Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

In the Blink of an Eye: the end of CELLspace

 

Two weeks ago my cousin Juli came for a weekend visit. Earlier that day, before she arrived, I’d seen a post on Facebook lamenting the loss of CELLspace, which exists now in partial form at 2050 Bryant street: the east-facing wall is now totally demolished and the rest will follow soon.

I knew CELLspace was being ripped down and that the end was near, but like everyone, thought I had more time with it. I walk by the site almost everyday, and had lately been making mental note to take pictures, for (you know) posterity’s sake. Tristan Tzara’s impudent face had been painted on one of the walls. I loved seeing it. In Tom Stoppard’s play “Travesties”, Stoppard has Tzara yell “Dada! Dada, dada, dada!” like the bratty punk he probably was.

There was a similar sense of surreal unreason guiding the destruction of CELLspace and the surrounding buildings. We who live in the city are now minus a community space. Taking its place will be a six-story building with market-rate condos that most people will not be able to afford. A second eight-story building with 136 units of affordable housing will stand next to it. There had been impassioned attempts to save CELLspace, but in the end, belief in market-driven solutions to the housing crisis and this sentence “C – No Historic Resource Present / Not Age Eligible”, condemned it. The Facebook post made it clear that the end was nigh and that the demolition was proceeding. It was now or never.

“Juli,” I said after dinner, “we’re going for a walk.”

“Ok!” she replied brightly.

We sipped the last of our mead, collected ourselves and walked around the corner to a scene of great finality. Rubble lay in heaps and the dank odor of newly exposed basements filled the air. The entire corner of Bryant and 18th street was gone.

Juli and I let ourselves in to “see”, which was silly. The point of demolition is to take away the thing that used to be there. There was nothing to see. When cities change quickly, individual memory changes too and is included in the act of demolition itself. The construction equipment ripped down the buildings, and my memory, too.

The large brick building that housed CELLspace was still standing that night, now almost two weeks ago, but so bereft of human energy that it already felt gone. There was nothing inside the vast hall, except things with no value: a chair, some kind of light fixture, and so many things on the floor that they became nothing, a midden pile of twentieth century plastic trash.

Two years ago, I stood with about 100 people in this hall. There was low flat table supporting a large, wide-mouthed cauldron. A fire was made inside the cauldron because it was St Bridget’s day, Lá Fhéile Bríd, and we had gathered to make promises to each other communally and individually to the Goddess of the forge.

As we moved to the center and made a vow, another ritual participant raised a iron hammer and struck an anvil, which rang out loudly and clearly. There was every kind of person in the space that night, which was usual for that place. It hosted communities that gave the Mission –O horrible word that has ruined my home!—vibrancy. The people who congregated there, made culture there and took it out into the city.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition once held a fundraiser at Cell Space: I know because I helped organize it. Another night, another group, another memory: Rainforest Action Network threw a Christmas party and I danced like a madwoman with my friend Krikor, improvising pseudo-swing moves and having the time of my life.

At the end of the night, someone convinced me to take a hit off a joint. I did so and immediately recognized my mistake. I need to leave, I thought. I can’t be around these dazzling people with my mind on fire. So I walked down Bryant street leaving the confident organizers behind me happy and voluble, standing outside the brick building, gossiping and celebrating their successes even as they plotted their next brilliant campaign.

In all, there are five structures that have been torn down so that the two buildings, known collectively as the Beast on Bryant (The Monster on Mission is a different creature, though no less loathed) may be built. Here are their obituaries.

2000 Bryant street, a two storied, redwood-clad building, unprepossessing and downright homely sat directly on the corner of Bryant and 18th. I knew it as Tortilla Flats. I never ate there. Before that, it was the White Front Lunch Room. Before that it was a saloon, owned first  man named Drewes and later by two men named Jopp and Siebe . Both establishments, which were held up by robbers in 1909 and 1913, catered to the German community. Mr. Drewes often ran ads looking for cooks in the San Francisco Call. “Wanted: German woman for lunch cooking”. This makes me think of my great-great Grandmother Mary Wellendorf who cooked at my great-great grandfather’s “chop house” on Fillmore street during the turn of the century. What solid German lunches were cooked in this space? Schnitzel, probably, cutlets of meat pounded flat and pan-fried with onions and cabbage. (What were the women’s names? Why was Drewes always looking for cooks?)

2010 and 2014 Bryant street: both properties constituted the Korbel Box Factory, which manufactured cigar boxes. Before that, 2014 was home to a 16-year old girl named Annie Couthurst. In March 1903, Annie was declared missing by her frantic mother. She appeared two days later “in a hysterical condition”, declaring that she had been induced to stay out past her curfew by a friend. She feared the wrath of her mother so much, she told the SF Call reporter, that she did not want to return home.

2028 Bryant: this was a two-story Italianate apartment building  located directly next to Cell Space. It was constructed in 1885. In 1927, a woman named Kitty McManus lived there with her eight-year old daughter. Kitty was the victim of a charming bigamist named John Kearney, who had nine other wives. She didn’t know, she said. She planned on getting a divorce. Almost thirty years later, a Patrick McManus still lived there. A brother? Her father? A bachelor uncle? What happened to Kitty? Disgrace?

2070 Bryant: This building, which housed Cell Space, looked like another monumental auto livery of the type that sprung up in the city after the 1906 earthquake. However, it was not: it was a foundry called the Central Iron Works, a funny coincidence considering the ritual devotion that was shown to Bridget and her forge in this space.

In 1913, John O. McAuliffe sold a parcel of land to Central Iron works on Florida street; in 1911 manager A. A. Devoto appeared before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, promising to stop the pounding of the steam hammer at night which “disturbed the slumbers of residents” in the neighborhood. Is this story of neighborly discontent also the history of 2028, which was next door? (What was it like living next to an iron works, with belching smoke, and hissing, grinding, pounding sounds such that a dragon might wonder if kin had settled in a barrow nearby?)

These histories, and others I’ll never know, represent the “past” of 2000-2050 Bryant street. I recite them to myself as I write, a monotonous string of words, and I think I must sound very much like poor Lady Pole from the book “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, who tries to explain to anyone who will listen that fairies have imprisoned her, and that she is not living in the same world that most people are. She can’t tell the story, because there is a rose at her lips preventing her, and also maybe because of the utter strangeness of it all.

This is how it feels to walk around in the litter of the ruined houses on Bryant street, the old warehouses and box factories of the Northeast Mission knowing that you could tell people some kind of story about who lived in them and what happened there, but that the stories are so wholly free of matters of national import or global impact, that what would come out of your mouth would only be a list of mundane events involving German cooks, workers laboring  in a box factory, broken arms, missing children, lover’s quarrels and a burglary or two. It is all just dust in the wind, so to speak.

From the ruins of the buildings, new vistas have been liberated. I can now see the red neon sign of Heath Ceramics glowing in the foggy night air and the far more of the San Miguel range.

This holds true until the Beast is built. Then I will see far less.

 

written with love and appreciation for:
cousin Juli whose pragmatic response to crisis made this month a lot easier. We will always drink at the Palace.
…and Tom Petty whose sweet soul shines bright. You belong among the wildflowers. You belong in a boat out at sea. Sail away, kill off the hours. You belong somewhere you feel free
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The Man Who Won a Fortune: the life and times of Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty

 

 

Daniel McCarty, a.k.a “Whitehat” McCarty, was a tough guy to keep up with when he was alive, ninety-one years ago. He still is. Whitehat was one of the more notorious members of my family when I was growing up, and his life was simultaneously celebrated and used as a cautionary tale. He was nationally acclaimed for his skill as a horse trainer and has been credited as a co-founder of the racecourse at Tanforan. He was a flamboyantly talkative fabulist, often impoverished and on the run from creditors, and a frequent subject of gossip columns in San Francisco newspapers during the bibulous frivolity of late nineteenth-century San Francisco, when men gathered in gilt and marble bars to hobnob, network and brag.

I grew up with Whitehat because of my family’s horrified fascination with him. My grandmother Diddie explained that he was the older brother of my great-great grandmother Margaret McCarty Creely. He embarrassed her, she said, because something was always happening. Neither she nor my father specified what the “something” was: they didn’t know anymore but knew enough that whatever it was, it was hard on the family. (He boasted about being arrested 57 times.) The flamboyance was most obvious in his choice of chapeau, the source of his moniker: a tall white beaver-skin hat, that he always wore. Why did he wear that kind of hat?, I asked someone. Because he was short, the adult told me. This was mere self-consciousness: Whitehat was about five feet and six inches tall, hardly diminutive. Nevertheless, he owned more than 15 of these hats.

Ancestry.com describes him as my 3rd-great grand-uncle which makes him feel entirely fictional. Everyone’s got an tragic/embarrassing family member, but very few people have a “3rd great grand-uncle”. Whitehat, Margaret and their siblings John, Annie and Mrs. Thomas Crowell, (her given name is unknown) were the children of Timothy and Mary McCarty. According to family history, this family immigrated from Cork, Ireland in the mid-eighteenth century, lived on the east coast for less than a decade, and made their way to Stockton, California sometime after the Civil War. Whitehat hit the ground running like a true horseman, leaving behind hundreds of newspaper articles in his wake, more anecdotes than facts, and a reputation for glamorous instability that got lots of attention. That, and the millions he spent acquiring horses. Hundreds of horses.

