A couple of days ago, a friend and I did something I had wanted to do for years.
Take the commuter ferry from Vallejo to San Francisco. It’s a scenic 45 minute ride across the bay and under the San Rafael bridge to the ferry terminal at San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
Taking the ferry was also a practical matter, since parking is, if not at Manhattan-level expenses, pretty bad.
The last time I took my car there – 15 years ago – for an extended period was when my nephew, visiting from Minnesota, wanted to see Alcatraz.
Parking at a lot along Fisherman’s wharf was at the time $50 for about 4 hours.
But I will say that the NPS really set up the Alcatraz tours right – I had been there once before, with a guided tour. But this time you got a headphone and walked around at your own pace – hearing from former inmates and guards at various stops telling you what it was like.
I first became acquainted with the City By The Bay or, as the late legendary SF Chronicle columnist Herb Cain called it, Baghdad By The Bay, in 1960, when I was 10 years old. We lived in Fresno, just having come up from Los Angeles, and my late father was attending Army Reserve meetings once a year at the then-6th Army headquarters at the Presidio.
To come from the scorching Central Valley in the summer to the cool and sometimes foggy city by the bay, with the hills and cable cars, was a magical experience.
[sidebar] – How do you spot a tourist in San Francisco? Answer: They are wearing summer clothes in the summer.
But when I attended a small college down in the Peninsula for 2 years, making weekend trips up to The City, is when I first noticed a change. The Haight-Ashbury district was full of drugged “hippies” – many of whom took siestas on the hoods and roofs of parked cars. I remember that because my aunt and uncle, visiting from West Virginia, wanted to see it.
But The City has also been a place of magic and beauty almost since its inception, when seamen would abandon their moored clipper ships to search for gold in the hills.
I have since regrettably lost the slide, but for years my aunt and uncle had a poster I made of them standing atop Twin Peaks, with the wind blowing their hair, and the city in its magnificence with the Bay Bridge all visible behind them and below them.
If I still had the slide I would have shown you.
Anyway when Inger and I got off the ferry at the Market Street terminal, we were amused at some of the food bars. There was one specializing in Caviar, with servings from $59 to $800!
Only in San Francisco, I thought.
We decided to walk down the Embarcadero – the area where all of the piers and warehouses for ships that used to fill them, now almost all gone.
Although the temperature was 73 degrees, it was the hottest 73 I ever experienced. One rare occasions when it gets into the 90s – or even higher – in San Francisco, people are dying. Or at least miserable.
You start at Pier 1 and a mile later you are at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.
Some time ago they built a bunch of tourists shops and restaurants at Pier 39.
There was one passenger ship at the piers – around 25 – that was so big it looked like a floating brick – not a regular ship – but it held 4,000 people.
But we passed all these empty huge warehouses – where mainly passenger ships would have their passengers disembark. I could just imagine this area in the 40s and 50s.
They have been empty for years.
I think mainly union rules and expenses killed them.
Inger used to be a cruise director for a Norwegian cruise line – and she said during the 70s when they would dock in San Francisco – they made the stay as short as possible.
San Francisco has at times been a surrealistic experience. Years ago, when I would attend plays on Market Street I would, along with other theater-goers, step around drunks and otherwise incapacitated people lying along the sidewalk in the nearby Tenderloin district.
The panhandlers all over the city have in recent years become so pervasive and aggressive that tourism has been way down.
Back in the 80s, I was invited to attend a national convention by a National Oil Company. And in talking with the man who brought them out there, he told me “Never again“.
Which is sad.
Such a beautiful and enchanting city.
Other than a few days ago, I hadn’t spent time in the City since I took my nephew there a good 15 years ago.
But is it starting to turn around? One can only hope. Nellie Bowles’ family has been in San Francisco since before the gold rush. And she offers a glimmer of hope.
“But I do need you to love San Francisco a little bit, like I do a lot, in order to hear the story of how my city fell apart—and how it just might be starting to pull itself back together.”
I always have loved her.