Mission Mumbles: Pandemic Time

At some point during the first Shelter in Place (I assume there will be more) my neighbor, the venerable Mrs. Rivera, who has lived in her apartment for more than a half a century, began greeting the neighborhood as her late afternoon ritual.

Mrs. Rivera is tiny, and very old with a cap of snow-white hair, and large dark eyes. She’s cheerful and gracious, except when her family, who take very good care of her, asks her to do something she doesn’t want to do. Then she screeches like an owl. Even now, after recovering from surgery, and stuck in her bedroom because of the plague, her interest hasn’t waned in the comings and goings of the neighborhood that she’s lived in for much of her life. Of course the coming and goings these days are much different.

I became aware of her new role as the 22nd Crossroads greeter last month as I sat at my desk, WFH, or trying to. The Mission district is distracting, and I am often distracted by the sidewalk dialogue, which is usually some weirdly confident FinTech guy discussing the uncertain future very energetically.

A couple weeks ago I heard someone say, “Are you OK?”. They didn’t sound OK, so I drew my drapes back to see what the matter was. A jogger stood before Mrs. Rivera’s window, looking concerned. I ran down my steps and looked up. There was Mrs. Rivera looking down at us.

“Hello! Hello!” she called out, sounding like Mark McKinney’s head crusher from Kids in the Hall. She waved. The jogger gaped at her, agog.

“Are you OK?” he asked again. He was confused by her sudden appearance and didn’t understand how his boring afternoon jog had suddenly turned into an improv game.

“She’s fine,” I told him. “She’s just saying hello to you.” I waved at her and walked back inside.

She kept it up. I’d be working at my desk, and would suddenly hear her muffled cry. “Hello! Hello!”  I’m crushing your head, I’d mentally add. The jogger — it was almost always a guy — would stop look up, squint and ask her if she was OK.

She was attracted to the joggers, who appeared in swarms after 3 pm. Both they and she were better than a clock, which I’ve discovered is useless after a certain point, there being little difference between 2 and 4 pm. Pandemic time as told by the position of the sun, the sounds in the neighborhood and the type of neighborhood activity is better than a clock at telling you where you’re at in the temporal scheme of things.

Mornings are silent. The early afternoon is merely quiet. At midday, people line up along Florida Street to get their groceries from Gemini Bottle Company, which has adroitly transformed itself from a high-end bottle shop to a general store (they can get you quail eggs, I was informed by the affable owner, and also basics like milk, bread, cheese and champagne.) Delivery services start distributing packages from their trucks.

Late afternoon brings the aforementioned joggers, dogs and their walkers and even less sound. The 7:00 pm church bells from St. Peter’s ring (or toll depending on one’s mood) as the evening salute to healthcare and other essential workers starts up. People clang bin lids, clap kitchen implements together and play “Taps” on a trumpet. This brings the curtain down on the day.

After that, people go inside, and the evening is ushered in. The night becomes tenderly hushed. The aural burden on the city’s soundscape has been lifted so much that at times as I sit outside in the evening, I hear voices from blocks away, clear and yet distant, the way voices sound in remote camping sites in the Sierra Nevada.

The night that two men were shot at 14th and Guerrero, my friends and I were sitting (distantly) around a backyard fire near Folsom and 25th. We turned our heads towards the sound of explosions in the manner of animals who, startled by a footfall, freeze in fearful anticipation. We weren’t hearing the gunshots, it turns out, just fireworks, but at that moment it was hard to tell. What simmers underneath the placid atmosphere is the dread knowledge that slow burning emergencies like this one will cause some people to lose their shit, murderously.

There are other sounds, too, less alarming — the heavy, slightly panicked sounds that joggers make, birdsong at odd hours (I heard a mockingbird singing at 8 pm), and the wind, rattling the dry trees late at night. It’s incredibly peaceful, for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve gone full circle in some ways. The city felt silent to me when I moved here in June of 1991, which may have had something to do with the fact that AIDS was en route to killing 20,000 people in San Francisco. Had I understood that, I would have translated the silence very differently.

I get it now, though.

A lot has happened, but very little time has passed. Most of what has happened still happens: the past seven weeks have been as repetitive as hand-washing, or the admonitions aimed at the current administration from public health advocates. This has not moved the needle one whit: Trump and his fellow cult members are unmoved by the I-Told-You-Sos’ issuing forth from scientists (who did.)

It’s impossible for me to draw any real conclusions about anything during this inconclusive moment. What will the future bring? Who knows? It feels as immobile as I do. Most nights, I sit on my porch looking through the scaffolding that’s left over from a lead abatement process long concluded but still standing because it’s non-essential to take it down. I don’t mind it. It frames the view, making ordinary neighborhood sights look as staged and eventful, like a New Yorker cover by Eric Drooker.

This matters, because I don’t know what I’ll remember about the spring of 2020 (or the year.) Which image will stick with me? Will it be the scene of domestic tranquility I’ve seen night after night as my neighbors sit down to dinner? Or will it be the woman I saw last week, striding through the cobalt-blue evening, silent as a huntress in the woods, carrying that elusive, highly-prized commodity: a roll of toilet paper.

Written on May 6th, 2020 in San Francisco on day 51. Rest in Peace, Courtney Brousseau. I am so sorry. 

