Travel log: San Francisco

San Francisco is one of those cities which refuses to disappoint. You know what it’s like with big cities: they get hyped and hyped, but somehow when you actually get there it always underwhelms slightly. It’s either too busy, too touristy, too expensive — or in the case of New York, all three of them at once.

Well not this place. San Francisco is wild — real edge of your seat stuff. It’s edgy too — hustlers flogging pornographic videos on street corners kind of edgy. Honestly, my pulse hasn’t raced this quick since New Orleans. If you’d told me two weeks ago I’d be describing a city as having ‘energy’ I’d have booked myself into cliché rehab — as it happens, the whole place throbs with it.

San Fran has long been the home risk-takers. From the Gold Rush, to World War 2, to the refugee influx from Cambodia, there’s been a thriving market of single-residency occupancies — small bedsits which share communal bathrooms and kitchens and which offer dirt cheap living in the heart of the city. In the roaring 20s — when most of America still viewed unmarried women with condescension or suspicion — landlords gladly rented to femme fatales who had fled the conservative Midwest to seek life on their own terms.

This was a city which understood diversity before it was fashionable. In the museum celebrating the Tenderloin district (a kind of mega-Soho without the coffee concessions and chain restaurants), there are photos of 1960s transgender activities parading the streets. If you’re the kind of person who wonders why there are suddenly extra letters after LGBT, head to San Francisco — you’ll get it.

I get a tour around the Tenderloin (which draws its name from the fact that its police patrols received so much danger money they were able to afford the best cuts of meat) from a husky-voiced singer — a Brit from the Old Kent Road — who moved here 15 years ago to escape a violent husband who had promised her a new life in California. “Oh he’s dead now,” she says in her response to my sympathy — “and I have his pension”.

110 years since the city was levelled in a devastating earthquake, the new faultline is a cultural one: a divide between the rich and the radical. “Queers Hate Techies” announces a polemical display in a left wing art gallery, speaking to a popular anger at the highly-paid tech workers (the Bay Area is the home of Facebook, YouTube and various multimillion dollar start-ups) who have flocked to the city, driving up the cost of living. “Queer techies exist too — please stop blaming us,” pleads a post-it note stuck to the gallery window.

Every street corner seems to embody some hot topic or other for today’s America. In the Mission district, Hispanic dollar stores sell Trump piñatas amongst the rows of beach blankets and knock-off soccer shirts; by the United Nations Plaza suit-clad Jehovah’s Witnesses hawk the word of God in the shadow of a giant GAP store painted in rainbow colours.

It’s not just a liberal paradise; there’s a punkish self-reliance here which would impress the most ruthless libertarian. The city feels smarter and more entrepreneurial than New York without feeling the need to constantly show off about it. Here people have to make their own money from scratch, rather than through overtime endurance at some sclerotic corporate behemoth (there’s a reason they call salaries “compensation” there).

There’s a European feel too. Not just the glorious cathedrals, but also the fact that the metro system works and the ease of getting around on foot. People even walk on escalators here (as opposed to just standing still), something which most Americans — New Yorkers excluded — don’t even do in airports.

Sure, there are downsides. The street drugs are loaded with zombifying fentanyl, the crime is unrelenting, and every park is full of vulnerable substance abusers teetering in and out of consciousness. The rents are astronomical (yet somehow the city centre retains its character in a way that — say — London struggles with). The public toilets could have easily inspired the scene in Trainspotting.

Somehow, though, all that seems to add to the effect. Pacing through the streets of San Francisco I realise I feel more alive than I have for weeks — the stimulation is off the charts. Like all highs it can only fade — now it’s time for Arizona and a chance to unwind.