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"It Seems To Be Some Sort of Internationally Recognized Landmark…"

In San Francisco, Travel on August 23, 2009 at 3:51 pm

That Robert Frost poem is really misinterpreted. The Road Not Taken isn’t about rugged individualism or how wonderfully shiny self-expression is. It’s sort of an ironic poem, really, if you bother to read the whole damn thing and not just take the last bit and paste it on a Hallmark card.

Yet, there seems to be a certain breed of snob out there who take that shit literally, who blanch at the idea of seeing a tourist site, who shudder at the thought of going to any place that’s going to swarmed by families with cameras and baseball caps. I’ll cop to having a little bit of this attitude in me. Even as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge, a place I specifically wanted to go, my inner hipster-snob-asshole voice said “Oh god, we’re tourists now.” Once the thing reared up on the skyline, though, once the great orange towers reared up against the sky, I was duly impressed with the thing, and able to shove the annoying inner voice down into a mental oubliette where he belongs. We got out of the car and there were indeed several families with cameras and baseball caps swarming about- khaki shorts, sweatshirts, minivans.

The contemptuous arrogant bastard was safely in his damp little hole, though, and I was determined to be a tourist and enjoy it. I like being a tourist. People who say, “Oh, I love traveling but I hate tourists,” or “I’m a traveler, not a tourist,” are hypocrites. I like the sense of renewed perception that comes from being in a new venue, and I like seeing what the place has to offer. That includes places that are staggeringly famous and overrun with out-of-towners. While I do like wandering about on my own in the non-famous parts of a place (and did plenty of that in SF) there is a certain feeling of niceness that comes from going to a place that is absolutely, unmistakably famous. Iconic and symbolic. Somewhere or something that encapsulates its city, region, or country.

Every time I stood at Hachiko crossing in Shibuya, I sensed that I was somehow taking in an abreviated version of Tokyo, a kind of concentrated, focused bit of the city’s zeitgeist. I felt the same way about the Shanghai’s Pudong skyline, an image that fired rapid development into the the night sky. Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive is like that. Driving down it you think, “Yes, there are the Big Shoulders, right there. There’s the unmistakable something-ness of this place.”

The Golden Gate is, of course, a symbol of San Francisco. It’s also a symbol of everything that San Francisco represents, and that’s saying a lot. It’s also a big damn bridge. I love seeing the functionality of these places, knowing that this thing that’s a symbol of so many amorphous things is also part of someone’s daily commute. That’s great. Walking across the bridge, I loved seeing the road signs. This thing that gets imprinted on so many cheap gifts and duplicated in so much media is a living, workable thing, and you would be an asshole to try a U-turn on it.

I was sort of pleased to see, though, that there really are rather prominent anti-suicide signs on the bridge. I guess that’s one other thing that the bridge is famous for- the dramatic ejection of people and things into the San Francisco Bay. One of my high school English teachers claimed to have angrily thrown her engagement ring from the bridge. Seeing the signs though, I wondered how big a drama queen you’d have to be to kill yourself by jumping from this thing. What a cry for attention. What a final, pathetic “hey, guys- lookit me!” act. You’d have to have a weird alchemy of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement to actually do it.

I loved it, though. I loved that it was crowded and covered with camera flashes, the feeling that somehow we were participating in something significant just by walking across a sizable piece of urban engineering. I loved that it was crowded with bicycles and people shouting, plenty of people walking along and making use of this gigantic, significant and beautiful bit of metal and concrete. Yes, I thought, this is the Golden Fucking Gate Bridge and I’m experiencing it right now. I’m on it. I’m on top of this thing, that whose image I’ve seen, but now my experience is unmediated.

One last thing- I was lucky enough to be with three friends from Japan, people with whom I was very pleased to see again. Six months ago I left, and wondered what my relationships with people there would be like in the future I wondered if the connections would hold. Here, they did. My friendships, it seems, can take a bit of abuse and estrangement, which is an encouraging, when you think about it. We looked across to the Pacific and waved to our erstwhile home. “Hi, Japan!” we said, jumping up and down with utterly appropriate overenthusiasm. Seeing them was excellent and I feel that this picture is utterly representative of them.

  1. I won't comment on the psychology involved in jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, but I will note that the Sleater-Kinney song about doing such ("Jumpers") provides a useful reminder of the bridge's clearance (220 feet, or 4 seconds of free-fall).

  2. Before you got to it, I was going to say exactly what you said, that you can't go anywhere different without being a tourist. Unless of course you're on business and don't plan to enjoy any of what you see. Let's tour!

    Thanks for the shout-out, by the way. Our friendship can handle all the abuse we can muster! 🙂

  3. I am one of those people who make a distinction between travelers and tourists, but perhaps not the same one made by bescarfed hipsters traipsing about the globe. And by my definition, Joe, you are a traveler. I think of a "tourist" as someone who visits famous cities, monuments, parks and locations of historical significance and leaves them unchanged and untouched. Someone for whom it was about the commemorative spoon or snapshot rather than the experience. (Please see almost everyone who visited Pisa, including myself. Although I started out as a traveler and was quickly underwhelmed into tourism. It was a big structure surrounded by kiosks selling Homer Simpson backpacks and Leaning Tower Hats.) The "traveler," on the other hand, is there for the experience, and that is you all over, my friend. The minivan family with cameras, socks & sandals, brand new, stiff, region-appropriate baseball caps, and fannypacks is usually, in my experience, lead by a traveler: an excited parent who just can't believe they're actually here. Sometimes the whole family is in on it, gaping over the side of a bridge, reading educational plaques, eating local street food, and of course, posing for pictures at each step of the way. Sometimes the kids are tourists: a quick look around, a half smile for the photo, eyes already searching out a gift shop or a place where they can sullenly wait for parental enthusiasm to wear itself out while texting friends back home (or on their own family vacations). Maybe those kids aren't even tourists. Maybe they're prisoners. Huh. Anyway… The saddest thing to me is something we saw a lot in places like Venice: the childless couple (either because the kids are old and out of the house or they don't have any) where one is a traveler, gobsmacked by the craziness that such a place can even exist let alone does, and the other is a tourist, dragging the first out of a museum or church and into the gift shop, out of a historical square and into a hole-in-the-wall that sells Authentic Carnivale Masks year round.

  4. […] The other issue, though, was about San Franciscan geography. I enjoyed that the movie took place in a real American city as opposed to Any Town, U.S.A. What’s more, it took place in San Francisco, where I’ve spent a fair amount of time, and the big fight scene was on one of my favorite landmarks. […]

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