Monday, February 16, 2009

My First Glimpse of The City

By Armistead Maupin

My first glimpse of San Francisco came in 1969 when, as a junior Naval officer, I spent a night in the city on my way to Vietnam. My lodgings were in a grungy hotel near the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market streets, and the sleaze of the old Tenderloin district - not to mention my impending tour-of-duty - had thrown me into a funk of epic proportions.

To shake it off, I discarded a long-held prejudice and signed on with a sightseeing bus. Minutes later I was climbing into those amazing hills, up where the world is all wind-worn greenery and ivory towers against the blue. There were, I soon learned, no "sights" to be seen so much as a single sight: the City itself - a gilt-edged landscape out of Maxfield Parrish, engulfing as a dream.

By the time the bus reached the Mission Dolores I was thoroughly enraptured. In the ancient graveyard there I milled about with fellow tourists amid the unreadable stones and felt what can only be described as an eerie sense of deja vu.

The wall with the roses.

That fog-blurred sky.

Why were they so familiar?

Then it hit me.

I trumpeted my discovery to the nearest person, a June Cleaver-type lady whose disgruntled husband had apparently remained on the bus. "This," I informed her, "is the graveyard where Carlotta's buried!"

My ardor must have disturbed her. "I'm sorry," she said. "Who?"

"Carlotta Valdez!"

Her frown deepened, so I did my damnedest to smile and look sane. "In Vertigo. The Hitchcock movie."

"Oh." She looked relieved, at least, if not exactly elated.

"Kim Novak comes here with a bouquet and lays it on the grave. She thinks she's possessed ... well, she doesn't actually, but Jimmy Stewart thinks she's possessed. . . .

The lady inched away, nodding, obviously thinking I was possessed. I wanted to tell her that she should be nice to me, that I was headed for 'Nam, perhaps never to return, that I was no threat at all, really.

I didn't, alas. I backed off sheepishly and left her to the tour she had paid for, the one that told of the real people buried at the Mission Dolores. When, later in the day at Fort Point, I clapped eyes on the very spot where Kim made her suicidal leap into the bay, I restrained myself and enjoyed the sweet knowledge in silence.

Some people just don't get it.

IF THE MOVIES ARE OUR MODERN mythology, San Francisco can lay claim to a sizeable chunk of Olympus. When I settled here in 1971 I found cinematic shrines all around me. On upper Montgomery at the Filbert Steps I discovered Lauren Bacall's art deco penthouse from Dark Passage. Better still, over on Geary at the Curran Theatre, Anne Baxter had performed her infamous snow job on Bette Davis in All About Eve.

The grounds of Coit Tower, I learned, had masqueraded as the garden of a private residence in both The Thin Man (Nick and Nora's house) and Pal Joey (Rita Hayworth's mansion). Even my own bank, a neoclassical mini-temple at Columbus and Stockton, had achieved dubious stardom when Woody Allen pulled a heist there in Take the Money and Run.

That San Francisco is photogenic has rarely been disputed, but its beauty, like that of a well-loved actress, is a good deal more than skin-deep. There is an almost spiritual quality to the swirling fog and shifting light of Northern California. There are also secrets to be gleaned, treasures that reveal themselves long after you've grown jaded about those little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars.

I had lived on Russian Hill for at least a year before I discovered Macondray Lane, a city "street" where no car has ever traveled. Its ferny banks and fat tabbies so affected me that the place became the model for the fictitious Barbary Lane in my Tales of the City novels.

Half a decade later, when I lived on Telegraph Hill, I spotted a flock of neon-green parrots flashing past my window one morning. Inquiring around, I learned that these creatures were former house pets, which, having escaped and multiplied, now chattered their way from hill to hill - complete with parakeet groupies.

Not far from my Telegraph Hill studio a tangled garden lay on the slope below Julius' Castle, a place straight out of an English fairy tale. One day, while exploring this realm, I came upon a series of makeshift wooden steps leading down to the city's original seawall. There beneath the branches of an ancient evergreen stood a lean-to built of scrap lumber and plastic sheeting.

This primitive masterpiece proved to be the work of one Olin Cobb, a retired merchant seaman who loved San Francisco as much as anyone I have ever known. When I stumbled upon his home that day, he invited me in for a chat and a cup of coffee, explaining carefully that he was not a hermit, because hermit meant recluse and he enjoyed the company of humans.

I visited Olin many times until he was driven out by - who else? - condo developers. His purpose there, he said, was earthquake research, an objective he accomplished by studying the behavior of small animals, several of whom lived under his bed. His story, like that of the lane and those renegade parrots, eventually found its way into my novels.

Some stuff just can't be improved upon.

THE GREAT THING ABOUT THIS CITY is that it never wears thin on you. Turn a corner or climb a hill and a new vista presents itself, just a little bit different from the last. My perennial advice to visiting friends is to put on their sneakers and start walking.

