Paul S. Gifford
THE CURIOUS ACCOUNT OF SAN FRANCISCO
On Saturday, bright and early, my wife and I hopped in our car and headed north up interstate five. Seven hours later we arrived at our destination – San Francisco, where I was going to have a signing the following day.
We were greeted to the city by the awe-inspiring Oakland Bay Bridge. I must begin this account with a confession. They say it is good for the soul – so here goes… During the journey my wife discovered that there was another woman in my life. A woman who I listened to without ever interrupting her, hanging on to every word she uttered – and furthermore unquestionable did whatever she told me to do; a woman who has a smooth English accent whose tones seem to sooth me in my most stressful times – those times when I am unsure if I am driving the right direction. Her name is Miss Ellie – and she is the voice to the navigational system in our Jaguar. Many a times my wife would suggest going one way – yet I unequivocally listened to Miss Ellie’s directions. For those of you familiar with San Francisco you will appreciate it is a maze of one way streets. Yet Miss Ellie calmly directed me to the hotel.
We are fortunate enough to have friends which managed to get us a discounted room at the down town Hilton – on the 44th floor. With a combination of exhaustion and excitement we rode up the elevator to the dizzying heights. Above us lay only two additional floors – the executive lounge and the luxury suites on the very highest floor. The room was more than comfortable – it was exquisite. However the finest feature of the room was the balcony; or rather the incredible view it afforded us. By this point it was a little after four – and as we gazed across the entire San Francisco vista I had to pinch myself this was actually happening. The vista faced the bay and I could have sat there quite contently for several hours soaking in the city’s abundant atmosphere. However we had plans ahead of us for the evening. My wife has a colleague that works in the Bay area, who for sake of simplicity, shall be referred to as Bob in this account.
Bob was scheduled to meet us in the lobby at 7:30 for we had reservations for a notable Brazilian steak house at 8:00. Now the very distinguished gentleman who had brought our luggage up had a distinct Irish accent. He had stood with us on the balcony and waxed on with enthusiastic detail all the sights that met our eyes. I asked him for two recommendations: a seafood restaurant by pier 39 – and where the best pint of Guinness was to be found. He said with a reassuring wink that the best pint was to be found at Johny Foleys – a short walk from the hotel.
We cleaned ourselves up and an hour later I was in the pub supping on one of the best pints I have drank this side of the Atlantic. The alcohol as it hit my blood stream had the appropriate soothing affect and I began to enjoy myself. It was a shade after six at this point – and the place was beginning to fill up – and was overflowing with congenial atmosphere. It was a place people came to unwind and have fun. I could have easily have sat there for several more hours and consumed several more pints… However plans were in place.
At half six I, with reluctance, paid our tab and we headed back to the hotel.
We again were shot up to the 44th floor with remarkable speed. The elevators that reached the top five floors only went to the top five floors and did so with an impressive velocity. As we readied ourselves for dinner I took a few moments to once more soak in the sights from the balcony. It was then that I noticed that it was gently swaying. I have to admit I found this a little disconcerting – although I knew that skyscrapers have a natural rhythm to them. It made me truly appreciate just how high up I actually was… I also noticed that there were a lot of sirens emanating from the city below…
At 7:29 on the dot we once more boarded the elevator and were sent downward. I swear if I had experienced weightlessness in our descent I would not have been a bit surprised. As my wife and I arrived in the lobby Bob was there to greet us. I had never met him before and was a little unsure of what I was getting myself into. We walked out of the lobby and the doorman hailed us a taxi using a piercing whistle. The three of us tumbled inside and directions were relayed. As we sat in the taxi I noticed that the sirens were still blaring. I joked that perhaps the restaurant we were heading to was on fire. I am known for a twisted sense of humor. My comment was responded with by chuckles. As I sat on the back seat of the taxi, veering up and down the hills, I tried to take in the splendor of the city. For those of you who haven’t been – I urge you to try and remedy that – and for those of you who know it – also know that my hackneyed descriptions will never quite do it justice. It is a mish mash of different cultures – with a remarkable amount of independent restaurants and shops each with their own personality. San Francisco was not molded from a cookie cutter style of architecture as so many modern cities are.
