I have tried to explain to my friends the spirit of San Francisco, how it exudes artistic initiative in a way that other great cities like Philly and Atlanta don’t. You get this feeling like you could open up a sewing shop in your basement or run a nightclub out of the back of an old school bus. You feel that way because people here are wacky enough to try such things and shockingly, they succeed. It’s what you get when you mix the improvisation of the beatniks with the shamelessness of the hippies with the idealistic entrepreneurship of the dot-com boomers.
Last Saturday I discovered an event that perfectly captures this spirit. I responded to a post on Squidlist promising an “ambient audio tour.” After a morning bike ride through the city, I arrived at an address in front of Golden Gate Park. It wasn’t a business, but a residence, one of the many old Victorian row houses the city is known for. I was warmly welcomed in and offered tea and homemade biscuits and cookies. There were about ten people in the room, some folks like me who responded to the web bulletin and others friends of the project making friendly conversation. The atmosphere was entirely welcoming.
The audio tour could be acquired on mp3, tape or CD. One need not bring a player as he had a basket full of old Walkmans. After ten minutes of socializing, I ventured out into the park with my Ipod stacked up with “If You Consider…”, the ambient audio tour of Golden Gate park.
When I say “audio tour,” you are most likely thinking of a long string of historical notes: Bob Marley peed here. Janis Joplin sang a song about this spot. And there’s a bit of that. What makes the tour magical is the way the narrator drifts into the realm of fancy. There is some history and there is some whimsy. You can’t really be sure where one ends and the other begins. One moment you are learning about the edible plants at your feet, the next you are in a string of poetry and then he is quick to warn you, “Be careful. That man behind you has been following you for some time now…”
The artist behind this creation is a musician and the soundtrack really makes this tour shine. The music is at times peaceful and sweet and other times delightfully cacophonous, a la “A Day In the Life” or Radiohead at its more experimental moments. The soundscape fits well with the content and is segued seamlessly.
The tour does not end, exactly, as it encourages one to continue their imaginative adventure, perhaps even make their own audio tour (and isn’t that the spirit of innovation I am suggesting that our fine city encourages?). Following the musical portion of the tour, my senses were awakened. I continued to wander. Colors and revelry drew me to the Mary B. Connoly playground. I stopped at the restroom, which carried a warning the walls inside were filled with lead-based paint. Most days this would only annoy me but in that moment I was an explorer and the poisoned walls were part of the urban adventure, a small challenge. A boy rode a unicycle, children slid on cardboard down a slide-walk that resembled the hilly streets of Nobb Hill. One of the fathers sported a worn pork pie hat. An ancient Asian woman carried a white infant on her back, enclosed in a colorful Mexican blanket. In the distant field, drummers played. Of course, I would see all these things if not on my ambient tour. But would I really see these things?
Golden Gate park is huge and exploring can be daunting. If you want to get to know some of its nooks and crannies, I can think of no better way than spending a Sunday afternoon with “If You Consider…”.