San Francisco


It was a golden morning the day we left the city. I forced my eyes awake at dawn to walk Mina the two blocks to Alamo where we were greeted by early chill, dewy grass, sun splashed skyscrapers. We watched the light deepen and then soften as the day began. I strolled beneath the Cyprus canopies one last time, paused to admire the funky plant-filled kicks of the shoe garden, then called Mina and we walked down Hayes and up Fillmore back to 525. Two hours of packing, organizing and sweeping later, Brendan, Mina and I departed 525 Fillmore with a truck filled to the brim and two days of driving ahead of us. We crossed the Bay Bridge. The skyline shrank and faded. Fleet Foxes crooned through the speakers. Tears wet my hot cheeks. My chapter of city living in San Francisco ended.

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Then there was the road. Passage through the endless rolling greens of California, the squat ranch houses, the strip malls along I-80 East. Sacramento’s sprawled shape to the south. Central Valley fields, orchards, signs calling out ‘Fresh Pecans!’ ‘Walnuts picked today!’ Should we stop for one final fresh California nut? We pressed on to the pocketed roads that wind through Tahoe. At the exit arrow for Donner Pass Brendan and I share a glance, a smile, a memory of my birthday last October when we camped with Greta, Ale and Liz on a cliff in that high country. A weekend of mossy-treed hiking, alpine lake dipping, California granite climbing when something began that has gained momentum since. A smile shared between two, a feeling, an understanding.

On into Nevada, Reno, depart the interstate at Fenley, angle south to Rt. 50, the self-proclaimed loneliest road in America, one of my self-proclaimed favorite roads in America. Mindless hours spent gazing at the arid, nearly inhospitable flats and desolate mountain rises of Nevada provide perfect bridge between the past and the future–time and space for the mind to soften of its routine, to process, to daydream, to sit comfortably in that perfect state of being neither here nor there and so accountable to nowhere. Time and space to just be. There.

On and on the road it goes

A pause in Ely. Brendan played a $1 slot at Hotel Nevada–

(and by the way, did you know Nevada is pronounced with a long a, like Nevaada? A Chevron station attendant in Eureka told me so. He was a young kid, maybe 17 years old. He was hoping he could get a job in the mines. ‘The mines are still working?’ we asked. ‘Oh yeah, he replied, and the money’s good. You can make bout $11 an hour working up there. Lot more than this job,’ he motions to the gas pumps around him, the full garbage bag in his hand that he’s about to toss in the dumpster. I’m suddenly ashamed I’m moving to an affluent place like Aspen where illegal immigrant wages start at $11 an hour. Then he tells me, ‘and somebody’s gonna give you crap for this if I don’t say something. It’s pronounced Nevaada ’round here, not Nevada.’ So be sure the next time you cross through Nevada, draw out that ‘a’ like you were born to.)

But, back to Ely. In a weird, no good reason way, I love Ely. I love it for it’s weirdness. The one main drag through town is lined with casinos, cheap hotels, bars and hometown restaurants like the Jailhouse. From either east or west, it takes eons to get there but then you wind down this mountain pass and suddenly your right in the heart of the place. It’s just so novel. So we play a slot at Hotel Nevada, forgo the $.99 margaritas and bemused glances at the proud display of taxidermy gracing the dark smokey corners of the casino. We cross the street for a beer at the Outpost Lounge where the bartender and two gruff older men sit on stools eating takeout, drinking beer, talking town gossip. The place is empty save for them and us and we keep to ourselves, take turns on an electronic game called Gone Fishin’. Ely was cold, 30 degrees or so–and much colder than our softened city bodies were accustomed to. We readied for a brisk night under the stars and found just that at a highway turnout near the Utah border. Just like that–with no permits, sneaking in Mina, or worrying about being caught where we shouldn’t be–we set our tent on a snow patch on National Forest land, marveled at how we couldn’t pull that off in California.

The next morning, a salt flat gave way to Utah. The Wasatch appeared, faded. Sugar dusted red rock canyons lined I70. At the San Rafael Swell overlook we stopped for a look and found a Navajo woman peddling her clay vases, torquise and silver necklaces, dream catchers. She lives 30 miles north. She sells her goods at this interstate overlook nearly every day. That day was quiet, few other cars stopped while we paced the sidewalk, fingered rings, weighted clay pots. ‘This is how we make our living,’ she said. ‘There are no jobs on the reservation so we go other places. The lucky ones go to school.’ She asks what we do in Colorado. I tell her we ski, hike, enjoy nature. She smiles timidly, turns away, says she’d like to go someday. We buy a vase, a ring, too shy to barter, to give her less than a decent living on that slow Wednesday afternoon.

