Monday, March 31, 2008

Virtual Vacation: San Francisco - There's No Place Like Home


In the end a three-day virtual vacation was a little more than I could handle; in planning it out, I never took into account how long it would take to actually write the thing, especially while alternately writhing in pain and gooned on Advil. Still, I did get a magical day out of it (even though it took three slightly less than magical days to write). So I came home, humbled once again by how much bigger my ambition is than my talent; waking up, I was no longer in room 1220 of the St. Francis Hotel, but in the equally magical (if more sorely in need of housekeeping) Pop Culture Institute.

I won't promise I'll never do it again - after all, I got four comments out of it, which is four more than I ever get out of writing about the minutiae of life at the court of Elizabeth I - but if I do it again, I'll be better prepared ahead of time. Someone once said (I forget just who) "It takes a big man to admit when he's beaten"; right at this moment I feel like Rodney King, but I'm not going to let failure stop me, but simply learn from it what I can and move on.

Now without any further ado, I've got two days of catching up to do in just under three hours...
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Virtual Vacation: San Francisco - A Pilgrimage To Grace


Although it had been my original intention to walk back to the hotel after returning from Alcatraz, all the reverie and fresh air had left me unexpectedly fatigued - which is especially surprising, since it's only a virtual vacation. So I decided to take the cable car from Powell & Bay to the Nob Hill crossing; after all, what trip to San Francisco (even a virtual one) would be complete without a ride on a cable car? I decided, though, to resist the urge to make myself Rice-A-Roni, although by now I'd decided there were certain other "San Francisco treats" I thought I might enjoy while on my sojourn.

At the spot where the Powell-Mason line crosses California Street atop Nob Hill I disembarked with the same casual insouciance with which I'd jumped on at Fisherman's Wharf, and walked the two blocks to Grace Cathedral, yet another of the sites made memorable by Armistead Maupin, in this case in the well-named sequel to Tales of the City, More Tales of the City. Along the way I passed the Pacific-Union Club and the Fairmont, another of the city's iconic hotels - featured in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo.

Although in the novel a cult of Episcopalian cannibals was practicing their predilection on a walkway high above the central aisle, there was no such ghoulish transubstantiation on offer today; instead, I walked the Labyrinth, looking for the meditative state it promised. I would have stayed to see more - there's an altarpiece in the AIDS chapel designed by Keith Haring - but as will happen all of a sudden I came on all tired.

Five blocks south on Taylor and two blocks east on Geary and I was back at the St. Francis Hotel; passing the famous clock in the lobby I got my key from the desk. The concierge on duty reminded me that my delivery had arrived from earlier, and I slid him a twenty with a weary smile. Upstairs, I barely had time to notice the sumptuousness of the room before falling onto the bed and into a dream as surreal as the day I'd just had.
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Virtual Vacation: San Francisco - Alcatraz


As the boat pulled away from Pier 33 I felt the same shiver that thousands of prisoners must have gotten arriving for the first time, staring down the incontrovertible prospect of coming here; its imminence imbues the moment with immanence, as what seems like a tiny speck out in the water grows ever larger, until suddenly its cliffs loom above you, letting you know who is the more powerful in no uncertain terms. Yet as big as the rock is, even as big as is the sea, the sky is even more so; after a day of witnessing it in slivers, I am suddenly aware only of its size. For as big as we imagine ourselves to be, the smallest mountain is bigger than our biggest building, and even the mightiest mountain is but a speck of dust beneath the sky.

Following a brief orientation at the visitor's centre (to help further put me in my place) we are free to explore what we can by ourselves, so I decide to make the obligatory trek uphill to the cell block, snapping pictures as I go. Being here - predictably, I guess - has me thinking about the prisons in which we find ourselves. Mine (like those of many others, I suspect) is a voluntary incarceration, no matter how externally imposed it may feel. In some ways, this may be another reason why we travel, since when we do we are both out of our comfort zone as well as out of our routine; it's not too outlandish to suggest using a vacation as a means to escape from our various mental prisons as well.

The fact that I had to come to a penitentiary for that insight is not lost on me as I reach the bleak building at the windswept top of a place they call The Rock, leaving me - not for the first time - literally between a rock and a hard place. While peering into the tiny cells I'm aware only of the cramped space I've prepared for myself by my own self-loathing, and looking into the even darker cells of solitary confinement I get a horrifying glimpse of what my life might be like if I dared to risk flouting the authority that I've imagined has put me there.

Like the sea around this virtually impregnable fortress, all kinds of forces larger than I am seem to conspire to keep me incarcerated: swirling eddies of doubt, riptides of prejudice, and choppy currents of culture. It's just not that easy to make a run for it, as those men who'd tried to escape this place discovered, to their peril - none of them were ever seen again. As well there are the jailers who while, in my case at least, are entirely imaginary are no less menacing for it. So completely have I swallowed the necessary bunkum about what it means to be a gay man that I've forgotten what's more important: the necessary truth about what it means to be a human. So well have I imagined not only their tyranny but the hold I've given it over me that it never occurs to me how easy it might be to throw off my shackles; after all, since I put them on myself it wouldn't be physically possible for me to lock them as well.

