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San Francisco on my mind

A story about how lovely it is to see real life friends during the lockdown, me being a book snob, and San Francisco.

Me at 21, Mission district, San Francisco. 1997.

Chris and I spent Saturday afternoon painting the walls at the back of our house. The old red brick now brightened up with the Alpine Blue masonry paint which took five weeks to travel from Darwen to Altrincham and finally to us. We're getting lots of jobs done during the lockdown, jobs which might have still been ideas if we weren't restricted to internet shopping and staying at home. I've never seen the cutlery drawers so neat before.

One of the lovely treats of being at home all weekend is when friends visit unannounced, usually on their daily day-release walk round the neighbourhood. I was putting some plates in the dishwasher after lunch when I heard David and Dino calling from the street to the garden and saw Chris wander down the drive to greet them. We had a ten minute chat and catch up, them on the street and us at the front door naturally. You really appreciate proper, face to face contact with people when you go so long without it.

Dino, who teaches fine art at Liverpool John Moores, is still working and having to adapt to online tutoring. I'd have imagined it would be pretty tricky to do but he's modified the way he works, like many of us, and he even says there are definite benefits to it. Not least of which are reduced stress levels from not having to drive from Salford to Liverpool every day.

Earlier in the day Matthew had stopped by to drop off a book. I have no idea when I'd mentioned it but I'd said at some point that I hadn't read The Days of Anna Madrigal, the last in the Tales of the City series, he remembered and, kind soul that he is, lent me his copy. The logistics of giving someone a book when you're supposed to stay two metres apart from each other are surprisingly problematic, especially when I was lending him one of mine in return. How does one land a hardback book in a friend's open backpack from six feet away without lobbing it at the back of their head?

There was a bit of a debacle last week when I ordered two books from Waterstones, one for me and one for Alison, only for them both to be delivered to her, in Leeds, on consecutive days. I've been in touch with them, offering to send one back, post-lockdown, and suggesting they post me a copy to Manchester as they were supposed to. I received an automated response to say their customer service team are working through a backlog dating back a month and my query is in a queue. I can't say I'm surprised they have such a mountain of complaints when they struggle with something so simple as putting the correct address on a book, but never mind, everything is forgivable in the age of Coronavirus.

In the absence of my new book Matthew's unexpected delivery was a welcome surprise. Especially as without it I'd have been forced to carry on trawling through Dracula, which I ordered while drunk one night thinking it was about time I actually read it. It's alright I suppose, it's just so Victorian and verbose, and the writing so small, that a chapter can take what feels like weeks to read. I get a far bigger sense of achievement with larger fonts.

For years I've had a habit of buying books which I think I ought to read so my bookcase is filled with unread classics such as Anna Karenina, Moby Dick and The Dharma Bums which sit neatly next to John Irving, Stephen King and (for shame) Helen Fielding. I'm a terrible snob when it comes to books so both the Brigit Jones books - given not bought - are hiding behind a Christmas Cactus, and my Stephen King horrors, well thumbed and secretly loved, are stashed behind a pile of my granny's antique Charles Dickens novels. I've even been known, in the height of my snobbery, to put what I consider to be higher brow books on shelves at eye level and trashy ones lower down, out of immediate eye line. Thus Doris Lessing and James Joyce enjoy the heady heights of the top shelf, unread of course, while The Lovely Bones and Life of Pi languish at knee height.

For a very slow reader I think I'm reasonably well read. I've read Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights and The Go Between for example, and my favourite authors are Salman Rushdie and Gore Vidal who are both revered. However the fact that I turn my nose up at George Orwell and I stopped reading Brighton Rock at page 215 with only thirty two pages left to go leaves some of my friends aghast. And as far as I'm concerned Dickens can do one - they made me read that at school and it was dullsville in my opinion. I tried The Hobbit when I was a kid and I shan't be going back there either, Tolkien is banished in this house.

Anyway, I'm rambling, where was I? Armistead Maupin - certainly not high brow but a master storyteller and a favourite all the same.

Thankful to be able to ditch Jonathan Harker and his drearily lustful pal, Nosferatu, I started reading The Days of Anna Madrigal. I first came across Tales of the City at the age of eighteen when Channel 4 broadcast the mini-series based on the book. It was a revelation to me to see gay people on the telly and as I was, let's say, exploring my tendencies, I was initially hooked into it by that. Then of course the storytelling grabbed me and I was addicted.

I didn't know then that it was based on a book, assuming it to be just another TV series and it wasn't until I was twenty that I saw it in print after seeing a dogeared copy on a toilet cistern in Shrewsbury. Since then I've read the lot, aside from this weekend's delivery, and even seen the author at a book reading and interview in Salford last year.

