We were stuck near the top of the hill, awaiting to be rescued. Those in charge radioed for help, which didn’t seem to be far away. As a matter of fact, it was just down at the bottom of the hill. A big hill. None of the passengers seemed to care, though, since we were seated comfortably on our wooden benches enjoying an extended trolley ride through the streets of San Francisco. As far as we were concerned, help could be across the Golden Gate, since waiting was far better than walking the hills. As a matter of fact, it was also better than driving. I thanked the San Andreas and Hayward Faults for making that so while I made my way, however slowly on my stopped trolley, to Chinatown.
The day before, I cursed when I realized I was in a neighborhood that wasn’t on my map. And then I cursed again when I wasn’t allowed to make a left turn to get there. Apparently it is next to impossible to make a left turn in one of the most politically left cities in the country. A begrudging chuckle crossed my lips as I cursed the city one more time for good measure. I was turned around on the streets of San Francisco, feebly trying to find my hotel.
It was a misty spring day. I could see it well, since my car’s windshield was pointing to the sky. I tried to look right and left, but it was impossible. I couldn’t see anything. I was stopped at the peak of one of more than fifty hills that make up San Francisco. I just hoped others were stopped, too, before I continued, because I couldn’t tell if there were any other cars at the intersection. All I could see were houses squished together and stacked on top of each other, climbing their way to the hill’s peaks.
I passed the winding Lombard Street more than once. Each time I wondered why anyone would put such a street in the city and make it impossible to turn left. I vowed not to drive it out of pure spite, so I just took a few photographs and continued on my way to the hotel. It was somewhere nearby, I could tell that from my map, but I just happened to be going in the opposite direction.
Left turns be damned, I was strolling along Fisherman’s Wharf after another hour of making three right turns for just one left; I found my hotel blocks away from the waterside. Shortly thereafter I was meandering through the misty streets of San Francisco. I felt hungry, but it wasn’t suppertime. The mist just gave midday the feeling of dusk.
I turned my nose up at the fresh seafood. Despite growing up in the land of 10,000 lakes, I just couldn’t stomach it. So instead, before picking up what I knew wasn’t going to be San Francisco’s best pizza despite the advertisement, I stopped into the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. I had a national park’s pass, so it was all included anyway; nevermind that I held no interest in maritime history.
Nonetheless, it turned out to be an enjoyable and somewhat educational visit. I wandered the decks of various ships, toured the museum, and laughed out loud at kids on an overnight field trip who were dressed like the Gorton’s Fisherman. But it wasn’t where I wanted to be on this afternoon. I was longing to see one of the most famous sites in the area – Alcatraz Island.
Bucket list item number thirty-three was completed the very next morning. I set sail across the icy waters of the bay to tour what was not only the infamous prison, but also a Civil War fort. I spent hours walking the Rock, but largely in a disappointed state. I had high hopes for my tour of Alcatraz, but long gone are the days when ranger-led groups learned about the notorious history that gives the place its flavor. Now it is an open playground to be fought over.
My hopes for the tour had been high, but they were dashed upon the rocks surrounding the island. Hundreds of tourists were milling about making it a crowded, disorderly, and unenjoyable visit; each time I turned, I was bumping into another person; each time I tried to take a photograph, someone was in it; and each time I attempted to listen to the audio guide, someone was yapping loudly nearby. So, instead of continuing to battlie the herd down Broadway in the prison, I boarded the return ferry for Pier 33 and the wharf.
Bumping out of a crowded restaurant, I landed back on the streets of San Francisco. My fish and chips lunch was an obvious mistake at the first bite. After a few more for good, regrettable measure, I pushed it away and paid my bill. I admired the small, colorful boats nearby with measured breaths – lunch wasn’t doing me any favors. And since I didn’t feel like walking anywhere, I caught the first trolley I saw on Columbus Avenue to head to Chinatown.
It felt like the right thing to do, getting on the trolley. Forget about all of the Rice-a-Roni commercials with the iconic rides, it was just heading where I wanted to go – up. I had no desire to climb the streets of San Francisco while on vacation, but I’d more than happily walk down them while enjoying the occasionally impressive vista.
One block after getting stuck in the trolley near the top of the hill, I was at the edge of Chinatown. And yes, I admit it, I waited patiently on the trolley for nearly fifteen minutes just so I could ride it for one more block. I paid the five dollars to ride it and – left turns be damned! – I was going to get my money’s worth on the ride. So, I waited for the big truck to push us forward, all for just one more block. After all, it was a San Francisco treat.
At first blush it didn’t smell nor did it look like Chinatown. There were a few kanji characters on nearby buildings, but the streets in either direction appeared to look like most any I had already got lost in while driving through San Francisco. And then I rounded a corner and was hit by a smell that was strong enough to blow over from Beijing. It instantly reminded me of my time in China, as well as New York City’s Chinatown, and the fish that is left out in street-side markets.
I quickly found my way out of Chinatown by walking downhill to the north and into a small neighborhood with the flavor of Little Italy. The North Beach, Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill neighborhoods all converged here with Chinatown on the south. The rain was starting to fall and my feet were sore from wandering countless miles in two days, so I put the fishy smell and the hills behind me in my hotel, as I left the streets of San Francisco and gave thought to the mountains in the east.