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March 13, 2007

Days 5-6: San Francisco to Los Angeles

In front of San Francisco's TransAmerica building
The author in San Francisco

The first local I met in San Francisco was just the kind of San Francisco local that Bill O'Reilly  would warn you about. He was a transplanted New Yorker, and he had something of a refugee air about him, as too many transplanted Easterners do. Here was a man who resolutely refused to live in any other part of the country because, as he put it, "the rest of the country is insane."

"What about New York?" I said.

"New York isn't insane," he admitted. "But the weather sucks." He said this in a way that suggested putting up with New York weather was its own kind of insanity.

I asked him what he did and received the following response. "You mean work? Disability. I figure the more money I can take away from Bush, the less he can go and screw up the world." (I couldn't help but wonder if Hillary Clinton, or any other Democrat, ends up getting elected, will this guy go storming back into the workforce? I have my doubts.) I was in San Francisco for less than an hour, and already I had met my first radical lefty.

San_francisco_80days It was a cliche San Francisco moment, as familiar to me, a first time visitor, as the city's insanely steep hills, Victorian homes and the Transamerica Pyramid. But that, oddly, is where San Francisco's San Francisco-ness stopped. Graham and I settled into our hotel and went out for a night on the town, which left me with the following thought: Are all big North American cities populated by roughly the same kinds of people, but in different proportions?

Here's what happened. We started out the evening at a divey bar called Zeitgeist, which has an enormous beer garden and a grungy counter-culture vibe. The beer on tap was called Russian River, and it was very good. The bartender who poured it for me, on the other hand, was incensed that I had the temerity do something so mainstream, predictable and unhip as to ask her for a receipt. (I did manage to convince her to scrawl down something on a bar napkin and, in so doing, drag her into the moral compromise that is capitalism.) But almost everything about Zeitgeist--the people, the decor, the vibe--reminded me of a grungy bar in the city where I live, Toronto, not to mention other grungy bars in other cities. My guess is that if Zeitgeist were in Brooklyn--or Seattle, or Chicago, or Montreal--it would be similarly populated by angry and irreverent twenty-somethings with nose rings and tattoos, 70 percent of whom will be shopping at Banana Republic and pushing Bugaboo strollers in six years time. (Actually, by then they'll be pushing Stokke strollers).

The same kind of thing can be said for the restaurant where we ate dinner, which an online site calls, "a Mission District magnet for local hipsters and out-of-towners alike"--words that, apart from "Mission District," apply well enough to lots of restaurants. The point is, I was in San Francisco, but as soon as I got indoors, I felt like I could have been in any number of cities on the continent. It's inevitable, given that we all read the same newspapers and magazines, watch the same television shows, and follow the same trends. If you look hard enough, you can still find characters specific to particular places--the "disabled" San Franciscan being a prime example--but the point is this: they are an endangered species.

Good surf lines Highway 1

The next morning, we piled our things back into the car and drove south for Los Angeles. We took Highway 1, the scenic route that clings to California's rugged coast for almost 300 miles of reverie-inducing scenery. The road was indeed curvy. The air was cool and salty, and tinged with sweetness thanks to the fields upon fields of yellow flowers that were in bloom. On all the on-ramps leading onto Highway 1 should be a big sign that says, "This is why everyone who moved to California moved to California."




But be forewarned: it's an easy drive to screw up. For example, if you pass, say, 20 miles of artichoke fields--during which you will realize that artichokes are perhaps the funniest looking cultivated plant-- and then spot a roadside shack with a sign out front that says "Deep Fried Artichokes," do not, I repeat, do not continue driving thinking that there must be hundreds of such stands and that only an idiot would stop at the first one. In fact, there will not be a single other stand, and you will spend the next several days, perhaps even the rest of your life, in regret, wondering what a just-picked deep-fried artichoke tastes like.


