Sunday, September 4
After a fitful five hours of sleep, I woke up and fiddled with my smart phone until Jalen was ready to start his day. I shouldn't have been surprised to see him standing behind me as I sat at a desk on the other side of my bed -- at 5:45 AM -- since the first words out of his mouth were, "We're going to the A's game today!" Quickly followed by, "Can we get breakfast?" I peel back the curtain in our room, revealing the city's ubiquitous blanket of fog still shrouding the souls and the sins of the previous evening below. "Let's wait until the sun comes up", I suggest, not wanting to walk around the Thriller video outside with my seven-year-old son.
The rooms at the Westin St. Francis have an "refreshment center" full of assorted salty and sugary snacks. However, in a new twist on the old "if you open this bottle of water, we'll bill $4.00 to your room" racket; the Westin has installed sensors that can somehow tell when, say, a bag of peanuts has been removed from the basket of snacks. Not eaten. Not opened. The room is charged if the bag of peanuts is lifted from the basket. Change your mind? Put it back and you're still charged. When I explained this to Jalen, you'd better believe I used the "don't talk to strangers" urgency in my voice.
About a week before this trip, I put out a social media request for restaurant recommendations – particularly hole-in-the-wall spots that are the antithesis of "touristy". One of my Facebook friends – an absolute sweetheart with the same deep-fried Frankenstein food preferences as me – wrote back with a veritable encyclopedia of San Francisco eating in and around Union Square. For breakfast, I went with the location she described as "hole-in-the-wall goodness" with praise for their crispy hash browns. (I chose this place over the restaurant she celebrated for their 6-8 strip side orders of bacon. I know…risky, right?!)
The streets were still filled with fog which made everything damp…and deadly. Not long after we left our hotel, Jalen tried to sprint ahead of me. He slipped on one of those enormous steel plates embedded in the sidewalk and tried to break his fall by grabbing my scrawny arm. This, in turn, caused me to slip on the steel plate. Jalen fell on his butt, I fell on my back. Sorry, San Francisco. I promise to have our father-and-son slapstick synchronism tightened up before our next visit.
Ten minutes later, we reached the Taylor Street Coffee Shop…and, goodness, it's a hole-in-the-wall. Jalen and I were apparently the first customers of the day and we took seats in the back of the restaurant which, architecturally, was like walking down a long, narrow hallway. The grill is adjacent to the front door – something I can't say I've seen before – and the walls were adorned with kitschy movie posters. I ordered the "meat lover's breakfast" – three sausage links, three strips of bacon, ham and two eggs. I tacked on a side of hash browns to complete my coronary. Jalen went with the pancake. When I asked the server how many were in an order, she replied, "One. But, it's big." She even made the "big" circular pantomime with both of her hands. "I want THAT!", replied a wide-eyed Jalen. This server knows her audience.
Jalen obliterated his pancake not long after its arrival, while I enjoyed my first ever over-medium eggs at breakfast. I've long opposed runny egg yolks, but with the ham and bacon's saltiness and the more complex seasoning in the sausage it was gooey glory. Sopping up the sun-colored excess from my plate with the hash browns and buttered sourdough toast made me wish I hadn't wasted most of my life ordering eggs "scrambled". What a fool I was.
After breakfast, as we walked back to our hotel, Jalen asked if I could "take a picture for mommy". I'd pulled a pair of toothpicks from a small container next to the cash register and Jalen excitedly wanted Mrs. Bootleg to see him…I dunno…picking his teeth? I suggested to my son that he just leave the toothpick dangling from his mouth, which led to the following conversation:
Jalen: "But, I can't smile if the toothpick is sticking out of my mouth."
Me: "So, don't smile."
Inadvertently, THAT led to this picture -- the most unintentionally awesome shot I'll ever take of my son. I'm hoping my wife OKs it for this year's Christmas cards. Let me know if you want me to license it out for yours.
At 11:30 AM, we boarded the BART train for Oakland to catch the Athletics v. Mariners game. It might've been too small of a sample size to hang the "jinx" label on Jalen, but during the regular season, the A's were 2-5 whenever my son has seen them live – including 0-2 in Oakland. And, yes, I keep track of these things. Before you pass judgment on my parental priorities, know that I was prepared for the aging stadium's trough-style urinals, public beach-equivalent restroom cleanliness and Jalen's predilection for touching everything.
The Athletics were holding their annual breast cancer awareness promotion at the Coliseum and giving away pink argyle scarves to fans in attendance. The too-prominent "Big O Tires" sponsorship logo still feels like well-intended marketing gone wrong, but it's obviously in furtherance of a great cause. The A's hosted more than 500 breast cancer survivors on the field in an emotional pregame ceremony and throughout the game, women shared their experiences with the disease during interviews that aired on the scoreboard between innings. Oddly, a couple of the interviews caused my allergies to flare up and made my eyes water. Stupid allergies.
