[Yes, it's one of those long-time-between installments walking posts. Keep up at the back there...]
On how it wasn’t the walk I had intended to take.
Waking up that morning and unfolding the map of streets I have already walked and ones I have yet to walk, I had mapped out a route. The route would, after a Muni ride into the city centre, lead out of downtown, straight down a road I’d crossed a thousand times but never purposefully walked along, and to a neighbourhood I’ve been wanting to explore for ages, but had been saving for such a beautiful day. It’s an interesting place – yet another one of the very self contained and proud areas of the city that, set apart by city planning or ridiculous gradients, manages to feel like a very distinct, friendly small town, even as you turn the corner and can see, barely any distance away at all, the point of the Transamerica pyramid and the rest of the downtown/financial district skyline and… Well, let’s hold off on that, because I didn’t. Go to that neighbourhood, I mean… or explore it (yet). So that’s for another day.
What happened, instead, was that I caught the J from near my house. It trundled down the streets, tucked itself down cut-throughs and skirted the park. It crossed Market Street and plunged into the tunnel that takes it down to the Embarcadero. At Civic Center, I got off the Muni, and started up toward street level.
Civic Center, non-San-Francisco-people, though it sounds grand, isn’t. It is not the most lovely place in the world. It has city hall in it, which is a very beautiful building. It has several excellent museums, a few good touring theatres, and a lot of nice restaurants. But it’s also at the lower extension of The Tenderloin, which is smack (literally) in the middle of the city, and, for reasons that I’m sure people more familiar with city politics and history can tell us in the comments, a very tightly contained area of disarray.
Bordered on all sides by lots of expensive property and ridiculously wealthy businesses – on one side by Nob Hill, the traditional home of San Francisco’s Super-rich (though now more often found in the bloody Marina across town) – The Tenderloin is like a different city to the ones that butt up against it. Look at a crime map and you’ll see all the coloured dots of drug-dealing, street-robbery, prostitution, and all sorts of illegal forms of anti-social naughtiness spread out across the city, for sure, but teaming like a hive in the Tenderloin.
It’s also where a lot of the big tourist hotels are based.
The first time My Beloved came to the city on business, I woke up the morning after his first night there to find a long, poetic, beautifully super-descriptive email about how, far from being the City of Silicon Wealth he had been expecting to visit, this was a city on its knees, crushed by poverty indeed, quietly ringing with the mumble of hard drugs or bad sex offered for sale by every passing stranger and ripe with the stench of broken dreams and all the other descriptive terms that English Lit graduates like my dearest like to squoosh into their letters. It was a work of great travel literature and a historical document to be treasured.
Or would have been, if the next morning I had not woken up to find, basically, a rebuttal. He’d turned left when he’d meant to turn right coming out of his hotel, and ended up in the Tenderloin by mistake. The rest of the city was really nice, he went on, and his jetlag was better, weather lovely, wish you were here, etc.
So coming up out of the Muni, I wasn’t green. I know what the area is like, I used to live just to the south of it the first year we were here. I knew when I planned my route out that morning. It was broad daylight, I was brought up in London, I’m not scared of people or believe that everyone out there is just lurking around a corner waiting to cause me harm or make me dead (well, MOST of the time). But as I passed through the ticket gate, fended off a man hustling for change, another hustling for a bit of my ladylike charm, I started to feel a bit like it wasn’t the walk I wanted to take that day.
Stepping onto the escalator, the bottom half of which was in the shade of the Muni station, the top half in the bright sunlight of Civic Center, I started rising out of the ground, and into a world that smelled very strongly of piss. There was a man shoving another man around by the wall at the top of the moving staircase. Gruff voices laughed that laugh that’s half way between gurgle and cough. The smell of piss got stronger.
As the escalator neared the top, I saw a woman with wild eyes catch sight of me, and turn to walk my way, and realised just how much I just couldn’t be arsed with any of it. I held on to the handrail between the escalator and the stairs, swung myself into a U-turn and headed straight down again. My muni transfer was good for another couple of hours: I’d get whichever tram arrived next.
