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Christmas by the Bay

Posted by Tony & Cheri on December 16, 2008

“It’s Christmas by the Bay, time to celebrate in a San Francisco way.”
~Tim Hockenberry

The holiday tree in Union Square, San FranciscoWe spent thirty years in San Francisco, and even though we now live in Mexico, we still return to California as often as we can to see family, friends and the beauty of one of the world’s truly great cities. And since that beauty is enhanced when the holiday season comes around, we decided a little early December trip was in order to help us get in the Christmas spirit. Here is a trip report about our “Christmas by the Bay.”

As always, we stayed at the Chancellor Hotel. It’s an old style San Franciscan hotel, built in the early 1900’s, and owned by the same family for years. It sits right at the corner of Union Square, the heart of the shopping district. It is comfortable, with wonderful service from a dedicated staff which has been there for a long time (some for as much as twenty years). We always get a room on the street side. From our window we could see the City’s official holiday tree, the ice skating rink and the various stores decorations. At night we would leave our window open to hear the clickety-clack of the cable cars that run past the front of the hotel and the street musicians below playing Christmas carols.

Once we got to the Bay Area we had some personal stuff to take care of. Middle age brings a fair amount of doctors poking and probing on occasion. However it turned out all was well and a clean bill of health was issued. Yay!

Then it was a couple of days visiting family up in Sacramento. We saw Cheri’s mom’s new house (of which she is very proud) and got to hang out with the rest of the family, including Cheri’s brothers, sister & nephews. When we first left San Francisco and started our long drive to Mexico, Cheri’s family up in Sacramento took us in for a few nights so we could get our bearings. It always feels a little like home away from home when we go back to visit, but we wish they would come to Mexico and visit more often. Sadly, our son Chris couldn’t join us as he was in the middle of a faculty presentation for his Master’s Degree in Digital Media down in San Diego. But there were lots of phone calls and birthday wishes (he turned 26 on December 6th!).

Tony with poet Gary SnyderWhen we got back to San Francisco we tried to make the most of our visit, experiencing as many of the unusual and fascinating places and things the Bay Area has to offer as we could. Here are some of the fun things we did:

….We went to a book reading by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder. Snyder is a renaissance man. He has by turns been a scholar of Chinese and Japanese literature and art, a logger, a fire lookout in national forests, a university professor, a sailor in the merchant marine, Chair of California Arts Council, an adamant spokesman for the environment and the author of a couple dozen books of poetry. On this evening Snyder was talking about his friendship with the late Beat poet and icon, Allen Ginsberg, and reading from a recently published collection of their correspondence. At 78 Snyder still dominated the room with the power of his voice, his intelligence and his personality. He was warm, funny and friendly, taking time to sign books and chat with the crowd of about fifty who came to see him. It was a very special evening with a true national treasure.

…We attended an afternoon Christmas concert at Grace Cathedral featuring the Cathedral’s Men and Boys Choirs. Grace Cathedral is a magnificent Gothic structure of stone and space and is one of our favorite places to have a few minutes of peace in the middle of the City. The Choirs sang Christmas carols to the accompaniment of a string quartet and the church’s massive pipe organ. The sounds echoed around the candlelit church as the day’s final rays of sunlight shone through the giant stained glass windows above us. It was a wonderful way to start the holiday season.

Our good friends Jan & Eric…We went to a tree trimming party at the home of our dear friends Jan and Eric. They are about as perfect a couple as you ever want to meet. They are smart, funny and loving to each other and to their friends. They are also gourmet cooks and have made their small Russian Hill apartment our favorite restaurant in San Francisco. That night there was great wine (Eric’s a wine connoisseur …or snob as we tell him) terrific food (baked panko- and cayenne pepper-encrusted prawns among many other goodies) and old friends gathered about the tree in the living room telling new stories and re-telling old ones all night long. Thank you guys. It was a delight.

…We went to restaurants. Lots of restaurants! It being San Francisco we of course ate waaaayyy too much. This trip we discovered some new treasures. We ate at Brenda’s French Soul Food Restaurant on Polk near Eddy, a miniscule dining room serving the best Creole cooking outside of New Orleans French Quarter. We had the Andouille Sausage and Crawfish bread pudding as well as the beignet assortment. We also ate at Puccini & Pinetti on Ellis Street, a warm, modern Italian eatery with a great bar and unusual menu. We loved the filet set in a bed of warm spinach with cherries and gorgonzola. Of course we hit some old favorites including Firenze by Night on Stockton. Sergio has made his classic Italian restaurant a must for visitors and home to many locals. It’s the best pasta in town. We also ate pretty regularly at Luques which is in the Chancellor Hotel. They have wonderful breakfasts and afternoon snacks with a Cajun flavor. One night we had a North Beach Pizza (our favorite pizza in all the world!) delivered to our room. One afternoon we indulged in Dim Sum (Chinese Tea Lunch) at Yank Sing. Oh, and In -N Out Burgers. And Pasta Pomodoro in Noe Valley, our old neighborhood. And Egg Nog Lattes at Starbucks. And hotdogs from the Stanley Steamer Cart sitting beside the skating rink. And don’t forget Ghirardelli chocolate. The list goes on and on. We are going on a diet the minute we get home.

