Warning: the following article contains graphic descriptions of a temperate west coast city. May cause feelings of envy, longing, frustration, or open hostility. Midwesterners are advised to use caution.
Let me get this delicate bit of information out of the way at the start: it was 70 degrees and sunny today, and it's the middle of January. Okay, there. I said it. Don't hold it against me, though, because I have yet to experience the meteorological truth behind Mark Twain's observation: "one of the coldest winters I ever spent was summer in San Francisco." Besides, there is no heat in my apartment, which means I can see my breath indoors on really cold days.
I currently reside in a third-story, rent-controlled flat in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. From my deck, when the city is not shrouded in fog, I can barely see over the rooftops: to the north, the treetops of Golden Gate Park; to the northeast, the twin steeples of University of San Francisco; to the east, the high-rises of UCSF Medical Center on the slope of Mt. Sutro; to the southeast, the rest of Mt. Sutro (elev. 908) and Twin Peaks (elev. 904 & 922); and to the south, Mt. Davidson (elev. 927). I have yet to take in the wide-sweeping panorama of the city from the top of Twin Peaks; I prefer the street-level glimpses of San Francisco's allure and character. In the aerial view (from a map, at least) the 30-mile long peninsula, of which San Francisco occupies the tip, resembles a hitchhiker's thumb.
On the back wall of the downstairs kitchen hangs a vintage tourist poster depicting a downtown trolley with the caption: "The new chapter in your life entitled San Francisco: Adventure 5¢." So, here I am. A new year. In a new city. A new chapter in my life. Narrated like dime novel pulp. The city is still sleeping off its dot-com hangover. After a decade of "new economy" hyper-optimism, San Francisco tastes again the morning-after downside of global capitalism's economic one-night stand. At least hangovers are now free from that nasty second-hand smoke aftertaste, ever since the smoking ban went into effect at all the city's restaurants and bars.
Bohemia regained? I've arrived in San Francisco just in time to join the ranks of the unemployed and uninsured scouring Craig's List for job openings, with the occasional break from the job search to march in an anti-war rally or indulge a particularly warm, sunny day. Since I have yet to find a job, I'm taking in as many 5¢ adventures as I can find, surviving on the coinage collected in a coffee cup on my dresser, at least until the out-of-state paycheck from my last job clears the bank. The CoinStar Machine at Safeway is my friend!
I was returning from Safeway after redeeming my coins for cash, waiting for the N-train back home, when a guy with a shopping cart full of glass bottles wiped out on the tracks, spilling Corona beer bottles and personal belongings in the middle of the intersection. This was obviously going to delay the train I was waiting for, so I went into the street to help this guy turn the cart upright and gather up the scattered bottles. I figure he was on his way to Safeway to redeem these bottles for 2.5¢ apiece through the California glass buy-back program.
I don't know the age of the tourist poster on the kitchen wall (probably dating back to the era of buffalo nickels), but nowadays one dollar will get you just about anywhere in the city on the municipal railway 80¢ for those of us who know to buy a packet of ten transit tokens in advance for eight dollars at the Reliable Drug Store on the corner of 9th and Irving. Add in whatever change I have in my pocket that goes to the panhandlers along the sidewalks. Let's face it pocket change for the homeless is an unofficial residence/tourist tax for San Francisco city-dwellers and visitors.
The other night, on my way to the drug store for a quick chocolate fix, I passed a guy camped out on the sidewalk who smiled in greeting: "Hello, Mr. Mind-your-own-business." He was kneeling like a tattered saint in front of the heart-shaped peace symbol he formed out of pennies. Upon my return, I handed him a few coins left over after buying a candy bar. In return, he handed me a sand dollar he collected from the beach at low tide, which I figured was a decent exchange rate, approximately 0.65 US Dollars to 1 Sand Dollar. "It's a gift from the ocean," he said as I departed.
With inflation of transit fares in particular and cost of living in general, I've decided that "5¢ adventures" are now those nickels of experience that you find on the way to somewhere else, everyday epiphanies while walking the sidewalks or waiting for a bus or train. Or if you prefer nature's currency, sand dollars from the sea of serendipity. This year I am cultivating an intentional relationship with randomness.
Everyday in San Francisco holds the promise of a 5¢ Adventure, and so far I've gotten my money's worth. One of my first mornings here, while sitting outside on the deck drinking coffee and soaking in the warm sun and Pacific atmosphere, I felt a barely perceptible vibration. It was uncanny and I wasn't sure what to make of it, until I remembered, Oh yeah, I'm in California. It slowly dawned on me that I might be having an authentic California experience, feeling the earth shake beneath my feet. I stood up, held my breath a moment to make sure I wasn't imagining it, and then went inside. In the kitchen, Rick was doing the dishes. "Did you feel that?" "You mean, just now?" He didn't feel a thing. "I was just out on the deck..." "Oh, that deck is so decrepit, turning on the washing machine will make it shake. Or if the N-Judah train drives by. Don't worry, you'll know when it's the real thing." Once he mentioned it, I did recall hearing the bell for the N-train. Oh, well. At least I have a seismic adventure to look forward to.
