Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Masquerade Ball

Something there is that doesn't love a...ball. Especially a masquerade ball, where concealing your identity, or at least pretending to, is the objective. But there are ironies involved.

At the fundraiser we attended a week ago, couples and singles filed into the room in festive masks, spiffy cocktail dresses and black suits, dinner jackets, and elegant costumes. A court jester, Marie Antoinette, Spanish ladies, Phantoms of the Opera. We came as polished versions of ourselves, the perfectly coiffed, manicured, the camera-ready people we aspire to be. Why then--of all times--did we want to deny who we were?

A mask would be more appropriate, perhaps, when I dash to Safeway in the early morning, de-coiffed, wearing yesterday's yoga pants and sneakers. Or when the UPS man wakes me from a sound afternoon nap. Or the time I inquired about a husband only to learn that he had left her for another man.

At the post office, a long line waiting behind me, I fumble to pay for a stack of wrapped packages, a sheet of stamps, and two tracking slips. As time stands still I realize that my debit card is in my billfold. It's at home, apparently orphaned by a purse exchange. Or when my dog chooses to relieve herself in the crosswalk of four lanes of 19th Avenue traffic. The light counts down--eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, as cars pause and I scoop. This is when a disguise would come in handy.

There have been stretches of my life when I lived with a bag over my head. Times that I felt depressed, isolated, misplaced, alone. Perhaps on those long days a feathered and sparkling mask would have transported me and created within me a fresh sense of self, a point at which to launch a new, improved, more confident version of who I with streamers, glitter, and just a hint of black lace.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

San Francisco: Voices

Sitting behind two Mandarin-speakers on the bus, I'm transfixed. They are chatting softly, and their language has a sound I don't hear often, a swish-swish sound--as graceful as French. It seems appropriate that Mandarin is the Chinese language of diplomacy--it has a certain dignity and subtlety.

Most of our Chinese neighbors speak Cantonese, the primary language of Hong Kong, the jumping-off place en route to San Francisco. In its native form it's highly tonal, easy to identify and wildly interesting to my Western ear.

Our friend Claudia speaks German-accented English. I can imagine her as a child, conjugating verbs at the knee of her linguist father. Claudia's husband John speaks Russian-accented English, and lapses into Russian when he can't find the right English expression.

Our contractor's booming voice is Irish. "Ay! She's a fine hound," he says to Cleo as he enters the front door. It's the exuberant sound of John Campbell's Pub on St. Pat's Day, rollicking and rough.

John's workmen all speak Spanish. They communicate in smiles and broken English, and I've tried to bridge the gap with what little Spanish I've picked up along the way. They know how to acknowledge my questions and thanks, and I know how to express some approximation of, "please don't hurt yourself doing that."

With everyone speaking his own brand of English, it's a maze of accents. If the conversation stalls, someone in the crowd jumps in to fill in the blanks. Everyone uses certain untranslatable American words. Background noise--a conversation in Cantonese-- suddenly takes shape when the term "traffic school" leaps out of the verbal maze.

Even with its wealth of conversational color, we don't hear much African-American speech in San Francisco, and I miss that. Walking in sunshine on lower Fillmore--the jazz district--I hear the lively, syncopated cadences that were a part of my childhood. These voices wrap around me like a well-worn shawl.
painting: "Voices"
ink and watercolor on silk

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

SF: On Big Cat Feet

I don't have a hundred words for San Francisco fog--but maybe a dozen. There's the Morning Fog--a high tent of gray that can break to blue. We awaken to white on white, but there's a hint of light in the east and a prevailing optimism that the ceiling will lift by noon.

The Fog of Haves and Have-Nots. This fog is thickest near the ocean (49th avenue) and extends over our house at 21st. Look toward downtown, however, and weep. The dome of City Hall is gleaming in reflected sunlight. We can easily see where the fog line ends. Our friends on 12th avenue (The Haves) celebrate sun from morning till night, but the gray stuff hovers over us all day like a migraine headache.

