This first appeared on November 3, 2007
From the clanging jerky rumble of a cable car ride, San Francisco is perfectly itself: Beautiful and Vain. Quaint. Festive. Bohemian. Dangerous. An aging madam desperate to be loved. Nothing connects me more vividly to the city of my boyhood than to experience it from one of these little iron icons rattling halfway to the stars ... Many years ago when I took a night class in drawing at the Academy of Art College somewhere up on Nob Hill, I would jump aboard a cable car to get there, and the dramatic journey up and down hills past grand arches and stately Victorian mansions through sharp clean ocean air made me feel like I had finally arrived, even though I never really arrived.. ... In the lobby of an ad agency with earnest portfolio in hand, I braced myself while an art director took the time to glance over my samples. With barely a sigh, tersely he said, “You need to go to school.”
I kept on going to school, up at Santa Rosa Junior College, taking more art classes and, at home, designing more LP album covers and Ringling Bros. Circus posters .... A kindly English instructor intervened, telling me with faith in his eyes that I had what it took to be a writer ... Art director closes one door. Lit teacher opens another. Still, I’d like to draw. Still I’d like to paint... And still, I feel like a writer trying to be a writer ...
We were riding a cable car, weren’t we. Oh, how special they can make you feel the way they toss you up and down hills and throw you around curves with gusto at 5 mph! I’ve been too many years between clattering climbs and nerve-wracking drops. Too many years out of touch with a city’s remarkable charm. All those tourists at Powell and Market kept me away. Before this tough old waterfront city sold its soul to tourism, I recall the Powell St. turntable without the long Disneyesque lines. Today, I hopped the fairly ignored California Street slot, easily nabbing a seat, and rode the rumble up Nob Hill and down to Polk. Destination: game of Monopoly with a friend at the Leland Tea Company. Japanese rice tea for me, please. Not so fun, an S.F. version of the board game, even though I managed to nab the priciest lots better known as Boardwalk and Park Place ... Maybe, as somebody once said, you can’t go home again. but my niece Lisa and I agree that you can go back to Monopoly the original.
And you can go back to San Francisco the original on the Powell or California Street lines. Tis a pity the town lost its subtle sophistication to the in-your-face crowd. Now to live there, you have to have a lot of money or none at all. So much of the mystery is long gone. The town of my birth deserved better than the slobbish 60s.
On my reverse journey back to Market, the grinding gears and levers remind me of the old Big Dipper Roller Coaster at Playland-at-the Beach across the very street from where I was raised ... of days walking home from Lafayette Elementary with my sister Kathy when we spotted our father inside the maze of wood, hammering boards back into place and waving at us .... Of other times when my Uncle Smitty, who managed the Dipper, walked me through its forest-like structure to show me how flat strips of thick metal were curved into fresh rails. How the pull chain came up at the right point to meet the rush of oncoming cars from out of the dark tunnel, grabbing hold and pulling them sky high before letting a load of crazies scream their guts out on the first big plunge down down down ...
From a cable car the city feels perfectly realized. And I can understand why those who hawk their fortunes on rent and mortgages to live here feel a tad smugish. They have claimed a piece of Herb Caen’s Baghdad by the Bay.
The closest I can get is a good outdoor seat up a rumbling hill to the other side ...
[other photo, above, of my father, right, working the grips of the Big Dipper roller coaster]