We decided to have breakfast at North Beach and walked up there from Market Street through China Town. For the longest time I convinced myself that the shops were all closed due to some sort of public holiday, but then I realised it was about 8am!
San Fransisco's China Town has to be the largest of its type outside China. It occupies street after street, and, unlike its namesake in London, it feels like the heart of a genuine community.
Breakfast was at Cafe Puccini up towards Washington Square (where the parakeets roam and the old Chinese ladies do Tai Chi.) We had an American speciality breakfast of omelettes with roasted potatoes and toast with jam.
We took Sam to the City Lights Bookshop, famous the world over as the hang out of Beat poets. Sam loves bookshops and the closer we got the more shallow his breathing became! We were probably there for an hour. I bought a postcard. Sam and Nathan both bought books. Sam might have bought more than one... I spent some time standing outside the shop, photographing an old lady who'd emptied a massive bag of plastic bottles onto the pavement which she spent the longest time carefully crushing. It was an eccentric display to say the least.
From City Lights we walked up impossibly steep hills to the gloriously Art Deco Coit Tower, which is probably most famous as one of the locations from Hitchcock's Vertigo. Legend has it that it was designed to look like the nozzle of a fireman's hose. It sits, like an elegant white beacon, on the top of one of the city's tallest hills.
The inside is lined with glorious murals, painted in 1930 by 24 artists to reflect the Great Depression. Most of the pictures depict local workers: dockers, Orange farmers, female munitions workers and so on. All are painted in a naive style in a somewhat sepia colour palette, with surprisingly little depth of field. One wonders if all the artists were commissioned to paint in the same style, or if they were all there, working on their individual panels, at the same time, and decided to make them match.
We took the lift up to the top of the building which has commanding and very exciting 360 degree views across the city. A chipper and charming lady works in the building who sometimes decides to sing instead of speaking. She encountered a group of us queuing for the lift. "Please move to the sides of the corridors," she chirped in a bird-like soprano voice, "the middle lane needs to be open, open, open." Sam whispered in my ear that she sounded like she was singing a 19th Century Scandinavian folk melody! He wasn't wrong!
We walked down from Coit Tower via another one of San Francisco's famous stairways, where little wooden houses cling to the sides of such steep hills that they're only accessible via steps. How on earth do people move into these buildings? How do you get a washing machine, or a piano up 200 wooden steps?!
Next up was Lombard Street. The street on the edge of Russian Hill which is so steep that the road is forced to zig-zag. It's one of the views of the city which makes its way onto postcards. A steady flow of cars crawl down the road, bumper-to-bumper. One assumes the drivers are all tourists, very much enjoying the surreal diagonal experience! I don't know why a local would opt to take that particular route. It would add a good ten minutes to any journey.
We ate ice cream dipped in melted chocolate before heading off to Macondray Street, another one of those glorious little pedestrianised lanes. This one's special however, as it's the street which Armistead Maupin used as the inspiration for Barbary Lane, home of the beloved Mrs Madrigal in the seminal "Tales of the City." It's such a magical place. Peaceful. Full of flowers, blackberries and wind chimes. We found the house we all agreed was the one from the book. Wooden staircases on the outside of the property linked a series of independent flats on different floors of the building. The top floors would almost certainly have had glorious views of both Alcatraz and Coit Tower.
We jumped in an uber and headed for Haight Ashbury, the hippy part of town, which literally exploded in the 1960s, and almost ate itself in the process. People moved out in droves when the drugs started to engulf the residents. It still stinks of dope and wears its colourful history on its sleeve with rows of second hand clothing shops, and places selling Buddhas and joss sticks and the sorts of things that Steam Punks wear at their curious conventions. I bought a purple polka dotted bow tie. Nathan bought two pairs of trousers. Sam bought a singing bowl. Matt bought incense. It was a veritable shopping fest!
We ate delicious bagels for lunch at the lovely Cafe Cole before taking ourselves through Bella Vista Park with its towering views over the city and scores of homeless people lying in heaps on grassy slopes. As we entered the park, one of them ran up to us to high five us in turn.
We walked down to the Mission to a thrift shop which Matt had read about on line. It was a curiously eccentric warehouse of a space, chockablock with tat that I couldn't imagine anyone actually wanting. A strange miniature dog basket with a porcelain labrador inside. A funny globe with a map of Israel on it. A glittery, tinselly table decoration for a 50th birthday which looked like a cheap firework. I stumbled upon a tiny warped clay pot which had obviously been made by a small child in a school. I laughed a lot and then suddenly felt incredibly sad. The pot had obviously been found in some house clearance. The beloved relative who it had been presented to had plainly died.
We headed back to the Castro via a lovely yarn shop where Nathan and Sam spent more money. Both are determined to cast on a piece of knitting in this city which they hope to finish in New York.
The Castro was buzzing. A homeless man sat on the corner of 14th Street holding a sign which said "too ugly to prostitute." We ate in a diner after I vetoed eating in one of those places where everything is a super food and no one gets to eat carbs! We sat in the window and watched a man on the street outside, loopy Lou on drugs, having his own private rave. He was having a wonderful time!
We went to the Castro Theatre this evening, which is the extraordinarily beautiful cinema in the middle of the Castro district. Its enormous brightly lit up sign is the area's most distinctive landmark. Visiting the cinema is an treat. The original 1920s Art Deco furnishings and decorations remain in a state of somewhat faded glory. A giant popcorn maker in the foyer churns out vast quantities of treat-like goodness, the popcorn rising from the depths of the machine and spewing out into a huge glass case like the porridge pot in the story which couldn't stop producing porridge.
Before the showings, a huge Wurlitzer rises from the floor with a man playing songs from the shows gloriously orchestrated in over the top shades of easy listening; major sixths and sevenths dripping adeptly from his old-school fingertips.
We saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I'd forgotten what an artistic and brave film that is. It's so unlike most film versions of stage musicals. Nathan was in his element, having alternated the role of Hedwig in its all-too-brief West End run. By the end of the film we were utterly exhausted. We took the bus along Market Street, and were back in our hotel by 11.30... just as most of our London friends, one assumes, were waking up!