A Tiny Park With a Big Story

Author photo

You can easily walk by it and never notice. But if you look up into the six eucalyptus trees planted more than a century ago by namesake Mary Ellen Pleasant, you might want to look down at the plaque that marks San Francisco’s smallest park. Worth a walk-by if you’re ever in the city.

Mary Ellen Pleasant Park (at 1501–1699 Octavia Street) comprises, in total, six giant eucalyptus trees and a concrete plaque adjacent to the sidewalk — all of which measures less than an acre. Nevertheless, the small green space still offers the best of park qualities: quiet shade, vistas (if you look up,) and a unique piece of San Francisco history. The park is a small stretch along Octavia Street between Bush and Sutter.

Its namesake, though, has an outsized story.

Author photo

Ms. Pleasant’s mansion no longer graces the property, but her spirit remains. It’s a spirit of freedom and entrepreneurship, enduring questions — her story is a mixture of legend and fact — and the remarkable effect of one woman on her time.

Born in Georgia in 1814 — most likely into slavery — Mary Ellen Pleasant had her way to Boston and/or Rhode Island before her adulthood. Over several decades there she married an abolitionist and several subsequent others.

She worked tirelessly with the underground railroad. And by the time the hazards of that activity prompted her to come to San Francisco, sometime around 1850, Pleasant was an accomplished cook and housekeeper, and those were for many years either official or unofficial employments. But her first husband had left her a substantial sum of money and she was, meanwhile, investing shrewdly and increasing her wealth through businesses — laundries, restaurants, brothels, boarding houses — and reinvestments.

Pleasant established black schools, fought for rights for blacks as well as Chinese, brought the underground railroad westward, became a behind-the-scenes political powerhouse and a friend of John Brown, established the 1,000-acre Beltrane Ranch in Sonoma County, co-founded (possibly) the Bank of California and earned the title of California’s first Self-Made Black Woman Millionaire. She left the mansion (replaced later by what is now the Healing Arts Building) for a six-room apartment on Webster Street which would be her home until she died in 1904.

A large legacy for a tiny piece of San Francisco.

The Angry Woman’s Dilemma for Today

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I am known as a mild-mannered, peace-loving person. Maybe twice a year I lose my temper.

But I’m having trouble with anger management today. I don’t want to ride New York subways with a lot of nutty people packing guns. I don’t want to return to the dark days of the kitchen table abortion I had in 1956. I’m worried about climate change obliterating the planet.

In short, every time I hear those words Supreme Court my blood pressure rises.

I may reread Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Traister says that angry women aren’t necessarily crazy. She maintains that women’s fury at injustice has been a powerful force in U.S. politics and culture. That we madwomen have brought about progress and change.

So I’m working on the management angle. Stay tuned.

Life Without Nukes? Lovely Idea

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A safe and secure future? Imagine.

At “Chain Reaction,” the recent annual fundraiser/celebration of Ploughshares Fund, supporters were doing just that. Ploughshares President Dr. Emma Belcher and Board Chair Terry Gamble Boyer were on hand, along with a variety of global experts ranging from Massachusetts Sen Ed Markey to former Ambassador Fiona Hill, all talking about lowering the threat level.

With hostility among nuclear-armed states currently close to the boiling point, assurance of a safe and secure future for everyone may seem a far-off goal. The five major “Nuclear Weapon” countries – U.S., Russia, U.K., France and China – have enough such weapons among them to blow the planet to smithereens at least a dozen times, with plenty remaining. Plenty of bombs, that is, not planets.

But Ploughshares is working diligently to keep that from happening. If Ploughshares reaches its goal – assurance of a safe and secure future for us all – the nuclear threat will disappear. That might be an impossibility, but you’ve got to love Ploughshares for trying. HARD.

Yours truly with Emma Belcher (l) & Terry Gamble Boyer

More than 40 years ago, sculptor, human rights activist, mother & wife  Sally Lilienthal  gathered a few friends in her San Francisco living room to talk about what could be done to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons here and abroad. This was the year (1981) when Ronald Reagan unveiled a “strategic modernization program” which called for – among other things nuclear – thousands of new warheads, an increase in bomber forces including development of stealth bombers, a new land-based strategic missile (the MX), and new intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. In addition, he proposed deploying more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles on bombers.

Thanks in large part to Ploughshares partners, along with other calmer heads, stockpiles of nuclear weapons have been declining fairly steadily since those hyper-fearful days. According to Wikipedia, the U.S. stockpile, for instance, has gone from 23,368 in 1980 to a projected 3,620 this year, and Russia – the most highly armed – from 30,062 in 1980 to a projected 5,350 this year. When you consider we started all this with two bombs in 1945, and by 1950 it was U.S,= 299; Russia=5, it’s easy – and more than a little scary – to see that statistic zoom up to the 60,000+ peak of weapons held by multiple countries in 1985.

Any of us could still blow all of us to bits in short order. Maybe diplomacy makes more sense. Ploughshares supporters hope so.