On the actual walk that I took
Due to works that would have meant getting off the Muni and on to a hot, stinky bus anyway, I stepped out at West Portal.
West Portal. If there’s anything that can make a girl feel like she’s just walked into a science fiction novel, it’s alighting at a station called West Portal. ‘Beyond the West Portal, my child, lies the outer edges of the galaxy of Ublubblubblytron FIVE, and your mission…’ they would say – but beyond the West Portal lies the suburbs of Sunset and Parkside, and beyond them, the Pacific Ocean, and the only mission you accept in arriving there is either to live a quiet settled life for the rest of your days, or walk a very long, very straight road for the afternoon. I chose the latter.
I bought a tourist map of San Francisco at an antiques fair a few weeks ago. It was a free giveaway from a city bank in the early fifties to their new customers, presuming they might be new to the city, and pointing out some of the more notable and attractive landmarks in their new home. It’s in black and white, with flags planted at the appropriately exciting places with pictures on describing just how exciting each one is, and just how. There’s a flag planted at the Powell Street turnaround, with the words CABLE CARS, and a cartoon of some smiling people hanging out of an old streetcar and waving. There’s a flag planted on the northern edge of the city, with the word MARINA and a cartoon of some smiling people hanging out on a sailboat, and a flag planted in the North East Corner with the words FISHERMAN’S WHARF and a cartoon of some disproportionately happy crabs hanging from the rough hand of a fisherman and about to be smacked with a pointy hammer and turned into happy chowder in a happy sourdough bowl.
In the west of the city – west of Twin Peaks, west of the great fog divide, and west of the West Portal that I’d just stepped out of, the area was mainly clear of flags. There were, in fact, only a few scattered around the outer neighbourhoods, or ‘the avenues’, as people refer to them generally (and generally, depending on where they live, with a sneer in their voice). The words next to each flag planted on the map that time simply said RESIDENTIAL, and then a cartoon of a man with a porkpie hat and a pipe mowing the lawn. Or a picture of a man with a pipe in a car going off to work, and his family fondly waving goodbye and the word RESIDENTIAL. Or a scruffy-haired child and a friendly-looking dog with its tongue hanging out. RESIDENTIAL, said the flag. RESIDENTIAL, RESIDENTIAL, RESIDENTIAL.
Not much has changed.
I passed through a brief shopping area on Taraval of a few streets where the most muni lines cross and connect – with a small supermarket, some dusty looking estate agents offices, and many dentists and doctor’s offices that were either really bold in their design choices or just hadn’t felt like changing them since the mid-70s.
And then, not wanting to walk next to the buses that could otherwise hoik me straight down to the beach without all the pesky walking, I turned left at 17th avenue, and right onto Ulloa.
The avenues are the ones that run north to south along this side of the city. The streets that cut through them east to west have melodious names, exotic (to my ear). While many of the downtown streets are named for the mayors, city founders, captains of industry, the streets of Sunset and Parkside are different. Ortega, Pacheco, Quintara, Rivera, Santiago, Taraval, Ulloa, Vincente… it took me a year and a half of walking to click that they were alphabetical. I know, I know – I’m just not used to cities having such ORDER imposed on them. I’m from a land of jumbled streets and gradual city-growth, not ones that sprang up and exploded in size from zero to enormous in a hundred years.
I wandered down Ulloa, pausing to take pictures of pretty flowers I cannot name but will probably end up using as laptop screen desktops on dark sad wintery days.
I passed a set of children, out on some urban summer camp treasure hunt. A jogger. A man being walked by eight dogs. At 19th avenue I waited for the lights to turn a block down, then scuttled across the eight lanes of road in case they started again and every decided to take me down at once.
