Bay Area boogaloo

Revisiting San Francisco & environs

By Mark Voger, author
‘Zowie! The TV Superhero Craze in ’60s Pop Culture


I recently returned from my second trip to the San Francisco Bay Area in 21 months — this time, for a family celebration — and thought I’d jot down a few memories before they dissipate into the ethos.

I trekked through some increasingly familiar burgs, and added a few. For the most part, we operated in Oakland, El Cerrito, Berkeley and San Francisco; as well as San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Alameda, Albany, and Hayward.

James Stewart (inset) and Coit Tower.

I’ll start with the biggie. Twice during our trip, we made it to crazy-hilly San Francisco, and thank gawd I had compression pads on my tired old knees. On a gorgeous Sunday in June following a week of cold temperatures and dense fog, we covered Chinatown, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the palm-tree-lined Embarcadero along the Port of San Francisco.

Nearby, bigger than life, was Coit Tower, which was completed in 1933. The landmark is one of many visible in Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Vertigo” (1958) starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. And yes, there were gleaming red cable cars with “ding ding” sounds — for visitors’ amusement (and moolah), not for practical use.

Noshing while walking

Dragon Gate

San Francisco’s Chinatown was crowded, colorful and tourist trap-y. Dragon Gate, the entrance at Bush Street and Grant Avenue, is an impressive welcome, with giant sculpture and a sea of red lanterns. Noshing while walking, we sampled pork shumai, shrimp-cilantro rolls, and two long Chinese fried doughnuts (one slightly sweet, one unsweetened) from the bakeries and dim sum places that abounded.

Out-of-towners could comparison shop while strolling. Cheap T-shirts emblazoned with SAN FRANCISCO (to avoid any ambiguity as to where you dragged your carcass) got as low as $10.99 for five. Cheap postcards were down to four for a buck. A trio of old-timers played acoustic music that sounded like the soundtrack of a period Chinese film. They offered to pose for photos with all passers-by. (I wonder what the gratuity would have been?) Bruce Lee‘s face is a recurring motif on store signage.

Fewer tourists trudged all the way up Bush to Stockton Street where, when you hook a right, you find yourself in a more traditional Chinatown-type environment at which vendors sell produce, fresh fish and imported essentials, largely to a local clientele. It was on this strip that I saw something for the very first time: an impatient driver honking angrily at the driverless vehicle in front of him, which hesitated at a light while stragglers were still crossing the street. It’s come to this.

Philly cheesesteaks?

North Beach

There happened to be a festival of some sort going on at North Beach — or more likely, this was just another Sunday — with live music on two stages at opposite ends of the sprawling square (make that “oblong”). One of the bands covered “Under the Milky Way” by The Church; the other covered “When You Are Who You Are” by Gil Scott-Heron. I’ve never, in all my born days, heard either of these songs played by a Jersey bar band.

The many pricey restaurants were at capacity, but it was a modest corner joint that got my attention: The Original South Philly Cheesesteak. The legend of Pat’s Steaks and Geno’s endures 3,000 miles West. (No, I didn’t try a cheesesteak to see if they got it right. One can only eat so much, especially at this age.)

What’s your pleasure?

Nothin’ sleazy goin’ on here.

Once past the throngs, you begin to notice strip joints and other gawdy spots of wildly varying vintages along Broadway. Some have signage that appears to date from the Seventies; some are more new-ish; and some appear to be shuttered. The joints we spotted include the Garden of Eden, Taste of Paradise, the Roaring 20s, the Bamboo Hut, Felicity’s Festiche, Centerfolds, and Vanity, which bills itself as the “Premier Topless Gentleman’s Club.” (So if you’re a topless gentleman, this is the place for you.)

Not for sufferers of fallen arches.

At Kearny and Broadway sits the most ridiculous upclimb street I’ve seen in the Bay Area. The moment dwellers venture out of their front doors, they’re negotiating a treacherous angle. It’s kind of badass.

Fisherman’s Wharf is another chaotic tourist magnet, one that is Madame Tussauds Wax Museum-equipped. (Zendaya once dropped in to check out her wax likeness.) The Applebee’s is so monstrous, it’s hard to believe that the one in Times Square is larger.

‘Reach out and touch it’

The Embarcadero

Traveling by bus on another day, we spotted the Palace of Fine Arts, Alcatrez, the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Park, the Embarcadero, and a “reach out and touch it” view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Something cracks me up about Alcatrez. Along the Embarcadero, with its many tourist lures, there’s a place called Alcatrez Landing. There are also Alcatrez T-shirts for sale in nearby shops. It’s like: Wow, Alcatrez was a prison, and now it’s a brand? Can you imagine a tourist destination called Riker’s Island Landing? Or Gitmo T-shirts for sale? (Come to think of it, maybe Ginni Thomas would wear one.)

