Thursday, May 16, 2013

Side by side

My best friend pointed out she'll be in her eighties when our next 28th wedding anniversary comes around. To be fair, so will I.

Would that we could still do what we're doing now, giving each other time. We're on the cusp of realizing how dear it is.

Time, this time, was a day in San Francisco to celebrate. Nancy and I became a strange hybrid of tourist, resident and nomad. We think alike on the big stuff, always have.

The City fascinates us. Not Fisherman's Wharf or the cable cars or most of what makes it memorable to the world. We avoid those distractions. Though we went to the de Young Museum a couple of years back to see a Dale Chihuly exhibit, we haven't been to the Academy of Sciences or the Exploratorium since before we were married. We always mean to, but then The City — the real one — catches our eye.

(My son brands the Exploratorium declaration a lie, since he remembers me taking him as a kid; I claim faulty memory. The larger truth still holds: It's been a long time.)

When we go — it's rare, sadly  — we pick a part of The City, figure out the easiest way to get there, then just walk and see what we find. Anything we find is fine by us. There must be 158 different cities and towns jammed into the city limits. Ordinary life is extraordinary here.

San Francisco is a city where seven or eight road races, parades and festivals can run concurrently and never affect one another. It's a place where a dozen people from all directions can pile into a little pet shop, stacked to the corners with white six-foot-tall bird cages, and that little shop will thrive by the sheer mass of pet-loving humanity living right around the corner.

San Francisco is a place where, close by the madding crowds, you can duck into a tavern where it's cool and quiet, an eddy in the river of people.

San Francisco is a nice place to visit. I couldn't survive living here.

We rode the fast catamaran ferry from Vallejo, the one that sidles respectfully past the decaying Mare Island Naval Shipyard before jetting across the Bay. From there we went into full tourist mode just long enough to buy day passes for one of those "hop-on, hop-off" double-decker buses.

I recommend it. Seeing San Francisco stress-free from high above the street is worth the money. Even 10 feet above the sidewalks, with no pressure to maneuver your own vehicle up and over these maniacal streets, lets you discover details The City keeps hidden.

We got on at the tour bus office two blocks off Fisherman's Wharf, sat in the open top, rode back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge in the bracing chill, through Golden Gate Park and then to a McDonald's a few blocks west of Haight-Ashbury, where we got off.

We never got on again.

Why here? Not for Haight-Ashbury and the chance to be forensic tourists, digging up the Summer of Love and gawking at its spawn. No, because it looked like Stanyan Street, where the bus stopped, is almost a straight shot up to the Sutro Tower, that landmark left over from the War of the Worlds, the yin to the TransAmerica Pyramid's yang.

(Named for Adolph Sutro, The City's 24th mayor, who made a fortune with engineering feats enabling deeper exploration of the Comstock Mine …)

I've always wondered how to get close to it, and now was our chance.

The last block of Stanyan Street lifts nearly 45 degrees below the tower. A few more degrees and we could reasonably have scaled it hand over hand. I laughed, giddy at how close the pavement was to my face as we climbed.

Through vine-covered eucalyptus forests and a park at the end of a neighborhood, up a long winding road and there we were, near the base of Sutro Tower. The rest of the curious had driven up.

From there San Francisco lay in shades of white, like broken blocks of gypsum spread on a dropcloth. Faraway freighter ships still looked giant in the south Bay. The Giants were taking batting practice at AT&T Park, far in the distance.

Nowhere to go but down. My knees complained. We found a few hidden sidewalks, followed a runner through a secret space between some buildings, down a street so steep its sidewalks are stairs, and into Noe Valley (named for José de Jesús Noé, last alcalde of Yerba Buena, before it was renamed San Francisco).

Here's where we discovered the wildly popular little pet shop — and the cool, quiet Valley Tavern. We had walked about four miles by then. Time to rest.

The Giants game had just begun, showcased on eight giant screens above the bar (a celebrity high-diving show played on the ninth). We slid into a booth way too commodious for us, and luxuriated in having it, ordered ales and porters and stayed seven innings, the Giants clouting the Braves.

The bartender said we could order pizza next door. The pizza place is endorsed by ace pitcher Matt Cain; even has a pizza named for him. It was kismet in pepperoni and sausage. We gorged.

Back on the street, it felt like a different day, a new mission. Conversation went like this:

"Left, right or straight?" We looked around each intersection, decided which seemed most interesting, and headed that way. Ascents seemed the most interesting to me.

Zigging, then zagging, we dropped into Mission Dolores Park, where hundreds and hundreds of people sat out in the sun, picnicking on blankets. We searched the entire park for the reason so many  had gathered (A concert? A festival?) but the attraction was nothing more than sun and Saturday afternoon. Simultaneous games of frisbee and catch and chase criss-crossed in the empty spaces.

Up and down a staircase just because. A couple was happily installing a hanging garden of plants in some kind of water-bearing fabric on the side of a glorious cube of an architectural wonder of a house, all exposed metal and great sheets of glass and gigantic reclaimed beams, dripping in dollars. We made up stories about their fabulous wealth.

Down through the Mission District and open-air shops grocery and clothing stores with signs in Spanish. Past teenagers on the sidewalk, pounding and dancing to a samba beat on giant drums. Up to an elevated fake-grass soccer field, where high school kids played full-contact soccer. We fell asleep on the real-grass apron, our feet burning.

"Left, right or straight?"

Down Potrero Hill in the direction of AT&T Park. We had walked too much; even though we had no plan, this was not part of it. But we walked; we are quite used to days like this.

Past the rising city-within-a-city of the UC San Francisco medical complex, around Willie McCovey's statue, so lonely on the cove opposite the ballpark. Nope, no players wandering around the park after beating down the Braves.

Past the majestic Ferry Building — the transit juncture of an alternate universe — along the piers to our ferry landing. The last one had left 15 minutes before, and the next one wouldn't be by for another two hours — and would have picked us up from the Ferry Building a mile back if we had known. 

We wandered into Fisherman's Wharf anyway for coffee, and watched a line of frustrated customers wait for a woman who went into the restroom and wouldn't come out. "We get this a lot," a barista explained to the line.

Since Fisherman's Wharf is what the world's tourists come to see, you'd think San Francisco would leverage all resources into making sure restrooms are clean and plentiful. But they're broken, locked up or incomprehensible biohazards.

We missed so much. We were within blocks of Mission San Francisco de Asis, the fountainhead of Western intrusion that turned this place into a city. One more zig and zag would have put us on the doorstep of Anchor Brewing Co., maker of Anchor Steam Beer, the only beer worth drinking at a Giants game.

But we didn't know to look for these, and didn't see them on our walk, so we can't really say we missed them.

The ferry came despite our fears — we've been stuck in The City before — and rode sleepily in the cold orange mist, the light sculpture on the Bay Bridge's cables dancing in our dream state. Back to our car and an easy late ride home. Nancy took one photo, of the two of us, on the morning ferry.

Time well spent. Happy anniversary, Nancy. I love you.

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