When your life is at an end, it doesn't matter what your BMI was or how chiselled your features were; what matters is that you were kind to people, what you managed to learn, and how much of what you learned you were able to impart. The body of Gyllenhaal is downright dangerous if it's paired with the social skills of Ted Bundy; so too is the brain of Einstein when paired with the thoughts of Charles Manson.

It's not lost on me that for my first virtual vacation I came to what - for many - represents the capital city of gay, one of the first places gay men were able to come in droves to throw off their own shackles, in this case of heterosexism and religious dogma. My own difficult life among my fellow gay men - gleaned from a preponderance of bad experiences first in Kelowna and then in Vancouver - all comes down to me, and how badly I handled them when they occurred, how willing I was to turn an unfair insult into a home truth. My escape from them, then, ought to be as easy as my submission to them was in the first place.

After three hours of exploring (both the site and the psyche) and with a fresh perspective on both myself and the city I returned to the jetty, made the obligatory pass through the gift shop, and caught a few more images of the birds who are the island's only inhabitants now. I find it amusing that Nature's most free creatures now inhabit a place once deemed fit only for her least free. Images and insights from my lunch with Marc are still swirling about in my head as I begin to endlessly nitpick my earlier performance: Was I charming enough? Was I too negative? Did I interrupt him? Fortunately I'm able to keep my hands busy as the boat returns to the city, which action generally succeeds in calming my mind. One phase of my virtual vacation now virtually over, I turn my mind to the next destination, the only one which seems logical now...
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Virtual Vacation: San Francisco - Fisherman's Wharf


In Tales of the City, Mary Ann Singleton was standing in Aquatic Park looking at San Francisco Bay when she made her fateful (if fictional) decision to never return to Cleveland. So that seemed to be the most sensible place for me to go to next; besides, I figured I'd be safe, since my visit was only going to be three days long and I wasn't actually going to be there in person. Plus, it gave me a chance to walk Lombard Street on the way; as these things go, one couldn't ask for a lovelier garden path down which to be led.

I couldn't stay at Aquatic Park long though - certainly not long enough to visit Aquatic Park Historic District (gotta save something for my next visit!) - because virtual vacation or no I had a schedule to keep.

I'd made arrangements to go for lunch at Fisherman's Wharf with one of my virtual friends, in keeping with the theme of the trip; thanks to Facebook I have many such virtual friends in actual cities all over the world. When the time comes that I'm able to visit these places in person - hopefully as a roving photojournalist for the Pop Culture Institute - I'm looking forward to meeting these people in person, so they won't merely be virtual friends anymore.

The friend I met is Marc Smolowitz, a guy who (in my current incarnation) I wouldn't have the nerve to go anywhere near but who, in my virtual guise with the body of Jake Gyllenhaal, I could approach with unmitigated calm. For the complete pop culture experience I chose the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., even though I knew Marc is Jewish going in (and thus may not be able to eat shellfish); I'm kind of like that - sensitive after the fact, always a little too late. Also, I'd dragged him into the tourist trap of Fisherman's Wharf, where no red-blooded resident would be seen dead. Plus I didn't really care for the movie Forrest Gump, although you'd think I would. Still, what kind of blogger would I be if I wasn't self-absorbed in the extreme?

Having never had lunch with an Academy Award nominee before, I was full of questions; by the end of the meal I was also full of shrimp, which my virtual abs crushed like the bugs they are in a way my actual abs never would have. We digested by watching buskers on the pier, and while I shopped for tacky souvenirs we discussed issues raised by the documentary The Weather Underground, for which he nearly earned himself the coveted Hollywood dildo. I'd recently blogged about their March 1971 bombing of the US Capitol as part of my continuing push to remind people that terrorism in America didn't begin on September 11th, 2001 - no matter what the Republican Party would have you think - so I was eager to talk with someone who knew a little bit more about the subject.

Marc was also involved in the 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d which - as a Jew queen myself - I found very enlightening and entertaining, in the best tradition of enlightertainment here at the Pop Culture Institute.

Before I could drag him into the Museum of the City of San Francisco, though, Marc begged off, and so I toured the exhibits by myself, after which I lavished out even more virtual cash (since its supply is virtually limitless) in the gift shop. Now suitably laden down I entrusted my purchases to a cab driver then called the concierge at the St. Francis Hotel to keep an eye out for them, and would he be a dear and put them in my room with my luggage? Such a delight to flirt with; I made a mental note to remember his name, so I could give him a nice big tip later. Leaving the museum I ambled (albeit purposefully) through The Cannery, determined to drink in the atmosphere but not buy anything until my next adventure.

