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  • Writer's pictureSharon Gubbay Helfer

Swimming happily upstream in San Francisco

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

My week in San Francisco, from the evening of March 5 to the morning of March 13, was one of the most intense and beautiful ever for me. At the same time, it took place when coronavirus public health measures were becoming ever more present, and the implications were starting to be felt. Looking back now, a few days after returning to San Antonio, it seems that I was swimming against the current, happily wriggling my way upstream from one discovery-filled day to the next.

There was an added layer for me because this visit has taken place in my 70th year. Seventy is an age I have had immense difficulty identifying with! Furthermore, and most unpleasantly, thoughts of imminent death had been plaguing me like the Furies of ancient Greek drama. But during this San Francisco visit, that shifted. Wisdom 2.0 hit me with an energetic jolt, shaking me back into my very-much-alive self. As well, I walked those streets and hills in the company of memories of previous visits starting in my 20s.


Through the decade of the 1970s I made repeated visits to San Francisco to visit my friend Tim, a wonderful, beloved character. It was never really clear how well Tim could see. The designation of being legally blind only confused the picture as he clearly could see, but how well, and what was he seeing? His dark eyes, almost black, under a thatch of very dark hair always seemed out of focus, harboring secrets made up of scenes from Borges and other labyrinthine and obscure literature he liked to read, together with small private jokes he seemed to have with himself, that would cause him to chuckle. Tim would take my arm and take up his pipe and we would set forth on meandering walks, that always seemed to take place in a parallel universe. During one of these walks I remember Tim looking straight at me and saying, “You will be wonderful as an old person.” Perhaps I have become or am becoming the woman Tim foresaw; I am sad that he did not live to see it.

Strength of Life Force in the Mission District

On my first morning in San Francisco, I walked out to get the subway (BART) to go to the Wisdom 2.0 conference. I had been told it was a “nice walk” through the Mission District over to 24th and up to Mission. More than nice, I experienced it as magical.

Dwellings and Flowers

There were quirky crazy San Francisco Victorian houses one after another reaching up, all brightly painted. Their bright colors were rivaled by an exuberance of flowers all along the sidewalk. One lovely moment on that peaceful morning walk was when I stopped to take a picture with my phone. A man coming down the street saw me and broke into a broad smile. In that quiet sunny moment, we shared our pleasure in the beauty that was before us. Lucky me: my favorite season, Spring, was exploding all around.

From Wikipedia:

About 48,000 houses in the Victorian and Edwardian styles were built in San Francisco between 1849 and 1915, and many were painted in bright colors. As one newspaper critic noted in 1885, “…red, yellow, chocolate, orange, everything that is loud is in fashion…if the upper stories are not of red or blue… they are painted up into uncouth panels of yellow and brown…” While many of the mansions of Nob Hill were destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, thousands of the mass-produced, more modest houses survived in the western and southern neighborhoods of the city.


Nothing had prepared me for the murals. As I approached the corner of 24th I was stunned by the murals on either side of the street. To my left, the walls of St Peter's Church held a powerful, massive political testament, bursting with life and meaning, pride and resistance. And then to my right, on the wall of a laundromat … a LAUNDROMAT … a stunning mural carrying the message "Protect the Sacred”.

And so it continued all the way up 24th, one amazing mural after another. The exuberance and creativity, the power and variety of these murals is astonishing. There is a powerful force of life here, fueled by Women's or Mexican or other pride and resistance, and by felt connection to Spiritual Sources, whether Native Indigenous or Christian, or other. Only just now have I looked it up and found out that the Mission Murals are internationally known; here for example is something about one of the alleys I walked through.


San Francisco Public Library

Walking up Market Street from the Powell Street station to the San Francisco Public Library, along a stretch of sidewalk covered by a tarpaulin attached to metal scaffolding, I encounter a row of men and women whose place this seemed to be. I don't know them or their stories and something within me salutes their resilience, but their situation is tough. All along the way to the library I passed others, some looking pretty messed up, some finding and greeting one another, one cluster leaning against a wall at the BART entrance. The homeless population of San Francisco is an issue and a focus for some public policy. I know this in general, but here I'm seeing individuals and their situation hits home more directly.

Some of these individuals seem to find some respite at the San Francisco Public Library.

I spent Monday Tuesday and Wednesday at the library and I came to love this institution. It offers study rooms that are closed off, where one can speak. This was helpful for me since I often like to dictate my thoughts. As well I was able to use their computers to edit my blog. I loved that the whole third floor walls were covered with old library cards, many of them embellished with doodles of different kinds.

I came away deeply touched by the way that this Library welcomes all kinds of people. On my regular trips to the washrooms on the first floor I encountered women talking at length to themselves or to small dog companions or to the patient and kind washroom attendants.

Several of my fellow library users seemed to be carrying many of their belongings with them in bags and backpacks. Signs in the bathroom explain that using the washrooms for bathing or washing clothes is not permitted and one can see why. Only once during my three days did I see a librarian requesting that a difficult patron leave; it was done firmly but without anger.

