When your insurance company ruins a good day

“We’re calling about your claim,” the pleasant voice said; “about the hit-and-run collision you were involved in on March 17.” This is a really bad way to start your day. While I was still catching my breath the pleasant voice mentioned my car rear-ending the other car but then leaving the scene of the crime.

I knew, of course, that I’d not been in any collisions recently – the last being over a year ago when a 16-wheeler turned right from the center lane as I was turning right from the turn lane. The 16-wheeler won that one. But as my reaction had been swift; only the front of my car and the rear portion were demolished while I managed not to get demolished in the driver’s seat.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png

This is critical back story to the current episode: I lost my beloved, snazzy green 2000 Volvo S40. It was immediately replaced by a slightly less snazzy silver 2001 Volvo S40 with about 100,000 fewer miles and with my bank account about $4,000 lighter.

But my new old car was thoroughly repainted and sort-of like new, and my learning curve (I’ve declared myself too old to deal with gadget-filled computerized new cars) remained flat.

Hearing one’s insurance representative declare you were involved in a hit-and-run collision is, nevertheless, unsettling. I assured him they had the wrong car, that I didn’t think I’d even driven anywhere that day. That my trusty Volvo S40 lives in a locked garage in a building with 24-hour security and really doesn’t go out rear-ending other cars without my permission.

Would this not have been a good time to say, “Oh, sorry; we’ll fix that”? I felt so. Instead, I was referred the “the adjuster of my claim.” Then I was asked to make a recorded statement, after which I was asked to email photos of my car from all sides. Which I did. Thanks to its having been all painted and spiffed up when I bought it, the little silver auto was quite emphatic about being without a scratch. I, though, was not undamaged. Beginning with the spike in my blood pressure from the original call, continuing through a trip to the garage to make sure I wasn’t crazy, recording my statement which felt like pleading innocent in a court of law and doing a photo-shoot in the garage – there went my day.

Eventually I received a copy of the “pending” file with assurance that it would soon be “settled” and nothing would appear on my record. It noted that the Vehicle Identification Number of the car involved didn’t match my car’s VIN, and – by the way – the car involved was green, so clearly not my car. This is “actually quite common,” the adjuster assured me, which was not reassuring in the least. Since no one seemed inclined to answer my emailed questions, I finally called the adjuster to ask.

The accident happened in Oakland, across the Bay from San Francisco and you couldn’t pay me to drive across the Bay Bridge. None of the streets in Berkeley or Oakland make sense to me any more, and BART does. How did the other insurance company (the one covering the car that was rear-ended) get my insurance information? “Oh, the driver of the other vehicle probably wrote down a license number one digit off, or something; that happens all the time. We were just doing our job.” Would it not have been simple to check the VINs and immediately know the car involved was not my car? “A lot of times we do not have the VIN on file . . . We were just doing our job.” I wanted to check out my now secret suspicion that my old car had somehow been put back together and sold to a careless driver in Oakland, but by this time I did not want to hear once more that my insurance company – which will remain nameless here to avoid further damages – was just doing its job. Does its job not involve trying not to drive its clients nuts?

Apparently not.

The Art of City Walking

San Francisco from atop Alamo Square Park – a great place to conclude a City Walk

City walks rock.

Parks, mountain trails, beaches, all those other walks — wonderful. But city walks are in a class by themselves. It’s just a small matter of mastering the art. It helps (IMHO) to live in San Francisco, but I suspect anyone who loves his or her city might agree: walk with your eyes and mind open, listen for the life behind the sounds, look up and down and all around, and there you have: COVID-free (masks, distancing, no problem) exercise, unique entertainment, an educational and uplifting activity of however many hours you can spare. Totally free. Nighttime walks can be times of wonder, but given the weirdness of today’s pandemic realities, this addresses the joy of daytime city walking.

Creative tent-dwelling

Cities everywhere have, tragically, people with no home, forced to confront the virus and the cold in whatever ways they can. Some, like the above San Franciscan reduced to tent life, stake out kingdoms of their own. Walking by people on the street — many struggling with addiction or mental health issues — is the saddest part of City Walking, sending you home (hopefully) with a renewed commitment to working harder to find solutions. But if you look, you find homeless citizens are really just fellow Americans with problems, bad luck, and often a good measure of ingenuity.

