It was freezing when I arrived in San Francisco, or Frisco as lovers fondly call it, for the Christmas weekend. I’d taken a fancy double-decker bus from Los Angeles early in the morning and regretted the decision over the following eight-odd hours instead of six. The more time you spend in the City of Angels, the more acutely its oft-delayed public transport system hits you. Anyway, winter drizzle can be nightmarish, but do you know what’s worse? Imagining that you’ve escaped it, only to realise that the upper deck with a glass ceiling and wide, lovely windows is frozen hell. It was like riding with the Dementors, so naturally, knee-high boots, woolen pants, sweater and then a knee-length snow jacket, gloves and a monkey cap weren’t enough. The bus’ heating system failed miserably.
California is very picturesque, and if you want to avoid such a tedious journey, take the Pacific Coast Highway. It requires deep pockets, because you have to hire a car, but the route is breathtaking. Contrary to the rolling hills that I ambled through, the PCH or Highway 1 zigzags along the coastline between national parks and dizzying crags steeped in the Pacific. Convertibles are the general preference particularly on dreamy California days.
I had no such luck. Being a student, my pockets were shallow, which hurt even more when I arrived at my hostel.
As a single traveller, I love hostels. They’re functional but vibrant, and it’s fun to meet strangers on their own personal journeys. This hostel was nothing like that. It was housed in an old, rundown building in the heart of Frisco, which ultimately didn’t matter much because the city is spread over a minuscule 124 sq km. (In comparison, Kolkata spans around 1,887 sq km.) Each floor had one bathroom and shower room, the bunk beds screamed bloody murder when you moved so much as a finger, and the heater came on only between 10 pm and 5 am, even on the coldest days.
But I fell in love with Frisco — for its beauty, fantastic coffee, undulating roads, warm people, commitment to a liberal discourse, artsy vibe, and copious faults.
The City by the Bay has a fascinating history and has long been a centre of art, culture and innovation. Because it’s so small, every turn has a distinct story, and every street has incredible character — just ask the Painted Ladies across Alamo Square. Downtown pulsates with oscillating sights, sounds and smells — Asian restaurants rubbing shoulders with traditional diners and affluent stores, the constant ding-ding of trams and blues riding the sea breeze, and the fragrance of festivities mixed with the stench of poverty.
The sheer number of homeless people took me a while to process, and the contrast is starker when it’s Christmas. Huddled under blankets just metres apart, they wore piles of clothes on their person presumably to stay warm and so they don’t get stolen. Many sat around manholes emitting steam, which was tragic. Globally, cities with harsh climates have a network of underground steam and hot water pipes to supply to offices and residences, and when these pipes come in contact with cold air or water, evaporation leads to emissions. Sometimes, these are also leaks, which is dangerous. Once I’d gotten used to this aspect of Frisco, it was simpler to navigate the fraught clash of glitzy lights shining on those who have nothing.
An ardent jazz fan, I soon found myself at the 159-year-old Saloon, the oldest in the city. It’s cash-only, run by a group of old musicians who’ve been touring the world for decades. The gentleman at the door, a Latin jazz percussionist — it was his shift that night — had performed with Tito Puente. The band alone made the trip to Frisco worthwhile, playing for a giddy audience dancing under bloodshot lights.
Here, I met a Saudi filmmaker who offered to show me some of the city. We walked for a long time, leaving behind Victorian architecture to enter Chinatown, the oldest in North America, and emerge at Jack Kerouac Alley, which is engraved with poetry and walled by the historic Vesuvio Café. Founded in 1948, the cafe was frequented by icons like Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassady of the Beat Generation, and later Bob Dylan and Francis Ford Coppola. That Vesuvio is a meeting ground for the intellectually inclined was apparent from snatches of conversations I heard; for me, it was a rendezvous with counterculture.
Most of my time was spent walking everywhere, which wasn’t a joke because there’s a lot of climbing uphill. The journey from downtown to the wharf was especially interesting — from chaos, through complete silence as I passed residential areas, to bedlam. There are tons of restaurants and bars here lining the coast, along with a sea lion reserve at the edge of the pier.
It was Christmas Day. I had been on the Golden Gate Bridge early in the afternoon but it was so crowded, I gave up the idea of walking across. So, at the wharf, when a gentleman offered a sunset ride under the bridge on his speedboat for $20, I jumped. The tide was rising and the choppy waters made me a little uneasy, but as we jumped the waves towards the golden horizon, I thought to myself: “There are worse places to die.” Under the magnificence of the Golden Gate Bridge, in the middle of the ocean, I watched the sea swallow the flaming orb of the sun. It’s a feeling more than a sight that remains with me.
I was walking back from Fisherman’s Wharf when I saw two policemen talking to a homeless man who refused to look up at them. Most of the city was on holiday and even at 7 pm, the streets were largely empty except for a pedestrian here and there, and countless homeless people. Walking towards them from a distance, I could taste ambient fear; the policemen’s hands were casually resting on their weapons even as they seemed affable. It was the strangest few minutes of my life, the apprehension that I may watch a helpless man get shot at any moment in a city that exemplifies freedom, defiance and expression. The United Nations Plaza was moments away, and a building painted with the word TRUTH in huge letters stood across the road. Street art lends Frisco much of its colour.
Nothing happened. I suspect we have the birth of Jesus to thank for it.
Updated Date: May 14, 2017 10:20 AM