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  • Writer's pictureAlberto Rodriguez-Garcia

A Tourist at Home

Updated: 5 days ago

What a double-decker tour bus taught me about tourism, San Francisco, and myself.






On a recent trip to Mexico City, I felt a distinct sense of discomfort as a tourist - like an invader (and it’s not because I have Spanish genes and upbringing, which makes me a weird blend of comfortable and guilty in Mexico). It’s difficult to identify the origin and nature of those kinds of feelings while one is experiencing them, so about a month later I decided that it would be useful to experience where I live as a tourist might: on top of an open-air, double-decker tour bus, soaking up the sights and sounds of my home in San Francisco from a perch of newness. 


Maybe from up here I could better understand what it’s like from both sides - to know a place but to try and see it as though I don’t, to examine how identifying as a tourist affects my experience of a place, to see what curated impressions tourists are given of where I call home. At the very least, I could spend a lovely Sunday exploring new and familiar sights in San Francisco.  


 I’ve lived in San Francisco for almost 6 years, starting out in the Nob Hill area (big hills, lots of parks, bars), moving on to Lower Haight (think hippies, but less intense), maturing into the neighboring Alamo Square (you know the show Full House?), taking a year long sabbatical to travel around the good, ol’ USA, and ending up here, in the Presidio (ocean view, full of sounds of birds, exceedingly pretty, isolated). Even though San Francisco has been an active backdrop for the beginning of my adult life, I’ve rarely looked back and considered how living here has impacted who/what I am. It’s easy to float along. 


And yet, even after 6 whole years, I still only have a cursory, swiss-cheese type understanding of San Francisco. I know what I know about it, and not much else, which is very little of the whole, really. From a relative handful of personal experiences, I’ve constructed a supposed reality of what it’s like here in The City. This is a function of the mind, not a choice. And as a tourist, this feeling of a hyper-personal, isolated reality becomes even more salient. I have to construct a whole from a select set of parts even more quickly and lazily than normal. But what also makes tourism feel strangely uncomfortable to me is that my hyper-personal, isolated reality is actually curated for me, and that curation clashes head on with 1) my egotistical belief that my point of view is different - sometimes better - than others, and 2) the underlying and inescapable knowing that what you’re experiencing and how you’re experiencing it is detached from the shared reality of those who live there. A tourist needs to create a version of a place, in their own minds, based on a fast-paced, overwhelming snapshot forcefully shoved into their covetous face. But to be a good tourist, one must forget or refuse to acknowledge these things in order to feel wholly satisfied with one’s choice to engage in tourism in the first place. 


So, my assignment atop the double-decker on this fine Sunday is this: to observe. 


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Due to a confluence of totally foreseeable factors - laziness, a hungry cat, and inadequate public transportation - my companion on this journey and I take an uber to the beating heart of San Francisco tourism: the Big Bus™ headquarters on Jefferson and Mason St, in the now inadequately named Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood (inadequate not because there’s no wharf, but because at this point no serious fishing seems to happen there, relatively speaking). Ronald, who drove us with about as much enthusiasm as could reasonably be asked for out of an Uber driver on a Sunday morning (which is to say, none at all), turned out to be a San Francisco native, born and bred. His grandfather worked on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), and so naturally Ronald has a keen interest in transportation. Besides running a few small businesses in San Francisco - namely a 2nd story space that he described as a “place for musicians to practice, NOT record” - I came to assume that he also drives the gently prying folk like me around to help support his two sons (19, 22). 


“What’s changed since you grew up here?” I ask him, gently, I think. 


“People are afraid of their own shadows. They want to feel safe. They want their own way all of the time,” he says, more matter-a-factly than I was expecting. He also gives several anecdotes about how “hardcore” Dolores Park used to be and how the Panhandle would get “rowdy,” and that it’s all different now. There isn’t a perceptible tint of judgment when he speaks. As we approach the mass of gravitational pull that is the Big Bus™ headquarters, I tell him about our plans to be tourists for the day. He seems excited for us; but what solidifies us as brothers for life is his unironic and genuine invitation to fist bump, paired with a parting “It was nice chatting with you.”


Like good tourists, we had purchased tickets ahead of time. But the seemingly genuinely kind folks over at Big Bus™ are ready for anything; the headquarters is surprisingly large and has a tall, concierge-style curved desk with large, open doors facing both cross streets. A massive burgundy letter “B” on the outside of the building is like a beacon to the experience-deprived, adventure-hungry, camera-trigger-happy, greedy-eyed masses that have washed ashore San Francisco. On Jefferson St one of the (I assume, based on the sheer technological marvels inside) patented, double-deckered, deep-burgundy buses sits waiting to be filled. 


Doug, who for me is now almost synonymous with this whole experience, has a good natured if not slightly distant look about him when we go to show him our tickets. “Welcome to San Francisco” he says - likely only the ~17th time today he’s said this with who knows how many more to go. He asks where we are visiting from. “San Francisco!” I say with an excited smile, “we’ve been here for 6 years.” He seems to expand outward at this, somehow getting taller, smiling even more broadly than before, his gray-blue eyes shining. I notice a small stick poke tattoo of an airplane on his right hand as he hands us our printed tickets, admonishing us to keep it somewhere safe, or else. What I loved most about Doug - besides his apparently genuine cheerfulness and excitement whenever we would run into him at different bus stops around the city - was that he kept asking us “So did you just move to the city?” as a conversational ice-breaker, which, over the course of the day, I found increasingly surreal and hilarious.  


