A Less Than Sunny Sojourn In San Francisco

Daniel Emberley, April 1999



Howdy! Michael and I just returned from a wonderful week in the Bay Area. We had gotten three free hotel nights in any vacation spot in America when we refinanced the house, so we were off on our long-postponed trip to the Golden City of the West. Spent a lot of time in the East Bay, riding BART, and checking in with friends.

One overriding theme of the trip was searching out McDonald’s, where Michael was on a fruitless quest for the winning piece in their Monopoly Game sweepstakes. Another was rain: it was chilly and rainy, exceptionally so even for San Francisco. We had to chuckle at the news reports the first day, warning of freezing rain in a tone of terror that outdid even Washingtonians in weather wimpiness. Did clear up toward trip’s end, for a final bright sunny day.

Wednesday, 4/7: The Mission

We flew Southwest into Oakland and caught BART over to 24th Street in the Mission. This was Dan’s first chance to ride BART, so he was excited. The system served as the model for DC’s Metro, so a lot was familiar: fare cards, boring stations, an excess of concrete and order. Rules and regs printed on every available surface. Stations actually post schedules, and regulars get upset when trains don’t arrive on time. Who do they think is mayor, Mussolini? We could also see a lot of errors that Metro avoided: upholstered seats that aged poorly, ticket machines lacking instructions, poor signage in the stations.

Got above ground on the main drag in the Mission. Is a very cool neighborhood of Hispanics, blacks, and gentrifying whites, among whom are a healthy helping of gays and lesbians. Sort of like Adams-Morgan ten years ago. Our B&B was the first in the Mission District, once the home of the “Potato King”, provender to the Forty-Niner’s (the prospectors, not Joe Montana), as our host informed us. Italianate Victorian, with a 1920’s side house which is where we actually stayed. Lovely garden with hot tub between the buildings. We were unable to use it unfortunately due to the weather. Dropped the bags, got the house tour, and hit the pavement on a hike due north. Checked out the Mission and Fillmore neighborhoods. Fillmore is the historically black section of San Francisco. Lots of contemporary townhouses, which we eventually figured out are the Bay’s version of housing projects. We got to see the cops attempt a bust, but the perpetrator (we never figured out of what) made a break past us and seemed to be winning the footrace when we moved on, two guppy faces in the wrong neighborhood. Felt safer as we passed through Japan Town.


Made it up to Pacific Heights. Our goal, the Haas Lillienthal House, had closed early. Drat. This is the only mansion in the neighborhood open to visitors, an architectural landmark. Pacific Heights remains one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the City, with views of the Bay that live up to the name. Checked out the real estate, including Danielle Steele’s home in the former Spreckels Mansion on Lafayette Square. The squares in San Francisco are nothing like DC squares: instead of flat commons, they are the tops of hills, often wooded, that were too steep to build on. Got a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the heights in the Square. The main shopping strip in Pacific Heights is Union Street, where we checked out home furnishings we could never afford.

Our next transit thrill was catching a MUNI bus south to the Haight. The hills really are impossible, and the transit really excellent. Each bus station has a map of the system, so it’s easy to figure out which bus will take you where you want to go, and fares are only a dollar with a transfer thrown in free. Since most streets and routes are straight, it’s easy to figure out where one is and let the trolley take you over the hills. Most buses are actually what we called trackless trolleys in Boston: look like buses, but are powered by electric lines strung overhead. The lines make it easy to tell that you’re on a street with a bus line.  Haight Ashbury was a little depressing. A run down counter-culture theme park, living off a glory I suspect was never as psychedelically pretty as it pretends. It attracts a lot of young kids who become bums and drug addicts, not necessarily in that order. I somehow have more sympathy with a kid who’s run away from home and is selling himself in the Tenderloin than I do with one taunting tourists while demanding cash. Has the free-market taken over my soul, or just disgust at white kids whose hair is dirty enough to make dreadlocks? Had a decent cheap Chinese dinner that was more than we could eat, then walked up to Golden Gate Park. Lovely as ever, the landscaping is superb. Visited the DeYoung and Asian Art Museums, which share a building that was heavily damaged in the last big earthquake. The lawn in front of the museums was full of gopher holes, which the Park Service must hate but was a cool entertainment for us. It was better than Whack-A-Mole, trying to guess which hole a gopher would pop out of next. The DeYoung has a great American collection. I had seen both museums before, but they were new to Michael. Saw a great John Van der Lynn (American, 1830’s, portraits and landscapes) of Niagara Falls and decent Wright, Stickley, and Shaker furniture. Asian was sharing with SF MOMA (see below) a show of contemporary art made by Chinese in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and in the West. I’d seen the review in the art magazines, and honestly liked it better as a review then as a reality. An interesting piece involves human hair woven into paper and suspended on all surfaces of a room, where you could feel enveloped in it. If the thoughts of lice and shampoo didn’t freak you out first.


