Little China, The Rock, The Emperor, and Cannery Row

Having missed out on Wild Wild West Con, I decided to take the family up north for a proper vacation and see not only the big Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco, but also some sites I had been meaning to see for some time.

We set out on Friday and ploughed through torrential downpours most of the way. Coincidentally my wife’s friend was house sitting her parents’ place, so we decided to stop over in Fresno and spend the night there, saving on a night’s worth of hotel stay and catching up.

Saturday morning we went the rest of the way up to SF, and wound up staying at a Motel 6 in Oakland. I’ve never been to Oakland before, and don’t see a reason for ever going back. Bit on the skuzzy side. The most interesting thing we saw there was a Lexus painted two tone yellow and green, like a taxicab. Lexus and Mustang drivers are the worst drivers in America. Lexus drivers almost universally seem to be either oblivious to the rules of the road, or assume they somehow don’t apply to them. Mustang drivers think they’re skillful drivers, but from what I’ve seen, usually can’t handle their cars.

We got to Chinatown in time for the start of the parade. It’s a great show, the largest of its kind in the U.S. The rain had slowed to a tolerable drizzle, not nearly enough to put a damper on the dragon dancers or to interfere with the bricks of firecrackers. My daughter had enough after about forty minutes however, and we went over to Four Seasons, the three story restaurant on the main drag in Chinatown that we usually visited on past excursions. Unfortunately the entire place had been booked by a private party (likely the mayor, as the last time we were there he showed up with his entourage a little after we arrived), so after a bit of hunting we came across a place called The Chinatown Restaurant. Out front a lady thrust a flyer at us, and promised us the food was good. The flyer announced the 92nd anniversary of the place, and offered free pot stickers, so we figured why not?

It was cold inside (enough to see your breath), and the ground floor was wet and spread with drop cloths. We went up to the second floor and were seated pretty quickly, three and a half of us to a two person table (it was pretty crowded). We had to get our own menus and the waitress didn’t speak English, but the Mongolian Beef and Kung Pao Chicken was fantastic and the Tsingtaos were three bucks. I enjoyed it as an alternate.

After a debilitating hike back up to the parking garage we retired for the night.

Big Trouble in Little China

In the early morning we packed up and set out for Alcatraz as my wife had never been there. The ferry over was nice. The girls were particularly thrilled. Even the baby seemed to be ecstatic at everything she saw.

The last time I’d been to the Rock I was probably eight or nine years old and not nearly as appreciative of the history. I was particularly interested in the stuff about the Native American Indian political occupation of the island in the 70’s. Some of the buildings still bear graffiti relating to that, though I could swear that as a kid it wasn’t there, nor did I remember any presentations about the event. It’s possible my parents weren’t interested and so steered me away from it, but the ‘Indians Welcome’ tag is so prominent when you get off at the dock I’m surprised I have no memory of it.

Grafitti left over from the Native American occupation

Another aspect of the prison that fascinated me this time around was the block of cells at the corner of Michigan Avenue (the rows between the cell blocks were given street names, like Broadway, etc.). These cells were apparently the most desirable as the sun shined through the high windows into the cells here.

The sky over Broadway

The local yacht club also held an annual New Years Eve party and one of the prisoner narrators on the audio tour said that when the breeze blew in a certain direction the prisoners here could actually smell the food and liquor, and hear the laughter of men and women, reminding them of all they were missing out on on the outside.

I also learned that in the mid 19th century many hostile Indians were briefly incarcerated on the island. I had read recently that Geronimo had been imprisoned for a time at the Presidio, but I wonder if he saw or spent time on Alcatraz….

I think my daughter was a little bored, but my wife and I enjoyed ourselves. After returning to the mainland, I decided to take them to the Palace of Fine Arts, which is a magnificent columned structure and lagoon constructed for the 1915 Panama Exhibition.

Nolie on The Palace of Fine Arts

Three quarters of San Francisco had the same idea though, and I spent forty minutes driving around looking for parking with the baby asleep in back while my wife and eldest daughter enjoyed the park. I finally found a spot and was backing into it when they appeared alongside the car, ready to depart.

