Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: Uncategorized

In the Blink of an Eye: the end of CELLspace

 

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

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

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

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

“Ok!” she replied brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’d like that.

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

        

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens after that is entirely up to humanity.

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

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

Getting people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding with Mary.

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Mary above the Puerto Alegre restaurant at 25th and Bryant

I went riding with Mary today, on my bike, through the neighborhood and hailed her every time I saw her. She’s a constant in the neighborhood, a genius loci, who’s been up in everyone’s business in the Mission —the Ancient Hibernians, the Latinx, —for a long time. (sometimes I think people think the Mission has only ever been either Irish or Mexican.) During my marathon Irish Walking Tour someone asked me what had changed in the mission …really? They posed this question to me sotto voce. I don’t know why: were they hoping for secret knowledge? I said It’s not that the Mission used be Irish…it’s that this place used to be about family. Multi-generations in one house. That’s what the Mission used to be.

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The Virgin of Guadalupe above El Farolitos on 24th Street

(The Mission was always a place to party. During prohibition, the Mission had speakeasies called “blind pigs”. The Quinn family who hailed from Cork, lived above a blind pig on the corner of 24th and Alabama. A shot of moonshine went for about 25 cents, according to Frank Quinn. Wonder what the operators of the gambling den/brothel in Lilac Alley charge? )

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Mary at the south end of Balmy Alley

I had this slightly surreptitious conversation while standing in front of an image of the Mary of La Reyna Panaderia on 24th street. Mary is one thing that hasn’t changed. She’s always been here and people have always worshipped her and loved her I told this person, who really needed to know that things are not so simple. People have been talking to Mary in Irish, in Italian, maybe in German, obviously in Spanish, obviously in English, for a long-ass time. Right? There’s a good reason that sightings of her are so common. All the prayers, all the fervent petitions to her, all of the apologies that stern Irish priests in the olden days of the Mission made you go down on your knees to say (I’m not catholic, so I don’t know how this goes, exactly.): all of this has left an imprint on the neighborhood.

St. Peter’s was founded in 1867, which means people in this “Peterite village” (so-called by Rev. Nicholas Farana, assistant pastor at St. Peters) have been talking with Mary for nearly a century and a half.

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Lourdes Mary and Mary with a fabulous Crown, also in Balmy Alley.

Sé do bheath’ a Mhuire, atá lán de ghrásta. Tá an Tiarna leat. Is beannaithe thú idir mná

(Oh, speaking of sightings. We had an actual, un-official Marian visitation in July, 1996. I was living on Precita Avenue, which is down the street and around the corner from the Chapel of Immaculate Conception. This chapel—which is gorgeously adorned with mounds of glazed terra cotta fruits, flowers and cherubs with round cheeks, blank eyes, and mouths frozen in a perfect “o”— has had a couple of mystical things happen: the current priest is an exorcist, an altar boy began excreting oil of rose through his pores and may have been in the early stages of developing stigmata. Also: Jesus was caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. Mary made an appearance on the brass roof of the chapel and the devout answered this unexpected visit by appearing in the hundreds each night for a week, holding candles, clicking beads, murmuring prayers and staring at the intersected scratches on the brass panel that became a hooded figure with a drooping head the longer you looked. The panel glowed softly but distinctly. I saw this with my own eyes.)

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Our Lady of La Reyna Bakery and coffee shop on 24th street, between Folsom and Shotwell.

Hail, Mary. If there wasn’t so much talk between her and the people who lived here, she wouldn’t hang out. There are at least 13 different images of her in the neighborhood, with different expressions: patient, bland, stern, muy doloroso, kind of annoyed, kind of bitchy with raised eyebrows. I know better than you she seems to say, like an uptight church lady, and I’m like well, yeah, you’re the mother of Jesus, so you better! She bridges cultures, she leap-frogs over history. She’s everywhere: in back alleys, in store windows, on bright yellow awnings. All the Marys: the Lourdes Mary, the Medjugorje Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe Mary.

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This is a Mary who got invited to Chata Gutierrez’s going-away-party mural on 24th street. She’s so serene.

 

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This is a stealth Mary, who is hard to see. She is painted on the side of 899 Capp street, which is diagonal to accommodate the Southern Pacific’s San Jose Railroad, which used to run through the Mission.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.