Why is the highway symbol of Utah a honeycomb? We ask each other as the canyon shadows grow longer. I’ve never seen honey from Utah, neither has Brendan. ‘Are there really that many bees here?’ ‘Where?’ We’ve come no closer to solving the puzzle when at last in fading light the sign appears:

We’ve made it!

Hours later, in charcoal cover of night, we arrive in Aspen, former silver mining settlement, now the ritziest, glitziest ski town in North America. If I had it my way, every new beginning would begin with a road trip–a moment to pause, glance around and appreciate these great United States we live in.

And now, it’s time to ski!

dew on Alamo grass,

The lovely Painted Ladies of Alamo Square

gold splashed skyline,

hard breath between strides

–morning beauty so big it drowned out the sirens

One of the most famous parks in San Francisco is Alamo Square, a two block by two block square of grass and trees situated high on a hill in the city. Little did I know prior to moving to San Francisco, I grew up with Alamo Square. In fact, most American children raised on ABC sitcoms in the 1990s did too. Alamo Square, along with the famous Painted Ladies houses that line Steiner Street on the eastern side of the park, was the setting for the opening scene of the popular family sitcom. Remember the Tanner family picnic in the sun-bathed grass? The San Francisco Bay and skyline sparkling in the distance? Yep, that’s my view every morning.

I live one block south, one block east of Alamo. When you live in the city, natural spaces–no matter how public they are–become sacred places of refuge. So many mornings I wake in my nearly windowless shoebox sized room, groggily dress and step out into the whirling traffic of Fillmore and Fell, seeking morning peace beneath a tree canopy. Despite the all-pervading city hum that infiltrates the green spaces of the park, Alamo always provides. Here, a few observations of the city, inspired by the hilltop perch and those high-topped trees that compliment it so well:

Alamo, always Alamo, ever Alamo in the mornings. Today there’s a crow croaking in the Cyprus tree, and construction on Fillmore St a block a way that floods the space from here to there with piercing beeps, deep rumbling engine groans. There are people everywhere–in the park, en route to the park, on the perifery sidewalks of the park–people always everywhere in San Francisco. Even on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. Especially on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. And dogs. I heard once when first moving to the city that there are more dogs here than children. This fact was recently verified by long-time residents.

The air is balmy today, maybe 60 degrees ( so strange to me for December). Park passerbys are bundled in long coats and hats, the occasional scarf. I think back to those mountain dwelling days when the inescapable chill of December was so deep it burrowed itself in my bones. But now, today, I too am wrapped in fleece, a hat. The city is making me soft. Christmas nears but with these damp, cotton filled skies, it could be March, April, October perhaps but no way no how December. But here beside this red trunk, it’s nature I’m near and that’s all that matters.

Yesterday I joined two friends for a wander in among the dips and hills and wave-crashed coastlines of Tennessee Valley, just north of San Francisco in Marin. Our hike began beneath heavy cloud cover but before long we climbed above the fog. Our sneakers sank into the muddy trail underfoot, our eyes scanned the white cloud band below for intermittent glimpses of the Pacific. We tromped along the coastal path to Pirate’s Cove, stepping into and out of foggy patches that exposed glimpses of the rocky shores. A mile from the parking lot, our trail crested a high ridge and the rolls and rounded peaks of the Bay Area, the house dotted hillsides of Saulsalito, and the skyline of the city framed between the sides of a valley, were spread out before us. A gentle breeze blew past, a large bird sailed overhead. We paused for a moment, exclaimed ‘oh, it’s so beautiful!’ and then continued on our way, back to the packed streets, packed schedules, packed public spaces of city life.

After six months of San Francisco, I continually ask the question: how the hell do people do this? I keep hoping that with time the densly populated lifestyle will get easier, the concrete stretches more soft and giving, the many public park sufficient substitutes for real nature. If anything the experience becomes more challenging each day. I seek and grab any opportunity to escape to the world beyond the city, hoping that doing so will refresh my perspective and allow me to open myself to the city again. Excursions beyond the Golden Gate, Bay Bridge, or 101 South have become mental breaks but also painful reminders of how good life can be in quieter, greener, less populated settings, reminders that make return each time more challenging.

