Postcard from San Francisco: cocktails and suicide spots
Matthew Clayfield is a freelance journalist, critic and screenwriter travelling through the US and Mexico. He is filing weekly postcards for The Punch.
I am writing this postcard, my first dispatch as a freelance travel writer, from a bar in San Francisco. Arguably, this is the greatest workplace in the world for an alcoholic typist like myself: the gin is cold, the pianist’s songs are old, and the tips are necessarily low. The San Francisco Chronicler’s Charles McCabe, who died in 1983, was once asked:” If San Francisco is such a great place to live, “why does it have the nation’s highest rates of alcoholism and suicide?” McCabe responded almost instantaneously: “Why, for the simple reason it’s the finest place on earth to drink yourself to death.”
It’s also the finest place on earth to throw yourself into the ocean, as cinephiles everywhere are only too aware. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Kim Novak famously throws herself into San Francisco Bay underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, only to be rescued moments later by Jimmy Stewart, who suffers from the film’s titular affliction. Vertigo contains a number of Hitchcock’s most famous scenes, not to mention some of cinema’s, but this one more than any other has always had an indelible effect on me. For many people’s money, Vertigo is the quintessential San Francisco film. For mine, Novak’s leap into the bay is the quintessential San Francisco scene.
One of the great thing about travel, of course, is that it can serve as a useful corrective to the fanciful and romantic ideas we can sometimes have about people and places. Perhaps an even greater thing about it is that it can sometimes confirm them. I had my first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge on my first night in the United States, its south tower peeking over the top of some houses as I was walking towards the place where I’m staying. My second sighting took place today and, while similarly unexpected, was much more impressive. I was walking up El Camino Del Mar in the direction of the Palace of the Legion of Honor, when suddenly, to my right, the whole thing appeared in a gap between the trees. I stopped a moment, taking in the view, and then began to walk a little faster.
The rest of the day was essentially a waltz between myself and the bridge, and the bridge, it goes without saying, was leading. As I walked towards it through the Presidio, a former military post that is today a national park, continually catching glimpses of it through the foliage or from on top of an abandoned WWII battery, it occurred to me that the ethereal, hazy quality of the bridge is not something that has been brought to or bestowed on it by filmmakers like Hitchcock, who have trained their cameras and gazes on it lovingly for nearly a little over seventy years now.
Partly because of the city’s famous fog, which is caused by the same marine layer that causes June Gloom in the rest of Southern California at this time of year, and partly by some effect of the light, which in this part of the world seems especially diffuse, as though the sun is being shone through some manner of gauze: because of these things, the Golden Gate Bridge looks almost exactly like you would expect it to, which is to like a matte painting from a 1950s Technicolour film.
I didn’t spend a long time at the official tourist lookout at the bridge, which seemed overwhelming and overpopulated after the relative tranquility of Lands End and my hike through the Presidio (which I was undertaking in formal footwear ill-suited to the task). Instead, I made my way to Fort Point, and as quickly as possible. The Fort at Fort Point, as it was originally known is the only building of west of the Mississippi to built in its particular style, which was made redundant with the military developments of the Civil War, which also meant it was the last of its kind to be built anywhere in the United States. It is also where Novak’s Madeleine, believing herself to be a dead woman named Carlotta Valdes, throws herself into the bay.
My illusions about this spot, I should warn you, were not all that you might think: I knew, for example, that the magic of the movies had been involved in the making of the scene—that there aren’t any steps in the wall for Scottie to carry Madeline up after he’s rescued her and that Hitchcock had shot that part of the scene in a studio to provide them—and thanks to a friend, who had sent me a photo of the site a year or two before, that it might be off-limits to visitors. This was the case and I even took the same photo: Carlotta Valdes wasn’t there.
The Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point are currently being retrofitted with earthquake-withstanding support systems, which is why the fort is closed three days of the week and why, apparently, visitors can’t walk around behind it. But part of me isn’t entirely convinced. Indeed, I couldn’t help wonder if the real reason for the padlocked gate was some unreported spate of copycat suicides: young men and women—possessed, perhaps, like Hitchcock’s heroine, or else without the money, patience or taste for liquor to drink themselves to death in the finest city in the world to do it—throwing themselves helplessly into the waters. (Later I learned that “Hopper’s Hands”, the plaque on the chain link fence that closes the area off, was installed as a tribute to ironworkers on the bridge who not only risk their lives to maintain it, but also volunteer to talk down those intent on ending their lives by jumping from it.)
I started back in the direction I had come, crossing Crissy Field with its joggers and picnickers and making my way across town to Fisherman’s Wharf. When you’re walking in this direction, with your back to the bridge, the landmark that most dominates your field of vision is Alcatraz. Even though the penitentiary there has been closed for years, and even though you might be looking at it on an otherwise beautiful day, the craggy rock is still dark and foreboding and even, in its way, a little scary. But the rainbow of colours dotting the air in front of it, created by the hundred-strong coterie of windsurfers and kite-surfers out on the water, has the effect of lightening the mood somewhat. So it was not quite the Rock of The Rock I was looking at, let alone that of, say, Escape from Alcatraz. The bridge, however, when I turned to look back at it, remained a matte painting from 50 years ago. And the pianist’s songs, I’m pleased to say, remain even older than that.
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