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New Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom

Suggest Song: San Francisco, Scott McKenzie (written by John Phillips) Suggested Drink: Irish Coffee; coffee, sugar, Irish Whiskey, whipped cream (the recipe created by Jack Koeppler and Stanton Delaplane at the Buena Vista, 1952)

San Francisco is a gorgeous city full of mystery, magic, and infinite wackiness. It’s a writer’s paradise, a Mecca for those seeking out the unexpected in full spectrum technicolor. And for that reason I love to scratch out a few dispatches when here for a couple of weeks each fall.

First things first: when did my kids grow up between this past summer and today? When did that wild and irascible bunch that needed cajoling for everything from dinner vegetables to the morning routine turn the tables on dad? It’s hard to play drill sergeant when the recruits are first to rise, preparing their own breakfasts, getting their backpacks together, and gently closing my bedroom door so the noise doesn’t disturb sergeant dad’s jet-lagged slumber. Damn.

Dispatch #1 – A love letter

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

I need to start these posts with a paean to this city I so love. It remains the magic kingdom; an engaging city of elegance, eccentricity, animation, and tolerance. San Francisco is Venus to New York City’s Mars; it’s the Haight’s Grateful Dead to the Lower East Side’s Velvet Underground. It’s a mischievous city, relaxed and sensual, with a wardrobe of faded denim, delicate chemise, and a tasteful leather corset. The classic John Phillips hymn to the summer of love – sung by Scott McKenzie – captured a gentle rebellious spirit that remains 5 decades on. The flower children tuned out and drifted off; the techies have turned on and plugged in. Tying together these tribes and all between is a desire to create something sublime and inviting, … something magical.

October is the best month for San Francisco visits. It’s warm and sunny and that cool blanket of Pacific fog tends to burn off by mid morning. Locals call it earthquake weather and indeed the last big one buckled freeways and fell buildings on a warm October evening in 1989, … and revealed the best of the city. With power out, homes dark, and nerves rattled San Francisco’s residents looked for comfort in the masses. Most of the local businesses locked up but the many bars along Noe Valley’s main thoroughfare were candlelit and abuzz. We joined neighbors at The Dubliner pub to share our “holy shit!” moments and a few pints to calm the jitters. Thanks be to god that beer kegs run off pressurized gas. The cash registers weren’t working of course so our barman approximated change with a shoebox full of bills and coins. A lot of free and sympathetic Guinness got poured that evening until the fire company arrived around midnight to shut us down. (Apparently lit candles aren’t ideal in a city full of leaking gas mains.) Through it all the neighborhoods pulled together, the crime rate fell, and the Giants were swept in the World Series. Well two out of three ain’t bad.

I had an early breakfast yesterday at 2nd and Mission with an old friend. I Ubered down there from our home base in NOPA but decided to walk back. A 45 minute hike in San Francisco promises a colorful journey from most any point and in any direction. From SOMA up Market Street through Hayes Valley and past Alamo Square, it’s a ramble through gleaming high rises and indigent lowlifes, chic coffee bars and tagged-up liquor stores, Victorians and Edwardians and tenement hotels and vibrant mansions. Why rush around in a cramped taxi when you can walk and look and smell and hear every detail of this living museum. My two weeks will pass too quickly. Meanwhile, I’ll keep you posted.

October 24, 2015

Dispatch #2: From the Bean Bag to Blooms (and Across the Universe)

I’ve been taking my morning coffee this past week at the Bean Bag Cafe on Divisadero Street. It’s a classic neighborhood spot with that rustic look: lots of dinged-up wood, a mishmash of sit down tables and stand up counters, 8 coffees and 6 beers on tap, crepes and bagels and sandwiches and vegie omelets, Bob Marley on the sound system this morning. The Bean Bag has a young casual vibe with a lean towards enlightenment (all smoothies with less than 2% fat), falling somewhere between the preppy Marina and the hipster Mission. It works.

Yesterday I ventured out of this neighborhood to the far side of Potrero Hill: destination Blooms Saloon. It was a classic SF weekend ramble, winding down to the Castro, out through the Mission, up Potrero Hill and across the 101 Freeway by footbridge. Just shy of ten thousand steps according to my iPhone (scary what these phones know about us). Sunny and gloriously warm, a light jacket was too much and ended up over my arm.

A diverse collection of grimy tents have sprouted up like mushrooms along a block of 16th Street just past Folsom. A homeless community is taking root here, a refugee phenomenon spreading across the city as the usual encampments – the out-of-site, under-the-freeway bidonvilles – are being cleared out in a bid at urban beautification. It’s a game of whack-a-moll between city hall and the moll caste that is pushing a long-festering problem to the surface.

San Francisco’s homeless dilemma is shifting from an embarrassing tourist irritation to a vexing dilemma for local residents. The city’s impressive economic upshift is not trickling down, and it appears in fact to be making the gap between the have almost everythings and the have absolutely nothings more glaring and noticeable. It is a topic front and center for the upcoming elections and everyone has an opinion on cause and solutions, from the coffee counters at the Bean Bag to bar stools at Blooms.

There is a multiverse forming here, numerous layered but opposed realities based on income and employment mobility. At least 3 coexist in varying degrees of tension: universes T (for the Thriving), C (the Coping), and BS (the Barely Surviving). The city is in bloom thanks largely to the residents of universe T and it’s a wondrous thing, making available all that one expects from a world-class town. Their sun shines bright and some passes through to layer C, but that’s about it.