But, there’s something to be said for pushing yourself through an experience that challenges your every last resolve. If life were easy, it would be boring. My 45 minute daily walk to work is peppered with scenes I’d often rather not see–a crackhead lurching down the sidewalk at Market St. and Jones, his eyes rolling uncontrolled like marbles in their sockets; the bums that dot the lawns of city hall pushing their shopping carts overflowing with trash bags of their belongings, peeing, defecating in the bushes; rows on rows of buildings, sidewalks, streets, accompanied by the incessant swoosh, whoosh, honks of cars busses, trucks, cabs, trains passing by, so densly packed that the sun sometimes is hidden by the sky scrapers. But the walk is also filled with sights I enjoy–polished women in funky couture coats and every variety of knee high boot; the herd of bicyclists, many donning suits, that flood Market Street en route to work; the sophisticated storefront displays of the downtown Anthropology, Gucci, Versace; the white tents and mouthwatering local, fresh produce of the Civic Center Farmer’s Market. Despite the discomforts, witnessing this raw variety of life everyday makes me feel strangely connected to humanity and the human experience of life in this concentrated 7 mile by 7 mile square of the world. And that’s something I wouldn’t feel so easily in a small mountain town.

So maybe that’s how people do it: they take the bad with the good and simply live their lives. Or they just don’t get caught dwelling on it all like I do. Or they block out the less appealing facets of the city with headphones and an IPod (which I also have taken to doing), and celebrate the more appealing ones.

Or some people do this–they appreciate the culture, the diversity, the human connections, the entertainments of the city for a time. Once they’ve had their fill, they return to life on the quieter, greener, perhaps more mountainous other side with a slightly broader world view, expanded not by traditional institutional education, but simply by life.

Henry Coe

Gnarled scrub oak frames the horizon and straw-colored California hills rise to meet a nearly cloudless sky. The hum of a passing plane whines softly, grass stalks gently rustle, bugs buzz. A bird caws. Last night, as dusk settled into the hills, we saw a bobcat, it’s white tipped tail bobbing as it escaped into deeper grass.

We camped by a bog. Was once a pond; apparently is in spring. We woke to November sun radiating in our tent. California, surprisingly 70 degrees, not a sign of fall in sight.

Touching down from Seattle, one pretty evening

A fiery band of light rips across

the ocean like prairie fire, only this prairie

is purple and gently dimpled, ridged.

The Pacific darkens

beneath a righteous sky that glows

fuscia, blood orange, pastel blue

the clouds pocketed magenta strips

that run the length of the great wide ocean

Great West Coast.

The sun dips–fiercely radiating orb drops

the plane wing tilts, shows

a bold half moon arising, the city

twinkling beyond folds and hills of Marin.

A sigh, what a welcome home.

Day’s end, Embarcadero

An orange cable car pauses beneath towering palm tree fronds on the Embarcadero. Seagulls chuckle and caw, perch on the weathered wooded fences lining the pier. Ferry building bells sing six strokes–oh they sound so sweet against the grinding city hum! Two benches over,  a bum in a red baseball cap rustles his bags. His buddy lays on the bench beside him, passed out or drunk or both. A brown gull whines on the concrete beside them. She cries like a wounded dog, her head bobbing as she paces zig zags around a shallow puddle. Without warning, her wings spread, take flight. She hovers just above the iridescent water. Her brown fades to dusk.

The bay shimmers, glassy ripples reflect fading light above, smudge the lines of the Bay Bridge so that its shape becomes a thought of Monet. Across the water, windows of Berkeley Hills homes sparkle, the hills themselves glow red, deep dusky red, seductive and rich yet fading so quickly to brown.

To see the mountains again

hazy Sierra shapes

on a pale blue horizon–

I am young

my child heart flutters,

dances lightly in my chest.

Around us, the dry California flats

stretch from east to west

Coast Ranges to Sierra Nevada,

straw yellow fields

green irrigated squares

tidy orchard rows,

expansive space occasionally interrupted

by house clumps

a glaring aluminum silo

the chunky scales of a palm tree trunk.

We are driving North–

two sisters and a dog named Check

in a shiny blue rental,

We are bound for granite peaks

and alpine lakes,

We left our city lives in the San Francisco fog–

office days, bus schedules, the constant spasm of city activity–

We are now the children we were before

(and always are inside),

two little girls with braids in their hair

marveling at the wonder

of a blue mountain on the distant horizon.

