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On the Scene: City Scenes: San Francisco
Posted on Sunday, February 06, 2005 @ 05:31:44 UTC
Topic: Local

What can you say about the city on the bay that hasn't already been said? For decades, poets, filmmakers, musicians, and cultural aficionados from all walks of life have waxed philosophically and romantically about this gem of a city. So many people take inspiration from not only the breathtaking views the city has to offer, but also the warmth and depth of the locals. Some of the most cutting-edge artists unveil their work here, and it's the appreciation the cultural scene bestows on visionary work that makes the city such a unique place. There's not a nook or cranny that isn't inviting, accepting, and tolerant of the new, unexplored, and brazenly defiant. Upon entering the city limits, it's as if inhibitions are lifted and visitors are silently beckoned to share of themselves, as the city itself lays its own personality out like a red carpet for all to see. The music scene here is just as vital as its southern California neighboring cities - forsaking industry and "contacts" for the creative arts and human contact. The Bay Area witnessed the birth of psychedelic rock, where legendary promoter Bill Graham brought the uninhibited natures of artists like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin to national attention, sparking the rest of the country to check their inihibitions at the door, if only for a little while. What's so special about San Francisco? Pretty much everything.

By Heidi Drockelman

San Francisco Skyline

Web resources for those who like to plan:

Just the facts… did you know?

  • San Francisco is NOT the capital of California - it's Sacramento.
  • The focus of change - and growth - in Gold Rush California was the once-tiny hamlet of San Francisco. Only a few hundred people lived there in the 1840s, but the discovery of gold brought unimaginable growth. A plot of San Francisco real estate that cost $16 in 1847, sold for $45,000 just 18 months later. In less than two years the city burned to the ground six times. Nearly a half-billion dollars worth of gold passed through the city in the 1850s.
  • 49 Mile Scenic Drive: Blue-and-white seagull signs point the way for a half-day drive through the City's most scenic and historic points. The 49-mile drive is an excellent introduction to San Francisco as the route winds through almost every neighborhood and district. A free San Francisco Visitor Map, available from the San Francisco Visitor Information Center at Hallidie Plaza, details the drive.
  • The City's moving landmarks - cable cars - operate seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to midnight. Scottish wire cable manufacturer Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car in 1873 after witnessing an accident in which a horse-drawn carriage faltered and rolled backward down a steep hill, dragging the horses behind it. The cable cars are the only USA mobile National Monuments.
  • The "official" city songs are "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," written by Douglass Cross and George Cory and "San Francisco," written by Bronislaw Kaper and Walter Jurman, lyrics by Gus Kahn.
  • There are a staggering number films set in San Francisco. The short list includes: The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, The Birds, The Graduate, The Rock, So I Married An Axe Murderer, and hundreds of others.
  • And sourdough bread lasts forever: At the time of the San Francisco Gold Rush, French baker Isidore Boudin created a tart, tasty loaf of bread that had a distinctive crust and chewy, soft heart. 150 years later, his recipe lives on.
  • San Francisco Bay is considered the world's largest landlocked harbor.
  • During his engagement at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, Otis Redding stayed on a houseboat in Sausalito. While there he wrote his last song and greatest hit: "The Dock of the Bay."
  • "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." - Mark Twain
  • The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has enough steel wires in its cables to circle the earth at the equator 3.5 times and it's so big that workers paint the bridge year round. By the time they are finished with one end it is time to begin repainting the other end.

Golden Gate Bridge

This place rules! Best place to watch/play a gig:

The Fillmore Auditorium (1805 Geary Blvd., http://www.thefillmore.com/) - It's really difficult to even consider starting this category without mentioning the most famous and greatest room in the city. The legend of Bill Graham lives on as the Fillmore continues to host touring acts of all shapes, colors, and sounds, much like it did in the heyday of the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene. Just taking a moment to admire the psych rock posters in the foyer and grabbing an apple from the barrel will promptly put you in a nostalgic mood and get you into the true spirit of San Francisco.

Slim's (333 11th St., http://www.slims-sf.com/) - Once plagued by a deafeningly uneven mix of sound, no matter what band was playing, Slim's has taken a giant leap forward in the "rock til their ears bleed" category. Gone are the days of complaining about the noise that seemed to accompany every band on the stage - this midsize staple literally holds down the SF music scene. With an open floor plan it also makes it easy to find a great spot to hunker down and catch a great rock band in the making.