Mission Mumbles: My United States 2020 Census

Dear Census Bureau:
I just filled out the online census form, and to be perfectly frank (by the way, that’s not my name–don’t list me as Frank), I was sort of underwhelmed. In my opinion, you didn’t ask enough questions about the actual respondent (me). During this historic moment, citizens of the United States are having a lot of thoughts and feelings about things like the future, that people in the actual future (if there is one) are going to want to know about, especially from people like me who live in vibrant neighborhoods such as the Mission District, which, no matter what happens, will always be popular.

I’ve suggested some questions below that maybe you can include in your online census, or provided to census takers (is that still going on?) as icebreakers. I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m just not sure that Buzzfeed should know more about me than the census does. All those quizzes I’ve taken online are going to go away into the Internet someday, and then where will I and other millions of Buzzfeed followers be? I love finding out what kind of wand I’d be in Ollivander’s Wand Shoppe on Diagon Alley as much as anyone does, but I’m smart enough to know that all that quiz data isn’t used for the census, and it just seems like the many, many questions that I answer on Buzzfeed might help answer the many questions my descendants might have. (I have no descendants, but you know what I mean.) Plus, it would make it more interesting.

I want to make sure that the denizens of the future, whatever they are, will know who I was and why I chose to live in the Mission District, the city’s greatest neighborhood (also I’m worried no one will know it was called the Mission District. My neighbor Connor, who is 27 and a total dick, won’t stop calling our neighborhood the “Ea-Mi” on Nextdoor even though I’ve told him a thousand times to knock it off. Also have you guys thought about posting a Nextdoor version of the census? I think that’s a good idea.). Anyway, I might not be able to stop Connor from talking out his piehole, but I can at least stop future readers of the Census from repeating his stupid idea.

Following are some suggested questions. They don’t even have to be “official”. Maybe just use them to get people interested in answering the actual census. Like a warm-up!

My carbon footprint: It’s really low. I bike and walk and would take public transit if it hadn’t closed down. I haven’t used a drone yet. Is that low carbon? Anyway, I want the people of the future and their viral overlords to know that I was thinking about them and trying in my own small way to help.

My porn star name: Suki Mendoza! Isn’t that perfect?

Current Netflix binge: It’s not Netflix. It’s “30 Rock” on Hulu. I have a date with Jack Donaghy every night, and it’s helping me get through this crisis. You know that scene where he has a heart attack trying to have sex with his uptight British fiancé? (“Here it comes, Donaghy! Ride it! Ride it to hell!”) This is my current Covid-19 mantra.

Preferred domestic animal: It would be a cat, but I’m allergic, so it’s nothing. It’s definitely NOT a dog. In fact, please put me down as a “non-dog” person.

Celebrity I most resemble: Well, Buzzfeed thinks I look like Rita Wilson, Tom Hank’s wife. I’m sure she’s a nice person and all, even during her infectious phase, but I don’t think I look her.

My morning temperature: It’s fine. Who wants to know?

Last night’s dream: You know those dreams where you’re trying to dial the phone, and the buttons are too small, and you keep making a mistake, and then you start screaming at the phone and freaking out that you’re going to miss your plane? Please note for your records that this was my dream at 2:26 a.m. on March 27, 2020.

Number of Facebook friends: 637. I look forward to meeting them all as soon we are allowed to breathe the same air inside again.

Cat I most resemble: I tried to take that quiz but it broke my computer so I don’t know. I have to leave this question blank.

Uber or Lyft?: Check your assumptions, people of the future. I said I biked.  

Where I see myself in ten years:

Harry Potter wand I most resemble: I got ivy. I don’t understand this. Ivy is a vine. How do you make a wand from a vine?

These are just some of my suggestions. I’m sure if you reached out to America and asked them what they think you should ask, people might be more motivated to fill out the Census and you wouldn’t have to threaten them with a house call (if that’s still even happening.) And then the people of the future would know everything we know now, which admittedly is not a lot.

Give it some thought, and if you decide to use my questions, I expect you to give me full credit.

LMK!

Elizabeth Creely

(Also: I’m vaccinated.)

Written at the 22nd street Crossroads on 3/28/2020, on the 13th day of Shelter in Place. Have you stopped touching your face?

 

Unquiet title, unquiet land: the history of the Southern Pacific Transportation Company’s lawsuit to quiet title in the Mission District.

On August 18th 1898, a 56-year old woman named Ellen Riley died in her home at 707 Florida Street, which she shared with her husband Michael and five of their seven children. A native of Cork, like her husband and many other naturalized Irish living in the Mission District, she was waked at home, and memorialized at St. Charles Borromeo on 18th and South Van Ness.  

Two weeks later her grieving husband was killed by an incoming Southern Pacific train. He’d just purchased a new windowpane from J.H. Kruse’s hardware shop at 23rd and Shotwell, and was walking home along the SP right-of-way between Harrison Street and Treat Avenue with the freshly cut glass tucked under his arm. At 9:30 am, as he neared the intersection of 22nd and Harrison Streets, a train he may or may not have heard (grief can preoccupy a person to the point of insensibility) smashed into him.

Riley was thrown 15 feet and died almost immediately, his arms, legs and skull fractured. SP Engineer A.C. Thyle later told a judge he threw the emergency brake as soon as he could, but to no avail.

