A Travelogue in San Francisco, Day 1.
My recent trip to San Francisco, joined by Editor and Partner, Kathleen Dolan, came as a consequence of curiosity, nostalgia, a need for new scenery, and an experiment with travel writing. News articles have been flowing for several years concerning the gentrification of Bay Area cities, not necessarily as something new in itself, but as a token of irony concerning the liberal agenda behind many tech companies contrasted by their cut-throat occupation of whatever properties they want, and raking in billions of profits every year while paying the lowest tax-rate you dare not even ask about, while manufacturing products in facilities with nearly the lowest paid workers in the world, to boot. “They” is just as much the executives, six-figure programmers and designers, as it is the corporate system.
A trip to San Francisco for us meant that we could look for ourselves, on the ground, and talk to as many locals as possible. But since we’re not paid journalists, we have a round-a-bout way of it, avoiding too many commitments so that we could enjoy ourselves. We cover lodging, food, drink, and the standard fare of travel articles, but we do it in a creative style and probe the real issues concerning the community.
Bringing the audio recorder, I collected enough source material to publish a podcast in connection to this article. An interview with musician, Randy Kikukawa, who moved into the famous Castro district during the mid-1980’s and never left, is the centerpiece of the show. His argument to my position has me floored and seldom able to rebut.
7:00 AM Saturday Feb. 21st, we have a departure from PDX to SFO, Virgin America. 5:30 AM train ride to the airport works out, Kate and myself well-rested, having slept early that night. The flight experience is definitely unique; my first time flying Virgin, and probably the most enjoyable flight I’ve had since childhood. It was affordable and every guest had reasonable access to premium services, such as complimentary satellite television, music, and a GPS map on the same display. The aesthetic is relaxing, and the service staff was made of diverse personalities. It was a short, seamless flight, and we landed in San Francisco on time.
We grabbed the subway from SFO into the heart of downtown, on Market Street. Sometimes the train went above ground and we eagerly looked out into South SF for signs of the big city. Emerging from the underground at Market and 4th St., the immediacy of the city’s massive scale overtook my illusions about Portland, which I like to defend from those who say it’s just a small town. In Portland, we have our skyline, a dense urban center, shopping districts, fine arts and some element of everything a big city needs, but on a modest level. San Francisco is a monster.
Kate is from New York (suburbs) and so I watched her discover San Francisco as the first massive west coast city she has ever seen—still though, her standard is New York City. I lived in The Valley of Los Angeles before migrating to Portland more than a decade ago. I have been to San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley many times as a touring musician, but I have never been to NYC, so SF is my gold standard.
We started our journey by turning north toward Chinatown. It has an historic charm that still feels unscathed by economic demands for redevelopment. The area is prime real estate, yet these folks continue occupying it without high finance gobbling up cultural values. It is a place where Chinese refugees are safe to criticize their government. You will be handed pamphlets in promotion of Falun Gong, outlawed in China, it is a meditation practice with inner-peace and self-cultivation at its heart. Speaking of hearts, busted Falun Gong practitioners are imprisoned, and once imprisoned, the government has been proven to take their organs for commercial transplants. Prisoners in China unwillingly give up internal organs for transplantation. Surgical patients are not disclosed on this detail.
Chinatown is a place that Jack Kerouac would take refuge in for its plentiful cheap rooms; in fact, Jack Kerouac Alley is a brief connecting road from Chinatown to North Beach, blocked off from traffic in 1988 and named in his honor. The rooms are no longer available nor cheap, and I would say that we lucked out with a Green Tortoise Hostel on Broadway, two blocks from Jack Kerouac Alley.
The beatniks occupied the city (and Berkeley) because it was a great place to be, full of creative artists, with the ambition to give the place a rich modern cultural heritage, not because it was already the coolest city, not because it was chic, but because they could get cheap rooms and focus on being writers, living the life of artists.
There is no coincidence about the fact that the wealthy were taxed at 90% in the 1950’s. A CEO generally made only about ten times above the wage of their lowest paid employee, but today, we are talking about $1,000 manufacturing workers overseas compared to $20,000 Apple Genius Bar service workers compared to a $2,000,000 CEO, Tim Cook, compared to deceased Apple Founder, Steve Jobs, valued at $20,000,000,000. Break that down, again, Steve Jobs was 20 Million times richer than the people that manufactured his products.
