Off The Beaten Path

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In the Tweens of San Francisco

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As one journey ends, so another begins

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Traveling cross-country by rail offers a unique opportunity to experience life at a simpler, slower pace. The trek provides a closer glance at distinctive American landscapes and the diverse cultures nurtured. (Spanning America’s Distance By Rail, “Off The Beaten Path” archives)

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All good things come to an end and approximately three and a half days from the DC Metro a California Zephyr’s journey finally concludes in San Francisco. Well not quite.

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Embryville, CA is a city by the bay just outside THE city by the bay. In relationship to the more famous city it would seem to exist as a ‘tween’ – not in the context of an adolescent child who thinks they are grown, this is an artsy (and philosophical) designation for places with specific transient purposes such as a transportation stop or other city commute. It is also a place where time seems to stand still while you wait for something to happen. However to serve no disrespect, a transient ‘tween’ to one person may hold enormous significance to another, and like the challenges inherent in “going home” the tween can be both pleasant and nightmarish — sometimes within the same breath. Okay, you get the point.

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This tranquil Amtrak destination exists ‘tween’ Berkeley and Oakland and leads to a congested journey across bay and bridge. After an initial view of hills shrouded in fog, I was neatly deposited at the Ferry Building, a good start for all points San Fran.

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I had “challenges” getting a cab. Cabs spend a lot of time in the ‘tweens’ and as I had learned in Washington DC they often engage in “spot analysis” to determine who gets to ride. Today I was a vagabond from a train, not caring how I looked. The cabbie no doubt perceived scraggly, possibly indigent — despite the electronic appendage dangling from my shoulder.

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Where is she trying to go with that suitcase?…She may not pay the fare…They’ll be no tip…I’m not going to her neighborhood…She’ll rob me – probably stole that camera… Whispers on the wind.

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Hallucination – in broad daylight, that’s what tired will get you. But perception equaled reality as cab after cab after cab drove by. I wasn’t shy…Just ineffective.

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She’s crazy. Look how she waves her arms.

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Sigh. Forgetting the warnings about “independents” going rogue, a nice young man of a stereotype who might have taken the camera transported me – whose stereotype would have fought him for it, up a series of hills to my hotel. Fearless, I felt empowered by my spirited cross-country experience and fierce enough to fight anyone or anything that might be thrown in my direction. Refuting all stereotypes except the positive ones, we added pleasant conversation to the smoothest ride I’d have this trip. As is the case with many impromptu encounters with locals when traveling, I learned about the mainstream as well as everything in be-tween, sometimes helpful in a different setting. He said…

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“It’s hard to get a cab here.”

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Forgetting, for a quick second time – “I’m sure it’s no different from anyplace else.”

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Though the hotel on Geary street barely resembled its promotional photo there was sufficient antiquity — okay, maybe “old”, and charm to support a ’boutique’ boast. Amid the high ceilings and too-bright refurbished colors was a pest-free and somewhat secure environment; and despite past history nothing catastrophic (fire or earthquake) occurring during my stay. I slept like a log.

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I learned, over the course of the stay, an international cast of characters as well as evolving local flavor seemed to permeate the place. Reminiscent of 1960’s Haight Asbury style there was flamboyant San Fran with symbolic flair. And despite years of Eric Burden and his Animal’s Classic Rock advice about going to San Francisco, I did not where a flower in my hair.

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Spectacular views

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Having visited San Francisco on business twice previously I had never taken the time to get to know the place – a place I’ve heard many people call favorite. I was there for three nights – the more economical ‘tween overnight and a lengthier stay. Passing on the morning ‘continental’ I embarked on a mission to see as much as I could in one day’s time, my usual way of taking (photographic) pressure off the remaining. Fisherman’s Wharf, shops and eateries, and quality time spent in China Town, where signs and ornate lamps held momentary fascination.

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It wasn’t Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong or the myriad of other Chinese communities I’ve seen throughout the world — even in Melbourne. This China Town holds pre-eminence among others outside the Republic by standing the test of time as an ongoing reflection of how a people thrive in a world of difference. Pride in contribution while retaining distinction; contributing significantly to the trans-oceanic railroad and the making of America.

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Touristy Lombard Street, once thought to be the most crooked street held no interest. Nearby architecture did. There was also a “Little Italy” – North Beach. Hanging clothes, from second and third floor fire escapes reflects ‘everyday people’ and gets my attention every time. But this time everywhere — and in the ‘tweens, are Victorian stoops, from well-maintained to old-time edged. Distinguished like the gray beard on an old gentleman; competing against an ever-modern protocol.

