Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

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

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

It’s time to write what I now realize is an annual narrative about camping and the small disasters and triumphs that go with it. Someday I’ll write an essay about camping in the high desert, but, for now, I’m going to write about camping in another oak woodlands, one that’s located on top of San Pedro Mountain in Marin County. On July 4th, Jay and I took several buses and backpacked one mile to the Back Ranch Meadow campground in China Camp State park, which sits in a glen below the northeast face of San Pedro Mountain.

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

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

Public transportation can be weirdly invisible to the general public, which is a bummer. Publicly funded transit systems are critical elements in any sustainability or “livability” scenario.  This is the basic assertion of transportation justice, the idea that you shouldn’t have to impoverish yourself getting from point A to point B.

These systems, which deserve greater levels of funding, and always seem to be in danger of having their funding cut, are heavily used. The Golden Gate Transit bus we boarded in San Rafael at 1:30 in the afternoon, coming home from our camping trip, was packed full of site-seers, and commuters going to the Golden Gate bridge or to work or to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco.

 

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

The only thing you have to have–aside from a  backpack with a tent, bedding, food, water, and clothes attached to it–is Time, which can be an expensive and scarce resource. But Time is elastic and illusory and tends to open up under pressure.

Also, for the love of god, please use an actual map. I recommend Ben Pease’s Trails of Northeast Marin County map.

Jay strikes the backpacker’s pose.

San Pedro mountain rises to the east of the 101 north into San Rafael. The main ridge splits into a series of smaller, pincer-like fingers that jut into the San Francisco bay. At Point San Pedro, the coastline makes a sharp turn to the north. This point, together with Pinole Point, located across the bay on the eastern shore, creates the space the San Pablo bay occupies.

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

Jay and I went camping in July mostly because of corporate perfidy; he was placed on unpaid furlough by PG&E, as were his fellow contract workers. The alternative was us  sitting at home on the fourth of July in the Mission District, worrying about our future and enduring one M-80 explosion after another until Christ o’clock in the morning.

The challenge for us was that we did not want the expense, or bother, of renting a car.I rent a car about four to five times a year, which is enough for me. Cars are expensive, they use land which could be used for better purposes, and the emissions they belch are helping to cook the planet. I love getting rides home as much as the next person, believe me, especially when I’m dolled up for the opera, but in general, I’d rather ride my bike, take a bus or light rail train or just walk.

Looking east from Buckeye Point in China Camp State Park.

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

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

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

The first ten minutes of the walk was a bit grim. Pedestrians are forced to walk on a narrow shoulder on North San Pedro Road, which is built for cars, not walkers. I felt like an interloper, and reflected on how transformative sidewalks and walking paths really are. They open spaces up. Streets that are engineered for cars close them down.

After 10 minutes of walking up a slight grade, Gallinas Creek and the San Pablo Bay appeared, and the small shabby suburb disappeared behind us. After that, it was a twenty minute walk to the entrance of China Camp State Park and the parking lot of the Back Ranch Meadows Campground entrance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Jay at dusk, in China Camp State park.

Advertisements

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Marine Firemen’s Union Hall is being sold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Chronicles of Ubo: the Osprey of the Upper Newport Bay

marshplain

Looking east from the Shellmound Island Science Center

I went kayaking yesterday with my cousin Elizabeth and her lovely daughter Becca, the youngest Creely. “How’s the bay?” she asked innocently. She was saved from my natural long-windedness by the appearance an osprey, one half of a mated pair, now living and loving in the Upper Newport Bay. The considerate folks at California Department of Fish and Wildlife built a roosting platform for the raptors and their growing family, and the osprey are using it. One fledgling is in the nest.

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

ospery1_

Looking at the osprey nest from the path.

Seeing them, I explained, means some assumptions can be made. The first assumption you can make when you see ospreys reproducing in the Back Bay, is that the bay is doing better.

You can assume things about the water quality. It’s far better than it used to be,  back in the fifties and sixties when half of the bay was diked off for salt production and the other half was water laced with petrochemicals that leaked from the ostentatious yachts parked around Linda, Harbor and Bay Islands. I remember the rainbow sheen of the water very clearly, as a child. The snazzy motor boats and jet skis that used to race around the bay are now forbidden to do so. Consequently, there is less disturbance, and probably more fish to catch.

You can assume things about the quality of their food supply. The fish they catch and eat don’t have as much DDT bio-accumulated in their oily flesh, and therefore do not compromise the osprey’s reproductive system.

You can assume things about noise. The airplanes that take off from John Wayne airport were forced by the angry people living under the runway to take off at a steep angle so as to gain altitude quickly. This diminished the roar of the airplane. I can all but guarantee that the good people of Santa Ana Heights were not thinking about ospreys, but they managed to do them a good turn anyhow.

Anthropocentric noise ruins avian habitat, plain and simple: the sweet song of the sparrow as it quests for a mate cannot compete with the roar of a chainsaw. I’ve written this sentence, and it’s one of the truest things I know. The high, thin cry of the osprey can’t compete with the huge sound of an airplane. A bird’s habitat exists in this airy atmosphere, and ideally, that aether should be as free as possible of man-made noise.

ospery2_

Papa Osprey keeping an eye on his fledgling.

You can assume things about predators. Raccoons are going to have a tough time getting up the platform. Other raptors–bald eagles, golden eagles and some owls– prey on eggs, fledglings and sometimes adult ospreys. These predators are not in evidence. Corvids are: they’re a big problem. They love to eat chicks and eggs. I watched the parent osprey chase three ravens away, very efficiently. There’s an explosion of corvids in California. They’re efficient generalists and will eat anything from an egg in a nest to garbage lying on the ground. Corvids get a lot of attention for their mythic qualities. They perch on Odin’s shoulders, muttering news of the nine worlds to him, and turn up in the Táin Bó Cúailnge croaking about death. But in the state of California, they are ubiquitous, and rapacious ,and have lost their mystery.

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

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

osperychickopenwings

The fledgling tests its wings.

I kayak every chance I get. As I do, I think about the bay ecology that supports the ospreys and the fact that this tiny little circle of life is situated in an old river delta, the bit where the end of the river meets the beginnings of the sea. This river, an antecedent river of the Santa Ana river, rose and ran west during the last glacial period of the Pleistocene, a rainy, fluvial/pluvial epoch that made Orange County look more like the Pacific Northwest (think big wet trees). It made a gap in the Santa Ana mountain range, ran over the Tustin Plain and emptied into the Upper Newport Bay.

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

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

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

msospery


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco,March 21st, 2017

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

robot2

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.

robot3

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.

3_walkingtorobot

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.

robot4

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!

Riding with Mary.

mary13

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.

mary11

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? )

mary10

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.

twomaryspng

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.)

mary6

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.

mary5

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

 

mary4

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.

mary3

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.*

 

mary1

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.

maru7

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.

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.

betsychayote

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.

2_melvin_angela_floridastreet

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

 

 

brtsuchayote2

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.

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

florence

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.

mystery

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

pinsandshell1

 

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.

pinsandshelk2
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!