Nature is my drug of choice. I love the outdoors. It is my passion. I need to live in a place where I look out my windows and see trees and stars. At this point in life, I have come to realize its pretty much a non negotiable. It’s a must have. And yet, I do love visiting the city. Or The City as San Francisco is known. As if there were no other. While it would be deeply challenging to live there, there is so much to do and see that a visit is always much anticipated. It offers endless opportunities to explore and find beauty and ugliness side by side. The endless diversity is appealing. It is fascinating how one street can be filthy and smelly, characters of questionable repute lurking in doorways and two streets away there are multimillion dollar storybook homes with trimmed hedges and flowers in the windowsill.
My visit to San Francisco last weekend landed on a 100% San Francisco weather kind of day. For the uninitiated, this means fog and cold that gets through any amount of layering of clothing. Any month of the year you have about an 80% chance that this will be your weather. So no matter the month, even in summer, no especially in summer, you bring a jacket, scarf, and mittens. I have a couple of friends who moved to San Francisco from Santa Cruz a few years back. Within 5 minutes of arrival they both promptly came down with pneumonia. I might be exaggerating, but only a little. Then of course, there is Mark Twain’s famous saying, “The coldest winter of my life was a summer in San Francisco.” So my friends Patrick and Sonia and I bundled ourselves in wool and down before climbing in the car and motoring up the coast to The City for a day’s adventure.
We left at 7am on a Sunday morning both to beat traffic and to find a parking spot in the Tenderloin where we planned to attend a church service at Glide Memorial. The Tenderloin area is famous for its drugs, filth, prostitutes, and homelessness. Glide Memorial is famous for gospel music and their community service projects. This was sure to be interesting, but really I didn’t know what I was in for. We found a free (?!?) parking spot near the church and walked past a line a block long. Folks were lining up for Glide’s soup kitchen. Trash blew down the street and the smell of urine pervaded the air. “Um, is it really safe to leave the car here?” Sonia asked. “Only during the day.” Patrick answered. We found our way inside the sanctuary. It was so small and humble compared to what I had imagined. No fancy alter or paintings. Just some worn carpet and wooden pews. I mean this place is world-famous for their music. I guess I was expecting a little more pomp and circumstance. Several people greeted us and shook our hands and I eavesdropped on conversations around us as we waited for the service to start. There were people visiting from all over the world. Literally. Behind us were a group of women from Australia and a man from the Netherlands. Other visitors were from the East Coast, Texas, the Carolinas. A large African-American man dressed as a woman swooped in to give us hugs. Sonia and I looked at each other with big eyes and giggled. Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore! By the time the music started every shade, every gender (and some variations thereof), every orientation, every everything was represented there, everyone smiling and greeting one another. And the music did not disappoint. The horns blew, the keyboard rocked, the entire choir swayed as one and oh how they could sing! We thew our hands in the air, stomped our feet and shouted “Hallelujah!” with the best of them. I had such a big grin on my face my cheeks hurt.
That experience challenged me in some ways. It brought up some prejudices I didn’t realize I had. I was a little nervous walking through that neighborhood. I was a little nervous in the beginning of service. I felt very white, very straight-laced, very conventional. I was afraid that I would be judged because it would be assumed I was judging. And I suppose I was. I caught myself feeling that I would not be comfortable running into some of those people out on the street. What would I say to that person? I wouldn’t have anything to talk about with that one. That person looks kind of scary. But as I looked around I realized that no one was paying one bit of attention to me. Nobody was eyeballing me and trying to decide if I was good or bad, this or that. Everyone else was just there to hear a positive message, listen to some incredible music, and revel in the sense of safety and community, if only for an hour before heading back out to the street. It was a good thing. As we filed out Sonia said, “You know what? I want to come back and bring my kids with me. This would be good for them. They need to see this. This is how people really are. People really live like this. We live in such a bubble in Santa Cruz.” Amen sista.
An aside. Back at work the next day I was telling my coworkers about the experience. Most people found it cool or interesting. But one man started laughing hysterically and called me a freak. He wanted to know why I would have gone there, said it sounded lame and that he wouldn’t ever want to do something like that. He just couldn’t get over it. Needless to say, I was offended. I tried to explain that a variety of experiences makes for a richer life. He couldn’t hear me so I got frustrated and gave up.
Back in San Francisco, it was time for Sunday brunch. If there is something The City does well, it’s food. I have tried to use Yelp but it’s too overwhelming. There are simply too many choices. So, we walked and looked and stumbled across a place called “Colibri” which means Hummingbird in Spanish. The sign for bottomless mimosas drew us in but the lady in the back hand patting tortillas made us stay. We fought to be first into the stack of steaming tortillas wrapped in a towel. I couldn’t decide which of the rainbow array of salsa I liked best. The smokey red? The sweet mango yellow? The fiery green tomatillo? When the waiter came gliding over with our plates of food I stared into the platter entranced. It was like the mother ship had landed. Steak in a chocolatey mole sauce sprinkled with that salty Oaxacan cheese, eggs scrambled with chorizo, fluffy rice, and of course another stack of thick, steaming tortillas. That was just my plate. I’m sure Pat and Sonia’s plates were amazing too but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from my own and we all declared we’d never be able to eat the whole thing. But we did. And we ordered dessert. A mango creme brulee, hot churros stuffed with caramel, dulce de leche ice cream. We swore we would only eat one bite each of each thing. Ha ha, yea right. That quickly went the way of “just one mimosa for me”. So, slightly tipsy, holding our bellies and groaning we waddled through the fog to the Legion of Honor.
Friends had alerted me to the special Monet exhibit. I had never been into the Legion of Honor Museum but always admired its beautiful location and architecture. There was a double treat as they were also displaying the sculptures of Rodin. I don’t know that I had ever gotten so close to a Monet painting before. It was so interesting the way that close up, the painting looked like nothing, just blobs of color, but back up and a whole scene emerges. I liked how Rodin could capture hot, fleeting human emotions such as rage, despair, and passion in a hard, cold material such as bronze or marble. The crowd at the Legion of Honor was quite different from the crowd at Glide Memorial. I must say, the people watching wasn’t quite as interesting. It’s really something, the way a big city like that forces people who are so, so different from one another to live practically on top of one another. They seem to make it work. Everyone seems to live and let live. At least, that’s my outsider’s view.
It was a delightful day, full of odd juxtapositions, interesting experiences, heavenly food, and shared with good friends. We left The City a little lighter in the pockets but much richer in experiences. I also gave a profound sigh of contentment to sit in my rocking chair in front of the fireplace in my little cabin in the woods that night. Visits are good, but there’s no place like home.