Recollections From San Francisco: First Impressions Make a Rough Draft

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What I recall now, a few weeks after a trip to San Francisco, is how quickly it went as a whole but how still the moments of the day seemed, as we walked without an itinerary up and down the hills of the city, drenched in uninterrupted sunlight. The four day-long vacation, respite, honeymoon, exploration, assignment (not sure how to categorize it) passed as quickly as summer does as a kid; while we were there, it felt like we had all the time in the world. The days were undivided; long phases of time that advanced in an even way – ready to go in the morning, tired by ten at night – rather than the choppy quality of days we sometimes have at home. It’s easy to feel like an embodied to-do list ay home, marking off hours, errands, and seeing both surges and drop-offs in energy, and having the time pass like it’s just something to get through, not something to inhabit.

Myself and Sean Ongley left Portland at 5:30 on Saturday morning, arriving in San Francisco on time for the beginning of the day, as if we had spent the night there. Airfare was cheap, purchased in October on special with Virgin America. We jumped on the timely deal without a clue of what we’d do in the city, just sure that by the time February rolled around we’d be eager for a trip to a sunny southern city after months of cold, rain, and probably snow. However this year, the winter arrived in Portland in mid-November, lingered for a month and then opted out of staying much longer in the Northwest–the warmest winter on record for both Portland and San Francisco.

My small travel budget is usually reserved for trips back to New York State, to see family, the Manhattan skyline, and spend a few quiet days 45 minutes north of the city in the small town where I grew up. I looked forward for months to San Francisco solely for the wonder of going someplace new. For Sean, the visit was more layered. A California native, he has a familiarity with its cities and terrain, I watched as he recovered an estranged comfort in the orange shades of the landscape on the outskirts of the airport. A trip to San Francisco meant that he could investigate more intimately as a journalist the issues of gentrification and income disparity he reads about at home in Portland. It meant he could walk the former turf of his idols, the Beatniks and Lenny Bruce, and spot the places he’s performed at as a musician over the years as part of bands no longer intact. Equal doses of nostalgia and discovery shifted like the weight of his body on each foot as we hiked the city streets.

We first emerged from the underground BART station in the center of a downtown shopping district on Market St. The clean lines and glass of the towers bent and reflected the sharp sunlight, softening a bit when absorbed by the brick of older buildings. We were in the middle of pedestrian-dense sidewalks, construction zones and the familiar logos of Starbucks and Wells Fargo. The immediate space felt like peripheral parts of New York City, and central parts of Portland. But one glance up and down Market St. where cable lines for the electric buses run their length, the semblance to Portland dissolved, and the street extended with seemingly no end–the outlines of fire escapes, awnings and signs as far as the eye could see. In Portland, either the green of the West Hills or the unobstructed gap of sky above the river gives the eye and mind an easier time to conceive of the city’s modest reach.

The red lanterns of Chinatown, strung from one side of the street to the other, appeared at the top of a hill a short walk from Market Street. They stood out against the flat blue sky, and hung like they marked a festival perpetually in session. Entering Chinatown was the first time since the airport I forgot the weight of the bag straps on my shoulders. We were in San Francisco!

At the historic Portsmouth Square, taking up a full block of Chinatown, Sean and I ate the remaining bread and hummus while groups of men hunched over benches and makeshift tables playing cards, still early just past 9 a.m. An elegantly dressed woman wearing a large black sun hat, her face tilted so the wide brim shaded it from the sun, sat motionless for a photo shoot. Men gathered under trees, and sat on the ground near a locked public restroom building. It looked like they could have been waiting for their turns at the card games, and perhaps they were, but then I saw the remnants of encampments, faded bags bulging with belongings, the porta-potties, and patches of both sun and shade. An open space in the city, a more accommodating and pleasant meeting and resting place than alleyways and doorways–another spot for the city’s homeless.

The square is also the site of California’s first public school. We sat by its playground, on the outside, because adults unaccompanied by children are not allowed within the fenced-in area. Here at the park and in Chinatown, were the only places in San Francisco I remember seeing very many children. Sean fed the birds the rest of our bread, and I watched as they swarmed around us, reveling in the giddy travelers indulging a bit of sentimentally in a leisurely pastime.

