Sunday, 13 August 2017

Male knitters

We woke up a little later than yesterday and walked along Market Street in the misty, early morning San Francisco light. As so often in this city, a nutter was screaming at an invisible person in front of him at the tram stop. It was a rage of complete insanity, and it was a little scary. If that man had had a gun, there'd have been a massacre. Further down the street, we stumbled upon someone wearing a neck brace. He was dancing. Tubes from his recent tracheotomy were dragging along on the tarmac behind him!

There are so many mentally ill people in this city. I think a lot of the problems are caused by drugs. The stench of dope hangs over the streets of this city like fronds of seaweed discarded on a rock at low tide. A large number of homeless people are attracted by San Francisco's mild all-year-round climate. It rarely gets too hot or too cold, so living in the open air is a genuine option. But it can't be good for ones mental health.

The locals are obsessed with the notion that the city is actually really quite cold, and will happily quote Mark Twain, who said words to the effect of "the coldest winter I ever experience was a summer in San Francisco."

The fire engines here are singular creatures. Their design plainly hasn't changed since the 1920s. The giant bell on the front is probably for ceremonies and decoration only, because the sound the vehicle emits is like nothing on earth. It's like a mournful, desperate wail. Like a child with no energy in her tiny, weak, Tubercular body, screaming "help me"

Americans have no idea how to make a proper cup of tea. You see them taking a deep breath when an English person comes to the front of a queue and asks for a pot of English Breakfast tea... WITH COLD MILK! A piss-weak, highly-fragranced liquid then gets handed over, which has been topped up with a substance that tastes like pus. I'm not sure there's any diary in American milk.

Nathan had been invited to attend a brunch with a group of male knitters at a little bakery called Thorough Bread. The San Franciscans love a good pun in their shop names. In the Castro, filthy puns are king. There's a launderette called "Sit and Spin", a nail bar called "Hand Job" and a juice bar called "Slurp." Sometimes, they drop the pun altogether and just go with filth. "Rock Hard," "Knobs." I'd continue if I weren't blushing like a prude!

Nathan's new male knitting friends were delightful, and it was great to meet a group of men so flagrantly set on breaking down the gender stereotype. The group has over 100 members and 20 or 30 male knitters regularly turn up to their bi-weekly meetings. Obviously, as San Franciscans, they wear their eccentricity on their knitted sleeves. One of them specialises in crocheting gimp masks!

All knitters are charming, of course, regardless of gender, and some arrived with presents for Nathan. Another told me all about the Castro in the 60s and 70s, talking about how trans women in those days were only allowed, by law, to wear three subtle items of women's clothing. If they presented as women, they would instantly be arrested. Hallowe'en, however, was their best friend because, for one magical night, anything went, and drag queens felt safe. Hallowe'en in the Castro, as a result, has always been a massive party.

Many of the men we met today have got into the "knitted knockers" movement. They carefully, lovingly and really quite movingly knit fake breasts for women who have had mastectomies. In the early days after an operation, these fake breasts are, apparently, a hugely popular alternative to silicone products which tend to be too heavy and cumbersome for tender skin.

Later on, after most people had left, a middle-aged man entered the cafe and sheepishly pulled some knitting out of a bag. I nudged the organiser of the group: "is he one of yours?" Apparently he wasn't. The fact that he was knitting (and a man) was a complete coincidence. The three of us instantly went over and introduced ourselves and the man was invited to join the knitting group. He seemed delighted. So delighted, in fact, that he cast off the hat that he was knitting and presented it as a gift to Nathan. "What's knitting for if you can't give it away?"

Lunch happened in a cafe called Little Orphan Andy's (another pun) on the corner of Market and Castro. A violinist outside busked jazz music, playing nothing but relentless quavers, which was initially rather impressive, but eventually utterly irritating. Around the corner, a young black man was playing unaccompanied Bach on a bashed-up orange box of a Chinese 'cello.