And then there are the trees. Even in the most urban of urban areas, trees survive. Sometimes on their own (look into corner parks or corner lots that have been abandoned.) You can find trees that are trying to save us from ourselves by storing carbon, preventing flooding & erosion, staving off climate change — or just standing there being beautiful.

A cypress on Sacramento Street

The good people of SFTrees.com occasionally go around chalking the sidewalks with little Look! signs that point to trees like the one pictured at right and generously ID them for you.

Some of the most interesting sights of City Walks are down the alleyways. Granted you may find strange and unpleasant surprises, but you may often find the products of graffiti artists’ most elegant endeavors. Alleyways offer other surprises: hidden houses and back entries and flower boxes on third-floor fire escapes you’re delighted to have noticed, plus a few ground-level sights you’re happy to pass by as quickly as possible. It’s a city, after all.

Most City Walks — thanks often to the work of the Trust for Public Land, which has a goal of every urban dweller living within a 10-minute walk of a park — pass an urban park or two. Some are so small as to go unnoticed. But if you can work your city-walking paths by a park, possibly the happiest faces of the day will be found there. Where there are basketball nets you can watch the action but rarely get any interchange.

Kids in a TPL-sponsored City Park

But kids on jungle gyms will smile for the camera at the slightest invitation. Search for urban parks in your city and you might be surprised to find tiny treasures. In San Francisco, also, almost anywhere you’re willing to climb upward will lead to another kind of park — glorious spaces with views and dogs and picnickers and more views. An unbeatable way to conclude a City Walk. Which brings us back to the vista from Alamo Square at the top of this essay.

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com

Living While Boarded Up

There was dancing in the streets all over San Francisco on November 7th. I was walking in the Presidio, trying not to get wiped out by flying cyclists whizzing downhill shouting Biden/Harriss!!! It’s been pretty much party mode ever since.

But downtown — and in a few other areas — preparations had long been made for the mayhem that wasn’t. It would be hard not to agree with business owners who boarded up. Protests following the George Floyd killing and racial unrest at other times in recent months brought out the bad guys along with the earnest. There was widespread, costly looting. I live not far from a BevMo store that looked as if someone had tossed a large bomb through the front door. So if I owned a business I would have boarded up too.

Eyes on the passers-by

Following the election of Joe Biden which was finally declared on Saturday, November 7th, though, there was only dancing. And since then, it’s fascinating to see signs of how life goes on around (and behind and in front of) the plywood. This is a quick Plywood City tour.

High end social distancing

Some businesses behind the plywood have gone under and won’t be back. But others are bravely carrying on. At Louis Vuitton — there are people out there still buying $3,000 handbags? — a polite security guard at the door carefully limited the number of shoppers entering. And inside (the polite security guard let me peek) shoppers and staff kept their masks on and distances measured.

Local billboard creativity has definitely peaked. On some of the plywood sheets there were phone numbers to call or — frequently — “We’re Open!” messages pointing to the plywood door.

Finding shelter from the storms

At some locations, the irony was painful. One nonprofit (not that far from the Louis Vuitton store, actually) which was created to help the homeless covered its plywood with optimistic messaging. But it managed to offer a likely spot for one down-on-his-luck guy to construct a resting place at the same time.

Still, high above the boarded-up storefronts and sheltered-in-place citizenry, somebody remembered to hoist the flag.

Long may it wave

Dining Out in San Francisco, 2020

San Franciscans are big on dining out – lunching out, breakfasting out, drinking out, all things gustatory and convivial. So COVID has not been fun. But bars and restaurants have discovered a happy workaround, and the city seems equally happy to assist.

In virtually every corner of San Francisco, outdoor tables have sprung up. They hug the storefronts on the sidewalk, they cluster on hillsides with propped-up legs to keep dishes from sliding to the pavement. They spill into the street where parking spots vanish in their wake, and if anybody’s complaining I haven’t heard about it.

Woodhouse Seafood went all nautical

Officially, they are “Parklets,” at least the ones with sidewalls that create more or less permanent booths. Several I’ve seen have not received Parklet status, so they are set up every afternoon and taken down at closing time – a new job for wait staff that may drive them nuts, but at least it means there are customers to wait on.

