How can you talk about San Francisco without talking about the wind? Chicago is the windy city, yet, I feel, it’s been mis-named, as San Francisco indeed has some of the most extreme wind I’ve experienced.
It was Saturday morning and my friend Jen picked me up at the BART station in Oakland. We drove west, over the Bay Bridge towards the city, crossing in and out of the lanes. “If you take a boat and stop under the bridge, you can feel the vibration from the trains going under the bay”, she said.
Passing through the city on California 101, we slowed, as traffic lights let us gradually pass through the streets. If you look at a map of San Francisco it’s difficult to see the hills, yet, when you walk or drive it seems you’re forever going up and down. It’s a city built on hills. The first cable car lines were built to help move people up, what were then, muddy hills!
We continued west, going past Golden Gate Park, home of the 1968 Summer of Love and on towards the coast. Finally at Land’s End, we started out on a hike that would take us around the peninsula and towards the Golden Gate Bridge. I had my Nikon with me, and a new roll of film I hastily installed while in the car. Glad I brought a jacket, I thought, as the wind plowed into us.
The pine trees along the path reminded me of the ones you see in Rome. Tall, majestic, yet these all leaned in, away from the sea – a response to the constant stream of sea air blowing at them their entire lives. The path climbed a few steps—a dirt path that turned into gravel at one point. People were running – walking their dogs – tourists followed the signs for the bridge.
My first glimpse of the orange beast was shrouded in fog, which seemed fitting. “Let’s get a bit closer, hopefully it will have burnt off and you can get a better shot”, Jen said.
Further on, the trees cleared and you could indeed see the bridge better – on the far side, it cut into the mountains in Marin county, on the San Francisco side, it seemed to be an umbilical cord, attaching the peace, the quietness and the nature of the far shore into the city. Cars passed, yet the fog hadn’t really cleared enough for me to get a good image.
Eventually, we gave into hunger, foregoing the walk across the bridge and instead we returned to the car and made our way to Burma Superstar, a Burmese restaurants known in the area for being an excellent place to eat, as well as a good bargain. A popular haunt for those in the know, it opened in the 1990’s, so it’s not exactly new. It was full, but we walked straight in and sat down.
Combinations of flavors that seemed mis-matched worked wondrously well together. Each dish that arrived promised to be an education for the palate. I’ve never had food like it, a collection of what felt like Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Chinese techniques combined with unique ingredients like fermented tea leaves and fried garlic; too many herbs to name, let alone know, a sweet cinnamony curry dish, samosa soup (outstanding) and Thai-style iced tea, a mixture of cardamom, condensed milk and black tea; delicious.
Jen and I spent the rest of the day wondering around Golden Gate Park, drinking a beer down on the famous Haight Street and retracing our path back across the Bay Bridge. About 3/4 of the way across the Bay Bridge is an exit for Treasure Island, a small former Navy outpost now hosting a number of artists and exiles from the mainland. “No one really lives there”, she says.
The smell reaches you before you even get on the escalator. Powell Station sits downtown near the financial district where a series of skyscrapers seem to defy all seismic expectations of the area.
The smell of urine seems to be commonplace in San Francisco. My first day I was shocked to see the number of homeless people on the street but also, the number of what appeared to be mentally disturbed people and drug addicts.
One day I was meeting a colleague for a coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee near Mint Square, which borders what is called The Tenderloin, named, for what I heard, was the tendency for restaurants in the area to serve free friend tenderloin sandwiches to police, in order to get them to actually come to the area to control its many problems. Most of those problems still persist, but the smell of friend tenderloin has been replaced with, the smell of the city.
I got turned around and walked down 6th street, which to my surprise was full of people passed out. It was 4PM in the afternoon on a Thursday. People just passed by the down and out in a way that signaled it wasn’t something new or out of the ordinary.
I arrived at Blue Bottle and met my friend Katie. “You look a bit out of it, are you ok”, she asked. I told her the path I took from my office to the cafe. Her eyes grew big and she shook her head – “oh man, I’m sorry I should have warned you”.
Warnings aside the next shock was the price of a simple, black cold brew coffee: $7. This is a prime example of what’s happening in the city – expensive cafes servicing the caffeine needs of the tech workers downtown next to a street full of passed out drug addicts. The indifference: noticeable.
Elsewhere in the city you would find people begging for money in not only popular areas but also on the BART train. Performers would bring on board their sound systems and proceed to dance and do acrobatic numbers while the train sped under the water towards the East Bay.
But to get back to the pee, the smell of stale, putrid, yellow pee on everything in the Powell Street station. Just by walking through there you can find the places where those without access to a toilet choose to leave their mark. It was a very sensorial way to understand the problems that the city faces. Walking towards the water along Market Street, you come to Montgomery Station where the smell is less intense and the groups of loiters are less apparent, yet at the next station Embarcadero you again encounter an intense and heavy aroma of urine.
