This is America's premier train. I had looked forward to this trip for months. Like the other Amtrak trains, it runs a consist including coaches, sleeper cars, a diner and an observation lounge car. But in addition, unlike any other, there was the Pacific Parlour Car, a fine first-class-only lounge car. A bit more plush and upscale than the coach lounge, a free continental breakfast was offered and continuous goodies from the bar all day. In the afternoon, the car runs a wine tasting session so that passengers may sample the local stuff-and buy a bottle of it at a premium cost afterwards, of course, if they wish. I was looking forward to the mini library, and the cushiony chairs that were not offered in the coach lounge with its plastic seats.
Sherry, Yoli and I had breakfast together about 7am. Sherry was going to drive us to the bus stop near their house so that we could catch it to the train station. It would have been a long haul for Sherry, who had to be at work. Shortly before it was time to catch the city bus, we hopped in their little blue Honda and headed out. Approaching the corner on the main drag, Sherry looked to her left and cried, "Oh oh, the bus is early! There it is." Sure enough, it was powering up engines after a stop to cross the intersection, so Sherry cut a snappy right turn and roared up to a jolting stop. We three burst out of the car, grabbed the luggage from the trunk, and just as the bus came up behind us, said our quick good byes even while jogging towards the bus.
We made it, and the ride was uneventful. Well, you'd expect it to be, wouldn't you? It's not like someone was going to hijack a city bus, though there was the nutty southerner who slit the throat of the Greyhound driver shortly after 9/11. Anyway, the King Street Station is downtown Seattle. The south side, I believe, which as usual, means the poorer area. Many of Amtrak's station nationwide are in undesirable areas, with few notable exceptions.
The station looked nice from the outside, an old dark-red brick structure rising square and squat. Nothing grand like Union Station in Chicago or New York, but attractively quaint, reminding me a bit of a few stations I'd encountered in Eastern Europe. Inside, the place was rundown, quite unappealing. The nice thing was that it was big and open. A few rows of worn but adequate chairs were half filled with travelers reading or chatting quietly. A line was forming in front of the ticket counter, and a couple people were looking out of the doors which would lead us all to the embarkation area. If it weren't for the high pealing walls and the stained floor, I would have quite liked it. Actually I think I did. I hadn't yet felt like I'd been even once in a real train station. Union Station in Chicago had been almost luxurious (in the First Class lounge); Omaha's was a nonentity it was so tiny. But this building emitted a feeling of venerable age that was respectable even in its decline. I suddenly remembered that the King Street Station had been mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guidebook to Seattle. The 1998 edition warned of the decrepit condition and explained that refurbishment of the station was expected to be completed by 2000. I think the city government was behind schedule.
I wandered a bit outside in the immediate vicinity, where there was a good photo op for the station with the backdrop of downtown. I walked into a nice-looking coffee shop offering a variety of pastries and ordered a coffee and donut.
Back at the station, Yoli and I got in the first-class passengers line. I was getting excited about boarding another train again. A voice on the loudspeaker announced that the first-class passengers would be boarding first. Then came the announcement of all the stops along the way to the train's final destination of Los Angeles. Then the heartbreaking news. "Unfortunately folks, the Pacific Parlour Car won't be in the consist today, but we're running an additional coach lounge for first class passengers."
I couldn't believe it. I'd discussed this horrible possibility on the website AMTRAKTRAINS.COM, where rail lovers met to discuss Amtrak. I had been assured by Allen that the Pacific Parlour Car was only pulled off the Coast Starlight once or so every two or three months. When it was time to present my ticket at the ticket stand beside the door, the agent just said, "Real bad timing, that's what it is." Grrrrrr.
Well, there it was. I hate disappointment so I usually shrug it off as an annoyance as soon as possible. Besides, this gave me a great excuse to take the Coast Starlight again. I decided to add it to my great North American train trip, which I was due to undertake sometime in the next couple years. With that consolation, we walked out with several other passengers and strolled alongside the great machine itself. There were at least twelve or thirteen cars, and the sleepers were towards the front, so it was a bit of a stroll. I didn't mind, though. I loved looking at the cars, colossal cars of steel, carried along by equally impressive undercarriage and wheels. A narrow streak of silver, a "cruise ship" without the pool, the train is a grand, desirable throwback to the simpler days we all dream about. As we approached our car, again I thought that Americans were foolish people to always travel frenetically. Why do we insist on constant movement and noise in our lives?
