Frugal San Francisco
DAY after day in January, the rain poured down on the California coast without pause or pity — some of the worst storms to hit the state in a decade. High winds took out power lines and overturned SUVs. Garbage washed up on beaches. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their mudslide-threatened homes. And on one particular Tuesday afternoon, in the Mission District of San Francisco, the heavens focused their fury on a visiting father from Brooklyn — i.e., me — who, so self-absorbed he was blind to the calamities around him, had decided to walk home from the supermarket with his 13-month-old daughter, Sasha, in her stroller.
Only six and a half blocks, I thought. No need to use my weeklong bus and cable car pass ($26). But within a block, the downpour had rolled off my waterproof jacket and soaked my jeans through. On the next block, a homeless woman joined us, complaining that “it’s a terrible thing when you have to steal cupcakes to eat.” True enough, but I was too stressed to commiserate. And on the third block, the inevitable happened. The paper grocery bag hanging over the back of Sasha’s stroller disintegrated in the rain, spilling a week’s worth of organic groceries — a dense honeydew melon, supple young broccoli, tiny cremini mushrooms — across the flooded sidewalk.
Defeated, I screamed words that young Sasha probably should not have heard. This was not how the week was supposed to go. With her mother in Berlin on a business trip, Sasha and I had flown here for a little low-budget, daddy-daughter bonding time. Ambitious? Perhaps. But in her brief life span, Sasha had already proven herself a hardy voyager, with four overseas trips under her belt. She also had flying down to an art, sleeping almost from takeoff to landing, with hardly a squeal in between. This trip was a chance to demonstrate my talents not only as a frugal traveler but as a self-sufficient, all-in-one SuperDad! I would feed, dress, clean and entertain my little girl for an entire week, while exploring a strange city on the other side of the country — and doing so, of course, without spending a lot of money.
At first glance, San Francisco would seem to be precisely the wrong place to do this. According to Forbes magazine’s 2009 survey of America’s most expensive cities, San Francisco ranks fourth, and according to 2008 Census figures, San Franciscans have fewer children than the rest of the state. The hills are rough on strollers, and the homeless people, strip clubs and ubiquitous pot smoke can challenge a protective parent’s patience. Do the math, and it looks crazy to take a baby there for vacation.
But baby vacations involve a complicated calculus. For one thing, at just over a year old, Sasha isn’t exactly a sophisticated traveler. All she wants is to run around and see new things — whether on the street or at an art gallery — which meant that, for the most part, we could go wherever I wanted. And although San Franciscans may not be the most family-oriented, those who do have kids form fierce, tightly knit communities centered on schools, playgrounds and the Internet, which I hoped to tap into. The, uh, colorful street life, meanwhile, would hardly intrude on a 1-year-old’s consciousness; no awkward explanations necessary. And as for the expense, well, I knew I’d find ways around that.
On that front, that rainy Tuesday was actually going well. Sasha’s stroller was sturdy and lightweight, the cheapest in the Maclaren line and ideal for travel, and its transparent rain fly was keeping her warm and dry. Those groceries bobbing in the flood had been a bargain, too, despite the fact that they’d come from the Rainbow Grocery, a co-op that composts, shuts down for both César Chávez Day and Gay Pride Day and is, generally, expensive. Except on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when you can deploy a coveted coupon, found in the local phone book, to knock 20 percent off your bill. (Mine came to $26.95.)
And when we finally soldiered home — after I’d taken a deep breath, found the reusable grocery bag I’d hidden in Sasha’s diaper bag and gathered up our food — it was not to a cheap hotel but to a gorgeous Victorian house for which we were paying $90 a night. I’d found the place through AirBnB.com, a Web site that lets people rent out their futons, spare rooms and entire apartments to travelers like myself; it’s a cross between Craigslist, CouchSurfing and VRBO.com. In fact, I never even looked for a hotel at all. Why spend more for less room, a hip lounge and a fitness center? Traveling with a young child brings new requirements: a kitchen where I could make Sasha cheap, healthful meals; a spacious bathroom where I could bathe her; free access to laundry machines; and plenty of space to run.
