March 26, 2008

Finding Mason Street

I followed the crowds flowing beneath exit signs, only momentarily fluxomed by the turnstile. Up one stair, then another, then I was on the surface. A bold green building caught my eye. It is as though for the last months I had eaten nothing but potatoes and here was chocolate cake standing bold and beautiful before me. I tried not to rubberneck like a yokel. I didn’t want the people bustling about all around me to realize I was a tourist, though I don’t think it should matter so much. Somehow it did, so I took only a moment to peer at the tiny map in my guidebook and then set off, before I really got my bearings.

As a result, I wandered a circuitous route through the maze of buildings, searching for Union Square and furtively glancing at my guidebook while dodging crowds and snapping photos. How anyone could not have labeled me a tourist, I’ll never know, but it was still very much on my mind not to give myself away. Eventually I found what I thought was Union Square, an open plaza with palm trees and a café surrounded by fancy retail shops, but I was still unable to locate Mason Street. I knew it was one block off the square, but which way? Not all the streets in my guidebook were named. Maybe I should ask someone?

“Want to save the forests?”

I turned. A young man with a clip board was working the corner I had just crossed to. Here was the helpful soul I had been looking for.

“Want to help the Greenpeace campaign to get Kleenex to stop clear-cutting old growth forests?” he asked.

“Yeah, I do, but can you also tell me where Mason Street is?”

“Sure. I’ll take you there.”

So we meandered together across Union Square, beneath the tall pillar and statue of Commodore Dewey and the waiving palms and the open sky, across the grey flagstone, past people lounging on the spare patches of grass, stone steps, and little café chairs, to the opposite corner of the square. The tails of my long suede coat caught the breeze, but my hair was tucked up snuggly in my hat. Mike told me about the fortune five-hundred companies and major universities who were already on board the Kleenex boycott and offered a Greenpeace membership for a low monthly fee. When we came to the corner, he took my poor student regrets with genial good grace and gladly accepted my email for their mailing address before pointing me down Geary Street. I waved goodbye and sure enough, one block later, I found Mason.

The hostel had a bright entry with big storefront windows, brightly colored couches, a giant bean bag chair, and rotating photo projection on the wall. They were busy, with three young people working the desk, at least as many waiting patiently for their turn, and an older couple sitting on the couch. I checked in and paid for my room, accepted my key and my sheets, folded neatly into the pillowcase.

The elevator was an ancient machine which would only accept one floor direction at a time and burbled and wobbled as it slowly made its way to the fifth floor. My room was simple and spare, with four white metal bunk beds labeled A through D, two windows looking onto two alleys, and one wall containing the door, closet, door to the bath, and sink all in a row. The only outlet was also the light switch by the sink. The bathroom was a tub/shower and single toilet, with a connecting door to the room beyond and a sign warning users to knock. It was old, with cracked tiles and dingy paint, but otherwise clean. The tiny closet contained four simple lockers, one of which I promptly secured with my shiny new padlock, just purchased at the front desk for four dollars.

The necessary accomplished, I wove my way back downstairs, following the staircase which wrapped the ancient elevator and discovering on my way the kitchen, lounge, and other communal spaces. I passed young men and women, middle aged folks, and a couple of middle-school aged kids, then I was out again into the fresh air and the shadowed canyons. People moved briskly and cars rushed by, casually ignoring the painted lane marks. Signs and awnings and fire escapes cluttered the streetscape, and pigeons darted from ledge to ledge. Already I had seen at least a half a dozen homeless people and half as many cops in deep blue uniforms and hundreds of St. Patrick’s Day revelers already on the move. I set off in search of coffee and cake.

I was on my own in San Francisco.

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