Bruce at the wheel
Bentzman at the Wheel: photo by Ms Keogh.
No longer living in the suburbs, and currently on a transcontinental tour, our regular essayist Bruce Bentzman offers the third piece in his new series

From the Night Factory
3. 7.9 in San Francisco

The journey has reached its farthest point.  I sit at the dining table in my sister's apartment at Oakland, California where it is cold and raining.  It began raining eight days ago, the same day we reached California, and for the most part it has been raining ever since.  I had hoped we would continue north to Seattle, but Ms Keogh, my more significant other, is tired of the cold and rain, and the weather folks predict more of it to the north.  Ms Keogh is ready to go home.  Today we begin the journey back to the East Coast, returning along a different southern route than by which we came.

On Wednesday, I took myself on a walking tour of San Francisco.  I rose out of the BART station near City Hall.  Rain water was cascading down the smooth steel panels that encased the long escalator.  I have never ridden an exposed escalator, no roof, and worried about the complications of an escalator's mechanism rusting.  There was also the feeling of being corraled, unable to escape the confines of the moving staircase while the rain pelted me.  I was on the Civic Center plaza, the library to my left, the Asian Art Museum to my right, and a beautiful City Hall before me.  I went into the library.

I have an affection for libraries.  When I visit a place, I am interested in how libraries are decorated inside and out, the manner in which books and authors are praised in festoons, sculptures, and plaques.  The larger libraries, the main branches in cities, often have book related exhibitions.  Even the branch libraries will often display the artwork or photos of local talent.  In particular, I take pleasure in viewing the reading rooms of libraries, to see what chairs and tables are made available, and how comfortable are made the readers.  Sometimes the reading rooms are grand halls, temples of knowledge, with high ceilings and tall windows.  When Ms Keogh and I were recently caught in a local blackout in Berkeley, the stores were all closing because their registers wouldn't work, we took to the main reading room of Berkeley's public library where by design plenty of light fell onto what Ms Keogh's reading and my reading.

The exterior of the San Francisco library was too new to please me.  I was expecting something more traditional.  Traditional was to be had across the plaza and on the façade of the Asian Art Museum, carved with literary names.  It was formerly the library.  The new library was built from April 1993 to February 1996. The old library building was refurbished to serve as a museum.  Such things go on when ones city is riddled with earthquakes.  The library's information desk provided me with a conveniently small paper map of the city, which was all I needed.

Back on the street and in a drizzle, I began my aimless stroll, undecided as to what direction to go.  This brought me to 25 Van Ness Avenue, an attractive Neoclassical building with a standing sculpted figure sheltered high on the structure's corner watching over the intersection.  The building looked like an Italian palazzo and contained several different offices.  I discovered the symbolic clue, the square and compasses, that informed me this was formerly a Masonic Temple.  Why did the Freemasons abandon it?  They built many majestic temples in previous centuries, but now...?  This one was built in 1913 by the famous San Francisco architects Bliss & Faville.

The rain had stopped.  The sun came out.  What finally decided me as to which direction to take was the light on a distant yellow campanile in the west belonging to the Sacred Heart-Saint Dominic church at Fell and Fillmore, but I never reached it.  Halfway there something else caught my attention and I was on a new path passing through the Hayes Valley section of town. I stopped at a small park - San Francisco is dotted with small parks - to admire a sculpture presenting a giantess seemingly built of rusty scrap metal.  She was lovely in proportion, with long tresses of chain-linked hair.  The piece is titled "Ecstasy" and was created by Dan Da Mann and Karen Cusolito.

Higher up the hill was an equally impressive work of art produced by the students of Ida B. Wells High School.  The school is atop a high mound held in place by a tall wall that has been brilliantly decorated with a vast mosaic mural.  The tiles are at times gorgeous, humorous, and outrageous.  Highly involved, it would take a whole day and a ladder to enjoy it all.  I didn't have a whole day.  I also checked my pockets for a ladder, then remembered David borrowed it in 1986 and he now lives in Alaska.

Turning the corner, I had reached the top of this particular San Francisco Hill crowned with Alamo Square.  At the moment I arrived, all the storm clouds were distant, but over me was blue sky.  It was very windy.  A dropped note or a loose hat could never have been retrieved.  My sister tells me that this was one of the places where tent cities were built during the 1906 Earthquake to avoid the fires and destruction.  It must have been quite a view.  Having achieved the summit, I paused on a park bench at Alamo Square to be greeted by, and greet in return, every passing dog.

Along the route that brought me there, I had passed a suspended wood sign in front of what I suspect was a halfway house for addicts. The sign's carved message was the trite, "This is the first day of the rest of your life." I thought about it and wrote in my notebook, "Is this the first day of [the rest of] my life? I would rather it was the second. I need a day to prepare. I need a day to have history and establish criteria. Otherwise, on the first day I would be indecisive and I'd be paralyzed, starting again with asking who am I?"

The next point of interest in my stroll was the University of San Francisco, not to be mistaken for the San Francisco State University.  I only visited the former, which is taught by Jesuits.  The librarian was kind enough to invite me in to see an art exhibit, but I was more impressed with the interior of Saint Ignatius Church.  While I was inside admiring the lofty ceiling, outside the heavens were issuing a heavy rain which concluded just as I departed the church.  I felt blessed.  The Fates were lulling me into a false sense of security.  From there it was a short block or two to the Golden Gate Park.

I selected the narrowest trails through the park and soon found my way to the Conservatory of Flowers.  It is "the oldest [1879] wood and glass conservatory in North America."  I didn't go in.   It was small and there was a $7.00 admission fee.  The Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago, established 1877, was larger and was free.
Conservatory of Flowers
The Conservatory of Flowers

Next I visited the de Young museum, which has a fine collection of American art.  Attached to the museum are the administrative offices in a tower with the top floor reserved for observation.  It was late in the day and I was the last tourist allowed to ride the elevator to the top floor.  Although less than 150 feet high, it is nevertheless a spectacular 360 degree view.  The tower closed, then the museum.  It was time to head back.

I broke the law.  I was in a hurry and didn't want to take the time to walk around the children's park, even though a sign warned that it was against the law to enter the children's park if not accompanied by a child.

I was not the only lawbreaker.  Leaving Golden Gate Park by a different route than by which I came in, I was greeted by a young fellow who spoke to me while looking elsewhere, "Weed, ma'hn?"  I only knew he was talking to me because no one else was around.  From that point on I was greeted by plenty of young men eager to sell me pot and hashish, or maybe they were trying to buy it from me, and sure enough, I discovered I had entered Haight-Ashbury.  I had meant to avoid it.  How many head shops can one community support?  They had to have been there for the tourists.

Prior to this it had only been light rain, but at Buena Vista Park I was caught in a downpour.  It was a quick dash across the street to take shelter in a shallow entry.  The rain slackened and I continued my return walk east.  The hard rain came again when I reached the downtown commercial district.  I took refuge in the Honda dealership.  I felt entitled.  I own three Hondas, the 2006 Accord, 2009 Civic, and a 2010 Phantom.  It was at this point I thought I might resort to a cab.

Across the street from the Honda dealership was a Bank of America.  Believing I would need cash for the cab, I tried to go to the bank, but they had closed perhaps fifteen minutes before I pulled at their doors.  I went around to the other side of the building to use the ATM.  The machines were exposed to the rain.  For the first time since leaving the East Coast, my Bank of America bank card was rejected, denied, blocked!  Why?  I had informed them before leaving that I would be on a road trip.

Standing in the rain, I called them on my cell phone, but was never able to reach a human.  After answering three questions asked by a recording, the robot said my card would be reactivated, only it would take ten minutes.  I was already soaked, so I forswore the cab and went on.

It was now nightful and the rain was constant as I made my way through 4th and Market and up another hill to Union Square.  I am not naive about the homeless and the reasons for homelessness.  The problem is epidemic and we have them in Philadelphia and in New York.  I thought back to the scruffy men I saw in Santa Fe, New Mexico, more colorful than menacing.  They were in keeping with the landscape.  They did not panhandle.  My friend said they didn't harass people.  I didn't see them pushing grocery carts filled with plastic bags in Santa Fe.  They were not shooting heroin in the shadows.  They were not even drunk.

In San Francisco it was different.  I was approached plenty of times by squalid men.  The panhandlers of San Francisco come in all age groups and both sexes.  It is depressing and one does not escape them by walking in elite neighborhoods.  Some appeared sickly, neglecting their health and appearance.

Even if I were to be charitable, the immense number of homeless would overwhelm my wallet in just a few blocks.  Also, I had no guideline for discerning those who are in need and could benefit from my money from those who were possibly cons or pitiable addicts.

I reached Chinatown and continued to climb.  I knew my destination was at the other end.  Before I reached Broadway, I was presented with Jack Kerouac Alley, and I instinctively grasped that a road with that name, if I turned down it, would reveal my destination at the far end.  Sure enough, the other end of the alley came out on Columbus, and next to City Lights Bookstore.  I was on time.  Here my sister was to pick me up and take us back to her Oakland apartment.  I went in to browse this iconic bookstore, having completed a 7.9 mile stroll of the City of San Francisco.

City Lights

 Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems also has the title "Atheist Grace", and is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"