Bittersweet city

Trip Start Sep 02, 2007
Trip End Sep 16, 2007

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Flag of United States  , California
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

I'm staying in a Hilton which is lovely, but it has an unfortunate location on the outskirts of The Tenderloin. This is a rough and run down inner city area were the city's chronic homeless problem is highly visible. Tenderloin is sandwiched between other, nicer neighbourhoods but the transition zone is quite large and the districts overlap each other. For instance, to the north is the upmarket Nob Hill. The undefined inbetween area goes by the wonderful name of Tender Nob!

The maps that the hotel give out to show attractions in the area and places to eat etc, get round the problem by locating the hotel in the bottom corner of the map. Roads that are visible to the west and south of the hotel (ie towards the centre of Tenderloin) are unmarked. They might as well put - 'look the other way please, there's nothing to see down there'.

In my first few days walking to work and to the main thoroughfare, Market Street, to catch a bus etc, I got asked for money many times and saw homeless people stationed at pretty much every corner. On average, I've been seeing about three per block - often with shopping trolleys piled high with their possessions. There was one man sleeping in the middle of the pavement on a busy corner. Quite a few times I've seen people scavenging in bins. In alleyways there are mattresses and bedding (I use the word in the loosest sense of the word since you can't call paving slabs a bed) dotted along the length. I've seen people passed out and those doing drugs on the streets. The 'official' number of citizens without homes quoted in my guidebook is 12,000. That probably means many more in reality.

It's really starting to get to me. It's not that anyone's threatened or done anything to me, I'm just so shocked by the number, and the fact that most of them look pretty scary and mad. On top of that, I've been seeing a significant number of people who seem to have homes, but fall into the category of 'loony' if you go by their choice of clothing/mumbling habits. Rudyard Kipling famously said in 1889 'San Francisco is a mad city - inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people'. Nothing much has changed then. 

On my way to the office on my first day of work, I stopped in a café and ordered a breakfast that came with ham, without the ham. I was asked if I wanted fruit instead and accepted. My plate arrived filled with scrambled egg, saute potatoes and melon chunks - all snuggling side by side! It was fine actually, but I got put off my food rather because there were hundreds of flies swarming around the alley right outside the window of the cafe. I couldn't help thinking someone had died there in the night.

I spent the day working from one of my company's English Language schools, about 20 minutes walk from the hotel, with a manager, Peter, and 2 colleagues Michele and Calvin (who had been in the UK with me the previous week). The school is at the end of its summer program at the moment - lots of kids come from all over the world for two weeks to learn English in their summer holidays. Because there is a constant influx of new students, every Tuesday the academic director give a welcome talk in the main concourse. I overheard the first one. The kids get told 3 rules: 'Speak English', 'Make an effort' and 'Don't die'!

After work, the four of us went out to an Italian restaurant for dinner. We'd been talking earlier about differences in American and British English ('pants' was the cause of much amusement) and when the waiter asked if our food was OK, I said 'lovely, thanks'. I'd never have thought that could be misunderstood, but Calvin explained that an American would only use that phrase in a sarcastic manner. I was a bit devastated, because I've been really enjoying the food here so have used it quite a lot!

Peter and I went on for a drink in an Irish bar. They had Magners cider on tap. Joy. Why don't we have that in England?! We only stayed for one and then I went back to work on my laptop in my hotel room until midnight, a habit that continued all week..

The next morning I had breakfast with Peter in a proper diner. It had glittery red plastic seats and photos of James Dean on the walls. We sat at the counter to eat. It was lovely. Sorry, I mean great.

I've been eating a lot of vegan dishes since I've been here, and raw vegetables and salads. Normally, I would never consider ordering a salad in a restaurant because it seems a wasted opportunity to indulge a little, but the food is so fresh and tasty here that I've been tempted by them. The local/seasonal/organic trend is big in SF too. On Monday I had the best veggie-burger ever - and all it consisted of was a huge juicy portobello mushroom and other roasted veg in a bun - soooo tasty. On Wednesday evening I ate at a posh vegan restaurant called Millennium. It had a virtually incomprehensible menu, very similar to Terre-a-Terre in Brighton, but I managed to get the gist of a few dishes and placed my order. How they get such rich flavours out of vegan food is magical. Everything tasted sublime. However, I watched two homeless guys on the opposite street corner throughout my meal. I couldn't stop thinking about the contrast of what I can enjoy and what they have to endure. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.
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