Last days in San Francisco

Today started with a lie in. I awoke at 7am and on reflex jumped out of bed and into the bathroom. Only in the midst of brushing my teeth did I realise that for the first time since leaving Washington I had absolutely no reason to be up and about at this hour. I returned to my bed and dozed for another two hours of the most welcome and needed sleep I’ve ever had.

Some people are morning people and would regard returning to bed with scorn. I am most certainly not one of them. I’ve seen many daybreaks in my time, but the vast majority of these have been witnessed prior to retiring for the night.

Leaving the hotel at the much more reasonable hour of 10am, I tried once again to have my first experience with the San Francisco trams. My first attempt was aborted when I saw the queue at Fishermans Wharf and and realised it would take about 90 minutes to get aboard. The second attempt was only marginally smoother. I hopped straight onto the tram and enjoyed my trip to the top of the hill. After jumping off the California line and onto the tram on the route to Union Square we came to a complete standstill. “I’m going to need all the males to jump off” announced the brakeman. Most just looked at each other and stayed where they were. Myself and a few other blokes jumped off and walked to the brakeman. He explained that the tram had slipped the driving cable and that if we could push the tram a few foot back up the hill then he could re-attach and we could get going again.

The makeshift team, including the brakeman took our positions and braced. “Right on the count of three”. 1-2-3 heave.” One queue my pushed, we felt the tram give ever so slightly but if remained lodged in place. “Hold it. We’re going to do that again, but this time ‘you’ are going to release the brake when I say heave” he said whilst jabbing an accusing finger at the other brakeman. This time things went much smoother. With momentum building we managed to push the fully loaded tram back up the hill a few foot with surprising ease. I gather that this isn’t the normal procedure for catching one of the San Francisco trams, but it certainly made it memorable.

Together with Penny, a member of the tour party, the destination was the Museum of Modern Art. I’d read that they had a large portfolio of photographic work and that I was very interested in seeing. Penny particularly wanted to see the Matisse sculpture collection. We were both keen to see the current Richard Avedon portrait exhibition.

Viewing the exhibition with company was a much more pleasurable experience then solo viewing. Being able to exchange viewpoints and ideas about the presented works brought the work to life that much more. I came away from the Avedon exhibition with a great appreciation of his work – both subjectively and technically. He seemed to have a gift in capturing a subject in a distracted or vulnerable moment. Seemingly unaware of the camera even though they were in the process of a photoshoot. Of course given my own interest in photography, my eye was drawn to other details – such as specular lighting in the eyes in portraits of the Beatles, or the framing and focus on other shots. He really was a master in his chosen field. Each piece almost becoming a tutorial without words. It really does make you aware of just how much difference there is between those that are at the top of their profession and the rest of us.

Other then the photography collections, in which I had an obvious interest. I was surprised just how much I enjoyed the rest of the collections in the museum. As I think I mentioned after visiting the gallery in Chicago, I find modern art very hit and miss. Some works can be stunning. Others have you searching for the hidden camera as you wonder if the real installation is the screening of reactions to the plain white wall that the patron is confronted with. In short and put in much plainer language – San Francisco’s gallery appears to be far less stuck up its own rear then Chicago’s. Now I have just effectively banned myself from ever entering Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art again, I shall move on.

I seem to have subconsciously developed a routine in the larger cities. I plan to visit a couple of locations. I work out my route to the first – which bus route, street etc. I then head off and visit it. Leaving, I then wonder in a rough direction of the second stop on my itinerary. Of course when I say rough, what I mean is I know its say north of here. I end up walking for quite a while and get hopelessly lost with practically no clue where I am. Only when I realise that there is no hope of getting back on track, or I notice that time is ticking away do I make an attempt to figure out where I am and how to get to my intended destination.

Granted this is not the most time efficient way of exploring a city. But it does mean that I have gotten to see many buildings and pathways that I’d have missed if I just jumped on the nearest subway train. The strategy seems to work well in cities as it doesn’t seem to matter where you go you will find something interesting.

