Sunday Streets and my sore feets

(Yes, I know that is not grammatically correct, I was well taught but a rebel at heart.)

Join me on a stroll through San Francisco’s SOMA district, and more.

This past weekend, San Francisco’s “Sunday Streets” program focused on Folsom street in the South of Market neighborhood.  Sunday Streets is held occasionally throughout the year (after a COVID pause like most of life everywhere) which shuts down traffic and opens up the asphalt for exploration by foot and other wheeled vehicles like bikes, skateboards and baby strollers.  Local merchants, arts groups, civic clubs and just about anything you might think of (and more) can be found, with unique flavors from the heritage and history of the various neighborhoods.  San Francisco has many layers – some not always visible, some forgotten and some we would like to erase; this is a unique way to take to the time to meander through blocks you might otherwise never notice driving by, meet old friends and make new ones, and see a little bit of other niches of life that might otherwise escape your notice.  

Folsom street was shut down from Main (near the bay) to 9th street – but it extends much farther than this 1.5 mile segment which was car free for about 5 hours.  It parallels Market Street – which runs from the Ferry building all the way out to the Castro neighborhood, but unlike Market there are no cable car rails or street car cables.  Folsom itself was named for Joseph Libbey Folsom (1817-1855), of New Hampshire, who served in the Army and came to Yerba Buena, as the area was then known, in March 1847.   Like so many then and now, he started to invest in real estate, became a millionaire, and eventually bought acreage near Sacramento which in time was also named for him.  He died at age 38 – it’s interesting to wonder how he would view the city 175 years after his arrival, and the street bearing his name. 

I didn’t know that about the street when I set out from my gym Sunday morning, taking another parallel street,  Brannan, and walking from 9th all the way to the Embarcadero, so I had already strolled 1.5 miles by the time I reached the bay.  Why not look up the source of that name? Well, it was Samuel Brannan, (1819-1889),  Mormon settler and founder of the first newspaper in SF, the “California Star”.  Might he have known Folsom? Could they have imagined one day thousands of cars would run on asphalt streets bearing their names? 

What would the citizens of San Francisco 1922 have thought could they see their future city?

Along the way, I passed shiny new condo buildings, and older industrial buildings; a few tents on the sidewalk, but not nearly as many as in some parts of the city.  Here, at the pace of my feet instead of traffic, at eye level and not behind a windshield, one can view that which somehow is invisible on any other day;  colorful murals like the red, white and blue quotes from the Statue of Liberty, otherwise blocked by a chain link fence;  the menu from a steakhouse featuring dishes I would never order at prices I will never, ever pay;  the nearby tents along the way where what public officials refer to as our “unhoused” find temporary shelter.  Few pass me along the way; I decide to say hello to some, and good morning – it’s a habit I think I will try to continue, but it seems a little anachronistic these days, sadly.  I realize it is a way of acknowledging their worth, their personhood – and mine – and it only takes a little courage. 

It’s amazing how the view changes when you can get past a chain link fence.

Reaching the Embarcadero – from the Spanish, “to embark”, a place of departure, usually from a waterfront – I see the bay ahead.  It is a sunny morning, much different from the foggy gloom of our home just a handful of miles away.  Here, on the corner, I see a restaurant I have heard of but never visited, another blur from the car as we pass – Delancey Street.  Operated by a foundation that gives substance abusers, ex-convicts, and others who find help there for over 4 decades now, it is part of our city’s legacy of seeking ways to provide opportunity and hope;  some work, some do not – but dreamers keep coming, and I would see more of them today. 

The charming Delancey Street restaurant – an organization that gives people second chances.

Yet just footsteps away as I continue along the way back to Folsom, I see a tall fence, with zero visibility, and what I grew up calling “quonset huts” but probably have a lot more creative name now – it looks kind of like a prison, and not until I see a very plain sign reading “Navigation Center” do I realize this is one of those creative efforts.  One of some notoriety these days, where addicts are invited to safely get access to services relating to homelessness, drug addiction, and more – like many, my life has been spared these challenges for the most part.  Perhaps like you, I am sorry to admit I could be more compassionate; whatever goes on behind those high fences, and blocked walls, I would like to believe some lives find new hope when they come out on the street, but I cannot say.  These are not just problems here, or now. 