The San Francisco Examiner reported that the corner where Riley died was particularly hazardous because of the acute angle of the track as it plunged past an old “rookery” and into the intersection. Residents who used the right-of-way as a migratory route through the neighborhood, resented the blind spot that made an otherwise perfectly good pedestrian corridor into something unpredictably violent. They had complained about the hazard, but their protests were “ignored”.*

There are no trains now, but the right-of-way has maintained its ability to disturb the neighborhood. Today, the complaints center on the fact that no one knows who owns the right-of-way, least of all the San Francisco Assessors-Recorder’s Office, who assess the value of all property in the city. They didn’t know until December 2017 that the State Board of Equalization had transferred the parcel containing the right-of-way to them ten years before.

Two years and several articles later, no assessee or owner has been found. Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu’s office has steadfastly claimed to have tried to identify the assessee, which is different than being the owner, while just as steadfastly refusing to discuss how they came to that conclusion, or what they know.  

In general, nobody’s talking. What seems to be haunting the place these days isn’t the battered ghost of Michael J. Riley, as one might expect, but the spirit of Gilded Age obfuscation, leftover from the days of the railroad barons.

In the instance of the strange case of the right-of-way-nobody-owns there are only known unknowns. Most of them are kept in a banker’s box in the Superior Court of California’s storage space in Contra Costa County. If you request this box from the staff of the reading room at the San Francisco Civic Center Courthouse at 400 McAllister Street, it will be brought to you in due time, and you will be free to peruse roughly 800 legal documents that comprise the 1992-1996 Southern Pacific Transportation Company vs Earnest R. and James W. Heinzer First Amended Complaint for Quiet Title, Trespass and Slander of Title. This is the formal name of the legal action, which is the last time someone took legal action to prove or “quiet” title.

The link will take you to a page which has most of the important documents listed in date order with summaries following the original documents.

Southern Pacific’s legal action against the Heinzers took five years to settle and was inconclusive. At first, Southern Pacific included other property owners in the lawsuit, who meekly moved their stuff off the right-of-way– this is the “trespass” part of the action– leaving only the railroad company and brothers James and Earnest Heinzer to spar under the jurisdiction of Judge Daniel M. Hanlon.  

The Heinzer brothers, whose green warehouse is on Treat Avenue, were one of four businesses who received shipments of freight from Southern Pacific Transportation Company. The Heinzer’s warehouse and the Atlas Stair Company are the only buildings left on the right-of-way from the era of rail deliveries to Mission District manufactories.

In 1991, Southern Pacific, faced with a shrinking customer base along the “old main line”, stopped service and tried to sell the right-of-way for about a million bucks. The Heinzers objected to this, saying they risked being put out of business if the trains stopped delivering their freight (this was a spurious claim- they, like other small industries in the area, were getting their stuff delivered by trucks.) Later, after offering to buy the right-of way for far less than it was worth, they filed a quit claim deed they got from a distant relative of John Center, the original landowner, and a notice to preserve interest in the parcel.

Southern Pacific Transportation Company objected to all of this –this is the “slander of title” part of the lawsuit–and filed suit. The rest would have been history were it not for corporate reticence, the inaccessibility of the legal documents and the reluctance on the part of the public to plow through piles of badly copied legal documents in order to understand what happened.

But the 1994 judgement is mercifully clear:  Judge Hanlon found that Southern Pacific didn’t own the parcel, and had only inherited an easement from the predecessor railroad, the San Francisco-San Jose railroad. The SF-SJ RR ran through the land donated by John Center, a 19th century land baron who owned most of the Mission from 1850 until his death in 1909. An “easement” means you have the right to use the land, but you don’t have the privilege of selling or profiting from it.

Reading the documents is a real slog, but there are moments where plain language pokes its head over the parapet of legalese and makes the situation a bit easier to understand. The John R. Hetland Deposition is one of those moments. Hetland, a respected and beloved professor of law at UC Berkeley, and expert in real estate law, was retained by Southern Pacific as an expert witness. In his deposition, Hetland takes pains to explain why he felt the Heinzers had no claim. He foresaw the confusion over ownership and suggests on page 36 that asking Southern Pacific for their side of the story might help clear matters up.

I doubt this would have helped. Southern Pacific, which went out of business about three years after Hetland made this suggestion, didn’t like discussing its business with the general public. Neither does Union Pacific, the purchaser of Southern Pacific’s assets, who have disclaimed any interest in the right-of-way in emails to me.

No one knows where the original title, which was drafted in 1863, is. It was probably destroyed along with the Southern Pacific freight offices in 1906, leaving only a typewritten copy of the original deed** to be offered as evidence of ownership in 1994. The typewritten copy was turned down by Judge Hanlon, who found it was “without proper foundation”.

This could be said of every piece of property in San Francisco. The unceded Ramaytush Ohlone land in San Francisco has passed through the prism of settler violence and speculation, leaving contended property titles as artifactual evidence, much like the right-of-way itself functions as a historic remnant of California’s railroads. Historian R. A. Burchell notes in his book “The San Francisco Irish: 1848-1880” that San Francisco’s claim to possess title to 17,754.36 acres, which was first pursued by the city in 1852, wasn’t fully recognized until 1884.  