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A high point literally and figuratively was the de Young Museum in the Golden Gate Park. The building and concept is an integration of art, architecture, and nature, holding more than 25,000 works of Art lauding early Americana, 20th Century, Art of the Americas, Native American, and the Arts of the Americas, (Mexico, Central) Africa and Oceania.

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Something to come back to when there’s time…

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Museums are ‘tweens to me – thought-evoking way-stations of captured creativity in total contrast to the wide open spaces where life exists in vibrant detail.

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Precious, my Precious…Just buy the museum book. Deja-vu: Uffizi, Louvre, Orsay, Cairo, Metro NYC…

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For me, this day, the museum’s true value reflected in exceptional San Fran views from its Tower observation. Every direction shares a uniquely different view of San Francisco: Hill and valley, water and bay, and all those unmapped areas in the ‘tweens’.

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Back on terra firma at The Presidio, “retired” Army base with a prestigious military history. Serving as a command center for Pacific engagement during WWII, the Sixth Army was deactivated in 1994 with facilities transitioned to the National Park Service. Offering a testament to the power of retrofit former Army barracks now evoke new creative life as George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Sound and LucasArts studios. Perhaps someday other rumors of war can become just as well or even better suited.

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The Golden Gate Bridge – finally; the first in a series of uniquely different visitations. This time a tidy view of the bridge with a San Fran backdrop followed an uneventful crossing. Fog clearing, the main obstacle to my preferred state of being was ‘too much company’ as the bridge approached its 75th anniversary. Not the stuff of serious photography. There had to be more to the bridge than this.

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Lunch in nearby Sausalito served to introduce the concept of “charm and character” to the picturesque waterfront community across the bay. Maintaining a colony of artists with pricey studio collections this high real estate seemed a ripe getaway for anyone’s afternoon or two. A ‘tween’ destination.

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Lunch was a variety of choices but the line at “Hamburgers” was as long as the grill was hot, with a front window view designed to keep it that way. Spying a multitude of patties on the grill, a true burger connoisseur can go no farther.

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Options: A drive through Marin Headland Hills reveals the starkly different scenario of Muir Woods incredibly tall and ancient Redwoods. Conversely an entertaining ferry wait and ride by Alcatraz, “The Rock” Federal prison (1933-1963) translates to a swift drive-by and leaves the afternoon ripe for more.

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Victorian Houses known as the Painted Ladies (also known as “look, Full House” — reference the sitcom) are a classy reminder of San Francisco’s rich and tragic turn of (last) century. Located in an area known as The Western Addition, they sit across from Alamo Park awaiting homage from visitors far and wide, with an adjacent park’s hill providing just enough elevation for a varied view of well-appointed houses, limited only by the extent of climb.

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A smaller footprint built upward, there were once 48,000, built between 1850 and 1900, reflecting the wealth and opulence of the California Gold Rush and an entrepreneurial spirit that enveloped the place. In 1906 a major earthquake provoked gas-fueled fires that spread westward for days consuming all in their wake until thwarted by the firebreak of Presidio artillery at Van Ness Avenue. These “ladies” and surviving neighborhoods, including Pacific Heights, the Haight, and areas South still retain a suggestive glimmer of days past and assist, along with those inclined hills, a streetcar’s desire that is San Francisco.

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From there I explored the Bay Bridge from its San Fran side, a visual contrast to the bright red/orange of the Golden Gate. It was Mother’s Day and not the first time distant from grown children loved. Love being 365 days, The Day was some point in the ‘tween’ where Mothers could usually get their children and others to do a tremendous amount of complimentary activities. Since I spoke with each of these two “grown people” by phone in the wee E.S.T. to my three hour P.S.T. time difference, I felt the best way to commemorate the afternoon was to phone well thought of women currently serving the role in my life. I thought about my own late Mom while in a dual contemplation of infinite power and grace through hands that crafted all that steel down by the bayside.

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A next day helicopter ride provided yet another perspective of the Golden Gate, creating quite the “painted picture” below. A 20 minute interplay of skyline and bay, ‘aced’ by a quasi-daredevil spin beneath the bridge generated enough excitement to warrant the cost of the ride.

