Posts Tagged 'San Francisco'

Someone Else’s Shoes: SF’s Underbelly

AMANDA WITHERELL AND BRYAN Cohen, in the true fashion of investigative journalism, spent a week in and out of San Francisco’s homeless shelters getting an unfiltered look at life on the streets. The SF Bay Guardian reporters chronicled their harrying experience on separate blogs, and Witherell wrote a compelling piece for the paper that sharply dissected the local homelessness situation.

The two discovered firsthand that despite the presence of empty beds cross the city, a breakdown in communication among a network of shelters means night after night people are forced either to doze fitfully in the equivalent of a waiting room or to find an empty patch of sidewalk. It took Cohen five days to find a bed. When they did successfully navigate the confusing shelter system, the reporters were often met with terrible smells and grudging staff, only to be briskly ushered out into the cold morning at six o’clock. The article paints a grim and honest picture of the crushing struggle so many face, and scratches at our sense of common human dignity. An absolutely essential read.


Highway 1 to Capitola

kitesurfers along highway 1. photo by dailytransit.

WE THROTTLE OUT OF San Francisco and are winding southwards on Highway 1, gunning down the roadway precariously close to coastal cliffs. Excited, resigned, taking in all we can as we silently acknowledge that we are headed to our southernmost destination – after Santa Cruz, it’s the way home.

The scenery is fantastic, a rolling gradation of bucolic fields, harsh drop-offs, sand dunes and beaches.

Feeling spontaneous, we spot The Half Moon Brewery and turn off of the highway. At the restaurant, we sit, take in a breath of sea air, and have a look at the menu – and it looks a little pricey. So in the same vein, we “spontaneously” decide to ditch it and are peeling out of the parking lot before we get our waters.

A ways down the road we are greeted by an amazing panorama of the Pacific, and can’t resist pulling off the road to really soak it in. We get out and see the masses of kite and wind surfers dotting the shoreline and cruising out amid the deep blue surf. It’s idyllic. “This is what I picture when I think of Northern California,” I say to Nick.

Miles later (and after we passed the really cool-looking HI lighthouse hostel) we roll into a gas station in Santa Cruz, fill up the tank, and decide we ought to figure out where we’re camping. Nick asks the station attendant, but she can only think of spots back up the way we came – and there’s no town, no nothin’ up that ways.

We pull out a map (purchased back in Portland), and find that the only real spot to camp is a state park on the edge of Capitola – the town adjacent to Santa Cruz.

By the time we get to Capitola (maybe 15 minutes later), we’re starving, and so we park it in town and settle on a delicious Thai joint before trying to make camp. After our meal we stroll out to the beach, checking out the funky multicolor bungalows, and spotting a couple who are happily asleep in the sand.

The park ranger at the entrance to New Brighton State Park is out for a break, so we find ourselves a campsite and hope that nobody has it reserved – it’s about 8 o’clock, so we figure if someone is gonna show they’d be here by now. We figured wrongly, as it turns out, and the ranger (who can’t be older than 18) tells us we have to move. We pick up our tent and shuffle across the way to our new site, which is actually a lot nicer.

Tent set up and a fire going, the sky fades from dusk to black. We clink together some beers, and call it a night.

Last Days in San Francisco

north beach. photo by Andrew Møøre.

AT SOME POINT IN your drinking career, it will happen. You will walk into a bar amid a strange silence – that awkward period between jukebox tracks where everyone realizes how loud and rowdy they’ve been. And then, catching you completely unawares, Journey will boom through the stereo. But by then my friend, it’s too late.

Such is the case for Nick and I as we stroll into North Beach dive up on Green Street. By the time Steve Perry is belting “livin’ in SOUTH Detroooit!” a woman who is phenomenally drunk wraps her arms around both our necks and croons along, urging us to do likewise. I escape from her talons by excusing myself to the bathroom, and come out to find Nick looking both awe-stricken and sincerely pissed as this chick guzzles half his beer.

