I'm standing at Lands End in Lincoln Park, on the north-western tip of San Francisco, watching a long-distance mugging take place. This is not a violent corner of town. Au contraire, it is one of the classiest corners of real estate in the city. Robin Williams and Sharon Stone both live in nearby Seacliff. Barely a mile away are the graceful, neo-classical pillars of the Californian Palace of the Legion of Honour. In the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge is a shimmery dream in rust red.
Just below where I'm standing is a golf course - a public golf course, mind you, where any schmuck with a $20 bill can turn up and start playing. And here come a quartet of no-standard golfers - four Filipino youths, drinking beer, are careering around in golf buggies, slightly too fast. By the 17th tee, they stop because they've spotted a victim.
It's a small yacht, a sailing boat, gliding under one white sail, moving slowly towards the Golden Gate. It's barely 100 yards offshore from Baker Beach. Up here, on the golf course, we're a couple of hundred feet above sea level - a perfect vantage point from which to watch the boat, or, as it turns out, to attack it. One by one the Filipino youths drop half-a-dozen white balls on the tee, select a No 1 driver or a No 5 iron and whack the ball straight at the inoffensive little yacht.
It's a shocking bit of class-war aggression, but it's clearly not life-threatening: none of these lummoxy malcontents could hit a barn door at this range. And when somebody shouts, "Hey! Whaddya think you're doing?", they flee on their little buggies in search of alternative entertainment.
Two things occur to me about the golf-ball fusillade. First, it's influenced by the scene in Sideways, in which Paul Giamatti whacks a ball at a motorised buggy driven by a stuffy golf-club bore, turning the orb and sceptre of bourgeois sport into a weapon of choice. Second, that it's not a real mugging, merely a gesture, in this city where everything you associate with its history - every movement, every battle, every manifesto, every efflorescence of culture - has been tidied away into a charming, laminated version of itself.
San Francisco is a great walking city if you don't mind the landscape changing every few blocks. One moment you're in the heart of Downtown, sitting with your ciabatta and hot chocolate in Union Square, surrounded by epic names of consumerism: Macy's, Saks 5th Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman. Then you're walking block after block in Chinatown. Next thing, you're lolling in the handkerchief-sized Washington Square, watching the locals doing California-type things.
On the grass, oblivious to his surroundings, a large, hairy man is preparing to take a little nap. He is a very thorough napper, a very organisational kinda guy - you can tell because he's brought a sleeping-bag to the park, and a mattress to slip under it. Extra atmosphere is provided by some small, whirly metal windmills that he has arranged around his recumbent frame as though he must harmonise their joint motion, like tiny planets, before he can sleep in the shadow of their whirring arms. He is clearly barking mad.
You can stare at him without fear of retaliation - many San Franciscans expect to be gawped at. Check out this pair on the grass: he is leading her through some basic ballet moves, one-legged arabesques and the like, while she is laughing fit to bust. Behind them, an earnest young cove in a serious I'm-not-a-student-any-more-I'm-a-creative-person goatee beard, sits bolt upright with his knees together, reading the poems of Kenneth Rexroth.
He cannot be local. Locals do not read the Beats. They've had the Beats rammed down their throats for too long. (They may have discovered that many of them couldn't write for toffee.) The Beat poets who flourished in the late 1950s, fluttering around the flame of Allen Ginsberg, and the haunted, Catholic-mystic, prototypical Beat voice, Jack Kerouac, have been a cultural signpost on the visitor's itinerary. The real Beat revolution got started mostly in New York, but the San Francisco connection was the City Lights bookshop, owned and run (still) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Deep in the heart of North Beach, the bookshop was where the writers and the boho youth of the mid-1950s congregated in Greenwich Village-style counterculture. The bookshop is still well worth a visit, as is the Café Vesuvio next door; it may be a shrine to a faded revolution, but it's still a delightful spot for a toast to Jack, Neal, Allen and their myriad black-sweatered disciples.
The action end of San Francisco is a perfect kite shape, in which the converging sides are Van Ness Avenue (where you find all the civic buildings and museums) and Market Street (which is Bond Street, basically). Inside the kite are a dozen eclectic districts - Chinatown, Little Italy, the Financial District, the dismally grotty Tenderloin, the posh North Beach, the even posher Nob Hill surmounted by the former "Temple of Commerce". A magnificent neo-classical folly, it used to be an insurance company. Now it's the Ritz-Carlton, the queen of San Francisco hotels, with huge rooms, a swimming pool, a very British fussy teatime in the Lobby Lounge and the most attentive staff you could find anywhere.
