November 2010: I spring out of bed full of energy. I grab a beanie, tie my Nike’s and hit the streets. Outside the morning air chills my face. As my feet pound the pavement I see the wind of my exhale. A mist begins to fall. It mixes with the sweat on my face and I cannot tell which is more pervasive. Further along the bay, atop the hill stands the most beautiful red bridge the world has ever known. When I reach the edge, a ray of sunshine penetrates the haze and illuminates the city. I experience the most pleasurable feeling. I feel alive.
The night before, I arrive in San Francisco at 5:00 pm. I check into my friend’s apartment; a modern 2 bedroom loft on the third floor of the Marina District. Before I can unpack, four friends join us and we hit the town. Union Square is packed with people to watch the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. We secure seats on top of a planter on the northwest corner of the park. Couples cuddle close, enjoying each other’s body heat. The smells and sounds of Christmas fill the night with love.
Following the festivities, we grab a bite at an over priced Italian restaurant. After dinner we drift. With each new venue, a larger group forms as we take prisoners from one place to the next. By the end of the night our group turns to a blob too large to move. As quickly as we gathered, we dissipate. Friends are made and memories are created but neither is forgotten.
January 2012: I arrive at 6:00 pm on New Years Day and spend 15 minutes looking for a place to park. When I find my motel, cheap but conveniently located two blocks from Union Square, I inquire about parking. “We have a $20 valet service,” they inform me. Thinking it was a bit pricey, I leave. I dodge the lunatics running through the streets and weave my way into a garage with a sign that reads: Self Parking. Brilliant. I circle up to the 8th floor and park in the first vacant spot I see.
As I walk the streets I am overcome by the amount of garbage and litter on the streets. The unfortunate homeless seem to outnumber tourists. They wheel around shopping carts or trashcans stuffed with salvaged goods. Most have one outfit: a ragged black cloth-like garment. Several are drugged beyond repair. My head turns as they mumble. It takes me a while to realize they aren’t speaking to anyone. Others make me stop and wonder: what happened? They seem so out of place, like it could be me. I am filled with empathy, despair and a hint of fear.
I allocate $5.00 in $1.00 increments for donations. I begin on the southwest corner of Union Square. By the time I cross the park the money gone. The same Christmas tree decorates the courtyard; only this time the air smells of decay. I continue north on Powell and make a left on Sutter. I stop at the first suitable place, Sugar Café. It’s a modern lounge: stone countertops, a gas lit fireplace surrounded by comfortable chairs and mirrored walls shelved with alcohol. “Make me something hot and strong,” I tell the bartender. He nods.
I sip on a sweet concoction of Baileys, Kahalua, espresso, and Tuaca, a vanilla citrus liqueur topped with cocoa and carmel. The simmering heat burns my taste buds and the alcohol permeates my veins. “So what’s would you do if you had 48 hours here?” I ask. “Have you tried Fernet’s?” “No,” I reply. “Where’s that?” He smiles. “We’ll start there.”
He pulls out two shot glasses and throws them in the air, spinning like a performer juggling bowling pins and slams them on the granite. He grabs a bottle and pours two shots. “What are you doing?” I ask. “Fernet Branca. It’s the drink of choice around here.” “Oh Fernet!” I exclaim. “I thought it was a restaurant,” I laugh. He holds up his glass, touches it to mine, taps the tile and put it back. “Ahhhhhh.”
I finish another mixture. This time it’s steamed apple cider infused with coconut rum, whiskey and orange juice and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. When I can take no more he points me to Chinatown and Little Italy. I bid him farewell and stumble out of the bar.
I walk through an uneventful Chinatown. In a drunken mess, I stop for a coconut bun pastry. I take two bites and throw the rest away. I am tempted to add it to the mountains of rubbish. I resist. In Little Italy, I walk past cheap attempts to replicate authenticity, like a bad Elvis impersonator. I avoid making the same mistake I did a year ago and hail the first cab I see. I have no destination in mind, but any place is better than here. I tell the driver I’m hungry and he takes me to a Moroccan restaurant. I order the mixed couscous. It’s average.
I spend the next hour searching for my car. I pass my motel that I still haven’t checked into, Super 8 (a destination I spent hours seeking out in the effort of frugality). Outside it looks like an Occupy Wall Street movement of destitute. Frightened, I walk quickly toward the structure for my car. When I find it, I realize it is parked in the Hilton. I’m informed about the usurious rates for parking: $52 per night. “But I’ve only been here 5 hours,” I argue. “After four it’s the same price.”
“Maybe it’s a sign,” I think to myself. I inquire about room rates. My justification to stay is a stretch: I’ll feel better about paying $52 for parking when I’m at least staying at the hotel. Somehow, I feel like I cheated.
The following morning I open the curtains of my 23rd story hotel room to see a panoramic view of the city. Old weary buildings look like pieces in a Jenga game. Something about being atop of a city never loses its charm. I snap a photo. I proceed to the lobby and pay $5.71 for a vanilla latte at Starbucks; a small price for my safety. I sit in the lobby checking email while the security guards evicts unwanted guests.
I pack my bags, check out and make my way north. Before leaving I stop at the Golden Gate Bridge and think back to a year ago. Had the city changed drastically or is it my perception, a cumulation of recent experiences that alter my awareness? I resort to not knowing. I watch the sun glisten off the water. I gaze onward to the sailboats gliding effortlessly through the bay. My eyes profile the outline of Alcatraz. Standing across the bay, I cannot help but feel relief. Luckily I have escaped. ♠