“I was in the horse business then as I am now, and always will be,” Whitehat told the San Francisco Call at the Palace hotel in 1913. Whitehat was 82 at the time and decidedly down on his luck, it having deserted him twice already: once after he started losing his horses, and again on April 18th 1906, when he lost everything, except his debts, in the earthquake and fire. Whitehat stated the facts. He was born on March 12, 1831 in Ireland, and immigrated with his family to Boston, starting life there as immigrant “turfman” in New York city before the Civil War. He owned stables on Kings Highway in Brooklyn, near the Gravesend racing track. He sold horses to the “government” in 1861, during the Civil War, and claimed he got the sobriquet “Whitehat’ while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He arrived in San Francisco in 1869 and opened a livery stable with a man named Nathan Hopkins, at 679 Market near the intersection with Annie, close to the Monadnock Building. The 1873 Crocker Langley city directory lists him as a “horse dealer”, a plain turn of phrase. His dwelling was 635 California street, located across the street from Old St Mary’s. His sister and brother-in-law, James and Margaret Creely, were living south of the slot at 55 Minna street, keeping house, as it were, and making a living from my great-great grandfather’s trade as a ferrier who hammered out one hot horseshoe after another over a forge to support his growing family.

Whitehat joined them in SOMA shortly thereafter, moving to 754 Mission street, close to the present site of Yerba Buena. In 1876, he was living at 874 Folsom street and had a new livery stable down the street at 821 Folsom. He called it Daniel McCarty and Son. Within the next twenty years Whitehat acquired two ranches (not at the same time), one in Wesley and one in Pleasanton. Along with this, he purchased some of the best racehorses in the country. He estimated later that he spent 400,000 to pasture and maintain them.

Whitehat was a married man, with wife named Cassie and five children. The sons were Joseph, Daniel, and William, and two daughters were named Gertrude and Genevieve. In the late 19th century, local newspapers routinely documented society and communal events. Thus it is a fact, not an anecdote, that on the evening of August 6, 1899, the Creely/McCarty family got together for a party at the house of Mrs. Thomas J. Crowell, Whitehat’s sister, at 769 Hayes street.

Whitehat’s wife, Mrs. D. McCarty was there with her daughters Gertrude and Genevieve McCarty, who played the piano. Anna and Margaret Creely, my great-grandfather’s daughters, were there. This account—it sounds like they were having a hooley, a party held in a home with guests providing the entertainment—rescues Whitehat from the isolated splendor of family myth, which has him in perpetual motion, always drinking and horse-racing, and driving his brougham at breakneck speeds down Market street.

“White Hat” Dan McCarthy Horse Jumps Through Tailor’s Window

There’s no question that he did these things, sometimes unsuccessfully: in 1901 he crashed his horse and buggy though the window of a tailor’s shop on the corner of Mason and Geary. (Editorial note: He  blamed it on San Francisco’s newest mode of transportation, the automobile, which endears him to me even more.) In reality, he probably woke up at home as often as not, regarded his wife and children, hopefully with fondness, and pondered their future, and his.

He and his horse usually survived their speedy forays through the city, making it in one piece to the Palace Hotel, where, as I was told, he would turn dramatically into the circular driveway, fling himself out of his carriage and spend the rest of the day drinking and hob-nobbing.  This is the exact scenario I was presented with as a child: this is what Whitehat did. He drank at the Palace, the adult told me.

There was drinking, in those days and, like the horses, a lot of it, often at the Palace bar. It was here that Whitehat made an unlikely friend: the right Honorable (not really) Cecil Talbot Clifton, later Baron Grey de Ruthyn, a Englishman in San Francisco, who unlike the “dookes” of Mark Twain’s novels, really was a peer of the realm. I was hoping to discover that Clifton was a fake name, and that he was really a man named Sid from the East End, but no such luck. He was a remittance man, waiting for his brother, the current peer, to die, and whiling his time away in San Francisco spending money and carrying on, especially with Whitehat.

Clifton rode one of Whitehat’s horses in a race in Los Angeles; Whitehat later named one of his racehorses after Clifton. Whether this meant as a complement is uncertain. (The horse was struck by an express wagon and died in 1898.) The San Francisco press had a field day commenting on the odd couple. Clifton, a tall man with a hawk nose and Whitehat, a small man with a big hat, both had the same ability to spend money they didn’t have. Clifton was sued by an appliance company in San Francisco for not paying them for customizing his apartment at the Maison Riche, a hotel and restaurant with an illegal gambling den at the intersection of Geary and Grant. After a spell in the Klondike, prospecting for gold, and trying his hand at being a gentlemen-rancher in Montana, Clifton claimed the golden spurs after his brother died in 1900.

The somewhat dishonorable Cecil Talbot Clifton, later Baron Grey de Ruthyn

There were limits to San Francisco’s social elasticity: even it couldn’t efface the difference between a peer of the realm—who likely did not want those differences erased—and an immigrant who left Ireland because of the collapse of the economy during the potato famine. British arrogance and Irish shrewdness may have met cute in in the pages of the San Francisco Call, but beneath the jocular stories ran a whiff of British patronage from Clifton towards his would-be man of business.

Early in 1895, Clifton proposed to operate a “society coach” between the Palace Hotel and Burlingame. The proposed route was from Market to Golden Gate avenue, through Golden Gate Park, and past the “almshouse” on Laguna Honda road, which, the anonymous writer noted acidly, “will be skirted at sufficiently close range to give the …swells who patronize the society coach an object lesson on the fickleness of riches,”* After stopping in the “cool woods” of Ingleside for a break at a roadhouse—perhaps the Ingleside Inn at Ocean Road and Junipero Serra Boulevard—the coach passed through Colma and ended at the Burlingame Country club where the club “had consented to allow” passengers to lunch at the clubhouse.

Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty and his gold watch, chain,  and fob.

This plan depended on keeping up appearances: the grand black-and-yellow coach, made in England, the nouveau riche of San Francisco who were expected to pay 2.50—roughly 73.00—for the privilege of lurching through San Francisco’s often unpaved streets in order to lunch at a county club, and the finishing touch: the transformation of  Whitehat’s Irish brogue into an English accent. (The exact accent isn’t specified. It’s safe to assume it wasn’t an RP accent) Whitehat had objections, rendered in the article as a near incomprehensible phonetic Corkian brogue.

Talbot, me bye,” sputtered Whitehat, “wot the juice is yez givin’ me? D’you tink oi can go bach on the Ould Dart loike thot? Not on your broory! Nay nay!”

Later that year, the two men journeyed to the Burlingame country club. Clifton, as the story goes, signed himself in as J. Talbot Clifton and “valet.” Whitehat, whose “bump of humor is well enough developed” muttered something under his breath and signed himself in as “McCarty and valise”. The financial value of their relationship is probably what made Clifton’s attitude bearable. Whitehat sold him horses, the very best and often his own. “…the best proof that the veteran horseman is doing the best he can by his lordly and wealthy friend,” reported the SF Call “ is that he has sold him all his own stock first.”

Clifton left San Francisco in 1896, after living large and paying little. He left Whitehat his “effects” in his apartment at the Maison Riche, some of which were unpaid for. Whitehat lost his gifts to creditors, and, later, the ability to provide for his horses. In March of that year, 300 of “Turfman McCarty’s blooded horses”, were reported to be dying for lack of pasturage on John. M. Canty’s ranch in Modesto. Forty horses died. Canty claimed that McCarty had not paid the pasturage bill and that he was prepared to let the animals starve to death. Both Whitehat, and his son Joseph were arrested for failure to pay their bills. A jury later acquitted the McCarty men. Canty and another man were arrested, for absconding with the remaining 240 horses, which had been placed in receivership. McCarty ultimately lost all those horses, and went onto to lose more.

The following year an advertisement for an auction of 100 horses ran in the November 1, 1899 edition of the SF Call. “STANDARD BRED TROTTERS.ROADSTERS. CARRIAGE HORSES. And many others Suitable for All Kinds of Work. Property of Dan McCarty.” McCarty was sued again in 1901 for failing to provide payment for pasturage for thirty-six of his horses in San Jose. He hung to some of his horses. In 1904, Whitehat enlisted the legal services of his nephew, my great-grandfather, attorney James H. Creely to help him recover a bet he made on a sorrel mare he owned named Lillian Palmer. But the stories about Whitehat from this time report his poverty more often than not or play heavily on nostalgia: the “palmy days” when he had beautiful things, and millions of dollars of the best, most beautiful racing horses in the state.  Within the first decade of the twentieth century, the man who “owned more horses than any other man in the world” had no more horses. Sorrento, Dexter Prince, Venus: all his beautiful horses were gone.

An ad from the San Francisco Call, advertising the auction of 100 horse, at the corner of Valencia and 15th street

McCarty lived in San Francisco and continued to drink. On July 11th, 1915, Whitehat had his daughter Mary Gertrude, “25 years old, and pretty,” committed to the Detention Hospital for the Insane on Stevenson street. He was found the next day wandering in the street, “raving” and taken to the same hospital where father and daughter lay on adjoining beds. Physicians diagnosed his daughter as “insane” and Whitehat as an acute alcoholic. He was spotted in 1920, back at the Palace, by the manager, William Shepard. “It is not every day in the year that we see a trio like that around here,” remarked Shepard. He pointed to three men, described as “old-time political figures.” One was Whitehat.

Whitehat died on December 4th, 1926. His funeral mass, which was held St. Patrick’s church, was well-attended for a man who, the paper noted, had lived in seclusion in his later years.  It’s hard to imagine—and a bit painful— that anyone who loved attention as much as he did totally withdrew from San Francisco’s gregarious downtown culture. The “golden shekels”, the beautiful horses and the tall hats are gone, and so are the racetracks Whitehat founded and frequented.

