streets of San Francisco! Who knows, painting flowers might even divert the graffiti urge. It's worth a try. For even a gum-chewing law as strictly enforced as the parking laws can never erase the ubiquitous black dots.
In various corners of San Francisco there is still grunge and grime, but there's almost no scruff, no scruff even in the Presidio which is so exquisitely gardened and tree-ed that even the gardeners of Babylon would be envious. The whole town is a boutique-erie. There are New Age and old age curiosities, odd, quaint, interesting, in every corner one might care to peer into. In a word, San Francisco is "heightened." As in a dream, everything is a little more-so, more intense, more as if manifested by the Illuminati than by the mundane laws of nature that hold true for other cities. It is as extravagantly, and seemingly as temporarily, elaborated as a wedding cake.
Most of the fauna, I am sure, has surreptitiously padded across the Golden Gate on moonlit nights; the fish, probably, have an Internet to warn them away from Fisherman's Wharf; and such squirrels as are left, no doubt, take off their grey suits to go coffee-barring in the night to drink cappuccino and discuss the cultural disintegration of the nut culture on this once glorious peninsula of nature.
One can also take the ferry out of San Francisco to Larkspur in Marin. It's still the cheapest and best two hour excursion imaginable. If you are addicted to speeches about what you are seeing, just ask any of your ferry companions. People around San Francisco can enlighten one on almost any subject, or all of them: places to eat, places to visit, history, literature, art, places to see the cultures of all tribes, sexes, nationalities -- they love to talk, and they have strong, but for the most part politely expressed, opinions about politics, conservation and religion.
When one is saturated with gazing at the pearl of cities across the water, one can turn one's eyes to the earth whereon one has landed. For as San Francisco is the Queen of cities, so Marin County is Goddess of counties, justly famed for her beauty -- and her prices. A Marin County dentist told me, with some show of pride, that, "Yes," he and his fellow Marinians are the most expensive dentists anywhere. (I went to Sacramento to get my tooth filled.)
Marin was named for, some say, an Indian, possibly a Chief, called Marin, others say, it comes from the Spanish name for the coast from San Quentin to San Pedro: Bahia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario la Marinera, thus meaning "sea coast or shore." This dazzlingly beautiful county shares a nasty climate with San Francisco, unpleasant, that is, if one hates rain and never knowing what to wear for the next ten minutes, if one dislikes cold nights, or barely balmy nights even at the apogee of the two-week summer, and long, as I do, for the warm winds of the desert. But, having paid its dues with fog and furious storms, Marin County possesses some of the lushest temperate-zone landscapes available anywhere in the urbanized world, as well as some of the most beautiful bay shore ever conceived by God in his marshland-creating days. Egrets by the dozen, white and long-legged, tiptoe or fly out over the salt marshes which, once one discovers them, become a favorite place to walk -- in the spring, through wild flowers shoulder high, birds singing, no humans. Take the Lucky Drive exit. The paths one will find on the bay side of the freeway will look like they lead to San Quentin, but they actually lead among the avian population, the white pelicans, the varicolored salt marsh plants, the wild grasses, and the feather-softs of pampas grass twelve feet tall.
One might ask, "Why is it always referred to as Marin County?" instead of by the names of its particular towns. Well, because there are actually a dozen or more towns, depending on how one counts them, many of them stops on the old inner-urbans, too many towns, too small for anyone other than an inhabitant to remember. Besides, The County acts like one big community, like a single entity on the landscape, a bit like, one might say, but not too loudly, Los Angeles with her satellites, but separated by forests and inlets rather than freeways and chaparral. Her watershed is so beautiful that San Francisco more or less claims it as her private garden. "You want nature?" the San Franciscan shrugs, "Try Golden Gate Park or Marin County."
Has The City named for Saint Francis of Assisi's sold itself out for man-made beauty, for chic? Where are Francis' birds one might ask. The City shines with a unique glory from a distance, but the entrance fee for maintaining its facade may be getting too high. San Francisco in extremis. O Hosanna, sing San Francisco in excelsis, in extremis!!!!
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: email@example.com
Other travel stories about America include CROSSING THE COUNTRY, MISSION WALK, and DOWN UNDER, Cemeteries of the Bay Area. Those highlighted are already available. The others will be in cyberspace soon. MISSION WALK was first published in Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World in 1995.
Jan Haag is a writer, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO