Friday, June 20, 2008

BEST OF: Hot times in a cool city

When summertime temperatures hit 97 in Death Valley, the full-timers there put on their sweaters.

In San Francisco (or Cambria, if the truth be known), when the thermometer hovers anywhere near triple digits, it’s as if the end of the world is upon us and we’re sinking into the fires of Hell.

When we got to “The City” for our vacation that day, it was 97 degrees at Market Street and Embarcadero. The air was going nowhere fast. There was not a breeze anywhere, nor even a half-cup of fog.

It was miserable and people were downright cranky. “This never happens here,” they said in a heat-glazed daze.

Machines were working slowly, if at all. One severely overloaded cable car thought it could, thought it could make the steep trek up Powell Street, but lo and behold, it was the little engine that couldn’t. The driver had to back down and make another run at it before he could continue his route.

The City’s customary aroma — a mystical blend of soy sauce, curry, seafood, espresso, cigar smoke, ocean brine and a few unmentionables — was far overshadowed by the stench of asphalt oozing and melting in the relentless sun.

Visitors, who’d been urged by their travel agents to bring sweatshirts and warm jackets to San Francisco, were puzzled and dashing for Union Square to buy shorts and tank-tops. And that was to wear to the Top of the Mark! In their hotel rooms, overheated tourists probably slept in the shower, with the water going full blast.

Unless they were from Death Valley, in which case, they were freezing.

We were lucky in one sense: Our hotel was air conditioned, a rarity in the town that produced Fog City Records and fog-tea. On the other hand, the a/c system was designed more to stir the air around than chill it down, so by 4:30 in the morning, our room was still considerably beyond cozy in the high 80s.

It was like sleeping in one of those trendy kitchen warming drawers.

However, even in the wee, small hours, the air outside was hotter still.

At 6:30 a.m., when the nearby Walgreen’s pharmacy-cum-variety-store opened, I dashed across the street and bought two small fans for our room.

Obviously, plans for our day of museum hopping weren’t heat-wave-friendly, not unless they wanted to use me for some exotic science experiment. “Premise: At what temperature does a human start to melt?”

In the end, we spent the day jumping on and off cable cars and trolleys, enjoying the gentle breeze of open-air travel, along with the changing scenery of gingerbread-frosted buildings and the San Franciscans who live and work in them.

People-watching in San Francisco is a true art form. The City’s residents — the real ones, not nouveau San Franciscans — don’t wear just wear clothes. They costume … even at 97 degrees.

That elderly little lady with her suit, pillbox hat and white gloves is living out her memories of social graces that have gone the way of the dodo.

The Gen-X day-trader heading for his power breakfast with the brass is equally as uniformed in his Polo shirt (the real thing by Lauren, of course), his crisp chinos, his micro-fiber messenger bag, his laptop/PDA/cell-phone and his Mephisto loafers.

The teen with purple-tinged hair, black fingernails and enough body piercings to qualify as a studded tire is wearing more fierce-looking stuff around her waist, neck and wrists than a SWAT team member. Heavy metal is her accessory, not a music style. Bumping into her would be like going 10 rounds with a forklift.

By the next morning, it had “cooled down” to a high of 92. We had an early breakfast at the Ferry Building’s farmers market, noshing our way from booth to booth. I’ll bet by noon, those beautiful fresh fruits had turned to jam and the veggies were instant ratatouille.

A ferry ride was just the ticket for our last day in The City. It was the only place to be even remotely cool.

One thing’s certain: The next time somebody tells me San Francisco’s a hot town, I’ll ask for context first, and then I’ll check to see if he’s a Death Valley native.

This column ran July 10, 2003, in The Cambrian.


frankbooth said...

Yesterday was awful, and today it's supposed to hit 85 -- with a possibility of "dry thunderstorms."

I think we've already had more days over 80 (in the city, anyway) this year than we did the last two.

But dry thunderstorms?!! Wha?

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