Whitehat is now simply Daniel J. McCarty and is lying peacefully in his grave at Holy Cross in Colma. You’ll find him in section E, row 13, area 1, plot 1, if you want to pay him a visit.

He’d like that.

Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty in the San Diego studio of photographer J.M. Lenz, circa 1887

 

 

 

*the disapproving tone of this article is delicious. Whoever wrote it, did not like Clifton.

 

Written in the season of the thinning veil with a lot of love. ‘Tis the season to welcome your family; show them interest and  hospitality.  

        

 

 

The Ancient Brothers of Hibernia Respond to the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900

A telegraph from meBro. J.M.Kirwin, who lived in Galveston, Texas, to the Ancient Order of Hibernians County Board of Directors, in San Francisco

On September 8, 1900, the city of Galveston, Texas, was hit with a category 4 hurricane. The city, which is located on an augmented and engineered barrier island, was demolished. Barrier islands are great for protecting coastlines and absorbing wave energy and not so great at maintaining geomorphic integrity. (the Newport peninsula, which forms a significant portion of my hometown, comes very close to being a barrier island.) Anyway. The highest points in Galveston 117 years ago weren’t much more than nine feet above sea level. The wind gusted at 145 miles per hour and the storm surge crested at 15 feet. The hurricane destroyed everything in its path. Homes were leveled and swept away. Thirty thousand people were left homeless.

“Thousands of Dead Strew The Ruins of Galveston,” read the headline of the San Francisco Call on September 10, two days after the storm hit. The meeting minutes book of the County Board of Directors of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic mutual aid organization, shows that J.J.  Donohue, P.J. Kelleher, and several other officials held a special meeting at Hibernia Hall, their headquarters at 120 9th street, when news of the catastrophe became known.

O’Donohue, who was the President of the County Board, opened the meeting by stating the obvious. The AOH needed to decide if they could send money to the citizens of Galveston. “The object of this special meeting was to consider whether the AOH of San Francisco would deem it advisable to take steps towards relieving the distress which prevailed among our members in Galveston, owing to the unfortunate condition of affairs with which they are confronted,” wrote the recording secretary P.J. Kelleher in his chunky, inelegant handwriting.

This was not a small matter. The AOH, along with other mutual aid organizations in San Francisco, had hundreds of members living and working in a city with no safety codes, no OSHA, no social services, nothing. If you lost your job, or broke your ribs in a motor accident, or got kicked in the skull by an irritated horse, you were on your own, unless you were a member of an mutual aid or “benevolent” organization like the AOH. If so, you received monetary benefits in lieu of compensation for lost wages, or sick pay.  If your luck really ran out and you died from illness or in an accident, the AOH paid for your funeral expenses. In any case, they had you covered.

The meeting was called after the Board of Directors received a telegram from an Ancient Brother in Galveston, one J. G. Ganty. He asked the San Francisco Bros*  to meet and discuss the matter. “Call special meeting of Hibernians,” wrote Ganty, adding simply, “Awful loss of life and money.”

“Heartrending Appeals For Aid From Many County Districts Of The Devastated Coast” The San Francisco Call, Sept. 16, 1900

This was correct. At least 6,000 people —and maybe as many as 8,000 or even 12,000—died. That’s a lot of people. About 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina.  The Great Earthquake of San Francisco officially killed 3,000 people, although many believe librarian Gladys Hansen’s calculation, which puts the death toll closer to 6,000.

Ganty’s plea for help did not go unheard. The AOH had a membership that spanned many trades, and many income levels.  After hearing suggestions from  Brothers Mcfadden, Ryan, Conklin, O’Gara, Dignan, and Mahoney, and the order’s priest, Reverend D. Crowley, eleven branches from across the city pledged $150.00 for relief.

In addition to this sum, the County Treasurer of the AOH added $50.00 to be telegraphed to the County President of the AOH in Galveston. The San Francisco Call reported later that the AOH sent 500.00, (almost 15,000.00 adjusted for inflation) to Galveston, Texas.

It was all needed. The newspapers accounts from Galveston grew worse and worse as more bodies were uncovered, often “naked and mutilated beyond recognition”. Frantic attempts were made to find housing for those who had lost their homes and fears of water-borne pestilence were spreading.

It wasn’t just Hibernians helping Hibernians. All of San Francisco responded. The September 16th issue of the San Francisco Call lists hundreds of business and individuals who gave what they had—shoes, crockery, and, of course, money. Ms. Mable O’Connor, a “talented schoolgirl” who lived at 3443 19th street, raised 70.25 for Galveston. By January, the situation had improved enough for Galveston to report what had been spent to rebuild the city: 2,258,600.

Ancient Order of Hibernians Gathered in Convention, San Francisco Call, August 18, 1910

It’s unclear (to me in my hasty research into Galveston’s disastrous past) how much of that money came in the form of relief, sent by individuals and organizations and how much came from the administration of President William McKinley, who, during the worst of the hurricane’s impacts, lay dying from the gunshot he received at the hands of assassin Leon Czolgosz. The Army Corps of engineers did help build a seawall, intended to protect Galveston from future hurricanes, something it couldn’t do three days ago on Friday, August 25th, when Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

It’s truly a bummer that once again, as Texas faces a fearsome storm, America has a useless President. (Happily, the process of directing emergency aid isn’t linked to media ratings.) How will America respond to Galveston, 117 years later? The pictures of Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and his deputies performing rescues is cause for hope. But neither they, nor the thousands of other emergency personnel rescuing entire cities can do much after people are pulled from inundated houses.

There’s been some misplaced schadenfreude over the fact that it’s Texas, California’s weird shadow nemesis with its climate deniers, its theocrats, its racists, its wall-loving Trump supporters that’s getting its ass kicked by Mother Nature.  Are they reaping what they’ve sown? Nah. Hurricanes don’t crash into cities to teach people hard lessons. (and really: miserable people stay miserable, unless they are helped.) Hurricanes are forces of nature and go where they can go.

What happens after that is entirely up to humanity.

A copy of the money order sent from the San Francisco Ancient Order of Hibernians to their Bros in Galveston, Texas.

Here’s a fund to help people displaced by Hurricane Harvey: it’s called the Harvey Community Relief Fund, and it was established by the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund, the Workers Defense Project, SEIU Texas, Faith in Texas, CWA, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service
* (They refer to each other as “Bros” throughout the meeting minutes book. It’s very endearing.)

Getting people.

This weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists went on a rampage, beating a man named Deandre Harris, murdering a woman named Heather Heyer, and attempting to terrorize everyone. They failed. The good citizens of Charlottesville refused to be cowed by the confederate-nazi’s infantile displays of historic insecurity, and threw down, creating a bright line between goodness and evil. Within hours, hundreds of rallies were held across this great nation to respond to their terrorist attacks. I went looking for a rally that I’d heard was happening in the Mission somewhere.

People were drifting down 24th street in the way they do now, clutching a cup or cone of Humphrey Slocums in their hands, possessing little purpose, looking clueless and undisturbed. So not a big rally I thought. These people are still lollygagging. It’s not a rally until bystanders start whipping out their iPhones, ostensibly to film things, but mostly to throw up some imaginary barrier between themselves and the action. I’m not a part of this, the gesture says. I wouldn’t put it past them to do this even if they got charged by some psychotic supremacist.

I found the rally, which fit neatly onto the southwest corner of 24th and Mission (or 24th and BART, as I call it). I saw Frank Chu. He was carrying a new sign: the front was the usual meaningless 24 galaxies-1,000,000,000 population babble and on the back was an ad for Expensify. “Expense reports that don’t suck!” it said. I glared at him. Frank, I wanted to say, now is not the time.

A scruffy older man was speaking laboriously into a battered megaphone, which had clearly been through many rallies. It was barely functioning. (Don’t we have better technology by now, people?) He was hairy, pot-bellied and avuncular, your classic elder-hippy who gets stoned and talks about Allan Watts and Phish. Why the fuck is this guy talking, I wondered. The rally was off to a desultory, mansplaining start, which was a bad contrast to the frenetic displays of irrationality I’d been watching all weekend.

NBC was interviewing a tall African American man wearing a tee shirt printed with the words “Black Swag”. I sidled over to listen, which was hard to do with Mr. Natural droning on about the summer of love, of all things, in the background. Shut up, I wanted to shriek. I’m trying to listen!

“I grew up in Atlanta,” the tall man said to the NBC reporter.  “None of this is a surprise. I didn’t see a lot of them (he meant white supremacists) but I knew they were around. I definitely saw a lot of confederate flags as a kid. People are waking up,” he continued,  “and that’s a good thing. But they need to remember that this is nothing new. And Trump isn’t the point. They need to focus on more than just him. These people didn’t just wake up yesterday and decide to be racists. This has been going on for a long time.”  The NBC reporter was nodding his head vigorously. “Trump stirred the pot to unify his base. That’s what he did,” said the tall man.  “You can see that in his refusal to respond to the racists directly. David Duke? I don’t know who he is! That kind of thing.”

In the meantime, the megaphone was handed to another woman, who was inaudible. No one could hear her. “Speak up!” the crowd demanded. I felt my eyes roll around in my head. Why are the first ones to grab the megaphone always people with no rhetorical skills? I caught the words “speak out” and realized anyone could take the megaphone, which is a great thing or a very bad thing, depending.