Bob informed us that we were almost there. Sarah and I looked at each other with the same thought. The sirens are intensifying! It turns out that we could not continue to the actual corner where the restaurant was – so we were dropped off outside another restaurant. We paid and thanked the driver. Bob noticed we were outside a restaurant called Zuni www.zunicafe.com This seemed to excite our host.
“Oh my gosh,” he said, “I had forgotten about this place. I love this restaurant!”
He looked at me as if trying to decipher my emotions from my facial expressions.
“But you want to go to the other place – I can tell,” he said assertively.
As we set off down the street we came aware of a smoky smell – which resembled a few hundred cheap cigars being smoked at once. We then saw the fire engines, police cars and ambulances. Heck maybe even the coast guard had been there… At this point my memory gets a tad fuzzy. Sure enough as we turned the corner the restaurant was indeed on fire. It was pretty much contained at this point but all the patrons and employees stood around looking glum. We realized that we shall not be dining there that evening.
It was a little before 8:00 P.M. at this point.
Nobody had been hurt in the fire, and no major damage came as a result of it, so I did not feel bad about finding the whole scene amusing. Realizing that our fate had been decided we headed back to Zuni’s.
At this point unarmed with a reservation we were told there was an hour wait. We managed to find three seats at the bar and snuggled in to have a well deserved measure of vodka each. The place was quirky and inviting. The clientele looked to be hip and it seemed to consist of significantly more locals than visitors. In my experience this boded well – and I began to eagerly anticipate excellent food. I shall not dwell too much on the culinary delights we enjoyed. Shortly after a bar table opened up – which would have been compact for two – yet the three of us managed to huddle about it. Bob had brought along two bottles of wine – a Zinfandel and a Cabernet Sauvignon from a nearby small winery.
I was asked to chose which I would like to open. I went for the Zinfandel. The waiter was as smooth and professional as one would expect in such an environment. He opened our wine for us in a professional manner. However when we offered him a glass there was a devilish twinkle in his eye. Four glasses were poured. The wine itself was remarkable. The waiter darted off and appeared a few minutes later with an empty glass – and he agreed it was a most palatable wine indeed.
Fast forward ninety minutes.
Great food had been consumed, the second bottle of wine emptied, and our conversation was getting louder. It was still early – particularly for a Saturday night in the city. We decided that we must head out somewhere else for a drink. Bob began to tell about a speak-easy he had been to once – right in the seedy heart of the city. He spoke of whispered passwords, secret libraries, velvet covered walls, and of an environment reminiscent of times gone by. I was intrigued. There was a fashionably dressed couple sitting next to us. I felt someone tapping on my arm and looked over to see a woman gazing at me. Her date went on to say that such a place did indeed exist – yet it was in the very worst part of the city. He suggested that our only sane option was to commute via taxi. My intrigue was starting to dissolve. However, no doubt spurred on by the wine, we headed outside to hail a taxi. Now Bob, despite being a local claimed that he did not know how to catch a taxi. I took charge. I stepped into the street as a large car with a lighted triangle on top of it came into view. I saluted the driver –who flashed his high beams and saluted me back.
As the car pulled into the curb we found it to be a large, older, black Mercedes. Sarah and I climbed into the back – and Bob got into the front seat. Before he could sit down he had to move a pizza box –which was taped closed. It was then that I noticed that this taxi had no meter. It did however have video screens on the back of the front seat head rests with Top Gun playing.
The driver, a very large black gentleman impeccably dressed in an even blacker suit that reminded me of a funeral director, inquired where we were heading. Bob explained the best he could. He did not know the name of the joint – just having the street corners.
