S.G. Browne

San Francisco is a Ghost Town & Union Square is a Haunted Forest

A good friend of mine mentioned that a woman who lives in San Francisco called my friend a colorful euphemism for female genitalia that rhymes with “swat” for suggesting that San Francisco is a ghost town. Now, I don’t know who this woman is who lives in San Francisco, but if she doesn’t think that San Francisco is a ghost town, I’d like to know how she manages to get around the city with her head so far up her ass.

Last Friday at 5:00pm I walked from Telegraph Hill down Grant Avenue, across Columbus, and continued along Grant through Chinatown and into Union Square. This was during what should be the height of rush hour through North Beach, China Town, and Union Square. That’s Union Square up at the top right, taken from the corner of Powell and Geary. Below is another photo of Union Square from the opposite corner at Stockton and Post, along with a photo of Powell Street from Post looking south toward Geary.

On the bottom left is Grant Avenue in Chinatown, just past Clay, looking about two blocks south to California Street. On the bottom right is California at Grant, looking east all the way down to the Southern Pacific Building at One Market Plaza. And below them is a landscape photo of the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach. At approximately 5:30pm on a Friday night. I’ll let you be the judge as to whether or not San Francisco is a ghost town.

But while San Francisco is on a virtual lockdown–with restaurants, bars, cafes, movie theaters, nail and hair salons, hotels, clothing stores, and  every type of business shuttered or boarded up–there are still signs of commerce in neighborhoods throughout the city as some restaurants and cafes remain open for limited business, providing meals and beverages to go. So even though foot and vehicle traffic in these neighborhoods has fallen to the point that prime shopping and dining hours resemble a Twilight Zone episode where it’s always Christmas morning in an alternate reality where Santa Claus is a mob boss, a sense of normalcy persists. Or at least the pretense of normalcy.

The same cannot be said for Union Square.

In Union Square, other than the Westin St. Francis, nothing is open. Not Saks Fifth Avenue. Not Sears Fine Food. Not DSW. Not Tiffany & Co. or Victoria’s Secret or Louis Vuitton. Not Starbucks or Nike or The Apple Store. Not Macy’s or Neiman Marcus or the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Where there should be tourists walking along the sidewalks and in and out of hotels and storefronts; where there should be customers enjoying the variety of world class fare provided by the restaurants and filling the outside tables on Belden Place; where there should be cable cars clanging their way up and down Powell Street and traffic flowing east and west along Geary and Sutter and Post there is, instead, only a smattering of residents and tourists wandering along the streets in wonder or in a dazed disbelief and a handful of cars passing through the intersections at every green light.

There is no sense of normalcy here.

Instead, there is a palpable sense of dread, as if the apocalypse has already happened and this is the inevitable result of what happens when the end of the world comes knocking. This apprehension is heightened by the dozen or so homeless people who have not shaken hands with sanity in quite some time and who shuffle along in silence or who stand upon the empty stage of Union Square and scream and shout unintelligible curses to an empty theater.

While Fisherman’s Wharf has a similar eerie vibe to it–lonely and melancholy, the streets deserted, the restaurants and souvenir shops and tourist attractions closed up, not a tourist or street performer to be found–Fisherman’s Wharf feels more as if it’s asleep, enchanted in a deep fairy tale slumber, waiting for the spell to be broken so that it can awaken and resume it’s story.

Union Square, conversely, feels more like a haunted forest where you’ve become lost and the crows have eaten the bread crumbs that you left along the trail to help you find your way out and eventually you expect to stumble upon the front door of a cannibalistic witch who invites you in for a nice warm meal.


Filed under: Coronavirus,San Francisco — Tags: , , , , — S.G. Browne @ 7:15 am

Signs of the Times in the Age of Social Distancing

So we’re 10 days into the Shelter-in-Place directive for San Francisco that was put into place on March 17 and eventually extended to all of California just a couple of days later. Nearly two dozen other states have followed suit, with calls for social distancing included whenever we’re out and about for essential items, or because we need some fresh air and exercise, or because some of us are complete idiots. But for the most part, daily life is completely different and surreal for a good portion of the population in nearly half of the country.

Walking around these days in San Francisco, you don’t have to venture far outside of your shelter to come across signs of how life has changed. Some of the signs are physical signs, set up on the sidewalk by the Palace of Fine Arts, posted on residences by the SF Department of Public Health, or taped to trees outside of Swenson’s Ice Cream parlor on Union and Hyde.

Others are signs posted on the doors or windows of restaurants and coffee shops, informing customers about social distancing protocol and directing delivery drivers where to go to pick up orders for delivery. Also, when you’re walking around San Francisco and you come across multiple Starbucks locations that are closed up, you know the end is nigh.

There are also signs painted on the boarded up windows of bars like the Mauna Loa in Cow Hollow, Reed & Greenough and Donahue’s in the Marina, and Shanghai Kelly’s in Russian Hill–the boarded up windows themselves a sign of just how quickly our life has changed and how much of what we have taken for granted is no longer available to us.

After all, the bar is a symbol of social interaction, where people gather to share a drink and conversation and whatever else might follow. Now that outlet is literally boarded off, leaving us to drink alone or on video chats or prompting creative pub crawls from room to room where we can literally crawl to the next drink.