Caught a MUNI bus from Golden Gate Park to the Mission by way of the Castro and Twin Peaks,
where the view of the city lights was postcard perfect.

Thursday, 4/8: Monterrey

The B&B served a great breakfast, with quiche, muffins, cheese, and cold cuts. The tour de force was of course the fruit, which was fresher than anything I’ll ever see on the East Coast. Papaya and mango, yum. We caught BART downtown to Moscone Center where we’d reserved a rental car, and took off down scenic Route 1. Pacifica is one of those towns that were built in the 1960’s that sold California living to the rest of us via Sunset Magazine. Very pretty, although we’re told it’s always in the fog.

Cruised through Half Moon Bay for lunch in Santa Cruz. The beach here is classic California, with a boardwalk carnival that was opened for Spring Break. We got fried seafood, clam chowder in a bread bowl, and corn dogs overlooking the Pacific, then Michael won us two inflatable baseball bats at a carny ball-toss stand.

Drove into Monterrey and parked at Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s sardine cannery is another festival marketplace, predominantly selling sweets. Lots of fat Americans who cannot possibly be Californians. We’d hoped to go to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, housed in new concrete at the end of the Row, but the admission at $18 took our breath away. I mean, we’re cheap tourists. Since Michael had already been there on a previous trip, decided to head into downtown Monterrey instead, where we toured the historic Spanish downtown. Monterrey was the colonial capital before the American takeover, and the historic structures are well integrated into the contemporary working city. We had dinner at an Italian place on Monterrey Fisherman’s Wharf, delicious crab ravioli, calamari, and blackened snapper overlooking the fishing boats and yachts.

We were just in time to catch sunset on the 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach. We’re not sure how it’s been pulled off, but this road is patrolled by the National Park Service, charges admission, and winds through mansions of the nouveau and Hollywood rich on golf courses. Sounds like a scheme to me. The views over the ocean are way cool. We picked up cones from the Monterrey Pines and Cypress to try to root back in DC. Twilight found us shopping in downtown Carmel by the Sea. Too rich for me, although some real art scattered amongst galleries clearly targeted at a well-heeled tourist crowd. Loved the architecture: unique bungalows of many styles blending well together and with the landscape. Look like they were built over decades, from the 1920’s to today, each era respecting the work that preceded it while still speaking in its own voice. Rode out of town to a Super 8 on the highway.

Friday, 4/9: The Tenderloin

We got up early and took a walk through Pacific Grove, a town on the north coast of the Monterrey Peninsula. One of the nicest communities we saw. Like Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, it had started as a religious camp meeting whose houses got progressively more permanent each year. Lovely, with a fine promenade along the ocean.

Drove over to Carmel Mission, which we enjoyed despite a snooty desk attendant (say this is your most condescending eco-topian tone: “We have no refuse containers. I take my trash home!”) This was Junipero Serra’s home base and grave, and is lovingly preserved by the Catholic Church. A fine example of the actual Mission style, which of course inspired the 1890’s Mission which is now sold as Crate and Barrel “Mission”. Still with me?

On to Mission San Juan Battista (that’s John the Baptist to us Americans), which is the mission and state historic park that Alfred Hitchock used in “Vertigo”. Paid our regrets to Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novack, shopped the only street, and had lunch at a local diner that made excellent omelet's. Being this close to Monterrey, we had to get them with Monterrey Jack: it really did taste better. Go figure, you know it must be made industrially by Kraft. San Juan also had a primo bakery, whose cookies (Snicker doodles! Peanut Butter!) we enjoyed over the next few days. We took the fast way back to the City, up US 101 through San Jose and Silicon Valley. Eh. A Costco in a parking lot. If that’s the future, give me Pacific Grove.

Just south of San Francisco we crossed over to the Great Highway up the Pacific Coast along Ocean Beach, pulling in at Cliff House for the views of the Seal Rocks and Musee Mechanique. The museum has collected antique arcade games, where for a dime or quarter you can watch polychrome mechanical figures farm, dance in a castle, tell your fortune, etc. To think we declined from this to Pong. Around the park to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, home to the Art Museums of San Francisco’s main European collection: it’s decent, but would not raise an eyebrow back home. A beautiful building, a Beaux Arts stone palace overlooking the Golden Gate. We snuck into part of the Tate show that was on loan from London, most of whose pieces we saw two years ago in situ. Love the campy 1960’s design stuff the best.

Drove downtown for the first night at our free hotel, the San Francisco Carlton. This is a 1920’s downtown hotel that’s been well maintained and now caters mainly to European and Japanese group tours. A decent room with good plumbing. We took a walk around the neighborhood, between the Civic Center, Pacific Heights, and Nob Hill, which oddly was not named on our maps. My friend John later laughed as he told us we were in the Tenderloin. Gwen Verdon was nowhere to be seen, but it did explain all the prostitutes, boys for hire, and gay bars.

