Thursday, January 6, 2011

Getting away from it all – to where everybody else is

Captain General Angus and Admiral Karen on Alcatraz. 
As luck would have it, both Admiral Karen and I had the week after Christmas off. So we decided to give each other the gift of a year-end vacation. I was commissioned to come up with a City Plan and a Country Plan.

The Country Plan was quickly derailed because the Country is closed in Winter and Nature tends to smote drivers who risk running too far astray from the Interstates. That left the City Plan, and that meant the only city of sufficient attraction around the Central Coast: San Francisco.
Now we are no strangers to The City. We visit about half-a-dozen times a year, for Giants games, Art exhibits and costume balls. But we had never done the things that everybody else does when they come here. We had never done the touristy things. I drew up my plans, chortling to myself as I did so.

Admiral Karen was dubious. A vacation with the tourists? I then played my trump card. One of my days featured a tour of A.T.&T. park, where her beloved Giants play. Her eyes glittered, and she blithely okayed the entire vacation sight unseen.


First off: Where to stay? Where would be our home base, our home-away-from-home for this trip? Well it would have to be centrally located, because one thing everybody learns in San Francisco is that the town tends to smote drivers. We would be relying on the city – and our feet – for transportation.

So where do the tourists go?
·      Union Square? Yes, to shop.
·      Chinatown? Yes, to eat.
·      The Castro? Yes, to stare.
·      Golden Gate park? Yes, to drive around looking for parking until they run out of gas.
But there is one place where everyone goes, to do nothing at all: Fisherman’s Wharf. Bingo. Home base.

Not sure, but this place MAY be about boats......
I settled on the Argonaut Hotel. Not because it had great views (which it does) and not because its location was perfect (to one side of the touristy masses, and right next door to the Hyde Street Cable Car turnaround). I chose the Argonaut because the décor made me laugh. It has, not surprisingly given the name, a nautical theme. So the lobby has sails in it, Ships wheels above the fireplace, deck chairs along the walls, portholes in every door, name plates from local ships on the walls and uniforms on the employees that must be castoffs from a production of La Cage Aux Folles Goes to Sea!

And the rooms do not disappoint: Striped wallpaper, giant star-shaped pillows, porthole mirrors and starred carpeting. It’s like sleeping inside of a flag. We went to sleep each night giggling.


So. Day 1. Arrival. I have nothing particular planned for the day, other than checking in and getting oriented. We arrive in the afternoon, alas too soon for our room to be ready. So we valeted the car, checked the luggage and hit the streets.

And here’s the thing about Fisherman’s Wharf: It’s two different places, and these places are across the street from each other. On the North side of Jefferson Street are the piers, where the fishing boats come in. Premier seafood restaurants abound here. Also, some of these piers are home to a fascinating collection of historical ships and boats from all over the world, including a large 3-masted schooner, an open water tugboat, a WWII submarine and the only Liberty ship on the West coast. All open to the public and waiting for you to crawl all over them. 

The Balclutha
 On the South side of the street are a motley collection of street vendors hawking 3 for $10.99 t-shirts, discount perfume, Sculpture that is long on glitter and short on technique, cameras without serial numbers, burger joints, and the Rainforest Café, which sports a fog machine outside. Yes, a fog machine - in SAN FRANCISCO.

North side – Great food, hands-on floating history, wide avenues to stroll upon. South Side – narrow sidewalk, bad shopping, fast food, and the worlds worst Wax Museum. (When George Clooney looks like Jack Nicholson, Madame Tussaud rolls over in her grave.)

 And guess where the tourists are? Right! 95% of this cross-section of humanity, peoples from all over the world, the lowest common denominator of our species are all crammed onto the South Side of the street. Admiral Karen and I climbed to the top of an 80-year old auto ferry and we had the whole huge boat to ourselves. We could have done it in the crows nest – but alas, too cold.


Next morning we hit the street again to investigate the only thing that will lure the tourists onto the North side of the street: Alcatraz island. I was ashamed to admit that I had lived on the Central Coast for 20 years and had never seen the biggest tourist attraction in the Bay Area. Until I did admit it, and found out that most of my friends, even those who live in the city, had never been there either.

