Fridays in my life typically end with seminar, free pizza and contemplating the experiments that need to be done over the weekend. There is no collective sigh that TGIF, none of the nervous eying of the hour hand as it inches slowly and grudgingly towards 5. I do not say this with the weariness of the battle-worn or the studied detachment of the cynical. All of us enter this program perfectly aware that we have to spill our blood and guts if we need to get where we are going. The above is merely a factual description of Friday evenings as a graduate student. As the Red Queen tells Alice, “You have to keep running if you want to stand still.”
(courtesy: The Victorian Web)
This is why the few weekends off that we bestow on ourselves to rest and recuperate feel so remote and alien. I finished that last plasmid prep at 3 and noticed my eyes wander repeatedly to the clock, my feet pacing relentlessly. I had planned a lot of work to keep myself occupied and yet here I was at 3, staring at my lab journal, heart pounding rhythmically with that constant mental refrain, “I am going to ‘Frisco tonight.” This state of feverish anticipation made the subsequent hours a complete haze. IDs, check-in, boarding passes….a portly woman with a warm South Texas drawl made the in-flight announcements, then take-off. Before I knew it a glistening carpet of golden light spread out beneath me in the inky darkness-flames in the middle of the Ocean. I have flown into so many cities at night from around the world-Singapore, Mumbai, Dubai, Frankfurt, Chicago. The lights of the Bay area are something else entirely.
Soon it was time to shuffle out of the aircraft, claim our baggage and find a way to get to our hotel. On a whim I had decided to deviate from our traditional cheap motels with a substantial continental breakfast routine and decided to book a room at the Hotel des Arts on Bush St. Being surrounded by art (mostly while we were asleep) seemed like a very good idea at that time, even though we would have to share the bathroom with other guests. And Sandeep agreed without batting an eyelid. Now that we were on our way to said hotel however, I was a bit apprehensive. What if the other guests were filthy? What if they occupied the restroom all day making us late for our multiple engagements? What if the room we were assigned had been done by an awful artist? My thoughts were interrupted when I realized we had arrived. A very quaint, post-box red elevator took us to the reception where a short, bespectacled man in a sweater vest with neatly combed, silver-flecked hair greeted us. His name was Emil. I had always wanted to meet a quiet, bespectacled, sweater-vest wearing Emil all my life. My fears were put to rest. Nothing could possibly go wrong if Emil was in charge. My mind at ease, I had a chance to take in my surroundings. There was art everywhere-a huge life-size portrait with a textured finish, photographs, cartoons, video game art and graffiti. We almost missed the part where Emil informed us about our free upgrade. We would now have a suite with our own bath and living room. Things were just getting better and better.
Once we got the key card to our suite, we navigated multiple narrow passages and odd corners to finally arrive at 310. Was someone reading my mind? The living room was a riot of colors, shapes and portraits. It reminded me distinctly of Gustav Klimt and when I checked up on the artist, Chor Boogie, later, Whaddya know? Klimt was one of his influences. There was a very 60s vibe to it though, psychedelic, other-worldly, like walking into a kaleidoscope.
The bedroom and bath were done by Maya Hayuk and her collaborators. Though the theme of other-worldliness was continued, these spaces had more of a fairy tale, lost in the deep dark forest sort of atmosphere. Exhausted, we fell asleep, strange story-book critters and glistening stars in the India ink sky to keep us company.
We woke up really early the next morning. We wanted to see the seals on Fisherman’s Wharf before the crowds started pouring in. It had never occurred to us till later that day, how convenient a location we had chosen for our stay. China town was literally next door. The two of us made our way through the pagoda entrance, walking at a leisurely pace as the shutters were being raised and people slowly went about their little rituals for the brand new day. Fresh fruits, vegetables and eggs were being delivered to the many small family-owned grocery stores.
Older residents sat outside reading their morning papers in what I assume to be Cantonese. Flocks of pigeons congregated in front of a bank, catching up over a quick bite before they got on with the days business. And there were some old men playing chess. The last time I remember seeing that was in Kolkata, 5 years ago. Sometimes when I am in a silly mood I tell myself, “I would buy an apartment if I knew there were old men playing chess in the mornings nearby.” If that apartment were in ‘Frisco, methinks people would not find me so silly.