The most dense, most depressing fog arrives in July and August. This is the Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Fog and it can last weeks. The SAD Fog reminds me of November in Kentucky--days and days of relentless gray. In San Francisco it's triggered by the inland heat. As long as it's 100 in Stockton, this coastal fog will have us by the throat.

When the fog moves in to stay I tell myself--stop whining. Be rational. We wanted to live in The Avenues because this neighborhood hugs the park and extends to the glorious ocean. We can walk (a long walk) to the beach on a Saturday morning, run Cleo in the sand, have a cup of chai at Java Beach, and trudge back through the park...all without getting the car out of the garage. Still...the SAD fog can get really old.

Some fogs are wonderful, such as the Daytime Drama Fog. This random and unexpected fog whisks into the neighborhood on really big cat feet, and floats down alleys and around houses like dense cigar smoke. One minute we can see Balboa Avenue and the next minute it's gone, visibility is near zero, car headlights are on, and even houses across the street have vanished under the white snuggy. This fog cranks up the adrenaline and gives me the same feeling I have when a heavy snowfall moves in to Kentucky. It's a wonder to behold.

When we stand at our front door, 33 steps above the street, we can usually see Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands in the distance. But sometimes the bridge and bay alone are buried in fog. Look toward Golden Gate and it's not there--all you see is a wide white brush-stroke along the horizon.

This might called the Bridge-Swallowing Fog. These days are fun, too, because they bring the foghorns out. Their leisurely two-note call (a perfect fifth) provides a haunting and beautiful musical score through the day.

Often the Bridge-Swallowing Fog and accompanying foghorns stretch into the evening and turn into the Lullaby Fog. On these nights--which can occur all year round in San Francisco--just open the windows, cover up, close your eyes and listen. The fog keeps the street noise at bay, and the fog horns sing all thoughts into oblivion.
drawing: "Summer is Foghorn Season"
watercolor and 005 micron pen on paper

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kentucky: Doves

The mourning doves
trail me
from San Francisco
and haunt
with woodwind notes.

I've lived long
been moved, met
known sorrow, lost,
been taught, atoned. So

lose me, find me
follow me across
wide pools
plains and ranges,

calling: loss is gain,
truth fluid
that which sears,
which burns to keen
will lift to float
and cool you at the end.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

SF: L' Opera a la Claudia

Forget the Bolshoi. For us the ultimate Russian experience is opera-– thanks to Claudia.

She’s eighty-ish, the picture of refinement. We met Claudia and her husband John during our first month in San Francisco. Ira was walking on 21st with Cleo and a Russian-accented voice shouted from across the street, “A whippet!"

Within minutes Ira and Cleo had been snagged and pulled up the stairs of the Markevich’s two-story stucco for a discussion of dog breeds, a viewing of John’s wood sculpture, and a taste of Claudia’s torte. So began our friendship and our introduction to L'Opera a la Claudia.

At $80 a ticket, the SF Opera is too pricey for us attend with any regularity. But free performances do come around and we’ve rapidly learned the truth: Claudia must go. In the four years we’ve known them we’ve shuttled her to opera in the park, chauffeured her to Daily City for opera at the cinema, and have spent whole afternoons at John and Claudia’s house with dog, a bottle of white wine, and--opera on the stereo.

The Markevich’s respective pasts could shape a fine libretto. Claudia‘s father was a scholar–-a German linguist--sent to a POW camp in Siberia after World War I. After his release (traveling through China) he met and married Claudia’s mother, a Russian living in China. So Claudia grew up in Asia and as a young adult met John Markevich, another Russian wending his way through China. Their cultural diversity is apparent in any gathering: Claudia understands Chinese, speaks fluent Russian with John, her immediate family and their Russian Orthodox friends, German with her cousins, and English with us. But her favorite language is music.

