In 2003, three days before we were to leave for eight months of backpacking through South America, Joan was diagnosed with active tuberculosis - picked up from an unknown source. We had to stay in California that year while she was treated (successfully) with a six-month regimen of four antibiotics. After mourning our lost trip for awhile, we suddenly realized that this delay in our plans was an opportunity for some outside-the-box thinking. What nearby area would be exciting to explore? The answer was obvious: San Francisco!

But how could we find a reasonably-priced, furnished apartment for a short-term stay? Our daughter Shanna told us about a free classified ads website: www.craigslist.org  We looked on the site under San Francisco and found many sublets listed, but none seemed perfect. So Joan wrote a description of us and posted it under Housing Wanted. (This was a real “sales job”, since we are homeless backpackers – just the sort of people who make property owners nervous!) After receiving several replies, we chose a funky-charming apartment in North Beach ($1800/month.) North Beach is the most “European” part of San Francisco with its coffeehouses, small cafes and bookstores, and it's next door to Chinatown - San Francisco's most colorful neighborhood. We drove 80 miles north from Santa Cruz along beautiful freeway 280 to the city and we were home!

“How does it feel to be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?”
(Bob Dylan)

It’s strange how four years of homelessness have shifted our sense of home. Every time we move, whether it’s to a new apartment for a few months or to a new campsite for a few days, we find ourselves almost immediately “at home.” Such a shift seems to be psychologically necessary in order to continue a nomadic lifestyle. (For this photo, we borrowed a homeless street person's shopping cart. It made us remember that we are just playing at being homeless. Unlike most street people, we can have a home whenever we want one.)


The flat filled the top floor of a small Edwardian building just off Columbus Ave. It had seven small rooms plus a roof deck, from which we could see Mount Tamalpais, Angel Island, Alcatraz Island, Coit Tower, the TransAmerica Pyramid and a short stretch of cable car track. We grew petunias, barbequed, ate meals and read on the deck, and Lou also lifted weights and played his guitar up there. While San Francisco is notorious for its cold and foggy summers, this one was warm and sunny. Most days, a flock of green and red parrots that live wild on Telegraph Hill flew screeching above our heads; they are descendents of escaped caged birds who have thrived in the mild climate. Some days America’s Cup boats raced by, spinnakers billowing. On the Fourth of July, fireworks exploded over the bay, and there were always ferries chugging, tugboats tugging, and tankers gliding ponderously past as the fog drifted in and (mostly) out. Wonderful place!

Lou became enchanted with shopping in Chinatown four blocks away, where salmon was under $3 a pound and excellent mangoes cost two/$1. He was often gone an hour or more on shopping trips, returning laden with bags of interesting food. We bought a steel wok and a heavy cleaver in a Chinese hardware store – with lots of hand gestures because the clerk spoke no English. We joined the neighborhood public library and checked out lots of Chinese cookbooks, then spent hours each week trying out recipes - from steamed fish with ginger and cilantro to stir-fried eggplant in spicy black bean sauce. Lou also developed a taste for special olive oils, and combed the nearby North Beach Italian delis, where he probably bought a couple of gallons (in small bottles) all together. Sometimes his purchases included a slice of rich tiramisu or a hunk of imported goat cheese. After more than 40 years of menu planning, shopping and cooking, Joan was delighted to have him bring home (literally) the bacon.


The city has many fascinating, out-of-the-way nooks and corners. Among these were the small plot in a park where the gardener had planted flowers in dozens of lost shoes and boots; several rooftop gardens and a tiny sculpture garden beneath towering redwoods in the Financial District; the apartment house on upper Grant Ave. where rocker Janis Joplin once lived; and a writing workshop with a “Fish Theatre,” a store selling “hex” candles and love potions, and a shop filled with fossils, herb teas and carnivorous plants, all on Valencia Street in the Mission District.

Other off-the-beaten-path places include the tiny XOX Truffles shop just across the street from our flat where one of the “top ten chocolatiers in the country” makes velvety, dark truffles the size of a thumbnail (given our weakness for chocolate, this was a serious probelm); the Art Deco house on the backside of Telegraph Hill with a life-size cut-out of Humphrey Bogart in the front window (the house was featured in “Dark Passage,” a 1947 film starring Bogie); and the steps of the church in North Beach where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were photographed after their wedding. (The photo below of Lou and our daughter Shanna on the roof deck shows that church, along with Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in the background.)


Walking through Chinatown one day, we happened upon Spike Lee filming a segment of his projected cable television series "Sucker-Free City." We almost didn’t see his slight figure slouched at the base of a street light - wearing shades and a NY Yankees baseball cap – an island of calm in a sea of bustling gaffers, grips, and best boys (weird terms for members of the film crew.)