We had the same room number as we'd had on the Empire Builder: #12. It was lower level, which we'd asked for. This meant easy access to three bathrooms, the shower, and fewer people. We settled in, shoving our packs onto the shelves provided for larger luggage and then snugging Yoli's smaller daypack into a nook beside my chair. There was time to go outside and loiter before departure, so we did so. When you fly, you're trapped in the aircraft sometimes for up to half an hour, crammed in and wishing evil upon the airlines. But with train travel, there is a freedom of movement that translates into a lightness of being, and that tinge of excitement that should build within a traveler about to embark on a voyage of discovery is allowed to build, not be crushed with frustration when the pilot announces apologetically that five more 767's have priority clearance.
When the familiar "All aboard!" cry came, an affable giant of a black man ushered us into a car, which happened to be the first-class lounge car, the substitute for my beloved Pacific Parlour Car.
Actually it was pretty nice. On the lower level, white tablecloths had been laid carefully over the plastic tables, and an impromptu continental breakfast was waiting for us. "Just help yourselves folks! There's plenty of fruit and cereal, and beverages are right over here." he pointed to the buffet counter in the corner, "for free of course!" He chuckled. "So have your fill, and then come upstairs in about another fifteen minutes. I'll be giving you all a little talk about our new Pacific Parlour Car."
We had eaten at Sherry's, but since a body never knows when it might get food again on the road (this is actually a genetic factor within human beings, pressing them to consume more), both of us chowed on some cereal and fruit. Good thing I was planning on all that walking up and down the length of the train!
Upstairs, Ross explained where the games were (a checkers set and a chess set), pointed out a few novels from the library (How to Raise Daffodils?), and promised to do everything he could to make our trip a great experience. Of all the Amtrak employees we were to encounter on the trip, Ross was to be the most polite and genuinely friendly. If he was acting, he should have won an Academy Award. He told us to be in the car promptly at 3 for the wine tasting ceremony, and then went downstairs to man the bar.
The Coast Starlight wound its way through the greenery and high hills of Washington, headed for Oregon. Contrary to its name, it never hugged the coast, but traveled well inland. Only between San Francisco and Los Angeles does the CS provide views of rugged coast land and sea. Anyway, I had the sea in Dubai so didn't care. It was enough to sip on cups of hot-and free-tea and coffee. We spent quite a bit of time in the lounge, as we had on the Empire Builder. We played a game of Boggle downstairs; we hung out in our sleeper. We'd asked the car attendant to make up the lower berth, so Yoli could stretch out and take a nap. Besides, the berth made up just makes the little cabin cozier. You can draw the curtains and just look out the picture window at the passing scenery. Time to slow down, to relax. I sometimes read. I was nearly finished with a novel about 17th Century traders off the coast of Africa. It had all the elements I loved: British mariners, travel to exotic locals, Arab sailors, all kinds of larger-than-life characters having adventures, and in this case, pirates and hidden coves.
But often I found my eyes drawn out of the fictional world and to the moving landscape. Even though much of it was unspectacular, really nothing more than "pretty countryside", it was land I'd never seen before, and had a strange appeal. When in the observation lounge, I could sit for quite a long time simply gazing outward at a world that I wasn't a part of. And though many of the other passengers were either engaged in conversation or reading or knitting, their eyes too often strayed to the ordinariness of that ever-changing landscape. When you pass a farmhouse, you can't help but wonder who lives there and something about their lives. Faint images of a solidly-built farmer in overalls, a teenage girl throwing hay to her colt, or a boy pounding a nail into a faltering fence, passed by my eyes like a series of flickering visions.
During a tea mood, I made my way down the staircase that turns in two sharp right angles on its way to the lower level. A few people were sitting at the tables, still draped with the white table cloths. One mother was playing cards with her three kids; a young couple sat at one booth looking at each other as well as the Washingtonian forests. A couple men, looking comfortably unstressed, stood in front of the bar, behind which Ross stood handing out drinks and snacks. "What cha need buddy?" he asked me. I ordered some tea, chatted with him a bit, and said so-long.