What little the public can see of a “Navigation Center”

I spot something across the main boulevard that I have heard about – “Red’s Java House” – and decide this is the perfect time to explore this tiny piece of mid 20th century SF.  Entering the small building filled with SF Giants memorabilia – the stadium is not far away, and fans have been coming here for some time – your eyes are drawn to the hundreds of black and white photos covering the walls and the simple diner furniture.  I decide to order a “double dog” – which is basically two sausages on sourdough with some condiments and cheese, and sets me back $12 before tip – but satisfies my hunger completely.  The back patio overlooks  the bay, with a small bar; this is not a game day, it is not busy, but considering this small haven has been serving up tasty comfort food and beer for almost 70 years, it was the perfect refresher. 

I continue on and stop to admire the view of the bay, the SF Fire department station with their seaworthy equipment, the Bay bridge passing overhead towards Treasure Island, and the giant bow and arrow seemingly shot from the sky above into the earth below, just where Folsom street is about to begin.  This is “Cupid’s Span”, a sculpture from 2002 that relates to a legend with which I am completely unfamiliar, of Eros shooting his arrow into the earth to make it fertile.   

A view of the bay bridge and the Embacadero

I continue on and stop to admire the view of the bay, the SF Fire department station with their seaworthy equipment, the Bay bridge passing overhead towards Treasure Island, and the giant bow and arrow seemingly shot from the sky above into the earth below, just where Folsom street is about to begin.  When I return home, I find this is “Cupid’s Span”, a sculpture from 2002 that relates to a legend with which I am completely unfamiliar, of Eros shooting his arrow into the earth to make it fertile.   

If you ever have a trivia question about where a dinosaur skull is in SF … now you know.

Nearby, a marker explains that where we stand now there used to be creatures who no longer walk this earth – with a replica of a dinosaur head gazing out towards the bay.  Two moments, one of history, one of myth – the base elements of much of what makes up this kaleidoscopic city with all its chaos and joys and desires.  I nod towards the nearby Ferry Building from 1898 – I feel a kind of kinship with it, knowing our home was built that same year, and like many structures that no longer stand, are witnesses to time in a way I can never be. 

Finally, I am at Folsom and Main, and barriers announcing the beginning of the next 1.5 miles of my journey – the “Sunday Streets” event.  A Jazz combo with an awning next to a trailer welcomes locals to have a seat and groove – how many are locals, and how many tourists?  I have no way to tell.  As I stroll block after block, the music shifts – there are rock groups and vocalists, someone with an accordion.  There are skateboard “slalom” courses, and “rock climbing” towers;  indoor gold stations and other businesses I never would have guessed lined these streets.   Nearby, the museum of modern art and other institutions mingle among the shiny new condo towers and the nearly deserted churches whose stained glass windows are covered with protective grating – but from the inside, the light still finds a way through.  The stacks of buildings from different eras seem to push in on one another like children in a lunch line, scrambling for space – there was a time when few suites were empty, but that time is gone.  I admire one of the older “residents” – the E.M. O’Donnell copper works building, just over 100 years old;  it recently sold for $9M to a residential architecture firm.  It is dwarfed by the Sales Force Tower looming over everything in its purvue.  Even in this period of uncertainty, some of our heritage remains, preserved, witnesses. 

SOMA is home to many cultural institutions and communities; there are many stories here.  The SOMA Pilipinas Filipino heritage district shared a model of the current vision for a “gateway” to their history here; everything in this city passes through generations of cultures, each leaving an imprint, but not always remembered or celebrated by all.  Emigrants from the Philippines have been woven into the fabric of our city for over 120 years; like those from China, Italy, and around the world, they have made San Francisco something unique, vibrant, bringing new energy and hope.

The planned span “Gateway” to the Pilipinas Heritage District – inspiring and sacred.

And of course there are politicians – and causes – represented by booths and speakers.  I got a smile from the “Climate Anxiety” booth who asked if they could help me, and explained that their “Lucy” had fallen ill that day;  too bad, as it was one of the first truly beautiful summer days so far in what many here call “Fogust”.   I also stopped to chat with a representative of the LGBT hotline, whose rainbow phone caught my eye;  they have been a resource for people seeking support and community across our country since they started in a broom closet of a gay bathhouse in NYC in the 70’s.  Out of the closet, indeed.   Nearing the end of the route, this is the area included in the Leather/LGBTQ cultural district – a haven for decades of shops, artists, bars, and refuge for another “tribe” of our city, one where many voices and many hearts seek new homes. 

I’ve walked over 3 miles now, and nearly 4 hours, and through 150 years of time; I have seen many faces and heard different voices, but all smiling, all happy to be able to walk in the sun.  Perhaps not all see what I see, or hear what I hear – but the city speaks to me, soft voices, even silent ones.  Here, and in your city, there are places we see but we do not see – and faces, too.  We drive through them – they are not our home, not our block, not our people.  Or are they?  I cannot say this stroll has changed me … nor have I changed much here, either.   But as I make it back to my car with feet aching to be freed from their shoes at home, I realize I want to see what I have not, at ground level, without glass in between, free of the reminders of appointments – to discover, to unearth, to be awed and reminded that beauty remains, waiting to shine, if we only look.  If we only listen.  

