It’s gloriously sunny, but freezing. A young homeless guy sits on a corner of Columbus Avenue, gently smoking weed from a glass pipe the way they do here, with two of his friends. He offers it to our group as we walk by. He has a beautiful face and a shock of curly black tresses. Looking at the multi-coloured mural on the wall to their diagonal right, watching them laze against the front steps of the City Lights Bookshop and listening to their musings about the government, I cannot help feeling I have been transported to the 1960s (or else just the music video for Subterranean Homesick Blues).
In my experience, there are very few places in the Western world that still have this magical ability to interlace the zeitgeist of a bygone era so strongly, to the point where you actually forget yourself for a while. It’s a cold sunny day, it’s February 2013 and I am standing in the racing heart of San Francisco, a city which has captured my head and my heart over the past couple of days. It’s taken everything I dislike about America and made it one beautiful artistic struggle. I feel rather than see the collective memory of the 1970s gay rights movement; my head fills with Deadhead patriotism, and every nerve within me craves to create and change the world.
One of the smokers on the corner wants to tell us about his new business venture.
“It’ll be called Ocean’s Revival Bookstore,” he puffs enthusiastically, with dramatic hand gestures. “Because my name is Ocean. The government keeps trying to ban books. It’s my job to make sure the common man like you and I, sir” – he appeals to our tour guide, Jordan – “can still get ’em.” Jordan, an astrophysics student in a bowtie, trilby hat and Converse All-Stars, pulls a card from his guitar case and exchanges details with this fellow struggling artist. He informs me that no one has ever been arrested for smoking weed in this city.
“It’s just too much a part of it,” he grins, skipping ahead of us.
Tacky stores advertising facial waxing and thrift shops with peeling paint and flashing OPEN signs intermingle with monster flagships for the wealthy like the eight-floored Macy’s in Union Square. Somehow, the juxtaposition of shabby and chic blend into a delightfully bizarre city centre whose aesthetics please both the eye and ear – style is everything here. Everyone dresses in a way representative of this odd mix: dilapidated rucksacks are held together by silk scarves on the spines of skinny students; messy, badly-dyed hair complements eyes impeccably framed. Every third person lugs a musical instrument; the smell of marijuana perfumes and permeates the streets, infiltrated by the smoke of firecrackers going off to celebrate the first day of the Year of the Snake on Chinatown’s pavements. The largest Chinese population outside of Asia, this place is a hubbub of humble street-sellers and elderly folk who smile and offer to take photographs in the middle of a stream of cars. Less cuisine-reliant than London’s version, the shops are full of trinkets, some authentic, others commercially produced, but all in a charmingly messed-up array of ceiling-high shelves. An old man who has improvised tunes on his violin for thirty years plays the instrument on a corner, smiling toothily through his ear-piercing rendition of Oh My Darling Clementine.
The physical layout of San Francisco is wonderfully impractical. On some streets, the incline is so steep that the houses are indented by more than a whole storey; in a car, stopping at the top of Filbert St is like waiting on a rollercoaster as it vertically tips you in anticipation of the big drop down the other side. It’s genuinely terrifying. Lombard St., famously crooked, is fantastically silly. Car after car piles up, all eagerly attempting to navigate the curvature of this hill; to charm this snake of a road.
From our hostel room on the 7th floor of a lanky building with a cranky lift from the 1920s, we can see out across the rooftops of the city. No one comments on our accents here; San Fran is a tapestry which excites in its own intrinsic diversity, not in the offerings of tourists. I hear people babbling in Arabic down on the street outside as I drift to sleep. I can almost see the sound rise up past the window, contained in bubbles dripping with mysterious meaning.
Of course, Frisco has its noticeable problems, just like any other city. The homeless and hungry adorn the streets, but they seem to express their plight creatively. Two black men hand out free homemade CDs; a band plays on cardboard drums and dustbin lids, singing classics and politely requesting change. One approaches us:
“If you can give me a dime, I’ll give you some good poetry. Bad poetry is free of charge.”
Somehow, this place which is barely 150 years old (even less if you count the fact that over 80% of it was destroyed in the massive 1906 fire) holds the palimpsestic charm of a much older city. It has the electric atmosphere of New York, the air buzzing with tangible artistic history; Camden Town meets its match in thrift stores of the Haight-Ashbury district, while the architecture resembles a dear Welsh town of my childhood, Tenby, and the seaside piers, of Brighton. I saw splashes of London’s Brick Lane, Portobello Road and Covent Garden; the quirkiness of Paris and Edinburgh manifested everywhere. The view of the Golden Gate Bridge, however, was truly unique.
San Francisco has an ambience which I feel is quite indescribable, despite my best efforts. I suppose it’s listening to Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise on full blast and playing guitar to a room full of people and having your senses assaulted by colours so stark, and having a table full of your favourite foods and trying to decide which one to eat first; it’s rebellion and inspiration and the fire of youth, it’s expression it’s individuality it’s intelligence with geek glasses to match; it’s reading the best bits of On the Road as your body thrills in the cold Northern California wind, and feeling you’ve come home but like you can achieve all your dreams- be a poet, an artist, or just disappear altogether. It’s like all these things at once, but oh so much better than that: it’s possibility.
———————————————————————And some of the best songs from San Francisco … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89QliWlKHGY http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOaXTg3nAuY http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ayk_qQw0XZg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYPaaGa1rvA