After a 10 hour bus ride from LA, my buddy Des and I arrived in San Francisco on a cloudy Tuesday morning in September 2000. We made our way to the Pacific Tradewinds Hostel in Chinatown. We couldn't book in until 4pm, so we relaxed for a few hours in Union Square drinking coffee with our backpacks wondering what the fuck were we going to do next.
While sitting in Union Square, I got talking to an Italian guy who had just traveled around South America and funded his whole trip teaching English. He said he had done a course called TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) just up the Street from Union Square in a language school and could literally travel anywhere in the world and teach English with his certificate.
“Pretty cool,” I thought. So after we settled into the hostel, I went in search of the language school he had talked about. I had a vision of myself travelling around South America teaching English. I enrolled in and completed an 8 week TEFL course that took place two nights a week at the school.
We stayed the maximum allowed in the hostel which was only two weeks and then had no choice but to leave and find another place to stay. I called my family in Ireland one day and spoke to my sister. She told me that she had spoke to one of our cousins and they said that their brother Padraic (my cousin) was living in San Francisco. It was probably 20 years since I had last seen Padraic. She had a number for me to call, which I immediately called. It turned out he was a painting contractor in San Francisco. After a quick surprise call to him, we hooked up for a few beers and the next day I was painting retail stores and houses in San Francisco. Thank God for that because I had run out of money and was thinking about packing up everything and just going home. The first job I worked on was a pretty cool fashion forward boutique called “Villians” on Haight Street. We painted it some cool funky green and purple colors. I used to spend most of my wages buying clothing in Haight Street. It used to have the coolest stores in San Francisco. Mind you, it still has some amazing vintage boutiques.
Then, we were painting some beautiful houses in the Marina district. It blew me away that these houses were owned by young tech millionaires in their early 20’s. I had arrived in San Francisco at the height of the dot com boom in 2000, which was a pretty crazy/interesting time to be in San Francisco. It’s actually very much what it’s like right now.
Also, it was extremely tough to get an apartment to rent, especially with no references and no deposit etc. So Des & I sniffed out another hostel in an area called “The Tenderloin.” To say the least, the hostel was ok but the area was a shit hole. It was crack head central. It was crazy. We had bums literally sleeping outside our front door and fights on the corner all night long. There was a sleazy strip joint next door to us too. Every night at about 3am a Chinese woman used to empty all the trash cans on the sidewalk in front of the hostel and dig through the trash for cans and bottles to turn in for cash. There was a lot of activity.
Our hostel was full of long term backpackers in transit, some guys had come to SF for a week and were still there three years later. I gotta admit, it was fun and a great place to get situated, meet people and get work. There was always something going on. There were guys and girls from all over the world. Most people were working in construction or bar work. There was a bar directly underneath the hostel called “Reds Corner” where a lot of backpackers used to hang out. I got a job bar tending two nights a week for a few weeks filling in for a guy who went back to Ireland for vacation. I’ll never forget it. At the time, people used to smoke in bars. They had some loophole. If it was owner operated, you could smoke etc…
One night, I was working with the manager, a hardcore New Yorker called Tommy. Tommy looked like he smoked 200 cigarettes a day and washed it down with a bottle of whisky. He had a face that was as rough as a badgers arse. I think Tommy grew up in the inner city Bronx and was mysteriously transplanted into the middle of the Tenderlion. All he knew was rough hardcore, no nonsense, carry a gun, knock you out type of shit.
I’ll never forget one night when we were working together I asked him, “What’s the craic like in here on a Friday?” He gave me a strange look and said “same as every fucken day.” (Craic in Irish terms means Fun/Good times) Then, the same night, I asked him could I smoke a fag behind the bar. O man, he didn't know what to make of my Irish chat. It was a real eye opener. We had all types of weirdos trying to come into the bar begging for money, trying to use the toilet, trying to steal jackets. Tommy would roar and shout and chase them out. Sometimes, he’d throw handfuls of ice at them. Some bums would knock on the window and abuse him. I used to have to hold myself back from bursting out laughing, as I don't think he would have appreciated it. He was well used to taking crap from bums. I was only there for a few weeks but I could now see why Tommy looked like he did. It was crazy. Entertaining for a few weeks but stressful if it was your full time job.
I wasn't much of a painter. My cousin would regularly lose the plot with me as he was quite the perfectionist when it came to painting. We’d argue like crazy during work and once work was over, all would be good. I gotta admit. I was in quite a hole and he helped me out, that’s for sure. Some days/weeks, he’d be waiting on another job to start and instead of saying “there’s no work today,” he’d pick me up and we’d drive around the whole day chatting. He’d show me different jobs he did or some fun places to go. And he’d still pay me. For that, I will always be grateful to Padraic.
Because he and I both knew painting wasn't my forte, I went on a mission to find a job in an Irish Bar. The word on the Street was you could make good tips if you were personable. That was something more up my alley. In my first few months in San Francisco, I experienced gratitude. Thankfulness that the Tenderloin “lifestyle” was a temporary one and gratefulness that I had many choices before me. I saw San Francisco as a motley crew of characters and I liked being part of it so far.
Till next time :)