San Francisco is one of the world’s most beloved cities, spoken of in the same breath as Paris, Venice, and Rome. It is America’s spiritual home — a place for the rascal, the lover, the entrepreneur, the madman, and the monk in each of us. Notable authors include: Andrei Codrescu, Barnaby Conrad, Herbert Gold, Michele Anna Jordan, Herb Caen, Linda Watanabe McFerrin and Richard Rodriguez.
San Francisco is only 220 years old, but it is one of the world’s most beloved cities, spoken of in the same breath as Paris, Venice, and Rome. To understand San Francisco one must understand that it was built by gold. In 1845 it was a hamlet of 150 people. In 1849, just after gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills but before word had spread, the population was 1,000. By the time a decade had passed, the population had swelled to 50,000—at that time one of the greatest human migrations in history.
It was a city of tremendous, instant wealth, full of miners, sailors, thieves, and vigilantes. It attracted every kind of reprobate and hard worker imaginable. Fortunes were made and lost in the blink of an eye. There were so many vessels in the harbor that residents spoke of a “forest of masts.” Ships were abandoned and later buried in the landfill, or used as prisons, hotels, and warehouses. The city went up overnight, building out over the water before rising up the hills.
Gold drew adventurers and desperadoes, and they in turn drew and continue to draw spiritual desperadoes who constantly enrich the human skyline—people who aren’t satisfied, who come and create new worlds for themselves and others.
San Francisco was born of immigrants and fortune seekers, and in fact attracted a new kind of immigrant to America—from China and Australia and Latin America. The city was built as a kind of international project, for despite the fact that it is near some of the world’s most fertile valleys, almost everything was imported. Along with its incredibly diverse ethnic population, this dependency on the outside world gave the city from its very start a cosmopolitan flavor. The birth of San Francisco was the creation of America in miniature—a boiling cultural melting pot. As poet Robert Hass said, “One hundred and fifty years ago, you could still throw a rock from the rickety hill-climbing boomtown and hit the Neolithic. On one day it was a sprinkling of Miwok villages among the grassy bayside hills and on the next day the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope was walking out of a Palace Hotel in each room of which a painted garland of sunset-colored roses twined soulfully around the rim of a porcelain chamberpot.”
San Francisco has survived seven major fires, the devastating 1906 earthquake and scores of others, it has been the site of pain and romance for thousands who embarked from Fort Mason on the Liberty Ships during World War II, bound for the Pacific Theater. And while the Presidio’s crumbling bunkers overlooking the Pacific may bring back memories of war, the city is also full of the memories of peace, for the United Nations had its beginnings here in 1945.
San Francisco is also the heart of the Bay Area, a fertile crescent that includes Silicon Valley to the south, Berkeley—that stew of alternative thinking—to the east across the Bay, and Napa and Sonoma Valleys, America’s premier wine producing regions, an hour to the north. It is also the center of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which is the largest urban national park in the world.
With only 46.6 square miles inside its borders, San Francisco is a walker’s city with endless opportunities for exploration: fog-shrouded hills, shadowy Chinatown alleys, cliff-like streets that you descend with your heart in your mouth, ghostly cypresses at Land’s End that moan in the wind. It is a place of endless romance. As one cab driver commented, San Francisco is “a city full of people wanting to be here.”
But whatever you see and do, go somewhere near the Bay or the Pacific and sit for a while with the wind in your face. Walk Nob Hill at night with the whine of the cable beneath your feet. Think about the world and the meaning of things. For there is something in San Francisco’s air, something catalytic (even the earth moves here) that will help you understand your mortality. San Francisco is America’s spiritual home—a place for the rascal, the lover, the entrepreneur, the madman and the monk, in all of us.