Despite some shakiness from our bullpen in the late innings, the Athletics held on to defeat Seattle, 8-5. For those scoring at home (who are NOT Jalen's mother), Jalen consumed an entire personal Round Table pizza, a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, a large bag of popcorn and a churro. After the game, three different women who'd sat in the seats surrounding us approached me and expressed how much they enjoyed watching Jalen's passionate reactions to the action on the field and the way he and I interacted with each other. Honestly, I'm not bragging, but these weren't the first parents (I presume) who've told me this at ballgames. And, let's be honest: sitting through a meandering 3 ½ hour American League game just might be the apex of parenting.
The BART ride back to our hotel was uneventful until the final few moments. As Jalen and I departed the train, a woman came onboard who was breast feeding her child. Now, I have NO problem with this. Really. But, the woman wasn't using any kind of discreet…uh…breast-covering cloth thingie. Not a towel, not her blouse…nothing. And, her breast was [OK...I'm making the "big" circular pantomime with both of my hands]. If Jalen had seen any of this…well, remember Alfre Woodard's mute son in the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged? I know it was more than 20 years ago, but I'm still too shaken to think up a more recent reference.
It's closing in on six o'clock as we enter the elevator, heading back to our room to find more appropriate clothes before the 60-degree San Francisco summer sun sets and winter arrives for the night. An older couple gets on with us and proceeds to make some "isn't he CUTE?!" conversation with my son. It had already been a long day, so my "eminent embarrassment radar" must've been recalibrating itself. Less than 24 hours earlier, I cracked a joke to Jalen about the private lounge on the top floor of our hotel and how it was for "…people younger than me and older than [my son]." I should've seen this coming:
Jalen (to the older gentleman): "What floor are you on?"
Older Gentleman: "We're on the 30th floor just like you!"
Jalen: "Oh. Well…you can't go to the 32nd floor because that's for younger people. But, you can go to the other floors because those are for old people."
Me: [Head explodes.]
For dinner, I decided on a pizza place called "Victor's". The same friend who recommended breakfast called this spot, "cheap, tasty and good". It was also close by – 0.8 miles away according to my phone. I estimated a 15-20 minute walk. When I presented this to Jalen, he responded, "That's too far to walk for my little legs! Can't we take a taxi?!" Yes, he said, "…for my little legs". I would have expected – and have previously heard – that same complaint from his 4'8" mother, but not from him. Admittedly, I might've been parenting out of spite when I barked back, "Get your jacket. We're walking." (I'm sorry you guys had to see that side of me. But, keep reading. The "Aaron should've listened to Jalen" lesson is right around the corner…)
I've visited New York, lived in Los Angeles and been to several other major American metropolitan locales. I'd be willing to bet that no area transitions from "touristy" to "sketchy" faster than ANY street in San Francisco. Five minutes from our hotel, we're navigating a maze of homelessness, random bags of trash and possibly The Luniz. There's pizza at the end of this urine-scented journey, so Jalen is walking with purpose and before long we're passing through a more presentable residential area. We're about a half-mile from our hotel and we've passed through three distinct neighborhoods -- just one shy of the shortest walk/most neighborhoods record.
Victor's Pizza is on a street that's dotted with takeout restaurants and under-the-radar watering holes. The atmosphere on our walk had become a mix of live music comingled with barbecue or curry or carne asada. Victor's is a bit of a throwback -- for me -- with its practically pitch-black dining area and eternally burning candles offering negligible light. There were a few other customers inside, but noticeably no kids. And, sure enough, Million Dollar Birthday Fries were not on the menu.
But, they had pizza! Their sauce had a touch of sweetness from the tomatoes with a fresher flavor than I ever would've expected. Jalen and I kept it simple -- small pepperoni for him, small sausage for me -- and the toppings were quite good. The pepperoni had a bit of bite and a not-at-all oily texture, while the sausage popped with fennel. Best of all was the crust: crispy on the outside with a light smoky char, perfectly chewy consistency on the inside. The service was off-the-charts, as well. Prompt, attentive and my pint glass was never empty.
With two full bellies, we left the restaurant -- but, not before Jalen redoubled his begging for a cab ride back to our hotel. Truth be told, I was absolutely exhausted myself. I weighed the prospects of a 20-minute walk with my increasingly sleepy, already irritable seven-year-old son versus a two-minute taxi ride. Not wanting to get his hopes up, I told Jalen if we see a cab, we can...
"There's one right there!", he shrieked. "TAXI!", he shrieked again.
Monday, September 5
Our flight home from San Francisco departed at 11:55 AM. We took off into a cloudless sky and returned to a surprisingly rainy San Diego 90 minutes later. When we finally pulled up in front of Stately Bootleg Manor, I wanted to tell my son how much I loved him and how much fun I had over the past few days. Instead, Jalen sprinted from my car -- before I could open my mouth -- and into the waiting arms of his mother.
Jalen's little legs had regained their strength.