Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: 992 Florida Street

The missing switch of 22nd street

I can explain about the railroad switch. My husband was the one who noticed that it was missing. We were walking down 22nd street, past the old Southern Pacific right-of way. I saw what I always see, dried stalks of Foeniculum vulgare, and the Western Plywood warehouse (which is also gone now). Jay immediately zeroed in on what wasn’t there: the old railroad switch.

Hey,” Jay said, pointing at a clump of fennnel. “Where’s the switch?”

It was gone. I was flabbergasted. I’ve been looking at the damn thing off and on for almost 25 years. There’s that thing, I’d think, what is that thing? It was always there, the mysterious old metal thing stuck in the ground next to the Atlas Stair Company. It only became knowable—it’s a rail switch!— after I started investigating the history of the Southern Pacific right-of-way, now a vacant strip of land cutting diagonally behind Treat avenue. I wrote an article about the right-of-way for Mission Local in December 2017 that described the rails embedded in the ground and the rail switch.

The switch itself is kind of boring. There’s a flat metal plate with rusted spikes sticking through holes. Then there’s a really thick vertical part which supports a circular plate with a cool handle that juts out awkwardly from the side of the apparatus. A length of iron, which still has some yellow paint on it, extends about two feet up from that. It seems like one should be able to lift the jutting handle  and move it counter-clockwise around the circular plate, and fix it into another position, but you can’t. I tried. A bit of iron wire is wrapped haphazardly around it: some long-ago engineer’s quick fix? Maybe. When was it was bolted to the ground? I don’t know. Maybe sometime in the 1860’s, when trains from the San Francisco San Jose line ran along the rail, but it’s more likely a later improvement by the Southern Pacific, which bought the failing SF-SJ line and enfolded it into its tentacular monopoly.

There are endless categories of trains and railways, and rail lines and to go along with this, exhaustively well-researched and documented histories of the terrible fraud and larceny of the rail magnates. Rail history is more than just people traveling and golden spikes driven into rail ties: it’s the game of Monopoly in real time, the history of unregulated capital, labor exploitation, land seizures and riots. It is the story of ex-grocers with fat stomachs, who got rich seizing control of California’s government, land, and labor.

All the magnates—Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins and Crocker, Newhall, all those guys—knew how to exert control. The old switch is a small expression of that.

Here, let me do a cut and paste from Wikipedia in order to explain what a rail switch is. (I had no idea.) A railroad switch is “a mechanical installation enabling railway trains to be guided from one track to another, such as at a railway junction or where a spur or siding branches off.” Basic, right? The switch was probably made in the Southern Pacific’s foundry in Sacramento and might have even been designed by a man named Andrew Jackson Stevens, SP’s General Master Mechanic from 1870 until 1888, a man noted for his ingenuity in designing railroad parts.

I’m telling you this to show that even for something as mundane as a rail switch, it’s possible to know a lot about its origins. And because of the slow unfolding of certain events, it’s also possible for me to tell you why it’s missing from the right-of-way.

An Irishman named John O’Connor saved it. That’s the short story. O’Connor, a tall man with large eyes, is a builder—or developer, if you want to use the faintly pejorative term—and a Kerryman. “That’s cool,” I said when he told me this. “San Francisco is a Cork and Kerry town.” He smiled patiently. John O’Connor bought the Western Plywood warehouse on Harrison street in 2013, and straightway started making plans to tear it down and construct a residential building. He’s kind of shaping presence around here. A couple years ago, he built another residential building right next door to his newest development. His latest project was planned under fire from neighborhood criticism, which ranged from laments over the lack of affordability to concerns that his tall building (it’s going to be 40 feet high) would cast an actual pall over the neighborhood with its high, high walls.

I’m bringing him into this because not only did he save the switch, but also because his property borders the right-of-way.

Now, maybe you’ve been following the news of this neighborhood. Maybe you know that know some of my neighbors here in the East Mission want to turn the right-of-way into something nice, like a long narrow greenway, or maybe a dog run, or maybe both. No one knows yet. Hell, the city doesn’t even know who owns it! The future of the right-of-way is unfolding from emptiness into form, and the actual dimensions of the right-of-way are coming into focus in part because of O’Connor’s 40-foot building rising up on its eastern edge. In a weird way, this is going to help: people will know exactly how much land there is to work with. I find this interesting, in a plot-driven kind of way: O’Connor has acted as a local deus ex machina, providing answers and clarity in a way he probably never intended to.

He certainly did one day, a month after the switch went missing.

On that day, I was walking along the right-of-way with the people who want to see it turned into a greenway. I was interviewing them for another Mission Local story. Ever since Jay noticed that the switch was gone, the pre-verbal, pre-cognitive part of my mind had gone on full alert, like a searchlight. A questing beacon.  Where is it where is it, my seeking mind muttered.

You see: I felt guilt. It was my fault that it was gone. Let me back up, and explain.


The switch is gone! Skulduggery! I wrote in an email to my friend Dennis, hours after Jay pointed out its absence. I thought maybe it had been removed by certain property owners I had mentioned in my December story. They didn’t like being written about, I reasoned, and they didn’t want people to start loving the weedy old parcel: that’s an old railroad right of way, they’d maybe say, looking at the rusty switch with new respect. So they must have pulled the switch out.