From there we headed to Colma, California. This place is very nearly a modern day necropolis, with four or five expansive cemeteries located along the same stretch of road within minutes of each other. Colma is the burial place of many early luminaries. I was there to see Emperor Norton I’s final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery and the graves of Wyatt and Josie Earp at the neighboring Hills of Eternity.

For those who don’t know of Joshua Norton, well, look him up on wiki. An eccentric Englishman who lost his fortune and his mind in an ill-fated rice venture, Norton turned up on the streets of San Francisco in a raggedy uniform and plumed hat, issuing imperial proclamations to the Chronicle office (which they snidely printed). Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

The Emperor and I

The citizens of San Francisco humored him, honoring his homemade currency and saving him a complimentary box in the theaters and free seating in the restaurants. He was a unique soul and a visionary besides. He decreed the building of the Bay Bridge and Transbay Tunnel 53 years before the plan was taken seriously and implemented. A contemporary of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, his funeral was an elaborate, well-attended affair.

And Wyatt and Josie Earp, well, if you’re reading this blog you very likely know who they were.

The kids both crashed after the inordinately long trek through clogging traffic, and by the time we got there there was no one around in the way of caretakers. I spent a good twenty minutes doing my best impression of Tuco jogging amid the tombstones, squinting at the names in the fading light before my wife honked the horn at me and showed me a picture of the actual tombstone in the biography of Norton I’d packed along. I identified a column in the background and found the grave of the ‘Empress’ first, with Norton behind. Took a few pictures, and at my wife’s suggestion, left a Twinkie on His Majesty’s tombstone (it was all I had handy). Unfortunately it slipped into the water-filled face and challenged the spongey-ness of the sponge cake to the breaking point.

My golden offering is sadly waterlogged.

Dropped the wife and kids off at Subway (they were starving) and headed back to Hills of Eternity, but found it roped off. I was very disappointed there, having come so far physically and metaphorically (I visited Wyatt’s birthplace in Monmouth, Illinois back in college). I was quite tempted to run the risk of trespassing, but seeing as how I’d left the family at a foreign Subway and my wife’s phone was in the car, I decided I’d better not risk it, particularly since the Colma Police Department was only a few doors down.

Somewhere in that necropolis Wyatt and Josie lay....

We drove a few hours out of town and spent the night in Monterrey. After being turned away like Mary and Joseph from several of the big chain hotels (busy holiday weekend), we stayed at the quite tasteful (and cheap) Casa Verde Inn. No internet, but more cable channels than the Motel 6 in Oakland, and much cleaner and nicer. Fell asleep switching between Superman The Movie and Attack of the Clones. The owner was very pleasant.

All of Monterrey was quite hospitable, actually. We took the kids to the Aquarium on Cannery Row.

Cannery Row

 A lot’s changed since Steinbeck’s days. Very touristy now, and all the old sardine canneries house trendy chain restaurants and pirate themed gift shops.  Lee Chong’s isn’t around anymore, but there was a bronze bust of the man himself, next to Bubba Gump’s (a restaurant that may not deserve my spite, but I can’t help it because it’s named after a movie that does deserve it).

The Bear Flag no longer has the biggest bust on Cannery Row....

The old Hovden Cannery is now the site of the Monterey Aquarium, where we spent most of the day. The jellies and sea dragons always mesmerize me, but we were unanimously taken in by the site of the schools of sardines. Once the staple commissary of Cannery Row, they mainly exist here in the aquarium after having been overfished years ago (when asked where all the sardines went, marine biologist Ed Ricketts replied ‘They’re all in cans.’). They move in lovely patterns, more imaginative than but with the same precision as flocks of bats and birds, inadverdantly forming these complex geometric patterns of flitting, living silver. In the picture I took, the fish had only just commanded the center of their tank in a beautiful ever-revolving sphere. They broke apart just as I snapped the photo.

We lunched on crab-encrusted salmon, clam chowder, and cheeseburgers at Fisherman’s Cove on Fisherman’s Wharf, watched the sea lions float by. My daughter took pictures with several exotic birds, hustled us for some souvenirs, then we swung for home.