Day 2 in San Francisco and I had a much clearer, well rested brain in my head. I decided to brave the BART and check out the Castro district. Primarily I wanted to see the GLBT museum and check out the bookstore, since I really loved the stretch of Connecticut Avenue between Lambda Rising and Kramerbooks when I lived in DC. I’ve ascertained that I really miss a good, robust bookstore, even as I find them sometimes annoying—not for the books, but for the other pretentious people and the conversations they sometimes insist on having in them. Do note that I include myself in the “pretentious people” category, because I think pretentious conversations can be like twisting back and forth on a squeaky chair: fun for the user and irritating for everyone else.
There’s a BART stop right outside the hotel here at uh, what’s the name of this neighborhood again, Embarcadero, right. I’ve realized I’d be screwed if I lived in California because I can’t seem to remember any of the Spanish names to places. It’s like I get so concerned about pronouncing the name right, even just to myself, that it seems to prevent memory implantation. Damn all those years of studying French. They weren’t even that helpful for reading Lacan or Derrida, the latter of which was written intentionally to be confusing in any language. Maybe Susanne will get into a conference in Montreal. But this day, I was in San Francisco, trying to remember Embarcadero, Embarcadero. So I pulled a Sarah Palin and wrote it on my left palm. Actually, I knew how to crib notes in 7th grade, but unlike Sarah, I chose not to.
Down the subway stairs I went, it smelling a little bit like New York City, looking a little bit like DC. The maps to the subway, the information scientist in me notes, are not nearly as good as DC’s Metro, because they only show the names of the stations. On DC’s subway grid map, you can also see, in gray, almost like a background, the names of the streets that lie above the grid, so you have a context for the stations and don’t need to know in advance that you’re looking for a given station. Moreover, many of the station names are the same as the neighborhood, like Woodley Park, Van Ness, Foggy Bottom. And even though I thought it was a giant waste of money at the time (it cost Metro $100,000 to change all the signs and maps in the system), I can see how adding names to stations, like Foggy Bottom/GWU, is helpful for newbies or tourists.
And now here I was, a newbie, clueless, staring at this map like I was waiting for a religious conversion to BARTism. Castro, Castro, I knew it was southwest of Embarkingdare-o, but where? I glared at the plastic screen over the map and sighed. Standing next to me was a Don Lake lookalike and a little person all decked out in San Francisco giant-labeled clothing. I asked them which stop to take for the Castro. I was a tourist on a mission and without a map, and Embarcadero scrawled on my left palm, so I was going for broke here.
“Oh,” said Don, leaning over the map, which did not give me any confidence, because if we were in the District and he asked me how to get to. . . well, anything I can come up with like Bethesda, the White Flint Mall, Arlington Cemetery, they’re all clearly illuminated as Metro stops. But my point is, I’d know how to tell him to go without looking at the grid. I would use the grid only as a teaching tool for my temporary pupil. This is not what Don was doing.
“Here you go,” he said, pointing to something below what looked like Oakland. I was pretty sure the Castro was not in Oakland. Harvey Fucking Milk was not on the city council of Oakland. I nodded and thanked him. In the midst of this the walking art installation/ode to the SF Giants concurred, that Castro Valley was right over there. He got that Don didn’t have a clue what he was saying, and was being clever about sending a secret message to me. Hmm, I wondered, what other little person had a secret message for people, and doesn’t San Francisco have a neighborhood called Twin Peaks?
It was more than I could bear, this place filled with randomness collapsing into old television narrative. I had become postmodernism! I thanked them, but now I was supposed to stand on this side of the platform, waiting for my train to Oakland. I didn’t want to let Don down, but no way was I going to get on a train headed in the wrong direction. So since the next one was coming in eight minutes, I pretended to find a place to sit down, and then jumped on the train on the other side of the platform. I knew the Castro was somewhere around 18th Street, but I had no idea from the subway grid where the Castro Street was. So I opted to check out the Mission. Maybe I would find a street map or a bookstore.
The Mission reminded me of DC’s Adams Morgan in the days before the Williams mayoral administration started gentrifying everything. Adams Morgan at one point was a Latino/a community, and walking down the sidewalk of say, Columbia Avenue, a passerby would see several Spanish-named bancos, a laundromat, one or two grocery stores, a cellphone store, the windows filled with phone cards that screamed their low, low prices if one wanted to call Latin America, Mexico, or Spain. But really Adams Morgan was about the smells, the lovely aromas of Hispanic, country food that made my mouth water and my mind do a quick assessment of how much cash was in my wallet so I could just slip in and get a torta or fish taco, always wrapped in brown paper that did its best to illuminate the food inside as the grease from cooking coalesced at its edges and folds.
