San Francisco

Preamble

Our limited time on Earth gets a bad rap; we focus too much on what we don’t have, and what we won’t ever experience. It’s not an unfair perspective to naturally have – we’re only human after all – but it’s worthwhile to take the next step in critically evaluating our shared situation by recognizing that reality can be reframed. Our lack of time can be used to encourage focused attention, with the goal of getting the most out of any given moment.

On its surface, visiting an unfamiliar city for only a day doesn’t seem like enough time to become deeply acquainted with any part of the place. To reframe this “problem” though, it’s also a short enough stay to experiment with completely eliminating downtime.

For this to work, it means deferring any feelings of exhaustion or lack of motivation to another day. It’s crucial to note though that the name of the game isn’t quantity, but a consistent quality. The purpose is to enjoy the present moment for all it’s worth, before letting it go and moving onto the next moment to fully enjoy that.

In visiting San Francisco for 24 hours with my sister, our objective was to build an itinerary devoid of spare time, but filled with the presence of the people who call the city home.

What follows are major details of minor events.

Tempest

When observing the everyday behavior of others, I believe the intention should be to learn with low stakes. For that reason, the allure of choosing the seats in the short corner at the bar is it provides a natural angle to examining anyone else on the rail.

It was still early on a Saturday afternoon and we happily slipped into the two best seats in the house. Once settled, it took only one look at the various cross-eyed faces of our neighbors to hint that their physical presence was no guarantee of a mental one.

We ordered drinks, and a woman struggling to keep her lids open sat down two seats away. She turned her head toward us and forcefully sighed, then followed it up with a long string of words in English, but with a syntax from Mars. By the time our beers were delivered she had excused herself and disappeared.

The Martian seemed to have warmed up the seat though, and she was replaced by a guy who was hoping his indoor sunglasses would mask his personal eyelid battle. A shot and a beer arrived for him, and when he set the shot glass back down on the bar his head followed suit. He was clapped awake by the bartender and graciously given one warning not to put his head down again or he’d be kicked out. His nodding at her mandate was profuse, but fifteen seconds later she was forced to clap at him again. He wobbled up from his seat and turned around toward the bar’s open doors, and he spotted a loud group congregating outside who appeared closer to his level of functioning, and he wandered away. The shot glass he left behind was empty, but the beer was untouched.

Once again the hot seat was only temporarily vacant, as another droopy-eyed character appeared and leaned over the chair, ordering for two. The drinks arrived and he swiped one and walked over to the pool table. His buddy stumbled through the entrance and made straight for the bar in search of his drink. What he found next to his beer was the empty shot glass and full beer from the last guy, and he became vocally enraged that his friend had taken a shot without him, and then left both their beers on the bar while he left to play pool. As he mumbled words to himself only he could hear, he snatched both drinks and double-fisted his way over to his friend to yell about the misunderstanding. Waste not, want not.

Our time here was winding down, but before we left the same seat was replaced one final time by the guy who had been kicked out less than an hour ago, who returned with a member from the group he’d met outside the bar. The whole bar had been mildly amused watching these two briefly and unexceptionally sparring in the alley outside the open doors, and now our old friend was trying to convince the bartender to fulfill his wish to buy his opponent a drink as a peace offering. The bartender refused, and reminded him he’d already been booted for the day. Trying to solve the dilemma for the both of them, the opponent from the sparring match took a turn pleading the case, explaining that if she didn’t serve them the beers, he’d have no choice but to go back outside and beat the sunglasses off of our old friend’s face. Steady as they come, she refused again and instead suggested a nearby bar they could try. Resigned, the opponent put his arm around our friend, and as they turned to walk back outside he loudly apologized for having to now kick his ass. The bar collectively turned to keep an eye toward the alley outside, but the small crowd still lingering dispersed shortly thereafter without incident.

The place had tripled in customers since we’d arrived and it was getting tight, which was our cue to exit. We downed the rest of what was in front of us, and resolved to negotiate an appearance fee next time.