One of the first things I did after my arrival here was to go on a long walk until I got lost to see if I could find my way back home and to see what there was to discover about my neighborhood, the Inner Sunset. There must be 40 or 50 restaurants within a 6-block radius, and my downstairs neighbors claim to have eaten at them all. Erin was skeptical until Rick rattled off the names of all of them, from the Mae-Thip Thai restaurant on the corner of 6th and Irving to Park Chow on 9th near the entrance to Golden Gate Park. Theoretically, I could eat at a different restaurant every time I went out, but I have a tendency to frequent just two places: L'Avenida, where I can get a bit fat veggie burrito that fills my belly for under five bucks; and Arizmendi, a cooperative bakery that serves fair trade coffee and yummy pecan rolls. There are at least three coffee shops within walking distance where I can buy a cup of fair trade coffee, so I can easily satisfy my caffeine addiction in a socially responsible manner.
Continuing my first circumnavigation of the neighborhood, I strolled through Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, which is free. I said hello to my new favorite tree (a Monterey cedar), and my new favorite herb (redwood sorrel). I also saw a hawk swoop down to grab something from the ground, a mouse perhaps. On my way back, I made a noteworthy discovery a small produce market at the corner of 10th and Irving, only four blocks away from the apartment. Everything imaginable crammed into one small storefront with no room in the aisles for shopping carts shopping baskets only. An endearing quirk of this idiosyncratic market is the pricing. They must use an old price-tag gun because all the prices are labeled with the cents sign, a good sign for a guy living on loose change. So rather than $1.75, sushi wraps were marked for 175¢. Granny Smith apples, 59¢ a pound. And my favorite wasabi-roasted peas, 99¢. Ahh, my comfort food. I was so elated to be able to buy wasabi peas so close to home that I absent-mindedly walked out of the market without my change, and the cashier had to chase after me with the three bucks I was owed. Rounding out my current captivation with ¢ denomination, there is the Irving 5¢ & 10¢ (read "five and dime") where I buy my pencils and notepads. (In case you are wondering what happened to the quaint "¢" sign on your keyboard: option+4 for Mac users, control+/,c for PC users.)
Since my first pedestrian adventure, Erin introduced me to the resident bison herd at the western end of Golden Gate Park. I've also been trying to find my way back to Polly-Ann's, a Vietnamese ice cream parlor with hundreds of exotic flavors, and as many as 52 available at any given time. If you are overwhelmed with the array of choices and can't decide, they'll spin the flavor wheel for you. And if you are lucky, it'll stop on one of the "free ice cream" spaces. I won a free red-bean ice cream cone on my first visit, and am eager to gamble again. There's nothing to lose by spinning the wheel, except for that worrisome durian fruit flavor symbolized by a gas pump handle on the menu board. Recently, I saw a whole durian fruit at the Asian market it looked like a pinecone on steroids, or the fruit-version of one of those porcupine-like puffer fish the most intimidating fruit I've ever seen, and I'm still working up the courage to buy one and slice into it.
Since San Francisco is somewhat of a literary Mecca for me, I made the requisite pilgrimage to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. The best part it's open until midnight. No wonder it was the center of the Beat literary renaissance. Not the milquetoast, Midwestern, suburban strip-mall, corporate bookstore that closes at 9 p.m. This bookstore caters to insomniac bohemian wanna-be literary geniuses. And what a selection. An entire bookcase devoted to the French situationists. Based on the amount of shelf space devoted every minor French intellectual movement, you'd think this section of the city was populated predominately by a Left Bank diaspora. Instead, browsing the bookshelves, I saw a few yuppie tourists and a group of stoned teenagers who couldn't decide if they wanted to stay in the bookstore basement or go somewhere else. I made a late night of it, sitting for long stretches of time on one or another of the many straight-backed chairs situated among the stacks and reading random pages from gypsy folktales and quantum mechanics.
I followed up my walking tours and literary pilgrimages with a circumnavigation of the entire city on my bicycle. What started out as a simple loop around the Sunset District turned into an impromptu bike-a-thon around San Francisco: south along the Pacific coast on the Great Highway, around Lake Merced, east roughly following the southern city limits, past the Cow Palace, then north on 3rd Street along the bay shore, through Hunters Point (environmental injustice zone of air pollution, verified with my own olfactory air quality detector), around the Giants' Pac Bell Park, northwest along the Embarcadero (old waterfront redeveloped as tourist bubble), past the Palace of Fine Arts and Exploratorium, turning south in the Presidio on Arguello Blvd, and cutting through Golden Gate Park on my way home. I enjoyed bike lanes or bike paths most of the way. Of course, as it turned out, the worst hill was at the end of the three-hour bike ride, pumping up the hill out of the Presidio just as it was getting dark.
