24th Street

Of late I have been barely dipping my toes in the Peet’s experience, waving hello to the middle-aged guys who hang out most mornings…then speeding back to my so-called work. That is to say, the revision of my forthcoming book. How long it’s been forthcoming I don’t like to think, but that’s another matter. The matter at hand is the locals in the coffee hangout that has been at the center of my neighborhood life for so long. So long, Peet’s…that’s the next stage. The next stage out of town, that is. So I made a special point this morning…having just put a whole section of my book to rest…of hanging out with the cappuccino crowd. Off I rolled, aware that there was little pressing except for paint choosing, desk height setting and fireplace tile determining.

I like the Peet’s guys. One of them is an avid bicyclist, so naturally I tried to get him involved with the bike politics of this, our Bay Area. When I left he followed me outside where I told him about a couple of organizations…and he said he was glad to catch me before I left town. A moment of fear gripped me. Because underlying it all, there’s a slight panic about my departure from these suburban shores. I have been in this burg for one third of a century. How did that happen?

Life. Life in San Francisco was getting difficult in 1981. Driving to my new job in Palo Alto was tiring. Taking the train was tiring. Working was tiring. But returning from work in the evenings and trying to find a parking space in Noe Valley was starting to push me over some edge. All the signs were there. Carrying a bag of groceries up a hill at night. The sudden appearance of parking tickets at 7 AM…the deathknell for stashing cars overnight in the alley behind my house. I couldn’t do this anymore. And it came to pass that someone was moving out of an apartment in Menlo Park, all of 10 minutes from work. And that was it.

I had been a starving graduate student in San Francisco. Then I had become a starving part-time office worker. Then, no longer starving, a science writer in Berkeley. Now a high-tech writer in Palo Alto, and really not starving now. Going out to lunch, even dinner, willy-nilly. Buying my first new car. The suburbs? Oh, well.

And now? I don’t know what has me secretly scared. After all, general indicators are looking up in the fear department. I refer, of course, to my spectacular southbound journey upon these, our crumbling California highways…only last Sunday. Driving more than 100 miles from the Sonoma wine country where Jane’s church has its annual retreat to, you guessed it, Menlo Park. Anxiety? Not much. And maybe that’s the right amount. A little shoulder tension, surprisingly little driving time, not all that much traffic…and Robert is avuncular.

What lies between now and then, Menlo Park and San Francisco except a certain amount of, well, work? Not much. Everyone knows that the distinction between interior decorating and couple counseling is a subtle one. So we are deep into that. But succeeding. I attribute the latter to increasing specialization. This has had both of us ceding ground in certain areas. It is a mystery of the Northumbrian and Welsh genotype that my wife can distinguish between rosie-tinted white, rose white, rosewater white, rose petal white, rose antique white and much, much more. Me, I figure that if one rosie-fingered dawn was good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for me. That’s why much of the color selection has gone to Jane.

My specialty? Worrying about finance. And there’s a lot to worry about here. For the “logic” in dealing with financial institutions has a distinctly Lewis Carroll flavor. Nevermind. The point is we are specialized, moving forward in our pursuits and in something like a team formation. And the “team” part is key. After all, we are not just moving, but consolidating lives in a joint project involving a new house, a new community…and doubtless much more.

And so I swing from daunted to exhilarated. It was only yesterday that I parked on San Francisco’s 24th Street, the Noe Valley neighborhood where I lived for eight years…and headed west, passing familiar and unfamiliar places. Of course, how much could still be here after 34 years? That’s the length of my absence from this part of San Francisco, my time in the suburbs…and yet the street’s mercantile outline seems unchanged. The Bell Market is now the WholeFoods. The sushi place at Sanchez and Noe is still a sushi place with a different name. I can’t say what happened to the Meat Market coffee house on upper 24th Street…for this site is now an office or a restaurant, the transformation so complete that my bearings are off. My dentist is still there, of course. She had kept me coming back to 24th Street all these years. Was the Noe Valley Bakery always here? Possibly. What’s different is that I am back. Not only back on this particular occasion, but fresh from a freeway drive all the way from Menlo Park without catastrophic accident. Hallelujah, I say. Hallelujah, for I am sort of coming home. There’s a lot of lunch to be had on this street.

And yet this morning when I gaze at my last crop and try to remember when these wheelchair-height redwood planter boxes got built…I also feel the sadness. Of letting go, of moving on, of being mortal. And yet I have planned a bridging activity. This involves Sylvia, the three-year-old who lives next door, whose father died only a year ago. We planted potatoes, with critical help from her mother. In a couple of months after the move, I plan to return with a pitchfork and have a ceremonial digging up of the crop. Celebration of the life cycle. Renewal. And mystery. How many potatoes are underground? That is the thing about this particular garden project…you don’t know until time passes…and you dig.

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