Seconds after updating my Facebook, San Francisco comes out to play.
Don is back from Bali, Spud invites me to the office, George texts “Drinks in the Castro!” and Jason wants to grab lunch. Andrew Nelson is in New Orleans but delivers one of his no-fail food missions (Go to Tartine! Get the orange rolls).
The tweets flood in, too—People I know and don’t know at all swarm me with well-wishes for a city that everyone loves. Together, the tsunami of texts becomes a grand unachievable list—I am here for one day only, at a conference, which means I scarcely leave the hotel.
The next morning, the city has vanished, as if offended by my one-night stand. Cold white ooze fills the streets—squinting at the blank view, I make out the brick building across the street—the ghostly architecture in the fog and doom, the residents’ windows drawn shut.
Hours later, it is Spud Hilton who rescues me from the city’s mood swings—Spud the travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, Spud the genuine, up-for-anything, sure-yeah, kinda guy. We down drinks at the Fairmont, talk countries and cities the world over, and then hit the streets in his car.
The streets are alive in San Fran—not only with people and cars or action, but with the whirring clicks and clacks of the spinning clockwork beneath the street, pulling and dropping passengers on the nostalgic cable cars. My body is thrown up and down the banging tracks like a roller coaster—whether or not there is an earthquake, driving here feels like one.
Spud’s Subaru is like a recycling bin on wheels, rattling and rolling with half-crushed Red Bull cans and a bag of manuscripts that he must read, and grade, as it were. I suppose this is how newspapers are made today—with so much Red Bull.
“Don’t record this illegal turn I’m doing here—it’s really the only way to get around San Francisco,” shouts Spud, as I don’t turn off my video camera. He tears around the corner, hopscotching through the mind-crunching maze of the city’s one-way streets. We dodge a barefoot man who is changing clothes in the middle of the road, pulling up his pants, oblivious to traffic. This town likes to be a little crazy.
That night, I am warned not to wander alone, but honestly, how can a place with the name “tender” be so bad? A mile down Market Street, the homeless play chess in a row, while the cops hover nearby on parked motorcycles. One very old guy stares right into me—he looks like Santa Claus gone vegan, pencil-thin but with a snowy beard and mane.
Frankly, my visit to Twitter’s new Tenderloin headquarters is a bit anti-climactic. Instead of an insider’s tour of the mothership, I get hors d’oeuvres and five minutes with a guy named Dash who shows me some of the new widgets.
“Can I have a T-shirt, too?” I ask, pointing to Dash’s awesome Tweetie bird shirt and begging for a chance to conform to their religion, but no, there are no free shirts—only widgets.
I hunt down dinner in Chinatown, reading the shop names aloud—Asian Trends, Asian Passion, Asian Gifts—Asian everything. I eat tender dumplings with chopsticks at the Oriental Pearl Restaurant and then afterwards, hike my way uphill past the Willie Woo Woo Wong playground.
I am stuffed and sleepy, my legs sore, but at eleven o’clock at night, a crowd mulls in a corner of the Fairmont’s Versailles-like lobby.
“You wanna see Tony Bennett?” exclaims one conference-goer, “He’s right over there!”
“Who is Tony Bennett?” I wonder, and then ask it aloud, clueless.
“You know! I left my heart in San Francisco,” I’m told, and then someone else hums the song. Yes, I want to meet the man behind the song behind the city, but by the time I make it over to his corner, Tony’s protective wife has shooed away all the hotel guests and somehow disappeared her 86-year old husband.
It is the Facebook photo that got away. As I did not know who Mr. Bennett was, I probably do not deserve to have my picture taken with him anyway.
The next morning there is no fog, so I go for a final run before my long flight—down California Street and around the Embarcadero. In the darkness, the Bay Bridge is a string of lights, draped across the water. Huffing back up Nob Hill, I watch the sky melt into sunlight, brightening the fire escapes and city skyline.
Less than 36 hours after landing, I am already buckled back into a jet plane, lifting off from SFO, my Facebook status suddenly out-of-date.
Andrew is not in San Francisco.
Instead, I am in the aisle seat of a Korean airliner, focused on the little screen in front of me, watching the squiggly yellow line arching out into the Pacific, still chasing that plane.