Maupin has a talent for plonking the reader in San Francisco, in any given year, and making you feel like you know it intimately. I suppose that's what a good writer should be able to do and he has this skill in abundance.

In 1997 Chris and I took our first holiday together and at my insistence we went to California rather than Florida, somewhere he'd been time and again. My primary reason for this was that I didn't want to go to all the places he'd already been to with his awful ex. Another reason however was that I wanted to go to San Francisco and that desire was based exclusively on Tales of the City.

We originally decided that what we'd do is book our flights in and out of San Francisco, two weeks apart, and find accommodation when we were there, each day dependent on where we found ourselves driving to. While booking the flights and chatting to the travel agent, she revealed that her cousin Peter lived in California, in a place called La Jolla in San Diego. He was originally from Wythenshawe in south Manchester and had been in the merchant navy, settling in California, marrying and having a child. Since then Peter had been busy setting up a construction company, splitting from his wife and shacking up with an Asian boyfriend called Stan, many years his junior.

"You should go and stay with him!" she said, so she arranged it and we did.

With a couple of weeks to go before our holiday we thought it might be a good idea to at least ensure we had some accommodation when we landed in San Francisco so we got looking. The internet in 1997 was a cumbersome beast in comparison to what we have today, in many ways like a kid at a special school, small, slow and dim, so Chris asked around people he knew for recommendations of where we might call and book a night or two in advance.

Luckily someone from a record company he used to deal with knew somebody in San Francisco who knew somebody else that rented out a room. This was ten years before AirBNB was conceived but essentially that's what we were going to do. We were given instructions for how to find the friend when we landed, agreed a price of $40 a night, and that was that.

Landing at SFO via Chicago and after about nineteen hours travelling we bumbled out into the dazzling California sun. This was pre-mobile phone for us and all we knew was that we were to find the 'friend', a woman in a champagne coloured VW Beetle. Surprisingly she found us in minutes, packed our cases into the boot of the car and we sped off into town, her chattering away, a dime a dozen, and interrogating us about our journey.

We arrived at a typical wooden Victorian house in the Mission District. The 'friend' hoiked our bags out onto the pavement, then taking the steps at the front of the house two at a time, bounded to the front door and hammered on it. A young man came to the door and with wildly expressive arms flying around her head like a windmill, she explained who we were and introduced us then immediately went on her way with a parting "Good luck you guys!" I'm not sure if it was meant for us or our new landlords.

The couple, one Brazilian, the other French were strangely quiet and moody for hosts but welcoming and generous all the same. They had the middle apartment in the house with neighbours upstairs and down and, once cash had changed hands for the room, they gave us our own key and showed us around.

The place felt spacious and was filled with bohemian touches, a battered old ladder in the bathroom in place of a towel rail, wall hangings, plants everywhere with fairly lights twinkling away in them and a huge cactus bedecked with glow in the dark stars.

I was immediately jealous after all I'd grown up, in a small terraced house in the countryside in Oldham, and only ever lived in Chris's house in Sale, a small semi on an estate, since moving out. This place was wildly exciting to my unsophisticated, twenty one year old eyes.

We were shown to the guest bedroom, a large room with a bay window at the front of the house, and told that we could use the whole place as we saw fit, only their bedroom was off limits which was understandable. Delirious from jet lag and having been awake for the best part of twenty four hours did what any sensible travellers would do, we unpacked, had a half hour lie down, then headed out to find food. That night remains a blur in my mind simply because of exhaustion. I've never been very good without sleep you see, I've even been known to fall asleep in nightclubs and once behind someone's gran's sofa at an after-party in Moston.

The next day, wide awake at 4.00am but still refreshed and raring to explore, we helped ourselves to breakfast and headed out. San Francisco, it seemed, was small enough to walk around but big enough to completely knacker you out. We spent hours marching up and down its steep streets, being sure to take in as many sights as possible. The Golden Gate Bridge turned out to be way further away from anything than we expected but was definitely worth the hike.

Chris was especially interested in the crisis counselling phones which were dotted along it.

"Take a picture! Take a picture!" he insisted.

I obliged, only a little concerned that the last person to have used it may well have plummeted to a watery death beneath us. It was our holiday and we were going to do tourist shit. China Town was ticked off, the Financial District too for some reason, the cable cars were ridden and of course an obligatory trip to Russian Hill was made to look for the fictional Barbary Lane from Tales of the City.

Worn out and in need of a change of clothes after a day of hardcore sightseeing we headed back to the Mission. We took the Muni in the general direction of home and eventually disembarked. In 1997 Chris and I had only ever lived in Manchester, so we weren't accustomed to the system of street numbering and naming of junctions used in San Francisco. This led us to missing our stop and getting off one station too far. That one stop may as well have been twenty miles away.