Bimbo's 365 Club (1025 Columbus Ave., http://www.bimbos365club.com/) - Upon entering the club, you are greeted in the foyer by an eye-popping, life-size figure of a naked woman sitting in a giant clamshell. Yes, anyone who's seen the Chris Isaak Show will already be familiar, but Bimbo's has been open since 1931, serving up every type of music imaginable and kicking up their heels in the process. There's a reason why this landmark venue still remains vital to the SF music scene - it's all about the music, and about putting on a great live show.

Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St., http://www.bottomofthehill.com/) - Being a reliably consistent local favorite eventually takes its toll on a great many venues, in cities all across the country. But Bottom of the Hill, despite the occasional sound mishap, manages to consistently fill the room (a sometimes tight, sweaty mishmash of flailing limbs and drinks) with knowledgeable and loyal music fans. As a rule, because of its location in a somewhat desolate area separated from downtown crowds, bands have to be ready to bring a following and rock the joint.

The Independent (628 Divisadero, http://www.theindependentsf.com/) - The Independent occupies a seemingly doomed space at 628 Divisadero - so many venues have come and gone, in fact, that it's commonplace to mention new owners and the locals won't be surprised. In its latest incarnation, however, backed by a consistent and edgy booking promoter, this venue is making a serious run at ending the turnover in the building. A killer sound system and intimate space (albeit larger than one might suspect) are propelling The Independent forward at light speed.

The Pound SF (100 Cargo Way, Pier 96, http://www.poundsf.com/) - Going to the Pound is like taking a trip to a remote, deserted, and invariably rustic punk heaven. While the location isn't desirable for public transportation or taxis, getting a parking spot is never impossibile as even sold-out shows have room for your vehicular needs. This understated rock bar has been consistent in bringing an impressive stream of punk, hard rock, and metal bands to the forefront since opening a few years ago. The big sound, big lights, and loud rock style could just make the Pound one of the best venues in the city.

Great American Music Hall (859 O'Farrell St., http://www.musichallsf.com/) - The Great American Music Hall first opened in 1907 as Blanco's, a French-inspired symbol of San Francisco's rebirth after the Great Earthquake. Since then, it has served as a swank dance club in the '30s (called Sally Rand's Music Box); a jazz club after World War II; and a Moose lodge during the '50s before falling into neglect. But today, music fans and locals call this venue one of their favorites - one look around at the walls and a taste of the historic atmosphere will make any of the eclectic performances here one to remember.

12 Galaxies (2565 Mission St., http://www.12galaxies.com/home.html) - Whether you're headed for music, or merely to "hipster-watch", 12 Galaxies provides an eclectic mix of indie arthouse rock and clientele to keep you entertained. It's a rather massive, polished space that's not only impressive on the eyes, but rarely disappoints on the ears as well.

Honorable Mentions:

Cafe Du Nord (2170 Market [at Sanchez], http://www.cafedunord.com/) - Placing Cafe Du Nord in this category feels something like sacrilege. And while this venue may have been a must-see, must-hear joint so many years ago, I feel justified in relaying that the excitement level and progressive tendencies slipped for a little while. With a relatively new owner, however, Cafe Du Nord is steadily regaining its stature as a place to see inspired booking and an eclectic lineup of creative and stimulating artists. It is an institution, and while everyone experiences growing pains and complacency from time to time, it's great to see and hear this venue taking back its rightful place in the music scene.

Last Day Saloon (406 Clement St., http://www.lastdaysaloon.com/) - Take a bored carpenter, mix in the desire to open up a bar, and what do you get? One of the friendliest bars in the city, and let's face it, if you've been hipster-dodging, then you're going to feel more at home here. Because there's pool, dartboards, foosball, and television, it's sometimes difficult to drag yourself up to the club area, but when you do, you'll realize that Last Day hosts some of the best music in the city.

