When I first moved to San Francisco many years ago, there was much to grab my attention. Places and people new, different, even exotic. And I was kind of prepared for that. But there was one thing that I didn’t know about, and the was this- the fog.
I was instantly mesmerized by the fog. How one could go from baking in 90 degree heat to the east, and a few miles later be subsumed in a chilling fog. I soon learned that the fog forms over the ocean during the summer months, and is drawn inland every afternoon, and then would depart, sometimes, every morning. But the closer you are to the ocean, the more fog and less sun you get. And, in the bitterest irony, at Ocean Beach itself, denizens there sometimes go days in the summer without a glimpse of the sun. But for me at that time, it absolutely added to the exotic thrill of living in San Francisco. I loved it. And then a year after arriving, I moved into the heart of the fog, a house in that very part of the city , the Richmond District.
Early that summer, I would leave each day for work in the fog , eat lunch in a park under blue skies downtown, and then return home, to the cool and mysterious fog. But as the summer wore on, it began to get to me. On weekends , I would cast my eyes to the east, and see a thin line of blue in the distance. There I would see kites, beach balls flying in the air. But over my head, the blue was only a rumor, the fog would often never release its grip.
Each summer afternoon at work, I would cast my eye wearily out the window, and I would witness the same daily drama, the white banks of clouds forming over Twin Peaks, ready for their daily assault. I would return home to the treeless gray gloom, and get inside quickly.
As the summer wore on, I realized I needed to make peace with this fog, I needed to embrace it. I admired the hearty folk who lived in my neighborhood, but wondered , why, and how do they get along? How did they thrive out here in this windswept ice box ? Over that summer, I began to discover the pleasures of outdoors in the fog, and, as I got to know my neighborhood more, began to discover the joys that were inside- the restaurants, shops , the civic spaces. So navigating that summer in the Richmond meant flipping the summer script, and indulging the pleasure of being inside – day and night.
I don’t get out to the Richmond much any more, but recently, I had reason to be out there. I was playing hookey on a Friday, and thought, I’ll go to my favorite museum in the Richmond , and then head to the beach. But as I headed west, the all too familiar site of the fog told me that might not be the best plan. So instead I went for a walk through the heart of the Richmond, visiting a number of its many wonderful inside places, many remembered from back in the day. It was indeed going to be an inside day.
The walk started at the Columbarium, a place I had always wanted to visit and never actually had. It is a crypt set in a neo-classical temple, and it is one of the best kept secrets in San Francisco. It is a rotunda surrounded by aisles lined with the dead, an eerie yet exhilarating place, easily one of the most stunning spaces in San Francisco. But it wasn’t always this glorious. It fell into disrepair and lay abandoned between 1934 and 1979, which is hard to believe. It has since been lovingly restored by the Neptune Society, and is now a spectacular shrine. It is a great place to while away a few minutes on a cold foggy day, imagining all those many lives lived in San Francisco before you. Every niche its own novel.
We lived off Clement Street back then, and my room-mates and I treated the street as our Living Room. And I at least was never more comfortable on those cold bracing nights than at an Irish pub, in this case the Plough And The Stars . There are many bars in the Richmond that Irish of recent arrival call home. The word for this place was warm, and its nights of Guinness, pool, and music kept us, or me at least, from going crazy during that cold blustery summer. The place had the power to transport one to Ireland, and doesn’t seem to have changed a bit.
Holy City Zoo.
As I walked up Clement, I came upon a newish bar. It was something much different from I remember. Then it was known as the Holy City Zoo, a well known comedy club. That year I lived here also marked the merciful demise of my flailing comedy career. I went to open mic a couple of times , (secretly, not telling anyone) , building on what I though was a promising start after college. But alas, I was in way over my head in a place that had spawned the likes of Robin Willams. It was nothing short of traumatic, but hey, at least I tried. And at least the Plough and the Stars was a block away, where I could soothe my trampled ego with Guinness. And so while we would continue to enjoy cackling at the comedians a few blocks from home, with no idea the talent we were witnessing at that amazing place, I realized I would stick to writing. A true Irishman.
Green Apple Books
Fortunately, Green Apple is still there, and this by itself is a reason to make the journey out here. My favorite book store in the Bay Area, in that cranky way old bookstores can be, filled with nooks and crannies , endless stairs up and down, stuffed to the rafters with new and used books. The Richmond always seemed highly literary to me, I think a convergence of weather , books, and alcohol maybe. On this day a local resident was arguing with employees over the value of a box of books he had brought in for re-sale. This was part of the lifeblood of Green Apple, but the potential sale went bad, and the seller gathered his paperbacks and left in a huff. Next!
The Public Library
I got my first library card at this place, the neighborhood’s lovely branch of the Public Library on 9th between Clement and Geary. In the early 20th century, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie bequeathed a generous portion of his fortune to the construction of libraries , one of the great philanthropic gestures of the last 100 years. And the great thing is most of these are more modest branch libraries such as this. On this cold day, the ironic palm trees beckon you into the modest grandeur of its reading room. Like all libraries, it welcomes all, and there they are, seniors , kids , the nerds, the indigent. There are few institutions I admire more than the branch library , and the physical act of extending the beauty of the written word to all neighborhoods, housing it in a building of dignity, but in scale with its residential surroundings. Here’s to the Branch Library!