I looked to my right and saw Heather Heyer’s smiling self-assured face, floating above the crowd, framed against a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Her last selfie, I thought. You could see the tiny golden crucifix nestled into the base of her throat.

A scrawny guy with a ponytail took the floor and got megaphone fever immediately. This is what I call that state of elation when you realize that you finally have the megaphone and that everyone can hear you, whether they want to or not. He started off slow, but the feverish elation grew in him until his skinny body shook. “We must take our country BACK NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!” he screamed into the battered megaphone. Take the country back to what? I wondered. Isn’t it the past that’s getting us in trouble?

An African American woman walked over and took the megaphone with assurance. She started speaking. “Heather Heyer,” she said and her throat constricted and caught. She started again. “It takes people,”  she said, “it takes people to face down and defeat racism. That means you have to come to meetings, you have to make phone calls. That means,” she said “that you have to struggle. With People. That is the only way that things will stop. Not impeachment. Not special councils. People are the only thing that can stop other people from doing harm.”

She had a ten year old son, she said. “I worry everyday about his future. I drove here today and I saw a white man in a truck with an American flag and I thought who are you? Do I need to be afraid of you?” She paused. “I have to tell you. I’m afraid of white men. I know there are brothers and sisters here who do the work, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid of white people. Don’t let them represent you! Don’t let them do that to you! Turn out! Get out on the streets! You have to do this. Because understand: they want you to stay home, feel fear! Are you gonna get your head cracked? Are they going to hurt you? That’s what they want. They want you to shut up, to back down. They want you to be afraid! Don’t give them that! Take the streets! Hold the streets! Don’t back down!” The crowd—it had grown and was now twice as big—roared.

An older woman wearing tweed cap and a purple Trans March hoodie spoke.  “I’m a sixty-year old Jewish Lesbian! And I will not allow anti-semitism happen again! Not like it did in WWII. Do you know why it happened in WWII? Because people let it happen! They decided to be Good Germans! Well, I’m not gonna be a Good Fucking German! And you can’t be either!”

The last speaker was the tall man wearing the Black Swag shirt. His name was Allen. “People ask me why black people aren’t angry,” he said. The crowd groaned in dismay.  “Why aren’t black people angry?” Allen repeated. “And I say this. I have a job I have to go to. I have shopping I have to do. I have to live my life. What am I supposed to do? Show up at the office and when someone says good morning, Allen, ask them what’s so good about it? That’ll kill the water cooler talk. Catch you later, my co-worker might say. I can just see them saying, oh not that way. Not like slavery! I go shopping, they ask me paper or plastic? and I say I brought my own damn bag!” He meant to be humorous, and he was. He reminded me of Dick Gregory.

“But,” he went on. “Listen. I can’t be angry all the time! ” He laughed briefly and then said “White people. You gotta stand up. You have to.”

The rally organizer took the megaphone, mentioned a conference on November 4th—“NOVEMBER 4th,” he repeated admonishingly, and then segued into a denunciation of Trump and his attacks on reproductive rights. Ye shall know that you are at a RCP-sponsored rally by the mention of a conference and legal abortion in the same breath, I thought sourly.

Back in 2003, after the San Francisco Archdiocese organized the largest anti-choice march in the West, a few of us tried to start a grassroots abortion-rights organization, the small fish chasing the big fish. Real basic stuff. We quickly found ourselves embroiled in a turf war between various socialist factions. People bailed; the organization faltered, and consequently there was no meaningful grassroots response to the theocrats at the Archdiocese.

This was a thing, I quickly found out, after talking to more experienced organizers. Groups like the RCP disrupt and infiltrate grassroots groups to grow their membership which, as far as I can tell, means paying “dues” and selling more newspapers. I felt pissy listening to this guy list the ways in which Roe v Wade has been damaged. You’re only saying these things to get people to your conference, I thought and remembered a day back in 2004, when a reproductive rights rally failed to materialize—at the last minute— because of the ISO and its cultish bullshit. But that’s a story for another time.

I left the rally and walked home down 23rd street. Scattered across the sidewalk were the stamens from a bottlebrush tree growing nearby. The sidewalk was covered in bright red.

I remembered a Halloween night in 1994. I was at my grandmother’s award-winning small house in Columbus, Ohio. The door bell rang. She opened the door. A small boy stood there with a superman cape draped around his shoulders. He had the joyful smile that only a small boy wearing a superman cape could have. He was African American. His eyes were big in his small face, and his hair was closely cropped. You could see his shapely little head, balanced on his thin, delicate neck.

My grandmother made the requisite fuss over him, ooo-ing and ahh-ing and agreeing with him that he was superman and that his cape was magnificent. She shut the door. I could see she was crying. I was startled. Neither of my grandmothers were easily moved to tears.

“Carmen,” I said “why are you crying? What’s wrong?”
“That little boy,” she relied. She was distraught. “What’s going to happen to him? What’s going to happen to that beautiful little black boy?”*

Dedicated to with love to Deandre Harris, Heather Heyer, Corey Long and everyone in Charlottesville who stood against hate. Please know: I’ll get my people.
 
*I prefer to believe that that beautiful little boy grew up to tear down confederate statues.

 

The Mission, marketed: pop-ups and the peace of Alabama street

The bus that brought the Jack Daniels “brand ambassadors” to 930 Alabama St.

All my best “sightings” of the socially extroverted, yet publicly reticent culture descending on the East Mission have been on 22nd street, always at inconvenient moments. On July 21st, as I was carrying a backpack full of vegetables, I saw a white bus moving hesitantly up the street like a wayward whale, the kind that ends up stuck in the Delta. It seemed confused, and I realized why. The driver was preparing to make a left hand turn onto Alabama Street.

It teetered as it pivoted, almost hitting an SUV, and barely clearing the corner. Alabama street, which started life as Columbia street before the city changed its name in 1881 (there were three streets named Columbia, which must have been confusing) is modestly sized owing to its age. It dates back to the early days of  the Mission when nothing larger than a draft horse pulling a dray moved through the streets (and yes, I would like to return to this.)

After regaining its balance, the bus stopped in front of 930 Alabama Street and discharged its contents: a stream of men, wearing suits, and one woman, a willowy blonde, who had glossy, perfectly styled hair. She regarded her surroundings dreamily, looking as if she expected a photographer to spring out of the bushes as she descended from the white bus that had brought her, a photogenic woman, into the equally photogenic space of 930 Alabama Street.

Prior to about 2016, nothing much happened in the small warehouse. The lot was owned by a machinist named Henry Fletcher in 1909. The family of James Nelson Crawford, a loyal union member of the Varnishers and Polishers Union, Local 134, had his wake inside after he died in 1913. Adolph V. Reyna started the Reyna Electrical Works which occupied the warehouse until at least the late 70’s.

The sensor probe that Reyna Electric Works, 930 Alabama Street, San Francisco helped build.

Things are considerably more exciting at 930 Alabama these days. The latest occupant is a community centre (their spelling, not mine)/event space calling itself the “HERE Collective”. Self-described as “non-obnoxious” on their Facebook page, they’re annoying their neighbors. Three complaints have been filed with the Department of Building Inspections, charging the non-obnoxious collective with playing amplified music and carrying on in a manner unbecoming to the peace of Alabama Street.

In the weirdly abbreviated language of departmental reports, the DBI has officially decided that some sort of unacceptable usage-switcheroo has taken place.  “WORK W/O PERMIT; ILLEGAL CHANGE OF USE” blares the finding on the violation record, adding “They are holding a week-long “pop up” store for Jack Daniels Whiskey.”

They certainly were. The people who stepped out of the bus were wholesalers and “brand ambassadors” there to check out the Jack Daniel’s “pop-up store” which was the warehouse itself. It had been covered in black, the color of outlaws, rule breakers: all the edgy types. “Jack Daniels Lynchburg, General Store” was written in white script on the wall. Inscribed on the other wall was a warning. “One Week Only” (maybe this was meant to be reassuring?) The people from the bus flowed in.

I ran home, dumped my veggies, ran back and tried to walk inside, but was courteously stopped by a rotund man wearing a black vest over a snazzy pinstripe oxford shirt. He asked to see my ID.

“Bless your heart,” I said winningly. “I don’t have it with me. I’m a neighbor. What are you guys doing?”
“We’re here for a week, telling the story of Jack Daniels,” he told me.
“I love Jack Daniels!” I exclaimed (this isn’t a lie. I drink Jack Daniels with my mother and enjoy it.) “Can I come in?”
“Sure,” he said. “We’re not selling any alcohol inside though.” San Francisco’s tight liquor laws had kept the pop-up dry, just like the hometown of the distillery, Lynchburg, which is located in a dry county. Another staff person explained what was in store for me, once I got inside. There were souvenirs, seminars on whiskey-making, and, most exciting, a virtual reality tour of the actual Jack Daniels distillery.

I walked inside. A trio was playing. People milled around looking at wooden whiskey barrels, or stood indecisively before display counters. One counter, which was set up with pastries and empty boxes of Jack Daniels cake, had a chalk-written cursive hand sign hanging over it. Miss Mary Bobo’s Bakery, it read. Only pastries for sale! A barber shop was tucked in the corner; a row of hats were carefully placed in a wall separator.

The atmosphere was relaxed and genial, half Frontierland and half Mission Street hipster bar, the type that sports a manly two-word name like Woodchuck Peppercorn or Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too. (You know what I mean.) I half expected Justin Timberlake to amble in at any moment, leading his photogenic wife Jessica, and smiling in an easy southern way.

