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Lou Pickney's Online Commentary

San Francisco Treat

Wednesday
March 17, 2004

"Dogs in bars, bikes on trains, men in women's clothing: it's a fun city."
-Glenn Brown, commenting on San Francisco, in the early morning hours of March 12, 2004

California... the long-awaited promised land. I'd come close to visiting before; two summers ago I came within 48 hours of making a long vacation there. But now was my chance to finally visit the Golden State... and a beautiful part of it at that.

Getting there was an excursion; from Tampa I connected through New Orleans, where I had expected a tight connection (30 minutes). Instead, my plane was delayed two hours out of Ft. Lauderdale. Bummer. I had dinner at the "Jester Express", where they were out of almost everything on the menu. Seriously. My choices were red beans and rice, seafood gumbo and seafood jambalaya. I chose the beans and rice.

Kimono My House
For some reason I found humor in this sign.

By the time I arrived in Oakland, it was 12:40 AM PST. Which, for those of you not quick with United States time zone transitions, made it 3:40 AM EST. Luckily, thanks to the wonders of Dramamine and Xanax, I slept on the plane like a champ, countering the jet lag effect.

Glenn Brown met me at the airport, which was a sacrifice for him on the sleep end since he had class in the morning. It was good to see him. Glenn was one of my closest friends in high school; he's someone who is both brilliant and also very caring about others and the community at large. Talking with Glenn is a fun thing, as he's one of the few people I've met who's flat-out smarter than me. That in turn challenges me to think hard... particularly when we're discussing one of the many topics that we have different opinions about.

The house where Glenn lives is shared by others involved in the Jesuit School of Theology program at Berkeley, which is part of the "Graduate Theological Union in the common MA program" -- confused yet? Glenn put it to me like this in an e-mail when I asked him to explain it: "This is confusing because everyone else you met is not a GTU student, but just JSTB students." Six people live in the house (including Glenn), though I only met four of his roommates: Christine, Kate, Ryan and Shawn. Shawn's wife, who also lives there, was in San Jose for the weekend and thus out of the mix.

The house is attached to St. Columbia, a Catholic church, and in fact the house used to serve as a rectory for two priests. But don't be fooled by the description, as the house is very big and fits six with plenty of room to spare. With real estate in San Francisco/Oakland being at such a premium, I was surprised with how much room it had.

When Glenn got back from class at 1 PM on Friday, I had been awake for a little while (since it was 4 PM Eastern by that point and all.) I had a chance to read through some local tour books that Glenn let me borrow, as well as reading more of the fantastic book The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. We had lunch at a Central Market place in a town called Emeryville, a thriving area succeeding seemingly in spite of the less-than-successful neighborhoods of North/West Oakland that surround it. Any place looking at how to do urban renewal the right way should look at the blueprint used by Emeryville, California. It seems to have worked exceedingly well.

License plates
You can buy used license plates in San Francisco's Chinatown.

The best part about Emeryville may be the Emery-Go-Round, a free bus that travels around the town during the day to encourage shopping, etc. Yes, I know, nothing is ever free when it comes from the government, but it's a nice service to have available, for sure.

Friday night was my chance to taste the Bay Area nightlife for the first time. Ronnie Aquino, who went to FRHS with Glenn and I, stopped by the house that afternoon. Good times on that. Ronnie is a great guy, and I had seen him over Christmas, but before that it had been a long time since I'd seen him.

One really nice thing about my visit was that I had some very nice meals on the house's tab. Friday night before Ronnie, Glenn and I headed out, we had a delicious spaghetti dinner fixed by Kate (who I think Ronnie and I either amused or frightened with our somewhat loud stories in the kitchen as we drank beer waiting on Glenn to get back from a church function).

Ronnie drove us over to San Francisco, though he was going to a concert and wasn't able to join us at the bars. Glenn and I went to the Hemlock Tavern, a bar in the "Polk/Gulch" district, where we met up with Glenn's friend Patrick.

One very bizarre thing that I noticed was that someone had brought a dog into the bar with them. Not a seeing-eye dog, but their pet. No one seemed to think anything of it. Maybe that's a California thing, but I've never seen that before anywhere. I asked Patrick about it when he arrived, and he didn't seem to know (and he's a San Fran native). And, no, the dog wasn't drinking. At least not that I saw.

