I had been through San Francisco many times riding with my family on summer trips as we headed north to Oregon and Washington and even Vancouver. I usually didn’t pay much attention to this strange foggy city that sat on the tip of a cold peninsula. All I noted was that there were lots of hills. Steep hills that jutted into the fog. And the Golden Gate bridge, its span stretching out from the city into the Marin side, a symbolic bridge from South to North. This was San Francisco.
It wasn’t until my friend Dan, who had just graduated from Berkeley, had a party at his place in Richmond that I was able to rediscover San Francisco on my own grown-up terms. He threw the party sometime during my long period of unemployment between October, 1991 and July, 1992. He had just started a new job as an actuary at a large insurance company. The Thursday before the party I jumped on the California 101 highway in my 1988 CRX Si and headed north.
I stopped somewhere in the San Fernando Valley first so I could have a personalized license frame made with “Los Angeles” printed on it, white on black. So everyone would know where I hailed from. I was filled with many strange notions. Looking back I am filled with utter embarrassment to even admit such a ridiculous deed. I attached the license frame in the parking lot of the shopping center, and proudly wearing this hometown FYI on my car, I continued my drive up to Richmond. Since I was unemployed, I began the trip on Thursday, earlier than my friend Keith who also knew Dan and lived near me. Keith would fly into San Francisco on Friday night and we would meet up there.
All went well. The party turned out very nice and I drunkenly began hitting on some Berkeley girls but nevertheless managed not to come across too badly. Which for me meant that I didn’t say something irretrievably embarrassing or break someone’s precious domestic decoration. On Sunday I was in such great spirits and so starved for adventure that I decided I would stick around and check out San Francisco after I gave Keith a ride to the airport so he could catch a flight back home (poor guy had a job).
San Francisco was beautiful! Magical. Nothing like I had experienced before.
I called home and told my mom I was sticking around the city for a couple of days. There was much I needed to “investigate” I told myself.
I was mesmerized.
This was the most beautiful city I had ever set foot in. The hills and the fog and the hard urban outline hypnotically lulled me in to its urban depths. I found a Travelodge on the outskirts of Russian Hill and spent about 3 more days there.
These were my prime boozing days and the town was overrun with dark, secluded bars and restaurants that lined the streets with sidewalk windows. I drank, I ate, I discovered Twin Peaks which lets you view the world from the cloudy, windy heavens, literally. And I drank some more. And I drove up and down the city streets. Sightseeing from behind the steering wheel.
I eventually left, but yes, it’s true…I left my heart there. Right on Frankie!
Over the next few years I drove up to San Francisco often. I became familiar with the city and developed a fondness for several bars and restaurants. I discovered a Hunan Chinese restaurant where I ate each time I visited. Twin Peaks was always on my itinerary, as well. Driving to the top of that windswept rocky peak allowed me to air out my mind and meditate upon the layers of dense fog that enshrouded the region. And my favorite bar was called the Bow Bow Bar. It was located at the tip of a triangular fork intersection in Chinatown. The bartender was an Asian woman named Doris, thick accent and all. I think she was from Thailand or Singapore. She took a liking to me. Each time I walked in, regardless of how many months had passed since my last visit, she called out my name happily and chat with me like an old friend.
Soon after I began working at a bar east of Los Angeles. I must have mentioned the name in passing to Doris, for one day she sent me a postcard there from her homeland where she was vacationing. People like me are easily surprised and touched by spontaneous displays of thoughtfulness. Probably because I am anything but.
My visits to San Francisco were spectacles of inebration and gluttony. I wasn’t making much money at the bar but I managed to squeeze out a good time from every cent I had.
I discovered a place called “Ruth Chris Steak House” on Van Ness, not far from my motel. Eventually the restaurant made its way to the Los Angeles region and lost its allure, but I was still thrilled at the prospect of spending a small fortune on…meat.
In the ensuing years I would take a girlfriend and a wife-to-be on trips to San Francisco. Minus the pathological alcohol abuse, of course.
The visits made during my single days were utter debacles. This would have been the period of 1992 to 1994.
Which makes me wonder: why was the city such a draw to me?
What was the root of the subconscious poke which prodded me to continue visiting the city by the bay over and over?
Lacking perspective at the time, all I could tell you is that I loved the city because of the weather and the natural geography, and if I was in a more open and candid mood, I would have told you that of course, the bars were great, as were the restaurants, the infinite number of dark and invisible nooks and crannies I could hide in.
Blending into anonymity in San Francisco reminded me of a game I used to play as a child in which I would create a steep and convoluted little village made of blankets and sheets and pillows, and the sense of satisfaction I would derive from crawling beneath layers of sheets while coexisting invisibly here amongst the mounds of cloth. Extrapolating that peculiar childhood mind game I played, it’s quite easy to see why San Francisco appealed to me. The city offered safe havens of anonymity while still allowing me to remain tucked into the deep confines of the urban landscape.
Having turned 26 at the time I began visiting the city, I began to indulge in a little faux urban sophistication. i could try on that hip urban allure for size. Pretentious, flashy…it was an exciting new life. Buying the most expensive Scotch, eating strange foreign menu items…I was living large.
