Friday, June 6, 2008

Impressions of San Francisco,

Let me preface this post by saying that I have happy memories of San Francisco that go back many years to my childhood and adolescence.  I used to spend part of my summer with a great uncle and aunt in this city, and they were partially responsible for who I am today.  Uncle Hank regularly shipped me boxes of books; Aunt Ruth taught me how to dress and comport myself. They took me to theatre and concerts, and they shaped my politics, opposing my father's cowboy conservatism with classic Marxist materialism.  

I have through the years made periodic trips to SF, but it has been a long time since I've explored the city at a leisurely pace.  Here to visit my son Alex, I've had a chance to wander neighborhoods, visit museums, and eat out.  

Some moments have charmed: the man playing the theme to the Godfather on his sax in Union Square; the AIDS Memorial in Golden Gate Park; the tough old Chinese ladies who still elbow one aside; the adult entertainment store on Market Street that blares classical music from loudspeakers (Tschaikovsky as I walked past); the beatific old black man blessing passerbys (when he wasn't ogling attractive girls); the grotesquely fat seagull that has apparently taken up permanent residence outside the museum cafe in Golden Gate Park.

And there have been some delights.  I am absolutely enchanted with the Asian Art Museum, a superb collection in a beautifully retrofitted building.  I loved everything about the museum, from the smart commentary to the interactive touch screens. The galleries are light and airy, and the objects displayed carefully.  I also like how cross-cultural currents are underscored throughout. This is exactly what a museum should be: intelligent and aesthetically pleasing. Even the museum cafe defied expectations, serving fresh, impeccably prepared food at reasonable prices. I had planned on spending no more than two hours at the Asian Art Museum; I ended up staying most of the day.

I have, thanks to Alex, discovered the pleasures of San Francisco's hip neighborhood bars. One night we went to Absinthe, where I had an odd but refreshing cocktail with a very complicated name I cannot recall; this afternoon we stopped at Alembic in the Haight, where I had my first Pisco Sour.  I am a complete convert to this delightful drink.  

For the most part, food has been good. We ate on Wednesday night at Citizen Cake in Hayes Valley and had a fine meal. Although they are known primarily for unusual desserts, Citizen Cake's limited dinner menu features some real delights. Alex had very good braised pork, while I had local cod on vegetables infused with ginger and lime.  Dinner the following night at Zazil, located in the quite grand Westfield Mall on Market Street was okay, not great: my braised pork (a popular dish here!) was too salty; Alex didn't like the sauce on his fish. I have better hopes for a seafood restaurant we're trying in Sausalito tomorrow.

Increasingly, however, I understand why Alex doesn't enjoy day-to-day life here.  Without a doubt, San Francisco is scenic and charming, but there's little to do outside of the 20-something hipster culture that dominates the city. Good theatre is scarce, and the opera is horrifically expensive. Museums, with the exception of the Asian Art, are so-so.  Little works.  We waited nearly 50 minutes for a bus that supposedly runs every 10 minutes, an all too common occurrence I am told. BART has so few stations as to be almost useless.  The streets are dirty, some smelling like urinals. Petty crime is rife. This afternoon alone we were approached by a gang of youths in Golden Gate Park trying to sell us drugs; then we saw a woman lose her wallet to a nimble-fingered thief as she boarded the bus. Sadly, banks in tourist areas, such as Union Square, post security guards next to ATM's. And homeless people are everywhere, pushing carts overflowing with their possessions. Most mind their own business, but the schizophrenics and druggies are unnerving. I found myself walking briskly back to my hotel and hugging my purse. This is not the San Francisco I remember.

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