Two months ago, on March 17, San Francisco went on lockdown when the City ordered residents to shelter in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. Long-time Glen Park News writer Murray Schneider spent some time over the past few weeks using the time to revisit sites he’s written about over the past decade.
There’s a saying you come across reading travel writing that speaks to travel’s serendipity: “If you never pass it, you’ll never fall into it.”
The dictum played out in 1969 when I was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. I stumbled into a Mississippi juke joint and came across live honkytonk blues. A year later at Galena Air Force Station on the Yukon River in Alaska, which served as an intercept for incoming Soviet aircraft during the Cold War, I bumped into Athabascans angling for river salmon.
I’ve been pretty much sheltered-in-place since March 16. I follow state and city directives. I seldom venture from the house. When I do, I mask up and keep a requisite six-foot social distance from others.
If I drop my guard, it’s to shop and exercise. Either may yet become my Achilles heel.
During this time I decided to make it a mission to revisit neighborhood people and places I’d written about for the Glen Park News over the past 12 years, in hopes of testing philosopher George Edward Moore’s maxim: “A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”
The temperature in downtown Glen Park hadn’t topped 50 degrees as my wife, Marcia, and I parked at the corner of Diamond and Chenery Streets. By 6:50 A.M. shoppers, all of whom will never see 65 again, began queueing up outside the Canyon Market.
It was the second week of Richard and Janet Tarlov’s gift to senior citizens, an hour of grocery shopping during the ongoing pandemic.
Age, like military rank, has its privileges.
I’d first met Janet in March 2008. I watched her bake sandwich rolls early one morning in preparation for my first Glen Park News article. Back then her hands had been blanketed in flour. A baker’s dozen years later they were wet with heavy duty sanitizer that she swabbed across shopping carts. She wore a red French beret and a puffy coat to fend off the chill.
Janet played the part of store gatekeeper; her role to keep septuagenarian shoppers such as me — and her essential employees — safe.
My wife’s strategic plan was simple; get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. With this in mind, she’d given me my marching orders. I’d been handed a shopping list that fits my epicurean skill set.
“Buy chocolate bars, ice cream, bread, eggs and two cartons of 1% milk,” she said.
After 50 years together, Marcia knows my limitations.
Dave’s Bread, our favorite, wasn’t available, so I did a one-hundred-and-eighty and headed for the freshly baked French breads in the front of the store. NPR had broadcast a story that seniors could mitigate their self-imposed confinement by walking up and down household halls while on the telephone. I figured a grocery store aisle seemed a likely substitute.
Behind the counter a young man gestured to a loaf.
“It’s warm,” he said, bagging it. “Just from the oven.”
“Bread is in short supply because people making it are vulnerable,” Janet told me later, “while produce isn’t because restaurants are closed and it means more for groceries.”
My wife continued performing maneuvers, while I bivouacked in the potato chip aisle, searching for Hawaiian chips for a neighbor who’d taken the lockdown more seriously than I.
When we’d entered there’d been no more than 10 shoppers; when we left, carrying a trio of stuffed-to-the-brim cloth bags — since the March 16 aggressive public health measures the City has mandated store issue paper bags and Janet has limited shopping to one person per household — it was 7:28 A.M.
The senior discount kicked in as we watched the clerk ring up our groceries. We stood the requisite six feet apart. Janet has instituted a policy she calls “round-up.” To thank her employees, customers can round off their bill to the nearest dollar or make a larger contribution.
I surrendered my discount. As I did, I thought about the homeless man who’d stood at the store’s Diamond Street entrance two years ago. He’d gone MIA months before the current health crisis. He’d told me he slept in restaurant doorways where he could scarf food and sleep more securely than in a dormitory-style shelter. The memory rankled as I watched our groceries being stuffed into bags. I thought, too, of the thousands of laid-off Bay Area workers facing mortgage payments and long waits in pop-up food pantry lines and how fortunate I am. I was only a week from my monthly state teacher retirement check, “the gift that keeps on coming.”