China town gave way to a series of quiet neighborhoods. Occasionally, agile 50-somethings walking their dogs or tall athletic women jogging toward the wharf would nod in our general direction. Soon we could hear loud, persistent yelping comingling with the crashing of the waves: these were the sounds of Pier 39. On our right, a double-decker bus whizzed by, leaving in its wake a mist of smoke that shrouded a pot of fiery tulips. When the veil was lifted, suddenly it seemed as if the whole world was a Technicolor film. Short silvern trees lined the pavements while eccentric clumps of lettuce, lilies and tulips grew cheerfully in scattered crates and barrels. We could see the seals now, lazing about on the floating decks.
I was really, truly happy that we were the first people there. We watched the seals at play for a good half hour. Seals should be the mascots for leisurely living. With their glistening skin, endearing chubbiness and complete surrender to the moment these guys really teach you something about relaxation. I didn’t even realize how calm I had become, how removed I was from everything, until I heard Sandeep’s voice as if through water, “It is getting crowded here. Do you think we should get some breakfast?” And then, when I had really broken out of the trance, “You were not really tuned in when I showed you Alcatraz, were you?” And yes, as a matter of fact, I had completely missed it. Directly, in my line of sight, at the horizon, was Alcatraz Island. With the seals diving gleefully in the foreground, it didn’t seem particularly foreboding….or even interesting.
I had worked up a solid appetite with all the walking. San Francisco’s planning and landscaping is very unusual. The roads are at unusual angles and you are constantly climbing or descending. An urban legend that was recounted fairly often while we were there involved idiot bureaucrats from Washington, who without understanding the unusually hilly terrain of the region, decided to superimpose their standard road map blue-print on the 40 odd square miles of the city. If you walk around San Francisco for a day, that story starts making a lot of sense. And it made me appreciate Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” on a whole new level. This city is a metaphor for vertigo, that movie could not be shot anywhere else. Or maybe the movie was just a straightforward ode to the city and everything else was merely incidental. Even those who have a perfect sense of balance will feel mildly dizzy after a day navigating the city streets.
I had set my heart on breakfast at “Mama’s” which had quite a reputation for its Eggs benedict and omelets. We had seen it on the way to the wharf and it appeared predictably modest and homely. What we were not expecting was the long line snaking its way around the entrance when we got back. It was just 8 in the morning. It would be 45 minutes before we were seated and we spent our time people-watching. Before I could start over-analyzing them however, two huge platters were placed on our table. I had ordered the eggs benedict with the Dungeness crab while Sandeep went with some sort of Mexican-US fusion omelet. The eggs were poached to perfection and the crabs were nice and tender (with spinach….mmmm!). I have never been a big fan of Hollandaise which they had thankfully provided as a side. The cranberry relish was to die for and I cannot emphasize this enough, GOOD coffee.
After that whopper of a breakfast we were ready to tackle what remained of the crooked streets of SF. Next on our itinerary was Coit tower, named after Lillian Coit, a true badass of the 19th century. Legend has it that she would dress in trousers that she may be admitted into the gambling dens that were open only to men at the time and ride with fire-men on fire trucks to put out fires.
She had quite the soft corner for the SF fire department and residents claim that it’s the reason why Coit tower looks like a fire hose nozzle (Turns out this was another urban legend).
Talking of the SF fire department, a fireman who was a longtime friend of Mark Twain’s, is said to be the inspiration for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” This place is heaven for pop culture addicts like me.
Coit tower is yet another of those big city phallic monuments. However, the murals within it made the short hike worthwhile. These were representations of life in America in the early 20th century. These include images of the Great Depression, industry and agriculture. There were tiny anti-establishment touches (for the time) peppered through the paintings. Das Capital prominently displayed in the library fresco, class struggles, that sort of thing.
After we had taken our fill of the murals, we set off for Telegraph hill and went down the 800 steps. It made us realize immediately and acutely how terribly out of shape we were for people in their 20s. (Note to self: Get back to cardio and yoga pronto)
Being true-blue city-bred Indians, the abundance of public transport in SF was like manna from the sky. We hopped on and off trams and buses just because we could. After a lazy stroll around Russian and Nob hill and making the mandatory stop at Crooked Street, we decided to head to Castro.
We went to Castro Street mainly for the very quaint, old-fashioned Castro Theater and the very naughty “Hot Cookie.” When we got there, we noticed the rainbow flags that adorned the street lamps and the happy couples walking the street. There was also a very old man with a cane and a fedora and Dumbledorish beard who was totally in the nude and looked predictably vulnerable and so melancholy. After ambling around the street for a bit, people-watching and soaking in the mild drizzle, the agitated rumbling of our bellies alerted us to the hot, buttery, nutty aromas wafting out of the “Hot Cookie.” “Hot Cookie” is famous mainly for their human genitalia shaped cookies (The penis and the Venus). We settled for the more conservative but absolutely divine toffee-peanut butter and chocolate-nut to satiate the pangs of the moment and packed a batch of the anatomical funsies as a take-home treat. A short stop at the café nearby and we were off again, this time to Haight-Ashbury in pursuit of the Painted Ladies.