It was during my walkabout that it dawned on me what seemed so out of place about San Francisco. The city itself just appears to be dull. Not dull in the boring sense. But dull in the sense of lack of colour. Walking through Denver or Chicago they were full of colour, and life. San Francisco just appeared to be dull and lifeless. I saw more trash on the streets then I saw in most cities combined. The roads were cracked and full of holes. Even in coaches the day before, we would hit the occasional spin jarring pot hole. But now walking around the city appeared to be full of them. In some ways the city reminded me of myself just a few days before – tired and a little grubby. In need of a good clean and a little refreshing. California’s money problems are well publicised and I wonder just how much of an impact this has had on the general appearance of the city. Films and photos show a city with much more colour and life then I saw. So what is it that I missed?

One interesting thing that I did find what something so completely out of place and unexpected that I fell in love with it immediately and I want one in Guernsey. Trust me, its not that often that you will hear me wax lyrical about a plastic park bench, but this is that time. Supplied by Toyota as a promotion for the Prius. This was an example of advertising done almost perfectly. I say almost, because I still have no desire to buy a Prius. These were green molded plastic park benches. Above them stand giant daisy’s, the leaves coated in solar panels. Embedded into each bench are a number of of electric plug points. A small sign on each bench invites you to recharge your laptop or mobile phone, and whilst you’re doing that why not surf web using the free wi-fi? How fantastic is that? Free solar powered, Wi-Fi hotspots and recharging points. Yes ladies and gentlemen. I have travelled thousands of miles. I have seen the declaration of independence, and some of the most spectacular views that nature can provide. But a bit of injection molding and some free Wi-Fi and I’m on my feet applauding. Jaded? No. Geek? Oh yes!

Dinner that night was a farewell meal of sorts with the others in the tour party. In the last week of the journey,I had gotten to know a few of the group. In the cities, I would just go and do my own exploring and so did not really mix with everyone. But though the spine of America when we would be on long drives between destinations, everyone jelled much more. We went to a lovely Italian restaurant where I had very nice piece of pork, followed by an absolutely delicious chocolate cheesecake.

The others would be leaving in the morning, but I had arranged different flights and still had another full day, and a morning before my late afternoon flight.

I planned to visit the Exploratorium. A touch based science museum that I had seen advertised all over San Francisco. My plan was perfect. They opened at 10am and were fairly out of the way. I would get up around 8am, go out and find a diner and have a good breakfast for a change. Then go for a walk heading off in the general direction of the Exploratorium. Then if I was nowhere near it by 10am, I’d either jump in a cab or if I was near the bus route then I’d get that instead.

I found my diner, and did indeed have a good breakfast. I then went for my walk as planned. After a while I found that I was beginning to recognise places from the previous tour. Only this time they weren’t obscured by fog. After finding myself at the Civic Center, my hazy recollection of the map told me it was time to jump in a cab.

The cabbie did indeed take me all the way to the Exploratorium. Dropping me off right at the front door. 10:20am on a Monday morning. The kids would be back at school from the holidays and it wasn’t the weekend. I’d be able to be a big kid myself and play with all the exhibits myself. Mwahahhahah! *Ahem*.

My cabbie gleefully accepted his tip and drive off rather sharpish. I quickly realised why. A large poster board outside the door exclaiming ‘Closed Mondays’. A couple of frustrated Aussies stood near the door. “Taxi ripped you off as well?” one of them called. Indeed he had. My patience with San Francisco growing more strained by the second. Every time I find something to like, something else cancels it out.

The Exploratorium was thankfully in the grounds of the Palace of Fine Arts. I went for a stroll around the grounds to calm down and decide what to do. I remembered on the tour being taken nearby Golden Gate Park. The guide had mentioned that there was a museum with an exhibition of artifacts from Howard Carters’ discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Out with the iPhone, and another few quid piled onto an already large phone bill later, and I knew where I was headed. Now I just needed to figure out how to get there. I walked along the waterfront, hoping to spot a bus stop or even a taxi. The waterfront did give me a second opportunity to see the Golden Gate Bridge. However, despite the sun beating down, and this being by far the best weather I’d yet seen in San Francisco the tops of the bridge remained stubbornly engulfed in fog. I can look at photographs I took of the Palace of Fine Arts and see a glorious blue sky. Yet the Golden Gate Bridge, not even half a mile away every shot has a dull gray sky, and looks washed out. I guess the bridge and I were never meant to be.