Explore, for instance, the Filbert Steps from Coit Tower to Sansome Street. (The walk back up will finish you for the day, but you won't be sorry.) The garden you pass along the way is the work of the inimitable Grace Marchant, a veteran of the silent films who stood watch over this wonderland well into her nineties. Her ashes are buried there, but her labor of love is carried on by a protege.

Another stroller's delight is the Palace of Fine Arts, Bernard Maybeck's fanciful instant ruin, built for the Pacific-Panama Exposition of 1915. Go there at sunset, when the great umber pillars ripen into gold. Take along some sourdough crusts for the ducks, but try to forget that this was the spot where Jack the Ripper held Mary Steenbergen captive in Time After Time.

Visit Chinatown, by all means, but don't think you're finished after you've seen Grant Avenue - Flower Drum Song notwithstanding. Head up to Stockton, where the locals buy their groceries, and let your senses go berserk at the sidewalk stalls.

My favorite waterfront promenade is out at Land's End, where the ocean meets the Golden Gate. You can wander there among twisty cypresses so dense that they create a kind of noonday twilight, broken only by flickering shards of the sea. The nearby ruins of the old Sutro Bath House, built in 1896 and destroyed by fire 70 years later, form a mosaic of rubble that seems straight out of Fellini's Satyricon.

San Francisco's highest point, Mount Davidson, is - unlike its more popular neighbor, Twin Peaks - only accessible by foot. Still, the short jaunt is worth it, once you catch sight of the view from the enormous concrete cross at the summit. (Franklin Roosevelt lit this leviathan via telegram from the White House in 1933.) If you need a less pious reason for trekking to the top, perhaps it would help to know that Clint Eastwood tangled with a bad guy here in Dirty Harry.

For sheer flavor, if nothing else, there are other godly edifices in the city that deserve your attention. Foremost on my list is Nob Hill's Grace Cathedral, a cavernous extravaganza in cast concrete. (Hitchcock made clever use of its gothic ambience in Family Plot.) At the other end of the grandeur scale is the lovely little Swedenborgian Church at Lyon and Washington - an arts-and-crafts charmer (built in 1895) whose roof is supported by madrone logs. Its simple beauty has won so many hearts that last year 244 weddings were conducted there.

If you're tired of the sacred and ready for the profane, you could head down to Broadway, where a sober-looking brass plaque on the Condor Club claims that topless dancing was born there in the sixties. Don't you believe it. Entertainment of this stripe has been on the boards in San Francisco since the earliest days of the Gold Rush.

Broadway's make-believe raunch can't hold a candle to the Pacific Street of 1870, the pride and joy of the Barbary Coast. Today, its mellowed brick buildings are mostly employed as designer showrooms, but then (when the local rowdies called it Terrific Street) it was a riot of groggeries; and music halls, opium dens and whorehouses. (Discarding subtlety, one of the more popular establishments called itself the Hotel Nymphomania.)

IF YOU'RE LOOKING FOR THRILLS IN your car, don't stop with Lombard, the much-touted Crookedest Street in the World. Far grabbier is nearby Filbert Street, the city's steepest, a heart-stopping plunge between Union and Leavenworth.

For a street that really defines the city, drive down to the Embarcadero, where you'll find a freeway that stops in mid-air. This curious relic stands as monument to the "San Francisco freeway revolt" of the sixties, a massive public action that spared both Golden Gate Park and the northern waterfront from the ravages of concrete. From here, other freeway insurgencies spread across the nation.

You would be hard pressed, in fact, to find a recent American social movement that did not begin here. The Beat Generation of the fifties took root in San Francisco's North Beach, an enclave of coffee houses and Italian restaurants that is still-but just barely-holding its own against the fast food invasion.

The hippie era, of course, came to flower in The Haight, currently a heady mixture of high punk and low yup. Just over the hillside in The Castro, the burgeoning gay movement of the seventies found its strongest voice, and became a social and political model for similar communities around the world.

San Francisco's reputation as a cradle of tolerance has stood her well, too, in the age of AIDS. The city's swift, no-nonsense response to the century's worst epidemic has been praised by health officials worldwide as a paradigm of intelligence and compassion.

Not that we don't have bigots here. Like any other city, San Francisco has suffered her share of tongue-cluckers and tiny minds, people who have never understood the promise of the place, and probably never will. Happily, theyƕre outnumbered - or so we assure ourselves - and the individualist dream of the Forty-Niners shows every sign of surviving into the twenty-first century.

For better or worse, people still move here in search of that dream. Others arrive as tourists, callow and unsuspecting, only to fall victim to the city's spell. Like the parrots of Telegraph Hill, they catch the briefest whiff of freedom and find themselves utterly unable to return to their cages.

If you have such a cage of your own, don't say I didn't warn you.

-written for Guest Informant

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