Civilization imprints the mind

but mountains imprint the spirit,

We giggle and sigh as they come closer.

Morning in the Trinity Alps Wilderness

“Wow, it’s Thursday already, I feel like it’s constantly Thursday,” Greta exclaimed as we stood waiting for a bus home yesterday. She paused a moment, “and September is going to be so busy, it’s pretty much already over,” she said. I nodded in agreement, my mind wandering to my impending September plans that were packed like a sardine can. Activity whirled through the city streets around us like the chilling breeze we huddled to escape. Coat adorned bodies rushed quickly down San Francisco’s busy sidewalk avenues, Blackberries and Iphones in hand, fingers busily tapping keypads, mouths chatting into receivers. The bike lanes crowded with cyclists donning suits, shiny shoes and earphones. Motorbikes and scooters whined by. A yellow cab honked as a bus pulled in front of it, a Blackberry Mobile ad was plastered to the bus’s back window.

Since moving to the city, I have been amazed and often overwhelmed by the incessant connectivity here. Blackberry Messengers, IPhones and Droids fill the pockets, purses and hands of friends I meet, strangers encountered on the street. I was recently given a Blackberry but refuse to activate it because simply being immersed in this constant hyper-connectivity is draining enough–if I had my own wireless connection 24-7, any efforts to escape would be futile. But it isn’t just in the city that this connectivity and notion of time moving too quickly exist. Even when I lived in the Rockies and was removed from constant city activity, time moved at an apparently accelerating pace; I think the busyness spawned by the digital age is a huge contributor.

A recent New York Times article titled “Your Brain on Computers–Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime” delves into America’s uber connectivity and states, “technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect [of the constant barage of technology]: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.” The article goes on to say that downtime is necessary for our brains to process memories from short term into long term. With a constant supply of digital input, humans hop from one distraction to the next without resting to actually absorb the impacts or meaning of their activity. We are like butterflies fluttering from one computer application, cell phone conversation, MP3 file to the next, without actually stopping to let our brains catch up.

Two distinct periods of my life have passed when I escaped the rhythm of accelerated time. Both occurred during multiple month stints of camping when I was surrounded by natural time, not human influenced, technology driven time. In those settings, I stopped wearing a watch, had no cell phone, no readily accessible internet, no virtual connection to the rest of the world. Instead I had tangible connection with the natural world. While camping in the wilderness of Utah, Colorado and villages of Nepal, I lost track of the days, the hours, a calendar, a schedule. I knew the time because of sunrise and set. When my stomach growled, I ate. When I was tired, I slept. I did not have days divided into micro-minutes–quick yoga session, breakfast and article reading before work, writing text messages on the bus en route, one hour lunch break with a friend, listening to a new album on the way home, a drink with a friend after work, dinner, singing practice, meeting with friends later–as I tend to do now. And those times were amazingly free-ing, mentally, spiritually, physically and socially.

While on a flight from Kathmandu to Singapore last fall, I was beside a small Asian woman from Singapore who sat between me and the tiny cabin window. As we watched the jagged Himalaya grow smaller, we struck up conversation. She had just spent five days between Kathmandu and Pokhara and was impressed with the beauty of the country, the gentle nature of the people and, most significantly, how un-wired that the place was. A Singapore resident her entire life, she struggled to explain how her body and brain felt so rested in Nepal, as opposed to Singapore where internet frequencies, cell phone waves, sattelite, etc. are constantly buzzing in the air. In developing Nepal, a fast internet connection is a novel gem and as unreliable as the wavering electricity that often leaves the country and cities in blackouts. How interesting that one of the biggest impressions Nepal had left on this woman was not just the limited access to phone and internet connectivity but the actual feeling of it, and subsequent effect on her mental energy.

As I write this, no less than six tabs are open on my web browser. My mouse flicks from Gmail to Grooveshark, New York Times, Google and the California State Parks website. Every so often I pull up Craigslist to browse job listings. Hop back to Gmail, type a note on GChat. My mind wanders from subject to subject, tab to tab. As soon as I get bored of seeing one screen, I just click to the next. I’m doing about five different activities yet am accomplishing none. This is standard, this is normal and most often, I just drink more coffee to refocus, as opposed to disconnecting myself.

This weekend, I plan to give my brain a rest among the soothing setting of nature. While researching potential parks and natural places to visit, I was referred to Van Damme State Park. The park boasts a creekside fern grove, Pygmy forest where mature trees are as short as six inches tall and access to the coast. What’s the exciting new addition to the park? WiFi connection.

