Man In A Suitcase

San Francisco, California

If there's a worse time to visit San Francisco than the day after Thanksgiving I don't want to know about it. In addition to the masses of tourists from parts of the world that don't have warmth and sunshine in late November, you get a multitudes of shoppers making their start on their Christmas debts. This is not a day to ride a cable car. (What do you get when you combine long lines of tourists and shoppers waiting for a ride with snarled traffic on the streets that keeps the cable cars from going anywhere?) What's amazing to me is how the cable car operators remain so sunny and cheerful; they may be the best tourist advertisement in the city!

Speaking of holiday shopping, San Francisco does a nice job of decorating for the season. Many of the large buildings downtown edge themselves in lights to create a skyline of wrapped presents. And in addition to the usual mammoth tree sacrifices there are the more subtle effects, like the little snow flurry of lights coming down from the ceiling at the Nordstrom's on Market Street. Lovely.

A study in contrasts. There are a few level parts of San Francisco, like tree lined Battery Street, home to the Fog City Diner. But go half a block further and turn right and you're faced with the cliff side of Telegraph Hill, with expensive homes clinging tenaciously to its sides. The first lesson of touring the city on foot: plan for altitude, not just distance.

This has to be the best view in the city: the corner of Lombard and Hyde Streets. Look to the left down (and I do mean down) Hyde street and you can see San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island. Turn ninety degrees and you're looking down Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world, all the way to Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge. Best of all, it's easy to get to via the Powell/Hyde cable car. Just be sure you get on the right car from Powell Street; get on the Powell/Mason car by mistake and you get to trudge your way up Lombard to get this view. (Guess which one I took?)

Some of the city's best and worst/least interesting architecture: well kept Victorians on Lombard Street (notice the incline; this is not a city to own a manual transmission) vs. the tourist excess of Pier 39. Not that Pier 39 is ugly exactly; it's more that there's so little to distinguish it from touristy shopping malls anywhere else. The same shops, the same fast food (maybe a little greasier), the same amusements, the same SF-labeled junk. You'd hope that this city could do something a little more original.

On my first visit to San Francisco back in high school a friend introduced me to Ghirardelli Square, former home of the Ghirardelli chocolate factory and present source of world class sugar shock. The place has continued to move upscale since that long ago visit, with even more expensive shops and restaurants. Its buildings are so clean they almost gleam! The Cannery, just down the block, hasn't fared so well. It's a little rougher at the edges, with a trendier, perhaps even grungier collection of businesses and perhaps more of a sense of humor. Care to guess which one I like better?

Move a little further down toward Fisherman's Wharf and you can experience the harbor as tourist attraction. Like the variety of street performers, from more traditional musicians (some with talent) to the shouting religious nuts to the more theatrical performers. (The performers are more fun to photograph, although the audience is frequently more fun to watch.) I have to keep reminding myself that the wharf was once a place where real work took place. Nice of them to leave a few reminders around, like this railway to nowhere that was once used to unload cargo from big ships. Those ships have moved to the other side of the bay, where the harbor and the transportation is better and they won't intrude on the tourists.

A little more realism to compete with the tourist crap: a World War II submarine. I wonder at the kind of person who could have lived and worked inside such a vessel. A few hours in a modern jet and I want out! And at least I get windows. (Also no one is shooting at me, which I consider an important feature of any mode of transportation.) Now the sub is a tourist oddity, a home to sea birds and a reminder of a time when life was a lot less certain but also a lot simpler. As for the seagull on the right, he just looked like he wanted his picture taken. And I am nothing if not obliging. (You can stop laughing now.)

Growing up in New York, I took skyscrapers for granted. So it takes something special for me to notice a big building. San Francisco has a few modern structures that are worthy of note. Like the Transamerica building, so distinctive a part of the city that a remake of King Kong planned to use it in place of the Empire State Building for the climax. (This planned remake lost out to the Dino De Laurentiis version. It used New York's World Trade Center and featured a shootout straight out of The Wild Bunch. Don't fail to miss it.) A more recent addition is the San Francisco Marriott on Market Street. I'm not sure why, but my first impression of the Marriott was that it looked like a high tech jukebox. It's a shame that the creativity didn't continue inside. I guess you have to go elsewhere for that.

I'm particularly fond of this picture. The Golden Gate Bridge runs north from San Francisco across the entrance to San Francisco Bay. This was a particularly clear day; I've driven across on days when the fog didn't lift until the Marin side. Not that I get up here all that often. North of the bridge is mostly people with more money than I. (Although there is no truth to the rumor that BMW stands for Basic Marin Wheels.) Actually, it took me more than ten years living in Silicon Valley before I finally thought to stop in the little park at one end of the bridge and take pictures. And now I wonder: is there significance to the fact that you have to pay a parking meter to stop on the San Francisco (never, ever call it Frisco!) side but it's free over in Marin?

Santa Cruz, California

One of the joys of working for a computer company is the periodic realignment of your team with other and, one hopes, related and compatible teams. When this happens, it's frequently a good idea to get everyone together away from the office so we can figure out who we all are and whether or not we know anything anybody else might want to know.

This was the purpose of a recent offsite to Pajaro Dunes, a little beach community just a few miles south of Santa Cruz. By day we would break up into little groups to discuss burning issues of the day, selecting some lucky soul to present our findings to the rest of the group. (That's me in full lecture mode, looking like a reject from Shiver Me Timbers: The Management Secrets Of Blackbeard.) The discussion groups are followed by a series of team exercises that are a cross between summer camp games and a fraternity hazing. No pictures, since they're really hard to take when you're blindfolded.

Once the sun goes down the tone changes and the real bonding begins. Well supplied with the essentials (no one ever went hungry or thirsty at an SGI event), we get to know each other's peculiarities. (Like did you know that there are people who think of tofu as a real food? At a barbecue? Really!) Gag awards are handed out (ours had a DNRC theme), giving the best demonstration yet of just how creative our Marketing folk can get. (And you thought our creativity is limited to expense reports!)
Eventually the crew and various bottles make their way down to the beach, where we practice the fine art of hanger bending, marshmallow roasting and off-key camp singing until we either crawl back to our rooms from exhaustion or are ordered away by a park ranger. Now we learn important new lessons about our coworkers, like which ones snore and which ones never remember to turn off their pagers. Truly, one can know too much about those with whom one works...

San Jose, California

San Jose doesn't get any respect. It's the largest, indeed the only real city in Silicon Valley. It has universities, theatre, museums, concerts, an international airport and a population larger than San Francisco. But no one in his right mind would pick San Jose as a destination. Despite the efforts of the mayor and the city council, San Jose is in desperate need of an identity. Aside from working at various trade shows at the convention center, my usual exposure to San Jose is a quick peek of downtown as an American Airlines Super 80 comes in for a landing.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California