The period of contention between the old Californios trying to prove ownership with their surreally distorted diseño maps and speculators, like Center and his buddy Samuel Crim, another Mission District land baron, form a specific chapter in the Mission District’s history, one in which unquiet titles begat unquiet social conditions, like the Mission Dolores Squatter Riot that took place on the night of October 9, 1867.

The riot was an armed grudge match between Center, Crim, and Supervisor James H. Reynolds, all of whom claimed title to the same parcel on Howard (South Van Ness) between 22nd and 23rd street. On the night of the riot, Center and Crim led 70 men brandishing guns and bayonets through the Mission to rip down Reynold’s holding and other “shanties” in the neighborhood. The Reynolds faction, threatened at gunpoint, shot first. Fire was returned, wounding three men and killing a fourth, an Irishman from County Meath named Peter Bradley, who was with the Center-Crim gang. In the aftermath, Reynolds, Center and Crim were arrested and charged with assault with the intent to murder.

In any case, the settling of the Mission continues. In the last year, the Assessor-Recorder’s office has divided the right-of-way into three parcels, for reasons they prefer not to discuss, citing California revenue and tax code section 408. The Assessor’s office did confirm in an email to Mission residents that they’re seeking taxes from dead people and defunct family trusts associated with these three parcels.

The John Center Company, which was dissolved in the mid 20th century, is on the hook for $211,653. William Henry Crim III, a descendant of Samuel Crim, and who might be dead, is being billed $61,514. Celia Wehr, a woman who lived next to the right of way in 1910, and who is certainly dead, has been billed $9,676. (That the deceased are being taxed by the assessor’s office adds a surprising twist to the adage that death and taxes are inevitable.)

So now what? If no taxes are paid within the next four years, and the land is declared abandoned, the parcel will revert to the city, who will then have the choice to auction it, or keep it unowned, with protection against profit, and develop it as open green space, sort of like it was a long time ago, before missions, ranchos and land speculators began to purchase the place now called San Francisco.

The destruction of the original title, which was accidental, now seems determinative. Prior to any official decision making, this parcel has managed to revert back to its natural state of being un-owned, which is to say un-sequestered by deed for future profit. It feels misguided to investigate missing titles on unceded territory when the deeper identity of this place— land used for a common purpose—seems so determined to assert itself. Land has spirit, too, quiet but persistent.  

Map of the Mission District “Pueblo Lands” circa 1865. Please note the Embarcadero, or pier at the mouth of Mission Creek, close to the modern day intersection of um…Harrison and 17th? If you know for certain, tell me.

Written on a sultry day on October 6, 2019. We’re six days into the month. No fires yet.

*The San Francisco Examiner, Sept 6, 1898, “Killed by a train in the Mission”. May the spirit of Michael J. Riley rest at the right hand of God and in peace.

** The typewritten copy of the original title is not among the uploaded documents. I ran out of time. Sorry about that.

The Creely-McCarty Incident map.

“James Creely overlooks the Bolinas Lagoon”, by Kate Creely, July 2018

One hundred and twenty-nine years ago, a man named James Creely rode a “handsome white horse” along the Bolinas- Fairfax road, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. After spending the night at the Ocean House, a hotel in Bolinas, he took the “Sausalito road” back to San Francisco. The Sausalito News wrote this inch-long article about Mr. Creely in 1886, functioning as papers often did in those days as social media in the truest sense of the term: short on particulars— how did he get there?—and big on image. In the 19th century, even though the Transatlantic cable was transmitting news from around the world with increasing rapidity, newspapers still paid attention to comings and goings of ordinary folk. In many way, the article is the late 19th century version of a Instagram post, in its broad outlines of a moment of sweet leisure in James Creely’s life. In common hashtag parlance, this is #horselife.

The real mystery, though, is who this guy was. He may have been one of three people: my great-great grandfather, James Creely, who was forty-five that year, his son, my great-grandfather, James H. Creely, an unmarried law student, or still another James Creely, who first appears in the San Francisco city directories in 1859, and whose name is often misspelled as “Crelly”. I know nothing about this third Creely man. I feel confident in stating that he was my great-great grandfather’s uncle, but fools often feel confidence (and I have often been very foolish) and I have no proof that he has any relation to my family. But I think he did. James is the name of my 4th great-grandfather, and riding a horse from San Francisco to Marin County sounds like something that certain members of my family would do, given the opportunity.

“James Creely on his handsome white horse”, Kate Creely, July 2018

My paternal grandfather’s family is almost entirely Irish and almost entirely made from the confluence of two families, the Creelys and the McCartys who joined forces in Stockton, California. Both families immigrated from Ireland in the mid-eighteen hundreds.

Here’s what happened: in 1849, Patrick Creely came to the United States with two children in tow, his son, James Creely, who was born in May, 1846 in County Armagh, Ireland and James’s elder sister, Annie, who was born in 1840. Patrick Creely was naturalized in San Francisco in 1855, but lived in Stockton with his small family until March 1859. The fate of his wife, Elizabeth, remains a mystery.