I’m too excited to take a good look at the first floor of the bus as I race up to the exposed second. The bus is still pretty empty so we have full autonomy to find the perfect seats (very important). I’m already thinking like a tourist. Rows of plastic chairs in pairs, split down the middle; the sun has broken down and dispersed the early morning clouds and beats directly onto us; it’s still relatively quiet out; the Sunday morning runners are out in full force, blurring the lines between real life and whatever this is; the temperature + sun combo feels literally perfect on this fine AM; I can’t smell but can see the  “world famous” Boudin Bakery; a poster of Steph Curry to my left is hard to ignore. Even though I’ve been to this area before, it doesn’t feel familiar to me. San Francisco is like that sometimes: familiar yet distant, close yet far, beautiful yet disturbing, loveable yet easy to hate. I’m already feeling a bit overwhelmed by what there is to see with my fresh, greedy, touristy eyes. There’s only so much one can notice - the gaps must be filled in. 



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One of the first things that seems noticeably weird about the experience of riding in one of these mobile, tourist herding machines is the accompanying audio guide. My first reaction is to laugh, but over time my feelings towards the narrative, tone, and substance of the voiceovers swings in a more cynical direction. The audio tour is available in six different languages: English (represented by an American flag), Spanish (represented by Spain), German, French, Italian, and Portuguese (represented by Brazil), which hints at the clientele that this particular tour is aimed at pleasing but which suspiciously is missing any options from the Asian continent. To get inside access to the hottest tourism information in town, one needs to insert a pair of plastic, red (not quite burgundy, I note) headphones provided as part of the Big Bus™ package into a 1990s-looking contraption on the inside of each pair of seats, the location of which has incredibly high awkwardness potential for the solo tourists out there. 


“Welcome to San Francisco!” begins the audio tour with pronounced cheer. There are various voice actors throughout the tour, and all of them have a discernibly actory-ish, forced, and self-conscious way of enunciating that would normally be reserved for speaking with/to actual infants. Downloading the app is very important. They remind us of this, and the sticker in the back of each chair does also (it’s made extra crystal clear that the app is of vital importance on the bus itself, which has a huge “download the app” self advertisement on its rear). Being the good tourists that we are, we already downloaded it last night (your move, Big Bus™). What makes the voiceover even more weird-funny is that they sometimes will interject sound effects for dramatic effect, e.g. a body cannonballing into a body of water, cows mooing, a metal jail cell closing, etc. Though having a pre-recorded, opt-in-whenever-you-feel-like-it audio tour is definitely easier and less expensive, it loses something substantial: engaging with and learning from a human being from the place you are visiting. I can’t ask the audio tour any stupid follow up questions, can’t look it in the eye as it regales me with stories of a life lived in a foreign place, can't imagine what people from here may be like through this engineered script.  


How should a tour begin? Every city has so much history, so much culture, and so much to learn about.  Well, Big Bus™ thinks - and I’m not one to disagree with authority - that the history of bread is as good a place as any.  Boudin Bakery and their chowder bread bowls (literally clam chowder inside of a bowl-shaped piece of sourdough bread, epic), a staple of touristic joy here, was one of the things I distinctly remember from my first visit to San Francisco over 10 years ago. We decide to get one of these overpriced if not delicious bowls at the end of the day, once we’ve adventured to our satisfaction. 


As the bus exits the Fisherman’s Wharf area, the second topic of San Francisco insider info is the World Famous Bushman, a renowned street performer who used to hide and crouch behind eucalyptus branches he himself was holding up, trying to gently scare locals and tourists alike, sometimes going as far as to loudly exclaim “ooga booga” (they actually said these words in the audio tour with surprising vigor, which made me laugh out loud) to be most effective. This tour is AWESOME. But I suddenly realize that there’s a whole city outside of this bus, and I find it impossible to pay attention to the quirky fun facts while also trying to observe the city that I am supposed to be observing. I fail to appreciate how this experience has been curated for my enjoyment, and that maybe it’s better to submit than to attempt to “see it all.”


We quickly make our way through North Beach (little Italy, basically), which normally I find to lean a little bit too much into the Italian thing but which comes off as pleasant, historic, and full of life from the view up here on the double-decker. It seems that I’m only partially able to set aside my pre-existing feelings, thoughts, and experiences of a place from the moment to moment present. In Washington Square Park there are groups of older ladies dancing, stretching, or moving in unison. I count 87 Italian flags along the route so far. As we pass by stores, restaurants, homes, etc, there are certain places that I recognize or that I’ve previously been to, which makes me excited and giddy and adds another dimension to the experience. An idea brews: sometimes it’s more interesting to have a certain amount of context before experiencing something new. I seem to be having the most fun out of anybody on this bus, and I notice my voice might be a notch or two above normal as I gleefully point out things to my patient companion. 


