Raindrops sparkling in the early morning sun on my rearview
mirror. An intoxicating bouquet of
wildflowers, freshly cut grass, and salty ocean air blowing through the open
car window. A rolling field full of
contented cows and sleek horses, rosy with the setting sun. Golden light
filtering through the tall, sharply-scented eucalyptus trees at a long,, steep
curve in the storied Pacific Coast Highway. The dark forest of ancient redwoods giving way to a
breathtaking panorama of ocean, the waves crashing eternally against the wild, rocky coast the way they have
for centuries past and will for centuries to come.
Cool, smooth wood under my bare feet in the kitchen, early
in the morning when it’s still dark, the birds haven’t yet begun to sing, and
the cats are still curled up sleeping, dreaming of chasing those birds. The rich smell of coffee filling the
air. Taking a cup of fresh coffee
to the back porch, standing on the sun warmed wood, admiring the orchids and lilacs
in full bloom, a young spider spinning her first web, the flash of a Steller’s
Jay’s wing, the glitter of dew drops on the Japanese maple, the promise of the
day to come.
Treetops tossing in the wind through the bay window, just
visible with the blinds drawn down from the top. Peeking through the window, the city’s pastel buildings
become visible, their secret gardens hidden from the streets and unknowing
passers-by. Who lives in the
mansion behind my apartment? I
have never seen anyone in its many windows, enjoying its elegant garden, going
in or out of its grand doorway.
Its residents are as mysterious to me as if they are ghosts, and perhaps
they are – this city is known for its ghosts, its scandalous past, its many
mysteries – past and present.
It’s the hour when night begins its slip into day. The mortuary worker steps outside for a
cigarette, still in his smock, smelling of chemicals, with a sad smile in the
flare of his lighter. Stockbrokers pass partygoers. The bright eye of the cable
car’s light burns through the fog as it makes its way down the hill, appearing
like magic through the mist. As it approaches the end of the line, a tall, slim
young man wearing black leather pants and no shirt ballet dances down the
street and with a final pirouette jumps gracefully onto the cable car.
The hair salon is across the street from a very fancy bridal
salon. Both are located in an
exclusive shopping district, and both have window that look out (or in,
depending on your viewpoint) at each other, high above the pedestrians on the
streets below. Looking into the
bridal salon, you can see girls twirling around the room in white dresses, heads
full of dreams and their hearts full of love. Looking in the mirrors, they see the girl who dreamed of her
wedding, the woman who accepted a proposal, and the bride she’ll be, all
beautiful and all hopeful.
You wait in line, and when it’s finally your turn, you snag
a stool in front of the long counter, dotted with bowls of oyster crackers and
sliced lemons. Behind the counter,
brothers and cousins perform an effortless ballet, taking orders, filleting
smoked salmon, opening oysters, answering the phone, pouring wine, slicing
dark, crusty loaves of sourdough bread.
The radio plays Frank Sinatra, and there’s a pile of paperback novels by
the phone. It’s like stepping into
the past. It’s my favorite restaurant in the city, and it nourishes both my
spirit and my body, every time I go there.
The sun rises over one bridge and sets over the other. One is grey, older yet less storied
than the other, which is a vivid orange like the setting sun. The grey bridge’s lights sparkle
through the cool fog, which swirls around the orange bridge and sometimes hides
it completely, to tourists’ disappointment. The grey bridge’s lights are echoed by those on tall
buildings at the city’s shoreline, but it somehow lacks the allure of its brash
younger sister. No one ever calls
it iconic, but no one has jumped from it to their deaths, either. Is that any consolation?
From the roof of my apartment building, I can see that
iconic bridge, and another of the city’s best-known (if not best loved)
landmarks, the island prison. Not
for the first time, I marvel at the selection of prime real estate for such a
purpose. Another ancient prison
sits on the other side of that bay, commanding a breathtaking view of the city
and occupying some very expensive land.
The island has been converted to a tourist attraction, but the other
prison still houses thousands, including those on its bleak Death Row. From a distance, it looks like a
I’ve visited the island prison, always with visitors, and
always with a sense of wonder that such a place draws the curious, the casual
visitor. Every time, I am struck
by the isolation and the state of decay of the buildings. It’s hard to believe that families
lived here, and that the children of prison guards took the ferry to the city
to go to school and lived in the shadow of this, the prison for the hardest
cases in the country. In the
evening, when the sun set spectacularly, laughter and music drifted over the
water with the fog.
When I passed the cable car barn, the cable cars were
yawning and stretching, their bells clanging softly as they prepared for
another day of going up and down the hills. The twinkling lights on the bridge
were reflected in the dark waters of the bay, and the sky was changing from a
deep midnight blue to that unearthly shade of cerulean favored by medieval
artists. The sky was still scattered with stars and the very last crescent
moon, and it shaded to pink at the edges of the east, where the sun would soon
be making its daily debut.