Outside the Ritz a crumbling old couple ambles past. He wears elderly golf slacks; she in a brown, old-lady skirt. She catches my eye and says, "You stayin' at this hotel?"
- Uh-huh, I say, cautiously.
"What's it like?"
- Fine. The rooms are enormous.
"We're staying at Bexley's Motor Lodge. The rooms are kinda small."
- I'm sure it has its combinations, I say, encouragingly.
"You see any famous people here?"
- Sure. The film festival is on at the moment. I walked past Jeff Bridges this morning, on my way to breakfast.
"Jeff Bridges, huh? [screams] You hear that?" Her husband has kept on walking and is 200 yards away. She muses a moment, wrestling with a momentous decision. "So Jeff's here, is he? Maybe I'll switch after all..."
Echoing Robert Benchley's telegram home after arriving in Venice ("STREETS FULL OF WATER PLEASE ADVISE"), a mantra sounds in your head as you toil up and down Stockton, Grant and Kearny, three parallel streets that run through the central districts of Nob Hill, Union Square and Chinatown: "Bloody hills. Bloody hills. Why did nobody mention these bloody hills?"
Actually, they weren't a complete surprise. I knew there were inclines. I'd heard San Francisco was far from flat. I'd seen Bullitt, with the cars in the car-chase disappearing into the dip of a thoroughfare and reappearing at high speed, flying over the lip of the next curve. But I was expecting a series of gentle declivities, some long, languorous curves, like Herne Hill in south London. Not these bloody, unforgiving cliffs, up which you tramp hopelessly as though wheezing up the side of a pyramid. When you reach the intersection of Broadway, everything beyond it seems impossibly vertiginous. The mild pavement along which you've been walking suddenly rears up before you like a wave in The Perfect Storm. West of North Beach, in the streets around Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill, you completely run out of puff and stand, heart pounding like a Kango hammer, wondering how anyone ever walked up the 31-degree gradient of Filbert Street, and thought it would be a neat idea to build a house at the top...
For a refreshing look at the seedier end of town, I linked up with two old friends from England. Pierre is an enormous man, burly, barrel-chested, shorn-headed and faintly intimidating behind his D&G eyewear. We hadn't seen each other in 15 years. He and I enfolded each other in a gruff, manly embrace. My spine endured much heavy pounding, like an artillery barrage. We do not kiss each other, though, because Pierre disapproves of camp behaviour. Frankly, he cannot stand queens. Nor can his boyfriend, Mike. Though shorter than Pierre, Mike is similarly rotund. Like him, he sports a flourishing beard and smiles through it, like a younger, gay David Bellamy.
In the hydra-headed classifications of San Francisco's gay life, Pierre and Mike are bears, namely large, physically robust chaps who have sex with each other. It's a popular look in the SoMa and Castro districts: among the eclectic throng of muscle Marys, leather daddies, biker boys, gym bunnies, hipsters, trannies, lesbians and hasbians, you'll find a teddies' tea party of Bears and Cubs. The look is simple - denim baseball cap with shades and beard; white T-shirt with matching white sweatbands; canvas shorts, worn over the knee; double-super-thick white socks disappearing into size 15 Timberland hiking boots. Bears amble everywhere; they do not rush, or meander, mince or strut. They are large but, by God, they are cool. And they're very proud of being the size the are. The worst thing you can say to a Bear is: "Have you lost weight?"
Pierre and Mike take me to the Zeitgeist bar on the corner of Duboce and Valencia, in the heart of the down-at-heel Mission district. From the outside, it looks dismayingly grotty. From the inside, too - it's a dark and sweaty cabin where large, hairy bikers wander in the gloom, where you can't get to the bar for rednecks in straining white T-shirts, where a DVD of Blade Runner plays on the TV, and a sign behind the bar reads, "We reserve the right to eject unruly elements for any reason whatsoever." We go out into the courtyard. They call it a "patio" - far too genteel a word for this convocation of tough guys called things like "BP Psychos". It takes a minute to realise that the aroma of onions from the barbecue is overlaid on the breeze by another, sweeter, headier smell; a lot of people in this courtyard are smoking marijuana. It is, to my surprise, perfectly legal in this state, provided you go about it the right way.
"You have to get a special card from your doctor," says Pierre. "It costs about 100 bucks."
"Some doctors actually advertise," says Mike. "As in, 'Get your Medicinal Marijuana cards here.' So you get one, go off to a place called the Vapour Room, tell them your symptoms and they'll medicate you accordingly."