There were 25 people circling the store, some stretching in line past the gourmet cheeses, waiting to have their purchases toted.
My wife’s strategy had beaten the clock by two minutes. She’d wanted us in and out in 30 minutes.
“We don’t want to have to come back for a week or more,” she’d said.
Back home I helped her carry the groceries inside the house we’ve shared for 47 years. Then I retreated to the television room, which once served as our bedroom while our two daughters attended Lowell High School. We’re empty nesters now; both girls sheltering-in-place 3,000 miles away, one in Brooklyn, the other in D.C.
I was ready to settle in for another Groundhog Day of self-quarantine.
Marcia appeared in the doorway.
“Did you forget something?” she asked.
I knew full well what was coming.
“The eggs,” she said.
“I’ll go back.”
“No, you won’t,” she said. “We’re old and I want you safe.”
Back in the kitchen, she began planning a weeks’ worth of dinner menus.
Afterward she’d get ready for her 45-minute online Pilate class, then a scheduled Zoom lunch with friends, then a virtual cocktail hour with more friends.
My wife volunteers weekly writing personalized post cards to elect Democrats to Congress. When she’s finished penning the scripted cards in curling cursive and colorful ink, we get some steps in by walking to Diamond Heights and sitting in the Richard Craib-inspired Little Red Hen Community Garden, then walk to the post office.
On occasion I’ve made the three-mile roundtrip myself.
Crags Court Garden
Afterward, I head to Berkeley Way, then to Crags Court. At the end of the cul-du-sac stands a community garden. It’s filled with 20 garden plots of vegetable beds. There are Brussels sprouts, beets, broccoli, zucchini, kale, carrots potatoes, spinach, lettuce and peas. The garden, one of 40 or so community gardens in San Francisco, is watchdogged by Rec and Park and nurtured by neighborhood gardeners.
I’ve been visiting it for three years, ever since I first chanced upon it.
Leslie Moxley, who lives on Crags Court, was tending her bed on April 24.
I staked out a favorite bench, which overlooks the eastern edge of Glen Canyon, unpacked a sandwich and twisted open a water bottle. The noon sun beat down, which caused my cell phone to fry. It signaled it was over-heated and inoperable. I stuffed it into my backpack and let it cool off.
Leslie’s flower bed brimmed with lupine.
“The sunshine loves them,” she told me. “They’re blooming and growing inches a day.”
Critters have taken notice, but so have two legged visitors.
“The gophers are trying like crazy to get at the flowers,” Leslie said.
Beth Mooney, another gardener, stood next to Leslie, and only a foot or two from Kaya her 13-year old SPCA rescue dog. Beth, who lives on Congo Street, enters the canyon from Bosworth Street and challenges the eastern slope to gain access to the garden.
“And our best kept secret is no longer a secret since the pandemic,” she volunteered.
“People never knew we existed,” Leslie said. “More people than usual are exploring the neighborhood. On sunny day we can have as many as 50 non-neighbors heading past.”
“I invite them in. It’s such a calm place,” she said. “Even if they get only five minutes of peace in their lives, I’m proud.”
I checked out recently installed wire gopher cages and gopher baskets protecting veggies, but except for the two gardeners, we were alone. If there had been an uptick in visitors since the health crisis it wasn’t evident.
However, a sign put in place since my visit a week earlier spoke volumes, a message announcing the coronavirus new normal.
“Attention Visitors!” it read. “Garden benches, gate latches, faucets, etc. are touched every day by dozens of people. BE SAFE! Wipe these items with disinfectant before and after use.”
“With the playgrounds shut down, we’re seeing more nannies and parents coming by,” Leslie said. “We don’t want to shut down, we just want to know visitors are safe.”