Prompted by my friend, I muttered these words to her in Balmy Alley on the night of Dia de los Muertos. My sister was having a health care crisis, and I was like a child in the face of my fear. Mary was all over the place that night, not just in paintings, but in the faces of people and their shining eyes. The procession was quiet this year: everyone was holding their breath a bit because of the election, and there was something else going on, too, some other event that had drawn people away. The mood of the crowd felt more settled, more calm, as if the celestial blue of Mary’s mantle had settled on us all.

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I think this Mary of Lilac Alley. She’s pretty close to the blind pig.

(one note, written 2 days later: six of these Marys are versions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or “Reina de Ambas Americas”, or, Queen of both Americas. The popularity of this version of Mary speaks to that time when the Mission transitioned: older immigrant groups, the Irish, mostly, headed into the hills of Noe Valley, Glen Park and the western parts of the city, as “large scale immigration” from Central and South American increased. There was conflict in the parish. The old Irish Peterites were unhappy with the changes sweeping through their little sráidbhaile and the immigrants from Mexico, Salvador and Nicaragua contended with each other. Father Leopold Uglesic, pastor at St. Peters in the fifties, and survivor of fascist violence in Eastern Europe, worked with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in an effort to unify the parish.*

 

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Mary, holding her own in a shop window on Mission Street.

Ave María, llena de gracia, el Señor es contigo, bendita tú entre las mujeres

I took these pictures today because I think when you start noticing things—like the prevalence of Marian iconography in your neighborhood, or horrible things, like white nationalists holding meetings in Washington D.C., throwing the fascist salute—ya oughta notice that you’re noticing, and talk about it a little, in the middle of your fascination. Or your panic.

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This is a fierce pagan Mary in Balmy Alley.

I’m not Catholic. I don’t intend to be Catholic, either. But I’m noticing Mary because I’m noticing my neighborhood, toda la gente, the laborers, los trabajadores, the Fenians, the Sandinistas, both of whom ran military drills in the Mission, both of whom perfected the art of resistance in the Mission, before returning to Ireland or Nicaragua to kick out oligarchs and pinche shitheads.

I rode with Mary today, in my neighborhood, because I love my neighborhood and people love her and because she knows all these the families, the Quinns, the Gutierrezes. She’s something that hasn’t changed.

I addressed her the way she’s used to, with desperation which can be equally composed of hope and fear and probably said over and over again something like Hail Mary, full of grace. Lady, hear us in the hour of our need. Her face looked at me from the center of her labial corona, her hands folded together patiently or spread apart in entreaty.

Come to me, talk to me. I’ve heard it all. I want to know what’s happening. Lay it at my feet. I’ve seen you before.

Talk to me.

bluegoddess

I am including this, because it feels like a Mary. All that beautiful blue, plus the cherubs. This is at 24th and Mission, right next to the intersection of 24th and Lilac Alley.

*When I write about the Irish, or St. Peters, I depend upon Jeffrey M. Burns’s excellent essay entitled “St. Peter’s Parish in San Francisco: The rise and eclipse of an Irish Parish, 1913-1965” which is included in the anthology “The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area: Essays On Good Fortune”, published by the Irish Literary and Historical Society.

 

Written from the 22nd street Crossroads on a dim November day, the 22nd to be exact, in the year 2016, during the last quarter of the old moon. Everything is cuspy: planets, people’s understanding of the political system and their place in it, my heart.
In eight days, a new moon comes. Prepare your work.

Three dreams for Hallowe’en.

February 19, 1998
The Family of the Rotten Potato

potatoe2

I’m in a kitchen which is bright and full of sunny yellow formica and other people, whose faces I cannot see. The perspective is that of a child, sat at a table and waiting, as adult bodies bustle around me, getting, placing, working: all the absent-minded, purposeful movements of women (I think) in the kitchen doing the work of home. They are cheerful and content, and the kitchen itself is good, a warm, clean place, fine and bright. I sit, waiting. Someone is going to give me something.

Someone puts a plate in front of me. Placed on it is one potato. The outside is fine, but on the inside, there is a big ugly blot of black rot. It’s a sickly little white potato that is rotten. And it has been given to me. I look around to see if anyone has noticed what I’ve been given, what I’ve almost eaten. I feel an excited pride, and no disgust, and no horror. I want the other busy bodies in the kitchen to notice what has been given to me: a rotten potato. I belong to the family of the putrid tuber. I am happy about this.

April 2010
An Púca

(I have no pictures of the Púca. Sorry)

I am relaxing in a bathtub, which is filled with pleasantly hot water and, I realize in a slow fade of comprehension, dirt. And earthworms. I am in submerged in an warm, earthen soup.  There are other things, too, one of which looks very much like a very large coelacanth—a pre-historic walking fish, with stiff fins that looks as if it’s been made from seaweed. This walking fish wants out, and so I oblige it by  unlatching the door. It walks and as it walks, it changes.

Whatever force is directing its transformation—which is rapid and whirling—it is a force fixed on its own event horizon, and has nothing to do with me.  It passes me and steps outside, moving with determination, away from the bathroom and down the hall.

I walk into the kitchen and, lo and behold, my dead Dad strolls in. He is much younger than he was when he died. His eyebrows are black and sharp, and his green eyes vivid and direct. (He almost never makes guest appearances in my dreams, because he doesn’t believe in this stuff).

I say, complainingly, “Dad! What’s happening?” He directs his sharp gaze on me and he replies, “It’s the Púca. That’s what has caused everything”. I realize he is referring to the large walking fish (and maybe himself, too?  with his newfound alacrity and sharp waggling eyebrows and a warning way to him, which is also….light-hearted, and mischievous. Does he mean the fish?)

That isn’t what I thought that was, I think. I thought that was a coelacanth. Welp. Better investigate. At that, I go outside and find the Púca, which has made a shelter for itself under a small grassy knoll in the front yard. It is still fishy-looking, but is starting to look like a young woman, with direct and friendly eyes. We are friendly towards each other, and speak to each other in general pleasantries. I decide to show hospitality to it; to aid it. It is vulnerable and needs things: acknowledgment, food. And wine. Which I brought.

(And then my waking mind asserted itself, and asked  me to reflect on what it might mean to have one of the “gentry” living in a cave, located on my imaginary front lawn. In my ancestral world, fairies are not things to cozy up to. They have their world and we have ours, and although there is a magical tradition that seeks traverse the two worlds, I myself follow the way of my ancestors and prefer to treat them with, to quote Eddie Lenihan, the great seanchaithe of County Claire, with a mixture of “respect, doubt, fear, hesitation, and conviction.” I will always offer hospitality when it is called for and avoidance when it is wise.

In any case, I woke up. As far as I know, the Púca is still there, lonely, but well-provisioned.

 

Florence
When I was eight years old

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When I was eight, my great-Grandmother Florence Cerini Creely, whose portrait hangs in the living room of my apartment, introduced herself to me in a dream and we have been friends ever since.

We met in the South Coast Plaza mall, which had just been built and was not the agonizingly glitzy space it is now. In my dream, I sat in a bench, with my hands in my lap in a posture of waiting patience. The light was soft and bright. Florence walked over to me and sat down. I looked up at her. I saw a kind and gentle lady, who was much older, but in a soft, plump, elegant way: there was no wasting of her bones, no harsh marks of age on her face. Her hair was coiffed and softly white and she was dressed the way women used to dress to go out shopping; to be seen in public. I looked up at her, like children look at grandparents, with respect and deference and attention. She spoke to me, and we talked for some time in that bright place. There is no dialogue that I carried back with me, no remembered scrap of information, other than she was Florence, my great-grandmother and she was there specifically to meet me. And that she loved me.

Here is a small, quick story that my grandfather Bunster swore was true. When he was young, Bunster and his friends liked to jump on freight trains passing through Berkeley and ride on them for short trips throughout Alameda County. (He was not supposed to do this.) Florence came to him one night as he was laying down to go to sleep. “Bunny,” she said. “Your father came to me last night and told me you have been jumping on the trains again. You know you are not supposed to do this.” The rebuke was coming from a dead man: Bunny’s father (my great-grandfather) suffered a major heart attack in 1916 and died straightway. Bunny never rode the freight trains again.

Firenze Maria Cerini—her name was Americanized later— my Italian/Irish nonna died in 1950 in Piedmont, CA at the age of 80, fifteen years before I was born. But I have always known her. And this is because she has always been spoken of and remembered with love. Her gentle soul has stayed with us.

This is how I know that this saying is true: what is remembered, lives.

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Florence C. Creely with all her children: (from the left) Cerini, Claire, Marion and I think Frank. I’m not sure who the baby is.

October 31, 2016
Oiche Shamhna Shona Daoibh. Happy New Year. Open your doors, light your lanterns and go on a cuaird with your beloved dead. Just remember to come back. Boo!

Mudlarking

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My friend Vicky, who leads the Bernal Heights History Project, just returned from England, which is where she was born. She “mudlarks”, which is to say she goes looking for the past in the mud of tidal marshes or on the banks of rivers. She found an oyster shell and gave it to me, explaining that the hole in the center of the shell might have been made by a person making a button. She also found these pins which are very old, probably Tudor-era, and brought them for me as well. The pins were hand-crafted, as we say today when we want to market an object—chocolate, or beer, or some other comestible— carefully, to separate it from mass production and endow it with artisanal fussiness that is supposed to confer authenticity. A pedigree.

She gave the pins to me and I felt a rush of pure pleasure and love. Oh, I love these! Thank you! I gasped. Pins, needles, and thread are domestic objects I always have on hand. I learned to sew when I was little; basic sewing, like hemming pants, or using a whip-stitch to join cloth together. (My cousin Piet has inherited this industriousness too, and makes entire garments, which I have never done). I have the homely habit of keeping my clothes intact and always have done, even when that was the only part of me that was, especially in the tumultuous years of the nineties when I lived on the corner of 22nd and Valencia Street, frightened at a world which moved at a pace I was unaccustomed to. I remember waking up at 3 AM because the Red Man was sat on a fire hydrant, kicking his legs and singing a song. Fog rolled down Valencia street in thick sheets and I wondered, what will become of me?

Well, one thing that has happened is that I answered the call of the olden days and started working with local history. I have been toggling back and forth between the past and the future this year, with Irish nationalists repping the past, and the San Francisco Bay and the upcoming climate dramas ushering in the (my?) future. There’s been a sense of duty that’s attached itself to both projects. I work with the Irish-American past because their voices have always spoken to me. And it’s easy. I know where the bodies are buried, so to speak. I know where the Project stands, the project of dealing with the Irish in America with their florid patriotism, their long-ass letters to each other, their officious meeting minutes, their pain, their anger, their parades, their picnics. Their determination to not let go.

And the bay? I grew up next to one that was half deep-water harbor, and half engineered estuary, and even though I have a hard time remembering is it 200 or 20 million cubic meters of sediment that needs to be sourced and placed in the San Francisco Bay so it doesn’t drown?, I know in some ways that fact is there and non-negotiable and even if I forget it, I can find it, and what is not so easily retrievable is what I know, personally, about bays: the gloppy mud, the minute and often unlovely plants, the fish that flash through the water unexpectedly, and the mudflats that will grab you and pull you down into an underworld of crablike invertebrates, and the bones of animals and ancient fish and refuse from other people who lived among them thousands of years ago. I, Elizabeth C. Creely, know what belongs to me: that cold mud.

1485 is when Henry VII killed Richard III and in doing initiated the Tudor period. My Tudor-era pins could have been made at any point between 1485 and 1603 on any day, by anyone. These pins ended up in the mud somehow. (I don’t know why people throw useful things away.) When I saw them, I thought oh I want to go to England, I haven’t spent enough time there. I saw the flat yellow light of the air of England and saw out over the North Sea and felt cold air hit my face, and felt my solar plexus contact with love for the homely objects thrust through the red cloth and the history they make because they were made.

A pin is a finicky thing and slips out of your hand easily unless you have something to grasp. That’s what the tiny head is for: to help you push the metal through the fabric, and sew and sew and sew and bring the thing together. Whoever made these pins knew that and shaped the round heads carefully, so they’d have something to hold onto.These pins and this shell have been buried in the mud of the Thames for a long time, and now, improbably, they’re here, in my house, tiny scraps of a small nation with big problems of its own.

They are small and real, and corroded by time and water and the usage of many hands. They are magic. I am so happy to have them here.

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this is the shortest and quickest post I ever wrote, but the days are short and the shadows are quickening. a storm is coming; is your house in order?
Happy October!

Talk of the Mission town: The Memory Club

The burnt building at 22nd and Mission street.

The burnt building at 22nd and Mission street.

Last Friday the 13th, I walked past a place of great misfortune: the intersection of 22nd and Mission where there had once been an old building wrapped protectively around the intersection. Built in 1907, it had apartments on the top, and shops on the bottom in keeping with the post-earthquake “intensification of commercial properties”, which is how the SF Planning Commission characterizes the urban development that took place on Mission Street. The building burned down in the evening of January 28th, 2015, killing one man and displacing 60 people, among them a boy, who stood on the fire escape for several minutes on that fiery night, with the burning building behind him. He jumped;  like the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, there was no other escape open to him. (He was caught safely by a neighbor). There were hopes that the landlord, a man named Lou Hawk, would re-build, but he steadfastly maintained the same level of indifference towards the ruined building that he showed towards his tenants. The building had locked exits, awnings that prevented the fire escapes from descending properly, no functioning fire extinguishers or smoke detectors.

The building caught fire again twice this year. It was finally ripped down by the city a day or two before I walked by it, laying in a heap of huge wooden splinters and twisted rebar and stinking of moldy wood and raw sewage. I continued to walk north on Mission looking at the people milling around in the shadow of the disaster, walking the blocks of Mission Street now as they did one hundred years ago, with one difference: they seem to tour the street more than shop, which is different, I think, from its heyday as a shopping district. The street has become a destination and the demands that people make of a destination are different: while they may crave discovery, they do not want to be too surprised, too affected by unpredictability. The burnt building, which had been an awful eyesore and monument to unpredictable and terrible surprise, was gone now. Soon everyone’s eyes would become more accustomed to the space left behind by the absent building.

Mission Street was called for awhile the “Miracle Mile”, and was the core shopping district between 14th and what was then Army Street, a place where to confirm one’s middle-class prosperity through the act of purchasing.  When I moved into the neighborhood in 1991, the street had lost its luster and was a scrubby mix of Latin American grocers, stores selling Jaffa cosmetics and money orders for remittances, which would be sent back to the cities and villages in South and Central America. Clothing stores lined the blocks, some featuring display mannequins with round, voluptuous butts, all wearing tight pants and facing outward, onto the sidewalk, the better to display the clothes. The stores that sold quinceanera dresses were my favorite: the dresses were opulent and princess-y, with their rhinestone work, and saturated colors. There were jewelry stores, automotive repair garages, and restaurants that served the working class and indigent alike. If I encountered any of my friends on Mission Street, which normally I did not—Valencia was much more of a host to the social scene of the late eighties and nineties—it was in passing, coming in and out of four places: Goodwill, Thrift Town, El Farolitos or the Walgreens at 23rd Street.

For me, Mission Street was not memorable; it was hard and bright and reminded me of too much of downtown Santa Ana, the place I lived before moving to San Francisco, which is to say it reminded me of Southern California, a place I did not want to live. I avoided Mission Street, which remained, for a long time, a series of disconnected locations, with no sense of place. I walked between its blocks without any other consciousness than the desire to arrive at my destination. Siegal’s Clothing was proof that I was at a midway point between 20th and 19th streets. The Dore Studio was the one place I’d stop and stare: its unapologetic depictions of female beauty were arresting, and I’d often wonder what the photographers could do for me. Could they make me as pillow-lipped and doe-eyed as the dark-eyed Latinas featured in their windows, with their flawless skin and that tumbling raven hair?

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The Mission’s past was unknown to me mostly because it hadn’t developed a “past” yet. It has now: the story of the neighborhood, told in its marquees, obscured facades and burnt buildings—two actually— is being rapidly overwritten. The disaster site at 22nd and Mission creates a interesting space; sort of a temporal overlap which the onlooker can use to assess where they are in the history of the street, while the ruins are taken away and the past shifts into the future. Can you remember what the building looked like? Did you ever enter the subterranean Mission Market to buy rabbit from the butcher? Had I crossed Mission and walked east, I would have walked in a neighborhood that had hosted my family until 1915. But the caprices and accidents of family memory had discarded any memory of the blacksmith, his wife and their eight children, and their life at 916 Florida Street. Whatever had happened, or not happened, to the Creelys was totally forgotten, and so there was no inducement for me to explore my surroundings more wholeheartedly.

Another sad fact was that I was a suburban xenophobe, something I carried with me into San Francisco, along with my other possessions. And this is weird as well as sad: I was always waiting in those days for a street to turn into a something undiscovered. I didn’t understand that this was impossible: since the city was a man-made artifact, everything that was there—every street, sign, building or alleyway—was known, or had been known to someone. I’ve since realized that the longing for something undiscovered is common to city newcomers: they want to belong and one way to belong to America’s cities is ferret out its secrets, its forgotten locations which, having been located, serves as proof of belonging. The newcomer can claim, as a prize for themselves, the idea that they alone have discovered and deciphered the hidden meaning of the alley that goes nowhere and the old cobblestones that pave it.

