From Union Square to Lombard Street, City Lights Bookshop to the Embarcadero, Coit Tower to Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco stole my heart.
We take BART into the city. Sometimes we change at MacArthur, crossing the platform with commuters’ ease; others we ride straight through the three Oakland stations to Embarcadero and on to Powell. Buskers, dancers mostly, pass through the cars. Once, a homeless man hands packets of tissues to every passenger in the car with a handwritten note asking for a dollar or two in exchange. I don’t know what to do. At the next station he takes them back again and moves to the next car.
It’s not like the London Underground, the only subway I know with any familiarity. BART is older; a little less functional, a little more personal. The voices announcing the stations aren’t automated. Posters read Bay Area Rides Together. There’s a strange yellowy light on these trains, and when they peek above ground that particular kind of California sun lights the car in gleaming shafts. I can’t quite capture it, but Rosa has.
Normally we get off at Powell, tapping our Clippers and taking the long escalator up into the blue sky; the bright square and crowds appear at the last moment. On my first visit we walk straight up past the crowds by the cable car turnaround towards Union Square and sit at the foot of the Dewey Monument, skimming my guidebook. The sunlight reflects off its bright pages, searing our eyes, so we look at the palm trees and the tourists with their selfie sticks and the department stores I’ve only ever heard of in sitcoms.
We walk beneath tower blocks to Grant Avenue and up through Chinatown, passing through Dragon Gate. The streetlights are different, and the smells, and it’s hard to believe that people live their lives here. It’s different now, Rosa explains; a lot of residents moved to Oakland and other, quieter districts because of the tourists. Wikipedia tells me this Chinatown attracts more annual visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge. I don’t take many pictures, and we continue on into Little Italy. I’m still getting used to this system of blocks, these hard borders of tarmac where you pass from one culture to the next just by crossing the street. Somewhat inexplicably we find ourselves outside City Lights Bookstore. “Huh,” says Rosa. “We weren’t meant to get here yet.”
City Lights was scheduled as the last stop on our tour; we’d pause there after checking out Coit Tower. But more on that later. We cross the street to look at the building from the road we’d meant to approach it, to see the way the street slants upwards, so the angle of the building grows more acute as you pass by. The city’s steep hills require most of its structures to be built this way. We cross back and go inside.
I’m aware that City Lights is important, and that I should know more about it than I do, but it’s hard to ask when you’re standing at the door. I pick up a few things as I wander around and Rosa fills in the gaps. It was founded in the 50s and specialises in progressive politics – not entirely the kind of liberalism you tend to find in white middle-class America, either, but often a more revolutionary class-based leftism I’ve learned not to expect this side of the Atlantic. On the walls hang pieces of artwork and framed newspaper clippings from the store’s lifetime of proudly standing up for marginalised voices, and against censorship.
The shop itself covers three floors but manages to feel really intimate; you weave through the maze of shelves, and I found myself continually stumbling on sections I’d not seen before. It’s oddly rare that I walk around a bookshop and find lots I like to read – I guess normally I go looking for something specific – but something was different here. Maybe I trusted the staff recommendations more than usual, but I found myself wondering whether it was simply because the shop itself pointed me in the right direction.
A publishing house as well as a store, City Lights is most famous for its significance in the Beat Generation movement, and specifically for its publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. This poem was notorious and became the focus of an obscenity trial. Handing my copy over at the counter, along with a contemporary novel I’d discovered (itself set in a San Francisco bookstore), I smile at the cashier. “Can you tell I’m a tourist?”
“Only a little,” he laughs in soft California lilt, and gives both Rosa and I a one-dollar badge for free. It’s yellow, printed with the words Open books/Open minds/Open hearts.
From City Lights we plan to head up to Coit Tower and then across to Lombard Street; I haven’t any understanding of the city’s geography so leave the navigation up to Rosa, whose sense of direction is normally pretty trustworthy. But somehow we manage to go in basically the opposite direction to both of those places, and instead find ourselves at the top of Russian Hill, entirely by accident and a little out of breath. Still, it’s one of those instances where the mistake turns out to be the best thing; we’re rewarded with a spectacular view of the city before continuing downwards, aiming for Lombard with only a vague idea of the right direction.
We walk and walk and walk. I think about how easy it might be to complain, and what a waste it would be. At long last we reach the bottom of Lombard Street, but before I have a chance to celebrate and tick it off my mental list Rosa concludes that it would only count if we saw it from the top. We walk another block, and then face two more of particularly steep uphill gradient. We stop for snacks.
With aching legs and mid-year resolutions to get back to the gym, we make it to the top, taken aback by the strong winds and the size of the crowd, not to mention the view. Lombard claims to be ‘the most crooked street in the world’ due to the eight hairpin bends packed into a one-block section of the otherwise poker-straight road. A queue of cars is controlled by two police officers; many of them were there simply to try driving down it. Apparently there are plans for a toll to be introduced for each vehicle; the street’s residents regularly complain about the floods of tourists who make their way up and down each day both in cars and on foot, though I can’t help thinking that if you buy a house on Lombard it’s to be expected.