In my own mind.
San Francisco offered all the big city urban skyscrapered flare that television and movies had taught me of the New York style of big city living. By comparison, L.A. was bland and flat, a cultural wasteland whose claim to fame was its distinctly suburban freeway sprawl.
Despite my countless visits, I didn’t stray far from the little motel I favored in the Russian Hill neighborhood. Displaying unusual amounts of good sense, I didn’t trust myself driving the frightening streets of San Francisco while in various states of inebriation. So anything I could reach on foot (comfortably and in a reasonable amount of time) or by taxi (while trying to keep the fare within reason) was fair game. From Russian Hill, this meant all my good times were limited to Chinatown, North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf.
I believe it was 1992. I’d begun working as a bartender in June or July (shortly after the L.A. riots). I decided to celebrate my new job by laying waste to San Francisco once again. This was the greatest irony: I, of all people, should land a bartending job right in the middle of this period I call the Drunken Scourge of San Francisco.
The trip began as planned. I rented a car, drove up the coast, checked into my favorite Sleep and Crash joint on Van Ness.
It was Saturday night, usually the wildest of the 3 or 4 nights my trips typically spanned. As I said, I normally showed a modicum of good sense when it came to getting around on my drinking nights, but for whatever reason I threw out all good sense that Saturday night as I hopped in the rental car and headed off to a strange and exotic San Francisco location for me. Japan Town. I had never been here, even at my most lucid daytime tourist moments. Not so much as stepped foot there. Common Sense rule #1 should be that you don’t barhop in a neighborhood you know nothing about in a city hundreds of miles from home. But common sense wasn’t exactly my strong suit, and soon I found myself parking the rental car on one of the streets checkering Japan Town.
And the memory turns hazy.
After I parked, evidently I found a multi-story mall of some sort with Japanese businesses. One of the businesses unfortunately happened to be a bar.
Everything I recount now is foggy as the nighttime San Francisco sky. Memories are sporadic, a broken stream of events which sit in my mind like random pieces of an upset jigsaw puzzle. Any narrative I attempt to describe that night is like trying to put together the puzzle with only the weakest flickering candle light to guide me…
The bar was on the 2nd or 3rd floor. It was Japanese as can be. I recall that Japanese writing was everywhere.
I remember balloons. Balloons, those Asian balloons that are textured and decorated. Similar to these:
The ones in the bar were blue and red…I think. I remember a blue balloon, it had those lines and strange rippled texture. That’s all I remember. That, and vague images of Japanese faces, older wrinkled Japanese men and cigarettes and liquor bottles (this was before the modern era of smoking ordinances). I remember Scotch. Scotch was my new alcoholic affectation. Undoubtedly I drank Glenlivet or Glenfiddich all night long. Seems expensive Scotch and Japanese bars go hand in hand.
The next morning was Sunday and it was San Francisco sunny…crisp and painfully clear.
And when I awoke, I was laying on my back. I was laying on a big concrete bench shaped like an oversized square.
The familiar sensations of panic and confusion and sickness all bloated with a hungover twinge of borderline alcohol poisoning slapped me in the face. After you wake up and realize ever so gradually that you’ve probably fucked up and drank way too much, the secondary feelings of the physical hangover set in. They fall into place slowly, like an intensifying series of hammer blows to the head. Your stomach swims, your mouth is dry and tastes of death. You may become aware of pain if you took a spill or got in a fight…basically, what happens when you rouse from a passed out state is that your body slowly reassembles as a sensory whole and your dehydrated brain slowly and gingerly gathers the disparate elements which have been strewn about by your toxic indulgences and attempts to patch them back together so you can experience your being in a normal sober way again. You are Frankenstein’s creation after he flicks the switch on for the first time. And it doesn’t feel good. Not. At. All.
I must have propped myself up on the hard concrete bench while the world danced and my stomach lurched. I had no idea where I was. I was in a mall, on the first floor. Memories began to re-emerge. The bar. The Scotch. The Japanese fellows.
That goddamned blue balloon.
That balloon sat in my memory and I could almost touch it, feel it, so vivid was that memory. Whereas the sheer volume of booze had washed away all memories of the previous evening’s shenanigans, the blue textured Asian balloon stood strong and would not be lifted away. The image of the pesky balloon stuck in my mind as I paraded crookedly up and down the entire first floor of the mall as I searched for an escape hatch. The doors were locked. Eventually I found a stairwell that led down to the parking garage and from there I found a ramp that led up to the street. And as I spent another eternity blinded by the sunlight while I searched for my car, that damn Asian blue balloon continued to haunt me, swaying lazily in my mind.
Hovering in my drunken memory, taunting me with its lonesome recollection.
And throughout the remainder of that miserable Sunday.
Yes, the balloon.
And never mind the bruises I found on each arm where someone had been forced to grip me with all their stength in order to drag my dead drunken weight down to the 1st floor concrete bench. If they would have tied the blue balloon to my wrist everything would have been so much better.