Monday, March 29, 2010
“Be aware,” I said to Jane while we were riding a cable car in San Francisco, “this is the spirit of San Francisco we are in.”
I was not sure if the bearded, hat-wearing ticket inspector in the car heard me saying this to my friends, but on Thursday morning, while we were barely hanging onto the sides of the cable car, I was stunned by the beauty of San Francisco in every corner of the city.
The city’s personality was visible in the first minutes of arrival. Its famous hills at first sight show that personality even more strongly. Its cable cars are still in operation, all of them, I think, from the 1920s and ’30s: “It is the world’s last permanently operational manually operated cable-car system.”
I had just tagged along with Jane to see San Francisco at last. We first went to visit its Chinatown and entered one of the authentic Chinese restaurants during lunchtime. The two-story restaurant was packed with only Chinese people. Our waiter, who could hardly speak English, was not happy to see and have to serve our table. He knew that it was going to take forever for us, the only non-Chinese table in the basement of the restaurant, to figure out the menu, following countless questions.
In the streets of Chinatown, it was not hard to read through history, and see the pain of Chinese immigrants in the beginning of the last century, who apparently tried to build another city with the same architecture as their homeland.
I sneaked into one of those Chinese bakeries, in which I hoped to find some rare Chinese sweets. Instead, I was caught by surprise by a Chinese saleswoman in the shop, who appeared to be in her late 60s or early 70s but was aggressively after customers to buy more sweets and do it quickly.
San Francisco’s homeless
San Francisco is flocked with the homeless. Every corner has its own group of homeless people. I have never seen that many homeless people anywhere in my entire life. I asked many random people in the city about this, including a bank guard I met on Powell Street downtown. The guard, who is not married but expecting his first baby soon with his girlfriend, told me that homelessness is kind of a chosen way of life for many of them. I was perplexed by this explanation, having difficulty understanding how not having a home could be part of one’s preference.
One needs to get along with homeless people to enjoy San Francisco. During our nights out, especially in the downtown area, there was not one block without a homeless person begging for change or a cigarette. Without having enough change or cigarettes to share, going to venture out in the city is just a grave mistake.
I had one of the best experiences in my life when entering a tiny, underground stand-up comedy show without knowing what to expect. In this teeny room, along with 20 to 22 other people, I watched seven different stand-up comics within an hour’s time. These amateur comics were fully engaging their small audience, and there was no way to be distracted by other occurrences. During the several performances, a couple of audience members took a beating for their inattentiveness and were grilled ruthlessly by these penniless, but snobby comics.
I also took a swing from one of the comics. We were a little late for the show, and when we entered, we suddenly became the center of attention in the room. After I answered a question, Turkey became the center of the comedy, and the performer started to go on a roll, concluding with more harsh jokes about Ottoman history and especially Ottoman-Armenian issues.
‘Grass’ offered on the streets
I became friends with one of the performers at the show, a 22-year-old guy named Sam. During one of the breaks, we started to have a casual conversation about Montaigne, the 16th-century French writer. After some time, he took out some “grass” from his pocket and offered it to me as well without any hesitation. I was stunned by Sam’s relaxed attitude and hastily asked him whether this could be a matter of concern for the San Francisco Police Department. He looked at me and said sarcastically, “I am sure they have bigger issues to handle at the moment.”
Far from being a war between hippies and police, the fight to legalize marijuana in California focuses on whether decriminalizing and taxing it can help with the state’s fiscal crisis. Marijuana has been legal for medical purposes since the mid-90s in California. However, in the November elections, there will be also a ballot question for the Californians to legalize its use for fun as well.
Many California lawmakers support this new initiative and hope that the potential tax windfall will help the state, which currently faces the biggest fiscal challenge in its history. California is known to be the initiator of many new laws in the history of the U.S., new laws that have, in the past, quickly spread to other states. Many argue that legalizing marijuana in California could also make a nationwide impact on relaxing drug regulations.
When I saw the situation on the ground, on the sidewalks of San Francisco, where many times I came across a group of hippies smoking in the midst of everyone without seeing any reason to hide, it was clear that pot has been already legalized on the West Coast. For someone who does not leave Washington and its political theaters much, seeing the West Coast, its homeless people, its laid-back nature and the great Napa Valley, where we tasted some of the best wines in the world, was a great treat indeed, an experience I just wanted to share at this time.