This world-famous hub of Beat Generation writers celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003. Lou went there to hear store founder and Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti read from his poetry. Earlier in the month, we went to hear Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – a novel based on his own experience of suddenly becoming the 22-year-old father of his 8-year-old brother when both their parents died. The book was nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

We arrived at City Lights an hour early and the store already was packed with twenty- and thirty-somethings. Eggers has a cult following of many in his generation because of his soulful, irreverent, funny, and outrageously idiosyncratic writing. He turned up in patched jeans toting two large shopping bags - announcing that he’d planned to make brownies for all of us but had run out of time, so he simply brought the ingredients. He passed a bowl, spoons, two packaged brownie mixes, eggs, and water to a young couple sitting on the floor near us. They dutifully made the gooey batter (minus any oil, which he’d forgotten), and we passed it around the store to eat raw off dipped fingers. He's idiosyncratic, all right!


San Francisco is one of the world’s great walking cities. We made a record of our walking forays by coloring streets yellow on a city map and using red to color areas we traveled by bus, trolley, BART, truck, or ferry. The map looked like a Mondrian painting by the end of our stay. The public library sponsors free City Guides walking tours led by volunteers who know the city's history. About 25 different tours are offered each week; we took 15 during our two-month stay. Especially recommended tours: North Beach, North Beach at Night, Chinatown, Pacific Heights Mansions, Coit Tower Murals, Gold Rush City, Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, and Golden Gate Bridge. To take the bridge walk, we (plus Joan's sister and brother-in-law) caught a bus to the San Francisco side of the bridge to meet the tour group. On the walk across the 1.7-mile bridge, we learned about its design and construction and the “Halfway to Hell Club” of workers who’d been caught by the safety net when they fell. From the north end of the bridge, we walked into Sausalito where – weary after nearly seven miles on cement sidewalks - we caught a ferry back home and took naps. (Joan's sister Sue Krevitt took this photo of the bridge just before we walked across it.)


We often ate out - at neighborhood cafes and ethnic restaurants, rather than trendy four-star places. We went three times to La Taqueria in the Mission District for absolutely the world's best carnitas. Also excellent: thin-crust spinach and cheese pizza at the Steps of Rome in North Beach, spicy eggplant and smoky pork with cabbage at Hunan Home’s Restaurant in Chinatown, piroshki in a Russian café in the Richmond District, delicious milk-braised pork at L’Osteria del Forno on Columbus Ave., complex curries at the Indian Oven on Fillmore, duck and sausage cassoulet at the Hyde Street Bistro, and outstanding calamari risotto in black squid ink at Da Flora in North Beach. The newly restored Ferry Building at the foot of Market St. has an fabulous Farmer’s Market. The food is of the highest quality and the prices are not cheap. Several times we bought a loaf of excellent Acme bread to pair with Cowgirl Creamery’s terrific artisan cheeses and grabbed a bag of Frog Hollow peaches; these made a delicious picnic lunch, which we ate on a bench while watching the ferries come and go.


We made three forays outside of the city. On one we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to enjoy the natural beauty of Marin County: Muir Woods, Stinson Beach and Point Reyes Peninsula. Another day we drove to Berkeley to re-visit our old haunts at the University of California and celebrate Joan’s birthday at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Café. Later we took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to the Oakland Museum to see exhibits of California art, history and natural history - and have a heap of smoky barbecued ribs at Everett & Jones near Jack London Square.


San Francisco is very young compared to most great cities of the world, yet its history is complex and colorful. The native Miwoks were pushed out of the area by the Spanish, who then lost control to the Mexicans, who in turn lost control to the Americans in a “bloodless” takeover: Captain Montgomery sailed in with a few soldiers in 1846 and planted the U.S. flag. He wasn’t acting on orders – this was his own idea! Gold-hungry miners from the U.S., Europe, and Latin America swarmed into San Francisco in 1849 (the "49ers”), exploding its population from 300 to 35,000 in fewer than five years – leading to a wild and lawless city filled with tents, high prices, prostitutes, gamblers, drunkards and murderers.

In the wild environment, fortunes were quickly won and lost. A drunk who passed out in a brothel might awaken the next day stripped of his gold and “shanghaied” to work on a ship bound for Shanghai. A merchant named Norton cornered the market by purchasing all the rice in town – just before ships laden with rice arrived to glut the market. He lost his business and his mind and left town. Two years later he returned as the flamboyantly clad, self-proclaimed Emperor of California and Protector of Mexico. San Franciscans humored him, rising and bowing when he arrived at the opera and restaurants even accepted the money he printed. (This cable car runs through North Beach a block from where we lived.)

