Friday, July 29, 2011

Paintings and Prison and Potatoes

Hi, are you still sweaty and hot? Because I am. Even though there is a fan pointed right at my body. So how about we transport ourselves to San Francisco on a Monday in early June? Ok, here we go.

We slept in and grabbed a quick breakfast at a cafe next to our hotel on Monday and then walked over to the Museum of Modern Art to spend some quiet time out of the rain since sadly the de Young Museum was closed (and yes, I realize that sounds like a White Whine.) We were particularly interested in seeing The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant- Garde exhibit that had just opened the week before.


The Stein exhibit was spectacular. I had no idea that Gertrude Stein and her family were such avid and bold art collectors. They bought early, they bought carefully and they filled their modest Parisian apartments with what are now nearly priceless and utterly famous Picassos, Matisses and Post Impressionist classics. The exhibit was packed which was a bit difficult since you couldn't get a clear view of the work, but it was worth pushing through the crowd and waiting our turns. The pieces were hanging on the wall next to large photographs of the paintings in the locations where they hung in the Stein's apartment. It was a huge display with paintings and sculpture and pieces that were each detailed and the woven in with salacious and fascinating stories about the family and the trajectory of the collection and their change in tastes and preferences over the years. The personal audio tour helped to add a layer of understanding for me about the art and the history of the time. And frankly Matisse is pretty much my favorite. I don't care if this makes me cliched, I just love his work.



We wandered through the museum after the Stein exhibit for another couple of hours and just stopped to look at the sleek modern Mario Botta designed building. After the museum we walked through the Yerba Buena green space and then went off to seek some lunch.



After a quick lunch at the fanciest most varied mall food court I've ever experienced (thanks for the recommendation, Chealsea and Deborah,) Joe wanted to make a stop at the Cable Car Museum. This was a perfectly acceptable idea except here's where things went a bit wrong.

We walked from the mall over to the biggest cable car stop so we could take a cable car up the enormous hills to the museum. There was a very, very long line of anxious tourists. I had zero interest in waiting in this line. Especially because there was a perfectly servicable and perfectly empty bus stop just up the corner. So we hoofed it over the bus stop, hopped the bus, and up and over to the cable car museum we went. Except Joe over shot the stop we chose and instead of avoiding Russian Hill like he thought, we were deposited right at the base of it, with this enormous obstacle and two more blocks keeping us from a museum that I was less than thrilled to visit. And it was raining and humid and I was done. See below picture for proof of exasperation.

As previously mentioned in my earlier post, oh let me just quote myself: "An entirely accidental ascent of the evil Russian Hill caused a small, rain soaked tiff between our usually happy traveling team, causing me to say "maybe we don't talk until we get up this goddamn hill," and leaving me wanting to choke my dear husband, then wandering resentfully around the Cable Car Museum until I got over myself." Yep, pretty much sums it up. But here, look at how pretty the view was from up that high, (I like the sign that states the obvious "Hill", well no kidding, the frigging road disappeared) and yes the museum was fine and I was unnecessarily cranky, but it happens. It happens to everyone.




After the Cable Car Museum we were able to catch a cable car trip back down to our hotel, hanging onto the outside just like a Rice a Roni commercial, cool wind drying our rain soaked hair and putting a huge smile on my face. Joe looked like a little kid he was so happy. Really fun, touristy things are touristy for a reason, sometimes they are just straight up fun. Unmissable joy.


So we went back to the hotel, changed into boat worthy clothes and took a cab over to the dock to pick up the ferry over to Alcatraz. It was breezy and sunny on our ride over. Joe captured some great photos and then we hit the island. THE ROCK.




The US National Parks service has done a phenomenal job with organizing and structuring visits to Alcatraz. They are orderly and leisurely, full of upbeat and knowledgeable tour guides and free time to wander around inside and out, and then the audio tour portion in the actual prison.


The audio tour is narrated by actual former guards and inmates. Full of history and famous stories, prison breaks, violence and the actual vivid sound effect of a prisoner getting stabbed with a homemade shiv. Yeah, that was gross but effective for telling the story.


We spent more than two hours on the island and I have to say that I was really unsettled. It's an eerie, spooky place, filled with violence, sadness and some damaged people. But it was an exciting and curious place to wander with that voice in my ear telling me that in this cell lived Al Capone or over here two prison guards were killed in a riot. Right in the middle of all that history, but it made me quiet and contemplative, you know, between trying out my Sean Connery accent.


Joe wandered off and took so many photos on this portion of the trip. I could have posted 50 here just on Alcatraz if I had the space.


The bleakest, grimmest library I've ever seen. But I guess any small amount of books and reading material is better than nothing.


These two photos are two of my absolute favorites from the whole trip. See what I mean by eerie?