Red’s Java House

We made our way toward the water to grab food, and along the way we found ourselves a few blocks from the Giants’ home of Oracle Park. The early afternoon first pitch had just seen its last, and the result was a loss to the struggling New York Mets. We were carried the last half-mile by a sullen sea of black and orange.

We arrived at what appeared to be an old shack situated on the water, and I wondered if a standalone structure could qualify as a hole in the wall. There wasn’t a line inside, but any doubt of average food was put to rest with one glance at the grill situated directly behind the register.

I looked over my shoulder and scanned the pictures on the wall: there were a handful featuring the restaurant itself from various eras throughout its healthy lifespan, there was a well-done Photoshop of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin as a lively Dancing With The Stars pair, and there were multiple photos (3+) of what appeared to be the same visit from Anthony Bourdain.

I looked further over my shoulder and saw a line so long it reached the door. I calculated in my head whether there was a way to claim the horde and squeeze a free meal out of the place, but I settled for the gratitude that comes with being half good and half lucky.

We found seats on the back patio and I couldn’t help when my gaze naturally floated up to the underside of the Bay Bridge. Its sister may get all the headlines, but that didn’t bar this from being a modern marvel in its own right.

The food arrived and the burger in front of me was my first on sourdough. Aside from having to chew it more than a standard bun, my taste buds appreciated the change of pace. We were both nearly silent for the entire ten-ish minutes it took to devour the entire meal. I like to call that “satisfaction”.

An aside: Scarfing the burgers and fries was no problem, but I’m routinely fully satisfied after just a couple onion rings. Has any restaurant ever featured a “mixed bag” menu item, consisting of an assortment of fries and onion rings? I would order this!

We folded our paper plates into our paper cups and two guys fell into the seats across from us. One slurred enough for the both of them, and he stumbled breathlessly to his friend that with Megan now out of the picture, the self-styled “Single Steve” was ready to pick up exactly where he left off six months ago. With no indication that his companion was listening, S.S. used the next few minutes to dump every negative quality he could think of onto Megan’s shoulders. He stopped when he noticed he had begun listing traits at the top of his voice.

The sun still sat high in the sky, and in a modified whisper Single Steve declared that he was just getting started. In my words, he looked about finished.

Natoma Cabana

We stood on the street corner of 2nd and Natoma and we agreed the latter was a glorified alley. There was also no hint of the cantina, and though I’d been trying to navigate us without the aid of my phone, these were desperate times. The bar appeared straightaway, located 150 feet down the alley in the last leasable unit in the building. Squinting from where we stood on the street, the only sign of life was a small arrow mounted perpendicular to the entrance.

We ducked in and found ourselves in a nearly empty tropical-themed oasis. With a bartender and a bashful young couple as our sole company, we once again slid into the short corner on the rail. The bartender got started on our order, and the crowd we’d been toting around all day began filtering in.

It started with a girl we nicknamed “Blue Hair” because, well, she had a blue wig on. She was there alone, but relatable in her anxiousness for human connection. She leaned in for a conversation with the bartender as he made her drink, but he was doing an impression of a brick wall and she did all the talking.

Our less than subtle eavesdropping was interrupted by a screech, and our heads swiveled open toward the door. A group rolling twelve deep made their presence known aurally as they squeezed through the entrance. The mob took over all of the seats at the other end of the bar, and through lining up they became individuals. While there’s absolutely no rule that says a group of people need to dress in any kind of uniform way, it was striking to see a party with such different styling choices. Hawaiian shirts were on equal footing with Windsor knots, which were on equal footing with Steph Curry jerseys. Our eyes fell to the cowboy standing closest to us, and as luck would have it he was recognized by Blue Hair. The hug was awkward, but the cowboy made for a more engaging conversational partner than her first attempt, and the pair spoke in an even back and forth.

A smartly dressed woman wearing a ring on the only finger that matters entered alongside a man in a trench coat, yellow tinted shades, and ten naked fingers and claimed the seats next to us. As far as we could tell the only thing the two had in common was they both enjoyed drinking. The bartender recognized the guy, and whatever words he saved earlier he spent holding court with his pal. I looked over to see Blue Hair’s reaction, but she’d disappeared from the bar’s seating lineup.