Selfies taken, we plan to walk all the way down to the Embarcadero, but it then occurs to us that we can take one of the city’s famed cable cars straight down to Fisherman’s Wharf and walk it from there. Our ride seems to me to be packed full, but its cheery operators beckon us on; we stand on the very edge, holding on with one hand and clutching our phones in the other as we speed down the slope. San Francisco’s cable cars are the last manually-operated ones in the world. They carry around seven million passengers a year, most of whom are tourists; it’s hard to imagine this being part of your daily commute. We hit the end of the line and hop off, heading round to pay the driver; he waves us away with a grin.
We reach Fisherman’s Wharf and the Bay. It’s breezy, but not cold; we check out one of the piers and then meander down the Embarcadero, in search of a very specific fast food joint.
Rosa spent her year abroad at UC Davis, and while she was there I received daily Snapchats of the food she was eating – one more than any other. In-N-Out burgers were almost a staple part of her diet, and they’re only available on the West Coast, so eating here was pretty high on my list. We walk along the water until we reach In-N-Out, complete with queue (sorry, line) right out the door. Unperturbed, we join the back and settle in for the wait. Rosa orders for us both and I grab a table while she waits for our number to be called.
At our table we’re joined by an older couple from the East Coast who tell us they’ve come to San Francisco for their thirtieth wedding anniversary. After they leave we spot them taking photos of each other outside the front door, and we talk about how a burger joint can become such a cultural phenomenon that it’s something you have to do when you’re on the West Coast, regardless of your age or background. There are people from all walks of life here, and all corners of the world.
Hunger abated, we continue on and, after a brief stop at an enormous candy store with a phenomenal soundtrack and a tourist shop to pick up a fridge magnet for our parents, we reach Pier 39, a particularly popular attraction. It features various shops, performances, and restaurants as well as an arcade, an aquarium, and sea lions. The latter is the real reason for our visit, and we find them lounging about in the early evening.
This particular day is pretty much over, though we still have the journey back to Berkeley to navigate. We trek to the Ferry Building and wander through the amazing marketplace, and then follow the in-case-of-tsunami signs up towards the skyscrapers. A group of cops gathers at Philz for coffee; one dashes back across the street to lock his car, and I suffer a slight shock when I realise that what I thought were cupholders next to the seats are, in fact, where the guns are stored. We make it to the station and onto a train; it pulls into the sunset, away from the city. “Hey, Rosa,” I point out of the window, stifling a laugh as I spot the one thing we’d missed from our list for the day. “There’s Coit Tower.”
We spent more than a day in San Francisco, of course. A week later we finally made it to Coit Tower, by which time it had become such an in-joke that we almost wanted to not go so it could be left for next time, pointing it out every single time we saw it – from the train, from the boat to Marin, from every street corner where it was visible. The day we finally went, we took the cable car all the way up the Embarcadero, listening to the conversation of the three cops riding the line, hands on holsters. The car was packed, so when we heard the words ‘Coit Tower’ announced we rushed off without really knowing where we were. At least the Tower is pretty easy to spot, so we head towards it, only to be met with a slight (though very literal) roadblock.
Determined, we mapped out a new route. It involved climbing a lot of narrow steps around the back of houses, and halfway up we bumped into a group of men trying to carry a double mattress all the way down. Pressed up against a wall as they squeeze past, I was pretty ready to accept that the universe is against us, but Rosa pushed on. More steps – a hill – more steps – a steeper hill – and then, quite suddenly, we were there. “Rosa,” I say, thoughtfully, “…what’s the point of Coit Tower?”
The money for Coit Tower was donated in the 1930s by Lilian Coit, a woman who often dressed in men’s clothes and acted as a kind of mascot for the city’s fire department as she used to help them out on calls. It doesn’t function exactly as a memorial but rather as a kind of thank you to the fire department for their work. A lot of Rosa’s work this year has focused around firefighters, hence her favouring this particular building. You can actually climb up to the top, but we overheard that the wait-time would be pretty lengthy so decided to give it a miss, and instead ate overlooking the Bay, trying to spot the Golden Gate through the fog.
On another day we walked from Ocean Beach through Golden Gate Park to get cinnamon toast at Trouble Coffee and then took the streetcar back through the city. (We actually managed to use every type of public transport available in San Francisco across the fortnight I was there.) And on our last full day we went back to Golden Gate Park to check out the de Young Museum (where a sandwich costs 10$) and the bison, which also featured a little detour along the side of a freeway. But in all this I know I’ve not even scratched the surface of this city. I’m a small-town, countryside girl, but this determined city has made itself a little space in my heart with its crooked houses and straight streets; its palm-lined tracks, and surprises at every corner.