AirBnB is particularly strong in San Francisco, too, with nearly 400 listings to choose from. And I was sorely tempted by many of them — a two-bedroom apartment near Golden Gate Park for $64, a big one-bedroom for $95 in the Richmond District — but not all were available on my dates. Not that that mattered once I found the listing entitled “Victorian splendor in San Francisco.” The photos were brilliant, the amenities spectacular and the 19 reviews enthusiastic (“calm and sunny oasis to return to after a day packed with sightseeing,” wrote one). Plus, it was in the Mission, a heavily Latino neighborhood that has seen a lot of gentrification in the last two decades, resulting in a place where serious-minded parents push strollers from playground to taco truck to craft-beer bar — in other words, my kind of place.
“Victorian splendor” was an entire floor of a classic painted-lady Victorian, with hardwood floors and super-high ceilings, plush couches and a soft bed, a washer and a dryer and a fully equipped kitchen, all decorated with relics and photos that the owner, Joyce Ferman, a teacher, photographer and tour guide, had taken from trips to Ecuador, Vietnam and beyond. (Most of these I moved to higher shelves, away from Sasha’s curious hands.) The kitchen had staples like rice, olive oil and coffee, and Ms. Ferman, who was away in Los Angeles almost the whole week, had left us a fresh-baked loaf of banana bread and, stuck to the refrigerator, that Rainbow Grocery coupon.
With the weather so miserable, I was grateful for the kind of creature comforts that would have cost a fortune at a hotel. In the mornings, after Sasha had eaten her breakfast of bananas, oatmeal, yogurt and orange juice, we’d play in the living room and listen to Dan Zanes on my laptop, and Sasha would stare out the big bay windows at the damp, quiet street, cheering and tapping at the glass in wonder. Often, just as the rain would ease, she’d get sleepy and I’d put her down for a nap in her PeaPod, an ultralight travel bed more than worth its $60 price tag. For the next two hours, I’d anxiously plan excursions, hoping the rain would hold off long enough for us to get out, have fun and be back by 5 p.m. to begin the nightly routine of dinner, bath and bedtime.
As soon as Sasha woke up, we’d rush out the door to the Mission Playground, which had slides, a jungle gym and swings. Sasha went “Whee!” as she swung on the swings and swooped down the slides, and at times I could relax on a bench and watch her from afar, knowing that the moms and dads and grandparents and nannies were all keeping half an eye on one another’s charges. We didn’t interact much beyond “And how old is this one?” But there was something comforting about simply being together as our children played.
And whenever the drops would fall, Sasha and I would dash off in search of shelter. We didn’t have far to go: The Mission has lots of kid-friendly businesses. The Curiosity Shoppe was, you guessed it, filled with curiosities like Silly Putty eggs ($2), smiley face buttons ($1) and marbles (10 cents). Almost next door, Little Otsu carried printed curiosities: books, postcards, notepads — all illustrated with a careful, if twee, touch. I bought “The Tour Diary,” by Allison Cole ($9, marked down from $14), a beautiful travel journal in which Sasha may one day jot down notes and travel observations of her own. (A dad can dream, can’t he?)
The Mission itself could probably have sustained us the entire week — bilingual rhyme time at the local library, a tour of Mission murals — but my legs were restless. So I consulted Mission Parents, a 420-plus-member parenting-themed discussion group on Yahoo, which hosts similar groups across the country (like Dallas DiaperFreeBaby, BaltimoreSingleParents). These are some of the best places to seek out advice on everything from cheap diapers and toy stores to baby sitters and E.R.’s, and are worth joining whenever you have a trip planned.