The virtual town of Lynchburg, Tennessee as seen inside the Jack Daniel’s pop-up at 930 Alabama St.

I made a beeline for the virtual reality tour of the town of Lynchburg. After the Disneyfied display of the ol’ south, the sight of the man sitting in a chair with goggles clamped to his face was jarring. He was tossing his head up and down like a nervous horse. What’s wrong with this guy, I wondered and then realized he was following the topography of the virtual road he was on, maybe one that was narrow, just like Alabama Street. Did they pick this location because of the Southern name? I wondered. I took a picture of him. The staffer overseeing the virtual reality station noticed me and walked over.

“Hey, there! Why don’t you take a virtual tour instead of just taking a picture?”
I smiled at him. He had a handsome head of strawberry blonde hair and a dimple in his chin. A nice guy.
“I like my reality straight up!” I replied. He chose not to notice my bad pun. It was okay for me to take pictures inside, he told me, but I had to hash tag them “so we can all share this experience!” He told me the hashtag.
“So, do you want to try the tour?”
I demurred. “I like real reality,” I said.
“Just reality for you, huh? Not even augmented reality?”
“Augmented reality? What’s that?”

He launched into his spiel. Augmented reality, he explained to me, could be any object that you see and use but isn’t really there. Kind of like a marketing campaign for a distillery with no actual alcohol, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I was glad they weren’t serving whiskey, and he was a nice guy who wasn’t being paid enough to deal with my snarky ass.

“Like a keyboard!” he said exuberantly and waggled his fingers. “You’ll use a keyboard that isn’t really there.” His name was Scott and he was a trained acrobat. “I lived in San Francisco for two years and then I went on tour with an off-Broadway production of Pippin,” he told me. After performing in ninety shows, he’d injured himself and had to quit the show. “I have stress fractures in my shoulder,” he said soberly. “I wasn’t able to do anything for two months. Not even plank position. That’s why I took this job. I knew I wouldn’t hurt my shoulder.” He hadn’t been in a union and was suing the production company. “Sitting on a bus every day, doing ninety performances… it was grueling. You can’t heal with a schedule like that. I’ve been doing PT for two months. I just want them to cover my medical bills.”

I took a picture of Scott and his co-worker next to the Virtual Reality Sign. “Make sure you tag the pictures,” trilled his co-worker, a petite woman in her twenties. “Hashtag JBSFEHHW….” She rattled off a string of letters so quickly, that they ran like water from her mouth, empty and clear of meaning. I left.

In all fairness, corporations have always been in the Mission. I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels from Safeway last year. My neighbor Jose uses a Ford truck in his business as a house painter. Glass bottle of coke are stocked in the refrigerator at El Metate. But a publicly-traded, commercial distillery owned by a major corporation that makes billions of dollars every year doesn’t just pop-up. It has a business plan. Like Ford and its Go Bikes, which has been popping up all over the Mission (except 24th Street), the Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns Jack Daniels, is here by design, not to make, but to market.

The artfully crafted corporate pop-up was mining the grossly misunderstood “vibrant” culture of the Mission for product placement, which— contrary to popular belief—has never been a place where huge parties are thrown every night. The Mission I know was (and is?) residential and family-based. For most of its existence, people have mostly just lived here.

The Mission is open for business, all right, marketing business, not the hardworking business of making things, which was the concern of the place for more than a century. What kind of reality do those of us who live here want? I asked a friend of mine this question who lives around the corner. “Big alcohol conglomerates that don’t invade my neighborhood; that’s the reality I prefer to live in,” my friend replied tartly.

The woman who stepped out of the bus, and into the bewitching glamour of the Mission was responding to an idea, something that isn’t really there. An old warehouse, which once housed a company that designed electrical systems, was somehow more than that. With a coat of black paint, it became the Mission itself, as translated by a multi-billion dollar corporation: invitation-only (where’s your ID?)  with a new business model, one that even as it manufactures vibrancy–the better to promote the Mission– threatens to shut it down.

July 24, 2017.
Since I started writing this, further complaints, and one response from the owner of 930 Alabama street, have been posted on “Nextdoor” the neighborhood social media site.
Matthew McGraw, the owner of 930 Alabama Street, has posted that he’ll hold a community meeting in two weeks. The HERE Collective has a Facebook page: I suggest checking that for further details. Sadly, because of the privacy controls on Nextdoor, I can’t provide a link to the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to camp at the Back Ranch Meadows campsite at China Camp State Park using public transit.

A marsh plain, looking north from Buckeye Point at China Camp State Park, CA

It’s time to write what I now realize is an annual narrative about camping and the small disasters and triumphs that go with it. Someday this essay will recount what it was like camping in the high desert or at sea level, but for now, it’s going to be about camping in another oak woodlands, this time the one that grows on top of San Pedro Mountain in Marin County. On July 4th, Jay and I took several buses and backpacked one mile to get to the Back Ranch Meadow campground in China Camp State park.

This fact amazes people when we tell them. Admiring glances are thrown our way. “Wow,” a friendly father walking his daughters said to us. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Well, unless you’re disabled and have mobility issues, you can (and if you are, please know that I have always firmly advocated for transportation options which are various, diverse and supported by my tax dollars.) There’s an  array of public transportation options in the nine-county Bay Area: BART, Golden Gate Transit, SAMTRANS, county buses, and city shuttles which can get you out of the city and into counties with camping sites as far north as Mendocino and as far south as Pacific Grove. (The newest entry in this system is the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, which I am very excited about.)

These systems, which are always in danger of having their funding cut, are also heavily used. The Golden Gate Transit bus we boarded in San Rafael at 1:30 in the afternoon, coming home from our camping trip, was packed full of site-seers, and commuters going to the Golden Gate bridge or to work or to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco. Public transportation can be weirdly invisible to the general public, which is a bummer. Publicly funded transit systems are critical elements in any sustainability or “livability” scenario.  This is the basic assertion of transportation justice, the idea that you shouldn’t have to impoverish yourself getting from point A to point B.

Jay and his backpack (thanks, Emily Creely!) at the Back Ranch Meadow campsite in China Camp State Park.

The only thing you have to have is Time, which can be an expensive and scarce resource. But Time is elastic and illusory and tends to open up under pressure. Also: the travel counts as the trip.

You also need curiosity,  resolve, and the willingness to is strap on a backpack that contains shelter, bedding, food, water, and clothes. Also, for the love of god, use an actual map: I recommend Ben Pease’s Trails of Northeast Marin County map. After boarding two to three buses, depending on where you live, you can hike exactly one mile into the campsite, which sits in a glen below the northeast face of San Pedro Mountain.

Jay strikes the backpacker’s pose.

You’ve seen San Pedro mountain, whether you recognized it as such or not. It rises to your right as you drive the 101 north into San Rafael. The main ridge splits into a series of smaller, pincer-like ridges which jut into the San Francisco bay. At Point San Pedro, the coastline makes a sharp turn to the north. This point, together with Pinole Point, located across the bay on the eastern shore, creates the space the San Pablo bay occupies.

Following the frontage road that winds around Point San Pedro heading north will take you past salt marshes, the laboratory of the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which conducts research on estuarine health within the wilds of pickleweed and spartina. There are odd little hills perched on the edge of the marsh, would-be islands, which will be actual islands in another 50 years or so, as soon as the sea rises.

Jay and I went camping in July mostly because of corporate perfidy; he was placed on unpaid furlough by PG&E, as were his fellow contract workers. The alternative meant sitting at home on the fourth of July in the Mission District, worrying about our future and enduring one M-80 explosion after another until Christ o’clock in the morning. The challenge for us was that we did not want the expense, or bother, of renting a car.

I rent a car about four to five times a year, which is enough for me. Cars are expensive, they use land which could be used for better purposes, and the emissions they belch are helping to cook the planet. I love getting rides home as much as the next person, believe me, especially when I’m dolled up for the opera, but in general, I’d rather ride my bike, take a bus or light rail train or just walk.

Looking east from Buckeye Point in China Camp State Park.

What people should have congratulated us for was getting a campsite anywhere for the 4th of July. (Jay and I suffer from procrastination.) We needed a campsite to be available at the last minute in July and one that was accessible by public transportation. That’s a tall order, I remarked acidly to Jay. Miraculously, we got our wish. China Camp State park had sites available throughout the week of the fourth of July. We booked site #15 for three and 1/2 days and three nights.

Our assumption that we could get there on public transit was well-founded. The Bay Area is unique in California in having undeveloped, natural areas in close proximity to its urban centers. The activism that protected the contado and sought to make it accessible to city dwellers is one of the main reasons Jay and I could depend on public transportation to get to a campsite. Dick Walker wrote about this history in his wonderful book  “The County in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area”. Using 511 and our own knowledge of local transit options, we planned our route, using three buses, and one half hour walk. Within four hours, we were at the campsite.

The first bus we took was a MUNI bus, the 27 Bryant. We hopped on at 22nd and Bryant, and rode to 5th and Market, walked to 7th and Market and got on a Golden Gate Transit bus #70. We de-bussed at the San Rafael transit hub, broke for lunch, and then took a Marin County Transit District bus #233 to Vendola Drive, the last stop for this particular bus and one that put us within walking distance of the campsite.

