Anyone with the merest acquaintance with this blog will observe a strong bias towards the city of San Francisco in it. If the heading of “A Golden Gate State of Mind” and accompanying photograph did not immediately give it away, the preponderance of posts on the city certainly will.
So what, you ask, is the attraction of what San Francisco based Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “this far-out city on the left side of the world” to a cricket loving, warm beer drinking Englishman?
Well, that is a very good question (I do wish you hadn’t asked it). It’s not sufficient to say it is because I “love” it. After all, there are many things that I love – my wife, my father, my football team, my favourite rock band, skiing, fish and chips, and the BBC Breakfast presenter, Susanna Reid (I’d be grateful if you didn’t tell my wife about that one) – the list goes on.
But “love” – like “great” – is an overused – or rather over abused – word today. In fact, I may have proved this conclusively in the preceding paragraph. Everyone will have places that they “love”, whether it be Paris, Rio de Janeiro, New York or even Leysdown-on-Sea. Few of us would deny “loving” their favourite holiday haunts, particularly if they return to them time and again.
So I think you deserve a more substantial explanation than that. After all, it took me nearly 43 years to finally feast my hungry eyes on the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, even though I had venerated the city from afar for nearly three decades before that. So what do I find so special about it now?
Before I answer it – and I’m not prevaricating, honest – I think it is worth considering what it is about a place that makes us become attached to it. After all, isn’t it nothing more nor less than a collection of natural features and man-made buildings?
I suppose that many of us, including myself, claim that we “love” the place in which we were born and / or raised. It is this emotional attachment, linked to childhood memories, that, I believe, is the crucial factor here. And the acknowledgement of that attachment may not manifest itself without the aid of age and distance.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “there’s no place like home” may be cliches but they still have a sturdy ring of truth. James Joyce – that incomparable chronicler of place – could not, as he himself admitted, have written so profoundly or entertainingly about Dublin had he stayed there instead of leaving it to work and live in Trieste, Zurich and Paris.
My last post (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/walking-with-our-mutual-friend/) conveys my affection for my own home town of Rochester in Kent, and an earlier one (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/to-my-home-county/) describes the pride I have in being a Man of Kent, a grateful product of its rich embrace of coast and countryside.
So our attachment to place begins, as with so many of our passions, with our childhood experiences.
But I digress. We’re not in Kent(as) anymore, Toto. You want to read about why I “love” San Francisco. Well, I presume you still do or you would have given up by now. So here goes.
I could cite the stunning beauty of the bay and its glittering “bracelet of bridges”, the gorgeous skies, the cute, clanking cable cars, the abundance of fresh seafood in its classy restaurants, the diversity of its music and theatre scene, the richness of its ethnic neighbourhoods, the thrilling exploits of the Giants and 49ers, and, of course, its renowned tolerance and reputation as a haven for the otherwise discarded and disaffected – all of these are part of it.
However, thousands of other visitors have been equally captivated by most, if not all, of these qualities. It is not for nothing that many leave their heart in San Francisco. But their “love” is invariably on loan, perhaps until the next trip or another geographical gigolo snatches their affection. Mine is permanent, organic, forever.
So what is it about this place that has lured this individual into spending what time he can’t reside in it dreaming and writing about it? Why has this place gotten hold of my heart” where other cities I delight in visiting, such as Venice, Florence, Barcelona, Dublin and New York have not? And why, with relatively little time left, and just as I am about to resolve to go somewhere else, does it sing its siren (or is that sea lion) songs to me, steering my boat back into the dock of the bay?
For much of my life it was a platonic, long distance affair. It started with the Summer of Love (1967) when San Francisco snared the imagination of many people across the globe, including one 14 year old English schoolboy an entire continent and ocean away. Intrigued by the love and peace mantra, he was inspired by Scott McKenzie and the Flowerpot Men to commit fashion suicide by wearing paisley shirts and, on at least one occasion, flowers (almost certainly plastic) in his hair, to football matches that year – fortunately, it pre-dated the skinhead era or he may not have been given such an easy ride!
Three years later, the music of the Bay Area, in the form of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service began to fill my head. “Everyone’s favourite city” had become the epicentre of my cultural universe. However, another two and a half decades passed before I set foot on San Francisco’s ever shifting soil.
And, for me, Haight-Ashbury, from whence that dazzling music came, still represents, more than any other location in the city, MY San Francisco, and where I gravitate to on every trip, however short. Free concerts by the Dead on flat bed trucks in the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park, tie-dye shirts and the pungent waft of marijuana smoke remain enduring images of that time.
And there is just enough of that atmosphere – at stores like Positively Haight Street, Haight-Ashbury T-shirts and Pipe Dreams, as well as Sami Sunchild’s Red Victorian (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/great-san-franciscan-characters-14-sami-sunchild/) – to keep me enthused as I saunter down Haight Street today.
That is not to say that other parts – the Tenderloin and Civic Center no less than the trendy neighbourhoods and tourist honeypots – are not equally “real” embodiments of the modern city, all too real some might say. Though I embrace them all, the Haight remains the heart of my San Franciscan experience. Its only failing is that it does not aford bay views! Or does it? I really must check on my next trip!
Another earlier post (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/my-san-francisco-top-ten/) summarises those parts of the city that captivate me most, so I will not bore you by repeating them here.
It’s not just the physical sights and sounds that appeal, but the literature (Armistead Maupin, Jack Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Dashiel Hammett, Jack London) and history (the Barbary Coast, the earthquake and Great Fire, the cultural movements of the fifties and sixties) that fascinate me too. And has there been a better chronicler of a city anywhere than Herb Caen(www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/great-san-franciscan-characters-6-herb-caen/), renowned columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle?
Indeed, it was Caen who wrote half a century ago in one of his many ruminations on what made a San Franciscan:
I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.
I like to think that I fit into Caen’s San Francisco “newcomer” category, though I’ll settle for being the “sophisticated tourist” who is “charmed and fascinated” by the city.
I have used the word “home” in a number of features on San Francisco, and that, I think, is the key here. That is not to say that it replaces the town in which I was born and raised – though, equally, it might – but rather that the city engenders those same feelings, not just of comfort and security but also of confidence and pride that allows me to engage with it on all levels. Venice and New York do not. Nor even does “dear, dirty Dublin”, despite my Irish ancestry.
Back where we started then.
And my wife and I have deliberately fostered this feeling in recent years where, by staying in apartments in different neighbourhoods – Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle, and for our upcoming (ninth) visit, Noe Valley – we aim to “live like locals”, whilst continuing to take in the traditional tourist sights too (our stays are still too short to omit them, even if we wanted to). It is another of San Francisco’s virtues that we can do both.
How many of us can say that anywhere, at least beyond the place in which we live, that we can call it “home”?
Do you have any place that exercises that same grip on you?
I’ll end with Herb Caen again:
thank God or Allah or whoever it was that blessed this small, special, annoying, irresistible place at the tip of a peninsula and the end of the world.