It says something about a city when a mayoral candidate is leading in the polls largely because of his plan to be less hospitable to panhandlers.
The surrealism of such a strange issue couldnt dim my awe for San Francisco. Its easy to understand why generations of people have left their hearts there.
The trip was a tagalong; my wife and several colleagues attended an education conference, while I gawked through the streets learning about a city on the other side of the continent.
Fascinating. Big, busy, hilly, with some of the politest people Ive ever run into outside of my native Georgia - a place that I havent been outside much.
Traveling for me is more like a field trip than a vacation - a chance to study a macro-environment of someone elses culture.
The reason the panhandlers are such a noticeable part of that environment is because there were just so many. I actually gave money to a couple of them on the first day, just so I could say Id completed the experience - similar to my attitude about riding the citys overrated cable cars.
Unlike those cable cars, the street bums arent a feature of any San Francisco travel brochures. But they are one of the prices the city pays for its absurd levels of tolerance, exceeded only by nearby Berkeley.
Jaded San Francisco residents may have finally seen the limit of their tolerance and embraced the idea of booting bums after the current mayor praised a program that would have allowed beggars to take handouts via credit card.
For me, the tolerance snapped when I had to shoulder my way past rag-tag protesters - a preview, perhaps, of the Martha Burk crowd.
One noisy group clamored for the United States to get out of the Philippines, where our soldiers have been assisting in an ongoing war against Muslim terrorists. The shouting young ingrates may as well spit on the graves of the 17,206 U.S. soldiers buried in Manila, the cost of liberating their South Pacific country from the Japanese in World War II.
A couple of days later, a bunch of flabby, middle-aged women staged an anti-war rally with strident speeches suspiciously reminiscent of the Vietnam era. These people dont seem capable of original thought, clapping out and cheering the shopworn Hey, hey, ho, ho and What do we want? chants.
The only thing more comical was the pathetic pair of PETA protesters parading on a nearby sidewalk, as ignored by Nordstrom shoppers as the panhandlers were.
But Id feel terrible if the fruits and nuts of California were the only memory I brought back. The place was better than that - so much better that the wackos couldnt begin to drown out the wonders and curiosities:
The noise: 24 hours a day, San Francisco is a clanking, squealing, clanging cacaphony. The city not only doesnt sleep - it doesnt even rest.
The trees: Eucalyptus, cedar or redwoods, the trees are gigantic. I grew up in the logging business, and this place was awe-inspiring.
Chinatown: A cross between a dollar store and a Chinese restaurant, but its kitschy charm brought be back repeatedly. That, and the cheap souvenirs.
The Golden Gate Bridge: Its big. But its red.
Gas: Think our gas is expensive? Out there, its as high as $2.53 per gallon.
Smoking: Only in the streets; its banned in restaurants and bars.
Wine country: Beautiful, but a little too scripted.
Every set of eyes finds different things in a visit to some new place. And undoubtedly a return trip would reveal new impressions. But no matter how much San Francisco grows on you, one thing is clear: Im glad to be back home.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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