SAN FRANCISCO — The stocky guy in the hooded sweatshirt sits at a metal table in Union Square, casually shaving with a cordless electric razor.
“The Rolling Stones are coming,” he says out of nowhere. “Mick Jagger. Next week.”
Kathy and I head north on Grant Avenue, through the Chinatown gate and past stores overflowing with tourist trinkets — San Francisco hats, miniature cable cars, silk change purses (starting at $1.49), silk slippers and lots of other stuff.
Off Grant, we slip into the garden of St. Mary’s Square. There’s no California sunshine today. But it’s Feb. 18, 60 degrees and green. Birds are in full concert. Cherry trees are in first bloom. And behind the World War II memorial, two women, one fit, one stooped, engage in the ritual shadow dance of Tai Chi. An artist wrapped in a red shawl sketches the scene.
We head further north on Grant, then northwest onto Columbus, past the Stinking Rose Restaurant, which celebrates all things garlic, and the Italian caffes (two t’s here) of North Beach. Just enough time for coffee with steamed milk and then we veer right and straight up a crazily tilted street.
It’s not like this in Boston. Not just the freedom to walk in mid-winter. Not just the smells — bay and eucalyptus, the sights — daffodils, oleander and ancient jades, the sounds (a cacophonous colony of parrots perches on the trees just below the tower). But also the ease of a city never constrained by truly cold seasons.
Unemployment here may be double digit. Today’s Chronicle says commercial property values dropped by a jaw-dropping 28 percent in 2009. And schools at all levels are struggling under the weight of the state’s lopsidedly unbalanced budgets. But you’d never guess it from the studied lightness that’s a lifestyle here, from the easy banter of the Columbus Avenue coffee shop barista to the bicycle cop who parks outside and chats unhurriedly with an aproned shop owner in the street.
Our destination, Coit Tower, claims the city’s most imposing view. It looks out over the Golden Gate Bridge, down on the waterfront and Bay, back toward the city and its skyscrapers. Kathy and I first came here 40 years ago this summer in a non-descript, overheating brown station wagon we christened Clarabelle. I borrowed it from my father, drove 30,000 miles in a year and tried to sell it back to him (he was not pleased). Somehow car and driver survived. On that hot summer day we first set eyes on the city by the Bay, the car spewed steaming water all over the road just feet from the Coit Tower summit. Broke and grubby, we let it rest, poured cool water in its belly and drove off.
This time we’re on foot, leather jackets, thank you, and with the time and elbow room to learn about the 3,000 square feet of murals inside the 210-foot tower’s cylindrical main hallway.
The place was build in 1933, a product of the Depression. It was named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who bequeathed $118,000 on her death in 1929 for “the purpose of adding beauty to the city which I have always loved.” She lived a boisterous life here, too, serving as mascot of Knickerbocker Engine Co. #5, smoking cigars and dressing as a man to gamble in the North Beach saloons.
The murals depict the California of another era, men and women toiling in the oil fields, in the shipyards, on the railroads, and on the farms. In all 26 artists chipped in, earning an average of $31.22 a week, according to the exhibit. They worked through a maritime strike and there were complaints that some were communists. (One mural, in fact, shows a worker pulling Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” from a bookshelf.)
We end our magical morning on the downhill slope toward Fisherman’s Wharf , past a homeless guy who has parked his shopping cart to methodically shoot foul shots in a neighborhood playground.
A bowl of clam chowder, 15 minutes in line while the burly cable car guys playfully bully the passengers and we’re off, up the big hill and then down the other side, hanging over the abyss, hoping the cable car brakes hold.
It’s been 16 years since Kathy and I left the Bay Area and moved back East. But even on this cameo of a return — mid-February weddings don’t make for much of a vacation — I’m still in love with the city and its hills. I appreciate the history, the architecture, the arts and intellect of the Eastern seaboard, where I grew up and returned to live.
Still, I left my heart San Francisco. I’m guessing I’ll remain a nostalgic, bicoastal personality to the end.