Monday, May 4, 2009

Random thoughts on San Francisco

OK, so this post is just peripherally related to freelancing, but I wanted to share.

I'm spending the week in San Francisco, as I do from time to time because I CAN, because I freelance; key word here being FREE. To do what I want. Any old time. So that's how it relates.

And there's so much to observe in this city.

1. The resurgence of a new kind of nerd glasses. Remember in the early 1990s when Lynda Barry comics were popular and those characters with vintage cats-eye glasses came to life at all the clubs and art galleries? Now the film Milk has inspired a new generation of young hipsters who have taken to wearing those comically gigantic plastic-rimmed glasses in an ironic homage to their favorite new movie and historical hero.

The odd thing is, it wasn't Milk sporting the doofus eyewear. It was Emile Hirsch as activist Cleve Jones, who also should have won the Oscar for Best White Guy Afro.

It's unnerving. Every five minutes in this town, I want to stop some art student and say, "Mr. Hirsch, can I have your autograph? Loved you in Milk!"

2. Amazingly bad apartments. People, especially those who live in San Francisco, have a romantic notion that San Francisco is the epicenter of all things cultural and fresh and edgy. There's an idealized version of the lifestyle here that includes a sleek Acura pulling up to Boulevard, or a Mini Cooper taking the hills and turns with panache and parking with ease along a curb in front of a bar that is so cool you need a password to enter. (In the immortal words of Dave Barry, I am not making that up.)

The imagined epilogue to all this is that the casual but well-groomed inhabitants of those vehicles will eventually call it a night and turn in to small-ish but well-appointed high-rise condos filled with Bosch appliances and vintage modern furniture -- or at least something tasteful from Ikea. Truth is, many of the people here live in Early College Dorm facilities, sharing $2,000-a-month flats in run-down turn-of-the-century (meaning 20th) houses complete with bad pipes spewing rusty water and heaving, creaky floors that betray an upstairs neighbor's every move.

Yes, folks, I have been apartment hunting, and it's not pretty. One "furnished" two bedroom unit, huge by San Francisco standards at 1,100 square feet, could have been an elegant, mid-rise respite from the bustling city below. Instead, it was cluttered with stained Goodwill reject furniture, and the odiferous Russian occupant slept on one of those modular block sofas with a zebra-print bedspread thrown on top.

My favorite visit, though, was to a throwback 1970s-era swinging bachelor pad studio done up right in a sexy red-and-black color scheme with mirrors on every wall and a plasma TV almost as big as the apartment itself. The views from Nob Hill were stunning, but so was the ugly wallpaper in the lobby, in a totally different way.

The piece de resistance was the baby grand piano in lieu of a dining table. I could immediately see the owner plunking out some Burt Bacharach and pouring a couple of glasses of White Zinfandel before shagging his prey. Yeah, baby! Do I make you horny?

3. Us versus them. It's uncanny how the first question I always get here is, "Do you live here?" The locals in San Francisco are fiercely protective of their status as locals, probably because they have to justify the fact that the amount they pay to rent a one-bedroom apartment (see above, "Amazingly Bad Apartments") would buy them a virtual McMansion in Phoenix.

If you do not "live here," you are immediately seen as a tourist, even if you do know how to navigate the BART and have eaten at more of the city's best restaurants than any of the actual locals, most of whom can't afford to dine at the best places because they're too busy working to pay their $2,000-plus rent or they're broke because they just paid $2,000-plus in rent. And ask someone sometime when is the last time they visited Napa or Sonoma, or went to a museum or a play, or went to a farmers market. Chances are slim that you will find an average worker bee who takes advantage of even the tiniest amount of activities that make this city special.

True story: When having lunch with some of my husband's coworkers once, he mentioned I was a dining critic in Phoenix. One of them could not resist telling me about a fabulous local brewpub with excellent food called Gordon Biersch. OK, so the place did start here. But this person was blissfully unaware that it had entered the pantheon of generic chain "concepts," probably because a lot of Bay Area residents can't afford to leave the Bay Area (the bridge tolls alone are killer) and thus have no idea what other cities have to offer.

This in no way deters them from holding firm to the belief that any other city outside of San Francisco is woefully inferior.

4. Black is the new black. If I had a dollar for every black jacket seen on the sidewalks at rush hour, well, I could afford the $2,000-plus a month in rent to live here. 

Once in a while I spy someone with some funky purple or green shoes, or a jaunty yellow scarf. But even in the dead of summer, which, to be fair, is still sometimes bone-chillingly cold here, you mostly see a homogenous palette of black, with some grays and browns thrown in for a thrill.

All I can imagine is that black goes with everything, and getting back to the finance thing, it's easier to be stylish on a dime if nothing clashes. It is difficult to build a wardrobe around, say, chartreuse. In other cities, it's not difficult to own a coat or a pair of shoes that might go with just a couple of outfits. I have heard of some women in Phoenix, in fact, who have entire guest bedrooms to house their extensive costume collections. 

I am not saying that kind of gross overindulgence is right, but I do think it's nice to see color once in a while. Admission: I'm so intimidated by the legions of doom that I fall into line and have not one, but four black coats here for all weather and occasions. I do sometimes go nuts with my red ballet flats or my baby-blue Keen sneakers, though. Don't hold me back!

I still have a few more days in town, so perhaps I'll be inspired to collect some more observations as the days progress. I do believe they issue eco-friendly silver MacBooks to everyone who opens an electric account here and can prove they have at least one tattoo, and I am strongly suspicious that you can trade a certain number of bottle caps and stock in Google for a Prius, but I have more investigating to do before reporting on those.

With my musical comedy on Phoenix ("Strip Mall Blues: A Quest for Culture in Phoenix, Arizona") well on its way, I think I smell another "city spoof" project. Or maybe that's just the homeless man under my window. 

Don't get me wrong -- I love having "dual citizenship" here. This city is one of the world's major tourist attractions for a reason. There is no place like it, and there's plenty to adore and admire. I poke fun because it's my nature, and I wouldn't dream of doing it if I didn't think this place was special enough for its own brand of humor. I certainly wouldn't stay up until midnight writing about it unless it lit a creative spark in me, and that's saying something.