Day Three around San Francisco | The View from Coit Tower & North Beach
This is the final post in the series “Three Days Around San Francisco”.
Before I was in the fourth grade, my parents packed the car with me and my two sisters, and left Southern California for a road trip to San Francisco. Between the usual visits to extended family, we spent a day driving around the City.
They say that our most vivid childhood memories are the ones that are emotionally intense, which would explain my clear recollection of us kids sitting the back seat of our station wagon (this was the 1970’s after all) as we rolled down Lombard Street. My mom was yelling at my dad while he cackled like a pirate as he careened the car at a too-high rate of speed through the tight curves, ornate homes and exquisite gardens of the world’s curviest street.
Many decades later, Charla hopped out of our little rental car at the top of curvy Lombard Street and she ran in search of the perfect shot in the bright morning sunlight, ducking through a gauntlet of dozens of selfie sticks attached to the arms of tourists.
Lombard Street sits atop Russian Hill at San Francisco’s Hyde Street and curves wildly downward into North Beach – the City’s traditional Italian neighborhood – and the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf. There no lack of amazing things to take pictures of: the San Francisco Bay, the classic architecture, the three – three! – bridges visible from this corner, the cable cars ambling past.
While Charla was keeping busy with her camera, I sat in my car, in the middle of the street, with a long line of other cars waiting for a parking spot or waiting for tourists to cross the street. This street was on the cable car line, and sure enough a cable car packed with more tourists sat patiently in line with me and all the the other cars. Finally, that cable car cleared through the bottleneck and chugged down Hyde Street’s steep final grade, past my old apartment, until it arrived at the water’s edge.
In a city like San Francisco, perhaps we are all tourists, coming to see that which draws us for the moment and capturing those memories. In my twenties as a self-assured resident of the City, my tolerance for tourists was limited, at best. And yet now with my youthful arrogance tempered into a dull humor, I shrugged at the passing tourists scrambling over the private stairs, balconies and balustrades of people’s homes on Lombard Street and enjoyed the warm summer morning.
Where is there a better place to experience San Francisco – whether as a first-time visitor or a long-time inhabitant – than in North Beach, the City’s Italian quarter? The answer to that rhetorical question, of course, is “pretty much everywhere else”. San Francisco is lucky enough to have so much big culture and so many small, personal spaces that anyone can pick any street in the City and label it as their own, the spot where they left their heart. For me, that place is North Beach.
I spent hours – weeks, years – walking aimlessly up and down North Beach’s side streets, hills, alleys, cafes, bars, bookstores, and view spots just absorbing all that I could see, hear, taste and smell. I walked the streets in the same way that, ten years earlier, I had walked the streets of Madrid as a foreign exchange student. Every day in Spain I told myself, “This will end soon. Don’t miss a single minute.” It did end, both in Madrid and San Francisco, and both experiences left me feeling that I missed an awful lot.
Many years and many changes later, I returned with Charla. It was post kids, post-9/11, mid career, mid-blog. The tech industry, the arts scene and the foodie scene are still booming. The politics are still raging. The fretting about the future and whether one can afford to live here maybe just one more year hasn’t gone away.
And neither has my City. On our last day, we drove our trusty little rental car back to San Francisco Airport. After dropping off our car, we hopped the monorail to the terminals. I tried to put aside my day job and not think about how and why Los Angeles International Airport and the surrounding communities stubbornly find reasons to put off just a little longer a connection like this.
About 1,000 feet above us, a giant 747 airplane lurched into the late afternoon sky, having taken off toward Asia, or Europe, or somewhere else.