Recently, I had the opportunity to take a grant-funded trip to an educator’s conference in San Francisco, California. Usually when I attend a teacher’s conference, I’m lucky if I make it to a locale where dipping snuff and pecan logs aren’t the bedrocks of the local economy. But this time, I’d be visiting the home of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and, most importantly, Rice-a-Roni!
My initial impression of San Francisco, though, didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Upon arrival, I wasn’t greeted by a single 49er cheerleader offering me a heaping bowl of “The San Francisco Treat.” Instead, I was astonished at the vast numbers of apparently homeless people I saw shuffling up and down the sidewalks. Many were hunched over with expressions of despair and hopelessness, and some of them were clearly mentally ill. When I asked the Uber driver about these folks, he assured me that they were just other teachers headed to the conference.
The conference hotel was immense, and the entire population of the city seemed to be in line to check in. It was worse than the checkout at Walmart on Christmas Eve – or a Monday. A hotel porter was rewarding our patience by force-feeding us squares of Ghirardelli’s chocolate while we waited. Apparently, Ghirardelli’s is the only candy allowed in the city limits. (In times of drought, I think they melt it down and use it for tap water.) I didn’t have the heart to tell the porter that I’d just as soon have a Snickers, but that’s what happens to your tastes when you constantly raid your kids’ six-month-old Halloween treats and blame it on your wife.
Speaking of eating, I have to say that the most disappointing aspect of my visit were my restaurant choices. Every meal I had in San Francisco was in a perfect geometric shape, was garnished with lawn clippings and could be eaten in one bite. It was like being served a miniature sculpture in the postmodern style. Now don’t get me wrong; I like art as much as the next victim of starvation, but it’s hard to dip the Mona Lisa in hot sauce (and I was almost as thrilled about it as she looks). No wonder everyone in California looks like they’re either training for a triathlon or preparing to audition for the starring role in the remake of “Gandhi.” Most restaurants did serve complimentary sourdough bread and butter, but what they call bread at these establishments could double for small shot put filled with rubber. As a result, I usually only managed to eat three baskets, or so. At one point I grew desperate enough to ask the hotel concierge for directions to the nearest catfish buffet. (I’m hoping that the Hilton Corporation will eventually lift the restraining order.)
The highlight of the trip was a short post-conference ferry cruise on San Francisco Bay to see the famous Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island-because who doesn’t long to enjoy relaxing views of sites associated with numerous suicides and brutal incarcerations? On the way out of Pier 39, we passed a massive colony of sea lions sunning themselves on docks. They looked fat and happy, and I wondered where they had found something decent to eat. Out on the water, the views of the city and the famous landmarks were impressive. I only wish that the frigid temperatures combined with the winds weren’t making my face and lips feel like I had just made out with a belt sander. For some reason, I had the idea that “sunny California” was full of blonde girls on the beach in bikinis. With the weather in San Francisco, though, the closest I came to seeing this was a particularly svelte sea lion in the process of molting.
Overall, I must admit that I truly appreciated experiencing a new city and gaining some valuable professional development. The time spent embarrassing my colleagues and challenging my culinary boundaries was enriching and fun. I’m still disappointed that I didn’t see a single grain of Rice-a-Roni on my trip, but I know that every time I have a serving back home in East Texas, I’ll be enjoying memories of “The City by the Bay,” even if I do have a pecan log for dessert.