“Are you sure you want to go into that part of town,” the driver said with concern in his eyes.
“Absolutely,” Bob replied.
“Okay,” the driver said, “But don’t hold me responsible for anything that happens after I drop you off.”
“We shall be fine,” Bob assured him.
After some more banter we discovered that despite claiming to have been a taxi driver for six years that he had no idea of the place we were heading. I realized that I was chewing my bottom lip. I clasped Sarah’s hand tightly.
“We are getting close,” Bob said.
Sarah and I gazed out of the blacked out window. It reminded me of a scene from some post apocalyptic world. Drug dealers peddled their wares seemingly openly as apparent ladies of the night mingled with them. Perhaps my memories are embellished by my imagination and fear. But that is what I recall.
“Drop us off here,” Bob said.
“Are you sure? I do not feel comfortable letting out three white folks in this corner of hell.” As those words echoed in my mind Bob spurted out “Sure,”
It was when we climbed out of the car that I noticed the pizza delivery sign on top of it; before it had not been completely lit.
“What do I owe you,” I asked cautiously reaching for my wallet.
“I am not going to charge you for the ride,” the driver said with a wry smile. “But feel free to tip me what you will.” As I gave him a ten dollar bill I realized that he was a cowboy taxi driver; that the pizza delivery guise was just a ruse – in case he ever got pulled over by the police. With that our only means of escape drove off. I knew that we were never going to be able to catch a cab in this part of town.
Bob was approached by an older lady with three teeth to her name, bent over. She reminded me of the bird woman from Mary Poppins – if the film was a twisted, gory, sadistic horror one instead of a sweet musical. In the hundred feet walk to our destination we were approached three times by gentleman asking us if he could help us score anything.
The building he took us too was nondescript. A small sign hung over the dark doorway – which I cannot recall the wording of. Four gentlemen were in front of us. The one closest to the entrance knocked on the door which was immediately opened by a well dressed tall gentleman.
“Can I help you?” He asked.
“We want to go to the library,” they answered.
“What’s the password?” He asked. I strained my ears in hopes of over hearing. I was worried about what I was going to find inside – if I made it – but I was more disconcerted at being outside. I failed to catch it.
“Are you all, together?” he inquired as the four men entered.
“Yes,” I lied as we quickly followed
It looked like a small and quite ordinary bar – and I felt that I had been duped. However we were led to the end of the room and to a wall set between two booths where people were enjoying contacts. Suddenly the wall opened. We were ushered inside and the door closed behind us. As it clicked shut I attempted to open it – I could not.
At this point adrenaline was pumping through my veins and I felt like I was experiencing one of my own stories. It was both disconcerting and thrilling. I studied the room which was dimly lit by old fashioned chandeliers with keen interest. The walls were covered in red velvet wall paper and the ceiling was embedded brass plating. Sarah told me it reminded her of a scene from The Shining, when Jack was drinking at the bar. The music being pumped into the small room was evidently from the 1920’s and crackled accordingly. The most striking thing was the clientele themselves. They all looked to have money, were all dressed to the hilt, and their ages ranged from those who had just reached drinking age to folks in their sixties. This was in striking contrast to the location, but I felt it reassuring. It took twenty minutes to get Sarah and me up to the bar. Behind it two bartenders crafted cocktails at their own speed. One caught my wife’s eye she ordered two specialty cocktails and a Maker’s Mark. The barkeep then took two more folks orders. Then he told us all to say quiet as he dictated the drinks back to us. There were about twelve drinks in all. Then we watched in awe as he skillfully made the various libation concoctions. Shakers were shook, martini glasses were chilled, lime was scorched, and an array or drinks were poured. Then he poured a generous measure of Maker’s Mark into a glass and handed it me. As I paid for the drinks I realized why only people who appeared well to do were there. As I sipped my bourbon my mood once more heightened. I discovered that there was nothing illegitimate about the place at all – in fact quite the contrary. It is simply a nifty attempt at trying to recreate the atmosphere from the bygone era of prohibition. For pictures and more details, visit the Bourbon & Branch Website.
