My mom grew up before video games and texting and the internet. Before cable TV and reality TV and endless reruns of everything. Plus she was somewhere out in the Midwest. She had nothing. And so, she says, she and her brothers and sister would go to the airport to watch people come and go. Needless to say this was also before 9/11 and they could actually just sit at gates and stare at the passengers getting on and off the planes. Fun times, I’m sure. They were especially transfixed, she remembers, by the Californians, all “weirdos” as she recalls, though this was still the 50s and I wonder what that even meant. Were the men were waiting an extra week to trim their hair? Were the ladies not wearing gloves on the planes?
Still, people watching is kind of a time-honored practice and if it’s something you enjoy, there’s no better place for it than Dolores Park on a sunny weekend. Since my mom was watching the Californians who could afford air travel back in the 50s, San Francisco has been through the cultural revolution of the 60s, allowed the infamous Castro district to rise from its loins, let the dot com-ers redefine professional standards and spawned Burning Man. It is, today, a unique haven for people who want the freedom to look, act and be exactly what they choose, and think it’s possible that the choices they make might scare their families. And all those people go to Dolores Park when the sun comes out. It’s a beautiful, eclectic parade of fashion and culture and these few weeks, spring, are kind of a sweet spot for it. The sun is sparkling and the air is warm and San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the whole world, until the chill of the summer fog rolls in and everyone goes back inside and gets depressed.
I have kind of an odd one for you this month. Who knows, though, maybe one of you out there will have been dreaming of this all your life and I’ll be the one to tell you about it. For the rest, hopefully it’ll be a sweet little curiosity that’s maybe worth checking out instead of a movie on some day off. Ready for it? I want to tell you about a pinball museum in Alameda.
What would a pinball museum even look like, you ask? This, anyway, is what I wondered in the months between the first time I heard of it and the first time I went. Well, it turns out that it’s a whole lot of pinball machines, separated into different rooms by era. And what’s great about it is that not only are they all in working condition, but with the price of admission you can play them all for free! For me this was the real draw of the place because I, for one, am not such a pinball aficionado. The historical machines would have had no interest for me if I couldn’t touch them and even then I had very little curiosity about the shifting mechanics through the years, I only wanted to keep stopping that damn little ball from getting past my flippers. To get infinite shots at that task, though, was amazing. My ability to continue playing was tied, for once, to neither the number of quarters I could scrounge up nor any particular personal skill. It was sweet release from past pinball experience.
I don’t imagine you could get a life changing experience out of this place, but, you know, some days it rains. Some days when you’re away from home you get bored. Some days quirky is more appealing than grand. If you find yourself having one of those days while you’re here with us, I recommend the pinball museum.
Before I get into this month’s day trip recommendation, I have to acknowledge that I’m kind of on a kick. I am loving Oakland lately. A couple of months ago I encouraged all of you to just strike out and visit Oakland in a broad sort of way, but I feel unsatisfied and now want to start singling out my favorite places. This is only my second time talking to you about Oakland, so it’s still a little early to be too worried about redundancy, but the problem is that I can’t see this being the last time either.
At least, I can say, my enthusiasm has some validation and my desire to write more has some justification. The New York Times recently ranked Oakland #5 on its list of 45 places to go in 2012. Even better, it was right between London and Tokyo! Which is great and well deserved, but then they would have you rush up there to go, for example, to a restaurant called Boot & Shoe Service, which, yes, has a very fancy pedigree and is chock full of the hippest people in the Bay, but, as restaurant experiences go, is pretty unspecial.
The place I want to tell you to go instead, I have to warn you, is not very cool at all. There will be no hipsters at the Lake Chalet. It’s more the kind of a place that families go on special occasions, kind of a classic “nice” restaurant. So why should I single it out for you here? A few reasons. One is that the lake in its name is Lake Merritt, which is sort of unstoppably lovely, and there are very few seats that don’t have a view. Second, a staff that is genuinely friendly, almost conspiratorially friendly. And, finally, crazy as it seems to put this last, the food is super super tasty. I had such an easy good time at this restaurant. I felt comfortable and charmed in a way that is somehow unique to Oakland, different from the generic trendiness of a place like Boot & Shoe Service, whose aim seems to be successfully imitating the feeling of being in Brooklyn or Berlin.