On Mission Parents, for example, when I mentioned I was considering going to the ever-popular Exploratorium, one of the members warned me it was “geared more towards older kids.” Instead, several parents suggested the California Academy of Sciences, a museum in Golden Gate Park, for its baby-friendly aquarium and indoor rain forest. Another parent cautioned that it was expensive ($24.95!), but on the third Wednesday of every month, the museum was free.
That very Wednesday, I hauled Sasha by Muni to the academy. It was perfect. Wherever Sasha looked, there were fish — orange and blue, green and red, yellow and black — all of them just the other side of the glass, where Sasha could almost reach them. Ghostly jellyfish. Fragile seahorses. Lumbering 200-pound sea bass. An ocher starfish whose knobbly skin she tentatively touched. Even better, she could roam freely among the crowds, stopping where and when she wanted to marvel at the undreamed-of creatures of the deep, or to befriend another equally fascinated toddler. She was giddy.
The thing is, I knew she would be equally giddy wherever we went, just as long as she had something new to look at. Adult-focused, child-appropriate, it didn’t matter. I could go wherever I wanted — within reason. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, was a surprisingly good choice. Admission had been cut to zero (from $15) in celebration of its 75th anniversary, which meant not only did we get in free but so did thousands of other people as well, and the general bustle of the crowds, I knew, would mask any noisy, naughty behavior by Sasha. But she was a doll, and the only sounds that emerged from her were spontaneous chuckles as we listened to the writer Michelle Tea discuss Andy Warhol’s work in front of his self-portrait.
The Cartoon Art Museum (admission $6, under 6 free), which traces the history of comic strips, comic books and animated films from Japanese prints to contemporary Web comics, was the exact opposite — quiet and untrafficked. And even if there were other patrons for Sasha to disturb, it was a cartoon museum — how can you complain about kids there? While I gravitated to the samurai-themed exhibition (Usagi Yojimbo! Samurai Jack!), Sasha took advantage of the open gallery space to wander hither and yon, settling down (on my lap) only to watch a screening of the 1990 computer-animation classic “Grinning Evil Death.”
When I look back on these excursions now, they seem almost ideal — a balance of highbrow culture for adults and fun-filled kiddie joy. But at the time, I was beyond stressed. At the cartoon museum, I went cross-eyed focusing on both the art and Sasha’s whereabouts, and at the modern art museum I tried hopelessly to get her to drink warm steamed milk from the museum’s Blue Bottle Coffee stand. At the Steinhart Aquarium, I even snapped at an employee who asked me to move off the stairs, where I was struggling to get Sasha’s jacket on. I hope if he’s reading this, he’ll accept my apologies.
Likewise, feeding Sasha every day was a Herculean task. Actually, feeding a baby frugally and healthily can be quite easy, especially if you have a kitchen: just buy groceries and cook at home. And that’s what I was doing some of the time, preparing Sasha’s favorites — rice and broccoli, spaghetti with meat sauce — with plenty of leftovers for lunch. But this was San Francisco! We couldn’t just stay home. I felt compelled to expose Sasha to the wealth of taquerias and street carts and artisanal bakeries.
At Udupi Palace, an Indian restaurant recommended by a Mission Parents member, I plopped Sasha into a highchair and ordered lunch: saag paneer with rice ($9.95), seemingly a surefire hit with a girl accustomed to Malaysian curries and Thai stir-fried noodles. But no luck. Sasha spat out the puréed spinach and made a face at the rice, though she ate the paneer with gusto. That night, we dined at home on a chicken-mole burrito ($7.50) from Papalote, one of the healthier, fresher Mexican spots in the Mission. Again, she was uninterested. It turned out she preferred the cheaper, greasier and far superior burritos ($5.45) from El Farolito.
Another night, I pushed us harder, hopping the BART one stop south to the Chenery Park Restaurant, a white-tablecloth place where Tuesdays are kids’ nights, meaning Sasha could make noise and drop food on the floor, and no one would notice. But when her safe-bet macaroni and cheese ($6) arrived, she would have none of it. I despaired, powering through my excellent smoked pork chop ($20) and Russian River ale in hopes of getting out of there quickly, until finally I let her taste some spinach sautéed with garlic — and she loved it. “But,” I wanted to yell, “you hated spinach yesterday!”
