Searching for Sightglass Coffee, or ‘the “honkey” incident'

Another story from San Francisco:

Anthony Salas, a barista at Paper Tiger Coffee in Vancouver, suggested that we try out Sightglass Coffee while we were in San Francisco. Always up for trying new places, we followed his recommendation. It turned out that finding the café was as memorable as the café itself.

Sightglass Coffee is located on Seventh Street, close the heart of downtown San Francisco. After lunch at the wharf, we hopped onto the cable car and rode it over the hill to Hallidie Plaza (For the record, the cable car is overrated—not much more than tourist transportation. I would estimate that 95% of the people on the car were tourists, and the other 5% were the driver and the ticket-taker. Call me a cynic, but it was not the “San Francisco treat” that you have seen on television). From the plaza, we walked down Market Street and turned onto Sixth Street. We could have walked one more block to Seventh ,  but I wanted to get off of Market because it was loud from all the traffic. Our chosen route made for a more interesting story, though at the time it was a little unsettling.

To give you a little background, when traveling, I do my best to not look like a tourist. Granted, this is not always possible, but I try to not saunter around gaping at tourist attractions, snapping lots of photos and being more conspicuous than necessary. I try to act like I know where I am going, and I do my best to avoid using maps in public. Tourists can be targets for mischievous or malevolent people, so it’s best to not look like one.

We probably should have done a little research about this part of the city before we went, because it would have been good to know its reputation. On Sixth Street, it was pretty much impossible to not look like a tourist. Theoretically, it could have been the safest part of San Francisco, but the neighborhood looked like it was going through a rough time. There were lots of shops that looked run down, with paint peeling off the walls, as well as many empty storefronts covered with old posters and graffiti. The shops that were open included several pawn shops and convenience stores. Groups of young black men stood around, crowding the sidewalk and watching us as we went by. It reminded me of walking around Datong, China, where the local people stared at the unfamiliar faces (us) passing by them. Even worse, I had a camera around my neck, flashing “TOURIST!” in big bold letters to everyone on the street.

I felt out of place, and asked myself if I was nervous because we appeared to be the only white people there, or if the area just gave off the impression that it was unfriendly. It was probably some of both. It can be unsettling when you visit a place where you stand out so much.

That said, I don’t think my uneasiness was much different than what people from outside Portland feel when they visit downtown and have to pass through the groups of homeless people crowding the sidewalk. Walking around downtown Portland doesn’t bother me anymore, but I have spent a lot of time there. Sixth Street in San Francisco was completely new to me.

To add to my unease, one of the things we saw as we were walking was likely a drug handoff. I could be mistaken, but seeing two men approach each other on the sidewalk and discretely pass a small paper bag between them without saying anything seemed a little suspicious. I commented to my wife that it didn’t look like they were sharing doughnuts. She agreed. We kept walking, pretending not to notice, or at least to not care.

The most memorable incident of our side trip took place a couple blocks later. As we came to the corner, a tall black man dressed in a red hat and a blue and white sweat suit looked at us in disapproval. He was talking to a group of men, and as we approached, he stepped out directly in front of us.

“. . .and someone like this honkey,” he said, glowering at me.

 “Oh, sh--,” I thought.

My heart jumped when he said that, though I tried to not show any fear. We stepped around him to the left, hoping that he wouldn’t try to stop us. If he had, I’m not sure how I would have reacted. I wasn’t looking for a fight, just a coffee shop. Fortunately, the man made no other moves to block us—he had already made it clear enough that we weren’t welcome in his neighborhood. We kept walking, glad to soon reach our destination.

Looking back on our misadventure, I doubt we were ever in any real danger. We were uncomfortable, but no harm came of it. After all, the man made no physical contact with us. All he did was call me a honkey, which is actually kind of funny. I haven’t been called that since the days when I used to play a lot of basketball. There was always lots of creative things said in the heat of the games.

All in all, our quick trip to Sightglass was a memorable one. We found some pretty good coffee and we came away with a story to tell.


The Petra of China

On the second leg of our trip to Inner Mongolia, we went to Datong, in Shanxi province. Datong is a very important city in China because it is the center of a very large coal-producing region. The abundance of coal has allowed the city to prosper, and it was obvious while we were there that the small town of three million (small by China’s standards, at least) was changing fast. According to our guide, the Chinese government is worried that the coal in the region, which they have been mining for thousands of years (that’s what he said), is going to run out soon, so the city is trying to transition from a resource-based economy to a tourism-based economy. The city is razing huge swaths of the town in order to construct a massive stone wall that surrounds the city, in hopes that the spectacle will bring tourists in. We watched a set of excavators tearing apart a large, aging apartment complex and I expect that a set of new apartment buildings will replace it. All over the city, new high-rises were being built, and I could easily see why some economists are worried about a property bubble in China. Who is going to live in all of these massive, expensive new lodgings?

When we pulled up next to the hotel at Datong, I don’t know if I have ever seen a happier group of travelers. After sleeping poorly in a bunch of cold yurts, facing the stomach-wrenching odors of the filthy bathrooms, riding horses for two hours on the wind-blown prairie and spending four hours on a bus, seeing that we were going to stay at four-star hotel was the sweetest sight any of us could have asked for. All we wanted to do was grab a shower and take a rest before heading out for a group dinner of traditional hot pot. The shower was splendid and the bed was comfortable. Our bathroom even had a western toilet, still the only one I’ve seen since I arrived in China. It’s the small things in life that make it tolerable. . .

Happy travelers waiting for the bus in Datong

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