These were a row of painted Victorian homes that appealed to my very old-fashioned aesthetic. (Translation: Must. See. Painted. Ladies. At. Any. Cost.) Thus began a quest that yielded so many rows of painted ladies, my head began to spin. All of them were gorgeous but me being me, I had to be sure these were the definitive painted ladies. However, once I found them I wasn’t very sure as to why. The other ladies were just as pretty. My compulsions had really pinched our time and we found ourselves in a taxi to the palace of fine arts that we may be on time for our appointment at the Exploratorium.
Seriously, is this the most fun museum ever? If I were a kid I would be living here. They would have to drag me out kicking and screaming, clawing at the floors. After a good 30 minutes making giant soap bubbles, simulating hurricanes and seeing what our faces looked like if they were perfectly symmetrical, we realized it was time for the tactile dome. Please do visit if you go to SF. You can pretend you are a kid again and no one will judge you for it. The tactile dome is a huge circular dome that you have to navigate using your sense of touch (mostly). It is pitch dark, with tunnels, ladders, slides and caves lined with different kinds of material with different textures. If you are in a very exploratory mood, you can also try and figure out what they have scattered along the path. There was some sort of keyboard, marbles, a toothbrush. They let you go any number of times during your appointment and it’s always fun. The dome can get really over-booked so do sign-up in advance. We had a little man who did it every day and was trying to improve his time. The third time he made his way through, he scrambled out triumphantly,”4 minutes.” He looked impatiently at the fumbling, clumsy adults and walked off with his two adoring friends.
We tore ourselves away before dusk. The Golden Gate Bridge beckoned. A municipal bus dropped us at the base and we walked aimlessly along the sides. The famous San Francisco fog had settled, and draped itself around the orange cables and towers. The fog and the setting sun bathed everything in a dull, pulsating glow. The other-worldliness if the bridges, the faint shimmer of the lights along the deck, it made you realize how San Francisco was indeed 49 square miles surrounded by reality.
Our next stop: The Slanted Door at the Ferry building. We had heard the Vietnamese fusion cuisine at this restaurant was to die for. As it turns out, to die for, kill for, do anything for. We started with spring rolls. They had the most delicate balance of flavours and textures with just the right kick delivered by the accompanying sauces. For the entrée we ordered shaken beef and the wood oven roasted arctic char. The beef was amazing but I am extremely partial to sea food and the arctic char was heaven. We wrapped up with a lemon rice pudding with a side of raspberry preserve. So good. It was late by the time we finished and we took a Rickshaw back to the hotel. The rikshaw wallah bought the custom rikshaws from India and it turns out his wife was an Indian. Even here, across the ocean, reminders of home.
The next day saw us starting off early in the morning for Alcatraz. The island looked deliciously foreboding especially with the lone gull flying across our sight line.
It was quite cold that morning. When we set off from pier 33, a sharp wind and sleety rain added to the atmosphere of foreboding.
Exactly the way I always imagined it would be. Once we got there, we walked across desolate buildings that were once grand halls and offices. The salt from the sea had undermined their structures and what remained were skeletal frames. We made our way to the main prison, walking past the communal showers, grabbed our hearing aids for the tour and let the voices guide our feet through the labyrinth. It was strange and eerie and fascinating.
We saw the field where the prisoners played, the hall where they ate, the library. It was interesting to see how they had made cut-outs in the shape of the different knives in the kitchen so that from a distance the guards could immediately spot if any were missing. We saw the residences of the more famous inmates like the Birdman and Al Capone. We saw where they were held for solitary confinement. It must have been devastating to hear the joyous noises of San Francisco from across the bay, knowing that there was no escape. Some of the men took up knitting to while away the time and others turned to the bible or mysticism.
Many attempts were made to break free. As far as we know, all of them failed. The last attempt, immortalized in the Clint Eastwood film, saw three men escape the island who were never heard from again. It is said that even if they made it out of the prison, there was no way they could have made it across the ice-cold bay on their own.