Mary Devereaux, who I’d met with Leslie in 2017, emailed me last year about a diseased tree that had fallen. The pine had laid waste to several beds, then slammed into an adjacent house. Rec and Park arrived days later and removed it. Arborists followed, assessing the danger to several other Monterey pines on the garden’s hillside.
The morning I’d met Mary, on April 2, no one had appeared except for a Rec and Park intern who posted the now familiar sf.gov/coronavirus blue sign directing visitors to remain six feet apart. The young woman tacked a sign on the gate door, then another along a fence close to the box steps that drop into the canyon.
While she worked, hawks circled. A mother accompanied her five-year child along the steps and took a place beneath a pine tree. She laid out a blanket and she and her daughter treated themselves to a picnic. Walkers strolled by, headed toward Radish Hill. A dog walker trailed his Golden Retriever in the opposite direction, hiking towards the canyon entrance parallel to Alms Road below.
The ECO-SF farm
Now, weeks after my visit with Mary, I said my goodbyes to Leslie and Beth and took my leave. Radish Hill in the near distance loomed large and green to my right. I descended numerous box steps, eventually gaining the stringer steps that bifurcate the Saddle Trail. At my age I stay clear of Radish Hill, as the drop off is steep and during the current epidemic I want to avoid hospitals. I continued along the Creek to Peaks Trail until the Diamond Heights houses on stilts appeared. It was along this trail in 2014 that Friends of Glen Canyon found a homeless encampment occupied by a young woman who’d left behind her belongings. Farther along the trail, now on SFUSD property, I continued and if I’d remained on the trail I’d have reached Portola Drive.
A cyclone fence separates the path from what was once McAteer High School’s football field. A gaping hole, which looked as if it had been caused by a land mine, raked the fence.
I ducked beneath it, avoiding sharp edges. On my left a shopping cart filled with empty pop bottles, tin cans and a grunge-filled plastic Safeway bag laden with additional detritus stood abandoned, a different montage than the abandoned sketch books and silk blouses the homeless woman had left behind six years earlier.
The other side of the fence served up a neglected softball diamond, then a track that wraps around a prep football field. On the first base side of the diamond are a series of logs, sheltered by trees. Above the trees are abandoned basketball hoops. One of the logs features a wooden back, which makes for comfortable and shaded sitting. Since mid-March, families relax on the field, spaced safely apart.
ECO-SF, a community non-profit, with the official blessing of the SFUSD, underwrites and operates a student farm adjacent to the track. With SOTA and Academy of Arts and Science student participation, ECO-SF practices sustainable agriculture and farming, and until the Covid-19 campus shuttering sold eggs, soap, body balm as well as kale, mustard greens and garlic at its weekly afterschool Farmers Market housed in a parking lot on O’Shaughnessy Blvd.
ECO-SF hopes to see a resumption of the what it calls its “General Store” in the fall, but continues sponsoring a work day on the second Saturday of each month from 12 to 4 o’clock and welcomes volunteers to take responsibility for weeding, wood chipping and watering.
I’ve walked to the SFSUD farm at least a dozen of times since March 16, each trip offering a haven more relaxing than the previous one. Now, during Covid-19, it’s more than ever a port in the storm. Except for the clucks of nine chickens and the padding of joggers it remains a tapestry of tranquility.
The poultry don’t lack for company. Two sets of parents circled the coop on an afternoon I showed up, accompanied by their children. One mother had wandered from Mt. Davidson; the other from Midtown Terrace. Neither were strangers to the farm. Two sisters, aged three and six, and a boy, aged six, seemed in rustic heaven.
I checked my watch. I’d been gone nearly four hours. Standing, I patted my pockets, a geriatric concession to misplacing house keys as well as a personal barometer to our tanking economy. The last time I’d looked I had the same $10 bill in my wallet that I’d had one day after the Ides of March. I hadn’t traveled any place where I needed to spend cash. At home, my 14-year old car remained parked on the street collecting windshield pollen while a branch library book gathered dust on my bedside nightstand.
