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Normally, a photo should be able to stand on its own merits, without need for explanation. But I do think that this week’s diptych — or at least my half of it — benefits from a bit of explanation. I was reminded again this morning of the interesting things you see and the interesting encounters you have when you take the time to walk about the City.
First, the subject of my photograph (the second image below) was suggested to me by a transient man who noticed me taking “arty” pictures of a weathered signpost. He told me if I wanted a really good picture, I should go across the street and look up, look for a sign high on the wall of the crêpe place on the corner.
Now, I actually knew what he was talking about because I had grown up in that same neighborhood, back when The Other was in its late 70’s and 1980s heyday, when it was the greatest underground comedy club in America. But I had forgotten about it, just as the City did when the club died at the end of that decade. “Entertainment nightly” indeed. Once upon a time.
Once again my gratitude goes out to @uncola for her contribution. About it, she said, “Note that on top of the sort of slow-destruction-of-childhood-whimsy-in-the-harsh-realities-of-the-environment thing, ‘where’ is spelled wrong.” Indeed.
One of the most satisfying book series I’ve read is Lemony Snicket’s magnum opus (ostensibly for children), A Series of Unfortunate Events. A verbose, witty look at the unceasingly unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire Orphans, it was the brainchild of San Franciscan (and fellow Lowellite) Daniel Handler, the author of such grown-up books as Adverbs and The Basic Eight — the latter being set at a thinly disguised version of Lowell High. The subject of Handler came up when I was out with friends Saturday night. One of the friends went to Lowell with me, while another is a fellow fan of The Magnetic Fields, a band with whom Handler has played (accordion). With the one friend I discussed The Basic Eight and its portrayal of our high school, and with the latter I discussed the upcoming Magnetic Fields tour and their shows in San Francisco and Oakland.
I openly wondered if Handler would be playing his accordion live with the band.
Lo and behold, today I ran into no less an authority on the subject than Mr. Handler himself, apparently taking a stroll in a Victorian neighborhood near one of San Francisco’s hilltop parks. It must have been a strange encounter for him — it was a chilly day, and I was on my bicycle with my three-year-old daughter, who was clad in a rainbow of colors, with silver sequined shoes and a shimmery silver scarf, sitting in her rear-mounted seat. I suddenly stopped mid-street, just ahead of him, and waited for him to catch up before disrupting his reverie. After verifying his identity (needlessly; I was certain it was him), I said I had just one question — would he be playing with The Magnetic Fields during their upcoming local shows?
I suppose it might have seemed less odd if I explained that I had just been asking that question (to people of lesser expertise) in a bar the prior night. Or, perhaps, that would have made it more odd.
In any case, he graciously said yes, he would, and that he was excited about the new album they were releasing. In fact, he didn’t seem startled by my shock assault at all.
I didn’t bother him for an autograph. I was on my bike, already confusing my daughter with my bizarre behavior, and without a pen or paper. That, and I already have his signature. I let him return to his brisk walk, and resumed our brisk ride.
When we got home I introduced Mather to the music of the Magnetic Fields, to which she responded, predictably, by dancing. A few years down the line she’ll no doubt be introduced to Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire. Hopefully she can one day mirror their ingenuity, but hopefully without a series of unfortunate events.
Someone scrawled the phrase “Be a Flâneur” into wet sidewalk cement near my parents’ house. I’m not sure how long it has been encased in concrete, but I know I passed it many times before my curiosity got the best of me, and I googled the word “flâneur“.
I was more than a little enchanted by what I discovered. Adapted from a French noun for “stroller”, it was coined by the poet and writer Charles Baudelaire to mean “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”. Magic. I’ve loved walking cities my whole life; growing up I frequently walked home from elementary school via increasingly crooked routes that I called my “AdventureWALKS” (which I then wrote stories about after arriving home; I wonder if my mother saved any of these infantile attempts at literature?).