North Beach is suddenly gone as we continue down Columbus Ave and towards Downtown. Whether it’s intentional or not, the Big Bus™ route seems to enter downtown from the best possible avenue, with the Transamerica Pyramid looming imposingly above. The sun hides behind the pointed tip of the tower as we get closer, and the contrast in temperature between the sun and shade becomes clear. Downtown is much more interesting when you look up, as any tourist can attest to (why is it that once you get used to a place, you start to look down?). Buildings that I’ve walked by plenty of times before seem to reappear as new entities. 101 California St is my favorite: the east side of the building is exposed as if carved open, with half of the building supported by rectangular columns and the other by more building below it - and within the balustrated columns there is a massive greenhouse-esque glass structure that seems to house the lobby. My second favorite is 5 Embarcadero Ctr: an otherwise boring white hotel of tremendous girth is topped by an incongruently placed structure resembling a spaceship control center, or a UFO made for bureaucrats, or both. It’s colder here in the shadows of empty buildings.  


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Our first stop of the day is the Ferry Building: a strange combination of ferry terminal, shopping mall, and office space that looks to have just been repainted. The main tower in the center of the wide building is inspired by Big Ben (a fact that I’ve just assumed; I need to fill in the gaps somehow and all the tour said was that I could buy some cool shit in here), but for some reason it has a decidedly plastic vibe about it, a smoothness that looks unnaturally clean for something that exists out in the elements.


Stores of all kinds line the interior first floor of the building, beautifully lit by skylights. It’s still early enough where it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. The busiest places are the coffee shops. There are stores to buy all kinds of things: mushroom growth kits, croissants that look like sculptures rather than food, plants and gardening tools, fancy home goods that I can’t even imagine the use for. I end up, as though tethered to it by some invisible string, at Stonehouse California Olive Oil. Having been born in a Spanish hospital to Spanish parents, olive oil runs deep in my blood (even if I’m infinitely ignorant about its nuances). The smell of it is enough to make me teary-eyed with nostalgia. We sample some of the house blend olive oil, which blows my malleable little mind and is exactly what it sounds like (a blend of different olive varieties, like a red wine blend).  As a good tourist, I persuade myself to purchase a 375ml bottle of the stuff, telling the nice lady I will “compare how it tastes to the generic olive oil I have at home,” giving away my total ignorance right at the end. 


But what captures my imagination completely is the ferry terminal board. It’s located in the spacious nave of the building, giving it a justified prominence. As I walk underneath, actively not noticing that it is there, I hear a series of strangely loud clicks and clanks directly above me. Confused, I step back and gaze upon the masterpiece. The split-flap board displays departure times for ferries traveling to various destinations in the Bay Area, but every few minutes the sign resets with updated information - this is when the magic happens. The board cycles through 37 cells per row, for 8 rows, one row at a time. Instead of a quiet, instant change like we are used to seeing in electronic boards, suddenly there’s a 30 second musical number being performed as each tile on a row flips forward - smacking gently into itself as it cycles from 0 to Z and back until the correct character (number/letter) is displayed. Going from “A” to “B” takes one flip, for example. The effect is mesmerizing, and I’m too entranced to notice when any ferry actually departs (instead, I unsuccessfully try to figure out how it could possibly work, fail to do so, and look up a Youtube video the next day). I close my eyes to focus on the sound. Apparently, these types of split-flap signs used to be all over transportation hubs but are now relegated behind cheaper, more advanced, and less fun electronic alternatives. The price of progress is often subtle. 


Anyway, we’re back on the Big Bus™ now (Doug was there and he gave us an “Oh, I remember you guys!” when we showed our tickets which instantly made me feel better than everybody else). The Bay Bridge gets little love during the audio tour, which is surprising because from where I sit the bridge looks to be directly entering the 4th floor of a skyscraper, as if there was a tunnel going through it. Scraggly trees still leafless from the mild winter look stunted and full of dread from living here. In between the highly interesting and not-at-all weird San Francisco trivia facts, the most inoffensive, average, and moderately upbeat elevator rock is pumped through the collective ears on the bus. I grow to appreciate the music more as the tour evolves, but my ears’ first instinct is to recoil. By the end of the tour I’m headbanging along, only sort of ironically. 


What makes me recoil even more aggressively is the boastful, masturbatory, unironic description of the Tech Industry. The shame-induced anger that bubbles inside of me is a little eerie. Now, I know this topic is spicy - and equally complex - but as an un-proud, 8-year, card-carrying member, I have opinions. There is, of course, some slight glorification that should be expected during a tour of this kind. No sane, successful tourism project would intentionally make their customers feel any sort of conflicting, confusing, or uncomfortable emotions while under their seasoned care; it would even be asking a lot of a touree to question what they are being told, to consider the agenda of the narrators whose main goal is to delight, to wonder, to excite, to inspire, to make the trip to San Francisco worth it. Having lived in the Tech Industry for longer than I might have wished to, I have all kinds of shame-fueled, contradictory, and strong emotions during this part of the tour. Undoubtedly, the Tech Industry has brought wealth, jobs, and a global significance to San Francisco that is truly shocking. Undoubtedly, there are issues: the degradation of our collective attention, an even more constant and hyper-incentivized state of consumption, cultural and social changes too abrupt to contain the consequences of, a city with pronounced - if not disturbing - economic inequality, to name a few. But to these fine folks on the Big Bus™ - who, truthfully, have no incentive to disagree -  the Tech Industry is simply a force for good, uncomplicated. I can hear the gaps being filled.    


