Note: First published on Blogger on October 2, 2006
Unfolding the Map
Sal has reached his initial destination, Littourati! We are now in San Francisco. Of course, this isn't the end of his travels On the Road, and we'll continue to follow him. As always, a click on the image will get you to the map.
"...I was rudely jolted in the bus station at Market and Fourth into the memory of the fact that I was three thousand two hundred miles from my aunt's house in Paterson, New Jersey. I wandered out like a haggard ghost, and there she was, Frisco -- long, bleak streets with trolley wires all shrouded in fog and whiteness. I stumbled around a few blocks. Weird bums (Mission and Third) asked me for dimes in the dawn. I heard music somewhere."
On the Road, Chapter 11
San Francisco, California
First of all, a warning to anyone heading to San Francisco. Jack and Sal obviously didn't know this little tidbit, but it's true. Native San Franciscans (I know, are there really any? But believe me, there are. One of my best friends is a native!), native San Franciscans HATE the word "Frisco," which Sal and Jack use with abandon in the novel. It's always "San Francisco." Using the word "Frisco" or even "San Fran" marks you as a tourist.
When I lived in San Antonio, natives there felt the same way about the words "San Antone." The words "San Antonio", spoken with a slight inflection of Spanish, carried the rich and vibrant history of the majority Hispanic dwellers there. "San Antone" was an anglicized-Texanized creation that seemed to some to cheapen all that. It's the same with San Francisco -- the name itself rolls musically off the tongue and conveys the history and meaning of California's Spanish past in a way that makes "Frisco" seem almost rough, rude and vulgar. It's funny that there seems to be something about the given name of a place that makes people who live there very protective of its sanctity, much as we individuals get somewhat defensive when someone springs a new and unwelcome nickname on us.
That being said, San Francisco was the largest big city close to where I grew up. It is one of my favorite cities on all the earth, and I consider it one of the few truly unique American cities. My friend who lives in the city has taken me for extensive walks around it, and therefore I've seen the length and breadth of the place. The whole city remains mysterious to me, and no matter how much I walk or ride through it, it yields new mysteries. It's people are friendly, but reserved and often seeking self-enlightenment or empowerment. It always seemed to me like a place where it would be difficult to make friends. But there are so many non-human things to see and do. Situated on the end of a peninsula at the entrance to a beautiful bay, surrounded and penetrated by hills and mountains, it is a nature lover's paradise. San Francisco's quirkiness, from the environmental to the political to the social, never ceases to amaze.
Jack hints at what he will later find in more extensive visits into the city, describing the "weird bums" he encounters in the downtown. Usually one would not describe bums, just call them bums. But Jack has Sal describe them as "weird." Even the panhandlers, so common in cities around the country and I assume in Jack's and Sal's experience in New York, have something different about them in San Francisco.
The fog is another thing that Jack has Sal mention. It is one of the things I love about San Francisco, though the fog can be a point of contention. In summers, the fog shows up usually in the afternoon, pulled into the city by warm air to the east in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. When my wife's brother lived on a hill in the Mission District, we used to watch the fog slowly envelop Twin Peaks like a giant claw, spilling over the top and down the slopes like beer suds over the lip of a glass. Sometimes it would only come halfway into the city, leaving the eastern half bathed in a muted sunlight. Other times, it would envelop the whole city, dulling the colors of the buildings and muffling the city sounds. My friend, who lives in the Sunset District close to the Pacific, absolutely hates the month of August, where he might go the entire month without seeing the sun. But for me, the fog is a magical, almost living thing in itself and I feel strangely comfortable within its grasp.
San Francisco is also one of the true melting pot cities. I love the myriads of different types of food you can find there, testifying to all the ethnicities that have made it home. This melting pot does not just extend to ethnicities, however. San Francisco seems to be the place where everyone who feels a little different and a little left out of mainstream America ends up. There are almost as many causes and belief systems as there are people in San Francisco.
Most recently, my wife and I spent part of an afternoon in the North Beach area, where Jack hung out a lot in his visits there. The sun was shining, and as we sat in a little bar and ate sandwiches off a park, I looked out at the extensive numbers of people hanging out in the park despite the fact it was a work day. I'd like to think that the area hasn't changed much since Jack was there. Perhaps the young men are as interested in their skateboards now as in the young women in the park, and now everyone is outfitted with a cell phone, but otherwise, I'm pretty sure that Jack would feel right at home there today. I think that this nature of the city, it's strangeness, eclecticness, and insularity but also its elements that are seemingly impervious to change, are some of the reasons why Jack stayed there so long, and made it the first goal of the main character of his novel. The Beats thrived in San Francisco, and their voices became stronger, more pronounced, and recognizable in the city's unique environment. Later of course, other voices would emerge from San Francisco, but in 1947, this mysterious place must have seemed as alien and exciting to Jack and Sal as any place they had ever been.
If you want to know more about San Francisco
A Beat Tour through San Francisco
The Beat Museum in North Beach
Google Map of Neal Cassady's House in North Beach where Jack stayed briefly
San Francisco's Historic North Beach
San Francisco Magazine
Wikipedia: San Francisco
Next up: Mill City (Mill Valley)