Now, however, I remember only the good: Sasha’s laugh and my cold beer; the friendly waitresses and the bus passengers who graciously ignored the stroller bumping at their toes. But I also know that every day depleted me so fully I couldn’t stay awake past 9:30 p.m. One week with this baby was more physically challenging than hiking across Montana and more psychologically draining than ... anything I’ve ever done.
Which was why, whenever I had the chance for a reprieve, I leapt at it. One day, I corralled some friends — travel-happy dads like me — for drinks at Vino Rosso, an Italian wine bar recommended by a Mission Parents member for its “Wine & Whiners” Wednesdays, where we knocked back $4 glasses of prosecco while our children played with dishwasher-sterilized plastic toys provided by the bar. In one corner, a few moms watched us, and we felt like superstars — responsible dads with social lives to boot.
My last night in San Francisco, I got really lucky. Ms. Ferman, my AirBnB landlord, had returned from her trip and agreed to baby-sit, a simple job, as Sasha sleeps soundly from 7:30 p.m. till sunrise. Around 9 p.m., I left with Ryan — an old friend from Shanghai — and cruised the neighborhood, from the yuppified Beretta, where $10 buys an innovative cocktail like the Dolores Park Swizzle, to the divey, red-lighted Mission Bar, where we couldn’t have spent more than $3 each on our drinks, to Nombe, an ostensibly Japanese restaurant that served Laotian tongue tacos, two for $3. They were amazing, and drizzled with a honey-habanero salsa, they were the spiciest things I’d eaten in 10 years; my mouth was still on fire when I got home. It was not even 1 a.m., but I felt like I’d been out till dawn.
As I climbed into bed, careful not to disturb my sleeping daughter, I wondered what Sasha would make of the trip. Would she even remember any of it?
Probably not, but then again, at her age memory is a funny thing. The specific images may fade — however preserved in photos and videos — but some vestigial instinct for travel may remain. Like all babies, Sasha is an explorer of new worlds, even when they’re close to home, and I like to think the trip gave her a burst of confidence in her abilities. For me, I know, it certainly did.
IF YOU GO
Numerous airlines fly nonstop from New York City area airports to San Francisco, with late-March departures starting at just under $300, according to a recent Web search.
One-, three- and seven-day passes good on all San Francisco Muni buses and cable cars are sold at the airport. BART trains between the airport and the 24th and Mission stop cost $5.10 each way.
WHERE TO STAY
A recent search on AirBnB.com found nearly 400 listings in the San Francisco area, ranging from a $23-a-night spare room in the North Beach neighborhood to a $600-a-night, six-bedroom apartment near Alamo Square. AirBnB charges an additional 6 to 12 percent service charge, depending on the cost of the rental and the length of your stay.
WHAT TO DO
California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive; (415) 379-8000; calacademy.org.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street; (415) 357-4000; sfmoma.org.
Cartoon Art Museum, 655 Mission Street; (415) 227-8666; cartoonart.org.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Udupi Palace, 1007 Valencia Street; (415) 970-8000; udupipalaceca.com.
Papalote, 3409 24th Street; (415) 970-8815, papalote-sf.com.
El Farolito, 2779 Mission Street; (415) 824-7877; elfarolitoinc.com.
Chenery Park Restaurant, 683 Chenery Street; (415) 337-8537; chenerypark.com.
Vino Rosso, 629 Cortland Avenue; (415) 647-1268; vinorossosf.com.
WHERE TO SHOP
Rainbow Grocery, 1745 Folsom Street; (415) 863-0620; rainbowgrocery.org.
The Curiosity Shoppe, 855 Valencia Street; 415-671-5384; curiosityshoppeonline.com.
Little Otsu, 849 Valencia Street, (415) 255-7900; littleotsu.com.