After cable cars were invented in 1873, the town began to spread up the sides of its steep hills. By the turn of the century, San Francisco was the finest city west of the Mississippi River - until the earthquake and fire of 1906 almost leveled it to the ground. The quake was approximately an 8.1 on the Richter scale, a terrifying experience that toppled buildings, but most of the damage was done by the following three days of fire. Writer Jack London, who came over from his home in Oakland to see the devastation, observed: “On Thursday morning at quarter past five, just twenty-four hours after the earthquake, I sat on the steps of a small residence on Nob Hill…To the east and south at right angles, were advancing two mighty walls of flame. I went inside with the owner of the house on the steps of which I sat. He was cool and cheerful and hospitable. ‘Yesterday morning,’ he said, ‘I was worth six hundred thousand dollars. This morning this house is all I have left. It will go in fifteen minutes.’ He pointed to a large cabinet. ‘That is my wife’s collection of china. This rug upon which we stand is a present. It cost fifteen hundred dollars. Try that piano. Listen to its tone. There are few like it. There are no horses. The flames will be here in fifteen minutes.’”

Years afterward, Joan’s grandmother, who was head of nurses in a private medical clinic, vividly remembered the earthquake terror. The clinic’s rooftop water tank broke and water streamed down the windows – causing many inside to think they were in a tidal wave. A man drove up in a horse-drawn wagon, shouted for them to drop down the clinic's leather-bound medical books. He and the expensive library were never seen again. A.P. Giannini was more successful; he hired a vegetable wagon to cart $80,000 in cash and gold from his Bank of Italy (later re-named Bank of America) to his home south of the city. Although they say the rescued money stunk of tomatoes for weeks afterward, Giannini used it to help re-build the city, and later was a principal lender to the Golden Gate Bridge. Within a few years, San Francisco rose like a phoenix from its ashes.

Today the city is a patchwork quilt of many peoples laid over the knees of its hills: the Chinese who came to build the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s and the African-Americans who arrived from the South during World War II to build ships are still here. The Beat Generation (Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) who wrote big and lived bigger in the 1950s and the “flower children” who tie-dyed Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s are now gone. But, the Indians and Pakistanis who took part in the technological revolution of the 1980s, and the gays who turned the Castro area into a rainbow neighborhood in the 1990s remain. Today, San Francisco is a city of 750,000 - the centerpiece of the San Francisco Bay Area with its population of four million, including Silicon Valley to the south.

This area - varied and vibrant, sophisticated and down-to-earth, filled with natural beauty and intriguing history - is where we feel most at home.




GUIDEBOOK: San Francisco Access Guide  (The Access Guide series to major cities around the world is excellent. The books are arranged by neighborhood, with listings of sights, hotels, restaurants and shops color-coded to neighborhood maps)

TOURIST INFORMATION:   www.sfvisitor.org      www.sanfranciscocitysearch.com

FILMS SET IN SAN FRANCISCO:  Vertigo; Dark Passage; The Maltese Falcon; Bullitt; The Conversation; Dirty Harry; Harold and Maude; Basic Instinct; Petulia; Pal Joey; Mrs. Doubtfire; The Joy Luck Club; The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

(2003 Prices)


Hotel San Remo, North Beach: charming, renovated Victorian is European-style, i.e., bathrooms are shared. Good location in North Beach near Fisherman’s Wharf, very good rates.  www.sanremohotel.com 

Hotel Beresford: Modest, comfortable, European-style near Union Square & the Theater District.  www.beresford.com  

Golden Gate Hotel: charming European-style bed & breakfast near Union Square   www.bbonline.com/ca/goldengate/index.html 

Vacation rentals and short-term sublets: www.craigslist.org


Convenient Public Transportation:  Fares are good for 90 minutes in any direction with a transfer. Adult fare: $1.25; Seniors 65+ and 5-17 years: 35 cents. Passes: 1-day $9; 3-day $15. Weekly passes: $12 adults 18-64. Monthly passes: Adult $45; Seniors $10.  MUNI passes are sold at some mini-marts and the booth at the Fisherman’s Wharf end of the cable car or www.sfmuni.com  (Transit and Street maps for $3.95 sold in mini-marts and bookstores)

“City Pass” Booklet: This 7-day pass for only $42 is good for admission to five major museums (Museum of Modern Art  www.sfmoma.org, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Exploratorium, Aquarium & Science Museums, Asian Art Museum), a one-hour bay cruise (worth $20 by itself), and a 7-day pass for buses and trolleys ($12 by itself) This is a terrific deal! www.citypass.com  (On a clear day, take the #37 city bus to the top of Twin Peaks. Ask the bus driver to show you the footpath to the top, where you can survey San Francisco spread out below.)

Cable car ride: It's a “must” ($5 unless you have a City Pass, see above) but avoid the Market St. or Union Sq. end of the line, where you might have to wait an hour or more. Instead, begin at the Fisherman’s Wharf end where the cable cars start out nearly empty before 11 a.m.

Take an antique trolley (bus passes are accepted) along the Embarcadero.

