Thoughtful Revolution

San Francisco: Day 1 (12/17)

We interrupt this program to bring you: The San Francisco Travelogue!

As many of you know, I was recently in San Francisco for approximately a week.  Over the course of the next week I will endeavor to post daily entries describing one day each of my trip; I hope this will be vaguely entertaining, or at the very least tolerable.  I may post some Deep Thoughts in addition, but my after-the-fact travel diary will remain regular.

I’m actually starting here with day 0, seeing as our traveling began the day before we reached San Francisco, then proceeding to day 1.  Forgive me for the inconsistency.

12/16: I packed my bags, slipped behind the wheel, and pulled out of the driveway almost immediately after my Spanish exam; we reached the Dulles airport just before dinner.  It being the week before Christmas, we were deluged by carols on arrival — including “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” which would quickly become a theme throughout our travels.*  After a long ordeal at the security counters and a swift bite at Chipotle (vegetarian burrito with black beans, rice, grilled peppers and onions, tomato salsa, corn salsa, and guacamole, with half a shared pineapple smoothie from Greenleaf’s on the side; for those of you who care, I will try to describe my meals in as elaborate detail as possible, even without awesome photos) my father and I boarded our flight.

The ride that followed was remarkably uneventful, especially when compared to our return trip; suffice it to say that it included a minute sliver of study time, a whole lot of iPod time, a book of Doris Lessing’s essays, and free club soda.  (I could write an entire post on either of the latter, but particularly Lessing; she is a brilliant, well-read critic and analyst who gets a number of things royally, dumbfoundingly wrong.  She is also one of those writers who laments the “scourge of political correctness” without either defining her terms or backing up her statements with any kind of evidence.  But that’s another story.)  The highlight of our trip?  When changing flights in Minneapolis, the temperature was — in the pilot’s own words — “a toasty nine degrees Fahrenheit.”   Snow had accumulated inside the tunnels between planes.

We arrived at the San Francisco airport around 12:30 Pacific time (3:30 Eastern time) and just made the hotel’s final Complimentary Courtesy Shuttle.  The next morning

12/17: we woke up in South San Francisco Industrial City — no kidding, that’s the name of the town.  It’s splayed across the prominent hills in Hollywood sign-esque letters — and had breakfast at IHOP, the least egregious of the many chain restaurants that studded the streets around our Comfort Inn.  My dad ordered gingerbread pancakes, an enormous holiday-themed platter that came with hash browns and sodden scrambled eggs; I had the surprisingly good Garden Crepes, which (ordered without the toxic-waste-like Hollandaise sauce) consist of thin, slightly sweet crepes wrapped around scrambled veggies and Provolone cheese.  Thus sated, we headed back to the airport and took the BART train into San Francisco proper.

On the BART, it is worth noting, we spent the entire time puzzling out a mysterious red advertisement:

“Jacques Binet could have read this.  Can you?

Neither of us, needless to say, found the answer — in part because (spoiler alert!) we were barking up the wrong Binet.  If any of you can, please feel free to comment, and I’ll worship you forever if you get it right.

From the windows of the train, San Francisco looks much bigger than it is.  This may be a fluke of the hilly terrain, or the colorful, eye-catching houses, or the route that the BART takes through the city; nonetheless, the city seems to sprawl out endlessly in all directions.  It’s one of America’s smallest Big Cities, measuring in at only 49 square miles (7×7), and that size was abundantly clear while walking later in the trip — and yet, for that moment, we were surrounded from all sides, as far as the eye can see, by San Francisco.

We got off the train at the Civic Center stop and stashed our bags at the hotel: a Holiday Inn, cheap, convenient, and centrally located.  From there, we decided to take an exploratory stroll of the area and were quickly drawn in by City Hall.

