233 San Francisco, CA: Chinatown

I caught a cable car and headed to some of the famous sights. The car was so full that I actually had to stand on the runner board, something I love doing anyway. I transferred where cable car lines met, right by the Hopperesque "Cable Car Diner." The next car I got on was empty, so I asked the driver if he thought that San Franciscans were isolated. He was a large, round-shouldered African American with a wiry beard growing from pitted pores on his cheeks. He had on a black baseball cap, blue fleece coat, and big black gloves that performed an intricate dance of lever-pulling and -pushing to keep the car on track.

"Not at all," he crooned. His voice was as smooth and steady as the flow of his cable car. "I grew up in the Twin Peaks area here. When people think of San Francisco, they think of it as culturally diverse, so everybody knows they're kind of in for that here. It's a very warm city. It's not like New York. There, they'll bump into you and not say, 'excuse me.' They won't look you in the eye."

He let me off at one of the least isolated places you could imagine: San Francisco's Chinatown is one of the densest populated places on earth. Its famous alleyways were a solution to allow more housing when anti-Chinese sentiment restricted the community to a six-block area. The smell of vegetation and fish assaulted me as I wandered past dried shark fins and full-length eels sliced open at the belly with one single move, and I thought of the Chinese caricatures that Hopper painted.

I interviewed two Chinatown shop owners: a short woman, maybe forty, and a chubby man about fifty. Both claimed that their community was not isolated. But neither spoke much English. Nor were they interested in answering when I tried to follow up with more questions.

No comments: