San Francisco And New Orleans, Pt. 1: Alcatraz And Jazz
Anna would be attending and presenting at the ARVO (Association for Research in Vision & Ophthalmology) 2023 Annual Meeting, the largest meeting of eye and vision researchers in the world and on this occasion hosted in New Orleans, Louisiana, the end of the conference coinciding with the beginning of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, so it was going to be our second trip to the US in about as many months. However, there are no direct flights from Singapore to New Orleans so all attendees from Singapore would be flying to San Francisco first and taking connecting flights to New Orleans. We, on the other hand, decided to spend a couple of days in town once we landed before moving on to New Orleans, and then a couple more on the way back before returning to Singapore.
Here’s how it all went down:
Friday, April 21, 2023
Anna finished work early and we were soon on our 15-hour flight that departed at around 8:00pm. We would also have to take some industrial-strength sleeping pills to knock ourselves out not long after the inflight meal was served, because, due to Singapore being 15 hours ahead of California, we would be landing at almost the exact same time on the same day as we left so we wanted to get some sleep immediately to avoid being up the entire night when we landed.
We managed to get a reasonable nap each, woke up at what would’ve been about 6:00am on Saturday, April 22 Singapore time, watched a movie or two, played some games on our phones, and finally we were touching down in San Francisco a little after 8:00pm back on Friday night. Once through immigration we hopped in a cab to where we would be spending the next few nights, the W Hotel on 3rd Street.
Jet lag sucks, plain and simple. It’s like having insomnia at night and narcolepsy during the day, but to be fair it’s usually worse on the return leg. However, we wanted to try and adjust to our new timezone as soon as possible, a feat that would require us to stay up a bit later, despite how tired we were, so after checking in, showering, putting on a change of clothes, and making a conscious decision not to consume the US$12.00 sparkling water in our room we tried to find a bar, but there was one small problem; San Francisco, or at least the area where we were staying, was no longer the party town it was in the 60s, a lot of places closed before or around 11:00pm, even on a Friday night and it was by now closing in on 10:00pm! Fortunately after a little research we found a place nearby so we hoofed it down there and sampled their large array of beers and cocktails that were cheaper than our bottled water in an effort to adjust to our new timezone.
A sample of that first night in San Francisco:
Saturday, April 22, 2023
We had popped another sleeping pill each and combined with the jet lag it was after 1:00pm by the time we finally woke up! We were staying near the Museum of Modern Art so we figured there would be some cool stuff to see, which is what we would be setting out to do after a cup of coffee or two.
As we had seen before, there were some interesting murals around and this part of town seemed beautiful on the surface, but besides finding a Brisbane Lions AFL guernsey in a thrift store, there wasn’t really a whole lot in the area. For every cable car and street car we saw we also encountered at least 10 homeless people, some just sitting on the sidewalk, hoping for a little spare change, others walking in circles and talking to themselves aggressively like they owed themselves money. That wasn’t a big deal though, it was by now getting late in the afternoon and we figured there would be plenty to see around Fisherman’s Wharf, also coming to the conclusion that that’s where we’d be eating dinner so we headed down there to check it out:
One of the busiest and well known tourist attractions in the western United States, Fisherman’s Wharf is best known for being the location of Pier 39, the Cannery Shopping Center, Ghirardelli Square, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum, the Musée Mécanique, Wax Museum at Fishermans Wharf, and the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
Seafood restaurants are plentiful in the area, including the floating Forbes Island restaurant at Pier 39 to stands that serve fresh seafood. Some of the restaurants, including Fishermen’s Grotto, Pompei’s Grotto and Alioto’s, go back for three generations of the same family ownership.
Other attractions in Fisherman’s Wharf area are the Hyde Street Pier (part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park), the USS Pampanito, a decommissioned World War II era submarine, and the Balclutha, a 19th-century cargo ship. Nearby Pier 45 has a chapel in memory of the “Lost Fishermen” of San Francisco and Northern California.
There is a sea lion colony next to Pier 39. They “took-up” residence months before the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The sea lions lie on wooden docks that were originally used for docking boats.