(Paraphrasing) “Speaking of hyper-consumption, our next stop is a shopaholic paradise: Union Square!”



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Deep in the heart of San Francisco - where gold prospectors camped out in hopes of glory, where pro-Union rallies were organized in the 1860s, where American troops were dispatched from during the Spanish-American War, where people who lost just about everything during the brutal earthquake and fire double whammy of 1906 were housed in temporary structures - there is a flagship Macy's store. Yes, you read that right. A flagship store - the largest one in the west coast! How lucky we are.


(What the audio tour fails to mention in its giddy excitement to galvanize tourists to spend their money here is that Macy’s recently announced (as of Feb 27th, 2024) that it will be closing their flagship store once they are able to find someone to take the building off of their hands. The Mayor has said this “might change,” but who can be sure of anything that is said from that sort of position. Additionally, there is no mention of the reasons for the closure, which are: sluggish sales, a change in the retail landscape, etc; nor is there any mention of the historical significance of this fine plaza called Union Square, outside of a light hearted war anecdote. What is a tourist supposed to do here exactly? Shop, buy, consume.)  


Wanting to channel my inner tourist, but deeply dreading the inside of a Macy’s, we instead head over to Williams-Sonoma on the other side of the square (which, by the way, is also a flagship store). I am generally not a fan of spending money out of a perverse fear developed at some point during adolescence, but I have to admit that this store is nice - nice enough that my money-related fear sensors start to tingle slightly upon entering the cathedral of home goods. There are 3 floors fully decked out with high quality, high dollar sign content. Naturally, we ask to see the knives. I know nothing about knives, but reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential has convinced me that a chef’s knife is in my near future. On the second floor there is a whole wall dedicated to knives from all over the world. Based on Mr. Bourdain's recommendation, I request to take a closer look at the Japanese varieties. 


“Hold it to see how it feels in your hand,” I’m told by the obsequious and well trained employee. The knife is lighter than it looks. It has a strikingly beautiful pattern of horizontal lines with circular accents along the silver blade and a polished wooden handle of a delightful cream color. Man, I want this fucking knife, and - shit, are you serious - it’s on sale. Only $200, plus tax. I’m tempted to buy the knife, but I’ve already done my fair share of consuming back when I bought that fancy house blend olive oil with only a hint of money-related shame. So I pretend to cut vegetables with it for a 15 seconds on each hand, stare at it contemplatively, decide that I better get out of here before I do something I regret, tell the lovely woman helping us that I “really appreciate you teaching me about the art of knives”, and without any palpable signs of the panic within ascend up to the 3rd floor for more of this conflicted introspection.   


Everything in this store is beautiful, or is at least artistic to some degree. It’s here where I first seriously consider that a home can be a work of art itself, and that composing a home with visual balance is tricky and takes skill. On the way out of the store we make a final pit stop at the stoneware cooking aisle. I didn’t think I would be learning about the politics of the stoneware home goods market, but alas, we ran into Eric. Eric asks if we have any questions. I respond with a stupid “So many, but I don’t know where to start,” thinking I was being clever or cheeky, or something. He grabs two crock pot lids from the display and beckons us over to a demonstration table. I’m intrigued. 


There’s two major players in Eric’s story: Le Creuset and Staub. Apparently what happened is that Le Creuset was bought by a larger company (Cliden B.V.), which led to a series of changes in priorities (overall quality being a priority that was demoted, relatively speaking) that reduced the integrity and effectiveness of their products when compared to previous generations, arousing feelings of disdain and betrayal on behalf of the original creators who were forced to watch their brainchild devolve into an inferior version of itself, finally resulting in Staub: a competitor born from within Le Creuset that has a strict philosophical and moral obligation to quality. Eric isn’t bullshitting us. He points out how the Staub lid has little dulled spikes on the underside that help capture and retain moisture more effectively (which matters when making a stew, for example), how the edges of the lids differ significantly in their ability to keep air inside the pot where it belongs, how the flatness and heft of the Staub makes a difference. I am already fully convinced of the superiority of the Staub, but the final kick in the nuts for those chumps over at Le Creuset is that they are only popular here in the US - according to Eric - and that in the rest of the world the top-dollar marketing that seems to persuade and blind us Americans doesn’t do enough to hide the inferiority of the products to the non-American consumers. Marketing is the reason these Le Creuset are surviving, and Eric has successfully converted two dumbfounded Americans into the Church of Staub. 


In the end, we leave Williams-Sonoma empty handed. So much for being a good tourist.