Somehow he manages to convince her to resume her spot at the bar stool, but by this point we’re really not feeling the vibe. The bartender tells me as she pours a pint of Newcastle that she saw a guy get his head blown off outside her apartment last night. Sweet. Nick and I look at each other wearily, and I drain my beer.

We’d started the night out with the lofty goal of getting wobbly drunk. But we wanted to kick off our bar hopping on a classy note, and so circled several blocks looking for a spot serving great martinis and chilled atmosphere. We come across a waiter taking a smoke break and ask him what he’d recommend. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he convinces us to come into where he works – Joe Dimaggio’s. Pricey, yes, but it’s exactly what we’ve been looking for: plush leather booths and strong drinks.

A little alcohol swimming in the belly and we decide that we need some proper drinking food. We stumble upon Golden Boy, a place serving life-changing Sicilian pizza with great beers on tap. I bite into steaming slice and look up at the curved aluminum ceiling, and think that this place almost looks like a small airplane hanger.

We hit the Journey dive after Golden Boy, and I finish my drink as we stand up to leave. Buzzing in the cool night air, we fall back onto the tried and true – Vesuvios. There’s just something about the atmosphere of the place, the stained glass windows, the wooden booths, the dark corners. We order a couple pints of Hoegaarden and grab a seat. Our conversation blurs into the din of the bar. Several German men sitting next to us chat loudly. Nick and I talk about the trip, about life. We order another drink. We feel content, we feel a stir of wanderlust, and finally, we’re slurring. Time to head back to the hostel.

Continue reading ‘Last Days in San Francisco’

From the East Bay to the Pacific

beach @ golden gate park. photo by dailytransit.

THERE’S SOMETHING DISCONCERTING ABOUT speeding through a dark tube mere feet away from the crush of thousands of cubic tons of seawater. But you’ve got to get across the Bay somehow, and so Nick and I sit calmly as we zip along on the BART towards Berkeley.

We come up to street level to find ourselves amid crowds of Cal fans who’ve arrived for the day’s football game. People are hocking tickets, looking for tickets, and we cut a line towards the greenery of campus. The last time I came to UC-Berkeley we spent so much time wandering around shops that it was dark by the time we got to the main campus entrance, and so I never really got to explore the college that had rejected me years back – to see what I had missed out on.

I should preface what I’m about to say with this: I’ve seen some gorgeous campuses in my day. The University of Washington probably tops them all with its Gothic architecture, cherry-tree lined quad, and views of Mt. Rainier. Tied for second are the University of Wisconsin-Madison, nestled between two vast, clear lakes, and Seoul’s Yonsei University, with its old stone buildings choked by lush green ivy. And so as we’re wandering through Berkeley, taking in the fields and the orange-tiled roofs and all I can think is, “It’s pretty, but it isn’t that great.”

Campus snobbery aside, Nick and I do take the time to lay down in beautiful green field and soak in the day. A young coed is chatting away on her cell phone not far away, but it doesn’t break the calm washing over us. My mind feels delightfully untethered, my consciousness floating just above the spot where I lay.

After enough sun we meander down towards Telegraph – Berkeley’s version of the college strip, like Seattle’s University Ave or Madison’s State Street. But we do notice a key difference: the hippies here are old salts, sexagenarians who’ve probably been smoking gummy weed for decades. They sell tie-dye tees, knit caps to hold up natty dreads, and used reggae albums. Peace and love and fighting the empire are carved into their lined faces.

We grab lunch at Cafe Intermezzo – the same place I came when I was at Berkeley six months ago – and shove the massive quantities of salad into our fiber-deprived guts; a welcome change from the grease and beer that have been our diet’s staples. Sitting at the window bar we see a guy wearing cycling shoes holding a hand-made anti-war poster. “Silence is consent!” he shouts.

After our meal we browse at Rasputin Music – I scour the shelves for a collection of Cambodian music I heard at a cafe in Portland and for a punk album that a friend in LA told me was an essential listen, but come up with nothing. We decide it’s about that time, and walk back towards the BART station.

