San Francisco

The City By the Bay

My aunt and uncle live in San Francisco and have been inviting me to visit for years. I hadn’t in at least 20. They weren’t even married the last time I was there (it’s his third marriage, her fourth). I was way overdue, so Sam and I decided to visit on Columbus Day weekend. Our timing was perfect. The weather was un-San Franciscanly warm, and it was Fleet Week, which means the Blue Angels would put on an airshow over San Francisco Bay on both Saturday and Sunday. From the bedroom of our window in my uncle and aunt’s 1896 corner mansion in Pacific Heights (yes, they’re loaded), we had the perfect view of Alcatraz and all the Navy ships, sailboats, power yachts, working vessels and pleasure craft bobbing around in the world’s most panoramic bathtub.

Alcatraz from our bedroom window

When we finally got our act together on Saturday (after a leisurely welcome breakfast and an introduction to a crazed Havanese named Charlie Bear who likes to leave little landmines all over the Orientals), we drove to Noe Valley, thinking it would be a good place to schmy around. It might be, but parking is another story: there were no meters that lasted longer than an hour and spaces were harder to come by than Immodium during a cruise-ship flu outbreak. It was lunchtime already, so we found an outdoor café called Pomodoro that proved not all chain restaurants are soulless. Then, we tried to shop, and in fairness, the stores did have cool stuff, but with the exception of footsie pajamas for adults, almost everything was sized infant to toddler. The explanation we heard later from a friend who lives there is that Noe Valley, which used to be fairly boho, is convenient to Palo Alto, so all the Google-ites have taken over with their 2.5 children. (A pretty good premise for a sci-fi movie about a cult, if you ask me.)

The afternoon was salvaged when a college friend texted to invite us to a party on Telegraph Hill. The host was a banker who spends most of his time in New York but still has a house with two terraces overlooking the Bay Bridge, Oakland, Berkeley, etc. More amazing than the house, though, was the fact that he’d managed to get any furniture into the place: accessible only by a narrow, twisting cement stairway, it was perched halfway up the hill, in one of those dense thickets of green that interrupt the streets in San Francisco like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing. I couldn’t even imagine carrying groceries up to it (although I’m sure he has someone to do that for him). We knocked back a cocktail or two while watching the Blue Angels do their amazing, and amazingly loud, maneuvers. For anyone who’s never seen them, they’re like God’s own leaf-blowers, only so shrill your eardrums tickle, swooping overhead at 2,000 miles an hour, six of them, in frighteningly tight formation.
Which was all well and good. But what’s always intrigued me about Telegraph Hill is the flock of wild parrots that live there. I first heard about them as a child and always wanted to see them, only half-believing they were real, until someone made a documentary. There are several theories about them—that pet birds escaped and mated, that a small flock came in by ship from South America and then grew—but they do exist. And I was more curious to see them than the fighter jets doing barrel rolls and loop-de-loops over the Bay. Wild parrots don’t just come when you whistle, though, so once again, no luck.
On our way out, we decided we were near enough to the top of the hill to climb up to Coit Tower—more cardio than it looked like but as my college friend pointed out, a helluva view. As he also pointed out: in any other country, there would be a café surrounding the statue of Columbus at the base of the tower, instead of a circular parking lot.


Sam and me at Coit Tower

That night, we met an old Spanish friend of mine at his house back in Noe Valley. A textbook example of a Silicon Valley striver, he’s single-mindedly obsessed with his career, and to his credit, he has created two successful websites. The modernist house he built outside of Madrid has even been featured on Spain’s edition of MTV Cribs. His principal charm, though, is his accent, which is so thick he pronounces “Calvin Klein” as “Kahl-ben Kleen.” For me, the height of the evening was when he pointed at a church and said, “Ees beddy faymoos. You see dat movie, Seester Ack, starring Goopi Wahlberg?” I told him I was pretty sure that Goopi Wahlberg won an Academy award for it, but that I didn’t think she was any relation to Donnie or Mark.
He took us to dinner at a superlative restaurant called Farina, in the Mission ( and then on to a party. Another house on the side of a hill. Not quite as fancy, but stuffed to the rafters with over-achieving, uniformly good-looking, highly attitudinal gay men. On the plus side: On my way up the stairs, I did squeeze past Bruce Vilanch (the plus-size comedian and West Coast equivalent of John Waters). On the down side: This party would turn out to be the gayest thing we did all weekend, and it was like watching an episode of Gossip Girl, if Gossip Girl was only a tad more vapid.
The next morning, we took an abbreviated stroll around Pacific Heights because my aunt was having a party on her roof to watch the Blue Angels. After finding nothing worth buying in Noe Valley the day before, Union Street turned out to be a bonanza—we even found furniture we considered shipping home. But we cut the shopping spree short to make it back on time. My aunt and uncle’s roof has a swoon-worthy view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, and the Blue Angels’ maneuvers were no less jaw-dropping than the day before.

The Blue Angels flying past the Golden Gate Bridge

The Blue Angels in formation

The Blue Angels over Alcatraz

But it was the unexpected air-show that took my breath away. Possibly frightened or disoriented by the noise of the jets, the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill had decided to visit Pacific Heights that afternoon, and they flew in formations no less precise and thrilling than the planes scorching overhead. A screeching flurry of green, yellow and red, flitting from tree to tree all around us, within a several-block radius. At times, they came so close I could clearly see their eyes. They were too fast to catch with a camera, but the image is burnt on my retinas. I could have left San Francisco right then and been perfectly happy.



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