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Thursday, January 22, 2009

San Francisco Travelogue


In September of 2008, I finally threw in the towel and spent countless hours at work researching to the penny the cheapest airfares. I filled out online applications from the San Francisco County Clerk’s office and gave them my credit card number. This was after I e-mailed Other Bill and asked him if he wanted to go to California and get married. Because that’s the romantic kind of guy I am.

Other Bill had never been to San Francisco. It was safe to say he never even tasted Rice-a-Roni. I hadn’t been since 1983. So, under threat of having to surrender our Gay Cards, we took the trip. After the wedding, we did a lot of exploring and prowling around and didn’t see everything, so we went back three months later. And we are going back in 3 more months. We would like to move there, but that would require us living in a place that required us a) being armed at all times; b) living in an apartment so tiny we would have to sleep standing up, or c) winning Powerball. Or I guess we could abide in a bathhouse if we pared our possessions down to what would fit in a locker. Odds are best that we’ll just stay home and be bitter that we never had the ambition to make real money.

We have now done most of the must-sees in San Francisco, and have even branched out to neighboring Oakland, Sausalito, and Alcatraz. The first thing you must do when you go there, of course, is to see the Golden Gate Bridge. And by “see” I mean, “take your chances of being blown off of” the Golden Gate bridge.

We took a bus to the bridge and decided to walk across. Amazingly enough, there is no pedestrian toll. At the entrance to the bridge there is a telephone that is directly wired to a suicide hotline. A sign above the phone-in-a-box reads:








Like, duh. How many suicidal people get to that phone and think, “Fatal and tragic? I never considered that. Maybe I will just make that call.”

Now the city is considering building some sort of aesthetically pleasing safety net that will catch anyone who jumps. So instead of being dead, they’ll just have ugly, scarring rope burns. Or maybe it’ll be some kind of chain-link catcher, and when you land on it, your body will be ripped into hexagonal pieces that will squirt through the fence as if you were being squashed through a Play-Doh Fun Factory. It will make nice chum for the smaller fish.

Hey, San Francisco, did you forget you have more than one tall bridge? Once that safety net goes up, people who want to end their lives will only have to take a different bus to the Bay Bridge. How many potential victims will travel thousands of miles to get to the Golden Gate bridge only to find it suicide-proof? All the romance, the glory, the fatal and tragic consequences will have been for naught. I’m not going to jump off the Bay Bridge. It’s ugly and goes to Oakland! And the Discovery Channel never makes documentaries about suicides off the Bay Bridge. I could have just slit my wrists back home in Mississippi.

So we were walking across the bridge, and there’s this tiny little emergency golf cart thing that someone drives across and picks up someone who can’t complete the walk (or jump). We got to see that in action. I’m not sure if the rescuee was a jumper, or someone like me, who when we got almost to the other side, had the luck of having his back give out. To add to this, it was September when we were there, considered San Francisco’s warmest month, which means absolutely nothing to a Floridian. When I got to the middle of the bridge, I had a brain prolapse and couldn’t remember if the monument I on which I was perched was the Golden Gate Bridge or Mt. Everest. It was freezer-burn cold. It was category-4-hurricane windy, blowing razor-sharp shards of rain across our faces. I longed for a ski suit, gloves, and chapstick. I wanted off.

Travel tip: When you’re on the Golden Gate bridge, no matter how sore your back is, don’t sit down. But my back was too tired, so I had to. When you sit down, in no time flat you are aware that the bridge moves. It actually sways. Not very much, but enough to make a 50 year old weenie like myself turn green with nausea. I immediately stood up. I wished I’d made the call. Where was that little golf-cart thing? I ended up walking back after we’d made it past the second span, but I kept having to sit down for 30 second intervals to rest my back and retch.

After that, Other Bill decided it would be fun to rent bikes down at Fisherman’s Wharf and ride them across the bridge. That way we would always be sitting down. I agreed to riding up to the bridge, but I wasn’t about to compete for sidewalk space on the bridge while operating a two-wheeled vehicle. Other Bill suggested training wheels, so I hit him. People who ride bikes in San Francisco are serious about their biking. Their bikes cost in the thousands, not in the less-than-a-hundreds and do not display “Huffy” decals on them. Bicyclists there all have weird, Spiderman-like, high-tech, fiber-optic Special Bike Wear that shows off their tight butts and cut calves, and they have helmets made of solid gold and encrusted with diamonds. That’s because they have all won Powerball.

On the second trip, we took the ferry to Alcatraz, a former federal prison with an exquisite view of the peninsula. We didn’t go there on the first trip, because a straight guy at work told me it wasn’t worth the trip and took too much time. He also told me to eat at this all-garlic restaurant. We had the after-wedding lunch there. It was outrageously expensive, and the food was just below dreadful. It was stinking, all right.

Travel tip: Never listen to the opinions of straight people when planning your trip. They’re always wrong.

So we got to Alcatraz in the early afternoon and took the pre-recorded headphone tour of the place, against our better judgment and fear of ear mites. It was a very interesting, leisurely tour. We found the cells to be very small, but probably larger than the apartment we could afford to rent in the Castro. There was room enough for a cot, so we could at least alternate our vertical slumbering. We quickly filled out applications in the Alcatraz rental office.

Alcatraz is now part of the National Park Service. Originally the island was solid rock, but they bussed in tons and tons of dirt, and lesbians were actually planting gardens there when we arrived. Since the garden was a close commute to the cell I hoped we would soon be living in (pending a credit check), I asked one lesbian if it was a paying job, but she told me she was just a volunteer. My heart sank. I would love to plant nasturtiums on Alcatraz for a living with lesbians in overalls and work gloves. And other vegetables I could eat, since the Marina Safeway was quite a swim away.