These are rough figures of course, but accurate enough to demonstrate what is happening in terms of economic disparity. Beatniks earned an artists’ wage at 10:1 from the CEO of any industrial institution in the 1950’s. Steve Jobs had enough money to employ one million Allen Ginsburgs (adjusted for inflation), or for that matter, open an assembly line in San Francisco’s industrial district, now luxury buildings for engineers and financiers. Today, a young, forward-looking artist under-appreciated within their generation will churn out masterworks that are worshiped by future generations, earning a wage around the Genius Bar bracket, 1000:1 poorer than the Apple CEO, Tim Cook (worth $400 Million,) and 10:1 poorer than the supervising software engineer who just bought a condo down the street for a million bucks. That twenty-first century beatnik is mandated to pay the increasing costs of health care, two internet bills, student loans, rising food and energy costs, and a $1,000 room on Broadway without a kitchen (saw it on Craigslist).
Would Allen Ginsburg have the time to pen Howl were he so occupied with self-promotion and bill-paying? This is related but tangential. So I’ll just point out that with all the social media that these tech companies profit from, can it be proven that new artists are truly benefiting from it?
Cheap rooms are not to be had anywhere and we were tired with bags over our shoulders. On the horizon, we spotted a Green Tortoise Hostel. For one night, we had a private room with a sink, television and movies, shared bathrooms with showers, a sauna, breakfast in the morning, and wifi. The cost was $90.00. Motel 6 was $150 a night and offered none of the charms or extras involved with this place, like a friendly staff, free food fridge, and languages from all over the world spoken around us.
The good news is that we connected with an old Portland acquaintance in Oakland and secured two nights in their guest room with no strings attached. That is how the beatniks did it then, that is how we do it today.
But before crossing the bay to Oakland, we had a solid 24 hours in San Francisco, our bags secure in a private room, and a gorgeous day of sun to walk about in. Kate wanted to see and feel the ocean breeze, so we headed to the waterfront via Broadway. Only a minute passed when I saw this seedy adult club at 440 Broadway, and I realized we were at a famous Lenny Bruce site. Anne’s 440 was a night club in the 1950’s, and it was one of the first clubs to bring Lenny up from Los Angeles Valley cabaret joints to present him not as an emcee, but as a seriously irreverent comedian. It was also across the street from the famous Jazz Workshop, where Thelonius Monk and just about all the big names played in the sixties. Of great historical note, that is where Lenny received his first obscenity bust.
North Beach extends the stretch of Broadway where these two venues were located, and at the time, it was the gay-friendliest area of San Francisco. In 1961 performing at The Jazz Workshop, Lenny reminisced about working Ann’s 440 because the club owner needed somebody to change the regular crowd, saying, “They’re a bunch of cocksuckers that’s all, a damn fag show!” It revealed the truth of something with the real words of his time. Apart from an audience rolling over with laughter, he received an obscenity charge, to which other city police departments duplicated year after year. He spent the rest of his life battling charges in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, dying five years later a broken man, but exonerated of all charges.
Obscenity cases were nothing new to North Beach. Lawrence Ferlingetti defended his publication, Howl, by Allen Ginsburg, 1955. Lenny Bruce was a post-beatnik hipster comic and drew attention to himself through language. These cases both have determined a tremendous degree of legal influence over contemporary language in the media. It is now quite common for writers and performers to use the words that Ginsburg and Bruce got in trouble for.
Onward we cruised by foot, landing smack in a tourism zone and grabbed a $3.50 pour-over coffee from Sightglass Coffee Roasters. It’s good, but you know… it was just coffee. We continued up the piers and dug the Exploratorium, The Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception. We saw ticket prices upwards of $30.00 for the day, but we ventured in to see whatever we could for free. Arriving at the ticket-takers, I softly said as if a joke, “we’re thieves, going in without tickets,” and they didn’t stop us to check out the tickets, and we got in. It’s super-fun. Tons of science and pseudo-science wonders. We got self-portraits, but in sonic form (our voice). It is a modern hall of curiosities, but rather than clever taxidermy and flea circus bits, there are innumerable experiments with light, sound, motion, vibration, wavelengths, and mechanics. We were anxious to see the city and pressed on quickly, giggling that we pulled a Jedi mind trick.