We found a decent Korean barbecue place and filled up, then headed west to the Richmond district to meet our friend Don. We missed connections with Don, so headed east to the Castro. Parked on the side of Twin Peaks on one of the steepest streets I ever expect to ascend again, a credit to Michael’s auto skills. I know he didn’t learn to do this in flat Houston!

The Castro was oddly disappointing. Yes, it is Gay Ground Zero, where most of our trends and movements have begun, but it seems sort of “been there, done that” now. Nothing we couldn’t have found in Dupont Circle, and with less cutesy sexual innuendo. An Italian sub place called The Sausage Factory. Rival card shops called “Does Your Mother Know” and “Does Your Father Know”. Eh. Knew we were in the heart when we saw the Gap across the street from the Ben and Jerry’s. The good thing about Castro is the ethnic diversity which Michael likes, lots of gay Asians and Hispanics, less of a white bread boystown like D.C. They do have a way-cool knob store which Michael had read about in Metropolitan Home, unfortunately closed, where we looked into the windows and drooled. We had a pleasant drive up Market through the Civic Center neighborhood back to the Carlton.

Saturday, 4/10: The Tenderloin

We ran the car back to the rental service and caught BART over to Oakland. Michael rendezvoused with friends Desmond, Amy, and their new baby Tyler. They have a beautiful bungalow close to historic downtown Oakland.

Dan checked out the Oakland Museum. This was built in 1969 by Roche and Dinkeloo as an experiment in new museum design. It’s a series of landscaped concrete shelves that nestle into one of the hills near Lake Merritt. Part of the experiment was to create a museum that responded to community needs and involved neighbors in their own history and culture. Due to low attendance, I’d say they have not succeeded there, although what they have done is pretty cool. The top floor has a good representation of Bay Area art, the second floor teaches the history of the state, and the first floor the natural history of the state. The natural history is interpreted as a walk from the Pacific to the mountains on the eastern edge of California, with a gallery dedicated to each climate zone. The state history was skewed more politically correctly than I would like, with heavy emphasis on Native American and Spanish contributions and a big discussion of the Anglo-American invasion just before and during the Gold Rush. The most interesting part for me, California in the 20th Century, was jumbled together in one gallery at the end. Very worthwhile, however. The Arts and Crafts movement pieces were the best thing in the art section, although the collection highlights well artists that get under-represented in East Coast museums.

We reconnected at the Museum and caught BART back crossbay to the Embarcadero. The Embarcadero Freeway that cut downtown off from the Bay was removed after damage in the last big quake, opening up views from all over downtown. Explored the Ferry Building and the 1970’s Villaincourt Fountain in Herman Plaza. This was one of the first urban fountains designed for citizens to wander through and actively interact with. The large amount of concrete must make it an alien sculpture during water shortages, but it was very cool with the water flowing.

The California Street cable cars were out of commission for rehab, so we hiked up to Grant Avenue, the main drag of Chinatown. At Old St. Mary’s Church we met up with Don and his friend Stephen, visiting from Minnesota. We covered Chinatown together on a quest for South China Morning Breakfast tea. Michael’s uncle has sent us this in the past - it’s hard to get in the States, we may have to write to Hong Kong. Was fun to have a goal to get us in and out of the stores,

and we had a nice little dim sum stop en route. Don took us over to the Chinese Cultural Center (in a horrible concrete building) in Portsmouth Square. A nice exhibit of (more) contemporary Chinese art, with a great bookstore.

Found ourselves up in North Beach, where we had dessert in an Italian coffee house and shopped at the once-Beat-now-tourist-site City Lights Bookstore. Dan found a history of the decline of PBS into corporate sponsorship, and cool Jack Kerouac postcards.

Wandering back to Union Square, Don tried to convince us to tour the leather scene on Folsom Street. Thinking that futile in the daylight (and we were in khaki pants!), it will not do. Instead, we hijacked him onto a cable car up to Fisherman’s Wharf. Poor Don was afraid he’d lose his accreditation as a local resident, but we think he enjoyed it after all. Flirted with the t-shirt shops, wandered through Ghirardelli Square, gave up on buying any Ghirardelli's at Ghirardelli's and found another coffee place where we could savor an excellent chocolate cake. Don got us all on board the right MUNI bus from the waterfront south, and saw us off at Sutter Street near our hotel.