So today–-free opera in Golden Gate Park–-Claudia is on needles and pins. She has requested we pick her up a full hour before the performance so we can sit with other Russian friends. As she’d predicted, the park is packed. We find the group, claim seats in the white-chair section reserved for senior citizens, and wait for music director Nicola Luisotti to raise his baton. Picnickers crowd around us, and blankets stretch all the way to the hills.

The food is delicious and bountiful, very Russian and very red: cold cuts on crusty rolls, pickled herring with beets, and red potato salad. I contribute stuffed figs and deviled eggs. I miss having green stuff, but they don't.

We eat and share our wine under a white paper sky and silver disk sun. We hum Donizetti's arias, and smile as we recognize O mio bambino caro from Puccini. The notes are like the birds that float and dart overhead, soaring and then vanishing. Claudia is beaming and tapping time. Ira and I turn to each other and just mouthe, “Click” –- or, “wish we could photograph this.”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kentucky: The Oakton Mafia


I keep to myself much of the time while I'm in Clinton, rambling around the Emma House, enjoying an airy space that's not available in San Francisco. But Saturday night's sunset brings me to the window, to the back porch, and out to the car.

A left at Clinton's one stoplight and in a matter of minutes I'm on highway 123, windows down, jetting toward Hailwell Corner. The sun is drifting lower and as it falls the light of the sky becomes even more intense; it separates into layers of silver and gold, crimson, purple and blue. An artist's palette.

Another ten minutes and my car is parked at the edge of our soybean field and I am looking across 140 years of family history--rows that vanish into hills. I want to still the sinking sun but in a matter of seconds the field turns from green to indigo, the puddles of water from Wednesday's rain turn dark, and it is time to move on.

The only wide spot in the road between and Clinton and Hailwell is the community of Oakton. It's emblematic of what has become of the rural South-- the railroad crossing is a rise of asphalt. Goldenrod and Queen Anne's Lace wave lazily along the tracks. The abandoned post office is a one room structure on a foundation of concrete blocks, its cashier's desk and pigeon holes for mail are masked by boarded windows. But there are still a couple of churches in Oakton, plus a cluster of homes with carefully tended yards. On this Saturday night there are lights in windows, and a short line of trucks is parked outside what once was once Oakton's general store.

Against the store is a sign that reads "Oakton Mafia." The nearly-empty building is brightly lit and there's a small congregation outside on benches that have been there longer than my lifetime. I slow down. I see a lifted hand....the all-inclusive country greeting that indicates, "Hello, whoever you are." I'm not ready to go home so I slow to a crawl and think about pulling in.

The first to recognize me is Bobby Kelly. Known as the mayor of Oakton, he's a man about my age with a contagious smile and off-beat sense of humor. He may well be the creative force behind the Oakton Mafia sign. It's beyond twilight now but I edge over.

"Looks like the boy's club to me," I say.
"Come on, get out," he replies, and I comply, swinging my rental car into the gravel.

I get out, hug Bobby and then realize I know everybody. It's Bobby and his brother Ricky, Mary Ann and Lucas Deweese, mother and brother of Caleb, our farm manager, and Tracy Workman, whose parents are family friends.

The Kellys are known for their good humor and nonstop conversation and I'm promptly drawn into the mix. In the thirty minutes that follow, the sun completely vanishes and mosquitoes start making a meal of us, but I don't leave. We're all looking at a book of photographs--old school houses in Hickman County-- as we pass around the Oakton Mafia's one pair of shared reading glasses. We talk about family and farm matters with an irreverence that keeps the laughter flowing.

Ricky Kelly asks me how I like San Francisco and I tell him it's too cold this time of year for me. He asks what I do in California and for a moment I grapple for an answer. I tell him I walk the dog, go to the park, handle Kentucky farm business on my computer. I don't think to tell him that I try to write every day, and that I have a love-hate relationship with my tubes of watercolor. In context of this Saturday night these things don't come to mind.

There's a bit of a pause and I look around at Mary Ann and Lucas, Tracy, and the Kelly brothers, getting a handle on what matters most. "I really get homesick for Kentucky in the summer."