PART ONE: ESSENCE
Wild Light — Andrei Codrescu
Pacific World — George Vincent Wright
What You See Is Who You Are — Mark Childress
When San Francisco Was Cool — Herbert Gold
I Was a Teenage Yogi — James O’Reilly
The Real Mission — John Krich
Circle of Gold — Michele Anna Jordan
Freakin’ in Frisco — Michael Lane and Jim Crotty (The Monks)
North Beach at Twilight — Gary Kamiya
City Perched on a Frontier — Tom Cole
Glide and the Family Church — Sean O’Reilly
The Heavenly Gates — Chiang Yee
My Father’s Jack London — Fred Setterberg
PART TWO: SOME THINGS TO DO
The Lost Roman Baths of Adolph Sutro — Harold Gilliam
Going In — Loren Rhoads
The Forest of John McLaren — James Armstrong
Sam Spade’s San Francisco — Don Freeman
The Rock — Jay Stuller
Fort at the End of the World — Stephen Harrigan
Gulf of the Farallones — Linda Watanabe Mcferrin
West Coast Orient — K. M. Kostyal
Locomotion — Cathleen Miller
Brooding at Ocean Beach — John Brant
Parts Unknown — Elgy Gillespie
PART THREE: GOING YOUR OWN WAY
El Matador Lives — Barnaby Conrad
Looking for Mr. Big — Tom Stienstra
Lotta’s Legacy — J. Kingston Pierce
The First Negroni in the No Name Bar — Joseph Diedrich
The Specter of Grand View Peak — Harold Gilliam
Through the Golden Gate — Lynne Cox
The Art of Lincoln Park — Larry Habegger
Jammin’ with Garcia — Darby Slick
Old Growth Houses — Judith Lynch
Driving Your Karma — Brad Newsham
Is There Really a San Francisco? — Laura Miller
PART FOUR: IN THE SHADOWS
The Late Victorians: — Richard Rodriguez
Rocking the Cradle — Betty Ann Webster
Sharing the Pain — Rajendra S. Khadka
A Survivor — William Plummer
Lost Treasures — Paul Totah
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD
Footprints in the Sand — Herb Caen
Index of Contributors
The Art of Lincoln Park
by Larry Habegger
A weekend hacker finds his muse on the bluffs above the Pacific
Honneur et Patrie. Honor and Country. The words were drifting through my mind as I contemplated The Sculptor and His Muse, a brilliant and troubling bronze sculpture by Rodin. The poor sculptor (Rodin himself?) was being tormented, or loved, or consoled, it was hard to tell, by a petite and beautiful woman. She stood hard on his thigh, leaned with all her weight on him as he bent away in despair, or longing, or frustration, her flowing hair draping his head while he covered his mouth with one hand.
There were other, more famous, Rodins around me—The Thinker contemplated existence in the courtyard I’d just crossed; The Three Shades stood tall and powerful before me carrying the weight of this life on their shoulders—but I was transfixed by The Sculptor. It spoke to me of pain and agony, of joy and possibility, of the thrills and disappointments of a creative life, of life itself. It was the perfect metaphor for a round of golf.
I had come out to Lincoln Park Golf Course alone, as I often do, to learn that I wouldn’t be able to get onto the course for a couple of hours. This wasn’t bad news—just the opposite. I had many options: I could take a walk along the cliff-side trails of Land’s End, mess around in the ruins of Sutro Baths, stroll the expanse of Ocean Beach, or sip coffee and watch the waves crash in at Louis’, the best breakfast joint in town. I went to the museum instead.
Honneur et Patrie. The words are carved in stone above the entrance to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a grand replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris placed in the most striking museum setting in America. It sits high above the sea with views over the Pacific, the Golden Gate, the San Francisco city skyline, surrounded by the rolling green hills and towering cypresses of Lincoln Park Golf Course.
Lincoln Park is one of the country’s most beautiful municipal golf courses. It is not beautifully manicured, not a difficult course to play although it has its hazards, but it has a rough and wild grandness that perfectly matches its setting. It has quirky holes that bend and twist, and views that shift from the sea to the skyline to the Golden Gate Bridge, always something dramatic through the trees.
I felt privileged to be inside the museum again. For three years, from 1992 to 1995, it was closed, undergoing seismic retrofitting and expansion. I would play golf, circling the fenced-off museum, and look longingly at the exquisite limestone structure that had become a construction site. Things changed from time to time: signs pointed golfers “this way” around the museum to the sixth tee; a month later the signs directed us the other way; the sixth fairway became an access road and the grass vanished under the weight of sand and heavy vehicles. I wondered if the museum would ever reopen, if the course would ever recover. But now the grass has returned, the fences are down, the museum is back.
Which led me to Rodin. I hadn’t noticed The Sculptor and His Muse before, but now it supplanted his other works in my mind. I’d never thought of a golfer’s muse, but seeing Rodin’s work with fresh eyes I saw how the sculptor’s relationship with his inspiration mirrored my experience with golf: there were flashes of brilliance, periods of effortless excellence, inevitably followed by a mysterious abandonment of skill. I’ve always viewed golf as symbolic of life, each round a short life of its own, beginning with promise, dependent on skill, full of hazards and ups and downs, building to success or colossal failure and subject to the whims of fate, luck, or divine intervention. The game could be completely humbling; the muse could torment and flee.
I wandered through several other galleries until it was time to play, and then got matched up with two recent Irish immigrants and a native San Franciscan. They were friendly, easy-going—a good sign, because when you play with strangers you never know what to expect. Over the years I’ve played with idealists, bigots, saints, and jerks. Often these people have added to the experience, sometimes they’ve detracted, but never have they ruined it. One of the game’s great beauties is that it’s both superficially social and deeply private. You can play with others but stay completely within yourself and never suffer an awkward moment, or you can have a party.
We got underway and I made sweet, solid contact, driving the ball straight down the fairway. Usually I take this as a bad omen, figuring I’ve just hit the best ball of the day and it’ll be all downhill from here, but today my swing felt fluid and relaxed.
