Monday, January 02, 2017

Hitchhiking in San Francisco

The problem with traveling for work is most of what you do on the trip is…work. Surprise.

I was in San Francisco, Berkeley to be precise, and in a very pretty hotel in a marina in the middle of no here off the San Fran bay. I will give the place this, they got me checked in fast enough, gave me a free drink, and were, for the most part, very quiet. But also very much in the middle of nowhere. Once I finally managed to get into my room I realized I was hungry as my body was on New York time and I was tired and hungry. With few options in the hotel, and a hotel bar and restaurant that were wildly unsatisfactory, I decided to see if there might be anything within walking distance.

What I came up with was a little restaurant called Skates on the Bay, which was only about a mile walk away. So that is what I did. I got to the restaurant just in time for happy hour and managed to have a pound of steam clams with my wine (on special) all for less then 30 bucks. I’d call that a win in a city that is easily as expensive as New York. The view didn’t hurt.

The next day I did, to much surprise, work. Lots of work. All good work and we finished relatively early for the day, around 4. My ride and coworker needed to go to attend to some to some other things that night and asked me if I’d be alright getting the BART back to my room. I said sure and we parted happily to meet bright and early the next day.

That done I tried to decide, do I go straight back to my room or try to explore a little bit of San Fran while I’m there. Since I hate wasting an opportunity I decided to go for a bit of a walk and see what I could see. At first I was mostly wandering in circles then I managed to bump into the trolly line. I watched the trollies go up and down a bit and took a few photos of the hills and, as the sun was beginning to set, decided it would be a good time for a happy hour. I left the trollies and began to walk randomly down the street when a sign for a bar caught my eye.

“John’s Grill, home of the Maltese Falcon”

Of interest, or perhaps not of interest, I had read the Maltese Falcon last year during my book reading binge. I managed 125 books last year so I read all sorts of stuff and I figured it would be good to get some Sam Spade into my life. I enjoyed the story, but I had never seen the film. However, things all came together for me. Books, booze, and bars. I was sold and walked into what struck me like a Hollywood celebrity bar, lots of pictures of Hollywood royalty going back decades. It was interesting enough. The bar, small was in the back and empty except for two old timers in one corner. I took up a seat and asked for the menu, which included a number of book themed drinks out of Ian Fleming,  Dashiell Hammet and Agatha Christie. All fun stuff and good times. Since, I’m a fan of the Vesper I went for that sat in to enjoy my book and the old timey ambiance.

The two old timers at the bar were just getting ready to check out and their bar banter with the bartender told me the were regulars here and most likely had been having a weekly happy hour here for the better part of three decades. I was amused and quietly read my book.

After about ten minutes a couple came in and poured over the menu, unable to figure out what to drink. They were loud, and touristy and annoying so I mostly kept to myself in my small corner. It was a few minutes later that  I noticed another person enter the bar, older, like the old timers, and clearly eye my side of the bar for a place to sit. I had my bag on a chair next to a beam, there was the chair I was on, one empty chair, and the annoying tourists. I watched the body language of the new comer and I fully understood it. I want to be here, but I can’t be and I don’t want to be squeezed into that space, it said.

Without being asked I moved my things and slide over a chair making more space next to me. The stranger acknowledged with a head nod and sat down and ordered a Manhattan. I turned back to my book and thought not much more of it.

The Vesper was excellent but I was starting to get hungry and I figured I’d head out sooner rather than later. Plus I had the BART to figure out and most likely Uber since in San Fran there is a big thing about Uber over cabs (I suppose it’s the tech industry there). I was finishing up my drink and the stranger next to me started to talk.

“I haven’t been here in almost thirty years. When did they chop down the bar?”

His conversation was directed at the bartender, but I was curious and listened in. He began to talk about how the bar had been in action for ages and how he used to come and sit at the bar when the bar ran the entire length of the restaurant. I was sort of fascinated as he talked and he started talking about the falcon, so I asked, “Is the Maltese Falcon actually here?”

“Of course, it’s upstairs, you should go see it.”

“I think I will.”

This of course lead to the usual small talk and I asked him what brought him back to San Fran. Apparently he had just recently relocated after years on the road, doing research living all over the place. I couldn’t resist and before you know it we were deeply engrossed in conversations about research, life, education, international culture, knowledge and books.

I decided to have a second drink.

We kept talking and eventually he asked me if I was a Falcon fan, of the movie of course. I explained I’d read the book but had not seen the movie. He mentioned there was a plaque around the corner that marked the exact location where Sam Spade’s partner had been shot. We talked a bit more about the book and how the book worked and finally he offered, if I was interested, to show me the plaque. He was really, sweet about it too, and clearly understands what it’s like to be a girl.

“I have a daughter your age, I promise I’m not up to anything.”

I smiled and asked him to give me a moment to get a picture of the falcon and I would be happy to have him escort me.

The bird was awesome.

