Trip to San Francisco–June 1999–Freaks and Buzzards
I went with hubby “Cugan” and his brother M–, who won our plane tickets there. (We could never have afforded it on our own.)
The houses in Union City, where we stayed with family, had bad spider and bug problems, like the lakeside houses in our own Wisconsin city. At least we didn’t see many bugs inside the house, but it still looked like more than the usual in Wisconsin.
It would get cold at night, and bayside was often cold and windy, probably reaching the fifties before the day was done. So if you go to San Francisco, even in the summertime, take a heavy jacket! Also, there were old VW bugs everywhere, lasting forever in that climate. Did they belong mostly to aging hippies?
We liked staying with family rather than in an expensive hotel, where we would just sit around feeling bored at the end of the day. And I could sit on the couch and read Dangerous Liaisons while Cugan and M– watched the VCR or cable.
The neighborhood in Union City looked strange to me: It didn’t have the usual grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb. (In Wisconsin, it’s called a terrace, though I don’t think it’s called that in Indiana, where I came from.) You’d find everything from street signs to trash barrels (on trash day) sitting on the sidewalk, and have to walk single file around them.
The houses were narrow, though long, the yards were tiny, and the streets were lined with lots of cars, so it felt claustrophobic. But the Spanish-style houses with their double doors and pastels were pretty, and they, and the extensive landscaping people did, made up for that. There were flowers everywhere.
The first night, Cugan, M– and I went to see Phantom Menace. It was M–‘s first time and our second. (Yes, we did actually like the movie and wanted to see it again.) It was in that newfangled digital sound, but I noticed no difference between that and regular sound.
The 25-screen, new theater didn’t even have enough parking, so we were forced to park the rental car on a treacherous obstacle course made of bumpy dirt which was being used as a second parking lot. Go too far one way, and you fall in a ditch. We were glad to have a midsize car, because a smaller one might not have been able to handle the terrain.
When we saw a trailer for the new Austin Powers movie, some guy in the row in front of ours said, “I’ll need to have a few drinks before watching that one.” Cugan and M– applauded, and we laughed. (Yet M– ended up loving the movie.) This guy said the same thing about another movie, I think the South Park movie.
I was shocked to see a trailer for a new movie version of Anna and the King of Siam. Having seen the 1940s movie again after reading the book, I was shocked at how the movie twisted history around; The King and I wasn’t much better.
I longed for Hollywood to come out with a new version, maybe one that was closer to the book. (For one thing, Anna and King Mongkut did not fall in love, as far as I could tell. He was far too cruel for someone with her soft heart.)
Unfortunately, this new movie version was even worse than the rest. And now people were saying that even the book was practically fiction!
Monday, we rode the BART, a transit train, to San Francisco, where we rode a Powell-Hyde Street cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf at the end of the line. These cars were cool. They weren’t used just for tourists, either.
Even the brakes were wooden. Everything looked about as primitive as it probably was when they were first used, which made it all the more exciting.
Cable car is the only way to travel on the steep hills of San Francisco, but plenty of people still tried to share the streets with them and park on the hills. I thought those people must be crazy. We figured brakes must not last long around there, and that trolley brakes must get replaced every day.
The driver would put on the brakes going down a hill and take them off again to climb up another one. When the trolley would get to one end or another of the track, a few strong men were needed to turn it around. They would push it onto a wooden wheel in the street, pull a rope in the ground so the wheel would move, push the trolley around on the wheel to line up against the track facing the opposite direction, then roll it along on the track a little ways to the pickup point.
Long lines formed waiting for these cars; in the morning, it took about half an hour to finally get on a trolley. (Maybe that’s why people would still drive cars.) Along the way, individuals would stand at cable car stops or walk into the street, waving a hand so the car would stop and let them on. Sometimes there would be too many people at a stop and the driver would say, “Go on down the street to the next one: You’ll have better luck.”
He pointed out all the sights to us along the way, something our evening driver didn’t do, probably because he was the evening driver and we’d seen it all before.
Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and nearby streets were full of shops and panhandlers. Many panhandlers got creative. One young man with spiked hair sat in front of a sign that said, “Get your picture taken with a freak.”
Three guys on the streets dressed up in suits and stood like statues or moved like robots on blocks. One was painted gold, another silver. I had to ask Cugan if they were real people.
Some guys had signs saying, “I’ll be honest: this money’s for beer/weed!” I gave them no money, of course. I’m willing to help out the hungry as far as I can, but not those who want money for drugs or beer.
We toured the bay on a ship for an hour, and saw the Golden Gate, the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, and sea lions sleeping stretched out and looking like our cat when she slept. We also toured an old submarine, the Jeremiah O’Brien.
We walked part of the way across the Golden Gate Bridge, but it was cold and windy and I had a sore throat, so we didn’t go the whole way. There were phones here and there on the bridge to use for crisis counseling, to keep people from jumping off the bridge. Cugan had M– pose for a picture, his hat on backwards, reaching for one of the phones as if he were on his last rope.
In a chocolate shop, I got a tin of chocolate and two truffles, and had to get some of the truffles which were made to look like cats, mice, bears, lions and pigs. I could only get four, but they were almost too cute to eat. I still ate them, however, to Cugan’s surprise and amusement. He laughed when I would show him one or two each night, say, “Isn’t it cute?” and then bite into it.