In those days in Stockton, life and death often might go unrecorded, but land transactions always were. Patrick bought land from a man named William Eldridge and then died a month later of kidney disease, leaving his children to fend for themselves. Patrick is buried at the Stockton Rural Cemetery in an unmarked grave with John O’Connell and his wife Susan, and to make matters worse, his name is misspelled as “Crelay” in the handwritten register. He was buried with them because they were probably related to him. This may explain why his son, my great-great grandfather James Creely was living with the O’Connells and another man named John Rocks, also from Armagh, by 1860. The Creelys and the Rocks show up on a map of turf bogs in Enagh, County Tyrone, according to the journal North Irish Roots (Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 25-27) I have no idea what this really means, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn the the Creelys, Connells and Rocks formed an extended family, and probably followed each other out of the north of Ireland and into California.

In 1869, James pops into recorded history as a twenty-three year old man married to Margaret McCarty, the “belle” of the town, according to my grandfather. His sister Annie Creely picked up the surname “Campbell” from an unrecorded marriage and later married Solomon Confer, a prosperous bricklayer. The Creely siblings held their weddings in the same location, month and year: September 1866, in St Mary’s, the Catholic church located in what is now the historic downtown of Stockton.

By 1868, James and Margaret had two children, Edward and James and James had a profession: he was a ferrier, or horseshoer.

The 1869 city directory for Stockton lists an advertisement for “O’Connell and Crealy, Blacksmiths”, located on Market Street in downtown Stockton. Horses were very important to the Creely-McCartys. My family made their living as horseshoers, horse-dealers, and horse trainers and occasionally lost their living a the races. Cattle figured into the family business, too, for a brief and controversial moment, but horses were the family business until automobiles appeared on the scene.

“James Creely looks over the Pacific Ocean” Kate Creely, July 2018

In 1871, James and Margaret pulled up stakes, and decided to try their luck in San Francisco, where they had family members, the aforementioned James Crelly/Creely and (I suspect) some McCartys.  Annie and Solomon stayed in Stockton, and had five children, four of whom died of tuberculosis. One of them, Charles Henry Confer, was the “head artist” at the satirical weekly, the San Francisco Wasp, until he succumbed to TB in Stockton at the age of twenty five. Annie died in 1880, and Solomon in 1902.

James and Margaret first appear in the San Francisco city directory in 1872, on Minna Street with four of their children in a one-room dwelling. In short order, they lived in five different places within a decade, making a circuit of the southern and eastern parts of San Francisco. For a time, they lived on the outskirts of the city, near Butchertown, the swampy southeastern part of the city located near Islais Creek, a hellish place of unregulated abattoirs, sickly cattle and befouled bay waters.

They moved back to the South of Market with their growing family, living on Stevenson, Minna and Natoma and Howard streets in one- and two-room apartments. Like many San Franciscans, they shared their living quarters with their children, and extended family. In 1882, James McCarty, my great-great grandmother’s youngest brother traveled from the East Coast, and stayed with his sister, her husband and his seven nieces and nephews at 64 Natoma street. Later that year, their nine year-old daughter Mary Emma died of epilepsy.

In 1890, the Creely family moved to Buchanan Street, and then to 510 Golden Gate Avenue, the address of their son’s veterinary hospital. Finally, in 1895, they made it into the Mission. Their house was located at 916 Florida Street, near the intersection of 21st.

Margaret lived another three years and then died on July 16th, 1898 at the age of fifty. She was probably worn out: she’d given birth eleven times, from 1867 to 1888, and was pregnant almost constantly for twenty years.

James and Annie Creely are the Ur-Creelys, the beginnings for most of the California Creelys. Only four of their sixteen children had children. Today, the family structure resembles an inverted triangle. Rather than growing, the family shrank a bit, and today instead of a descendant cohort that outnumbers the preceding generations, we have probably only broken even.

This reticence includes their social life. The Creelys-McCarty’s didn’t hang out in the Irish-American halls in the South of Market and the Mission District and held themselves aloof from the throng of 19th-century Irish societal associations that were so prevalent in San Francisco. I look at lists of Ancient Order of Hibernian pledges, men who wanted the protection of that benevolent society, or the Knights of Tara (I’m not sure what they did) but no Creely ever appears.

The Irish-American Benevolent Society hall, located at 5th and Howard in San Francisco. The building was sold and torn down around 1898-ish.

But they hob-nobbed with their friends and cronies—and contended with their enemies and foes— with energy. My family appear regularly in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Daily Alta, the San Francisco Call, and smaller papers, like the Pacific Rural Press. From the 1850’s on, more than 5,000 stories and advertisements appear.

Sometimes it’s a notice of a real estate transaction, or an advertisement for various veterinary hospitals. Sometimes, though—often enough to be satisfying—there’s a full-fledged story, with a nice dramatic arc and a great illustration. Some of the stories I knew about: great uncle Edward and the Jury, Whitehat McCarty and the Palace. There are stories I’ve never heard before: great grandaunt Hannah McCarty Welch and her determination to stay in her home, and great granduncle John McCarty’s beef with the Horseshoer’s Union.

There are other, sadder stories that happened later in the century. I remember my father’s life-long sorrow over the death of his first cousin, James, who perished in San Leandro in the forties because of his friends reckless driving. After side-swiping a taxi, he plowed into a gas station, which exploded and killed James Creely, son of James Creely, grandson of James Creely, and great-grandson of James Creely, the blacksmith who may have arrived in Bolinas on a handsome white horse one May day in 1889.

I know too much. So I made a map. This map shows the location of the residences, businesses, and incidents involving the Creely-McCarty family from roughly 1859 to 1920 or so. The facts are drawn from family story, city directories and census records and newspapers, like the Daily Alta, and the San Francisco Call newspapers, Old maps, which have helped me find streets that no longer exist, have also been incredibly useful.