"Okay, bud. Hey, if there's anything you need at all, just say the word, okay?" he threw out. I swear that by the time I started climbing the steps, he'd asked another passenger if there was anything he could get for them. And the darndest thing is, I was sure he wasn't putting on an Amtrak show; he was the genuine article. What you saw was what you got. I would have liked to parade him before a herd of stressed-out airline stewardesses.
Lunch was sometime around 12:30 or 1:00. We lingered at the table with an older couple over tea and dessert, happy to be in the dining car. It's always kind of a thrill to be in the diner car. I don't know exactly why. Even though you have to learn the art of eating while moving (with all the tiny bounces and occasional sharp jolt), it's an adventure. Perhaps eating and moving, ordinarily being separate episodes in one's life, when combined illicit a sense of fun. Maybe it's the genetics again, the promise of survival through nourishment while away from the safety of "home". At any rate, I enjoyed my dessert: deep dish apple pie, the real stuff, with succulent slices of sweet glazed apple. One thing is for sure, Amtrak understands the importance of dessert. On the dessert menu was apple pie, chocolate truffle, cheesecake covered with cherries and/or chocolate syrup, and ice cream. I could never understand when I'd see a first class passenger, for whom dessert is free, settling for a measly scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was so unimaginative anyway, so irritating. But of course they didn't get fat, as I did.
After lunch, I rested in our sleeper, perhaps dozing a bit. It was nice to wake up, stretched out languidly, and relish the torpor into which I could happily and lazily exist without guilt. The trouble with me is that I find indolence to be too exhausting; my natural energy simply throws off the yoke of idleness and searches for something new and, if not exciting, at least different. I went upstairs where a large coffee urn had been filled with fresh coffee, the aroma strong and pleasantly wafting down the narrow corridor between sleeper rooms. I poured a cup and headed back for the lounge car. Balancing a cup of coffee in a ramblin' train is a bit tricky, but I'd achieved enough victories on the Empire Builder to allow me to proceed all the way to where Yoli was sitting without a drop spilt.
And so passed the afternoon and evening. We had dinner later in the evening. The dining car steward seated us with Al and Divora, who, not surprisingly, were over 50. Divora, a pleasant, exuberant woman, told us that she'd been a teacher. I forgot what Al did, but he was a nice old guy. They gave us a lot of tips about San Francisco. They certainly were big fans of San Francisco. "You have got to go to Golden Gate Park!" insisted Divora. "You can spend a whole day there. There's a wonderful old Japanese gardens with a teahouse." I had my usual steak dinner and Yoli had her favorite: fish. I hate to admit to having dessert again, feeling a bit guilty for doing so. Being borderline diabetic, huge chunks of chocolate truffle were not on the dietician's recommended list of food substitutes. I justified the treat with a vow to walk a lot in San Francisco. Besides, I reasoned, the city is a myriad of steep ascents. When we had finished dinner, Divora suggested having breakfast together in the morning. We agreed on 7, and returned to our sleeper and passed time by talking, playing boggle or just enjoying the rumble of the train. Around 11pm, most of the sleeper car passengers had drawn the curtains and were either sleeping or getting ready to sleep.
You have to be a little bit lithe to get into the upper berth. There is no ladder, so you have to use the armrest beside the lower berth as a stepping stone, swing your right leg onto the upper berth and roll over onto your back. I didn't have any trouble, but I cannot imagine how some of the older people on the train do it; I don't want to imagine it either. The other negative thing about the upper bunk is that there is no window, and it's smaller. Still, I reasoned, I wasn't there to gaze out the window all night, but to sleep. So I did.
I wondered if all the jolting during the night was due to California's famous earthquakes. Not really, but if not mother nature, Amtrak engineers are speeding. It's rough being in the upper berth in a two-story train. You are literally shaken out of dreamland every few minutes.
In the morning we had breakfast with Divora. Al, mistakenly believing his wife had wanted to sleep in, found two younger women to accompany him to the dining car. Yoli, Divora and I passed a leisurely breakfast as the train rolled towards San Francisco.
My two favorite cities in the US are Chicago and San Francisco. San Francisco is arguably the most cultured city in America. It has the greatest diversity, with the exception of New York City, and has, I think, some of the best architecture. All on a series of sharp hills. And the amazing thing is that of all the cities for cable cars to have been built in, San Francisco has them. The reason is simple: for the first few years, the city got so sick and tired of horses dying (horse-drawn trolleys) that they built the cable car system.
