In 1995 we were finally persuaded to avert our enraptured gaze from Italy (we had already been to Milan and Sicily that year), to make our first belated trip to San Francisco and, indeed, the United States.
As our tour bus rattled over the Bay Bridge on a balmy early October afternoon, Louis, pronounced Lewis, our chain smoking guide from Barcelona with a penchant for stand up comedy, took to his feet, but not before instructing the driver to press play on the cassette recorder and release the crackling strains of Tony Bennett upon us.
(The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay,
the glory that is Rome is of another day)
These words were, however, indistinct on this occasion as they coincided with Louis loudly clearing his throat before uttering the two words that we had become accustomed to hear him preface every announcement with:
(I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan
I’m going home to my city by the Bay)
This was the cue for another, more violent attack of phlegm.
(To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars
The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care)
That was the last we heard of Tony, at least for now, because Louis, larynx lubricated, was gearing up for a speech. He had an important message to impart to us before we were disgorged at our downtown hotel.
“You’ve all heard this song, haven’t you?”.
He couldn’t resist another, much more genteel, croak while fifty three passengers smiled and nodded in his direction.
“Well, it’s true. You WILL leave your heart in San Francisco”.
Emboldened by such an emphatic statement, he continued:
“We’ve been together on this bus now for twelve days and we have seen some incredible sights – the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Las Vegas , the Hoover Dam and even Disneyland. But this city is the place that will capture your heart. I am telling you that when you leave in three days time, you will know exactly what Tony Bennett means”.
As his fans beamed in childlike anticipation, Louis made one final claim before reaching for his cigarettes:
“If you don’t, then Louis knows nothing”.
If the last twelve days had taught us anything, it was that this squat, swarthy man from Spain, who might have passed for either fifty or seventy years of age, knew a lot about everything. We were, therefore, inclined to trust him on this one.
With one final, hearty cough – and another “okey cokey” for good measure – he descended the steps of the coach, shook hands with the proprietor of the Best Western Canterbury Hotel and lit up while the driver helped us to locate our luggage.
(Your golden sun will shine for me).
And for me.
Louis was right.
Despite twelve days witnessing one jaw juddering attraction after another, which had also, bizarrely, included listening to the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial on the pier at Santa Monica, San Francisco did not disappoint. Not everyone in our party was as thrilled by its charms, as complaints about the homelessness, dirt on the streets and crowded cable cars testified.
But I saw beyond this.
Of course, I was primed for love.
It had been one of the longest courtships from a distance in history.
We stayed three nights in the heart of the Tenderloin, which rendered the moans about aggressive panhandling and grime entirely believable, and crammed in just about every tourist hot spot we could:
- Twin Peaks (for orientation);
- Cliff House (for the washrooms inside and jewellery stalls outside, no time for brunch yet);
- Golden Gate Bridge (for what we would learn later was the second best view – from Vista Point);
- Pier 39 (for family presents and the sea lion show);
- Fisherman’s Wharf (for the clam chowder and fleeces (only joking about the latter));
- Ghirardelli Square (for the chocolate, what else);
- Union Square (Lori’s Diner and the Gold Dust Lounge, though I’m told there were a few reputable stores there too);
- North Beach (for the coffee and Italian ambiance);
- Chinatown (for cheap gifts on Grant Avenue and unmentionable looking foodstuffs on Stockton Street), and
- Alcatraz (or at least we would have if we had had the gumption to purchase tickets in advance).
We still contrived to fit in an afternoon on Haight Street to enable me to pay homage to Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, who had died just eight weeks before. And, of course, we stood in line for hours at both the Powell and Hyde turnarounds to catch a ride on the cable cars, marvelled at the cars snaking down Lombard Street, had dinner in Chinatown, and on our last night at The Stinking Rose (I still feel sorry for the other passengers sitting within three rows of us on the flight home the next afternoon).
And the rest is, as any regular reader will know, history.