On the way to Pier 33 I made a point of waving at the Holiday Inn - the hotel Mary Ann herself fictionally stayed in during her visit, and the one I could more probably afford if I was to ever go there in person - and with a suitably Gyllenhaalian elan to cover my vestigial trepidation I dashed along Bay Street toward Embarcadero with glimpses of my next destination lurking in the silver blue bay ahead of me.
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Virtual Vacation: San Francisco - In Search of Barbary Lane


Given that part of the reason I chose San Francisco for my first virtual vacation is my enduring affection for the 1979 novel Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, I've decided that my first order of business should be to go in search of 28 Barbary Lane, described in the book as being "off Leavenworth between Union and Filbert". Now, I'm not a total loony; I know the street is fictional, but it gives me an excuse to ramble zig-zaggedly through Chinatown and Telegraph Hill before making my way to Russian Hill on my little pilgrimage. The image, by the way, is from the Tales miniseries, and looks just the way it's described in the book.

Setting out from the hotel eastward on Geary Street, I take a blocklong diagonal on Market Street, before turning north onto Montgomery Street craning my neck all along the way like some kind of tourist (although, to be fair, I do this at home too).

I decide to take in the viewing platform at the Transamerica Pyramid before continuing on; the views looking north from the 27th floor are as breathtaking as I'd expected. The other reason I'd like to travel is to take as many pictures as possible, which is also why I'd be traveling alone; this habit of mine invariably become irksome to even the most patient of companions. Using my Eyewitness Guide as a, well, as a guide, I take several photographs of Russian Hill, as there are no suitable ones on the Internet.

Leaving that building I decide to check out Jackson Square, which is where the offices of Halcyon Communications were in Tales. This charming bit of old San Francisco makes it stand out from the rest of the downtown, which is fairly Manhattan-ized; I grab a bench and try to see if I can spot some latter-day Mary Ann Singleton or Beauchamp Day among the crowds.

That bit of reverie done with, I make my way along Columbus Avenue as far as Washington Square in the North Beach neighbourhood; after taking a look at the ornate twin spires of Sts. Peter and Paul Church (and taking a few pictures) it's just four blocks west on Union Street, a right turn onto Leavenworth, and at the mid-point of the block I'm in the actual heart of the fictional place that first stole my heart so many years before.
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Virtual Vacation: San Francisco - Checking In


One notable benefit to the virtual vacation is the ability to stay in places I could never normally afford; such is the case with the uber-posh St. Francis Hotel, at Union Square. Yet for a pop culture junkie like me, where else would I stay? Built just before the earthquake it remains the largest hotel in the city, was the site of the scandal that brought down Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, and has been featured as a location in numerous films as well.

The hotel also employs a historian, whom I might treat to breakfast upon my arrival - say, in The Oak Room - to get the low-down on the high and the mighty who've stayed under their roof. My own room, 1220, is one of those in which the death of Virginia Rappe was played out. Ghoulish, maybe, but then it's not like I'm planning to buy a Ouija board and have seance or anything.

Breakfast over, it's still too early to check in, so I leave my luggage with the porter and decide to go out sight-seeing while I wait. Seeing as this is a virtual vacation the weather is lovely and warm. Being an inveterate walker (when not laid up with one of the occasional injuries which plagues me - like the one I have now - since I'm also accident-prone) I'll be doing as much of it as possible on this trip. Also, since it's virtual, there are no hills too steep for me to drag my Jabba-esque bulk up them; still, I've also decided to travel in my virtual body, which resembles that of Jake Gylenhaal. Turns out a virtual vacation is more fun than I'd expected, and I've only been at it an hour.
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Virtual Vacation: San Francisco


As much as I long to travel, and visit those parts of the world I've (until now) only read about, I must admit that - like most fruits - I don't travel well.

First there's the the stress of being out of my routine, accompanied by the inevitable disruption in my finely tuned homeostasis, both of which are, after all, the point of travel but neither of which, I must admit, I particularly enjoy. Then there's the prospect of having some minimum wage flunky from the Department of Homeland Security spelunking in my rectum, looking for Osama bin Laden and/or a portable nuclear device, neither of which would fit up there unless they're smaller than a suppository. Although I have been known to keep toxic gas up there on occasion, it's never enough to kill more than a bird or maybe a medium-sized houseplant, making me less of a threat to the United States than Taco Bell.

There are two possible solutions to the conundrum: the first is to travel for long periods of time, and the second is to harness the vast power of my imagination to make the trip. Since I cannot presently afford the first option, the second will have to do for now. In the fullness of time - not to mention given the cooperation of the Internet gods and/or the advent of several good miracles - I will hopefully be able to accomplish the former as well. Given that I have three days off a week, that seems the ideal duration for this, the first of my virtual vacations.

It's an experiment, writing these posts; I may well invent an entirely new form of travel writing, or else my flight of fancy may crash and burn. Either way, I won't know until I've tried, so here goes who knows what... Nothing? Something? Only time will tell.

This first virtual vacation is sponsored by - no, sponsored by implies financial support - has been made possible by (that's more like it) the good people at Dorling Kindersley, whose Eyewitness Travel Guides have been fueling my dreams of world travel since I picked up my first one in 1995. Alas, I can't afford to constantly update them, so the copy I'm using is from 1996; the current guide was updated in 2006. By way of a shameless plug can I just say that Eyewitness Travel Guides are the guides that show you what others only tell you.

So, without any further hoo-hah, off we go!
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