USM8s Part III: San Francisco

USM8s Part III: San Francisco

Click here for Part II: Highway 1 & Big Sur

Almost 900 kilometres and four days from our starting point in Venice, we emerged from the fog to find ourselves in San Franbloodysisco, soon to be one of my favourite cities on earth. It is bursting with culture and history and strange weirdness. After disgorging the boys in Haight-Ashbury, Helena and I headed to our Airbnb just south of the Mission District. Our host was Chris, who shares a ramshackle house with her twin daughters and too many foster animals to count. The girls have been given decorative jurisdiction over the house, so primary-coloured walls and fingerpainted electrical fixtures are the norm. It’s bright, cute, stinky, and lively, a lot like SF itself.

Not the Painted Ladies

I should have mentioned this before, but the level of poverty in the cities we visited was confronting. In 2017, a staggering 43 per cent of American children live in low-income households, far higher than most first-world countries. This ballooned after the Great Recession of 2008 and hasn’t returned to pre-crisis numbers. It’s a widely accepted fact that those born into disadvantage struggle to escape it. The homeless and impoverished we saw were largely adults, many clearly suffering from mental illness. These people are sometimes maligned but mostly ignored by the general population; if we don’t think about them, it’s like they’re not there. We are very lucky to be Aussies.

Unsurprisingly, Hispanic culture is rife throughout California, and to me this meant one important thing: Mexican food. The Mission has taquerias on every corner, diffident and authentic, full of beans and rice and guacamole. I even had a cold brew coffee horchata - Jesús Cristo. The sights and scents of delicious foods fill the bustling streets amidst Trump piñatas and souvenir knick-knacks. Of course, our objectification was in full force here, a slight shock after sleepy seaside towns, but we took the catcalls in our stride. Helena and I each turned down a few leering marriage proposals.

Golden Gate Park, AIDS Memorial Grove

Every weekend Treasure Island hosts its flea market, so we crossed the Bay Bridge for some flea shopping. We found an impressive cache of novelty lighters; Helena snagged a lobster claw. There were antiques and weird contemporary art, dogs and humans and food trucks galore. A mauve jumper by label Lions in the Zoo caught Helena’s attention and we made a new friend in its maker, Mark. Based out of LA, Mark makes dank threads for the streets. He’d ventured up to SF for the weekend in his massive car to try his hand at its markets, and ended up accompanying us to Ocean Beach for the sunset. Being San Fran, though, all we got was fog.


So we ventured inland to the western end of Golden Gate Park, and on the way we encountered a delightful and disgusting raccoon. These things are novelties to us. I know they’re aggressive garbage-eaters, but they’re also sort of cute. It’s a fine line. This one was ambling along the roadside, followed by Helena, amongst some discarded fast food bags. Suddenly it leapt on one and heaved it up the embankment, safe now to tear the bag to ribbons and wolf down its old, cold contents. It ate manically and without grace or shame. Fkn yuck.

Eat Crab

Golden Gate Park is 4.1 square kilometres in area, a full 20% larger than New York’s Central Park. It contains art galleries, museums, botanical, rose and Japanese tea gardens, sports facilities, the Conservatory of Flowers, two windmills and a bison paddock. For real. We spent a lot of time here. San Francisco was the epicentre of the free love and counterculture movement of the 1960s, and actually supplied most of the world’s LSD at that point. Golden Gate Park still houses acid-soaked “gifts” and crusty old Deadheads from this era. In fact, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and SF was celebrating big-time.

Hippie Hill

We visited the famous Hippie Hill during a Hare Krishna festival, and the Conservatory of Flowers that night for a light show. Mario hitched his hammock amongst the trees and lived in the park all week. I checked out the California Academy of Sciences (which cost me about AU$50, crazily typical for SF museums); just quietly, Melbourne Museum is better. We took advantage of the de Young fine arts museum’s temporary free entry and scaled its eight stories to the Hamon Observation Tower. The tower has a 360 degree, panoramic view of downtown San Francisco, Golden Gate Park, the Bay, and the Marin headlands. It was pretty dang neat.

Golden Gate Park, Strawberry Hill

The civil rights movement is deeply rooted within SF, and this is flamboyantly evident in the rainbow-drenched Castro district. During the early 1940s, the US military dishonorably discharged thousands of homosexual servicemen from the Pacific Theatre, who then settled in the Bay Area. Haight-Ashbury became the place to be during the free love movement of the late 1960s for communal living among middle-class hippies who had no source of income. The Haight turned drug-ridden and violent, and the gay community sought to carve out their own stable urban space in the nearby Castro. The most well-known character of the Castro is Senator Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official and a civil rights activist. He was murdered in 1978, along with the then-Mayor George Moscone, by a disgruntled ex-senator (who served a measly five years for the two murders). Milk became an instant martyr and is still remembered and celebrated today; his name is all over San Francisco.

Strawberry Hill

I had heard whispers of a suburban park with some sick AF concrete slides somewhere in the Castro. We went on fun-hunt. Up a hill and then another, we sweated our way through the Campest Neighborhood in America. We passed pairs of men walking tiny prancing dogs, and a window full of naked Barbies (but mostly Kens). This is, I’m sure, where rainbows are born. We located the tiny Seward Street Mini Park and its famed slides, grabbed some discarded cardboard and raced up the stairs ready for thrills, but - no. The slides were locked. Apparently the park closes at 5pm, when the sun is high in the sky and children (and adults, evidently) are out to play. Mucha decepción.