And an island means you have to take a boat across, and on a blustery day at the end of December that meant it was quite a thrill ride. The rest of my group, we’ll call them the Sensible Ones, were inside the cabin, warm and dry, but me, I was out on the deck in my rain slicker, camera in hand, desperately trying to find my sea legs as the boat plunged and surfed on the choppy seas. Rising out of a good trough soaked everyone in the bow, including me – and I was on the second deck.

From here it seems like a charming place to visit.
But then, a reward for us landlubbin’ idiots: A huge rainbow appears before my eyes, rising out of the South end of the Golden Gate and arching above Alcatraz. The rest of the photographers dove at the bow and landed next to me like a rifle company coming ashore at Anzio. We did our best to get pictures of the rainbow before the spray ruined our cameras or the boat bucked us overboard.

I was still giddy and breathing hard when the boat docked on the island. But that is where all merriment ceased. Alcatraz is a fascinating place, but a sober one. There was a lot about The Rock that surprised me:

1.     The island is made of sandstone, so it shouldn’t be called “The Rock”.
2.     It’s big. 12 acres of surface, some of which was added later when they leveled the hill in the middle and tossed it over the side.
3.     The Prison is smaller than you’d think. It only housed about 260 prisoners at a time and they were all in one big barn-like room with three stories of cells. All solitary rooms, and yet no privacy.
4.     Many families lived on the island for the 30 years that it was a penitentiary. Apparently it was quite an idyllic way to grow up. And by all reports, quite safe. As one Mother put it, “Unlike YOUR neighborhood I knew where the bad people lived in mine.”

Plus, no room service.
There is an audio tour included in the ticket price, so everyone touring the prison was walking around with headphones, making them look like, well like everyone everywhere pretty much. Mine quit halfway through however, and this left me with a strange sensation: Silence. I was surrounded by my fellow tourists, but they were all listening to their headphones and so no one was talking.

And what I heard in that silence was what the prisoners themselves said was the worst part of being incarcerated on Alcatraz. Not the cold, not the boredom, not the danger. The worst part of being locked up here was the proximity to the mainland. What I could hear in the silence was the sounds of the City. It’s just over a mile to Fisherman’s Wharf, and the prisoners could hear Freedom every day. The cars, the laughter, the live music, the WOMEN.

I wandered outside to the Coast Guard lighthouse and here I could not only hear the city, I could smell sourdough bread being baked. I would’ve tried to escape too.

The older, Military prison. The penitentiary was considered an improvement.
Running with the incoming tide, the boat ride back was quick. The bay was splashed in sunlight, but storm clouds were gathering on all sides. It was going to be a blustery night.


Lunch on the dock was the most high-brow, low-brow burger imaginable: Kobe beef, the pinnacle of the culinary art, topped with a layer of SPAM, the ultimate sausage-reject mystery meat. Quite tasty as it turns out.

Massive naps ensued.

Eat your vegetables, or you end up here.
Dinner that night was going to be our big budget blow-out. Fine dining is rampant throughout San Francisco, no more so than Fisherman’s Wharf. But I was still on the touristy theme, so I found a great restaurant that was still gimmicky as hell: Forbes Island, out in the Bay. It’s a “floating island” of concrete and palm trees that features a dining room below the water line. I had secured the reservations months earlier, making special arrangements to secure one of the few tables in the underwater room.

We put on our good clothes, and then our raingear and walked back to Pier 39 in a stiff wind and light rain. The water taxi to the island was tiny, flat bottomed and slab-sided. I was dubious. But the Captain was an old hand at stormy seas and guided us out to the restaurant with no problems. On the island the storm was more pronounced and we were happy to retreat to the basement dining room.