The bar next to Orphan Andy's is called Twin Peaks. It has huge glass windows so passers by can look in and see the bar's clientele. It's known as a bit of an old man haunt and has developed the nickname "the glass coffin."

Sam and Matt met up with us after lunch. They'd been to Japan Town and a meditation forum. We walked back up to the Haight and spent a few hours window shopping. I was looking for cufflinks and walked into a Tibetan jewellery-cum-trinkety shop and asked if she could help me. "Cuplinks?" She said, confused. "No, cufflinks" I said, doing up the cuffs on an imaginary shirt. "Ah yes!" she said, her face lighting up, "no, we don't have. Next door. Mentals. They have lots of lovely cuplinks." I went outside to discover that "Mentals" was actually called "Mendels." Who'd have thought a charming Tibetan lady could be so anti-Semitic! I went into the shop with high expectations and immediately realised that Mendels sold stationery, not cufflinks. I wondered if she thought I meant paper clips!

I eventually found a pair of glorious cufflinks in a vintage store. They're lime green and made out of a really cool 60s plastic resin. $18. Bargain!

We drifted up to Golden Gate Park and attempted to find "hippy hill" where the be-ins happened during the Summer of Love. The guide book which I found in my camera bag informed me that it "has been a gathering spot for freeform improvisational drumming circles for years." I've always found the idea of non-drummers drumming in a circle fairly horrifying. You hand someone a drum and they instantly think they're an expert. Particularly if they're also smoking a joint.

We returned to Cafe Cole where I'd got in something of a hangry tizzy two days before, so it was rather lovely to exorcise that particular demon. I was doubly thrilled when they started playing ABBA. We sang along keenly. A girl across the cafe was similarly excited to hear the music. She knew every word.

On the way back down Haight Street, we happened upon the charming Mr Brandy, who sits at a "real" piano in the back of a grotty transit van, playing for tips. It's a deeply eccentric sight. We popped a few dollars in his pot and he obligingly played Space Odyssey for us. The piano was delightfully honky tonk. The moment became one of our favourites from the trip so far. We should have sung to show our gratitude.

When did they stop calling San Francisco Frisco? The shortened form is very definitely San Fran these days. I remember them making quite a big deal about it being uncool to call it Frisco back in 2000 when Fiona and I visited.

We walked over the top of the dramatic Buena Vista Park and stumbled upon a group of young people at the summit staring at a glorious view of the city. They were listening to sweary gangsta rap on a stereo which slightly put my back up, although one of the young lads slightly won me over by dancing to it in a somewhat abandoned and utterly unthreatening manner. A few seconds later, he stopped the rap music and shuffled his iPod, selecting Mozart instead. The juxtaposition was extreme and rather poetic. The Mozart suited the view a great deal better! We suddenly realised that we were below the mist which was rolling over our heads like dry ice.

The daylight of our last day in San Fran ended in Delores Park, where all the young, cool kids sit listening to music and playing games. A group of middle-aged Latin blokes were dancing like demons to the Lambada.

An old Chinese woman walked from group to group brazenly steeling food from picnics. People were astounded by her chutzpah. We watched her making off with a bottle of pop and an entire kitchen roll!

We walked back up to Market Street via Church Street, where we stumbled upon a fabulous drag queen, in a blue hat and a pink sash, wheeling a portable karaoke machine along the pavement on a little truck, almost like a hospital patient might wheel around a drip! She was singing into a mic as she walked. It was a gloriously sincere dance tune about saving the world: "All the animals are out of light," she sang... Again and again. She didn't give a shite that no one was listening!

We had soup for tea back at Chow and then ended the night at Martuni, a piano bar - and therefore another pun. Nathan sang My Funny Valentine. Brilliantly. The crowd went wild. Another bloke sang I Left my Heart in San Francisco, which became a curiously moving experience, and made me want to sing a song about London, but I couldn't think of a decent one. Are there any decent London songs, apart from London Town by Bucks Fizz?

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