That all sounds great, but it doesn’t even mention the enormous room of pinball and arcade machines there, it housed hundreds! Once we were done with the wharf it was still too early for dinner so we walked past some of the biggest seagulls we had ever seen in our lives and pulled up a seat in a bar for a few beers and a plate of oysters, the local specialty, until it was time to eat properly, me constantly receiving positive remarks on my orange Wheaties jacket the entire night.
Some scenes from our first full day in San Francisco up to that point, as well as the arcade hall and some of its stranger old machines:
Sunday, April 23, 2023
Although we’d be returning to San Francisco for a few more days before flying back to Singapore, how could we possibly come here and not visit Alcatraz and do a proper tour of the prison?:
United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz Island, also known simply as Alcatraz or The Rock was a maximum security federal prison on Alcatraz Island, 1.25 miles (2.01 km) off the coast of San Francisco, California, United States, the site of a fort since the 1850s; the main prison building was built in 1910–1912 as a United States Army military prison.
The United States Department of Justice acquired the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch, on Alcatraz on October 12, 1933. The island became adapted and used as a prison of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in August 1934 after the buildings were modernized and security increased. Given this high security and the island’s location in the cold waters and strong currents of San Francisco Bay, prison operators believed Alcatraz to be escape-proof and America’s strongest prison.
The three-story cellhouse included the four main cell blocks – A-block through D-block, the warden’s office, visitation room, the library, and the barber shop. The prison cells typically measured 9 feet (2.7 m) by 5 feet (1.5 m) and 7 feet (2.1 m) high. The cells were primitive and lacked privacy. They were furnished with a bed, desk, washbasin, a toilet on the back wall, and few items other than a blanket. African Americans were segregated from other inmates in cell designation due to racism during the Jim Crow-era. D-Block housed the worst inmates, and six cells at its end were designated “The Hole”. Prisoners with behavioral problems were sent to these for periods of often brutal punishment. The dining hall and kitchen extended from the main building. Prisoners and staff ate three meals a day together. The Alcatraz Hospital was located above the dining hall.
Working at the prison was considered a privilege for inmates. Those who earned privileges were employed in the Model Industries Building and New Industries Building during the day, actively involved in providing for the military in jobs such as sewing and woodwork, and performing various maintenance and laundry chores.
That might all be a lot to take in, but the information will help when you get to the photos. We were up early on a cold, windy morning and were on our ferry to the island at 8:45am, a trip that took about 15 minutes. Once there we were warned multiple times that it would be the equivalent of climbing 13 stories and soon we were up at the prison for our audio tour. Guided tours are fine when they are private or even in small groups such as the ones we had in Africa or Egypt, but in the large group tours it’s almost certain that there will be at least one incredibly annoying person at the bare minimum and it’s even worse when the guide feels the need to add a little showmanship.
Instead we donned our headphones, followed the cues, and took it all in. Here’s some of what we saw:
After watching a goose attack its young on the island once our tour had concluded we boarded the ferry back to the city and this time we decided to walk the opposite direction from our hotel to a major shopping strip. It had quite a few outlet stores that Anna wanted to visit, but it also had its fair share of junkies and hobos around too, again some quietly sitting there, others brutally fighting invisible adversaries in the street, both physically and mentally, a situation that only got worse the further out we strolled. After about an hour or two there were significantly more homeless and crazy people around than actual shops so we started to walk back to the area around the hotel, freshened up, and then settled down in Sorella, an Italian restaurant and bar and one of the few options that would be open relatively late for a fantastic dinner and drinks.
Monday, April 24, 2023
Today we would be flying out to to New Orleans and although it was a four-hour flight, the city is also two hours ahead of San Francisco, granting us ample opportunity to screw with our body-clocks even further. We checked out of the hotel, jumped in a taxi and when the driver asked us which airline we were flying, Anna told him that it was United Airlines so he replied that it was Terminal 2, although our tickets said the flight departed from Terminal 3. This was an argument that continued almost the entire ride, but you’ll never win an argument with Anna so he dropped us off where we she said and it turned out they were both right; although our flight was departing from Terminal 3, for some ridiculous reason we had to check in at Terminal 2. We already know that United Airlines is terrible so fortunately we had given ourselves plenty of time, meaning we could check in at Terminal 2, walk over to Terminal 3 to go through customs, and then go back to Terminal 2 to go to the lounge. Seems like a Bloody Mary or two was in order before our flight.
