Installment 6 of Eric D. Goodman’s Travel Essay Series
Hills and Valleys
I guess everyone knows about the streets of San Francisco. The up and down of the streets over the hills is something you may know about, but don’t get a feel for unless you’ve actually driven them, or taken a trolley car up, over, and down them. I’ve done both, and both are fun. Driving up and over the hills is like riding an amusement park attraction—only you’re in complete control.
And try parking on some of the streets. I’ve parallel parked on such steep hills before, but parking at a 90 degree angle against the slope of the hill, as is mandated in some areas, is a strange feeling when you’re not used to it. Just try to walk across the street on a hill. After a few steps, I had to cross diagonally just to keep my footing.
An unexpected thrill at the top of Lombard, before zig-zagging my way down, is to see a car driving along with flames coming from under the hood. The driver can certainly see the smoke, but the flames are low enough that he doesn’t seem to realize they are there. This is no steam from a radiator. It is fire, and as little as I know about what goes on beneath a hood, I know that fire and engines and gasoline tanks do not a good mix make. I roll down my window. “Get out of the car! It’s on fire!” Others—pedestrians and drivers—begin honking and yelling. The man, woman, and child all dart out and away from the car, startled to see the flames. I don’t know what happens next because the light changes, I’m in traffic, and I’ve already proceeded down the hill. I know the family got safely away. But halfway down the hill, it’s as though a forest fire has hit the wind, a gust of smoke looming over the hill and oozing down after the slowly-creeping traffic.
On the other side of the valley, atop Telegraph Hill, is Coit Tower. The Lillian Coit Memorial Tower was built using funds left my Mrs. Coit. She left one third of her estate for the beatification of her favorite city. The concrete, art deco tower is rumored to be designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle due (according to some) to Mrs. Coit’s appreciation of firemen or (according to others) because her lover was a fireman. Others say the resemblance is coincidental and not the designers intention. Inside, fresco murals by 27 different on-site artists decorate the walls. The view from this point is wonderful, overseeing the city and the shore.
I’m fortunate enough to stop in Chinatown for a visit to the famous Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. The Sing Chow building, one of the first rebuilt after the big 1906 earthquake, is like a pagoda in the corner. Also like a big pagoda is the Bank of Canton, formerly the Chinese Telephone Exchange. Even Chinatown’s Bank of America has Asian flair with gold dragons decorating it, along with 60 dragon medallions on its façade.
I always enjoy visiting an old cathedral when in a city with history. Grace Cathedral fits the bill for San Francisco. Whether you attend a service, a concert, or simply take a tour during their hours of operation, it’s a peaceful sanctuary from the hustle bustle of the city. During the gold rush, the Nob Hill church was built here in 1849. But the great earthquake demolished it. Construction on the cathedral standing today began in 1928 and ended in 1964. It’s the third largest Episcopalian cathedral in the nation and has been an international pilgrimage site for years.
As a writer, I can’t visit San Francisco without stopping in at City Light Books—the bookstore and publisher from the beat generation. It’s still a vibrant bookstore and publisher today. Last time I was there, I was pleasantly surprised to find my own fiction on display. That was before I was a published novelist, but a story I’d written was published in the zine, Smile Hon You’re in Baltimore, and sure enough the issue was right there on the shelf, on display! Now that I’m a published novelist, I searched for my book. They must have sold out because I couldn’t find it. There were books entitled Tracks. And there were books by Eric Goodman. But the two did not meet in one book. I left some postcards with hopes that Tracks: A Novel in Stories will be on the shelves soon. It’s a holy place for fiction to be.
Fitting End to a Fine Day
I end my day in Zen Valley, near Russian Hill, where I meet my friend Andrey at Samovar, a tea house and restaurant. We came here last time I visited and even though I seldom order salad or tea when I’m eating out, it was the thing to do here. And a couple years later, the pleasant experience lingers in my mind, so we attempt to recapture it.
I had an earthy, robust tea last time I was here and I can’t remember its name. But when I see that the “Oceans of Wisdom” tea was hand made for the Dali Lama, and knowing that my brother, as we speak, is at a psychology conference on mindfulness and the correlations of eastern religion with social psychology—a conference supported by the Dali Lama—I decide this is the destined tea of the evening. Along with a salad of romaine lettuce hearts, shaved salmon, shavings of Parmesan cheese, and croutons, this is a perfect, peaceful match. It is filling, but I don’t feel full. At least, not too full to hit a few pubs in the area.
First, we go to a clean, well-lighted place with an accordion player we can barely hear over the roar of robust conversation. Original paintings hang high above the tall windows walling the establishment. We enjoy a couple of local brews—Anchor Steams—before venturing to a more pub-like place. The Rogue pub fits the bill, and we enjoy some unique micros there: oatmeal and coffee stouts, a black IPA, something named Shakespeare.
We used to drink together often, nearly twenty years ago when I was an exchange student in Russia. In Nizhniy Novgorod, we would drink dark Russian beer and clear Russian vodka. The other Americans and I knew a lot of Andreys between us, so we had nicknames for them: long-haired Andrey, smoking Andrey. My friend who now lives in San Francisco was known as Fuck Off And Die Andrey. Despite the fact that he was one of the most kind and mild-mannered people I met in Russia, he wore a pin when we met him that said “Fuck Off and Die.” That became his identity. It was a classic case of first impressions not being accurate.
