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400 Day LETS Odyssey
Copyright � James Taris

JAMES TARIS around the World- (2003-4)

San Francisco skyline as seen from Coit Tower.

USA - San Francisco (Wk.1 of 2 weeks)
Week 50 of World Tour

San Francisco Day Trip

After 2 days in America, at last I was going to go into San Francisco. Unfortunately, being a weekday, Sergio had to work in his office so he couldn’t come with me. But he could take me to Walnut Creek Station just 2 miles (3 kms) from his home.

Getting a train ticket was a little confusing, so I asked a lady to show me how to buy my ticket. The ticket machine took paper currency only, but didn’t give change. It cost $4 for a one-way ticket to San Francisco, and Sergio was going to bring me back.

Moments later I was on the 9.35 am train and arrived in San Francisco about 50 minutes later.

Powell Station, in the heart of San Francisco, stops right at the entrance to the San Francisco Shopping Centre and next to that was the Tourist Information Centre where I collected lots of tourist brochures and maps. An all-day transport ticket for San Francisco was only $9, and seeing I wanted to ride on San Francisco’s world famous cable cars, which cost $3 per ride, it seemed like a cheaper option. In Melbourne, we call our public transport system, the MET. But in San Francisco, they call it the MUNI, short for Municipal Transport System. This surprised me because San Francisco has the largest Greek community in the USA, and muni is not a very nice Greek word. But then, maybe it was a Greek’s idea of a joke!

My first ride was on a streetcar, which is just like an old Melbourne tram. It was a 1950’s model, and actually, I thought I’d just jumped onto one of their cable cars! Dah!

I was looking for Pier 41-and-a-half (go figure) because that’s where the ferry to Alcatraz Island departed from. But by the time I got there, they’d sold out! And I was reluctant to buy a ticket for the following day because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to come back again. So while I was browsing through a postcard rack, I noticed a photo of seal lions at Pier 39, just metres away. This looked like something not to be missed. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Pier 39 - home to 1,340 ‘sea lion-ebrities’.

Seconds later I joined dozens of other tourists looking at over a thousand huge sea lions lying on wooden pontoons at Pier 39. These sea lions were as long as 7 ft. (2 m) and as heavy as 850 lbs. (400 kgs.) There were 44 pontoons, and each pontoon had about 30 sea lions on it. Total 1,340 sea lions! Most were asleep or sun baking in the warm sun, with only about 2 sea lions making noise on each pontoon as they defended their territory from unwelcomed guests. But the noise was deafening! These 80 plus sea lions barked incessantly the whole time I was there, but that didn’t seem to bother the other 1,280 sea lions fast asleep at their … er … flippers. These sea lions (which are different to seals which have internal ears) are dubbed the ‘sea lion-ebrities’ and are famous internationally, ever since they discovered Pier 39 in 1989 after an earthquake. Thankfully, rather than trying to move them out, the San Francisco authorities were convinced to abandon Pier 39 and give it to the sea lions!

As I left the pier, I noticed the wind had become much stronger. A black lady, buying popcorn, watched helplessly as the wind blew much of her popcorn out of her paper cup before she even had a chance to pay the street vendor. This attracted the attention of the pigeons, which chased the popcorn as they rolled along the ground. Which in turn prompted the young children to chase the pigeons until the birds flew out of their reach.

These piers were on Fisherman’s Wharf, and along the bayside road were lots of cutesy vehicles, which could be hired by the hour. Scootcar Rentals offered pretty little buggies for $49/hour. GoCar Rentals offered a computer-guided tour. Electric Time Car Rentals offered the opportunity to drive an environmentally clean electric car. And you could also hire motor scooters, bicycles, tandems and even roller-blades.

It was getting close to lunchtime, so when I saw Johnny Rocket’s, the Original Hamburger Restaurant, at 81 Jefferson St, I immediately took a detour inside, a detour, which also took me back into the 50’s.

Jukebox music was going non-stop and every table had one. They operated by dropping a nickel (5 cents) into them, so the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, The Four Seasons and Sam Cooke were playing all day long. The staff wore white shirts, white pants, white aprons and white caps. The bar stools were red and fixed to the top of long chrome poles. And the notice on the wall delivered the Big Promise …

“CLEAN as a whistle
Just look at this … JOHNNY ROCKETS
Notice how cleanliness predominates.


I ordered a Rocket Double Burger, which was 4 inches (10 cm) thick when it arrived (made the Big Mac look like a tiny-tot). And it was made with real meat! Actually, it was made with 2 fresh patties, 2 slices of Tillamook Cheddar Cheese, fresh lettuce, ripe tomato, onion slice and special sauce, all for only $6.49.

The drinks menu featured shakes made with hand-dipped premium vanilla ice cream. And a very unusual flavour caught my attention. Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake for $3.99. So I thought I’d try this unusually flavoured drink. The milk shake came first, in a tall glass topped with whipped cream, and the balance of the shake was also delivered, still in the old metal milk shake cups they used to make them in. I put the straw in and tried to drink, but nothing came out! I’d managed to poke it into a huge dollop of peanut butter, so it’d become blocked. The waiter had also brought me a long handled teaspoon and rested it on a small paper doily, so after a short stir, I was soon able to taste the chocolate and peanut butter in my drink.

