On A Mission (part two)

Sorry about the hiatus. Being crazy busy left me with little time to blog, so apologies if I’ve been leaving you hanging.

We’re home again. The washing machine is running on overtime rates, the kettle is on pretty much constantly, the cats are conspicuously sulking and I’m viewing everything through a fog of exhaustion. A happy exhaustion, though. It’s good to be home. There’s a clean English blue sky outside, and a tang of autumn in the air. It’s a long way from the heat, and the heart of San Francisco. 
Saturday night on Union Square. We spent some time in a bar that the late great Chronicle writer Herb Caen called ‘the last of the great nightcapperies” – The Gold Dust Lounge. It’s a dodgy tourist trappy saloon that’s been in place since the 30’s, and looks like it hasn’t been decorated since it opened. Dirty gold coloured Anaglypta on the walls backing saucy tapestries and fading photos. It’s a long thin space, with a couple of bars. The long one is the place to belly up to and start snarfing beer and shots. 
The other one only serves music. The band sits behind that, and they dole out a thick cocktail of blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. The drummer looks like Kenny Rogers, which made the version of “The Gambler” they tore through doubly surreal. Oh. “The Gambler” has also been adopted by the English rugby crowd as an unofficial anthem, and it was requested by an Aussie girl with an evil grin. Earlier that day England had lost the Rugby World Cup to South Africa. I have to think it wasn’t a coincidence. Anyhoo. The place is pretention-free, with a great mix of people all having a good time. About as cool as a chili dog, and I didn’t care two bits. I was too busy paying my respects to the Maker. 
 
Sunday morning dawned, waaaaay too bright and sunny for a boy on the bourbon and his vodka-soaked doll. But there was nothing we could do about it. We had been bad. And so we would have to go to prison. 
Alcatraz. Sat on the shimmering waters of the Bay, a cruel reminder amidst the beauty of the darker side of human nature. A natural outcrop of sandstone that has been used as a fortress, a military lock-up, and most famously as the prison where America’s worst were sent. Since 1973, it’s been run by the National Park Service. At it’s most populous, there were maybe three hundred inmates on the Rock. Now, it’ll see five thousand people a day in high season. And today, we’re amongst that throng. 
There’s a strange atmosphere to the place. Visitors treat it with a kind of reverence, a quiet respect. The ranger’s introduction at the dock area is jolly and welcoming, but doesn’t really seem to gel with the experience you get from the rest of the place. You get extraordinary views of San Francisco, a ten minute boat ride back across the Bay, and that’s part of the problem. For the bright lights and the sounds of the city to be that close, and that far out of reach, must have been close to unendurable for all those prisoners. 
They don’t do the thing any more where you’re locked for a little while in a cell, but you can wander in and out of a couple of them. I’ve seen better equipped animal pens. The isolation blocks are worse. Windowless steel boxes, two long paces long by one wide. If you misbehaved in Alcatraz, you’d spend some time in one of these. Alone. In the dark.
The audio tour that comes with admission now tells the story of how one prisoner coped (I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much): 
I’d pull a button off my shirt. Then I’d throw it somewhere. Then I’d turn around a couple of times, get down on my hands and knees, and I’d look for that button. And once I’d found it? Why, I’d do it again. You had to do something in that black hole, just to keep yourself sane.”

We were both quiet for a little while after that. It’s sobering to consider that the island itself is now a major tourist attraction, with rare species of bird and plant calling the place home. Yet it’s the tales of misery and suffering, the cages and the shrapnel marks in the floor, that draw the crowds. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Something for another post.
We were in the mood for something uplifting when we got back to the mainland, so we hopped onto a bus crosstown, to Golden Gate Park. One of the great urban parklands, I think it can hold it’s head up in amongst company including Central Park and indeed Hyde Park. It’s bloody massive, that’s for sure. Thirty blocks long by ten wide, stretching from Haight St to the sea. You couldn’t walk it in one day. Fortunately, we didn’t have to. After checking out the Conservatory of  Flowers (imagine a dinky version of the big greenhouse at Kew) we hooked up with a couple of the guys from Friday night, Auntie and Gnash, who whizzed us around on a guided tour in Auntie’s pickup. There seemed to be impromptu parties and pockets of craziness everywhere, including a stomping mini-rave by the car parks. On a warm sunny Sunday, it seemed to make perfect sense to head for somewhere green, and rock some ass.
I, of course, had other ideas. Gnash drove us to Ocean Beach, where we soaked up some hazy afternoon sun and cocktails at The Cliff House, a three-story restaurant perched on the cliffs overlooking the wild Pacific. All very decadent, and a tad Hitchcockian. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Cary Grant hanging by his fingernails while hanging over the cliffs, before straightening his tie, and heading to the terrace room for a martini. The cocktails were very good. 
It would have been nice to sit and booze out the evening there, but we still had things to see. Notably, after plenty of remote nagging from different sources we finally hit the western end of Haight St, and Amoeba Music. 


