My niece is a trooper. Not only did she take her first solo flight, a 10 hour one from London to San Francisco no less, but she has also taken on jet lag with the nonchalance of a true teenager. Sleeping and remaining so, is something a 16 year old is most adept to, free as they are of any gnawing thoughts of "needing" to be doing something. She even managed a twelve hour overnight sleep give or take a few minor interruptions on her first night, and now, on day three after her arrival she has managed to squeeze in quite a few of the things on her top ten list; to date she has a New York Yankees baseball, an Obama wearing a San Francisco Giants cap tshirt and a doughnut on a key ring (some japanese-y fad wotsit going on at home I guess) stuffed into her bag. Tomorrow we will be returning to hippy-ville to bag a tie dye or some sort of psychadelic regalia. Then there's only the small challenge of setting a date up with Leonardo di Caprio and we will have succeeded in meeting the challenges of our aunt & uncle-hood.
In truth she has been whisked along with us at our usual hap hazard but incredibly gung-ho pace. It began a few days ago with a 10 o' clock circus class for the tyke. She, bleary eyed from flight and so forth huddled under her hoody, clambered onto the number 71 bus. We were greeted by the kind of bright sunny smile foreign to the faces of so many bus drivers. I have discovered over the past year this is not for the reserve of the London brigade only. At the back of the bus we sat, Sammy pointing out every single house lamp, pavement, car and cloud that past us by. Enz looked at me and told me how he didn't use to speak so much. I had thought him to be in a quiet reflective mood. At gym class, he, once again in labelling mood showed her his building, pointed out where she ought to watch him from and jumped from foot to foot eager to get going. Minutes later I was sat next to the Irish Clare, mum to another jumping bean Tom, in the older class and Enz was in front row of the dress circle. Dad arrived a little while later - we left him at home trying to set up meetings and such for LA next week - at which point boy's jumps and turns got twice as high. Back and forth he swung on the trapeze like a delirious chimp jumping off it and onto the high crash mat with a front hand spring flip flourish to finish. It is a physical impossibility for him to dismount without a flip. Enz turns and wisely cautions us to throw out all toys and invest in one of those mats. We agree. Cory even starts hatching a plan on how we could fit it into our hamper. I say the bimbo would have to go home then. He changes the subject. After his last class at Acrosports Sammy thanks his teachers, gets a sticker, a picture with them and then we all orang-utan ourselves out of the building and on towards Haight st.
By now, we know most of the shops and the order in which they pan out. We stop at a few along the way before we are so hungry we could cry. Whaddayaknow? There's our favourite Thai place under our noses and in we go to scoff. Minutes later we are all nose deep in fragrant coconutty deliciousness, mum in double time because she has a hair appointment. With indigestion on the near horizon I jump back onto the 71 swaggering somewhat at being map free. I try my best pretending-to-be-a-local acting and I almost succeed. I think. If the chap next to me with the leopard print wooden discs in the lobes of his ears hadn't been swan-necking my email to cousin Sara I might have asked him outright if I was believable or not. Onward I sprint to Shear Bliss.
I am greeted by an elfin freckled young lady with a very beautifully coloured blonde bob. She has black rimmed fifties style glasses. During the next hour whilst she paints my hair various shades of honey, blending the grey she says, so as to give a softer natural look, I find out she has just decided to give east coast university education a miss for this year to rethink her direction. What she gets from me is a synopsis of my first novel, a potted history of our year so far and a few nuggets in between. I get very over excited at the hairdressers. It is still such a new thing to me. After the paint session I am washed and handed over to a lady with long blue painted talons and a psychotic bob. Back burgundy, front peroxide blonde. I sit down not without mild trepidation. I begin a very detailed mime/description of what I would like. When I begin paragraph two of it she looks at me in the mirror and cuts me off with an "I gettit." I am hushed into silence under her scissors. Half an hour later she's got me all coiffed and poofed and bobbed and I look rather fashionable I might say which is a word I could never really honestly use to describe myself. Whilst doing that thing of trying to look at yourself in the mirror without looking at yourself in the mirror my family bundle in. Enzi ablaze with a black and white picture of Obama on a new T-shirt, Sammy swaggering under a Gene Kelly fedora with Cory close behind. The three of them all talking at the same time, delirious obviously from all the shopping, piece together a picture of them walking into a Ganesha store whereupon the chinese owner proceeded to kiss a crystal stone and give it to Sam together with incense and a picture of the god himself. I was going to say signed, but that would be cheap. Then the little man tells me about how they looked at all sorts of hats and that this was the one for kids and that it fit and that it is special and that its for when he does the show and don't I look like Donald O'Connor mum and look I am going to lean off that lampost outside now mum look! And he does. Turns out they have walked the best part of a mile which, for all three I imagine is no mean feat. I take them round the corner for a coffee to my favourite garage to de-compress.