One day after I finished up in the office I thought I’d take a bus to see the Painted Ladies, one of San Francisco’s most famous tourists and photographic stops. The bus pulled up to the stop and I got on, scanning my Clipper card for the right fare. I sat down and looked around and immediately realized that I didn’t want to be on this bus. The group of people that I had placed myself into were all starting at me with my backpack and clean shoes. They looked me over, up and down. The air temperature on the bus was steamy and the resulting amount of human aroma was overpowering. I rode for about 2 stops and got out, only to continue my journey on foot, panting my way up the hill that took me to the park and the houses.
All around me in the city were examples of where the government had failed people. Most troubling of all were the number of homeless who claimed to be war veterans. Not many young ones, but several who looked like they had participated in the Vietnam or Korean wars – both of which were not popular at home. When many of those Vets returned, they were cut off from social society, put on the margins of the country and many found their way to San Francisco, what was once a bastion of hope, opportunity and free love for those who grew up in the 1960’s. They continue to show up, today.
Yet, those looking for the summer of love and the free reign of the 1960’s and early 70’s, find nothing of the like. Rents in the $4000 range for a studio apartment – unfriendly upper class people who want the residential areas to be clean. Haight Ashbury Street filled with bars, chain restaurants and shops selling crystals or Nepalese blankets. Golden Gate Park is no longer safe at night for those walking through it.
The look in the eyes of some of these men (let’s face it, the Vets are almost all men from that era) – the look of despair, or longing for a place and a time that doesn’t exist any longer just broke my heart. I found myself tearing up daily. Seeing the signs, the backpacks, the faces of these people who didn’t get a choice in life, their path was somehow predetermined for them. It’s a hard look at reality and how the government has failed time and again to take care of those who serve it.
In my daily thoughts I realized how lucky I am to have grown up when I did, with the opportunities that have come to me. Without the prospect of being drafted into a war I didn’t want to be part of, with the opportunities that come with education, with coming from a solid middle-class family.
Each day I spent in San Francisco I grew and the short, but focused amount of time I spent there gave me a new perspective on America. For all the articles and journalistic pieces I read in the NY Times or New Yorker or Guardian, for all the books I’ve read, it’s different to see it first hand. To feel the wind, to smell the pee, to look at the faces of the displaced, to feel the money of tech moving through the city. To witness the singers and mahjong players in Chinatown, to grasp the face of the nation in one place. To feel history before you and understand truly what immigration meant in the past.
Driving is the best way to get a real grasp on California. From north to south you can experience the expanse and length of this massive state. But, for those without a car or the interest in dealing with traffic, the train is a good option too.
The Emeryville station, near Oakland, was buzzing with people at 7am on a Saturday morning. My Lyft driver dropped me off and I made my way inside – the smell of freshly brewed coffee from the cafe combined with the smell of floor cleaner; those are the scents of Amtrak.
There were two trains running late, a common feature of the American rail system and mine was one of them. Both were set to arrive at the same time; I thought this could be a bit confusing, and I was right.
The first train pulled in, which was scheduled for Sacramento, I thought – it waited and there were about 100 people jostling on the platform, unsure of what to do. No announcement came over the speakers; the signs in the station remained blank.
I waited on the platform too, but down a bit from the crowd, assuming this wasn’t my train. But the longer it sat there the more I realized that no one was getting on – finally I asked someone if this was the Starlight Express headed South, “yes, it is and it looks like you’re going to miss it”! It started to pull out of the station. I ran quickly to the door of the conductor which was still open and stated my case – “there was no announcement, there are other people waiting, it’s the last and only one today” – he radioed the driver and the train came to a sudden stop.
“Run down to that door and my colleague will let you in – go, quickly”, he barked at me. I ran down the platform dodging people and feet with my two suitcases and small bag full of snacks and food. The door swung open and I jumped on as he radioed for the train to go ahead. “Mr. Dart”, the conductor asked me. “Yeah, that’s me, thanks for stopping”.
I found my seat on the upper deck of the car and drank an entire bottle of water. I was headed to San Luis Obispo, an old Mission town about 1/2 way between San Francisco and Los Angeles – a small pause for a couple of nights before continuing south. The train was nearly full, having started earlier that day in Portland, Oregon. It was a long distance train complete with sleeping carriages and a restaurant car – next to my seating area was the observation car, full of glass windows and lounge chairs where you can view the scenery and hear about the history of the places we passed, read by National Park volunteers.
The cityscape gave away to countryside once we got past San Jose and the mountains rose on each side of the train as if being formed from clay. The earth turned dry and dusty, but the ground was covered in a constant barrage of golden grass and dried weeds. It was a picture perfect California Golden light, the light that photographers and film makers have sought for so long – it shines somewhat indirectly and gives everything, including my skin, a healthy glow.