Sunday, 4/11: The Tenderloin

Got up early and caught the farmer’s market in UN Plaza at the Civic Center. Imagine the world’s best produce. That’s what you find in a San Francisco Safeway. Now imagine that brought fresh by the farmer with no intermediary. Amazing. We stocked up on roasted almonds and pistachios:   Michael is reading a book on protein in diet, and is trying to fit them into his meals whenever possible. Not that this conflicts with the above mentioned McDonald’s quest, mind you, he makes me eat the fries. We grabbed BART up to El Cerrito del Norte (that’s “elI sir eat-o dull nort” to locals) and met up with John, a high school friend of Dan’s who now runs Lotus Notes networks for Bank of America.

John and his lover Fred have a historic register home on the north edge of the East Bay, in a former gunpowder manufacturing town called Hercules. Very cool small town, with all the quirks you can imagine of setting up a place to make explosives and not blow up the workers. The mill itself is gone, but the Amtrak trains still run through, with striking views of the Bay.

John took us on an afternoon drive through the Napa Valley. We had no idea how small it actually was, almost wall-to-wall vineyards. If the tourists didn’t bring in so much revenue, I suspect real estate prices would have driven everything out of the Valley except vines and a few support buildings. It was mustard season, which is grown in cycle with the grapes to strengthen the soil. The yellow and green of the fields was beautiful. In St. Helena we found a gallery selling ingenious weighted chandelier/mobiles - we’ll probably order one for the new dining room. In Calistoga we sampled the waters and snuck around a spa where only paying customers are allowed. At John and Fred’s favorite winery, Folie a Deux, we sampled and invested in some libations to carry that sun back East with us. On our return to Hercules, Fred had prepared a most excellent pork roast, which we enjoyed with a friend of theirs before heading back into the City.

Monday, 4/12: Oakland Airport

We got up, packed, and left our bags at the desk before hopping BART up to Berkeley. We checked out a campus we had both considered and not applied to, and wondered why. UC Berkeley must be the most beautifully landscaped campus in America. Not the best architecture, although it’s often good, but the grounds are incredible, building on a campus plan by Olmsted but adapted to feature California flora. Caught the view of the Bay from the top of Sather Tower, wandered outside the Greek Theater, and shopped a little on Telegraph Avenue. Did our best shopping at See’s Candy, where we stocked up for the return trip to a land without See’s.  BART back to the City (lots of BART on this trip, huh?) and Union Square, where we met Caroleen, a former coworker of Dan’s at the Academy who is now working with an e-business downtown and loving it. She treated us to a fabulous alfresco lunch at Tiramisu, an Italian restaurant in an alley between the Financial District’s skyscrapers. Dan got to tick off his last San Francisco food requirement with a flavorful cioppino (that’s tomato-based seafood stew) spiked with softshell crabs. We got three desserts and shared. Amazing sorbets, although Caroleen’s lemon tart was voted the winner.

Caroleen pointed us to the Circle Gallery on Maiden Lane, which was Frank Lloyd Wright’s dry run for the Guggenheim, now a folk art gallery. They let us run all over the facility, God love them, as Dan postured about architecture.

Across Market Street to the new SF Museum of Modern Art. The architecture is inspired while still functioning well, a fortunate combination. The collection is pretty stellar too, especially the works on paper (great photos). They had several temporary shows, including the other half of the modern Chinese artists show that we’d first caught at the Asian Art Museum. Great gift shop.
Thanks to Michael’s sharp eyes we caught the trolley down Market Street. San Francisco has collected trolley cars from all over the world and put them to work on this recently restored line. Although the cars were rehabbed, the colors of the cities they had once served were preserved, so the line is like a working trolley museum.

Got off in the Castro, where we made it back to the knob store, BauerWare (www.bauerware.com). This time they were open, and we were glad we came back. They’ve crafted hardware out of dominoes, sports trophies, toys, sewing notions, kitchen gadgets, plus the fancy stuff you would expect but can probably obtain locally or by mail order. More ideas than Dan could steal in one trip. We checked out antiques in the neighborhood, and had a burger dinner at Harvey’s, a restaurant whose decor and wall cases pay tribute to the movers and shakers of recent gay and lesbian history.

That really ends the trip. We took the F trolley back down Market to Civic Center, picked up our bags at the Carlton and BART to Coliseum Station. A difficult time wandering around a deserted station trying to find the courtesy shuttle to the Days Inn Oakland. We got up early next morning and boarded a 7:30AM flight to BWI via Kansas City. Flight was long, and fully booked. Landed safely, got a cab to New Carrolton, and rode the Orange Line across Washington to Arlington. We basically traveled from one evening rush hour to another across the country. Not sure if it was the long flight, the early awakening, or the three hour time delay, but we were groggy for the first few days back. Both of us hit major work on our returns to the office next day.

Then again, could the tiredness be due to too much done in too few days in too beautiful a place? Nah, could never happen. Good thing we have another vacation scheduled next week. To a quiet, relaxing place where we’ll sit on a lake all day, relaxing. Although I hear there are a few things to see and do there. Have you ever heard of a place in Orlando called DisneyWorld?



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