Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Doug Tour

Safely out of tomato-throwing range, let me confess—I have worked four days a week my whole working life. At school, that is. I’m often teaching weekend workshops, planning classes or writing or practicing piano 24/7— so keep the tomatoes on the window-sill and stay with me here. For some 36 years, Monday has been my personal Sabbath and in my early days, I mostly spent it doing nothing. That is, wandering around San Francisco from neighborhood to neighborhood, park to park, bus to bus, no schedule, no agenda. Just opening myself to wonder as I wander and see what serendipity might bring my way. Sometimes I’d stick a book of poetry in my pocket, tuck a piece of paper in to write a letter to a friend (remember those? paper letters?) while leaning against a tree. Sometimes I’d bring a rubber ball to bounce against stoops or sides of buildings or on sidewalks, risking a missed bounce that might take a wrong turn down the hill and careen all the way from the top of Fillmore to the Bay. (If it ever caused an accident, I never knew—and so a generic apology to all!) Often I would bring my journal to help me pay attention to all the things that escape my notice when I’m busy trying to accomplish something. The dog chasing squirrels up the tree, the toddler picking dandelions, the crash of waves mingled with distant foghorns and barking seals.

In this way, I came to know something of the distinct characters of each neighborhood and would sometimes stumble into a particularly delightful spot that was worth a return trip. I started making mental note of these little treasures and when friends came from out of town, took great pleasure in giving them “the Doug Tour.” Some of my early “discoveries” were Seward slide (now commonplace, but then a novelty), Fleischacker Pool—yes, it was long empty and closed as a working pool, but just to stand there and imagine what it must have been like to swim in a pool so enormous was worth the trip. Plus, a short jump over a chain-link fence got you into the Zoo for free. The Mechanical Museum at Cliff House offered riches of old-time childhood delights for a quarter a pop— player pianos, circuses made from toothpicks come alive, games of mini-baseball/basketball/ dog racing, and of course, the bizarre and frightening Laughing Sal salvaged from Playland at the Beach. (One of my great regrets is that I arrived in San Francisco exactly one year after Playland was demolished. How I would have loved that!)

Today my nephew from Wisconsin came to visit and after a week of work that demanded the kind of focus that kills wonder and serendipity, I was thrilled to have an excuse to leave yet more e-mails unanswered, meet him at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market (a new addition to the tour!) and walk up the Filbert Steps to Coit Tower. I know what you’re thinking—that’s really not so special, Doug. Though you’d be surprised how many tourists don’t know about the pleasure of walking up wooden steps to an ever-expanding view, poking down the alley where Buddha sits tranquilly in a garden and you can peek at the Bay Bridge through house and fantasize about living there, wondering how you would ever get the piano into the house. They might not know about the Art Deco house and the poster of Humphrey Bogart in the window nor ever counted the 289 steps (I think—today I forgot to count and in spite of my Toronto license plate feat, this number sits unreliably in my brain). Arriving at Coit Tower, the typical tourist might not know that you can jump into the bushes lining the edge with a canopy so thick you just lie on top instead of falling through. These are the little perks of the Doug Tour.

But we’re just warming up. In the old days, we went straight from Coit Tower (after the story of Lillian Coit and her r-rated infatuation with firemen and their hoses) down to Grant Street to the Postcard Store. An entire store with nothing but postcards from all times and places, mostly from 25 to 50 cents. There was a favorite of someone named Larry playing the organ which I used to buy and hide on scavenger huts, but also all sorts of cutesy, kitschy, images. My kind of place. But alas! it is but a distant memory, along with other icons of the Doug Tour, shamelessly redeveloped or closed to make way for the Dot-com boom (and then crash) or just dead from old age. More on this in a bit.

Then down Grant St. with a stop at the Café Trieste, a peek into Biordi’s on Colombus, a wistful look at the Hungry I which once housed Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and (earlier) the Kingston Trio and now simply joined the post-Carol Doda strip joints, over to City Lights bookstore and down Kerouac Alley into the heart of Chinatown. As culture became more and more screen dominated and Mom and Pop were squeezed out by gentrification and everything began to look and feel more and more like everywhere and everything else. Chinatown was always a breath of fresh air—ducks hanging in windows, birds in cages (food, not decoration), stores filled with unrecognizable herbs and roots, a hustle and bustle punctuated by street Er-hu players and occasionally, the booming drums and clanging cymbals signaling a Lion Dance nearby. I would take my tour into Clarion Music Center to try out a didgeridoo or host of other “exotic” instruments, pause to look at the tea leaves drying on the chain link fence outside the Dim Sum restaurant, stop in for a red-bean cake somewhere.

And then up the hill to one of my favorite stops on the tour—the Fairmount Hotel. Through the sumptuous lobby, down the hall past the old photos of the ’06 earthquake, the Golden Gate Bridge being built and then up the outdoor elevator, where the northeast corner of the city spread out before you one floor at a time and you could peek in people’s windows on the way up and imagine their lives. Out into the big buffet served daily and walk around the 360O view. Occasionally, we’d actually sit a table and treat the kids in the group to a Shirley Temple drink.

From the Fairmount to Grace Cathedral, the secular stained glass, the commemoration of the United Nations, the Keith Haring piece and AIDS quilt in the interdenominational chapel and most delightful in the more recent years, both the indoor and the outdoor labyrinth which the tour guests are required to do going in, but can cheat going out. Before the cable car so shamelessly became pure tourist trap instead of real life transportation, we would end with a ride back down to Market St.

So that was one tour. Then there was the Golden Gate Park one with the uphill stream that empties into Portals of the Past lake, the weirdness of bison, the short-lived, but powerfully fascinating Shiva lingam stone near Stowe Lake (shamefully removed because of religious association while the Mt. Davidson cross was exempt), the primeval pond across the street from the tennis court and on and on. It’s a small city with a big character and I’m just getting warmed up here. Polly Ann’s ice cream, the plum trees on Edgewood, the golden fire hydrant, dim sum on Geary, the community garden near Fort Mason, the pet cemetery in the Presidio, the Jefferson Airplane house and Laura Ingalls Wilder house and Robert Louis Stevenson house and Mrs. Doubtfire house, the stairway walks, the Christmas house on 21st St.— no end to the strange, useless, whimsical, out-of-the-way, surprising twists and turns of the character and characters in this marvelous city.

And always a work in progress. I dearly miss Fleischacker Pool, paved over for a sewage project and stare wistfully at the Fairmount, whose outdoor elevator has long been shut and the top floor reserved now only for private parties. Sometimes I still take my visitors up there pretending I want to rent it for an event, just so they can see the one-of-a-king view that still tops the Mark Hopkins and Bank of America. But just when one thing shuts down, something else turns up. Like the park on Cayuga Street with it’s remarkable wood carvings lining the paths, the Frisbee golf course tucked away behind Marx Meadow in Golden Gate Park, the hidden Jack Early Park at the end of Grant St. with its great view and diminutive square footage. 

My Mondays off lately have been filled with too much catching up on busy work, the enormous amount of energy it takes just to keep the life I’ve built rolling along. But occasionally I’ll grab my rubber ball, stick a book in my pocket and head out into the streets hoping to add yet one more stop on the Doug Tour. Anyone care to join me?

PS Suggestions for your favorite hidden treasures are welcomed!

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