As the train lumbered on past Salinas, famous for being the salad bowl of the world, fields full of vegetables and fruit spread out to the foothills. Every variety of lettuce you can imagine growing in perfect lines; all shades of green and red – the valley was awash in salad. Further on, field of green onions, cauliflower and broccoli caught my eye followed by field after field of strawberries growing on small mounds. Almond trees sprang up, since California produces more almonds than any other part of the world, this wasn’t a surprise. I also got a glimpse of grapes and vineyards, dormant citrus trees, apricot and peach trees and olive groves.
The train seemed, at one point to follow the road, California 101, then as if wanting to separate itself from cars, made it’s way inland where there were no roads, just dirt tracks. This is where the farmland full of what the world eats could really be seen– away from the highway. Cars were parked along the dirt paths and the owners bowed down in the field with hats and long sleeves, picking, sorting, working in the sun. Port-a-potties dotted these spaces too, hoisted onto trailers for the workers to use when necessary.
Coming from the Midwest, where corn, soy and wheat dominate the landscape, it was amazing to see such diversity. When farmers around where I grew up in Illinois talked about feeding the world, what they really mean is feeding the cows/pigs/chickens with cheap grain, which in turn, feeds the world. But these farmers in California’s central Valley, they are truly feeding the world. From London to Italy, Illinois to Florida, you can find California produce. They are working hard, all year long, to produce and provide for each of us, something healthy, necessary – the true fruits of labor.
After a couple of nights in sleepy San Luis Obispo, I picked up the train again and pushed south towards L.A. The track cut west, to the coast and hugged the rugged line nearly the entire way. One stop in Surf, California, was a simple concrete platform on one side, and on the other side of the train, an empty beach – the waves crashing upon it. No town, no houses, no hotels or cafes. A simple beach stop for those wishing to get out – I found out later that there is a special section of the train for surfboards – this being the Surfliner Train which winds its way between San Luis Obispo and San Diego four times a day.
The coast was quiet, empty – the occasional trailer park, people on permanent vacation came and went. Residents waved at the train in a very kind and nostalgic way, children and dogs played on the beach. We passed a military base with possibly the best view in the country, and several down and out small towns, all of which had sea access. It felt like a insiders guide to California – the parts of the state that don’t get mentioned or noticed – local spots for local people, or those seeking refuge from the busyness of the cities.
Later that afternoon as the train made it’s way through the sprawl of L.A., we stopped in Glendale and I hopped off, lured a Lyft ride to my friend Andy’s house and was ready to tackle L.A., a conference paper and the heat of the midday sun in the valley.
Ha Ha Land or Taco Trucks Make The Best Lunch
How do you make sense of a place like California? I think of it as a country, a place that people move to, but are rarely from. Yet, that’s not correct at all. Ha Ha Land, or Los Angeles, and I say ha ha because it’s a funny place full of everything you can think of. If they say New York has it all, or if you’re tired of London you’re tired of life, Oscar Wilde never went to L.A.
Life in L.A. can be spent in a car. This is a reality. But it can also be spent at the beach. What I’m fascinated by is the inland suburbs, the lives of the people there, out of touch with the city itself, with it’s pulsing vibrancy, instead, what about those that work at grocery stores, that manage a Starbucks, those that work in post offices or own a funeral parlor – what about those people? Around 20 million people in the greater Los Angeles area and only like .5% are celebrities.
At my friend Andy’s house in Eagle Rock, a part of east L.A., I found myself sleeping on his floor. “Sorry, man, my housemates came back and brought one of their kids, so the extra bedroom is sort of occupied at the moment”. All this was made easier by an amazing dinner he cooked up for us. The afternoon I got out at the Glendale station and made my way to his place, I opened up the front door the smelled bread baking. Andy, is an excellent baker had put a couple of loaves in the oven “I kind of thought we’d go through a couple of loaves this week”. He has the same starter or mother culture he’s had for about 8 years and it makes an excellent, if not one of the best, loaves of bread I’ve had.
L.A. makes you think thoughts that you can be and do anything. It’s the Hollywood Dream, the “go West young man” type of mentality – and it’s true, more or less. People go there to reinvent themselves, to be someone they can’t be at home, or to just be themselves, whatever that might mean. A walk through Andy’s neighborhood reveals bungalows and ranch style houses, kids playing in the front yard, people working on cars, watering grass, and grilling out. It was nothing short of what you would find where my mom lives, in Illinois. It has a community feeling to it, it was a real neighborhood; walkable and livable. It’s the side of L.A. that is hard to find. It seems that in order to have a neighborhood like that, you have to be disconnected from the unreality of the city.