The first ten minutes of the walk was a bit grim. You are forced to walk on a narrow shoulder on North San Pedro Road, which is a street built for cars, not walkers. I felt like an interloper, and reflected on how transformative sidewalks and walking paths really are. They open spaces up. Streets that are engineered for cars close them down. But after 10 minutes of walking up a slight grade, Gallinas Creek and the San Pablo Bay appeared, and the small shabby suburb disappeared behind us. After that, it was a twenty minute walk to the entrance of China Camp State Park and the parking lot of the Back Ranch Meadows Campground entrance.

A cluster of pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) in the meadow in front of Back Ranch Meadow. It’s not native and is incredibly fragrant and also very handy. If I’d known it was non-native, I would have taken some.

We got to the site at about 2 p.m., trudging a bit. Our backpacks were heavy, and the day was hot (really hot.) There were problems, the most serious of which was the semi-derelict wooden food lockers at the campsite. We were warned about raccoons, but the real vandal was the incredibly cute California mouse (Peromyscus Californicus).  The mice got inside the box, nibbled on this and sampled that, and after breaking into a bag of walnuts, made a cute little nest for themselves and settled down to enjoy life, which they did until Jay came along and flushed them out. (also, mouse feces was everywhere. Yup.) Here’s a link to a video of the mice caught in their moment of  flagrante delicto.  (I urge you to watch it.)

Poor little guys. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the State of California and the California Department of Parks and Recreation for trying to close China Camp back in 2012, which has had a deleterious effect on basic park maintenance. At some point this week, I’m going to send an email to the Friends of China Camp—we’re members— the all-volunteer organization tasked with running the 75-acre park, letting them know that they need to tell people to bring their own storage options.

There were other challenges: a bratty child one campsite down who threw florid temper tantrums several times a day. (Once, she woke up in the middle of the night and screamed mama, mama for five minutes, reenacting the most basic and terrible fairy tale of all: the lost child in the wood crying for her mother).

And the mosquitoes were relentless and we hated them for it and wondered why we hadn’t brought protection. Jay and I counted 22 bites between us. Bring mosquito nets and barriers, and repellent. You’ll be a lot happier. The campsite is protected from wind, which makes lighting your campfire easy and fighting mozzies and midges impossible.

Arctostaphylos manzanita on the Powerline fire trail, a southeast-facing trail above Back Ranch Meadows campsite in China Camp State park.

But the consolation was in what we saw in our three days there. There were old-growth manzanita lining the ridges, some of the biggest I’ve seen in Marin. There were black oaks. We saw a skink, a magical lizard with a bright blue tail. Deer crashed through the brush with their heavy yet light-footed bodies and pricked their ears up every time we took a step. The salt marsh rippled with (probably) hybridized spartina, which waved in the wind like green watered silk.

The moon was straining towards fullness the entire time we were there. On the last night, we walked out to look at the marsh plain under the glowing moonlight.

The first night we’d spent there, I’d heard coyotes shrilling and yapping in their crazy way, somewhere out in the baylands. Jay and I hoped to hear this again, but the yells and shrieks were all coming from the children, playing one last game before bed in the campground.

It still counts, I thought. We are, after all, animals too.

Jay and Elizabeth under the influence of the Thunder Moon, July 6th, 2017

 

For Laura, who wanted to know how we did this, and for Alexis and Krikor who showed me how. Long Live the Purple Monster backpack!

 

Jay at dusk, in China Camp State park.

From the 23rd Street Crossroads: the Weeping Man O’ the Mission

 

 

People do get themselves into a pickle: On Friday, as Jay and I walked home down 23rd street, past the Gaehwiler’s Hoarded Mansions, I saw a Siamese cat dart onto the sidewalk and heard the sound of weeping. We walked toward the sound and found a  man sobbing in abject sorrow, sitting on the bottom step of 3015 23rd Street. We asked him what was wrong. He really couldn’t tell us.

“My friends live here,” he told us, by way of explanation. His name was Ryan. He was wearing black-rimmed glasses and his hair was groomed. He lived in Los Angeles and he wanted to go home and go to bed. That was all we could get from him: he lived in Los Angeles, he’d been waiting for his friends, and he wanted to go to bed.

“Where are they? I want to go to bed,” he wailed. It was a nice little bed, he said, located in Los Angeles and he desperately wanted to be in it. His head dropped into his hands and he sobbed afresh. (sorry for the pseudo-Richardsonian prose, but it was exactly like this.) He was very drunk.

Later, I observed to Jay that that kind of drunkenness is a state of inebriation usually achieved in the small hours of the morning.
“That’s a three-o-clock-in-the-morning drunk,” I said. “Not an 11:30 drunk. It takes time to get that wasted.”
“I’ll defer to your superior knowledge,” replied my husband.

Ryan had big brown eyes. “You guys are so kind,” said he said tearfully. “I’ve been sitting here for three hours and no one has stopped.” A car drove by and he sat bolt upright.
“Is that them? Oh, God. Could that be them?” It wasn’t them. He slumped back down. It was a long story, he went on to say, of how he came to be sitting, shivering, woeful, and drunk on the bottom of the stairs and was too wonderfully incomprehensible to be related in a way we’d understand.

“It’s a long story, right?” I said sympathetically.

“Oh my god. It’s such  a long story,” he said and waved his hand in a gesture of you-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-I told-you bafflement. I saw, over Ryan’s slumped shoulders, the tenant of apartment 1305A, twitching her curtain at intervals, peering at us from behind her locked door.  23rd street, between Alabama and Folsom, looks and feels deserted. The Gaehwilers’ have been systematically emptying their buildings, and the sticky, brine-scented fog that was rolling in from the west enhanced the sense of ghostly lostness.

Poor Ryan was wearing only a flimsy jacket and a thin tee shirt. I know from experience that San Francisco fog still comes as a shock to Angelenos. Ryan, I imagined myself asking sternly, where’s your jacket? I was wearing an ugly beige London Fog windbreaker because of the windy, damp cold. It’s a jacket so devoid of style that my mother refuses to wear it. I took it off and spread it across his shoulders.

“Oh, that’s so kind of you!’ he cried. “I’m OK. I really am.” He burst into tears again, and then stopped. “I’m OK. What are you guys doing? You don’t need to worry about me. I’m a professional,” he said.
“I believe you,” I replied. I noticed a white paper band around his wrist; it was the type of bracelet they attach to you as proof of entrance in festivals or psych wards. I touched it.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Oh, that was from a club I went to,” he replied.

The Siamese cat had been darting back and forth on the sidewalk during this encounter. It was a gorgeous cat, a seal point Siamese, with observant eyes and a whippy black tail. If I hadn’t been so involved with the woeful Ryan, I would have paid more attention to it.
“Don’t go in the street,” I told the cat.
It threw itself on the pavement and started writhing ecstatically: clearly it was communing with the spirits of the fog-shrouded night and in thrall to them.

Jay discovered that Ryan’s phone was out of juice. “Do you want me to go get a charger?” he asked Ryan, who waved him away.
“No, no. What are you guys doing,” he said with drunken irritation and touch of belligerence. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m a professional.”

He clearly belonged to some profession. The watch he was wearing was a good one, and the scent of his cologne, which was in competition with the  smell of alcohol on his breath and skin, was very distinct: it had a strong note of fougère, and had clearly been crafted by some of the finest noses in the business. He was, in any case, a sitting duck. Robbery is a brisk business in any city, and San Francisco is no exception. I myself had been stolen from just six days before. My bike was swiped because I posted  woefully on Facebook a day later, of my hare-brained actions and the thief’s moral laxity. The loss had affected my week, leaving me with a sense of jumpy, hyper-vigilance.

I looked at Ryan critically: he didn’t weigh more than 160 pounds and he was extremely drunk. Anyone could have robbed him. I could have robbed him.
“Is your wallet on you? Do you have money?” I asked. “You could go and find a place to stay, right?”
“Yes, of course,’ he said. “I have money. My wallet is right here. Go on with your night,” he said. He made an attempt to sit up straight. “Really- you guys are so kind. I’ll be fine.”

I felt doubtful, but also no desire to invite him to our apartment, so that he could pass out in peace. It might have been fine, but it might not have been. The small talk in the morning would have been excruciating and I was all out of patience with the world.
“We’re going to leave you,” I told him. “I’m not real sure we should be doing this.” But he wanted us to go and finally we did.

When we got home, I called non-emergency dispatch and asked that they check on him, knowing he would not welcome this, knowing that it would be his worst nightmare, the flashing red and blue lights, the men in uniform standing over him, the flashlight in his face. But Ryan was vulnerable, sitting there weeping loudly, drenched in his expensive cologne and wearing his fine watch.

Does he have a weapon, asked the dispatcher and I laughed. Oh god no, I replied. Later the thought he’s an American and many American are armed ran through my head. He could have had a weapon, a small gun, maybe, a pearl-handled derringer, the weapon of maiden aunts and spinsters of Victoria Holt novels, blunt-nosed and deadly. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t afraid, I thought.

This morning, while Jay made breakfast, I called non-emergency dispatch.
“Can you tell me what happened with a call I made last night?” I asked and gave the dispatcher the address.
“23rd Street, between Harrison and Alabama, right?” No one had been found there, the dispatcher told me. By the time the police showed up, Ryan was gone.

How long did Ryan sit there, ears straining for the sound of an approaching car with his friends inside? Did they laugh affectionately, jeeringly, at the sight of him and his tears? Did they ask him about the beige windbreaker? (where on earth did you get that terrible jacket?) Did they reassure him that they’d always meant to come home, and open the gates for him, and take him inside to a little bed where he could finally sleep, a safe place inside, where the ecstatic cat and the sticky fog could not follow?