But what does it mean to be a good tourist? What is the purpose of the tourist, from the point of view of the place they are touristing in? It seems to me: to consume of a place; to consume is what they (the place) want you to do, it’s your purpose as an economic agent. I say this without judgment, as someone who’s done a fair share of it. A touristic destination is designed to get the most out of you, to wring you dry but be wrung dry in return. You eat the food, buy the clothes, go to the museums, watch the shows, entertain yourself through the lives of others. Yet this is what you’re meant to do, so there is no guilt and no nagging feeling of self-consciousness. This might be why tourism is the perfect leisure activity for a capitalistic, global, interconnected economy - the incentives are built into the activity for all parties. It’s also unambiguous, and there is little doubt about what we are expected - not asked, not forced -  to do here, not only in Union Square but in all of San Francisco. From stop to stop it seems we are being politely and enthusiastically told “buy something god dammit,” while the Big Bus™ herds us from one area full of shops to another. 


To say this is a “bad” thing is naive, but it does produce a sense of dread in me. My problem with all of this is not that the expected consumption triggers those sensitive, spending-attuned fear antennas of mine, but rather that the systemic, unconscious, presumed state of affairs is never explicitly stated. It all happens under the hood, in the guise of “adventure” and “seeing new things” and “learning about other cultures.” Just tell me that you want me to buy this $200 Japanese chef’s knife (that I also happen to desperately want) so that there’s a job that can support this literal human being in front of me, so that the economy of this place I’ve come to experience doesn’t collapse under the weight of itself, so that I can go home and tell people that I got this and that in San Francisco and that they too should go and get this and that in San Francisco. We don’t have to pretend that It’s All Good Man. I would rather be told the truth in all of its messiness and confusion than be comforted by simplicity. The horrible and the sublime exist together, and they are both far from simple. 


Speaking of horrible, we are driving through the Tenderloin now (drugs, homelessness, underrated restaurants, sometimes human poop). The height of the ​​Big Bus™ seems intentional, just tall enough where you can’t quite see the sidewalks. The “wonderful Union Square'' neighborhood doesn’t look too dystopian from up here, but I know that down there the reality is different. We’re on Market St when I first see the choreographed tourism dance: heads snap to one side, butts gingerly lift from chairs, phones are pulled out of pockets with tremendous desperation, cameras are pointed in unison towards City Hall, memories are made, lives are lived. In an irony that is maybe lost on most, far off sirens build in intensity as the audio tour announces the Civic Center stop. We do a quick loop around the park in front of City Hall, seeing anti-Putin protestors, hearing children laughing in the playground, thinking about how different this place can feel at night. It seems even public parks have an inescapable dualism about them, a sublime and a horrible side.  


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An appreciation and comprehension of the steepness of San Francisco begins at the Alamo Square stop, stop #8. With steel calves of pure muscle developed over the last 6 years of torturous inclines, we leave the rest of the tourists in our dust, gasping for breath and sweet mercy. The scene at Alamo Square is quintessentially San Franciscan: a grassy expanse at a surreally steep angle is filled with varying sizes of groups spread out just far enough to each have their own private bubble of experience, some supine with hats over their faces, others prone with an object in hand (book or phone, on average), many more sitting in small circles with friends; in what seems like a personal counter to the assumptions of tourists about the “windy, cold, foggy” city, the sun is out with a vengeance and the sky is a deep, unwavering blue; at the western edge of the park the continually-photographed Painted Ladies (a series of pretty and colorful houses) lounge below the skyline of reflective and girthy corporate buildings in the distance; even though there are plenty of people, the park feels respectfully subdued. 


I lived in this part of San Francisco, just a block away from Alamo Square, for 18 months during 2019 and 2020. In those strange and tragic months of strict lockdown I would slap on a mask, walk up to the park, lay my designated park blanket down, and pretend that everything was back to normal for as long as possible - a book or music or a roommate to keep me company. This particular patch of earth was my sanctuary. 


This is a well deserved break; there is nothing to consume. As I lazily rest with closed eyes amongst the park dwellers, the many conversations around me converge into a pleasantly static, unintelligible drone. Certain conversations become distinctly more loud after a few moments of stasis, not against but also not in line with my own will. I’ve noticed that my brain feels tired from paying an aggressive amount of attention during the last 4 hours. It’s true what they say: attention is a finite resource. 


Part of me wants to end the tour right here and now and take a delicious nap - but I’ve got a city to see and the ticket to see it wasn’t exactly cheap. This is another (obvious) issue with touristic adventures: the human mind and the constraints of time pull me in two different directions; the sense of how quickly time is passing is heightened when I’m in tourist mode in an attempt to do and see as much as humanly possible, but the (now fully apparent) limits of my attentional bandwidth prevent me from fully doing and seeing the things that I’m in the middle of doing and seeing. And so I’m having to balance the feeling of wasting precious time with the equally important desire for immersion. But the Big Bus™ mercifully takes this problem out of my nervous hands and says “Hey, man, relax - you can do it all. Just come back to the bus, we got you. Easy now, Buddy.” And off we go again - time waits for no one. 



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 The weather today warrants a stroll through Golden Gate Park, so we get off at stop #10 along Lincoln Ave - Doug is there as if he’s been waiting for us and flashes a big, toothy smile. “So did you just move to San Francisco?” he asks again excitedly. 