A little further up the waterfront, we elected to cross through a small park toward the Coit Tower via Lombard, sort of pretending we lacked maps and GPS. It is refreshing to pace through areas that locals only traverse, and a little haunting to see how few people were out in these densely populated neighborhoods. Exquisite hillside homes and corporate centers blocked access to Coit Tower, but geography played the main role, having to navigate around this fairly massive cliff face. We found a way up spotting a winding wooden staircase and dug the view as we climbed it, landing at Francisco St. and Grant Ave. We continued onward, soaking in the specific architectural style of so many homes in the city. Then we spotted a happy hour at Sweetie’s Art Bar. Parched, we marched in.
Not a terrific draft selection when Anchor Steam is my only apparent local choice, but it will do. The joint is a red-room china-style lounge, it is small and charming with many good pockets to carry on conversation with your company. I asked the bartender if I could conduct an interview with one of the locals. There were eight people in there and four of them were vacationers, two of which were former residents. After a goofy interaction with a fellow from Hawaii, whose interview can be heard on my podcast, a local service industry worker decided to offer an anonymous recorded interview.
She works in a tourist hub among the piers along The Embarcadero. She says about her $1,500 2-Bedroom North Beach apartment that, “without rent control, I couldn’t afford to live here.” But she also expresses that in order to maintain good relations, she is replacing her own broken stove and oven. In Portland, tenant law requires landlords take care of this. In San Francisco, it is lease-by-lease.
At the job, she complains of dealing with young adults with money, “tech-heads who are entitled—who raised these people?” Her boyfriend chimes in, “they are entitled to rainbows and unicorns.” Very simply, “They’re rude. They don’t listen to you, they don’t respect your authority.” I ask if she ever tries to get to know them, flatly she replies, “No.” I rebut that they manage to hold important jobs and get along in the workplace, to which she points out that they were raised with a screen dividing them from real human behavior and that their work—contrary to her job—relishes in whatever digital filter might suit the environment.
Satiated, we scurried along in search of a solid meal. We pass a good looking Mexican joint, hoping to keep to this wishful concept of paying only $6 or less for a meal, but even a humble burrito could hardly do it. This was a discipline for the article and to shed light on the cheap food of local spots that still exist in the most massive cities. We settled on $7 and that opened up a lot more options. But still, unfed, we continued to Columbus Avenue and walked the great old Italian district. Meatballs, sausages, sandwiches, bakeries, espresso, and tons of people out for happy hours and early dinners filled the scene. Thank goodness, there is still jazz music at Melt! during Happy Hour. Specials are as plentiful as Portland and sometimes cheaper, with liquor and craft beer at $3 or less—hallelujah!
Really hungry but loving the full atmosphere, we kept walking, when suddenly, we were back where we started, at Jack Kerouac Alley. It is such a small city. A slice of pizza did it for us before having our second round of cheap drinks at Vesuvias Cafe. I had the “recession buster,” a shot of Old Crow with a pint of Budweiser for just $5.
So much of Vesuvio’s original style has been maintained. I can imagine the intelligentsia, the poets, the jazz players all spouting about nuclear doom and the unstoppable mind explosion of modern art forms as a means of stopping that doom. A varied group of folks gathered there, but it was a safe place for tech people, after-work meetings and stuff, let alone a constant tourist attraction. We grabbed the best people-watching seat in the house, on the balcony. In close quarters, with all the tables filled around us, we watched and listened to stories unravel, obsessing over the details of so many people, amusing each other with guessing and creating story lines to fill in the unknowns. Either we’re journalists or creeps—this magazine just has to pay.
The night fell rapidly. We obtained supplies from the closest supermarket and got comfortable in our hostel room. We talked with fellow travelers. Kate was insistent on going out dancing until about 10pm, when I was wrapping up Facebook messages, securing our hosts in Oakland, and then she collapsed, exhausted from having walked the hills for hours and miles, and after flying 600 miles early in the morning. We justified the early bed-time by enjoying our paid-for big LCD television and watched Stepbrothers until passing out. About halfway through the movie, I caught a second wind and thought about convincing her to get up, but I bet against that, valuing everything that morning would bring.