Now, my preferred form of transit is the bicycle, and I frequently carry my daughter to her preschool in a childseat. But yesterday threatened rain, so we took the train to school. I had an appointment downtown, so after leaving her behind, I hustled on to the financial district via subway. When I was done (getting a filling and finding out my new crown didn’t fit), I was downtown, a few miles from her school with a few hours to spare. And the promised rain was nowhere in sight. So I wandered back via streets big and little, boulevards and alleyways, as big as Market Street and as small as Maiden Lane — I became a flâneur, and lived the City.
As much as I love the bicycle, you see more on foot, moving a little slower, stopping when you want, and not having to dodge taxis and busses. Since I didn’t have my usually ubiquitous headphones, I was especially plugged into my environment — sights, sounds, and all the other senses mixed and mingled to let me know where I was. Thoughts both deep and fleeting get to mingle and float as you walk, slowly turning over and developing into something bigger. Blood flows through your veins a little quicker. Crisp December air refreshes the lungs. Long strides stretch tired legs.
My walk started in the heart of the Financial district, close to where the concrete canyons of Sansome and Montgomery originate off the diagonal slash of Market Street. I walked by the venerable and beloved Mechanics’ Institute Library, on Post Street (the City’s oldest library, predating San Francisco’s public library by more than a quarter century) before ducking into a store on Maiden Lane (Christmas shopping is upon us, after all). After shopping, I walked up Geary past (not into) Union Square. I still think the new design is unfortunate and uninviting, with an intimidating front face of concrete facing Geary. Then I followed the cable car path back down to Market Street.
Mid-Market remains a troubled area for San Francisco, but it makes a fascinating walk nonetheless, particularly with the current “Art in Storefronts” program adding color to the scene. Of course, I also had to trot into the Main Library on my way through — there is always something to look up or look for!
Walking through Hayes Valley after that was something of a revelation. It’s not an area I’m in very often, and even less often on foot. Now, the area has had cute boutiques and upscale restaurants for quite a while now (ever since the tear-down of the Central Freeway overpass that blighted the area), but it seems to have reached a critical mass in which the variety of stores and eateries both on and off of Hayes Street are feeding off of each other’s success in drawing foot traffic to the area. It was midday on a Tuesday and the sidewalks were busy. I spent a few minutes sitting on a bright green bench studying a bright green door in an otherwise gray storefront. I felt simply enchanted by the addition of color to gray.
Taking in the contrast of color I had a mini-epiphany — part of the reason that San Francisco’s Victorians and Edwardians are so lively and lovely is the contrast between the rich colors in which they are painted and the frequently silver-gray sky settled in above our heads. Civic Center is a collection of handsome, gray beaux-arts beauties, from City Hall to the Old Main Library (now the Asian Art Museum) and the War Memorial Opera House. But the European-style boulevards and open areas of Civic Center often seem lifeless, and it is because the opulent stone buildings look drab when matched with our gray sky. But our Victorians, our wonderful, colorful, bursting Victorians — even the modest ones, the slightly faded ones — sing out under our silver sphere.
I got to enjoy many of those Victorians in my remaining walk up from Hayes Valley into the Haight and Castro, with little surprises and architectural novelties along the way. Walking on little streets you see also unexpected glimpses of art and ideas shared with passers-by.
And of course, from downtown to uptown the best part of the walk was always the people-watching. I won’t elaborate except to say it is delightful to see how meaningless stereotypes can be — you get little windows into other people’s worlds as you walk, snippets of conversations, glimpses of activity and you’re reminded of the infinite possibilities in life and how rarely anyone fits into a singular box — even in just a moment of time.
Near the end of my walk was one of my favorite San Francisco features — obscure public stairs. A hilly city, San Francisco has many shortcuts cut between houses, stone and wood stairways, some with their own street names and addresses (there is something wonderfully romantic and old-fashioned about a street that can only be traversed by foot — no cars, no exhaust, only hustle). Someday I hope to have find and walk them all (this website should help me locate them).
It is rare to have as much free time as I did yesterday, but even when it’s hard to scrape together time it’s always worth remembering to walk a little. Walk alone, or walk with a friend, walk for miles or walk a few blocks, and walk to remind yourself how a city breathes and feels. And let’s ditch the term “pedestrian” — it is so pejorative, an unfortunate surrogate for “bland”, and remember to all be flâneurs instead.