Right next door to the Botanical Gardens (which rest assured is awesome even if the Big Bus™ audio tour doesn’t mention them), I notice what looks like an event or show of some kind. My curiosity bubbling, it turns out that there’s an Ikebana exhibition - Ikebana being a brand new word for me (Ikebana: the art of arranging flowers). The elderly woman greeting Ikebana-goers at the front door gives us a respectful spiel on the basics and tells us a donation of $10/person is all it takes to enter. When we, with little hesitation, acquiesce to having our minds blown, she calls our decision “brave.” Whether or not this is genuine is not worth questioning. 


My introduction to Ikebana begins at the far end of the hall. A woman - also elderly - is center stage, all eyes on her, a white japanese folding screen her backdrop, with a humble crowd giving their time and attention (minus the always present few on their phones). In front of her is a series of nature-derived objects (flowers, leaves, stems, twigs) and a teal-gray vase. As though it is of natural consequence she brandishes an impressively fringed and taught Monstera leaf and places it with a calmness of a veteran into the vase, its angle and position no doubt calculated as part of a larger compositionally operation. “Ikebana is all about balance,” she says, placing a long, thin grassy reed at the opposite angle of the Monstera. The visual weight is further complicated by a yellow flower of indecipherable species placed directly through the center, slightly to the right of the Monstera but leaning towards the reed; a taller white flower with particularly regal qualities just above and to the left of the dangling yellow orb; a garnish of small ferns creates a stout, sprawling base for the rest of nature’s gifts to project out from. What’s unclear is if she is arranging it with the intention of the “front” being towards the crowd or towards her; perhaps similar to statues, these Ikebana compositions must take into account multiple angles of viewership, the complexity of which is staggering to consider. Every angle creates a difference in balance, not just for the overall piece but for each individual component. This is a great artist in front of us: creating a work of art on the fly while accounting for an unprecedented number of variables. 


The rest of the hall is set up like a museum - walls made of transparent, hanging fabric and tablecloth-ed folding tables arranged in rows - to create the maximum amount of gallery space. Little plastic placards are set up every so often to introduce a specific school of Ikebana and their philosophical approach to arrangement (I learn later that there's roughly 3 - 4,000 Ikebana schools just in Japan, each run by a different iemoto (iomoto: a grand master or head of school)). A pattern of affinity begins to form with a particular school called Sogetsu. An example: a well endowed flower of a King Protea - pink, bursting forward forcefully, with an array of small hair-like filaments clustered together in the heart, surrounded by bright, red-pink petals - takes center stage inside of a vase with the texture of the moon, the only other adornment being a series of dark-purple, sword-like leaves delicately crinkled by the hands of a master. Another masterpiece features leg-sized, half-rotten, gray-blue agave leaves twisting frenetically, balanced by fuzzy flowers of a dull yellow poking out of the slender vase. The Sogetsu school even takes the art of Ikebana to controversial places, going so far as to create a composition without any actual living thing. The Sogetsu tagline on their plastic placard is “The Joy of Creation,” and says:


“In 1927, when everybody believed practicing Ikebana meant following established forms, Sofu Teshigahara recognized Ikebana as a creative art and founded the Sogetsu School. Anyone can enjoy Sogetsu Ikebana anytime, anywhere, using any material. You can place Sogetsu Ikebana at your door, in your living room or on your kitchen table. Plants are the products of mother nature, but the basic principle of Sogetsu is ‘Ikebana reflects the person who arranged it.’ Flowers, no matter how beautiful, come from nature. We are the ones using these natural materials, to create beauty with our feelings.”


These Sogetsu people get it. There are other schools too: Chiko, Wafu, Ohara, Ikenobo. They also get it, in different ways. But once I’ve decided that Sogetsu is my favorite, I can feel the development of confirmation bias in my mind that will entrench this belief in me. What’s strange is how the patterns and gestalt of the Sogetsu school feels to be easily recognizable, as though this isn’t my first time seeing it. There is something familiar here that aligns to a well-hidden personal preference that transcends this particular art form. But this conviction of connection to Sogetsu is made up, contrived, generated - not on purpose but automatically and naturally, subconsciously. Now it is reality. 


I imagine a new path in life: quit my job, go to japan, study under a great Sogetsu master, become an artist in the ways of Ikebana, shave my head, abstain from all earthly pleasures, find the truth within and without, make masterpieces, die. There is some version of me who does this, surely, somewhere in the multiverse. But the me here finds there is some pain to this art. Sacrifices must be made. An Ikebana artist must mutilate, kill, and displace that which they love for the purposes of aesthetic beauty and expression; there is a fine balance between joy and creation and death and destruction that the viewer must come to terms with in order to fully appreciate this medium’s power. Though it’s easy to imagine that these still-alive works of art persist well into the great beyond, what’s more true is that they will all be mush in ~a week. One cannot be too attached to any individual work here. Ikebana reflects much more than pretty flowers: it reflects the transitory nature of beauty, art, and life.


This cursory introduction to Ikebana ends up being my favorite part of the day. It probably stems from the fact that it was a spontaneous action, made with purpose, not handed to me by another party with an agenda, not curated for me as if I was an average of a mass of people. But, really, what should I have expected? That a tour designed to please the highest proportion of people possible should at the same time meet my specific sight-seeing needs? Foolish, and an easy way to feel disappointed by things outside of my control, again. 

