Noe Valley Voice October 1999

Doing the Tourist Thing in Golden Gate Park

By Janis Cooke Newman

I cannot believe I'm standing in front of the Conservatory of Flowers having my picture taken.

"Hurry up," I tell my husband Ken, who's fiddling with the camera.

"I'm trying to get Alex on the bike," he says.

A group of women in saris are snapping photos of one another with disposable cameras. They're having trouble keeping the gold-threaded edges of their skirts down in the wind.

A family speaking to one another in the soft vowels of the South wobbles by on roller blades. They're wearing so many knee and elbow pads they look like Power Rangers. I take off my bicycle helmet and pretend that the only reason I've stopped is to wipe some grease off my leg.

I am the kind of San Franciscan who would rather jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than be caught doing something touristy like walking on it. The only reason I've agreed to spend my Sunday morning in Golden Gate Park at the height of tourist season is to try out my son Alex's new bike. It's one of those kid-sized bikes with one wheel that attaches onto the back of an adult bicycle, and since this is his first outing, we had to go someplace relatively flat and traffic-free.

"Okay," Ken says, having at last captured my image with the white wings of the Conservatory flanking my head.

I hop onto my bike, narrowly missing a surrey full of German students who are pedaling as though this were the Autobahn.

We bicycle past the Asian Art Museum. On the flat lawn of the music concourse, two ancient Chinese men are practicing tai chi. They make me think of great birds -- herons or egrets -- dancing.

"Let's go to the Japanese Tea Garden," Ken suggests.

"But if we wait till 5:30, it's free," I tell him.

I believe that knowing this bit of information is what distinguishes the natives from the visitors.

"That's six hours from now," he says.

Inside the Tea Garden, purple iris bloom in koi ponds and sprays of
heavenly bamboo arch over the paths. In front of a serene-looking Buddha, a group of 13-year-old girls who pronounce Golden Gate Park with the swallowed r of the Midwest are having their picture taken.

Four-year-old Alex climbs the ladder-like moon bridge as many times as we let him, and then we have jasmine tea served to us by waitresses in kimonos and split-toed socks. The tea tastes like perfume, the sun is slanting through the filigree leaves of the Japanese maples, and in spite of the fact that we are being crowded by a busload of, appropriately enough, Japanese tourists, this seems like the perfect place to be.

After the Tea Garden, we get back on our bikes and ride over to Spreckles Lake to watch the model boats.

All along the shore, grown men and small boys aim elaborate remote controls at the model yachts in the water. A couple of the men are wearing captain's hats. Ken and Alex wander over to watch a regatta of model sailboats compete in a miniature America's Cup race. I'm fascinated by a diminutive cruise ship. It has tiny people wearing Hawaiian leis, and can play the theme from The Love Boat.

Back on the road, we make the obligatory stop at the Bison Paddock to see the dusty and disinterested buffaloes. Then we pedal up past Anglers' Lodge to the Fly Casting Pools.

At the edges of the long concrete pools, fly fishermen and -women practice their casting. They whip their colorful lines behind them, letting them unfurl in wave patterns across the water. My husband explains to Alex the intricate differences between regular and roll casting. I'm mesmerized by the bright green and yellow lines tracing arcs in the sunlight.

Afterward, we continue along JFK Drive, heading toward the ocean. Scraps of fog float above us like gauze, and the air is filled with the damp cough-drop smell of eucalyptus trees. A couple wearing Stetson hats and cowboy boots stand on the curb taking deep breaths. I inhale the scent of the trees, and like the Texans, do not once worry that they are a non-native species.

At the Queen Wilhemina Tulip Gardens beneath the Dutch Windmill, the women in the saris are having much more difficulty holding their skirts down. The wind is blowing off the water, carrying a salt smell and the muffled barking of sea lions.

Ken insists on another picture. In this one, the wooden arms of the windmill are coming out of my head.

Alex runs around the flower beds for a while, and then we turn around and bike back to the sun.

We ride to Stow Lake, where we come upon what looks like a Victorian boating party. The men are wearing straw boaters and vests that button high on their chests. The women lift taffeta skirts with one hand and press down on the crowns of broad-brimmed picture hats with the other. We watch them setting out towards Strawberry Hill in little boats. The men row and the women trail un-gloved hands in the water, gliding past two stocky Russian ladies who are having a hard time operating their pedal boat.

Later, as we pass the tennis courts, we can hear what sounds like hundreds of people laughing.

"I forgot," Ken says, "this is Comedy Day."

We push our bikes into Sharon Meadow, where we stand beside a couple with exceedingly white skin.

"That's Robin Williams up there," the man says, in an accent that makes me think of Guinness ale and peat fires.

His wife squints at the manic figure on the stage.

"Robin Williams," the man repeats, "free in the park. Sure, and isn't this a great city then?"

And while my husband offers to take a picture of the Irish couple with Robin Williams running around behind their heads, I wonder if next week, Alex would like to take his new bike on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Noe Kids is a column about where to go and what to do with your kids. If there's a topic, activity, or outing you'd like to see covered, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at, or write to us at the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco, CA 94114.

Travel Writing Workshop

Noe Kids columnist Janis Cooke Newman will be teaching a one-day Travel Writing Workshop at Cover to Cover, 3812 24th St., on Saturday, Nov. 6. The class will cover all aspects of travel writing, including getting published. Janis' travel stories have appeared in the Traveler's Tales family travel book, as well as in Backpacker, Country Living, Salon magazine, and numerous newspapers. The class runs from 10 to 4, and the cost is $80. Call Cover to Cover, 415-282-8080, for details or to register.