This map might grow. It might not. Whatever happens I can confidently say that it’s the most complete account of where we lived and worked in this changeable state and city and what we (sometimes) did.

There’s been a Creely or a McCarty in San Francisco from at least 1859, and possibly longer. There’s just three of us here now: me, and my lovely cousin Gerald O’Connor, who has the luminous blue eyes of his great-grandmother Margaret. My cousin Robert Skinner, who is a McCarty, lives here, too.

Maybe we’ll make some history. (I certainly try.). But in case we don’t, here’s the history we have made. All mistakes are mine and hopefully there’s some resemblance to actual persons, all of whom are dead. Here’s a link to a page which lists the family members that appear on this map. If you want to see birth dates and death dates, please follow this link to Ancestry.com, where that information is recorded. If I’ve missed anyone, feel free to fix it yourself. (Just ask me for editing permission :-).

Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile: we live within reach of each other’s shadows (this is not a strict translation.) Shadows obscure, but they provide shelter, too. It depends on what you use them for, I guess. Shelter or shade, I love my family, and this map is a gift to them and you. Enjoy.

Elizabeth Creely wearing her great-grandfather’s bridle.

 

Finished on July 24th, 2018.
This blog post is dedicated to Elizabeth McConnell Creely, my great-great-great grandmother, whose final resting place is unknown. Your family did good out here in California. What is remembered lives.

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 know that know some of my neighbors here in the East Mission want to turn the right-of-way into a long narrow greenway, like Juri Commons. No one knows yet, because the city doesn’t know who owns it the parcel. In the meantime, the future of the right-of-way is unfolding from emptiness into form, and the dimensions of the right-of-way changing 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, 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 wrote about, which 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.

From the 22nd Street Crossroads: Robot Wrangling in the Mission District

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I saw the robot before it saw me: it looked like a cross between a Travel Pro 3-Wheel(™) mobility scooter, the kind my elderly cousin uses, and a mini-fridge. Upon closer inspection it appeared to be a hastily assembled, somewhat jerry-rigged robot: not top shelf, really. More bargain-basement. A man was trotting along after it, in the way of a pet owner chasing his unleashed dog.

I biked up to the man. “Can I ask you what that is?” I asked, knowing which answer I’d get. This is the New Mission: no one talks about their business, particularly if it’s funded with venture capital. The man, who had long, slightly stringy brown hair and brown eyes smiled. “I can’t tell you,” he replied. “Sorry.” I smiled back at him. I wasn’t surprised. The Mission District is in the grips of a massive Non-Disclosure Agreement these days: automated cars and robots are common sights on sidewalks and streets, and yet no one can or will tell you what they are or what they are meant to do.

“Can I follow along and ask you some questions?” I responded. The man winced. I was on my bike, so it was easy to shadow him and his pet-robot as they traveled down Alabama Street. The man, who also couldn’t tell me his name, said he was from New Jersey and that his company’s headquarters was in the Mission. “But I can’t tell you where. I’m not sure I could, anyway. I’m new here,” he said. “I don’t know San Francisco yet. We’re close to Potrero and some street named after a state.”

“York? Hampshire?” I asked.
“Yeah, maybe one of those. But really: I can’t tell you,” he said.

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I’d been primed for this encounter by a Mission Local story written by journalist Laura Wenus about a “Carry” robot—a different one than the one I was looking at— that she encountered on Valencia Street. Tech companies are routinely using streets and now sidewalks to test and develop and profit from their technology, and yet none of them will disclose what they’re doing.

I flashed back to a New Yorker story about Jim Dyson, the millionaire design engineer who invented the Dyson Supersonic hair dryer. “No humans, completely automated,” he said, about the making of the hair dryer. “Can’t have any humans.”
“This is meant to be a delivery system, right?” I said, adding “Bye-bye subsistence capitalism!”
He laughed uncomfortably. “Yeah, right. This will definitely take someone’s job. Well…” he shrugged his shoulders. What are you going to do?

“How do you feel about tech firms using public space to develop their technology?” I asked.

“Well, we have to worry about competition,” he explained. “If we talk about what we’re doing—what this is”—he jerked his chin at the robot—“we run the risk of competitors stealing our ideas. I sympathize with people’s need to know, but I just can’t tell you anything. But I can say this is meant to help people, and that I would never work for a company to didn’t intend to help people. I wouldn’t be a part of that.”

We were having this discussion on Alabama street, which has the distinction of having some of the oldest houses in the Mission District. A PG&E serviceman was kneeling on the sidewalk in front of a cottage built in 1862, attending to some subterranean problem. The robot zoomed gaily ahead. “You gotta be careful,” said the man. I realized that he was talking to someone else.

“Are you controlling this thing?” I asked.
“No. Someone back at headquarters is,” he said.

The worker saw the wheelchair-mini-fridge contraption coming his way and sat back on his haunches. His eyes widened.”

Whoa!” he said. “Is that a robot?”

“Yes it is,” said the man, whom I had started to think of as the robot wrangler.
“Do you want to know what this is?” I asked the worker. “Ask him.”
“What is it?” asked the PG&E repairman.
“I can’t tell you,” said the wrangler, who looked a panicked. I could see him wondering about my persistence. When is she going to leave me alone?