Still other signs are less literal and more symbolic of how our lives have changed over the past couple of weeks, from the virtually empty streets that we encounter driving or walking around the city, to the bounty of empty parking spaces in North Beach and Telegraph Hill, to the lines of customers waiting outside of Rainbow Grocery or Gus’s Market in the Mission–everyone standing six feet away from the person in front of or behind them. It may not be the dystopia we imagined or deserve, but it’s the dystopia we’ve been given, so we’re working with what we’ve got.

There are a few silver linings. For the most part people aren’t acting like douche bags, except for the bicyclists, who still don’t believe that STOP signs apply to them. But people seem to be friendly and understanding, since we’re all going through this together. And there’s less traffic and fewer tempers flaring, probably because there aren’t any Lyft and Uber drivers looking for passengers or stopping unexpectedly or double parking everywhere.

And Bob’s Donuts is open for take out, but they only accept credit cards and only one customer at a time is allowed inside the store. But it’s worth the wait. And in addition to their To Go food menu, Tacko on Fillmore is offering 16 ounce margaritas or draft beers for $3.00 to go. So you can still get your social lubrication. It’s just not quite as social as it used to be.


A Shelter-In-Place Hangover in North Beach

This morning I woke up in North Beach. Not because I had a blackout drunk from the night before, but because I spent the night there. Although I do admit to having a couple of glasses of red wine to go along with a dinner that consisted of salmon, cauliflower, and a fresh spring salad with tomatoes, peppers, and goat cheese.

A nice, normal evening in.

But in San Francisco, as well as in more than a dozen other California counties, a nice normal evening in has taken on a whole new meaning.

That new normal gets weirder when you go to sleep after 11pm on St. Patrick’s Day and aren’t woken up once by the drunken revelry of tech bros shouting and staggering their way back home from the North Beach bars. Instead, there’s eerie silence.

In the morning you wake up and walk outside and wander along Grant Avenue and look West along Lombard Street all the way to the crooked part that crests the opposite hill and there’s not a single car for seven blocks. There are signs for Take Out Only or One Customer At A Time and a virtually empty Green Street and you know that there won’t be a line outside of Golden Boy Pizza tonight.

You stand on an island at Green and Columbus and see a single car waiting at the stop light. When you get down to Broadway and Columbus, you walk out into the middle of Broadway at 7:30am and the normal morning commute traffic is non-existent. The restaurants along Broadway and Columbus are closed until further notice. Even the strip clubs are dark, The Condor and The Garden of Eden and Little Darlings–the most obvious casualty of social distancing when it comes to financial transactions–and you wonder why no one is talking about the hardship this economic shutdown is going to cause for the strippers.

A few places are open for business, even if they’re not open yet–such as Portofino Seafood Co. on Grant, Lush Gelato and Caffe Greco on Columbus, and Liguria Bakery on Stockton–but they only offer take out and ask that you respect social distancing.

As you head back, you stop on the Northwest corner of Broadway and Columbus, which is your favorite corner in San Francisco because it offers a view North along Columbus into the heart of North Beach, a view South down Grant into the shopping heart of Chinatown, and a view East down Broadway past all of the strip clubs–the juxtaposition of sex for sale bumped up against the family friendly tourist attractions of North Beach and Chinatown. This has always amused you.

Finally, as you head back up Columbus to start your second day of this new normal, you notice three humans taking their dogs out to play in Washington Square Park. While the humans are practicing social distancing, the dogs remind us of a simpler time when we could all run around and play together without having to worry about a pandemic. Either that or they’re all just channeling their inner honey badger because they don’t give a fuck.


Coronapocalypse: Marina District

As the city of San Francisco (and other cities and counties throughout California) implement a Shelter-In-Place directive, closing up all businesses that are considered non-essential and restricting the movement of humans in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus in an attempt to flatten the curve of infection, I thought I’d share some photos of what San Francisco looks like on the first morning of the apocalypse…I mean the directive.

I went out to take a morning walk at 6:30am to get some exercise, keeping in mind that the directive recommends keeping a minimum distance of 6 feet from anyone else on the street, which, as you can see from the photos, wasn’t difficult to do. Plus I hadn’t showered yet, so there’s that.

As you can imagine, it’s rather surreal to see empty streets and deserted sidewalks in a major metropolitan city, even at 7:00am on a weekday. And the Marina District is usually bustling with cars and cafes and Crunch Fitness. But for now, this is the new normal.

Whenever I take a walk around the city, I like to have a soundtrack. I still have an iPod shuffle, so I don’t have playlists, just a shuffling of the songs I’ve downloaded. Normally I skip over songs that don’t suit my mood, but I decided to let the songs play without interruption to see what kind of mood they set. Below in order are the songs that provided the soundtrack to my rather surreal morning.

Feeling That Way / Anytime
One Tree Hill
Love Rollercoaster
All the Small Things
Time of the Season
God Part II
Tired of Sex
I’m in Love with My Car
Kiss Off
Roadhouse Blues
Smooth Sailin’
Miss You
Personal Jesus
Love for Sale
It’s Now or Never
Hello It’s Me
Alive and Kicking
Hammer to Fall

That last one seems a little too close for comfort to the current situation, but it’s Queen so I can’t complain.

Tomorrow I’ll check out North Beach.