I guess, as recommendations go, this one could send you off to either place, depending on what you’re looking for. Me, I’ll be at the Lake Chalet. Maybe I’ll see you there.
When I was growing up, Oakland was getting a lot of notoriety. It was poverty stricken, the crime rate was high and, as this was the dawn of rap, all of the difficulties of life on its streets were being articulated in this new and exciting way. Oakland’s danger took on a gritty glamour in this music, made it mythological to me. Somehow, in those years, it didn’t occur to me that it was the same Oakland I went to to watch A’s games, that normal place just a short little car ride away.
As you may have noticed, Oakland is back in the news again lately. Why it’s the most violent of all the Occupy camps is a question for a sociologist and not anything I want to speculate on here; what I want to say is that, just like when I was a kid, the real Oakland is so much different from what you see on TV. It’s on my mind because it’s on TV, I admit, but it’s because it’s looking so apocalyptic and scary in the news that I want to tell you all to go.
I was there yesterday with my brother. It was sunny, and warm enough to take our jackets off. We walked around Lake Merritt, watching birds and joggers, trying to pin down exactly what it is that makes Oakland feel so comfortable. We talked about its diversity, which feels, in a way that I’ve never seen anyplace else, complete. It’s also in this very sweet spot between urban and suburban, where you feel like you get the good things of each, without any of that pesky alienation. It’s affordable. It’s warm. There are views of the bay and the hills.
I’m asking you to go because it’s one of the treasures of the Bay Area and well worth an afternoon’s trip. I’m asking you to go now because it’s a treasure whose small businesses will suffer in the next months because it looks like Armageddon on the nightly news.
When people are listing the beautiful places to go in the Bay Area, a little town called Sausalito will often be at the top of the list. A lot of you have probably heard of it and some of you have already been there and so you know that there’s a reason it got so famous. It’s just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, right on the bay, with a view that I recently watched nearly paralyze a couple of German friends I took there. Still, the town of Sausalito itself has become generic and over-commercialized, the way beautiful places that people like to go will.
If this is as tiresome to you as it is to me, here’s my suggestion: Drive to Sausalito. There is only one way in and you’ll get stuck in traffic along the water as your fellow tourists dally about, looking for parking, trying to figure out how their rental cars work, etc., which will give you plenty of time to enjoy that spectacular view of San Francisco. When you’ve had enough, cut into the hills behind the main commercial strip and start looking for a staircase. You’ll have to do a bit of weaving, but eventually you’ll find one and, in the meantime, the hills of Sausalito are a bit like an architecture museum. Parking will be easy up there, I swear, so as soon as you find some stairs, leave your wheels behind and start climbing. At the end of each staircase, you’ll have to cross a street and search a bit for the next, but it’s not very hard and it won’t be long before you cross into a wooded trail. Just a little bit further and you’ll have a view of the bay and the ocean at the same time. This is stunning and maybe enough, but if it’s not, you can follow the path down into the Marin Headlands. I don’t know why all the rest of the tourists aren’t doing this, but, thankfully, they’re not.
This month I have a story for you about something one can do if one is independently wealthy. 25 years ago a developer named Steve Oliver, who had previously declared himself to be one of the people who “doesn’t get” art, had a revelation. Suddenly he liked art a lot. So much, in fact, that he decided to convert the Napa Valley sheep farm he had bought for his daughter into a sculpture ranch, commissioning some of the biggest names in contemporary art to make work that is both specific to the landscape and unmovable and, so, out of the normal system of valuation. Bruce Nauman wound a concrete staircase up and over the hills. Richard Serra used a set of giant, copper blocks to turn a small field into sacred space.
The thing, though, about Steve Oliver and his magnificent sculpture garden, is that he doesn’t need you or your money. He is only somewhat willing, then, to allow visitors to share what has been built, essentially, for him. There are only two times a year, in fact, when he gives tours, one in the spring and one in the fall. That means that one is fast approaching, and if this is interesting to you, it’s time to take action. It is not possible to just show up. It’s not even as easy as going online and booking a spot. Mr. Steve Oliver accepts groups that have given a donation to a charity that he finds acceptable. Individuals can buy into the charitable offering of another group. Details can be found on their website. I’m pretty sure you don’t have to provide a blood sample. It’s truly complicated, I know, but, and I will not lie to you because I have nothing to gain, the magic of the place is unparalleled. If you don’t go now, keep it in mind for that future date when you really deserve something special. It’s called Oliver Ranch.