We walked with the crowds of locals and tourists in Chinatown, opting for the street when the sidewalks were too dense. We bought avocados for 30 cents a piece at a market stall. Sean bought red sunglasses from an older man who sold the same souvenirs and items as the neighboring shops, scarves, T-shirts, and leggings made to look like denim jeans. We clumsily moved about a narrow space lined with bulk bins filled with dried foods looking for goji berries. The two women who worked the spot spoke to each other over our heads. To my unaccustomed ears the language was harsh, like long strings of consonants crashing into each other. The sounds were rhythmic and matched the pace of the no-fuss continuous crowd of shoppers, casually bumping shoulders but showing no signs of alarm at the swelling of people, as this is what it must be like all the time.

We made a wide orbit of Chinatown walking a deserted financial district on a weekend day to the populated Embarcadero waterfront where the marine wind chilled us a little after we’d shed the extra layers we needed back in Portland. We walked along the palm tree lined strip before taking the hills into North Beach. On another day, we made our way to Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill, walking backwards as the grade increased to look at the rising view and expanding sky. I kept searching down alleyways and streets for glimpses of the Bay Bridge to orient myself.

It was easy to feel no sense of urgency. It was easy to decide when to stop for a moment and when to move on. We turned up blocks that had cool architecture or shops, or because they were warm and lit with sun. Between the two of us, we had little spending money and hardly an appointment. The days’ activities were to wander. We walked until our calves were sore. It seemed we only stopped for more than five minutes to eat or drink. I had a persistent appetite the entire trip, kept at bay by the spice, tang and tortilla of cheap burritos. We didn’t talk much while we ate, as if the rest was not only for our bodies. We talked as we walked though, the conversation adopting the tone of people getting to know each other again–realizing there is always still more to know–only without the self-consciousness of strangers, as if being in a new place, revived the curiosity not only in the surroundings, but in each other.

The streets of San Francisco roll like waves, polarized in motion by concrete and asphalt. I envision the city stripped of every building and house, save for the foundations and imagine an arrangement of steps, flat square stone tiers forming on every side. From a distance, it would be the coolest pattern of straight and curved stairways ascending up every angle, a monumental pattern of stairs etched into rippling green hills just above the sea.

Street in SF by Heather Halpern

Street in SF by Heather Halpern

One residential neighborhood, not lined with Victorian row houses but with grand villa-type homes, spread out high above the towers of downtown was vacant and quiet. There were plenty of parked cars, but few people out. It was eerie somehow; the sun-bleached afternoon made the houses look sterile and uninhabited. In a huge city alone on a street, having no idea of anybody who lived there and seeing the water in the distance surrounding us on all three sides, made the area feel at once forgotten and cherished; like the stampede of development and building passed through here years ago and quickly descended to recover momentum in the lower districts below.

We headed back down towards North Beach, looking to get a coffee or a drink, and wanting to see and talk to people. We had simply been observers, visitors, presuming and guessing at things, letting a block’s liveliness or strange quiet fill in what we had no way of knowing–what it was like to live here. Sean had his recorder hoping to get interviews with locals. He wanted to find out more about what we’ve both heard many times in Portland, “San Francisco has changed” and “it’s too expensive” from visiting Californians who gasp like my old friends from New York do upon hearing what we pay for rent. They look around after this, as if to imagine themselves migrating to the “small town” that is Portland.

Sean had some luck in a bar on a quiet street, its entryway shaded by an awning resembling the entrance to an upscale apartment building. A few small dogs, whose owners were inside, greeted us. Sweetie’s Art Bar had a small, subdued afternoon crowd and Sean spoke briefly with a woman about her experience living here. Her tone betrayed that she had thought about this before; there was a pent-up frustration in her comments about the newcomers to the city, the young kids getting jobs in the tech industry, constantly swiping at smart phone screens as their main links to the outside world. But it seemed like she had not been directly asked before. I thought that had she not been distracted by her friends, or had the recorder not been set up (she asked Sean a few times to assure her of her anonymity), that she could have talked on the subject for a while longer.