Hemlock Tavern (1131 Polk [at Post], http://www.hemlocktavern.com/) - To say this venue is intimate could be considered an overstatement. The bar area is ample enough, but once you step in the back room to catch the band for the night, you'll feel like an 18th century female locked in a corset. Combine that with the sometimes strange sounds emanating from the stage (avant-anything goes here), and you might be in for a head trip you weren't expecting. If you're claustrophobic, or even mildly freaked out about touching everyone in the room at once, stick to the front bar.

Mezzanine (444 Jessie [at Mint], http://www.mezzaninesf.com/) - Can't we all just get along? This is the question that the promoters ask themselves every night at Mezzanine. There is an electro-funk-punk, breakbeat-lovin' garage rock, hip-hop vibe going on here that is schizoid, sure, but in the lovable way. DJs spin, rock bands thrash to the beat, and Mezzanine smirks as it, indeed, finds a way to bring the entire music community together on any given night.

Cherry Bar and Lounge (917 Folsom St., http://www.thecherrybar.com/) - A former punk rock and metal bastion, the Cherry Bar is aptly named for its lovely shocking red paint job. The venue's divided into three rooms - a bar, a clubby dance room, and a lounge area to sit, hang out, and enjoy the many indie bands that run through the joint.

Paradise Lounge (1501 Folsom St., http://www.paradiselounge.com/) - The Paradise Lounge is the club to come to when you just can't make up your mind, or you have a particularly difficult time pleasing everyone's musical tastes. The lounge is separated into four distinct areas - a main room for the headliner of the evening, usually a rocker of some nature, and then spaces for pool, spoken word/acoustic performances, and a traditional wooded bar area. If this isn't enough, there's always Slim's and the Cherry Bar down the street.

Rickshaw Stop (155 Fell St., http://www.rickshawstop.com/) - With a name like this one suggests, you'd expect a theme. Or at least someone waiting with a rickshaw to take you home after you're done for the night. Alas, the Rickshaw is simply a relatively new club that is still coming into its own and finding its audience. But one thing this place has going for it is simplicity, cheap beers, and an interesting comingling of downtown professionals and Goth kids gone bad. This one gets a vote based on its potential.

Golden Gate Bridge

For the gearheads (and those who stole their equipment on the road):

Sam Adato's Drum Shop (283 Ninth St. [at Folsom]) - This one's for all you drummers out there... Sam Adato simply knows what he's doing, and has the stock to prove it. Every drummer (or would-be beginner, he sells beginner sets as well) knows that choosing skins with character invigorates the sound quality of any set. You'll be able to find what you need here - and Sam's willing to let you set up in the shop and rock out to find the perfect match.

Haight Ashbury Music Center (1540 Haight, http://www.haight-ashbury-music.com/) - Open since 1972, this Haight staple provides some of the best quality instruments in the area along with the best pricing. If they don't have what you're looking for, of course they'll special order, but what gives their staff the big nod of approval is that they'll call all the area stores if you're in an emergency and throw your business their way in a pinch. Now that's dedication to the music scene. And that's why they rule.

Clarion Music Center (816 Sacramento St., http://www.clarionmusic.com/) - What is it about weird percussion instruments that captures my attention? While this shop specializes in the percussion instruments of Asia, you can no doubt pick up a nifty and unique addition to make your drummer happy (or jealous - "more cowbell!") and learn a little bit in the process. Besides, they have a huge selection of gongs, drums, bells, and blocks, along with Indian tabla drums, African gankoqui, and Alphorns... oh my!

Guitar Center (1321 Mission St., http://www.guitarcenter.com/) - Another city, another Guitar Center. But we're all in this boat together, eh? The fine folks at Guitar Center will most likely have what you need if you're in search of replacement parts, etc. A specialty shop it is not, but providing the mainframe of any band is what they do best.

Hey DJ! Spin this! Record Stores for the hardcore:

Amoeba Music (1855 Haight [at Stanyan], http://www.amoebamusic.com/) - Amoeba Music is the record store that people know about even if they've never been to San Francisco, or stepped foot in the United States. Their reputation of carrying everything worth having, and then some, plus their encyclopedic staff, precedes them. But here's something that mostly locals know - underneath all the glittery new releases, in bins that hold all the indie rock credibility you need to know and own, are the $1 records. Just start picking up handfuls of these classics instead of dropping $15 for one record. Thank me later.