 

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What do you get when the only break in coastline for hundreds of miles is a single 3 mile wide strait? Wind, and lots of it. On top of the double-decker, furious wind combines with the air we are driving into to create a chaotic whirlwind of sounds and sensations. The windbreaker slaps my face with a vengeance as I gaze up to the orange-red forms and lines superimposed upon a blue tapestry of saturated sky. I wouldn’t describe my face as being cold, but rather as being penetrated, split open. Windsurfers and boats are taking full advantage today; there’s little whitecaps down in the bay. The sounds are indescribable, overwhelming. 


Anticipation is palpable here on the Big Bus™ as we roll up to the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge: this is the climax of the tour, the peak experience of being a tourist in San Francisco, THE SHOT. Not everybody gets off at every stop, but here, at the base of maybe the world’s most famous bridge, staying on the bus is equal to blasphemy. The driver says he’s leaving again in 5 minutes - is that really how long it takes? 


I’ve seen this view many times, in many different moments of my life. It’s here where it finally dawns on me in a fatalistic manner that it’s impossible - not just hard - to see something for the first time when it’s not your first time seeing it. The whole day I was trying to “think and see like a tourist,” to break out of the molded, personalized, subjective point of view that I’m burdened with and which biases and colors my vision like a pair of glued-on glasses. Essentially, to not be myself but instead some distorted receptacle of experience without built in preferences, dispositions, and biases. 


The fresh eyes of the tourists here - similar to my own -  are all imperfect, cloudy windows into an obscure mass of experience, taking bits and pieces of what is “there” and building something with substance, “real”. For the tourist, this exercise of creating a reality for oneself is even more fragile and tenuous. When one sees something for the first time, the mind grabs ahold of whatever it can from the overwhelming barrage of sensations and assembles a hallucinatory projection to stabilize and direct behavior. There are gaps that must be filled, and the mind fills them with ease. (If I take this train of thought any further, we enter dangerous territory for me: is my discomfort in seeing a city as a tourist a mutated derivative of the loneliness and fear of being seen by others in the same way: barely, unconsciously, incompletely? Am I disturbed by the idea that all I will know of others is equally lacking in substance, richness, and detail? Is it unfair - perhaps naive - to want to be understood and to understand others? How can I hope to see and be seen in as much detail as I see myself? Is there a way to invert the subjective point of view?)  


The view from my window, burdened but also bolstered by my specific mind, is no more real than the view of the family sitting just beside me, excitedly taking photos to reminisce to one day. But the same sense of awe that I first felt here 12 years ago has transformed into a calm appreciation and connection. My relationship to this city has matured and evolved as I’ve continued to experience it. My personal hallucination - though still a hallucination - has more information to base its projections from. There are less gaps to fill. With the man-made miracle of International Orange steel to my right, a skyline built on sand and hills and marshes to my left, the tumultuous, wind-swept water of a luminous blue-green down below, with the cloudless dome of light illuminating it all before me, I bask in my personal hallucination.  (Turning inward: if the only peak into reality is through this particular window, what better use of time is there than to care for it, dust it off, make it more clear, widen it, perhaps even going so far as to open it and feel the air rush in? How can you clean a window only from the inside? Is there any hope of perceiving a hazy, vague shadow across the way - in their own particular window - through the double-paneled glass, a distant but tantalizingly close reflection? What is there, if not hope for that?)


The higher level, imposed-upon hallucination that has infected me, and likely others on this tour, is that we can leave today feeling as if we have “done San Francisco;” check; been there; done that. We are driven around, told stories, shown bits and pieces, and experience the smallest possible sliver of a place. Then we say we’ve seen San Francisco, we know what it’s like, we understand what it’s all about; we take a living organism as complex and harrowing as a city full of individual lives and construct a branded, curated, one-size-fits-all version all to ourselves. We consume scraps and shit out full fledged convictions, feelings, ideas, projections, and stories. (Again, there are obvious parallels here to how I/we treat people and are treated by others that are bound to elicit messy and scary feelings in me but oh well here we go: in what ways am I, as a finite ball of attention and resources, filling in the gaps of others, creating judgements as though I can see through my own window clearly enough to see another? Is it ignorant - or necessary, or a combination of the two -  to take what the mind gives as true, knowing in your heart that it is not so; how else is there to live but to project, to assume, to judge, to spit fire at the flaws of others but to forgive oneself of the most?)  


To be fair to the Big Bus™, they never make any outlandish claims in the expectations department. On their website, they say that their tour offers “the perfect introduction to this colorful city and the best photo opportunities of iconic landmarks from the top deck,” and that you can “experience the best of San Francisco.” Whether this is true (i.e. that this tour is the perfect introduction, let me remind you of the World Famous Bushman) can be debated endlessly, but what is true is that the tour does next to nothing to encourage a more thoughtful or intentional experience of San Francisco, which in itself reveals plenty for what it means to be a good tourist. Instead it poses a quirky and fun story of a place that assuages the tourist’s grasping mind for just long enough to construct a simplistic, naive, unproblematic, and incomplete set of conclusions; experience as an outline to be filled in. And in the case of a city, the gaps are filled with the all-consuming compulsion to consume. We take from a place without giving back anything more than our dollars (or pesos, etc), eating it from within like a troop of hemiparasitic, insatiable goblins. (Here we go, one more round, strap in: Why is it that I am judging everyone else when I consume just as much and just as greedily and just as mindlessly? Am I not going full on goblin-mode myself? What makes me believe that I’m in any way special, besides the fact that I can see into myself and not into others? Is empathy seeing others as you see yourself: completely? Is there even a way to see yourself completely if you cannot see yourself from another’s point of view?)



