Heart of the City Archives

Blue sky over Bush Street.

Goodbye to fear and loathing on Single St.
by Hank Donat

The setting is the Baker Street Bistro at Baker and Lombard. Outside, the sky is at once blue and grey, neither lovely nor overly gloomy. The Telegraph Hill parrots appear overhead in a flurry like a riot and then they're gone. They're fond of the trees at the nearby Cow Hollow playground. A chat, the company of a friend, and a latte all help make this a typical hour on a typical day in San Francisco.

Suddenly, the languid mood is broken. "What? Have you completely lost your mind?!" Judging by my pal's reaction, you might think I had contemplated aloud the possibility of walking down Market Street carrying a nonsensical protest sign, or wearing a lampshade or a space helmet on my head. But wait, those things are done with some regularity around here. What was my outrageous proposition? I suggested that it might be time to move from the rent-controlled apartment I've occupied for the past 17 years.

Now, I hear you, too. Have I completely lost my mind? Allow me to explain.

When I moved to Bush Street in my youth, I couldn't wait to call my grandmother back in Boston. I remembered she was fond of the wonderful old expressions "hoi-polloi" and "hoity-toity." I still find them falling from my own lips from time to time. "It's on Bush Street, Nana," I told her, "I've got the hoity-toity to the left of me and the hoi-polloi to the right!" Nana would have appreciated the word "Tendernob," but we weren't using it back then.

Bush Street in the downtown area has a long legacy for singles, career retailer workers, artists, transients, and other members of the fraternity of the lost, lonely, and wicked. Thanks to rent control, it is possible to live a long life on a short dime in a bright studio that, with a little joy and imagination, can be become a real home. I've clung to mine like a security blanket, even while I began a new life in another district as one of America's first gay housewives.

It's no secret that Mr. and Ms. San Francisco are likely to resist change the way cats avoid the bathtub. This shared peculiarity of San Franciscans is most often attributed to our penchant for sentimentality. We love the present so much, and the past even more. Who would ever want to see them fade away? But I've come to believe that there's more to it than that.

On his recording, "In Search of Eros," the great San Francisco author and poet Rod McKuen writes, "The house on Kearny Street, where I came and went on weekends, is the same." McKuen goes on to describe the many ways that he had changed between the time he was young and in love and later, when he was less young and less given to bursts of love-soaked impetuousness. "But there was a time," says McKuen, "in the fall and winter of the year, when the sun's bright yellow mingled with the fog, and Kearny Street in San Francisco was the whole world."

Such deeply felt emotions and memories are enough to give rise to anarchy in our town. I'm surprised no one chained themselves to the Pool of Enchantment when it was razed for the New DeYoung Museum.

Hearing McKuen's words, I realize that the San Franciscan's passion for freeze-drying the City has less to do with the hill above Kearny Street, or the neighbors who became friends in an inner garden on Bush Street, or the mood on some other street where there used to be a favorite pit stop. This passion reveals much more about our desire to freeze-dry ourselves. In our memories we are forever optimistic, forever unbrokenhearted, eternally ready, open, and enchanted. But rent control was never meant to be a recipe for arrested development.

I once asked a friend of Herb Caen what Caen would have thought about people walking around talking on cell phones everywhere. The answer was not surprising. "Herb saw two Union Squares and one on the drawing board. He would have adjusted." And so we all must adjust as we embrace new phases of our life as a City and in our own lives.

Soon, I will very likely move permanently out of that studio on Bush Street, where I've seen the trees go from ten to 25 feet tall in the blink of an eye while the kids grew up at the corner store and nearby Nob Hill Grille. I'll give up my address and cheap rent in order to live in a big house with my husband on another street where new memories, new stories, and unknown possibilities await. That street may put me in a whole new direction, but it will always be in San Francisco, of course. I may have lost my mind, but not completely.

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Copyright 2005 Hank Donat
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