Finally I found the cable cars. At the end of the cable car line was a turntable, and it took 3 cable car staff about 10 seconds to spin it around. I sat on the polished wooden seats facing outwards. A few stops later, a mother and her young son, about 7, jumped onto the running board and stayed there. Just hanging on. Next time, I thought, I’d ride on the running board too. The cable car was pulled along by an underground cable. It was easy to see which tracks were the cable car tracks, because there was a cable track running between the two wheel tracks.

Standing with one of San Francisco's famous cable cars.

San Francisco is built on a hilly peninsula, so the streets are very steep. I still have vivid memories of the car-chasing scene in Steve McQueen’s movie, Bullet. And although we certainly weren’t speeding, the hills remained just as steep nevertheless.

I got off at Chinatown, a massive shopping district covering dozens of city blocks, and apparently the busiest part of San Francisco. Asians and Hispanics were the norm here, and blacks and whites the rarity. English writing was virtually non-existent and the Chinese shop signs were overwhelming. Dozens of Chinese men crowded in a city square playing Chinese chess on all the park benches. And a Chrysler PT Cruiser Cab whizzed by. Neat!

Nearby was an unusually high pointed building. I continued down that street until I got to it. It was the Transamerica Pyramid Building. Wow! What an incredible beautiful structure in the heart of the city. It’s also the tallest building in San Francisco at 853 ft.

Transamerica Pyramid is San Francisco's tallest building.

I eventually came to Washington Square, a nearby park just opposite the Sts. Peter and Paul Church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio had their wedding photos. It was still quite warm and there seemed to be over a hundred people there, mostly lying on the grass. I walked past the topless women lying facedown on the grass, sun-tanning their backs. Past Frisbee throwers. Past pigeons. Past people walking their dogs. And past the black guy wearing an Easter Bunny costume (on May 11!) seated on a park bench under a shady tree.

The top of another tower caught my attention. It looked like a tall water tower, and not very appealing. But as I walked away, I noticed several tourists becoming very excited when they discovered it. So I followed them to see what all the fuss was about. Soon I was standing on top of Telegraph Hill, the highest hill in the city, with the famous 210 ft. Coit Tower built on it. This was the best 360-degree viewpoint of San Francisco. No wonder it was so popular.

Coit Tower built is the best lookout point in San Francisco.

The entry fee was only $3.75, and once I got to the top I had the most beautiful panoramic view of the city all around me. Golden Gate Bridge was in the hazy distance. The high-rise downtown buildings seemed to jut out abruptly from the bland flat topped buildings in the suburbs. I could also see Fisherman’s Wharf with the sea lions at Pier 39. And the islands: Treasure Island, Angel Island and Alcatraz.

Coit Tower was built in 1933 and is about 500 ft. above sea level. I got some of its history from the Elevator Operator. He was an older Asian gentleman who had probably said the same lines for decades. So much so, that his words were very musical, and he hung onto the last syllable of the last word on each sentence.

“Watch your step pleeeeeease.”
“This way sirrrrrrrr”.
“Have a nice daaaaaay”.

The bottom floor of the tower had all its walls painted with interesting murals depicting many of the activities taking place in the late 20’s and early 30’s. And standing very tall and proud in front of Coit Tower was a bronze statue of Christopher Columbus.

A couple of posters in the Coit Tower elevator had attracted my attention to a ‘Lombard Street’. And when I checked my map, I found that it was just one block away.

Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world.

This street had been designed so that at one end it meandered like a wound-up snake. Unfortunately, once I got to the street, I realized I was at the wrong end. A couple of kilometres later, having climbed down a huge hill and up another, I finally arrived at the other end and watched the cars snail-crawling along the sharp zigzagged bends of Lombard Street. Beautiful green hedges lined the street so it looked like a maze, but were probably also designed to keep larrikins from driving over the curbs in a deadly freefall maneuver.

Most of the day had gone by now, and it was getting close to the time I had to meet Sergio in the city for a speaking event. Just then a cable car stopped at the street corner, so I jumped onto the running board (yes!). Hopefully it would be going the right way. It wasn’t! A couple of stops later and we were at Fisherman’s Wharf (at the end of the line) and there was a long queue of 150 people waiting to catch a cable car back home. So I waited for 35 minutes before catching the 3rd cable car out. If I’d known it was going to take so long, I would’ve left much earlier.

While we waited, we were entertained by a … (let me put it in his own words)

“If you don’t like fat guitarists, get over it. I’m what Union Hall sent for this evening’s entertainment.”

Then he sang a string of very old ballads (one was from 1949). He’d got there at 5.30 pm and was gone by 5.55 pm. As he explained, Union Hall was sending a number of entertainers over to keep the long queues of passengers entertained, but they weren’t getting paid! They were all buskers and had to ask for donations, and the only time they were allowed to do this was when a cable car left, every 15 minutes. He was very sarcastic with his remarks between songs, so I’m sure he didn’t too well. His replacement started at exactly 6 pm. I wasn’t around to see if he fared any better.

I was due to meet Sergio at 6 pm, so I was running very late. Everyone was being squeezed into the cable car like sardines, and as I was one of the last ones on, I ended up standing in the middle of the car. Not the best seat, but grateful not to be held up any longer. My cable car left at 6.05 pm and after changing to a bus on Sacramento Street, I finally arrived outside the building holding the event at 6.40 pm. Then as I quickly crossed the road I noticed a pain in my shoe. After a whole day of walking up and down hills and staircases, I’d got a blister on the sole of my left foot! Fortunately, Sergio would be driving me home.

This article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey

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