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Aaaaaaaaaaand we're back, live from the Big Bus™ once again, on our way to complete the tour with a hearty chowder of clams. I’m all out of bravery after the Ikebana showing, so we skip the transparently, soul-suckingly touristy Pier 39. The inside of Boudin Bakery is vast and complex, like the bowels of a giant, steel monster. It’s now 6 PM and the hordes of tourists that make this area densely uncomfortable have long dispersed. The stereotypical American tourist (overweight, family-burdened, loud (hey, don’t look at me, it’s the truth)) in front of us in the chowder line buys a souvenir: not one but two soft, teddy-bear style baguettes, half wrapped in Boudin-branded fake paper of the same material. They even squeak playfully when you squeeze them. 


I know I’m potentially coming off as judgemental, but I promise there is no moralistic superiority at play here. If anything, this day and this tour have reinforced some valuable lessons. 


The thought that keeps imposing itself during this whole day is that you (yes, you reading this), the fine folks around me on the Big Bus™, the most gentle among us (Doug), Eric aka the king of stoneware, every mind and soul (I know, I know) is linked in such invisible ways as to be almost a united whole. All humans alive and dead are so genetically similar that we are just slightly different versions of each other. You could be me and I could be you and we could all be each other. The reasons that you aren’t them, and they aren’t you are vague and mysterious. We share so much of each other, but there still often feels (to me, at least) as if there is an impassable chasm between us - I can see you but cannot be on the same side as you, looking back towards me over the expanse. 


And yet a small opening - a bridge across the expanse - is visible, a hope that we are closer than we think. The bridge becomes more stable and clear when we accept and use the universalism of the human condition to transcend the personal, specific point of view; the more we come to find what is shared between us all, the more we will understand ourselves and each other. Maybe a dash of bravery is needed to face our own unexceptionality - to remember how much is not mine but ours - in order to not feel so alone, so un-understood, so isolated in our specific windows. Because as obvious, cliche, and potentially unhelpful as it is to say: it is basically true that we are all part of a human whole, just the newest set of leaves precariously swaying in the winds, at the same time responsible for and absolved of the present. I must remember that I could be them, and they me, that the difference is a matter of degrees. In this way, when someone does something stupid or annoying or evil or funny or kind or genuine, there is a feeling that I too am doing it, or that I am involved inextricably with it. We are all what we all are. The gaps must be filled in, and hopefully we can fill them not with unconscious judgments or hasty appraisals but with the empathy that comes with knowing how little we know - the liberating insignificance and commonality of our specific window that - rusted, battered, and weathered - passes from viewer to viewer in the great chain of being.  


I should go buy one of those crazy, teddy-bear bread things - I think. I’ll be right back.


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I’m back home now: where the birds chirp in the background from dawn to dusk, where the groves of Cypress, Monterey, and invasive Eucalyptus create an intricate hall for the sun to pour in through, where the ghostly and soundless fog persists until it is dissolved and burned by the piercing presence of light, where the neon-green grasses gently sprinkled with poppies and wallflowers and oxalis and miner’s lettuce dance to the beat of the godless winds, where banana slugs crawl at the speed of banana slugs across the danger zone that is the human hiking path, where the setting, steadfast sun stares back at you when it’s not struggling against an incoming swarm of moisture from the vast expanse of blue, where the air feels light and free and clean and tastes like the sea, where the fluctuating tides and waves can be heard above the din of silence on a clear, still-winter night, where the distant dots of light poke through the blank empty dome as best they can, where the violent consequences of change exists. This is San Francisco; this is home. 


Of course this isn’t all San Francisco is. You can’t forget the World Famous Bushman, the Flagship Macy’s Store, the Full House Painted Ladies, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Boudin Bakery, the Ferry Building, the cannoli-full North Beach, the park bigger than Central Park by roughly 200 acres (Golden Gate Park), the “wonderful” neighborhood around City Hall, the Industry That’s Saving the World - according to itself, the Downtown, the Ikebana. The Big Bus™ tried its best, that cannot be denied. But the truth too cannot be denied: no tour of San Francisco is enough to satiate the grasping mind of someone looking for answers to unanswerable questions such as “what is San Francisco like?” 


It would take a lifetime to describe all of the things that San Francisco is - what it is to me but also to all who have ever come to love it for their own reasons. There’s no language that could explain what this city means; it remains a mystery even as it slowly reveals itself, as it pulses and moves and expands outward through the lives within it. But right now, as far as I’m concerned, this right here - the Presidio - is San Francisco. And it’s beautiful. 


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