Another large group entered, and whatever fashion cohesiveness the first crew lacked, this new group had a set uniform style in the sense that they all wore different pieces of the Giants’ uniform. It was evident that this wasn’t their first postgame stop, and seeing the bartender grinding away all alone made it obvious that this was far more people than the bar was used to seeing at this hour. With this slower drink delivery speed factored in, we made the decision to get outta dodge.

The bill was settled just as Blue Hair returned to the cowboy’s side, except now she had her natural blonde hair out. Even for a group with a wide range of acceptable styles, she felt the blue wig was too out of place to properly assimilate. How do we best navigate the distance between who we are and who we want to be?

Golden Gate Tap Room

The San Jose Earthquakes game was about to begin, and we kept our eyes peeled for any sign of a sports bar. We were short on time, and it was the day’s first location we were choosing blindly. We hoped our luck would hold.

The first thing was saw upon entering the lobby was an unplugged metal detector. I asked if we should be nervous about going inside, and the bouncer responded that in all her time working there she’d never seen the machine actually get used. Reassuring. We wandered past her and walked up a flight of stairs, then another flight, and then another flight. When we arrived at the hostess stand I pretended not to catch my breath.

Our eyes adjusted to the darker setting and in turn they were met with a much drunker crowd than either of us expected. There were a number of games scattered throughout the space, and it smacked of a trashier Dave & Buster’s.

We seated ourselves in a back area near a group of TVs that were tuned to the A’s postgame report, boxing, bass fishing, and not the Quakes game; the MLS may be garnering more attention in certain corners of the country, but it’s still got a way to go. We worked with our waitress to find the game, and she worked with the bartender, and he worked with the manager. Ten minutes after the game started it flashed onto the screen closest to us, but the best feed they could find was a picture quality that the 1990s would’ve been disappointed in. I kept the negativity to myself and thanked them for the hard work.

While we watched the game we simultaneously tried to analyze the vibe of the place as a whole, but everyone there seemed like they used the same *shoulder shrug* decision-making process that we did to choose it. The most positive way to frame our experience was that it takes the occasional Miss to better appreciate the Hit.

The Quakes took a lead into halftime (they would win the game), and we took the opportunity to slip out in favor of an evening stroll through Union Square and the rest of the city. Pick your battles, and then know when to retreat.

Dynamo Donuts

The following morning we rented a couple of Metro Bikes with the intention of riding from SoMa to the Marina District near the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead of a straight shot, our aim was to use a more scenic route along the water. Continuing in the spirit of limited time, the bike rental charged a fairly reasonable $2 for 30 minutes. However, the rule was if we were unable to dock before the half hour elapsed, the price would become a more severe $3 for each additional 15 minutes. The plan was to fast track the long way.

The ride itself went as well as could be expected, helped by the existence of clearly drawn bike lanes on the street, and vehicles that drove at safe distances. Halfway through the 27th minute we locked our bikes into the only two open slots at the final eligible bike rack. Half good, half lucky.

We walked along the water on the beautiful north side of the city, and the only thing missing from the experience was caffeine. We passed a Philz Coffee truck with a line ten deep, and decided to press our luck and aim for something more local. Fortune remained on our side when we happened upon an empty line and modest prices. We ate our donuts and drank our coffee and gazed at the legendary suspension bridge from a beach down the coast half a mile away.

To get to know a city, find its people and simply be present with them. We watched a dog in a shark fin lifejacket paddling alongside its wetsuit-less owner. We watched a group of older men launch toward the middle of the bay on their wind surfing and kite surfing boards.  We watched people on the beach commit to sun bathing in overcast conditions.

We absorbed a sliver of life in a city going through major transition.

Ultimately

Our time here may be short, but we can make our days long. In 24 short hours we made mountains out of memories, and shared laughs we’ll return to for years to come.

We went in search of a spirit that can exist anywhere, yet doesn’t exist everywhere. We knew what we were looking for, and we were all too happy to find a hunk of it. Half good, half lucky.

P.S. Thank You to the r/SanFrancisco subreddit for assisting with the itinerary build. These people love their city, and if you dig around enough they’ll tell you all its best parts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *