Posts Tagged ‘san francisco’

A Very Short Story: Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

I wait in line at the trendy breakfast place, swaying on my feet, one of many, with people who are in town from Los Angeles and Paris. People with baby strollers. People with neon yellow hair. People commenting on standing for as long as they’re standing, as the line snakes its way around the block. Kids squirm and cry. Nervous moms look up at the clouds, without a plan B. The first place I think to go in the neighborhood is not the Mission itself, but this breakfast place, because that’s what everyone does. Because if you don’t go, you’re missing something. A perfect bite. A thing that cannot be tasted anywhere else.

I finally head to the Mission — the actual Mission — when it’s almost closing time, after I’ve exhausted all my expendable income, curiosity, and energy in the jewelbox-sized neighborhood shops. A fat stack of second-hand books. A black lace dress. I go because there is nowhere else to go, and my visit is the cheapest thing I’ve done all day — $5. The Mission is named, like the city, for St. Francis of Assisi but people call it the Mission Dolores after the nearby creek — the creek of Our Lady of Sorrows. Mary with her heart pierced by seven swords. You won’t see her inside, but you will see the chapel with its whitewashed adobe brick, its neat holy water fonts cut directly into the walls. And the ceiling — all brilliant color, recreated in vegetable dyes in a pattern that would have been known — and created — by the Ohlone tribespeople who lived, and worked, and were converted by, and died within the Mission’s walls. The Mission that stood longer than the cathedral itself, that withstood the earthquake.


Friday, September 22nd, 2006

Painted Lady

The desert is brown and endless with ridges of mountains and canyons and tiny little roads stenciled across it in perpendicular lines. On the flights from Nevada to California, I can not stop looking out the window, forehead pressed to the quadruple-plane glass, as the sun bleats relentlessly on the earth. I have never seen terrain like this before, baked and barren and rippling. I wonder who would ever drive those roads, and how much gas it would take to ensure piece of mind. I think of millions of landscapes that are not concrete or steel, other places that would be good to visit or maybe stay.


It is my tendency to hate cities at first sight, but it is also my tendency to arrive in new places exhausted, unkempt, and still buzzing with anxiety over the notion of vaulting through space at hundreds of miles an hour. Last autumn, I misread a map and rolled my suitcase from L’Opera to Montmatre and decided, in a fit of jetlagged poor humor, that I hated Paris, its tiny streets and wobbly cobblestones. Six hours of sleep and breakfast cured my outlook entirely. I can not so readily say that I hated San Francisco because I didn’t land there, but I was not exactly taken with sunny Oakland, California either, the weirdly upholstered seats on the BART — like a moving living room — or the rusty skeleton of the sports stadium where the As play.

U.S. Airways decides that a missed connection and a night in Las Vegas without any available hotel rooms isn’t enough fun for one vacation so they lose my bag in Oakland. There is this horrible moment when the conveyor belt stops, when no more bags heave out the little door. I have immediate bad thoughts about my suitcase tumbling off a truck and onto the tarmac, of tickets being switched. I take immediate mental stock of everything inside it, things I can’t lose. Three vintage dresses. My favorite sandals — newly and expensively resoled. My journals. Later, on the BART with Megan, watching the stucco houses and low scrubby trees slide by, it seems like a minor catastrophe. I talk sleepily about being freed from the material, about shopping sprees at H&M.


I put $20 on a BART card, thinking it’s like the New York City subway. Two days later, I leave San Francisco with $18 of it unused.


The Hotel Britton is in a seedy area south of Market Street that’s full of construction and homeless. From the outside, it looks like a flophouse with a pizza parlor on the ground floor, but the lobby promises better things. A massive chandelier. A piano. Yellows and greens on the walls and big-cushioned sofas. Megan calls it a “travelers hotel” and I don’t understand what she means until later when I realize that we are the only English-speaking guests in the hotel. When we arrive, an elderly French woman is sobbing at the desk over a lost bag. Her husband’s medicine is in it. Another guest, also French, is gesticulating about a malfunctioning phone card. I tell the clerk about my luggage, how the airline will deliver it later. She puts her hands up. “Everyone lost a bag today!”

Our room, which Megan calls “small,” is bigger than my last apartment and wallpapered in grass green and white. The sink isn’t in the bathroom — it’s in a cubby on the other side of the room. I play with the white lattice blinds, listen to the rumble of traffic. The afternoon sunshine spills in. I am thoroughly charmed.


I sleep. I call people. A bell hop brings up my bag, which has been delivered by the airline. He says, “So sorry, so sorry, so sorry,” over and over again like it was his fault. The bag is fine, but it looks as though it was dropped on the tarmac nine or ten times. I don’t even care. My dresses are fine, rolled on top of one another. It is good to see them, things that are mine in a room of stuff that isn’t.


I get a second wind. There’s a restaurant guide in this week’s Guardian. I tear through the pages, choosing bakeries, coffee shops, steakhouses. I am starving. Megan turns all of my ridiculous suggestions into a nonridiculous plan and puts us on a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf. Piles of scuttling crabs, empty shells, and half-eaten bread bowls are everywhere. I choose a restaurant, finally, because I like the architecture — a glassed-in dining room, dark wood, straight beams that mimic the masts of a ship. At the bar, Megan orders the most ludicrous drink I’ve ever seen — a strawberry smoothie in a tumbler with colored sugar on the rim.

“I don’t know what’s worse, really. That you can order a drink like that in a bar or that you just ordered it.”


There are grips on the sides of the trolley cars so you can ride standing up, like the garbage man. I am fascinated by this but feel no urge to try it. Beyond the risk of losing my grip and being crushed by oncoming traffic, something about it gives me the willies and triggers my weirdest spatial and motion-related fears. Megan knows exactly where to sit anyway so I follow her when she makes a beeline for the backside of the trolley. She jostles like New Yorkers fight for subway seats, setting themselves up for the prime spots on the end. For an instant, I’m proud.

Our line cuts directly through the center of the city, through what was formerly — meaning before the earthquake — its most stylish neighborhoods. Russian Hill and Knobb Hill are home to some of the prettier painted ladies, including the ones that are — yes — in the opening of Full House. Even in the dark I can see how they’re built slanted against the hills, their foundations at precarious angles. I realize for the first time that it would be nice to live in San Francisco, but it’s probably nice to live anywhere when you can afford the nicest house on the block.

The driver navigates the hills with a kind of jerky start and stop motion. I wonder about the integrity of the breaks. On the downward slopes, which slide my body sideways down the wooden seat, I remember that there’s no guard rail in front of us, that hopping off and breaking my neck is always an option. More beautiful houses whoosh by; the bell clangs over our heads. We get off near our hotel where the land is flatter and the houses are grayer and smaller — the air less thin.