Dennis, who is a railroad historian and a journalist, and also very sensible, explained what had really happened. It’s more likely that it was taken, he wrote back, pointing out that because I had helpfully included a picture of the switch in my Mission Local article, that rail fans/artifact plunderers noted the fact that there was a “vintage” rail switch standing in an empty lot and planned accordingly. They probably took it, he concluded, and then told me a story of an awesome object he had written about, which basically doomed it to theft, too.

I thought of Yeats’s famous line about writing plays that got men shot. The article I wrote that got the switch, I thought and stopped right there because my mind was hissing things at me like that’s weird, Elizabeth. Stop being weird. Also, I could not think of a word for “steal” that rhymed with “wrote.”

Dennis sent me a link to Ebay to prove his point. It took me to a world I never knew existed: the world of collectible “Railroadiana & Trains” where, sure enough, two or three rail switches were for sale. My jaw dropped. Some guy in Kentucky had one listed for 399.00 . You understand that railroad switches are very heavy, right? And not pretty. I saw a 16th-century water pump in the Victoria and Albert Museum in England last November that was very pretty. Every square inch of it was adorned with flowers, and other stuff. The switch is not pretty. And yet, they sell for hundreds of dollars (apparently. Maybe the guy in Kentucky is delusional.)

Back to my questing mind: so, I was walking around in the right-of-way with people who want it to be a greenway. Ostensibly, I was there to interview people, and I was doing that: the gentle teacher who thinks about open spaces and the humanity that takes root there, the suspicious and weary artists who live in a warehouse along the southern edge of the right-of-way, who feel like foxes run to the ground. They have had the vacant lot to “work large in” and fear that they’ll lose their creative space if the greenway is developed.

I was definitely working. But I was also thinking about the switch. Where is it where is it where is it, beep, beep, beep…I showed one of the artists where the switch had been. He hadn’t noticed it was gone. Someone else came over and we discussed the situation. It’s a bummer, I told the artist. It made this a place.

What else?

It was a piece of the past. It was a part of the old world where things were manufactured, not just funded. It was Made in America, possibly the handiwork of unionized labor. It hearkened to a time when the physical world held sway and nothing was seamless. We all agreed these things were true.

We walked back to the Western Plywood warehouse, which was three weeks away from demolition. The siding  was open, so I walked inside and took a picture. There was a shout.

“Hey! No! No pictures! No pictures!” John O’Connor—that’s who it was, although I didn’t know that at the time—rounded the corner, looking tall and annoyed.

“Sorry,” I responded. “Can I look around if I take no pictures?”

“Sure,” he said. I noticed the brogue. The others drifted over: the neighbors who wanted the parcel to become a greenway, the artists who weren’t so sure. They had met each other that morning and there was a cautious air of well-shit-I-guess-we-should-talk sense of rapprochement. Someone said something about all the changes, and then someone else mentioned the switch.

“Did you notice the switch is gone?” I asked O’Connor.

“Oh, I have that, sure,” he said.

“WHAT?” I screamed. He pointed inside the warehouse. And there was the switch, laying on the ground with clods of mud and weeds festooning the base.

He’d been inside the warehouse on New Years night, he said. As he was leaving, he noticed that a white truck was inside the lot, down near 22nd street. It was a “bart truck”, he told us.

“A bart truck,” I repeated.

“Yeh, yeh, you know, BARRRRT. Bart. The train. The truck had the BART logo on it,” he said and showed me a picture he’d taken of the truck and the license plate.  He watched as two men wrestled the switch into the truck and then decided to act.

“So, I went over to them,” O’Connor said “and said what’re you doing here? What’re you doing? Yiv got no business here. And I told ‘em to leave and brought that inside. I knew they shouldn’t have it.”

“Did you tell BART?” I asked.

“Ah, no. I didn’t want to get the lads in trouble,” he said. “I chased ‘em off. That was enough.”

It was sort of a moment when he told us that he’d saved the switch, taken it from the plunderers and stored it inside the warehouse. People were happy to see it, the switch that had been stuck in the ground, for maybe a century, year in and year out. We’d all been mostly unaware of it until we started thinking about the future of the place.

It felt like a good omen to see it laying there.

After O’Connor knocked down the Western Plywood warehouse, the switch was moved to a safe (and undisclosed) location, until it goes somewhere else. The Western Railway Museum said they’d take it. But I’m not sure I want it to leave the Mission. One thing is certain: it will probably won’t go back to the right-of-way. Rusted iron spikes and jutting handles are incompatible with concerned parents and their small children, which will play in the greenway, if that’s what ends up happening.

And there’s no security for it now, which is partly my fault—I asked for attention to be paid, and it was.

So now you know why the switch is gone. What I can’t tell you about is its future.

The history it belonged to is totally gone and now the switch is sort of like a marooned time-traveler. What happens to them? Sometimes they get back home. Sometimes they’re destroyed. Sometimes, they remake the future and shape it in ways no one could have predicted. I don’t know what will happen to the railroad switch. It’s in exile right now, but we’ll see. The Mission is changing. But there’s always room for the past.

