We spend three nights in San Francisco, and hit all the tourist spots – Cisco tower, a concrete money trap at the western end of the city overlooking the bay, and Golden gate and Bay bridges; Lombard St – the curviest in the world, which I cycle down twice, the uphill to get there restructuring my thighs and neck into aching highly stressed cords ready to snap.
On Columbus avenue a cute couple Mike and Johanna stop us in the street and play a song, a heavy melody, rich and soulful, a pure unexpected joy and talk to us about the city ‘just your typical Amsterdam of America’, and how street kids, pierced and truculent, line height Asbury, where there’s ‘a Gap where something cool used to be’.
We rise the F-line tram down Market St for a dollar fifty, passing Halloween headquarters open two months before Halloween and the eponymous Apple store and my first sky scrapers, peaked funky glass structures clustered on the corners of the angled streets.
Everywhere hundreds of homeless – I later learn San Francisco has the highest ‘Bum’ population of any US city – with carts, on bikes, on foot, usually black, often obviously mentally ill. San Francisco is infamous for being ‘bum friendly’ i.e.: not as callous as other US cities – there are shelters and sometimes clement parks which may be slept in, there are free meals on certain days if one is hip to them, there is I’d guess a certain solidarity. It can’t last, one can feel the tension mounting – between the cities evident and traditional tolerance and the sheer numbers of angry, alienated, disenchanted ‘economically unviable’, roaming the civic centre with the transvestites and drug dealers.
San Francisco’s population seems equal parts White and Asian, with relatively few Blacks and Hispanics, and far fewer openly gay couples than one would imagine from the cities reputation. Although SF is car friendly – to the extent that limited free parking is available anywhere – the best way to see it is by bike, so we rent mountain bikes from Blazing Saddles at the pier – a tourist trap worse than Venice beach, and cycle up through the city on a bright calm breezy day when the fog has lifted and the traffic lightened. The roads are bike friendly and with a little common sense and a little acting like a car, all the city can be traversed this way.
After an hours climb up what feel like 70 degree streets we reach Height St and speed across to the corner of Height and Asbury where thirty nine odd years ago something happened. A booming economy and post war generation, disenchanted with a war and government and way of life and exited by the beats and the yippies and the factory and the British invasion, tried an experiment in living consciously and with conscience. It’s a failed experiment as the hip boutiques and smoke shops and trendy Eurasian restaurants testify, but this city and the world still quake from it a little – at the bravery and naivety and in disappointment at its end.
Further up Height we find Kid Robot, a hip toy store which stocks little limited edition wonders – Japanese influenced plastic monsters and megamen – from a couple of bucks to a couple of thousand, and Amoeba records, one of the largest independent record stores in the world, where I go crazy and buy more CD’s than anyone can rightly justify.
Above Castro, the famous epicentre of gay life in SF, and by implication the world, we stand on a rocky outcrop and overlook this city – wrapped around by the icy blue bay and shimmering colonial houses with great bay windows right down to the piers and harbours and ships gliding and settling in to the ocean.
We ride down into Castro, tiny and welcoming – not the intimidating explicit burlesque that I’d expected, and of course I get a flat and we frantically run across the city, Francis cycling ahead to get our car and pull back across Fulsome and toss my bike in the boot and race down to an expensive car park and frantically search out the bike ship to return our machines and finally at last without a minute to spare, meet new friends at the berth of the blue and gold line ferry to Alcatraz.
I wouldn’t bother with the rock, its small and unimpressive and the much vaunted tour is short and unexciting. The few tales of the place, one bloody battle, one Indian occupation and one successful escape are unenthusiastically reported by a jaded national parks guide and for the first time I truly feel like a tourist looking into Al Capone’s second floor cell and listening to the kitsch clinking sound effects on my complimentary head set, missing the party boats cruising the lit up jewel of San Francisco bay.
Tonight we reached Yosemite, but to hear of that, and our journey here, you’ll have to wait, as the Ausies waiting for one of the two computers in a hundred miles already hate me.