A Whodunit Answer to Today’s Woes

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Sometimes books are the only answer. This reporter, whiplashed by the daily news – as aren’t we all – regularly escapes into a book. Most recently as outlined below:

Mrs. Stone wants her husband found – and Dietrich Shanahan, known to his friends as Deets, is the man she’s picked to find him. An aging, down-on-his-luck P.I., Deets finally takes on the search for the rich and prominent Mr. Stone. With a little help from Casey the dog and no help at all from Einstein the cat – Shanahan’s total, faithful staff – Deets will solve this one to everyone’s ultimate satisfaction.

But not without running into a few corpses, a little intrigue involving good cops v bad cops, excursions into both the high life and the dark underbelly of the city, a kidnapping and more. And, bonus for Shanahan fans, a little romance. Enter Maureen, whom Deets met at the massage parlor and who decides to move in and liven up his life.

Tierney, early 2000s (Author photo)

Ron Tierney’s The Stone Veil introduced Deets to the mystery-loving world in 1990, after it won a PWA/St.Martin’s prize. It would be followed by ten more Deets Shanahan mysteries published between 1990 and 2015, all set in Tierney’s hometown of Indianapolis, and each a delight.

In his relatively short life (he died of a brain tumor at 72, in 2017) writer Ronald Tierney published one other mystery/crime series set in his adopted hometown of San Francisco, and several other novels. But in this one reader’s opinion, the Deets Shanahan series tops them all.

Because my late husband gave Ron Tierney early encouragement and support, every new book immediately appeared at my house (usually after an invitation to dinner) properly inscribed. This reporter, never having been much of a mystery reader, quickly became a Deets Shanahan fan. And having devoured the series 20+ years ago with joy, I recently picked up The Stone Veil and started over. Somewhat like the advantage of dementia being you can hide your own Easter eggs, the advantage of aging is that you can enjoy the same book a second time. 

If you’re a mystery buff – or perhaps open to becoming one – do yourself a favor: I hereby happily introduce you to Deets Shanahan.

Are We Listening to Mother Nature?

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There’s looking back — — and then there’s looking wayyyy back.

Interesting factoid picked up in Pompeii, which this reporter was lucky to stroll with an archaeologist friend recently: Mt. Vesuvius’ giant eruption really shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Those early Romans, ever eager to escape the wrath of the gods, regularly predicted the future, were aware of the past (not infrequent earth tremors), and attuned to the present (a column of smoke “like an umbrella pine,” according to Pliny the younger.) But like countless others going about the business of life on that fateful day in 79 AD, uncle Pliny the Elder was caught unaware.

Before visiting Pompeii we spent another fascinating day in nearby Herculaneum. More is known of Pompeii, a much larger city that was discovered in the 16th century, than of Herculaneum, excavations of which began in 1738. Pompeii was buried under debris and volcanic ash but everyone knew there’d been a city there; Herculaneum succumbed to a landslide of lava while nobody noticed. Pliny the Elder and his friends (we know, thanks to writings left by his nephew) died of intense heat before the tsunami. None of these seem like great ways to leave the known world.

The above is offered partly as a confessional regret about how much history I never really learned, but also as a gentle reference to my own currently beloved City of San Francisco. Which happens to be built atop three seismic faults.

Photo by Romain Briaux on Unsplash

The eruption that sent burning ash, landslides of lava and, from the sea around, a tsunami didn’t just come out of the planetary blue. Zeus, or the gods and goddesses of old, or whoever you perceive as in charge of the universe, sent indications of events to come. Somewhat like little prayer flags embossed with messages like, “Hey folks! Bigger stuff ahead!” But the decision-makers of Herculaneum (for instance) just picked up the giant boulders whose weight had created sturdy walls for a time, and rebuilt sturdier walls with mortar. An early engineering genius move – but the lava didn’t notice.

In California we are clearing brush around homes and converting (slowly) to drought- and fire-resistant plants. Building codes are increasingly aimed at earthquake resistance. Higher seawalls and engineering measures incomprehensible to right-brained writers are daily being strengthened to protect civilization’s development from rising seas. So surely Whoever’s in charge of the planet should not think we’re a bunch of non-god-fearing sluggards. But still.

It’s hard not to imagine the day, some centuries hence, when future creatures inhabiting planet earth are digging around what we think of as San Francisco, and wondering what in the world kind of life existed in 21st century AD.

Which motivates me to go clean out the kitchen cabinets.

To Be a NATO Fan or Not To Be

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Many of us (pro-NATO) are cheering Finland and Sweden’s applications for membership. Some of us can’t really follow the anti-NATO grumblings from far left or far right. Some of us say Turkey will veto any more Scandinavians anyway. Many of us are glad that people smarter than most of us will eventually sort it out. Still, what’s not to love about NATO?

Growing up the youngest of four girls, my sisters and I had a variation on the Three Musketeers theme: “Four for one and all for all.” The idea was that, despite our sometimes ferocious differences, benefits often emerged from a united front, and peace usually prevailed. Worked in pre-NATO days.

Which leads this observer to hope for a little more NATO-style all-for-one. Especially if global peace might prevail.