Here is a cut-n-paste of the SP spur, taken from the  San Francisco block book, circa 1900, possibly even earlier (it’s undated and in the collection of block books at the North Baker research library at the California Historical Society).

 

If you look closely, you can see the names of the property owners scattered throughout. Prominent among these is Samuel Crim, John Center and JH Kruse.

 
Written during a Pineapple Express storm on March 21st, 2018. It’s been a while since I’ve written. I organized a history festival, and that took all my time. And then I got sick. But I’m better now. It’s good to be back.

 

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From the 22nd Street Crossroads: Betsy the Katastrophé Chaser

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χρήσιμον ἐπὶ καταστροφῇ τῶν ἀκουόντων*χρήσιμον ἐπὶ καταστροφῇ τῶν ἀκουόντων

On November 11th, the morning sky was crowded with sullen, yellow-grey clouds. It was shaping up to be a windless day, and the air felt congested, as if it had no intention of ever moving again. I understood this. I have not been moving: my soul and my stomach have been clenched like a fist since about 7:30 pm on November 8th, which is when I grasped that things, like the American presidential election, were going very badly. Since then, my eyes seem turned permanently inward. What was it Gertrude said? O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul/And there I see such black and grainèd spots/As will not leave their tinct. This is not an admission of guilt, you understand. I didn’t vote for Trump; neither did I wallow in indecision over whom to cast my vote for. But my vasty interior is black: black as night, black as the tomb, black as sin, black as anything. There has been no crack to let the light through.

Jay and I decided to do laundry. I set about doing this hated task very grimly. I don’t like doing laundry during the best of times. During the worst, it’s hard to do anything at all, but the house must be kept, and in any case, messy kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms seem claustrophobic. So we gathered our things together and got to the laundromat, the one we use at 21st and Bryant. I don’t like this particular lavandería. The dryer only gives 7 minutes of drying time per quarter and the washing machines are unreliable. I put my clothes in a washing machine with a scrap of blue tape stuck to it. I didn’t see the words “no water” scrawled in tiny letters until after I’d put my clothes in, poured in the soap, pushed the quarters through the narrow slot and hit “hot”. The clothes began to tumble dryly. “Goddammit,” I yelled. Jay looked startled and tried to calm me down. “Don’t tell me what to do when I’m angry,” I hissed. “It never ends well.” (Is this what Trump voters were telling the rest of us, the petulant fuckers?)

That morning, I’d read that Paul Ryan wanted to replace Medicare with vouchers, and my blood ran cold. All I could think of was my mother, and my older siblings who will definitely need Medicare. I will, too. That news story got past my defenses and I leaned against my husband’s warm belly and cried, seeing Ryan’s weirdly detached blue-eyed gaze in my head and getting—for the umpteenth time this year— that those who do the most harm are usually convinced that they’re doing the most good. Ryan maddens me: his theocratically-based Conservatism makes me so bellicose as to potentially eclipse my soul.

Lately (and about twenty years later than everyone else) I’ve discovered Joss Whedon and his multiverse, thanks to Netflix, and I’m starting to do that geeky thing where suddenly everything is explainable as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel character. The two characters I really relate to are Anyanka the Vengeance Demon and Bad Willow, whose black eyes turn to the furthest regions of her eclipsed soul when the shit hits the fan in Sunnydale. Last week, someone nailed a plastic skull to the telephone pole on the southern corner of the 22nd street Crossroads. After election day, I looked at it with black and eclipsed eyes, and posted a picture of it on my Facebook page along with a short epigraph to the Goddess of the Crossroads, Hekate. I’d downloaded the Theogony of Hesiod, and—before I really understood what I was doing— had started composing a laudation to her which, unless I’m totally mistaken about how these things work, would also function as an invitation. I caught myself. Woah, girl, I thought. Woah.

Back to the laundromat: I walked home to hang some freshly-washed dainties on the line and was hoofing it back when a wailing fire truck slung itself around the corner and hauled ass down Florida Street. I smelled smoke wafting through the swampy, moist air. Right, I thought. A fire. I broke into a brisk trot—can’t keep a Creely away from the action!—and ran towards 21st street. I stopped at the intersection. There was no fire, but something was happening. An ambulance was parked in front of Doña Teres’s market. A man with large brown eyes was striking a pose of some sort while paramedics and police officers milled around him.

The man looked at me with tragic eyes. “Help me!” he cried. “Help me!” What the fuck is happening?, I thought. “What’s going on?” I asked the policeman. “Where’s the fire?”

He shrugged. “Not here,” he said briefly and muttered something into the walkie-talkie clipped to his shoulder. The man who’d pleaded with me sat down heavily on a chair. I ran on and passed another paramedic van (another one? what was going on?) on my way down Florida street, moving towards the smell of smoke. The fire was out by the time I got there.

It had started in a small building behind Design Map, a software company located in a newly-built structure behind the old Crescent Mattress Factory at 19th and Alabama. Firefighters were lugging what looked like a burned air conditioning unit out of the building. “What happened?” I asked a man standing next to me. “Construction,” he replied. He went on to tell me that a worker laid his blowtorch down next to the air conditioning unit which sucked up—and subsequently burst into—flames.