San Francisco’s City Hall is among the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen, and though I really haven’t seen that many buildings I count that as high praise — especially when you take into account that the entire thing was destroyed by one earthquake, rebuilt, then critically damaged by another.  (It is now officially “earthquake-proof,” meaning that, like many of San Francisco’s other impressive buildings, it can sway and pivot in case of seismic disturbance.  Personally, I don’t find this too comforting.)  The inside is no less awe-inspiring: built entirely out of pink marble, its primary feature is the steep, Cinderella-style staircase that dominates the rotunda.  This flight of stairs is a popular location for school trips, choral concerts and weddings (the latter as much because of the dirt-cheap rental fee as the beauty); accordingly, in our hour-long City Hall sojourn, we witnessed a school choral concert and two different weddings.  City Hall offers free guided tours on the half-hour, which we hadn’t known going in but were very pleased to learn.  While the docents may be uneven in skill and experience, the politics and general background of the spot were absolutely fascinating, and the guided nature of the tours allow for access to areas that ordinary tourists wouldn’t see.  Case in point: the mayor’s office, where George Moscone served until his assassination in 1978.  Busts of Moscone and Harvey Milk were prominently featured on the building’s upper floor, and though the Supervisor’s Office where Milk worked and died is closed to the public, one got the sense that many of the City Hall visitors had come in part to pay their respects.

After the tour, we continued with our walk; from one of City Hall’s uppermost windows, we’d seen an odd building bearing the legend “TRUTH” and wanted to investigate.  Turns out that TRUTH was just TRUTH, painted in massive black and white letters on what appeared to be a defunct boardinghouse.  After walking a few more blocks, we stopped for lunch at Soup Freaks — a disappointment in my book.  This restaurant, which claims to specialize in soups of all kinds, only had one meatless soup, and in our quest to split a meal that would sustain us we were forced to order a sandwich in addition.  Unacceptable, though the tomato bisque was quite good (the mozzarella-arugula-pesto sandwich, not so much), and the pitcher behind the counter had cucumber floating in the water, giving the water a cool, fresh taste.

We proceeded to walk for two or three miles, going in a wide square around Yerba Buena Gardens and only stopping when we hit a large highway; despite its peripheral proximity to the famously funky Mission District, the area we found ourselves in was swank, manicured and studded with museums.  It was also the home of San Francisco’s resident art school, and as such was overrun by young adults in startingly hip outfits, many of which were clearly DIY.  (Looking down at my blue jeans, green Power Shift T-shirt, quickly deteriorating corduroy jacket, and Payless boots, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of embarrassment.)  Coffee shops were in abundance, particularly independent ones and small chains; after spending much of my life in DC, this came as a surprise.

Finally, we stopped in Yerba Buena Gardens: large, green, very pretty, unabashedly touristy in parts, and with a lovely independent arts gallery/center.  After a quick rest in the sun and some deliberation, we ducked into the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which far exceeded both our expectations.  The museum, far from the simplistic Jewishness-in-140-word-captions approach I’d feared, thankfully steered away from the “summarize Judaism and its millennia of history” challenge entirely and chose to feature interesting snippets, well-curated and in depth, of Jewish life.  A thoughtful exhibit on Maurice Sendak, full to the brim with interviews and original sketches, explored the influence of Sendak’s own family and beliefs on his work; a room bearing the title “Jews on Vinyl” invited visitors to listen to thousands of Jewish-themed records, both by Jewish and non-Jewish artists, and as such provided an unorthodox exploration of the American Jewish experience.  And finally, the museum recently commissioned a local artist to write an entire Torah scroll; the exhibit that followed, combining information about the creation of a Torah with firsthand testimony from the scribe herself and modern artistic interpretations of the text, was a revelation.

Hungry and tired (and still stuck in Eastern time), we walked back to the hotel, first stopping for dinner at the excellent Ananda Fuara.  An all-vegetarian restaurant run by followers of Sri Chinmoy, Ananda Fuara is one of the most popular vegetarian eateries in San Francisco — and, in general, a bargain.  My father ordered a rather disappointing vegetable curry with rice, served with the best mango chutney that either of us had ever tasted; I opted for the “neatloaf,” a delicious, if visually unappealing, tofu concoction served with gravy-laced mashed potatoes and an exceptionally fresh side salad.

And that was that.  We went back to the hotel, relaxed.  The amazing value of the hotel rooms created a virtual two-for-the-price-of-one deal, so we each had our own room; this luxurious privacy, coupled with a welcome independence from my father’s snoring, lulled me to sleep in minutes.

To be continued!


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