It’s one of the best record stores I’ve ever been in, and dumps from a great height on the soul-less Virgin Megastores and HMV’s that clog up music retailing so much. This is a megastore with heart and soul. As you can see from the pic, it used to be a bowling alley, which has been stripped out and is now home to as much cool stuff as your poor aching credit card can handle. They hold free live shows here (turned out I missed gigs from The Go! Team and Thelma “Don’t Leave Me This Way” Houston this week) and have the DVD department that beats ’em all and has ’em coming back for more.  

In some ways, it’s probably best that we found the joint so late in the week, because otherwise, well, lordy, luggage excess would have been putting it mildly. Gnash told us that the trade counter gets very busy, not least with rip-off kids burning all their purchases to disc then getting the cash back. I wouldn’t have the heart. A place this good deserves support, and it’s doing great business by all accounts. 

This is really heartening news. I’ve made my views clear on the state of music retail in the UK clear recently, but my shift towards downloads has more to do with the fact that music stores in general are just no fun to be in anymore. There seems to be a focus on pushing a limited range of titles, and charging through the nose for back catalouge. Plus, a majority of UK music stores are nasty, soul-less warehouses. (No, not all of them, so don’t rush to defend Selectadisc or What Music or Andy’s, I’m down with those guys and support them as much as I’m able)(actually yes, do, let’s have a list of cool record shops for me to bankrupt myself in!)) This was never the case with Fopp, and isn’t with Amoeba either. The fun of the browse, the wander guided by fuzzy logic, coming across albums you’d forgotten about or artists who seemed interesting, all yours for a fair price. Wandering out blinking into the sunshine wondering where the last hour had gone, with a warm glow in the belly and a smile in your eyes. Then off for a pint somewhere to paw over your new lovelies. You know, the fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. No wonder I never got into football.
Right. Sorry. I was telling you about San Francisco. Although we’re pretty much at the tail end of it now. Gnash drove us back to the hotel, where S3’s and sock changes all round were definitely in order. Then out for dins.
The one problem with being based in Union Square is that after a long day’s sightseeing, you’re not in the mood to get back on the bus to find somewhere for dinner. And dining around Union Square can get tourist trappy if you don’t choose with care. I fancied a meal at John’s Grill, which had been made famous in The Maltese Falcon, only to find out they charge 28 bucks for a steak. Which is taking the piss and cruising on a reputation all in one sharp kick to the monetary nads. No thanks, John. 
We ended up in a jazz place, listening to a rather cool four-piece who really could have used a foxy female vocalist (I’ve yet to hear a convincing version of Cry Me A River sung by a man)(yes that’s a challenge. Find me one!) and eating a nice mahi-mahi en papiette. “Ooh,” I think, “that fish has come in a nice filo pastry basket. Tastylicious!” It’s more robust than it looks, and it takes me a little while to bite a piece off. Once I pop it in my mouth, I realise my mistake. (quote of the day) En papiette is literally, in a paper bag. Oops. I try to spit the soggy piece of chewed brown paper out onto my plate so that Clare doesn’t notice. I fail. One of the many reasons I love this girl? She doesn’t take the piss when I do that kind of thing. Much. 
And then it’s Monday, and we’re jumping up and down on our cases to get them to close (HA. No, we’re not. Two words of advice from a seasoned traveller – squishy bags. Nevertheless, it’s a tight squeeze (other quote of the day)). The lovely Madame X volunteers to take us to the airport, and she takes us to lunch before dropping us at SFO. Time drags, in the way it only can at an airport. I spot Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell – Feral City for sale in a news concessionary – which is a bit of a culturefuck as it’s on the same shelf as rants from right wing publicity-whore nutbags Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter. 
And then we’re on a plane and I don’t sleep despite the Dramamine and hypnotherapy and I blink again and it’s Tuesday and we’re home and it’s autumn. Honestly, you’re away for a week, and someone kills the summer. Oh well. If you’re going to stick a knife in, you might as well twist it.
Crikey, what a week. San Francisco is an extraordinary place, with a friendly vibe that instantly puts it up amongst my favourite places on the planet to stay. We’ve met some great people, and seen some amazing things. We’ve only really raised goosebumps on the place. We want to get better acquianted. We’ll be back.
Oh yes, my lovelies. We’re coming back. 
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Rob

Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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