There was no danger anymore; just a burnt building, some temporarily displaced workers and the languorous, but unpredictable day itself, grinding on. But I was unnerved. There had been increasingly bad news from election day, a spate of interpersonal conflicts, screaming fire engines, conflagrations, crazy men pleading for help, all within the last hour, and the hot stillness of the day itself, which Californians call earthquake weather. It felt like the calm before a storm.  This was a Whedon-esque day indeed. In fact I could write the episode myself: a new deity-goddess named Katastrophé who inhabits a adjacent universe has come through a temporary portal created by an ancient sigil, the numeral 60,371,193, which was raised by Trump voters mumbling his name as they cast their spell-vote. She was obviously whipping through my neighborhood, raising alarms, shattering people’s nerves, and setting things on fire. Why was I chasing Her? What would I do if I caught up to Her? Fight? Or would She look at me with love and claim me as Her daughter?

I walked back to Florida Street. Two women stood on the corner, with their arms crossed and their brows wrinkled in consternation. I knew what they were looking for: the fire (and Katastrophé, who was clearly asking people to come out and play.) “It’s out,” I told them. “It was at 19th and Alabama. But it wasn’t a big fire.” They looked startled to be spoken to by a stranger, but that’s my way: talk to people you don’t know, often, is an unofficial motto of mine. We fell into discussion. We told each other our names, where we lived. “I live in the purple house,” one of them, a woman named Angela, told me. I knew the purple house. It was right next to the laundromat. I often looked at it as I walked into the laundromat. It’s a dark pansy-purple, with neat trim and it radiates tidy domesticity. We hit all the points Missionites hit these days: how long we’ve been in the neighborhood, where we’re from, maybe a bit about what we do, observations on the aftermath of the election. Angela told me she’d cleaned her bathroom and had snapped at her partner. I said “I’ve been trying to vacuum my house for four hours.” We didn’t say A fog of misery and fear is keeping me from doing much, but it seemed to be plain, the protective crouch we were all holding.

 This is where the Whedon-esque part of my day ended. Were this an episode, it would have been one of the famous ones, where Whedon and his writers flipped the script by using anti-climax: that moment when everything doesn’t go wrong and the quotidian world re-asserts itself. I walked back down Florida Street, and met my neighbor Melvin, who was talking to a woman with his arms folded over the fence in his front yard. Melvin’s house is one of my favorite places on Florida Street. It was built in 1885 in the Fillmore and moved to the Mission at some point thereafter, and it is notable for its incredibly fecund chayote vine. He’s a night mechanic for MUNI.  Are you in a union? I asked breathlessly, and he nodded and laughed and said oh, yeah. We all stood and talked, finding comfort in the normalcy of meeting our neighbors. Melvin clipped some chayotes off the vine and handed them out. I took two. They are very good to eat, and they are beautiful: a gorgeous translucent green. If you take one in your hand and hold it up to the sun, its thin skin is filled with so much verdant light, that you can almost forget what darkness looks like.

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That being said, darkness knows itself very well. It will take more than marveling at the grace and beauty of the natural world to fend it off. I did not catch up to Katastrophé that day: did not look into Her black eyes, and fall prey to Her power. I did not, and will not, become Her, although other transformations may take place, especially concerning my will (which is mighty.)

But catastrophe is afoot: in our hearts, in our neighborhoods and cities, in our legislative chambers and, sadly and terribly, in the office of the President of the United States. And there is no one and nothing to save us from ourselves, but ourselves.

So we have to know who we are.

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Here are my neighbors, Melvin and Angela. The fabulous chayote vine is right in back of them.

 

 

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The chayotes of Florida Street. They’re as big as my head.

Written under the influence of the Full Moon in Taurus and with love and appreciation for the incredible Andy Hallett, who played the good-hearted green-skinned demon Lorne (or Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan if you’re nasty.) I’ve wished, more than once this month, that I could sit in Caritas, and sing a song for him.

Talk of the Mission Town: Pigeon Eviction

UntitledI own a vase that belonged to my grandmother. I don’t know where she got it. Its only known provenance starts with her ownership and the table it sat on, years ago in her home in Newport Beach. I love it. It’s been knocked over twice and broken twice. The first time, a year ago, I cried Oh no and pieced it back together with Crazy Glue.

Yesterday, an ill wind blew through my south-facing window and broke it again. It has no resilience. When the wind blows, it breaks and that’s it.

The ill wind broke more than a vase. My husband woke me at 8:30 this morning to tell me he’d been fired. Sacked, he said, his body language apologetic, yet tensed. No fault, he said ( No severance either.) References? Unemployment? I asked frantically. yes, yes, he replied. All that.

An hour later, I sat down with my coffee to read the SF Chronicle. The top story was the astronomic price of rents: A new record for S.F. rents: $3,458 a month, the headline exclaimed. Wham, wham, wham: the facts slammed into me, one after another.

I had a heads up. My husband has been dealing with what I call job uncertainty since January and two months ago in a tarot reading, I drew the Tower Card (for a witch who boasts of her innately skeptical nature, I sure do consult The Woo quite often). I can’t quite remember the placement within the schematic, but it had to do with the near future. Bring it, I said brashly. The World card followed, then the Strength card and then the card I pull quite often, The Wheel of Fortune.