 
— written on Saturday, July 1st, as the moon waxes ever fuller in Libra, the sign of balance and right relationships.
Today is
my eighth day with no bike. The lesson of the stolen bike is this: there’s really no rush. The world isn’t going anywhere.

 

The Marine Firemen’s Union Hall is being sold.

The Marine Firemen’s Union building sits on the western side of Second Street, an appropriate direction given the union’s relationship with the Pacific Ocean. Second Street itself tips ever so slightly up as it intersects with Folsom. This angle is probably all that’s left of the vertiginous sand dunes clumped around the foot of Market Street in the 19th century. After the dunes were dismantled, boarding houses sprung up in their place, housing men who worked on the docks and in the ships berthed at the Embarcadero, back when it was a working waterfront.

The union, formed in 1883, is formally known as the Pacific Coast Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers Association. MFOWW (pronounced em-fau) moved to their current location sixty years ago. Today, the building sits on a large lot next to Linkedin, a hiring hall of another kind, minus the collective action for higher wages and better working conditions. The union is preparing for another move.

“We’re selling the building,” Ivy “Cajun” Callais told me. Callais, who lives in Alameda, told me that once the building was sold, the union would move operations to Seattle. “All the jobs are in the Port of Oakland now, anyway,” he said.

Asked if the building will be torn down, he nodded his head. “The air above it is worth more than the building, honey.” Callais, who still has a southern drawl—“I’ve been here since 1964 and haven’t lost it”—is happy the building isn’t under the confines of historic protection. “We have to sell it before that happens. We couldn’t afford it. All that work we’d need to do. It’d bankrupt us.” The building was described by the Chronicle in 1957 as a “shiny, new … marble-faced construction” and cost $800,000 to build. It’s anyone’s guess how much the parcel will sell for. Millions of dollars is a safe bet: the building, which sits on 21,396 square feet, was last assessed at $1,057,237. Callais was proud of the building and its construction even as he predicted its demise. “This building was built with the best materials. You see that wood?”

Interior shot of the Marine Fireman’s Union hall, 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA

The building is home to two other unions: The National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians–Communications Workers of America and The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Both unions possess the same sort of mouth-busting moniker made manageable by the phonetic pronunciation of their acronyms, NABET and IATSE (pronounced eye-at-see). The building also houses two prized works of art. A bas-relief sculpture is mounted above the entrance. Made by Olof Carl Malmquist, the noted sculptor whose work was scattered throughout the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, the sculpture shows marine firemen inside the boiler room of a ship.

Olaf Carl Malmquist’s unnamed bas-relief sculpture above the entrance to the Marine Fireman’s Union hiring hall, at 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA

Inside the hiring hall hangs a mural created by the famed sculptor and muralist Lucienne Bloch. It depicts shipping products and their places of origin throughout the Pacific region. The marine themed mural is charming and whimsical, complete with a mermaid and a jellyfish. Noticeably absent from it are images of men toiling over boilers in the guts of the huge ships that carried them from port to port. Bloch, who created five murals in San Francisco between the years 1956- 1963, is famous for photographing Diego Rivera’s mural “Man At The Crossroads” just moments before it was destroyed on orders given by the thin-skinned capitalist Nelson Rockefeller.

Lucienne Blochs’ mural, inside the Marine Fireman’s Union hiring hall, at 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA.

The building has other historic features too, namely lead and asbestos, elements nobody wants to preserve. According to Callais, the building is full of both. “Look at your feet. See that tile?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s what you’re standin’ on. Asbestos. It’s up there, too,” he said, pointing skyward. These are problems the union doesn’t have the money to solve.

“You hear the media talkin’ about corrupt union officials, embezzlin’ and gettin’ paid too much. Well, let me tell you about this job, darlin’,” Callais explained in his languorous drawl. “If I didn’t draw social security, I couldn’t afford to work here.” He mused on the stability that union wages used to bring to San Francisco. “I could get you a job being a wiper—you know what that is? It’s simple.” He mimed wiping a surface. “I could get you a job doing that, and you’d make a better living than me.”

He remembered a time, after the Vietnam war, when members of the union and “casuals” or non-members, would line up outside the door. “There were jobs in those days,” he said “Some of the casuals, they’d go to Shelley’s bar up there at the corner, and wait. And if at the end of the day, there were still jobs to be filled, jobs the members didn’t want, the dispatcher’d go to bar, walk up to a guy and ask him if he wanted the job. And if that man hesitated, why the dispatcher’d walk to another man and ask him. If you wanted a job, you had to say so. Couldn’t hesitate. There was always a man wanting to work.”

These days, the big hall is often empty, although it is still open. “People still get jobs here,” he said. According to the union’s secretary treasurer, the union’s combined assets totaled $2.6 million. MFFOW had 430 active members and dispatched a total of 1,909 jobs in 2016. He thanked me for stopping in—“take all the pictures you want!”—and handed me some newsletters to read. The April 13 issue of “The Marine Fireman” touted the “hundreds” of new jobs coming to the Port of Oakland and announced the newest advance in the shipping trade: automation. The headline read “Danish researchers excited about prospect of unmanned ships.” Before leaving, I’d asked Callais what he thought of the economy. He paused. “The minute the US loses its shipping trade, well,” he said, “that’s the day the US is finished.”

The view from the dispatcher’s desk inside the Marine Fireman’s Union hiring hall at 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA

“Immigrants and native-born workers wash against each other all the time in the California economy, like the tides moving in and out of the bay beneath the Golden Gate, coming together, only to be pushed apart by powerful forces.
The difference between metaphor and reality is that water and tides are not sentient. Workers are conscious and capable of changing direction together  if the current in which they find themselves is not to their benefit or liking.”
From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement
Fred B. Glass, University of California Press

 

UPDATE: Anthony Poplawski, the President of the Marine Firemen’s Union has disputed the assertion that this building is being sold. In a post published on Facebook, he said that offers are made on the building “all the time” and that there are no plans to sell.
However, this blog post, which recounts a conversation, accurately quotes Mr. Callais, and his remarks on the building’s status.

* Consider ordering not only Fred’s book but “The San Francisco Labor Landmarks Guide Book” as well. It’s edited by Catherine Powell, director of the Labor Archives and Research Center and can be purchased here:https://www.amazon.com/Francisco-Labor-Landmarks-Guide-Book/dp/B008GFRD7O

 

Chronicles of Ubo: the Osprey of the Upper Newport Bay

marshplain

Looking east from the Shellmound Island Science Center

I went kayaking yesterday with my cousin Elizabeth and her small, lovely daughter Becca. “How’s the bay?” she asked innocently and was saved from my natural long-windedness by the appearance an osprey, one half of a mated pair, now living and loving in the Upper Newport Bay.

The considerate folks at California Department of Fish and Wildlife built a roosting platform for the raptors and their growing family, and the osprey are using it: one fledgling is in the nest.

I first saw the osprey three or four years ago, sitting in the middle of a mud flat. I never saw these birds, these mythic sea eagles, growing up. Now, I am. The osprey tells you what you need to know about how the bay is, I think I finally said.

ospery1_

Looking at the osprey nest from the path.

Two ospreys living–they mate for life– and reproducing in the Back Bay means that the bay is doing better. Seeing them, I explained, means some assumptions can be made.

You can assume things about the water. The water quality is better than it used to be back when half of the bay was diked off for salt production and the other half was water laced with petrochemicals that leaked from the ostentatious yachts parked around Linda, Harbor and Bay Islands. I remember the rainbow sheen of the water very clearly, as a child in the late sixties  back in the seventies.

The snazzy motor boats and jet skis that used to race around the bay are now forbidden to do so. Consequently, there is less disturbance, and probably more fish to catch. And importantly, the fish they catch and eat don’t have as much DDT bio-accumulated in their oily flesh, and therefore do not compromise the osprey’s reproductive system.

You can assume things about noise. The airplanes that take off from John Wayne airport were forced by angry people living under the runway to take off at a steep angle so as to gain altitude quickly. This diminished the roar of the airplane. I can all but guarantee that the good people of Santa Ana Heights were not thinking about ospreys but managed to do them a good turn anyhow. Anthropocentric noise ruins avian habitat, plain and simple: the sweet song of the sparrow as it quests for a mate cannot compete with the roar of a chainsaw (this is a sentence I’ve written before). Neither can the high, thin cry of the osprey compete with the huge sound of an airplane. A bird’s habitat is the atmosphere, as much as the bush or the twig, and that aether should be as free as possible of manmade noise.

ospery2_

Papa Osprey keeping an eye on his fledgling.

You can assume things about predators. Raccoons are going to have a tough time getting up the platform. Other raptors–bald eagles, golden eagles and some owls which prey on eggs, fledglings and sometimes adult ospreys– are not in evidence. Yet. Corvids are a problem: they love to eat chicks and eggs. I watched the parent osprey chase three ravens away, very efficiently. But there is an explosion of corvids because they are efficient generalists and will eat anything from an egg in a nest to garbage lying on the ground. Corvids claim lots of attention for their guest appearances in various mythic tales. I love their appearance in the Táin Bó Cúailnge or in the Poetic Edda. But in the state of California, they are ubiquitous, rapacious and I have lost my fascination with their mythic origins. They don’t mean as much to me. They do not indicate balance.   

The osprey mean everything. They are an apex predator, at the top of their food chain, and as such, increase my understanding of ecology and life, a phenomenon best understood in the aggregate, not the singular. (That’s an idea that belongs to theocrats.) My understanding becomes both tightly concentrated and widely diffused when I see ospreys. I don’t just see them: I see all the systems under, adjacent and above. I see the web.

