Watching the news, as some of us compulsively do, is hazardous to my optimist health. The virus may be in retreat here, but death and destruction overseas overshadow all.
Still: sunflowers in shop windows, blue and yellow everywhere. Flags, banners, whatever anyone finds. Two women, one in a blue coat, the other in yellow, walk arm in arm just ahead of me. A friend with an overseas relief nonprofit says everyone she knows is putting in 18-hour days — without complaint.
San Francisco City Hall has gotten into the act. From Symphony Hall across the street, I listen to soaring music before walking back into the blue and yellow glow. Optimism survives.
Wisdom is afoot. Well, actually, underfoot. Celebrate peace, seek justice. Make love, not war. Be here now. Those are three of my favorite etched-in-the-sidewalk messages so far. They may not cover everything, but it’s a good start.
A confirmed cloud freak, I am constantly staring at the sky. But in between sky-watching episodes I like to study the sidewalks. It may have started the day I noticed, etched into the California Street concrete, this cryptic message: I love you anyway. How many stories could be written around those four words? If the sidewalk and its message had not shown the wear and tear of many feet over many years I might have been frantically knocking on doors for the full story. Why was someone kneeling over wet concrete, carefully carving those four words into eternity? What went on between the two of them?! Or were there others involved here? And is he or she still loved, anyway? Maybe there was a happy ending. One wants to believe.
Most of us have seen or done the traditional sidewalk declaration – two names encircled within a heart. Or “Jamie 12-14-08,” – whatever child happened to live in the house above at the time of new sidewalk installation. Tiny handprints or footprints immortalizing some now teenager. It happened in front of my new old (1905 Victorian) San Francisco house in 1992 and 1993 as renovations required tearing up and replacing sidewalk squares. For the record, the San Francisco property owner whose pipes are being replaced, or whose tree roots have buckled the concrete bears the cost of the new squares. In 1993 that came to $50 per square. Therefore, when the concrete people told me to stay away from their smooth surfaces I smiled politely and reminded them of how much this job was costing us. And as soon as they drove off we went to work. My two eldest grandchildren, then about two & three years old each contributed a toy (dump truck for the grandson, horse for the granddaughter) to embed beside their footprints. We sold the house in 2013, but the memorial sidewalk squares remain. They are carefully supervised by the current owner, whose three children have now scratched their own names into nearby sidewalk sections.
Sidewalk etchings combine the historic with the enigmatic: Everything will be OK, for instance, will remain a favorite of mine – as it certainly was on walks throughout the pandemic. Across the country from that one was an all-caps query that took up almost one entire sidewalk square: IS THAT SO? it asks. On that same visit to our nation’s capitol, I paused to do a selfie with Black Lives Matter stretching across the plaza behind me. But it’s my walking-shoes-clad toes that appear in the majority of the other photos in my Sidewalks album. Including the philosophical: If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way. That one took a lonng time, as anyone who’s ever worked in wet concrete can affirm. Someone also spent a long time on the careful scripting of Love Thy Neighbor plus a few hearts etched onto a downtown city sidewalk where a lot of homeless neighbors currently live.
With the advent of colored chalk, sidewalk wisdom took on a bright new life. On one San Francisco block, where the lack of rain guarantees a fairly long sidewalk-shelf life, a collection of drawings and slogans appeared virtually overnight. It had to have been a group effort – a group advocating for reproductive rights, adoption, contraception and peace, in no particular order. But as the peace signs were prominently scattered among symbols for ovaries and women’s rights, this group doesn’t seem to want to go to war over the issue(s.)
But San Francisco’s “Slow Streets” campaign brought things to a once unimaginable new level. The campaign closed multiple blocks of streets throughout the city to vehicular traffic (excepting bikes and skateboards and assorted other people-movers.) This opened up miles and miles of pavement to kids of all ages. Presumably the illustrations that quickly covered long stretches of macadam are mostly kid-driven (the skill level seemed roughly third grade; I hope I’m not hurting any community feelings here,) but adult-supervised just in case. Whatever the age, these 21st century street decorations skip all efforts to preach, argue, convert or grumble and go straight to optimism: hearts, smiley faces, love, joy predominate.
A walk in the rain! Among all glorious, inspirational, free things to do, I rank walking in the rain somewhere close to the top. I am admittedly a walking-in-the- rain nut; I don’t remember a time when sloshing along wet street and pathways, watching the ever-changing reflections, blinking away the water in my face wasn’t all-out delight.