Often, when I get together with old friends I only see once in a while, we talk a lot about old times as we drink ourselves some beer. But I find, in retrospect, that Andrey and I are talking a lot more about the present and the future. That’s a good sign. We’ve caught up and are moving forward.
A Day in the Park
The last time I came to San Francisco, my favorite day was the one I spent at Golden Gate Park. I remember how I went there, expecting to spend a shorter amount of time, but I was completely at peace after an evening of tea toddling, simply strolling through the gardens and forests, smelling the roses and touching the leaves and needles. I ended up spending the entire day in the park. Today, I’m fully expecting it to happen again.
Last time I began around the Japanese Tea Garden and wandered to the beach where I enjoyed some home brews at the Beach Chalet. This time, I do the opposite. I begin on the beach, taking in the sea cliffs and sea rocks, the barking sea lions and basking sun bathers. I go to the Beach Chalet for a cappuccino. Then, I head into the body of the park.
I’ve been to a lot of city parks, including Central Park in New York and Balboa Park in San Diego. None of them, to my mind, hold a candle to Golden Gate Park. It could be because the plant life here holds both familiar and unusual sights for me, having lived on the east and mid-west for most of the past 25 years. In addition to the diversity of vegetation is the diversity of sights. There are Dutch windmills and tulip gardens. There are rose gardens and a Japanese Tea Garden. The De Young Museum and the Legion of Honor. The Arboretum and Shakespeare Garden. The music pavilion and science museum. And the animals: the bison padlock and the police horse stables. Vast picnic fields and polo fields, swan lakes and Chinese pavilions, remote control speed boats and sail boats and lily pads and lotus. Not to mention, the beach! Sea rocks and cliffs, sea lions and sea life. An amusement park, archery field, and baseball diamonds. It’s easy to get lost for a day in the park.
But I’m on a schedule today. I have to keep my mind on where I’m parked—to focus on my Focus—and be sure I’m where I need to be when I need to be there. I have work this evening: my reading in San Francisco’s Make Out Room.
Making Out in San Francisco
The Make Out Room is a funky little place in the Mission District. You enter into a dimly lit pub and pass a long bar before reaching the large open floor and big stage, deep inside. Along the wall opposite the bar and to the side of the stage are curved art deco leatherette booths reminiscent of a 1960s cocktail club. Metallic streamers hang from the ceiling, glistening in the glow of the big mirror ball at the center of the stage area. What presumably is usually a dance floor is filled with round little cocktail tables, two chairs a piece. On the red-lit stage are an interesting collection of props: a Baroque hutch, a bicycle, musical instruments. Front and center: a microphone waits on a stand.
This is the place for the Inside Story Time Reading Series, and tonight I am one of the featured guests. I’m reading an excerpt from Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and I’m joined by four other talented writers, poets, and musicians for a program called TRACKS.
Before the program gets started, there’s the social element: about half an hour of meet and greet. We members of the talent get drink tickets, but even without tickets, the beer and cocktails here are good and inexpensive. The prices seem to go along with the 1960s feel. I enjoy one of my favorite local micro brews, Anchor Steam. Free for me, but only priced here at $2 a pint. (It would be about $6 back in Baltimore or even at a number of places here in San Francisco).
There must be about 40 or 50 people here, and it’s a lively crowd. I even have the pleasure of meeting one of my friends and readers in the flesh for the first time—someone I’ve been communicating with for years on social networks but only now have the pleasure to meet in person. And, as always, it is fun to talk to the other authors and musicians about our work, what we’re working on, and all things literary. Not to mention a few who have already read my book and want to talk about it.
“The woman with the tattoo—was she a real person?”
“Did you really take the train from Baltimore to Chicago?”
“Is there really a mafia in Baltimore?”
There is a $5 cover for Inside Story Time: TRACKS, so these are all people who have an interest in the program—in the literary arts. A table displays our books and CDs for sale. I have author James Warner to thank for inviting me to participate in this program.
The emcee—a real pro—is Ransom Stephens. He’s handy with the dry wit, and gets a laugh out of the audience with each introduction. I’m the second reader up, and when he introduces me, he lets the audience know that I’ve come all the way from the east coast to be here tonight. (Everyone else is local—but San Francisco is as diverse as some nations, so it doesn’t necessarily feel that way.)
It’s my turn; Ransom takes the stage, holds up my book with the Gold Medal seal affixed and glistening in the red spotlight, and introduces me. “Eric’s novel in stories, Tracks, won the 2012 gold medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards for the best fiction in the Mid-Atlantic region. Since no Pulitzer for fiction was awarded this year, some folks are calling this Gold Medal a substitute for this year’s Pulitzer in fiction.” That gets a laugh.
Since many in the audience, myself included, are enjoying good brews, I decide to read my story, “A Good Beer Needs a Good Stein.” During the intermission, after my fifteen minutes in the spotlight, a number of people tell me they can relate to the themes and ideas in the story—not only that a good beer does taste better in a good stein, but about collecting things and never using them, or loosing things by saving them.
I make out well at the Make Out Room. It is a happy ending to my stay in San Francisco. The next morning, Andrey and I enjoy a California Scrambler with avocado and hash browns at Café Tatar in Redwood, and then I am on my way to San Jose.