Entrance to the Green Gulch Zen Center…We went to the Actor’s Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) for their annual musical production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. They stage it every year and it has become, along with the Ballet’s Nutcracker, a San Francisco performance tradition. It is a close call as to which is more adorable, the kids in the production in their 18th Century costumes or the little ones in ties and frilly dresses for a special evening out with Mom and Dad, or Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad (it is San Francisco, after all). Of course everyone knows the story, and by the time Tiny Tim calls out “God bless us everyone” the whole place was cheering and clapping with the Christmas spirit. No Scrooges allowed! We went home through the streets to the hotel with big smiles.

…Tony went to the Green Gulch Zen Center to meditate and have a private interview with Roshi Reb Anderson. The Zen Center sits near Mount Tamalpais in Marin, just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. A small Buddhist community lives and farms there in a fog-covered valley filled with towering Eucalyptus trees. It is a place of absolutely magical physical beauty. Tenshin Roshi (Tenshin is Mr. Anderson’s Buddhist name, and Roshi means ancient or wise teacher) is the head Dharma instructor at the center. Tenshin Roshi’s teachings mean a lot to Tony, and he was greatly honored to be able to spend some time with this special person.

…We experienced Christmas San Francisco style. There were lights and giant decorated trees in Union Square, in front of the Bank of America building and at City Hall. The Embarcadero Buildings were, as always, outlined in lights like giant presents. There were choir groups singing carols across from the hotel at night (“Merry Christmas San Francisco” they shouted). The legendary cable cars were decorated with wreaths and greenery. Macys’ windows were filled with kittens and puppies up for adoption from the SPCA. And on our last night we experienced an “only in San Francisco” event…Santarchy! Early Morning in Muir WoodsThink Santa and Anarchy and you have your first clue. The word went out over the internet and hundreds of people, mostly young, showed up downtown dressed like Santa in some fashion. There were traditional white bearded Santas, Viking helmeted Santas, Mexican masked wrestling Santas, pretty girls barely dressed as Frederick’s of Hollywood Santas, and even biker Santas on motorcycles completely covered in Christmas tree lights. It was a internet-sponsored gathering combined with a parade and a bar crawl (“Santa needs Beer!!” was the cry of the evening). A great time was had by both the participants and the observers. San Francisco is still a wonder!

…We went early one morning to hike the trails in Muir Woods, a national monument located in Marin. Muir Woods is a protected forest of old growth redwood trees. The park has canyons, streams, wildlife and hiking trails all spread for miles beneath a dazzling canopy of evergreen. We have always loved hiking there, particularly in the early morning before the tour buses arrive. At that time of day the forest is perfectly still, with no sound except the water tumbling over rocks, the wind in the high branches and the occasional caw of a crow. Walking beneath the gigantic redwoods makes one feel insignificant and a part of the natural setting all at the same time. After our hike we emerged from the woods into the crisp cold air with a sense of renewal, which is what nature is all about we guess.

…We also experienced one more San Francisco tradition, one we wish would disappear: homeless people living and sleeping on the street. Some are poor, some are mentally ill, some are addicted to drugs or alcohol. All are cold, hungry, sick and alone. There aren’t enough shelters to help, and some wouldn’t go to the shelters even if there was room because they are afraid of being locked up or abused. So they beg on the street and live in doorways, alleys or in camps which materialize at night in dead end streets and under freeways. We wish there was an answer we could give, some help we could offer, but sometimes the problem seems too big and too complex. So this year, as in years past we made a small gesture by joining San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll’s Untied Way. For a full explanation of how you can join the Untied Way in your town, please read Mr. Carroll’s column which is set forth below. It has been part of our Christmas for a couple of years now, and we hope it can be part of yours too.

A San Francisco traditionFinally it was time to go home…and we were glad. It was a great trip. We love The City and always will, but we missed our little home in the tropics, we missed our Mexican street cats and dogs, we missed our friends and the folks who work for us. And we missed being warm!!! So we are happy to be home now in Mexico and are getting ready for Christmas here. We will blog again soon about our holiday plans down here at the Luna Blue Hotel & Bar on the edge of the Caribbean. In the meantime, Happy Holidays Everyone.

Jon Carroll San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, December 7, 2006

The sleigh bells are tinkling, if you happen to live in a heavily sleighed area, and the snow is falling (according to reliable rumors), and avatars of Santa Claus are coming to town, indeed have already arrived in town, as the gift-giving giant SanClauInc (formerly Santa Claus’ Elf Factory) works out its naughty-nice ratios adjusted for morality deflation.

