March 31, 2008

Friends in Unlikely Places

A dozen years ago there was a movie called Stargate. It starred Kurt Russell as the man of action who finds his heart and James Spader as the geek who finds his courage. James Spader’s character explains, in a slightly bumbling manner, to a room full of generals that is order to chart a course to any point in a three dimensional space one must have seven symbols, representing six coordinates for a destination and a point of origin.

I had one symbol, the Hostelling International logo, my point of origin, but I was setting out on a course with far more confidence than Spader’s hesitant archeologist. Of course, I was just travelling through the streets of a modern American city, not mysterious portals to distant planets. In any unfamiliar territory, the point of origin is always most critical. I had found my hostel for that evening and from there I was quite confident I could head off in any direction without getting lost.

I chose to walk up Geary Street, away from Union Square, into unfamiliar territory. I was mildly hungry and somewhat tired, but still excited. San Francisco is very different from the Midwest. The building are tall, but not skyscrapers, and old, but alive. Historic preservation hasn’t run amok, freezing buildings in time and sucking out the life and vibrancy that comes with decay, patchwork, additions, renovation, repurposing, reuse, a dozen coats of differing paint, gaudy signs, and now rundown renovations. Each tall old building had a magnificent metal fire escape on the front, clearly late additions to otherwise carefully composed facades. Ladders hung just out of reach above the sidewalks. Potted plants, blooming flowers, patio chairs, and laundry decorated otherwise utilitarian steelwork.

“How much does it take for a girl to find a coffee shop?” I thought to myself. Expecting one on every street corner, but instead finding old fashioned diners and burger joints, sea food shops, little clothing boutiques, sports bars, Korean and Chinese Restaurants, and Laundromats. One sign advertised “Joey’s Ice Cream Espresso Sausage Wash & Dry”. Finally, several blocks from Mason Street and my hostel, I found a little blue coffee shop on the corner. A few people sat out on the busy sidewalk at little silver cafĂ© tables, chatting and enjoying the sun.

I was greeted with a warm hello from a smiling young man in an apron. What I found inside was a delight – cheesecakes and pastries, cookies and brownies – enough to keep me undecided for decades. Or at least until I rounded the corner and found all kinds of more filling fare, including the flaky spinach and onion tart-like triangle I finally settled on. A beaded doorway lead to a back room which looked like my great-aunt’s living room, complete with my great-aunt, a tiny, dark-haired lady, who stood in the doorway and watched everything. An older gentleman with a Mediterranean accent heated my spinach pastry while the young man, who had a resemblance but no discernable accent, whipped up a my mocha. When the older gentleman didn’t respond quickly enough to the dinging microwave, my great-aunt bustled behind the counter and fished it out while the gentleman, who I imagined to be her husband, rung me up and the young man, who I imaged to be their son, measured chocolate into my cup.

While I sat in the window of the tiny shop, I studied the people passing by. There were young women in skirts and boots with grocery bags, couples hand in hand, ladies in business suites, guys in jogging shoes, and older unkempt men who might as easily been bums or college professors. It’s sometimes hard to tell. Signs advertised businesses on the first floor of the surrounding buildings, while unobtrusive side doors opened directly into stairwells leading to the apartments above. It was a beautiful day and many windows were open. I didn’t see a single air conditioner hanging like a tumor from any of the window sills.

While I sat, I played voice mail tag with my friend Wendy. We agreed to meet at Powell Street Station at around four. Equipped with a better map from the hostel, I was certain I could find it in good time. Wendy had finished her PhD at Lincoln that spring and stopped to see me in Colorado during the summer on her way across country to take a teaching position at San Jose State. I have always liked Wendy, though we never had the chance to become close friends since meeting at the little sangha in Lincoln a year or so before.

I finished my snack and returned the dishes with a smile. I took the cross street, leaving Geary behind and heading more or less west along the twisted grid of streets. After a bit I entered a new district, with important looking buildings in grey and white stone. A marker identified it as UN Plaza. A grand white building with an elaborate dome sat at one end, with a suitably broad promenade leading towards it, providing an suitably grand view. The plaza was lined with peddlers stalls and pigeons fought with seagulls over spilled popcorn. A dog ran free on a small patch of grass, a yellow tennis ball in his teach. I snapped the photos of a few early St. Patrick’s Day revelers as they struck a pose and threw a smile my way.

There were prayer flags. Two tall poles held the vertical flags, rising from a bit of grass on top of a retaining wall. Strung between was a single line of little flags, tattered and old, in the colors of the Windom Energies, or Buddha Families, red, white, blue, green, and yellow. I smiled to see the familiar sight, here in the government center. My heart lifted a little to know someone had cared enough to plant them here and to know that they had been left to spread their prayers on the wind for as long as it had taken them to become so faded and frayed. Seeing prayer flags is like finding dear friends long missed in the most unlikely of places.

Finally, I swung around and headed back towards Geary, along a different street. I noted the street names I had passed on my way down and made a right onto O’Farrell, heading back towards Powell. I noted a church in the other direction, tall and stately and extremely modern in comparison to the other gothic towers I had seen doting the skyline. “Later,” I promised myself.

I found Powell and headed towards the station, where a line or tourists formed at the trolley stop. I realized why I hadn’t found Powell Street the first time. It stops a block before it reaches the intersection show on the map, opening into a large pedestrian mall instead. The small station I had come up from, was almost a block further beyond on Stockton Street. I hadn’t even seen this large plaza, at least half of which was taken up with the sunken main entrance to the station. Nordstrom’s, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and a dozen other stores far too fancy for Nebraska ringed the plaza. I made a full circuit and then took up station near the street band performing in the center of the plaza. They were good and had drawn a crowd. Street performers are a great indicator of the health of an urban area. I wondered how I was going to find Wendy and idly snapped a picture of a hanging basket of flowers.

When I lowered the camera, she was there, bright smile and dark hair shot through with wonderful new shades of blue.


mcarp said...

You should be writing for a living.

Monica said...

Ah, that would be nice, huh?