Eat a picnic lunch above the ferry docks at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market  www.ferryplazafarmersmarket.com  (Saturdays 8-2, Tuesdays 8-12, Thursdays 3-7)

Take a ferry ride on a beautiful day to Sausalito, Tiburon, Alcatraz or Angel Island. Ferries leave from Pier 41 as well as the Ferry Bldg.

Cyclists can rent bicycles, bike across Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and return by ferry:  www.blazingsaddles.com

Tour the Haas-Lilienthal House at 2007 Franklin St. (441-3004) to see the inside of a historic Victorian mansion.


Free Admissions: Asian Art Museum is free on the first Tuesday of the month  www.asianart.org The Exploratorium is free on the first Wednesday of the month  www.exploratorium.edu The Craft and Folk Art Museum at Fort Mason is free 10 a.m.-noon on the first Saturday of the month  www.sfcraftandfolk.org

Musee Mechanique (antique coin-operated mechanical toys) at Pier 45 is free; Maritime Museum near Fisherman’s Wharf is free nps.gov/safr

Walk free across Golden Gate Bridge.

Free City Guides Walking Tours: Sponsored by the public library, these are a great way to get to know the city. Pick up a brochure in any S.F. public library or  www.sfcityguides.org

Get a whiff of fish-breath in an up-close look at hundreds of fat, stinky sea lions trying to shove each other off the floating rafts at the west side of Pier 39.


Zagat guidebook to San Francisco gives ratings by restaurant diners:  http://zagat.com/shop/shop_products.asp?preload=60002www.zagat.com or go on-line and print out the restaurants that interest you:   ($4.95/month)

A FEW FAVORITES:  La Taqueria  $ (2889 Mission St.) for the world’s best carnitas; L’Osteria del Forno $$ (Columbus Ave.) for home-style Northern Italian dishes; Da Flora $$$ (701 Columbus Ave.) for outstanding Venetian specialties; Steps of Rome $$ (348 Columbus Ave.) for sassy Italian waiters and very good pizza, salad, and espresso served at sidewalk tables; Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café $ (566 Columbus) for excellent focaccia sandwiches.

Also, Greens $$ (in Building A at Fort Mason) for up-scale vegetarian cuisine with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge; tiny Rosamunde Sausage Grill $ (545 Haight) for world-class sausages on a sesame roll; cavernous Lulu $$ (816 Folsom Street - near SFMOMA) http://lulu.citysearch.com for rustic, wood-fired California/Mediterranean cuisine; Hunan Home’s Restaurant $ in Chinatown for spicy Northern Chinese dishes; Indian Oven $$ (233 Fillmore near Haight) for complex curries and good naan.


Most of the big department stores (Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus, Macy’s, Nordstrom, etc.) are located around or near Union Square  www.unionsquareshop.com 

Other shopping areas are more interesting: Fillmore Street (between Jackson and Geary)  www.fillmoreshop.com has excellent thrift shops, cafes, and boutiques; Union Street aka “Cow Hollow” www.unionstreetshop.com has up-scale antique, clothing and jewelry shops; Sacramento St. (between Broderick and Spruce) www.sacramentostreetshop.com has the city’s best contemporary crafts gallery (V. Breier at 3091) and a variety of other interesting shops; Haight Street (between Central and Stanyan has some funky leftover-from-the-60s hippie shops; there are a few antique and clothing shops on Hayes Street (between Franklin and Gough); some weird and wonderful stores on Valencia Street between 20th and 23rd Streets – be sure to drop into 826 Valencia to see the “Fish Theatre” inside a writing workshop. 

Art Galleries: http://art-collecting.com/galleries_ca_sanfrancisco.htm Pick up a gallery guide at any of these art galleries. Among the better galleries: Fraenkel (19th & 20th century photography), Crown Point Press (fine art prints), John Berggruen, Rena Bransten, Meyerovich, Stephen Wirtz, Branstein/Quay and Paule Anglim.


American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) presents the city’s best stage offerings  www.act-sfbay.org  Half-price theatre tickets: STBS (“stubs”) 415-333-7827; across the bay is the fine Berkeley Repertory Theatre:  www.berkeleyrep.org


Rent a car and drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to see Marin County: Muir Woods redwoods  www.visitmuirwoods.com Stinson Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore  www.nps.gov/pore  or take BART  www.bart.gov to the East Bay to visit Berkeley, walk around the beautiful University of California campus, and eat at Chez Panisse Café  www.chezpanisse.com (only if you have reservations; downstairs is the famous and much pricier Chez Panisse restaurant) or to Oakland to visit the Oakland Museum  www.museumca.org for fine exhibits of California art, history and natural history, then take a bus to Jack London Square for excellent barbeque at Everett & Jones and top-level jazz at Yoshi’s:  www.yoshis.com




Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net