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A Day at Ocean Beach
By Janis Cooke Newman
A trip combining pleasure and business is within the realm of possibilities," I say, reading from a little card called "The Wizard Predicts" that my son Alex has just gotten from a machine.
"What does that mean?" he asks.
"We're going to take a nice hike."
"Not until I arm-wrestle the mechanical guy in the Spiderman mask," he says. "Can I have some more money?"
"Personal gain may also be expected-- perhaps sooner than you thought," I read, as I hand Alex another batch of quarters.
We're at the Musée Mécanique (Mechanical Museum) in the shadow of the Cliff House. Outside the windows, waves crash against rocks covered with pelicans, and seagulls fight over dropped hotdog buns.
Sometimes, when you live in Noe Valley, you forget that the ocean is just a matter of blocks away. You start to think you live in a landlocked area bordered by Twin Peaks and the Mission that just happens to be foggy in the summer.
So our mission for today is to remind ourselves that the Pacific is practically in our backyard. That is, if we can get out of the Musée Mécanique.
"Can I have some more money for the guillotine?" Alex asks.
"I thought you did that one already."
"I like it when the head comes off."
We watch another beheading, and then Alex feeds some quarters to Laughing Sal, the mechanical fat lady who used to greet visitors at the old Playland-at-the-Beach, before it got turned into condos. I find Sal's hysterical laughing much creepier than the guillotine.
Alex has no interest in a machine that assesses one's love quotient, or the sepia-tone photographs of ladies in their underwear, which have been passed by New York censors. He does, however, drop several quarters into the Magic Ray, a machine that "reads you like a book." It informs Alex that he is "well-liked in business."
"I'm out of change," I say. "Let's go for our hike."
"I don't want to."
"You have a stubborn nature, but sometimes yield to the persuasion of those you love," I read from his little Wizard card. Then I take his hand and we go outside, where we catch up with my husband and the dog.
To get to our trail, we walk the hill above the crumbling ruins of the old Sutro Baths. Below us, seagulls and dogs splash around in shallow pools, where at one time men in striped bathing costumes and women who swam in dresses gathered on Sunday afternoons.
At the end of the parking lot at Merrie Way, we come to the start of the Coastal Trail. This is one of the prettiest walks in San Francisco. It meanders along cypress-covered bluffs for four miles along the coastline, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
We hike along the mostly flat trail, passing alien-looking ice plants that have just started to bloom. The air tastes salty and makes me think of beach vacations and sandy sheets.
At Land's End, about a mile in, we stop at the lookout where we can see the Farallons, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands. My husband and I take in the view, the dog digs a hole, and Alex collects rocks.
Turning around, we head back along the trail to the Cliff House and Ocean Beach. "People swimming and wading have drowned here," says the sign at the entrance to the beach. There's a little drawing of a person drowning in the rip tide.
"Take all precautions against carelessness," I read to Alex from the Wizard card.
We throw a blanket on the beach and take out our picnic -- cracked crab and my husband's famous ginger dipping sauce. (When you're busy reminding yourself that you live near the Pacific, you should always eat something from it.) Sitting on the sand, my husband and I crack open bodies and claws, pulling white meat from all the little chambers and dipping it in the ginger sauce. Alex has Chinese noodles. The dog eats sand.
At the water's edge, someone is flying a kite shaped like a tiger, and surfers as black and shiny as seals defy the rip currents and the sharks. Up on the shore, a little boy is carrying a pair of white-feathered wings that must have belonged to a seagull. They look like small angel wings dropped from heaven.
When there's nothing left of the crab but little pieces of shell, we walk back up to the Cliff House for a drink and the sunset. Sitting on a lumpy couch in front of a fire and the stuffed head of a bison, we drink frothy Ramos fizzes (gin for us, virgin for Alex) that leave little "Got Milk" mustaches on our upper lips. Outside the window, the sky over the ocean turns pink and lavender and then dark blue as the sun dips into the water. A couple of tourists at the next table applaud the sunset.
"You are straightforward and honest with your judgment," I tell Alex. "So tell me, do you think this was a fun day?"
"Sure," he says. "But can I arm-wrestle Spiderman again?"
Janis Cooke Newman's memoir, The Russian Word for Snow -- A True Story of Adoption, has just been published by St. Martin's Press.
My Husband's Famous Ginger Dipping Sauce for Crab
(makes about 2/3 cup)
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons mirin (Japanese
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
And serve with cracked crab.
How You Can Have a Day at the Beach
Start by picking up some fresh cracked crab at either Bell Market on 24th Street or at CalMart in Laurel Village on California Street (it's on your way out to the beach). Drive out Geary until it becomes Point Lobos, and park in the Merrie Way parking lot. The trailhead for the Coastal Trail is at the far end of the lot. The Cliff House and Ocean Beach are just down the hill. The Musée Mécanique is on the bottom floor at the back of the Cliff House and is open Monday through Friday, 11 7; weekends, 10 8. (Visit the magical Giant Camera, too.) If you're taking public transportation, the 38-Geary will take you right there. And if you're feeling energetic, you can bike from Noe Valley, through Golden Gate Park out to the ocean, and get the added attraction of seeing the restored windmill.