Bobby Kelly offers me a popsicle from the cooler inside, but I say I should get going. By that time swatting bugs has become a full-time job. It's been fun, and we say goodbyes all around.

I pull out into the two-lane road and look into my rear-view mirror. There's only blackness where the sunset has been. The Oakton Mafia sign recedes from view. I slowly drive through Oakton keeping an eye out for the scruffy brown-furred dog that often lopes along the center line. Passing through farmland I scan the shoulder for the flash of deer's eyes.

It's a rarity for me to drive this way in darkness, but I'm no stranger to the route. On the road from Oakton I know where I am, what's in front of me and what's been left behind.
"Sunday in the Shop"
photo by Earl Warren, Jr

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

For Em: Dogdance

Before I met you
(even before I met your dad)
I was a dancer.

I was too cool, leaping from chair to couch,
silhouetted by the basement light, arm handles, leg shapes,
battements and plies.

My room upstairs, a studio, for great percussive leaps
(causing the kitchen light to do its own jette’ )
Mom would inquire and I’d just smile and shrug;
practice, you see, is quite the private thing.

I still dance.  Mostly while housecleaning.  I slipslide and boogie to
Motown, doing a little cha-cha when I footmop the tile.
Cleo and I tango when she’s begging for treats,
And when Daisy comes to visit?  A big and joyous

Monday, July 6, 2009

Crater Lake

The sudden, unprecedented blue can be explained,
the spectrum pared away, leaving only blue
to dance with electrons in the pure depths,
but it cannot be known, the blue richer than Chartres
that draws the binocular gaze, irresistible and disturbing,
the blue that stares back, like the eye of some god,
through the long lens of the pilgrim who climbs
the splintered rim to find, below the pointing pines,
new angles on perfection, while the still blue enters,
searching among places deeper than the lake,
to sear with what lies beyond camera capture.

(Ira's poem)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Night Window, San Francisco

Western light is magical. From the north side of the house I can see Golden Gate at the distant right, the shops and homes of central Richmond in the foreground, and Holy Virgin to the left. It's the church that draws me to the window in the evening and I've tried dozens of times to capture it. This shot comes close.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Kentucky: Local residents launch war on shade

In an move that may spark nationwide interest, residents of this west Kentucky town believe they can-- once and for all --completely rid the town of shade. Beginning in early March, citizens of Clinton, Kentucky launched a grassroots effort to confiscate and systematically destroy all visible tree branches.

J.K. “Rexie” Ross, Clinton cannonizer, is among those voicing support for the effort. “They were everywhere” he said. “You couldn’t see the sky for those things.”

When asked about the origin of the project, most community leaders were stumped.“The idea came from Clinton’s radical core,” one citizen admitted. “But now splinter groups have formed in Fulgham and Water Valley." Oakton has one of the largest limb nullification projects in the area. For weeks at the onset of the project residents worked day and night, abandoning their jobs and rejecting computer and television as “distracting.” Most even resisted cell phone use.

“It’s impossible to log all the hours we’ve given to this effort,” one worker commented. An elderly lady added, "I feel like I've been pulled through a knot hole backwards."

There has been opposition, though largely hollow. One homeowner was seen lumbering aimlessly in his orchard seeking shade. Neighbors believe he has a deeply rooted problem. "He's an indolent sort, certainly not executive timber," one noted.

In this case and others like it, the state department of deforestation takes up the slack, attacking offending limbs with their own bucket trucks and chain saws. The workers are in high spirits. “No hangers in this town,” one barked. “We’ve stripped the place clean.”

With trucks running 24 hours a day much of the tree refuse has been relocated south of town. Once only the size of QE II, the growing wood pile is now roughly the length of Delaware. Ex-zetta Bencini, local journalist, said Clinton residents will bend but never break. “We won’t stop until every branch is gone, ” she said. “This town knows how to stick to it.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Entrances and Exits

In Clinton, we’ve got location, location, location. The Emma House is at the intersection of two main highways, across from the post office. The library is just a long diagonal away so I know who returns their books.

