Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"San Francisco - Then and Now"

There was an airline strike, and I couldn’t get home.

I was twenty-one. I had just spent a life-altering eight weeks at The Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA. It was now time to return to Toronto. But I couldn’t.

Because there was an airline strike.

Some classmates asked if I wanted to join them on a trip to San Francisco. I said yes. It was an easy decision. When The Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop ended, I was kicked out of my dorm room. I had no place to live. And I couldn’t go home

Because there was an airline strike.

I’m recalling this today because Dr M and I spent last weekend in San Francisco, and it reminded me of the first time I went there.

My last weekend’s trip involved a fancier hotel. You can tell a fancy hotel by the amenities offered in the bathroom. It’s not just “Soap” and “Shampoo.” It’s “Soy Soap” and “Pomegranate Shampoo.” They also threw in a bottle of “Sugar Lemon Bath and Shower Gel.” Things are better when they come with modifiers.

The San Francisco of today, tries. It actually seems like they try extremely hard. It’s like they’re vying for “Most Spectacular Pretty Big City” and they really want to win. I think they’ve got a great shot.

Everything in San Francisco seems thought out and done with care. The residential streets are immaculate. The historic-looking houses seem like they were painted the day before we got there, possibly in our honor.

“Let’s make things nice for the Pomerantzes.”

Beautifully kept townhouses boast a brightening array of pastel exteriors. It’s like every street had a meeting, so that nothing would be duplicated or clash.

“I’m sorry, yellow’s been taken. Would you like vermillion? Wait. That’s too close to the ‘peach.’ How about aquamarine?”

The coffee’s the yummiest I’ve ever tasted. Ditto for the bread. (“It’s the water, Earlo.”) Every meal was outstanding. Though committed to excellence, nothing in San Francisco feels like it’s forced. No straining to be “the best”, like you get in New York. They have lofty standards, and they consistently hit them. (Speaking of hitting, San Francisco has a sensational ballpark.)

The San Francisco I visited with my UCLA buddies felt a lot grittier. Of course, I had less money back then, so I may have just sampled the grittier areas. But I think it was more than that. 2009 is different from 1966.

We stayed at a downtown hotel where the room rates were in the single digits. Loitering outside its front entrance – maybe “loitering’s” not fair because they were actually working – were a group of a dozen or so people – how do I say this – selling sex.

There were sexy women, men, men dressed like sexy women, women clad in chains and leather, cross-dressing Little People, a complete assortment, each of them demonstrably hawking his or her or his/her wares.

I remember walking by them and sensing as I passed a collective indignance, a huffy bewilderment, that said,

“We’re offering every service imaginable, and he’s not interested in any of them? What’s that guy’s problem?”

I was always uncomfortable leaving that building.

Our group did the regular San Francisco tourist thing. We rode the cable cars. Ate seafood. Caught really bad colds. Mark Twain was correct when he said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” I had just come from a July and August in Los Angeles, where it was sunny and eighty degrees. Apparently, San Francisco had no respect for the calendar.

My strongest memory of the trip was visiting two colleges – Berkeley and Stanford. What a startling contrast. The Berkeley campus felt brainy but tense. There was a palpable sense that the lid was about to blow off. The next moment could find you marching in an angry protest, or being attacked by peace lovers, if you didn't feel like protesting.

What stood out on the Stanford campus, besides the comparative calm, was that the buildings all matched, having been designed in a distinctive Southwestern motif. The place felt like something Gene Autry might have imagined, if he’d been interested in colleges.

The “uniforms” at the two colleges – the predominant outerwear – were also in noticeable contrast. At Berkeley, it was t-shirts and army jackets; at Stanford, it was “button downs” and khakis pants. Bringing things back to me – as I always do – I wondered where I’d best fit in. Being turmoil averse, I probably leaned towards Stanford. Though my haircut-averse, curly locks fit in better at Berkeley.

After a week in San Francisco, the air strike was still on, and I was almost out of money. Somebody had an idea. (It wasn’t me. I rarely have any practical ideas at all.) The idea was, that I cash in my plane ticket and buy a one-way train ticket back to Toronto.

That’s what I did.

I bought a ride on the San Francisco Chief, bound for Chicago. There, I would catch a CNR (Canadian National Railroad) train for home. If I remember, I’ll tell you about that train ride sometime. The following was my introduction.

My suitcase, with all my clothes in it, was stored in some Luggage Car, where I couldn’t get at it. I had not planned ahead. I’d be wearing the same clothes for the next four days. Owing to a shortage of funds, there’d be no sleeping cabin, or berth. I’d be sitting up, and sleeping sitting up, for four days. My food? Again, due to inadequate planning – plus a shortage of funds – minimal eating. For four days.

I climbed onto the train and I found my seat. The train car looked clean, the seat, comfortable. Nice gesture – there was a newspaper waiting for me on my seat. (There was actually a newspaper waiting for everyone on their seat.)

Having cased the perimeter, I sat down and got comfortable, ready for whatever it meant to spend four days on a train.

As the Chief slowly left of the station, I picked up the newspaper. The front-page headline, in extremely large type, read:



Anonymous said...

Bwahahaha! That's exactly the way it works.

Anonymous said...

As you might presume, just catching up on my reading. Wonderful as usual, although I've found SF just a little less charming when you're in the canning industry. And haven't you also found that the best way to have someone return your call is to give up and spend 15 minutes putting the same message into an email?

Not that anyone asked, but the word verification on this one was "irrev," which, I believe, in Italian restaurants is the antipastor.