In the short time since I’ve returned East, I’ve reflected on San Francisco’s distinctly Californian architecture; houses painted in playful pastels; beautiful year-round flora; and the sometimes wild infrastructure necessitated by the unforgivably hilly geography. For someone more accustomed to Manhattan and Philadelphia, with their relatively flat terrains, San Francisco can be dizzying. From one vantage point, you might see the tops of distant modern skyscrapers, dwellings-packed hills and the Bay Bridge, all kind of compressed in a way that seems incongruous to your immediate surroundings. It’s disorienting and intoxicating.

Welcome to Oakland.

Around ‘Oaktown’

In downtown Oakland, the old Tribune clock tower stands as a silent reminder of the glory days of newspapers. (Remember those?) The building still has an old-fashioned canopy at the entrance which sports the Tribune logo. But no newspaperin’ goes on within; the building is for sale.

Vintage photo of the Tribune Tower

We shopped for produce at one of two Farmer Joe’s in Oakland, the location at which Michael B. Jordan filmed scenes for his first starring movie, “Fruitvale Station” (2013). In the Oakland-set movie, Jordan portrayed Oscar Grant III, who in real life was shot and killed in 2009 at age 22 by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Grant had worked as a meat cutter at this Farmer Joe’s. I looked around to see if anyone on staff might remember the filming. Alas, everyone within eyesight appeared to be too young. A short street near the Fruitvale BART station is now named for Grant.

On three occasions, we visited Oakland Chinatown, which is markedly different from that of San Francisco. A fellow traveler astutely observed, “San Francisco Chinatown is more for tourists; Oakland Chinatown is more working class.”

Elderly locals with carts on wheels ain’t playin’; they will knock you aside if they must, in their unflagging quest for the best produce at the lowest prices. Many don’t speak a syllable of English. People-watching here is a fascinating undertaking. I cherished observing an exchange between two ancient men who razzed each other mercilessly. (Mind you, I didn’t understand a word they were saying. Their delivery and body language said it all.)

Nearby is a respite from the noise and sun: the Oakland Public Library’s Asian branch. There are Chinese, Japanese and Korean books; Asian newspapers and movies; and tons of translated manga (lengthy Japanese comic books). I could make like Burgess Meredith in “The Twilight Zone,” and spend the rest of my days in here reading manga.

Treats from Ruby King Bakery

There are several bakeries in Oakland Chinatown with excellent, reasonably priced goods. We recommend the long, flaky coconut twist pastry from Ruby King Bakery on Franklin Street ($1.75). We split a lemongrass-curry banh mi from Cam Huong’s Bakery 錦香 on Webster Street, simple fare that hit the spot. Find anything you want at Won Kee Supermarket, a massive operation with abundant produce, fresh fish and meat, and countless shelves of imported products. I mean, these guys sell 50-pound bags of rice!

Something wrong? Call Anh Phoong!

Everywhere you turned in Oakland, you saw billboards of photogenic lawyer Anh Phoong, sometimes wielding a baseball bat. I’d hate to be on the opposing side of Phoong in court.

On the insistent recommendation of a local, we grabbed a pizza from Arizmendi, a collective which also has locations in San Francisco and Emeryville. Here’s how it works: Each day, Arizmendi makes one kind of pie. What they make is what you get. Who can complain when the pizza is this good? On our day, Arizmendi was serving up pies topped with Brussels sprouts, onions, goat cheese and mozzarella. They were flying out of the shop.

The Mormon Temple

When lit up at night, the Mormon Temple of Oakland is a sight to behold and a marvel of architecture. Sadly, we also saw many homeless encampments around the city. Folks take shelter beneath tents and plastic bags, and within campers that are seriously dilapidated (and a favored destination of vermin). You might see six such trailers along an underpass, so weathered that they appear to be sinking into the Earth. Click HERE to learn more about Oakland’s homeless outreach programs.

East Bay soujorns

Alameda Beach

Among other soujorns in the East Bay area, we took a stroll along Alameda Beach, with its coarse sand and view of the San Francisco skyline. A few steps inland, we hit the best candy store chain on Earth: See’s Candies, founded in 1921 in Los Angeles.

In Berkeley, we listened to a chill reggae band perform in a downtown square, and picked up a pizza topped with corn and drizzled in garlic oil (highly recommended) from The Cheese Board, another collective with a location in San Francisco. Of course, we hit Berkeley Bowl for its plentiful and varied produce.

We managed to get some swimming in, returning to the El Cerrito Swim Club with its huge, lightly heated salt-water pool. We also took the plunge at the 88-year-old swimming institution Hayward Plunge, and at pools in San Leandro and San Lorenzo.

See’s Candies

A digression: When I was a kid, no one in New Jersey had ever heard of See’s Candies. (This was in the Pre-Google Age.) But my parents threw an open house every Christmas Eve, and two years in a row, some wonderful person (I never learned who) donated a box of See’s to the party. Both years, no one opened the boxes until Christmas afternoon, and we little kids descended upon them like locusts. (In the bedlam of Christmas Day, a child could consume a lot of sugar without a parent’s notice.) We were thinkin’: “See’s Candies makes Whitman’s Samplers seem like Goobers and Raisinettes!”

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna watch “Vertigo” and “Fruitvale Station” —  not what you’d call a simpatico double feature — to see what I can recognize.


Vintage postcards