I have had enough of the dark winters of the American Midwest—those grey days east of the Mississippi that turn bones into glacial ice and nary a hill to ski upon. Lifting above the gloomy duvet in an airplane, with the intense sunlight blasting through the porthole into the plane cabin, is therapy for the four-season dweller. Some of my best travel has included not only the change in scenery but climate. Removing myself from the cold of December on the East Coast to a place that is perpetually 65 degrees can cause a culture shock in the muscles and mind. But what a welcome culture shock to the system it can be. And to do that well, California in December is the place to be—specifically, San Francisco.
San Francisco on a bad weather day is still somehow a good day. As Larry Geraldi once said, “I prefer a wet San Francisco to a dry Manhattan.” And I agree. Even when you are sick, there is something in the City by the Bay that heals and soothes.
A cousin of mine lived near Telegraph Hill, one of the bedrock fortifications of Old San Francisco—the kind of place you’d want to be if “The Big One” ever hits—safe from the tremors and the liquefaction of the city’s landfill waterfront. I had a work meeting in Monterey on a Monday, but took advantage of a weekend to travel out early to see him, and SanFran. His corner of San Francisco overlooked the Bay, with the Golden Gate on the horizon. The fog sat on top of the goldenrod gateway. December College bowl games on the big screen could not compete with watching a fog roll in from his couch, with the cliché foghorn doing its job.
This view was nearly all that I saw of San Francisco, as I arrived on a Saturday afternoon on an early bird flight from the East Coast. I didn’t hydrate before the flight, and by the fifth hour, had begun to feel exceptionally ill. By the time I landed, I looked like death–the tell-tale signs of airsickness. I became the house guest no one wants, a sickly sack of a man couch surfing on a weekend. I had come to San Francisco to hide from the winter doldrums–now the city would have to cure me of airsickness as well.
Airsickness is inevitable for the frequent flyer. The symptoms feel like the flu, with cold sweats and disorientation. The inner ear decides to go on a never ending Ferris Wheel ride. The gut suffers from a never ending sucker punch. I was determined to overcome this debilitation. This was my first foray into ‘frisco and I was not going to limit myself to a distant view.
The cousin walks me down Telegraph Hill to La Boulage, a fine little bistro near Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. The square is busy with the scenes of San Fransisco–a group of Chinese retirees do their morning tai chi in the park. An intense gentleman in black leans against the brickwork of the bistro, staring intensely toward street level, flicking his ash into the gutter. With no sense of irony, he is wearing a black polo shirt from “The Beat Museum”, the reliquary of the 1950’s era poetry movement. (Movements end when they go on exhibit, in my opinion). The smoke was aggravating my nausea. Hallucinations, nausea, sensitive smell, disorientation. Had I not just disembarked from the airport, one might think I was under other, Haight-Ashbury influences.
Feeding this ailment was a poor choice, the body reacting by heaving, followed by dry heaving. I needed sleep. Perhaps I would be refreshed in a few hours. But before that respite, I would have to march up the steep grade of Telegraph Hill.
Faced with the prospect of playing housenurse to kin, I assured the cousin that I’d be fine–with a gallon of water nearby to force hydration. By the time I awoke from my haze, it was still daylight. I had passed out for a considerable time–it was now Sunday–and I lost a full day of my visit. I still hadn’t eaten much and the sucker punch still lingered. I felt ahead of schedule, on East coast time. It was 10 AM on the West Coast, but Sunday football was already on the screen on the East coast. Another disorientation for the traveler! With no one home, I decided to wander out and see what I could see of San Francisco. The nearest monument was directly above me–Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.
Another staircase! My legs felt full of lead, and the fog of airsickness still affected me. Yet, I was determined to make a memory in this city. I marched up the stairs to see this Art Deco pillar atop the hill. Coit Tower is a curious monument. Not as internationally known as say, the Golden Gate Bridge or the TransAmerica Building, Coit Tower is a landmark for San Franciscans.
The tower was named for its benefactor–Lilly Coit. Coit’s story proves that the eccentricity and charisma of San Francisco is nothing new. Lilly Coit grew up fascinated by the fire brigade. She wanted to be a firefighter, and would follow the brigade on runs. At five years old, she was the mascot of the local brigade and later made an honorary fireman. Coit set the “pantsuits” trend long-before Hillary Clinton, wearing men’s pants so she could sneak into saloons to gamble and smoke cigars.In 1929, Lilly bequeathed $100,000 upon her death to honor the city she adored. And the city reciprocated the honor by making a monument in her name.
On the ascent, a greenish blur shot past my head. I flinched, then looked up. The pleasant weather and fecund landscape make for an excellent home for San Francisco’s feral parrots, who call Telegraph Hill home. The parrots were the subject of a documentary–The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Their arrival on Telegraph Hill is speculative–many were likely former pets. Numbering the 100’s, the flock has grown into a nuisance for some, and a joy for others. Mark Bittner, a vagabond and subject of the film, lovingly maintains a blog on the birds.
I make through the parrot forest, and arrive at the front door of the tower, taking in the bay air and hoping the airsickness is cured. Inside the tower, I find another unexpected distraction. The tower exterior was completed just before the Great Depression. The Works Project Administration was able to put artisans to work on the interior spaces, decorating with frescoes in the “social realism” manner of the 1940’s. Artisans inspired by the socialist murals of Diego Rivera captured the San Franciscan everyman in their murals. The works heave with leftist and Marxist views that were en vogue in San Francisco before Age of McCarthyism. One painting depicts a man reaching for Marx’s Das Kapital from a library bookshelf. Another work —Industries of California–is based on Rivera’s Man at the Center of the Universe. The Rivera work–with Lenin at the center of the mural operating a great machine–was commissioned by the ur-Capitalist Rockefeller family for the Rockefeller Center in New York. John Rockefeller Jr had the work destroyed because of the Lenin inclusion. Much of the work found in Coit Tower is in protest to that event.
Having lived in Washington, DC for so long–where every street corner has a triumphant “great man” of history in bronze or marble–the focus on the nameless Americans from that bygone era made for refreshing public art. Contrasted with the austere limestone facade of the tower, I was reminded more of the spectacle of a cathedral gilt from floor to ceiling rather than the glorious Soviet.
Peering toward the city through the portholes in the tower, I felt a bit refreshed and ready to tackle Filbert Street for my descent back to the cousin’s pad. Filbert Street is arguably the steepest road in the Western Hemisphere–with portions of the road converted to a pedestrian staircase, meandering through thoroughly secluded spaces on Telegraph Hill. The garden-like atmosphere makes for a pleasant walk, thankfully downhill. The fog lifting not only from the Bay by my head, I thank the whimsy of Coit Tower, its murals and its flying denizens for restoring my health and salvaging my visit.