There was a gloomy overcast lingering above us and it must have rained while we were sleeping because the air was wet. We didn’t bring umbrellas with us. We retreated into a GNC when it started pouring, which was selling them for the low, low price of $15.
Photograph by Gerald Samms
F YOU’RE GOING TO SAN FRANCISCO, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…” This wonderful, yet God-awfully catchy, 1967 Scott McKenzie tune rang in my head for at least month. I was so damn excited that it’s hard to put into words what I was feeling at the time. I was finally going somewhere that I really wanted to see for myself: just buy the tickets and go. This was the first time I’d ever done that and now after going, I really wish that I could live there but I also don’t think I want to do that either. Let me explain.
I imagined that there was actually going to be hippies in the streets, smoking weed and tripping out on acid, wearing tye-dye shirts, and yes, even maybe some of them would have a flower stuck in their dreaded hair too. Boy, was I ever in for a reality check. There were at least a few things that I can think of that I wasn’t prepared for before going on this trip and I want to refine them further later on: the cost of things, the housing problem and the significance of the city.
This trip happened in late April a couple of years ago and I woke up especially early at 4 a.m. for my cheap 6:30 a.m. flight. I ecstatically sang along to my radio in the steamy-hot shower. I drew hearts in the foggy mirror while I was brushing my teeth and the large grin stuck unconsciously staring back at me couldn’t help but dance in anticipation and blissful naïveté. As for the traveling itself, I had a very long stopover in Seattle (not long enough to actually leave the airport and do something but long enough to go for a smoke and go through security) and with the time differences, I eventually got to a beautifully warm, sunny northern California at 5 p.m—cheap means 11 hour travel times.
After meeting up with my (now ex-)boyfriend, Moe—who had just arrived as well at another gate from another flight where he was going to university in Idaho Falls at the time—we had an emotional heart filled reunion in a busy international terminal; still trying to ignore the blank stares from the people shuffling around us. After wiping away our tears, we sluggishly caught the BART (the Bay area’s subway system) and made our way into the glistening city. It was about an hour in total from the airport to the hotel: it being dark by the time that we booked in.
I found a budget hotel on TripAdvisor called the Union Square Plaza Hotel. It was reasonable accommodation at the time at $85 a night—considering that we didn’t spend any time in the room except for when we were sleeping and getting ready in the morning. I have checked the prices lately and now its skyrocketed to $200 a night without there being any renovations or any changes at all.
After freakishly inspecting the bed for bedbugs because I’m paranoid like that, we dropped off our bags in the dusty room, locked the door behind us with the old-school key and went out for a late dinner with some delicious wine.
Overnight, the sirens, yelling and horns of the busy streets outside leaked in—almost uninterrupted—through the unkept insulation surrounding the single-pane-glass windows. We had them all closed shut and it literally did nothing to muffle the never-ending assault. This made earplugs an essential traveling tool from there on out. Four hours of restless sleep later, Moe and I left the hotel hungover or still drunk.
There was a gloomy overcast lingering above us and it must have rained while we were sleeping because the air was wet. We didn’t bring umbrellas with us. We retreated into a GNC when it started pouring, which was selling them for the low, low price of $15. It did have a little flashlight in it: making it worth it. The rain wasn’t stormy but rather it randomly came and went all day long and it never got so bad that we had to go inside somewhere else. This gave me lots of time to take pictures of the beautiful architecture and meticulously-refined streetscapes around Market Street.
Making our way to the Embarcadero, a busy multi-use boulevard that follows the shoreline almost all the way around the peninsula, we met an older German couple that was on a year-long cruise. They had some pretty weird stories to share with us. We hung out with them for a while and headed back into to the Commercial District. We really wanted to check out China Town.
We started to feel a little overwhelmed with all of the shops that were selling souvenirs. After going in a few them and buying a couple things, we both had to have a talk about how much money we were actually planning on spending there. This was the first of thing that I really wasn’t prepared for: the exponential cost of everything in San Francisco.
We found that almost everything was overpriced and that made most tourist attractions unattractive to us. We made the best of being broke 20-somethings; enjoyed the sights and smells, and found a 24-hour diner which had an affordable and delicious menu that we ended up going to every single day.
This brings up the second thing I wasn’t prepared for: the housing crisis. There were a lot of homeless people on the streets and I mean a lot of them. Almost at every corner and in the Tenderloin neighbourhood there were multiple groups on every block. I’m not trying to be offensive but I’ve never seen anything like it. At the beginning, I just assumed that they were there in droves just because it was such a big, global city but I started to realize that the issue goes much deeper than that and it’s actually the most paramount socioeconomic issue for the very dense, hilly city.
The crisis itself stems from the notion that everyone wants to be there. We must have met at least three people who had jobs in the city but they were dwelling in a hotel because they couldn’t find anywhere to rent. We ran into a bunch of characters on the trams who told us about the hardships they were facing by trying to live and make a living in such a popular tourist attraction. The most vivid memory I have was a man that tried to sell me a pitbull puppy for $100 but instead, I bought a $20 bud off of him. He sold me a single gram of trash weed for double the price but I didn’t let that get to me. On the second night, we split a cab with a guy coming back from the club we were at. He was rolling around his suitcase because the hotel-type-place he was staying at got everyone in every room to sign out daily and come back on a nightly basis to get their room back.