Which means it’s time again for the Untied Way. The Untied Way is a nontraditional charity. It has no officers, no headquarters, no brochures, no regional offices and no guidelines. It is not a tax-deductible organization because it is not an organization at all. It issues no receipts, nor do letters come in the mail thanking you for your generous contribution.

The Untied Way does not have a Web site. The Untied Way does not sponsor a fun run, a masked ball, a gourmet dinner, a silent auction, a noisy auction, a turtle race or a runway show. It does not have buttons, badges or stickers. It will not send you address labels in the mail. The Untied Way has no overhead at all, and 100 percent of its donations go directly to those in need.

The Untied Way supports and embraces all other charities. The Untied Way urges you to give generously to all of them, or the ones you always give to, or maybe some new ones. The Untied Way exists to care for those people who, as is so often said, “fall through the cracks.” The Untied Way is all about the cracks.

The Untied Way is not so much an organization as an idea. Really, it’s hardly an idea — it’s really more of a plan. Untied Way volunteers follow the plan. Only they know how well the plan works; only they can say what benefits are derived. Untied Way volunteers are self-selected; no records are kept. Untied Way volunteers are not bonded, carry no special identification and do not solicit funds. Untied Way volunteers give money away. That’s it.

Here’s how it works. This is the age of ATMs, so the ATM is the centerpiece of the Untied Way. Go to your ATM and take out some money. How much money is entirely your business, but the sum should be sufficient for you to notice its absence. It shouldn’t hurt, but maybe it should pinch a little.

Take your money to an area of town where there are people who seek funds from passing strangers. Coincidentally, BART serves many of these areas, the result of an unprecedented BART-Untied Way collaboration, of which BART is unaware. Then you take your fistful of $20 bills and stroll down the avenue. When someone asks you for money, you give him $20. You repeat this until you are out of $20 bills. You are now an official Untied Way volunteer and are entitled to all the rights and privileges adhering thereto, including perhaps a no-host ride on a monorail back to your home.

You might expect gratitude from your clients, but you may not get it. Some of your clients may not process the denomination of the contribution, and therefore your special virtue will go unremarked. Sometimes, alas, your clients will say insulting or incomprehensible things to you. Other times, they may be overly grateful, and follow you down the street asking in stentorian tones for God to bless you. The Untied Way is not a particularly comfortable charity.

Sometimes people ask: Won’t the Untied Way clients use their money foolishly? Won’t they buy drugs or cheap booze or unsavory companionship? And the answer is: Yes, they might. Have you ever spent your money foolishly? Have you ever behaved unwisely? Untied Way clients are human beings like you.

Sometimes people ask: Are the Untied Way clients worthy of these donations? What does “worthy” mean? How much suffering would you want them to have? How much virtue do you feel is appropriate? It’s like this: You can spend your time determining the eligibility of clients, asking them to fill out questionnaires and describe what other kinds of financial assistance they are receiving, or you can give them money and move on. The second way is more efficient.

It is the assumption of the Untied Way that people on the streets who ask for money need the money. It is not an occupation that people aspire to. The people on the streets are not middle managers seeking to supplement their incomes. They need money, and you have money. Maybe they are reduced to asking for money because they made foolish choices, but again: There but for the grace of God go you.

Here is a way to help the underserved in your community and get a heart-healthy walk at the same time. If your community does not have underserved people, other communities will lend you theirs.

5 Responses to “Christmas by the Bay”

  1. Adam said

    WOW, you guys were busy! Sounds like a great time. Glad to hear about the clean bill of health! I hope your back didn’t act up to much during the meditation.

  2. Sounds like you had a marvelous visit and we want you to know that your wonderful staff really looked after us while you were away. You were much missed but certainly left us in good hands. So glad that things went well in the health department…..back problems can sure knock the wind out of your sails. Take care and we hope that you and your staff have the best Christmas ever. We loved our Luna Blue holiday and look forward to seeing you folks next year. Cheers !…..Cliff and Laurel

  3. Louise said

    It’s always a treat to read your blog, especially when you report back on your trips. San Francisco sounds like a wonderful city. I love the view outside your hotel room window. It’s beautiful! Hope to visit S.F. someday. Happy to hear that you are ok healthwise Tony.
    Too bad you didn’t get a chance to spend time with Chris but…way to go Chris! 🙂 You must be so proud of him.

  4. Tim & Ruth said

    What a wonderful entry~!

    Thanks SO much sharing your adventures and events from this trip.
    And for ALL the good news!

  5. Tim & Ruth said

    Looking forward to THIS year’s December SF Journey…

    I miss the Christmas-times in my youth spent in downtown Indianapolis “Window Shopping”.

    I can only imagine what the creative nature of SF residents come up with year in-year out…

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