San Francisco '39er
What to do when the Depression of 2009 gets you down? Look to the Great One for advice: save large, spend big, do your part, enjoy what you’ve got and, most importantly, drink up.
The latter may be more of a personal preference than national sentiment, but I dare say enjoying what’s close at hand may be the best advice we can heed, Great Depression or no. Sometimes the best way to appreciate the fullness of our beloved city is simply to revisit her. It’s a day well spent when a body can go forth into the past and find a whole new world without even leaving town. What would it be like to spend the day here, in say, 1939? I’m sure I can’t begin to crack the surface, but let’s give it a try; it sure beats sitting at home counting food stamps. Prerequisites are few: wallet half full, straight skirt and felted hat (gents may always opt for slacks), and if you’re going be taking the Amelia Earhart solo flight, as I am, a good book. May I recommend Hemingway’s “The First 49 Stories?” Well, that settles it.
On this particular day we’ll begin where one might likely have begun, on the car deck of the ferryboat Eureka , which once hauled passengers back and forth from San Francisco to Sausalito. Eureka is, in fact, the largest wooden ferry ever built (and at present the largest floating wooden structure in the world, which is nothing to scoff at either). Give yourself a little while to wander her decks. Stop and admire the Model A’s, maybe sip your morning coffee from one of the passenger benches and gaze out at the water. What better way to start a day’s adventure? Perhaps if you’re lucky you’ll even get invited out for a ride on the Maritime Park’s own 1930’s tugboat Telco . Or perhaps you won’t – you’re still off to a good start.
If the latter proves true (which likely it will), you can always take your views from the shore of the Aquatic Park, which was built in 1939. Set yourself down and watch the lazy wooden boats bob around on their moorings while carving up a particularly tasty apple. If you’re smart you’ll even have packed a hunk of cheese and some crusty bread, with a cool bottle of mineral water to wash it all down. Sweet sunshine and azure waves lap at the shore and if you squint your eyes against the sun, you really are in another place altogether. Perhaps you’ll even be inspired to pull on a woolen bathing suit and go for a swim. Finish off one of those short stories, pack up camp and walk past the Bathhouse, admiring its clean ocean-liner-like lines and Streamline Moderne sensibility (that’s late Art Deco to the untrained eye), then prepare yourself for a nice uphill climb.
Your goal is Coit Tower, but how you get there is up to you. Feet work well and if this mode of transport is the option of your desire, stick to the back streets, meandering your way through rows of houses until you get to the Filbert Street steps. Climb your way to the top, admiring the Deco apartments, woodsy little bungalows and common gardens. When you finally reach Coit Tower you will be rewarded with what must be the last remaining, fully functional, public water fountain in the city. Drink up, we only had to go back 70 years for that.
Coit Tower is what denizens and visitors alike might modestly refer to as a “landmark” and then dismiss with a shrug. This wasn’t always so, for when it was constructed in 1933 as a gift from the recently deceased Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the opening of the tower was delayed for several months due to boisterous criticism. (The eccentric Firebelle ‘Lil was herself quite the uproar in her lifetime, smoking cigars and donning trousers to gain entry into the men-only gambling halls she adored. That is, of course, another story altogether.) What managed to get all those union suits in a bunch wasn’t the rather manly-looking tower but the artists’ murals within, deemed subversive and Communist by the delicate sensibilities of the time.
Look closer at the images of workers organizing, Marx’s Das Kapital, fields cleared for oil derricks and stick-ups in the city streets and you can’t help feeling like you’ve been closed into the middle pages of an Upton Sinclair novel. Or maybe you feel that way on a regular basis. In either case, make your way around the rotunda peeking into the painted books and frescoed newspapers, pondering why “Workers of the World Unite!” was somehow deemed too politically explicit and thusly removed. The wonders never cease.
By this time the sun will be lowering in the sky, a most trustworthy signal that it’s time for a drink. Now, there are a hundred or more watering holes in the lovely city of St. Francis in which to spill your hard earned dollars, but only one will do at this particular hour on this particular day. And so, we set off for the marble counters and shining brass of Tadich Grill. First opened in 1849, it’s the oldest continuously running restaurant in the city (in full disclosure it’s only been in its present location for the last 40 years) and I doubt that any one of the white-jacketed waiters have taken unsolicited advice from even the most attractive of specimens in that entire time.
Perch yourself at the counter, place your order succinctly and with reverence (this is the first drink of the day, after all) then open your book to “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and act like you do this every day. Maybe you do, I wouldn’t blame you. More than likely you will get drunk. If you are like me, you may even get very drunk. Still, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by a half dozen oysters and a few thick slices of sourdough slathered in butter. Much better. Leave the words swimming on your page and sip your second drink, smiling benignly to the Canadian couple sitting next to you as they ramble sweetly on, inquiring about what? You have no idea. Offer benediction on this fair city, “Oh, yesh. Issa wonderful plashe” and remember to tip well – there’s a Depression on after all.
With the warm fire of gin in your gullet, it’s time for a proper dinner. Suppertime can go one of many ways after a cocktail (or two), but more often than not, gastronomic cares are thrown to the wind in favor of ambiance. Dim lights, pleasant chairs and an unobtrusive waitstaff who’ll stand back until the second time you attempt to foxtrot between tables before gently chiding you back to your own.
Where, then, are the proper supperclubs of yore? In setting out to answer this, I have found at least one, and so we go to Le Colonial. Though it may not have witnessed the antics of Fred and Ginger, it’s got that Coconut Grove feel that makes you want to press your good suit and order another round while the Hot Club twangs out some jazz manouche upstairs. A good night out is just that, and you can easily look like a million bucks without even breaking a hundred. Don’t even bother pretending to read; just nod sagely in time with the music and savor your surroundings. Nick and Nora Charles would have approved, had they actually existed. Of course, if that were the case they’d most certainly take that banter to a nice dark speakeasy afterwards and, though prohibition lifted in 1933, there are still underground drinking establishments to be found.
In this stage of inebriation, however, I’d no sooner send you knocking on strange doors in Chinatown than have you tell the doorman that he looks like Mrs. Roosevelt – but, in keeping with the speakeasy spirit, I’d rather not reveal the name of the place. Point your toes towards Jones and O’Farrell Streets, find the door, ring the bell and tell the lovely who opens it that you’re going to the library. You may even pull out your short stories to prove it. What you do from this point on is up to you. Personally I’m spending my last Buffalo Nickel on a Gibson and passing out with my hat on.