Patrick made sure during the evening to point out the transvestite hookers who were looming on the streetcorners. As if it wasn't tough to spot the "women" who were taller than me and conspicuously hiding their adam's apples...

From there we went to Edinburgh Castle, also in the Polk/Gulch district, and then Patrick drove us over to a bar called Treat Street in the "Mission District" of San Fran. We met up with Patrick's friend Peter and threw down some beer (except for Glenn, who opted for other choices). Patrick and Peter were drinking some Mexican beer out of a can that I'd never heard of before. Again, I chalk that up as a California thing. That's part of the reason to travel, though, to experience these new and different things.

Getting back home was the biggest challenge of the night. Glenn and I rode the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from San Francisco to Oakland -- a subway car that actually goes under the bay. Our car was getting full, and a guy with a bicycle (more on bikes in a minute) tried to get on. A woman with a robotic voice came over the loudspeaker, admonishing the man and telling him to move to the next car over (which was less crowded) so the train could move. It was a real-life person over the intercom, but the voice sounded no less robotic than the computer-generated voices on the platform that informed would-be passengers on when the next trains would be arriving.

Regarding bicycles, they're all over the place in San Fran/Oakland. It's ridiculous. Fuel prices are sky-high, so I understand that, but you'd think an area with steep hills would not avail itself to casual bikers. Oh, but you'd be wrong to think that.

Glenn was telling me how once a month (on the last Friday of the month), bicyclists gather en masse and block major city streets in something called "Critical Mass". It's part of the whole Berkeley/San Fran culture of wanting to protest about everything, but this actually disrupts the lives of people trying to get to work or school, who are already dealing with insane traffic and brutal fuel costs. Glenn told me that he thinks it's great, but I have a problem with it myself. Then again, he's an avid bicyclist, whereas I find bikers to be nothing but a potential road hazard while driving. I suppose different perspectives spawn different outlooks.

When we made it back to Oakland, a bus ride awaited us. Unfortunately, we were in a rather rough part of town. At the bus stop were two rather unsavory women, including one older lady who was talking at great length about how she only smoked cigarettes and drank soda pop and that she didn't drink or smoke "the weed" (like she's the dad from Friday or something). Good unintentional comedy on that. But things didn't stay funny for long.

A rather well-dressed and eloquent woman came up and informed us that she was a federal agent. She had the speech pattern and articulation of a TV news anchor... only she was absolutely insane. She told us how some guy in Fresno had killed 8 people and that he'd already had their coffins laid out, and that this somehow was connected with the impending end of the world (she was one of those perpetual doomsday philosophers, apparently). She then claimed to work for a couple of different federal agencies before finally deciding that she had to get out of there, and she walked away.

From there, a fight broke out one block down, apparently stemming from a disagreement from inside a nearby club. From what I heard, it broke down along racial lines. Glenn told me that he saw a gun drawn (I didn't see it), and the crowd scattered. The two black guys involved in the altercation then took off over toward our bus stop. Suddenly I, with a shaved head and all, felt very aware of my ethnicity. I'm going to be shot and killed in an Oakland bus stop at 12:45 AM. Lovely.

Luckily, that didn't happen. We'd just missed the 12:15 bus, and the 12:30 bus never showed up. But right after 12:45, finally, our bus arrived. We made it back in one piece... and felt fortunate to do so.

On Saturday I went into full tourist mode. Glenn and I took the Emery-Go-Round to the BART station, and from there rode into San Francisco.

First on the agenda was Chinatown. San Francisco has a very large Asian population, so it makes sense that it also has a thriving Chinatown district. It's also a tourist trap, but so it goes. We had lunch at a random Chinese restaurant; from there Glenn bought a new lens for his camera while I purchased a pair of postcards.

Lou at Fisherman's Wharf
After walking by this gorilla four times, I stopped to pose for a picture with it (near Fisherman's Wharf).

We walked through the streets, taking in the various sights and scenery. Luckily Glenn knew where he was going, as we made our way from there over to the Fisherman's Wharf area.

Fisherman's Wharf was a very interesting place. At a glance, it felt like a mix of Boston Harbor and the Redneck Riviera (Destin/Panama City, FL), as you had the harbor area with the boats and all combined with the tourist shops and stores and what not. But there were plenty of elements that were unique about the area, like the high volume of street performers. I hadn't seen that many in one area since I was in Trafalgar's Square in London in 2001. One guy staked out a public trash can and held a sign declaring himself as "White Trash". No argument here.

