The Golden State

I just spent a long weekend attending a wedding in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Hyatt down near the water, the old Ferry Building and the Bay Bridge. The city rises up from there so I walked a lot—up to Chinatown, North Beach and over to the old Tenderloin, as well as along the Embarcadero, a bayfront parkway that resembles the Croisette in Cannes. San Francisco is scenic, with high hills and water on three sides. A center of transience, it is rooted in a colorful past, from its military origin to its boomtown days and perpetual status as a busy port. Even the bridges seem to point elsewhere.

The wedding party was small enough – about 150 – that conversations moved beyond the surface. The main topic of out-of-towners was the street people. Several of us saw people in horrifying condition talking on cell phones. I saw a man in chino pants and a blue button-down shirt rummaging through trash cans, as if he had been fired, moments before, from a software firm and needed food or stuff to turn in for cash. Someone said that California is in a crisis due to having downsized its state mental hospitals and outpatient clinics a few years ago. The feds have stepped in because the streets and the prisons are overflowing with disturbed people. Now San Francisco is a boomtown for clinical psychiatrists. I hadn’t spent time in a city center for many years, so I was shocked by the misery. My heart went out to these folks.

Some street people performed music. At the corner of Drumm and California, there was a man in his 60’s with a CD player, speakers on the sides and a stage mic on a stand plugged into the system. He not only sang along with James Brown, he performed all the dances and mic stand tosses. He was in great shape and had JB’s voice down perfectly. I enjoyed it, dropping dollars after every song in the black hat he had sitting on the sidewalk.

A few of us strolled several hours every day talking about old times and looking for street scenes from the “Dirty Harry” movies, “Bullitt” and “The Killer Elite”. We always had lunch at Crepes and Curry, a takeout stand run by an immigrant Chinese couple next to the Hyatt. It was delicious and cheap. The couple spoke perfect English. We talked about the Hakka.

The wedding ceremony was in Tiburon at St. Hilary’s, a lovely little chapel on a steep hill overlooking the ocean. The pew cushions were embroidered with California wildflowers – mine was Castilleja neglecta, or Sierra Paintbrush. The ceremony was a Lutheran-Jewish-Confucian affair. The Chinese family blessings were exquisite. The Chinese bride’s mother hoped that the couple’s love for each other would be like that between a mother and child, while the father similarly asked that they love each other in the same way that he loved his daughter. The women cried, the girls giggled.

After church the bride kept reappearing in different gowns all afternoon and evening. The finale was a gorgeous scarlet red sheath with gold embroidery. Reception banquet games included the groom standing motionless on a chair in the spotlight while the bride passed a raw egg under one pant cuff, up the leg, across the crotch, down the other leg and out the cuff unbroken. A degree in psychiatry is required to figure it out. Another had him blindfolded and passed along a line of all the young ladies, including the bride, to brush each pair of hands with his fingertips and pick out his beloved. Of course, he chose a 12-year-old ingénue to everyone’s delight and laughter. Strangely, almost no one danced. Since most of the guests were immigrant Chinese, I attributed it to their lack of an informal dance tradition. In Costa Rica, the dancing would have started before the food was served, and lasted all night. Alas, this was a sit-down affair that broke up at 10. I was one of a few who danced, and there was a game Chinese woman who broke with tradition and we cut the rug for half an hour. She works at a beauty salon in Millbrae. Later, I showered the newlyweds with a hundred one dollar bills as they slow danced. This went over big with the Chinese, who told me of their old custom of the wedding couple crossing “the golden door”, a ceremonial threshold festooned with gold coins and jewelry. One guy said that this is why so many Chinese restaurants have “golden” in their names. The groom is a sous-chef at Quince, an upscale restaurant, while the bride, a real estate broker, teaches ESL and deals blackjack at a local casino until the market picks back up.

San Francisco offers enjoyable visual scenes, surprisingly good modern skyscraper architecture, a small garden at Golden Gate Park featuring stunning dahlias, and great bookstores. Stacey’s, on Market Street just a mile or so up from the Embarcadero, has an excellent selection. There’s an art museum called “deYoung” in Golden Gate Park which has fine paintings of California. The new Dale Chihuly show was by tour only and we had no time to wait. Too bad, I’m a big fan. The 100 foot tower atop the already high-perched museum offers great 360 views, except that tall people look at the bottom edge of a grated awning that drops over the upper quarter of the floor to ceiling glass windows. It was okay for folks under 6’, but a drag for the rest of us. I had to stoop to see the horizon, Mount Tam, the Golden Gate and the pretty hills. The deYoung is not far from a charming neighborhood, “the Richmond”, where a friend gave a party. It is prosperous, but not wealthy, and sits high on a mesa, with wide streets and two-story apartment buildings that resemble vacation homes at an old-fashioned beach resort. It includes a small Russian community, as well as many Asian ethnic groups. Great light in the area too, probably due to the continuous thin cloud cover blowing overhead, rather like western Holland. San Francisco neighborhoods have wide streets by design, due to the many earthquakes requiring good access for rescue and clean-up operations.

Monday was spent with friends going up to Muir Woods, which is an indescribably magical experience. We drove on northward and westward to find the fenced-off section of the San Andreas Fault. Even with a good map, we didn’t find it. We stopped for coffee in Olema, population 55. The landscape northwest of San Rafael features high watery meadows brushed with fog, like a deep green Italian coast, with little mountains and petite rocky cliffs.

Finally, a word about the awe-inspiring Golden Gate Bridge. It’s brown colored, not golden. I thought the “golden” referred to the Gold Rush, but someone said it was named before, and probably due to the spectacular light at sunset. I fancied for a moment that it was named for all the Chinese weddings.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 7:59 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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One Response to “The Golden State”

  1. Anne said:

    You write very well. Your descriptions of the Golden Gate Park, the bridge and the areas you visited came rushing out of my memories as Northern California was my home. Thank you for making a plain day come alive.

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