Right where Columbus Ave makes its sweeping curve, before the famous beat poet hangout City Lights Bookstore, is the nexus of the universe. A unique place where life converges in a way unaltered by preconceptions or prejudices. It is where cultures and countercultures collide head on like particles whizzing toward each other in an atom smasher. And all this at one San Francisco intersection.
Climb Columbus and you’ve scaled North Beach, a predominantly Italian neighborhood rivaling Boston’s North End or New York’s Little Italy for number of salami-hung windows. Cafes line the streets, gelato on every corner and the sweet tang of mama’s sauce wafting from any one of the umpteen ristorantes.
At its edge, North Beach buffers the beat leftovers (including City Lights), Alan Ginsberg seemingly still stepping over sidewalk cracks. There’s even a museum dedicated to the art form, appearing on the outside like an old time movie theater with uplit marquee and all.
But that isn’t the only marquee at the intersection. Underneath blaring neon lights lifesize photos of barely clothed women smile lustfully at unsuspecting tourists who were told the area had good Italian food. This red light district flows seamlessly back and forth with the beat poet museum and enforce counterculture seediness without so much as batting a single, heavily mascara-covered eye. Business must boom from the business district at the bottom of the hill, where one of the Bay Area’s most distinctive towers looms high in a skinny pyramid shape.
Exploring this area strips one layer off of San Francisco after another. The general feel may come as confusing to an outsider. But when you see the traditions intermingled, the people coexisting in bustling harmony, you understand that the city is one of understanding – or at least of minding one’s own business.
But not until you stand at this intersection and peer down Grant Street, which juts off the curve like a fortune tag from an unopened fortune cookie, do you really get it.
Row after row of Chinese lanterns were strewn zig-zagged down Grant Street, the main thoroughfare of San Francisco’s famed Chinatown. I traversed it once alone, stopping at most stores un-entered by tourists, such as the Chinese market that smelled like the dry fish flakes I used to feed my goldfish. I would have to guess that salty, heavily fishy smell came from the bins of dried brine shrimp and jars of dried shark fin. I’m uneducated in any of the other products lying en masse for purchase, and my single attempt to ask the store clerk proved fruitless (they didn’t sell fruit either). But the Wok Shop (you guessed it, woks only) was more helpful. She explained in broken English which wok I should buy, should I desire to lug home a cast iron piece with bamboo handle. A few doors down I read a sign that said Asian Art Museum and, seeing nobody entering, decided to enter. The first floor opened onto a spiral ramp, in the middle of which gathered a group of older Chinese men, huddled around a table occupied by an even older Chinese man. The eldest was painting Chinese writing on beautiful scrolls in deep ebony ink. The crowd watched, applauded and even tried their hand a few times. I climbed the ramp and looked down on the scene, few others beside me. The experience was mesmerizing, watching the crackled old hands skillfully draw the brush barely over the scroll, whisping it at precisely the right moment for maximum letter beauty and showmanship.
Of course, upon description to my wife, she had to see Chinatown for herself and we embarked on a few hour trek together the next day. Before we could even get through the gate at the other end of Grant Street, we were transported into another world. VitaLife Tea Shop is a must for anyone looking to meet the locals and drink away a few hours without the alcohol hangover.
Kenny, our tea master (correct term?) got us in with his sign promising a free tea tasting. But his flare and genuine enjoyment of his craft kept us sitting and sipping for two hours.
We must’ve tried a dozen teas – green, red, black, some to give energy, some to calm the muscles, even one that smelled and tasted like soggy brocolli, guaranteed to soothe arthritis.
“Tea is not about what you want. It’s about what you need,” Kenny said, his ponytail bobbing with each nod.
He wouldn’t allow sweetener, that’s forbidden and the English are, well, Kenny used a few unflattering terms for the way the Brits drink their tea.
But dare I say I learned a few things while on vacation? Our fellow daring vacationers and a couple locals sat alongside us, sipping and sweet-talking with our tea master. He turned the entire affair into a one-man show, knowing full well that the dozen shelves of mammoth glass jars filled with tea were not going to sell themselves. Especially the one high up (apparently tea, like liquor, gets finer and more expensive the higher the shelf), that cost $800 per pound. And yes, we did try some. I couldn’t taste the $800; maybe $500, but who knows, I just started drinking tea a few months back in London, so obviously what do I know?
“We lie,” Kenny said at one point, opining about men and their relationships with women. He did that quite a bit, tossing out his life philosophies garnered from the tea leaves. “I mean, look, I have a jar of tea called “Monkey Pick.” A monkey can’t pick a tea!”
He made sure to tell us that tea gives people a high, and pointed to the mother-daughter combo seated next to me and screeched, “Look, Mom is so high!”
After two hours, too much tea and a few tear-eyed laughs (Kenny at one point told an obnoxious visitor that the bathroom was outside, down one block, turn right and down one block then turn right into an alley and to squat there – and didn’t correct her until she was just out the door following his directions), Danielle and I floated out of the tea shop relaxed and happy.
We walked through Chinatown, off the beaten path and found a fortune cookie factory that let us go in and watch. We got free cookies for our spontaneity.
Ultimately we made it back to Grant Street and to the top where it pierces Columbus. Danielle stopped short and took in the myriad cultures that bombarded her all at once, from Italian to beat poet to gentlemen’s club. We breathed in the last bits of Chinatown and, perhaps a bit high from the tea, looked across the crazy counter-culture intersection. Down a side street I hadn’t previously noticed, near an Italian place and a strip club, sat a Mexican taco joint, as welcoming and welcomed as if it were part of the neighborhood.