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Distinct from prior copter rides were headphones and an accompanying soundtrack of classic songs about the place. ‘Tween’ Tony Bennett’s ‘leaving his heart’ and the Animals encouraging a ‘warm San Francisco night’ was a ride in rare San Fran visibility. A proper capture of Heart and mind as well as sound rationale for being there.

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Alternate Ending 1:

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It was a great trip – a soothing cross-country train ride, San Francisco – an ultimate destination in anyone’s book, and a swift plane ride home. Acquired: A bird’s eye view of the city’s unique beauty, glimpse of past history, and consistent reinvention accommodating all aspects that make it one of the top tourist destinations in the world today.

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And everyone lived happily ever after.

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Really?

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Alternate Ending 2:

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Following the helicopter ride I decided that I still hadn’t acquired my preferred view of the Golden one — and this was the afternoon prior to departure. And if you asked me what visual I was seeking I couldn’t tell you. As with most things photographed, I know it when I see it. And with too many places yet to visit, I treated every visit as possibly the last to the locale. Now was the time and inclination.

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In my ‘tween’-states while in cabs I spoke of my quest for the gold — an image that might please me. The Presidio’s Crissy Field and Fort Point were referenced frequently, a point on the San Fran side of the Bay. I felt this couldn’t possibly be too far away — a meaningless assessment made by one apparently clueless. The dispatcher affirmed this a good choice when I placed the pickup call from an app on my phone while in the perceived safety of my hotel lobby.

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We drove awhile and although I thought myself savvy and persistently conscientious of time and space when solo, I failed to replicate the “waiting cabbie” approach, used the day prior, that assists safe maneuver of ‘tweens’ in a world less known. After all, I didn’t see a problem with this well-populated locale approaching the water’s edge.

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In my defense I believe I tried to say something about waiting, particularly since there was no bridge visible from my parking lot drop but English seemed selective from the older Asian gentleman who only moments before seemed to know substantially more.

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I followed a path away from the wharf towards a bridge now in full view. My destination was Fort Point, the entrance to San Francisco Bay marked by a sign near a building at the foot of the bridge. As a Civil War fort, its history seemed obscured by the vibrant beauty of late afternoon waves against the bank at the water’s edge. Finally in my no-rush element an array of photos were captured on the bridge approach with varying foreground perspectives to compliment. I sent a photo to Facebook, to Twitter. If I possessed more social medium on my smartphone there would have been more.

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Ignoring the voice of logic beginning its familiar mutter, I felt this opportunity real-time artistry at its best. Having a view from above and from the other side, this would be my most favorite view ’cause I pursued it, along with hundreds of thousands of other people…Perhaps millions. Never mind that; there would be the perceptual difference of “eye”. And although there were other spectacular, perhaps even more personalized views I hadn’t worked so hard for, I felt a burst of triumph on this last day in-city. I had maximized the “can do”…And time passed, seemingly without my knowing it.

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A chill from the water finally alerted me to changing conditions. It was later in the afternoon than I realized. I made my first call to the ‘date that brung me’, receiving a 20 minute pickup from the courteous dispatcher. I didn’t have an address because I hadn’t a clue of my location.

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“Pick me up at the Fort Point” thinking this not hard.

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I watched cars and cabs go by towards the Fort building — under the bridge; each time expecting one to stop for me. I sat on a rock quietly partaking of an ever-cooling breeze, unaware that I had transitioned from positioning at a ‘bonafide’ location to

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THE TWEEN ZONE

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Time passed. Call number two, different dispatcher, Response: “We’re trying to get a cab to you and we’ll call you back….Shortly.”

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It’s funny how those phone bars diminish without your realization. It’s only then that you remember the posts, the tweet, the photo to grown kids (didn’t mention that). A lowering Sun produced the stark realization that no one knew I was here and that I would not be missed.

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Contributing to my dilemma, my call back ten minutes later reached a nastier dispatcher who was non-committal (rush hour/shift change; “which side of the bridge are you?”) and appeared to have no concerns about my plight.

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She might as well have accused me of NOT being in San Francisco. There was a problem with my ‘under the bridge at Fort Point” address. Accusations and recrimination would serve me no good.

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Sooo my “You brought me here and you should pick me up”…Produced a chuckle from the dispatcher and a (well deserved) hang-up on me. After all, I needed them more than they needed me.

