PAUL'S PICKS: B-day by the Bay

Editor's Note: This article is part of a new series by writer-photographer Paul Ross featuring field-tested reviews of places, products and services that enhance the travel experience. All are evaluated honestly. If something is just bad, he won’t write about it. If it's really bad, or darn right dangerous, he will warn you. 

Story and photos by Paul Ross

This year I decided to celebrate my birthday early in San Francisco. 

As an AARP-certified senior, it’s years since I’ve been festive about my natal day and even longer since I’ve visited “Baghdad-by-the-bay” (coined in the 1940’s by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen). Growing up in Southern California, I osmotically acquired a slight sense of residual rivalry toward Frisco. We had sun, surf, sand, and they had fog, cold, and business. As an adult, I figured it was time to explore what many locals call “the City” had to offer.

The Golden Gate Bridge. (The only ways to get this particular view are swim, jump or take a bay cruise. I recommend the last.)

BAY AREA CLASSIC

I decided to start out with a Bay Area classic: the venerated Mark Hopkins hotel atop elegant Nob Hill via cable-car-carrying California Street. The hotel features a museum of the hotel’s colorful history from its Victorian era founding through its heyday housing of celebrity guests; their favorite watering hole was the Top of the Mark with its almost 360 degree view.

I was fascinated by nostalgia-laced mementos and exhibits, like a video interview with a nonagenarian who was once a nude model and photos of the big bands that had played there. “The City” preserves her majesty in ornate buildings and cable cars, one of which I rode down to Chinatown, while vowing to hike back up the really steep slope to work off Sum of my Dim dumplings. 

When, on a family vacation, I first went to Chinatown as a kid, my grandfather took us all to a restaurant frequented by Danny Kaye, so of course I had a yen to go back. Located on heavily touristic Grant Avenue, the food is so tired that it could’ve been leftovers from Kaye’s days. But when I walked a few blocks from Grant to Jackson Street, I discovered Z & Y, which, despite its bland name, featured hot and spicy Szechuan delights I never dreamed of as an L.A. boy. Z&Y is on the same block as the P&R and the ABC restaurants and is as easy to find as 1,2,3.

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Hippie Bob

by Jules Older

 

Sure, I wanted to go to San Francisco. Cable cars, Chinatown, Golden Gate… and something more. Daughter Willow had moved to the Haight district, which in my day was the hippie epicenter of the world. What a chance to introduce Willow to her dad’s own, personal history! So I signed us both up for something called the Haight-Ashbury Hippie History Bus Tour.

Along with four 20-year-olds — I think they were history students — Willow and I climbed aboard the bus — the psychedelic VW bus — owned and operated by tour leader, Hippie Bob.

H.B. was in his fifties. He wore a long, graying ponytail and those little, round John Lennon glasses. He had on enough love beads to serve as a flotation device, and he smelled of a familiar herb; maybe it was patchouli. Maybe not. 

Just the guy to teach my daughter modern American history. 

“Hippies like me came out to the Haight for the Summer of Love,” Hippie Bob began. “We lived in communes in big old houses like the ones on this street.”

“When was the Summer of Love, Bob?” Willow asked. 

“In the sixties, man. Definitely in the sixties. And call me Hippie Bob. That’s my handle, you dig?”

Willow looked puzzled. “I, uh, dig, but when in the sixties, Bo — Hippie Bob?”

“I dunno. We weren't all hung up with numbers and dates and stuff back then. If it feels good, do it.” 

I piped up, trying to help the history lesson progress. “Wasn’t that 1967, Hippie Bob? And weren't there many famous rock stars and other cultural icons living right here in the Haight?”

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Fresh Eyes

by Jules Older

When you live in a place, after awhile, you lose your fresh eyes.

© Jules Older. 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CAIt doesn't mean you're dumb or insensitive or unaware of your surroundings. Unless you work hard to correct it, sure as fog, sooner or later you're gonna misplace your awareness of what you see and smell, hear and taste on your way to work or walking home from school or going out for the Sunday paper.

Sometimes it’s actually a relief. As one travel-writer friend sighed about her blissful oblivion to her hometown surroundings, “Ah, the luxury of not seeing!”

But, ah the pleasures of seeing through fresh eyes. Everything is new, everything is fascinating. Every pungent smell from a Chinese grocery, every touch of salt spray on a beach, every clang of a cable-car bell and visual surprise of a public wall mural — they all capture your attention, alert you to what makes your new home different from the old place.

My old place is rural Vermont. More, it’s the coldest, snowiest, most isolated part of Vermont, the northern end of the three northern counties known collectively as the Northeast Kingdom. That’s where I've lived since 1986, that’s where I was a justice of the peace, that’s where I grew garlic and basil and tomatoes. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom: where I've shoveled snow off the roof and cowshit out of the barn. The old place.

The new place is San Francisco. Yeah, I just moved here.

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