The Mission is kind of like that. There were also short, squat grocery counters, and I realized that all of these foods were local because hello, I’m in California. I didn’t want to stop walking, though, and I promised myself I’d come back later. I have no idea when later is. I also got a good vantage point of the hilliness of San Francisco without having to sacrifice my knees. I took in the row houses; there are some I’ve seen that just look depressing in their run-down condition, but these were like tittery older ladies sitting around on Sunday in their worn but nice fancy clothes and hats. It made me homesick for tiny, old women of color streaming out of church in DC, their headwear three times as big as their bodies, and all bright with every color Roy G. Biv could imagine.
I walked and walked, looking down the side streets for the pearls I suspected were there; a crepe maker here, cheap haircuts from cosmetology students there, the standard cell phone dealer, a blacksmith, of all things. My legs started sending me Morse code by clicking and popping as I walked the uneven sidewalk, so I figured it was time to head back to the BART and rest up before heading out, this time to the Castro for reals.
Back in Alacarta, or wherever I was, I was awakened from my catnap by rhythmic drumbeats. I figured I might as well check out what was going on. I looked out my fifth floor window and saw marchers. Or demonstrators. It was difficult to tell which from my height. But they were chanting something, I couldn’t tell what.
And then I saw the clowns. The very angry, protesting clowns. Wearing G-strings. Hoo boy. Okay, here was the San Francisco I’d heard about. Not the angry, rise from the dead every 27 years to feast on small children Stephen King clowns, but pissed off, make fun of Tea Partiers on April 1st clowns. Whatever, I’m not a fan of clowns, period, because they freak me out and make me think of John Gacy. There seemed to be people dressed in all sorts of outfits, like Abraham Lincoln and Greek . . . goddesses? I really wasn’t getting what the message was. Did people need a parade to see how screwed up the Tea Party is? I thought that contingent was making it clear all on their own.
I put my head back down and after a time, ventured back out again, this time to check out the City Lights Bookstore, a bit north of Chinatown. I hopped a cab and $7 later was perusing the books, surprised at how small the place was. I figured it would be at least as big as Kramerbooks in DC, a well-known independent bookstore, infamous for refusing to turn over the receipt for a certain book of Walt Whitman poetry to Kenneth Star. This place, instead, was packed tight with progressive books and sections of shelves that would make any liberal reasonably happy, since we’re too pretentious to get actually excited: Praxis, Gender Theory, Surrealism. I spent a good amount of time looking at new takes on old classics and contemporary literature. Everything in there was serious, and eventually I wanted something else, but City Lights wouldn’t offer it to me. I hoped I wasn’t too Barnes&Nobleized.
I passed by the palm reader with only a moment’s hesitation, thought about getting a beer at the pub across the street from the bookstore but didn’t want to be the middle-aged guy drinking alone on a weekday afternoon, and kept walking. I walked right into Chinatown, with its glare of plastic lanterns and “import” shops of Asian kitsch, if there is such a thing. Samuri swords for $14.95. Aren’t Samuri Japanese, I asked myself, wondering if it mattered to the 9-year-old children who would lose their minds trying to cajole their parents into buying one for them. Probably not.
I walked and walked for a while, listening and looking and occasionally snapping a picture of something interesting. The Bank of Guam turned out to be roughly the border between Chinatown and the financial district, and my knees started complaining again. Darn knees. I want my knees of three years ago back again. How could 36-year-old knees and 39-year-old knees be so different? Especially when my ankles and hips were just hunky-dory. I looked to find a cab, but every taxi was already on route somewhere with passengers. I could not find one to save my life. Maybe another street corner would be better. Maybe I looked like a terrible fare, or something, with my black hoodie sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. I walked some more. Fifteen minutes later I finally caught a cab with a sweet older male driver. Sikh, wearing a really nice blue turban that he’d matched to his shirt. How great that Sikh men can accessorize that way, I thought, collapsing onto the vinyl seat.
“Where to,” he asked, sounding like Barry White. I looked at my hand.
“Hyatt Regency Embarcadero,” I proudly announced.
“That is four blocks away!” Oh, crap. I apologized profusely. I hoped he wouldn’t throw me out of his cab because even if it were only four blocks away, I had no idea which four blocks they were. I could be wandering around for hours. Okay, maybe not hours.
He turned off his meter and we turned a corner. The Hyatt stood tall in front of us.
“Yup, there it is,” I said, rather sheepishly.
“So it tis,” he said. His meter blanked out—I suspected he didn’t want his dispatcher to see this stupid fare he’d taken—I asked him how much for the ride.
“Oh, whatever,” he said. I was really sad to have pissed off India’s answer to the R&B giant. I handed him $5 and thanked him again. “And now you can get another fare,” I said.
“Why thank you,” he responded.
Perhaps it was time I collected myself with another bit of rest. I saw a box on the sidewalk, apparently left behind by the protesting clowns earlier in the day.
THINK INSIDE THE BOX, it read.