I walk from my hotel to a park on Nob Hill, steep above the city, where a three-hour walking tour starts at one o’clock. It is a fogless day and the sun is burning.
The park is opposite Grace Cathedral, a hollow pastiche of Middle Ages architecture with Norman towers, Gothic arches and a copy of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth inside a flamboyant Gothic doorway that mimics Florence’s Baptistry and faces east, not west. Its bells peal off descending semitones over three mournful octaves. I walk away.
The guide comes and after three days of walking I’m relieved she is fair skinned, greatly overweight and wearing a shadeless Florentine hat thing that flops on her head like gathered velvet. Then the eighty-year old Richard and his sexagenarian partner, Richard, from Palm Springs shuffle up and we spend most of the afternoon walking downhill in the shade.
Everyone has to say what they love about the city so far.
‘That’s not much to be excited about.’
I explain it is the conceit of Melburnians to think no-one in America makes good coffee and I like dissolving a stereotype in thick-syrup espressos every morning.
She explains the basic route and obviously I didn’t read about the tour when I bought the ticket. Apart from walking down Nob Hill we go where I have already gone – down to Union Square and gently up to Chinatown and Columbus Avenue. Where-ever there is a steep hill we take lift.
Every half-hour the guide gives out a small wrapped chocolate to the first person who gets one of her question about San Francisco right. Not about what we learn, but what we should already know. The Richards lived here in the sixties and love answering questions. There is no question about San Francisco after the sixties.
After almost three hours she asks me a direct question for one of her motivating chocolates, about Beat language.
‘You haven’t had any chocolate yet have you.’
‘I know you’ll get this right. You’re wearing the right kind of hat and you’re standing on the coolest spot in San Francisco. This is Jack Kerouac Alley between Vesuvio where he used to drink and the City Lights Bookstore which kept printing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl when it was banned.’
‘OK,’ she says. ‘Imagine you are a Beat. Would you rather be groovy of five-by-five?’
Questions always seem easier when other people answer them right. The Richards get theirs right. It’s a bad sign I think about it. I can be groovy anytime but only twenty-five once, yet my conceit now that I have good coffee to drink is that I might be again and I answer like an old man who wants to be young again.
‘Yeah, you look like a five-by-five kinda guy,’ she says as if she had a premonition from the beginning, like I really wasn’t cool five-twelfths of a minute ago.
It makes sense I’m square. You can’t be groovy standing on a spot, just cool. I’m neither. The chocolate goes begging.
We end at Washington Square, five minutes walk from my hotel. The square is a pentagon of streets surrounding a green grass park with a statue of Benjamin Franklin in the middle. In the park, daytime people sit and read and lie and sunbake, or do tai chi in the shade. Night people drink in small groups and sing and sometimes a single woman wraps herself in a blanket and sits on an out-of-the-way bench.
But the attraction for us is the Church of St Peter and St Paul across the street. We stand on the far edge of the park a hundred metres away and admire the only tourist fact for this church – that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio had their wedding photos taken on the front steps but were married elsewhere because Jo was a divorced Catholic. The guidebooks don’t say how empty the bell towers are.
We disperse. I walk back to Chinatown down Grant Street, under the good luck red balloons and past the boutique jewelry fine arts treasure island unique gift shops. I go onto Stockton and step into the gutter to pass people outside the fruit shops that sell purple grapes and green vegetables in rough-sawn trellises for sixty-nine cents a pound.
I walk past the stores that smell of dried mushrooms and then into a fast noodle place that is like many restaurants in Chinatowns everywhere. There is meat on tenterhooks in the front window – ducks and barbecue pork and pork, crispy skin – dripping fat into shallow aluminium trays. Just inside a chef is taking meat off the hooks and chopping it for soups. Grey pork bone scum simmers to the water line of stock pots. On the floor orange brick pavers are stuck down with mortar making the walls look like they were built on a disused laneway. The fluorescent lights above are dimmed by dust stuck to atomised grime from the fryer. I order rice noodles. They come as a slippery mound with preservative laden sauce, pieces of calamari and flecks of other meat.
I walk to Vesuvio and order the local Anchor Steam. The barman gives me five one dollar bills in change. I can’t see a tip jar and everyone is paying with credit. I pocket the money. I only think days later how much he would like to spit in my beer for not leaving a dollar on the sticky bar.
I sit on the upstairs balcony and look out the window and wonder about the truth of this city, where Jazz at Pearl’s has closed and Larry Flynt is still open.
It is printed in the pocketbook poetry collections of the City Lights Bookstore. It comes out of the coffee conversations of Caffé Roma on Columbus and sits with the rows of single people with laptops where-ever there is free Wi-Fi. It is held together by patchwork streets and the slow tai chi of elderly Chinese in Washington Square. It comes from the odour of unwashed urine in night time doorways where people sleep under found blankets. It comes out of the horn bells of buskers and the cup rattle of the homeless on the pavement.
I don’t help. I pay to see the city collect its nostalgia. I help it disappear into places like the Beat Museum, which trades in remembrance, not invention. I leave and walk some more, like someone waiting for something better to come out of the next street, and days later I fly away.