1_enterscrosswalk

The robot moved confidently down 23rd, turned right on Harrison and made a beeline for the intersection of 22nd and Harrison. “That’s quite a curb,” the man muttered into his headset. The robot made its way into the crosswalk and, tottering a bit, managed to mount the curb cut. It veered around the woman who sits on the corner selling oranges. She eyed it with calm suspicion.  “Naranjas?” she asked to the robot wrangler as he herded it across the intersection.

“Do you think that companies that use public resources should pay for the privilege of using public sites to develop their technology?” I asked the wrangler.

“Well,” he said, “I think that fact that we’re providing some kind of benefit,” he said breathlessly (it was clear that he wasn’t used to all this running; he had the hunched posture and pallor of an tech engineer)—“to people …I can’t tell you what that is but I can say that this will provide some kind of benefit. So I dunno. If we had to pay a special tax we might want to go somewhere where we didn’t.”

2_incrossealk

I wasn’t surprised by his answer: this is the era of the Libertarian New Deal which has evolved a formula exactly opposite to the three R’s: instead of Relief, Recovery, and Reform, it’s Deny, Deconstruct, and Dissemble. Small “l” Libertarianism, as I’ve seen it practiced by start-ups in the Mission District, is avoidant, anonymous and prefers to to create things—cars and miscellaneous gadgetry—that make more private space.

This is how I view “innovations” like automated vehicles; the self-driving cars Cruise Automation has spent the last two years test driving around the Mission (and I do mean around, and around, in dizzying regularity) function like private BART cars. Included in this avoidance of common space is a suspicion of public safeguards, permits, in other words.

Uber’s decision to place their driverless cars on San Francisco streets in defiance of California’s entirely reasonable vehicle permitting laws is a perfect example of the tantrumy we’ll-do-what-we-want-to-do-you’re-not-the-mother-of-me reaction to public safety laws.  I asked the robot wrangler if the anonymous tech company had checked in with the city or sought any sort of permitting. “No,” he answered.

I recounted this conversation a day later to Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk SF who said immediately: “They are not legal. They are not permitted to be on the sidewalk.” She’d read the February 21st Mission Local story about the “Carry” robot, and thought I had seen the same robot.

“This was a different robot,” I told her. “It looked like a mobility scooter.”

She sighed. “We’re concerned that this is the beginning of the era of Wall-E. More and more public space is being taken away. People that live in the city enjoy the fact that they can walk places, like the grocery, for instance. Maybe you bump into a friend on the way. Sidewalks form social spaces and are part of the fabric of urban culture. To stop that culture from unfolding is detrimental to urban life. And it has an impact on the elderly and disabled population.” I asked her if they had a plan to deal with scofflaw robots. “Yes,” she said. “We’re working on that.”

The robot and the wrangler crossed the street and entered the crosswalk. I decided it was time to stop talking and start documenting. I laid my bike down next to the woman selling oranges and grabbed my cell phone.

“I don’t want to be in the picture,” said the wrangler.
“I can crop you out,” I said and then thought wait a minute. He’s walking around with this thing on a public sidewalk. Sorry, guy. The robot vroomed past me and churned down Harrison street. The conversation with the wrangler was over. He was nice, but I knew there was nothing for me to know; all I was required to do was watch the spectacle of a robot, zooming through my neighborhood.

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But I followed them, anyway. We came to the corner of 23rd and Harrison.  A nattily dressed man wearing a porkpie hat stood on the street corner. His eyes lit on the robot and his eyes widened.

“Woah! Is that a robot?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said, answering for the wrangler, who was busy running after the robot.
He looked happy. “Is that like R2D2’s great-great-great-great Grandfather?” he asked gleefully. His name was Eric Peralta. “I’m a furniture designer and sci-fi geek,” he told me. He was enchanted by the robot.
“Do you want to know what that is?” I asked Eric.
“Yeah! Hey! What is that?” Eric called after the wrangler.

“I can’t tell you,” answered the wrangler. He and the robot zoomed off. Eric’s eyes were alight: the future was all around him in the Mission and it was awesome. Eric, a self-identified extreme-Left-Libertarian didn’t see a problem with the robot’s developers using the sidewalks and streets for product development or financial profit. “That’s what most companies do, right?” Neither did he mind the secrecy of tech culture. “When you’re working on sensitive technology, you need to be able to protect your design to keep your work from being stolen.” Who’d want to steal that thing? I wondered. What evil tech competitor would be interested? It looked so slapped together a Jawa might have second thoughts about scavenging it. In comparison, the “Carry” robot that Wenus encountered looked sleek, definitively high-tech and convincing in its role as the delivery person of tomorrow.

Eric looked thoughtful as he gazed at the rapidly vanishing robot. “It’s strange to be alive in this time. I can remember when computers were barely a thing…they fit in closets, not people’s hands. I grew up in the forest and love nature, love the environment. But the earth has become a human sphere. We are changing it.” He seemed to think that the future was upon us, in all its glory, unmovable, unchangeable and suddenly just present. I felt differently, of course: the future that tech companies seem to be building seems to be concerned with banishing the quotidian in favor of a future free of human activity and monopolizing my environment with a monoculture of non-disclosure and anonymity. Gee, no thanks. Like St. Joan of the Stockyards, I Want To Know.

