I’m not a pretentious traveller but there was something arrogant in the way I approached San Francisco. At best a presumptive naivety that assured me this City was one I had already known. That I possessed a profound capacity to understand San Fran beneath the stacks of syrupy pancakes and the Mohawks; better perhaps than those who lived there and wandered blithely through dizzyingly steep streets, past expansive gluttonous stores.
I was educated like thousands in America itself and across the pond on Beat retrospectives and raw, obscene poetry that loosened something in my windpipe that allowed me to breath, or better still gasp, startled.
I hoped that my generation too was ‘starving, hysterical, naked’, anxious to live, to experience, to travel and hop trains at pedestrian crossings. I looked for the evidence around me and felt my life lacking, not willing to carve out something for myself and without those friends ‘hopped up’ and feverish on illegal narcotics to guide me to a bleary and ultimately disappointing enlightenment.
I wasn’t in America and I wasn’t in the Cold War and reading about the Rosenbergs’, and visiting the Berlin Wall though formative experiences could never hope to inspire in a girl from London an entirely real sympathy. I simply could only imagine.
But what imaginings: I lived on the East Coast of the US, comfortably settled in New York though occasionally the stranger with Frank O’Hara and Truman Capote; I obsessively wanted and envied with Tiffany and observed with detached pleasure the glistening torsos of the men drinking Coca Cola on the cacophonous streets I had never walked. I wandered the highways and byways with Bill Bryson and later Jack Kerouac, sleeping fitfully in strange towns and on top of cars, often bemused and occasionally experiencing violence. Something very real and very alive became uncovered somewhere in the middle of my amblings through Betty Friedan and Susan Faludi, and I was shocked to find womanhood through is this it? And a feisty Backlash.
I hoped to see Faludi in San Francisco but for me she stood apart from the city, speaking so unequivocally and with such volition on a scale that exceeded geography and became symbolic of a broader world and a deeper problem. Thus I came to San Fran, having experienced its bars through Lawrence Ferlinghetti and its heart aching bittersweet childishness through Gregory Corso. The most meaningful threesome I ever had.
So I brought with me to San Francisco a head full of Poetry and the knowledge there was in this City something a little special; hoping to find myself temporarily released from the constraints of the ordinary and the thumping pressure of an approaching graduation. Flying into New York and having to run barefoot to my connecting flight was I hoped an omen of the bohemian lifestyle I was to experience in San Francisco, if only for a while.
It was Berkeley that made an impression on me first, for my trip had been inspired in a practical fashion by wanting to visit a friend studying there. It was he that met me at the airport, where I sat muggy and expectant and awfully dehydrated. I hugged him, feeling the reassurance of his cotton t-shirt and observing the familiar cowlick now drooping from the heat onto to his forehead.
Berkeley was terribly bright; I perceived it first squinting through tortured eyelids, reeling from the oppressive feel of the heat and the steepening walk up to my friend’s accommodation. We took a detour through the campus to marvel at the unashamed gargatuantness of the buildings, such awesome hulking structures. All so white, so square, block after block of intellectual monoliths; the walkways between crowned with flags praising the students fortuitous enough to study here. Did I like Denise feel that my life was enriched by these sober surroundings? I did.
Strolling through the library I began to feel a quiet thoughtfulness work its way in to my jaw, urging me to sit in the reading room cuddled up with Aristotle and Walt Whitman. To type at a battered laptop words that meant something only to me with a brow that spoke to everyone of my exquisite concentration. I was humbled by the place, and chastened into reflecting on my own slapdash efforts at higher education.
Particularly moved when in a large open square I was shown a tiny circle of soil between paving slabs that declared itself free from ownership; serving to provoke in the onlooker the notion that land everywhere largely belongs to people who spend a whole lot of their time fighting to have it or some of their time warring to keep it. This self conscious patch retained an autonomous dignity that I envied.
My friend and I had a coffee in the international café, the coffee surprisingly as strong as the feeling of academia and the shadowy wood panels darkening the room. I wrote some poetry, but it failed to set me alight, the nearby feel of Ginsberg served to paralyze. The intimidating notion of hoping to write my own story as powerfully evocative as the surroundings stifling.
Oh but I still attempted to write my way round San Francisco when staying solo in the City for a portion of the trip. Particularly in Golden Gate Park and stretched out in a comfortable café on Columbus Avenue. I’d settle in with a book and a wafer thin turkey sandwich, full to bursting with sauce and gherkins. My ideal savory partner. Me and the confident waitress would share a joke about the ‘pickles’ as they are called in the US, and muse briefly on the quirks of the English language.
I cycled too. Renting a bike from Fisherman’s Wharf on the sea front, hoping to remember the staff warnings regarding the sensitive brakes. Inevitably I occasionally forgot and immediately suffered swift retribution.
So I set off along the front of the harbor, reeling from the smell of the Sea Lions, conscious of the gawping tourists. Feeling vulnerable, without balance and strangely free.
I intended to cycle across Golden Gate Bridge and thus angled my beleaguered bike in this direction, unaware of the multitude of hills that seemed like mountains between me and that red beacon.
In the end lost and off colour I sought help from a French Man who cycled with such a quiet dignity that I immediately felt calmed. He beckoned me to follow him, and thus seemed to me from behind like some comical mime artist, leisurely in movements that appeared to defy him getting anywhere.
