The first time I came to San Francisco, I was in the back seat of my parent’s car, on another of my family’s extended summer vacations, most often wrapped around the week of a convention of barbershop singers. I must have been around 13 or so. We drove across California and I distinctly remember driving on I-80 towards the city, passing the hills outside Livermore labs, and looking up to see clouds spilling over the hills outside of Oakland.
Those clouds were the famous San Francisco fog.
San Francisco was shrouded in mist the entire time we were there. It was chilly and we wore raincoats in July, but I’ll always remember seeing a cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” for the first time, the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge with its red towers poking through the fog, and watching the seals on the rocks through the hyper-real reflection of the camera obscura lens.
Later, I would spend some of my favorite professional moments here, with some of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with (Peggy and Greg) , creating zany stories for an environmental series we used to produce. We’d stay in North Beach/Chinatown at the Holiday Inn (which is now a Hilton) and eat at least one meal (often more) at the House of Nanking, which was a sliver of a storefront, packed to the gills with diners, crammed into narrow tables, and often a significant line out the door. The shrimp cakes, hot and sour soup and sesame chicken were amazing. The service was speedy but impersonal and the waiters would hurry you through the meal… they’d say things in Chinese which I’m sure meant “turnover, turnover!”
I had lunch there the other day. It has doubled in size, taking over the space next to it. But, judging by the stanchions out front, there are still hefty crowds. And the food is still good (but there’s no such thing as a lunch portion, so I ate way too much). SF Bay Guardian “Cheap Eats” columnist I.E. (née Dan) Leone, who I know from Youngstown, Ohio, where he was the editor of my college newspaper, has dubbed the House of Nanking “The Puke of Puke-Puke .” To each his own.
My mission this week in San Francisco is two-fold: to take classes in multimedia software, and to visit one of my oldest, dearest friends, Brian.
I’m taking the classes downtown, right across from the iconic Transamerica tower, a very different pyramid from the ones I’ve lived near this past year. After classes, I’ve been taking nostalgic strolls in the surrounding neighborhoods: North Beach (near City Lights bookstore and Vesuvio’s tavern), and up to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.
My strategy for dealing with culture shock of returning home after a year in Egypt has been to take in as much culture as I can in my first weeks back. My first weekend in New York, I saw Sir Ian McKellen with the Royal Shakespeare Company twice, doing both the bard’s “King Lear” and Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull. ” There’s perhaps no greater antidote to a year spent in a very conservative culture and city than to spend time in two of the most dynamic and non-conservative towns in America. The creative energy is infectious.
My pal Brian is a standup comic (you can learn more about him at his site), and awful clever, so my week in San Francisco has also been a lot of laughs and full of surprises.