Sunday, July 31, 2016

July Cultural Roundup

Weiner (U.S., 2016)
Alice Through the Looking Glass (U.S., 2016)

Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan
The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt

Art Exhibits
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July 28

"Native Portraits: Contemporary Tintypes by Ed Drew", California Historical Society, July 30

San Francisco Day 5: Return of the Jet-Lagged

Wish I could just click these together and go home
I am ready to go home ... it's been fun but I miss Toronto. Our house. Our devilish cats. My garden. We long for diversion, then pine for the familiarity of home. Humans are so strange. So wilfully difficult. 

We have a lovely breakfast at Aveline, 490 Geary St., located in the Warwick Hotel across the street from the hotel. Griddle cakes and avocado and eggs on toast. Nice! 

Afterwards R and J go to Union Square on Post St., so named for the rallies held in support of the Union forces during the Civil War - for a quick look around. I sit in the lobby and read. Mama is so boring. And so tired. And the lobby is so lovely with its red wood and its pretty illustrations of animal motifs. 

As we are anxious to avoid the security crunch we experienced at Pearson Airport when we left Toronto, we arrive three hours early, breeze through past long line ups in security (we are unsure why - is it because we are virtuous Canadians?) and learn that our flight has been delayed one hour. So here we sit for four hours eating salt water taffy from the duty free store, Japanese fast food in a crowded restaurant, bad coffee and other junk food as there will be no food on the flight. Would that we could click our heels Dorothy style and just arrive home.

The plane finally leaves at 5.40pm - an hour and three quarters later than initially planned. No explanation, no announcement. I would love to support Air Canada but it makes it hard to do so. I take a smidgen of a sleeping pill to steady my nerves but episodes of The Mindy Project soothe me as does my book - a memoir called In the Darkroom by one of my new fave writers Susan Faludi

We arrive at 1am and take a fake cab - R soon realizes this guy's car has no markings and he complains about us using a credit card ... but who has $70 in their pocket at 1am? Not us. The man asks if R is arriving from China. China? R's family is of Japanese descent and has been in Canada for over 100 years. R was remarkably polite. Hello multi-cultural, diverse Toronto, we're back ... 


Saturday, July 30, 2016

San Francisco Day 4: As the Rainbow comes and goes

Thanks to the pot smoking bros in the hotel room next door (whose pot smoke leaked into our room all night long), we asked to be transferred to a new room - and moved up six floors to a spacious King courtesy of the kindly concierge. But this smell is everywhere in the hotel which surprises us all. 

We are in a rush to pack in a few more outings as it is our last full day in SF. On our way to the California Historical Society, 678 Mission St., we grab a quick coffee and a pastry at Boudin Bakery, 170 O'Farrell St. There is an exhibit we want to see called "Native Portraits: Contemporary Tintypes by Ed Drew", photographed by an African-American vet who toured Afghanistan who has an acute eye for capturing the suffering and dignity of others. 

Then we are off to the Castro district. We stop firstly at Takara Sushi, 4243 18th Street, for some excellent Japanese food just off Castro.

The Castro district appears very affluent - I don't imagine it was always so. Its roots are working class (once it housed scores of North European immigrants and then the Irish and Italian) and it has become a place for queer people to gather and live safely. It's clean, pretty, well maintained and evidently very proud of its history. 

R at Reveille Coffee
Along its Rainbow Honor Walk, it has a series of bronze plagues in the sidewalks commemorating
important LGBTQ figures from history - Virginia Woolf, Tennessee William, James Baldwin, Sylvester and many others. There is a Harvey Milk Plaza and rainbow flags at every corner. It was good to see J feel and understand LGBTQ history a little bit. The Castro Theatre (the image is iconic and is the first thing I think of when I think of the Castro district) is beautifully maintained in the Art Deco style of the 20s and 30s. The businesses appear successful and are filled with customers. One drawback: the smell of urine is everywhere in this city! Here in particular because there appear to be many adorable couples walking their dogs. We all love the inclusive atmosphere and approving looks we receive. 

Refreshments at Reveille Coffee at18th St. and Castro - I am definitely not cool enough for this coffee shop (although R and J are). I wait there while my peeps check out the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th St. ($5 admission) - not for the faint of heart!