Does it seem to you like I write too much about things to do in San Francisco? Because it seems to my boss, our general manager, that I do. I am, in fact, openly discouraged from finding new things for you to check out in, as she must grudgingly admit that everyone around here calls it, “the city”. There’s so much around here that isn’t San Francisco, she insists time and time again, and, anyway, everyone will always go there without us telling them to.
The thing is, I don’t even disagree with her general position, but what am I supposed to do about the particular things that I feel a moral obligation to share with you? Yesterday, for example, I had two scoops of ice cream on a cone, one salted licorice and the other black sesame, and I think my life was changed by the experience. Un-sweet ice cream was already a revelation, but to get to go even deeper into those complex flavors was, and I’m sorry to sound insane and, no, I haven’t forgotten that I’m talking about an ice cream cone, but it was moving. Seriously. I kept telling my friend how lucky I was to have it in my mouth.
You’re curious, aren’t you? You’d defend my decision to write about this, I think. Especially after you’ve been to Humphrey Slocombe and seen for yourself.
Eucalyptus trees are weeds. They’re not indigenous to California, but they’re everywhere. And they’re tall and they’re strong and where they decide to grow, other things die.
They’re also very beautiful. Majestic yet they’ve come to tower over much of our coastline. Their distinct smell reaches further, even, than their spindly branches and to take a hike in Northern California is to bathe yourself in the refreshing shade and scent of eucalyptus trees.
We’re supposed to hate them. We’re told to look down upon whatever Australians infected us, and to mourn the loss of the native flora and fauna that couldn’t hold their ground. But I defy you to take a walk through the trails of San Francisco’s Presidio, for example, as I did just now, and not fall in love with eucalyptus trees by the end of the day.
And, anyway, if I’m going to start hating non-indigenous things whose occupation of space led to the death of native populations, I think I’ll start with skyscrapers.
There’s a bit of an anomaly in our little neighborhood, maybe you’ve noticed it. Tucked neatly away between the apartment complexes and mini-malls that make up this Sunnyvale-Cupertino borderland that we inhabit, there’s a little cherry orchard. In a way it’s so unusual that you could almost miss it, mistake it for a park or the tree filled entrance to yet another cluster of town houses. But it’s a real orchard, one of the last of its kind. It’s owned by the Olsen family, who’ve been growing here for generations, since the days when all their neighbors were in the same business. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories, even here in this newsletter, about this valley’s fertility in the days before silicon. Well, the Olsens have been here since then and, unlikely though it may seem, they’ve got no plans to leave.
What this means for you is that some really juicy California delicacies are just around the corner from your home away from home. The Olsens have got a shop, open yearly, stocked with locally grown fresh and dried fruits and nuts, fresh baked pies and other sweets. You’ll find perfect treats to munch on poolside and ideal souvenirs, plus you’ll be supporting, well, the survival of a local endangered species.
I guess I’m kind of a cynic, but for all the years that I’ve been hearing that there are buffalo in Golden Gate Park, I’ve always thought it was an urban legend. I never bothered to look it up and I never tried to investigate. No one I heard it from ever talked about having seen them, they just said that they were there, and I was a salty dog and scoffed at their naivete. Imagine my surprise, then, yesterday, when I came across a whole field of buffalo at the far end of the park!
To be fair, what I had imagined that all those people were reporting for all those years was that wild buffalo were roaming through the park, like the wild boar that really, truly do wander, and sometimes charge, through Berlin. What it turns out is that there are a handful of buffalo that live in a not stifling, though not overly expansive, pen at the ocean end of Golden Gate Park.
What is this a recommendation for, though? The buffalo are grand and sad, remarkable and irrelevant, and not worth a full day’s excursion. And I promise that this is not some trite warning against cynicism. Me, I was reminded how of rewarding it can be to go below the surface, and maybe that’s a good reminder for all you travelers too. Perhaps it’s better to acknowledge that you can’t see everything and so to choose, instead, to see all of any one thing. And Golden Gate Park isn’t a bad place to start.