Saturday, January 4, 2014

San Francisco

We only had one full day in San Francisco but we really DID IT UP.  We let the kids sleep late while I raided the La Quinta breakfast bar for everyone.  You would be surprised how many hard boiled eggs our family can eat if you include the dogs.  They are actually one of Abigail’s favorite foods.

We got a shuttle ride from the hotel to the airport, the closest place to catch the BART train.  (Bay Area Rapid Transit I think.)  A very nice volunteer at the airport told us which way to go and gave each of the kids an airplane keychain and pencil topper that they had a ridiculous amount of fun with.  

They flew them in impossible arcs around each other’s heads while we waited at the train platform and created horrific midair collisions.  I feel lucky to be able to watch them have so much fun together.  The trick, of course, is not to let them know you’re watching.

We got off the train north of downtown and walked north toward the bay.  We had originally planned on taking one of the old wooden streetcars that Amy and I used when she took me there for our anniversary many years ago.  Unfortunately the fare was steep: $6 apiece each ride, no transfers.  Really?  Come on San Francisco.  It’s a streetcar not a ferris wheel.  

We decided to walk to Fisherman’s Wharf instead. 

After a few more blocks we were able to walk along the Embarcadero and all of its numbered piers.  There was some kind of new science center there called the Exploratorium with lots of cool outdoor exhibits for the kids that we didn’t even have to pay for.  The biggest one was these monkeys. 

They hung from this bizarre metal contraption that was connected to 8 little electronic drum pads.  There were some directions nearby that said the monkeys were powered by the rhythm of people playing the drum pads.  The more people playing in time with one another the faster they would turn.  Once they got turning there were monkey masks you could put on that added a strobe light effect that made it look like the many monkeys were actually one monkey swinging from the trees.  Interestingly enough from across the street it looked like they were actually moving as well. 

There was also a little rickshaw with a mirror and camera that allowed you to look at everything around you from inside, a plastic sculpture for everyone to climb on, and a skateboard exhibit complete with instructions on how to “Ollie,” boards to practice with, and exhibits like this one that showed how skateboard wheels work.

Once we extricated the kids from the climbing sculpture we continued on to Fisherman’s Wharf with Coit Tower looking on from the west.  We were hoping to find ice cream but there was some kind of meet the Disney characters thing going on so all of the indoor eateries were just packed.  They had this enormous Christmas tree set up that upon closer examination proved to be real.

By now the kids were pretty tired and hungry too.  We went to four different restaurants in search of beer for us and ice cream for the kids but all of the dessert menus were the same: tera misu and chocolate cake.  It was like they all got their desserts from the same Cisco food rep.  Finally we tried one last place where we were told yes we could have vanilla ice cream.  The host said we could sit in the bar area where there was a guy playing piano and having a good time with the crowd. 

He was quite the showman, wanting to know where everyone that came in was from and giving people a hard time accordingly.  I put in a request for “Fire and Rain” which he encouraged us to sing the chorus to when it came around.  The waitress brought the kids each a bowl of vanilla ice cream complete with strawberries and whipped cream.  I got a pint of local Anchor Steam and wifey had some house vino.  It was soooooooo nice to just sit and watch the piano guy have fun with people after so much walking.

Once everyone was recharged we had to figure out how to get to Chinatown.  The kids loved Chinatown in New York and Montreal so we had to take them to San Francisco’s.  We had planned the ice cream and beer as an appetizer.  We thought about trying to take the streetcar and instead opted to go for a cab which my wife hailed quite expertly while I helped the kids across the street.  The fare was literally a third of what it would have cost us to ride the streetcar.  I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here but it’s hard not to see the price pointing on those things as a little exploitative.     

We wandered around the glitz of Chinatown, red paper lanterns dangling from above, storefronts teeming with golden Buddhas or elaborate menus with vertical script.  There was a lady making her way down the street with advertisements for one of the restaurants so we figured we would just go with that one.  She had us follow her back to the place, turning off the main drag into a poorly lit alley where I had some brief concerns about safety and finally into the bustling little restaurant. 

We were the only non-Asian people there which I think is always a good sign at a Chinese place.
We got half a fried duck, egg drop soup, lo mein, all the staples.  The kids polished off the soup and made a valiant effort on the lo mein as well.  The duck was so rich we had quite a bit left.  All in all it was a greasy great time.  I don’t know how we will ever eat non Chinatown Chinese food again.

By then we were starting to worry about the dogs who had been in the room all day.  We walked from Chinatown to the BART stop that would take us back to the airport.  Inside there was a number of homeless people sleeping on the floor, their blankets and sleeping bags wound around their dirty clothes like a mummy’s wraps.  One of them was sleeping sitting upright in a corner next to the turnstile.  A BART worker walked by and told him he couldn’t sleep there and had to move. 

“Let me get my stuff together,” he barked and promptly went back to sleep.

Ava and the other kids have seen homeless people before but this situation made quite an impression on her.  They’ve all had moments during the trip where they have lamented not having a home of their own, a room of their own, but they could tell that the situation these people faced was altogether different.

Ava had many difficult questions about how people become homeless and how they survive on a daily basis on the street.  I answered as honestly as I could all the while thinking of the folks in the Neighborhood Living Project downstairs from me at Western Psych that do their best to deliver service to these people day in and day out.  We talked about addiction and mental health and what I had seen in my work in the past and how some people actually choose, albeit passively, to live that way, free from bills, rent, landlords, bosses, any of the foibles of daily life we face as second nature.

“But isn’t it dangerous to be homeless, don’t they get cold?”

At that point she told me that this year she didn’t want to get any birthday presents.  She said instead she wanted people to give food and clothes to help take care of homeless people.  She is such a kind and empathetic soul.  She always sees the best in people and wants to help them find happiness. 

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