We should invest in Uber - because they have made fortune off of us on this trip. Back to the hotel to rest ...

Later in the evening we go to the City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave. In the heart of Little Italy, lit up like Christmas with pretty hanging coloured lights strung across the street and located in the North Beach area. At night it reminds me of a Coppola film of New York's Little Italy. 

The press and bookstore is the original home of the Beats - Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg. It was the first press to publish Ginsberg's Howl. The bookstore was founded by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and the press still publishes a dozen volumes a year. It's beautiful, done in dark wood throughout, and quirkily laid out with many twists and turns and pathways, and very much larger than I imagined. I find a volume of Susan Sontag's Regarding the Suffering of Others. I am absolutely thrilled to find something special here as a memento.

Later we wander around North Beach and settle on dinner at Tamarind Hall, a Thai Street Food and Bar, 1268 Grant Ave., for some excellent Thai food. Loud, overcrowded, a little slow with the service but very good with an amiable serving staff.


Friday, July 29, 2016

San Francisco Day 3: Keep It Weird Haight Street

At the geographic heart of the storied youth revolution of the 1960s on Haight & Ashbury ... The area is what you imagine when you think of San Francisco in the 1960s: a strong hippie vibe, the smell of marijuana, lots of head shops, and small stores with names like Earth Song and Tibet Stars. The smell of pot is everywhere. It's a shock to see an American Apparel store or any chain store for that matter and, to its credit, these stores are far and few between on this strip. "Keep Haight Street weird" a chalk board intones cheerfully ... indeed, they are doing their very best to do so. 

Some Painted Ladies ... 
It's such a curious combination of the old hippie ideal and the new, very wealthy SF economy ... when you stand on the corner of Haight & Ashbury and look north or south of Haight you see these beautiful "Painted Ladies" (gorgeous Victorian houses painted in three or more colours) that must be worth well over a million dollars. Meanwhile a barefoot, forlorn looking blond haired boy in ragged clothes passes us, armed with a pointed stick gathering garbage from the street like something out of Dickens. He wears some sort of yellow vest but is barefoot - a municipal employee or merely a good citizen?

Interesting places to see ... The bookstore Bound Together: The Anarchist Collective, on 1369 Haight St., where I purchase a copy of Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and which, clearly, I am sorely in need of. The store has the added distinction of having its window broken by racist skin heads in the 1980s. A gentle, very aged hippie works the cash with grace and a quiet charm.

Amoeba Records, 1855 Haight St., and Rasputin Music, 1672 Haight St., are both home to thousands of vinyl records for my two record nerds.

Coffee to the People, 1206 Masonic St., is a coffeehouse off Haight with passable coffee but, more interestingly, it features decorated tables containing pictures of dozens of buttons with political slogans.

While R and J search for vinyl I wait on the periphery of Golden Gate Park at the base of Haight Street - not the best idea for a timid soul such as myself. The park is filled with a combination of homeless people huddled together in groups seemingly with all their belongings, affluent tourists renting bicycles to ride through the park, supervised groups of children on an outing and young faux hippies. Middle class mom most decidedly does not fit in so I move along noting the numerous prohibitions on drug use, smoking, camping, etc ... likely all ignored. 

If you are in the mood for tapas and surly service by very attractive Hispanic men you might try Cha Cha Cha, 1801 Haight St. and cap it off with ice cream at Ben & Jerry's right on the corner of Haight & Ashbury.

Crashing at the hotel very exhausted from the day ... then off to a late dinner at Farmer Brown, 25 Mason St., a "soul food" restaurant that is a ten minute walk from the hotel. Tremendously good food, great, rowdy atmosphere, good music ... We choose jambalaya, pickled chips, cornbread. Excellent service and atmosphere. J has some food left over so he asks for a take out carton and gives the food to a man on the corner. The kid is a good'un. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

San Francisco Day 2: Turning Japanese, I think we're turning Japanese ... I really think so

J at the SFMOMA with a friend ... 
Lovely breakfast in the Red Velvet Room in the hotel ... the kid is sacked out and it's just the two of us. The husband is annoyed with the perceived fussiness of the old married couple beside us who make the waiting staff run around in circles with everything from serious requests ("No salt in the dish!") to frivolous ("When my wife comes please make sure there is no ice in her water."). Sometimes R reminds me of the Woody Allen character in the film Annie complaining about the Marshall McLuhan "expert" in the cinema line behind him ("I can't ignore him, he's spitting on my neck!" Allen rages futilely, as does R when I tell him to ignore the couple)

The three of us walk down to SFMOMA, 151 3rd St. - seven floors of modern paintings, multi-media art and sculpture. We are there for several hours and only make it to the top three floors. R is reluctant to leave. I am a philistine and eager for a break - rest and sustenance please!