Well, it was brought. As of this moment, it’s the Tower that’s in power. (The latter two cards are meant for the future)  Structures are falling, I told my best friend the other night. The Tower is crumbling.

The vase got fixed. I put it in a safer place than an open window. There’s no safe place to put us, me and my husband, especially not now with the threat of unemployment and displacement looming over our heads. We can’t compete with 3,458.00. (can anyone, really?).

The Wheel will continue to turn up and down and up and down. I’m not scared. Mostly, I feel belligerent.

UntitledThis is a lengthy intro to this video (shot on an iPhone!) that I hope you’ll watch. It’s about eviction. My husband first noticed the pigeons two weeks ago, nestling into the hot concrete. They’re courting each other, he said  Look. He’s feeding her. They’re learning to nest. We marveled at their tenderness with each other, their single-mindedness, the opalescent sheen of their pigeon-grey throats and breasts.He dropped to one knee and began to film them. It takes a certain amount of lively intelligence to notice the everyday object. Pigeons are ubiquitous and are, for that reason, excellent symbols of resistance. They are notoriously difficult to displace from their habitat or routine. If the anti-eviction movement in San Francisco decides to use a mascot, it should be a pigeon.

Eviction means you’ve been displaced against your will. The vase falls, breaks. It was evicted. The pigeon is rudely disturbed and momentarily evicted from its warm patch of sidewalk. We have determined that our staffing needs have changed, an email reads. Evicted. My friend’s apartment on South Van Ness was bought by an unscrupulous Irishman, a real gaimbín piece of shit. Evicted. Yes. Another friend’s multi-unit apartment building on Folsom Street is currently on the auction block. Evicted? We’ll see. The pigeons, so rudely interrupted by the dog, paid it no never mind and fluttered back a minute later.

So, pigeons, evictions, the connection between the two? Here’s one. On Tuesday, May 5th, one day before the malevolent south wind broke my vase and brought ill-fortune, I attended a protest. My friend, Chris Carlsson and his neighbors are trying to stop the sale of their home, a huge Mission multi-unit Victorian. The protest had been called so that prospective buyers showing up to view the building, which is known as (and this is a lovely coincidence) the Pigeon Palace, would be discouraged from wanting to buy the building.

As I left, I noticed the multi-unit apartment building across the street from my apartment. Scaffolding had been up all week while a new coat of paint was applied to its blistered surface. My neighbor, Jose, one of the tenants in the building, was standing in the street talking with his friend. I’d buried my curiosity until that moment, but now, leaving to protest yet another sale of yet another multi-unit apartment building, I thought, it’s time to give in to your curiosity, Elizabeth. Ask. Find out.

Jose, I said. What’s going on? What’s happening with the building?

Ah. It’s been sold. They’re cleaning it up!

Are you sure that’s all they’re doing? I asked skeptically.

Yeah. They’re just, you know… making it nice.

Jose, I said sternly, you have rights. You know that, right? You have rights as a tenant. They can’t evict you.

No, no- they haven’t said anything about that. He grinned. I love you, he said, going into his routine of baiting me, teasingly. I yell at him when he blasts his radio. Telling me he loves me is his way of handling the Harridan. He’s a hard-working man. I don’t want him evicted.

Yeah, yeah, I said. You have rights, Jose. Keep an eye on what they’re doing. A pigeon fluttered down on the sidewalk. I headed to the Palace.

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Part one of two. Written three days after the Flower Moon of May and with love to Michael Davitt, a man who had his work cut out for him. 

Crisis at the laundromat

A Clean Slate

It’s Monday, December 15th, and it rained hard all morning. The clouds cleared at about two. I went to the laundromat to wash my clothes, walked in, and saw a crowd of people standing in the smallish space. My heart sank. Nobody loves a crowded laundromat, especially not when you have a week’s worth of washing to do. A man sat slumped on the metal folding table. Earlier, he’d walked past me on 22nd Street and greeted me with a low hello. Now he was munching a bag of Fritos and watching man pile clothes into a large front-loading washing machine.

I eyed the top-loading machines, the one I like to use because you get a 30-minute wash. The man who was piling his clothes into the washing machine stopped me. I don’t know if you want to use those, he told me, because the display wasn’t on. I think it’ll eat your quarters. This is how you know who your neighbors really are, as opposed to those taking up space in the neighborhood: do they care about your quarters?

Thanks, I replied. Shit. The Frito-eating man said, You could use those other machines, indicating the row of top-loading machines against the northwest wall. But I don’t like them. They’re 3 bucks a wash and you only get fifteen minutes of a half-hearted swishing. I have sensitive skin. I need all the soap to be washed away. Eh, I said. Those machines are sketchy.

Another woman walked in with a bag of clothes on her back, looking determined.

The clothes washing guy said to me don’t try to use the soap dispensing machine either. It’s broken. I had detergent, so it didn’t matter. But this laundromat, which always has something wrong with it, suddenly seemed unusable. Three washing machines down. A broken soap dispensing machine. An older man, wearing a beret at a rakish angle turned around and said the dispensing machine is broken ? in tones of dismay and disbelief.

