Monday, November 15, 2010

The City...Don’t Ever Call It Frisco!

That’s right! To residents of San Francisco hearing the name “Frisco” is a lot like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard. It’s very similar to us Vancouver natives who cringe every time we hear it called “Van”; however over here in my adopted suburb of North Vancouver it referred to as “over town”. (I been living on this side of the water for almost a quarter decade and I still find North Shore residents to be a bit provincial; no, make that downright weird!) San Franciscans refer to their tiny village as “The City”. This seems a bit pretentious but after all it was the first major city and the hub of all shipping on the West Coast. Many members of the Religious Wrong have described it as the “Sodom and Gomorrah of the West”; and it in a fun way maybe it really was and is!

Version 1.0 - Pier 39
San Francisco is my favourite American city and I have been lucky enough to visit The City on six occasions.  Perhaps the reason I love it so much is that unlike other major cities here on the Left Coast it tends to preserve and embrace its history, warts and all. Vancouver and Seattle seem to follow the Los Angeles model of newer, shinier and bigger. Portland is the only one that emulates San Francisco in keeping its history alive. (You have to love a city whose unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird”.)
My first two visits were in November of 1978 and again in November of 1979 accompanied by the lovely Version 1.0. Our first trip consisted of a drive down scenic I-5 (Hey, blacktop and semi-trailers are scenic!) from Vancouver. We arrived in San Francisco late at night and after almost running into a cable car found a hotel. It was at this point I realized that the only time one should drive in The City was arriving and departing. I learned then that everyone uses the transit system in SF (Muni). I remember sitting on a city bus one evening when an elderly couple dressed to the nines in evening gown and tuxedo bearing a beautifully wrapped wedding gift got on. You don’t see that in Vancouver.
It was the furthest I had been away from home and the first non-parental accompanied vacation I had been on. My eyes lit up when in the light of day, I first saw all those wonderful sights I had only previously seen on television. We took in all the standard tourist sites as well as riding the cable cars up and down the hilly streets. We strolled hand in hand down Polk Street looking in all the quaint shop windows when we realized we were the only male/female couple on the street. We didn’t realize at the time Polk Street was “The” gay district at the time; The Castro was just coming into its own in 1978. Ironically, about two week after we left San Francisco, The Castro District was going to become famous for all the wrong reasons.) What struck us as wonderful about Polk Street was how much love there was in the community. We were greeted by male/male and female/female couples with warm smiles. I guess everyone loves seeing two people in love whether they are young or old, gay or straight. On our second visit the following year, we explored a few more touristy areas as grizzled veterans at the ripe old age of twenty-three but we made sure we visited Polk Street again for lunch.  

Junior - Cable Car
My third visit came in October 1986 with one my of all-time favourite road trip buddies, Junior. It was part of a repositioning cruise with stops in Seattle and Portland where we able to find cold beers at Pike Place Market in Seattle at 7 AM and an old restaurant, Huber’s Cafe in Portland that served some damn fine Spanish Coffees. Our silliness continued when we arrived in San Francisco because everyone knows that an Anchor Steam Beer is so necessary after nursing a hangover climbing around Alcatraz. We became heroes with the bartender and piano player at Henry Africa’s by starting a game of dollar bill basketball using the large brandy snifter on the piano as a hoop. Once a sporting event begins the testosterone starts to flow and every guy in the house had to try a sink it! Needless to say it was one of the piano player's best Sunday nights. The one sombre point of our trip was that HIV/Aids had begun to devastate the once vibrant gay community and every native we talked to had lost at least one friend or co-worker to this horrible disease.

Lorraine - AT&T Park 2006
I returned to SF in 1991 with Lorraine for a brief visit. It was her first time in The City and I showed her all the usual sights but nothing else sticks out about this visit excluding a side trip to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.
Our second trip to San Francisco in May of 2006 and sadly our last trip together was again tied into one of those repositioning cruises. We were there to celebrate both of us reaching the half-century mark and along with falling in love again with The City; we fell in love all over again with each other. Paris be damned! San Francisco truly is the City of Love. Part of my birthday wish was to finally see my San Francisco Giants play live and not only did we do that we were able to tour AT&T Park that same day with our guide, Bill, who was a fourth generation San Franciscan that loved his hometown and his hometown team. May 8, 2006 was the day Lorraine officially became a Giants fan.
I knew that I had to return to San Francisco at least once more to honour Lorraine’s memory and my plans were hurried along after watching “Milk” with Sean Penn and the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk”. I wanted to see more of his city, especially The Castro.
As alluded to earlier, the assassination of County Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone took place about ten days after we left San Francisco in 1978. At the time, although it was headline news in Vancouver it was mostly sloughed off as another crazy on a shooting spree in the US and the story only resurfaced later because of Dan White’s famous Twinkie Defense. The event was quickly buried in our local news a few days later because of another Bay Area related story was coming to light, the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. Over the years I learned more about Harvey and learned how he was not just a gay rights advocate but an advocate for all human rights including labour issues.
My original plan was to return at the beginning of May to coincide with the 4th anniversary of our last vacation but I decided to move it back a few weeks when I found out that May 22, 2010 was going to be the first official Harvey Milk Day in California.
The best thing I discovered on this trip was a program offered through the San Francisco Library System of free guided neighbourhood walking tours run by volunteers. Of course, they pass around an envelope at the end for donations to keep this and other programs running. Ironically, the program started in 1978 and I missed out on them every time previously. I managed to take four of these tours. The first was of the Civic Centre including a visit to City Hall where Moscone and Milk were murdered. When you see how far White had to walk from the Mayor’s office to the suite of Supervisors’ offices, you question how a jury could not find this anything but pre-meditated. The second was through the Nob Hill/Financial District and the guide taught us an amazing amount about the financial barons that created The City.
On May 22, Harvey Milk Day, I toured the Castro District visiting Harvey Milk’s Camera Store and Apartment, The Harvey Civil Rights Academy, and culminating with a visit to Pink Triangle Park, a memorial for the thousands of gay men and women that were executed during the Holocaust.

Tony Bennett's Heart

The final tour was the fun one, “North Beach at Night”, this took us through the North Beach and Little Italy neighbourhoods where our guide pointed parts of San Francisco’s more sordid history. We learned where the expensive brothels were and where the discount ones were located. Would they brag about this in Vancouver? Look what they did to Maxine’s Hideaway!) Where but in San Francisco would a strip club, The Condor, be declared a state monument? The bonus part of the tour was the doorman taking us inside to see the elevating piano a former owner/mob boss was crushed on while enjoying one of his waitresses.

Lorraine - AT&T Park 2010

My final day, May 24, by coincidence happened to be The Crown Prince’s 22nd birthday. This was the perfect day to honour Lorraine so I placed her ashes next to one of the palm trees in Willie Mays Plaza at AT&T Park.
I am sure if you ever decide to visit this wonderful city you too will fall in love and leave your heart in San Francisco. Sing it for us, Tony!
Thank you and enjoy the rest of your day here in the Magic Kingdom. Oh crap, wrong theme park! ;-)

1 comment:

  1. Well, if I ever get to Frisco...oops!...I mean *The City*, I hope you'll be my tour guide!

    Those look like some great links. Going to check out the Harvey Civil Rights Academy!

    *The City* certainly holds a lot of fine memories for you Denny. That's wonderful!