It’s odd, for a city so conscious of earthquakes, that the bedrock of San Francisco’s world-image remains so unshakeable. Watch any in-flight newszine, with those Victorian houses, the Union Square shopping crowds, the Coit Tower and the Golden Gate bridge, and the city becomes a postcard home before one has even arrived.
I cross the Atlantic to this temperamental West Coast city twice a year, so I’ve become able to ignore all the ‘I left my heart’ nonsense so overused of the place, and no longer feel so childishly moved to point out that leaving your heart somewhere will kill you. Also that if you wander about calling it Frisco, sooner or later someone will club you with a seal. But not everyone has the luxury of knowing the place well, and on a first or second visit it will always be tempting to reach for the guidebook. I think I have found a partial solution: making friends.
You can feel the energy all over the town when you arrive, sometimes crackling, sometimes billowing, always stalking and hoping for your participation. Strike up a conversation with someone in a shop and you’ll probably see what I mean. People are not afraid to share knowledge or help out. I was once stopped by a bearded jogger on my way into one of the more dangerous areas of the town, just because he sensed I was lost. I eventually recovered from my masculine fear of strangers and asking for directions, found myself oddly elated, and now do the same for others.
On my last visit my friend, the novelist and local hero Herbert Gold, took me for a wander around some favourite cafés. I was complaining about not having a nice girl for company and he said, ‘Sounds like we should find you one. I know this great Berkeley student…’ And off we went – which is not a memory one gets from snorkelling through the fluffy toy shops at Fisherman’s Wharf.
We never actually found the Berkeley student. We never made it to the Café Puccini where she ‘hung out’. Instead we passed a restaurant, at whose outside tables sat a man who could have played the Marquis de Sade, and his rouge-lipped daughter. It was the daughter’s twenty-first birthday. Herb thought he recognised the man from back in Cleveland fifty years ago, so he stopped to say hello. A few moments later he turned to Kate (by now I knew her name, age, and reason for being): ‘Excuse me for asking, but was your grandfather a transvestite?’
This is not unusual (either transvestism or direct questions to strangers). So how does one get from the pedestrian guidebook to the cosmopolitan sidewalk? How does one make the right sort of friend? I’ve found two ways pretty effective.
You can just turn up, guidebook discreetly stowed for emergencies, and talk with people in bookstores, bars or cafés. Meeting people spontaneously in San Francisco is incredibly easy to do. Either they will show an interest in you, or will welcome your interest in them. A favourite place of mine is the City Lights bookstore, which is far more than a tourist spot – after all, you can have your post sent there and pick it up when you’re in town. Or just settle on a bench in Washington Square and watch the world play. Check the Bay Area Guardian, available free on all good street corners, which has plenty of horizon-broadening events to go to.
The other way I’ve found to meet local San Franciscans has been online, and this is my favourite because you know who wants to talk before you approach them. I met one of my oldest friends online. There are as many sites for this as you could wish for, but the best plan is just to find one with which you feel comfortable. I use FaceParty.com, which can be rather gaudy at times but encourages its members to use words as much as pictures. For newcomers to the game, you’re looking for someone who sounds eminently sensible and describes themselves as ‘an Anglophile’. We have quite a lot in common with the San Franciscans.
In fact not many people realise it, but San Francisco is a highly Conservative city. It is also a very expensive, well kept, proud and versatile city, though it has more than its share of homelessness problems. It is ‘owned’, in a cultural sense, much more by its citizens than by its myth-makers; the best locals are proud and knowledgeable of their history, culture and cuisine. Residents are as conscious and proud of Armistead Maupin’s Barbary Lane as they are of Dashiell Hammett’s uncompromising detective. I myself fell for the place by way of the Nineties TV show, Party of Five, and a promising local band with a lovelorn but charismatic singer, known as Counting Crows.
San Francisco has many faces – pick one, and work your way in. It quickly becomes a place where you ‘find yourself’ in different situations – and that, for me, is the great, glorious, I-really-shouldn’t-be-eating-this-chocolate joy of it. That’s what makes it different to London, New York and Los Angeles.
Kate turned out to be an heiress, and I found myself within forty-eight hours at her parents’ home for a family dinner. The lesson? A week’s break to this magical, breezy bay city will turn up a couple of memories without your having to march around the ‘local attractions’. You are still young here. Let attractions occur where they may.
Herbert Gold, Travels in San Francisco.
— Bohemia: Where Love, Angst and Coffee meet