13 Days in San Francisco

12 June 2010

I arrived in San Francisco on 3 June. As I am writing this, it is 12 June. How time flies…

So what have I been doing since I arrived? Slowly discovering the city of rolling hills at my own pace, instead of being rushed around tourist-mad in a matter of 2 or 3 days as per my previous visits in 1985 and 2002. Very rarely have I had this luxury of slow exploration when abroad…

A note about the weather: Extremely variable. It can be very warm and bright (extreme blue skies and eye-blinding sunny), or dull, foggy and cold — in a matter of hours or days. I’ve noticed one thing about the fog here: seen against the right coloured background, you can see the water particles suspended in air. They can hit your exposed face like microscopic ball bearings that go ping, ping, ping against your skin.

I’m told it rarely goes below freezing here. Yet one thing I’ve noticed is that the wind, even on sunny days, can be cold by Singapore standards. While I’ve used my fleece jacket a few times, most days I go about with at least my vest over my t-shirt. I just could not wear my t-shirt only. It is no wonder that the homeless people on the street wear so many layers despite some of the more well-off San Franciscans going about with shorts and t-shirts. By comparison, today 12 June is very warm – almost like Singapore, minus the humidity. I believe it is the 1st really, really warm day for the year. So warm that I could not wear my vest and wished that I was wearing shorts (and not pants) and that I had not taken out with me two layers of clothing which hampered my mobility (the vest and jacket being tied to my bag). And of course the San Franciscans that I saw on the street were all lapping up the sun in the skimpiest clothing possible.

I met Joan Holden last evening for dinner and a show (more about this later). [For many years, Joan was playwright/dramaturg at the San Francisco Mime Troupe until she retired last year. I met her last year when she conducted a playwriting workshop in Singapore that I attended.] She told me something about how the Native American Indians of this region characterised the seasons here: “the season of green grass, the season of acorns and the season of fog”. How very, very true…

The grid system that San Francisco is laid out is of course similar to the other big American cities, especially in the downtown area. (Another similarity: the gum-dotted sidewalks — that Lee Kuan Yew would so disapprove of…) But where it differs is its rolling topography — the scenes of many Hollywood movie chases in downtown SF where you see cars and hubcabs flying as the vehicles go over the bumps of the hills and barely screeching to a halt inches away from a cable car.

Public transport (bus/tram/cable car/subway) is fairly easy to understand and use — although I am still learning where the various roads and districts are — I keep getting onto buses that go in the opposite direction that I want to go. For instance, I wanted to go to the Golden Gate Park yesterday. According to advice from the local transportation website, I had to take the subway (called BART) to Glen Park and then take a number 44 Muni bus to the park. When I boarded the bus after getting out of the BART station, I got on the 44 and only discovered when it neared the terminal point that I had boarded it in the wrong direction and then had to ride the bus back in the right direction. However, the long bus ride showed me parts of SF that I would never have seen otherwise (I believe I was in the Bayview district). Not only was the socio-economic divisions in different parts of the city obvious, but also the time scale in which each suburb was settled (as shown by the evolving architecture and vegetation — more modern plainer architecture in the outskirts vs more Victorian/early 20th century buildings towards the city centre; sparser, less green and younger trees in the newer, poorer sections).

While SF is more compact than LA or Chicago, it has definitely a softer edge than NYC (which can seem harsh and bleak). Granted that this is the first time I’m really exploring a large American city on my own at my leisure, what is amazing to me is how fast the street environment/atmosphere can change. You think you are walking down a nice street, but literally turn the corner and it is already a edgier area and you feel you need to be a bit more cautious. And yet because of the existence of this harsher underbelly of the city, I can’t help but feel that the more white/gentrified/yuppified parts of town are like bubblegum dreams.

Talk about how American pop culture has shaped my imagination and impressions of the US: While it is of course impossible for the majority of Americans to look and behave like Bradgelinas, I am always amazed at the different sizes, shapes, ethnicities, body types, facial features and movements of the people one encounters on the streets of big city America. Not only have I realised that the body beautiful types are actually not the norm, but everytime I walk down the streets here in big city America, I always feel that I am walking down the film set of Men in Black, where underneath the facade of these strange looking people, surely aliens live beneath. Which then makes me think that the Bradgelinas of America must be aliens in their own right too, only with more symetrical looking masks? Yes?

13 June 2010

The heat wave that started yesterday seems to be continuing. Up on the 3rd floor of 977 South Van Ness Ave (where Robert and Nancy have a rehearsal/informal performance space and their office) where I spent a few minutes stretching and exercising this morning, there are skylights that heat up the 3rd floor really fast. It was actually quite hot up there.