Actually, there seem to be a LOT of customers. My strictly anecdotal assessment of outdoor dining in a dozen different neighborhoods is that about half – mostly those in fairly upscale areas – are crazy-busy at mealtimes and happy hours. Along the sketchier streets vacancies are commonplace and it’s not unknown to see a dozing non-customer taking advantage of a comfy place to sit.

Even though San Francisco weather does lend itself to al fresco dining for much of the year, we do get those occasional yicky days. Many parklet spots are wind-protected and ready for cold (giant heaters between tables) or rain (Please. It’s been so dangerously dry for so long in California that most citizens would welcome soggy hamburgers.) Paris, which is more than a few dining outdoor generations ahead of us, seems to take it own changes of weather in stride.

Newcomers to streetside dining sometimes have to learn the tricks of it all the hard way. For instance, one may spot a shady, well-secluded table on a busy thoroughfare and happily settle in, only to have the large truck that had been quietly parked at the curb pull away without so much as a polite nod – leaving you exposed to the thrum of traffic and acutely aware of why everybody else had chosen the more crowded together tables around the corner. It’s also useful to consider, when making reservations, which side of Fillmore Street, say, gets the blazing sun between 11 and 4; there’s only so much protection against California sunshine.

San Franciscans are still taking COVID protection seriously. Masks stay on until everyone’s served, tables are reasonably distanced and most parklets have dividers between customers that actually enhance the feeling of intimate dining.

Is this the New Normal? Who knows. Every day it gets a little harder to remember what the Old Normal felt like. But the New might eventually work its permanent way into the hearts and streets of San Francisco.   

This essay also appears on Medium.com 

A View from Inside Armageddon

Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire” reaches into a smouldering sky

September 15, 2020: The skies over San Francisco have cleared, finally, and the Air Quality Index has moved from Red to Yellow – still not something you’d want to go outside and exercise in for an extended period. But a week ago we woke to a Day of Darkness like nothing many of us had ever seen — or hope to see again. This (below) is an account of that day that I posted on Medium.com. but somehow managed not to post on this, my forever site.

It’s Armageddon. The Apocalypse. Those are the terms most frequently being tossed around, alongside “Really? Can you believe . . .” “This is surreal . . .” Nobody seems able to come up with words expansive enough.

Temple Emanu-El (rt) overlooks an apocalyptic scene

Mostly, however, there is an eerie quiet. Everyone looks around wide-eyed, behind their masks, speaking in whispers or small-child voices.

Northern California awoke to dark, burnt orange skies that created an impression of early evening at nine in the morning. We were already shaken by months of uncontained pandemic which by now has killed at least one or more we knew and loved, and sickened others who live with after-effects still unknown. Then came the racial unrest erupting in our cities and neighborhoods. Followed closely by the wildfires consuming beloved parks, forests, homes, communities. Uncounted mornings began with a cautious look at the air quality index, realizing it was too toxic outside for a walk around the block. And now this? Pitch dark at 9 in the morning?

The day of darkness was disorienting even for 2020.

But here is an on-the-ground report about the good news. Confronting the Apocalypse, people turned calm. And kind. This reporter needed to leave the safety of my securely quarantined geezer building, with its giant air purifiers on every floor, for a medical appointment at noon (when it looked like, oh, 8 PM.) So I made a couple of brief detours before heading home. First stop was the parking lot of a small neighborhood shopping center where I periodically buy flowers at the grocery store – because the flowers are outdoors out back, and someone will always take my credit card inside to pay for my selection. (I do not enter non-medical enclosed spaces.) There were lines of cars moving in and out and around. They moved very slowly. People stopped to let others have plenty of time to move in or out. Nobody honked. Around the back of the store where the flowers are there were probably several dozen people – talking about how it couldn’t possibly be midday, with all the lights on inside . . . But people spoke in hushed voices, frequently with soft laughter. (Apocalyptic times invite laughter. Who knew?) Everyone gave everyone plenty of social distance, but while we were moving around we smiled behind our masks as if sharing some awful but negotiable secret. While I stood with my armful of lilies and roses and my credit card held out, two customers and one store employee heading out on lunch break offered to go inside and take care of my transaction.