It's quite ingenious. A series of cables are buried beneath these near-vertical streets (there are only three cable car lines in the city). The cables are attached to the cars, and the driver basically stops the car with a heavy jerk on a device known as a grip lever, which fits a cog into a slot on the cable.
Not many natives of the city bother with the cable cars; the cars are slow and don't cover much territory. Tourists are the reason the city has decided to continue operating this ancient form of transportation. That and a bit of nostalgia. San Franciscans didn't want to do away with cable cars; neither do they use them themselves.
After the Coast Starlight came to the Emeryville stop, across the bay from San Francisco, an Amtrak bus ferried us over the Oakland-Bay bridge, a mighty contraption with three lanes in each direction. There are actually two spectacular bridges in San Francisco. Most people in the world recognize the Golden Gate Bridge; it's been seen in countless movies and TV shows. Unless you've been to San Francisco, you probably don't know the Oakland Bay Bridge, which was built in the 30's. At the time, it was considered the greatest bridge in the world in terms of length (4.5 miles!), weight, and amount of steel used. Currently, roughly 280,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily. The Golden Gate Bridge, on the other hand, stretches across the bay for only 4/5s of a mile. Nevertheless, it was for years to be considered odd because of the orange color of its steelworks. What most people don't know is why the architects chose orange: to be more easily seen in the heavy fogs that plague San Francisco.
Fortunately, during our three days there, we saw little fog, except one morning when banks of it crept across the bay, partially eclipsing the Golden Gate Bridge. Weather has always been weird in the city. It can be foggy and chilly at one end of the peninsula (SF is roughly seven square miles) and sunny and warm at another.
We took a cable car up California Street to the entrance of Chinatown and hopped off. Our hotel, the Grant Plaza Hotel, was only a block away, so before we knew it, we were standing in the lobby. The hotel stood seven stories, at an intersection, just inside Chinatown. The lobby was quite nice, a three star, I'd estimate. The fourth floor room was quite adequate and clean, and we got settled. For me that means putting my backpack on a chair, removing a toiletries bag and book, and placing them on the table. For Yoli, that means thirty minutes of toil. So I rested, catching up with my journal as she found temporary homes for all her miniature bottles of.women's stuff.
Warmth and sunshine were ours for the day. We rummaged through Chinatown for awhile, Yoli fascinated with the Asian ambience as well as the products. It was like being in Hong Kong, and I ought to know. I lived there for months. Here in Chinatown, maybe 1 out of a hundred faces was white. Crowds of Chinese moved through Chinatown as in Beijing. The shops displayed their wares on the sidewalks; there were grocers hawking fresh veggies outside, bakeries, tailors, launders, antique furniture sellers, restaurants, fish shops, and of course, a couple tourist shops with T-shirts saying "I LOVE SAN FRANCISCO."
After Chinatown, we wandered down Powell street into the Union Square area. For the previous six years, the square, once a haven for druggies and the dregs of humanity, had been closed for "reconstruction." It was slated to be reopened the very next day, a bit of luck for us. I don't know what it looked like before, but right now it seemed pretty nice: a wide square into which six streets emptied. The main square within the square was raised a few steps off the ground. There were benches and a few towering palm trees here and there. Bordering the square were the big name stores: Macy's, Saks of Fifth Avenue, and the other department stores which don't seem to make it to places like Omaha Nebraska or Tulsa Oklahoma. There was a Borders off the square, so we stopped in for some tea and a bit of a rest before hitting the street again.
Powell street is sort of a focal point in downtown San Francisco. Here, tourists and residents both come to catch public transport or eat or shop. Here too were the tall buildings, but somehow clean and powerful looking, not at all rundown. Powell was humming with human activity. Also, resident artists were at work. A painter here, a mime there, a young black man singing with guitar and amp at hand. A kiosk sold magazines and public transport tickets beside the turnstile for the Powell-Mason Cable car. This is where the cable car is turned around on a fifteen-foot turntable so that it may return from whence it came. Yoli and I bought a three-day public transport ticket, got some tourist information from an ever-helpful downtown office, grabbed a freebie map, and climbed up Powell to Union Square. "San Franciscans must have powerful thighs," I commented to Yoli. We stopped off at a fifties-style diner on the gargantuan size. A large, open second-floor room contained dozens of booths. 50's memorabilia hung on the walls and the wait staff took orders dressed in 50's garb. Music blared from high-ceiling speakers, and like San Francisco, the place was rockin'.