Even in our efforts to escape connectivity we must consciously choose to do so. Welcome to the 21st century.

Mice in the kitchen, bums on the streets, gay men in short skirts–a day in the city is one of colorful encounters, sightings, interactions. In the spirit of a day spent among these streets, here is a collection of verbal snapshots, moments captured in memory in San Francisco:

The mice in our kitchen on Haight Street loudly announce themselves at all hours of the day. It is as though we invited them to inhabit the crumb-filled corners of our old Victorian. Perhaps, though, they’ve simply lived here longer than the rest of us and have no qualms staking their territory. This morning I wandered to the kitchen around 8:30 for a shot of espresso and caught sight of a dark grey body scurrying beneath the trash can. Ugh, gross, I thought, eyeing up the trash and the random bits of food scraps around it. While cooking up lunch a couple of days ago, I was serenaded by squeaks coming from beneath the refrigerator. Can’t they keep it down? I thought. People live here! I guess having extra bodies around is kind of friendly though, and given that our kitchen is shared by six, what’s a couple of more? At least they aren’t the hand-sized cockroaches my best friend Katie had in her apartment in New York; if they were, then we’d have a problem.

Given my current state of minimal employment, I often find myself roving San Francisco’s streets. Despite all of the incredible and enticing ethnic eateries that I constantly refrain myself from stepping into–I repeat the mantra ‘once I have a job I’ll eat at [insert scrumptious ethnic restaurant name]…’–San Francisco is an excellent city to be unemployed in. With all of the wild, view-boasting parks, picturesque streets, diversity of faces and otherwise beautiful surroundings, who could get bored? A surprisingly large population of homeless people agrees. As common a sight as flannel wearing hipsters on the sidewalk is, passed out bums wrapped in blankets or sleeping bags strewn across the pavement are just as common. Yesterday I passed a bedraggled woman on Church Street who sleeping on the sidewalk, half covered by a filthy once-white blanket, a ripped open paper bag of chips next to her face. Her mouth was half-open as though she had fallen to the sidewalk and passed out mid-chew. Today I passed a black man in a sleeping bag on Market. His head and upper body were burrowed in his overturned shopping cart; it was as though the shopping cart was his house. During my morning strolls through Buena Vista Park, I routinely encounter rustling in dense clumps of bushes and can just barely make out the shapes of bodies behind the branches and leaves. My friend Andy, who lives in Aspen, recently told me about a bear who tried to enter his house one night. It reminded me of my Aspen days when I’d fall asleep to the sound of bears rattling the lock on the dumpster. Homeless people are the bears of the city. They descend from the parks, the alleys, the nooks in the sidewalks to roam around and eat the discards of others.

Life in this international city is fantastically diverse. On any given day I ordinarily hear snippets of Chinese, Indian, German, French, Spanish and other languages I don’t even recognize. Yesterday I stopped in to the Fax and Copy store on Divisidero. The sign outside advertised $.05 black and white copies and a brown skinned Asian boy and girl greeted me when I entered. As the copy machine rattled off reprints of my restaurant resume, I noticed beautifully patterned Asian shirts hanging on the wall beneath a sign that read ‘Handicrafts for sale.’ “Where are your handicrafts from?” I asked the girl. “Nepal,” she replied. “Are you from Nepal?” I asked. The girl nodded in response. As it turns out she is from Kathmandu and has been living in the city for four years. “It’s a slow adjustment,” she said quietly, a bit sadly. She misses Nepal but her family lives here now. I paused for a minute digging in my brain for the once familiar Nepali phrases I’d learned while traveling, “Tapaioke nam ke ho?” I asked. The girl’s eyes widened in surprise and she laughed. “That is good!” she said. “My name is Paravati, and yours?” “Manasseh,” I replied. “Well it’s nice to meet you.” We shook hands, I paid my $.39 for the copies and walked out with a smile that beamed from my heart.

Skinny legs on wedge pumps

a Fedora and flip of straight coal hair-

the girls of San Francisco are beauty queens,

so are the boys-

their knee high boots are shinier than mine,

snug skinny jeans accentuate perfect butts,

square-cut sunshades fit just right.

Competition for male attention in San Fran is spread

across two genders, you better hope you catch the eyes

of the cute boy you want, and not the one

who’s eying up the boy you’ve got your eyes on!

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