In another place, a slow-moving black hearse repeatedly crossing one's path might seem disconcerting, gloomy even. But we sprint after it, jostling with a Saturday morning throng to catch the funeral procession.
As our only set weekend goal, my 11-year-old daughter Emily and I are hiking this city's new Barbary Coast Trail, a 3.8-mile loop that traces a particularly raucous period in San Francisco history.
The path is strewn with museums and landmarks. But sightseeing doesn't interest us much, especially since the term is so absurdly inadequate to this city's sensory assault and embrace. What we're really here for is time together and fun. And we're counting on finding it without much of a game plan because San Francisco, more than anywhere I can think of, richly rewards spontaneity.
Our base camp for the weekend is the Hotel San Remo on Mason Street, a refurbished 1906 boarding house that, with rooms starting at $50, is gaining a reputation as one of the city's best lodging bargains. Upon introduction, the San Remo, located kittycorner to a sprawling public housing project, reminds me of some bona fide fleabags encountered back when I thought of my thumb as a mode of transportation.
The rooms are tiny, and to get to the tiled showers, we tiptoe narrow hallways where pajama-clad strangers roam. But the other lodgers prove as pleasant as the decor and staff, and by the time we leave, we wouldn't challenge the guest book entries, scrawled by tourists from Britain, Germany, South Africa and across this country: "Cute!" . . . "Quaint!" . . . "A diamond in the rough" . . . "We'll be back." (One warning! If Room 13's deeply cracked plaster ceiling doesn't come down in the next quake, there is no gravity.)
In the 19th century, before the nascent city began expanding by filling in Yerba Buena Cove, the San Remo would have been right on the shoreline. Today, it's about equidistant from Fisherman's Wharf and Washington Square in North Beach. It's there that we intend to join the trail--which officially begins at the Old Mint, downtown at 5th and Market.
So, on Saturday we're up early and out into the misty day. Right off the bat, though, we make our first detour, by strolling up Chestnut Street and onto the deserted grounds of the San Francisco Art Institute. A couple of young security guards open a small but cathedral-like room, where we admire a towering Diego Rivera mural of men on scaffolding painting a towering mural.
Then, as mourning doves coo, we dash up an outside stairway to the architecturally offbeat expanses of the roof where student art projects lurk, eager to startle passersby with rapturous bursts of color and creativity. One aspiring artiste has strung a frayed nylon buoy line with bright bits of plastic flotsam and jetsam, apparently gathered on a beach. Set against the roof's drab concrete walls, it demands attention, like a madly colorful prayer flag.
The day has revealed its theme.
The sky is the color of old, dry asphalt and drizzles bleakness into every corner and alleyway. But, whoa!, is this day ever intent on resisting the dreary.
By the time we finally reach the well-marked Barbary Coast Trail, the whole city is a mixed medium gallery. A cable car's bell clangs ecstatically. From a row house of tabby-colored bricks, a tabby cat stares wild-eyed from a bay window. An old woman in purple puts down grocery bags and does a sequence of Tai Chi moves.
At Washington Square in North Beach, the cheerfully packed Mama's proves the perfect breakfast stop.
Through one set of windows, this corner cafe boasts a view of legions of martial arts aficionados working out in the park. Through an interior window, we watch cooks labor amid a steaming symphony of bacon, waffle and coffee aromas.
As the kitchen sizzles, we break open the book that brought us to the city, Daniel Bacon's "Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail" (Quicksilver Press, $13.95). Crammed full of maps, drawings and non-pedestrian prose, the guide does a good job of synthesizing history with the here and now.
The trail is named for the part of town that began to thrum with bars and brothels back when the Gold Rush was luring ships from around the world. But much of that disappeared around 1916, when newspaper publisher William Randolf Hearst launched a cleanup crusade. We have no problem sidestepping the bawdier history.
In his North Beach entry, Bacon notes that 17 nationalities were reflected in a 1880 census of the neighborhood. Among these were immigrants from Italy, and, as the book puts it: "The Italian love of 'buon gusto!', the good life, brought an infectious exuberance for the enjoyment of fresh hearty meals, robust wine, stirring music and art that has ingrained itself into the city's personality."