I’m hoping that San Francisco can direct its creative energies toward a multiverse in greater harmony. Economic disparities are a challenge for all big cities and there is no silver bullet solution. Still, this is not just any big city. San Francisco has always been marked by its openness, compassion and creativity. Now is the time to find a bit of that magic again.

October 27, 2015

Dispatch #3: The Counter Culture

A dyslexic walks into a bra.

Thursday night

The Chapel Bar, SF

The Chapel Bar, SF

A lone stranger walks into the Chapel Bar, 19th and Mission, pulls up stool and orders a beer. What’s his name, where’s he from, what brings him to San Francisco and to the Chapel? These questions and others are batted and returned across the bar like a lazy badminton birdie, and within 30 minutes he’s on first names with the tattooed bartenders and chatty neighbors, has offered up a brief of his brief and gained theirs. Within an hour he’s getting a primer on the mix of a new cocktail – and sharing free samples – getting the haunted history of the establishment – a former mortuary – and getting tips for the weekend. Before leaving all are invited to his hometown in Provence, and him to a bartender convention in New Orleans next June (the exact details remain a bit hazy). By the end of the night, and sitting in another fine SF drinking establishment, part of the Chapel staff wanders in and it all starts again. San Francisco is like that.

Friday morning

A slightly hung-over stranger walks into the Bean Bag Cafe, Hayes and Divisadero, orders a black coffee and pulls up to his favorite counter spot. The Bean Bag has its usual weekday mid-morning crowd with Mac screens up, ear buds in. Some are multitasking with plates of huevos rancheros (organic black beans, naturally) or similar breakfast selections and Bob Marley, again, is playing on the sound system.

Taylor demonstrating the VR headset

Taylor demonstrating the VR headset.

Across the counter he sees a young, bright looking tech type chatting online. There is a bulky white goggle set next to him, a latest generation Samsung phone attached flush to the front and the Oculus logo on the side. It catches his attention. The techie is a friendly guy named Taylor, the Chief Evangelist, he later comes to learn, for a startup promoting the virtual reality industry. “It’s the Samsung Gear VR system, interested in trying it out?” He can’t resist. It’s beyond cool. The moment he slides the goggles in place the coffee shop is absolutely gone. The first VR app Taylor loads up has him standing in space looking at planets and stars and moons in rotation 360° around him; he turns and there are orbiting bodies behind him, to the right and left; he zooms in and zooms out. Wow! Taylor wants him to try another app. This one places him in a movie theatre. Oddly enough there are others there as well, beside him, behind him, … others on compatible VR systems somewhere in the world, playing the same app and sharing the moment. “Talk to them,” Taylor says, and when he does they talk back and from other distant points on the globe. He’s astounded, he’s sold, he wants one these things. His hangover is gone. San Francisco is like that.

I love France and I blow its beautiful horn regularly in my essays. But there is one glaring hole in its game plan: no counter culture. The French sit at tables, not communal counters and definitely not at bars, and this is a sadly missed opportunity. They are fantastic conversationalists, well read, up on events, love a good debate, curious. To be unexpectedly “adopted” for an evening or exposed to wildly new experiences happens most often when engaging others from a different universe, often when you’re the stranger in a strange land. It’s a beautiful thing. San Francisco is like that.

October 31, 2015

Dispatch #4: An Opportunity Knocks

Now I sit at Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting for my connection to Marseille and missing my kids, San Francisco, and morning coffees at the Bean Bag Cafe in that order. You can only miss something that is not there, can love and appreciate something most deeply when you suffer from its absence. Want to know just how precious someone, some place, or something is in your life? Leave it for a few months.

My two weeks in San Francisco has revealed a city that is hipper, livelier, and more beautiful than the one I quite 5 years ago, even more so it seems than during my visit 12 months back. The waves of money pouring into the city from the latest tech boom are funding amazing restaurants of every stripe, the construction of new campuses and sports arenas and office buildings and museum expansions, and putting a new shine on the historic homes that make San Francisco a living postcard.

Median rental prices in SF. Source: Zillow

Median home rental prices in SF. Source: Zillow

The tide is not lifting all boats, however, and a wicked undertow is making it difficult for a lot of the city’s less affluent (and not just struggling artists and newly arriving immigrants). With the brisk rise in home values, rents, and menu prices even the fully-employed mid-class are feeling the pinch. Note that the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in October was $3,670. A burrito at the Little Chihuahua on Divisadero cost me about $11, a cheesesteak across the street at Jay’s ran $10. Both were beyond delicious, neither place was fancy. For those who can afford it: fantastic! For those who can’t: ouch. And beyond ouch for the emerging tent city caste springing up along 16th Street and elsewhere, as I mentioned in Dispatch #2.

Is there another city in America with the abundance of resources and resourcefulness that San Francisco enjoys at this moment? This blessing offers an exceptional opportunity to demonstrate its claim to distinction, to the title of Magic Kingdom (well to be fair, that’s a claim I grant unconditionally). The city is chock full of curious inventive minds and money. Perhaps the high-flying tech companies – the Googles and Instagrams and Facebooks – that attract this talent and unleash its spending power on the community can consider this as a chance – an obligation? – to direct a slice of their incredible creativity and capital toward urban solutions to the challenges they help provoke. Thoughts?

November 6, 2015

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