After lunch, Yoli wanted to rest. We trudged back up Powell and crossed over a couple blocks to the Grant Plaza. Leaving Yoli safely ensconced in the hotel, I ventured forth into the city once more.
San Francisco is really a collection of diverse neighborhoods. Chinatown bordered an area known as Union Square, famous for its shopping. On the other side of Chinatown was North Beach, sort of a "little Italy". Within walking distance was Nob Hill, Russian Hill, The Haight, Haight-Ashbury, Fisherman's Wharf, and South of the Market. Most folks, when imagining San Francisco, see the usual conglomeration of skyscrapers that are centered in most American cities; however, while SF has its share of skyscrapers, there are neighborhoods of Victorian-style houses, often squashed next to each other, three or floor floors high. I walked up the street just outside the hotel, passing these lovely old stalwarts of a bygone age. Most of the houses were nicely decorated; there were curves in the carpentry and many houses had been painted in pastel colors. Between the Gold Rush, which brought teeming masses to San Francisco in the mid nineteenth century, and around 1915, almost 48,000 of these homes were built.
I jumped on a passing cable car, which as it turned out was headed for Fisherman's Wharf. It was fun hanging on to the poles on the side of the cable car. The interior of the car was a bit packed, and the views were better from out here. I could see once we climbed to the top of Powell, the blue of the bay with infamous Alcatraz Island centered in the sea. The driver would allow the car to just clickety-clack along for a few seconds (they're running on the underground cable; there is no engine) before yanking backwards on what looked like a four-foot high joystick. The car would shudder its way to a stop, usually in the middle of the street, where a mob of new tourists would board. Sometimes he gave little commentaries about how all the rich folks in the early part of the century built their homes up here on Nob Hill. "Otherwise called Snob Hill," stated the burly black driver humorously. Indeed, the homes were all in the Victorian style, elegant survivors of a drive towards the mundane in America. It was neat to think that in the early part of the century, these cable cars were ridden by elite citizens of San Francisco.
Passing with a practiced ease through one intersection, passing a corner ice cream shop named Swensons, the driver cried out, "Swenson's ice cream, folks, some of the best ice cream in the world." I made up my mind to bring Yoli back here and sample some. We rolled along a slight decline and stopped two blocks later. "Lombard street!" announced the driver, and I thought, "Cool!" Lombard is the famous "crooked street" in San Francisco, a one-lane switchback of red brick that cuts a swath through beds of roses. On either side, stylish homes stand squished together. Bright pink and crimson red bougainvillaea in frozen explosion adorned the sides of walls and wrought-iron fence. The car then descended Mason Street, veering slightly around into a garden area only a hundred feet from the bay-and Fisherman's Wharf.
Most San Franciscans avoid Fisherman's Wharf like the plague. They consider it a vulgarity, a tourist trap of the worst kind. And actually, they're right. I found nothing of interest there. Some overpriced restaurants-almost exclusively seafood-shops, and narrow fish bazaars with crates and baskets filled with lobster, crab, and other creatures of the deep. There are several piers along Fisherman's Wharf, and a small marina, but nothing of deep interest to me. I strolled back to the cable car, but upon seeing a snaking queue of tourists waiting for the cable car, I walked a couple blocks in the opposite direction. There, I caught the #30 bus to Chinatown. Almost everyone on the bus was Chinese, and they were the real thing: workers and residents of Chinatown. It smelled rather gamy on the bus (as it always had in Hong Kong), but it was enjoyable to NOT do something very touristy.
Back in Chinatown, I returned to the Grant Plaza to pick up Yoli. We wandered around a bit more, and ate dinner at "a real Chinese place" as recommended by the Lonely Planet Guidebook on San Francisco. According to the travel book, the Nanking Restaurant was tiny with only a handful of tables. It was anything but fancy and the wait staff didn't treat you with kid gloves. It was "get in and eat and get out". There was always a line at Nanking, as well. We stood in it for at least twenty minutes. Half the diners were tourists; the other half were Chinese who simply ignored the white foreigners. The bill appeared on the table before we were half done, a nudge to hurry and eat and depart.