I walked along the shore, being overtaken by joggers and cyclists (or bi-cyclists as they call them here. Given this is San Francisco, I wonder if this is a clever double entendre, or another Americanism like ‘straightaway’.) Given the density of the other pavement users, I was wondering whether to take my chances in the road.

Then I saw it, a bus parked up on the side of the road. The driver on a break and a short queue forming waiting for him to finish. Frankly, I didn’t care where this bus was going, just so long as it headed back into the main city. The doors opened at last and we all jumped on. The screen at the front of the bus then displayed the route number.

Surreptitiously, I looked up the route on the iPhone. I’d somehow managed to blunder my way right onto the very bus that would take me directly to the door of the De Young museum where the exhibition was being held. I’d like to claim it was my innate homing ability that led me directly to this particular bus. But we all know I’d be lying.

The Tutankhamun (or King Tut as the Americans seem to insist on calling him) find has long held fascination for me. My mother took a particular interest in it when I was younger. I can always recall her buying magazines or watching TV programs if they featured the find. Later on in fiction, the tomb would be the site of one Henry Jones Jr’s first adventure.

I’d love to be able to say that the exhibition blew me away, and that I felt history pouring from every surface – but I can not. The artifacts themselves are indeed generally incredible. Beautifully preserved, and the workmanship exquisite. However the way they were presented reminded me more of the showroom of an auction room. History, it would be fair to say, was not brought to life. From the $25 ticket price, and the surprise that the rest of the museum being closed except the Tutankhamun exhibit. The way that I felt rushed through the exhibition and that little information or background was presented, unless you opted for (at additional cost) an audio tour. The entire thing felt like a missed opportunity. To quote Lord Ventinari, they wished to “extract the maximum milk, with the minimum of moo”. I still have my fascination with the times of the Pharaohs. But much like the stuffed animals of the London Natural History Museum, I would rather see the natural setting then these glass cases and spotlights.

Across the road was the California Academy of Sciences. Now this was more like it. A huge and modern center, encompassing an indoor rainforest, an aquarium, a natural history museum and all below a living roof. The roof is covered in soil and grass. Providing heat in winter and cooling in summer. It collects rainwater that is used throughout the building. It is also covered in solar panels contributing to a reduction in energy requirements for the entire building. I wonder how long it will be before we see this kind of design used on new homes.

Ironically, even though this was not a place that had intended to visit. It was everything that I was expecting the Aquarium of the Bay to be. Giant tanks, from floor to ceiling, contained thousands of varieties of fish. From large to tiny, and from all over the world. Once again, I had the opportunity to sit and watch the penguins frolic in their giant pond. I think photographing penguins in the wild is going to have to be made as an entry onto my bucket list.

The indoor rainforest is incredible. Four floors of rainforest from a small river, with plants growing up to the ceiling. Parrots and other bright and exotic birds fly freely around the dome, whilst butterflies appear to occupy all non-moving surfaces – including me whenever I paused to take in the view.

One thing that always surprises me when I visit places like this is the reaction of the other visitors. Something like this is designed to be experienced. It cannot be taken in at a single glance. Wherever the eye falls there is something to see. Whether that be a macaw that you’ve just spotted sheltering from the fine mist under a large leaf, or trying to spot the bird that is making that song. Instead people just walk straight through. Up four floors and out in under a minute. I don’t mean that people should be bringing their packed lunches and staying for a morning. But surely 5 to 10 minutes is not out of the question? I just feel like asking people why did they spend the entrance fee if they are going to ignore everything. Maybe its just me.

My last night in America ended as many other had done – in a bar. After returning to the hotel. I decided to forgo the complete repacking of my suitcase until the following morning. Instead I found a bar, had a pizza and settled back to watch the American Football.

I don’t know what it is, but sitting in a pub in America on my own feels completely different to home. It could just be the greater feeling of anonymity in the cities. After all, your just another face. But in the smaller towns it is a more comfortable feeling as well. Guernsey, doesn’t feel like that. It doesn’t feel welcoming in comparison.

That will probably be my summation of America. It doesn’t really matter who you are, but you’re welcome to pull up a chair.

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