“Cupid’s Span”, from 2002; in the distance, the 1898 Ferry Building Clock tower; and, some guy.

Next time I explore our city by foot, I will have to remind myself, again, to say “good morning” to strangers, if that is the world I want to be a part of, again.   Perhaps our paths will cross – do say hello. And join me in walking your own streets, you will find treasures there as well. Until next time …..

Old toys and older boys

Once upon a time, not so long ago, hearing a train whistle was not an uncommon event for those in big cities, or small towns scattered in remote areas.  To some, trains are like noisy, dirty animals … great hulking monsters spewing smoke, crushing what lies before them; but they are also friends, like Thomas, that little boys play with, dreaming of being big boys.  I had those dreams once … and I had a train, too.  Of course, I thought of it as a magical train – the first memories of it are gone, it is more like echoes of my childhood thinking of putting the metal track pieces together in living room on special occasions.   Those echoes are like the steam whistle, and the memories of Judy Garland singing “On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe” while the engine roared into town bringing the Harvey Girls to tame the wild west – all wispy fantasies that fade like the smoke into the sky, but the echoes reside in my soul, with others. 

Judy Garland leading “On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe” in “The Harvey Girls – 1946 – All Aboard!!!

I have written before about my Mom’s tendency to, well, hoard.  She kept things that had value – and things that had no meaning at all.  It took me years after returning to my childhood home to sift through it all – there were treasures to be found among the trinkets.   I had never forgotten the train set – it was a happy memory, like playing children’s records and lying in the bedroom on a quiet afternoon reading.  When I found the box, at first I didn’t realize what it contained, because she had literally kept the shipping box itself, a plain cardboard box which I opened to find another “sleeve”, and under that, the carefully preserved decades old Lionel engine, and accessories – dusty, unused, kept in darkness … it had been years since it ran around the small oval, years since the farm animals had been let out of the barn.  Years in which a large part of my own life too had been put away, kept in darkness, waiting. 

The dusty box with childhood treasures, buried but not forgotten

Memory is an odd creature, too – it moves in ways unpredictable, little eruptions now and then emerging, and the emotions tied to them still.  My mother had always said that I had won the train set from the toy store in Vacaville, California, where a drawing had been held; I would have been 2, so I remember nothing but my brother, 30 months older, retained the memories more.  We would play with it together, and alone; we had those moments of shared joy as children, but they were fewer to be found as the years grew, and we grew apart.  Our home was not the one shown on TV – not the one shared apparently by our classmates in the small town where we moved when I was 5; it was in that house I learned to be alone, to hide my feelings, to put them in a box like the train and put them away.  

Like many brothers, we are very different, and it has not been easy or really entirely successful to bridge the differences between us – a distance greater than a train, toy or otherwise, could shorten.  We shared our younger years but had very different hearts – and diverging paths ahead. He went to live with our father, and was less present in my life, ultimately marrying and having children out of state, with occasional return visits.  In my mother’s final years, spent in a care facility near our childhood home, I returned to that house to deal with those challenges – a single man, in what was probably the loneliest time of my life, not yet having the footing to stand and say who I was, what I felt, who I wanted to be and to love.  I returned to a home without friends, finding pieces of my family, and in a way finding pieces of myself as I tried to bring what had been forgotten into the light – to renew the small tract home my parents bought for our future, before the family picture shattered and the curtains closed.   It was in some ways a chapter of renewal for us both.

Some of the other artifacts that were buried in boxes, and in books, revealed that trains were more a part of my past than I could have imagined.  I remembered the whistle in the night going through the Corona orange groves – the smell of the smudge pots on winter nights to preserve the fruit – that heritage has been replaced now with distribution centers and tracts, and the citrus packing houses remembered by fewer as the years move on.   I discovered my great grandmothers handwritten journal describing her son’s birth in the Corvallis, Oregon train station where his father was the station master; I found photos of my father’s grandfather standing by a steam locomotive somewhere in the desert of Arizona, or Mexico, with antlers on the front as he worked with Santa Fe to build a rail line to the coast near Guaymas, where he found his bride.  I learned of my other family lines who came west by wagon train, seeking gold, seeking new homes – seeking opportunity away from the farms and everything and everyone they knew for the chance for a better life; some were lost along the way.  These were the seeds of my interest in family history – me, a lonely boy, a “gifted” boy but an invisible child, realizing that others before him had faced challenges, failures, obstacles but continued to dare to hope, to dream.  Somehow, their spirits out there, somewhere, were still connected to me – outside of time, speaking to me in words and old greeting cards and photos with scribbled names, some still mysteries even now.  Their secrets, their dreams, their passions were waiting to be unearthed, revealed – like the train. 

