Years ago, my friend told me that in San Francisco you will hear sirens of fire engines, and it’s because there are so many homeless people that when they die, the fire engines are sent to collect their body.
Another friend told me the homeless population was so severe and so alarming that she found it hard to enjoy the city.
In Carmel, I told a man I was going to San Francisco. He replied “Good luck. Don’t go out at night. My niece was in Golden Gate Park at night and some crazy guy just shot her.”
In between this were pockets of people telling me it’s just like any other city and I’d be fine, but I was very aware of the fact I’d be arriving in the very dark of the night. I would have no data to call a taxi, and possibly no wifi to get an uber. 9th July would be the day I would die. I’d venture aimlessly into the Tenderloin and get ravaged to death by zombies.
Or not. The upbeat track from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way album, “Fashion of His Love” came on shuffle as we crossed over the bay on glittering bridge – Oakland behind us and Port of San Francisco illuminated in red ahead of us. It was so gloriously camp and I felt a sudden rush of joy and understanding why exactly I was here.
“And don’t use Uber!” He said, in heavily accented English. “The Uber drivers, they cut the red light and if there’s an accident you’re not protected!”
“I’m trying to boycott it” I said, sadly. “It’s very convenient but they’re not a good company.”
He told me no matter what the meter says, he’ll charge me $10, but I gave him a pretty nice tip anyway.
Music City Hostel was where I stayed. By day a recording studio and place where rockers go to jam, and by night a bed for travellers. One such was a young woman cycling down the North American West Coast. She had been travelling for two years, and we bonded over the our shared values and complete shock over the lack of an American social care system.
“There are so many poor and homeless people!” I exclaimed. “In Los Angeles a section of one street in downtown was like a favela! Can’t they see the system is failing these guys?”
“There IS no system to fail them!”
I talked endlessly, having come from Carmel where I had no one to talk to, and then we fell into an amicable quietness as we prepared our travel admin and slept.
The next day, my personal life back in London got chaotic. It was wrought with anxiety and stress and I didn’t end up leaving the hostel until late afternoon. With back-home drama, it was hard to see the city and be in the moment. I walked up to the Golden Gate bridge, a long and taxing walk, but I couldn’t find a good vantage point in the Presidio.
I did find the very pretty Palace of Fine Arts, and the beauty of a woman in a blue dress changed the dark spirit of my day. I joined the Chinese tourists clustered together taking selfies, and walked along the waterfront. An astonishingly handsome man with a cute baby stopped me for a chat and recommended me some places to go eat and see.
Behind me was a beautiful view of the bridge, clouded by the San Francisco fogs, so I just walked up to the Ghirardelli Square, too exhausted emotionally and physically to go any further and took a sub-par meal from a diner there. I went back home because sometimes you need a still day when you go away.
The next day, I was determined to make more things happen. It was my 24th birthday. My hostel mate Hannah wished me happy birthday, and my first point of interest was the Ferry Building – by way of Sephora, of course.
The Ferry Building hosts a huge fresh food market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and since I hadn’t eaten much yesterday my stomach felt like a bottomless pit. I got a crispy, flaky croissant and a pretty nice macaron to eat as I strolled around, then contemplated just how I’d get to the Castro.
These old streetcars shuttle up and down the cities, tackling the steep hilly streets so you don’t have to. A friendly guy began chatting to me about his favourite places to go in San Francisco, what job I do and asked for my number. I gave him my email and he boarded the bus with me. When I mentioned the word “boyfriend”, suddenly the stop at current was his stop.
As we ferried down Market, the streets began getting gayer and gayer. Flags waved in the wind and I knew the historical Castro was very close. I had seen this place in movies like Milk, and read about it again and again in my quest to Know Our Damn History. A huge rainbow flag waved over the Twin Peaks bar, the oldest gay bar in San Francisco, and we were here.
I strolled down, entering the colourful shops with ephemera and souvenirs, unable to stop myself from buying the small bits and pieces as gifts. Then I saw Dog Eared Books, a bookshop with immediate personality. It was wonderful, and as I chatted to the staff I remembered it was my birthday. I told one staff member I loved her badge, she thanked me and I went on my way. Then her colleague tapped me and said “Happy Birthday”. He presented the badge to me in his palm, and they smiled as my jaw dropped.
“I have one spare.” The girl smiled. I bought a book and some more badges and pinned the badges to my coat. I couldn’t stop smiling.
It was time to head back and find some food as I was beginning to feel lightheaded, and on the F Train back a Spanish couple began to chat to me. They were from North Spain, and initially thought I was a local. When they realised I wasn’t, we spoke about Spain and their British tourists and the homelessness situation in San Francisco. They wrote me their address and told me whenever I was in San Sebastian, I could be their guest.
I took the F Train to Fisherman’s Wharf, but it was so touristy and I was so exhausted I walked straight through it to North Beach/Little Italy, stopping only to pick up two postcards in a shop where the walls were lined with toy cars.
The bookstore was in the heart of the Beat Culture of San Francisco, opposite the Beat Museum and with its own section dedicated to Beat Literature. There were seats where you could pass the time reading their books – this was a bookshop that really loved books. Downstairs in non fiction was packed to the brim with social science books, a section called “Muckracking” and a children’s section full of activisty children’s books. My favourite was called “A is for Activist”. I wanted to wheel the whole bookshop to the till and say “I’ll take this, please.”
My journey home took me through Chinatown. I said I loved Bangkok Chinatown the most – but I loved San Francisco Chinatown more than I could have expected. The shops were full of cute kitschy pink goodies, but sadly they were all closing.
I photographed murals as I passed them, and outside my hostel photographed a punky cool girl wearing a bag that read “hex the patriarchy”. I became so excited, telling her I was in love with just how radical and how political and me this whole city was.
It had been a great birthday. On the Monday I found it hard to love the city but by Tuesday I found it hard to leave. The rich history and rich present, the culture and the people, the art and the books. It was so much more than I expected.
I didn’t see the worst of homelessness because I was never very near to Union Square, but what was always alarming was the amount of homeless wheelchair users. Something was clearly amiss in qthat situation, and it was evident of a much larger issue that I didn’t see.
I’m sad that I didn’t visit as much as I wanted to in San Francisco, but I am grateful for all I did see!
Favourite sights: The Castro, The Ferry Building, The City Lights Bookstore
Hostel: Music City Hostel
Positives: Clean, well located just off Polk Street. It’s fairly close to the Tenderloin but far enough away to not experience any big problems
Negatives: The small bathrooms lock from the inside, but you can still open them with a card key from the outside regardless of whether it is locked from the inside. In my opinion this design flaw is a massive issue! You of course must always knock before entering, but that doesn’t mean people still forget and almost every time I used the bathroom for any length of time, someone would enter.