I remember as a child watching the TV series, The Streets of San Francisco, with Karl Malden and Michael Douglas as police detectives. In it, cars racing up hills would glide through the air when they came to a crest, then crash to the ground before climbing the next unfeasibly steep section of street. Camera trickery, I thought. Not so much, I've discovered! The hills really are very steep.
No wonder they use cables to haul the trams up and down. I had thought the name "cable car" was a misnomer, by the way, as there are no apparent cables. They are actually below the street, connected to the car through a slit in the street surface between the rails, driven by electric motors in a central power house.
My first observation of the streets of the city was on the way from the train station to my hotel. I could have taken a ten-dollar taxi but I decided to walk so I could get a feel for the place. Market Street is appropriately named, lined with department stores and boutiques. The shortest route took me from there along Turk Street to Polk Street in the Tenderloin district. There was a dramatic change in atmosphere just around the corner from the chic shopping street. Turk Street is dirty and delapidated, and the corner shops have metal grills on the windows.
I happened to be there mid-morning, which is just as well; I would have felt very uneasy there at night. There were many people hanging around, in doorways or on corners, smoking and drinking. I'm not sure how many were drunk and how many stoned, but they all looked equally oblivious to me passing by, though I put my smartphone away just in case.
Later, I asked the hotel receptionist for suggestions for places to have lunch near the hotel. "Whatever you do," she said, "don't go down Turk Street!" That evening I decided not to walk home, so I got an Über. The driver advised me to put my camera in my pocket before I got out of the car. He dropped me at the door and watched until I was safely inside.
There is a surprising number of homeless people in the city. Down by Fisherman's Wharf almost every lamppost is manned by someone with a cardboard sign and a plastic cup; some in wheelchairs or on crutches, others with obvious mental health problems.
The contrast is sharp between the poor and the non-poor, not to mention the rich.