San Francisco as a Tourist

Part of why 40 million people live in California!

After teaching a short-course at Georgetown, and grading projects and tests, on Thursday, August 8, I tagged along with Linda to the annual meeting of her employer, the American Bar Association, in San Francisco.  She would be working for four days, and I could be a tourist.  What a plan!  We landed in perfect California weather, blue skies and 70° F.  Hopped in a taxi, and were soon downtown, checking into the fancy Nikko Hotel.  It was a lot nicer than the hostel in Buenos Aires!  Unpacked and headed to the hotel gym and the fitness bike, then a shower and out for a short walk.  I had not been to San Francisco for nine years, and change was evident, mostly for the worse: dirtier streets, and more homeless and/or mentally ill people begging, or just ranting.

At 7:15, I walked across the street and met longtime Argentine friends Martín and Valeria for dinner (they were co-founders of SABF in 2005).  They’ve been living in the city for about three years, working their second start-up business, a podcast app that now has about 500,000 daily users.  We hadn’t seen each other for several years, and it was good to catch up, and to get their perspectives on California, the U.S., and living away from home.

When I got back to our room, up popped a text from longtime friend Mike Hindery with good news: the next morning he was not heading to Yosemite for a week of camping as originally planned, and could meet me for breakfast.  After a gym run at dawn Friday, I ambled south and east across downtown S.F. to Red’s Java House, a tiny greasy spoon built over the water, in the shadow of the Oakland Bay Bridge.  Along the way, I got a good intro to the downtown makeover, largely at the hands of the big tech companies – the tallest skyscraper is now the Salesforce Tower, and you see signs for Google, Yahoo, et al. everywhere in the center.  The Transamerica Pyramid, once the tallest, was barely visible.

Above, a lot of steel and glass has come downtown, but some splendid old buildings persist, especially ones in the ornate Beaux-Arts style; below, the venerable cable cars are not the only really old streetcars in town — the transit agency bought some splendid old rolling stock from Milano; at bottom, the Salesforce tower (in center) and other new construction, and a high-tech lobby scene

It had been nine years since I saw Mike, and we had lots of catch-up to do.  I’ve owed him for a long time, because he was one of three members of the committee that admitted me to the 1983 retooling program at the University of Pennsylvania, a summer of studies that changed my life for the better.  He’s a super-interesting guy, with huge experience in the outdoors.  A great morning.

Hugged Mike and walked along the bayfront, the Embarcadero, for several blocks, admiring the old pierside warehouses and the Ferry Terminal, then hopped on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) under the water to Oakland, then north to Berkeley.  More than 25 years earlier, I had been on campus, but just for a few minutes, so a good amble around one of America’s best public universities was in order.  I forgot a ball cap, oops in full sun, but my walking shoes were suited for the large and sloping campus, up and up to the Haas School of Business for a look-around (Walter Haas was President of Levi Strauss & Co., the blue-jeans maker and one of the city’s oldest firms, from 1928 until 1970).  Small creeks bisect the campus, and towering above are redwoods, plus lots of flowers and plants, altogether a pleasant place.  Hopped back on BART, and home.

Above, under the Bay Bridge on the Embarcadero; below, in the center of UC Berkeley, and six reserved space parking spaces for Nobel prizewinners (five were economists from the Haas School); at bottom, scenes from a verdant campus

Linda was back from her first day of work.  She invited me to come along to a reception, met some of her colleagues, and tucked into some heavy hors d’oeuvres.  We were plumb wore out by 7:30, so headed back to the room and got into pajamas.  Slept long and hard.

Up at dawn again, back to the gym, then out the door, onto a tram west to Ocean Beach on the Pacific.  Paused for a light breakfast at a sorta-hippie eatery, then back on the tram.  National media and political attention has focused on the city’s surging rents and house prices, the result of housing undersupply and huge demand from the growth of high-tech companies, but a child could easily understand the root cause: San Francisco urban density is just way too low – blocks and blocks of small houses.  Or as I thought to myself, if the X and Y dimensions were constrained by water, what about Z?  Seems pretty easy to begin to fix, though I suspect a combination of existing homeowners, preservationists, and the privileged will ensure that little changes – and that the people who cook their food, drive their Ubers, and keep their gardens will need to make long commutes.

Above, examples of flowers we just don’t see in the rest of the U.S.; below, proof of the city’s remarkable low density; at bottom, the tiled steps and St. Anne’s

On Google Maps, I spotted a label for the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, a few blocks away, so hopped off, then started climbing another of the city’s legendary hills, up about 200 feet or more.  The steps were cool, 163 panels of mosaic, a community project that began in 2003.  Check and done, then onto St. Anne’s of the Sunset, a 1931 Catholic church I passed on the way to the beach.  Just lovely.  Walked a few blocks, then onto the bus east to the infamous Haight-Ashbury district, seemingly unchanged since my first visit in 1968: head shops (now selling legal pot), used-clothing stores, dive bars, and all manner of eccentrics, dopers, and freaks.  And teeming with tourists; a half-century after the “summer of love,” the place is still a magnet for all kinds.

Walked another block north to Page Street, and at noon met another young Argentine entrepreneur and former SABF organizer, Lucas Diaz.  Rick and I visited his company, Mudafy, in Buenos Aires in July (described in previous post).  Like Martín and Valeria in 2017, Lucas and his partner Franco had been accepted into Y Combinator, a 90-day high-tech “start-up accelerator” that’s become a fixture in Silicon Valley.  YC receives 40,000 applications for their two annual classes, and accepts 400. That’s 1 percent, way more selective than Stanford’s B-school!  Lucas and I walked a mile or so to a Greek fast-casual restaurant and tucked into salads (with kale, of course!).  Franco arrived a bit later, and we had a good yak about their business, already with a big number valuation.  We also talked about the 2019 SABF and some other stuff, a fun time.  Walked back to their pad, said goodbye, and hopped buses back downtown.

Lucas in his home office

Took a short nap then walked a few blocks to the Museum of Modern Art.  The day before, Mike told me about a free exhibit called “The Chronicles of San Francisco,” a play on the name of the city’s newspaper.  An astonishing work by the young French artist JR, it’s hard to describe: a slow-moving, slightly animated mural comprised of hundreds of photos of San Franciscans, showcasing the diversity and humanity of the city.  Truly remarkable.

Adjacent to the mural were a bank of interactive tablets, enabling visitors to click on a person in the mural and listen to a short interview; I liked Iheem’s words a lot



Back to the room, suited up, and headed to the nearby St. Francis, one of the city’s venerable old hotels, for the Thurgood Marshall Reception and Dinner, an annual award function that would that night honor U.S. Representative John Lewis, one of the heroes of the Civil Rights movement.  Sadly, Rep. Lewis could not attend, but he sent a nice video.  After that, a truly wonderful performance from Rhiannon Giddens, a North Carolina musician and musicologist.  Her gig was part homage to the ongoing struggle for justice and equality, part music history, and part moving performance.  She bridges black and white musical styles; picking up her banjo (which she explained had roots in Africa, though widely regarded as a “white” instrument), she said “Here’s a song from the other side of the tracks, but there is no tracks.”  Amen to that!

Met yet another friend for Sunday breakfast.  John Massopust, pal since 1963 and now living in New Mexico and in Minnesota, was in town for the birth of their second grandson.  Pure serendipity!  We had seen each other as recently as the high-school reunion three weeks earlier, but hadn’t really yakked for years, so was great to catch up.

At eleven, I hopped on an old streetcar, northeast on Market Street, then west along the bay to Fisherman’s Wharf.  Hadn’t been there for four decades or more, and it had only become more tourist-tawdry.  Just when I despaired about another block of souvenir and T-shirt shops, I spotted the logo of the National Park Service and a sign for the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park.  Woo hoo!  My tax dollars spent on a good cause!

Vintage cars run on two of the tram lines; this is a “PCC Car,” which was a popular style worldwide from the 1930s

I ambled into a very well done visitor center, relatively new, that told the story.  It would be hard to understand the city without understanding that it was first a port.  In the center were lots of cool artifacts and some very fine interpretation.  But there was more: across the street was Hyde Street Pier, also part of the park, and at anchor were half-a-dozen old vessels.  Paid $15 and zipped in.  First stop was the huge bay ferry Eureka, offering “open house” in the engine room.  The Transport Geek climbed down a steep ladder (I marveled that OSHA hadn’t busted their cousins in the Park Service!) and was in marine heaven, admiring the boilers, the steam lines, the giant piston, and more.  Had a long chat with volunteer docent Doug Ford, retired from Lucasfilms, about the elaborate mechanical controls that drove the paddlewheels.  Way cool.