Unaware of our mistake we wandered up into the daylight and stood there at the junction blinking into the sun, no doubt looking confused and startled, as we took in the sights around us. It was like a scene from a Romero film with scores of what appeared to be brain eating zombies staggering around the streets. As one tripped on a pavement another wandered in front of a moving car, oblivious to world around.

It took a minute or two to realise what we'd done, after all the junction looked very similar to the one we should have got off at. A quick plan was formed - we would walk back to where we should be, it couldn't be that far surely, and we knew which way we should go didn't we? At that moment I had never felt that I looked like a lost tourist so much in my entire life. Chinos and a polo shirt with a rucksack was not the fashion in these parts.

Spotting a police cruiser as it pulled up at the lights we nipped over and through the open window told the officer what we'd done and asked how best to get back to where we needed to be.

"That's quite a mistake." he pointed out in that slow, obvious manner some Americans are prone to, "What you guys need to do is take one block that way, turn right and go another five blocks."

Thank god! We finally knew how to get out of there, and we weren't going to have our brains eaten on the junction of Crack Cocaine and Mission.

"Thank you so much!" we said earnestly.

Just then the lights changed and as we stepped back, away from the police car, he called through the window to us, "Hey guys, be sure to hold tight to you bags!" He sped off leaving us to a certain death.

That evening, very much alive and kicking, we went for dinner and drinks in the Castro and reflected on the day's adventures. We sat in a colourful Mexican restaurant which had cute salt and pepper cruets, shaped like cacti, on the tables. I had chosen it because, despite this being California, or perhaps because this was America, I was surprised to see vegetarian food on a menu. My experience thus far was much like that in continental Europe, where anyone wanting to eat anything other than meat of fish had to settle for pizza and pasta.

I ordered the grilled cactus leaf with a sense of smug satisfaction. A sense that was soon wiped away when I bit into the weird tasting, gelatinous, lump on my plate fifteen minutes later.

After dinner we tried a few bars, all gay bars, some more successful than others. I should have known better with the first place as we got to the bottom of the stairs leading from the street to the basement to be presented with a heavy, black, leather curtain designed either to keep the world out or the clientele in. Thankfully it was early so we had a quick beer and moved on to a drag bar with a balcony that stretched around two sides of the building's first floor. Possibly influenced by the disgusting cactus leaf, I asked the bar man for a bottle of Sol.

"I didn't even know they still made that." he said before offering me a Budweiser and an apologetic shrug.

We left San Francisco after a couple of days to head south but as our flights were from there in the not too distant future the guys whose room we rented insisted we kept their house key and let ourselves back in for the final two days of our holiday.

When we did eventually land back in town we couldn't remember their address or indeed how to find the house, and not wanting to risk getting lost with a bunch of junkies again, we kept the key and booked ourselves into the worst hotel in the California, The Amsterdam on Taylor Street. It was so bad the cockroaches had moved out. I checked it out on Tripadvisor a couple of days ago after finding a scrap book of our trip to California, and it turns out nothing much has changed.

Our last two days were spent much as our first two were, being proper tourists. We went to Pier 39 to see the sea lions and took a trip to Alcatraz, we played mini golf (according to the photographs at least) and went to UnderWater World where we met a giant foam shark. Finally running out of things to do on our last day we spent a few hours at the cinema watching Jurassic Park 2. I don't remember the film but I do remember people booing at the screen when a Coca Cola advert came on. I think by that point I'd got the measure of San Francisco and I liked it. I promised myself that I'd go back one day.

Cut to twenty one years later.

It was September 2018 that we eventually returned. Someone once said, the more things change the more they stay the same, and that felt so true there.

We stayed in an AirBNB in Dolores Heights with two guys who rented a room out, only this time our trip from the airport was in an Uber and not in the back of a friend of a friend's champagne VW Beetle. The city felt bigger and noisier despite not having grown. Poverty was more noticeable and everything felt much more expensive than it had done.

The sea lions were still there but Pier 39 had become more of a tourist trap, if that was possible. The Golden Gate Bridge was still really far away but still worth going to see again and while the Castro felt way more gentrified than it had two decades earlier, it was still full of gay bars, outrageous characters and drag queens.

I'm glad we went when I was only 21 years old because returning when I was 42 made me realise that unless I get a better paying job, I can't really afford to go there again.

The city has become richer as I have become poorer which is a bummer but that's okay because I'll always have Armistead Maupin to take me back there.

lgbt travel
Richard Douglas
Richard Douglas
Read next: Camping > Hotels
Richard Douglas

I'm a writer based in Manchester, UK. I write plays, I blog, I'm writing my first novel (and looking for representation), I'm the written voice of a chatbot that helps kids understand their cancer treatment and I'll turn my hand to anything

See all posts by Richard Douglas

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