Well okay, maybe not Hurricane Ida. There are differences between walking in the rain and trying to stay upright in a hurricane. As it happened, I arrived in Manhattan last September at the exact same moment as did Hurricane Ida. There being nowhere in the place I was staying to get anything at all for dinner – and because I just never turn on TV sets – I struck out in search of a pastrami reuben. Not smart. My 120-pound self was no match for THAT rain, and I barely made it back to the lobby and the streaming admonitions everywhere: Take Shelter. Stay Indoors. Stay Away From Windows. But I scored a pastrami reuben from one not-yet-closed shop. Walking in hurricanes and deluges is, for the most part, outside the scope of this essay.
Walking in today’s rains, if you’ve lasted through the parched months of the American west, is somewhat of a sacred experience: heightened rain appreciation. The trees drip heavenly mist. Delicately-scented moisture cocoons you. What can I say?
Nearing Rain Time recently, my friend Bob Dodge, who lives a few miles south in Portola Valley, began to despair. Downpours were predicted, but he waited throughout the night “for the sound of rain dripping from the oak leaves outside our bedroom window. Silence. I got up at right around 7:00, looking out to see overcast skies but no rain falling from those clouds. 8:00 came and San Francisco was hidden from view but the walkways were still dry . . . Where is the promised rain?!?” He thought first it might be that his fancy rain gauge on the roof was in the wrong spot, “but I am no longer allowed to go up on the roof of the house due to my advancing age.” At last report he was looking for volunteers to climb up onto the roof and move the rain gauge.
I have now checked in once more with the Portola Valley Rainman.
“The rains arrived in sheets and torrents and lasted for what seemed endless hours. Our total rainfall was about 8 inches, almost the total rainfall for the winter behind us,” he replied. I thought, knowing my reporter from the south pretty well, that he would have been out sploshing in puddles for sure.
“Alas, I did not walk in the rain. But I did walk this morning in Lake Dodge, which appeared on our garage roof during the storm. The primary drain was clogged with leaves and other debris and needed to be opened up else the whole roof might collapse. So this 85 year older got out the ladder, informed his wife of his intentions and climbed up to do his job as he has done for the past 51 years at this location. Mission accomplished. Ladder put away. Rubber boots removed and stored again. Back inside to refill my coffee cup before sitting down with my latest book. Life is good.”
The weary, wobbling American mall is a piece of today’s weary American story that’s hard to ignore. This story is about just one – which is still wobbling a bit, but working to emerge from its lingering depression.
In the Before Days – before pandemic, before economic woes, before Amazon – were the malls. Like Chicago’s Water Tower Place, Atlanta’s Phipps Plaza, Seattle’s Pacific Place or the ultimate mega-consumer destination Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. And thousands of others from the large like these to the small ubiquitous strips.
Teenagers by the millions hung out in malls. Senior citizens speed-walked and exercised in malls. Shoppers even shopped in malls – enough of them to keep retailers happy, from the giant-store anchors to the boutique in-betweens to the aromatic food courts. But after getting clobbered by economic downturns and online shopping, the pandemic delivered what was a final blow to the Mall Era. A few survive, others are struggling or reinventing themselves and others make you want to weep for the desolation – and sometimes environmental disaster – their abandoned parking lots suggest. This is just one tiny glimpse backward and forward into one survivor: my city’s brave and even partly beautiful downtown Westfield San Francisco Centre.
Decades ago, in the 1970s-1980s glory days of malls, I was writing for commercial magazines that included Business Atlanta, National Real Estate Investor and – may it rest in peace – Shopping Center World. If I could resurrect those memories (most of them delightful, some better off dead) I’m satisfied that Westfield Centre would be in there somewhere. Although that would have been in its former life as the chic San Francisco Center, with its grand Emporium rivaling the upscale Union Square emporiums for tourist business.
Today, Westfield is reopened to masked visitors. Anchors Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom are keeping the lights on (a LOT of lights.) A respectable number of small retailers and service shops help keep Westfield from feeling totally deserted. But it is definitely deserted in spots, such as the eastern end on Market Street, where a handful of visitors rest below the carefully preserved dome of the old Emporium. On the Mission Street side of this end is sparkling Bloomie’s though more than one department seems better suited to rolling a bowling ball down the empty space than to browsing the expensive racks.
At the Nordstrom end things are decidedly livelier. Shoppers and browsers keep their masks on (or are reminded to do so by signs and salespersons at every turn) – but there are more small shops with lights on than boarded over storefronts.