The conference I attended was fascinating and liberating, to find a group of people willing to listen to your theories, your research methods, your troubles with audio recordings. Most of all it was reassuring to speak to other graduate students and find out about their experiences at their universities, compared to mine. We’re all in different boats, I learned – far from being the same, each one has its own issues that they have to deal with. No one seems to have good administration, or administration that understands the needs of the students. Hearing from peers at Harvard or USC or Yale, I was surprised to find out that such prestigious schools also don’t support, financially, their students as much as one would expect. I left humbled by the level of support I have from Sydney Uni.
The first day of the conference was spent on field trips. We left at 9:30 am in a bus, headed for Boyle Heights, a traditionally Mexican or Latino part of L.A. It’s just east of the Downtown area. Originally called Brooklyn Heights, to help lure some of the Jewish community moving there from the East Coast, it soon became the hub of Mexican immigration. There is still a very strong independent spirit to the area – chain stores don’t exist and locally run shops are the norm. We visited a taqueria, where the blend of old ways of making tacos and tortillas are fused with the newly found food culture of the city – cold brew Stumptown coffee along side carnitas tacos. The tacos are carefully thought out, and a bit more expensive than elsewhere, due to the quality of the ingredients. More expensive means $1.25/$1.50 instead of $1 or less. The taco is still the food of the people.
Later that day, visiting one of the original taco trucks in the area, Mariscos Jalisco, we heard the story of Raul Ortega, who started the truck over a decade ago. Using a recipe that no one has been able to copy so far, his shrimp tacos are known all over town and show up in food guides to L.A. all the time.
Raul’s truck has a permanent location – it doesn’t drive all over town. He has two others in spots as well, in other parts of the city. It’s a sign from that the local government is willing to accept these trucks as part of the landscape of the city – they fit into the daily lives of its residents – they are licensed and regulated like any other restaurant. Raul’s shrimp taco is really the reason to show up, although his ceviche is also killer. The taco is filled with lightly fried shrimp put into a corn tortilla and lightly friend again. On top; salsa and avocado with a small amount of pico de gallo. It was one of my top 3 tacos ever. I could have had about 5.
Before the tour ended, we had visited a Synagogue and a Mexican bakery (where they brew coffee with a deadly combination of brown sugar and cinnamon) as well as one of the more authentic and local mercaditos in the city. There, we sampled quesos frescos, mole and organic corn tortillas – the best I’ve had, full of flavor. The market was busy and reminded me instantly of a similar one I visited once in Veracruz.
Late in the afternoon, the midday sun was strong – we found some shade in Mariachi Plaza, amongst the palm trees. The plaza is the typical place to find Mariachi for an event, and people drive past and hire them on the spot, sometimes the band jumps into their truck with their instruments and hats – or follows them in their own vans.
Los Angeles has the highest number of Mexicans outside of Mexico and it’s easy to feel their influence on the city everywhere. Yet, L.A. is a hodgepodge of sorts and once you leave Boyle Heights you could easily find yourself in Little Tokyo or Koreatown. China town has seemed to have moved East to the San Fernando Valley – a place that food writers and eaters have known about for a while now. A friend who studies food in Hong Kong and China went with a group of “Asianists” out that way for dinner and was shocked at the authenticity and variety of Asian cuisines available. Regional restaurants from China, Thailand, Vietnam and many others dot the strip malls of the Valley.
Near the end of my week there I realized that to live in L.A. means to plan ahead. There is rare a day when you could just spontaneously walk out your front door and into a restaurant for dinner. Most places need you to drive there, find parking and then wait. Meeting people can become a chore or worse. Living in the Valley and getting asked to dinner on the west side (aka the coast) is a challenging request, meant only for best friends because during the week it could take you more than an hour to transverse just a handful of miles. It takes patience, air conditioning and a good amount of podcasts or tunes to bide the time. But, what it takes away in terms of daily challenges is gives back in constantly good weather, sunshine and a way of living that is being exported in the form of juices and avocado toast to the rest of the world. The lifestyle can be terrible or it can be the best you’ll find anywhere.
What I fail to really capture here, though, is just the feeling of California. The air, the light, the birds in the trees – the dry-scaping in the gardens. The freeways that are truly free and 10 lanes across. The freedom of the west – the ability to do anything at any hour. As someone who thinks a lot about culture and ritual, LA is fascinating because it’s hard to find the rituals in general – you have to look deeper, into the community level, the ethnic group level.
There, you have to find your own group and become part of it – a group that gives you grounding, community, support and sustenance that is so necessary in a city so big. LA is not so much a city of villages but a city of communities all spread out. These can be religious, ethnic, cultural – they can be by stereotype or by sports. They can be anything, because in L.A. anything goes.