North Beach

A slice of civilization.

Grant Avenue in San Francisco starts life at O’Farrell and Market Streets and, once it crosses California Street, enters the frenetic world and nicotine laden air of Chinatown. A few blocks of stores full of strange foods, garbage goods and neon signs later it crosses Columbus Avenue and enters Little Italy. The contrast could scarcely be greater. No crowds, no chintz, neighborhood restaurants and some fine high end stores.

I was strolling up this civilized stretch of Grant the other day and came across two chaps working the parking meters, one on either side of the road. I caught up with one and chatted with him while he worked his magic. It was quite something to behold. In one smooth motion he would open the locking door, remove the green coin cylinder, pop it into the coin box on his heavy dolly, empty it and replace and lock. So practiced was this routine that I had to speed up from stroll to walk, just to keep up!

He told me that on a street like Grant Avenue, totally parked out all the time, they have to empty the meters every other day, with an average yield of $40 per meter. Wow! “But these meters also take credit cards, don’t they?” I asked. “Yes, but coins will never die. People like to use coins.” I’m not sure whether that’s job protection speaking or reality, but it was sort of reassuring in a nation where all manual labor is being either obsoleted by technology or exported to China.

I tried a couple of snaps and this one catches his intensity, the coin cylinder and all.

Meter Man.

Another block north, at Vallejo Street, is Al’s Attire, a cavernous store whose enticing window displays pulled me inside. Modeled on the British bespoke tradition, Al’s makes shoes, hats and jackets. One window has a display of cobbler’s lasts which the owner assured me are not for show. They are all in use.

Lasts at Al’s.

Some of the exquisite ladies’ shoes on display here could be straight of of Vanity Fair (Thackeray’s not SI Newhouse’s). Viewed from inside the store the light is to die for.

Large expanses of leather are lying around, waiting to be crafted into shoes.

Sheets of leather waiting to be crafted into fine footwear.

The other window display is no less impressive:

Hats and tools.

Crossing the road the Live Worms Gallery has yet to open and has a spare window display with a little model Ford truck. I snap it merrily and only notice that I have included my hand and camera when in Lightroom later. Still, it seems to work.

Ford at Live Worms.

A few yards further down and a soccer game from Italy is enthralling the lunchtime crowd. I quickly crank the G1 up from ISO320 to ISO1600, knowing that it’s going to be dark inside there. It takes seconds to do as I have the two options stored in the first two of the three available Custom settings. As luck would have it my timing coincides with that rarest of events in world class soccer, a goal!


Before heading down to Washington Square my eye is caught by a gorgeous race bike at Cykel. Just as I approach a fellow bicyclist gives the machine a longing glance. The owner of the store tells me it’s a carbon fibre and aluminum frame, and the tires are glued to the rims. This is a board track racer so there are no brakes, one gear, and the whole thing weighs just 15 lbs! No, I don’t ask the price.

Board track racer at Cykel.

Heading west to Washington Square I thank my lucky stars that I am carrying that little charmer, the 45-200mm Panny in my shoulder bag. To describe a lens with a maximum reach equivalent to a 400mm on a full frame body as a ‘charmer’ may sound like a bit of a stretch, but it’s true in this case. It’s the first super telephoto you don’t think twice about taking with you. Weight is not an issue, the optics are tremendous and the built-in OIS means the tripod stays at home. The reason I’m glad I have it with me is that there’s a chap, down to his skivvies, doing all sort of bizarre calisthenics in the center of the park and I’m not about to poke my camera in the face of one who, for all I know, has a black belt in martial arts. The Panny’s at full chat, extended to 400mm for this one:

Skivvy man.

Exiting Washington Park there’s a mural celebrating the SF Giants’ World Championship victory in baseball. Quite how you become a world champion in a sport largely played only on these shores I’m not sure, but even someone as disinterested in baseball as I can assure you that the City will not let you forget the Giants’ championship status. I still have the 45-200mm on the Panny so wait lazily on the little traffic island in the middle of Columbus until the scene is just so.

World Champions.

Turn the corner onto the main artery of Little Italy, Columbus Avenue, and there’s a local enjoying a cappuccino and some reading. Yes, not everyone uses an iPad:

No iPad.

These are the sort of scenes which typify that fine corner of San Francisco known as Little Italy. And now it’s time for lunch.

Lunch in the mirror in Little Italy.

All snaps on the Panasonic G1 with the kit lens at ISO320, except as noted.