It was about 6:00pm when we had touched down, our Uber driver almost crashed picking us up and was blasting a hip-hop song that began with the line, “I f_cked a pigeon”, but it would still be one of the safer rides we would have on this trip. As we neared the city we could plainly see that some of the buildings were still visibly damaged from Hurricane Katrina 18 years later en route to arriving at our home for the next four nights, the Mercantile Hotel, a kind of rustic, industrial type place where your room was only made up if you arranged it, so we checked in and dumped our luggage, passing a woman in the hotel restaurant who had to be at least pushing 70 years old with an absolutely cavernous, surgically enhanced cleavage, before walking down to the nearby Marriott where Anna would be having private conference drinks in a ballroom. I, on the other hand, spent the rest of the night watching the NBA Playoffs at the lobby bar, one of their taps becoming possessed after they poured my beer, and Anna and her crew joined me several hours later:
Tuesday, April 25, 2023
Anna attended the meeting for most of the day at the nearby Conference Center so I started out by finding a great coffee place around the corner from our hotel and then walked into town, mainly along Decatur St. in the French Quarter, a pattern that would repeat itself over the coming days. The main reason this was the case was there was this great looking three-storey vintage book and record store among others that I wanted to see in this area and it turned out this musty, dusty place had some fantastic stuff. I purchased a few things while the girl behind the counter blabbered on endlessly about nothing in particular and then continued on my way, surprised to see as I was passing the House of Blues that the classic Aussie band Hoodoo Gurus were playing there that night. As I kept walking I saw some interesting shops, many specialising in tarot, palm reading, and particularly voodoo, some of those ones contain shrunken heads, bones, and a host of other bizarre stuff. There were also horses with carts outside Lt. Governor James Dunn Artillery Park, a lot of vintage stores, a big food and flea market, and quite a few bars that I figured we could go to once we were done for the day, plus more than enough tourist traps milking Mardi Gras, which is generally in February or March, by selling beads and t-shirts with the boobs out, more than likely year-round. One of the best things, however, were the countless brilliant street performers playing some incredible music just for the sheer love of it.
I visited the second-last store on my list at the end of Decatur St. and then it was time to make a left turn and find the final one. I crossed over Frenchman St. which looked like it could have some great spots to hang out over the coming nights, then Bourbon St., a place I had no interest in, because I knew it would be more of an overpriced tourist trap if anything when compared to most of the city, similar to going to Bangkok, Thailand and spending your time on Khaosan Rd. with all of the other foreigners. Anyway, I forged ahead for quite a few more blocks, passing through some nice neighbourhoods, but the further I went the sketchier it got, at first a bit rough, shoes hang over the power lines and kids doing wheelies on BMXs up the road while their mother sat on the porch of their battered home. However, block by block it become more ghetto, boarded up houses with threatening messages sprayed on them, and there were a couple of occasions where cars slowed down as they were passing me, but to be honest, maybe I was just lucky, but I never really felt too threatened, nothing like when we were in Baltimore years back for example, forever my go to example of a truly sketchy shithole.
The shop I had wanted to look at was really not worth the effort so I made my way back to Decatur St. and had a proper look around the place as well as the side streets that also had some great stuff, but the highlight had to be Pepper Palace, a store specialising in hot sauces and pickles, many of which you could sample for free, but there was once particular sauce, The End. Flatline, that was so hot you were required to sign a waver to even try it. Seriously! I had plans for the coming days that didn’t include debilitating stomach cramps and explosive, fiery diarrhoea so I opted out of giving Flatline a try and continued walking along, passing the New Orleans Jazz Museum when a band just suddenly busted out on the balcony and before long Anna messaged me to say she was done for the day. Just like San Francisco, the local specialty here is also oysters and I found plenty of bars selling them, but they were all serving beers in plastic cups, something I don’t enjoy, however, I found a microbrewery and bar, Crescent City Brewhouse, for her to meet me for a fresh oyster entree, shucked at the bar. I eventually asked the staff what the deal was with the plastic cups and it turns out it’s completely legal to consume alcohol in the streets in New Orleans as long as the cup is plastic if you buy it from a bar. We had a couple of drinks and a plate of oysters before dinner with our friends, Rosa and Orly, at a really good little Cajun restaurant, Cochon, while Anna’s ophthalmology fellows inexplicably went to have Korean BBQ for some reason. Also, it needs to be said, the oysters in New Orleans are the best and they were only US$25.00 a dozen. In fact, our waitress told us she usually eats around six dozen a day — 72 oysters almost daily!
