Treading Time in San Francisco: A Mortal in the Infinite City
Several months ago, motivated by a surfeit of unseasonably sunny weather, I decided to play tourist in my own town. Armed with Daniel Bacon’s excellent guidebook, Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail, I set out early in the day to meander my way through the 3.8-mile hike, which began downtown at the Old Mint, a formidable structure of steel-fortified granite, sandstone, and brick that survived the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. The route was marked by a series of medallions embedded in the streets and sidewalks, lending the journey a follow-the-yellow-brick-road atmosphere enhanced by my sighting of a reincarnation of Emperor Norton (one of the city’s earliest well-known eccentrics who, ostensibly, died in 1880) chatting on his cell phone in Union Square.
San Francisco is the ultimate palimpsest, built over sand dunes and reconstructed on top of its own rubble. Bacon’s book helped me uncover some of the city’s hidden history, the old Barbary Coast sea salt and bawdiness lurking beneath the placid facades of Financial District buildings. I peered through the windows and open doorways of the chic little shops and upscale cafes of Maiden Lane and paused to imagine the Gold Rush-era women of the night who had, according to Bacon, “leaned out…naked to the waist and invited men to pay 10 cents to touch one breast, 15 cents for two, and 25 cents to a dollar to step inside.” Further along the trail, I discovered that I was walking over what had once been the waters of Yerba Buena Cove, a graveyard of abandoned ships with otherworldly names like Apollo and Euphemia.
While I was certainly charmed by this little jaunt through time, my sharpened awareness of the juxtaposition of past and present began to touch a nerve. I paused over an espresso in North Beach, images of the ghosts of my own former haunts drifting through my head. The small, perfect mom-and-pop sushi den that served the best monkfish liver I’ve ever eaten, the queer-feminist bookstore in Bernal Heights that introduced me to Gertrude Stein, the Haight Street indie moviehouse where I watched Harold and Maude for the first time…all gone. In the mere twenty years since I had first set sight on the city skyline, even the iconic Transamerica Pyramid’s footprint was diminished by newer and taller skyscrapers that muscled in to dominate the view, their glassy surfaces capturing sunlight refracted from the bay. At the intersection of the old and the new, I felt myself caught up in the on-going cycle of construction and reconstruction, my own life now a part of the endlessly shifting urban landscape.
I burned with a sense of my own impermanence. How to remain tethered in this constant state of flux? How to weather the seismic and economic risks? One steep rent increase could cost me my home. One major earthquake, a near certainty within the next few decades, would literally tear away the ground beneath my feet.
Tired and fretful, I climbed onto a bus and sought refuge close to home at the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. Claiming an empty bench, I brooded underneath pollarded trees and stared at the oxidizing copper walls of the de Young Museum. As I watched, a determined musician maneuvered a beat-up but well-tuned piano down a flight of stone steps to rest near one of the concourse’s fountains. He launched into a lively Chopin sonata and as he played, a group of elderly men practiced tai chi in the background, their movements seeming to sync up with the music. It was one of many moments that will never be acknowledged with a plaque or official marker, a fleeting instance of intense joy that perfectly captured the ferocious eccentricity of my ever-changing city, every second demanding to be fully realized before being overwritten by the next.
Stacey Kohut is an alumna of the University of San Francisco's MFA program. She has served as a guest curator for Bay Area Generations and has read her work at Babylon Salon. She lives in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, and is on the verge of completing a novella.