I am staying on Nob Hill, right at the summit. This is almost as high as it gets in San Francisco and the roads running south and east fall away like glassy pistes down the sides of a mountain. My hotel shares this narrow plateau with the city’s Episcopal Cathedral. Through the night the bell in its clock tower marks the hours in polite, soft-handed affirmations.
The next day I wake early and determined – despite the jet lag and last night’s gin and tonics and cold sake and a glass of pinot noir and two Pall Mall Lights – to run down the hill and touch the ocean.
I sneak out of the back of the hotel into dawn light. In Huntington Park, the site of a mansion built by Central Pacific Railroad baron Collis P. Huntington and destroyed in the devastating fire of 1906, several old men are lined up in front of a personal trainer lifting weights to order.
“It’s chilly!” one complains.
An old lady walks her dog. She wears a hat and scarf and gloves.
I run to the hemicircle of stone steps rising to the Cathedral door and think about taking them two at a time and enjoying the view from the top and then think better of it and run on along one flank of the Cathedral and when I hit Jones I turn north and run onto Russian Hill and to the intersection with Sacramento which marks the edge of the plateau and there is the Bay, spread out below me, and a mile or so out to sea is Alcatraz Island, a bright white light beading off the old Federal Penitentiary’s pre-eminent tower, its rock formations tan and turquoise in the morning light.
Descent. Some of the blocks so steep that there are steps cut into the paving stones. As I run several things occur to me. That I am in California and that this is a blessed place and it is going to be a beautiful day. That Nob Hill and its hillside is kept spotlessly clean. That San Franciscans get up much later than New Yorkers. And that height really does count for a great deal in life and this is even clearer once I am at the bottom and everything changes – the houses are not so well built, the light duller, and my path is quickly interrupted by a dual carriage built to manoeuvre commuter traffic around the city’s hills. Traffic lights, and I am halted for the first time. But there are compensations: friendly people, even ground beneath my feet, elbow room and the nearby ocean. To my left the illuminated window of a Walgreen’s, its fifties-style logo in white and green strangely affecting.
At Bay and Jones a Hilton Hotel and across another wide street I am among the sea-side tack and holiday of Fisherman’s Wharf. The Codfather Restaurant advertises fish and chips. Lou’s Pier 47 Restaurant and Blue’s Club on Jefferson Street.
I turn left towards Aquatic Park; last time I walked this strip I was barefoot and heading to catch a ferry out to Alcatraz in order to swim back.
Another Walgreen’s. Pompei’s Grotto. The In-N-Out Burger. Just before Jefferson runs into the sea stands the South End Rowing Club. It’s a white clapboard building and this morning just as it does every morning it has sent out a scruffy fleet of irregulars to swim in the Pacific. I run on past the club house and hit the black sand beach and there they are, out in the cove swimming between marker buoys: swimmers! Valient men and women, most over 50, swimming in a hat and a costume, or in nothing at all, under a sky which as I watch them rolls gold into violet and begins to seep a delicate, lovely blue.
“It’s cold!” shouts a lady with a flashing light strapped to her swimming cap.
I try the water. It’s cold enough. I think about swimming in my running shorts but I can’t quite summon the courage. And I haven’t swum since September.
“The South End Rowing Club was founded in San Francisco Bay in 1873 by a group of rowing enthusiasts who gathered at Jimmy Farrell’s Saloon at the southern end of the city near 3rd and Berry Streets…” reads a sign fixed to the club house wall. “Over its long history, Club members have accomplished extraordinary athletic feats – never losing sight of the fact that to be a South Ender is to love life, enjoy good food and drink and, revel in the company of fellow members, throw great parties and be very glad to live in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
Looking up at it I think that this is my kind of cathedral; this humble wooden building built on the edge of the sea. It is the work of man, ‘God’ played no part. It owes nothing to superstition and deference to overwhelming power; it exists because its inhabitants feel drawn to the ocean. Its rules are modern and without fear or superstition and its fraternity is united by good humour, a little courage (more than I can find this morning), an affection for one another and for the place where they live. This is a community I would like to belong to: democratic, half-dressed, salt-haired and deserving of quantities of food and booze.
I stand at the walls of my cathedral like a pilgrim and bow my head in gratitude. I bless her locker rooms and her handball courts, her steam room and her boardwalk which runs out across the sand to the water.
“I am a South Ender” I promise, and then I turn away and begin my run back to the top of the mountain.