On a happier note, it's not all that difficult to salvage oneself from such mistakes. We accomplished this by stopping in a little town south of Santa Cruz called Morro Bay. As luck would have it, the cozy downtown had been cordoned off to make way for a farmer's market. There were bins full of dried pluots and apricots and dates, women selling soap made from goat milk, a couple passing around tasters of their organic salad dressing (delicious), a middle-aged Mexican man hawking the reddest, most perfectly shaped strawberries I had ever seen (sweet and juicy), and a man selling cilantro and carrots that had been pulled out of the ground earlier that day. (Fresh cilantro and carrots in mid-March would be another good spot to plant a sign that says, "This is why everyone who moved to California moved to California.")


At the far end of the market was a shiny chrome trailer out of which a Mexican family was selling homemade tortilla chips and Tacos. Two little girls were taking orders. I asked one of them, "Do you make your own tortilla chips?" She said, "No, my mom does." Graham and I each ordered a red chilli taco. They came served on Styrofoam trays next to two wedges of lime. It was the best taco I have ever eaten.

By late afternoon, we hit San Luis Obispo and this, it seems to me, is where Los Angeles truly begins (approaching from the North, that is) because it's nothing but strip malls and car dealerships from then on. By 7:30, we were in LA and an hour after that, we were consuming a very generic, uninspired dinner on the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade.

This is the problem with LA: I never know where to eat. It's an unusual city, all suburbs with no urb, and the better restaurants are never where you expect them to be. But then, the one time I did find a trendy restaurant--two years ago, the place was called Toast and was considered trendy--I felt like everyone there was staring at me in a way that made me feel like a failed actor, even though I have never attempted to act professionally.


Judgment is quick and ever present Los Angeles. People here don't judge you so much by the clothes you wear--the outfits here would seem laughably suburban in New York, although it is worth noting that Angelenos look a lot more comfortable than New Yorkers. They judge you, as everyone knows, by the car you drive. The last time I was here, I was unlucky enough to have rented a Chrysler Sebring. I was on my way to Toast (yes, in a white Sebring), fighting traffic on Sunset Boulevard, when a suave looking dude pulled up next to me in a silvery green Porche. When the inevitable glance over took place, he appeared quietly but undeniably pleased that I was in a Sebring. A mile or so later, he changed lanes without signaling.

Here's another LA car story: I have a very close friend whose parents live here. His dad is a doctor and one afternoon he was driving himself to a hospital to perform a very delicate procedure on a child. Halfway there, his engine temperature started rising. Next came steam, then smoke, and it wasn't long before there was a full-on engine fire. Fearing for his life, my friend's dad tried to pull over, but there was a guy sitting in his blind spot and he wouldn't budge, despite the engine smoke, despite his turn signal, and despite the obvious state of emergency. Fearing that he was on the verge of an explosion, my friend's dad pulled in and cut the other guy off, then turned onto the shoulder and evacuated his car. You know what the guy in the other car did? He gave him the finger.


This, of course, is what everyone loves to hate about LA. But before you condemn it, consider this: Where else can you experience such exquisitely pure road rage? The fact of the matter is that only LA feels like LA. Love it or hate it, the people here are different.


On my last visit Morro Bay was quite boring, no market, nobody on the street, nothing todo - you were lucky!

And again, Google Maps shows their track:

I am so jealous of your trip. I have done the trip from Omaha, NE to San Francisco. And then from there to San Diego many times. I miss home, which is orignally CA, so treat her well!

Good luck with your adventure. I'm intrigued as to where you will be next.

Love the map! We'd like to link to it from Mark's blog. Can you contact me at

Like the other commenters, I'm envious of your trip; but it was the transplanted New Yorker that got me, because I'm one too!! But unlike the one you met, I'm gainfully employed!

I know what you mean about the homogeneity of cities, but I have to say that San Francisco IS different, particularly from New York (where I lived until recently). The pace is decidedly more relaxed, yet it's still culturally and intellectually stimulating. And if you want different, check out SF's Chinatown (like no other in the U.S.) and the Castro.

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