After an excellent meal (which didn't resemble any Chinese I'd ever eaten in Nebraska), we stopped off at a Chinese bakery for a sweet. Yoli enjoyed a pastry and I enjoyed the blown-up photos of Bill Clinton plastered across the wall behind the counter. Apparently Bill had sampled some of the bakeries delights during a campaign tour.
MORE SAN FRANCISCO
The next day we rode the Powell-Mason line up and over to Lombard Street, stopping off on the way at a corner delicatessen for a cup of tea and a pastry. It looked like, and was, a genuine place where the locals frequented for a morning croissant and coffee. Two or three women were seated in plush comfy chairs around a table; Yoli and I rested on a little sofa in front of a coffee table. The man running the show looked like a little old Italian guy with that amiable polite attitude that bespoke a pride in his own place. Man, if I lived in San Francisco, I'd be patronizing his shop daily.
We caught the cable car once more, only traveling few short minutes to Lombard. The car stopped with its usual jolt. Passengers disembarked and others climbed aboard. On either side of Lombard are staircases descending the entire length of Lombard. The bougainvillaea were so splendidly beautiful and abundant that I didn't mind the tourists. At the bottom of Lombard, it's a few minutes walk down to Columbia, a street that goes from Chinatown to Fisherman's Wharf. Soon, Yoli was munching on fish and chips in front of a row of stands all serving up fresh fish. Tanks of lobsters and crates of shrimp were everywhere, it seemed. A couple more mimes were giving shows to the hordes waiting in line to take a ferry over to Alcatraz. But I couldn't be bothered with waiting, Alcatraz or the island. All of Fisherman's Wharf just seemed gaudy, pretentious, with almost a carnival atmosphere. A row of little shops sold the usual crap (we did buy a cheap disposable camera though). After an hour or so, ice cream was on my mind, so we took a city bus up the street close to where Swenson's was.
For a company that has made millions serving ice cream in several cities and even in Europe, the original store is just like any corner ice cream joint in small town America. No other tourists were about; a young Chinese teenager gave us our scoops of the ice cream which is still made on-site. Delicious; one of my best memories of San Fran.
We next caught a city bus from raucous Powell to take us to Golden Gate Park. This is my favorite park in all the world (thus far). As Al and Divora had promised, there were parks within the park. Anyone going to San Fran ought to plan on spending a full day here. Luckily the day was sunny and warm. Ideal to stroll the gardens and lawns of the park. We paid a couple bucks to get into the Japanese Gardens, where a narrow meandering stream and mini-gardens surrounded a blood-red pagoda rising thirty feet into the air, itself buried amongst some graceful old cottonwoods. The day before, we'd been in China. Now we wandered in rural Japan. There was an open-air teahouse with picnic tables and young Japanese girls in kimonos who brought dainty teacups along with two pots of tea. Yoli had some Jasmine tea; I had green tea. The $3 also included a bowl of Japanese crackers of some kind. A nice respite from a frenetic city. Yoli explored some gardens containing mostly Asian plants and flowers. We wandered paths for a couple hours, eventually coming across a lake with the greenest water I'd ever seen. It was as if a river from the Emerald City had emptied into a basin. An island occupied about half the total lake area, the only access being a stone arched bridge. A dirt path circumnavigated the island, really a big forest-covered hill. We stumbled upon the place where you could rent the boats. Along a large log sitting in the shallow end of the lake, eight turtles were perched comfortably, in a long row.
I ached to rent a rowboat and paddle out to the open green water, upon which other boats and numerous ducks had made themselves at home. But Yoli needed to return to the hotel within an hour or so to meet her Pakistani friends, who were taking us out to dinner. I vowed to return to the park the next day.
At seven we stood on the corner in front of the Grant Plaza. It was close to dusk, with scores of Chinese out and about, closing up shops, hurrying to dinner. A few white folks armed with cameras gawked at a mini-Hong Kong preparing for rest. While we were watching this, the front desk manager, an older Chinese woman, came over and asked if our friends were picking us up. "Yes," I said, to which she replied, "Oh, I think they are lost. They called here."
Yoli went to talk to them on their cell phone, to guide them in. Eventually they picked us up, and we drove off for some dinner. Russell and Parveen were Pakistanis living now in the city, both nurses. Yoli had known them for several years in Pakistan during her studies there. The pleasure of reuniting with old friends was evident as they talked over old times at a Chinese restaurant Russell and Parveen frequented.