Open Mind Music (342 Divisadero, http://www.openmindmusic.com/) - Down the hill from Haight, there's a store that will send vinyl lovers and collectors over their collective edge of reason. Tucked away in plastic sleeves, organized with great care, rock staples and rave records comingle with jazz legends. Turntables are provided, should you wish to preview your purchase, and a handpicked collection of 12-inches are available when you're looking for something off the beaten path.

Tweekin Records (593 Haight [at Steiner]), http://www.tweekin.com/) - There are record stores that support the local music scene, and then there is Tweekin and its owner Darren Davis. Not only does Davis release singles for the best up-and-coming house music artists in the city, but his employees regular spin at all the clubs and possess a mind-boggling amount of knowledge when it comes to dance music in all its forms. Because sometimes you just need to dance, dance, dance to ease your troubles, Tweekin is there for you.

Rooky Ricardo's (448 Haight [at Fillmore], http://www.rookyricardosrecords.com/) - Co-owners Richard Vivian and Jerry Thompson could be snooty-falooty vinyl collectors that definitely know more than you do. Mercifully, they use their powers for good. And their unparalleled collection of/shrine to 45s and generous attitudes make this record store an experience worth taking every damn day. They of course boast some unbelievable collectibles, but the easy-on-the-wallet prices make Rooky's an easy 3-hour afternoon delight.

Record Collector (3170 21st St. [at Mission]) - No CDs, no tapes, no 8-tracks, just vinyl. Appalling customer service from an extremely snobby staff that ignores you and your ridiculous questions, makes having a conversation something like getting the Royal Guard at the Crown Gates in London to speak to you seem easy. It's the classic record store scenario, people, and it seriously gives the boys in High Fidelity a run for their money.

Street Light Records (2350 Market St. & 3979 24th St., http://www.streetlightrecords.com/) - Two San Francisco locations make this mini-chain a great place for bargain hunters in the city. The sellback bins are some of the highest quality, and best-priced, in the area and their indie roots are showing as soon as you walk in the door. A great place to buy new releases and old staples, you can't miss at either location.

Zebra Records (475 Haight) - Because San Francisco is a city of nightclubs, it only makes sense that there are more DJ stores than you can shake a stick at. But Zebra is a Haight local store of choice for supplies. The walls are covered in vinyl, there are plenty of record cases, and a dizzying selection of DJ mixes and hard core hip hip. But another thing makes this store unique - the downstairs hosts monthly DJ battles, with some of San Francisco's best up-and-coming DJs squaring off.

Cable Car

Bizarre/Quirky landmarks:

Musee Mecanique (Pier 45 at the end of Taylor St., Fisherman's Wharf, http://www.museemechanique.org/) - Any kind of attraction this is free and open every day of the year is certainly worthy of mention. But what's unique about this tourist and local-friendly landmark is the howl of the museum's mascot, a giant animatronic hillbilly with a rollicking sense of humor that goes by the name of Laughing Sal. Take plenty of quarters and dollars to partake of the strength testers, the psychic Royal typewriter, and numerous other gizmos. To avoid loads of tourists, go during the weekdays and while it's raining.

Camera Obscura (1096 Point Lobos Ave.) - Once you're inside this small chamber and your eyes adjust, gaze into the center of the room. You'll see a parabolic dish reflecting external images transmitted through double convex lenses hidden in the ceiling 12 feet above. The scenes on the dish are moving (literally and figuratively) in a 360-degree nonstop rotation, revealing live events from outside. It's really quite riveting, and while I wouldn't condone the use of any "mood enhancers", let's just say this could be quite the experience for you.

Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia (214 California Dr., Burlingame, http://www.burlingamepezmuseum.com/) - It will probably not surprise you to learn that this is the only museum in the world devoted to Pez - yes, the candy. The real attraction is the unbelievable collection of dispensers and the lovably bizarre nature of the museum itself. It's expanded to include more classic toys as well, if Pez isn't your thing. But don't make the drive on Sunday or Monday, they're closed.

Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center (2301 Hardies Ln., Santa Rosa, http://www.schulzmuseum.org/) - Santa Rosa's Charles M. Schulz Museum is a memorial to 'Peanuts,' the cartoon strip created and drawn by Schulz from the 1950s until his death in 2000. It's as if Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, and Charlie Brown have come alive to accompany each guest on a laugh-filled tour through the hundreds of displays, cartoon panels, and exhibits. Most of us grew up with this cartoon, and seeing the memorial can be a welcome trip down memory lane. The museum is about an hour north of San Francisco/Golden Gate Bridge.

Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Telegraph Hill/Coit Tower) - You're trekking up a long, steep hill full of greenery. You get to the top, and as you're admiring the scenery, you see a flash of green and hear a fluttering of wings. Look up and you see a flock of wild parrots settling into the trees above you. You either (a) have a good laugh and gawk at the strange sight of wild parrots in San Francisco or (b) have a Tippi Hedren moment and run back screaming into the city. Either way, it's a good time.

SF Cable Car Museum (1201 Mason St., http://www.cablecarmuseum.org/) - It may seem hard to believe, but at one time the city of San Francisco wanted to rip out the cable cars and put in buses. The best part of the museum is a walkway under the streets that allows you to view the working cable, which runs continuously under the three cable-car lines at exactly 9.5 miles per hour.



Alcatraz Island (Pier 41, http://www.nps.gov/alcatraz/) - I'm a sucker for penitentiaries. Twisted, but Alcatraz is a must-visit while you're in the big SF. From 1934 to 1963, being here was far from child's play for inmates who were jailed in the federal pen - among them felons Al Capone and "Machine Gun" Kelly. Alcatraz was famous for making escape impossible, and the Rock housed criminals for whom there was no hope of rehabilitation. Take the tour with a park ranger (but don't expect the hilarious Phil Hartman cameo in "So I Married An Axe Murderer") or opt for the self-guided tour, which is nothing short of riveting. You may need to book in advance for your trip to The Rock.

Lombard Street (Lombard and Hyde Streets) - It's the world's crookedest street. So, what's the big deal, right? Well, by making the trek on foot (tip: start at the top and walk down, you will be glad you read this first), you get one of the most spectacular views of the city. Make it by car and there's a good chance it'll stall and incite loads of road rage with the locals. Either way, it's a unique experience in a "less than straight" city. Another tip: avoid driving up nearby Filbert Street, one of the steepest in the city, especially if you have a stick shift. Just file that under: lesson learned.

Wine Country (Napa and Sonoma Counties, http://www.winecountry.com/) - The hundreds of vineyards that dot the Napa, Sonoma and Russian River valleys north of San Francisco make for a great daytrip. For the simple life, pack a picnic and buy a bottle of wine at a vineyard, where you can spread out on the grounds. Napa tends to be more touristy and its wineries often charge tasting fees, whereas Sonoma is more quiet, relaxed, and fee-free. Smaller wineries are generally less crowded and weekdays are even better than the weekends. Not only is the wine top-notch, but the scenery and drive are beautiful.

The Tech Museum of Innovation (201 S. Market St. , http://www.thetech.org/) - The Tech Museum of Innovation houses more than 240 interactive exhibits, programs, and activities to choose from. At the Life Tech gallery, peruse the Virtual Operating Room, or study DNA samples to determine whodunit at the Scene of the Crime exhibit. On the lower level you'll find the Exploration gallery, featuring the Jet Pack Simulator ride and Hubble telescope photos. At the Communications Digital Studio, you can star in your own multimedia production. This is an ultra-cool, and truly fun pitstop while you're in SF. Take advantage of the website's interactive features to help you plan your trip into Tech.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (151 3rd St., http://www.sfmoma.org/) - A collection of some 5,600 paintings, drawings, and sculptures, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, Calder, and other masters. Possibly the most important is the Djerassi collection of roughly 140 works spanning Paul Klee's entire career. The highlight, however, is the 20th-century photography exhibit, a 9,000-work collection considered one of the best in the world. A visit here isn't only inspiring, it's exhilarating.

