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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

Unreal City

My first impression of San Francisco was of fog and mean back streets, small, tired shops with steel bars on their windows, blinking neon cocktail glasses advertising hole-in-the-wall bars where furtive, colorless people drifted out and scurried away into the fog.

I got off the bus at the old Seventh Street station in the Tenderloin, the shabbiest part of the city, at around midnight, and started walking. I had an envelope in my pocket with the address of a friend. I must have thought I could find her apartment by looking at street signs. She lived on 28th Ave., which is across the city and out halfway to the ocean, but I didn’t have a clue at the time.

A man in a blue Pontiac asked me if I needed a ride someplace. I asked if 28th Ave. was anywhere nearby. No, he said, but I can take you.

That was in 1974 and people still hitchhiked back and forth across the country in human waves – long-haired, booted, standing at roadsides with signs saying “L.A.?,” “San Jose?,” “Seattle?” And no one expected to be dumped on a dark logging road and never heard of again. All that is as gone as bell bottom jeans and the Blues Magoos.

So I took a ride with the stranger, though I wasn’t totally stupid. I wouldn’t stop for a drink at a little bar he knew, and I stayed close to the door with my hand on the handle, ready to leap out. We drove out through the wide, fog-shrouded streets that were nearly empty that late at night, toward the ocean too far away to see. He let me off, with a last offer, at Geary and 28th and pointed up the hill.

I got over my first impressions during the next nearly twenty years as I lived in one neighborhood or another, in beautiful old apartment houses on shady streets or one room utility apartments in the rumble of downtown. The city is divided into districts, each with its own topography, its ethnic mixture and attitude. Moving from one neighborhood to another is nearly the same as moving to a new town – from the upscale European restaurants of the Marina District, to the Thai places out in the Sunset, to the Maoist bookstores of the Mission District, the Italian cafes of North Beach, to the working class neighborhoods of Portrero and the Excelsior.

These are some of the things I remember from living in that great city – the hills of Pacific Heights and Russian Hill, so steep you cannot see if there is a road in front of you as you come to the top; the golden onion domes of the Russian Orthodox churches in the Richmond District; Green Apple Books on Clement Street in the afternoon, and Zhivago’s, the bar across the street with the Russian samovars shining and the icons hanging from the walls where I read the used books I had just bought, while I sipped a bottle of Bass Ale; some French girls talking at the sidewalk café around the corner from my apartment; Filipinos speaking Tagalog on the bus going downtown; a street fair on Haight Street, crowded with freaks, and the smell of grass floating on the air; watching the 4th of July fireworks break through the fog from the roof of a twenty-story apartment building in Pacific Heights; riding our bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge and coasting all the way down to Sausalito without touching the pedals; playing tennis on Wednesday afternoons on a high, windswept public court for free with views of the San Francisco Bay worth a million dollars; riding the cable cars in winter with no tourists; reading Herb Caen in the Chronicle, and the salacious novel Tales of the City serialized on the front page of the morning paper.

Those images are like riffling the pages of a book, but the book of San Francisco is closed and put away on a shelf. It was good to be young and single in San Francisco, but it was not so good a place to try and raise a family. There was always something unreal about the beautiful city, dressed in its overcoat of fog.

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