Re-Discovering the San Francisco of My 20s As a Mom

I've been traveling to San Francisco to visit my college roommate since we graduated in the early '80s, but on my most recent trip I was heading back as a parent. 

My friend, I'll call her K., once lived in the famed Haight-Ashbury neighborhood (in a house where Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev were arrested at a party). She had a few roommates, including her future husband and a guy who wore an Elvis-inspired jumpsuit on a trip to Rome with his girlfriend. We would often start a night with Bruno’s potent martinis at his Persian Aub Zam Zam Club, then check out a local band and end the night strumming air guitars to records in her living room. At Thanksgiving we would crowd around a makeshift table for two dozen twenty-somethings, listen to Led Zeppelin over turkey and stuffing, and march up a muddy hill after dinner. A goblet of cheap red wine from California was often in hand. Some of us dabbled in trendy psychedelics.

We filled daylight hours with drives along the coast in her now-husband's 1963 convertible Ford Falcon. Or, we might combine urban strolls with window shopping in funky neighborhoods or create our own Beat writers tour of North Beach, which often ended in happy hour. For one trip we headed to Los Angeles, sleeping in the back of a pickup truck, dipping in the ocean at Venice Beach then catching a minor-league baseball game in St. Bernadino on the way home. For another, we ended up in Virginia City, Nevada, an old mining town (and one-time home of Mark Twain!), where we threw back shots at a seedy bar and stayed in a room above the Bucket of Blood saloon.

K. married about 25 years ago, now has two teenage kids and lives in Potrero Hill. Sometimes I'd visit her and her hubby solo, sometimes with a boyfriend, and then with the guy who became my husband. With him, we'd try fancier restaurants and wines and extended our trip to a romantic weekend south in Big Sur, with a stop at Hearst Castle for a tour.

But I had to face facts. Most of these activities weren't suitable for a family vacation with a six-year-old. But for school break, we planned to take A.A. on his first big trip across America to see the Golden Gate Bridge — and meet K. and her family. I knew the trip wouldn't be the same as journeys past, but I wondered how different it would be. 

When K. and her older son, who is 16, pulled up in the mini-van at the airport, I was put slightly at ease as the two quickly won the heart of our little boy — they hid hot wheels in seat backs and A.A. wondered what other treasures he might find.

But old times are old times, jet lagged as we were, they toasted our arrival with a bottle of rose. But instead of pouring a second bottle, we walked up the big hills to the park (once filled with drug dealers but now an inviting playground with gorgeous skyline views) for swings and a game of catch. We made tacos for dinner and our jet lagged son went to bed. We caught up over bottles of Cabernet and Zinfandel as K.'s husband played DJ. 

When A.A.woke up at 5:30 a.m. the following day, the 16-year-old had another surprise for him: They could walk next door to the 95-year-old neighbor's house — in their pajamas and bare feet! He was thrilled. (I remember from my childhood the first days of warm weather when we started to toughen the soles of our feet so we could eventually walk across our pebbly driveway without flinching. This doesn't happen in Brooklyn.) The rest of that first day wasn't as smooth sailing as the plane ride, however. 

We all packed into the mini-van to drive south toward Half Moon Bay for chance to dip our toes in the Pacific Ocean, a trip we'd done many times in the past to gaze upon the sublime vistas of the craggy coast. But this trip wasn't a thrill for anyone, as little A.A. was jet-lagged and discombobulated and became a blubbering six-year-old. "Don't worry. We've been there," K. said cheerily from the front seat, as we tried to distract him with peppermints, whales and surfer sightings. But the other teenage son, who is 14, dryly pointed out from back seat, "Mom, it's not working." Upon arrival to the breezy beach, however, A.A. pulled himself together to enjoy seeing seals, build driftwood house, and sketch pictures in the sand that would soon vanish. At lunch, I was so distracted by keeping antsy A.A. occupied that I forgot to order the famous artichoke soup at Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero — another tradition. 

That afternoon, my husband J.R. took A.A. back to the park, but when they returned for dinner, A.A. struck gold: He discovered the Nintendo DSi, which the boys were happy to share. As much as A.A. would have like to spend the entire trip clicking on Nintendo games (to which he has limited access in Brooklyn), we weren't going to let the trip turn into a tech vacation.

Rather than lingering at home over coffee, we'd leave early to explore. We ambled at Chrissy Field below Golden Gate Bridge to look at giant sculptures, headed north to ogle the giant redwoods in Muir Woods where we "hiked" a two-mile trail (rather than an ambitious hours-long mountain hike of days past), walked up and down the famous San Francisco hills to a baseball field to practice hitting, and finally headed to Berkeley, where he got to climb the life-size blue whale at the Lawrence Hall of Science. We used to only cross the bay for a jazz club in Oakland or a late Camper Van Beethoven show in Berkeley. That wasn't this trip.

At night we'd return home (to the DSi!), and we'd all reunite and discuss our days, over more wine and various cheesy treats. K. and I cooked (cilantro-tofu pasta, hibiscus tacos!). A.A. would be asleep by 8, so we had time to connect, play more records, and loudly chat (One morning, the 16-year-old told us we had kept him awake with our late antics, whoops! Precisely he said, "Mary has a hella loud voice," which was both mortifying and funny.) One night, K. and I hit the town to a pal's stand-up gig, while both of our husbands stayed home with A.A. All good fun, but there was no air guitar, and we didn't last past 11 p.m. on any night. 

The true moment of how much times (and I) have changed was apparent when K. recommended I meet an old friend at Farley's. "Farley's?" I asked. "What's that?" Then it dawned on me. Farley's! My one-time favorite neighborhood cafe. I used to walk up and down those hills and secret paths between the streets and listen to music (tapes and then CDs). Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville" was one sound track. There, I'd write in my journals and fill the cafe's own journals with my 20- and 30-something angst. Now I only vaguely recognized the name of the place. 

This time I brought A.A. with me. It was filled with people tapping away. We ordered hot chocolate and brownies as we waited for my pal and J.R. eventually joined us. Three decades later, I was reading "Curious George," instead of writing in the journal. My significant other was playing "Sorry" instead of the perfect soundtrack. And instead of cruising in a vintage clunker down Route 1, we borrowed K.'s mini-van. 

San Francisco. It was still everything I remembered it to be.