A few other random sights remind the shopper/stroller that this is not your yesterday’s mall: Skateboard-carrying teenagers, en route to the empty upper decks of the parking garage across Mission Street, drop them to the marble for a quick joyride along the near-empty hallways. Food court places ask for your phone number so they can text you when your order is ready, even though you’re standing barely six feet distant. Speaking of (social) distances, they are pretty much ignored – until you’re in a line somewhere and X’s mark the spots. Escalator passengers often politely wait an appropriate few stairsteps, which seems a nice touch. Otherwise, the multi-colored masks serve as a perpetual reminder that we’re a long way away from the bustling crowds of shoppers past.
But some things remain sturdy reminders of bygone days. Claire’s, the iconic ear-piercing place, apparently emerged from bankruptcy a few years ago and is back in business on the lower level; this reporter stopped by for a re-piercing job, raising the median client age by about 70 years. And one uniformed guard, standing watch at the Market Street entry for the unmasked, the disturbers of the peace, the lost or the questioning, was asked how long he’d had this job. “Since way before, ma’m,” he said with a weary smile, “way before.”
My friend M reports losing five pounds since starting a new weight loss/mindfulness program. The next door neighbor is training for a marathon in the fall. Actually, I’m signed up to do the (virtual) Rabun Ramble 5K, having plotted an acceptable route in San Francisco not quite as challenging as the real Ramble’s North Georgia hills, but who’s checking? Liz, one of my longtime best friends, is working with an editor on the memoir that many of us, not just her family, have been pushing her to do for years.
You’d think it was New Year’s.
Actually, that seems to be where we are: at the beginning of a new year, a new age. What kind of an age it will be is still anybody’s guess, as is how long it might be until we’re officially in it. All those unvaccinated people out there are sitting ducks for the coronavirus still roaming the country, and who knows how many variants are planning coming-out parties with their antecedents’ approval. It’s hard not to be grumpy about the unvaccinated. Granted, everyone has the right to choose not to be vaccinated, I suppose, but thank heaven for the millions who did get the vaccine and thereby made it possible for this New Year’s Day to dawn. Maybe some day the unvaccinated will at least find it in their hearts to appreciate the vaccinated.
Those of us who have been trying to keep the literal faith throughout these dark months, with a little help from Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, have found that being back in churches and synagogues is particularly celebratory. This writer’s return to the Presbyterian pews coincided with Pride Week and couldn’t have been more rainbow-filled. We were even singing from behind our masks – with the blessing (or approval, at least) of the City of San Francisco.
And then there is the indoor dining-out business. Friends of mine on both coasts are absolutely giddy about discovering old restaurants feared long gone, along with new eateries popping up all over the place. In San Francisco, to the dismay of parking space seekers and absolutely no one else, parklet dining – the street spaces taken over by beleaguered restaurants during the pandemic – seems here to stay. But being able to sit inside a quiet (OK, more often noisy) restaurant and enjoy a meal without the accompaniment of traffic noise feels like a new day indeed. “Restaurant X is back!” as the subject head of a Facebook or Twitter thread suddenly morphs into a list too long to comprehend as one friend after another adds one returned eatery after another.
New Year’s Day, of course, seldom dawns without some residual hint of New Year’s Eve and the old year behind. This old one left us with a lion’s share of hangovers: friends and loved ones taken by the virus, personal and congregate losses too many to count, an entire year of suspended existence. But here’s a pearl of wisdom dropped by a very wise friend in a recent Sunday sermon: “Happiness is to joy as whining is to lament.” Work on that one if you want.
Meanwhile, here’s to the happiest of New Years for M, for Liz, and all the rest of us.
There’s a charming new neighbor in my building. We have a lot in common: graduate-degree education, reasonably successful grown children, a fondness for historical fiction and long walks around San Francisco. One major difference: nobody ever yelled at me to go back where I came from.
Or spat on the ground while passing by me.
Early in the pandemic but just before the lockdown, my new friend was talking with a college-age cousin in front of a San Francisco store. Two white men dressed in casual work clothes, appearing to be in their forties or early fifties, walked past. One spat. The other looked directly into my friend’s somewhat “Asian-looking” face and uttered those exact words: “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” For the record, she came from Manhattan where she held a high-level corporate management job; before that she came from New Jersey, where she was born. She has voted in every election since the 1960s.
