More than a good idea, it seemed like a splendid one…at first…the sort of civic minded action we should all take. We should all take to the hills, I am now thinking, next time this impulse grabs me. So, to start, let’s take one hill. Chenery St., San Francisco.
Site of our new house. Of which we have putative ownership, but so far, remarkably little control. Which was why, for the second time in very recent history, I was pounding up the Chenery Street hill, our hill, at least in my mind. Another Saturday morning, another neighborhood review meeting. Mind you, no other neighbors give a flying fuck except the ones next door. Who on this occasion, I will soon learn, don’t even live there. It turns out that they live in the Richmond District, miles away.
Nevermind, for there they are, Mrs. Chow and her son Franklin. They are getting out of a car even as Arnie, our architect, opens the garage door. ‘Stand clear,” he says from inside. He has presence of mind, our Arnie. Jane cannot make this particular meeting, for her church is holding one of its own. A pity, because whereas I can manage a smile, Jane can positively effervesce. To the last such meeting, she brought coffee cake, not to mention coffee. I have only brought myself. And even that has required extra provision.
Our contractor, and believe it or not, we have one, has followed Arnie’s instructions. At times I really don’t believe anyone will truly build our house. But today there is evidence to the contrary. Actually, I thought it possible to wiggle my way out of this meeting by citing accessibility problems. The neighbors are complaining about plans to extend the existing house six feet into the garden. And since I cannot get into this area, I told Arnie, maybe it would make more sense if I didn’t bother to attend.
Unfortunately, Arnie is well schooled in the equality-for-the-disabled branch of liberal sentiment and was hearing none of it. A quick email to the contractor specified a small ramp out the back door of the garage. As well as this other thing, a plywood platform built for this single occasion. The latter was looking more like a viewing stand for some visiting dignitary, and I couldn’t tell whether to be honored or embarrassed…or generally annoyed at the cost.
As the hour wore on, I opted for the latter. For the idea was well fixed in my mind that this exchange would be a brief one. What was there to say? The Chows, one or both of them, were insisting that the six-foot extension would block their view. A poor tactical move, if I may say so. Ill-advised in its very concreteness. For Arnie and team were all over this issue in the blink of an eye.
Wooden poles went up in the garden to show the height and location of all structures. Photos of these, coupled with computer-generated images, showed the shadows in all four seasons of the year. Additional shots revealed the position of the Chow’s lemon tree, bounteous in both fruit and foliage, which blocked their own views. This, and my special celebrity platform…we were armed to face the neighborhood.
This proved to be the worst sort of non-event: a protracted one. The meeting belonged to Mrs. Chow. Who at 84, an age she frankly disclosed, was spry enough to clamber on, and off, my platform. She hustled through the garden to point at the existing back wall. This enough, she said. No more from here. Is enough room, she added. No need no more.
Arnie made the mistake, and it was a grave one, of attempting to reason with her. Why did she object? View, she said. Arnie pointed out that if the building was not extended, the space next to her tenant’s window would be occupied by our terrace. The latter would afford direct views into the neighbor’s kitchen. Mrs. Chow was having none of this. Look out, see wood. Is enough. Only go to here. You bad man, she told Arnie. You no listen, have no heart.
The latter being manifestly untrue, I took umbrage myself…then thought better. After all, by now Arnie and Franklin had begun to have their own chat. An affable one at that. Where Jane, Mrs. Chow asked me. I was wondering the same thing myself, even though the answer was plain enough. This job was mine. It was my show and would succeed or fail without my leading lady. She’s working, I told Mrs. Chow.
I worked all my life, she said. I live 37 years without my husband. Raise three kids. Two marry Americans. This one youngest, he never married.
Mom, let’s not go into that. Franklin appears at his wit’s end. All of us are there.
Except Mrs. Chow, of course. Curiously, she has brought her photo album. She is showing me her life in pictures. How she looked years ago. Her daughters. Sadly, one has died. Her grandchildren. Even a great-granddaughter. I see interesting pictures of Chinese American culture. Some sort of festival or dance display in Golden Gate Park. The latter somewhat kitschy, kids quaintly attired in red and white robes, the girls coiffed with elaborate bangs. 37 year, Mrs. Chow repeats. And I have bad feeling about this wall.
Must peel the apples, she tells me. These, she explains, come from her Richmond District abode. Sometimes bring chard, she adds. Here, this is what I grow. We have returned to the photo album. And it is most impressive, her array of beds. They are not raised beds, more part of a formal vegetable garden. Squares of this and rows of that. All adding up to chard. I like chard, I want to tell her, but not that much.
Well, Mrs. Chow, I say. Thanks for coming. Arnie and I need to talk now. Bad feeling, she says. 37 years. I was once beautiful. Young woman. Had husband. I strong woman.
Yes, I tell her, I don’t doubt that. Franklin chuckles.
I sense that our business here is wrapping up. But Mrs. Chow’s isn’t. Her business is expansive and will not end until it is over. She has gotten this far this way, and who am I to judge? She has a nice garden. I will tell Jane to peel the apples. And I am moving back to San Francisco, it seems. Although so far there are few indications to really believe this.
On the way home I stop at the Canyon Market, a family operation, extremely haute, with a pre-made Thanksgiving dinner now available for sampling. I order a crab cake sandwich to go. A friend who lives not far away observed that San Francisco is smaller than it looks. Even smaller than it already seems to me. Smaller than that, he observed. Half the population speaks Cantonese. A dividing line, and historically not a hostile one. Which is what I like about San Francisco, or think I will like. The lines that aren’t divisions. Let’s hope it stays that way. Let’s hope it is that way.