We, or I, plodded up maliciously steep streets, past houses with doors seemingly tilted uniformly at forty five degrees. Cars and occasionally people overtaking on the outside with a ruthless, almost defiantly unfriendly determination.
I have never so intimately known my own kneecaps as when observing them in front of my face walking and cycling in San Francisco.
And at last the rather unglamorous reality of entering that magnificent bridge from the cycle path, hemmed in by wire mesh and then fed onto the crossing proper.
Cycling for the first half against the wind I was astounded by the power of the elements and the breath taking feel of the height. The sea below expansive, charming, horrifying. The supports of the bridge yawning above me, seeming to move, to tighten, throwing me further into the gale as I passed their bulbous foundations.
I took several pictures of myself, resting on one of these outcrops, or cycling along; every strand of hair at the mercy of that frightful howling. I felt so exposed, yet unobserved and smiled to myself, catching the beginnings of laughter in the back of my throat. Succumbing to some sort of gleeful hysteria.
Exiting the bridge I coasted all the way to Sausalito, the town on the other side of Golden Gate. Reveling in the occasional driplets of sunlight and the rest for my exhausted body.
Sausalito feels like it’s been relocated from some European Riviera, some elegant, pastel retreat. Striking one as so at odds with the sharpness of San Fran, the callous edginess.
No-one seemed to live in Sausalito, a town in limbo, at the mercy of commuters and tourists . Sweet shops closed, ice cream parlors waiting for the height of summer, wandering couples reinforcing that there was no one here with a sense of purpose.
Accordingly I strolled around and then went to wait with a paper for the Ferry. Bike temporarily abandoned next to me, slightly in disgrace for the punishment to my frame it had liberally dolled out.
Trying not to catch the eye of a rather dubious though admittedly jolly fellow bumbling along with a shopping trolley it was without surprise that he then steered toward me. What luck I thought wryly having by this time retreated in on myself, finding safety in the solitary persona I often adopted when travelling alone. He sat next to me and proceeded to roll a fag, it was then he started a conversation. While he talked about conspiracy theories and sucked on the pitiful roll up I began to relax. So I too began to converse, agree-ing avidly or even querying, listening with delight and marveling at his enthusiasm. I felt that we had made a truce of sorts, or that this man was somebody I had already known, at parties fuelled by alcohol and filled with characters I never truly believed existed.
The Ferry arrived and I boarded it with my increasingly reluctant bicycle. Having got on it first because of my obnoxious luggage I was unable to assist the homeless man who tried to seek passage on the same vehicle. My lasting image of him is when I looked back and saw him being turned away. Deflated by the refusal of the ferry staff, let down in some way, disappointed. He took his trolley and began his slow journey back in to Sausalito, a town I was left liking despite its too beautiful façade.
That man was I felt somehow a representation of San Francisco, hopeful, oft cynical and outside of conventional society. I had given him the New York Times and he seemed to relish the gift, plenty of fact and fiction to unravel within I thought.
My trip to San Francisco wasn’t entirely consumed by the beat writings I had relished while safely tucked up at home in England, but these played a large part in what I perceived I wanted from the trip. I wanted to relax, to ponder, to write and to experience. To take everything in whilst retaining a leisurely pace. And thus it was that I came to Golden Gate Park and my most cherished of memories.
Trying to locate Golden Gate Park I strolled through Haight-Ashbury. Admiring the grizzled youths and their military jackets turned gillets, I sensed that I had come upon something very real and consciously nonchalant. I goofily smiled and for once shopped, immersing myself in $3 bargains and feeling like I’d stumbled across 1960’s Americana. Especially when eating a greasy burger sat at on a too high counter stool, elbows extended on to the chrome to ensure balance.
Then on I pressed into Golden Gate Park, arriving without fanfare and in confusion at which direction I’d come from. Walking blind, past ravaged individuals who were enjoying the sunshine I finally came upon a large, white, colonial style conservatory.
It was so striking against the back ground of green and assorted foliage. There I cheekily took a picture of a wistful young lady swaddled in loose garments that I saw leaning on a bridge, her quiet yearning moved me.
I chanced upon a display of fan dancing outside the Japanese tea garden, and found myself transported to some far away culture, delighted by the impish faces of the small children involved.
Entering the tea garden itself I was awestruck, such beauty, such serenity. I spent a long time walking underneath trees, admiring mini waterfalls and delicate bonsai, calmed deeply.
In this spirit of reverential hush I made my way to the tea hut that sits atop the largest lake, surrounded by lily pads making their slow progress across the water, and the drooping boughs of slender trees.
I sat facing this gorgeous scene, ordered tea and submerged myself. Ensconced in this delightful hut constructed of wood and bamboo, nourished by the atmosphere I felt an almost epiphany. It is ok to be alone, to find company in the self. It is ok. I am enough as I am. It is ok.
Sipping tea from a tiny cup, I felt an ease I have never felt before. I feel grateful to have experienced such a sensation and hope to again at some future point. I snapped open the fortune cookie I had been given with my tea and read, ‘your luck has been completely changed today’, how true it felt. In the middle of a park in the grand city of San Francisco I laughed from the sheer joy of it all.