Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer On the 30 Stockton

A city bus ride is a trip through the heart of San Francisco.

By Paul Gerald

MAY 24, 1999:  I came into San Francisco from San Jose on the commuter train, and all I knew was I needed to get to the Presidio. A friend works right across the street from it, and we were having lunch. I wasn't even sure what the Presidio was, but when I asked a bus driver which line to take, he said, "The 30 Stockton. It goes right there."

The No. 30 stopped up the street from the CalTrain Depot; I dropped my dollar in the slot and took a seat in the back row. There were only three of us on board -- me and the driver and an off-duty driver. Both of them were complaining about their job.

We started up 3rd Street, in a run-down area where the city is building a new ballpark. It's going to be called Pacific Bell Stadium -- heaven forbid a stadium without a sponsor. It will replace cold, windy, and constantly-complained-about Candlestick Park ... er, 3Com Park.

There's a bar on 3rd that's now a former bar, or I would have gone in and gotten the story behind its name: "Charlie Brown and the Greek."

We went past the Moscone Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which looks like the USS Enterprise. We were coming into downtown, and the architecture was a mix of cutting-edge and old, brick American. On the streets were businesspeople and some of the freakiest freaks anywhere. A crowd of tourists was gathered where a cable car was turning to go back uphill, and street performers abounded on this sunny late morning.

We turned left on Sutter and took on a smattering of tourists and shoppers, including an old couple with a map and two pretty, chatty blondes with huge shopping bags. Through the windows I saw the Gap, Polo, and Banana Republic; we were near Union Square, the shopper's mecca. The blondes were talking loudly about somebody else's failed relationship; they were using "like" in every sentence.

Right on Stockton, up a hill, through a tunnel, and bang, we were in Chinatown. The transition couldn't have been less subtle. Signs screamed dim sum and jewelry and the Chinese characters for Walgreen's and Bank of America and YMCA. The sidewalks were packed with people poring over produce, the streets choked with delivery trucks. In front of the Sun-Yat Sen Center, I saw an old man, who looked to be 95, stooped over and sweeping along the curb with a hand-made broom. He looked, in the middle of this massive city, like a man trying to empty the ocean with a tablespoon.

I saw the Bay Bridge to the right, leading over to Oakland and Berkeley, and within three stops the 30 Stockton was filled, seats and aisles, with people speaking Chinese. Streets and bus were both saturated, and it was starting to get to our driver. The bus was so crowded that he had to wait to see how many people got off before he could let anybody on; meanwhile, passengers wanting to get off had to plan for it a couple of stops ahead to get to the door in time. The driver berated an older woman with a portfolio for not hustling to the stop. The chatter of the blondes was lost in the high whine of Mandarin and Cantonese.

But in the miniature world that is San Francisco, nothing lasts for long. Less than a dozen blocks from the first dim sum, I saw the first sign for ravioli. I also saw A. Cavalli and Co., Italian Bakers and Imports, on the same spot it has occupied for 118 years. It also has had the same recipe for spaghetti in the window that whole time. We turned left onto Corso Cristoforo Colombo, or Columbus Avenue if you prefer, and plunged into the heart of North Beach.

North Beach was Italian first, then beatnik, and is now decidedly both. Your waitress at Vesuvio is a poet, City Lights Bookstore is next to Jack Kerouac Alley, and the smell coming from the Stinking Rose, an all-garlic restaurant, will either knock you out cold or pull you inside. At the intersection of Via Barufo, I counted about 125 cases of red wine being delivered to the Michelangelo Cafe. The driver, feeling better now that there were fewer passengers on board, opened his window and yelled to a man in front of a renovation project. His voice came straight out of Goodfellas: "Hey Tony! When-a ya gonna open da place up, huh?"

For the record, the greatest meal this traveler has ever had is the ravioli, with house salad and house red, at the Gold Spike on Columbus. It's the one with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and what looks, from the street, like seating for 25 max. A few doors down is an Italian bakery with pastries that can't be identified and tiramisu that can't be beat. Go to both of these places if you're ever in town.

The 30 Stockton headed past Washington Park, the home of St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, where Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe. To the right I could see Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill, and somewhere a few blocks to the left was the famously curvy part of Lombard Street. We were getting into Tourist Country: A left onto North Point brought us into the world of hotels and bike rentals and souvenir shops that is Fisherman's Wharf.

We stayed up on the hill, cruising past Ghirardelli (as in chocolate) Square, and missed most of Fisherman's Wharf, which is my recommendation for the area. It's worth it, once, to get a sourdough bowl filled with clam chowder, watch the tourists in the shopping/theme park Pier 39, enjoy the views of the Bay and Alcatraz, and then go to the Europa Cafe, which claims to have served the first Irish coffee in America.

We turned away from all that and onto Van Ness Ave., which is also U.S. 101, the coastal highway from the Olympic Peninsula to the Mexican border. We wrapped around Fort Mason, a 19th-century fort with a lovely park and one of the world's great youth hostels, then turned right onto Chestnut Street, the main drag of the Marina District. I could see masts in the distance, between the ultra-expensive homes.

Chestnut Street is filled with shops and cafes and markets, a happening street that isn't touristy. The blondes, still chatting, jumped off the bus and into a Starbucks. Toward the end of Chestnut is my ultimate breakfast recommendation: Bechelli's House of Omelettes.

The very end of Chestnut is also the end of the 30 Stockton. The poor, worn-out driver had to turn around and go back, but I was headed for the Presidio. It turns out to be another, much larger old fort, on the northernmost point of land in the city and now part of the national park system. With time to kill before lunch, I walked clear through it, a mile or more, until I was underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Guys were surfing.

I took a picture, a great shot of a surfer riding a wave directly under the bridge, and everybody who sees it fails to believe it. It's not real, they say. And I say to them, it sure is. I saw it myself at the end of the 30 Stockton line.

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