Day 55 – San Francisco

The thing about the bay area is that it has a really big bay right in the middle of it.

This is good if you are driving a boat, or if you are a fish. If you are driving a car, though, it makes for a difficult commute. It is only about 5 miles from Oakland to San Francisco, but it is about 70 miles by land. That is why they build bridges, of course, but every one of the 8 or so bridges across the long bay is a toll bridge. And not cheap toll bridges, at that.

I came to learn that it is free to cross some of the bridges in certain directions at certain times of day. I don’t know all the rules or schedules, though a local could probably tell you how the system works. Two out of the 3 bridges I crossed were free, though, which saved enough money to pay for lunch.

I think I passed through 28 bay area suburbs before I actually entered San Francisco proper. The first thing I noticed about the city was the architecture. At least in the southern part of San Francisco, near the Cow Palace, the houses were all row houses—similar to the south sides of Boston and Philadelphia. In San Francisco, though, the houses were all very square and very brightly colored. It sort of looked like the city had been laid out by a Boston planner, built by Mexican architects, painted by a crew from New Orleans, and then sold to the Chinese.

Farther north, I got into the famous hilly streets of San Francisco. Some of these were, in fact, very very steep. The movies don’t even do them justice. They were also rather hard to get around on, and not because of the hills: one street had a rail lane for trolleys, a lane for bicycles, and no designated lanes for regular cars. It also allowed almost no left-hand turns, which was the only direction I needed to go. On top of all that, some people clogged up lanes by double-parking.

Parking was a problem. I headed toward Fisherman’s Wharf, which does have a small amount of free parking along the dead end of Van Ness Avenue. Of course, this parking was all full, and parking sharks circled the area to immediately take any spots that were vacated by departing cars. The rest of the parking was rather expensive, and got more expensive the longer you stayed in the area. Parking meters were something like 5 minutes for a quarter, or some such nonsense. I paid to park in a lot and kept a close watch on the time, hoping to get back right before one of the cut-off points when they charge you for an additional 20 or 30 minutes.

I asked the parking lot attendant for a recommendation of a good place to eat. I had been told that they had great Italian and Chinese food in San Francisco. I asked him which would be a better choice.

“At Fisherman’s Wharf?” he replied. “The best places are seafood.”

He gave me the name of a restaurant that he recommended, and some basic directions on how to find it. I ended up having to stop at an information booth to ask for directions again, even though it was only a very few blocks from the parking lot. Turns out I had missed it because it was out on one of the piers, on the water. It also turned out that all the waiters and waitresses at this restaurant wore tuxedos, which indicated that this place was a little pricier than I wanted to pay for a lunch alone. Most of the other big restaurants along the waterfront were not a whole lot cheaper. I ended up getting something roughly equivalent to fast food from a place with no indoor seating.

While walking along the Hyde Street Pier, which is home to a couple of floating museum ships you can tour, I spotted something moving in the water. It was a man swimming laps around the docked ships, in the pier area that was mostly walled off from the rest of the bay.

Or perhaps he was just escaping from Alcatraz.

I had thought it would be cool to paddle my kayak out to Alcatraz. Enough people had famously tried to break out, and it might be fun to break in instead. The island is not all that far from Fisherman’s Wharf. But, I had called a truce with the Pacific Ocean, and was not about to break that.

Well, maybe about to. Though I knew I would not go out to Alcatraz, the area around the pier was protected from any waves or moving ships—which is why the swimmer was not as crazy as he might have looked. A sign on the retaining wall that held off the bay even said “watch for swimmers”. If it was safe for a swimmer, it would be safe for a kayak, and would allow me to get a closer look at the beautiful sailing ships.

All I needed was a place to park close to the water. And that is where the idea died, because I already knew there were no open parking spaces close to the shore.

So, I went back to my pickup—2 minutes late on the parking charges, dang it—and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge up into the northern bay area.


I flipped through NPR stations on the radio as I drove toward Berkeley. I was not disappointed, as the local shows discussed topics such as the history of “women’s music”, which it turns out is defined as being mostly about lesbian relationships, and offered to give away copies of a “life-changing” new age spiritual book if you donated to their pledge drive.

Berkeley is known as being one of the most liberal places in America. I thought I should check it out for that reason, just to see what it was like. I drove over to the edge of the Cal-Berkeley campus, and stopped in at a coffee shop just across the street from the university.

I am not sure what modern-day hippies would wear, but none of the people in the crowded coffee shop stood out as looking different than your standard latte-drinker in any other city. I did notice that everyone, almost to the last person, had a laptop out and running, and that the napkins were made from recycled paper. I used quite a few of the napkins, and threw them away afterwards.

Everyone appeared preoccupied, and not necessarily looking to talk with a stranger. And I just wasn’t—I don’t know, I just wasn’t feeling it. Whatever “it” might be. It might have been interesting to interview a random stranger on the Berkeley campus, but I was fresh out of extrovertedness that afternoon. I felt more like taking a nap than getting into any potential political arguments. And the big city just wasn’t inspiring me the way that nature often does.

I plotted a course toward Yosemite. Before leaving the bay area completely, though, I took care of some errands, and hung around long enough to grab some Chinese food for supper. After all, the fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco.


I eventually found a restaurant with the sufficiently cheesy name of “China Garden”.

Actually, China Garden was rather nice on the inside. It was not your typical run-down shopping center Chinese place. It had tablecloths, a proper menu, and rather good food.

Of course, it still had fortune cookies. The tiny scroll inside the cookie I received contained the message:

One can never have too many friends.

That’s it? Not that I was expecting much, but…

Sure, I couldn’t argue with the statement. It was certainly true. But this was supposed to be a fortune cookie, which means it should tell some kind of fortune. It should have some kind of prediction for the future, no matter how vague or widely applicable.

This wasn’t a fortune cookie. It was an obvious cookie.

If I were in charge of a Chinese restaurant, it would have real fortune cookies, regardless of how inaccurate they might be. Or, better yet, misfortune cookies. A cousin and I have discussed ideas for a Chinese restaurant that serves fortune cookies which tell a patron’s fortune, but always in a negative way. Messages like “You will realize all your dreams, except for the good ones” or “Perhaps you shouldn’t have eaten that chicken”. A bit morbid, perhaps, but different, and different sells.

And Americans sue, even for “mental anguish”


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© 2007 by Kevin McConaghy. All rights reserved.