On the way to SFMOMA ... What is this? 
Later when we return to the hotel we have a disappointing lunch at Katana-ya, 430 Geary St., a Japanese restaurant, across the street from the hotel - very good food but sloooow service, sloppy presentation (which is very uncharacteristic in the presentation of Japanese food), millennial 'tude. and nothing is cheap here whether it's of high quality or not.

After lunch we venture into Japantown west of the Mission, which J is eager to see. We learn this is one of only three Japantowns left in the U.S, all of which are in California. The area is not beautiful - clean perhaps but a bit antiseptic and virtually bereft of people on the street unlike the hurly burly of the Mission district further east.

We talk about how we know of no such similar entities in Canada - certainly not in Toronto, perhaps in Vancouver but it is unlikely. After WWII and the internment of the Japanese, the Japanese Canadians were ordered to disperse geographically (R's mother's and father's families travelled east to Ontario eventually and settled in Toronto where they met and married) and were ordered not to engage with other Japanese people. That law was in effect for many years after the war. Perhaps this is why the Japanese here rarely intermarry with other Japanese Canadians and the community is so fragmented. At least this is our theory. 

J spies a curious store called Diaso Japan, 22 Peace Plaza, that sells household products for $1.50 -
"Everything for $1.50!" he says excitedly. He goes on a spending spree with small gifts and Japanese food items. He is also intrigued by a small, somewhat claustrophobic mall called the Japan Centre that is almost all filled with Japanese merchandise and food. In a shop called Sakura, Sakura I spy, and purchase, a heavenly red paper parasol for less than $10. Completely impractical but gorgeous.

R finds a charming, small independent book store called Forest Books, 1748 Buchanan St., across from the Japan Centre. I purchase an exquisite hard copy of Taking Tea at the Savoy - a book about afternoon tea for a friend with whom I practise making the ever elusive scones that I crave. It is here that I meet the ex-monk (now the current bookstore owner) with the elaborate theories of why the number of homeless have proliferated in the city. A lovely man, eager to talk. 

I am exhausted and not hungry so I decide to stay at the hotel and sleep. My babies venture out for a disappointing meal at the overcrowded, loud and overrated Sears Fine Foods, 439 Powell St.

I don't know what this is ... but I like it.  But is it art?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

San Fancisco Day 1: A Streetcar Named Diversity

One of the fabled SF cable cars ... 
Flying Air Canada through Pearson airport is as annoying as expected (thus the moaning about first world problems begins, she notes coyly). Arriving at 6.15am for a 8am direct flight still takes us one and a half hours to pass through several security points and we barely make it to the plane on time - arriving at 7.45am at our gate. No food is offered during the flight except for what you pay for with the exception of mediocre coffee or a soft drink. R and J are blissfully asleep. Of course, I am awake for the entire flight comforted only by bad movies, TV shows and tidbits of bad airline food I must purchase. The only way I can fly without fear is if I imagine I am sitting in big shaking box and not think too much about what's outside. 

A BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) subway trip takes us almost to the Clift Hotel, 495 Geary St., in the heart of the Mission district. We purchased preliminary tickets for a trip from the airport on the subway - later we learn it's a rip off at $60 when we could have taken an Uber for $35.

The Mission District is problematic, as I mentioned in my previous entry. This part of the city reminds me of NYC in the early 1980s - garbage everywhere, reeking of urine, many homeless on the streets - that's not my memory of San Francisco. Are things worse or am I more aware now?

[Editor's note: Awkward segue ...]

The Clift is a luxury boutique hotel with clean, modernly designed, funky furniture and elegant decor but she is not a cheap date. We have J set up in a cot in our Queen sized room. It's a bit of a tight squeeze. One great thing the hotel offers is if you forgo a daily cleaning to save on water and the toll on the environment you receive a $15/day voucher that you can use in the hotel for discounts on food and drinks. We take advantage of this.