Somewhere underneath this is the underwater dining room. Photo by Katfish.
Until we got to the bottom of the staircase and realized that this might not be the safest place to have dinner. Wiser heads than us had cancelled right and left and we were one of only 3 groups to actual honor our reservations. We sat down and then held on, as the entire island shook and shimmied around on its anchors. The waitstaff, staggering around like a Foster Brooks routine confirmed that this was the bumpiest that their restaurant had ever been.

The food was excellent, but the atmosphere was less 5-star gourmet and more Pirates of the Caribbean ride. After dinner, while waiting for the water taxi, we decided to climb the four story lighthouse – the only privately built lighthouse in the country, by the way. At the top the lurching movement of the island was more pronounced, and the palm trees were sideways in the wind. I was stupid enough to step out on the widow’s walk and attempt a picture, almost losing my glasses, my camera and my dinner in the process.
Workin' off a great dinner.

The Water taxi had troubles tying up on the islands dock, and we had to jump on board while the Captain made a quick getaway. Extreme Dining!


Overnight the storm had blown out and the morning was clear and just a little chilly. Our destination that day was A.T.&T. Park to take a tour of the baseball facilities. But China Basin is located way way way way way over on the other side of the city from Fisherman’s Wharf. How to get there? Why simply hop on the country’s only mobile National Historical Landmark – the Cable Car. The turnaround for the Hyde Street – Powell Street line was located next door to our hotel. We could see it from our room.
Attack of the palm trees.

This looked like it was going to be the easiest thing on the whole vacation. But we hadn’t counted on the Local Color.

In this case the Universal-Bad-Street-Musician-“Entertaining”-The-Crowd. Every city has these of course, but in San Francisco they are an established institution, with applications, licenses, schedules – even insurance.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any good, however.

Our fellow was tricked out with a Fender electric guitar, microphone, boom stand, amplifiers for voice and instrument, even an effects processor. All he needed was a sound man and some lights and he would have been a wall-less nightclub.

View from our hotel room.
And still he sounded like shit. Amplifying ineptitude does not translate it into talent. It just increases the radius of the danger zone. He was so bad that when he played Dylan songs you actually wished it could be Dylan singing.

But even if he had been decent I would not have given him any money. See, to me the concept of a street musician is one of implied poverty. You give them your pocket change in the hope that they can make something of themselves and eventually quit this humiliating busking. But when you have to have to put your effects processor on ‘stand by’ to pass the hat – you are not poor.

Luckily we only had to suffer through a few gawdawful songs before we gratefully leaped on board the ancient, creaking, shuddering vehicle that we would be entrusting our life to. Whew, that was close.

Cable Cars turn everyone riding in them into giggling, wide-eyed six year olds. There is just something overwhelmingly cute about these tiny tram cars clinking and clanking around the city. But as we climbed up the 90 degree slope of Russian Hill I had time to get my bearings and take a sober look at how these toy trains actually work.

Heading doooooown Russian Hill. Hold on tight!
These cable cars went online, or oncable, in 1878. And from the looks of our car, as it flexed and groaned, these might be the original vehicles. Many other cities adopted cable cars after San Francisco, and every city either upgraded their systems or at least added more safety redundancy. Except the one we were now riding on.

The seats all face out, ostensibly for the views, but really they don’t want you looking in to the middle to see what the Engineer does. Because all he does is brake. That’s his only control: A gigantic, manual brake that regulates how hard the Grip is seizing the cable below. It takes 375 pounds of lateral force to fully engage the brake. And we needed every pound as we tipped over the peak of Russian Hill with exactly the same sensation as a roller coaster beginning its first drop. That’s your safety system for a 130 year old 9 ton brick of humanity. I turned around and watched the view.

A.T.&T. Park

Your faithful scribe in the dugout.
The Cable Car line ends at Market Street and we walked the rest of the way across the flats South of Market to China Basin and the Ballpark. It was the middle of the off-season, almost two months after the World Series, and yet the Dugout store was still full of wild-eyed customers throwing cash and credit cards at the cashiers. No recession here!

We found our tour guide, Dan, who it turns out is not a tour guide at all. The demand for tours was so great that day that they called in some other folks to handle the load. And so we got shown around by the Head of Operations for the entire ballpark. Pretty sweet.