I do not exaggerate. the Blue Bottle Coffee Company on Linden St off Gough is literally a coffee roaster inside, well, an opened up garage. As in, open up the garage door and there is a little counter behind which two people craft uber perfect coffee for the discerning coffee drinker. As you know, I have never shyed away from admitting I am one of those irritating coffee snob people. I can't help it. This country has nurtured that in me. Suffice it to say this place is like the soup nazi from Seinfeld. You get to that counter and you better know what you want. And you better be Zen about waiting for it. And we were, all twenty of us in line. None of that Starbucks I'm-on-a-meter-move-it-already-people angst to this little alley. Just pure heaven in a cup. They even do that fancy thing of making pretty swirly things in the foam. Even my macchiato the other day had a little heart. Cute. Ahem, I mean, skilful.
After caffeine comes play. Or, dad sits on another bench finishing off his business calls, Enz and I soak up a few late afternoon rays and Sam runs loose on the climbing frame, befriending a rather larger girl of Russian descent talking in a way that appeared to belie her size. She was sort of a 5 year old in a 7 year olds body. All I know is when it was time to go they hugged each other. A lot. Back home both youth were in bed at a good hour to rest up before some serious touristing planned for this morning.
Come 7 am we were up and at em, well mum was just at em because I am not a nice person before coffee. We bundled up and out (eventually) and squeezed into the booth we sat at with Zia Bru a few weeks ago round the corner at the diner. Enzi snapped pictures, Sam started his morning ramble through streams of consciousness. My niece tells me she is concerned that by the age of 6 Sam might have talked himself out. I belly laugh till our pancakes are served. When we have eaten enough to make it difficult to get out of our chairs we head towards the Asian museum to catch one of those double decker open topped buses that you always see tourists sado masochistically freezing their brains off on the top deck. Half an hour later, having asked directions form a friendly coach driver parked at the museum, who took so much time to befriend us and offer advice that we narrowly missed our bus which I spied in my peripheral and sent our niece sprinting to catch for us and we were also sado masochistically sitting on the top deck freezing our brains off. We squealed out towards the bay as we cruised through Golden Gate park and up park the Presidio towards the Golden Gate Bridge. We shrieked through the gales that whipped at our faces as we crossed the bridge through the morning fog squinting down towards the glinting shores of Sausalito. We wobbled our way downstairs when the bus turned around to make its way back towards the city, finally being able to hear ourselves. We took off several layers and decompressed whilst watching the city fold out before us through the rambling Little Italy, passed the cafe where Coppola began writing The Godfather onwards to Chinatown and Union square. We meet dad back at the flat, still in his pyjamas, still emailing to set up meetings chuckling at our frazzled hair and flushed cheeks. We inhale a quick lunch and streetcar it to the theatre.
Enzi is received with great alacrity by everyone who comment on the family resemblance and Sammy's new hat. The girls squeal over my haircut so much so that I think it may not look as nice as I thought. We go down in the elevator shaft, operated by a young chinese guy who works all the buttons and the yellow constatina iron door. Only on the base level is there any semblance of real theatre life. Lights are up, people are changing, there is even a corner where a bookshelf and library have been set up by the in house crew. A fifties chrome sign hangs form the ceiling by a white dresser lined with mugs for teas and coffees. It has a grungy student union feel, a world away from the crisp almost clinical backstages of say the Kennedy Centre in DC or the arts centre in Houston, which, in retrospect are more akin to the bowels of a hospital than a theatre. The Golden Gate has had a long history of Vaudeville and on the 7th floors there are still the shells of the apartments where the likes of Sinatra and co would have lived during a run there, complete with tunnel below connecting guests to the bar across the street. Now, the place has a somewhat deserted feel, renovated after the earthquake in the late eighties to feel more like a town hall than a glorious theatre which it must have been. Eventually Sam and I make our way back out onto the street, whilst Enzi makes her way to the auditorium and dad prepares to do his turn.