A last word on assumptions: some things you can know, like this fact: the Upper Newport Bay was saved because of action by individuals, institutions and flat-out governmental fiat. In the late sixties and early seventies, hard-working scientists wedded their work to human wonder to save the bay. The bay was left undeveloped and some ecological balance was restored because of the intervention of Fish and Wildlife, and the EPA. When I was a seven-year old, the EPA banned DDT in 1972, clearing the way for raptors like the osprey to begin their comeback, which was helped along by the passage of the Endangered Species Act. All of this protection transformed the bay into a refuge. 

osperychickopenwings

The fledgling tests its wings.

I kayak every chance I get. As I do, I think about the bay ecology that supports the ospreys and the fact that this tiny little circle of life is situated in an old river delta, the bit where the end of the river meets the beginnings of the sea.

This river, an antecedent river of the Santa Ana river, rose and ran west during the last glacial period of the Pleistocene, a rainy, fluvial/pluvial epoch that made Orange County look more like the Pacific Northwest (think big wet trees). It made a gap in the Santa Ana mountain range, ran over the Tustin Plain and emptied into the Upper Newport Bay.

When I paddle my kayak upstream into the wildlife refuge, I move backward in time, into a space made by that old, old river. Somewhere below the muddy bottom of the bay is a still older passage.  It’s the world beneath ours, the one you see in a puddle on a stormy day, when the small, silvery pool of wet dissolves into pure transparency and you are invited to jump in and through. (I saw these puddle worlds often when I was a kid.)

I would jump, if I could. I assume things are better there; no revanchist government; no theocrats, no supremacist, belligerent patriarchs with their handmaids. I don’t know this. I shouldn’t assume. It’s not wise. Ask the questions–Is the bay better? Will it continue to gain in health? Will the ospreys stay put? Will the fledgling fly?–stay put and remember to consider the osprey in its hybrid habitat made by ancient rivers and human intervention.

It’s at rest in its world, the one next to ours.

msospery


This is Mama Osprey who landed carrying a silver mullet in her talons, which she proceeded to eat there, on the marsh plain. Wish I had a better camera.

The Witch sees the Tail of Newt and knows that it is Spring.

Yesterday was the first day of spring, and after a cold hard winter, I welcomed it. The wildflowers of California are out-performing themselves in terms of bloom. Pictures from California’s 58 counties show streaks of pure poppy orange coloring the hills and plains, and mountain meadows, punctuated by purple, pink, blue, white, and red. Every color and every flower I’ve ever seen is punching its way to the surface, encouraged by the water that’s been pouring from the sky and the heat of the sun. It works, this relationship between sun, seed and rain. It’s amazing to see a system do the work, like clockwork, of seasonal production.

I went hiking with my best friend Elyse in Tennessee Valley, one of the many glens—I counted at least 51 on a map between the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes station—that run from the ridges of the Marin hills down to the sea. These long narrow spaces usually have water running through them that forms a lagoon which drains into a pocket beach.  You could almost describe this system in a pictograph.

As you can see, dear reader, I did exactly that and while it wouldn’t be the simplest pictograph to hammer into a rock, it gets the job done of describing what a person could reasonably expect to find in terms of landforms at the bottom of the ridge line of a coastal range. My pictogram has the added benefit of some totally accidental symbolism: the lines depicting the creek, the lagoon and the lagoon’s outlet to the ocean look like a snake. Which you could reasonably expect to find in a natural system like this.

Of course, reasonable expectations get thwarted all the time. The natural system of a glen/creek/lagoon/ocean outlet are often waylaid by the non-natural system of urban development. People just love building houses in beautiful natural spaces, and Marin for all its love of environmental 501 © 3’s is no different. The hills above Muir Beach are thick with expensively designed homes, modest and sleek, all of which depend on urban systems, like sewers and power lines, to house their owners in comfort.

The lagoon that drains into Muir Beach is but one part of the Redwood Creek Watershed. The total system is composed of the creek, the wetland, the lagoon and the tidal dunes, and ultimately, the ocean. It’s all one piece and as such responds to disruption and connection systemically, which is to say that if the water is stymied in its flow, there will be floods, fish will be blocked from building their redds and depositing their cache of eggs, and native plants and animals will lose habitat. If the water has the room it needs, it will run over and through undeveloped land, and create a floodplain, which gives the water that space it needs to spread and meander.

That’s what water does. It also creates topography, which is great for animals that need water to reproduce but also dry land from time to time. The water has the added responsibility of disseminating and germinating native seeds which—at this location anyway—don’t have to compete with invasives for the land and the water they need to grow.

This refreshing lack of competition comes courtesy of some volunteer, or volunteers, more likely, who worked tirelessly to clear it of nasty things like Himlayan blackberry and its whip-like canes, which will take over an area in no time at all. Land management is a critical element in habitat restoration.

Thus it was that a ceanothus bush greeted me and my friend Elyse as we descended from the trail. It might have been planted, but it’s more likely that the seed bed in the soil yielded it up naturally and it survived because of the management practices described above.

“A ceanothus!” I yelled when I saw it. I see them in the city all the time. There’s one blooming right now just down the street from me, a ceanothus foliosus, from the looks of it. But I never see them in the wild. I was so was excited to see it because of where I was seeing it. It was a Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, a thrilling name for its Dionysian connotations. It made me momentarily ecstatic, anyway. My friend, Elyse also recognized it, but had to wait for my rapture to die down in order to tell me that.

“I know this plant because someone called it a see-you-know-us,” she informed me. We laughed at her silly friend.
“You never see this plant here. But this is exactly where you should expect to see it,” I said, proving that it takes more than a rainy two-mile walk uphill to knock value judgements out of me.

We walked across the small bridge that spans Redwood Creek and its floodplain. I heard the croaking of frogs almost immediately. The interpretive signs advised me that these were probably, hopefully, the endangered California Red Legged frog (Rana draytonii)which, again, you would —should—expect to hear in this location, because of this creek, this lagoon and the wetland. Where else would frogs be?

Almost immediately, I saw something large moving through the bushes in the wetland, something big enough for its silvery grey-brown fur to be visible above the low-lying shrubbery. There were some other hikers on the other side of the bridge looking at the animal intently. I walked across the bridge with the chorus of frogs croaking away, and asked one of the hikers what he was looking at.

“A coyote,” he replied. The coyote, as if on cue, stepped out of the scrub and into a small clearing. It was a big one, probably a young adult, with a thick bushy tail and the narrow muzzle that coyotes have.

What you could reasonably expect to see and hear was exactly what we saw and heard all within twenty minutes: a ceanothus, one of the most common plants of coastal scrub, a red-legged frog once incredibly populous and now federally listed as an endangered species and a coyote. I reacted to all these with delight, but surprise.

I say “but surprise” to acknowledge how bereft California’s natural history is of the “history” part. The frog, the coyote and the ceanothus bush were common elements in places like Tennessee Valley before 1849. The frog’s habitat contracted and worse, people developed a taste for its legs.

I don’t have the evolutionary history of any of these animals or plants to hand, but it’s safe to assume thousands of years of habitation in the bay area. The bay itself is 9,000 years old and its baylands developed about 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. It took less than 200 years to make the bush, the frog and the coyote strangers in their own land and novelties for hikers like me to encounter. It’s taken about seven years for the staff and scientists of the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to put the pieces of the Redwood creek ecology back together. And guess what? It’s working. The moral of the story…well, there’s more than one, but one of them is this: restoration works and it can be a mighty work.

We left the lagoon and walked a trail that edged the cliffs and then dropped down into another glen. And that was the final surprise, final proof of a ancient system working to produce life. I started seeing newts, many newts, all with knobbly skin and bright orange undersides. They scrambled off the path at our approach, away from the peril of our heavy feet. I squealed. I’ve only ever seen newts (a type of salamander) once on a hike. And that was a long time ago (and I wasn’t walking. I was swimming) Again, the question danced in my head. What do you expect to see? I took a picture of the first few little beasts I saw, assuming I wouldn’t see any more, and then continued to see them at such a rate that I knew I would find at least one dead. (I did.)

By the time we walked out of Tennessee Valley, I’d seen at least 40 salamanders. They were endearing, the way they moved: they threw their short stumpy limbs up and out, as they left the path and clambered into the damp underbrush. The salamanders with their glistening, toxic skin seemed inseparable from the environment that they started life in. It was as if the water flowing in Redwood creek had changed into thousands of watery little gods, running like rivulets down the muddy path.

I was surprised by my surprise the entire time I was walking by the things that were there. After all, the “there” that I’m thinking of is made of them. The animals and plants of Tennessee Valley, as they blink in and out of existence, and as scientists and land managers struggle to rebuild ecologies from scratch in order to give amphibians like the Rough-skinned and California newt a home, are the valley as much as the crumpled chert formations that give it form or the water that flows through it.

I do want to be surprised, though. I don’t want to tour natural spaces with animals and birds and insects and all the rest appearing at punctual intervals to assure me I’m outside.

I want to continue to be surprised by everything I see everytime I venture out: the uncontained, the rebounded, the natural, the wild.

Written in the muddy muddy month o’ March, the greenest month we have. These newts are out now and about….

This little guy made right for me and walked steadily between my feet….

They are so dear. And they don’t have much space. So if you go walking the Marin Hills, step lightly and look out for them. 

San Francisco,March 21st, 2017