Cities that are healthy don’t develop enormously distended underbellies of secret, inaccessible spaces; this happens after they develop great wealth disparities. The city as I knew it in the late eighties and early nineties lacked this particular neurosis: it felt like a stage on which people encountered each other in unrehearsed play. The Redwood Room on Geary had this great Saroyan-esque sweep of humanity: under the panels of redwood and the fake Klimt paintings, there would be fierce drag queens wearing vintage finery, prostitutes having quiet drinks with their clients, men in PG&E uniforms shouting happily at each other, and the bridge and tunnel crowd at the end of their Big Day in the City having a drink, and me, too, canoodling with my current lover or gabbing away with one of my best friends, eating olives, crackers and salted nuts from the little silver cocktail plates that appeared with your drink, which was always good, and never cost more than six bucks.

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Maybe Original McCarthys on Mission Street had this wildly eclectic social atmosphere, but I don’t think it did. It was an working-class Irish-American bar with all the clubby insularity of that community, and it was beautiful: wide and deep, brick-lined and cold. Old men with slowly blinking eyes sat at the bar as if they’d never left, speaking briefly to the bartender and the other old men. I never went in until I was enrolled in the Irish Studies Program in New College, in the late nineties. I had just begun to grasp the residual presence of Irish-American culture in the Mission District and I stared at the old alcoholic men and listened to the bartenders with their chewy, growling Mission District accents, and wondered what I’d been missing, being so Valencia-centric.

All lot, as it turns out. But it wasn’t only because of my ignorance. The beautiful, derelict interiors of Mission District businesses were often secured behind locked iron gates, or, as was the case with the New Mission Theater, obscured behind mounds of cheap futons. Now these spaces are being excavated. The lobby of the New Mission theater was cleared of the futons and the doors were open and after some hard work, there emerged a gracious theater that is now in business again, its previous skin of scarred, scrawled-upon mosaic work enclosed in Plexiglas cases as a means of authentication, of provenance, age; to show, literally the scars of its history.

At the other end of Mission Street, past the site of the old Sinn Fein Shoe Store, now a Metro PCS outpost, I walked past a new condo development, located at 1875 Mission. Banners, fluttering in the wind above my head in the unassailable sky, had three words written in bold black: Eminent. Posh. Bold. It was the second word that snapped me out of my reverie: such a gauche and naked appeal to snobbery needs attention paid. What reality, I wondered, do they think they can obliterate by using this ridiculous word? The Navigation Center for the homeless down the street? The tent villages lining the sidewalks? How can a term like “posh”—a word which seems to mock itself every time it’s uttered —exist in a working-class neighborhood?

posh

I came to 14th and Mission where the Armory squats solidly, another building that wraps around the intersection. Across the street is a bar. On the outside wall is a sign, looking vaguely like a heraldic device. My near-sighted eyes lit on the sign, which I automatically tried to read, even I knew I’d read it before, and should have known what it said. But the tour of Mission Street, with its absences and additions, had obliterated my memory and created a amnesia-like feeling. I am forgetting what used to be anywhere, I told a friend last month. Every time a building is resuscitated or new building gets constructed, my memory seems get wiped clean.

I stared at the sign which swam into focus as I moved closer to it. Memory Club, I read. I stepped closer and read it again. Armory Club, it said.

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“How noisy everything grows”
—Karl Kraus

I Wanna Be Your Lover.

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The first time— let me emphasize: it was the absolute first time— I heard Prince, I was an awkward twelve year old heading awkwardly into adolescence: a terrible time of life in my opinion, a unlovely & ignorant state, where one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. Some people had a better time. Not me. I didn’t love it, that raw, unfinished ignorance.

I like knowing.

I was spending the night at my friend’s house in Hemet, California, which is the low desert. In those days, Hemet was almost wholly undeveloped. There was no ambient light. There was no urban noise. It was still.

We had opted to sleep in the family RV, the better to talk and giggle and complain and muse over all the stuff: boys, relationships, discontents, our annoying siblings, lies about who we’d kissed, fictional boyfriends, wonderings about our period (when?) breasts (WHEN? And how big?)…all the stuff. She fell asleep. The scratchy radio was still on. I was still awake. I was laying under a window and I could see the stars, the ivory-colored stars in the midnight blue sky of the desert.