I have to leave, I thought. There are too many people in here, and too many mechanical failures to accommodate us all. Before last week, I might have staggered with my heavy laundry load to 23rd and Bryant street to the spacious Super Lavar laundromat. But it was gone. A new restaurant was opening in what is now an empty space under construction. The commons are shrinking, I thought, with a surge of irritation. The enclosures are being built.

SAM_3800I saw the new red awning while walking down Bryant Street with my husband a week before. We stopped and scoffed at the name of the restaurant: “Buttermilk Southern Kitchen”. We stood there for awhile, feeling dismayed that the laundromat had closed. We use A Clean Slate, the overcrowded, mechanically challenged laundromat at 22nd and Alabama, because it’s close to our house, but in a pinch we knew we had the option of walking two blocks to do our laundry. Not any more, said my husband grimly, as we stood on the corner. Now there’s just another expensive restaurant.

Laundromats are basically external domestic spaces for urban dwellers. I grew up in suburbia, and had to adjust to them. Even after 23 years of living in San Francisco, laundromats still seem like a major pain in the ass, and indeed, A Clean Slate is a major pain in the ass. I have had to call the number tacked up next to the change machine several times. Your dryer has eaten my money! I’ve barked. Your washing machine just stopped in the middle of the cycle! I want my money back, I’ve said curtly, acting the part of the entitled consumer whose panic over losing four quarters belies that facade.

Laundromats always meant to me that I had a place to live but with some contingencies: in my case, no washer and no dryer and a weekly walk down the street to the closest laundromat. What is the closest laundromat isn’t down the street? What if the closest laundromat is several blocks away?

And what is the meaning of Buttermilk Southern Kitchen, a restaurant whose owner has described it as not expensive? (Most dishes will average 15 dollars, which is, in my opinion, fucking expensive, especially when you’re talking about a cuisine heavily dependent on green leafy vegetables, legumes and corn. Do you know how much cornbread is per serving? About four cents. Hopping John? Two bucks.) This: the domestic spaces of the Mission are changing to accommodate a work force which is highly paid and rarely at home. The restaurant is perhaps, the most relevant external domestic space right now. Whipping up a meal of oven-roasted sweet potatoes finished in sage-garlic butter and walnuts and served with farfalle is, I guess, out of the question. This is what I’m cooking now, as I write this. The traditional coming-home time of 6 or 7 doesn’t exist any longer, so instead of making a dish like this, most people are trooping off to the nearest restaurant, and paying 18 staggering dollars for it. The contingency of not having access to a kitchen with which to cook because of insane work hours seems far worse to me than the contingency of an apartment with no washer and dryer. But not having a laundromat would really suck.

Anyway. I just went back to A Clean Slate and started my laundry. The man who was eating the Fritos was asleep on the floor, his face soft and childlike in repose. When I went back to throw my stuff in the dryer, I brought him some of my farfalle/sweet potato/sage-in-brown-butter sauce with a sausage added to it.

He thanked me and said yeah, I saw you leave earlier.
I was annoyed, I told him. There was too much going on!

Laundromats are a pain in the ass, but they have this going for them: the comfort of domestic labor, and evidence of family relationships, hearth and home. I see children’s clothing being washed by adults and watch as mothers chase their scrambling, squirmy children around, barking at them to watch their sister— ver su hermana! Get down off the washing machine! Everyone is working together, however unknowingly, as we bend to the demands of the material world and the traces it leaves on our clothing, food, shit, baby puke and stubborn ink stains. There is nothing seamless, nothing not real, as we wash together, dry together, fold together, moving in the unconscious rhythm of the body at work in an atmosphere rich in the polyglot language of Mission laundromats.

Once, the gentleman who ran Super Lavar gave me a small scented candle at Christmastime. Para ti, he said. Gracias, I said. Yep. I don’t think I’d get anything for free at Buttermilk Southern Kitchen.

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton http://www.sarahmnewton.com/

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton. Go to  http://www.sarahmnewton.com to see more of her work.

This is a good recipe for a squash/pasta/sage dish. Make it some night. Feed yourself.

The moon and I: dispatches from 22nd street

A dispatch from the 22nd street crossroads on the morning after the night of the full moon, October 8th, 2014

I awoke at 3:00 a.m. to hear sounds of distress coming from the sidewalk. At this point, I can tell you exactly where the drunk/hurt/incapacitated person is likely to be (under the stop sign or on my stoop or in the street or slouched against the corner of the building, back slumped, head low.) This time, the young woman, 20 or 23 or 25 years old, was stretched flat on her belly, lying across the sidewalk, her feet hanging over the curb, her toes in the gutter. The sounds she made were soft and frantic. The softness of the sound seemed to match the burnished glow of the moon: everything outside gleamed mildly, even her hair, which covered her face. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open.

I was irritated. I’m having trouble sleeping these days. Between menopause, the security lights on the marquee across the street (I think the owner believes it makes his “bottle-shop” look as though Edward Hopper painted it) and the blare of the neighbor’s late-night television, I had a hard time dropping into sleep. But I was asleep when the girl fell in a heap under the stop sign. And I woke up when she started talking to whatever it was that was telling her things. What things, I don’t know. Self-recrimination for drinking too much? A fight she’d had that night, a contest of wills, desire that wasn’t met by someone she was, even then, still pleading with to listen… listen…listen…. escuchame, she said. Escuchame.

