There were at least four street parties or festivals in San Francisco and Oakland (one of the towns across the bay). I saw three of them, leaving a Bluegrass music festival to others.
The first was in Oakland, on Berkeley’s side of the bay. As I walked to the Bart metro station in the morning they were still setting up and when I returned from the Bart station in the evening things might have been winding down. But there was enough on both occasions to teach one that Oakland, like its more famous neighbour, is a tranquil town that likes to look to the alternative side of life. ‘Progressive and rigorous’ ran the advertisement for one school, ‘The best of both worlds.’ Progressive is definitely a watchword for the area. Though the only Tesla (a very good looking Model S) I saw was in San Francisco proper, Priuses and other hybrids abound in Berkeley and Oakland. Chiropractors are practically two-a-penny out here and the American equivalent of a greasy spoon is organic only, darling.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is rather more than London’s few streets of restaurants and hidden away supermarkets. There is a Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Chinese lawyers and Chinese accountants (and we all know how famously robust China’s legal and accounting systems are). There are, as they are everywhere, Chinese quack-shops with their herbs and spices. There are Chinese tea shops with a variety of teas that would make a Beijinger shake his head sadly, but a variety of prices that would make a Beijing tea-seller rub his hands and cackle. There are clothes shops selling silk-jackets made from one hundred percent polyester, and junk shops selling the sort of tat that you could never imagine anyone buying. There were even a few shops selling real silk jackets made from real silk and these did, I admit, pose a problem. You see, I have a weakness for jackets. I am also a little enamoured with silk. Combine the two and I spend much more time than is prudent trying to work out who I can buy one for.
The owner of one shop was delighted to hear my accent. In a moment my voice had transported her back to a Hong Kong where the red white and blue still flew. She had left long before the Communists had come, finding in San Francisco a new place to set up stall. But it wasn’t only Cantonese speakers in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mandarin could be heard too, though maybe not from mainlanders. Today was the day San Francisco celebrated America’s relationship with the Republic of China, a government stripped of its permanent seat on the security council after America thought the People’s Republic might be better customers. Yet here it was the star of the Kuomintang, not that of Mao’s communists, that flapped in the breeze above Washington Street. It was a Taiwanese dragon, too, that danced to the drum beat in the street procession.
Actually, San Francisco’s oriental community seems to be everywhere. The taxi driver who took us from the airport was Chinese. The maid who cleaned my hotel room was Chinese. The shoe-shine on a pier was Chinese. The Chinese community here appears vibrant, and is much more than London’s student heavy Han-population. There are Chinese students too, of course; the Berkeley campus had lots, as did the area around a university building in downtown San Francisco.
Like Hong Kong, San Francisco is built on some pretty steep slopes once one moves away from the water front. Walking from Chinatown to the Golden Gate Bridge took me over at least three hills and through some very pretty residential areas. They were not pretty in the Berkeley style, with front gardens full of flowers, but they were architecturally pretty. The quiet wide streets were home to rows of houses that all differed from one another. It was here too, in the quiet of these neighbourhoods, that I heard the strumming noise of San Francisco’s most famous transport system: the cable cars. In a steel track underneath the roads runs the cable that pulls the passenger cars up the city’s steep hill-side roads. The wire sings: its voice is easily drowned out by traffic and conversation, but let the streets stand quiet again and the noise returns, a song as intimately bound up in San Francisco’s story as Star Fleet Academy.
Beyond the hills and back down by the water’s edge, the city mellows out into flat grassland with trees, bicycle paths, marinas and a sense of the space that one finds in Berkeley. At an outside exercise yard the owners of astonishingly good looking bodies went throuugh their regimes, to the derision of at least one passing car and the admiration of at least one passer-by. There is almost a village feel towards the end. The road broadens out and the houses line just one side, the better to get a view of the water. Above it all looms the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course, one has to see it; it is the landmark. But San Fancisco has other bridges, and the one to Oakland and Berkeley is bigger and more impressive. Yet no visit to San Francisco would be complete without looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge: the bridge that Kirk will crash-land his stolen Klingon spaceship under; the bridge that will see the Apes battle the humans before going on to overturn biology, history and reason, and wrest the planet for their own.
Of course, San Francisco isn’t only known for its future. Its past is also something that we have all, perhaps unknowingly, internalised. It was here that Harvey Milk taught Americans what the Ugandans and Russians probably have yet to fully understand. So just as standing witness to the city’s bridges is integral to any tour of San Francisco, so surely too is visiting the scene of Mr Milk’s work and death: Castro.
It ended up being rather easy to find. As I left the Bart station I noticed two young men holding hands, one wearing jeans so loose half his boxer-short clad bottom was on display, the other wearing jeans so tight he might have been vacuum packed. Nonetheless, I perhaps unfairly felt that if I discretely followed them I might end up in the right neighbourhood. In fact, I need not have been anxious about following a duff horse. The road to Castro was packed. Welcome to my third unexpected festival of the day.
This street party, it must be admitted was just a little different from the one in Oakland or the one in Chinatown. It was a lot more joyous for a start. There were barbecues and beer stalls and ice cream sellers. There were Republicans searching for Mr Right and Democrats looking for votes. There were Lutheran ministers reminding us that God loves everyone and San Franciscan policemen telling us that they were fairly keen too. There were singers in outrageous costumes and dancers in almost no costume at all. There were bars and coffee shops, of course, but most of all there were smiling happy people enjoying a day of glorious sunshine and eye-popping street scenes. There were also two old men who were wandering around utterly utterly naked, a slightly unwanted counterpoint to the myriad shirtless young men showing off torsos I could never dream of having and the young women wearing skimpy enough outfits to make a lesbian blush.
It was at this point that I got stopped by a local who wanted to know why I was dressed as I was: a light-weight summer sports jacket and a rather fantastic pair of pale yellow trousers was not, he voiced, approprate attire for either San Francisco in general or a gay festival in particular. I have to admit that there might have been something in his words. In my two days here, I hadn’t seen anyone else wearing a proper jacket. In my twenty minutes at the festival I hadn’t seen anyone wearing anywhere near as many layers as I was. It seemed Mr Milk’s neighbourhood was not for me. It was time to say goodbye.