San Francisco, Part 2

Saturday June 21, 2008

I’m writing from a cafe deep in the Mission district, which is known as the Hispanic part of town. I’ve already wandered through a good portion of it, but my wandering isn’t finished: there’s a park here called Bernal Heights that I want to see, and maybe read in; for some reason the pictures speak to my love of fields and open plains, even though I know it must be surrounded by the city bustle:

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Bernal Heights Hill

I’ve also found the place where I plan to eat tonight – a Cambodian restaurant, apparently the only one in the city. I’m excited – is Cambodian food a mix of Thai and Vietnamese? Or is it completely unique and different from either one? I think a thorough investigation would probably take more meals than I have time for, but at least I’ll get a glimpse tonight. There’s also a Senegalese restaurant nearby (well, 12 blocks away, but that’s nothing) and a plethora of Latin and Mexican cuisine, usually combined in some variation of “Salvadoran and Mexican Cuisine,” “Nicaraguan and Mexican Cuisine,” or something similar. Many of these places are small, and probably family operated. I’d be tempted to try them if there wasn’t something more original nearby, and if my stomach felt better prepared for what I assume will be heavy and greasy foods. So far, the only thing I’ve had to eat so far today is the latter half of a Russian cheese pastry I bought yesterday, but I feel confident in its propriety. Instead I think the trouble comes from wandering long distances in the heat and the sun, but now that I’m resting I feel a bit better.

The Mission district itself is definitively Hispanic. There’s the people, of course (though there’s certainly a fair number of Caucasians, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans) and the restaurants, but there’s also the murals; murals are everywhere. Some are hidden on side streets; some proudly cover vast walls on the main thoroughfare; one even graced the walls of the McDonald’s I passed. Like most Latin murals seem to be, these are vibrantly colorful, filled with primary yellows, bright blues and greens and reds. The unapologetic color reminds me a lot of India, and contrasts sharply with the usual American affinity for neutral colors, uncontroversial whites and greys and creams. Like most Latin murals, these too seem filled with action and movement that I couldn’t begin to decipher. One mural depicted what looked like a teenage farmworker, the sun illuminating vibrant greens in the fields behind her. She bore a peaceful expression, despite the barrels of the guns pointed at her from the foremost edges of the mural, the unknown gunmen hidden out of view. Perhaps this is because she was protected by two large hands, also of unknown origin, facing the guns down with their palms and filled with moral authority. I don’t know the actual meaning of the mural, and I don’t even know if the people who live here pay any attention to it, in the way we often ignore the things that we’re already used to. But this was just one of what must already be a dozen murals I’ve seen, all of them beautiful.

There’s also graffiti, of course, and trash blowing aimlessly on the streets, and rundown buildings. The marquee of a shuttered theater advertised “For Sale” and nothing else, with no clue how one might actually pursue the offer. Discotecas, dollar stores and pigeons abound. Pigeons! What did the pigeons do before there were cities? At times the streets remind me of New York, with their grungy streets, tightly crammed shops and anti-crime garage door frontages. At times this place reminds me of the old market of Bhopal, when the sidewalks are crowded with colorful wares and every inch of every shopfront seems to burst with things to sell. But there’s an element of San Francisco here as well, as when a critical mass bicycle procession passed by, guided by comically tall bicycles and bikes trailing boombox trailers.

Other cultures are mixed in here as well. There’s the “Authentic Middle Eastern Goods” store that I wandered into, which indeed struck me (well-versed as I am in these matters) as suitably authentic. An “Old Jerusalem” restaurant advertised Baba Ghanouj and shwarma platters, as two patrons sat, European-style, chatting in wrought-iron tables out front. A “Hellenic Greek” (is there any other kind?) store caught my eye, and I wandered in. Of course there was Greek-looking statuary, and tasty-looking food in foreign-looking packages, and dictionaries. Dictionaries? I made a careful circle of the place, and even briefly thought about buying some Greek coffee, before I made to leave. Then I saw the hats, and you may know how soft I am about exotic hats. These were Greek Fisherman’s caps, apparently, though certainly tourist-ized to make them more regal and marketable to an inauthentic audience. They were gorgeous, particularly the grey ones, and I asked to see them. Sadly the only colors they had in my size were black and navy blue, so I bought a black one, and I’m pretty happy about it (the price was reasonable, and the quality looks excellent). It’s wool so I probably won’t be able to wear it until the weather changes, but now I have another strange hat to add to my collection.

Although I haven’t been wearing a hat here, I have been complimented on my “Slavery” shirt, which attracted the attention of a Greenpeace direct-dialoguer (“Do you have a moment for Greenpeace?”), of course, and someone walking by who said “right on!” and asked me if I’d heard the good news – that Nike had finally agreed to stop using child labor. I hadn’t heard the news, and I’d be dubious even if I had, but a friendly street-passing hardly seemed the right venue to get into details. Yesterday I was stopped by a fellow who seemed to want to do exactly that – he asked me the purpose behind the shirt, and why sweatshops were called “sweatshops” (“Do they not have HVAC or something?”) and what people were actually supposed to do about it. He asked all this while squatting on a bare space of sidewalk to use, in true hippy style, a little wrench on a faucet spigot, wetting a cloth to wipe his face with (obviously he was used to this sort of thing). I’m afraid I didn’t have many answers to give him, both because I’m not up on the issue and also because I’d already walked 15 miles that day, and I was sweating and tired. So the exchange was a little awkward, compounded by the awkwardness of talking to someone who seemed high. But suffice to say that progressive shirts seem to strike a positive chord in San Francisco. Who would’ve guessed?

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