Continue reading ‘From the East Bay to the Pacific’

A Short Cappuccino & a Chinese Bun

sf chinatown. photo by SeenyaRita.

RED BEAN. LEMON-PINEAPPLE. BARBECUE PORK. Custard. I’m staring at the display case debating over which filling sounds best on this particular morning. The bakery is packed, and Nick and I are the only white guys in the place – a sign that the buns are good here. And I love a good Chinese bun.

We had woken up relatively early that morning, stumbled sleepy-eyed through the hostel to get showered before heading up to Cafe Trieste on Vallejo. With a mostly wood interior and an aged, bohemian feel, it reminded me of the coffee shop I once worked at back in Seattle. But the baristas at Trieste aren’t too keen on bullshitting – you order, you pay, you sit or you go. They show affection best through a strong cappuccino.

Both of us had been eager for a breakfast of buns since the previous night, when I had gone searching in vain for char-shu-bao (bbq pork bun). And so with coffees in hand we began to meander through the arteries of Chinatown, passing by produce markets as they stirred to life. We passed several bakeries, but stopped at the one with sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves steaming in the window. Inside, some of the pastries were as cheap as 50 cents – this was the place.

I decide on lemon-pineapple, while Nick settles on red bean. We take a seat and begin nibbling joyfully on the sweet dough, both reflecting on the fact that we could never get something like this back in our respective home cities. The sidewalk bubbles and churns with people and incomprehensible conversation, and by the time we step outside we both half-expect to be in Beijing.


We ride towards the Marina District in search of bike shop where Nick can get a bolt for his cycling cleats – one had unexpectedly popped out yesterday, producing an ugly “ka-CHUNK” as it exited. The guys at Bike Nut help him out, and suggest a good place for lunch to boot. We wheel just down the block to Real Food Company (strikingly similar to Whole Foods) and order a couple sandwiches, which we consume outside in a gentle breeze. We both comment the mustard is especially pungent – an overwhelming, nose-wrinkling taste that smothers the ham. We strike up a conversation with a guy sitting next to us who’s here visiting his Aunt, and searching for a new city to call home.

“Where you guys from?” he asks. Seattle, we say. “Ah…another affordable city,” he laughs. We collectively bitch and moan about ridiculous living costs, in cities nationwide. “When I was in Seattle it seemed like the streets rolled up around six o’clock,” the man says, puzzled at this observation. We tell him that there are districts that have better nightlife than others, but cede that it barely compares to the ceaseless pulse of San Francisco.

Bellies full (mostly of mustard) we scoot off towards the Golden Gate Bridge – today’s main event. We decide to make some exercise out of it and hustle into the headwind coming off the Bay and up a hill that will lead us to the bridge’s footpath. Winding around we stop just at the mouth of the bridge, which is choked with tourists on this sunny Friday. Opting to not be associated with the lycra-clad sprinters who are damn near knocking people over the railing, we just walk the bikes and take in the view.

From a distance the topography of the San Francisco peninsula is almost indistinguishable because of the urban blanket that covers it – buildings simply look inexplicably tall in some places. It is a beautiful, glittering mess. Nick says that for the former prisoners of Alcatraz having a barred window with a view of the city must have been the worst kind of torture.

Having done our touristing for the day we zip back towards North Beach, and it’s almost beer o’clock at the San Francisco Brewery (actually, almost 4 o’clock, when pints and pitchers are half price). We order a deep red, rich brew and sit outside in the company of couples and businessmen who are all getting a head start on their weekend. A pleasant buzz washes over me and Nick says, “Man, I could definitely live here.” I nod in agreement.

We spend that night back down at my friend Danielle’s place, drinking beers, eating pizza and watching Just Friends on TV. Perhaps a normal night if we did live in the city. After a few slices food coma sets in, and the hours are wearing thin – it’s time to head back up to the hostel. Nick and I step outside the apartment just as our bus whirs by, and we sprint off down the street towards the next stop.

