I felt ready to go, I just didn’t know what to expect.
I’d paid my $80 to the Single Marine Program, covering transportation and two nights in the Marine Memorial Club and Hotel, and turned in my command permission slip for a trip to San Francisco.
My impression of the city had been built out of popular culture bits and pieces. Most of my family had visited the city at some time in their travels. My brother for fleet week. My mother and father for their 20th anniversary. My master sergeant had lived there. The rest came from movies and books, not always the most reliable of source.
I knew about the Golden Gate Bridge. I knew the city was hilly and they had cable cars. I knew Full House. I knew there was Chinatown and Mission Street and Alcatraz. I knew hippies and the strides the gay community had made in the city, and that ultimately influenced the nation.
Normally I’d research before going somewhere new, but knowing I was only going to have one full day in the city, I decided not to get too worked up in the details. Not to be the typical tourist waiting in lines and loading myself down with souvenirs.
To do that, I’d explore.
It always starts with shopping
From San Francisco’s Union Square, I set out Saturday morning with no particular destination in mind.
The area around the hotel is mostly smaller, privately-owned businesses. The streets are narrow and cluttered. However, this changed as I approached Union Square.
The streets widened, the architecture got sleeker and the names on the buildings bigger. Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue.
Then I ran into Yoda.
Yes, the little green guy from Star Wars.
He was a painted on a large heart sculpture and alongside the words “Do or do not”.
One of the first of many heart sculptures I’d discover throughout the city as my day went on.
The Square itself was cherry blossom trees, small cafes and a tiny art show set out in the plaza, fighting back against their surroundings. The towering temples of high-end retail.
The square is a non-literal box of serenity from the big city hustle and bustle. Here they lingered about on a temporary reprieve from whatever plans they had for the day. An elderly couple snapped pictures of the cherry blossoms. Two college-aged girls dressed from head-to-toe in green, a reminder of St. Patrick’s Day in the week ahead, sipped sugary coffees at an outdoor cafe. A gentleman in a crisp suit smiled warmly at the approach of a friend.
It was a small piece of quiet in the bustling city.
Home, Sweet, Home
Despite my resolve to walk and just see whatever I came across, I knew I wanted to see Chinatown. I’d stayed in China for a couple months, years back. I’d seen the Five Rams in Yuexiu Park in Guangzhou. I’d wandered along the Bund in Shanghai. I’d walked the Great Wall in Beijing.
I wasn’t disappointed by Chinatown.
While it resembled the more tourist driven parts of Shanghai, I found the area really is a little piece of China in a Northern California city.
Small bakeries selling moon cakes and sweet bean paste-filled breads. Shops filled to the brim with a mixture of tourist fare and local interest. Masks and painted fans and statues of zodiac animals. Woks and chun lian, a type of Chinese New Year decoration, and baskets full of every type of dried good imaginable.
I bought a lot of treats for myself and those who’d chosen not to come with me and eventually ended up in a restaurant near Portsmouth Square. A pot of hot oolong tea came with the menu and I had to remind myself I was in California and not back in Guangzhou.
The tea was sweet and flowery, like nectar.
It was delicious.
Down by the boardwalk
Naked bike ride.
I’d trekked through Washington Square and block by block until I reached the waterfront and the first thing I saw was a large group of people riding their bikes wearing nothing but fanny packs and helmets. I was back in San Francisco.
When I’d heard of the piers I thought of the long wooden structures that people fish from or some type of walkway over water with a few shops, instead I found tour boats, ferries and massive docks to accommodate them all.
To my right, ticket stands and scalpers pushed trips to Alcatraz. To my left, trolleys and buses lined the sidewalks, eager to pick up customers and whisk them off on a tour of the city.
It was early afternoon in tourist central and everyone was out.
A man painted in silver paint stood on a pedestal and waved at people passing by. A woman belted out tunes on a guitar with a collection of her CDs for sale by her side. A man crouched on the sidewalk holding a bunch of sticks and leaves, jumping up and spooking people who failed to notice him when they walked by.
At the end of the road, under the sign marking the Fisherman’s Wharf was an amped up version of the piers I’d imagined. A pier crowded with shops and carnival-style activities centered around a carousel of horses, dragons and seals to ride.
By the time I got back to the hotel the sun had set and my time exploring the City by the Bay was over.
Luckily, the San Francisco trip is an annual event for the Single Marine Program and one I’d certainly like to attend again.