We’re catty-cornered from Margaret’s Salon and the Gazette Office. Gaze through the beveled glass on our front door and you’re dead-on with the vestibule of the First Methodist Church. Awkward on the Sundays you want to sleep in.

The afternoon of my arrival—first of the spring-- it’s like a Feydeau play, with multiple entrances and exits, pratfalls, and stock characters. I’ve been on my phone from Fulgham on, lining up the cast.

Enter John Turner, Clinton Water Company. Front yard.
We say hi, how are you, and he gets right to it. He locates the water main cover, leans into the hole and rakes away dead maple leaves. I walk out toward the street and watch while he pries the lid off the water main cover and wrenches it open.

Exit Liz. I trek to the basement to turn on the house main and within minutes I hear the blessed sound. Seems like everything is under control. Exit John.

I go from spigot to spout throughout the house making sure nothing is leaking. I flip on the circuit breaker and know it's a short wait for hot water time. After traveling from San Francisco, the first hot shower is a primal pleasure. In a few minutes I check the water temperature. It’s still like ice.

Back to the purgatory we call a basement. Bad, Bad, Bad. Water is gushing under the porch instead of into the water heater. I go upstairs and into the yard. It’s already a marsh. I revisit to the basement and turn the water off, on, off, hoping for a cure.

I stand and think about it. This is not a John Turner problem unless I want the water off. Sooo. I call Lloyd Callison, plumber of choice and leave a message that I have a problem and there’s no hot water. I sound desperate because that’s what I am. But it’s a Friday night, almost dark, and I doubt if he’s looking for work. Exit Liz. To the side yard.

Enter Steve Hardy. Next door neighbor. I can barely see him behind a huge wood stack running the length of the yard. He waves, and we meet in the driveway. We discuss the ice storm, source of all the fallen limbs. .

With a wry smile, Steve asks me if I’ve noticed the condition of my front yard. Sure enough, I have noticed that it is once again full of branches, a surprise to me since I recently contracted with his son Daniel to clean debris left from the ice storm. He explains that the highway department just came along a few hours ago and did another cutting. The workmen left huge branches where they fell—all over the front yard. He asks if I need his help with the current crop. I tell him thanks, don’t worry about it. Exit Steve. Exit Liz . To front yard.

Enter Daniel, Amanda, and Elana. Steve's children. They have come to help me anyway. I’m grateful. We start pulling limbs toward the street. Some are huge and can’t be rolled so we inch them end by end toward the sidewalk.

Enter Steve with the chain saw. Now everybody is working away. It looks like we can finish the job before dark.

Enter David Prince. David was in my high school class. He hasn’t changed a bit. David offers to help. We talk for a few minutes about last summer’s class reunion. He offers to help again. We talk some more and exchange email addresses for photographs. The sun is starting to go down. Exit David.

Steve and his chain saw make short work of the limbs. We finish stacking all the debris at the street, hoping the highway department making a pickup. We have no way of knowing if this will happen. The sun is setting. Exit Steve. Exit Amanda, Daniel, and Elana.

It’s fully dark. I’m hungry but that’s the least of my problems. I go inside and start to make plans for getting the shower I really need by now. My options are limited. I can take a cold shower. I can take a cold bath. I can nuke a washcloth in the microwave and take a bird bath. I can go to a friend’s house for a hot shower. The final option is sounding really good.

There’s a knock at the door.

Enter Lloyd Callison. He’s grown a beard since I saw him last and at first I didn’t know him. He explains that he got my call, is going to be working at this regular job at Goodyear all day tomorrow (Saturday) and will take a look at my plumbing problem tonight. I tell him it’s under the house. He says no problem. I look up and say “Praise God.”

