There are many ways to come upon the city by the bay. And sometimes, just sometimes, it can take your breath away.
Riding the BART train from Ashby to MacArthur late afternoon, late spring, just out of the Berkeley subway, rising up out of the Berkeley flatlands, out of the bay, all of a sudden there are the towers of San Francisco, glistening in the sun. Sitting in the F-bus, riding from downtown Berkeley via Emeryville on to the Bay Bridge, you can see the Transamerica Pyramid and all the new buildings rising up in front of the hills and the layer of fog. Most miraculously of all, the cityscape appears in the frame of the tunnel exit as you come onto the second span of the Bay Bridge. The daring structures put a techno grid over the face of the city, shining metal in front of glistening glass.
Sometimes, it takes your breath away.
Living in the Bay Area and looking across the bay to san Francisco is what it must be like being in love with Candice Bergen or some other great beauty. She is so lovely, you cannot tell if you love her for her brains or her looks. San Francisco was made to be looked at, stared at, admired. It was built that way, only partly by nature. When San Francisco was only a collection of shacks on a cove on a bay at the far end of the world, it was not beautiful in itself. Richard Henry Dana, that keen observer who sailed into the harbor in 1834, did not remark on the looks of the town. Neither did the pionieers of the Gold Rush, 150 years ago. The thought San Francisco raw and exciting, but not beautiful. People began to notice only at the gturn of the last century, when the city itself began to rise. The contruction of the Ferry Building, with its lovely clock tower, which opened in 1898, set the stage. The passengers and skippers on the ferries ot the idea first. Maybe it was the fog, rolling over the hills, or the color of the buildings beyond, or the salt air. The bay gives the city distance and scale. In the days before Wolrd War II, when the other cvities around the bay seemed farther away, San Francisco had a special look. Night was best. The buildings were smaller, but there were big electric signs on the waterfront: Welllman Coffee, all in red, another sign that said: SHERMAN WILLIAMS PAINT for a moment. Then it would go dark, and an image of the globe would appear, only to be covered gradually, by red paint. The sign went dark again. Then: COVERS THE EARTH. Then dark. Then SHERMAN WILLIAMS PAINT. The same shot, only in the daytime, opens The Maltese Falcon, a classic 1941 movie. The same view with a line under it: San Francisco. As if uyou didn't know.
One doesnęt have to live here to see this. In On the Road, Jack Kerouac tells how the city looked after a long, crazy drive up the San Joaquin Valley: It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her 11 mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time. There she blows! yelled Dean. Wow! Made it! Just enough gas! Give me water! No m ore land! We cannot go farther 'cause there ain't no more land! No more land. Maybe that's it. But there is no more land at the edge of Long Beach, but it's not the same. It must be something else.
John Steinbeck saw San Francisco from the north, in Travels With Charly. 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 ... was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed. San Francisco is not noble, nor does it live in a happy dream, as everyone knows. But it is beautiful. The best time to see it is perhaps February, just after a rain, when the bay is brown with the runoff, the sky is blue and clear as a winter morning. The best place is from the stem on the ferry to Alameda and Oakland, the best view is just as the boat goes under the Bay Bridge, framing San Francisco. It looks like Manhattan sometimes, but its not. It is easy to imagine brains and beauty combined. When I was a child growing up in Salinas, we called San Francisco The City, Steinbeck said,. Of course, it was the only city we knew, but I still think of it as the City, and so does everyone else who has ever associated with it.
Herb Caen was one of those who loved the city best, flaws and all. He had a lifelong romance with San Francisco, and right in the middle of his desk at The Chronicle was an old-fashioned color postcard of the city as he saw it when he came to town in 1936 from Sacramento. It was so long ago that the Bay Bridge had not yet opened, and to get to San Francisco, Caen drove his shiny red Hudson aboard a white auto ferry for the trip across the bay. From the foredeck of the ferry, the city looked much as it does now: big white buildings behind the gray ish Ferry Building, Twin Peaks, in its summer brown, just behind. Coit Tower, then new, on the very right. The big buildings that turned the city into a kind of Manhattan by the bay were not there yet, but it is the same city, recognizable in the way a middle-aged beauty can be seen in a picture at her high school prom. San Francisco, Caen used to say, was like a postcard, or a dozen postcards, or maybe a hundred, all colors and shapes. But that one postcard, of the city of his youth, stayed on Caen's deck, right where he could see it, all his long career until he died in 1997.