Emily gets the Papa's Omelet with a crusty sourdough baguette. I have banana pancakes with heaps of fresh berries. Our taste buds vibrate blissfully to an accompaniment of wafting conversation.
Bursting with energy now, we hike the trail straight down Columbus into the heart of Beat Generation geography. Emily is the first in the door when City Lights Books opens at 10. She digs the crazy intensity of the jazz-saturated joint, but spurns Kerouac and Ginsberg for sometime San Franciscan Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."
Now the city becomes not just art, but poetry, man! Poetry!
Soon, with the Transamerica pyramid building guiding us, we trudge up Pacific, where the oldest Chinatown in America washes over us like sensory surf. It was here, in the mid-19th century that Chinese immigrants flocked in search of Gum Sahn, or the Golden Mountains. Today, the smells of fresh fish and rotting produce blend with sandalwood incense and salt air. We inspect shops crammed with dried sea horses, ginseng root and sharks' fins and poke about in others devoted entirely to tea.
A fruit stand spills cornucopia-like onto the sidewalk. We admire brilliant plums, mangoes, papayas and half a dozen or more varieties of bananas. I point to a durian the size of a large coconut. This thorny yellow fruit has a flesh some find so repulsively aromatic that Indonesia reportedly prohibits opening it in public. "Yes," says the shopkeeper. "But other people find the scent very, very lovely!"
We opt for a bag of bright red cherries, and the rest of our day is punctuated with little flavor explosions.
For Emily the highlight is a claustrophobic fortune cookie factory, Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Co., where three old women pull circles of hot dough off a griddle contraption, insert paper slips of wisdom then hand-fold cookies on a spindle.
As we continue, the Chinese tunes pouring from shops are gradually overwhelmed by trumpet blasts and the rattle and thunder of drumbeats. A uniformed marching band leads a large funeral procession, filling the narrow streets with music more celebratory than funereal. We catch up and watch, agreeing that the sight is at once happy and sad.
All day long we hike. We even climb Nob Hill for an optional side trip. When we finally catch the cable car, as the book suggests, Emily leans out grinning and lets the wind flail her hair.
After dinner, we return and hike the remaining segment of the trail. There's a festival down at the wharf, and while a big band wails, Emily and I shoot baskets at a game booth and win a little space alien in a Michael Jordan jersey. We hike past the boats and museum, grab some Ben and Jerry's ice cream, try the skateboard simulator at the tacky Pier 39, and finally, with late-night silences edging in spookily, we scramble hand in hand up winding Filbert Street, drop back to North Beach, and return to our hotel.
The next morning, we're the first to pedal out of American Scooter Rentals on Hyde Street. Pumping hard in a faint rain, we push our tandem bike through Fort Mason, the Palace of Fine Arts, across the Golden Gate Bridge and down to Sausalito, where we pause for juice and espresso before catching the ferry back across the bay.
For our final stop, we hit the food stands along Fisherman's Wharf, picking up what Emily and I, respectively, consider the two finest tourist foods in America: clam chowder in an edible sourdough bowl and a fresh Dungeness crab sandwich.
Pushing the bike now, we slip away from the hoopla and set up a picnic on a splintery table behind Scoma's Fish Receiving Station. Our view is of stacked crab traps. A surly man hoses down a rusty fishing boat. Gulls squawk. A sea lion barks. We eat. And I fully understand the message of that marching band accompanying the black hearse: Wake up, folks! What a great day not to be dead.
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Budget for Two
Air fare, Burbank-SF-Burbank: $173.00
San Remo Hotel, 2 nights: 170.00
Dinner, Izzy's Steak House: 55.00
Cab fare, Marina and back: 15.00
Basketball carnival game: 5.00
Virtual Skateboard: 2.00
Bicycle rental: 28.00
FINAL TAB: $544.25
San Remo Hotel, 2237 Mason St., San Francisco, CA 94133; tel. (800) 352-7366. San Francisco Historical Society (Barbary Coast Trail sponsor), P.O. Box 420569, San Francisco, CA 94142; tel. (415) 775-1111.
Sipchen is a senior editor at Los Angeles Times Magazine.