Later in the trip, we met an Australian man walking in Chinatown, who shared some of the woman’s thoughts, but in a different tone. He once worked as a voice-over actor and the composure of his voice, along with his accent, made his statements come off as emotionally detached, though he had lived here for over ten years and painted a grim picture. Within two minutes of meeting us, he said outright that San Francisco was a hard place to live–politically, socially, financially. He spoke like he was reporting to us and everything he said came to me as headlines that I envisioned reading. He declined to be formally interviewed but continued on about his struggles living in the city. He was vague at times and then surprisingly detailed, citing rising rents and the deterioration of his neighborhood, saying that he’s seen old women selling their prescription pills for money. And as quickly as he began, he abruptly ended the conversation, sending us off with a charming smile and best wishes for our trip.

We only spent one night in San Francisco, at the Green Tortoise hostel where out front on Broadway, we met Walt. From Victoria, B.C., he was down in San Francisco to check out the city. I think he was here alone and with no particular plans like us, but had already managed to check out quite a few sights and a Golden State Warriors game in Oakland. He was visibly thrilled telling us that he snuck into expensive arena seats with a cheaper ticket that only allowed him viewing of the game on TV in an arena bar.

In his mid-twenties, with a backwards baseball cap, he pulled on an American Spirit and told us he walked all day, the long “a” sound of “day,” finally revealing an accent. He said he was wiped, but didn’t look it and pointed to a pedometer on his wrist. It looked like a digital watch with a bright red band. The thing was new, he was just learning to read it, but said that he had already walked something like 18,000 steps, and some amount of kilometers that I was slow to convert into miles. And he was sure he’d add more that night, as he planned to go out dancing.

The Green Tortoise Hostel felt like a freshmen college dormitory. In a common room where complimentary breakfast was served, there was a community piano and pool tables. Flyers covered the walls, informing of all the events Green Tortoise organized, encouraging guests to engage with one another and explore the city, suggesting inexpensive excursions and meals. The staff, like the RA’s I remember from school, were friendly and offered answers to questions we didn’t know to ask. I wondered if they spoke several languages as English was just one of many I heard at breakfast and walking the halls.

We had planned on dancing too. Talking to Walt above the city traffic in the cool night air sensing a nightlife erupting in clubs and bars out of sight maintained my energy. I thought of some places we passed earlier, unadorned entrances save for NO MINORS signs, lacking any enticement in the light of day but which would lure us in for whatever mysterious transforming or forgetting it is we look to do at night. Or just wanting to rest somewhere while still resistant to sleep.

But we didn’t go out. Once in the room, a cozy private with a small corner window, we fell asleep and it was the first of three supremely deep sleeps in San Francisco. On the other two nights we stayed at an apartment in Oakland which belonged to an old acquaintance of Sean’s from Portland. We spent one full day there roaming the wide streets, circling the man-made Lake Merrit in line with an endless parade of joggers. We took the longest way by foot to a Trader Joe’s, passing over freeways and up through the steep wide spiraling streets of a residential neighborhood I never learned the name of. We took a bus to Berkley, where we got pre-made vegetarian lunch at the Berkley Student Co-op. Sean shopped for records, scored an old favorite, Alice Coltrane and, a new one, Caribou, the pop electronic band we both currently hold as Our Love.

Back at the apartment, Sean played the records for our hosts, Judy and Morgan, and they talked about living in Oakland, saving money, and opening businesses. We watched Youtube videos of capoeira, a martial art dance form they are both involved in and Judy offered an analysis of the movements: two people in a wordless exchange of slow-motion, contact-less fight, communicating with each other to the beats of a drum circle surrounding them. In the morning, Judy went to work and Morgan gave us a lift to the BART station and we headed back into the city for our last day.

In Portland, a few months ago in September at the 2014 TBA Arts festival, myself with Sean attended one of the festival’s panel discussions on diversity during which we listened to Randy Kikukawa talk about his experiences as a gay, Asian man living in San Francisco. Setting up a meeting with Randy while we were in San Francisco was a top priority of Sean’s and it worked out. Randy picked us up on our last day in his pale blue 1990-something Hyundai hatchback, which stuck out running idle at the curb on Mission St. downtown like a limo would in a rural town. The thing drove smoothly and it reminded me of the first car in my memory, my Dad’s 2-door Dodge Omni which he had for the first ten years of my life, which looked old even when it was still fairly new.

At Mel’s Drive-In diner downtown, Sean recorded Randy talking about San Francisco, where he has lived since the 1980’s. Sean and I ate our lunch while Randy barely touched his, holding the sandwich in his hand but delaying each bite as more thoughts came to his head. Randy has one of those voices that pleases your ear, it’s friendly and I enjoyed the monologue-like discourse. He is disarming when he is doubtful, and comments on the severity of a matter in an admittedly self-conscious way, but his statements support that he’s thought things through, explored both sides of a matter. He likes living here. He loves it actually. San Francisco serves many places in the history of his life: refuge, home, theater, a classroom without walls with rotating teachers and students, continuously testing and demanding the review and pruning of his notions about life. I get the impression that it is never boring to him, and his frustrations here are not insurmountable, not by any stretch, and are certainly worth the community he’s built for thirty years in the Castro District, where he still lives.

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“View of San Francisco from Treasure Island” by Rosa Pheonix

We walked to a park on the water where we could finally see the Golden Gate Bridge. The red of the bridge was faded in the hazy light, and it was refreshing to be near water, to listen to the clinking and wind of the harbor. We both acknowledged a sadness about leaving. Not sure exactly of what we’d do, we still wanted to spend more long days in the city. At the bay, looking back at the sprawling urban bulk and the bridge in the distance made me feel like we were no longer in it–we had completed our trip and made it to the end there on the water’s edge under the iconic bridge.

But it also felt like skimming a book and coming to the end, having little to say about it and little idea of what happened on its pages, and who the characters were. It wasn’t a reluctance to return to Portland–I looked forward to returning home, and missed the textured skies–but I wanted more time, wanted an answer I guess to questions I hadn’t yet formed. I wanted a better sense of the place, but how to get that in four days?

On our walk to the BART station which would take us back to the airport, I laughed to myself observing Sean taking in the city, like how I imagine someone would ravenously devour a meal if they were told there wouldn’t be food for a while. What made me laugh was that Sean stopping me often in the street to point out a neat detail of an old building was familiar. He does this just as much in Portland and it’s something I now anticipate and come to a stop for, even before he says anything, just by sensing the change in his stride. It takes us 20 minutes to walk six blocks sometimes as he pauses frequently to examine the architecture of churches or to point out old rail lines. He often asks, “when do you think this was built?” and cuts himself or me off while talking as we pass a historic place or abandoned building, curious about another era’s process and concerns, and how these structures functioned in people’s lives then.

At the sight of old hotel signs and phone booths, he relishes and laments a time he was either too young or not born yet to remember. Then he imagines what the city will look like years from now, monitoring the evolution of Portland’s skyline like a parent tracks their kid’s growth spurts. Keeping tabs on all the new buildings going up, he’ll say, “Kate, you see?” excitedly pointing skyward to the top of a new high rise being built downtown, “two floors to go!” A perpetual traveler in his own neighborhood, the surrounding tokens and remnants of history coaxing his nostalgia while he relentlessly maps out the future.

We took the BART from a station located at the top of the Mission District, just east of the Castro. It was here, right before hopping the train to leave San Francisco, that we were both invigorated by the thought of living here. There were people everywhere. We had no plans to move, but maybe this is an inherent or inevitable consideration of most trips you take–whether you can envision yourself living there or not. Taking one last glimpse of the city from 16th and Mission, the image of us getting coffee, commuting, getting groceries easily pervaded my mind. Perhaps it was because it reminded me of parts of home, the low-key hustle of a persevering and dynamic place, only much more dense, as if Alberta Street, Hawthorne Boulevard, and Mississippi Street were piled on top of each other.

Once underground, we got our tickets for the train. When we arrived fours days prior, the BART ticket machines confused us; it seemed a complicated system compared to the simple color-coded lines of Portland. But maybe it was because we didn’t know where we were going or that we were frenzied having just got off the plane. Either way, we got a ticket to the wrong destination and I received three handfuls of nickels in change which I carried for four days and are now in my change jar. This time though, as we were leaving, we swiftly passed through the turnstiles smiling at each other as we did. A simple task, really, but we enjoyed ourselves doing it with the cool habitual ease of a daily commuter. Knowing the system, in and out with the tide, heading back home.




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  1. Danny Dolan

    I had a sketch image in my mind right from the first paragraph. Your unique descriptive/narrative style is so great I could taste the words! Literally I tasted pizza. Figuratively of course but a half hour later I literally have a sauce stain on my shirt. Great read! Makes me want to go to San Francisco and see it all!


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