Above, a sample of artifacts in the maritime park visitor center: part of a fresnel lighthouse lens, a bronze finial from the same lighthouse, and a lovely painting; below, vessels on Hyde Street Pier

Next stop was the C.A. Thayer, a schooner that hauled lumber up and down the Pacific coast, then saw service in the Alaska salmon and cod fisheries.  Below deck was a colorful NPS employee who told me her (ships are always women) story, then explained that they’ve rigged the sails again (synthetic, but the same color as canvas!), and are getting read to hoist them.  I asked about passengers, and he despaired – all sorts of goofy Coast Guard safety rules likely will keep we enthusiasts from getting a ride.  I’m just not sure why we couldn’t just accept the risk, rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.  Deep sigh, and the ranger agreed.  I was due to again meet Martín and Vale in less than an hour, so was only able to spend a few minutes on the steel-hulled Balclutha, built in Glasgow in 1886 and one of the last of the sailing ships to visit S.F.  Gotta get back to that pier to see more stuff.  Such a cool place.

A bonus at the end of Hyde Street Pier: barking seals copping some sunrays

At 2:30, I met my long amigos on Fort Mason.  Soon another Argentine and former SABFer, Matías Sulzberger, joined us.  Hadn’t seen him in a decade, so was good to catch up.  He’s a project manager for Apple, figuring out how to improve Siri.  Hugged everyone at 4:15 and hopped the bus back to the hotel.  Washed my face, had a quick beer, and walked to the top of Nob Hill for drinks and dinner with yet more friends, James and Lael Beer (Linda was supposed to join me, but had to prepare for the next day).  After leaving American Airlines in the mid-2000s, he’s mostly worked in high-tech, and we had a long discussion about the sector, good and bad, as well as catch-up on kids, life in San Francisco, their recent trip to Iceland, and more.  And a fine pasta meal at a neighborhood Italian place a block from their condo.  A super evening.  Only “downside” was having to descend 260 vertical feet on gimpy knees.

Above, a couple of scenes on the bus ride back downtown; below, the view south from the Beers’ condominium atop Nob Hill

On the last day, Monday, I walked a mile south to the station of Caltrain (the commuter line that connects San Jose and Silicon Valley with San Francisco), and hopped on the 9:43 train south to Redwood City.  Original plan was to ride several stops further south to Palo Alto, but the train was late and I needed to be in a quiet place for a noon client call.  Ambled around Redwood City for a bit, then sat in the shade beneath a big palm tree and read.  The client rescheduled the call.  At 12:30 I reconnected with Mike Schonenberg, more an acquaintance than a friend: in the mid-1970s, when I was in graduate school, I spent a week every summer working on the Wisconsin dairy farm that belonged to his aunt and uncle, my dear and long friends David and Katherine Kelly.  Mike and I worked Monday to Friday in 1974 and ‘75, cleaning manure from barns, baling and stacking hay, and doing a bunch of other chores.  I had tracked him down some years ago, and it was great to catch up over a plate of enchiladas.  He raised a family in Palo Alto, and has worked in commercial real estate for most of his life.

Above, start-ups are everywhere on the peninsula; at Redwood City, the seat of Invoice2Go, and above Five Guys hamburgers was a banner for “FinTech Co-working Incubator” space for rent; below, the former San Mateo County Courthouse and my Monday-morning “umbrella”

There was one more reconnection, friend number 11 of the trip.  After lunch another childhood friend, Mark Hennessy, and his son Eric, picked me up and we repaired to Harry’s Hofbrau, also in Redwood City.  The boys had a late lunch and I had a beer.  Mark missed the high-school reunion, so wanted the scoop on classmates.  He raised his kids in Gilroy, south of San Jose, worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, then Amtrak briefly, then Caltrain, and like me retired early.  He lives in Mexico now, in a couple of different places, on the Pacific and inland.  He’s a character.

Hopped back on Caltrain, then the tram.  Washed my face, headed across the street to dinner, then asleep early, then a flight to DFW and on to Washington.  It was great to be in California.

On the bicycle car on the Caltrain express north to San Francisco


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