Robert and Nancy’s house is in the Mission district, a region that is relatively flat by SF standards. So walking about most parts of the Mission is quite easy (there is a slight gradient that slopes from the Mission to downtown — excellent if you wish to skateboard from the Mission to downtown, as Robert points out). Originally a Hispanic neighbourhood, it is now home to many other ethnic groups, but still retains much of its Latin American character. 977 South Van Ness Ave parallels Mission St (2 streets away) and is walking distance to 24th Street, the 2 streets that are full of Latin American shops and eateries. (Yet Valencia Street, also a shopping/eating area, that also parallels Mission St on the other side is by comparison so ‘white’.) The most amazing thing about the Mission district are the wall murals that adorn walls of houses and shops here and there. Street art is taken to another level — the vibrant colours and strong images often centre around serious socio-political themes. Whole back alleys are canvases for serious artists (not punks). Some of these murals are just jaw-droppingly gorgeous, in my humble opinion of someone who is not into the visual arts.

Robert and his daughter and her boyfriend left 3 nights ago in the middle of the night to drive to Orcas Island to join Nancy there. Before he left, I accompanied Robert for several days in a row on 9 am walks around the Mission. Since he has lived in the neighbourhood for several decades, he would point out to me interesting places that I would not have otherwise noticed. For instance, there is a slightly more industrial area around 16th Street (977 South Van Ness Ave being located between 20th and 21st streets) in which artists have transformed former factories into studios and performance spaces. Hmm… Only locals will know the nooks and crannies.

15 June 2010

Alas the heat of 12 & 13 June dissipated yesterday. Though the weather is still bright and sunny (i.e. no fog), the temperature has dropped and I’ve had to layer drastically to keep my fingers warm.

Before I go into a summary of what I’ve been doing, let’s talk about food on the way to and in SF. For six weeks prior to leaving Singapore, I had upped the amount of exercise and was very strict with my diet (very little carbo) in order to be serious about Phase 2 in my weight loss (Phase 1 being what I did last year). I believe I lost about 3 to 4 kg as a result. However, an unforseen result was how much my body is now burning calories than before: I got very HUNGRY and COLD during the flight from Singapore to SF, unlike before when I would feel just right with the amount that airlines would feed you on the plane. Since landing in SF, I’m glad to report that I’ve been relatively circumspect with my diet and limited the snacking. By comparison to the 6 weeks prior, I’m eating a lot more carbo — but I figure, hey, it’s ok, since it can get quite cold here. But I think my overall diet change is permanently sinking in: I just don’t want to eat as much junk as I used to eat, and my body wants the vege and fruits more than crisps/chocs/meat.

And to my Singaporean readers: Be envious. It is cherry and strawberry season here in SF. Both fruits can be bought very cheaply here right now – less than a US$ per punnet of strawberries, and less than a US$ per lb of cherries. Needless to say, I’ve been gorging on them (and thereby more than fulfilling my daily quotient of fruit intake and going to the loo a lot).

Ok, so now for a summary of highlights of my adventures in SF (as best as I can recall):

– Thu 3 June: I arrive in SF.

– Fri 4 June: I start exploring the Mission on my own. In the evening, Robert plays host to a networking meeting of Young Audiences, an agency that promotes artists to work in schools that Eth-Noh-Tec has been a member of for many years. A very eye-opening meeting for me to listen to both the artists and administrators talk about how arts for schools in this part of California are promoted.

– Sat 5 June: In the evening, Robert hosts the monthly salon that he organises to promote local artists. The evening is dedicated to Filipino-American artists. There is a poet, a playwright, a stand-up comic, a film-maker and a kulingtan player who is fusing the traditonal gong music with modern electronica. Enjoyable and again, eye-opening. As my contribution to the potluck for this event, I make my apple pie (5 pies in all): of course, they go down well; 2 are finished.

– Sun 6 June: I attend a matinee at The Marsh, a theatre devoted to small-scale, new work. The Marsh is currently conducting a Festival of New Voices. I see Board Policy 213 (a short piece about bureaucratic life by Wayne Harris) and 40 Pounds in 12 Weeks (Pidge Meade’s semi-autobiographic fight with weight loss).

– Mon 7 June: I venure out into downtown via the BART subway system. I walk to the 24th/Mission Sts station to access it. I get off at Powell and go to the San Francisco Visitor Centre and get a San Francisco city pass that allows me free Muni bus rides (and cable car rides) for 7 days as well as free access to certain sites within 9 days. Using this pass, I visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (the collections on show were not very big or impressive) and I ride on the California St cable car line several times. Before taking the BART back to the Mission, I discover a discount shoe store along Market St. I fall for temptation. Heck luggage constraints. I buy 2 pairs. In the evening, I bring Robert out to dinner at the Chinese restaurant, Tao Yin, round the corner from 977 South Van Ness Ave, to thank him for his hospitality. Of course, Robert is on first name basis with the head waiter.

