Scenes from San Francisco

(Click on any picture for an enlarged version)

I last visited San Francisco over 40 years ago. Surely the city has changed, but the way I look at things has changed far more. So far as I can tell, in the popular imagination San Francisco = Chinatown + lots of hills + Fisherman's Wharf + occasional earthquakes. I missed the earthquakes but hit the other spots.

First, there are the hills. This adds a dimension of adventure to travel by foot or vehicle. I will have more to say about this later. As you see in the picture (taken through the windshield of a taxicab), some of the hills approach practical-joke proportions (Why is there a giant wall at the end of the street?) Hence some of the street views are reminiscent of a scene from an Escher print (or maybe Inception).

Chinatown, of course. I love the old-fashioned wild-ass romanizations (like Foo-Wah towards the back of the image).

A Chinatown paradox: "Bank of America" written in Chinese characters.

This photo only captures half the charm of this little scene. All the cats are waving their paws, out of synchronization.

I naively expected Fisherman's Wharf to have fishermen--at least that's what I've seen in the movies. No, it's almost entirely given over to entertainment, like many other city waterfronts. And frequented by seagulls who have well learned the advantages of human companionship.

I saw signs for several "Sushi Boat" restaurants. This is one idea that has yet to make it to Maryland. In case you haven't seen such, the idea is the little boats parade laden with plates and you reach out and grab what you want. It's a cute idea, but probably also technically a lot easier to manage than the rotating conveyor belt (which I have seen a lot of places).

The Muir Woods are a short drive away. Photos can't capture what this is like. The redwood trees are midgets compared to their giant cousins, but still outclass anything we have in Maryland.

I apologize for the blurriness of this photo. I took it indoors, in dim light, and tweaked the brightness a little and stretched it drastically to correct for foreshortening. It's part of the ceiling of an Italian restaurant. Chinatown gets the fame, but San Francisco's Little Italy is also worth a look.

And what says "California" more than a meeting of the Society of Plastic Surgeons?

Cultural notes: San Francisco's bumpy topography is legendary. It is interesting to me that the street layout makes no concessions whatsoever to topography--see the map below. Lombard Street in particular is called the "steepest street in the world." Notice the little zig-zag section, which shows up on the post cards. The opposite side of the same hill--without zig-zags--is the photo at the top of this post. 

I don't mind going up and down hills, but some of the grades are just too much for busses, for example, to handle. Which means that riding anywhere on a bus, even sometimes a few blocks down the same street, becomes a tortuous series of left and right turns as the bus works its way around the hills.

Perhaps this creates a general atmosphere of irritation on the streets. San Francisco drivers are the most vocal I have seen in the USA, liberally leaning on the horns at anyone who gets in the way, or sometimes at those who merely look like they might be thinking of getting in the way.

The point is, it didn't need to be like this. Instead of straight lines, for example, you could lay the streets out in spirals that go up (or down) the hills. Near the top, where usually the gradient flattens out, the streets would become straight. And you could keep to a nice comfortable grade everywhere. (I thought about making a sketch to show what I mean, but decided the hell with it).

On the other hand, San Francisco's pedestrians are the tamest anywhere, obediently waiting for every traffic signal. (This may seem unremarkable, but it is definitely not the case everywhere).

San Franciscans take pride in their city's blustery summers, and prove it by dressing in down jackets, etc. when the weather is 60 degrees and sunny.

And I never once observed a person eating Rice-a-Roni.