‘Where’s the nearest gun store?’ – a postcard from San Francisco

I stopped off in San Francisco (SF) for a day and a half while the girls went to LA. Given the power of ‘big tech’, you could argue that SF is the most influential city in the world, perhaps alongside New York, and I wanted to soak some of that innovation up.

First impressions

The functionality is impressive – you walk from the airport terminal onto a train and 20 minutes later you are in downtown SF, the heart of the city for both business people and tourists. The only drawback was the fog – or is it smog or is it smoke? After 3 weeks in the hinterland of the Canadian forest fires I’m at home in low visibility situations. During my last visit to SF you could not see the Golden Gate bridge for days and this looks to be the same.

The hotel, or is it a zoo

I’d booked the sort of corporate, dull and pratical hotel that I hate, which is a sign of middle age. We got through 90 days of our trip while staying in only one boring international hotel (Sofitel in Rio in Brazil) yet the Marriott was a) in the right location, b) reliable. I didn’t want an AirBnB ‘surprise’ – we’ve done that – and I was willing to pay for average quality, which is what the Marriott offers. You walk in and it is chaos – think Grand Central station at commuter o’clock. The receptionist tells me there are 1500 rooms. I ask if this is the biggest Marriott and she says, “What, in San Francisco?”. Er, no.

The hotel is a very modern mix of the old and the new. Our trip has shown that many hotel owners fail to refurbish their assets and the Marriott is one of them. The lobby is stylish but the carpets upstairs resemble a Jackson Pollock done by a 5 year old. The modern slant is the ‘proposition’ to guests and there is some sharp thinking. Choose not to have your room cleaned and you get $5 to spend on food in the hotel; there is no minibar; there is no internal room service but you order in from a variety of SF restaurants; you can buy the toiletries they hotel uses; the gym is enormous and the kind of statement which hotel bars used to be.

In short, the Marriott has changed its services with the times, even if the carpets remain from Jimmy Carter’s era.

An evening with the American Buy to Let crowd

With my property hat on I go to an event for residential landlords. The gathering is illustrative of America. These are entrepreneurs trying to better themselves, trying to take risks and provide for their kids and retirement. The older people seem to be first generation immigrants – strong accents and I imagine little family money to fall back on. The younger attendees are white collar professionals keen to develop a ‘side hustle’, eg. they expect property to deliver passive income. They are all irritated at being priced out of San Francisco and hence the discussion was how to buy property in New Mexico or Ohio and across America. They talked dismissively of 5% yields but anyone buying in the South East of England will fare no better.

There are various talks and when a deal is put on the table it is like feeding time at the zoo. The offer: to be part of a syndicate buying an apartment complex with 34 units in Cleveland. Price: $1 million. Rent roll: $20,000 a month. The speaker wanted three people to pitch in $75K and the whole room lit up with educated and sharp questions. The buyers would form a company and hold the property for five years. The pitch was a classic (‘We’ve only got space for 2 or 3 more investors’) and good luck to all involved.

The talker describes building portfolios of ’15 or 20 properties’ but I get the feeling this crowd are closer to the start of their investing journey.

Social inequality like no other

You walk past famous tech company offices and the SF banks and all the time homeless and destitute, if not desperate, people surround you. Some lie on the pavement, many are clothed in dirty duvets, most have a 1000 yard stare. Perhaps the city is a benevolent home for them, or perhaps the local working population and given up trying to help. Either way, for the visitor the contrast in wealth is shocking.

I am early for a meeting at 9am and so I wait on the street for 10 minutes, leaning against a cafe wall. This is a perfectly respectable street in Downtown, it could be Soho or Holborn. A large man approaches, he looks unhappy. “Isn’t there a gun store here?” he asks. I don’t know I say, I’m a tourist. “Where is the nearest gun store?” he says, but I cannot help him.

Two minutes later, a naked woman approaches with only a duvet around her as clothing. She looks desperate with bare feet and wide eyes. She wants a light for her half cigarette but I cannot help either. This is a bizarre city.

All the data scientists

I head to a free lecture on ‘data for good’ which is an on-trend phrase for the various organisations trying to use data analysis skills to help not-for-profits to become more effective. It is Friday lunchtime and this room of 250 seats is packed to the rafters. Do students here have a lot of free time, or is this illustrative of a generation focused on something bigger than themselves? I don’t know and we learn that most charities do not have enough data to analyse in the first place. The speaker works at Google Brain (an in-house team of artificial intelligence researchers) and runs a charity on the side which matches data science volunteers with charities. She is a very modern role model and the room laps up every word.

Home time.

Airports can be claustrophobic and I am reassured that yoga addicts have an outlet in such a closed environment – do the smokers feel hard done by?

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