Golden Gate Park (Between Fulton Street and Lincoln Way, Stanyan Street and Great Highway, http://parks.sfgov.org/site/recpark_index.asp) - A three-mile rectangle of green that runs from the upper Haight all the way to the beach, Golden Gate is one of the best urban parks in America. There's an aquarium, planetarium, a herd of living buffalo, outdoor concerts, waterfalls, a Japanese tea garden, an arboretum and botanical gardens, an AIDS memorial grove, hiking and biking trails, lakes, a carousel, a golf course, two windmills, sculptures of everyone from Beethoven to Buddha, about a zillion more things to do, and a stretch of California's famous 49-mile drive.

Lombard Street

Get your grub on! Pleasing your palate:

Tommy's Joynt (1101 Geary Blvd., http://www.tommysjoynt.com/) - Tommy's is kind of hard to miss, unless you're bordering on legally blind. And even then, it's still a toss-up. The garishly painted exterior is just one of the many reasons to love it. Let's put it this way - if you can't find it, I can't help you. It's lovingly described as a hofbrau-saloon because the staples here are simple: meat and beer. And these two food groups rarely come together in perfect harmony as they do at Tommy's. Great beer, great meat, and ridiculously low prices.

Chow (215 Church St.) - You could probably take a straw poll on the sidewalk and a large number of locals would tell you that they love Chow. Sure, it looks and feels deceptively like a regular cafe (pizza, salads, sandwiches) - but further inspection of the menu will reveal oodles of international noodles, weird sounding and great tasting dishes, and an average entree price under $10. For a diverse and savory menu, there's just no comparison.

Red's Java House (Pier 30-32 at Bryant) - This is dockside eatin' like no other. There's nothing particularly over-the-top and no exquisite cuisine awaits you here. But this shack (yes, it really is a shack) under the Bay Bridge has been serving dockworkers since 1956, with a friendly attitude and a solid menu. Breakfast or lunch is the time to come here, so snag some coffee and take your food outside for a great view of the Bay at midday.

Dolores Park Cafe (501 Dolores St.) - Perched at one of the best spots in the city on the edge of Dolores Park, there is no shortage of food for the eyes, ears, or stomach. The sandwiches, salads, soups, sweet cakes, and large coffee and juice menus will hit the spot when you're spending a day seeing and being seen out on the town. On the first Friday of each month, catch San Francisco Songs, a free series showcasing Bay Area solo singer-songwriters.

Dottie's True Blue Cafe (522 Jones St.) - This is probably one of the best-kept (sorta) secrets in the city. As evidenced by the long lines of locals that snake down Jones Street to get into Dottie's around breakfast time. The menu is slightly quirky, but Dottie's bakes its own scones, pastries, breads and muffins (and some killer cornmeal pancakes) and serves up coffee with the best of them. Don't be discouraged by the slightly squalid surroundings in the neighborhood, Dottie's has breakfast that is not to be missed.

Chava's Mexican Restaurant (2839 Mission St.) - I'm a sucker for a great Mexican place, and I've been known to seek them out as part of my travels. What we have at Chava's is not your average run-of-the-mill foil-wrapped burrito barn. The caldo soup, chilaquiles, and a little hair of the dog make Chava's a morning-after hangover mainstay. Drop in for a beer and menudo (no, not the cover band crooning the teen pop classics - it's actually tripe soup) or go to town at the Sunday brunch.

El Farolito (2777 Mission St.) - Cozily ensconced in the Mission area, this late-night pit stop (food until 3am) will keep you buzzing into the wee morning hours. Carne asada burritos here are awesome, as is the quesadilla suiza. You shouldn't have much trouble finding the place - just follow a group of clubbers down the street and they'll take you right to the line. Come here for the floor show, though, as Farolito's at 2:45am provides one of the most interesting cross-sections of San Franciscans that you'll ever see.

Cafe Cole (609 Cole St.) - There's a little coffee dive that sits in the Haight, consistently pouring out some of the best java to a line of regulars day in-day out. In fact, Cafe Cole is so tiny that you might notice the line before you notice the shop itself. And to miss the interior decor of this great coffeehouse would be a cryin' shame. I would consider Cafe Cole the anti-Starbucks, because really, I would prefer to look at assorted snapshots and large-scale paintings of animals dressed in suits than step foot in a chain anyday.

San Franciscans! If you have a favorite hangout or rants about what's included, let us and all other touring and local musicians know about it! Post your comments below and let others know where to go!

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