Installment 5 of Eric D. Goodman’s Travel Essay Series
The Worst Commute Ever
My day begins with a bit of apprehension and unpleasantness. It’s the damn rental car. When I picked it up about a week earlier in the cool, rolled-down window 2 a.m. darkness, it seemed fine. By the next day, when the windows were up and the AC was on, I noticed the stench. At first I thought it smelled like vomit, but then Anna said it smelled like someone had spilt milk in the car and it had gone sour. That’s what Nana said too. I guess mommies know their milk.
So I take the smelly old Versa back to Dollar anticipating a bit of a fight, afraid I’ll have to defend the fact that it is unreasonable for them to expect me to drive this stench-mobile up and down the pacific coast. Fortunately, to my pleasant surprise, they are in total agreement. The attendant, checking the car in, agrees at the open window. “Smells like something died in there. I’m surprised you kept it as long as you did.”
“It was cool and the windows were open on my way to San Diego,” I explain.” If I’d been in town, I would have returned it the next day.”
Not only did they get me into a new car right away, they even discounted me about $20 for the trouble.
But the real pleasure is that I’m soon cruising up America’s pacific coast. I’ve been looking forward to this drive. Lately, I’m used to driving hybrids, and I’m comfortable with them and happy to be saving on gas and doing a little to save the environment. Now I’m driving a Ford Focus, and I’m surprised that even with the advertised 30 MPG, it feels like it has weight and rev to it, almost like I remember in my old 1993 Dodge Stealth. I haven’t driven a Ford in a long time and I’m actually happy with this car—candy-apple red, nice stereo, comfortable sturdy feel, intuitive dash and panel. I’ve more than traded stinky old for new-car-smell new; I’ve upgraded from a rattling clunker to a sturdy cruiser. Maybe the U.S. auto manufacturing industry has learned a few things from recent mistakes after all.
Before much time passes, I’m still cruising up highway 101, but I’m barely moving, not able to open the car up—barely able to crack it open. The traffic is horrendous.
When people complain about traffic anywhere but New York City, I usually don’t think much of it. It can’t be much worse than rush hour traffic between Baltimore and DC. It doesn’t get much worse than that. But today, I learn that it does. No, you can’t go much slower than parking-lot stand still. But it is worse when it lasts forever. It takes me more than four hours to cover 130 miles.
Which means I need to scrap my plans just as I’ve scrapped the old Versa—this time because traffic stinks rather than the car. My final destination of the day is the San Francisco Bay area, but I’d planned on a mid-point tour of the Hearst Castle.
Hearst Castle is the closest thing America has to a royal palace—like Spain’s Palicio Real, Russia’s Hermatage or Petergoff, or France’s Lourve. After reading a book and watching a documentary about media mogul Randolf Hearst’s palace and home, I’ve been looking forward to the visit. I half expected to see a sleigh in the warehouse with “Rosebud” painted across it. Alas, there is no time for the Hearst Castle today.
After that first four hours, between LA and Santa Barbara, the traffic lets up and I’m cruising again, exchanging beautiful ocean views for green and brown mountain landscapes. I stop in King City for gas and realize I must be a bit east of Eden. Before night falls, I make it to my friend Andrey’s place in San Francisco in time for Napa Valley wine, grilled sea bass, and a relaxing evening of catching up.
Barred from Prison
Full disclosure: I love San Francisco. I’ve only been here a few times, but each time I’ve fallen in love with the city over again. Since I’ve been here before, I’m not on a quest to seek out the biggest and best. I just want to enjoy myself and revisit some of the places I enjoyed before.
On second thought, there is one sight I want to hit that I haven’t before: Alcatraz.
I’m not sure why, but Alcatraz hasn’t hit me as a “must see” destination, despite the number of people who put it on their lists. Golden Gate Park, De Young, Legion of Honor, Golden Gate Bridge, Delores Mission—these seem like the priorities, not a museum in an old prison on a rock. But I’m so startled by the number of people (many of whom don’t normally go for touristy places) who said “You’ve gotta go to Alcatraz” that I’ve decided to top my list with the rock.
“Be sure to get your tickets early,” Andrey had warned before I even left the east coast. “You can buy them online.” But I knew then as I’m sure now—parking on a hill that doesn’t allow me to forget my parking brake—that there is no need to buy my tickets in advance. I’m going early on a Monday morning. There probably won’t even be a line.
But there is. And it’s long. And I don’t understand what the sign means when it says “Next ticket” because the posted date more than two weeks away. “Must be some kind of special, in-depth tour,” I say to myself. When I finally get to the ticket counter, I’m corrected.
“When’s the next boat leave,” I ask.
“In half an hour,” the girl behind the window says, “but the next available ticket is for two weeks from now.”
“You mean I can’t go today?”
