13) Bay Area
– April 5th – 9th, 2014
We met Rita and Dale in Felton, California, just outside of Santa Cruz. They had been workamping at Smithwoods RV Park for about two years now, after travelling full time for about 12 years. They were such great campground hosts, and told us all about the places they had travelled. They were settled here for now, but they say that one day they’ll get the urge to leave again, and when that happens, they will go.
We had meant to be in San Francisco, originally, by February, and here we were about to drive in finally on April 5th. The RV Park wasn’t cheap, but San Francisco would be more expensive still, and from here north, traffic would only densify, and prices would only go up. The City of San Francisco was a bit more than an hour away, but we decided to pay for another day at Smithwoods, leave the trailer behind, and take the car in to the city.
Christian and Sabrina, some of our friends from back home in Kitchener, had moved to San Francisco almost a year ago, for Christian’s job at Google. They had come back to Kitchener back in August and stayed at our apartment, so this time it would be us visiting them – and they had been expecting us for two months now! Sabrina had been doing some courses online and had to go back to Waterloo, Ontario, to write her exams in mid April, so we knew we wanted to catch up with them both before she flew back to Ontario. Kat and I walked around Mission St. for a while before arriving at Christian and Sabrina’s apartment just a little bit south of downtown. We got to catch up with them all night, and they offered that we should park our trailer in front of their apartment and just stay in Sabrina’s bedroom, she would stay with Christian in his. This was a great solution as we had no idea where we were going to keep the trailer while we stayed in S.F., since driving is hectic and parking is difficult. Of course, for tonight, the trailer was still back more than an hour away at the RV park. We drove back very late at night and slept in our trailer, planning to drive back to S.F. and park it in front of Christian and Sabrina’s place in the morning. When we got up to leave, we couldn’t find Rita or Dale, and somebody told us it was their day off. We had meant to talk with them more, but we had been busy with lots of driving back and forth, and now we wouldn’t get to say goodbye to them. Perhaps we will see them again, maybe at Smithwoods, or perhaps elsewhere in their travels.
On Sunday we took a tour of the San Francisco Armory building, a building rich with a hundred years of heritage, and now home to Kink.com, being the largest adult entertainment studio at about 200,000 square feet. In a continuing effort to “demystify and celebrate alternative sexuality”, creator Peter Acworth, who started filming out of his college dorm room in 1997 to see if it would make any money, purchased the Armory ten years later for $14.5M, a landmark heritage building in the centre of the Mission District downtown which had been vacant and deteriorating since the 1970’s. The covered auditorium, the largest of its kind in the American southwest, and where parts of Star Wars was once filmed, was given back to the community by Ackworth and is now home to concerts, roller derby, and other local events. The building has been properly restored and it is said that money and effort have gone in to cleaning up the surrounding neighbourhood as well, which frankly should accept any help it can get.
San Francisco is much more shabby and unkept than we were expecting. It is an exciting town that I’m sure I could spend some living in. The parks are great, the roads and layout are comical, and by the time we headed north once more I was left feeling like there was much more to it than we got to experience in only five days. The area of San Francisco is only 7 square miles, and its population had exploded virtually overnight during the famous gold rush of the 19th century. Even today – or perhaps especially today, with a population of more than 800,000 people and the greater Bay Area with ten times that many people – there is the visible effect of a town designed to sustain a few thousand citizens which was abruptly overrun in a timespan too short and sudden for anyone to have anticipated. Most of the architecture is fluid throughout the city, as if it were built all at once by one planner, but now generations of occupiers have painted those buildings a hundred different colours. There is a rather unique design and feel to it all, something I could only perhaps compare to the North Halsted neighbourhood of Chicago, if their streets too were a gauntlet of steep hills over and over again, and if the streets of San Francisco could form any semblance whatsoever of a grid. A usual rule of thumb if lost in most cities is that any turn is a 90 degree turn, so that if heading north and one turns right, one is now heading east, for example. To make two consecutive turns in the same direction would be to reverse directions. This is not the case in San Francisco, and there is nothing of its streets that should imply reason, foresight, intuition, or planning.
We met up with Christian and Sabrina after the Armory and after getting lost trying to come back from the piers to their apartment only a few miles away. Sabrina’s other partner Mike came by in the evening, and later the next day had sent us an email with a ton of things to check out while we were in SF which was really helpful. The following night Mike would come by again, this time with his guitar, and we would jam for a couple hours. Before that though, earlier in the day, which was Monday April 7th, Christian and Sabrina and Kat and I spent the afternoon walking down Balmy Alley to see the painted murals which covered dozens of consecutive garages (one of Mike’s recommendations), had lunch in Dolores Park, and later dinner somewhere on Mission.