So sunset came upon us, our tour guides herded us back to the boat, with tales of breath taking near escapes and we landed back on dry land just in time to saunter down to Fisherman's Wharf for a bowl of clam chowder for dinner. A warm and hearty end to a packed day.




I might mention that I'm only wearing this ridiculous hood because it was windy and my hair kept getting in my mouth. Really windy, I promise.

Tuesday morning, and it's time to get out of downtown and head into some of the other neighborhoods around San Francisco. When Joe and I were researching for this trip before we left, we consulted San Francisco expert Maggie Mason over at Mighty Girl and this breakfast stop was one of her brilliant ideas.


St. Francis Candy Shoppe over in the Mission was old fashioned and delicious, an ideal way to fuel up before our several mile walking tour through the Castro. I had the aptly named nebulous potato thing and it was yummy and unbeatable. The feel of this neighborhood is wonderfully eclectic. Ethnically diverse and filled with young hipsters and Mexican grandmothers, I felt at home here. Quirky and cool, with traditional taquerias right next to trendy donut shops, I could have walked around here all day.
Instead, we grabbed a bus and headed over to the Castro where our City Guides tour leader, Emmanuel took us on a fast paced jaunt around this historically gay neighborhood.


Our group of twelve visited significant historical spots like Twin Peaks, one of the first openly lesbian bars with big glass windows so bar patrons weren't hiding in the dark but visible to the community and Harvey Milk's former camera shop and political offices, now the offices of a suicide prevention group. Our tour guide was in his 60's and has lived in the area for almost forty years. He was bawdy and cynical and hilarious. He told us racy anecdotes and complained about the price of real estate and gave us his lecture on the tragedy that is 1950's renovated Victorians, and then he thoughtfully talked about the impact of HIV and AIDS on the community in the early 1980's.




This tour was one of the highlights of the trip for both of us. Great exercise with lots of walking and lots of hills, an ideal way to get to see the real parts of the city and not just the showy highlights. A chance to walk through small secluded neighborhoods and hear from real residents about their daily lives and experiences. Again, take this tour if you go to San Francisco. Ask for Emmanuel.


And what better or more stereotypical way to end a visit to the Castro than with three completely nude gentlemen sitting at an outdoor cafe. I'm not sure what this was about, but it was awesome. Of course we saw penises in the Castro because as much as this neighborhood may have become more family friendly, it's still a place where personal freedom and eccentricity reigns. And penises.


After relaxing a bit at the hotel, we ventured out and grabbed some coffee and hung out in Union Square for a little while before our big plans for the evening. Union Square is a gorgeous piece of property with huge skyscrapers on all sides and tango lessons in the summer. I love that. Group tango lessons. So on to the big plans!




That evening we had tickets for a production of Little Shop of Horrors over in the Tenderloin at the Boxcar Theatre. The Tenderloin happens to be the one neighborhood that several people told us to avoid. Instead we walked right on in, past a variety of drug deals and working girls, and got ourselves some live theater.


This production of Little Shop was ingenious. Since the story takes place in an unnamed city, in a rough neighborhood just called Skid Row, the play itself actually starts outside on San Francisco's skid row. Using the real street as the initial setting. Actors play prostitutes and street people. And the line between reality and fiction becomes a bit blurred. Is that homeless looking guy in the wheelchair a part of the play or not? Hard to tell. At least until he opens his mouth and out comes the most beautiful strong baritone, and then the male prostitute starts singing and the lady in the stocking cap who looks like hasn't showered in a week joins in and you know the play has started. It was energetic and unsettling and invigorating.


A few songs took place outside and the play moves fairly seemlessly between the sets inside, the actual box office area is the front of the flower shop and most of the action takes place in the back of the flower shop, on the actual stage area. The music was wonderful and modernized a bit with samplings of Rocky Horror and current pop culture references. And here's where things get tricky and sad.


I loved this production. I loved everything about it. To me it's exactly what new small live theatre should be. It breathes life into stale old stories and songs. But that's the problem. This production was shut down just a few weeks after we saw it because of licensing issues. The small changes that we loved and thought brought this play into our decade, were frowned upon by the license owners. And so they had to close. The day Joe forwarded me the article about this closing I wanted to cry. As a theatre nerd, I was saddened to hear that this little theatre company was being punished for their creativity and bold flexibility with the script and score. But it happened. Joe emailed the director and shared our praise and support and that's really all we could do from here.