There are two other ways to see the city, one is by cor and one by sea. The best air approach is from the north: from Portland or Seattle or Vancouver. Take a window seat on the right hand side of the plane. Take a flight that arrives at San Francisco at twilight. It is like a short, beautiful movie, less trhan an hour long, and it happens gradually. The route is usually down the spine of the coast range, and with any luck, the passenger might see first Humboldt Bay, then a medium-long look at the Mendocino Coast. This sets the stage for Bodega Bay, identifiable by the big rock at Bodega Head, then the long, narrow Tomales Bay and Point Reyes. With luck the plane will pass just east of Duxbury Point and Bolinas, flying a course that will take it over the Golden Gate, and passengers can see ships as small as scale models and the Farallon Islands, rising out of the Pacific like sunken mountains. There may be some fog, but in the twilight, the setting sun on the fog turns it red and gold. Then the plane makes a steep banking turn to the left, the right wing rising. It is a long descending circle, and when the plane straightens out, much lower, off to the right will be the towers of the city, just for a minute or two on the final approach to SFO. Ladies and gentlemen, the flight attendant will say, welcome to San Francisco.
The most dramatic view of all is seen by the fewest people: the view pof San Francisco from the ocean. Now, travel is common: Poeple whose parents used to think Calistoga was exotic now pop over to Paris for the weekend and trek in Nepal. Few people approach the city from the ocean these days, but years ago travel was an adventure, and the first view of the coast of Caifornia after a long sea voyage was a thrill - passengers would get up early or stay up late to see San Francisco come up on the eastern horizon. The first sign is when the ship comes up to the Sea Buoy, 11 miles west of the Golden Gate, which for vessels is the frontier of the United States. Here, a ship pilot comes aboard and the sea officers give the pilot control of the ship. From the Sea Buoy, in clear weather, it is possible to see San Francisco, to look up the streets of the Richmond and Sunset districts, marching in alphabetical order from Anza to Wawona. With binoculars one can see the long white Ocean Beach and beyond, the houses and cars of an American city. On the other side is the dark loom of Mount Tamalpais, its familiar profile looking much different from the sea. In clear weather, to the north one can see the flash of the beacon at point reyes and at Duxbury Reef, and closer in, at Point Bonita, the northern end of the Golden Gate. Then, as the ship moves into the channel leading to the harbor, there is the Golden Gate Bridge, famous and gracefuk, marking the entrance to the city. Just under the bridge, just as the ship leaves the ocean and comes into the bay, the pilot gives an order and the ship swings to a new course, 90 degrees due east, the rolling motion of the sea stops and San Francisco rises up on the right on a dozen hills. It is a view that is never forgotten, something that stays. More than 40 years ago, in the summer of 1956, Dick Fontaine was a soldier, returning to the United States after a tour of duty in Korea. He was travelling aboard a troop transport called the Marine Lynx, and the trip across the Pacific was long and miserable. The ship rolled, the troops were seasick and the food was bad. The Marine Lynx approached the Golden gate at the end of a summer's day, just at twilight. Fontaine remembers how the troops all lined the ship's rail, and how the solders in the bow of the ship started to cheer as the Marine Lynx went under the bridge, and how the cheers moved back, from the bow to the stern, until the whole ship was cheering. Some soldier up forward threw his cap over the side, and all the troopps on deck did the same. Fontaine, who was aft, remembered loking back at the wake. And there, he said, the other day, were hundred of these hats, floating after the ship. Why did they do that? Well, he said, it was simple. When that ship went under the bridge, the long lousy trip was over, and Korea was over, the Army was over, all that stuff was over. We were home.