I can’t describe the opening strains of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”; I don’t remember them because I heard Prince’s voice first, breathy, high-pitched and telling me things. I ain’t got no money, he informed me, and then went on to muse, complain, and finally declaim: I don’t wanna pressure you baby. But all I ever wanted to do…He wanted to be my lover. I said yes to that voice.

It’s a full body memory, remembering that amazing voice, which I knew was not his “normal” voice: he was singing that way because he was possessed of desire and was encouraging the listener to be possessed as well. The synthesizer, the bass, the voice, the words…they all combined to create the amazing and terrible beauty of sexual desire, which was so strong and so beautiful to me, as I lay there in my unfinished state, that my heart seemed as if it was pushing aside the bony confines of my body, to leave me and my child’s body behind, to float through the aether, to join the song, humming and swimming through the air.

It was the first time I ever felt beauteous desire and yearning. And it strikes me how inadequate any other word is for what I felt: beauty is the only word that suits. Glamour, grace, exquisiteness, elegance: none of these terms work to describe the absolute beauty of desire in his voice. I was in the presence of pure beauty, such as drives Salieri to tears in that moment in the movie “Amadeus” when he reads Mozart’s music and is thunderstruck: he is humbled, yet elevated to state of shocked exhilaration and astonishment. It was beyond belief. As if he were just taking dictation. And music. Finished as no music is ever finished.

I closed my eyes, and my heart trembled and leapt. This is what I don’t know, I thought. I don’t know this. What is it? I understood desire in one moment and it entered me, piercing my heart. I was listening, through the cage of my unfinished & unknowing mind and body, to an absolute beauty.

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Years later, I moved into the Mission District in San Francisco. There was an apartment on the corner of 24th and Bartlett, and in the door of that apartment was a full length poster of Prince from the album cover of Controversy.  The impact of the poster was always exactly what he intended: you were forced to run your eyes over Prince’s beautiful, wiry, small-framed body, with that chest, those doe eyes, those thighs. He was dressed in black bikini thong and his eyes looked straight at you. My friend Alexis and I often remarked on the sense of place the poster evoked: you knew where you were when you saw it—in the Mission, probably running for BART. The poster (which got progressively more sun-bleached and faded as the years went by) made Prince the unofficial genius loci of the neighborhood in that spot, to our way of thinking, capturing the Mission as it was, sensual, embodied, louche, smutty, occasionally orgiastic in one way or another, but always with a sense of purposefulness.

It sounds glib to say that the Mission went when the poster got taken down, but it feels  sort of true for me, anyway. It was at least a strong sign that a corner had been turned. There was no going back. Alexis and I and everyone else who lived in the Mission for a long time had been watching the changes come, and we knew that the cleaner-whiter-brighter tide which was busily scrubbing down the Mission was going to take cherished placeholders like the poster with it. This is exactly what happened. One day, not long after the turn of the century, the poster and the apartment (and probably the tenants, too) vanished under a thick shroud of black netting and scaffolding. The apartment re-emerged a few months later, with a shiny new paint job. The door where Prince’s body was displayed, was painted in sober shades of brown with an tasteful accent trim of marigold orange. No more Prince in all his glorious provocation, inviting  passers bye to—just for a minute— hear, in their heads, his music, those forbidden and frequently censured words, hear that knowing and amused voice, feel for a just minute, in the middle of their busy workday, a flash of ecstasy, a bolt of rapture. The pure, pure beauty of total desire.

Revelation is total disclosure immediately unified with absolute comprehension; a sweet, sweet union, indeed. It is divine intervention, essentially, and Prince and his song of pure undiluted erotic longing intervened with me in the best possible way. I did not know what erotic desire was before I heard him sing, and afterward I was filled with the knowledge of it.  “…so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…” said Saint Theresa, speaking of her encounter with the seraph and its golden lance.

I know how Theresa felt. I felt as Prince intended I feel, I think. O Holy, O most Holy. Beauty, beauty, beauty.

I have never wished to be rid of it.

Rest in peace, Prince. Rest in pure beauty.

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The news is breaking and so is my heart; they don’t know yet why he died, but what really matters right now is that people are listening to his music. And a rainbow appeared over the Paisley Palace this afternoon.
written as the moon strains towards full in Scorpio.