Next time we visit I plan to make sure we see what the Boxcar Theatre is up to, because as the director's mother told me while we stood next to each other in the bathroom line, "My son has lots of creative ideas. I wonder what he'll do next." Me, too.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Southern Fried Family Secrets

After the painful and upsetting last review that I did for The Kid, my latest review for the Blogher Book Club of The Beach Trees by Karen White, brought a welcome sunniness and joy into my reading this summer. And though I did not read this book on the beach it sort of felt like it. It captures the feeling of those charming coastal Southern towns and harnesses it so that every page and word and character feels deeply connected to those waves and those beaches and those hurricane ravaged communities. This isn't a total beach read, it's not entirely light and frothy, it has pain and murder and chaos too, but there is happiness and resolution and progress for the characters. So take a minute and pop on over here to read my review on Blogher, and then maybe go pick up this delightful story for yourself. I guarantee it won't make you want to throw up like The Kid did. I promise.

Monday, July 25, 2011

June in the Prettiest City

It was nearly 100 degrees here today. It's going to feel like 105 tomorrow with the humidity and lack of air movement. I hate July and August in the Midwest. It makes me long for the mild lovely weather of Northern California. And since I never really thoroughly wrote about our trip last month, just those tiny little daily posts and iPhone photos, I'm going to this week. Since it was such a long, wonderful, and packed trip I'll break it up into a few posts. Some come to the city by the bay with me. Simply as a way to cool off. Simply to show off Joe's fantastic photos. And because the last time I felt chilly was early June and it won't happen again until late September. I miss chilly.

Joe and I headed out to San Francisco as an early 10th Anniversary celebration trip and to attend his cousin Dave's college graduation the second week in June. After a typical fog related flight delay, we hit the air Saturday afternoon, and arrived in San Francisco by two, and after our brief brush with celebrity, we grabbed a cab and relaxed back at our little hotel for an hour or so. Joe got familiar with the public transportation map and downloaded a couple of MUNI apps, we changed into cool weather clothes, since it was a glorious sixty degrees, and headed out to Cow Hollow for a street festival and people watching.


We hopped one of the many Chinatown buses and stood out as tourists amongst the elderly Chinese grandmothers with their house slippers and plastic grocery sacks, but we weren't quite as bad as the German tourists at the front of the bus with six pieces of luggage each, blocking all traffic on or off the very busy bus.


Cow Hollow was entertaining and the street festival was wrapping up by the time we got there, so we walked the long length of booths and tents, watched all the 20 somethings flirt and drink and browsed through the wares that were for sale, sampled some organic treats (yes, this is San Francisco, everything is touted as all natural, local, organic, and superior, which it probably is) and by this point, after a day of travel, we were hungry. We grabbed a bus over to Fisherman's Wharf, walked around a bit, took in the view, consulted one of our travel books, and our growling stomachs bypassed the very popular Wharf restaurants that were all surprisingly empty for 6pm on a Saturday, and came around a deserted corner to find the classic seafood establishment, Scoma's. There was a long wait, lots of locals, always a good sign, so we perched ourselves on a parking space wheel stop, looked off into the bay and anticipated one of the best seafood meals of our trip.




I had the seafood cioppino that was so savory, enormous and chocked full of seafood delights, that I dream about it still. Joe had fresh local salmon with a creamy sauce over lobster ravioli. Yeah, it was to die for. Even better, the interior of the restaurant probably hasn't been updated since it opened in 1965, it's rundown but not dingy, just feels lived in and classic, lots of dark wood and big booths. Our waiter was a pro. Life long resident of San Francisco, Tony was full of jokes, recommendations, and stories, that classic professional waiter bravado that I hope isn't dying out, but seems to be. He was charming and fun and made our meal more entertaining because of it.


After dinner we made a drug store stop to buy snacks and drinks for our room, and then stood in line to catch the trolley back to our hotel. This was the most crowded trolley/bus/train I've ever been on. Crammed to the brim, we had strangers all up in our business. A rather large man in his early 20's with a very high pitched voice leaned over Joe repeatedly and announced in his incongrous voice, each upcoming stop, and hollered out the window to those people waiting to board, that "We're all full, Sorry, next stop!" There were teenage ravers decked out in homemade plastic beaded wrist and upper arm jewelry, plus tiny braids bedazzled in beads and rhinestones, and a handmade plastic beaded skirts. It finally thinned out and we grabbed seats and some breathing room, but I don't remember the last time I was forced to stand that close to strangers, probably somewhere in Europe or in my nightmares.

We got back to the hotel and crashed, curling up in our fluffy king size bed, falling fast asleep and resting up for our four hour historical San Francisco walking tour the next morning.


Let me just say this up front, if you ever visit San Francisco, take an Urban Trek USA tour with Anton. We took Tour #4, the historic San Francisco tour, but I'm sure any of the four would be delightful. Anton is charming, funny, knows the city like he was born here and talks just enough to keep you engaged but not so much to kill the vibe of the city or take away from the view.


