This final extract is an account of a day’s touristing in San Francisco. The photo is of the city’s skyline, taken from the Coit Tower.
The next day, our only full day in San Francisco, began early. Our morning would be spent at one of the world’s most famous former prisons and a major American tourist attraction — you’ve got it, another of Justin’s ideas — Alcatraz.
Alcatraz was one of those places whose name was enough to evoke stories and bring other names to mind, such as Al Capone, or Robert Stroud, portrayed by Bert Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz. Now a museum, I discovered from the fascinating tour of the island that after its closure as a prison in the 1960s it was occupied by Native American political protestors, and throughout its human history has also served as a military prison and lighthouse site, as well as being important for its flora and fauna.
After a scenic ferry ride from San Francisco, which rendered great views of the city’s skyline as well as, obviously, increasingly detailed views of the island as we approached it, we spent a few hours exploring what is probably one of my favourite museums I’ve visited. The island was a mixture of the main prison complex, other smaller buildings, and a network of paths and open spaces all around the island. Due to the fresh sea air and warm sunshine, these made for a refreshing opportunity for an amble. Visitors were more or less free to explore at their leisure, an audio tour we had opted to take proving to be an informative and entertaining guide.
Even just wandering around the site helped explain the sense of drama that the name “Alcatraz” evoked. With steep cliffs around much of the island and sitting more than a mile from the mainland, it was already a natural fortress and it was easy to see why an escape would be virtually impossible. Meanwhile, the spartan claustrophobia of the cell complexes painted a clear picture of the miserable experiences of the prisoners, the audio tour at one point reciting a former inmate telling of how, when the wind was in the right direction, the sounds of happy crowds on major occasions like New Year’s Eve would waft teasingly towards the island from the mainland. Of course, little sympathy was encouraged by the tour — its residents included, after all, some of the USA’s most legendary violent criminals, including figures from the heyday of the American gangster era in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Once we’d taken in the island, we boarded the ferry for San Francisco again, but not before Justin availed himself of various items of tat in the museum shop.
Back on dry land, it was lunchtime, so we ate at an excellent sandwich shop by the pier. The seafront area of San Francisco was a touristy spot, with not a little contrived trendiness about it, though with good views out to sea and back inland to the high-rises of the downtown area. Between the pier and downtown lay a strip of flat land, on which trams ran backwards and forwards. This was where a huge elevated highway had once run until destroyed by a deadly earthquake struck in 1989. The pier was now effectively reconnected to the rest of the city, and in this respect it was tempting to think that — the terrible human cost aside — the city had probably gained aesthetically from the quake.
Not far from the pier and on a small hillside stood a tower, modest in comparison to the skyscrapers but intriguingly plain, with almost Mediterranean-style arched windows at the top. Where there’s a tower there’s a view, so we headed for it. It was called the Coit Tower, built in the 1930s in memory of a well-known San Francisco woman named Lillie Coit. Views across San Francisco from the top were impressive, but the trip was worth it purely because on our way out I got to ask Justin loudly and within earshot of as many people as possible if he now felt post-coital.
The rest of our afternoon was spent exploring the streets of downtown San Francisco with no particular plan. That, in a way, was an approach that suited a city as laidback and warmly engaging as San Francisco. Though we saw nowhere near as much as we would have liked, and two days in any city is probably never enough (unless it’s Dundee), we saw more than enough to be persuaded that this was a lively, likeable and reassuringly gritty place.
It was also, of course, a legendarily hilly place, and we took the trams up and down steep roads, a slow-motion rollercoaster ride through the bustling streets. We took in the famous Lombard Street, a twisty, windy road that navigates a steep incline in a well-to-do part of the city. The dramatic picture it presents was, naturally enough, ruined by camera-wielding tourists either on foot or creeping slowly down the tight hairpins in cars.
The refreshing edginess to the city, though, had a sad side to it in the form of evident poverty. We saw plenty homeless people, including a number begging in the streets around our hotel. Many had signs explaining their plight. “Bitten by spider, need medical aid”, said one; “Need car repair to get back to Redwood CA”, read another. One man even had a sign with the words “Will take any verbal abuse for change”.
“Come on,” I heard him say to a passer-by whose eyes he briefly met, “I reckon that’s a good deal.” This left me a little uncomfortable. Either the man was so reduced in his circumstances and dignity that he would take abuse for money, or alternatively he was making a joke of homelessness — even his own, if of course he was genuine. Either way, the edgy and energetic humour of the man’s approach to his begging rather summed up San Francisco for me. A city that if not classically beautiful managed to be quite captivating nevertheless.