Searching the Sun: San Francisco
This summer the sun was shy in Scotland, so I went searching for it in San Francisco. Instead of a direct flight to the city, I travelled from LAX airport on the infamous Greyhound bus. We swerved passed valleys of blossom, grape vines, palm trees and cranberry-coloured flowers, honeysuckle and scorching sun. On the road towards North Hollywood, away from celebrity, I glimpsed the homeless and watched them push their shopping trolleys at traffic lights, collecting stuff they found in the treasure box of back streets. A stray sat next to me, offering up a cup cake in her hard skinned hands, her last edible object reserved from her hunt that day. I refused politely and she grinned, offended, and bit through the wrapper as the chocolate softened to coat her teeth. Outside, another old stray took a shower under a sprinkler system on the side of the freeway, crouching down on the flower beds massaging a dirty bar of soap under his arm pits, squinting at the sun and saluting his crowds.
The bus travelled north, up through Bakersfield and Sacramento, passing parched hills carpeted in foliage that spread like a fur over small canyons down through the Big Sur. Almost ninety miles north of Los Angeles we dipped into scenery that left me faint and bleary-eyed. Rows of vineyards, sheets of lemon cornfields, ripe tomatoes that tucked their tiny heads under blankets of lime leaves – a horizon almost elastic as it stretched in waves under the heat’s mirage. Great desert mountains exalted a heroic strength, crowned by the sun’s static rays. I had planned to stop at The Stork Club on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland first for the open mike poetry nights, but the beat of San Francisco urged me closer. A bushfire burned in the background and the shrunken sun was dimmed by the smog. Crossing the bay bridge the bus was swallowed by grey clouds, the ocean the colour of a bruise and the tower buildings beheaded by the fog. I stood up from behind the comfort of glass and stepped into the humid shadow of San Francisco, inhaling its cosmopolitan cologne.
My hotel room looked out over Union Square, North America’s third largest shopping quarter. The smell of Chinese food shivered up to my window: the atmosphere was electric. My travels had brought me across the burning of the Colorado River, the humid heat of Orange County, the sticky sunrise on Newport Beach, and now to foggy San Francisco. Slightly disillusioned, I found my way to the notorious Haight-Ashbury district, spent two hundred dollars on memorabilia and cheered up immediately. Haight is home of the incense-perfumed hippy, colourfully-dressed and fashioning Native American jewellery. Many tourists are attracted to this area since it was once synonymous with counter culture. The ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967 was a cocktail of politics and psychedelic drugs, music, sexual freedom and creative expression. Haight continues to resonate as the epicentre of the hippie revolution. Most of the architecture remains from the 1880s, but apartments were painted bright colours in the 1960s – a glaring sun is not needed when there is colour everywhere. I took the tram across to Castro; the Soho of San Francisco, a gay Mecca, the LGBT capital of the world.
There was a clear sky over Castro and the fog prowled on the horizon, over the greater part of the city, the dark Bay Bridge and the port for the boat ride to Alcatraz Island. I sat on the balcony of the Côte Sud on 18th street ogling my French cuisine menu with a prix fixe of $25. I splashed out on the wine. The streets were laced with tattoo parlours, independent music stores and fascinating boutiques – and, after dark, a bustling night life. People passed, walking small dogs whilst shopping for retro clothing. Grunge skateboarders did tricks across the road to music from spray-canned stereos. Tourists looked cross-eyed at maps, then at street signs. Rainbow flags flapped from every building.
My last night was saved for the literary heart of the city. I took the cable car to 261 Columbus Avenue to visit the City Lights bookstore that first published Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in 1956. I bought two books by unheard women of the Beat Generation (who wrote ‘off the road’). In the evening I drank beer at the Vesuvio Café, where Jack Kerouac drank whisky and performed into many mornings. Jimi Hendrix played on a muted television and the blues resonated out from a corner jukebox. There was a theatrical feel to the place, with red velvet and a small wooden balcony. The walls played tribute to The Beats with glorified posters, original poetry and sepia photographs.
Leaving sunless San Francisco and pulling back into Oakland, the bus fills with exotic smells and syllabic voices as bundles of African American women and wide-eyed children carrying fruit, unravel on board. We gravitate away from the East Bay, Lake Merritt shifts its weight to whisper stories about railroads and the Gold Rush. The stars serrated edges scratch the throat of the sky, and I duck under billboard shadows until I reach morning, then home.
The city is surrounded by water on three sides; the cold ocean water combined with the high heat of California generates the characteristic fog. The highest temperatures, around 70 degrees Farenheit, are reached in September, so if you are on the hunt for sun that is the best time to go.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
It hosts a permanent collection of over 15,000 works including Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. It also features works of Henri Matisse, Cindy Sherman and Paul Klee. The building is iconic; the entrance lobby is a giant chessboard with gargantuan sculptures towering above. See here.
San Francisco Film Festival
This takes place in April. It dates back to 1957 making it the longest running Film Festival in America. Films are shown from over 50 countries.
World-renowned LGBT Pride Festival in June
Janette Ayachi is a London-born Edinburgh-based poet with a Masters in Creative Writing from Edinburgh University. She has had poetry published in literary journals such as Poetry Salzburg Review, Orbis and Gutter, currently in The Journal, Pushing out The Boat andSouthlight #11, then upcoming in the The New Writer, Agenda and The Istanbul Review. Her poems online are featured in The Lampeter Review, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Ofi Press Mexico and Underground Voices (California). She was shortlisted for Write Queer London this year and was one of the winners of St. Andrews Museum competition set for StAnza. Her pamphlet A Choir of Ghosts will be published later this year. For more visit: www.janetteayachi.webs.com