The beautiful, iconic houses we walked by were all at least a million dollars. We noticed that many of them were being renovated; it seemed like a major housing boom was happening. Those picturesque, Victorian mansions ossified all of the stories and criticisms that we were hearing as authentic perspectives on the reality in which a majority of young American professionals and students were in. The desperate scramble to grab the few rooms that may pop up has left many employed people to stay in hotels—something is wrong there.
We stumbled upon a few art galleries which seemed made for people of a higher class than us. The unspoken dichotomy of every street, the densely compacted separation between those who went there and those who walked by became suddenly clear.
How can I say this in a way that doesn’t seem like I’m trying to talk down the city: we felt very much out of place while we were there. It was like being somewhere that wasn’t made for non-rich tourists. It felt as if we chose the wrong destination on the map. I know that there are a lot of places to go which aren’t so expensive to eat and stay—like say an Airbnb, a hostel, Couchsurfing—but it is very mentionable that the environment is catered to an upper-middle-class traveler and not for those who are on a budget.
Think about this: I grew up watching the Full House. I was at the right age to be susceptible to what I saw on television. I found out that the houses in the opening credits are obviously not the “actual” house that the Fuller family was being filmed inside of: it’s just T.V. magic. I wanted to get a picture of those houses for some odd reason. It was, in my mind, one of the priorities of the whole trip. I find that pretty uncanny because I know that they are nothing but the three-second clip at the beginning of a 90s show but still, I couldn’t help myself.
It’s fascinating how tourists constantly fill up Alamo Square Park located across the street from the Painted Ladies. It’s like a 90s-kid pilgramage. When I was standing among many strangers—all of whom were attracted for the same reason as me—it threw me into a possessive attitude. I also wanted the perfect memory to bring back home. This is when the final thing I wasn’t prepared for became apparent: the psychological draw of a major tourist destination and the historical importance of the entire area.
The whole city felt like a stage and by going to those houses and all the other tourist attractions in real life after seeing them countless times before made me numbingly content but still I remained unsatisfied somehow. The buildings, the bridges, the people; the neon lights, the open 24-hour shops, the packed sidewalks, the lines like Disneyland to get everywhere; we were more than happy to get across the Golden Gate Bridge and see another, more quiet part of the urban area for a bit.
I recommend to anyone to rent a bicycle for the day when coming to San Francisco. I know it may sound daunting because it is such a steep landscape but there are many bike routes to take which avoid any inclines. We browsed different areas near the Palace of Fine Arts (built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition) and didn’t have any difficulty getting anywhere that we wanted to go.
Pedalling over the humongous Golden Gate Bridge was definitely a workout but the view was spectacular. I felt bad for the people who were stuck in cars with their cameras up against their windows. The road deck stumbled and swayed slightly but noticeably everytime a vehicle loudly passed by us. The town of Sausalito, on the north side of the bay, provided a quaint place to relax for a few hours before we took our bikes on a ferry back to the city when we returned them. (The ferry ticket was included in the rental fee—which was about $80 each for the day.)
I had to check out the Castro neighbourhood. I’m so happy there is a place for gay people to hold hands in public and feel totally comfortable. It was weird having a place to totally act like myself and I feel odd just typing that but it’s true. We both felt absolutely free and I wish there were more places like it. I was admittedly drunk most the time I was there, so I don’t have much else to say but I do trust I will go back soon so I can explore the area more.
The other historic places we were able to check out, other than what I’ve already mentioned, was: Maiden Lane (located near Union Square; it used to be called Morton Street and there was a reported a murder every single week, it was the hub for the red light district and for prostitutes in the 20th-century but now it’s just another regular road,) Mission Delores (in the Mission District; it’s the oldest remaining Colonial structure in the city, most of it has been renovated but the façade has been left unchanged since 1792,) and finally—about 10 minutes before having to leave—we saw the bright, rainbow-coloured Women’s Building appear out of nowhere (also in the Mission District; constructed in 1910 as the home to the German-American gymnastics clubs called the Turners, later bought in 1979 by the San Francisco Women’s Center to become a community center advocating self-determination, gender equality, and social justice.)
By the end, I had seen and heard things which I will never forget. The short glimpses that I can remember make me want to return even though the atmosphere was not what I expected: there weren’t any hippies with flowers in their hair. In a span of less than 72 hours we were chased and yelled at on different occasions and that’s okay.
People are going to struggle to make it in San Francisco regardless of how bad the economic inequality is—maybe that’s in part because of what it is to be an American: to rise up and live the dream. Even those of us going there for a short time can see what is so unique and drawing about it. Nonetheless, once I started to descend into the BART station to head back to the airport—all of the blurry faces which seemed suspended in endless franticness, however bad I may have felt for them—a thought came to mind: “If you’re going…“