Poets' Cafe

I had brought a sandwich along for my lunch and wanted to know if there was anywhere in the library I could eat it, except for the “Poets’ Café” in the basement, which I assumed was for paying customers. I asked one of the guards, after commenting on the bountiful display of buttons covering his baseball cap. “I used to have them all over my shirt too but they made me take them off.” About the sandwich and the café, he said, “Rosie’s good …” and explained that Rosie lets people eat their own food; so I went down. I sat in the back booth, the 3rd of three in a row. The other two booths were occupied by several older African American men (my age-ish). The two different groups were sitting and chatting, exchanging stories, including what they used to throw at cop cars in the ‘70s. Laughing, enjoying each other’s company. Getting deeper into the exploration they spoke of where they were from and discovered they shared some history. “So you must have known my mother?” “Oh yes, we used to go over there all the time …!” After finishing my sandwich, I stopped to say hello. I told the men I couldn’t help but overhear parts of their conversation. I found it touching, I told them, about remembering the mother. My own mother hasn’t been with us for many years now, I told them, and it is always so nice when someone remembers her. It was a nice moment.


Another nice library moment came the next day when I got out through the opposite subway entrance to the one I knew from before. Wasn’t sure which direction to go in. I asked a young African American man, Which way to the Library? I’m going there myself he told me, so we walked together, in the direction of the domed San Francisco City Hall.

On the way, he introduced himself as Mark. He pointed to the older building on our right and explained that it used to be the Library, before the new modern building I knew had been constructed. They wanted to tear it down, he told me but now they can't. While they were retrofitting City Hall some years ago, someone came upon documents showing that there had been a cemetery there, including African Americans, where the old library stands. They can't tear the building down until they find out where the bodies are, said Mark. Detecting something in his voice I asked, Are they dragging their feet? Maybe it's not a priority. "It's not a priority ..." was his answer. Mark told me he was hoping to meet someone who was going to offer him employment, and I wished him luck. He turned to me and gave me his hand in a hearty handshake. A little coronavirus voice in my head asked, Should I be doing this? But I decided there was no way I was going to refuse that handshake. It was a lovely one, and then I went in and washed my hands for 20 seconds.

The day after I left San Francisco, I learned that the library had been closed down, like so many other public institutions. How lucky I was to have been able to go there before that happened.

Paxton Gate and Manny's

I walked through the Mission to go and meet some relatives at Manny's, a restaurant/library/bar and political meeting space I had heard about from Manny himself at the Wisdom 2.0 conference. Described by one patron on FB as "somewhere between a low-key coffee spot and an incubator for social change" and by another as a "great place to discuss hot topics in a cool environment", I was happy to experience Manny's in person. In the era of social distancing, Manny's emphasis on the importance of in-person gatherings may not be so appropriate. But the spirit and intention here are beautiful and I hope that this place comes through and thrives.

On the way to Manny's I came across Paxton Gate. Started in 1992 by two landscape designers, Paxton Gate evolved into a uniquely fascinating place: something about it, the atmosphere, radiates a surreal peacefulness. Taxidermy animals look serenely out from the walls. Hundreds of little wooden compartments hold treasures: crystals, amethysts, fossils, sea urchins, sea stars, and so much more. And then in the back, a greenhouse full of succulents and a little back Terrace. I didn't want to leave and would have stayed longer, bathing in the strange peace there and admiring things, but I had to go ... maybe next time.

Lands End and Bernal Heights

My short stay in San Francisco was rounded out by visits to two beautiful spots, Lands End and the Bernal Heights Park.

Lands End

Sutro Baths

Looking at these ruins by the ocean at Lands End, no one would guess what grand dream wealthy entrepreneur and former San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro brought into being here at the end of the 19th century.

This is what I would have seen had I come by in 1896 ...

A grand recreational & educational complex that could accommodate 10,000 people at one time and offered 20,000 bathing suits and 40,000 towels for rent ... And here is a little film taken in the Baths in 1897 by Thomas Edison (yes, that Thomas Edison!)

Finally, a slideshow of a few of the vistas and lovely bits of nature from that walk:

Bernal Heights Park

An early-morning climb up to Bernal Heights Park was a superb way to end my visit to San Francisco. On the way up, one man was playing catch with his dog, "There's a party going on up-top" he said. Indeed, approaching the summit we began to hear music. And then, at the top, a group of young people dancing. Something so iconically San Francisco, at least one dimension of it, and also of the coronavirus moment: "Hey, if you wanna hang out with us we have more masks" ...

The walk up Bernal Heights ended with a breakfast visit to Charlie's Cafe on Precita Park. Charlie is a Catholic Palestinian from Bethlehem and his cafe is a beloved neighborhood institution, a place to meet and to be. Charlie explained to us as we were leaving that he had given up the unicycle (look for it in the window behind Charlie below) after he fractured his elbow in a fall.

San Francisco bye-bye; Hasta la próxima, à la prochaine ...

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