This piece appeared in the November, 2013 issues of Destinations Travel Magazine
Offering up bridges and baseball, bay views and bread bowls, San Francisco certainly is one generous metropolis.
The City by the Bay gave the world the majestic and powerful sight of the Golden Gate Bridge and the sensation of Alcatraz Island, emerging from the sea foam with eerie history lapping against its jagged rocks. It gave the world the carnival sounds of Pier 39, pierced by laughter and the barking from the notorious sea lions. And the city’s smells are a gift unto themselves: fresh-baked sourdough bread dancing out from Boudin’s bakery, floating past the fresh seafood to mingle with a deep, rich chocolate aroma pouring out over Ghirardelli Square. Stunning photos, memorable stories, whimsical souvenirs and decadent chocolate – all swirled together for the taking.
San Francisco certainly has a lot to give.
But amidst a dazzling array of world-famous attractions, San Francisco’s greatest gift is one that nobody else has, and yet it is one that reaches around the world.
A quick walk away from the sea lions and souvenir shops is necessary for those seeking that special something. Right where Columbus Avenue makes its sweeping curve, before the famous beat poet hangout City Lights Bookstore, is a unique place where life converges in a way unaltered by preconceptions or prejudices. It is where cultures and countercultures collide head on at one San Francisco intersection.
Climb San Francisco’s Columbus Avenue 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 poet leftovers (including City Lights), Alan Ginsberg seemingly still stepping over sidewalk cracks. There’s even a museum dedicated to the art form, which looks 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.
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 this city is one that embraces the differences that make humanity so diverse. It is a tangible location that embodies San Francisco’s gift of understanding.
But not until you stand at this intersection and peer down Grant Street, which juts off the curve like a tiny piece of paper from an unopened fortune cookie, do you really get it.
I explored Grant Street by myself, admiring the zigzagging lanterns that decorated the main thoroughfare of San Francisco’s Chinatown. I stopped at the most curious stores, such as the market that smelled like the dry fish flakes. I guessed the briny smell came from the bins of dried shrimp and jars of dried shark fin. Nearby, a woman at the Wok Shop (you guessed it, woks only) explained in broken English which wok suited me best.
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. 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.
The VitaLife Tea Shop drew me in, as well as a few others, with a sign promising a free tea tasting. But Kenny the tea master kept us all there by combining a flare for the dramatic with razor sharp comedic timing. 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.
Sweetener was forbidden and anyone that thought otherwise, like the British, Kenny had long ago decided was unworthy of the finest leaf.
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.
Kenny tossed out his life philosophies, which he insisted were garnered from the tealeaves. He followed that up by insisting that tea gives people a high, pointing out that the mother-daughter pair seated next to me was certainly feeling the effects.
After two hours, too much tea and a few tear-eyed laughs, I floated out of the teashop relaxed and happy.
I weaved randomly through Chinatown, falling off the beaten path and ultimately into a fortune cookie factory that allowed me to watch them bake, my spontaneity rewarded with a free cookie.
Ultimately I made it back to the top of Grant Street where it pierces Columbus Avenue. I stopped to take in the myriad cultures, from Italian to Chinese to beat poet.
I checked my backpack, which was now filled with some old books from City Lights, some Italian olive oil and a couple bags of rare tea. They were packed up next to the Ghirardelli chocolate I had already purchased, the funny souvenir I got on Alcatraz and my camera that held some stunning photos of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The eclectic collection of items in my bag became holiday gifts for my family and friends. The eclectic collection of sights, sounds, smells and cultures in San Francisco is a gift to everyone.