We’ve just returned from a trip from Budapest to Vienna, through the Wachau Valley and eventually to Nuremberg. I saw several lovely towns and beautiful cities, magnificent palaces and churches, had great food and heard good music.
But you know what sticks in my mind?
On a long evening bus ride from Budapest towards Austria, the dullest part of the trip as far my traveling companions were concerned, I saw a little village rising up out of the mist. It was a factory town, or a mill town, I have no idea what it was called, but it was wreathed in the foggy, misty weather, and in the steam, or maybe smoke, coming from the industrial buildings along the river. I could see the church, and the houses, looming on the hills above the riverbanks through the opaque steamy air, as if the town was materializing before my eyes in just that very second.
And not too long after that, we passed an oil refinery. A HUGE oil refinery, possibly bigger than my little village, every building and structure alight from the ground all the way to the top, all interconnected. It reminded me of Ridley Scott’s vision of future Los Angeles, perpetually midnight, in Bladerunner. Even after seeing Vienna, and Melk, and Nuremberg, I still remember that anonymous town, that oil refinery.
Funny how the mind works.
When I was little, my family lived across the Bay from San Francisco. I remember a lot of trips back and forth to SFO, to pick up my grandmother, or my aunts and uncles and cousins, who all emigrated here to the States about that time. And of course, whenever friends or family came to visit California, we always had to drive them out to the City, to see Chinatown and Golden Gate Park, or to drive down crooked Lombard Street.
So what was the symbol of San Francisco to my five or ten year old self? The Bay Bridge? The Golden Gate? The Trans-America Building, Coit Tower? Nope.
It was the Union 76 clock tower.
The clock tower stood just where I-80 comes off the Bay Bridge and turns into an elevated highway through San Francisco, before merging into Highway 101. The highway was at a level about halfway up the tower, which had three faces, each one with a digital clock and the Union 76 logo; one of the faces faced the highway. It seemed so close that I always felt that if I opened the window, I could reach out and touch the clock, as we passed. Seeing the clock tower was a significant point in that journey; it meant that we were officially in San Francisco.
According to this site, the original (rectangular) tower was built in 1940. The triangular tower replaced it in 1954. The tower had the Union 76 logo from 1940 until about the time I moved back to San Francisco, in 1996, when Bank of America bought the building and replaced the signage with their own. It was never the same. The clock tower was demolished in 2005 to make way for the Rincon Hill tower, the tallest residential-only building west of Chicago.
Today, I cross the Bay Bridge from the East Bay back to the City at least once or twice, every week. Rincon Tower is way, way taller than the Union 76 clock, with a much larger footprint. It must be even closer to the highway. But it means nothing. Maybe it’s because I’m older, maybe it’s because I live here now and the City has lost much of the mystique it had for me as a child. Sometimes, when I drive past, I feel a voyeuristic urge to peek in the windows of the people who live there, but most of the time, I hardly notice it.
As I write this now, I’m trying to think what landmark, today, mentally puts me officially in San Francisco; I think it’s the Howard Street offramp (which is pretty much right where Rincon is). How boring.
But at least the Coke sign is still there.