So here I am again: I find myself back in frisky Frisco, $35 and 5.5 hours later.
My driver is Stephanie, a petite, charmingly crude final year student with devilish blue eyes and a wicked sense of humour. We are taking another passenger, a guy who is silent half the time and has his phone glued to his ear the rest. We wait for someone else who fails to show, before setting our things in the boot and getting the hell out of SB. Stephanie apologises for her frequent outbursts towards other drivers as she folds one bare foot under her leg, putting the car into autocruise. ‘Fuck!’ she exclaims. Fuck: a dirty word that comes out clean. She’s brilliant.
I sleep for most of the journey, curled in the back with the sun on my face. I have been so restless to leave Santa Barbara; exams have been such a long time coming, and sleep has recently evaded me for these reasons and more besides. I feel myself physically relaxing as the small town streets give way to moorish, moreish mountains ahead. I am stretched across two seats like a loungeroom lizard, watching the road and the possibilities open out like a dusty map. It’s been too long!
I emerge from my doze some time later to find that we are already just south of the city and we arrive at my hostel soon afterwards. Stephanie sketches me a map and shades in an area called the Tenderloin – ‘for fuck’s sake don’t walk around here at night’ – and with a farewell I am left alone with my backpack once more. I head straight out, keen to catch what remains of the evening and on a total high just to be in the fairground that is San Francisco. I stroll along Geary St, buy a pack of cigarettes and some Famous Amos cookies and bask for a while outside a supermarket. I buy a cinema ticket to see some romantic comedy and kill the hour till its commencing reading The Dharma Bums; I watch the world go by from a diner window on the corner of Geary and Van Ness, content as content can be.
After the film I stay up talking to a girl in my dorm who happens to originate from a small English town very near where I grew up. Perfect time to say it’s a small world, and believe me, Gloucester’s that place where everybody knows everybody. Probably the only reason we don’t have mutual acquaintances is because she’s 26. Anyway, she has spent the past five years since graduating as a nurse roaming the lonely planet; she emigrated to Australia, found work easily and never looked back. She told me stories of Mardi Gras in Sao Paulo and New Orleans, of the friends she made in Indonesia, the annoying patients she gets in A&E. It was a sparky and inspiring exchange; we talked for nearly two hours before conking out on our adjacent beds. My pillow was so comfortable that even my right ear, still sore from the piercing, could be pressed to it.
I am hurled from a dream at 08:30 the next morning before stumbling down the hostel stairs to the basement kitchen for my complementary breakfast (no way I am missing out on that, since the price per night has already shot up from $23 to $33 since my previous stay – damn Spring Break prices). I gobble a few rounds of Nutella on toast and fruit salad, the Black Keys blaring from the communal radio and a news reporter cheerfully informing me from the telly that my weekend visit would be blessed with a perfect, clear-skied 70 degrees F (20 degrees C ish). Electrified, I dress and unleash myself on the streets.
Heading straight down Geary towards Union Square this time, I change my mind halfway after deciding it is much too sunny a day to waste in the Museum of Modern Art; that could wait until evening. Instead I hop the bus to Castro. Said ‘bus’ is a fat, nut-brown, 1930s caterpillar, emblazoned with sickening green lettering proudly declaring its years in service and juddery as anything. The driver, who also served as conductor, has a face like a smiling walnut and a uniform to match the bus’ colour scheme. He has probably been driving it since its birth, for all I know – he blends with it that well. Seeing that I don’t have the required exact change for the greedy ticket machine, he stuffs a ticket in my hand regardless, crinkling his eyes and telling me not to worry. This makes me feel disproportionately happy; I proceed to smile at everyone on the bus, the whole mismatched bunch of them. There are greying dreadlocked hippy bums (living anachronisms), wide-eyed toddlers, the odd gay couple, huge Spanish-speaking gaggles; a softly mewling baby strapped to its daddy’s chest. I worry I’ve missed my stop until I remember just how iconic the Castro district is. Rainbow flags adorn the store-fronts; everything is brilliantly coloured like someone tipped paint all over it, and people stroll around looking so happy and carefree. I visit Harvey Milk’s original shop, which now serves the interests of the Equal Rights Campaign. I buy a rubber wristband in support of the cause, send a postcard bearing a single ‘kiss from the Castro’ and explore the messy art shops – where I contemplate buying acrylic, a quill, some ink – I enjoy the incense floating from a Tibetan cafe and observe a corner house with pretty creepers weaving up its egg-blue walls. I finally settle on a sunny bench to eat yesterday’s leftover club sandwich and an apple.
The afternoon sees me back on that ole bus and wandering through Chinatown snapping away with my camera. I contemplate trading in my cheap digital for a bunch of disposables, the effects of which I much prefer, at a camera shop near 3rd St – but eventually I decide not to. I don’t remember why. I purchase student entry to the MOMA and browse Garry Winegrand, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Matisse exhibitions, to name but a few. I have since had a sudden urge to lie in a white room and have someone fling colour and noise at me from all directions until I morph into the stuff. How else can one become part of San Francisco? How to merge with this place so as never to truly leave..?! Levels of ecstasy are skyscraper-high; eye-level a frantic picture of Starbucks and camera shops and galleries and wheelchairs, everything is so old and new at the same time, it’s brilliantly confusing to the brain as it tries to align itself chronologically. An impossible task in this place. And the people – is there anyone ‘ordinary’ in SF? I am yet to meet someone here who fits this description; it’s a big bizarre plate with something for every wacky palate out there, and it attracts and steals the hearts of them all.
Cream-crackered and brain-drained, I traipse back to Isadora Duncan Lane to the rhythms of Exile on Main St. and sprawl on the bed for a while. I strongly consider napping there and then, but hunger gnaws, and the craving for Mexican food kicks in. A chicken burrito and some salsa chips later, I am wandering south of Union Square and find my eye hooked by a busy Google stand in the shopping centre – FREEBIES! After selling my soul on a personal info spreadsheet, I am rewarded with a special pen and a Google+ sweatband (I’m already excited to try this out in the gym upon my return to Santa Barbara). Wahooooo, spreading capitalism one bead of sweat at a time.
But I am out of there soon enough, because browsing through the likes of H&M, Abercrombie and Aerie feels genuinely wrong in SF. It so favours the alternative, the niche; nothing like central London where Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Pret and Costa Coffees dominate every street. With this in mind, I decide that the next day will be dedicated to exploring my favourite Haight-Ashbury district.