Honey, I said, sweetie? (terms of endearment come easily to me when I’m dealing with someone unconscious.) Can you hear me? I smelled the sour smell of alcohol. Her cheeks were round and shiny. She’d been crying. Her legs kicked up and down, slow at first, and then faster, faster, the tips of her trainers drumming into the gutter, the head shaking, not no, I can’t hear you, but the body telling me I am abandoned.

Her eye opened and rolled up, unfocused. The white flashed at me, then elsewhere, roving, searching. You see her eyes are open? Aye, but their sense is shut. That sort of thing. Her physical agitation was proof that under some circumstances, motor function is pure pretense. ‘Seizing’ is what happens when we are hit too hard on the head, or when we drink too much or when we do too many drugs. Our bodies move uncontrollably. Her head shook and chattered slightly on the cement. I called 911.

moon

 

How old is she, asked the 911 operator. Is she breathing. And, Ma’am, the operator said, will you ask her if she’s pregnant?

Are you pregnant? I asked, and the girl’s toes drummed in the gutter smoothly without missing a beat.

Stay with her, advised the operator.

Should I touch her? Move her head? I asked.

Don’t touch her. Poor girl, said the operator, a woman with the soft drawl of the south in her voice.

She woke me up, I said. The Mission, I said, is not allowing me to sleep.

Honey, I know, replied the operator. The Mission! we exclaimed in unison.

moon

A taxi driving east on 22nd street saw our little tableau spot-lit by the street light and stopped. I’m on the phone with 911, I said, the ambulance is on the way. He nodded and flashed me a thumbs up. Jay came out, my lovely husband with the glowing silver hair. He is always so calm, so warm. He stood on the stoop, holding one of our bath towels.

Should we move her? Cover her?

The operator told me not to. But she isn’t banging her head, I told him. The girl sobbed and pleaded softly with herself.

I called the police, said the operator. Since you found her like that. I looked up the street and saw the police car coming nearer, with a spotlight sweeping the sidewalks. I got into the middle of 22nd street and danced around in my husband’s ratty green bathrobe, waving my arm. Thank you, they’re here, thank you thank you.

Oh, honey, thank you, she said.

moon

The police car drew to the side of the street in a flourish. Two young men, tall with militant buzz-cut hair, got out. They knelt. Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you hear me? They called to her. They peered into her eyes. Their voices were down-pitched; gentle. One cop cradled her head; the other darted to the car and ran back with a blanket in his hands. Together, they folded it and made a cushion for her head.

I would have done that but the operator told me not to, I said, foolishly. Jay watched, saying nothing.

They knelt beside her in their blue uniforms and stiff belts, holding her head like it was a newborn baby, and muttering quickly into their radios. Did you find her like this, asked the cop and I said yes, I’d come outside and there she was. The ambulance came. Bro, said the paramedic to the cop. What’s up? More hasty consultations, a clipping of a device to her finger, a mask fitted over her face. She was shaking harder. They rolled her over. More muttering into radios, more quick technical talk amongst themselves. She’s seizing, said the paramedic briefly. I can’t get the…and the rest was lost when the girl cried out. The paramedic cut away her blouse; the globes of her breasts, beautiful in a violet demi-cup bra, shone out at once. He put his head down and listened. General, he said curtly, and got a gurney out. There were six of them, police and paramedic alike clustered around the girl, the yellow street light and the silver moon illuminating them all. The girl’s strong young belly rose and fell.

One of the cops fished around in her purse. Nicole, he said. Her name is Nicole.

moon

The paramedics loaded her onto the gurney- one, two, three!– and loaded it into the ambulance. It left the way it came, silently, no siren blaring. The police slowly picked up the scattered wrappings of the emergency medical equipment. They left. I went inside and crawled into bed, next to Jay. Elizabeth’s on the case, he said sleepily. Maybe it’s good you’re not sleeping well.

Earlier that evening, we’d argued about my irregular sleeping habits. You need to go to sleep at 11. You’re getting up too late, he’d said.

I can’t help it, I’d replied. Menopause causes insomnia. I’m trying, I said. I’m doing everything I can. You want me to use Ambien? ’Cause that’s what all my friends do. You get me sleepless or you get me medicated. That’s the deal.

He’d scoffed, hearing me say that. Now, mollified by sleep, he stroked my leg. Did you hear her, he asked. How did you know?

Yes. I heard her. I’d heard everything that night, the whoosh of the cars, the far-off shrieking laughter of late-night techies, and a faint whirr in the distance that was probably the hospital generators, but was maybe, possibly, the sound of the moon itself, the heavenly sphere, twisting and turning in the night.

 

Dedicated with love and affection to Ray Bradbury, the autumn writer; the lovely moon-man.