Exit Lloyd. Exit Liz. To the crawl space under the back porch. It is pitch dark now. We shimmy under the house with our two flashlights. He goes first.

In a manner of minutes Lloyd identifies a sag in the pvc pipe that leads to the hot water heater, and it’s obvious that a long strip is split from water puddling in the sag. It looks like a good ten feet will have to be replaced. I start to worry about how much this might cost, but he is also saying that this will be an easy fix. “I do need to go to the hardware store for some supplies,” he says. I look at him blankly. The one hardware store in Clinton has been closed since 5 this afternoon. “Isn’t it closed?” I ask lamely. “Not if you have the key,” he says. Exit Lloyd.

The hardware store is not across the street, but it’s only a block away, in the heart of downtown Clinton. About fifteen minutes pass. I close the door to the back porch and stand there. I am too dirty to go into the kitchen.

Enter Lloyd. he returns carrying two lengths of pipe, some cement, and a new fill valve for the toilet, which I also discovered was leaking. We inch back under the house and I have my flashlight again. I try to light the crawl space without shining him in the eyes. He tries to angle the new length of pipe in place. In a matter of minutes, he’s crawling out backwards, so I have to crawl out backwards too. On the way we are gathering up cement cans, extra pipe, and tools. He comes in and I write him a check for what he says I owe him and then some. He tells me to go to the hardware store tomorrow and pay for the materials. And to call him next week if I need anything. I tell him I doubt if it will be that long. Exit Lloyd.

I take off my hiking boots and leave them at the back door. In the kitchen I peel off another couple of layers, thinking that I will have to sweep the floor already from all the under-house dirt I’ve brought in. I go to the living room and look at the black television screen (it’s not hooked up) and eat some cereal and yogurt while I wait for the hot water heater to work its magic. I could read or play Mom’s piano to pass the time but finally I opt to just do nothing. After a while I test the water in the shower. It’s steaming, so hot I can barely stand it. Close curtain.

Monday, March 30, 2009

SF: Move Over, Anita Madden

In the spring it’s great fun to be a San Francisco or anywhere. First there’s March Madness, with Kentucky basketball teams crawling through the brackets. If that’s not enough, just hang around for the first of May, when Kentucky Derby rolls around.

Last year, along with several other transplanted Kentuckians, we gave our first San Francisco Derby Party. It was an amazing success, beginning with 110 % turnout from our guest list (no neighs whatsoever and several crashers) and ending with calls for an encore next year.

Well, next year has arrived, and we’ve learned a few things from our past experience. Now (more than ever) The Derby will be Done Right in San Francisco. Here’s the checklist for a new and improved event.

1) No dress code. “Come Casual” was my first instinct but last year guests jumped ship on that one and came wearing hats and pearls. Sundresses. The women looked great, too. And then there was me, casual, jeans and sneakers. This year, I too will look-- oh so fine.

2) Mint juleps at the front door. This was the plan at Derby One and it can’t be improved upon. Our friend Jane contributed her silver cups and simple syrup. Sims and I had bourbon, sugar, and crushed ice. Every party—all year long—should start with mint juleps at the front door; it’s de rigueur, however you pronounce that word.

3) Got money? Last year we failed here. Time for the draw pot! Bring on the pick pot! Half our guests came with no cash whatsoever so we financed ALL the pots. It was a bailout plan like you’ve never seen….best not to repeat that in this economic climate.

4) Study up. With a guest list that includes non-Kentuckians, as well as Irish, Asian, and Russian friends, even “win, place, and show” came up as questions. Trifecta, Perfecta, Exacta, this was all Greek to some. So this year we’ll be prepared to field questions about geldings and standing at stud. We'll have our flip charts ready.

5) Lift every voice and sing. When the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” resound through Churchill Downs, the group at home must rise and sing at the top of their lungs. No excuses, no Millie Vanillie. Not last year, not this year.