From the Harbor area, you can see two very unique things at once: Alcatraz, the infamous island prison (featured in the movie The Rock, among others) and the Pier 37 sea lions. This was something I didn't know about before my trip, but there's an area set aside where sea lions come out in mass numbers to relax on floating wooden planks and rest. Their antics are fascinating and amusing to the tourists who crowd up along the edge of the pier, clamoring for a better view.

We met up with Ronnie at Fiddler's Green, a bar with an amazingly well done art design on the exterior of the building. Incidentally, if you like architecture, you'll love San Francisco -- the variety and creativity exhibited there is quite intriguing.

Fiddler's Green
Check out the great artwork outside of San Francisco's Fiddler's Green bar.

Ronnie was kind enough to give us a driving tour of some other parts of the city. We drove down the "Hippie Section" of town, including the infamous intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. From there we drove up the hills to the high rent areas, checking out Pacific Heights and Twin Peaks. We then made it to the Pacific Coast Highway, which is a magnificent road that snakes along the coast in an intriguing blend of picturesque scenery and cliffside danger. What was very notable was that the waves in the ocean were extremely high, pounding in with crash after crash. It was quite a sight to behold.

Driving back, we passed through the "Castro District", which is a notoriously gay part of the city. It was humorous looking out the car window and not seeing any women. At all.

Saturday night was the big event of the weekend, as the house held a big St. Patrick's Day party. Now I realize that St. Patrick's Day is actually today, but it's typically celebrated the weekend before when it falls during the week. And we were definitely in a festive mood.

Somehow I got snookered into playing the game Beer Pong, which I hadn't played since my college days in Evansville. But this game was very different than the paddle and table game that I knew. Instead we were playing by Christine's "New Jersey rules" which was more like a game of toss-the-ball-in-the-cup than ping-pong.

Beer Pong
I never quite got the hang of New Jersey Beer Pong.

Christine ended up as my partner, as we took on Shawn and Patrick. Ryan, who took over Eric's leprechaun hat and wig, played a trick on us and snuck a shot of whiskey into one of the cups of beer on each side. The sad thing was that I saw him do it, yet I ended up drinking from the cup that he poured into on our side. I felt like an idiot right about then.

Unfortunately, my dexterity was beginning to go on me, thanks to the alcohol, and my aim was off. This didn't win me any points with Christine, who went from calling me "Sweets" to noting that I was "too short" with my shot. Ouch! With one cup left on each side, we kept missing (and drinking), and the game finally ended in a time limit draw. Unlike hockey, I don't think I got one point for a tie on that one, though.

Eric (a friend of Glenn's who came for the party) brought a fiddle, which was a nice touch. Ronnie and I amused ourselves by repeatedly doing the Dave Chappelle imitation of rapper Lil John ("Whaaaaat?"), which I think only he and I understood. But we got a kick out of it, so that became the running joke all night for us.

Ronnie Aquino, Lou Pickney & Glenn Brown
Ronnie, myself and Glenn celebrated our 8 year, 10 month high school class reunion.

Finally, the party wound down, and we ended things with... Trivial Pursuit. Glenn ended up on the other team, and not surprisingly did well. He's on the short list of people I'd most want to see on Super Millionaire -- I think he'd come away from that a rich man. Meanwhile, our team was anchored by some guy named Trevor who was in school studying for his masters. I did my best to help out, but alcohol and bad luck were not a good combo for me on that. Ronnie pitched in, too, but really it was Trevor who carried us. My guesses came up wrong seemingly every time; it was uncanny. And the times were I'd defer to Ronnie and Trevor (such as on a question where I immediately thought the answer was Slowhand -- aka Eric Clapton), it turned out I was actually right.

One funny thing was that I immediately knew the question about Lucy Liu making out with Calista Flockhart on Ally McBeal. The others seemed amazed that I knew that seemingly obscure answer. My retort? "I like lesbians." Alcohol=truth.

On Sunday, it was off to the airport and back home. The trip to California was all too brief, but I'm glad I went. It was a great chance to meet some wonderful people, and a wonderful opportunity to see a really nice part of the country. Thanks to Glenn and his friends for putting me up in their house, and for Ronnie and Patrick for providing rides for me while I was in town... Also, if you feel so inclined, click here to see more pics from the trip.


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