It also turned out that we were not as trapped as I initially thought. That there was a fire door that led to the street. At around midnight we decided that we should leave – and headed back into the street; which at this point seemed significantly less seedy. We knew that finding a taxi was not going to happen and readied ourselves for the long trek back to the hotel. It turned out that we did not have to walk far. The hotel was just a block away.
We bid good night to Bob – and thanked him heartily for his hospitality.
The night ended quite fittingly. Sarah and I sat on the balcony and sipped on a brandy. Although neither of us smokes – I felt that if we had cigars it would have been fitting to have a few puffs as we sat there reminiscing over the curious day that had just unfolded, in a Boston Legal’s Crane/Shore moment. For the events that had happened to us had stretched the limits of believe just as episodes of the show used to.
Sarah and I discovered that we were completely exhausted from the grueling drive and entertaining exploits of the day before. Cocooned in our king size bed elevated towards the heavens we were soon transported into a deep, soothing sleep. The day’s events still percolated through my imagination and I wondered if I was going to have one of my crazy dreams that I am notorious for. But what I dreamt about I have no recollection – for the very next memory was the alarm going off at eight in the morning.
The book signing was slated at one in the afternoon – and I wanted to get there well in advance just in case something went wrong. I was in a quiet, introspective mood as I readied myself for the day.
A little after nine Sarah and I ascended one floor to have breakfast. As I chomped on my fresh fruit and croissant, recklessly drinking cup after cup of coffee, I once more took in the breathtaking view. There are many who argue that cities are ugly-even vulgar. But whereas that description might aptly fit other cities – San Francisco certainly does not fit those words. On the contrary; San Francisco has a majestic beauty to it. Even on a Sunday morning it was bustling with vibrancy. I found the view both soothing and inviting – and I said very little as we sat there. Sometimes after so many years together a couple does not need clumsy words to communicate.
Afterwards we headed back down to our room and I changed shirts. I decided that my purple one was going to bring me luck. It was about ten thirty when we climbed into the cap and headed towards Borderlands. www.borderlands-books.com.
Again the ride was mostly silent. Sarah and I clasped hands as we neared our destination. The book store sits on Valencia Street – which I have to say is rather remarkable. I arrived at the store, and admit I was fighting back nerves. I was encouraged to see a poster of my book in the window display, next to a copy of my work. I also read a sign in the window proclaiming that I was indeed slated to appear that day. We had a couple of hours to kill so we set off down the street – in search of something else to eat and more coffee. Contrary to logic, I find coffee soothing in stressful situations.
I walked along absorbing the distinct artsy personality of the street. There were several independent eateries – There are no chains on the street – several eclectic store and several new and used book stores. I instantly felt a sense of belonging as we made our way down the street. The decision of where to eat came abundantly clear as we approached Boogaloo. There were table outside this eclectic restaurant, where people sat consuming fabulous plates of food. There were also a number of dogs sitting contently under their owner’s tables as the enjoyed breakfast. I have always had a fondness towards the canine species – and this further endeared me to the place. To get a table you sign a list hanging outside the door with a seating preference. As we waited, soaking up the atmosphere and eagerly taking in tantalizing wafts of food I noticed something peculiar happening. Parking is in short supply on the street which had one lane each way and a turning lane dissecting along the middle. We noticed that two cars sat in the middle lane – nose to nose – almost as if they were about to duel. There appeared nowhere for them to turn – but there they sat. After a few moments they climbed out of their vehicles, locked them, and proceeded to make their way down the street. As we sat there a little bewildered our name was called and we were sat on the sidewalk. The table next to us owned a dog that reminded us of Sir Winston, the newest member of the Gifford family. Coffee was quickly brought in a pint glass with a paper cuff around it. Now that is what I call a cup of coffee!
