San Francisco

San Francisco

The iconic bridge, the bay, infamous prison, retro tramcars and liberal gay society all contribute to San Franscisco’s escalation in stature as one of America’s foremost metropolitan cities. And what a stroke of luck to simultaneously visit this city and hang out with an old buddy from Amsterdam.

Jeroen a former colleague and buddy had the good fortune to meet Gail (his now wife) while both were on holiday in Italy six years ago. A ballsy chat up line by the Trevi Fountain led to a Jack Collins romance ending in Jeroen moving to San Francisco and nuptials within 18 months. Fantastic story where this abbreviated version doesn’t do it justice.

Prior to this visit I’d only met Gail once in Amsterdam during their early courtship. Sadly I couldn’t attend their wedding as it coincided with an Irish mate’s ruination – sorry marriage. So I looked forward to catching up and meeting their son Chuck also. On that first weekend Gail and Chuck were finishing up a weeks vacation in Hawaii and weren’t due to return until Monday night. Privately I was kind of glad as it meant Jeroen and I could go on the lash without having to justify prior or explain afterward. As mentioned, I had only met Gail once previously. However I needn’t have worried.

Gail’s a cool cat and would be a fun addition to any night on the sauce. So left to our own devices we drank a couple of fantastic bottles of wine which helped to wash down our burnt steaks. Guess the reminiscing, catch up and war stories distracted us. Before heading out Jeroen proudly insisted that we watch some of their wedding video. Great to see the shine is still there. Our heavy stomachs didn’t impede us as we hit a live music bar and toasted over yet more beer and a couple of jagermeisters.

Next day the plans of us going to Nappa Valley were discarded and instead swapped for Advil, McDonalds and DVD’s, in that order. Not a bad day after all and I was introduced to both the McAngus Burger and series one of Wire. A juicy burger with Swiss cheese and sautéed mushrooms. I don’t believe this delicacy is sold in Europe, but then again I rarely make the visit. Two great calls. Comfort food and TV – winner. Duly recovered on Monday, I headed into the city mid morning on what turned out to be a beautiful day.

As the previous days stormy weather cleared it left behind a far reaching clear blue sky and warm temperature too. The 50 minute journey into the city brought me past the lesser known wine region of Sonoma Valley and alongside the city itself. Strangely you drive parallel to the city and it’s skyscrapers on the left before turning face onto the Golden Gate Bridge. What a sight. The Bridge is one of those half a dozen or so global iconic structures which are instantly recognisable.

There have been no events back home positive or negative which have made me regret taking this trip. However I don’t like this type of thinking as it boarders on the negative and is comparable to a child not wanting to be to bed for fear of missing something. I prefer to look for verification of the decisions I’ve chosen. Fortunately there have been no real negatives on this trip so far. While there has been countless great times there have been a couple of moments where I knew – Dempsey, you made the right decision. Cruising over the Golden Gate Bridge on my own chopper, on an uncharacteristically clear day and with the city as backdrop was definitely one of those moments. While laughing to myself, shaking my head that this was actually happening and strangely tense the experience felt like an epiphany. Which barely diminished on the subsequent days I rode over the bridge.

Having gotten off the bridge and getting a bit more grounded I took in a bus tour and took in a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf. The tour guide made an amusing reference to the city’s two bridges. Where the Bay Bridge is equally impressive in design but “sadly is comparable to the plain hard working sister who went to college while the tart with the lipstick gets all the attention”! I did a number of other trips during my visit.

Alcatraz was a must and interesting that it was only a criminal prison for 29 years of its almost two hundred year history. It was otherwise known as Hoover’s Heaven as it housed the FBI’s first federal convicts most of whom were bank robbers. Fascinating to see the cells of its infamous inmates including Capone and The Birdman. Interestingly the prison wasn’t considered as harsh as other penitentiaries in the US but its island location and difficulty of escape escalating it in penal folklore. After which I took a ride on one of the cable cars, which actually do not run on overhead cables but on the ground instead.

The driver and brakeman must be in good condition as they yank and pull levers to halt the tram on steep gradients. No hydraulics here. But good fun to hang on the side of these antique carriages while touring the city. The route also took in the windiest street in the world (see photo).

On Wednesday I headed to SMOMA but unfortunately it was closed so I dropped over to The W for an early lunch and a beer. It was a bit of a slow day and I was the only customer. A young guy was being interviewed by hotel staff. Poor guy seemed overly nervous and I thought it a poor show to interview a candidate within earshot of a customer. Doubt if he was hired.

