John Steinbeck's Heart Was in SF

Tuesday, 26 October 2010 07:56 AM Written by 

San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay, from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold -- rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this golden white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which could never have existed. I stopped in a parking place to look at her and the necklace bridge over the entrance from the sea that led to her. Over the green higher hills to the south the evening fog rolled like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city. I've never seen her more lovely.

-- Travels with Charley

SAN FRANCISCO -- Marin Highlands

 San Francisco did nothing special to seduce the eyes and heart of John Steinbeck that October afternoon half a century ago.

Few humans could describe it so artfully in one paragraph.

But San Francisco has put on that same lovely show for millions of people who were not famous writers or were not already in love with her, as Steinbeck was.

 As I saw yesterday afternoon, thousands of tourists, day-trippers, photographers, hikers and bicyclists from around the world enjoy the beauty of San Francisco from the hills above the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge every day.DSC_2098_3

I spent half my time taking pictures of couples from Australia, Florida, France, Japan and Berkeley with their cameras so they could prove they were together in San Francisco.

The details of light and color can differ wildly from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour. It depends on the predictably unpredictable whims of the clouds, wind and rain.

But from the Marin Highlands the basic view of San Francisco and the bay and the islands and the mountains and the great bridges that tie them together has not changed since Steinbeck took his stunning verbal snapshot on his “Charley” trip in 1960.

 It’s an absurd panorama, a prime example of man and nature collaborating at their best – at least until the same slow-motion tectonic violence that took eons to create the spectacle gets around to destroying it.DSC_2134_2

 Where did John Steinbeck stop to gaze so lovingly upon the city he never fell out of love with? Was it Vista Point, the popular scenic lookout at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, or high atop the Marin Headlands?

It doesn’t matter. From either spot, where I have probably stood 20 times since 1974, San Francisco is a post card of beauty and goodness that can offend no one’s politics or morals.

 You can’t tell it’s the most liberal city in America or that it voted 84 to 14 percent for President Obama in  2008.

You can’t tell it has criminally high housing costs, a permanent parking shortage and an intractable homeless problem that costs its taxpayers $200 million a year.DSC_2035_copy

You can’t tell it's the second-most densely populated city in the USA -- with 815,000 people packed into an area smaller than the City of Pittsburgh, which has 308,000.

You can't tell 37 percent of its residents are immigrants or that it has the highest percentage of gay people of any city in the country.

 Did Steinbeck stop at Vista Point to gaze upon his beloved city and reflect upon his time there as a young struggling writer? Probably.

Essentially level with the north end of the Golden Gate, only 200 feet above the water, the Vista Point lookout was already open in 1960. 

It doesn’t sound like he, Elaine and Charley drove up Conzelman Road to the top of the Marin Headlands, where the concrete ruins of defanged artillery batteries and crumbling coastal defense forts peek over the cliffs, guarding the narrow entry to the bay from enemy fleets that never came.

Of course it didn’t really matter where Steinbeck stood.

He could have described the scene from memory. He had been in San Francisco many times and knew it well. As a kid growing up 100 miles to the south in the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley, San Francisco was known to everyone simply as “the city.”DSC_2057

 As he wrote in “Charley,” it’s where he spent his “attic days” struggling to become a writer.

During the 1920s, while Hemingway and the other literary giants of his generation were losing themselves and becoming rich and famous in Paris, Steinbeck said he “fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, slept in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts.”

In both miles and time, Steinbeck was almost exactly halfway through his trip when the Traveling Steinbecks arrived in San Francisco on Oct. 26, 1960, via U.S. Route 101. Despite his fondness for San Francisco, Steinbeck had little to say about it in "Travels with Charley.”

After describing the city so perfectly from across the Bay, he wrote, “Then I crossed the great arch hung from filaments and I was in the city I knew so well. It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind. It had been kind to me in the days of my poverty and it did not resent my temporary solvency. I might have stayed indefinitely, but I had to go to Monterey to send off my absentee ballot.”

 That’s it for San Francisco in "Travels With Charley." Steinbeck’s next paragraph is about the politics of Monterey County, “where everyone was a Republican” including his family. 

But in the real world, Steinbeck spent four busy days in San Francisco, staying at the handsome and very celebrity-favored St. Francis Hotel in Union Square. He hung out with his friends at some of the city's top bars and restaurants -- and, as we shall see, his famous presence was quickly discovered by the local media.

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