This might sound like a grand apology. A kind of, "I was wrong about this place, it isn't chock-full of greens and liberals carelessly walking over the homeless people they've regulated out of a job. It's really quite nice." It might sound like that, but it's not. Because San Francisco is the most self-consciously green city I've ever visited, and I have personally witnessed very wealthy citizens walking past the most aggressive beggars I've ever seen in a US city. And I come from the DC area. But it's also a bit more than that. Quite a bit, actually.
Ok, let's just get this part out of the way up-front. Cable cars are proof in wood and cast iron it's possible to be both cool and retarded at the same time. $6 buys you a place in line to watch three completely empty cars watch you back. Eventually, according to what I'm absolutely sure is some sort of inscrutible union schedule, one breaks off from the herd and picks up, oh, about half its complement. Then we all wait and stare at another three completely empty cars just sitting there for (I timed it) no less than 10 minutes.
But it is an interesting wait. The system is powered by two things, one I knew about, and one I didn't. It's called a cable car because there's a big freaking cable under the street which drags these creaking testaments to 19th century tech up and down hills which would cause mountain goats to stop and take a breather. But on the ends of the line, it's powered by people. With just enough leverage two guys are able to push a car onto a medium-sized turn table, then push said turn table 180 degrees until it CLONKS against a hidden stop, causing the cable car itself to wobble back and forth like the badly finished tinker toy it actually is.
Then it's all aboard. The smart tourists break away from the herd like the naughty Disney rejects we are and run around to the far side of the car, where one can hop on a seat next to the brake man or hang off the running board like an extra in a Gene Kelley movie. Then the show starts.
Since labor was once cheap and nostalgia is now expensive, the cars are still controlled exactly the same way as they were when they were introduced some 120 years ago. To wit: clutch to grab and release the cable, medium brake to begin the stop, small brake to finish the stop, and BIG RED-PAINTED BRAKE to, I don't know, keep us from pasting yet another brace of Japanese tourists to the pavement. It was very clanky, very noisy, and smelled of burning sawdust.
But, and I know this may surprise you, simply riding a cable car was not the purpose of the mission. No, for that, we'll do the wavy-effects fade-out to a flashback and cue the girl with the Queens accent...
Ellen: "You're going to San Francisco?!? You MUST go see The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill!!!"
Me: "Do you realize you actually capitalized the letters of a documentary film title as you said it?"
Ellen: "But they're so CYOOT!!!"
And then we wavy ourselves back to the present...
So there I was, at the bottom of one of the most famous, and steepest, hills in this whole damned city. Let's hear it for long distance bike rides, and losing 14 pounds last winter due to new and exciting germs brought home from kindergarten!
Now, being a veteran of the DC zoo, who's hills are not as flamboyantly steep as the Fabulous ones of San Francisco but are much much sneakier, hotter, and more humid, I knew going up a hill to reach the destination is a good sign. You're excited, it's all new, and you've just started out on the journey. So even though it looked like the paving crew got drunk and decided to see if concrete really could stick to walls, it wasn't a terrible walk.
It was, however, a challenging one, which I tried to convey to the parrot fanatic on the other end of the phone.
Me: *puff* *puff* "Boy," *puff*, "this hill is steep."
Ellen: "Do you see any? How many? What color are they? Are they making noise? Are they CYOOT?!?"
Me: *puff* *puff* "Oh look, an Alfa!"
Ellen: "What? Your phone sucks! I can't hear any birds!"
So up I trudged, seeing what were in actual fact much nicer bits of the city than those which surround my hotel. Reminded me of Old Town Alexandria, set on end. And leaned level. With, umm, Asians.
And, as everyone else would expect, when I got to the top of the hill I found lots of tourists, an amazing view, and not a single. F-ing. Parrot.
Ellen: "What? It says you just need to go down the hill and back up. You'll eventually find them."
So, having the rest of the day off, I waited. I got to watch sail boats tack into the wind, giant container vessels push their way to Japan, and Alcatraz glower on its rock. The Golden Gate Bridge was characteristically half-shrouded in pulled-cotten fog, beautiful until you catch yourself wondering if anyone is tossing themselves off it while you're watching.
And eventually, whilst I was desperately trying to not obviously listen to two girls comparing rather specific things about their boyfriends, five green, squawking, soaring cousins of the green chicken who lives in my house swooped past.
Me: *RING* *RING* "Ellen! You're not going to believe this! I can see--"
"I'm not on the phone right now. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you." **BEEP**
Ah, well. I got to watch a few more fly past, pretty little not-quite-hawks squawking their unmistakable, and loud, squawks back and forth to each other as they came home from whatever hapless vineyard they'd pillaged that day. I then heard several dozen on my way down the world's most treacherous garden walk, before I finally packed it in and headed for home.
Tiring? Duh. Disappointing? A little, but that wasn't the city's fault, or that of the birds. Educational? Well, it changed my opinion of this place from, "there is in fact somewhere nastier than East Baltimore" to, "it isn't all that, but it isn't all bad, either."
I even found another Alfa!