San Francisco: Weird at heart

By Jacqueline Smith

Tall stories are what you expect from talkative Americans. Or so Jacqueline Smith thinks.

Full House-style houses in San Francisco. Photo / Thinkstock
Full House-style houses in San Francisco. Photo / Thinkstock

My neighbour on my flight to San Francisco was a guy from small-town Indiana who said he drove long-haul trucks of grass-seed across the United States.

He screwed up his nose when I asked if he was from San Francisco. "Hell no, they're all a bunch of weirdos," he said. "You know, I'm a small-town boy, I don't get all that city stuff."

I had just 11 hours in the place he referred to as the gay capital of America. And it only took me half an hour to realise why people like him feared the place.

After an easy train ride from the airport to Union Square, I consulted my map and marched off the train and straight into the red light district. I pushed through a street of smiling junkies who tossed me compliments but threatened to beat each other up.

A few blocks along, a panicked Hispanic man started asking me if I spoke Spanish. I don't, but was able to show him on my map that we were, in fact, standing outside his hotel. He cried, "bonita, bonita, bonita" and smacked a kiss on my hand.

Eventually I arrived at my brown and peach hotel. It felt too quiet. So I stuffed some dollars into my back pocket and went to find out what the weird alarms on the street were all about.

Four cable cars, three Starbucks, two diners and an SFPD car chase later, I felt I had entered my television set. There was the as-seen-on-Full House tram, but I decided to walk from Union Square to the famous Fisherman's Wharf - partly because I was freezing and wanted to return circulation to my feet and partly because I anticipated some encounters with colourful characters along the way.

Following my nose, I hunted down San Francisco's signature dish - clam chowder served in a crusty bread bowl - and ate to the sounds of a nearby busker singing the Beach Boys' California Girls.

I spotted Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge. I stopped by a diner that felt like it was straight out of the 50s for a root beer "floater" and noted a place that served cookie burgers - cream and candy between two slabs of cake.

Five passers-by commented on my hat, and one rambled on about how it reminded him of when he was a postie. I decided to try to hunt down the house where Danny, Joey and Uncle Jesse raised their kids. I found the road, and about 40 houses that could have been theirs.

A tall, bald man standing next to me at the pedestrian crossing said he liked my hat.

"Thanks. You're like the sixth person to tell me today," I monotoned, tired of these unsolicited tokens of friendliness from strangers.

"Oh you're not from here?"

Here we go again, I thought. "No I'm just visiting."

"You must be from Australia?"

"No, New Zealand, I'm a hobbit."

Undeterred, he soon had me posed in a photo with a group of girls who were primed for a night on the town. "She's from Nuuu Zealand," he exclaimed.

He asked where I was heading. I told him Union Square. Either he sensed I was lost, or was intent on invading my personal space as he said he was heading that way. But if I didn't mind, he just wanted to pick up a peking duck for his wife in Chinatown first. There seemed no way out.

I decided to turn the conversation on him. Unsurprisingly, he was more than happy to tell me his life story. He has totally lived everywhere, but settled in San Francisco after a long line of marriages and divorces to both women and bands, he told me.

He was a bassist who used to play for Motown, David Bowie and Sly and the Family Stone. Oh, and he's related to British royalty.

I didn't believe a word of course, but was suddenly pleased of the company as it was getting dark, the peking duck in hand made him seem harmless and he had kindly offered to steer me in the direction of a shoe store - I desperately needed a new pair.

I didn't expect him to come into the shoe store with me. I didn't expect him to show me to one of the hippest bars in the gay and lesbian district that was having a Ravel (yes, the composer) night. Nor did I expect him to load the duck into the boot of a brand new, shiny white convertible Mercedes.

I also didn't expect, when I googled him the next day, I would find out that his story was not one word of a lie. I had, in fact, bought a duck, been shoe-shopping and sipped tea and listened to cellos while musing life in San Fran's gay district with one of Sly's old bassists.

And, to be completely honest, I didn't expect that I would be able to escape to my hotel alone - or alive.

But I did. I heart that weirdo city.

- NZ Herald

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