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.
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.”
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.)
“Six die, 53 ill at nursing home,” reads the San Francisco Chronicle headline. It follows a similar, recent headline, “Coronavirus: 27 test positive at Orinda nursing home,” and seemingly endless others: “New cases in Alameda County facility,” “Another death at Gateway Manor”. . . These are the sorts of headlines that the management of my particular senior housing community most fears, and that strike a little dread in the aging hearts of my neighbors and myself. I live in a 12-story assisted living building near downtown San Francisco. It includes some 90 apartments housing singles and a few couples with a median age of, say, 87. That is a random number, chosen only because it puts me in the younger half. I generally refer to our place as the Geezer House, but the marketing materials use slightly more refined wordage. Those materials do not lie: this is not the ritziest senior living place in town, but it would fall in the “upscale” category.
There are hundreds of senior living facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, ranging from minimum-care to rehab to lifecare to nursing home; all of us are, to one degree or another, the scariest target populations for COVID-19’s quiver of poison arrows. At the center are the nursing homes, source of the horror stories that seem to increase daily; my community is somewhere around the second ring out from the bullseye. Though we are somewhat less vulnerable than nursing homes, if one COVID-19 virus particle managed to sneak into our building it would be Katie-bar-the-door. We’ve had practice runs, with flu or norovirus, but those moved in slowly, two or three new cases per day until the mini-epidemic retreated. With COVID-19 we’re staring down a mystery virus that, in neighboring senior facilities at least, seems to move in and take over in a blinding flash.
Extreme measures are underway to prevent that from happening in my building. Think San Quentin, but with better food. We began with Mayor London Breed’s shelter-in-place decree on March 16; this being San Francisco, Mayor Breed got a three-day jump on Governor Gavin Newsom’s March 19 statewide order. Life in geezer houses took a sharp turn toward confinement at that point. I encountered the new reality head-on when innocently heading out to drop some mail in the box across the street. “If you step out that door,” my friend the concierge remarked, “you must first sign this document.” He handed me a paper declaring that I “understand that by departing (the facility) I am violating Public Health Order No. C19-09, enforced by the San Francisco Police Department” and that I “may be excluded from (the facility) and not re-admitted.” I thought better of mailing my letters.
There is a stillness here. Sometimes it’s eerily pleasant, the silence broken by birdsong in nearby trees. But often it is ominous. Having worked as a hospice volunteer and with other end-of-life organizations, I know the sudden stillness that is death, and others here have experienced it when losing a loved one. So here we are, in a place where most of us have come planning to stay until we die – and we’d just prefer not to be thinking about it in the middle of a pandemic. Listening to the stillness, watching the quiet streets no longer bustling with cars and people – manages to equate with death and become just a tiny bit stressful.
Life in confinement turns out to be something for which many of us were remarkably ill prepared, and there’s little comfort in knowing we share that woeful lack with millions of fellow citizens and certainly the Trump administration. Comfort is in short supply under social distance guidelines. Most of us here were children during World War II, memories of which have a certain nostalgia: there was shared sacrifice then too, but it felt noble rather than resentful. And there were Mr. Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
I don’t remember the first of these, which was given a few months before I was born, but I well remember some of the last, during the war, when we’d gather around the big Philco radio to hear that deep, cultured voice. Grammatically perfect, unfailingly calm and reassuring. It’s hard not to yearn for such a voice when listening to our current president’s egotistical bombast and vulgar, vicious divisiveness. I think the memories of very different times accentuate the vague feeling among residents of senior living facilities that we are imprisoned against our will.
On the upside for my fellow inmates here and me, our fortress is pretty posh. Three good meals delivered daily in compostable containers, creature comforts like views of the San Bruno mountains to the south, or the San Francisco sunsets from our west windows. On the downside, it is possible to spend days at a time without seeing another human being, other than the masked person who shows up every day to take your temperature. For those of us still mobile there are decidedly other upsides: a small exercise room with treadmill, weights etc, and an outdoor terrace on the second floor (barred gate at the bottom of its stairs.) Walking from one end of the terrace to the other requires 180 steps. The exercise room being too small to accommodate more than one socially-distanced person, I get my best exercise walking from the 7th floor to the 3rd to see if anyone is on the treadmill. Eight or ten of us are also known to go walking at the same time, appropriately distanced, and thereafter to hang out for also distanced but at least human-to-human, conversation – though it does include frequent remarks in the “Did you see who that gurney came for?” category. Some of us are more obsessive than others about checking the case/death numbers posted every morning at 9 by the San Francisco Department of Public Health; everyone talks less and less about when the country may “open up.” Or about politics at all, for that matter. Political discussions pretty much begin and end with “What about Trump saying . . .” This place is not a bastion of conservatism.
What’s not heard a lot? Complaints. If we chafe at confinement, we’re grateful to wake up without a fever. Most of us have friends or family in New York, Atlanta, New Orleans or Seattle and we worry about them far more than they need worry about us. All of us have friends or family who are doctors, nurses, first responders and others on the front lines. Somehow, gratitude seems to edge out the fear in our geezerly hearts.
This essay also appears on Medium.com, a fine site committed to the exchange of ideas, knowledge and perspectives, on which I’ll be posting in the future. But I’ll still be holding forth right here on franjohns.net. So stick around!
You don’t really have to be as old as I am to remember the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You could, in fact, be brand new – and it’s still worth your time to revisit. The UDHR is based on the premise that every person is born free and equal in dignity and rights. Remember that quaint idea? The United States, thanks to its being a part of the United Nations, is party to the UDHR – even if some days it seems we might be shrinking the parameters down from ‘every person’ to, say, every white male (possibly female) citizen who agrees with my politics.
I admit to having had not the first thought about the UDHR for a decade or more. But I was reminded of it recently over breakfast in Washington DC with my remarkable friend Ally McKinney Timm. Timm is founder and Director of DC-based Justice Revival, a Christian ministry that “seeks to respond to the divine call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” While this space generally stays away from any focus on specific faith communities, it’s hard to argue with Justice Revival’s commitment. And since Timm left me with a pocket copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (she’ll send you one on request) it seemed a good time to enlighten anyone who’s interested in that good document.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world. It was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948. It is, Timm explains, “aspirational” rather than a treaty which has the force of law. (The U.S. has so far joined only three of the nine treaties adopted by the U.N. and awaiting ratification – but that’s another story.) As a member state of the United Nations, here are, in order, the first fifteen of the thirty articles of the UDHR – to which we Americans, along with our fellow members of humankind, aspire:
Right to equality
Freedom from Discrimination
Right to Life, Liberty and Personal Security
Freedom from Slavery
Freedom from Torture and Degrading Treatment
Right to Recognition as a Person before the Law
Right to Equality before the Law
Right to Remedy for Violations of Rights
Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Exile
Right to Fair Public Hearing
Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty
Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence
Right to Free Movement in and out of Own Country
Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution
Right to a Nationality and the Freedom to Change Nationalities
There are more. I particularly like Article 19, Freedom of Opinion and Information. It maintains we should be able to “hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” They hadn’t heard about Facebook in 1948, but at least these Declaration writers were trying. And I have to love Article 24, the Right to Rest and Leisure, because who would’ve thought, in 1948, that rest and leisure would be in short supply 70+ years later.
Maybe you’re ready to join the Human Rights Movement? One good way to learn about it is through Human Rights Educators USA, an excellent nonprofit founded in 2011. Or you can order your very own free pocket copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from Ally McKinney Timm at Justice Revival, who is definitely part of the movement.