Except he wasn’t sure exactly what constituted a standard tour. So we kept bumping into other tours, like a live game of Centipede. Luckily Dan did know where all the elevators and stairs were, and his keyring goes everywhere in the park. We saw the clubhouse, the press box and the dugout of course, but he also sneaked us into the TV and radio announcers booth, the luxury suites, and holy of holies he took us to the door of the Giants clubhouse. Sacred ground. We touched it like it was the Shroud of Turin.

Bow before this image. Thank you.
Highlight: Me being able to ask the Head of Operations if it was true that the architects of the ballpark really forgot to add in bullpen mounds. (Answer: hearty laughter and the rejoinder: “They spent 357 million dollars – do YOU really think they would’ve forgotten them?”)


Our sedate 90 minute tour had turned into 2 hours of running helter skelter all over the enormous ballpark, and so it was afternoon as we emerged from the dugout store. Next on the agenda (and just a few blocks away) was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which was currently showcasing several exhibits that we wanted to see. We walked right by it without a glance, focused only on getting back on the cable car and heading back to our hotel room for a nap.

But alas, the line to get on the West-bound Cable Cars at Powell and Market was about 3 months long. So we asked for directions and then hopped on a light rail train that took us up Market and then onto the Embarcadero for the quick end-around on the entire city. From Pier 39 it was an easy walk back to the Argonaut, because as always, all the tourists were jammed onto the sleazy side of the street.

Yes, actual sunlight on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Along the way we realized that what we really needed more than a nap was a meal. And there was one place we hadn’t yet visited. The place known more for its sign than for anything under it: Ghiradelli Square.

We stopped in the hotel room to wash-up and drop off our bags full of Giants beard trimmers and rally thongs. We carefully did NOT sit down on the bed. It was only two blocks to the square, and on the way we passed by the Cable Car turnaround. Our folksinger-of-the-apocalypse had given way to the evening shift: A terrific bluegrass singer who played kick-ass banjo. We felt cheated.

The square underneath the famous sign was full of tourists looking up and taking pictures of the sign (sigh). We chose McCormick & Kuleto’s restaurant which turned out to sport an incredible view. All the way from the Golden Gate on the left to Alcatraz to the Bay Bridge on the right.

Ready to launch a torpedo at Coit Tower.
And because of our skipping lunch schedule we had arrived too early for the dinner rush but just in time for a year-end sunset that turned the whole Bay into a series of panoramic picture postcards. I think we ate the entire meal without once looking down at our plates.

And we saved room, because there is a very, very good thing to do at Ghiradelli Square, and that is to get a hot fudge sundae. The soda fountain was packed, and totally buzzing with energy for some reason. But we had had just about enough of these clueless hordes. So we got our sundaes to go and ate them back in our hotel room.

It was only 8pm when we finished dessert. Plenty of time to hit the streets, go clubbin’, see the Ripley’s Museum, and paint this town RED. Nope. We hit the sheets at 8:05 and slept for 12 hours.


Next morning was check out, but not until Noon. Refreshed after sleeping the clock around, we met some friends for breakfast who, unbeknownst to us, had also chosen the Argonaut for a getaway. Serendipity extreme.

The Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien.
After that it was a short walk to Pier 45 and a couple bits of floating history. First off was the Pampanito, a WWII submarine. The self-guided tour was excellent, from the torpedo tubes (huge), to the bridge (teeny) to the engine room (scary). Not for the claus-trophobic. Luckily all of the tourists were trapped on the other side of the street, and so we had the entire sub to ourselves.
Behind the submarine is the Jeremiah O’Brien, the only Liberty Ship still afloat on the West coast. In the bow of this 440 ft. National Historic Landmark is a 5-inch anti-aircraft gun that you can climb on and turn the handles and aim it at things. I sighted down Fisherman’s Wharf and aimed the cannon at the biggest knot of stupid tourists.

Lucky for them the firing pin had been removed.

Angus McMahan
Higher, Mr. Seagull. Just a little bit higher......

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