The rest of the way down, though, I was mainly by myself. Thirty-one blocks, in all, down to Ocean beach. I caught up with a UPS man, making his rounds, and though he took off just after I passed, he stopped at another house half a block in front, and I caught up as he tried and failed to deliver his package. I passed just as he was jumping back in his van and throwing the undeliverable into the back. He drove on, another half block. I caught up. He drove off. I caught up. By the end of four blocks it was getting a bit embarrassing, but then he flashed me a big grin, and I smiled back, and it wasn’t odd any more.
Down through the avenues, each quiet, each more unremarkable than the last, as if someone had banned fun, or individuality, or, in fact, anything that might suggest the last century had ended and another began.
On many blocks, there were examples of the beautifully manicured lawns, shrubs and driveways those flags marked RESIDENTAL had promised me.
I imagined them being tended at the weekends by men with antique lawnmowers and porkpie hats and pipes hanging out of the side of their mouths, before being waved off on Monday morning on his way to work by his perfectly coiffured wife, small tousle-haired child and dog with a tongue-control problem. Then they’d go back into the house, shoot up some protein-shake-style mixture of chardonnay, pedigree chum and marajuana and pass out until he got home because god knows there is NOTHING ELSE TO DO on this side of town.
At the beach, which falls after 48th avenue and on the other side of the ‘Great Highway’ at this point, I turned left, walked two blocks, and walked straight back up again, away from the sea, toward the mountains in the middle of the city and my house on the other side of them, up Santiago, past neat little houses, cars in a middling state of repair, and the same UPS guy at least three times more.
Detail is unnecessary. It was ALL THE SAME.
Well, save for the point where – and I should have mentioned, on long flat walks where I’m unlikely to overhear other snatches of conversation or unusual things, I plug myself into walking music and think, or into podcasts and lose myself in those as well. So I was listening to a bunch of This American Life podcasts that had had me giggling out loud at some points and smiling at many others, but suddenly, in the middle of one of the stories, there was moment that made me cry. A lot. I can’t remember which, or why particularly on that day, but somewhere between 14th Avenue and Portola, as I walked down a quiet side street with no one on at all, I was fighting back the desire to stand still and bawl like a baby.
I could, of course. In this neighbourhood there was no one to hear me. In Civic Center, meanwhile, there would have been everyone to hear me, but no one would have looked twice.
I skirted the bottom of twin peaks, up a busy road I’ve been driven along many times, but never quite realised the tedium of until I took it on foot:
And as soon as I could, I ducked into the side streets where I could see from my map that there was a slight gap where roads didn’t quite match up which, I hoped, might turn out to be a shortcut or a stairway that would get me moving toward home.
Of course, it turned out to be a cliff, but the long way round meant I got to see a more interesting, individualistic kind of RESIDENTIAL. The kind that has houses with both driveway and front garden covered with beautiful, classic American cars in a state of repair that makes you quite sure they’ll never be driven again. Or little glimpses into a sunny home through the kind of entryway that I love more than any reasonable person should love an entryway.
And cars filled with coconut shells carved to look like decapitated monkey heads.
Or at least I hope that’s what they were. Decapitated monkey heads spruced up to look like coconuts was the other less likely but still plausible option. Because once you’ve become the kind of person that decides to put that in your car, who knows what else you’re capable of?
And then toward home. The long way round due to the pesky cliff (I should have realised it was called ‘Glen Canyon’ for a reason), knees complaining at 8 miles so far of pavement pounding, stomach joining in and throat drowning out both of them when it realised there was one more massive hill to go and I’d run out of water somewhere the other side of the crevasse.
It was worth it, though, of course. At the top of the hill, almost at the road that would take me home fast – and faster if I rolled down it, which was starting to look like the most tempting option – a perfect view over the downtown skyline and to the Berkeley hills beyond, way over the other side of the bay.
And then I limped down the hill to be RESIDENTIAL.
My kind of RESIDENTIAL, that is. The one on the Eastern side of the city.
RESIDENTIAL, rock’n'roll style. With tea.