Bumping elbows seems like second nature now. A month earlier, four days after the mandated lockdown and four weeks before my visit to Crags Court, elbow bumps were novel, like the coronavirus itself. That day, only four days into confinement, I’d slipped into my version of stir crazy.
Marcia and I packed a lunch and we walked to the high school.
There we met Fernando Aguilar, the SFUSD and ECO-SF resident beekeeper. Sans masks (they hadn’t yet been made a mandate), we exchanged elbows, standing a few feet from his honeybee hive.
“The bees have been thriving, both native bumblebees and European honeybees,” he told us. “This spring’s bloom, especially Ceanothus and Echium, offers plenty of busy bees gathering nectar and pollen for their hives.”
Last winter, for the first time, Fernando said, all four of his hives in Glen Park and Bernal Heights survived the winter and are thriving.
“I usually get 50% die off,” he said. “It’s been a good year for bees, a bad one for humans.”
Fernando’s a class of 1976 McAteer graduate where he lettered in two varsity sports. A PG&E Project Manager, he’d recently supervised a retrofit of Glen Park’s power station on Bosworth Street and Rousseau Street.
He bicycles to the farm twice a week from his Elsie Street house and checks his honeybees. He could have put his beehive anywhere, but he chose his alma mater’s football field where he starred as a wide receiver.
At 62, he’s athletic and trim, still sliding into second base to break up softball game double plays, as well as sprinting on the track twice a week after he sees what’s going on with the hive.
“I hope to keep the hive here indefinitely,” he said, affection for his former school sweetening his discourse. “It’s an addition to the community garden run by Tori Jacobs and it’s one of my favorite spaces in the City.”
For sure he won’t be getting any buzz back from the school district.
“I’m hoping to harvest and donate at least 30 pounds of honey to the school’s Little Farmer’s Market when it up and running again.”
On May 2, he and I sat together again, but now six weeks after our previous visit, we both wore masks. We were joined by Bonnee and Michael Waldstein, both of whom volunteer for the Glen Park News. Bonnee writes; Michael takes photographs. They’d gained the campus from O’Shaughnessy Blvd. Other than the masks, little had changed for Fernando in the month interim, certainly not his outdoor regimen.
“Life has been more of less the same during the crisis,” he offered. “Swimmers, like you and me, who swim three times a week, are going through major withdrawals. I dream about being in the water, even about getting a wet suit and trying Aquatic Park.”
He bicycles to Twin Peaks now that the road is closed to motorists, but his default exercise takes place on his former high school track.
“I hated every jogging step I’ve ever taken. It doesn’t work for me. Too hard on my old hips,” he said. “I love sprinting, though. I do five-220-yard dashes at three-quarters speed, then six-fifty-yard sprints at ninety percent.”
“I don’t go full-tilt because I’m afraid of pulling a muscle,” he explained. “When my body doesn’t feel right, I stop.”
Then the guy who’s almost eligible for Janet Tarlov’s early morning senior shopping let go with a philosophic riff, one undoubtedly gleaned from a valued McAteer social science class.
“They say the body whispers before it screams.”
As we parted, he plucked a few leaves of kale from a row of greens.
“For dinner tonight,” he said.
He mounted his bicycle while the Waldsteins and I edged toward the vandalized fence. I watched him peddle with some exertion the incline up to Portola Drive where I was headed.
I figured that after he’d ran a half-a-dozen fifty-yard dashes I could cut him some slack.
In 1966, my Lackland AFB drill instructor hadn’t cut me much. He marched my barrack mates and me until basic training blisters formed atop blisters.
Afterward, in 1967, with an Airman First Class stripe stitched to my fatigues, my flight was posted to Tachikawa AFB in Japan, then, in 1968, to Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, which was situated on the less exotic thumb of Michigan.