We ordered breakfast as noticing to our amusement that the entire middle lane was filling up with parked vehicles. I ordered a feta omelet and my wife ordered chorizo and eggs.
This text will be replaced by the flash music player. I had printed out the story I planned to read in size twenty font. As we waited I took the final opportunity to rehearse it. I will admit that it caused a few concerned eyebrows raised as I got to the meaty part. To hear the story I read, simply activate the MP3 player on the right.
After a very enjoyable breakfast served by a marvelous waitress that Sarah felt was reminiscent of Betty Boop, we headed back to the store. It was a little after noon at this point. I wanted to show up around half an hour prior to my scheduled time. Two stores down was a coffee shop, and yes I actually went in and purchased yet another coffee. I sat there for a few minutes attempting to collect my thoughts. Then taking a deep breath headed to the store. I was greeted with a welcoming smile as I entered – by Jude the store’s co-owner. Most of my nerves dissipated and was replaced by a nervous, caffeine induced, energy. We chatted for a few minutes. She showed me a lovely antique podium which had a dozen chairs arranged in front of them. I situated my story onto the podium and gulped down some more coffee.
I also inquired about the strange parking practice. I discovered that it is only allowed on a Sunday within a short distance of a church and only permitted during church hours. As the store is located in the Mission region of the city we were surrounded by places of worship.
I would be fibbing if I said that the turnout challenged any fire marshal codes. I was thrilled and delighted that Alicia Benson and her husband made the journey from San Jose to be there. Alicia is an amazing author – and anyone with an interest in vampires – or simply a well told tale – should check out her website.
A little after one I read my story – and I was happy with the way it came out. Afterwards there was a short questions and answers session. By this point I was completely comfortable.
Before leaving I signed their guest book, was handed a beer mug with their logo on it – which shall be used often – and signed a few books for the store. In was thrilled with the way everything played out. Borderlands is a legendary store in San Francisco and for me it fulfilled a dream. Furthermore Jude seemed agreeable at me returning next year.
Alicia and her husband had mentioned they wanted to take us out for lunch. We had noticed a Spanish tapa’s restaurant across the street from Boogaloo named Esperento. Jude had called to see if it was indeed open –and confirmed that it was.
So of the four of us set back up the street. By this time it had really come alive. Street vendors were setting up – selling all sorts of fascinating stuff. There was even a puppet box which consisted of a booth; the hands were simply the puppeteer’s gloved hands. But in place of her head was an eerily carved wooden one. I am not sure how they controlled that but it made for an unsettling effect.
A pitcher of sangria was ordered at the restaurant – with three glasses. Alicia’s husband being the designated driver did not drink. We engaged in fabulous conversation as glasses were emptied and a wild variety of tapa’s were consumed. It was a most fitting finish to the signing event.
Afterwards we were driven back to the hotel.
That evening we headed towards pier 39 – Fisherman’s Wharf – and played at being tourists. At this point all pressure was off and I could simply enjoy the city. We ate the clichéd seafood dishes and took in a few drinks. I was appropriately entertained by the street performers – including a wild fire eating act. There also seems to be a new fad – sidewalk spray painting. A chap with a gas mask, overalls and goggles on – looking like someone from the Texas Chain saw massacre – is on the ground spray painting art at breath taking speed. I purchased my son Jonathan a black and white rendition of the grim reaper.
Finally at around ten o’clock we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a cocktail on the balcony in yet another Boston Legal moment.
On Monday we headed home. Again Miss Ellie led the way. This time we took the coastal route, which has to be one of the most scenic drives on the planet. I had a couple of adventures on the way – but those I will save for another day.
We arrived home a little after nine completely exhausted. My son, being well trained, had drinks ready for us as we walked in.
Whereas I enjoy traveling there is nothing like getting back home again.
©Copyright January 21, 2009 by Paul S. Gifford