Adventures in Mountainside Driving

Photo of the mechanic taken by his mom

A travelogue:

The handsome grandson, a Naval officer stationed in Sicily, is functioning as a tour guide par excellence for his mother and grandmother, happy tourists. We are enjoying the incredibly beautiful Sicilian hills and mountainsides en route from Catania to Cefalu, on an incredibly beautiful Sicilian afternoon.

The roads, it is worth noting, are narrow and winding and tend toward steep inclines. Sicilian drivers, it’s further worth noting, can best be described as Oh, what the hell. Intersections are for the stout-hearted, survival goes to the victor. Solid white lines are simply gauntlets thrown down as a dare. I have no idea how a Sicilian driver lives to be middle-aged.

But the handsome grandson, who learned to drive in Manhattan, hardly notices. He does, his grandmother is happy to see, forgo high speeds and motorized challenges. Sicilian drivers in the hundreds owe their lives to his brake pedal. Ours is a pleasant, casual drive.

We three slowly become aware of an extraneous noise — think snare drum — from somewhere underneath the flooorboards. It is the sort of noise that would be unwelcome on any sort of motorized journey; but it is particularly so in a VW Golf that is, ahem, not exactly new. A clicking sound, slightly metallic.

As if by magic, a turnout appears while we are remarking on the interesting new sound. The Golf swings out of the way of daredevil Sicilian drivers, and stops. The daughter and grandson hop out; the grandmother figures there’s enough trouble without her getting out to supervise.

The handsome grandson’s skills — at least those known to the grandmother — run to linguistics, or journalism, or all things nautical; his undergraduate degree was in Chinese, forheavenssakes. Mechanical engineering has thus far not been his career path. However. The daughter and grandson slowly circle the now-silent Golf, spending a lot of time on their hands and knees peering underneath. The grandmother tries not to eavesdrop; she has great confidence in her progeny — but blood pressure issues. Bits of conversation are, however, overheard.

“Don’t you have any duct tape?” the daughter asks. “Duct tape can fix almost anything.”

“Yeah, I should’ve brought some along,” says her son. “But I think I have something else that could fix it.” Whereupon he rummages around somewhere and emerges with a tool that looks very much like a toenail clipper. He disappears from view. Muffled conversation between mother and son continues, accompanied by small mechanical maneuvers.

All seems to be going well. The grandmother is heartened. The mechanic and his assistant eventually get back in the car, but he is heard to utter the words any passenger fears most:

“I don’t know if it’s going to hold . . .”

It held.

On Being Kind to the Bees

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“I would recommend more intake of pure honey, nature’s pure food that we get from the bees.” This comment came from a faithful reader, after I wrote about tea with honey for throat issues. Faithful Reader Alvin Huie went on to mention the fact that honey has “the most nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, etc” of many of the foods we consume.

A few minutes later I picked up my mail. It included an appeal from the good people at EarthJustice, pleading eloquently for help in saving the bees. I took this as an omen that bees of the world need a blog.

You have to love the people at EarthJustice, an environmental nonprofit with the pretty wonderful motto: Because the Earth Needs a Good Lawyer. Indeed. Bees too, apparently. It’s possible to find all sorts of opinions and data sets, depending on who (such as, agricultural products industries v environmental nonprofits) is furnishing the information. The banning of some bee-killing pesticides in the past may have somewhat slowed the scary decline in world bee populations, but I’ll go with this report from Earthday.org. Its March 2022 Fact Sheet says, among other things, that “there are 20,000 distinct bee species around the world, with 4,000 of them in the United States alone. From 2006-2015, approximately 25% fewer species were found. Under the best scenario, thousands of bee species have already become too rare.”

For an inside look into the world of bees I turned to Alvin – who happens to be an old friend and new(ish) neighbor. Now entering his 90s, Alvin is retired from an IT career and from active beekeeping (after 25+ years.) But he has kept track of all things bee-related since first getting hooked in 1994. “It’s a low-key hobby,” he says. And a lot of good fun. He attended week-long world bee conventions in S. Korea, Argentina, Ukraine and elsewhere. He reads bees books, introduces others to beekeeping and belongs to several apian organizations. There is a LOT to know and share about bees. To help with which there is Apimondia, an international federation of beekeepers’ organizations and related others that’s been around since 1895.  

Bees themselves however, bless their little apian hearts, don’t exactly enjoy lives of leisure and self-indulgence. According to their friend Alvin, the average worker bee lives about six weeks max. The drone, whose primary purpose is to mate with the queen – or help with temperature control by flapping his (larger) wings along with all the others – might live for around 30 days. But if he’s successful in beating out a few thousand fellow drones – they don’t fight about it! They just try to get closest to her – and mating with the queen, he immediately dies. What can I say? Queenie herself might live for a year or two, but during the springtime (her busiest season) she’s laying about 1500 eggs per day. All of this may be why you never hear people saying “it’s a bee’s life.”

Still. All those apian friends of ours – in the remaining 20,000 species – are critical to our survival. While we humans are hardly noticing, they are pollinating, without which activity we would lack most of the fruits, vegetables and other good things we live on. Or promoting biodiversity, or making honey or creating all that great wax we use. All of which requires, well, being as busy as bees for their entire lives.

You may want to thank a bee today.

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