6) Abandon the calorie count. Cheese grits, country ham and beaten biscuits, corn pudding, bourbon pie. Chocolate. Bread pudding. Asparagus and strawberries. Last year we had ample samples of the Basic Southern Food Groups: sugar, lard, salt, and whiskey. This year, more of the same—with red roses on the table and the Bluegrass State’s best, if not healthiest, dishes all around.

So yes, Anita…with a little tweaking we too can do it right.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Over on Fillmore Street preening
behind plate glass, the sepia-toned
photos in designer lofts,
a brides' bouquet.

They take on airs.

Callas are all created equal,
but thrive in stratified society.
Those in the park: slumdogs
bunched in drainage ditches
or sweet as white birds
in hills of tangled eucalyptus.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

No Parking. Anywhere.

Never am I more homesick as when I try to find a parking place in San Francisco. A bad parking day in Clinton is when you can’t park at the door of Greg’s market and have to settle for a space closer to the ice machine. Or when a log truck is making a left at the stop light and the prime spot at the courthouse steps is blocked. There are no parking meters in Clinton, just happy, welcoming parking opportunities.

It’s not quite the same in SF. In the first six months of living in the city, I got four parking tickets. OK, maybe five. The first was for parking on the street in front of our house on a street-cleaning day. Our garage was full of boxes and the logical answer was to slide into the space in front of the house. I forgot to read–-or should we say–-interpret the “when you can park here” sign.
Parking tickets in San Francisco are $50.00 across the board, even if you run toward the Despised Meter Person with a fist full of quarters. So next time I needed to park on the street I remembered vividly: Thursday is street cleaning day on 21st Avenue. I had learned my lesson. It was a Friday, so I confidently pulled into a space across the street from our house.

When I came out, I was greeted by a slender white envelope neatly tucked under the windshield wiper. Street cleaning day on 21st is on Thursday on our side of the street, but Friday is Cleaning Morn on the other side.

We have a new rule of thumb on parking. If there is a space available, it is likely illegal to park there. A quarter buys you 12 minutes of parking time most places. If the parking meter is yellow, it’s a loading zone, not for you. If the meter is green, there is a 30 minute limit on parking. This means that no matter how many times you feed the meter, if your car stays parked in that space more than 30 minutes, you will probably be ticketed. The Meter Readers have their ways of knowing.

Our neighborhood is crawling with these little gendarmes. They drive golf-cart sized Meter Mobiles, and peer from their open windows in all directions, hoping to catch someone double parked in front of Viet Nam Cleaner, or with an empty meter at Royal Coffee Ground.

While taking Cleo on a dog-therapy visit to the VA Hospital on Clement I found a space walking distance from the hospital entrance. Magically there were no meters in sight. Returning from my stay, I was all aglow from Dog Based Ministry. This time I had parked in a permit-only space. There were no signs informing me of this, only a “white” mark on the curb. This stripe hadn’t been repainted in my lifetime, and furthermore it was obscured by moss and trash.

Our garage is at sidewalk level so there’s no parking in our own driveway unless you leave adequate space for a walker to pass between garage door and car. Everybody in our hood is aware of this San Francisco quirk, and we leave space accordingly. One morning each resident on our street who parked this way got a wake-up call in the form of a ticket. While we were sleeping the city changed the parking at all in driveways.

After so many tickets I confided to my husband that I was afraid, as a repeat offender, I might be arrested and hauled into traffic court. I might have to wear an orange suit, not my best color. Have no fear, he said. Bad parking means good things for QuakeVille. I was helping keep Fog City in the black. If that’s the case, then I am San Francisco's new best friend.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

SF: American Spoken Here

It's like shopping in an elevator. The Richmond Market is so tight, so crowded, there's no option but to squeeze through single file. Yellow and red peppers are heaped in crates on the sidewalk. Edge inside the garage-like door for apples and oranges, mangoes and grapes. You’ll be swept with the tide past pita bread and couscous. Make a u-turn at the back of the store to reach for sweet onions, potatoes, and broccoli. Once on your way, there's no turning back.