One deterrent to the unseasoned big city traveler is that San Francisco is rife with residents who failed to win the Powerball jackpot. These people are called “homeless,” because they didn’t pass the credit check in the rental office at Alcatraz.

The San Francisco homeless are a savvy bunch of people. They are quick-witted, entertaining, and usually get what they want. The most notorious non-Powerball winner is the Bush Man, who hides behind cut branches in front of a trash can on the Wharf. As unsuspecting tourists walk by, the Bush Man jumps up and yells loudly and scares the tourists, much to the delight of the huge audience behind him, standing there taking pictures of terrified, squealing tourists with racing hearts. People give him money for this. Lots and lots of money. Nobody knows it, but when he’s not working, the Bush Man actually lives in a suite at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill and dines nightly at the restaurant a few floors above him.

The less talented but still sharp homeless hang out downtown in the theatre district. I saw one homeless woman walking next to a man for two blocks, trying to convince the guy to give her a buck. “C’mon,” she told him, “if you give me a dollar I promise to leave you alone.” We had to make a turn, so I never saw how it played out. As we approached the Curran Theater to see Spring Awakening, there was another homeless man, sitting on the sidewalk with a sign that read, “Will Take Verbal Abuse for Spare Change.” I’m not kidding.

I immediately fantasized about standing over him, screaming, “Why don’t you stand up, go get a shower and a haircut, find a way into rehab, and become a functioning member of society, you filthy leech!” But of course, because I am gay, I have learned to be tolerant of other lifestyles, so I didn’t do it. And I saved fifty cents, which bought me one-half of a Milk Dud at the theatre.

Travel tip: Always carry a pocket knife when you travel so you can split a Milk Dud at the concession stand. Make sure you pack it in your checked bag, though, unless you would rather give it as a gift to a TSA employee.

Getting around in San Francisco couldn’t be easier. We bought a MUNI Passport when we arrived at the airport. This was good for seven days of riding on streetcars, cable cars, buses, and MUNI Metro, but not BART, because he and HOMER are independent of MUNI, who once played straight man to Lucille Ball. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is.

If you don’t know anyone nice enough to pick you up at the airport, you can either spend about 45 bucks to be cabbed into the city, or, for a little over five bucks, you can take BART, which is a rail system, but you have to take another rail system to get to it. To get to our hotel we had to take a rail system to a rail system to a rail system, all three of which are independent of each other. Frankly, it’s very easy, but entrepreneurs make money taking pictures of the terrified and confused tourists walking around in circles at the airport. Your picture will be made available at the airport before boarding your plane back home. For a nominal fee.

Once you get downtown with your MUNI Passport, feel free to get on any bus, any cable car, any street car, or any MUNI Metro car, but you will first have to pass a test, telling the operator the difference between all four of these. Most people don’t know the difference between a cable car and a streetcar, and if you don’t, they make you walk to the Cable Car Museum to learn. The correct answer is they’re all the same, except the cable cars cost more of you don’t have a MUNI Passport.

Travel tip: I just saved you a long walk to the Cable Car Museum. Or maybe not. You’ll find out.

San Francisco offers a variety of hotel accommodations to suit all budgets, beginning at six thousand dollars per night. Plus $800 per night for parking in case you’re too big of a wuss to figure out the public transportation.

On the first trip, we selected a room on a fifth floor bed-and-breakfast walk-up. Nothing says “welcome home” to a weary tourist (on the verge of cardiac arrest from climbing steep streets all day) like five flights of stairs. In addition, we got to share toilets and showers with other guests on our floor, all of whom we saw naked or grunting, because they had not yet learned how to use a latch. We soon grew weary at surprising naked people who threatened to sue us, so we bathed and urinated in the in-room sink. Usually not at the same time.

Travel tip: Make sure you add colostomy bags and moist towelettes on your pre-travel list if you are to stay in a bed and breakfast.

San Francisco is a beautiful city, and is modernly green. Most of the buses are electric. You never see litter. It’s illegal to not recycle. On our second trip, we stayed at an inexpensive dive right on Market Street. We almost turned around when we saw signs that read: “The premises of this building are sometimes infused with chemicals known to be carcinogens.” We were worried, but because the place was cheap, we opted for cancer rather than moving to a $6000-a-night hotel. We later asked the motel manager what this was all about, and he told us it just means that smoking was allowed at the outer premises and in some rooms. Here we’d been terrified, thought we’d have to go buy lead sleeping bags, and all these notices ended up to be about the dangers of cigarettes. I am assuming that No Smoking signs in San Francisco read: “No Public Infusion of Carcinogenic Materials.”

But no residents in San Francisco smoke. They are all trying to live long enough to collect the rest of their Powerball winnings.

The gay tourist should always take the pilgrimage to the Castro, but beware that it is not the Castro of the historic 70’s, when champagne and semen flowed freely through the streets. The Castro is entirely different than it was in the days of Harvey Milk. For one thing, I saw a woman there. Also, the Castro men no longer wear Levi’s and tight t-shirts and leather jackets, nor do they sport thick mustaches. Unfortunately, I do. I was asked if I had just stepped out of a time machine. It was mortifying. So if you’re going to make the trip to the Castro and want to fit in, make sure you are thin, hairless and in your twenties. Otherwise, people will look at you just as they did at me when we were in the Haight, trying to find out if there were any openings in communes. The Castro still has the occasional sex toy shop, but places like Headlines, All American Boy, Mr. S. Leather, and all the cheesy peep shows are gone or have moved in search of cheaper rents. Hopefully they will end up in neighboring storefronts (read: the ground floor cells) at Alcatraz Luxury Condominiums. What is taking that credit check so long?

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