(Next: More San Francisco…)



unit a. mission district, sf. photo by dailytransit.

WE SAIL LIKE EAGER PIRATES over the pavement, sweeping down Columbus Street in search of food. Two circles of rubber meet road as lungs suck in gray sky for sustenance. Now we’re on Market Street, pushing pedals past Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. This ride is our morning salutation to the city, a yoga of caffeinated cadence. The periphery is a blur of human scenery.

Many rotations later we arrive at Momi Toby’s, a favorite Hayes Valley cafe from my last visit to the city. My teeth already have plans for an onion bagel smothered in cream cheese. We lock the bikes across the street, a breeze gently invades my hoodie and laps away the sweat. I open the flimsy screen door, and step inside.

The crimson walls are just as inviting as I remembered, almost as welcoming as the owner; when we don’t have enough cash and the ATM around the corner is found in disrepair, he offers us a freebee (no need in the end, I found an extra $5 tucked away). Sipping coffee out on the sidewalk and full of that desired onion bagel, Nick and I discuss how genuinely happy we are to be here; here, where the weeks don’t fly like days. The monotony is broken, an escape made, life feeling adventurous as we savor late summer.

“Summer hasn’t felt like summer since back in ’04,” I say. Working jobs killed youthful days.

We mosey a bit, check out the park, then roll to the Mission District. We walk there for hours, checking out bookstores and dining on painfully satisfying tacos at Pacho Villa (the hot sauce will love you, but hurt you in the end). But the highlight is when Nick gets mops randomly dumped on his head at 826 Valencia – what else can you expect from a store operated by pirates and writers? We marvel at how a block can divide worlds: Valencia and Mission are parallel in reality, but are really parallel universes.

The spicy beans in my belly are fuel to power up hills – or so I tell myself as I feel burning in my muscles and gut, pedaling a bike with one gear up the formidable rollers of Lower Haight. At the top now, nearly dying but feeling proud that I didn’t walk it, we cruise and memories float back; it seems like minutes since I was here last April, Nick says the same about being here three years ago. We marinate on that, then we ride through.

We flirt with Golden Gate Park before leaving the green for the busy streets of the Richmond (north of the park). Past the Chinese shops on Geary – like a whole other Chinatown – we roll (actually struggle) up to a nice viewing point in the Presidio, and take in the Bay as it begins to soak in the pre-sunset orange light.

The ride back to the hostel is a bit grueling, a bit hairy. Excepting ridiculous detours, there’s no real way to make it back without mashing up and down some serious hills – we are, after all, going through Russian Hill. We do what we have to, finally coming to the Broadway tunnel. Here the sidewalk/bikepath is not paved but is metal paneling. Friction hardly exists, and we have perhaps six inches on either side as we zip towards the light – on one side is wall, the other is railing, and cars. Keep ’em straight.

An hour later, the bikes back at the hostel and our muscles weary, we stroll through Chinatown in search of cheap, delicious fare. Sam Wo’s is our answer – customers step through the kitchen on the ground floor to be seated in the low-ceilinged second-story dining room. Noodles (of any kind) are the specialty, and the waitress will kindly tell you what not to order (“Beef no good, how about chicken?”). And at $3 to $5 per plate, the price is right.

Sufficiently fed, we hoof it back down to Hayes Valley, amazed that what is a 15-minute trip by bike is a 40-minute trek by foot. But we have some drinking planned, and think that stumbling shoes are likely safer transport than wobbling bicycles.

We show up at my friend Danielle’s apartment and are promptly greeted by Sissy (a small, ferociously harmless dog) and the roommates. I see the small room where Jan and I stayed during our last visit and become unexpectedly nostalgic. Danielle offers champagne – she’s all dolled up for the Roots show tonight – and we toast and drink before taking to the streets again. Danielle and her roommate go off to to the concert, and Nick and I walk up Fillmore in search of a bar with thickly chilled atmosphere. Hello, Florio.

