The Mission District
Tuesday, November 23 2004
setting: The Mission, San Francisco, California, USA
This morning Gretchen and I were up fairly early, at least by our standards, because we were still operating on Eastern Standard Time even though we were now in the Pacific Time Zone. The first place we went, on the recommendation of our hosts (and also to pick up their pumpkin pie) was to Tartine Bakery on the corner of 18th Street and Guerrero. The place was semi-crowded, and we soon found out why. They made the best croissants either of us had ever eaten, and we've been to Paris. A croissant seems like it contains flour, but it's mostly butter. The single molecule of flour in a Tartine croissant is spread out in a quantum cloud throughout its fluffy, buttery mass, much like an electron.
As it happened, not much else was open in the Mission District. We'd sort of forgotten how the West Coast differs from the East Coast when it comes to the Puritan early bird gets the worm work ethic. When you say "gets the worm" in the Mission District, chances are you'll be understood to be talking about tequila, and not even alcoholics want to be reminded of the existence of tequila until at least 11:00am. That's when most of the Mission's stores seem to open. We went to the Adobe Bookshop to peer through the window and see how they'd arranged their wares according to their covers' colors in order to form a vast rainbow flag (and, as a side effect, confound any existing classification system). We also went to Good Vibrations, the store that provides a "safe, clean" store where women can buy sex toys and erotic media. But they were also closed.
So we walked towards downtown along Mission Street. From where we started out (at around 16th Street) it was a palpably creepy place, with plenty of marginal-looking people interacting in suspicious ways. A good fraction of the women here looked like they might have been prostitutes, but I'm not an expert about such things so don't take my word for it. Nice looking buildings in this area that happened to have alcoves in their walls usually surfaced the bottoms of these alcoves with regularly-spaced river cobble stones pointed upwards, like gravity-defying eggs in a fossilized dinosaur nest. I thought these arrangements were clever or even cute until Gretchen pointed out they were probably there to keep homeless people from setting up residence. The use of round stones, she thought, reflected typical California passive-aggressiveness. Such arrangements in New York City would use nails instead of rounded stones.
We regularly passed homeless people as we continued walking down Mission. They were never in clusters and never formed the sort of cardboard-based shantytowns I'd seen in Los Angeles, but every other block seemed to have one. Some were so perfectly camoflaged by their worldly possessions (crammed, inevitably, into large black plastic garbage bags) that they were hard to spot even when they lay sprawled on the sidewalk only several feet away.
Our destination was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which featured a show by Roy Lichtenstein. The museum opened only a few minutes after we arrived. We did the whole tour and saw all the exhibits, including one devoted to Glamour (yes, that's with a "u"). Much of the art was beautiful or intriguing, but yet again I was struck by the big problem with Modern Art: the constant returning to sophomoric issues like
What is art?
What is the difference between a piece of art and what it represents?
Does art have to represent anything?
What is an artist?
Does art have to be permanent?
Is reproduction art?
Is craft art?
If I pursue art, will I become famous?
If I become famous, will I be more or less of an artist?
What is the best strategy for me to get laid?
Lichtenstein was obviously a great artist, but Gretchen and I both found the aspects of his art related to these questions tiresome and (in Gretchen's case) a little bit sad. But perhaps, when it comes to art, that's all there is.
After a bus ride back into the heart of the Mission, Gretchen and I were finally able to get inside Good Vibrations, where we spent an absurd amount of time (more than an hour). This was made possible by the fact that during our visit one of Good Vibration's founders gave a lecture to a visiting class of college students enrolled in a human sexuality class.
Gretchen was very excited about Good Vibrations, but (try as I might) I did not share her enthusiasm. Most of the sex toys in stock are designed as masturbatory aids for women. That's all well and good, but none of it interested me much. I don't find sex toys the slightest bit sexy. If anything, I find them vaguely repulsive, particularly when they resemble lifelike penises. Gretchen sensed my unease immediately and kept bringing it up, often in a way that seemed calculated to be overheard by others. Every time she did that, I felt even less comfortable than I had been feeling. Eventually, though, she got distracted by other things and I found something to capture my interest, a collection of vintage vibrators from the 30s and 40s. They were huge things that had to be plugged into the wall. They looked like toasters and featured Art Decco details. During the lecture, I was especially interested by the part about the history of vibrators. Supposedly their first use was to correct "hysteria" by inducing female orgasm, a phenomenon that wasn't fully understood (or even believed) by the male doctors of the day.
Somehow we ended up spending more than $200 in that place. We walked out with a bunch of sex toys including three different vibrating rubber duckies, which will seem innocent enough when preening themselves on the beaches of our bathtubs.
By now we were hungry, so we started scouting around for a burrito joint. The first place we went into was dirty and full of jarring yellow and red tiles and formica, so we continued on until we came upon El Toro. This place wasn't just cheap, it was also clean. And they knew how to roll an absolutely flawless burrito.
Hours later, after a nap back at our hosts' house, Gretchen and I set off again into town, this time in the rental car. We went to Little Italy and spent a good while trying to find a place to park. When we finally got to the coffee shop that Gretchen wanted to show me, a place she remembered from her year and a half spent in the Bay Area, we found it had been closed for the night for the shooting of a movie. (It better be a damn good movie!) So we drank coffee in a little Greek place instead.
The ultimate goal of the evening was a North Beach vegetarian restaurant called
Green's. It's located in an old warehouse in the now-civilian grounds of Fort Mason and sits on the waterfront with an unobstructed view of the San Francisco Bay. In the front lobby area there's a huge piece of varnished driftwood that looks like a wooden meterorite. We were meeting our hosts for dinner, and it would be the first time we'd see them all day. They both have demanding jobs and little free time, the inevitable consequences of paying a mortgage to live in a lavishly-furnished San Francisco co-op apartment. Much of our dinner conversation revolved around the contrast between hectic life in a big city with, say, our laid-back life in the Catskills. During all such conversations, Gretchen can be counted on to lobby the others at our table to move to our part of the world to live the easy, stress-free life.
After we returned to our hosts' place for the evening, our hosts' dog Hugo finally cut us some slack and quit barking and growling at us. This attitude adjustment had been a long time coming but was remarkably easy to bring about. All we had to do was to hand feed him little liver-flavored treats.
Gas Prices today in the Mission District. Back in the Hudson Valley regular was going for $2.10/gallon (down from a high of $2.15/gallon on election day). In New Jersey it had been $1.90/gallon.
Forming a rainbow flag with books at Adobe Bookshop.
Rough bricks break up the regularity of an old brick facade along Mission Street.
A creepy sign on a diaper deck in San Francisco.
The Transamerica Pyramid at night.
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