Then I drove a few blocks into the Presidio, where Inspiration Point is a celebrated spot for taking photos of San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz sits, jewel-like in the water, across an expanse of evergreens. The walkway and low wall are ideal for selfies and photos against this quintessential San Francisco backdrop. Immediately across the road from the small Inspiration Point parking area is Andy Goldsworthy’s soaring sculpture “Spire.” I lived nearby when “Spire” was created. We watched Goldsworthy and his assistants daily in 2008 as they built his towering monument of 37 Monterey cypress trunks bound together to reach 100 feet into the sky. Like others of Goldsworthy’s beautiful creations, Spire will eventually be absorbed back into nature, as surrounding trees continue to grow. On this Armageddon day, Nature has turned sculpture and surroundings alike into a glowing ember-like forest.

The view from Inspiration Point still inspired. But it was nothing like what photos in millions of tourist albums show, sailboats drifting around Alcatraz below blue skies and billowing clouds. It was a sepia-toned picture of suddenly colorless shrubs, with an umber haze settled around a few blinking lights of houses in the distance – a distance without Bay, sailboats, Alcatraz or the otherwise familiar.

And again, there was the eerie quiet. The ever-present mix of excited children’s voices and friends calling to each other was replaced by a hushed, slightly fearful wonder. Cars came and went, but slowly. There was no birdsong. I don’t know where birds go in times of distress, but they go silent. I read later that lights had to be kept on at the San Francisco Zoo because the animals were disoriented by the daytime darkness.

I had a notebook tucked under my arm while taking pictures around Inspiration Point. As I turned to get back into my car the notebook dropped with an unseemly noise. “Here,” said a soft voice as a gloved hand reached for my notebook. “Let me help you.”    

Covid-Chaneling Punxsutawney Phil

I think I know how Punxsutawney Phil feels. He emerges from a comfortable dark hole, looks around at the universe, makes a decision about how the future might look and returns to his comfortable dark hole.

The thing about it is, Phil only has to do this once a year. We above-ground types are being asked to do it over and over, and it can be trying for the average citizen. Meanwhile, pity the poor mayors and governors who are – in the total absence of national leadership – trying to advise us. Punxsutawney Phil has, at least, an Inner Circle (don’t look at me, this information comes straight from Phil’s Wikipedia page) to advise him about the forecast. We’ve got Anthony Fauci. But God only knows (and She has an awful lot on Her plate these days) whether science and reason will or will not be allowed the microphone.

(This space being mildly committed to avoiding overt political statements, I will skip right over the resemblances between Punxsutawney Phil and that other prominent American who sometimes pokes his head above the black hole of despotism and stupidity he inhabits, sniffs the hostile atmosphere and sinks right back into a comfy chair to watch Fox News.)

But out here in the real world. San Francisco, for instance.

Shadows in the park

California, having successfully addressed the coronavirus early on, recently proclaimed semi-liberation day. Announcements of Phase I re-openings were made. Everyone prepared to emerge from whatever dark hole of confinement he or she had been inhabiting. Then apparently way too many citizens of the Golden State threw caution (and masks, and social distancing) to the winds. Infections are running rampant, restrictions are being re-imposed, plywood that had begun to be removed is being nailed back in place. It is beyond bewildering.

So, much like Punxsutawney Phil after a lonnnng hibernation, recently I ventured out of the dark assisted-living hole I inhabit. Authorized to go for an unsupervised walk to restore my health and sanity, I set out, due uphill, for Lafayette Park high atop San Francisco. Here is how it went:

Blocks 1 and 2: Everything’s fine. But when did I get this out of shape?

Block 3: OMG, a person not wearing a mask is walking right toward me. Do I step into the traffic to avoid his germs? Should I call 911?

Block 4: See that lady walking into the apartment building a few yards to the left? She is coughing. Coughing. I summon my diminishing strength to sprint across the street before the light changes.

Block 5: Thank heavens, the park is in sight. At least all those steps at the entrance are shallow enough that I can probably still handle them. And there aren’t a whole lot of contagious-looking people hanging around. It’s important to be out in the sunshine. I need to keep that in mind.