"You don't have to be all that sick," adds Pierre. "You can just say, 'I'm feeling a bit stressed', and they'll say, 'You need some pot'."
"'I'm going dancing tonight, doctor, and I feel depressed'," says Mike parodically. "And they'll just say, 'Have some pot'."
The Only Straight in the Village
We moved on to The Castro, the gay centre of San Francisco - a sprawling residential district, festooned with the rainbow flag of gay liberation, and centred in Castro Street, where there's always a crowd of wanderers and gawpers. It seems wrong to be there, joining a lot of other straight people inspecting (like, OhMiGod!) gays in captivity and marvelling at their quirky behavioural patterns. But you discover that visitors are welcome, because they're usually gays from out of town coming a-calling. Prodigious feats of cruising and eye-flickering are performed by the peacock strutters on the sidewalk and the chaps pausing to check the merchandise at the gay hardware store.
We walk past Twin Peaks, the first gay bar in America to have plain, rather than smoked, glass in its windows. Today, the only things worth gazing in at are the fancy scatter cushions. The clientele are mostly in their 40s and 50s.
"We call it God's Waiting-room," says Pierre.
"Or the Glass Cemetery," says Mike.
"Or the Elephant's Graveyard," says Pierre.
We take in a marginally more youthful, and apparently more authentic, gay bar called The Edge. To a straight visitor, it's an intimidating place - nor because of the constant eyeballing, nor the fact that there's no lock on the WC, nor the blown-up photos of thighs, six-packs, cocks and buns - but because you feel like a spy in the enemy camp. You feel someone will soon start asking, "What the fuck are you doing here?"
Outside, I vocalise my misgivings.
"There's nothing to feel nervous about," says Pierre. "The gays aren't going to give you a hard time."
"You're wrong," says Mike. "They don't like tourists. I think John was lucky to leave without being groped by a lot of hands."
"We came here with a friend not long ago," admits Pierre, "straight guy, but off his head on E. You see that place, Waygreens? It's the American version of Boots. Anyway, he goes into that shop looking for some Neurofen, but he's zonked on E and is touchy-feely, and to cut a long story short, he ends up being blown by a total stranger behind the antihistamines..."
The search for good times takes you into some odd corners in San Francisco. My favourite venue turned out not to be one of the top restaurants in the Zagat Survey, nor one of the upscale bars on the classy North Beach/Little Italy axis, but a flyblown old leather bar called The Eagle Tavern on 12th Street at Harrison. Painted in vibrant reds, simply laid out around a circular bar area, it's an instantly appealing place to hang out, where they dispense red wine like it's sasparilla, and you can smoke in the courtyard surrounded by votive lights, whispering couples (of all sexual orientations) and the Pogues singing "Turkish Song of the Damned" on the sound system.
It's a relic from the days of hard-core gay culture that's now been morphed into something more commercial, more mainstream and inclusive. Wherever you look in San Francisco, you see the same tendency - what once had been edgy, avant-garde, destructive and alarming has become atrophied, semi-skimmed, de-sexed, calmed down, silk-screened onto T-shirts or plonked on the tourist itinerary. Now and then, you get glimpses of how this fabulous city got its reputation for pushing the boundaries of urban life - but just glimpses, before you are swept off again to check out the heritage sites and memorial gardens, the shrines to Kerouac and Harvey Milk, the movie tie-ins, the Alcatraz mugs and T-shirts.
San Francisco is a marvellous place to visit, to walk around, to eat and drink in, to stare at passers-by. Just don't expect to find much new fire these days. If you're looking for a "Left Bank" there's a modern bar and grill by that name in Larkspur, Marin County. A very nice bar and grill, very agreeable, like everything in Marin County. You just wish there was a bit more grit in the oyster of California. The city's wildness has long been contained. As some wag wrote on a wall in Haight-Ashbury, the week that a branch of Gap moved in: "Well - there goes the neighbourhood."
John Walsh travelled to San Francisco with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) which currently has fares for £523 for travel until the end of June.
Three airlines fly non-stop between Heathrow and San Francisco: British Airways, United Airlines (0845 844 4777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com). Prices during the summer are high. The best fares are likely to be found through discount agencies.
Ritz-Carlton (001 415 296 7465; 0800 234 000 for reservations; www.ritzcarlton.com), 600 Stockton at California Street. Doubles start at $370 (£206), room only. Hotel Triton (001 415 394 0500; www.hoteltriton.com). Doubles start at $159 (£88), room only.
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