One of the first two truffles got smashed in the bag before I could eat it, so Cugan and I went into the candy shop again later to replace it. The same cashier was there who had been there before; she remembered me and smiled at all the chocolate I’d bought. (It didn’t seem like much to me, but local prices were so high that it cost about $20!)
Dogs were huge in this area. I saw maybe one dog that was smaller than a Rottweiler, and it was tiny. Two of the dogs were mastiffs. One panhandler had a black dog he called a “puppy,” but it was huge and looked like a wolf. Cugan figured people had the big dogs for protection, especially the panhandlers.
As we waited for a trolley for about an hour in the cold wind of evening, after the fog had begun rolling in, a street musician entertained us with his guitar and his own songs. When we got close to him and could hear the words, he sang a funny song about the blues of waiting for cable cars in the cold, and sang, “I’ve been waiting here longer than you.”
Also, the trolleys were piling up, and we thought the operators must be deliberately spacing them out for some reason, though they didn’t do this before. This is why it took so long. As we watched some guys turn around one of the trolleys, Cugan and M– sang the hard-labor tune, “Oh-WEE-oh. WEE-oh!” One of the guys smiled at them. Cugan’s aunt later told us that they’re used to strange people.
Both times in the cars, I sat on a bench at the end facing forward, Cugan sat next to me, and M– held onto a pole in front of me. I got neck-aches from watching where the car went. You also had to be really careful if you stood by a pole, because if you hung out too far, you could hit something. Cugan’s family had been there before; once, his mom got hurt and had to get stitches because she hit some yellow poles that stuck up a little ways out of the street in one intersection (probably track markers).
We wandered the streets of Berkeley. We saw a bunch of young people with spiked hair and spiked leather jackets (not a common sight at home at that time). We saw the sand dunes near Monterey Bay, and drove through mountains to get there. Monterey was just as cold as San Francisco. At a seafood restaurant, as we read the menu posted outside, one of the waiters (I guess) came out and told us to come in, the food’s good, trust him. It was. 🙂
We saw the Monterey Aquarium, with its new Deep Sea exhibit. Outside we watched a sea lion sleeping on a rock, a cormorant sitting beside it, and an otter playing in the nearby kelp beds. By one glass wall was a small holding tank for otters, blocked off by small, rocky caves. The otters showed off for us and played. Two of the otters, females, slept for a while in a nook, lying on their backs in the water and holding up their front paws as if they were praying. One, the closest, kept looking at us.
Later we went down part of the 17-Mile Drive, which had more sand dunes and a beach. Otters played in the water. One floated on his back and kept thrashing a rock against sea urchins, trying to smash the urchins for his dinner. A wave would splash over him, you’d see his head poking up, he’d apparently lose his rock or want another sea urchin, and he would dive and come back up again. Cugan wanted whatever he was having, because he wanted to get that excited about dinner.
Instead of center lines and lane lines, California streets and roads have yellow and white reflectors. The streets often have bike lanes on the right.
The roads to and from Muir Forest and Muir Beach were mountain roads, narrow and twisting. Cugan, the only registered driver for the rental car, didn’t like the roads and didn’t want to drive back at night. We joked about how easy it would be to fall down the ditch on one side or the drop on the other, since there were no guardrails in most places. On the way to the forest, we saw what might have been a buzzards. M– took on a Latin accent and and a husky voice and said,
“Emilio, we will feast well tonight on fat Wisconsin tourists!” (Not that we’re fat.)
Cugan said, “Isn’t it nice that they (humans) come in prepackaged boxes (cars)?”
M– said, “And that they have seatbelts, so they won’t go very far!”
We saw the redwoods of Muir Forest, and wandered the trails. The famous walk-through tree had fallen before I was even born. Since this was caused by people walking around the tree and destroying the root system, the trails were now fenced off with wooden railings to keep people from disturbing the other trees. But one was set up with concrete walkways around and in it so you could stand inside its little cave.
Many of the trees had nooks and crannies, many of them big enough to fit at least one person side. Once, M– pointed to a felled tree and said, “There are probably a lot of bugs and termites in there.” Then a woman nearby said to a man who was trying to get inside a nook near the trail, “Did he say bugs and termites?” We saw a Steller’s blue jay and a Sonoma chipmunk, both cute, though the blue jay had nearly finished a piece of bread and Cugan wondered if it could fly after that.
Muir Beach wasn’t so much fun for me. It was cold and windy, and we went up a trail on a hill so steep it was hazardous to go back down. The guys disappeared over the top of the hill, and I couldn’t stay up there in the cold, so I had to go back down by myself and wait for them.
Cugan’s aunt and uncle had their own sense of humor. One night, Uncle Y– told Aunt A– that he had an invitation that said nothing about bringing wives. A– said,
“That’s because L– wants to steal you away from me. You should hear the things she says to her sister about you!”
For the next hour or so, until they left for a gradation party, Y– kept asking what L– said about him. A– kept saying,
“You’ll have to ask her sister. I’m not telling you.”
M– called in to work once or twice to check up on things, hoping for brownie points with his bosses, and one of his co-workers asked,
“You didn’t have soup in a bread bowl, did you?”
M– said, “How’d you know?”
It was a sourdough bread bowl in a fish ‘n’ chips restaurant on Pier 39. The co-worker said he was doing the typical tourist thing, but Aunt A– said we might as well, since I had never been there before.
And here ends the travelogue.