After learning ease of walking, biking, and riding public transportation around the city, I've decided that owning an automobile in San Francisco is more hassle than it's worth (aside from the fact I can't fill the gas tank anymore without imagining the blood of Iraqi children coming out of the nozzle). First of all, in addition to the unofficial residence/tourist tax collected by panhandlers, there is also what I like to call the "idiot tax." The idiot tax is assessed whenever you forget to move the car on street-cleaning day. Each side on every street is a different day, making it complicated enough that I am apt to get confused about where I parked my car and when street cleaning is in effect for that particular parking spot. I got hit with the idiot tax during my first week here: $30. I felt especially stupid because I had just gone through the trouble of getting a parking permit, which allows me to park in the neighborhood in the first place, except of course on specified street-cleaning days. I am convinced that street cleaning is a revenue-generating ruse, designed to get money out of absent-minded people like myself. Have you watched street cleaners in action? They just move the dirt around. Those bizarre contraptions are designed to just look like they are doing something productive so the city has an excuse to issue $30 tickets on a regular basis.
Acquiring the requisite parking permits is a whole other labyrinthine bureaucratic nightmare. My hair and beard grew another inch while I waited in line to purchase my parking permit. You've read or seen the play "Waiting for Godot"? Well, this was "Waiting for a Goddam City Employee to Get Off Their Fat Ass and Help Somebody." I can see the theater billing now: "See bureaucrats in slow motion. Worse than the DMV. More hostile than the DMZ. It's the Department of Parking and Traffic." I literally waited in line an hour and a half for a transaction that took five minutes. I was lucky some people had been there two hours. I'll give those city clerks credit for one thing: at least they kept us entertained with their absurd antics while we waited. In order to protest a parking ticket, one lady was told to bring in her entire car bumper, torn off in an accident, as evidence that she did indeed have the requisite parking permit attached. So there she was, standing at the supervisor's window with a chrome bumper. And then, since the bumper couldn't fit through the tiny slot in the window, the supervisor walked out from behind the line of clerk windows to get the bumper and take it back with her. I suppose she filed it under "B" for bumper. That bureaucratic absurdity was at least laughable, but they about had a riot on their hands when one of the few clerks (only three out of seven windows) put up a "closed" sign and left. Now I understand why they have a metal detector at the entrance and inch-thick, bulletproof plate glass to protect themselves. Some people in line were about to snap and go postal after waiting in line so long. Also keeping me entertained was the woman in line behind me discussing her entire love life over the cell phone (personally, I think she should just dump the creep). Another 5¢ adventure for me: I learned that after waiting in line for what seems like a decade (this is still 2003, isn't it?) the sweetest word in the English language is "next!"
Finally, there is traffic to contend with. Last week, while on a run to the beach through Golden Gate Park with downstairs neighbor Erin, we were on our return trip on a dirt path running parallel to Irving Avenue when we heard a squeal of tires, followed by the crunch and crash of metal. We ran to the street to see what had happened. On the underside of a stopped bus was a motorcyclist on his side. His shoe was off and his ankle bloody, but he stood up on his own. Traffic was getting backed up. Erin and I both had enough first-aid training between us to make us dangerous, so we helped the guy get to his feet and get his bike out of the street. Since he was white as a ghost and more concerned with the condition of the bike than his own bruised ribs, I figured he was in shock and might need some medical attention. However, as soon as he realized the police were on their way to the accident scene, he got flustered and took off in a full run bad ankle, bruised ribs and all across four lanes of traffic. He said he lived close by, so I'm hoping he made it home to call a cab to get to the hospital. Nevertheless, I wonder why he was so adamant about not wanting the cops involved. Chances are he probably had some outstanding traffic tickets or a few too many shots of liquor in his system (something to explain why he was oblivious to the fact that his zipper on his pants was wide-open and avert your eyes he wasn't wearing any underwear). Meanwhile, the food-vendor truck that had cut the motorcyclist off had driven away, and since the only one who hadn't fled the scene of the accident was the bus driver, Erin and I felt there was nothing more we could contribute. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and finished our run through the park charged with a small adrenaline rush.
Ultimately, I may decide to keep the car, because it is nice to drive out of the city once in a while for a remote getaway. Whenever I crave something bigger than a 5¢ adventure in Noir City, there's always wilderness adventure to be found half of a day's drive to the east at Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and the rest of the Sierras. Or maybe it is enough to walk the city sidewalks in evening fog and mist with a sense of mystery and the thrill of a cheap adventure: listening to the old Wurlitzer pipe organ before movies at the Castro Theater; people-watching on public transit; observing hummingbirds and bumblebees in the backyard in the middle of January; taking advantage of free introductory yoga classes at any number of yoga centers in the city; getting free Mama Pajama tarot rock-divination readings at Ocean Beach, instead of the run-of-the-mill five dollar palm readings found on every other city block; running naked into the ocean after dark and getting rolled around by the waves.