A bit of what I saw that first full day, including a short clip of the band playing at the museum:
Wednesday, April 26, 2023
Anna was done at the conference early so we went back into town so she could now have a proper look at Decatur St., the side streets, and an outlet mall and one thing was becoming abundantly clear; a lot of people here, regardless of race, struggle to understand me when I speak. Being a former English teacher I have got in the habit of speaking slowly and clearly, whereas a lot of the locals in this town speak in a drawl where a sentence sounds like one long word, yet I’m the indecipherable one. Anyway, Anna found a ton of dresses she liked, including a mushroom-patterned one I sent her the day before, and there were even more in some shops that weren’t open until the following day so it looked like we’d be back again tomorrow.
Our plans for that night were to meet up with an old mate, as well as some of his friends at the Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchmen St., a really fun and colourful part of town. Everyone hit it off really well immediately so after chatting for a while we decided we needed a bit of live entertainment and this was the place to do it, full of great bars with some even better music. The first stop was just a couple of doors down from where we had begun, the premise being that entry was free, but there was a one drink minimum, however, that wouldn’t be too much of a burden for us. We caught a band that was doing some awesome soul covers of popular songs, but it was hard to hear our old and newfound friends properly, plus Anna had a pass for the two of us to go to an exclusive ARVO karaoke gig in another area so we all went across town and started in another nearby bar first. The Golden State Warriors were playing the Sacramento Kings that night in the NBA Playoffs and since the late 90s I have always had a soft spot for the Kings for several reasons, the main one being that one of my favourite players, Jason Williams, had his best years there (seriously, check out that top 10 highlight reel link!) so in anticipation I had bought one of his old Sacramento jerseys from the outlet mall. We had a great time in the bar chatting and watching the game, but unfortunately the Kings lost, I wouldn’t be able to watch them play again until we were back in San Francisco, and it would be tough to get away with wearing a Kings jersey in the Warriors’ hometown so it looked like it was going to be relegated to the suitcase from that point on.
Before long the others had to leave so Anna and I went to our exclusive karaoke and it was miserable! I generally love getting up and making a fool out of myself at karaoke, but this was just sad. When we got there there were a group of people making The Proclaimers I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) sound even more tuneless and there was another guy dancing and filming everything on his phone like it was the greatest show on earth. He’s in the heart and soul of Jazz, blues, and soul music, maybe he should join us next time!
Looking back on that Wednesday night, sans the incredibly dull karaoke:
Thursday, April 27, 2023
Anna had the bulk of the day off, but because we had nobody making up the room, I had to go down to the lobby to request some toilet paper, receiving a roll of “professional series” bog roll, whatever that is supposed to imply. We grabbed a coffee each from what was now our regular cafe and then walked into the city again, passing for the third time in as many days an eccentrically-dressed old man who looked kind of like Flavor Flav from Public Enemy, decked out in a top hat, funky suit, and a cane with a skull on the top, but no clock around his neck. The previous day I had seen him sitting on a bench and he smiled and gave me a head nod, and this time he would do the same as he walked past. There are some cool people in this town and I’d love to know just who this guy was.
Anna had read about an interesting place for lunch so we continued down to Coop’s Place for some Creole dishes, a restaurant which, besides its great food and being a New Orleans institutions, is also known for its rude staff and bad service:
“Where the not-so-elite meet to eat.”