My great Grandfather in the Sonora Desert in the late 1800’s – the wild West.

I decided it would be worth the effort to see if the train had any value – after all, it had to be unusual to find an intact set, in the box, with all the accessories and the vintage catalog and more!  20 years ago, I found an Ebay listing that seemed to be the identical set – which had sold for over $1700! It was known as the “Halloween set” with the “General” engine – due to the orange and black colors, I am guessing.  And mine was in better shape!  It was not until after my Mom’s passing in 2006 that I finally sold the home and turned over the keys and closed the door for the last time, leaving what had been the core of my upbringing forever.   In the months before and after her passing, time also took from me my father, his wife who had become a part of my life decades before, and his cousin Bill who I cared for in his final years.  My own heart was still in a box of its own – I was still shut away, like the train, like the boxes of memories and old toys and photos that I put first into storage, and then into my new, “dream” home, closer to work, big and spacious and sunny.   A new chapter was being written, and the light began to break through my own closed doors,  and I pulled out the train as I prepared for a Christmas where I could welcome friends … setting up the track again, connecting the frayed wiring and … finding the train would not move.  It needed repair.  It needed help to function; help from someone who knew how something old and broken could be brought to life again.  I didn’t know it at the time, but so did I.  And I found it – for both of us, eventually. 

Instructions, and even “billboards” (although from a VERY different era!)

I reached out for help – I found someone out of state, online, and shipped them the engine and the electrical parts.  There were not many resources to be found with that knowledge; it was not easy. Some online sources indicate the set was only made in 1960 for distribution at independent retailers, with 7300 produced; for some, it is “legendary”. Bringing something back to life that is neglected takes special care.  It did not run that Christmas, of course – but it did come back in time, if not “restored” – at least, able to run.  I found others to help me learn to run, too – finally, in my fifties, finding the strength and support to not hide in the closet of secrecy and shame.   It’s been a little over 10 years now since I started to tell others that the Norman they knew had never been able to fully share his heart with them, or anyone; looking back, I can see it has been a long and hard journey which still stretches ahead, unlike the metal track sections that form a loop to nowhere – my track is being laid in new directions.  You have to travel down roads you don’t know to get to a new destination, of course – and my wanderings brought me here to SF and to my husband, and the train came along, buried in the basement – something of value, to be treasured, along with so many little pieces of my past, and my family.  

Yes, the farm was included – along with a little “station” and more.

More than a half century has passed since I won that drawing; my brother’s children are grown; he is divorced, and recently retired, about to turn 68.  He has mentioned the train set over the years; first when his children were young, but they lived on the other end of the country, and we did not see them often.  Now, they are grown – and although I reach out occasionally, they have lives of their own, and we really are not close to one another.  Still – I feel a responsibility to preserve the lessons, the heritage that I found in my Mother’s closets – and now that my brother is in a new chapter of his own life, in my heart I sense that it is time to let the train travel east to his home.   It won’t be cheap – it is large. I bought a large box and will pack it carefully; it will reach him there before his birthday.  He was willing to wait, but I have a sense that the time is right now; time to let go, in more ways than one, and with more than just a vintage train set. 

The thrilling accessory catalog – and invitation to become an honorary stockholder – must be under 16! You’ve made an investment in happiness!!

And yet – letting go is freeing, too.  I want to believe, to hope at least, that his children’s children will play with the train, and keep it; and perhaps some will retain the knowledge of how trains changed their family’s lives, and futures.  I accept that, like most old relatives in photos, particularly those who never had children, my name will be mostly forgotten, my face a new mystery.  But in a way, that little train carries generations of love, and history – not just my memories, or my brothers, but those of our parents whose not fully successful dreams of a happy family gave us life; their parents whose work and sacrifices gave us opportunities many in our world would never know.  The little train will go around it’s track, and as I say farewell, I look ahead toward the future which still holds promise, and discoveries to be shared, free of the restraint of tracks, awaiting my steps on a road that daily winds ahead. 

See the old smoke risin’ ’round the bend
I reckon that she knows she’s gonna meet a friend

Time to disembark, folks – hope you enjoyed the trip – watch that last step! Thanks for visiting – always appreciate chatting with friends and strangers! Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe – it’s complimentary with your paid first class ticket today!