A group of American middle-school students are sent to San Francisco to learn about the atomic collider at Stanford University. After completing their academic necessities, the kids are let loose on the town. For most of them it is their first time alone in a big city.

Fisherman’s Wharf and a bucket of guts

“I’m pretty sure a tip is supposed to be twenty percent,” I said.

“Alright, then what’s twenty percent of two-hundred and ten?” Someone asked. The dozen young faces around the table stared blankly. As we were all visiting San Francisco representing the best and brightest that our middle-school had to offer, this should not have been such a confounding equation, but we were all just twelve or thirteen years old, out on our own in a major city for the first time, and none of us had ever participated in a two-hundred dollar meal.

We’d been in California for about a week at that point. Our primary objective had been completed a couple of days earlier when we visited Stanford University’s atomic accelerator. While the tour had been exciting — I had never seen a college campus — the lecture that followed had put me soundly to sleep. I may have been one of the top literary students at my school, but a future scientist I was not.

For the next two days the thirty of us were shuttled around to a variety of educational sites, then came exciting news from our two adult chaperones: We were ahead of schedule and would have a full day for unsupervised recreation in the city. The key word to us was ‘unsupervised’. As a bunch of fairly nerdy, bookwormish kids, the idea of wandering around San Francisco without restraint seemed utterly fantastic. Better yet, most of us still had a decent supply of cash as the majority of our needs were provided by the University and various tour companies. The only rule we were given was that those of us without mobile phones (it was 1997, so most of us fell into this category) had to be with someone who did. A group of a dozen of us or so decided that we would stick together.

We were dropped on what seemed to be an arbitrary corner and had no idea where to go or what to do, so we wandered aimlessly for a while and looked up at the buildings and statues and acted in general like a bunch of foolish children. Eventually someone mentioned that they had heard Fisherman’s Wharf was an exciting place, so after much walking in the wrong direction and asking of passersby for assistance, we ended up strolling along its wooden expanse.

It being a Saturday, the pier was packed. We wove our way through the crowds all the while doing our best not to lose anyone from our party. We went into a store that was filled with silly hats. There was an arcade that provided a plethora of explosions and flashing lights. We watched jugglers and walked through the souvenir shops and perused the oddities at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum. Perhaps the highlight for me was this sort of amusement ride where you were strapped into a seat in this dark spaceship-looking contraption, then attacked by an alien. It breathed on the back of your neck and darted through the room and made everyone scream with terror and delight. Thinking back, it was good to be young and to be able to fear such things.

Eventually hunger began to set in, and we began to wander the boards of the pier in search of food. Then we saw it – Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. As youthful fans of the film Forrest Gump and undiscerning teenagers who didn’t know that, when visiting a new place, one should seek authentic and local flavours instead of ever electing to eat at a chain restaurant, this was unanimously agreed upon. So we went in and most likely terrified the staff at the concept of having to serve one dozen adultless teenagers.

As far as I remember it was fairly decent food. I ordered something called a ‘Bucket of Guts’ that contained fries and seemingly a bit of every creature that had ever swum beneath the sea. We ordered a number of virgin daiquiris (which I’m sure made us feel very fancy) and appetizers and desert, and essentially went about what we in America call going ‘hog-wild’. So when we were brought our check, it did not cross our minds that it was so large only because there were so many of us eating, and we unthinkingly assumed that we must have ordered too much food.

For a while we considered pulling a dine-and-dash, but as that could have resulted in someone becoming separated and therefore potentially gone forever, it was quickly shot down. Finally somebody (who probably did well in math class, once again: I was a nerd over books and not numbers) looked at the bill and said, “Wait guys, this really isn’t that much. It’s only something like fifteen dollars per person.” We sighed with relief and settled up, deciding to leave what was more like a forty percent tip, mostly out of ignorance, conscience, and a desire to get the hell out of there.

We made our way off of the boardwalk, through the street performers, past the silly hat shop, and back onto cement ground. At that point we found a place to sit by the water and watch the boats and talk about our futures. Eventually it was time to meet up with the rest of our group. We called in and told the chaperone where we could be picked up, and pretty soon we were on the bus.

As the bus carried us back to our motel we all exchanged stories about our day in the city and all felt very grown up. During all of this, a secretive plan pertaining to how we would spend our last evening in town was formulated and quietly circulated. We arrived at the motel, and as the chaperones settled into the chaise lounges they’d placed strategically where they could make sure that we all stayed put, the boys retired to our rooms on the lower floor and the girls went to their rooms above ours on the second.

Eventually we heard three stomps from the room above us and went to the bathroom window that looked out from the rear of our room. The girls directly above had tied together their bed-sheets then attached them to a bedpost. My roommates and I went to the other bathroom windows and notified the rest of the boys, who climbed out silently. Then, one after another, we made our way up the knotted sheets. Once there we stayed up for most of the night, many of us paired together doing things that made us feel exceedingly grown up indeed. When we were all discovered in the morning, no one cared. The trip was over anyhow.

Have you wandered the boardwalk at Fisherman’s Wharf? Or do you have any recommendations for others who are traveling through San Francisco? Share them with us below. We could all use a nudge in the right direction.


  1. Mark Alba says

    I’ve been to San Franciso a couple of times for various tradeshows but never ended up at Fishermans Wharf. Or even Alcatraz which should be on any history buffs short list. It was in San Francisco where I saw my first Segway. Now you can go on a tour of the San Francisco on a Segway which sounds almost as much fun as the cable cars.

    That does sound like a blast for a school trip. Did you end up at the Exploratorium? Was it even built by then?


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