Sam and I jump on the 19 bus which we catch at the other end of the street. Boy strikes up conversation with a lady next to him who shares her life story and much of his. When she leaves the bus another lady, having listened in (he has a theatrical voice) promptly reaches in her purse for a $5 which she puts in the top pocket of Sam's dungarees. Thank you he says and then tells her he will look to see if he likes something he likes and then he will buy it and does she want a cookie of his? She tells him she is a diabetic and leaves at the following stop. I look down towards the front of the bus to catch the turquoise brilliance of the bay in the near distance flanked by craggy pines not a world away from a Mediterranean postcard. We literally run to the beach at the end of it and for the next hour I watch Sam cavort in the sand running splashing cartwheeling jiggling and generally expressing joy with every fibre of his body. It is a delight. To me, and everyone passing, most of whom who can't help but comment on that little thing flipping and jumping and cartwheeling and screaming. When the puppy finally falls face flat into the water and utterly drenches himself and his clothes I call it a day and get him into dry clothes feet bare to the elements to dry off. His face covered in wet sand, a fedora on his head, feet popping out of tracksuit bottoms, scoffing popcorn in his stroller. He looked a glorious sight.
The hat was a hit. So much so that on our return journey on the number 19 another be-hatted man struck up some serious conversation with the boy. Taking off his sunglasses, dressed like a skinny greek yogi meets indiana jones he asks if he may be so bold as to compliment the young man on his attire. He and Sam carry on conversation, to the entertainment of the saturday crowd, touching topics as wide as bird whistles to the meaning of life with pretty much everything in between. "My friend," he says to Sam, "Sometimes it is great to sing with the birds. I whistle like this," and he does a scarily accurate bird twitter, "and they sing back to me my friend." They tell each other about the music they like to make. I am struggling to tell whether this man lives on our plane or another distant place. Either way I like it and he doesn't appear the type to crash into any aggressive behaviour. At least not towards his new friend. As we make to leave Sam tells him he might see him again on our journey to the beach on the 19 some other day. He then almost has a tantrum when we don't stop to play in the playground beside the stop. Aside from dad's show almost ending it takes two seconds to clock the gaggle of folk crowding around the gated play area. One man, head in his hands is rocking, another woman is talking to herself and another, clutching a suitcase is shaking and twitching. I try to avoid undue panic but truth is I want to be out of there as quickly as possible. On the two street corners we pass on our way to stage door crowds of characters gather like extras from a movie where the director is trying to create an ostentatiously "realistic" mis en scene of urban troubles. The men are shifting from side to side, money is being changed hands. When I get to the final crossing I catch a conversation between a couple of twitchy backpackers and another passer by. They ask whether he has morphine. He tells them yeah but only every seven days They express disappointment. The walking man light comes on as they go on to discuss details of money. I then realise I am walking down the street the man at the desk of the company hotel has told people to avoid. I notice I am looking about and catching the eye of every person who appears to not be involved in drug exchange or conversations with invisible people, of which, in truth, my son is one of. When we get to the stage door an ancient chinese lady is industrially fishing out plastic bottles from the bin on the street and stuffing them into her plastic bag upon her trolley. A man, drinking beer out of a brown paper bag covered can, finishes his last gulp and calls out to her, "Hey mama! I gotchu anotha." She squints up towards the sun at his silhouette and takes it without reply. Sam, half the beaches' sand and I descend into the bellows of back stage catching the end of the play off. Sam is dunked into a shower and we eventually pile into a cab to eat hamburgers the size of our heads. Even Sam, when asked by the waitress for his order, calmly asks for a cheeseburger please. Must be the sea air.
Now we are back home, one teenager conked on the sofa, one three year old conked on the bed and one 33 year old tip tapping on the keyboard amongst all our cases lying open mouthed crying out to be fed with our STUFF. I'm here trying to commit the past few days to more than memory, especially the part where we walked past a lady pushing several rubbish bags and a chicken (live) on a stroller down Union square, or the guy with long grey hair under a top hat and round black spectacles on haight street, or the busty lady with dreadlocks plaited down to the ankles at the airport when we went to pick up our niece the other day. All these things I wish to save somewhere for a rainy day so that I will smile remembering the trip that was San Francisco.
It's true what the automated voice on the bus said this morning about what visitors say after their trip to the city, "I'll be back!"