-San Francisco, Oct. 9, 2014

 

moon

 

Displacement strikes like a man-eating shark.

shark

This morning, at 10:30 am, I saw four busy people congregating on my corner. The first, a tall thin woman dressed in casual-corporate garb, scurried around to each of the four cardinal points of the 22nd/Florida crossroads with her camera, taking pictures of 992 Florida street, a six-unit apartment building that houses hipsters, immigrant families and long-time Missionites. She walked off. Three men, dressed in banker’s drag, ambled up the street behind her and stopped below my window. They were mid-conversation, but it was clear that the subject of discussion was my little corner of the world: The East Mission, or as Jay and I privately call it, the Ea-Mi. (Everyone else makes up stupid names for old neighborhoods. So we did, too.)

I heard one of the men say to the other two, “San Francisco is the one place where you can get away with doing what you do- selling apartments without…” before a noisy Honda drowned out his words. They talked some more but the street noise prevented me from hearing what they said. The men walked off. My heart beat fast. I sat down to digest what I’d seen, and what I’d heard. Pictures being taken. Casual conversations on street corners. The neighborhood reviewed, assessed.

And as I sat thinking, another guy wearing a white shirt and a blue tie walked into the middle of the crossroads and raised his phone. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. You could hear the soft warble of the tiny camera capturing 992 Florida Street and swallowing it whole.

I’d had enough. “Excuse me,” I called to him in a hoarse voice. (My voice is barely audible because I’ve been ill.) “Excuse me!” The man looked startled, but, upon seeing me, pocketed his camera and walked over to my window.

“Why are people taking pictures of this neighborhood?” I asked him in a nice voice. He looked like he was preparing to dissemble.

“Oh, well…we’re doing an inspection of the neighborhood,” he said.

“An inspection? Who are you with?”

“The Bank of Guam. We’re looking at buildings.” He clearly wanted to leave.

“Are you looking at that building?” I pointed to 992 Florida.

“Uh, yeah. Yep.” His face was much younger than mine, but his stance and expression were solidly middle aged.

I looked at the 6-unit apartment building, my neighborhood nemesis. Its inhabitants have kept me awake for more nights than I care to remember. I’ve called the police on Sophie, the tenant who lives in unit 992, at least six times to bust up her MDMA-fueled late night raves. I’ve yelled at Manny the affable house painter, who loves to blast the stereo in his truck to shut the fuck up, man, it’s 11 o’clock at night, some of us are trying to sleep, where the hell is your sense, etc…

(…sometimes, early in the morning, the tenant in the lower unit will open the window, particularly if it’s a sunny day, and play dreamy love songs in Spanish. She wakes me up. I feel cranky. Then I look at her, bustling busily around apartment with her capable arms and know it’s time I was awake.

…..another time, late at night: the same woman opened her window to a young man on the sidewalk who was pleading his case. “Te amo,” he said in a stage whisper over and over again. She laughed and told him to go home.)

I’m pretty sure that the ex-gang member who used to live in on the second floor threw a firecracker through my window on the 4th of July because I asked him to stop blasting music for hours on end from his bedroom. (I was born here, he told me.)

I looked back at the nervous guy below my window, a mere foot soldier in the campaign to dislodge the Mission of its long term residents. “Thanks,” I said flatly. He walked off.

So he was taking pictures for the Bank of Guam. Really? Is that tiny country really looking for profit in the streets of the Mission?

I called the Bank of Guam at their office on Montgomery Street. The nice lady told me they weren’t looking for residential properties to purchase in San Francisco, only commercial properties.

I’d been lied to. The foot soldier had dissembled: made some rapid calculations (how much should she know?) and done some fast talking, which would make sense, since real estate speculators in contested areas like the Mission must develop a keen sense of how to obscure, disguise, confusticate and deny. To lie- at first. Later on, there’s no need to lie.

Be careful what you wish for is the moral of this story. I have wished, fervently for quiet. And this is okay: there’s nothing wrong with needing sharp distinction between the noise of the day and the lovely hush of the night, even and especially in a big city. As San Francisco strains towards density, living arrangements between its projected 969,000 inhabitants will have to undergo a series of re-negotiations; between motorists and pedestrians, between locals and newcomers, light and dark, noise and silence.

But the people who have lived in these spacious multi-unit apartments for many years- for entire lifetimes and many generations- need protection. And the machinations of real estate speculators must be exposed to the bright light of scrutiny.

Today, I glared at the foot soldier. In the larger scheme of things, this is a meaningless action, free of consequence for him (it was nice to see him so visibly nervous) but, conjoined with my still-in-the future-action of contacting Eviction Free San Francisco, my momentary intervention into the speculator’s seamless act of swallowing whole neighborhoods may prove to be challenging (to them).

I feel good about stopping his smooth shark-like movements on the streets of my neighborhood and asking him a basic question: what are you doing? And why?

The above image is my re-working of a metaphor-rich WPA poster I found in the Library of Congress archives earlier this week: Displacement strikes like a man-eating shark led by its pilot fish the common speculator.

And as for my frequently expressed umbrage regarding the occupants of 992 Florida Street? I’ll let Sondheim have the last word:

Careful the wish you make/Wishes are children
Careful the path they take/Wishes come true, not free

Careful the spell you cast/Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last/Past what you can see
And turn against you

Careful the tale you tell….
That is the spell

See any pilot fish in your neighborhood? Contact your local housing activist.