On April 8th I installed what seems to be the last bit of electrical work wanted for the trailer, which was some lighting to go underneath the shelves and inside the dish cupboard, to help us find things in the dark. The trailer had left Ontario with no electricity whatsoever, and by now has three different light switches (plus AC lighting to light up some storage jars for effect), a fan, a pump for the water tank (to replace the manual pump that didn’t work so great), and a power bar for our AC devices such as computer chargers. Most of these updates are still new, but often we remark to one another how we can’t believe we went so long without them. After four or five months of no electricity, something as simple as a light switch becomes almost miraculous, and water that pumps itself out of the tap is a luxury that is hard not to take for granted.
I met a nice guy named Chris while installing the last bit of lighting. He was working as a plumber across the street and came over to check out the trailer. We ended up talking for maybe half an hour, and eventually he went back to work after his boss kept looking over at him. He was originally from Portland and said that we would love it when we got there. He even knew of the venue, Hawthorne Theatre, where I am set to perform on Saturday April 26th. I’ve never been to Portland and so have never before heard of the theatre, but at least a former citizen was aware of it, which is hopefully a sign that it’s a well established place.
We splurged that afternoon and spent the $30 each to take the ferry across to Alcatraz, now a historic site which is technically free, but the roundtrip ferry ride is $30 per person. I’m not sure if that means one would be welcome to take one’s own boat across to see it for free, because we never saw any boats other than the ferry. Alcatraz is known notoriously as an American super prison, though in its existence of about two centuries, it only functioned as a prison for twenty nine years, from the 40’s to the 70’s roughly. We walked around the island following a guided tour for a while, and then later found some headphones for a self-guided audio tour, before catching the last daytime ferry back to the mainland (there were also night tours, but we did the day tour).
Later that night we met up with some friends we had made at the Grand Canyon, Andrew and Lourdes, who also goes by Malou. Andrew and Malou are from Concord, which I guess is technically in the Bay Area, though almost an hour east of San Francisco. They had been one of the two couples we walked up the Grand Canyon with back in late January, who had cheered us on as we made it up the final few miles to the top of the Bright Angel Trail. They are a great couple, maybe ten years older than us, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and it was so nice to meet up with them again now that we were in their area. They had taken the train all the way from Concord to San Francisco to meet us at a place they had recommended near the San Francisco Giants baseball stadium, however, when we arrived it was right after a game and the entire restaurant and area was packed with rowdy and mostly drunken baseball fans, casting a stumbling sea of black and orange across the Embarcadero for several blocks. We walked and walked until the third or fourth place we tried was not too crowded, and where we had dinner. Two or three hours flew by in conversation, and eventually they were on the train back to Concord and us driving back to Christian and Sabrina’s apartment for the night. I know next time that we’re back in the area we will have to meet up with them again for sure.
On Wednesday April 9th, Sabrina flew back in the early morning to Ontario to write an exam at University of Waterloo (she had been doing classes online but the exam had to be done in person). Christian left for work at Google in the morning also, and Kat and I showered and packed up, locking their door behind us as we left. I’m not sure where we would have kept the trailer for those few days if it hadn’t been for Christian and Sabrina and their apartment; San Francisco is dense with people and traffic and buildings, and parking is difficult. We were lucky to have a place to stay to better visit this city.
We drove down towards Fisherman’s Wharf to try and see the Golden Gate bridge, which we did see, but from a distance. The traffic was too busy and we eventually gave up on getting a closer look, turning around and heading for the Bay Bridge towards Oakland. When mentioning Oakland to anybody from San Francisco, every time we were told to be careful where we ended up, and to not leave our car alone for too long. Oakland it would seem had a bad reputation for crime, however, with the cost of living skyrocketing in San Francisco (a two bedroom apartment could cost $3,000 a month in rent!) there was an initiative being made by some to turn Oakland around and make it more inviting, as many who worked in SF couldn’t afford to live there and could save a lot by commuting across the bridge every day.
We found a place we had heard of at East Jesus, called NIMBY, an acronym known to stand for Not In My Back Yard, used here as the name for a place to build things or work on projects that may not be welcomed or even possible on one’s own residential property. Want to cut the top off a school bus, make a slide that slides into a ball pit inside the bus, and weld a giant dog head to that bus, but worried the neighbour’s might complain? Or create a giant scale version of the game Mousetrap, where each device is larger than a human body and you need about half an acre to set it all up? Before accruing a stack of tickets for various bylaw infractions, consider NIMBY, where space is rented for loud or dangerous or cumbersome or otherwise unattractive projects that would at home have people knocking at your door telling you to please cease and desist. It’s a neat idea I think, and particularly in areas of high density where you might not even have your own garage, let alone a few acres of virtual isolation required for unusual or large-scale projects. This is the first of such establishments I have ever come across and has left me wondering if there are others like it, or why they aren’t already more popular.
Oakland was busy, and after five days in hectic San Francisco, we were ready to skip over Berkeley all together, telling ourselves we would see it next time, and opting instead for some personal space. Spending the night a little bit north in Santa Rosa, we were once again on our way to a little peace and quiet.