– Tue 8 June: I stay in most of the day. Robert has kindly arranged for me to share my work with invited guests that evening. So I help him prepare his studio for the event (plus also help him move things in preparation for his trip to the Orcas islands). And I also take time to prepare for my presentation of my art as well as on Singapore and its culture. About 10 people show up for my presentation, two of whom I will mention: Malcolm (my nephew who now works in San Francisco in biotech, whom I’ve not seen since he was 14) and Sheridan Tatsuno (a Japanese American, a long-time friend of Robert who is a businessman cum screenwriter). Some of the remaining apple pie is served as part of the refreshments. (Robert grilled some meat for the makan – he is very big on grilling. Outside of the 3rd floor studio on the deck, he has a grill, given to him by Nancy.)

– Wed 9 June: I venture into town again using the BART. I visit the Museum of African Diaspora (so-so, though I caught part of a very interesting documentary on Celia Cruz, the late singer). Next to the MOAD, I discover a shoe store selling dance shoes. Heck luggage constraints – I succomb and again buy 2 pairs of shoes (but this time I have real reason – it is absolutely impossible to find ballroom shoes my size in Singapore — something I will really need the day I am able to take up social dance classes again). So I walk about Chinatown and its outskirts the whole day carrying those shoes. I eventually end up at the famed City Lights bookstore. Then I return back to South Van Ness Ave. In the evening, I venture out to The Marsh again and see 2 more monologues: Jurrasic Ark by David Caggiano, and The Dream by Kenny Yun.

– Thu 10 June: To make use of my city pass, plus fulfill my niece Nicole’s request, I venture out to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, via Muni bus and streetcar. At Pier 39, I board a boat for a 1-hour cruise in the San Francisco Bay, sailing past the sealions beached off Pier 39, downtown SF, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. That morning I had debated whether or not it was too warm or not to bring out my fleece jacket. It is a good thing I did, for it is freezing out in the middle of San Francisco Bay as the boat moves through the water and the wind is blowing. After the cruise, I visit Pier 39. I swear: it has not changed much since 1985 or 2002 (my first 2 flying visits to SF). From the small seafood market there, I buy 1 can of clam chowder for Nicole. I walk to Fisherman’s Wharf, arguably one of the most tackiest tourist traps in SF. Although I had eaten something light at Pier 39, I decide to buy chowder and boiled squid from one of the seafood stalls just for the experience. Then I buy a 2nd can of chowder from Boudin’s (fleeced through the nose for it at over US$6 after tax is included) for Nicole. Then I ride the cable car again on the Powell-Mason line. When I get off at Powell, I discover a grand-daddy of a discount shoe store along Powell St. It is UNFAIR! Why is it only in America that one can find such variety and quantity of shoes in Size 9.5… Sigh… I am good. I do not succomb to temptation. I know that the 2nd half of this trip to the US/Canada will be shopping fest when my sister and her 2 girls arrive on 16 June. When I arrived back at 977 South Van Ness, Robert and his daughter Xiani and her boyfriend Wes were still packing and preparing to leave for Orcas. It is uncertain whether they will leave that night or the next morning. Sometime during the early hours of the morning after I had gone to bed, they leave, driving the SUV.

– Fri 11 June: To make use of my city pass further, I go to Golden Gate Park (and get lost in the process — see above). At the Park, I see the California Academy of Sciences (not bad – much better than the Bay Acquarium at Pier 39) and the de Young Museum (really good), the Conservatory of Flowers (waste of money since I come from the tropics) and the Japanese Tea Garden (very pretty). In the evening, I meet up with Joan Holden at the 16th BART station and catch up with her over dinner at a Mexican place. She then brings me to see a monologue, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?, by Josh Kornbluth. Very nice interweaving of imagery.

– Sat 12 June: I meet my nephew, Malcolm, for lunch. I travel by MUNI from 16th St to the corner of Fillmore and Chestnut in the Marina district. Very pretty, yuppified area. The bars along Chestnut St are filled with people watching the US-England World Cup match — it seems very strange to see Americans excited over soccer. Malcolm and I catch up over lunch, have a walk along the waterfront and then stop briefly at Malcolm’s studio apartment. Then I return back to the Mission.