Outside it was a bit hot and there was a lot of construction going on. We walked up the block any my new companion turned out to be an excellent tour guide. Having grown up in the city he had excellent knowledge of all the buildings and locations and places to go. He asked if I had eaten yet, and I mentioned I had not, so he suggested that we go to a little place around the corner from the bar that was one of his favorite. A place he used to frequent, but he hadn’t been since he moved back. I understood this fellow, San Fran was his home but he had been away for so long. He didn’t know those in in the city and was comfortable with strangers. There was something special for him in having a stranger to take around his hometown while he rediscovered it, having only been back in the city for about a week himself.

At the corner as we started to figure out dinner plans he made a proposal.

“So, we have two options. We can walk from here to the location, or if you are okay with it, we can get some dinner and then I can pick up my car and we can do a little drive around and I can show you the sight and maybe show you some other things in San Francisco. If that’s okay, I only had the one drink and after some food I should be okay.”

I figured why not, it will be an interesting adventure and I like a good adventure. Besides, it was better than my current plans for the evening which were mostly just getting the BART and chilling in my hotel room. This would be a lot more fun.

“That sounds like a great idea!”


“Yeah, why not.”

And so, we were off.

First up was the dinner restaurant.

We ended up at a place called Lefty O’Doul’s. Lefty was a San Fran sports baller (baseball as far as I can tell) who had opened a bar and restaurant. It was an institution in San Fran, a place that had been in operation forever. It was loud, boisterous, dark and a fun: a cafeteria style restaurant with several meals on the menu where one was invited to come up and tell the staff what you wanted. There were all kinds of specials and it was the kind of eatery that would certainly be popular among an older set. I didn’t mind. Especially since the lady who walked in before us had the most adorable looking shih tzu with her which really sold the place for me.

My stranger got the turkey dinner so I followed suit and did the same and we ate while he told me stories of the owner and his meals here over thirty years go while laying out the basic plan for the evening. We would pick up the car, check out the plaque, he’d call his wife who was in the process of moving in and maybe we could stop by and say hello to her before I got myself home. Seemed like a good plan to me so I ate up and we began our journey.

After tucking into the simple dinner food we headed out to find his car where he had left it in a local garage. From there it wasn’t a very long trip to see where Miles Archer met his fate at the hands of Brigid O'Shaughnessy. As I hoped out to take my picture, my new friend called his wife on the car speaker. He asked how she’d feel about having some company stop by for a minute and before I could close the door the plan had been set between the husband and wife. I’d come by and see the house and sit for a spell, then we would all pile into the car and they would drive me across the bay and back to my hotel in Berkeley. There was a part of all this that felt very much like hitchhiking so I figure, eh, why not.

On the drive back to his house, as the sun was setting over San Francisco, I was given a rolling tour of the city, with a complimentary living tour guide pointing things out. Their was fog on the bay, lined by houses where all the billionaires lived, I saw the upper levels on ever house with a window that faced the bay, a requirement that everyone be able to see the water, I saw the old forest starting at the top of a hill, I saw the not so secret stone building that served as a club house where power brokers go to drink and figure out who they are running our lives. I saw old strip clubs that were now coffee shops and the theater district and watched as the trolly ran up and down the hills. It was a lovely little tour. I learned that to move back to San Fransico he had lucked out, finding a two bedroom rent controlled place by accident while visiting his daughter. I learned that he wanted to move closer to family and he was happy to have such a nice place in an old 1920s building.

The building did have great ambience, with a big seating area downstairs were you could mingle with neighbors, old elevators with metal railing doors and a lever, and stairs with gorgeous wooden banisters that had various different designs. When we entered his home and were quickly greeted by his wife who looked like she could be playing the role of Ethel on I Love Lucy on a lay about the house in a bathrobe kind of day. Even with her age, she had a bright and youthful charm that was hard not to like. She offered me food and water at least ten times, as any proper grandmother and house matron would, and apologized for all the unpacking going on around us, since she had only just started to really move back in. I got a full tour of the flat that had the most wonderful classical fixtures, lush wood, and gorgeous classic bathrooms with the original tile. It really was a gorgeous place.

The last thing I was introduced to, before our road trip to Berkeley, was an old magazine with a picture of Dashiell Hammet on the cover. The magazine was something that had gone out of business, the type of old story magazines that introduced writers. He explained, as we showed me the magazine, kept in an old plastic cover, that Dashiell Hammet was, in many ways, responsible for how he met his wife, how they had stayed together and how they kept going into the future. In ever place he had ever lived, that magazine had a space on the wall. Apparently in the last place it had been in a basement near a washing machine where it had been slightly water damaged. However, he happily told me that just like meeting me randomly in a bar, he had met a random stranger a week ago who happened to work for the museum and her specialty was restoring paper. She was going to have a look at it and see what she could do. I smiled, I drank some water and listened to the stories and wondered about it all. I liked this man, who invited fate into his life all the time and then worked with whatever turned up around the next corner, in the next stranger, in the next adventure.

We watched the last of the sun go down from their apartment windows before piling in the car to get back to the hotel and my bed. The trip was short and sweet and full of stories of strangers, their lives and youths in San Francisco, their changes, their wins and loses. As hitchhiking goes it was a fine time and the perfect way to have an adventure without really trying to hard.

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