Our unit’s Michigan TDY was abbreviated. The Upper Peninsula and its environs had suffered a spinal meningitis scare that summer, not as frightening as the current spring catastrophe, but scary enough of an epidemic to prevent pilots from deploying to the facility.
I’ve returned to Glen Canyon in the last two months as often, if not more often than either the Crags Court Community Garden or the SFUSD farm. I’d like to say my outings have something to do with trees, such as the mid-Western woods I’d hiked in Michigan or the flowers I’d smelled in Tokyo’s summer humidity.
The allure of Glen Canyon, though, is more prosaic, having has as much to do with domesticity than anything else.
Going to the dogs
What’s more domestic than dogs and their constant companions?
There’s Mary Huizinga who lives on Laidley Street and walks Josie, her seven-year-old Chow Chow twice as often in the canyon now that the virus has upended her routine escorting Josie to dog parks. With more families using the canyon, Mary still manages to keep her social distance.
Then there’s Kathleen Kelly, who lives on Joost Street and who walks Luna early each morning. Luna has topped a dozen years and is combating renal disease. When I ask Kathleen what will happen when Luna passes, she saddens. Almost weekly I encounter Shayna and her dog Sadie. They make it over from Chilton Street. Most recently, along the highest reaches of the canyon, I came across Diamond Street’s Rachel Gordon and Liz Mangelsdorf walking their dog Ziggy. Ziggy still thinks she’s a puppy and is appropriately named, as she zig zags along narrow paths. On alert, the two Glen Park News editors seem aware that one misplaced paw could send Ziggy over the trail’s edge.
Then, of course, there’s the other Mary, Mary Daly. Mary’s a hospital pediatric nurse who lives on Chenery Street with Bruce Bochy, her 130-pound Labrador-Newfoundland mix who feels as large as the C130 I flew on in 1970. Transported in a cargo plane over the wilds of the Alaskan interior, I stared at its rocky interior, which is about as far from domesticity as I’ve ever been.
Mary named Bruce Bochy after the former San Francisco Giants baseball manager. He’s is a loveable lug; when Bruce isn’t shambling, he’s salivating.
Since Mayor Breed’s stay-in-place order, days morph into one another, like songs shuffling on my iTunes playlist, looping over-and-over. So, it’s easy to become confused, like losing a credit card checking out at Canyon Market or leaving a cell phone some place and having no idea where.
I’ve done both. So, you’ll excuse me if I conflate a recent visit with Mary and Bruce with Leslie and Fernando.
When I came across Mary and Bruce, Mary sat near the bank of Islais Creek in Glen Canyon. Bruce, as befits a dog named after a baseball catcher, had erringly booted his ball into the creek’s shrubs. He’d buried his nose in the vegetation. Mary chided him, which simply puzzled him further.
Bruce’s freight car hindquarters bulldozed Mary as she stood after retrieving Bruce’s ball. Then they began walking along Alms Road.
I asked if I could join them.
As we inched along the fire road, we took in the California wildflowers blooming amidst native grasses. Coyote bush clumped below craggy rock outcrops that loomed above.
It was near these Franciscan chert boulders, only a block or two from the Crags Court Community Garden, that Friends of Glen Canyon Park volunteer Alison Draper held her wedding ceremony in 2013.
Trailing behind Bruce, Mary said she’d recently seen two coyotes sunning themselves along the Eastern grassland slope.
“Bruce went after them,” she said. “They were too fast.”
The coyotes wanted nothing to do with Bruce.
Smaller dogs have been less fortunate. On the upper trail of the canyon, near where the homeless young woman had established camp, I came across a coyote last year. At first, I thought it was another dog, waiting for its owner to bring up the rear. Not so. We stared at one another for a moment, then it moved off trail, camouflaging itself among Arroyo willow.
Mary and I continued for a while, eventually reaching a seep adjacent to a boardwalk. The seep boasts rare habitat and during the fall is home to intricately spun pumpkin spider orbs.