The cable car barn is a wonderful place. You can see the
actual, H.G. Wells style cables that pull the country’s only moving national
monuments up and down the dizzying hills at a stately nine miles an hour. It
amazes me that they are powered only by these cables, running under the streets
I walk every day. I never get
tired of watching the cables wind around the giant spools, just as I love to
hop on the cable car and listen to the artistry of the brakeman’s bell
ringing. It’s on eof the signature
city sounds, like fog horns.
I once had a revelation when taking the cable car home from
work after my father’s death. I
hadn’t been back at work long, and grief was still an oppressive cloud I
carried with me everywhere. One
evening, I worked late and took the cable car home. As it ascended up the steep hill, I looked around and my
fellow passengers and it occurred to me that each and every one of them could
be suffering on the inside, just like I was, while yet retaining the façade of
a normal grown-up. It was a
fascinating and somehow comforting thought.
The Market was a staple of the neighborhood for almost 80
years. Going in there was like stepping into the past. The store was run by the
same family, and the radio was always playing songs from the 1940′s
They kept a big box of Milk Bone at the cash, and neighborhood dogs would pop
in to get a treat as they passed by, being petted and greeted by name by
whoever was manning the cash. It was the kind of place where they asked you to
mind the cash while they ran into the back for something.
Down a side street is a tiny tailor shop, owned by an
Italian grandmother who has been sewing since she was a little girl. In the front of the shop is an old,
foot-powered sewing machine. Behind the sewing machine is a heavy green velvet
curtain, which conceals works in progress, finished clothes not yet picked up
by their owners, and customers trying on clothes to be altered. Alterations are attended to by the
grandmother from start to finish.
She fills you in on neighborhood gossip while you wait. When your mother dies, she sends you
home with a hug.
Next to the tailor shop is a shoe repair shop, equally tiny
and staffed by the tailor’s husband.
He is a little gruffer than his counterpart, but like her, his
craftsmanship and dedication are impeccable. They have worked side by side for almost as many years as
they have been married. At
lunchtime, they move their chairs onto the sidewalk, put napkins on their laps,
and share their meal in the sunshine, smiling and greeting neighbors and clients
as they walk past. At night, they
lock up their shops, turn the signs to “closed”, and walk home arm in arm.
Across the street is a French lingerie store, owned by
actual French people speaking French.
There is something of a mini French Town about the area, with a French
restaurant and bakery close by the lingerie store. The restaurant even has the little painted metal café tables
and chairs, often populated by pretty girls accessorized by shopping bags, much
as you’d see them in Paris. Between
the smell of strong coffee, freshly baked croissants, a whiff of Gauloises, a
dash of perfume, and a lacy nothing or two, you could almost imagine yourself
to be in the City of Light.
A couple of doors up from my apartment building, there is a window containing an ever-changing and ever-fabulous tableau. The apartment’s occupant has a dress store mannequin on display, which he dresses and accessorizes according to his moods and the season. Halloween and Christmas are the most fun. He keeps the display lit up at night and into the early morning hours when I go to work, and I look forward to seeing it as I walk up the steep hill. Something about seeing what the mannequin is wearing that day and sharing in the whimsy always makes me smile.
I found my favorite place by literally following my
nose. My brother-in-law and I were
painting my first apartment in the city (surely one of the “worse” parts in
their “for better or for worse” vows) and we were starving. We headed out to the street with the
most shops and restaurants, and the tantalizing smell of the pizzeria beckoned
us onward until we found it. It
was a little hole in the wall, with booths and glass grape lamps and worn
floors, looking like a time capsule from the 1950s. The pizza was heavenly, and it’s still a favorite.
Not much has changed at the pizzeria. Even some of the same waiters are
there, though sadly Voice Guy, who used to answer the phone in a deep
distinctive voice, finally retired.
He used to always correct my pronunciation of “Vallejo” with the
greatest gusto: “Ba YA ho”!
Neither of us ever changed.
I think he looked forward to our little ritual, just as I always looked
forward to going there, and still do.
I rarely visit the city without stopping in, though now my take out is a
little more extreme: four hours’ drive instead of four blocks’ walk.
If you walk the other way from the pizzeria, you will arrive
at the end of the street, which ends at the bay. I sit on the sun-warmed stone
steps with my bare feet in the sand and watch the members of the Polar Bear
Club, intrepid souls who swim the bay year-round, fearless of cold and
bacteria. A huge tanker swims by slowly on its way into the Pacific (next stop,
Hawaii!), making me wonder again about physics and how something the size of a
building can float. The wild parrots fly overhead, their wings shining in the
The grand sailboats at the pier move gently in the water,
their old timbers and ropes creaking gently with the sea’s ceaseless motion as
they have for more than a century.