Stories like this, exposing the hostilities stirred up in recent years, make it hard to stay hopeful. But my hopefulness is reinforced by the groups and individuals working around the clock for change. One example is in an unusual nonprofit I’ve only recently come to know. It’s the New Breath Foundation, briefly introduced here: New Breath seeks to offer “hope, healing, and new beginnings for Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) new immigrants and refugees, people impacted by incarceration and deportation, and survivors of violence.”
One of the interesting facts about New Breath is that Founder/President Eddy Zheng is himself an immigrant – and a former “juvenile lifer” in the bargain. Eddy managed to turn his life around while in immigration jails and the prison system. While still incarcerated he began counseling at-risk youth, created an Ethnic Studies program, and co-edited a book. After his release he set about leading youth development and violence prevention programs, and cross-cultural building activities in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally.If the NBF mission seems a tall order, Eddy found a shortcut. It’s called (something like) Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel. Or – find people and groups already working toward your goals and give them the support they need. New Breath Foundation therefore, conducts targeted grant-making, education, and advocacy efforts in support of other hard-working groups. In its scant four years’ existence the nonprofit has supported causes and events including an AAPI Women Lead conference, Survived and Punished, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and a variety of others. Those are the sorts of groups that give me hope.
Hope that people like my new neighbor will walk the streets of America without encountering hostility and worse. Hope that instant love and acceptance might replace instant hate.
On moving from a four-story, century-old Edwardian into a 1600-sq-ft condo eight years ago I wrote a lengthy feature for the local newspaper (The New Fillmore, May 13, 2013) titled “Lessons Learned from Downsizing.” It drew editorial applause and a bunch of affirmative comments. But it seems not to have sunk in all that well.
I am back in the downsizing business. This time around it is partly a matter of trying to get organized, but despite the donating/tossing/selling/shredding activities of 2013 I am once again (or still) overwhelmed with Stuff. You don’t have to be a Marie Kondo drop-out to know how quickly Stuff can overwhelm. (I applaud every KonMari success story out there, but frankly never got past Step One.)
Here is the Big Truth: downsizing is good for the soul. Whether it’s moving from a 4-story Edwardian into a 3-room condo or reducing a tall pile of photo albums into one small box, there is a lightness akin to joy in the afterglow.
Looking back on it, there was some pretty good advice in my 2013 article. But as it ran to something over 5,000 words I’ll spare you the whole thing. (Digital copy on request.) I itemized its wisdom in eight lessons learned, which included: Treasures are your enemy; and The Fast-Disposal Plan: put it on the sidewalk with a large sign taped to it reading FREE. Also, even eight years ago much of what is cluttering up the planet (and our lives) could be digitized and made to disappear.
Downsizing is probably good for the soul at any age. What’s your teenager going to do with that wall of blue ribbons from hockey games or dressage events? Maybe one Little League trophy could be representative of the other 57 after the other 57 go to the Goodwill? Or wherever the trophies of our youth go to die. And that, of course is the other half of the Big Truth: wherever our souls go when we leave planet earth, our Stuff remains.
Award-winning (multiple major awards at that) author Ann Patchett confirmed my theory of the Big Truth – this writer uses any crafty means of mentioning herself and Ann Patchett in the same sentence – in a recent, reflective article in The New Yorker. Letting go of an old manual typewriter was particularly problematic for Patchett, as it was for me. She had several more of these treasures than I, and solved the problem by keeping two that had maximum meaning and giving another to a delighted eight-year-old. I solved mine by giving Pearl the Pert Pink Portable to my daughter, in whose family room it is respectfully, somewhat regally, displayed. Although Pearl will live forever in my heart for getting me through college and launched into my literary career, she is undoubtedly happier on display in a room of constant socialization than on my dark closet shelf. (Patchett noted the tendency to anthropomorphize our treasures.)
Back to the issue of departing souls and remaining Stuff. “I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death,” Patchett writes. “They didn’t protect me from death, but they created a barrier in my understanding, like layers of bubble wrap, so that instead of thinking about what was coming and the beauty that was here now I was thinking about the piles of shiny trinkets I’d accumulated.”
Disposing of the shiny trinkets, along with the ancient documents and the favorite jeans from the 1980s and the shelf of folded paper bags – there’s an unwritten law about getting rid of paper bags that came bearing bottles of wine or small gifts? – and even beloved manual typewriters is a liberating act. If the disposer has begun to realize that he or she may, in fact, die some day, it is liberating to the extreme. With every drawer-cleaning comes lightness.