– Sun 13 June: After my work sharing on Tue 8 June, Robert receives an email from a visual artist, Ester Hernandez, show said that she was sorry that she had missed my work sharing, but would love to meet up with me if possible. Her interest in Singapore is because her son and family moved to Singapore last year and she had visited Singapore last December to see her granddaughter as well as to tour Singapore for the 1st time. So we arrange to meet up for lunch on Sun. She drives by 977 South Van Ness Ave  and brings me to another part of the Mission I had yet to discover. There at a Mexican seafood restaurant, we have lunch with her good friend and accountant, Grace, who hails from Indonesia/Malaysia. It is a very delightful lunch getting to know the 2 ladies. I try the seafood cocktail (that Robert had recommended I try if I were to eat Latin American seafood). At the end of the lunch, we take pictures and exchange presents.

After lunch, Ester drives about the Mission and gives me a personal mini-guided tour of the murals. We stop at a fancy ice cream place for ice cream. She drives me back at 977 South Van Ness Ave, where I drop off stuff she has given me, and pick up a copy of my book. Then she gives me a lift to the 24th St BART station where I take the train to Powell and meet up with Sheridan Tatsuno. I was fascinated by his views on life and screenwriting during my brief encounter with him on Tue 8 June and so wanted to meet up with him to get to know him better. So I had arranged to meet him again. Sheridan takes me on a walk that covers the Ferry Building plus parts of the North Beach area, encountering breathtaking views of the Bay and the city as well as engaging in wide-ranging conversation as we walk about.

– Mon 14 June: In the morning, I visit Creativity Explored on 16th St, a programme that helps people with disabilities discover and develop their talent in visual art, on the invitation of Ester Hernandez, who has been involved with the programme for many years. Ester introduces me to the various artists and her colleagues who guide/help the artists with their work. Some of the work is really stunning. At the lunch break, I leave and explore the Mission Delores just down the street from Creavity Explored. The Mission building is the earliest building still standing in San Francisco, built when Franciscan monks came to these parts to set up missions in the 1770s. Next to the Mission building is the Basilica that dates from after the 1906 earthquake (the original Basilica having been destroyed by the quake). It is very peaceful sitting in the Mission, the Basilica and the cemetry. After lunch, I eventually head back to 977 South Van Ness Ave, where I complete packing a small box of books (that I had been purchasing over the last week or so – but really compared to my previous times abroad, I have been very circumspect in the amount of books I have bought) plus the 2 soup cans (excellent fillers for the box). Then I go to the post office at 23rd St to send off the parcel.

– Tue 15 June: Basically, this is round-up/resting/packing day before I fly to LA tomorrow. Hence, I’ve spent the last 2 hours completing this blog.

Today is the day when my mother flies into LA. My brother who lives in LA will meet her at the airport and bring her to his home. My sister and her 2 girls arrive in LA on 16 June, the same day I fly to LA. On 18 June, all six of us will fly to Edmonton, Canada, to visit our relatives there as well as celebrate my aunt’s 90th birthday on the 20th. On 23rd June, we fly back to LA. On 29th June, my mother and I will leave for Singapore; my sister and her 2 girls leave 1 day later.

And yet, my travels for the summer of 2010 will not yet be over. I travel from Singapore to Rome on 4 July to take part in the LaMaMa Umbria playwriting residency from 5 to 15 July.  In mid-Aug, I will be in Darwin, Australia, for about 6 days taking part in a storytelling festival. Yes, I am a jetsetter this year…

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2 thoughts on “13 Days in San Francisco

  1. Hi Verena,
    Just let you know that I’ve read all three posts and want to thank you for sharing. Didn’t know you have so many relatives in North America. Someone told me during my recent trip to the US that Mark Twain once said, “The coldest winter I ever experienced was the summer in San Francisco.”
    Enjoy the rest of your jetsetting days! I’m envious 🙂

  2. Thanks for the fascinating post, Verena. It’s interesting how different the whole experience of travel is for different people. Once on the MRT I heard a girl of about 21 talking about her visit to Mexico. Someone asked her, how was it? and she said, “Oh, the beer is very cheap.” I was dumbfounded and even more appalled. Blind was she to the incandescent culture, vibrant spirit and rich history of Mexico. She might as well have been to a coffeeshop in Bedok offering a promotion on beer.
    But of course Verena, you see San Francisco and all the places you go, through the eyes of an artist. I was intrigued by your vision of all the people around you being aliens. I think I know the feeling. It is being transplanted from your normal reality into another, and it somehow feels real yet unreal. A sense of… alienation, may I venture?
    May 2011 bring more adventures for you. Happy New Year, my friend.

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