This is our neighborhood shopping hub. Walking distance from home and cheaper than the chain stores, the Richmond Market on Geary offers fresh but second-class vegetables: deformed bell peppers; apples that have a scuff or two. It's a happy market, full of B-Team produce and no marketing gimmicks whatsoever. Need a Japanese eggplant? Over there.

Shoppers reflect the diversity of our neighborhood. The swish-swish sound of Mandarin is muted by the more tonal Cantonese. A crying Chinese toddler may be comforted by a stranger who is speaking a Hindi dialect. The stock boys are all Hispanic and not available for any questions. Yet they are unflappable, going on with their squash arranging while being jostled by basket-carrying shoppers.

Russian is the language of choice at the check-out counter. As shoppers place turnips on the scale, the checkers chat with each other in the language of their childhood, same as in every store in America. Sometimes terms don't translate well, such as "traffic school" and this interjection gives the non-Russian shopper a window into just what was so interesting.

Most everybody speaks a second language, enthusiastically and badly, and understanding your own language spoken with a heavy accent is an art form all its own. I’ve had some rewarding “A-ha!” moments along the line, like when I heard a woman saying she was making sense of something by putting together the “poozle-pisses.” That one took me a minute.

I am learning to make my Southern-accented English intelligible, although it must be humorous to hear me speak even more slowly and (perhaps with more twang) than usual. I like it—the multilingual banana banter and cilantro chatter of the Richmond Market. American is spoken here.

Friday, February 27, 2009

SF: Fashionistas

In Paris, women are hard-wired with fashion sense. Check out a girl on the street (of any age–it doesn’t matter in France) and you’ll see chic. Not the put-together look that was originated in an online catalogue, but a sexy, distinctive appearance that may be a careful mix of vintage and vogue. San Francisco is cosmopolitan too, but in this one arena, Fog City has let me down.

You’ll see exceptions in the financial district, but most San Francisco women dress as if their closets yield only one or two options. Uniform one is the yoga-pants ensemble, and it comes in only one color: black. Pair the black yoga pants with a short jacket, ill-fitting and possibly purchased at La Goodweel, and lace up a pair of sensible black shoes. The shades of black absolutely should not match, the yoga pants being slightly over-washed and faded against the more pristine jacket. On top of it all, notice a looping neck scarf...layered in a third shade of nothing.

Uniform two is the jeans uniform. Worn long and slightly battered (as if retrieved from the closet floor), the jeans uniform gives relief from the tedium of the yoga-pants ensemble and is positively showboat in comparison. Top with the same jacket (to give continuity throughout seasonal changes) and, yes, finish the look with the neutral-hued scarf, avoiding any references to the color wheel. In deep summer (that's 60 in San Francisco) polish off the outfit with flip-flops and a pair of sunglasses. Makeup is taboo. The San-Fran-Face is straight out of Ward B.

It’s easy to spot a tourist in San Francisco. She will be shivering from lack of layers. New white running shoes are a dead giveaway. An expensive tangerine-colored jacket paired with sharply pressed slacks from Brooks Brothers screams East of the Mississippi. Add an expensive, hand-crafted necklace (so large as to put one’s face in the shadows) and you be looking at wealthy , of-a-certain-age, and South of the Mason-Dixon line.

I’ve yielded to the uniform–but only so far. I’ve shocked San Franciscans by wearing my capri pants and huaraches in July. It’s a pairing that wears well under multi layered scarves and jackets. I have in fact shown up in church wearing colors, and occasionally jewelry. I know, I’m always one to push the rules.

I did leave my makeup trowel in Kentucky, but–even in San Francisco–I’ll never answer the phone without my mascara.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

San Francisco: Not Quite

Soaked by February rain

laundry sings

from a balcony on Cabrillo.

Dog whines on leash

and steps tap

syncopated rhythm

Look up

walk smart

leap sidewalk Mary

It's wet season in the Richmond

and we are

not. quite. gentrified.