What seems to be at-large in the streets of the Mission district (aside from unpermitted robots) is a culture that is at once voluble, and cagey: the public humble-brag and carefully scripted candor of the tech community when it speaks of the future at tech conferences vanishes when you encounter tech engineers roaming around the Mission District sitting inside self-driving cars or running after robots. They are legally and culturally tongue-tied. When asked what they’re doing, and what the things they’re developing will do, they can only say I can’t tell you. This is probably the truth. They probably don’t know.

Which is weird. An opaque, undisclosed future is at odds with the kind of Futurism I grew up with. It took delight in explaining everything: there will be ansibles, veldts, holo-decks. There will be genderless societies, black obelisks, undiscovered galaxies far, far away, monsters made from cadavers who need to be loved, tiny green people in elongated spaceships that either want peace or to destroy us. The authors and writers of the movies and the books I love (I’m a sci-fi geek, too) are in the business of description: new worlds, relationships, and environments. Some of the stories were cautionary. Some were frightening. But the makers of these scenarios wanted me to consider, to anticipate, to know.

The tech community of the Bay Area do not. They only ever show a bizarre mix of squeamishness and surprise—You’re only here to witness. We Can’t Tell You— as they develop an undisclosed future on the streets of my neighborhood.

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Written after a long time of not writing. The Moon is brand new and in Pisces. Venus is in the evening sky these days: go ahead and blow her a kiss.
Here’s to unsettled exoplanets!

From the 22nd Street Crossroads: Betsy the Katastrophé Chaser

eris_antikensammlung_berlin_f1775

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. 

824 Florida Street

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Sunday, after a late morning breakfast of hot cross buns and coffee at Joey & Pat’s, my husband and I slowly perambulated the Mission, doing errands in a desultory way. On Florida Street, between 20th and 21st, we encountered a scrum of people on the sidewalk.

Two men in their fifties or sixties were presenting a building plan to the neighborhood. Blueprints were on a folding table. You could take a copy. The men and the table were in front of an old, white house with a garage door right at the sidewalk. We stopped to see what was happening. Why were they sitting in front of the house with an attitude of resignation?

The “house” is, or was, a dwelling for someone, but when it was constructed (in 1908, as it turns out) it wasn’t built to house people. It was clearly a garage or a space for light industry.

Two women were looking at the plans. The table was in the shade of the building, a nice place to linger. Two children biked around the women. We walked over to the table.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“We’re presenting these plans to the neighborhood,” replied the sitting man. He was older, maybe in his late sixties. “We’re adding a vertical element.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the plans. “Are you the owner?”

The man shifted in his chair. “We’re the designers,” he replied. “We’re going to add a couple floors.”

Sensing circumvention, I tried again. “Who owns this place?”

The heavyset man sighed and moved in his folding chair again, almost imperceptibly. Evasion hung thick in the air. Crosstalk prevented the moment from becoming too acute.

One of the women knew the building’s history. The Travertini family had made pottery there. A truck used to pull into the garage and load up, she remembered. She moved to Florida Street in 1965, when she was eight years old, and has lived here ever since. “I’m first generation,” she said. Her parents were from Puerto Rico. The neighborhood was full of Italian families when her family moved to the Mission, she said. “We were the minority. Can you imagine that?”

I said immediately, as I always do when Mission history comes up, “My great-great-grandparents lived down the street!” The woman and I beamed at each other, pleased to find another ancestral Missionite.

The standing man said the building was originally a gymnasium.

Back to the question hanging in the air. “Are you the owners?” I asked again.

The sitting man sensed that I wasn’t going to let it go. “There’s a group of owners,” he said. “I’m the face of the owners.”

He wasn’t going to say who. He wasn’t going to name names. Eleven owners? Twelve? Three? We thanked the men and left.

At home I went online. The San Francisco Public Library has online city directories from 1850 to 1982. I searched the 1963 Polk’s City Directory and found Travertini & Co. Mfg., “plaster casting,” owned by Gino and Ulaldina Travertini at 824 Florida Street. No pictures emerged on Google of Mr. and Mrs. Travertini. The only picture of them with their plaster and lathe and delivery trucks is a memory held in the mind of the woman who moved to the Mission in 1965, the year I was born.

My husband went back to get a blueprint at 2 p.m., perhaps thirty minutes after we’d seen them, but the men were gone. Nothing was posted on the building or the telephone pole in front of the building. Apparently, the men had given notice to the neighborhood.

The men were nice, and spoke to us in a civil fashion about the change in the neighborhood, the alteration of the Travertini place. But a description posted last year on Zillow seemed offhandedly callous. It described the structure as a “Great one open space with bathroom, kitchen, lots light and huge backyard. . . . We will tear down place in 22 months.”

It’s bewildering, this speculative wilding in the Mission, where prices are so high that groups of investors need to pool their money to purchase property, where the blueprints detailing changes to the neighborhood are grudgingly unveiled for a few minutes on hot, sunny Saturday afternoons and then folded up and secreted away so that neighborhood re-visioning can start, and where the perfect moments of the Mission stay preserved in memory.

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This article originally appeared in on March 10, 2015 as a feature in Mission Local, San Francisco’s finest local newspaper. Many thanks to Lydia Chavez.