Seward Street Slides: locked

Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf is a bustling tourist precinct complete with its famous piers. Mario, Helena and I took up a $15, 60-minute boat ride beneath the Golden Gate Bridge - what a bloody bargain! - which shuttled us into the windy bay. We knocked the orange overpass off our to-do list and circled back around Alcatraz Island, the infamous former federal prison which housed notorious criminals like Al Capone. The freezing waters of the San Francisco Bay prevent escape, or so the authorities believed until 1962, when three prisoners executed a breakout involving soap wax lookalikes, a makeshift raft and 50 stolen raincoats. Their destination was Angel Island, a state park over 3km north, but their ultimate fate is unknown. The men disappeared into the treacherous waters and have not been heard from since.

Golden Gate Park

After an Irish coffee at the 101-year-old Buena Vista, we pressed on around the headland to find a favourite oddity of mine, the wave organ. A fairly ugly concrete structure sits at the edge of the bay, connected to the ocean by a number of pipes. These pipes amplify the watery slaps and gurgles of the sea. It was nothing surprising, and most other visitors seemed underwhelmed and quickly left, but they are wrong: there’s something undeniably charming about the wave organ. Mario, Helena and I spent most of the afternoon listening to the tide roll in. Apparently there’s a more stylish and melodious wave organ in Croatia, but this hulking lump of concrete and its spindly pipes kind of stole my heart.

The Wave Organ

16th Avenue Tiled Steps

We foolishly visited Union Square and Helena misplaced her wallet, including her license, which we needed to collect the rental car the following day. Helpfully, I’ve never learned to drive. We were stranded. Slightly panicking, I opened Tinder, changed my bio, match-match-matched, and copy-pasted an opener to dozens of people. We did have a selling point: Yosemite campsites are extremely hard to come by and are generally not a last-minute arrangement. Five months earlier we’d stayed up until 1am, armed with two computers each, trying to secure a campsite. It was nuts, like a huge concert; everything was gone within minutes, but we managed to book a site an hour out of the valley proper in Wawona. This was hot property.

I got dozens of useless responses on Tinder.
“I wish I could come but I’m working.” Unmatch.
“That sounds so fun but I don’t have a car.” See ya.
“When do you get back to SF? Let’s hang.” Bye, guy.

Mission Dolores Park (sans guns)

Finally, a dude named Robert said he was considering driving to Yosemite that weekend to chance the unreserved, walk-in campground, Camp 4. This is where the climbers camp, arriving before dawn to claim a patch of land for their ultralight gear and ascending the formidable face of Half Dome. Nutters. Robert had no chance of beating these madmen to camp. I told him, “Nah, mate, you’re coming with us,” and the transport problem was solved in less than 24 hours. Thank god for Tinder.

Women's Building

It was kind of opportune that the wallet was lost: that afternoon we’d waylaid plans to visit Mission Dolores Park and instead spent it in a logistical frenzy. Turns out there was a shooting at the park in the 3pm sunshine, with three people injured. All three survived - and so did we, thanks to fate - but Christ, just some casual daylight gunfire in an urban park filled with hundreds of people? America, fuck no.

It's windy in the bay

Robert couldn’t leave for Yosemite until Sunday, so we booked an Airbnb for an extra night in town. It might be the coolest Airbnb in SF. Mario, Helena and I were greeted by Zavi, a photographer from Perris, California (not Paris, France, he insisted), who gave us a tour and introduced us to our unassuming and clever host, Jimmy. Wandering through their kitchen, I pointed at what I thought was an expensive espresso machine (“Looks like that thing makes a great coffee”), and was politely informed by Jimmy that it’s actually a mad-expensive laser cutter. Oops. And then he showed us how it works and blew our fkn minds.

This thing lasers any image onto any flat surface at a precise depth. We spent the better part of a night shooting our logo at things: metal, leather, plastic. Their printing press is equally as powerful, it just lacks lasers. Zavi showed me a panel of styrofoam covered in blue paint which had had Marilyn Monroe lasered into it; the styrofoam and paint had melted from the heat to create a lumpy but definitely recognisable image. Art! Zavi challenged Mario to a rap battle, their rhythm and flow and syntax delivered through a lazy haze from the home-delivered medicinal aids I’d ordered.

Simon’s time in the States was dwindling (he was due in Dublin for a job interview, and then Beijing to study) and tough choices had to be made. Instead of heading to Yosemite with us, he followed the call of Lake Tahoe. Not a bad choice, really. After a final visit to the Mission’s Bi-Rite, we sadly bid Simon adieu and packed our own bags for the forest. Helena, Mario and I agreed that it was time we return to the trees; the city is intense.

Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy

On Sunday Morning Robert and his pal Yuna rolled up in a concerningly small hire car, which was already packed to the gills and had to fit the three of us plus all our junk. I told Robert to unpack everything and stand aside: Helena to the rescue. This girl is a car-Tetris champion. She magicked our mountain of gear into the tiny vehicle with room to spare. We said goodbye to the lovely, exhausting, one-and-only San Francisco, and headed east for Yosemite National Park. This was what drew me to California in the first place: majestic wild America.