I went to San Francisco with very few preconceptions. I’ve seen the Steve McQueen movie “Bullitt” a couple of times and various other films set in the city. So I knew it was hilly, that it had cable cars, the Golden Gate bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, but that was about it.
I took the BART train from the airport, as it seemed the sensible thing to do, and it wasn’t at all bad. It’s a subway train really, though who thought it a good idea to put carpet in a subway train is clearly someone who doesn’t travel by public transport very much. I was downtown in about half an hour.
I’d booked a small hotel in Nob Hill on the basis that it looked close enough to the opera to walk – there’s nothing worse than getting to grips with a strange transport system on the morning of an important audition – and it wasn’t expensive, nor was it seedy. The Nob Hill Inn fit the bill perfectly; a twenty-five minute stroll to the War Memorial opera house and quiet and comfy. No bells and whistles, no gym or trouser press. $89 per night including a light breakfast and free wifi (though why ANY hotel charges for wifi these days is a mystery). My room was a little gloomy I suppose as it faced an inner courtyard, but I wasn’t there to spend any daytime in my room and I didn’t mind in the slightest.
There are three things in a singer’s life which are pretty-well equally terrifying and they are The First Night, The First Day Of Rehearsals and The Audition. I try and treat the whole audition process with a sort of take-it-or-leave-it disdain. “This is what I do and if you don’t like it then clearly we’re not meant for each other” is the attitude I try and have in mind. Not that I do very many auditions these days; certainly not as many as I had to do when I was a nipper. Longevity in the job is no bar to having to go through the process though. Certainly not in an age where companies like ENO make every Tom, Dick and Harry sing for directors who have absolutely no experience in the medium and yet, for some reason beyond my understanding, feel the need to be consulted. I once had to fly in to London from Amsterdam at a godawful hour, the morning after a show, travel halfway across town and sing to a neophyte director who confessed to having no idea what we were supposed to do. I said “how about I sing a bit of Britten?” She stood there while I let her have it and all she could say afterwards was that I was fine, but she thought that when we got around to doing the opera I should be sure not roll any Rs. In fact, a couple of years later when we eventually rehearsed the thing, that was about the only piece of direction I got during the course of eight weeks. Not a happy time.
Anyway, I did my thing for the bods at San Francisco Opera on the stage of their very large theatre, standing by the prompt box on the set of The Ring. Unexpectedly, the pianist completely stopped playing at one point and I fluffed the next line, but I hope no-one minded. And then I went and had lunch.
I went to a kitschy diner called Lori’s and ordered a Club Sandwich with fries. It was only then, hearing a bunch of Yorkshire accents from the booth behind me, that it dawned on me that I was deep in the heart of touristsville. Now, I know I was done with work and was also technically a tourist, but I hadn’t come to San Francisco with the aim of being a tourist and so I felt entitled to feel superior and up myself in the way every singer I know does when they’re working in a city as opposed to visiting it for, you know, pleasure. Of course, having spent the last four weeks in Saint Louis where I’ve seen and heard no European tourists at all, to suddenly find myself surrounded by Dutch, Germans and Brits, all of them in their standard issue, horrid tourist clothes, with their backpacks, guidebooks and cameras, was something of a shock. I felt snobby and horrified. As you can probably tell.
It didn’t stop me doing the touristy things though, albeit with a very superior attitude. The man at the desk of the hotel had advised me, if I planned on getting around on cable cars, to buy a three day “passport” for $20. A single ride costs $5 and as the Inn was near the top of a considerable hill and near the junction of the two cable car lines, I imagined myself popping all over town on the quaint old cars, hopping on and off at will. So I bought a pass.
As it turned out, this was a mistake. One line, that goes West-East along California, isn’t working and there’s a replacement bus instead, for which the single fare is only $2. This, I’m sure, has put a lot more pressure than usual on the other line, the Powell Street line, that runs North-South, not because of the direction it’s travelling but because all those bloody tourists want to have a go on the cable car. I first tried to catch a cable car a few blocks up from its southern terminus but it was packed and no-one was being let on. Every car that passed was full. It soon became clear that the only way to get on was at the very extremes of the line. I eventually managed to get on one later at it’s northernmost stop, near Fisherman’s Wharf but I had to queue for about half an hour and wait until the third car pulled up. It struck me that this really wasn’t a means of transport at all but a theme park ride. I really couldn’t be bothered to use it again as it was a pretty useless way of getting around town.