I may die? Worse things have happened. At least no one will have to curse my ghost while clearing out this junky drawer.
When my beloved mother-in-law died I remember flying to Detroit with a sense of dread about dealing with her house and the trappings of 93 years. My husband was her sole survivor. But nobody had had to tell Isabel Johns to downsize. We would find in a drawer one carefully folded, tissue-wrapped sweater. In a closet, perhaps several dresses and two pairs of shoes. In the pantry, the barest minimum of canned goods and a broom clipped to the door. There were no mysterious piles of documents and receipts, no dusty boxes of unidentified photos, no collections of sermons written by her Methodist preacher husband of fifty-plus years – worthy though a few of the hundreds might have been. In lieu of Stuff, Isabel left only the enduring memories of a life well lived. And a lightness in the afterglow.
“You can neither lie to a neighbourhood park, nor reason with it,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of American Cities. Jacobs knew a thing or two about parks – and cities. These days we are learning things of our own about parks and cities, a mish-mash of the good, the bad and the ugly. Cities are where many of our hearts lie, but they aren’t so good for containing viruses. But parks? Parks are the totally good. You can’t lie to your neighborhood park because it knows the truth: I’m a space you need. That may not be exactly what Jacobs meant, but close enough.
The Trust for Public Land (a great national nonprofit I hope you’ll consider supporting) maintains that “Everyone deserves a park.” It’s hard to argue with that. TPL believes that even everyone in cities – rich or poor – should be within a 10-minute walk of a park. Hard to argue with that, either. On the poor end, in rich San Francisco, are most of the 40,000 residents of the Tenderloin neighborhood who live within a 10-minute walk of Sergeant Macauley Park. (More about Sgt. Macauley and his eponymous park later.)
On the rich, poor and everything in between end are the happy hordes of walkers, runners, bird-watchers, tiny soccer-players-in-training, birthday partyers, picnickers and playground rompers at Mountain Lake Park. And it is the thing I miss the most, quarantined here in the geezer house: Mountain Lake Park. A little gem of a San Francisco city park, it features (among other things) a Par Course fitness trail that for decades has doubled as my personal outdoor gym, serenity space and yoga substitute. I might as well admit that I failed yoga. Although I stuck it out through the entire course at Temple Emanu-El across the street from my house a few years back, within the first ten minutes of every session, while everyone else was Zen’d out, I just wanted to be outside in the sunshine on the Par Course at Mountain Lake Park. The park itself borders on Mountain Lake, a spring-fed lake from which the Spaniards, and Native American tribes before them, happily drank. But in the 20th century thoughtless pet owners dumped their turtles and goldfish into the lake, and the gunk and runoff from an adjoining stretch of Highway 101 finished off the job of turning it into a virtual cesspool by the 1990s. Because Mountain Lake is part of the Presidio though, now a national park itself, your tax dollars helped restore it to a haven for natural grasses, native fish and wildlife, and varieties of birds and waterfowl. Mountain Lake Park is approximately what I envision as paradise.
Parks are, as evidenced by the above, a lot of things to all people. Sergeant Macauley Park, a tiny, one-fifth urban acre in San Francisco’s low-end-of-the-socioeconomic-spectrum Tenderloin neighborhood, first opened in 1983, intended as an oasis for the thousands of kids within its 10-minute-walk radius. It was named for a popular young San Francisco police officer who was shot and killed the year before while making a routine traffic stop. Despite its optimistic opening, Macauley Park’s young users were quickly displaced by others who found it ideal for arranging sexual encounters, dealing drugs and taking care of public bathroom needs. Most of us, certainly Jane Jacobs, would agree these are not ways to reason with a children’s park. Beleaguered Macauley Park was closed in 1995 during a major project to evict its underground residents, a colony of rats who had moved in, multiplied and disbursed throughout the ’hood like a coronavirus. It reopened in 2000 with an optimistic ceremony I well recall, and it struggles, through ups and downs, to continue offering neighborhood kids an open space in which to play.
Macauley and Mountain Lake are just two parks in just one city, which is blessed with dozens of others in between, of every size and imaginable variety. But maybe they represent our hope for the future: spaces with no entry fee, no barriers according to race, gender, politics or fitness level.
Here’s one piece of extravagantly good news: when we emerge from the confines of Covid19, America’s parks will be right where we left them.
(This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a fine site for exchange of information & ideas I’ve been posting on. You might want to check it out.)