I can’t imagine the strength, courage, and faith needed by the sailors
who used to take them around the hazardous Horn, steering only by the stars.
Though these grand ladies no longer venture into the deep ocean or around the
dangerous Horn, their stories and those of the men who served on them will
always live on in the wood and the heart and soul of these great ships.
Outside the coffee shop a few blocks from the pier is an old
guy who seems to spend his entire day sitting in a chair and drinking cup after
cup of coffee. I often see him on my way to work early in the morning, and find
him still sitting there on the way home ten hours later. Imagine drinking all
that coffee, all day long! Today as I walked by, I heard him say to the guy who
works in the coffee shop, “It was so pretty it made me want to breakdance.”
I’ve never seen anything that pretty.
I never pass the Brocklebank Building without thinking of
“Vertigo”. In Hitchcock’s
masterpiece, it’s where the troubled heroine lives, and in real life, it’s
where Herb Caen lived. Mr. Caen
was a San Francisco treasure, chronicling sublime, ridiculous, and every day
events for almost sixty years in his column in the “Chronicle”. It only made sense that the living
incarnation of the city should live in one of its landmark buildings, full of
stories, history, and mystery. He
and Hitch’s heroine both drove their Jaguars around the town with style and
panache, right into the legendary territory where they belong.
The Brocklebank Building is right across the street from a
storied, grand hotel which survived the Great Quake of 1906 with its glamour
intact. It’s instantly
recognizable in photos from that era, seeming to preside over the smoking rubble
of the city from the top of the hill. Even now, it maintains its serene majesty as cable cars
rumble past, tourists gawk and take photos, and Presidents and celebrities come
to stay as they have for decades passed and more to come, welcomed one and all
with the same grace this grande dame has shown for more than a century.
Facing the grand hotel is one of the few remaining men’s
clubs in the city. Housed in a
mansion originally built for a silver magnate and reputed to be the first
brownstone ever built west of the Mississippi, its credo remains “No Democrats,
no women, no reporters” into the 21st century. Members are old money, illustrious
citizens of the moneyed part of society, as well as influential
politicians. Like the grand hotel,
it survived the great earthquake, and like the grand hotel, it remains a
reminder of a more gracious time, a little bit of the past in the present.
This part of the city is full of secretive narrow alleys and
dead end one block streets. Some
have pockets of colorful Victorians, other have impressive contemporary homes. The
best thing about these hidden treasures is that you'd never know they were
there unless…you knew they were there.
Most are accessible only on foot, and many do not even appear on the
ubiquitous and prying Google Maps (soon we will all be living in fish bowls, if
we aren’t already). It’s a pleasure
to seek out these hidden gems in the beautiful city, enjoying the architecture,
views and hidden surprises.
Both of the city’s remaining octagon houses are within a
couple of blocks of my apartment.
One is a mansion and the other is relatively modest. They were both built about 1860. The more modest one is a museum, which
is rarely open, but I manage to visit one sunny day. It’s delightful to imagine living in such a quirky
environment, which was supposed to be healthier for the residents than standard
houses. Certainly the many tall
windows, the spiral staircase and the unusual shape make it particularly
charming to my eye. It’s a
particularly fascinating relic of the past.
When I take coffee or a glass of wine with me to the roof
garden, I am rewarded by the sight of the blue Bay, the iconic bridge, and the
island prison, foreboding even in sunlight. In front, cars rush down the hill I climb each morning, and
to the sides of the building, there are other apartments, some with gardens
hidden from view. Most of the apartments
facing the Bay don’t have curtains or leave them open, the better to admire the
view. Sometimes I get glimpses of
other people’s lives, just as they get a peek into mine.
People watching is easier and somehow more poignant at
night, when the lamps are lit and each window presents a small tableau: a
family having dinner; children playing; a woman making dinner, pausing for a
sip of wine and looking into the distance, perhaps seeking inspiration or
simply a break from a routine task; a man lighting a fire in the fireplace; a
man sitting by his own fire reading the paper with his dog at his feet. All these different lives going on,
separately and apart, beside, above, and below each other, strangers to each
other but still neighbors.
From the first time I saw it spread out below me, sparkling
on a clear winter night, I fell in love with this city. No matter how many years I spend
walking its hilly streets, I never get used to the beauty. The pastel building spilling down the hillside
to the blue bay, the iconic bridge is red in the sun, and sharp against the
blue sky and water. When I’m coming home across the Bridge, and I get that
first glimpse of the city, my heart always rises with the joy and pleasure of
living somewhere so very beautiful.