I did use the F line a few times. That runs from the heart of the city out to the Ferry Building and then past all the piers to Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s unusual because it uses a variety of beautiful vintage trams from all over the States, painted in different liveries, and even an old wooden tram from Milan. Though when I first took that route I thought my travel karma was particularly bad; I waited for a good twenty minutes while loads of trams passed in the other direction and when something did eventually turn up it was, of course, a replacement bus.
The Ferry Building is full of foodie fun as it has become a posh gourmet market. It was almost the highlight of my visit.
Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist magnet and the best way I found to deal with it was to skirt along the very outside of the pier, thus avoiding the plethora of cutesy restaurants and retail outlets that draw the throngs. I saw Alcatraz across the bay. I could just about see The Golden Gate through the sea mist and dazzling sun. And I saw the harbour seals. Then I left again, annoyed by the swarms of touroids who were spoiling my tourism.
In the evening I ate at a very basic Italian cafĂ© a few blocks from the hotel. I was too tired to be adventurous or to enjoy eating a fine meal alone. Besides, I had no idea where to go where I could avoid couples from Croydon in Hawaiian shirts. Yelp!, the handy online guide, was suggesting restaurants but they all seemed to involve a trek across a town. I reckoned I’d already spent a good hour or more queuing for transport. I’d lost the will to do it any more that night. I could have walked to Chinatown but I never think that a Chinese meal for one is a great success. Besides I’d eaten some noodles the night before, straight after checking in at the hotel. A nice quiet wine bar would have done me perfectly but I just couldn’t find one.
The next day I had a few more hours to kill before heading to the airport, so I ambled around the shopping streets near Union Square. I thought the Apple shop, so close to Silicon Valley, might be the mothership of all Apple shops but it was just like all the others. A bit at a loss as to what to do in a limited time, I took an old Boston tram back to Fisherman’s Wharf with a view to getting a better look at the Golden Gate but there was still a lot of mist engulfing it. So I walked a bit further on and ended up looking at the fishing boats and the plethora of fishy restaurants nearby. Curiously, no-one was bothering to walk along the pier where the boats were moored – too busy gaping at the freshly-steamed crabs I suppose – and I had it to myself.
With time running out and concerns about how long it would take me to get back to the inn to collect my bag (given my persistent bad luck with transport), I thought “what the hell” and dove into one of the fishy eateries for lunch. And it wasn’t at all bad. I had a cup of clam chowder then some crab cakes, with some sourdough bread on the side. Service was brisk (I had barely finished my chowder before the crab arrived) but polite and I was out again in forty minutes. Just as well because the trams were running slow again and it took me a full hour to get back to my hotel.
San Francisco is rather alarming compared to sedate Saint Louis. Perhaps tourism attracts them but there were awful lot of panhandlers and, I hesitate to say it, strange people around Downtown. I saw one poor woman who was walking along, arguing loudly with herself. She stopped suddenly, dropped the carrier bags she was carrying and slapped herself sharply across the face before picking up her bags and continuing her noisy promenade. Apart from the yelling, she appeared to be perfectly normal. Perhaps she’d just done a few too many ENO auditions and it had finally got to her.
When I was lunching in Lori’s Diner a man dressed in classic gay leathers shimmied in for a look at a glass case that contains a dress once worn by Elizabeth Taylor. He had huge circles of bright red blusher on his cheeks and put on a performance of such over-the-top adoration of the Taylor reliquary that for a moment I thought he must be taking the piss. But he wasn’t. Just a bit eccentric. Or perhaps not.
California is known as the land of fruit and nuts. Los Angelinos, or whatever you care to call them, are all about show business, so I get them. I know why they’re there and what drives them. They’re still mostly bonkers though. San Franciscans I have yet to figure out. It could take some time and who knows if I’ll ever be back. That could all depend on how the audition went, and frankly I haven’t a clue.

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