Monday, 8 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 2






I had no idea what the weather was going to be like. I knew California as ‘The Sunshine State’ (although it’s more commonly referred to as The Golden State, for a variety of reasons) but was also aware that San Francisco is a place regularly inundated with fog – famous for it. Regardless, it was early March, so I didn't really know what to expect.
Meteorological conditions were good from the off and at some juncture a taxi-driver informed us that San Francisco was presently caught within the grasp of some unseasonably hot weather. San Francisco is a lot milder than most of California, and in March one wouldn't anticipate the mercury to rise any higher than 16°C. We enjoyed daytime temperatures almost a full 10 degrees upwards of that, and the evenings were mild too. There was no indication of fog.
            My colleague and I hadn't been immediately alive to this anomalous isopiestic stability. The Astoria lay in the shadow of the Financial District, which would keep things rather cool down there. Only when we moved north to Fisherman’s Wharf, or west toward Golden Gate Park, could we tell just how hot things were, and how bright the sun and still the air.
Walking up Grant Avenue, through the heart of Chinatown, slightly hung-over after our evening spent drinking around Broadway Street, I was picking up a positive vibe. There was a hustle about the place, but nobody was giving out any hassle. At the top of Grant Avenue the Chinese ambience gave way to a distinctly Latin flavour, as the Chinese restaurants made way for their Italian counterparts.

We take lunch at a pleasant Italian café – Café Greco – on Columbus Avenue. Nathan and I order beef sandwiches and freshly made orange juice – I throw in a cup of coffee. I am aware of the pound’s strength against the dollar and because of this I'm expecting everything to be priced rather reasonably. Our sandwiches cost $8, which works out at around £5. This does not represent the good value I’d been hoping for. We’ll be eating out two or three times a day for the next fortnight and this needs to be the cheapest meal of the day. But when our sandwiches arrive they’re really quite something: sizeable buns rammed with layer upon layer of thinly cut beef. If all portions are this big then I’ll get by on two meals a day, no problem.
On to Fisherman’s Wharf, where we will laugh at the sea lions. It’s a bit of a tourist trap but the time of year tempers the amount of excursionists present, and so it actually feels quite genteel. Then we catch a bus to Haight-Ashbury.
It is very hot on the bus. We hope that this is because it is an enclosed vehicle with no air-conditioning. Debarkation brings only mild relief. Unfortunately, we need to board a second bus to Haight, so our mild relief is also brief relief. Fortunately, the second leg of journey is not a long one (and leaves me thinking we could have walked it).
Haight-Ashbury is a more sedate than I expect it to be. It’s like London’s Camden Market on a sunny day but without the swathes of teenagers, or the drug-pushers. Indeed it’s a cleaner place in every way; it’s hard to imagine that this was once the epicentre of 1960s counter culture. But that’s okay: Amoeba Records is heavily stocked with vinyl, and I make a note to return there before the journey home.
We’re on a reconnaissance mission, preparing ourselves for the week ahead and the impending amalgamation with our two comrades, who are already firmly entrenched on their tour of the States. We catch a bus south-east toward the district of Mission & Dolores, taking note of a potential nightspot along the way – ‘Delirium’.
Nathan is hungry again. We only ate a few hours ago but he’s hungry again. There’s a café opposite so we go there. Nathan orders a chicken burger & fries while I just have another coffee, although I end up feasting on his leftovers.
We were understandably late in getting up this morning and so it’s later now than it might otherwise be. Still weary, and intent on giving tonight a go of it, we concur that we should probably start moving in the vague direction of our hotel. Slightly disorientated, we take an unwise turning and find ourselves in deepest Mission. Before we've even walked 30 meters we register a paralytic drunk stumbling about the place, a woman having an argument with something imagined, and a whole host of sketchy characters who collectively suggest that we’re heading in a bad direction. It’s not as threatening as it sounds, and nobody gives us so much as a second glance, but it is a sharp contrast to what we've experienced of San Francisco so far.
We retrace our steps and look for somewhere secure to scrutinise our map, see the error of our ways and re-route accordingly. We need to make for Market Street. On our way we will stop off in a musical instrument emporium and army surplus/camping store, more for Nathan’s benefit than mine. Once home, Nathan will take a nap whilst I drink coffee al fresco in the café across the road from our hotel.

I want to give Vesuvio another go. Before we do there’s a bar atop some tower block, somewhere around Nob Hill, where Nathan would like to have a drink – he’s read about it but I'm not sure where. It’s a struggle to locate this establishment, and when we do we’re not sure we will be permitted entry: it just looks too swanky and we’re not dressed for the occasion. The doorman takes pity on us and allows us to stay for just one drink (presumably because it’s early enough for it not to be a problem). We are grateful for this opportunity. The view is a splendid one, although the prices would cripple us if we did indeed sport the attire that would allow us to see out the night here.
            Vesuvio has quite a history. It’s where many of the Beat Generation used to hang out – Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady and the rest – and I like the affiliation. My colleague isn't that bothered. He thinks it’s a very nice bar but is desirous of a more lively environment.
After a couple of beers we move on to Fuse just around the corner, which isn't a particularly interesting establishment but has a more youthful clientele. This is explained by its proximity to a hostel called the Green Tortoise just across the road. “You want to get yourself to the Green Tortoise, just over there across the road,” proffers one of its temporary residents. It turns out that they charge about half the going rate at the Astoria, but for dormitories with communal bathrooms. About this we are not concerned. Nathan and I require the merest of dwellings and the location here is more congenial to our needs.
We take a look and are impressed with the institution’s archaically grand, if rather decrepit, common room. You can even smoke in there, contradicting the no-smoking policy enforced in the bars, cafés and restaurants we've frequented thus far. We make a reservation and intend on immediately retreating to the Astoria in readiness for our morning transfer. Instead we end up checking out the bar across the road from Vesuvio where a large jazz ensemble is readying to play. Their performance will have my colleague so enthralled that he decides to stay for a while longer, after I've announced my attention to turn in for the night.

The next day we compared notes on how easily we found our way home through those quiet streets of Chinatown and wondered whether this city was always so placid.


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