Afterwards, during more catch-up talk in the car, Russell drove us over to the Coit Tower, a white "building" that more resembles an oversized lighthouse. Set on a hill, there are breathtaking views of the city, made even more special at night. San Francisco proved its fickleness in regards to weather. Earlier the temperature had hovered in the low eighties. The night wind that blew across the now invisible bay was frigid. Russell grabbed an old jacket from the back of the car for Yoli. I had my Vancouver sweatshirt, but even so, was shivering. I hate being cold at any time of the year. I especially hate it in mid-July. Especially considering that back in Dubai the average daytime high would be a not-so-comfortable 112 degrees. For fun, Russell navigated the Toyota slowly down Lombard street. We weren't the only ones. Even late in the evening, a seemingly endless procession of cars descended the famous, twisting road. Beats main street in Dodge City. Or Dodge Street in Omaha Nebraska.
Our last day in San Francisco was gray and chilly! We walked down to Union Square, had tea at Borders, and then caught the city bus to return to the park. The sun was making a valiant attempt to peek out from the dreariness, but was losing the battle. Arriving at the park, we crossed the street and began walking through the park towards two grand old neoclassical buildings that served as conservatories. A gust of cold air along with some scattered raindrops hit us, and our day in the park was abandoned.
Back at Union Square, crowds were forming in anticipation of the formal opening of the square after its six-year hiatus. The mayor, a fellow named Willie Brown, was due to speak, along with other notables. While Yoli went into Macy's to find a bathroom, I mingled with the crowd, numbering around a couple hundred, I estimated. There were clowns on stilts, eerily taking giant strides around the square. A hot dog vendor was present, and yet more mimes on the periphery. A podium on a little stage had been set up, all in front of a temporary wall. Strangely out of sight (from the front anyway), a rock group played, a female vocalist straining to sing above the noise of the city. Traffic continued unhampered by the festivities, the cable cars still climbing the steep ascent of Powell street, laden down with tourists.
I spied Yoli waving at me from in front of Macy's. She was beckoning me over. Dutifully, I crossed the street in front of an approaching marching band, and she led me into the elevator and up to the top floor. "Look," she said, as we stepped out of the elevator. As part of a rather large and bustling café was an outdoor eating area on a wide balcony, and standing room to witness the events unfolding in the square nine stories down!
Others had gotten the same bright idea, including a few Japanese tourists, but there was enough room for the odd twenty of us to line the balcony and watch the fun. It wasn't long before some dignitaries strolled perfunctorily in and sat in the first couple rows of chairs that had been set up. The marching band, followed by a procession of cheerleaders and the clowns on stilts, all stepped in time into the square and quietly dissipated. Some woman got up to introduce the mayor. She hailed him, of course, as a visionary who had won the election promising to clean things up, and blah blah blah.
Mayor Willie Brown, a black man, stood up to impressive applause. Rather coincidentally, I hope, the sun began to push away the cloud cover and warm the city up a bit. Brown spoke clearly and personably, and I felt immediately that I would have voted for him. He reminded the crowd, as his voice carried to the four corners of the square, how appalling the conditions had been for many years in the square, that it had been a place citizens had walked around rather than go through it. He added that it had taken six long years to plan and remodel Union Square, but that now it was a place where families could go and be safe, a place that San Franciscans could be proud of. And his inspiration seemed to carry through the crowd. At least I assume that, since darn it if he wasn't making me feel proud, and I hadn't ever set foot in the city until a couple days before.
"Now we have a place where we can come to eat our lunches in peace, to read and relax," he intoned. "And I want to thank you all for coming here to join us in this celebration, this opening. Including all those folks up on the balcony at Macy's. They know where to get a good view from!" Twenty or so of us waved down at everyone as a laugh swept through the crowd. It was a nice moment of unity.
After all the excitement, I wanted some tranquility. A tourist I'd chatted with on the bus had suggested visiting Grace Cathedral, so we headed that way now on the California Line.