Block 6: But here they are. CROWDS. How do I know whether that group all smushed together over there is really a family? If I take my usual uphill path, can I maintain six-foot distance from everybody? All these happy people, what’s the likelihood they are asymptomatic covid-positives? Anyway, don’t these people know about masks? The view of the Bay is spectacular.   

Going home it’s all downhill.

This essay first appeared on Medium.com, interesting site I’ve been writing for these past few months. You might want to check it out too.

Wear a Face Mask? Oh, why bother . . .

CAN WE LAUGH — OR MAYBE SMILE — OUR WAY THROUGH THIS?

“CORONAFEST 2020!” read the ad for Mr. Trump’s Tulsa rally that floated around the internet, “Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague!” And as a sort of postscript below: “Be sure to reserve your ICU bed and ventilator.” We’re going to hope this stays funny. Although I know the Bible says not to invoke harm upon your fellow human beings, it’s really hard not to wish a moderately severe case of covid19 on every unmasked attendee. I don’t actually want anyone to die, even if Mr. Trump would then be reducing his voter base – just get sick enough to make a point.

When did public health get hijacked by crazy politics? I live in San Francisco, where we started off the pandemic with early sheltering-in-place that kept our numbers low. But our numbers, at least those showing reported cases (3,400+) and deaths (48+) continue to rise. Some other factors are “meeting target goals,” but the list I obsessively keep has never showed a decline in cases since I started obsessing on March 26. We are slowly and cautiously re-opening around here – even geezers in my assisted living fortress now leave for non-emergency medical appointments. I have one this week that is a pleasant 10-block walk away, and you never saw anyone this excited about going to the dentist. However. A few days ago, in the balmy sunshine of Lafayette Park, people weary with staying in were practically shoulder-to-shoulder on the grass, 90% of them without mandatory-in-SF masks.

We seem to have parallel narratives: “Masks & distancing will get us through this with the least damage” – or “Oh, why bother.” The difference between this pandemic and the last is that it’s not just the crazies pushing the Oh why bother. Remember the old H1N1 swine flu a decade ago? Seems almost quaint. The country was prepared, met the virus head-on, came up with a vaccine opposed only by the crazies. To be honest, vaccine supplies fell short and were funneled to the most endangered: children, healthcare workers, pregnant women, people with pre-existing conditions. But compared to the novel coronavirus, H1N1 does look like a pussycat.

Here’s my question. Is there a way to get to the other side of this pandemic without major suffering – more overrun ERs and ICUs, upwards of 200,000 probable deaths this year – or minor discomfort? Keeping six feet away from all those people you want to hug (and many you’d settle just to high five) can sometimes seem more major than minor on the behavioral difficulty scale. But it’s doable. Masks are hot and bothersome and they fog up your glasses. I have a serious dislike of even my new overpriced mask, which I bought because it’s light and washable and theoretically doesn’t fog up my glasses. (They lied. It fogs.) Still, I’m wearing the blasted thing every time I walk out the door.

Maybe a little humor will help. Political jokes? Given where we are, you might as well laugh. Or subtle joys such as a friend suggested. “My boss drives me up the wall,” she said. “But I can look at him with straightforward eyes while I’m sticking my tongue out behind my mask.” A blog about H1N1 that I posted more than a decade ago had a conclusion that still fits, if you substitute “mask” for “vaccine.” In any event, the last line is still appropriate:

The best news of the pandemic is probably the fact that it has become fodder for stand-up comics and comedy shows. Once we start laughing at things they tend to whittle themselves down to sanity. My favorite message so far came from host Jon Daily on the Daily Show, in response to some of the craziness coming from the likes of Sean Hannity and Glen Beck. What we need, Daily suggested, is a vaccine against the vaccine, so we could have peace of mind while being vaccinated.

A little peace of mind goes a long way these days. (franjohns.net 10/25/09)

(This essay was posted earlier on Medium.com)

Parks: Heartbeat & Hope for the Future

Mountain Lake Park“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.Mountain Lake 9.9.18 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.

Birds in treesMacauley 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.

Hallelujah.

(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.)