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Baghdad By The Bay [1950]

San Francisco, to me, is like a house of cards: postcards in glowing colors stacked against the hills that march from the Bay on one side to the Pacific Ocean on the other.

The real magic of the city lies in the way these snapshots remain in the mind, no one impressed more sharply on the consciousness than the next. And when I am far away, the city’s myriad details come floating back to me as though they were unwinding endlessly on the movie screen of my memory.

Each picture is sharp and complete, glamorized a little by a wisp of fog in one corner and a pennant streaming in the wind atop a skyscraper. It’s a sentimental, perhaps corny, way to look at a city, but the San Franciscan is hopelessly sentimental, and I am hopelessly San Franciscan.

To me, my city is Baghdad by the Bay, and my mind is lined—yes, even cluttered—with its pictures, ranged side by side. Like this:

By the dawn’s early light Coit Tower standing starkly silhouetted against the first faint flush in the east… A sun-and-windswept corner on Montgomery Street, where you can look west and see a wall of thick, dirty fog rising genii-like from the Pacific, while a finger of whiter, puffier stuff feels its way into the Bay, twisting this way and that till it conforms to every contour, snugly and coldly… And the poor man’s perfume of Skid Road—a melancholy mixture of frying grease, stale beer, and harsh deodorants that clings to your clothes and your thoughts for hours.

The smug majesty of City Hall’s famed dome, higher (and dirtier) than Washington’s, and so far above the conniving that goes on beneath it.… The few surviving little wooden houses of Telegraph Hill, clinging together for mutual protection against concrete newcomers slowly pushing them out on a limbo… And Fisherman’s Wharf at 7 a.m., with its tiny fleet of tiny ships lined up in neat display, and proud sea gulls strutting past to review them.

The aged hangers-on outside the Public Library in Civic Center, singing an a cappella chorus of futility against the roaring backdrop of a metropolis in motion —Market Street … That occasional white ferryboat drifting over from the Oakland mole and dipping respectfully beneath the aloof bridge that doomed so many of its side-wheeling sisters … And block after block of flatiron buildings along Columbus Avenue —sharp edges of a city that grew in too many directions at once.

The incongruity of a lonely foghorn calling somewhere in the Bay as you stroll hatless down a sun-swept street—and the grotesque sight of this jumbled city from Twin Peaks, a sardonic, hysterical travesty on the dreams of those who stood there after the Great Fire and planned the Perfect City … Long-forgotten cable-car slots wandering disconsolately and alone up steep hills that are now flattened, with a contemptuous snort, by high-powered, twin-engined busses.

And the Saturday-night symphony audiences arriving breathlessly at the Opera House from streetcars, on foot, in shabby automobiles—a far and enjoyable cry from the Friday-afternoon trade slinking slowly up in limousines that actually look bored.

University of California’s Medical Center (where they discovered vitamin E) rearing up like a spectacular movie set against the darkness of Mount Sutro and Parnassus Heights, while in the pre-dawn hush of Golden Gate Park, far below, squirrels sit unafraid in the middle of the silent roads, and ducks waddle importantly along the bridle paths … The full magnificence of the Pacific bursting into your consciousness as you swing past the Cliff House. … And the monumental mechanical madness of the Kearny, Geary, Third, and Market intersection, where traffic, honking the horns of its dilemma, squeezes painfully through a bottleneck with a “Stop” sign for a cork.

The too-bright mask of Chinatown’s restaurants and bars, sometimes standing half empty, while upstairs, in the tenementlike apartments, live six Chinese in one room. … The glittering Golden Horseshoe during opera season, a constant reminder that there are Upper Classes even in a public building paid for by the masses. … And the eye-bulging sight, from atop the Fifteenth Avenue hill, of the little white new houses marching through the Sunset District toward the Pacific like stucco lemmings that decided, just in time, not to hurl themselves into the sea.

St. Francis Wood, Pacific Heights, and Sea Chiff, where the homes have room to puff out their chests in the satisfaction of success; and the ornate frame buildings just west of Van Ness—before 1906 the mansions of the mighty, today living out their long lives as boardinghouses for those who are also merely existing. … Those two distinguished neighbors, the Mark Hopkins and the Fairmont, staring blankly at each other across California Street in the silence of 5 A.M., when even the cable slots cease their friendly gibberish. … And the corner of Jackson and Kearny, a one-Worldly blend of China, Italy, and Mexico, where, all within a few steps, you can eat chow mein, top it off with chianti, and then step into a Spanish movie.

The inner excitement of Stockton Tunnel, as the jam-packed F cars wiggle noisily through, autos somehow squeeze past, and school kids run excitedly along the inside walk; and North Beach, with its 1001 neon-splattered joints alive with the Italian air of garlic and the juke-boxed wail of American Folk songs. … The dismal reaches of lower Market after midnight; the city within a city that is the deep Mission District, and the bittersweet juxtaposition of brusquely modern Aquatic Park against the fortresslike jumble of red brick where Ghiradelli makes his chocolate.

The crowded garages and the empty old buildings above them, the half-filled night clubs and the overfilled apartment houses, the saloons in the skies and the families huddled in basements, the Third Street panhandlers begging for handouts in front of pawnshops filled with treasured trinkets, the great bridges and the rattletrap streetcars, the traffic that keeps moving although it has no place to go, the thousands of newcomers glorying in the sights and sounds of a city they’ve suddenly decided to love, instead of leave…

This is Baghdad by the Bay!

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