“Sorry. I can sell you a standby ticket. If someone backs our or doesn’t show up, you might be able to get on tonight.”
I decline. I don’t want to be a prisoner to this prison, waiting all day for a slight chance of getting in. I guess Alcatraz will have to wait again. Should’ve gotten those online tickets a few weeks ago. And as I’m walking away for a walk along Fisherman’s Wharf, I wonder: If someone sends you a greeting saying “wish you were here” from Alcatraz, is that a well wish or an insult?
Sourdough, Sea Soups, and Salads
Pier 39 of Fisherman’s Wharf reminds me of the touristy strip that most big cities have: it’s Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, New York’s Times Square, Monterey’s Cannery Row, LA’s Santa Monica Pier, and Chicago’s Navy Pier. But like the plastic and cement of Hollywood Blvd, it is fun for what it is. So I stroll along Pier 39 and find myself a cup of Joe.
My mouth has been watering for my next destination: Boudin’s bakery. I watch the men and women making the sourdough bread in the museum-like window, then walk in for some of my own. Last time I was here, I picked up a sourdough bread teddy bear for the kids. It was four days before I got it home to share with them, and by then it was just a crust past its prime. So this time I simply shop for one, for now. I have a sourdough bread bowl of clam chowder.
The chowder is good, but better down the street at the Blue Mermaid, where their corn and clam chowder is so good it’s won a number of awards. But the bread here at Boudin is the best. In fact, Boudin gets credit for creating “San Francisco sourdough bread,” dating back to 1849. Sourdough bread as a whole dates back to ancient Egypt in 1,500 BC, so Boudin family didn’t exactly invent it so much as perfect it.
Manufactured Art and High Art
After a stroll along the Wharf, littered with souvenir shops, sunglass venders, and 70 percent off manufactured high art stores, I step onto the beach and watch the sun glisten off the water and reflect off the Golden Gate Bridge near Ghirardelli Square. There are flowers among the weeds, when it comes to the shops and attractions here, and that’s what makes it worth a visit. An odd little museum of mechanical toys, for example. And some of the art galleries feature museum-quality work, like the two Franklin Bowles Galleries located here. They originated in the area more than 30 years ago.
I visit, and say hello to Dan Root, the gallery representative I spoke with last time I was in town, who still emails me from time to time with items of interest. Last time I was here, I was checking out some unique Dali signed lithographs. This time, I see some interesting pieces by Chagall and Miro, both of whom pique my interest since I just viewed them both in Spanish museums a couple months prior.
“Our main focus now,” Dan tells me, “is our exhibit memorializing LeRoy Neiman.” That much is obvious, given the number of his striking, colorful pop-art-impressionistic paintings. In fact, I remember getting an email from Dan in April about the exhibition, catalog, and event. But that was when he was still alive. “Just as our exhibition was ending, we got the bad news that Neiman passed away. He was a good friend to Franklin Bowles, and a favorite artist of ours.” So when he died, instead of taking down the exhibition, they extended it in memorial. It’s a great exhibition, should you happen to make it to San Francisco when it is still on display. Dan also let me know that there will be an important exhibit of the increasingly popular Barbizon school of work soon, which I am glad to hear, being an admirer of Barbizon paintings. Regardless of what is on display, these two galleries are worth a visit.
Don’t it Make Your Gold Bridge Red
It doesn’t exactly have the brown-eyes-blue feel to it, but driving along the Golden Gate Bridge is, in a way, a romantic experience. I remember the last time I was here, I drove across on a foggy evening and could barely see the road in front of me. Now, it is midday, it is sunny, and I can see the entire bridge stretch out in front of me. The bridge looks perfect against the surrounding environment, just as it did when I crossed it on a foggy night. That’s the idea.
The Golden Gate Bridge is neither gold nor red (although that’s the color that usually jumps to mind when I see it in books or on television). It’s “international orange.” In fact, Irving F. Morrow selected the color because it blended well with the hills and contrasted perfectly with the ocean and sky. The color also blended well with the changing seasons. “The effect of International Orange is as highly pleasing as it is unusual in the realm of engineering,” Morrow said.
So why isn’t it called the “International Orange Gate Bridge?” The name doesn’t come from the color, but from the name of the straight over which it crosses. Chrysopylae means “golden gate.” So this entrance from the Pacific Ocean to the San Francisco Bay was aptly named the “Golden Gate Bridge.”
Presumably, it would have been a bit expensive to paint it gold to make the name stick.
On the other side of the bridge, Vista Point offers more than a bathroom break—it offers a wonderful view of the city, the bridge from another side, and the ocean. Even an alternate view of Alcatraz, not limiting me to the view from the end of Pier 39 where the sea lions still bark in my head. Another familiar monument here is to sailors—in fact, the statue is an exact replica of the monument in Washington DC, sidekick seabag and all.