Mount Transit

I find myself staring, for long hours, at the website of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, the city’s anachronistically named public transport. What I expect to find is unclear. The diagrammatic maps are singularly maddening. Yes, I know the streets. But in San Francisco there are too many known unknowns, to quote Donald Rumsfeld. Google Maps has at least an inkling of this truth, offering a view that is not available in most cities: terrain.

Since our move 10 days ago, Jane and I have been caught up in a flurry of paint, door handles, wallpaper, tiles, shower knobs, and so on. Not that we weren’t before the move. In fact, all this has become a way of life, more or less. The surroundings in our new San Francisco home are a mixture of posh and spartan. Witness my morning shower, which feels downright Roman in its stone and tile elegance. Then there’s the bathroom door frame, which was once a matter of boards and paint. Now, after the dog Isabella attempted to gnaw her way out of confinement, it looks like something termites have discarded.

Why would a dog make such a desperate bid for freedom? Actually, I have no trouble understanding this at all. I would make my own bid, if such a thing were possible. On some days no less than 10 workmen burst through our front door at 8 AM. Drilling, sawing, painting, hammering and slamming, they go about their days. Perhaps we moved into this house a bit early. There’s a chance, and only a chance, that within a couple of days the upstairs shower may have knobs and a spout. That would be good, should my brother and sister-in-law wish to clean up after a hard day unpacking boxes.

For that’s what they will likely be doing. After all, I spend my hours doing things like changing the address on my car registration. Meanwhile, back at the ranch…that is to say, Menlo Park…I am readying the place for rental. Well, not directly, of course. More worrying, for this is a tangled web, this house remodeling-moving-new-life-starting project, and not the least of it involves finance. Which is why we need renters, and although we have them…well, it’s something else to worry about. Where was I?

Home, the new home, which in increasingly frequent moments really feels like one. Still, while we have tasks aplenty, Jane and I need a bit of diversion. Which brings us back to the Muni transit map. Jane had done her research, spotting a splendid escape route over the hill…well, everything in San Francisco is over some hill…and down the other side to a shop that specializes in cabinet hardware. The thing about this particular transit discovery, a.k.a., the 35 Eureka bus, is that I would never have found it myself. The transit route hurls up and over one of the side ridges of Twin Peaks, San Francisco’s own Massif Central, then as though exhausted, gives up two streets away from our home. And in any other city something a couple of streets away would be hard to miss. Not in San Francisco. It’s easy to miss, particularly if you are in a wheelchair, because the 35 Muni stops atop a cliff.

The cliff actually has a benign and enticing name, Roanoke Street. What the hell. We had to buy what I used to call handles, and now being up to my thighs in home decor, refer to as ‘pulls.’ The hardware shop was just off the #35. A transit adventure. The two of us. So off we went. And most encouragingly, so did our bus. It stopped just as expected and where expected and when expected, the hydraulic wheelchair ramp plunked down on Bemis Street, and aboard I rolled. The driver offered to strap my wheelchair to the bus floor. As always, I turned her down.

Within seconds we were climbing Addison Street, the bus pitching and tilting. In fact, so much was happening on so many bus axes that I lost count, simply hanging on for life as we crested a neighborhood called Diamond Heights. The Diamond Depths were just on the other side, but I was mostly staring at the vertical steel bar in front of me, the one I was holding. Down and down we went, finally arriving in San Francisco’s Castro District. The whole ride took 10 minutes. And we were there.

So was the fog. The thing about San Francisco…hills and canyons make for odd pockets of weather. The city’s Mission District can be relatively warm and clear, while the other end of town can feel like Dover on a particularly grim day. The Castro felt that way. Never mind, for we felt our way through the fog, an iPhone guiding us toward the hardware guys. They were there, with all sorts of stuff to be seen through their windows, shiny knobs and bronze brackets and distressed hinges. Good thing they had windows. They didn’t have access. One big step kept my wheelchair outside, where I sat in the blowing mists of April as a somewhat apologetic shop assistant kept ferrying samples outside. Whatever. We made our buy, headed up 18th Street for a spectacular coffee, then pulled into one of the district’s old places for lunch.

The Castro has been through a lot. Gay liberation. The AIDS crisis. And now the high-tech boom. Some of the older bars and landmarks are still there, principally the Castro Theater, where the San Francisco Film Festival would kick off in a couple of days. I had a veggie burger while, on a screen above, middle-aged gay guys struck alluring poses. In an ever fast-changing city, it all felt historic. I always feel historic, wondering how I can keep up with this pace of change at 68 years of age. It was time to head home. Sure enough, there was the Muni 35. On the way back I knew when to hang on tightly to the metal pole. And in truth as the wheelchair ramp went back down on Bemis Street the incline did look a little steep…sloping pavement being what it was. I started down, felt everything tilt forward. Then felt Jane and the bus driver righting my wheelchair…for the last few feet to the ground.

Good thing, the ground. Reassuring and, well, grounded. I was glad not to be trying Roanoke Street on my own. In fact, on my own, I wouldn’t have done it. It’s hard to say about wheelchairs, when they will slip and when they won’t. It’s also hard to say about bodies. My torso was having a very difficult time holding itself erect on the downward steepness. It all worked out. I got to the bottom. Jane and I went inside, had some tea and took stock. The wind, the cold, the wheelchair jitters…it had all taken its toll.

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