We met our small group of three more tourists and Anton in Union Square. Then walked to Maiden Lane, a street that used to be filled with all of the houses of ill repute in the city, now ironically home to all of the fanciest boutique shops. We wandered around Chinatown for a couple of hours, soaking up the history of the area with little stops on corners and quick restaurant recommendations, visited Portsmouth Square, and then walked to the Transamerica building.








Anton talked about the history of the area and clued us in that during an earthquake you don't want to be on any of the flat areas of San Francisco, since these areas are probably reclaimed lands that used to be wetlands and are not particularly stable in earthquakes. The photo below shows, with the wavy stone line, the old shore line, now in the middle of part of downtown.




After Jackson Square and Transamerica, we headed over to North Beach: the Italian, beatnik, smutty, charming, and tasty section of the city. Filled with shops and restaurants, strip clubs and movie studio offices. (That's Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studio building above in green.) We had a sweet, moist Sacrepantina cake and coffee break at the Stella Bakery, we walked past nudie bars, and classic book stores like City Lights, garlic themed restaurants and tiny bars that have been around since the 1880's. After our break and a light rain, we kept walking around and caught a bus up to Coit Tower.



The view from Telegraph Hill, at the base of Coit Tower is gorgeous, even before you ascend the actual tower. All lush flowers and foliage and a clear view from bridge to bridge. Joe took 500 pictures and then we got in line to take the elevator up the tower. Waiting in line we checked out the murals by students of Diego Rivera filling the lobby of the tower. Gorgeous, strong and powerfully muscular, it was a great way to kill some time and chat with our fellow trekkers while we waited.





Can you beat those views? Spectacular and totally worth the ticket price. It was cool and breezy at the top and I could have stayed up there for two hours. But there were people waiting on us, so we headed back down after twenty minutes, and we meandered down the amazing Filbert Steps.


The Filbert Steps are the only way to access the houses that are scattered along Telegraph Hill. There are not streets, only step after step after step. The hills are covered with lush, tropical plants, wild parrots, and quaint older houses. It's a quiet peaceful place. Though I can't imagine what a pain in the ass grocery shopping would be, or moving, wow, moving in and out would be incredibly expensive and difficult. But probably absolutely worth it.






After our tropical descent of the steps, we popped into the Levi's building and took a little historical tour of the history of jeans. I love jeans. I would wear dark, boot cut jeans everyday if I could. So this was a little trip to heaven. Plus a nice sit down after miles of walking.


Our tour came to an end just across the street from Levi's at the Ferry Building. We bade farewell to Anton, thanked him profusely, wished our fellow trekkers good bye, and went on to our next adventure. A silver car turned up the street to pick us up and we were whisked off to spend the rest of the day with Joe's high school girlfriend Chealsea and her partner Deborah. We had an afternoon of feasting and shopping and wandering the Mission. But first Yank Sing.


Oh, Yank Sing. Why are you so tempting and scrumptious? Dim Sum from Yank Sing is quite possibly the best Asian food I've ever had. Cart after cart rolls past the table with friendly Chinese women offering new delicacies: turnip cake, soup filled dumplings, savory hot and sour soup, thin sliced BBQ pork so sweet and juicy I could have eaten a whole plate by myself, tender steamed pork buns, shrimp toasts, sesame balls, Shanghai dumplings, I could go on. We ate and talked and caught up and ate some more. And then continued to exclaim about how each new small plate was bearing a more delicious mouthwatering temptation. We were stuffed, it was nearly two and half hours later, so it was time to do some walking.


We headed over to the Mission district to visit some of the eclectic and quirky shops. We visited Therapy, and some antique furniture stores, we stopped by Good Vibrations, because come on, it's San Francisco. I bought a scarf covered in umbrellas and some huge hoop earrings. But the best part was getting to spend such a lovely chunk of time with friends that we rarely get to see, since we live across the country from each other. Deborah and Chealsea were welcoming hostesses and charming conversationalists and made our first full day in San Francisco just about damn near perfect. But what would push damn near perfect into perfectly perfect, how about some PIE!



We hit Mission Pie and it was good. It was so good. Like your grandmother's best day in the kitchen, pie cooling in the window sill, flaky crust, tangy lemon or creamy banana filling, or 10 other fresh choices. Oh, that pie was good. And the chai was too. It was great to sit in the cozy cafe, watch kids play with puzzles at the table next to us, talk with good friends and close out a very full, very memorable Sunday.


So thanks again, ladies! The lovely Chealsea and Deborah, enjoying a little banana cream.

So that wraps up our first two days in San Francisco. I think the trip could have ended here and Joe and I would have both been satisfied, but it didn't, no it didn't. We still have Alcatraz, SFMOMA, male prostitutes hanging around on Skid Row, Monterey Bay, new internet friends, tide pools, the Castro, and much more. So stay tuned! Joe still has another 2,000 photos to share. Seriously.