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Regardless of prior status with this “date” I at least knew I shouldn’t rely on their pick-up from this point. My taxi app further diminished my power bar and connected me to company 2 (computerized) who referred me to company 3 (non-computer), who purportedly possessed some magic ability to find locations like “near the sign” and even more simplistically “the road to Fort Point a landmark existing under the Golden Gate Bridge…In San Francisco”.

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Meanwhile I had moved from one ‘tween to another – away from the Point (still visible) but near a small Department of Interior building. It was probably the same ‘tween’ as I believe they can expand and contract as needed. There was no address here to assist electronics but better lighting as dusk was clearly settling in and tourists were giving way to a local crowd in active pursuit of their own brand of familiar ‘tween. This meant that I would be able to see myself accosted and had I more power bar, photograph the process.

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There was a problem. Company 2 had made the absurd gesture of providing company 3’s number in another city – about 50 miles away. The discussion was idiotic, without any semblance of mind-meld until we simultaneously realized we were not speaking about the same place. Given the correct Company 3 number by their associate I irrationally wasted power phoning company 1 (again) solely because there wouldn’t have been a company 2 or 3 without them.

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This time I would appeal to humanity…To their sense of decency. In the process I would unabashedly reveal my tourist status — something seldom admitted to locals except in a tired and weakened state like this. The fact that “night people” were descending on this place assisted this decision. Alas, these revelations did not work but rather added to their arrogance. I threatened calling the police, prompting the response:

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“What are THEY going to do? [he, he] They’re not going to take you where you want to go.”

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She might as well added: And neither are we. She didn’t have to; she knew enough of me by now to know that I knew it was implied. We were clairvoyant as well as street articulate. And in each our own superb verbal communication she or I may have been most unkind, stating a phrase or two possibly proceeded by “You”…Exclamation point. For the good of the order, the phone went dead.

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Before me: The prospect of a long, dark walk to the park entrance. Behind me: The possibility of a glorious sunset that I might photograph. Ah, but I was no longer in creative mode. Realism and practicality compelled purpose and direction as I initiated the walk. Cars had continued to drive by with my reluctance to intercede lest they think me crazy and not the troubled tourist I was now content to be.

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A “bridge cop” or more appropriately “Park Law Enforcement” drove by and because I had seen many vehicles do the same, I knew he would loop at the darkened Fort and pass my way again. So when he looped back I did one of the most insanely desperate things I had ever done: I waived my Virginia driver’s license at him to slow him down. For some reason I felt the need to distinguish my non-local crazy from local crazy. Here in the ‘tween’ it was hard to tell the difference; each crazy might require different treatment — from serious to absurd. I was not trying to spend time in jail. He stopped, probably bored from his drive, and as calmly and convincingly as possible I explained my situation.

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Police listen and digest everything prior to response, usually void of expression. But ‘tween’ life-threatening action/response and the routine existence of walking or driving a beat, there are times like this when the impact of a good story is especially valued. It didn’t take long for mine to receive a smirk.

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Without skipping a beat he said “Get in the car. I’ll take you around the corner to the visitor’s center.”

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A pregnant pause filled the air. ’In there’ and ‘close visitor center’ were heavy on my mind. Around the corner was at least a long walk…In the dark. And getting in the car obviously did not mean the front seat.

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He read my mind “Yeah, you’ll have to get in the back.”

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I managed to get in the back wondering how anybody ever got back there without knocking themselves out, particularly if they were handcuffed.

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On the way the officer attempted to explain system — the ‘ole change of shift story’. He said that cabbies frequented the visitors’ center which made me wonder how they could be there and not cognizant of the nearby ‘tween’? Why couldn’t, dispatchers reference a hard-copy map that they might look at that would immediately reflect the close proximity ‘tween’ the two? Like a revelation I believe I finally realized these expectations too high and that the expectation is to make the best of life it in the ‘tweens’.

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Once there he told a man in an empty cab who claimed to be waiting for a fare to take me anywhere I needed to go. A look of gentle encouragement from the officer and I became the fare. Many, Many Thanks concluded the law enforcement interlude.

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From Company 1, the elderly Asian cabbie with flawless English asked me where I wanted to go. He looked and seemed vaguely familiar.

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Whipped, I managed to whisper, “Geary St. Do you know where this is?

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“Yes, I was there earlier today.”

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All photographic images (non-video) are © Pamela Kelly Phillips,
PK Phillips Photography, 2012

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