I grew up in Marin County in the 1960s and 1970s, and San Francisco was our back yard. It was the site of many special occasions, and where we always took out-of-town friends and relatives. We would drive them across the Golden Gate Bridge to Ghirardelli Square and the Cannery, to Lombard Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. When we wanted art or music or fine dining we went to the City. It’s where I saw performances of the Nutcracker Suite, an exhibit by Andrew Wyeth at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, a concert by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. I had sundaes at Blum’s and roast beef at Ben Johnson’s. Most memorable, though, were the trips Mom and I took by ourselves every spring.
We would take a late morning bus into the City and wander around Union Square and see the Easter flower show at Macy’s. We would have lunch at Mama’s in Macy’s basement and then do a bit of shopping, always stopping at Helga Howie’s dress shop in Maiden Lane. The building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and I loved the ramp that circled to the top. We usually stopped in at Gump’s as well so I could get lost in the many rooms of Asian furniture and art. The last stop would always be a cocktail at the Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake hotel. Mom would have white wine and I would have a Shirley Temple. Those days belonged to us alone and we rarely shared them with anyone else. The few times when we did it just didn’t feel the same.
After we all moved away from the Bay Area, trips to San Francisco dropped off dramatically. In all the years since then Mom and I had only gone once alone, a few years ago around Christmas. As I approach my 54th birthday I find myself feeling increasingly nostalgic for times gone by, and I hit on the idea of a trip to the City, just the two of us, right before Easter so we could do all the things we used to. So, last month we went to San Francisco for a two night stay.
Walking down Powell Street on a sunny Saturday morning we headed straight for Union Square. It doesn’t look like a park anymore, with lots of concrete and stairs and not so many plants. The area seemed pretty empty. Not very many people were around and the streets around the square were ripped up due to some kind of construction. Helga Howie’s is long gone, and whatever is there now was locked up tight. Gump’s has moved and I don’t know where it is. We walked into Macy’s and found it almost deserted. The flower show was relegated to one floor, and wasn’t the lush bounty of blooms I remembered. I guess as Macy’s fortunes have fallen, so has its budget for the flower show. The insistent sales pitches of the people in the perfume and makeup section were an unwelcome distraction. We went down to the basement to see about lunch and instead of the lively chaos of Mama’s restaurant there was a lonely and depressing food court. “Screw it,” we said. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
We walked down Market Street to the Ferry Building, which was only a ferry building back in the day. Now it’s full of food oriented stores and restaurants and outside is a big farmer’s market. We wandered from store to store and ended up eating lunch outside with a view of the bay and the Bay Bridge. Our handsome Italian waiter brought us the best pizza ever, along with salad and two glasses of Pinot Grigio. On the way back to our hotel we wandered through Chinatown, peeking into shops and stopping at Old St. Mary’s church. It was a perfect day.
That night we broke our main rule of no outsiders and met my cousin and his wife for dinner at the Tonga Room. I had never been before. Wasn’t it just for tourists? I think that as a tween or teen I would have hated the Tiki décor, the oldies band floating in the boat in the “lagoon,” the periodic fake rainstorms. Now though, I loved it. We stayed for over three hours, drinking Pina Coladas and Bahamian rum and eating retro Polynesian food. We even had our pictures taken by a roving photographer. It was a perfect evening.
My attempt to recapture the past was a bust, but it was a fabulous weekend all the same. Is it true you can’t go home again? I don’t know, maybe. I think I just have to keep looking forward with an open mind and an open heart. With any luck I’ll live long enough to look back on these days and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to do that again.”