— Zagat Guide New Orleans
Naturally, a joint like this isn’t going to take reservations so we decided to just go in and try our luck and despite it being pretty packed with a day-drinking crowd, we managed to get a table, our lunch being a tasting platter consisting of Cajun fried chicken, shrimp Creole, red beans and rice, seafood gumbo, and rabbit and sausage jambalaya, plus a side of fried alligator for good measure:
We had to walk off that enormous lunch so we strolled around looking for all of the stores that weren’t open by the time we had reached them the previous day. When it was time for dinner we only needed something small so we went back to Crescent City Brewery for more oysters and some sides, this time served by a very weird waiter who almost certainly had lampshades made from human skin in his house, and then we were walking again, Anna curious to have a look at Bourbon St. by night. We had to walk down an area behind a park that had at least five or six different seated fortune tellers preying on tourists, some doing palm reading, others tarot, and one just hanging crystals above people. There was also a market at the end of that area, but nothing particularly interested us and we continued on our way, eventually making it to Bourbon St. and it was exactly what we had expected; the road was closed off to traffic and everywhere just full of drunk people yelling and whooping it up every few seconds from both street level and balconies, beads around their necks, and throwing up in the gutter, while all of the venues tried to drown out the sound from the other ones by cranking their music even louder. No thanks.
We walked back in the general direction from where we had come and found ourselves back at the strip of bars on Frenchmen St. once again, with one place, DBA, looking pretty relaxed. It could’ve been due to the US$20.00 cover charge, but it had a band room and we knew it would be easy to get a drink there. We ended up sitting and chatting with a guy who had been given some free art prints so he gave us one and then we heard a bizarre-sounding band sound checking so we went to the band room to watch The New Orleans Klezmer All Stars:
The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars are entering their 27th year as an active performing ensemble. In these times when folk music has meant rigidly sticking to a cliched format or collecting hackneyed stylistic features, the klezmer all stars have attempted to challenge and stretch boundaries…but without sacrificing the most exciting features of social music; driving rhythms, passion, and clear melodies that are sublime but remain memorable.
Using the inspiration of the city where they began, the band has formed a unique approach to traditional melodies and, even more unusual, a way of writing in the style that leads to a sort of Yiddish Impressionism– keeping audiences dancing but cutting to the depths of their cultural imaginations, even where they didn’t realize they had one.
The Klezmer Allstars have grown into their name and are frequently seen with many of New Orleans’ greatest musicians, including: Mean Willie Green, Stanton Moore, Benjamin Ellman, Jonathan Freilich, Joe Cabral, Glenn Hartman, Doug Garrison, Dan Oestreicher, and Aurora Nealand.
These guys were great, playing a really eclectic style of music, the singer alternating between playing an accordion and an old Wurlitzer organ.
Here are the quieter parts of Bourbon St. and The New Orleans Klezmer All Star live at DBA including a video that was cut short due to me not realising my flash was on, a clip that doesn’t even come close to doing justice to how good these guys were:
Next came something that neither of us were expecting; remember the eccentric old man I mentioned that I kept encountering in the street? It turned out that we were correct, he wasn’t Flavor Flav, but he definitely was someone, he was Little Freddie King and he would be playing next:
Little Freddie King (born Fread Eugene Martin, July 19, 1940) is an American Delta blues guitarist. His style is based on that of Freddie King, but his approach to country blues is original.
King, a cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins, was born in McComb, Mississippi, and learned to play the guitar from his father. In 1954, at the age of 14, he moved to New Orleans. He performed in juke joints with his friends Babe Stovall, Slim Harpo, and Champion Jack Dupree, playing both acoustic and electric guitar.
So it turned out that were just about to accidentally catch a performance by an 82-year old blues legend! It was a great show, the crowd was really into it, and we also spent a fair bit of time hanging out and chatting with a couple of friends that were in town from New York before we went home, passing the Spotted Cat, where we’d started the previous night, along the way.
Little Freddie King when we saw him on the street for a third time, plus some photos and a video from his set:
So that concludes the first part of our latest trip. Stay tuned for the next instalment in this journey when we see my favourite band, Ween, play in New Orleans and then travel back to San Francisco to explore Haight-Ashbury, the centre of the 1969 ‘Summer of Love’ 54 years too late, and also try to find Charles Manson’s old house.
Thank you for sharing the information San Francisco.
No problem at all, there will be more in the follow up post