It is cool here! And I mean that in the weather sense (as well as the "cool" sense). It never goes above 18 degrees while we are here - we were expecting warm weather. We left a sweltering Toronto where it hit 40 degrees this summer and came to fall-like weather. 

The city is rife with Europeans - German, Italian, Spanish, Northern European with indecipherable accents, French tourists ... everywhere you go. Many of us dragging luggage and holding maps in the middle of the sidewalk. We are comfortable here ... in that we blend in, we don't stand out, no one really stares at the bi-racial family with the queer kid. J says, quietly happy: "I could live here." He could, we could. 

A very late breakfast at Lori's Diner, 336 Mason St., as we are starving. No breakfast, no lunch, no fair Air Canada! It's a faux 1950s style diner that serves a solid if not particularly inexpensive all day breakfast, with friendly staff, and it is just around the corner from the hotel.

Snacks and drinks in the Redwood Room at the hotel with the offspring in the late afternoon after we rest and unpack. It's a beautiful lounge for adult drinks and hipster snacks. So strange (and nice) to share drinks with J who is now a young adult.

We walk over to Powell and Mason to catch the famed cable car north ($7 per person). It travels along Powell into North Beach, the heart of Little Italy. I force the family to go ... I am excited about it even though the two drivers are grumpy and loud and the cable car crowded with dopes playing Pokemon Go instead of looking at this amazing city.

This is where Beat culture meets Italian culture - the haunts of the poets and scoundrels Corso, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Cassaday, Ginsberg. At the last stop of the cable car (where the two drivers manually turn the car around to go in the opposite direction on the track), we walk southwards into the North Beach neighborhood.

We find a charming Italian restaurant called Piazza Pellegrini, 659 Columbus Ave., for generous portions of linguine, gnocchi, margarita pizza, arugula salad, two drinks, and cannoli to finish ($108 plus taxes & tip). An excellent meal! I am among my people ... it is good to be Italian!

And an Uber home courtesy of the kid who appears to be navigating most of our technological issues ...

A Broken Heart In San Francisco

It is not uncommon, as that hoary cliche goes, to leave one's heart in San Francisco ... I leave a broken heart here as someone who loved the city, or the image of what the city was in my memory. I usually do a chatty list of places we went to and things we did when we travel. I can't do that exclusively in good conscience this time.

I had been warned by a good friend who had recently travelled here. She said that the Mission District where our hotel was located was "sketchy" and was shocked at the number of homeless people she saw there. She carefully advised no night time trips alone. 

As beautiful and exciting as the city is in some quarters something has gone desperately wrong. The much touted Mission district is filled with the truly destitute - more than just men and women who look like they have slept in the rough a few nights. These people have been on the streets for years and they are entirely destitute - very unclean, bedraggled, torn and dirty clothes in utter ruins and clearly mentally ill - talking to themselves, initiating arguments with the real and the imaginary.

As we stepped off the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), luggage in hand, walking to our hotel, a man kneeling and facing a building storefront, doing I know not what, turned around, looked at the three of us and said, "This is a very violent neighbourhood." We looked at each other and walked on, tongue-tied.

Granted I have not been in San Francisco for decades ... R and I had ventured here in the 1990s and stayed in a hotel in Oakland, CA courtesy of a business sponsored trip I was offered at the time. Even then we were warned to not walk about on the streets in Oakland so we dutifully travelled by transit or cab to SF for our daily exploits. Then, it was Oakland that was considered risky for tourists, not San Francisco. 

Sadly it reminds me of NYC in the 1980s - garbage strewn everywhere, the smell of urine permeates, many homeless, truly desperate people in a thriving tourist area overrun with us tourists. 

I met a lovely man in bookstore who said he was a former monk and now the owner of the store. He had an elaborate explanation about the increase in homelessness involving no less than several right wing local politicians, the slithery Karl Rove (yes, that Karl Rove) and the selling of a portion of the city's real estate to Chinese nationals. I could not fathom what was true and what was not ... but I do know the situation seems very much worse than I recall and it makes me rethink if this is where I want to spend my money if the local pols are going to blithely let the situation regarding the homeless continue. 

Hopefully I can add these entries with a little more sensitivity as to what the city is truly like.