The room is saturated in a red glow. Nick orders a gin and tonic before heading to the bathroom, and I ponder whether I should splurge on some Chimay- I do, and I’m quaffing delightedly by the time Nick comes back for his bar stool. We chat and ponder, lulled into a buzz by our exhaustion, the city and alcohol.

Outside the sidewalks are quieting down – it’s only Thursday, after all. Not even two days in and we’ve done a citywide crash course, hitting up the four corners. The fog is rolling in, so we decide to shove off in a cab, and call it a night.

(Next: More San Francisco…)

Poetry in the Pavement

view from a pint glass. vesuvio’s, sf.

WE’RE SCRAMBLING FOR CHANGE. A line of cars is queuing up behind us, and the Russian woman working the toll booth looks unforgiving. “Could ya help us out?” I ask, chagrined and holding one dollar less than needed for the toll.

“I cannot take less than five,” she replies, stone-faced with a thick accent. We don’t have five in cash, I say, so what then? “You will get a fine for thirty dollars mailed to you,” she answers. Sweet. Welcome to San Francisco.

The day is cloudy and I’m feeling a bit pissed from a seven-hour drive and the Golden Gate toll debacle. We park around the corner from a strip club – coincidentally adjacent to our hostel – plug the meter and lug our stuff up to the Green Tortoise. The employees at our hostel are changing shifts and so we just sit there while the meter runs. The woman working says we should just sit tight. “I’m just worried about the meter,” I say, tired and feigning patience. Well go feed it, she says.

We eventually get set up in our small room, and then go in search of a place to park the car for free. The key is finding a curb that won’t get streetcleaned until the day after we leave – we luck out at a place near Hayes Valley right next to a park. We pull our bikes out of the trunk, lock the doors, and hope the car will still be there six days from now. Then we ride away, down Grove and into the mad flowing artery of Market Street. It’s rush hour, and the feeling of blood moving in our legs after two days of driving is good enough to make us feel a little crazy. It’s car-avoidance meditation. In between and around. Pedal. Concentrate. Pedal.

We hit the Embarcadero – the main road on the northern waterfront – and whip around to Broadway. We hit a couple good-sized hills and push up them with all we have. I’m gushing sweat. We wheel in front of the hostel sucking air and feeling a great high of endorphins, buzzing with excitement of being someplace new. My bad mood has worn off. We take the bikes up to our room and then hit the street again in search of food. We’re in North Beach so it’s got to be Italian fare, we decide.

On a Wednesday night North Beach (aka Little Italy) is pulsing, and suave Italian men are out luring potential customers into their restaurants. A couple try their bit on Nick and I, but our thin wallets are more persuasive. After touring a few blocks I bust out the trusty NFT Guide and find that “Steps of Rome” should have a solid meal and only has two dollar signs next to it. But when we get there it seems a little spendy – is a little spendy – but the Italian guy is selling it really hard and we give. “Fuck it, it’s our first night.”

Bellies full and wallets stung, we step outside. The fit, grey-haired Italian man who ushered us in the door asks us how our meal was – Great, we say. Then he says something about going out to find women. “How is the pussy in this city?” he asks. We laugh, not quite believing that a 50-some-old man just said that, and then say we wouldn’t know anything about it (both attached men).

Then we see it. Right next door to “Steps of Rome” is “Steps of Rome Caffe,” the stripped-down, less romantic, less expensive version of the place we just ate at. Damn.

We meander down Columbus to find ourselves at Vesuvios, the favorite watering hole of Jack Kerouac. The alley that runs between the bar and City Lights bookstore (also a famous beat haven) is even called “Jack Kerouac Alley.” Steel letters sunk into the pavement of that alley tell quotes of Kerouac’s and other writers.

Nick and I sit in the second floor of the bar and sip on our pints. He takes a phone call outside and so then I just sit there and feel kind of inspired. Kerouac was just a person who sat in this bar, I think to myself, and who wrote. I take out my journal. A gorgeous cacophony of conversations drifts from the cozy wooden tables and out into the neon city night.

(Next: More San Francisco…)

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