On our way out of the gift shop we realized that the officials and their families lived on the island with the prisoners. The main prison was at a height of 13 stories but that must have been very little comfort to the young mothers and their children. On our way back, I noticed how the bejeweled bay bridge of the night before looked drab and distant in the slate gray sea. I could not shake the feeling that we had been to an alternate dimension.
The city of San Francisco had sealed off the Embarcadero for the Sunday Streets Festival. I thought this was a very cool initiative. One Sunday a month, a certain section of the city was closed off for traffic and taken over by cyclists, joggers, entertainers, yoga enthusiasts, you name it. Children and parents cycled together in matching outfits, joggers waved and made cheerful raucous sounds as they passed us on the street. There were ice cream vendors and clowns, the skeleton man, those break-dancing men airbrushed in metallic paint. It was bright and sunny and riotous, the drab greyness that accompanied us to Alcatraz had disappeared without a trace.
We didn’t stay for too long however as we had scheduled a trip to the Muir Woods and Sausalito in the afternoon.We were in luck as far as transit was concerned. The bus-driver was a jovial fellow and if there was anything left to see in San Francisco at that point, he made sure we got a peek. He drove us past Grace Cathedral and Ghirardelli square, he pointed us toward the Coppola owned Café Zoetrope, Joe di Maggio’s high school, the place where Steve McQueen’s famous chase sequence was shot. This guy knew his pop trivia and he was a born story-teller.
He told us about his encounter with a wolf on his way to Muir woods. The inflections in his voice, the injection of suspense, and the very elaborate descriptions: he understood the mechanics of a good yarn. When we got to the woods finally, we were ushered into a modest entrance manned by a forest ranger who gave us elaborate instructions about the path. We walked past a clearing and through a fence, ……suddenly we were surrounded, enveloped, dwarfed by nature. The beauty of these trees is to be experienced, not described in words. The quietness and stillness here submerges you in a meditative trance instantly. It is almost physical, the sense of being a continuation of the oldest story ever told. I remembered this passage from “The legends of Khasak.”
Long before the lizards, before the dinosaurs, two spores set out on an incredible journey. They came to a valley bathed in the placid glow of sunset.
“My elder sister,” said the little spore to the bigger spore, “let us see what lies beyond.”
“This valley is green,” replied the bigger spore, “I shall journey no farther.”
“I want to journey,” said the little spore, “I want to discover.” She gazed in wonder at the path before her.
“Will you forget your sister?” asked the bigger spore.
“Never,” said the little spore.
“You will little one, for this is the loveless tale of karma; in it there is only parting and sorrow.”
The little spore journeyed on. The bigger spore stayed back in the valley. Her roots pierced the damp earth and sought the nutrients of death and memory. She sprouted over the earth, green and contented….A girl with silver anklets and eyes prettied with surma came to Chetali’s valley to gather flowers. The Champaka tree stood alone-efflorescent, serene. The flower-gatherer reached out and held down a soft twig to pluck the flowers. As the twig broke the Champaka said, “My little sister, you have forgotten me.”
* * * * *
When we were back on the bus, our guide asked us why the forest was so still. It never struck us at the time but there seemed to be no birds. And the absence of birds was apparently because there was no bird-food (insects). I looked it up later, like a good student, and turns out he was right. The tannins in the tree sap act as an insect repellent and the scarcity of insects drove the birds away. There are around 50 species of birds in these woods but they are extremely rare and difficult to spot.
We stopped at the quaint to the power of infinity town of Sausalito. There is just the one main street with a hamburger joint called hamburgers, a fish and chips store called fish and chips and an ice cream store called….you guessed it ice-cream. Nevertheless, like the bard likes to say, what’s in a name? The fish and chips at this place kicks ass! The mini-burgers were a mini-nirvana too.
Our friendly guide packed us off before we were completely buzzed out on that food high. “Look people! This is the place where all the super-rich people live. This is so-and-so’s summer place. That dude paid so many millions for this place etc. etc.” Nothing to get you out of a food high like staring at swanky homes.
After Sausalito, we had a couple of hours remaining in SF. We decided to spend that time on the best restaurant in Chinatown. We took an informal poll of random people on the street, shop-owners and confused grannies. The verdict was near unanimous: R&Gs on Washington square. We got there at rush hour but the wait was not too bad. This place specializes in Hong Kong cuisine and though not as mind-blowing as the food we had thus far, it was a fitting end to our trip: mildly spicy with a hint of sweetness.
In a few hours it was back to reality and lab records. Till then, let me loose myself in this city’s golden embrace.
San Francisco has only one drawback – ’tis hard to leave. (Rudyard Kipling)