A chapel had been built in 1848, when the Gold Rush began. In the disastrous big quake of 1906, it was destroyed by the fire that swept the city. A railroad baron then donated his property on Nob Hill for a diocesan cathedral. Work was begun some years later, and today, the cathedral is the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the US. To me, it was as if one of Europe's Gothic cathedrals had been transplanted on American soil. Wandering the vastness of the interior, a wave of nostalgia swept over me, taking me back to my days in Hannover, Vienna and Italy. The stained glass windows and medieval furnishings, and such ornately carved dark wood, and high marble columns work to sooth the human soul, to wind our clocks down so that the spiritual has a chance to catch up. For some reason, I am attracted to the little tables filled with white candles that you always see little old ladies hold a match to in Europe. They light them for a deceased love one, of course, but there is something disconsolate about the lighter and the lighted. The old women I'd always observe at the candles almost always had an aura of infinite sadness about them; small wonder. Their melancholy was attributable to either a grave illness in the family or a loss. To me, each candle represented a person's life, and a whispered prayer to God, a plea for health and life for one single human being. The candle was cherished as the person was. The droplets of hot wax fell like tears down the base of the candle, to harden and grow cold. Like our memories of the dead as time goes by?
Well, no one can accuse me of jocularity in a cathedral. I always become a bit morose, but I believe a touch of sadness-a deserved allocation of life's "valleys"-goes hand in hand with the spiritual. It's difficult to feel close to God when everything is hunky-dory.
Drawn onto the floor near one of the naves was a labyrinth, and now a man and a woman, on different paths, slowly walked in the great circle. Their heads were bowed in deep thought. I had never seen a labyrinth in a church before. It's not a concept that to me merges with Christianity, but there was sign next to the labyrinth explaining how to walk and meditate. I'm not very patient with Eastern philosophies, but I was intrigued. I thought about doing the slow, laborious walk, but shrugged off the idea. I think you only receive some spiritual benefit from something like that if you are fully confident in it.
Yoli and I returned to North Beach and ate a late lunch at a little Italian place. A fresh sea breeze wafted into the restaurant, which contained only about eight tables. The food was excellent. After that, we took another bus back up to Swenson's for some more ice cream. This time, there were four or five others present.
It was time for a rest, so while Yoli rested, I took some dirty laundry and headed to the closest Laundromat. I read while waiting for the washer to run through its cycle. It may sound funny, but I actually don't mind sitting in laundromats. Once in Munich, I carried a black trash bag full of dirty clothes across half the city to an all-night laundromat. I had to get some coins changed, so asked some German guy. We struck up a conversation, and by the time my clothes had dried, I'd spoken to two or three Germans. Naturally there had been zero tourists in a German laundromat late at night. But what a great cultural experience. I like that kind of stuff better than seeing all the great castles and cathedrals, which can after a while get a little ho-hum.
In the evening we got together again with Parveen and Russell. They drove us across Golden Gate Bridge and to an observation point where you can snap pictures and watch the ferries ply the bay-and feel the cold wind, which you inevitable do unless you're there during a hot spell.
Next they drove us to Golden Gate Park. We showed them the green lake and the island. The turtles had abandoned their posts on the log. After a brief walk around the island, we drove back downtown. "We'll go to one of our favorite Pakistani places," said Russell. "Man, it's the best." Russell navigated through the city traffic at dusk, pulling up to take a rare available parking space, with luck just across the street from the café. Several homeless folks had planted their bodies and scant belongings on the sidewalk, and leaned against the wall. They were dressed in heavy clothing, which would be needed as the night temperature fell, but looked indifferent to their plight. I felt sorry for them. Perhaps they needed someone to light a candle for them. Maybe we should all be lighting more candles for the living and forget the dead.
In Dubai, I had eaten many times at various Indian and Pakistani hole-in-the-walls, itsy bitsy spaces with three or four tables. This place was a bigger hole-in-the-wall, holding several plain tables. During the course of our meal, only two other tourists came in, though there were other Pakistanis that were eating. I think ordinarily I would have given the place a wide berth, but I'd grown accustomed to visiting restaurants less than five star, and was certainly used to eating chicken biriyani. With a cup of fresh cool yogurt on top of the curried rice, it's delicious. I took big bites of the nan bread to help relieve my burning tongue, along with gulps of diet coke. Yoli, Russell and Parveen chattered away, reliving their youths in Karachi, and my thoughts drifted to the bums on the street, Golden Gate Park, Union Square, and all the rest of this magnificent city.