Gaspare’s Italian Restaurant
I turned and headed up Geary. Our next stop on this tour could be any one of a dozen Richmond restaurants along Geary. Back then, a red checked tablecloth kinda Italian place with Italian nautical scenes was just the kind a place to forget about work and be transported. And here it still sits, along with a number of others along Geary serving up Russian, French, Polish, Irish, Chinese. This side of San Francisco is always disappearing, to be replaced with too often with precious farm to table restaurants that include biographies of the chicken you are about to eat, named after a cooking utensil . (Ladle, Fork, Pestle, Toast). And no arguing the caliber of the food is likely better, but I wonder if something is lost along the way, and that loss is one of character- born of the unique people who run them. These are often places of fantasy , that speak of the homeland. In this toxic political climate we currently inhabit , they are a reminder a central tenet of this country. So in a way, the perceived lack of sex appeal of the Richmond may end up being one of its saving graces.
And so there we still have Gaspare’s. And Russian Rennassance. And Hamburger Haven.
As I headed further west, I came upon an institution , and hazy memories of it came back to me. This place may be the ultimate in Inside Day escapes, Trad’r Sam’s. No, not Vics, Sams. The bar sits all by itself , near the crest of a hill where the fog gets real serious. You literally can be blown in through its dutch door, and chilled to the bone, can warm up with a flaming rum punch. It embraces in spades what bars are in their essence – an escape. I had the fuzziest of memories of nights there a loooong time ago, so I had to go in. Ohhh, sweet getaway, like a night on the beach in the tropics.
On this day, it uhhh, lacked that magic. A few mid-day drinkers stared at me wearily between their umbrellas . On the TV Jeopardy played to the mid afternoon crowd. Suddenly a man at the bar started coughing violently. After a fashion, he quieted down. Then he said’ “What is Madasgascar”. I left without ordering . But 25 years ago, well, that was a different story.
Holy Virgin Cathedral
Well, this Richmond Interior World was about fantasy- be it Irish, Italian, Polynesian….or Russian. The next block on Geary I wandered into the primary Russian place of worship in San Francisco, the Holy Virgin Cathedral . I needed to level out after Trad’r Sam’s, and this place did the trick. It is a beautiful church in the Orthodox tradition, every surface covered, a saint under glass, candelabras overhead.
A sat for a while, and my mind wandered, to the current events of the day, specifically how much Russia was entangled in the news. (And absorbing too much news, as I had been lately, can start to make everyone seem suspicious. Not Good). I wondered about the many Russians of recent extract who live out here, wondered what was going through their mind these days . Just then a man entered. A tough looking guy with a military haircut ,unshaven, yellow tinted glasses. He lit a candle, said a prayer and then stood behind me for a bit. I got a tad uncomfortable, and my overactive imagination took over – some nefarious meet up that was about to occur I was certain. And I had it half right. Just then a little girl came round the corner wearing a traditional dress , toting a balloon and a present. She ran to him, her Daddy , who picked her up , and carried her lovingly outside. I gotta stop watching the news.
The Palace of Legion of Honor
So my story today would be that I chased my Russian mobsters, corpses, bad comedians, and Alex Trebek, but I eventually got to my destination, the museum. The Palace of Legion of Honor is San Francisco’s version of New York’s Metropolitan in miniature. I love wandering its galleries, on this day nearly alone. The collection is exquisite , the setting, at nearly the end of the road out here, sublime. And as inside spaces go, two of the best are the Rodin sculpture rotunda, above, and a favorite, the Salon Dore, a fully reconstructed gold gilded Period room from 18th century Paris. As the fog howled outside, no space did more to transport than this one. I imagined the bourgeoisie sipping tea in the salon as the French Revolution clamored outside. Or maybe that was the fog.
The Cliff House
The final stop on this journey would have to be here, the Cliff House, overlooking the ocean. It’s as far as you can go in the Richmond without falling in the ocean. The setting for the Cliff House is stupendous, and because of this, the building seems rather puny . But how could anything measure up.
It occurred to me that all the previous spaces on this journey were about a certain amount of fantasy, transporting you to another place, and/or time, done through decor, art, memorial, or simply the printed page. All worlds decisively removed from the immediate environs, each a tribute to where people have been- China, Ireland Italy, Russia, France.
In contrast, the Cliff House celebrates its good fortune to be right here, with expansive windows overlooking the fierce ocean outside. It shelters from the cold summer wind, while offering up libations that warm and soothe. And so, having been transported around the world with inside fantasies on a foggy summer day, the Cliff House brings you very much back to this place , at the edge of the continent. Where many have come from far away, to find ourselves at The Land’s End, the beauty and promise of San Francisco.
Just then the clouds broke for a moment, and the sun leaked through, caressing the waves, sunning the seals. I suddenly wanted to be outside, in the sun. The crowd inside rushed to the windows for photos.But just moments after the sun appeared, the temptress was gone, the fog swallowing her again. The crowd slowly returned to the bar. Above on the TV, Jeopardy was about to come on.