Other trips included a wine tasting tour in Nappa Valley. Three great tips from Gail which included Rubicon, owned by Francis Ford Coppola and the Joe Phelps winery. Great to hear how California’s wine history developed over one hundred years; yet only hit the world stage for quality when in 1976 a Nappa Chardonnay and Cabernet beat a French vintage in a blind tasting now referred to as The Judgement of Paris. I’m confident that my unrefined pallet couldn’t tell the difference between the competing vinos but I did appreciate many samples from each of the vineyards visited.

Rubicon is worth visiting not merely because of its famous owner (where he also has his main residence) but also has a nice museum including artefacts dating back to its founding pre 1900’s by a young Dane. Coppola added a touch of class by having his movie set designer landscape the front lawn. Where the end product is a tasteful replica of Jardin du Luxemburg in Paris. While in the sample room I met a nice Mexican couple that were also on holiday. Ricardo gave me his brother’s email address and told me to contact him when in Guadalajara; a tour of the tequila distillery where he works and a lesson in how to spot and drink a good vintage was assured. A tempting but potentially dangerous idea. I’ll see.

As for the Phelps Vineyard, possibly the best sun terrace I’ve come across. As I sat in a comfy high backed wicker chair the effect of the late summer heat and numerous wine tasters certainly made my head drop more than once. Perhaps even a little catching flies which clearly indicated time to head home.

That night Gail made a superb taco dinner using recipes handed down from her Mexican grandmother. Delicious food and all washed down with a couple of bottles of vino collapso from their impressively stocked cellar. Both are wine connoisseurs and have a small wine gift business (check out There were many other evenings of good food including one were I made an Irish stew. However it turned out only ok as I used a beef consommé instead of oxtail soup, which was unavailable. Beside the food the evenings were good fun and a nice way to get to know Gail and Chuck better but moreover it was great to see how happy they are. One day.

On the last weekend in San Fran I moved into the city as Jeroen’s parents came to visit for two weeks. This worked out well as I got to go out in the city and not have to worry about making the one hour journey back. I stayed in the Taylor Hotel which is a fairly basic three star hotel but somewhere to throw my bags and to sleep. The name reflected the street on which it was located and not the Indian family who owned the place.

While staying downtown I headed to Buena Vista which is famous for it Irish Coffees. I had to have three to ensure consistency before this Paddy could give his seal of approval. Top marks. On Saturday afternoon I took a trip down to Castro, San Frans famous gay street. Very colourful street with lots of rainbow flags and a fantastic amount of restaurants where I had a great lunch in The Cove.

There were a lot of people around I guess because of the weekend and perhaps due to the temperature, which was 27 degrees Celsius. Interesting to see the colours of the proverbial rainbow represented: young guys will old men, whites with Asians (or Asians with whites), muscle heads and beards etc. No leather types but guess it was too warm for that. I didn’t notice such a wide variety within the female constituents but definitely some cute well dressed ladies, Tom-boys and some girls who could throw javelin for an Eastern European country. I did notice one commonality between the society wives of Madison and Park Avenue and some gay men. They do love their sashimi sized dogs. Incidentally, a couple of years back I did see one of these rodent size dogs kill a German Shepard. Where the larger dog choked to death on the smaller one.

While I people watched it seemed like I was sitting in the centre of a well stocked tropical aquarium and I thought to myself what fish would I be if I swam in this pond. Stupid question. No matter what body of water I swim in I’d want to be the big mofo fish in the centre.

Before I left Castro I visited one of my favourite clothes stores, which had a huge outlet on the street – Diesel. I bought a cool grey hoody to replace my Irish Jersey. Bad idea to bring a white sweater on a trip like this. Later that night I headed to a party hosted by Declan Hickey, the brother of my good Irish mate Donal. I met Declan a couple of years back in Amsterdam where he, his wife and a couple of their friends joined my crew during NYE celebrations.

To be honest I don’t remember much of the night and of how I returned to the hotel but the homing pigeon instinct kicked in. Couldn’t have been that late as I woke up at 7.00am, sadly alone but glad I had my wallet (including credit cards) and phone for company. Must have been a good night. Surprisingly fresh I headed to a club called End Up that opens continuously throughout the weekend. Thanks for the recommendation Ian.

What a place. Not the usual after hours dump. This place was huge and included: two bars, a large and slick sun terrace with a fountain, pool tables and a pretty big dance floor. The place was packed with a good crew and the music was awesome. When the DJ played One by Swedish House Mafia the ceiling just lifted and it reminded me of the moment I first heard it during a small party in Amsterdam last summer ( I get the shivers thinking about it now just as I did then.

On Monday morning I headed to the bike store to pick up my ride. I’d left it in for a 10k service and two new tyres. Good peace of mind to know the bike was ready to go, as I’d be covering a huge distance in the coming two weeks. I had a date with nature. On the agenda: Yosemite National Park, Death Valley and The Grand Canyon.

Great visit, great friends and a great city.

Al Dempsey
10 December 2010