We strolled through the damp grass, hit our shots in turn, smelled the scent of turf and sea. The trees stood by like old friends, silent in the stillness.
After several holes I was still hitting the ball extremely well, better than I’d ever played. Then my mind filled with the face of a beautiful young woman with large eyes and a confident, serene smile. It was the face from the terra-cotta Portrait Bust of a Young Woman by Jean-Jacques Caffieri that I had just seen in the museum’s Robert Dollar Gallery. But it was also the face of a woman I knew, a friend who recently had died so young. The face looked at me with comfort and reassurance. It led me forward, looked down through the centuries, through the smell of grass and dew, seeming to say, “It’s all right, we’re all fine, you’re fine.”
I hit another perfect shot, not daring to wonder at the miracle of my play today. Maybe this was divine intervention at work.
We made our way up and over the hills, through the trees, along the green fairways beneath the museum that sits on the knoll like a shrine attainable only by circling long enough to prepare our hearts. I remembered images from other times I’d played here. A friend who insisted we start at the crack of dawn one autumn weekday staring into fog so dense we could see only a dozen yards ahead, but we teed off anyway and found our balls through some extrasensory perception; another foggy day on the tenth hole I looked up to see a horseman galloping along the crest of the hill, realizing after a second that it was the statue of Joan of Arc near the museum’s entrance and the contour of the hill and the racing fog created the illusion of movement; another dreamy day looking for an errant shot in a grove of trees and discovering for the first time a stone monument that dated back to the time the park was a cemetery for Gold Rush pioneers.
On the third hole I had hit the ball over the cliff into the sea a dozen times (thirty fathoms, we always said), seen a friend hit a hole-in-one on number eight, stumbled upon a marble sculpture in the bushes on number ten. Today I swung easily, the ball flew straight, putts dropped strangely into the cup, and my mind kept flowing back to the museum, now to the haunting eyes of the girl sitting at the well in The Broken Pitcher by William Adolphe Bouguereau. She looked at me with a calm forlornness that was chilling. What was she feeling in that moment? That nothing mattered but it all mattered? That there was nothing to be done, so she rested there, staring at strangers without entreaty?
Much as she troubled me, I was more drawn to a painting next to it, The Bath by Jean-Léon Gérôme. An alabaster-white woman with black hair was being sponged by a brown woman in a brilliant headdress, cloth wrap, and silver bangles. The light in the room was soft, mystical, washing over the blue Middle Eastern tiles of the bath. The brown hand on the white back, the flow of black hair, the colors of the cloth were stark yet soft, intriguing. It was a simple act full of peace, in a Turkish bath, perhaps, or Moroccan, or Algerian. The tranquility of the light made me want to be there, lose myself there, feel the warm sponge on my own back.
My mind was drifting as we waited on the 14th tee for the group ahead to move on. I thought of the upcoming holes, how I’d played them in the past, how a record score was within reach if I kept shooting par. Thin fog had settled in the tops of the cypresses. The air was cool. Suddenly out of the trees a missile streaked into my vision and a sharp pain zapped in my hand. “Yow!” A ball ricocheted off my thumb and fell at the feet of my companions. I cursed and shook my hand and everybody wondered what was wrong with me.
“I just got hit by a ball,” I growled, and slowly it dawned on them as they stared at the inanimate, white sphere lying there in the grass. Of course, this was one of the hazards of the game, but it rarely happened and usually there was some warning, shouts of “Fore!” A moment later the culprit came out of the trees, but what could I do? He couldn’t have seen us, couldn’t have known we were there. I cursed, he apologized, I shrugged, he shrugged, and we all carried on with our game.
One of the Irish guys hit his ball into the woods, and I was waiting for him to hit his second shot when the ball whacked against a tree and whizzed past me like a rocket, narrowly missing. “Good Lord! Again?” His friend laughed and said, “I’m not getting any closer to you!”
I laughed nervously, somewhat ill at ease. I’d never been hit by a ball before, and now almost twice in five minutes!
We made our way to the green and I was lining up my putt when another ball fell out of the heavens with a thud at my feet. My partners erupted in laughter but for me it was a sign. All I could think of was Rodin and his muse, the torment in the sculptor’s face, the heavy weight of that sprightly being’s caress.
After that I’m not sure what happened. I began hitting the ball everywhere but the direction I was aiming. On the 15th hole I went into the woods. On the 16th, I went across the road. On the 17th, a long par three that parallels the Pacific’s entrance to the Golden Gate with the magnificent bridge in full view, one of the world’s most picturesque golf holes, I hit three trees with one shot. Somehow I made it through the 18th, and my miracle of a round had become just another day on the golf course.
Well, not exactly. I’d almost been killed, I’d come to understand Rodin, and I’d seen the game just a little clearer. And perhaps I’d found my muse, for better or worse.
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries and on WorldTravelWatch.com. He regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Find out more about Larry atwww.LarryHabegger.com