“The best mistake I ever made was turning onto Chenery Street,” she said. “Is this paradise?”
No, I thought to myself. It’s Glen Canyon.
Little League history was made here
I recalled an email I’d received after Mother’s Day from Mareth Vedder, the daughter of Thelma Williams, San Francisco’s first woman Little League baseball coach. Thelma, who’d lived in the Sunnyside on Joost Street, had passed away the week of Mother’s Day. That’s when Mareth and her family began leaving flowers to celebrate Thelma’s life on the Rec Center baseball diamond backstop.
“We hung the flowers that first year,” Mareth emailed, “then we hiked to the back of the canyon. It was healing. It was probably then we decided this was how we wanted to celebrate Mother’s Day each year.”
Thelma’s name is commemorated at a Rec Center baseball diamond, and this month Mareth revisited the canyon alone and placed a bouquet near the plaque that honors her mother.
“The canyon was ethereal that morning,” she wrote. “I parked and the sun filtered through the eucalyptus. I pulled some weeds, washed off the plaque, hung the flowers, and enjoyed the dominant sounds of birds in the rare solitude. A large, beautiful hawk flew over my head and I realized how blessed I was to have been raised in this part of the City and the connection my mom and my entire family had to the park.”
I thought, too, of Luna, suffering incurable kidney failure.
“If you see Kathleen,” I said to Mary, “please give her my best.”
“I will,” she replied.
We’d reached the place on the trail where you can choose three directions. To the right a set of steps headed up to Christopher Playground. Ahead, where I was going, the school farm beckoned. To the left, around Willow Loop Trail, Mary and Bruce would double back to Thelma Williams’ field of dreams.
“Remember,” Mary told me, looking over her shoulder, “If you walk in the canyon always bring a large dog!”
Later, after leaving the farm, I walked a stretch of Portola Drive. Walkers sometimes defer to me; other times I gave way to them. Sometimes we exchange a hello, a thumbs up, a smile. Since the contagion, I’d take a bet we’ve all felt a sense of comity with strangers, who, in pre-pandemic days, we wouldn’t acknowledge but now feel comfortable taking a moment to salute with a salutation.
Brings to mind what Ben Franklin had said during another time, a time that also “tried men’s souls.”
“We’d better all hang together,” the Philadelphia postmaster said, “or we will certainly hang separately.”
It’s now two months into the stay-in-place. Each time my wife and I return home from one of our walkabouts I’m thankful we’re not suffering elevated temperatures, shortness of breath or lingering coughs. At dinner each night, we relax at the kitchen table. I’ve never spooned New Orleans gumbo at that table as I did on a July evening in 1969, the night Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon.
But, truth be told, Marcia’s California chicken soup tastes as delicious as any I enjoyed while in Louisiana on that weekend two-day pass off Keesler AFB.
I don’t know how long the new reality will last, or if there will be a second act. I know there’ll be a final curtain, mitigation or no mitigation, precipitous or rolling reopening, containment or resurgence.
Seniors are at continued risk at the hands of the scourge, so chances are I’ll remain close to home after we’re green lighted to resume normal activities. For the long haul, or at least until there’s a vaccine, I’ll not brave BART to the Embarcadero YMCA or fly to Brooklyn to see my two grandchildren.
I’ll miss the swimming pool; I’ll miss the kids even more.
My wife told me this week, as she suited up for a turn or two around the block, “It’s getting boring.”
Yes, the same old same old gets boring, but it comforts me only a few years shy of the big 80.
I’ll take boring. It beats the alternative.
Until I feel safe, I’ll shelter-in-place, thank you very much. I’ll return home, where I always find everything I need, remove my shoes and inspect their soles.
Then I’ll wash my hands.
I won’t offer any other big reveals or give away any spoilers as to whether my sneaker soles are worn or not.
Next time you see me in the neighborhood and want to learn more, well, just ask.
You won’t have to travel far to find me.